I loved our farm deep in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. I don’t think schools ever crossed my parents’ minds – not like how schools dominate real estate markets today and are often the decisive elements in where one chooses to live. When we moved onto the farm in the fall of 1958, Holly, Charley, and Allison simply started school on a Monday after being in school in Pittsburgh the previous Friday. It turns out, over the course of that fateful weekend, they also left a strong city school system for a rural school with very limited instruction and facilities. Our particular school district was centered in the town of Berlin, Pennsylvania about seven miles to the southeast of our farm and eleven miles from Somerset. Other than the few kids who lived in the small town of Berlin, everyone commuted by bus from their farms in the surrounding area.
Unfortunately, I was forced to sit out our first year as the Berlin school didn’t offer kindergarten classes. I went from going to school with my brother and sisters one Friday to spending yet another year at home on Monday.
The way I saw it back then, it was simply a matter of getting on the school bus, but I was positive the driver, a no-nonsense, burly, older man who always wore a hunting shirt under a dark gray coal miner’s jacket, was the one keeping me from doing that. Even then, I knew him for what he really was, a mean man who controlled who could go to school and who couldn’t, and he, in particular, hated kids younger than first grade.
Often I would accompany my brother and sisters to the bus stop at the end of our lane and walk with them to the steps of the bus, but the driver would look down at me from behind the wheel shaking his head with a grimace as my brother and sisters stepped on board. When the bus pulled away, I would be left, once again, standing there hating that man. (For me, getting on the bus the next year and walking past him without him stopping me was a significant achievement, a milestone that I still remember – the day I was old enough for the driver to let me walk by.)
Of course, what mostly I recall, looking back, is that over time, waiting for the bus with Holly, Charley, and Allison was the rare occurrence. Getting to the bus was actually the problem – with Charley and me, in a huff, racing to reach the bus stop just as the bus was pulling up, Allison running up the lane struggling to put on her coat, lunch box in hand, and Holly still in the bathroom applying black mascara to her eyes. Mother, from the kitchen seeing the cars lining up in either direction along with the school bus, with its blinking red lights flashing interminably, would be admonishing Holly to hurray. “Holly, Holly, the bus is waiting! The bus is waiting! You’ve got to go!” and Holly, leaning into the mirror, would be mumbling to herself, “…yeah, yeah, let it wait,” focusing instead on getting her eyes lined just right.
That first year on the farm, I remember being endlessly by myself; I would play Vikings, fight Indians, and act out my father in numerous World War II battles, killing Nazis and never taking quarter. The TV room next to the bathroom at that time was a critical feature of the house, and I watched Chuck Wagon theatre and hundreds of cowboy shows on a daily basis. The late fifties was a great time to be a cowboy on television, and I benefited immensely from them all, from the singers to the slingers – not only could I outdraw them, but I could ride the edge of the couch like no-one’s business.
This changed dramatically when I learned to ride a bike. My bike was a smaller than my brothers and sisters and tough; it was perfect for my needs; it could handle the roads, but its ability to travel across fields was extraordinary. With my bike, I had a real horse to take my play the next level – one time, in fact, I died so effectively flying off the bike that Mother, looking out the kitchen window, panicked when she saw me lying in the back yard and the bike in a twisted heap nearby.
“Oh my god!” She went racing out the kitchen and across the yard yelling “Jonathan, Jonathan” to no avail, I wasn’t stirring. When she reached me, she got down on her knees and put her hands on my chest, looking for any movement, any movement at all, then realizing I wasn’t dead or unconscious but, in fact, fast asleep. Mother paused somewhat surprised trying to decide what to do. Finally, rather than waking me, she stood up, wiped off her knees, and walked back to the house, letting me sleep in the grass.
It turns out, lying dead from an imaginary arrow in the chest, I had fallen asleep listening to eulogies of my men. When I woke up, I jumped back on my bike and was gone into the next story and after the next bad guy who thought he could get away. The farm was perfect for this type of play and play I did – even if it gave my mother a start on occasion.
My mother and I had a relationship that was complementary. When my brother and sisters were in school, she and I, by unspoken agreement, lived somewhat separate lives – she in one end of the house and me in the other. With the craziness that often accompanied Charley and Holly, either before school or afterward, we would bask in the quiet of their absence and would have little need for each other’s company.
In many ways, this was indicative of our relationship over the years, as, in general, I was free to do as I chose, including living on my own in Gettysburg my senior year in high school. Perhaps it was the fourth child syndrome, but, on the farm with Holly and Charley being such strong personalities, and Allison, being the sweet little girl who would sleep-walk at night and struggle in school, I was, at times, the forgotten one, the packaged one. Perhaps she would say, I was the easy one.
The following fall, when I finally started first grade, my best friend lived on a farm over the first set of hills beyond our fields. His name was Dennis Weebreck and his family raised horses. I often thought I simply could walk to his house, but the distance was much further than it looked. Dennis was my age and would be picked up on the same school bus along with his brothers and sisters. The first couple of years we sat together near the front of the bus, while the older kids sat in the back – Holly, Charley and the kids from Brotherton.
I remember when Dennis was seven, he decided to show his younger sister how to shoot his new BB gun, and, when she couldn’t get it to fire, he looked down the barrel to see what was wrong. When his sister pulled the trigger, the gun went off and Dennis nearly lost his eye. He was out of school for more than a month, and later, when he sat down beside me on the bus, he wore a huge white patch over his eye and, then, thick glasses after that.
In Gettysburg, many years later, when I was so unhappy, I would dream of Dennis and playing with him on his farm, his wonderful family, the pink and blue plastic glasses filled with Borden’s chocolate milk that his mother would give us late in the afternoon, and the wonderful, organic smell of the barn and horses throughout his house.
Categories: My Family Story