How Did We Survive? Part I

How Did We Survive? Part I
Long before the Rolling Stones qualified for Medicare and Social Security Benefits, and long before Cher started her 11- yearlong farewell tour, I began my education in the first grade. The year was 1958 and Wilford Brimley hadn’t put anyone to sleep yet with his Liberty Medical and diabetes commercials. This was truly a long time ago.

If you are close to my age, did you ever wonder how we made it through school back then? How did we get by – How did we survive? After all, Kam Fong had not yet starred as Chin Ho. And McGarret had not told Danno to book anyone at this stage in prehistoric time.

If you believe modern psychologists, and their assessment of the needs of present-day students, it is nothing short of a miracle that any of us are alive and functioning as adults today. Why? Because in 1958….

Kindergarten had not been invented yet. Neither had pre-school. There were no Head Start programs. The need for guidance counselors, school psychologists, assistant principals and bilingual instruction wasn’t realized. There was never a dean of students in our school and there was no such person as a child advocate.

A parent volunteer didn’t exist for any reason. School busses had no video cameras aboard. Classrooms were filled and individual instruction did not exist. And our elementary had no phys-ed classes. We actually got our exercise on the playground and after school. And believe it or not, a teacher or teacher’s aide was never assigned for playground duty during recess. We had patrol boys and patrol girls instead.

Now - Are you starting to wonder how we made it through those early school years?

Our first grade teacher was as mean as they come (or so we thought). And after she dragged Betty into school the first day we knew you would be better off if you didn’t mess with her. I remember the girl kicking, screaming, and swinging her arms wildly. Her mom was on one side, the teacher on the other, with each clamped on to one of her arms. As soon as they got her into her seat, she got up and ran back out. This was pretty scary stuff for a five or six year-old to witness, and it went on for the first week or so. Eventually Betty settled down but the rest of us were emotionally scarred for life. Witnessing such behavior by a professional educator surely caused irreversible memory damage. Now where was I?

Oh! Back to that unsupervised playground – in the winter, if you wanted to stand on the sliding board and skate down on the ice-covered metal surface, you went ahead and did it. If you wanted to play tackle football, you did. If you didn’t want someone on your basketball or softball team, you didn’t pick him. You couldn’t harm another student emotionally. He was already ruined by witnessing the scene between our first grade teacher and Betty.

You could actually do pretty much what you wanted to do on those playgrounds. All you had to do was bribe the patrol boy or girl to prevent a report about you from going to the office. Many times the bribery consisted of giving up your no-bake cookie from lunch.

Yes, the no-bake cookie was truly one of the best desserts ever to be placed on our trays. But it was well worth the loss if it kept you from the principal’s office.

In that principal’s office was a terrible invention that existed for many years, but no one we knew ever actually saw it. The sixth graders knew about it, and they would whisper secrets about the wonder machine to the primary students. Some of my friends actually knew someone older who had felt its effects first hand. Many who received the wrath of this demonic device as punishment had to be hospitalized. It was none-other than the unthinkable, unimaginable -- Electric Paddle! Talk about emotional scarring for life – now where was I?

Oh! How did we survive back then?

There were times at lunch (seemed like a weekly dish) where the cooks served those tasty, golf ball size gems known as porcupine balls. They were made of some type of meat, with rice, and they were submerged in some kind of red sauce. And they were always served with mashed potatoes, so thick they made me gag.

I don’t know who came up with the name Porcupine Balls. More importantly, why did they keep using that name? And why did they continue to serve them, over and over again? I can actually say that I never saw anyone eat those things. Their name alone caused emotional problems and memory loss. Now, where was I?

Oh! I was talking about bad lunches. Forget about bribing the patrol kids with that lunch. Dessert with the palatable porky balls was usually applesauce. And no one was going to do you any favors for Porcupine Balls and applesauce. You were on your own on those days, unless you had a pocket full of marbles.

At times, patrol boys were willing to accept marbles, and the black cat’s-eye was the most sought after one. On our playground it was worth 15-20 regular marbles, or one giant steely (a huge ball-bearing sphere that would cause your blue jeans to fall to new low crotch levels, way before that became the style).

Living in a coal and steel area, the shiny steely was fairly common, but still worth its weight in glass marbles on the playground market. And some marble players would use them to blast your glass marbles completely out of the chalk (stolen from the classroom) circle. Do you know what losing all your marbles can do for a kid emotionally? Do you know what losing your marbles can do to your memory? Now, where was I?

Oh! – Back to the lunches. Did the students ever have a choice in the lunch menu? Never. A la Carte? French words. Ice cream or chocolate milk? Maybe at home. An extra dessert? Only if you found another student willing to trade. A free or reduced lunch? Only if you were willing to work for it, during your recess time. Being embarrassed to work? It must not have been very prevalent, because students actually looked forward to taking their turn at working.

Do you recall washing your hands when you came in from recess? Do you recall washing your hands at all during the day? How about before snack time? Oh, that’s right, snack time hadn’t been invented yet either. Neither had liquid soap made its appearance. The white powder that looked, smelled and scoured like Borax was the only thing in that metal dispenser. And it usually would not come out when you turned the handle because it immediately coagulated when wet.

And the water came out of both faucets at exactly the same temperature. Yes, the right one had a “C” on it and the left one had an “H” on it, but it made no difference.

Paper towels? No, you used that cloth roll, over and over again. I swear the coal miners used it for a few months before it was donated to the elementary school. It was the color of a coal miner’s lunch bucket. And the white handle on the soap dispenser matched almost perfectly, black.

Hygiene and health classes came about eight years later, as did the Xerox copiers.

Instead we looked forward to the ditto copies, and the smell of the aromatic ink that accompanied each sheet as it was passed back the rows. I wonder at times if that ditto ink may have caused brain damage and memory loss.

I’ll finish part II of this when I can think more clearly and recall those days in better detail. This will give me time to recover from my emotional scarring and allow my mental wounds to heal.

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA