Eight years of Grammar school and any memory of what I studied there is vague at best. What I do remember is Recess. Tiny rural schools in the 1950’s had the best Recess, bar none. Kids played. They played at things you might not believe but it’s all true, I swear by my tattoo.
Kids need to play and make use of their imaginations. Something we have perhaps lost with children carrying I-Phones everywhere. This is how we did it.
First of all, we played in the dirt. Once my dad and the other trustees planted a lawn in front of the school but it was a futile gesture. Hard adobe soil, no sprinkler systems because there was no hose bib in the front of the school and hundreds of acres of wild oats surrounding it guaranteed that by late spring it was just a memory. In the spring, mud, early summer dust, we sprinted out to recess, not wanting to waste a moment. Kids games revolved partly around soil conditions which was something we knew about, being mostly farm kids. When I was seven I could whip up a mud pie like nobodies business. That old adobe mud could be made in Frisbees, weaponized so to speak. Mom made sure our shirts were clean but those old black Levi’s we wore stayed on for days. Laundry was a lot of work for her. The old tub washing machine with its ringer was pretty slow and the dryer was 3/8 inch cotton rope strung between poles. When you were big enough you’d help her hang the wet laundry, sheets on the outside to hid the private stuff such as panties, slips and bras. Those bras of hers were wired for sound or at least highly engineered. They were so well made you could have used them to haul water from the well or use them as hampers to pick beans in. Our farm had a road that ran upwind of the clothesline and she had to take that into account too. We were clean but not too clean. My mother always said that a little dirt was good for you. Science has born that out.
A list of the games we played was long but in a funny way each had a life of its own. Each in it’s own season.
Marbles were played in the spring when the dirt was still slightly damp so a good ring could be scratched out. Not too soft but stiff enough so the marbles would roll. One boy would show up with a pocket full of glassies, cats eyes and steellies in early April and the next day it would be on. Boys and girls showed up ready to go to war. No playing for keeps was the teachers rule but out of sight they changed hands. Just as mysteriously as marble season appeared it was gone. There was no date on the calendar. It was as mysterious as the first flight of swallows showing up under the eaves of the old barn in our back yard.
Since the school never seemed to have more than one baseball, likely used for decades and an old basketball with all the pebbles worn off some ingenouity was required. There was no lack of old timey games, some from centuries lost in the mist that could be played. No one knew where the rules for Red Rover, Kick The Can, Mother May I, or Simon Says but everyone seemed to know how. The only game deemed too dangerous was Crack The Whip which was still played if the teachers were otherwise occupied. Second graders on the end could be spun like 45’s off the end on a good crack. The occasional skinned knee the result. Nobody cried. Parents would say thing like, “Well, don’t play then,” or “Just spit on it and rub it with mud, you’ll be fine.”
Most of our fathers and uncles; in fact almost every man we knew, some women too had served in WWII and the Old Colonel, who you could see driving around town, racing down Branch street in his old Plymouth at the breakneck speed of 10 mph had served in WWI. Naturally the boys, whose male relatives never, ever talked about the war, were a rabid and blood thirsty group. We were the Blue and Gray, Yanks and Huns, Nazi and Dogfaces, Rebels and Hessians, We rode with TR up Kettle Hill. We didn’t know that he actually walked up, but that wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Being farm boys we brought our own shovels to school and dug foxholes in the cut-bank uphill from the school where we staved off multiple attacks from the days chosen enemy, slaughtering them with the sticks found under the schools oak trees or pelting them with acorns. In a last ditch defense, Manny Silva leapt on Charlie Silvas back while he was coming up the hill and bit him. Victory was achieved for the Hillsiders.
When Mrs Fahey wasn’t looking we slid under the barbed wire fence around school and hightailed it up the hill and then down the other side to check out the old Branch Family grave site. Francus Ziba, his wife Manuela were buried there and just to the side, the graves of the Hemmi’s, father and son who were lynched by vigilantes, hung from the Pacific Coast Railroad bridge in 1886. Mrs Branch, in her kindness allowed them to be interred near the Branch Family when no other cemetery would . We knew a little about it because Fred Branch came to school on a history tour to talk about goings on in the old days and said he clearly remembered men coming to the Branch home, asking his father to come outside where they spoke in hushed voices before his father came back into the house to get his rifle before leaving with them. He was sure his father had had something to do with the hanging. An inquest was held afterward and ruled that persons unknown had done the deed though some members of the panel were likely present at the bridge. Secrets are hard to keep in small towns.
The little place was not a spooky place, most kids knew about the original Ranchero and his family. Some of his descendants were my school mates.
When I was in the sixth grade Miss Holland retired. She had taught for decades at Branch and had taught kid who were now the grandparents of my classmates. The next year we had a new teacher, Miss Parker who I remember as young, blond and who smoked cigarettes behind the girls restroom during recess. That seemed daring, we had never seen a teacher smoke though you can be sure than in the fifties almost every adult we knew did. Somehow it was unexpected. It made her a person of some respect, we assumed this was never done. An adult who scoffed at rules had our respect.
Hours were spent carefully crafting snares from wild oat stalks. We stripped the leaves and carefully tied a loop on the thin end, securing it with a slip-knot. Ever so carefully we stalked the wily and elusive western fence lizard as he lay sunning himself on the rocks and old railroad tie fence posts around school. Captured “Blue Bellies” were never killed which might surprise some, kids being a rather bloodthirsty lot, but were left in girls coat pockets or carefully stashed in a teachers desk. Rural school teachers like Miss Parker were, of course, not the least bit frightened and simply took the lizards outside and freed them with a knowing smile, having been down that road many times. Courage was tested by letting the small reptile bite your little finger in a show of outstanding bravery which sent the little boys into to paroxysms of squeaks and admiring glances which we took as our due, being older, wiser and oh, so courageous.
Miss Parker did something else I’ve never forgotten. She read out loud to us. A chapter a day just before school let out. She read from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. It was the greatest thing. I’m sure most kids hadn’t read the book either. She was an accomplished speaker and she took on the character voices too. I remember it was perhaps the greatest treat I had in grammar school. We couldn’t wait to get out on the Mississippi with Huckleberry and ride down the river on his raft to New Orleans.
Lucky for us the brothers Ikeda farmed the land across Branch Mill Road from the school and, wonder of wonders, they had a reservoir directly opposite. It was full of water and it didn’t take long to figure out that if we brought some loose boards from our dad’s scrap piles we could build a raft and go floating along the Old Mississip’ just like Huck and Jim. Since the gate to the pond was never locked we quickly used our recess time to start building and in just a few sessions we were floating about, spying out the downriver under our hand visors like true river rats. Mrs Brown and Mrs Fahey took no notice, they were used to feral boys on the loose.
Finally after a few days while driving by the school Kaz Ikeda noticed what was going on and our trip was ended. We had to clean up the pond and remove the raft but it was all done in the spirit of good fun. When one adventure ends another begins.
Walt Disney introduced us to Davy Crockett when I was nine. Crockett, being such a fabulous creature, we naturally took his legend in hand and soon all the boys were sporting Coonskin hats and strutting around school shooting the eyes out of turkeys at a hundred yards. It was such an epidemic of gunplay that kids with their Mattel Fanner 50’s slung low around their hips that Mrs. Brown, the principle, as if you needed one in a school with less than sixty kids, decreed that we could only bring our guns to school one day a week. This would be known as “Gun Day.” On that day, a Wednesday if memory serves, the air was heavy with the smell of spent roll caps and the popping of pistols from behind every tree. The two acres of the school ground was the scene of vast carnage as the bodies lay where they fell, briefly of course. It was perfectly legal to pop up and shoot your adversary in the back. The hooks placed along the sides of the hallway between the two school rooms looked like an armory during class time, with the gun-belts hooked up and waiting for their owners to return.
By the turn of the decade, the end of the fifties, the new “Modern” school was about to open and the last class to graduate from the old school, which had been in use since the 1880’s was looking forward to high school. The days of free recess where the kids were left to their own devices were coming to an end. The county schools office was growing in power and most of the old one and two room schoolhouses were closed. We had seen the end of Huasna, Santa Manuela, Newsom, Oak Park, Berros, Santa Fe, Freedom and Cienega schools and the rise of a much more rigorous education system. The Arroyo Grande Elementary school, though opened in 1932 was fifty years more modern than old Branch. The brand spanking new Margaret Harloe school with its modern buildings and structured activities didn’t allow for rafts, gun days or digging foxholes. Recess was now organized. Imaginations were stifled under the weight of adult theory about what is good for children. A sad day. Just for once why can’t we just open the gates and let them run free to discover on their own what is out there? No Toys-R-Us, no phones, no proper PE equipment no adults pointing fingers and giving orders. Just give them a shovel. As Pink Floyd so aptly said, “Teachers, leave those kids Alone.”
Cover Photo: 1960 Eighth Grade, Alcides Coehlo, Mrs Brown, Johnny Silva, Nancy Wilcox, Steve Luster, Manny Silva and Mrs Fahey. The pond is to the right. Family Photo ©