October 2006

Vingettes from OWLTOWN

Author: Dennis Malick

The book yet to be or maybe never to be written

Owltown School. Standing alone. One room. Eight grades. Irish Valley. Paxinos. PA. The mid ‘40s.

It was the first of two times I ran the whole way home from school. Out the door, off the porch, down the three wooden steps, across the dirt playground and around the corner without looking back.

Gertie Kramer was, I’m sure, still standing in the doorway. It was the first time I had hit a teacher on the head with a metal lunch pail. And the last. For her, as well.

I was Mr. Smartpants in first grade, getting top grades and always doing everything right. All the other grades had individual desks; the first graders had a long white table. This one day, the kid next to me was copying everything I was doing and that made me really angry. Gertie saw that and was teasing me a bit.

I had a green lunch pail (curved top with thermos inside). As I was going out the door at day’s end, Gertie leaned over and asked: “Don’t you want to kiss me good-by?”

I did. With the pail. Smack on the top of her head. My half-mile run home must still be a Valley record. After that, Gertie and I were friends for life. Three years later she skipped me from third to fourth grade.

Owltown had a cellar beneath the coal-oil-soaked wood floor that wasn’t a cellar really because you couldn’t get into it. Well, not unless you were baby- or critter-sized and could crawl through where 6 or 7 bricks were missing from the foundation wall on the side next to the girls’ outhouse. It was dark and wet in that underwhere, filled mostly with unending tales and unknown tails. The school windows had very coarse screens that could only be opened from the inside. The screen didn’t stop one errant bullet that long ago came through and lodged in the blackboard across the room. No one ever repaired the blackboard, except for putty that had dried and shrunk, leaving an inch-wide, half-inch-deep indentation.

In front of one window next to the only door was the potbelly stove that would bake the back wall (and anyone near it) while trying to keep us warm in the winter. Every Wednesday for a while, Mrs. Kramer put a big pot of water on top of the stove and boiled hotdogs—five cents apiece. I always ate four. Ketchup and mustard.

The window on the other side of the door was where she slid a chair each month to check for head lice. She’d pick over each of our heads like a momma monkey…and checking for the same thing. Before she started, she always said: “It’s no disgrace to HAVE lice, but it is a disgrace to KEEP them.” The Shantytown kids had a lot of lice. And a lot kept them.

Except for Mary Hart. She was the youngest of the Hart kids. [Writing this brings tears to my eyes, just thinking of how the school failed these supposedly dummies, sentencing them to the back row because they were Shantytown kids. They were no-way dumb. We were dumb, stupid and grossly unfair and even cheated ourselves by not reaching out to them.] Mary was no “smarter” than her four brothers, but her report card was straight 100s. The school system failed those boys, not vice versa.

Next issue Seeing four boys in a line holding hands meant trouble.

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