September 2006

Vignettes from “OWLTOWN"

Author: Dennis Malick

The book yet to be and maybe never to be written

Ding-a-Ding-a-Ding-a-Ding … …
The cracked hand bell was ringing and everyone was running.
When Gertie Kramer rang the hand bell, you ran.
Everybody ran.
All eight grades.
Back into Gertie’s one-room schoolhouse: OWLTOWN. Irish Valley. Paxinos. Pennsylvania. 1944.
And when Gertie rang the bell, it didn’t “ding-a-ling”, it ‘ding-a-DINGed”.

………………………………………….

Owltown wasn’t really Gertie’s. It was a Shamokin Township school. And there wasn’t really an Owltown. Some owls, yes, enough to get the school a name. Like Irish Valley. A valley, yes, but Irish? Well, according to local lore, an Irishman hanged himself from a bridge over the creek (pronounced “crik”) near the school.

Gertie ruled or, as the discipline necessitated, rulered the 30 to 35 pupils for my first three years (and four grades) of country school. Just say the word “Gertie” and picture a pair of eyes that could burn a stare through your bookbag.

Owltown was a peaceful enough place, set just off the paved two-lane road that wiggled through Irish Valley, near Paxinos, near Shamokin PA. The weathered brick building had two outhouses and a schoolyard bordered on one side by an electric fence. It had served our parents and even some grandparents. Turn off the paved road and onto the “Back Road” that was all dust or mud, depending on the weather.

………………………………………………

Elwood always chopped at the ball; Hen could hit it a country mile. (I actually don’t know how far a “country mile” is unless it’s just like “way far” if you have to walk or run it.) They both lived in Shantytown, which was about a country mile from Owltown. The kids who lived there had to walk over the bridge where the Irishman had hanged himself, and up over Badman’s Hill and along Black Creek to get home. (“Badman” for a family name; “Black” for the color of the creek bed filled with coal silt from nearby mines.)

Shantytown kids filled the back seats of all the desk rows—second, third/fourth, fifth/sixth, seventh/eighth. (1st graders were at a table.) Cliff, Tip and Bob Hart and Hen Schlegel weren’t really “kids”. They were just sitting there day in, day out, waiting for their 16th birthdays so they could quit school. Four or five second graders sat in their row and in the back seat was 15-year-old Tip drawing pictures and writing poems all day.

……………………………………………

Buppy Knapp had just wet his pants, as he always did when he had to recite a poem in front of the class. With eight grades in just one room, I guess it was pretty scary, but to Buppy scarier than to most. And everyone was watching.

Mrs. Kramer taught the third and fourth graders together, while the rest of the kids studied, fidgeted or drew pictures. In arithmetic, third graders got the easier problems at the top of the page for homework; fourth graders got the bottom half. Same for fifth/sixth and seventh/eight. Sometime during my third grade, Gertie started assigning me bottom-of-the-page homework. At the end of the year, I skipped to fifth grade, leaving behind the only other third grader, Mary Jane. (As a 16-year-old high school senior I started dating. My “girlfriend” was Mary Jane, who then was a freshman.) ……………………………………………..

In Next Month’s issue:
Gertie is hit on the head with a metal lunch pail…

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