IZEE Chapter 3 ~ Early years ~ Bates, Oregon
My memory of my early childhood years, is a little distant. Until the end of my third grade, we lived in Bates, Oregon. This is what I learned in Bates. First, I’d learned that when my mother raised her voice, even people outside our family, did what she wanted.
At five years old, I had just started the first grade. There were no kindergartens. Mom had decided I was old enough, forcing the school to take me, even though the cutoff day was several weeks before my October 15th birthday. When the registrar had tried to tell her that I was not old enough, she had marched, unannounced, right in to see the principal.
He was startled. ” Mrs. Miles?” He remembered her. How could he not? How many times…?
” Mr. Cardwell! I will have you know that I carried this energetic boy two months over term. So really, he is more than old enough. There is no reason, on God’s green earth, why he should have to wait another year! He IS going to begin school THIS year!”
Leonard Cardwell got up from behind his desk, walked to his window, and gazed out at his school’s playground. This was his domain. He had been principal at the elementary school for as long as anybody could remember, even him. It was going to be another hard year. Baby boomers, as they were called. This would be the largest class of first graders that had ever started. Soon, his playground would be alive and he would be too busy administering discipline to even notice one more Miles kid. He knew Rita and Robert. Rita had been fine, a perfect student. Robert has required frequent discipline. This one needs another haircut. He hated cutting this one’s hair. He wouldn’t hold still. Blackest hair with the lightest skin he’d ever seen. The boy was over there, admiring his paddle, and pulling on the rope that Cardwell found necessary to administer his, most severe, discipline.
Mildred Miles was waiting. She was a looker, slender, shapely, shoulder length black hair. She was very proper, intensely loyal to her husband. In this small town, if she weren’t, Cardwell would have heard. She had last visited him after he’d had to discipline Robert. He thought she was over protective of her kids. I’d like to discipline her, he thought.
” Well, Mrs. Miles, I suppose, we can make an exception, in your case,” he smiled. ” I know your children are always clean. I do, so, appreciate that. Do any of your men need a haircut?”
” Why, Mr. Cardwell,” she responded returning his smile, ” Do you think you would have time to give them a trim before school starts? “
The wise principal cut hair, on the side. He cut it as badly, the same length, on the top. There were no licensed barbers in Bates, Oregon. While Cardwell wasn’t licensed, he expected crew cut hair on all first thru eight grade boys. From his home, he offered his, public clip services, after school and on weekends, for one dollar a head. “Have your Bud bring the boys by Saturday morning, nine O’clock, sharp! I’ll cut them all.”
” Oh, thank you, Mr. Cardwell. My little Rusty will be no trouble to you, at all. Maybe, I was too upset, last year, about Robert’s rope burns and the burses. He’ll be much better this year, too. Rusty, you leave Mr. Cardwell’s things alone, or he might try to use one on you… Come along, now. Your father will be home, soon. We have to make dinner.”
Mildred was quietly pleased. As usual, she had prevailed. Cardwell had granted an exception. Rusty would begin school. For the first time in fifteen years, she would have a few hours, each weekday, to herself. Maybe, she would learn to cut hair. It seemed like an outrageous amount of money just to have Cardwell run his manual clippers over a boy’s head. She, always, had to clean it up when they got home, anyway. People who cut hair as poorly as Cardwell were the very reason why they’d passed the laws requiring barbers to have a license. She would tell Bud to only get a trim, himself. Not to let that man cut off all of his beautiful, wavy hair, again. Someday, they’ll pass laws against his types of discipline. She was convinced that Cardwell knew better than to use his rope on her sons, now, too.
Bates was a company owned sawmill town. Its one store was privately owned. I remember that it had a rack of comic books, even, Red Ryder. I ask my Mom if I could have Red Ryder?
“You may not, young man! These cost ten cents. You have plenty of comics at home. Put it back!”
I started to do as she had said. But, I really wanted the new Red Ryder. He was a cowboy who wore all red clothes and a red hat. When Mom wasn’t looking, I slipped the comic book into one of the grocery bags.
When we got home, Mom started unpacking the groceries before I could get to the book.
“Did I buy this? I did not buy this comic book! I told you no! Rusty, you stole this book, didn’t you?”
I didn’t confess. Yet, my face turned the same color as the comic book. I expected a spanking. Mother had a much more severe punishment for me.
“You are going to walk, all by yourself, back to Carl Lishman’s store, and tell him that you stole his comic book. Don’t just put it back on the rack! You take it to him and you tell him that you stole it! I’m going to ask him next time I go in! Now, you go…”
No amount of tears could make it all right. I had been caught red-handed. I had never walked to the store, by myself, before. It was over six blocks away. Even when I had run away from home, I never went that far. What if he had me put in jail? I hated Red Ryder. It was the longest, forced walk in my life. At five years old, I abandoned my life of crime. Not until the sixth grade, would I ever be involved in a crime, again. Red is, still, my least favorite color.
Bates used to get a lot of snow. My brother, Robert, and I would climb up on the roof of the house and jump off into snowdrifts. Robert was five years older than I was. A born leader, he couldn’t have had a more enthusiastic follower. Whatever he could dream up to do, I wanted to do it too. He taught me how to fight, never hesitating to encourage me to do so.
My sister, Rita, was ten years older than I. By the time I was out of the third grade, she had already graduated, salutatorian, from high school. I remember how Rita would help me dry my wet pants when I’d fall through the ice on the creek that I wasn’t supposed go near. She would not tell mom on me. Rita always had the radio on. I’m sure that having had the constant exposure to songs of the 1950s has had a significant impact on the kind of music that I enjoy, yet today. Rita could tell who was driving by our house by the sound of the car engine. Mostly, she waited for her boyfriend Gene’s car. She said that it had the best sound of them all. They were married the year the year she graduated. Rita taught me that being in love was a good thing.
I was the five year old, first grader whose mother had decided he was too active not to begin school. There was no kindergarten, yet she’d managed to get me started. “A little head start,” she’d told me. It didn’t feel like a head start. I knew I was a head shorter than the other boys. I’m told that I got into, at least, one fistfight at school, or on the way home, every day. Being short for my age, I never got into a fight with anyone smaller than I was. While I never had to worry about getting into trouble for beating up on someone littler than me, no one could remember when my nose had got broken, the first time.
There was one kid, Jody Johnson, who I fought with several times each week. He was tough. His family had moved to Bates, from Oklahoma. They lived in a boxcar, which had been left on an old piece of track when a railroad stopped using it in the early 1900s. I can’t imagine how that family stayed warm, through those Bates winters. Its no wonder the whole family was so tough and mean.
Robert and I went to the swimming hole. Some enterprising youths had damned up the Middle Fork that summer, so that the water was over twelve feet deep. Jody was there. I had learned to swim when my brother was taking me for a ride on his new Swinn bicycle. He said I wiggled too much. I remember we had gone off a bridge into the creek. While Robert saved his bike, I found out that water was not something I had to be afraid of.
At the swimming hole I saw that Jody did not know how to swim, yet. I thought I would help him learn. Jody’s eyes got real big when I told him what I’d planed to do. He started screaming for his big brother. I told him “Don’t be scared!” He wouldn’t listen. His screams stopped abruptly when I grabbed him around the waist, plunging us both into the cold, deep water. When I came up, Jody was making funny, gurgling sounds. His eyes were even bigger. Then, more screams before he trashed himself back under the water. Satisfied, I dog-paddled back to the shore.
His big brother, Okie Joe, jumped in and pulled Jody out. Then, Okie Joe threw me in. When I swam out, laughing, Okie Joe picked me up, over his head this time, to throw me in again. After landing on my back that time, and getting water up my nose, I’d quit laughing. I struggled to get back to the river bank where Jody stood sneering.
“Throw him in again, Okie Joe,” Jody urged.
Yet another, unplanned visit to the deep. I was out of breath, coughing out water when I arrived at the river bank. Okie Joe grabbed me by the hair. Dragging me out of the water, he introduced me to a fresh cow pile. I got to see it real close up.
I learned three things that day:
Cow crap makes your eyes burn;
It tastes terrible;
Don’t expect even my big brother to mess with Okie Joe.
Even though I’d swam enough for one day, Robert made me go back in to wash out my hair and get the “Stuff” off of my face. Jody had long since quit crying. He and Okie Joe snickered as they watched my progress from a healthy distance.
Robert had friends his own age. He did lots of things that I could only dream about. One day his friends came over to, practice in our yard, shooting their bows and arrows. One of my brother’s friends used a slingshot. His arrows had razor sharp “Hunting tips.” Of course, I wanted to do it too.
“Sorry, Rusty. You’re just too young,” Robert said sympathily. “Mom said not to let you shoot, today. Tell ya what, you can do, though. You can be ‘The box boy!’ You’ll get to pull all the arrows out of the target box and bring ’em back to us ‘Bow hunters.’ Pull ’em straight out by the shafts, one at a time. Don’t grab ’em by the feathers.” Robert was a great teacher. “Wait ’til all us guys shoot their arrows,” Robert instructed. “Don’t go running out there ’til we’re done! Wait over by that tree, so you won’t have to run so far. It’ll be faster for you.”
It was better than nothin’. At least, I was with ’em. They all liked it ’cause I could run so fast. Before long, I knew by the color of the feathers which bowman each arrow belonged to. It was fun. I’d wait ’til all the bow hunters were finished, then dash out for their arrows and see how fast I could get back to the tree. I was so anxious to please others that I didn’t even hear my brother yell “Rusty, NOT YET! “
The fun stopped when the “Hunting tipped” arrow slashed through my boot. I’d made sure all of the bows were down. I’d forgot all about the slingshot. As hard as I tried to not scream or cry, I couldn’t help it. Hopping on my left foot, in vain I tried to pull the arrow, straight out. It wouldn’t come. I clutched with both hands, forgetting about the feathers. As I fell to the ground, the arrow snapped off. Its shaft was in my hand. Its flat, sharp tip, out of sight, was in the boot.
“Shezz, or Mom’ll hear ya! Here, let’s get yer boot off!” Robert was already unlacing it.
I’m not sure which was more frightening, the thought of where the tip was, or the look on my brother’s face when our mother appeared, out of nowhere. By the time they got my boot off, the crew sock wasn’t white anymore. I knew that my brother was in big trouble.
” Mommy, not ‘is fault…”I started, choking back the tears. “He said not…”
” You poor thing! Don’t try to talk… You’ve lost a lot of blood…” She swept up her seven year old, son into her arms and he wasn’t scared, anymore. “No doctors in this town…they’ve got that nurse at the mill, for emergencies…This is an emergency! Robert Miles, you are not to leave this yard. Do you understand me? I’m taking your brother to find out just what you’ve done.”
That day, I learned three more things:
Don’t stand in the way of people and their sport;
If you are the box boy, don’t get too anxious;
Even if you don’t mean too, other people might end up paying for your mistakes.
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