Once Upon a (Life)time
Growing Up Years
Growing Up Years - Part 3

Mildred schooling included life's lessons and various illnesses.

Spring came. I had another birthday, the only observance being several traditional birthday spankings because I was a year older. By now there was the cutest little curly haired boy in school, and I knew that he liked me, too. We stood in front of my house swinging our lunch pails in a half circle, making unintelligible noises on our way home one day when our front door flew open.

"Mildred, you get in here this minute!" My stepgrandmother's angry voice commanded. Young Mr. King gave a startled leap and went sprinting home to Mama. I made a startled dash for our front door and stood with my eyes on the toes of my shoes through a tirade that began with what am I going to do with you?" and ended with don't let me catch you again!"

Thus ended my first romance. I still don't know whether eight years of age is too old or too young to be
"standin' in the road makin' googoo eyes at the boys."

The day school closed Aunt Stella was there with my three cousins and the horse and buggy to take me home. A wonderful carefree summer went by, much like the ones just past. When kids are six and eight years old, the important thing in life is fun, and anything that brings forth a giggle is acceptable. The milk cow, her calf and a yearling heifer were kept in a pasture and now Lil and I were elected to bring in the "|herd" at milking time. The calf was muzzled so he couldn't steal the milk and the yearling was either dumb or awfully gentle. We'd take turns hitching a ride on her, sometimes getting dumped on the ground. More laughs. Sometimes we'd be obliged to veer around fresh cow splatters, but now I'd been to school. I was educated, but not all to the good.

"I'll dare you to step in that's I said, pointing a finger at a warm cow pile.

"What's that mean?" Lil questioned.

"It means when I dare you to do something you gotta do it." Her small nose wrinkled and she hesitated a second then gamely planted both bare feet in the fresh cow pie. That was what I'd been waiting for.

"Pe-e-w, you stink!" I clapped my hands and gloated at my smart trick. She caught on fast. "Now I dare you to step in it." She pointed a finger, trying to look grim. Well here was a dose of my own medicine so I put on my most unconcerned expression and followed in her footsteps. She danced up and down and clapped her hands as I had done.

"Now you stink worser'n I do. Our giggles turned to squeals of mirth that came to a sudden stop.

"Papa!" Lil cried. We looked for a place to escape to, but there was no place to run. He was there and we were going to "catch it." I knew by now that when his moustache twitched and he put a hand over his mouth the reprimand wouldn't amount to much. He stood looking us over for a moment then said, "You fellers better get that off before Ma sees you." We left the cow herd to him and made a fast trip to the far side of the water barrel to pour water on each other, then stamped up and down in the puddle. We must have worn a regular sneak trail to that water barrel. It was a place where we got rid of a lot of evidence.

That fall I started third grade at Lowell School in Missoula, where I soon found out there was something called hillbilly kids and I was one of them. Uncle Bill owned a lot with a one room "shack" and I batched there with the Hamiltons: Viola who was studying to graduate from high school, and Leonard, three years my senior, who disdained all girls not of his immediate family, especially country-fied ones like me.

It was at Lowell that I met Annie. Annie was of my standard of living. Her dresses were faded and a couple inches too short for her petticoats. Two stubby pigtails stood almost straight out and wisps of brown hair hung down about her red cheeks. Moreover her homemade underpants were embellished with "Gold Heart Flour" across the seat just as mine were. The teachers soon remedied that. They sent notes home with us requesting that we be fitted with black sateen bloomers for the sake of propriety when we played on the swings or straddled the teeter- totter. Annie became my mentor and she decreed who our friends were to be: Tillie and Ting Tom whose almond eyes and friendly faces seemed to be always smiling. There was Lucille, a little black girl who never earned a reprimand from the teacher; and a little lame boy who was very shy and always came to school in striped overalls.

"What's the matter with him?" I asked.

"His one leg won't hurry up," Annie said.

"What's his name?"

"We call him Stripes." She answered off-handedly.

"That's all the kind of pants he's got." Then she added, "His mother washes." I must have looked dumb.
"Washes clothes, you know, for Lavonne's mother and old sneaky Louis' mother. They're top-crust, you know. They don't like to do their own work. That's LaVonne over there with the ribbon in her hair and the shiny slippers. Don't pay no 'tention to her. She'll get yer coat if she can. And don't trust old sneaky Louis either. He'll do you dirt and he can get away with it, cause his pa is on the school board."

Hmmm. That school board again. Old Sneaky Louis was picture perfect, the only boy who went home at four o'clock with both blue serge knickerbocker legs where they belonged: up under his knees. All the other boys went around with one pant-leg up and one down.

Annie, like Gladys, drew her worldly wisdom from older siblings. If some other child ventured to include me in an activity she would warn, "you'll keep your mitts off'n her. You got 'nough kids to play with!" When we could get a turn on the wooden slides, "shoot the chutes" she called them, she warned me, "Watch out! The boys poke sticks up through the cracks."

"What for?" "Tear your britches. And it don't do your hinder much good, either." She was already climbing the ladder. "That teacher over there is Old Cranky Roberts. She ever smiles she'll crack her face!" In due time I learned about "Old Sneaky Louis." Teacher was late in coming into the room and a timid little girl turned sidewise in her seat pleading. "You give me back my bracelet. That's mine."
"Huh-uh" Louis said, tormenting her. "I'm gonna keep it."

"That's mine, my father gave it to me," the little girl begged.

Without hesitating, Annie started jumping seats projecting herself across the room. "Ill get it for you Dottie," Annie began pounding on him. Louis threw the bracelet in disgust. "Ha, your old father died," he said spitefully. Dottie picked up the bracelet, buried her head in her small arms and sobbed. I hopped over an empty seat and bent down to comfort here. Don't cry, Dottie. My mother died, too," I soothed. At that moment the teacher came in.

"Mildred, what are you doing out of your seat?"

"He took her bracelet." I gave a glance toward Louis.

"He threw it at her and made her cry," Annie said.

"I didn't do anything to her," Louis denied. "They're both lying."

"Did too," I said.

"He's a sneak" Annie avowed.

"Annie" the teacher ordered, "you may come up and stand in the corner."

"But he did do it," I remonstrated. "He threw it at her and made her cry."

"Mildred," Teacher said, "you may come up and stand in the other corner." Choking back my tears I shuffled my way up the aisle. I was furious and I hurt for Annie. I flashed her a sympathetic glance and Annie covered a surreptitious grin and gave me a wink! Annie had been to the corner before.

Later I realized a few truisms from the school term.

That a blue serge suit and shiny shoes do not make the man.

That you can't tell a book by its cover. And that it is possible to be punished for someone else's crime. LaVonne sometimes condescended to walk part way home with me. She once pushed me off the sidewalk into a mud puddle. She yanked off my stocking cap and threw it into someone's yard where a vicious dog held forth on top of a woodpile. She also tempted me into picking an apple from a tree that was hanging over a yard fence.

"They don't care. They don't pick them for themselves," she said.

I pulled down a branch and reached for an apple and someone pounded on the window. A white-haired old man shook his fist at me and I didn't stop running for three blocks. Later, LaVonne said, "I'll be so glad when we move away from here. Mama says all the nice people are moving to the other side of town." Some time later I realized that the "upper crust" is not always the most desirable.

Christmas came again and this time I went home to the Mackie cabin for vacation. I could now recite rhymes and write whole sentences in the air. I could see them even if no one else could, but they all laughed at my antics and we had a hilarious time. And then it happened again. Back in school the teacher called out six or eight names, including mine and LaVonne's. She told us to stand in the aisle.

"You are going to march across the hall and take your seats because you have been promoted to the fourth grade." Tillie and Ting and Stripes wore their usual smiles of approval, but Annie's face registered consternation. I didn't want to leave these familiar faces, and worse yet, who should be up front but "Old Cranky Roberts."

At recess LaVonne said quizzically, "Imagine, you being promoted!" There was no malice, only puzzlement, in her statement, but she never bothered me again. When Annie made her way to me there were tear streaks on her face. There was hurt and anger in her little-girl voice when she said, don't you never speak to me again!"
Old Cranky Roberts' stern countenance proved to be worse than her bite for she never bothered me. Sometimes I got a chance to play with Tillie and Ting, but Annie never relented. I was saved by the bright new books and we had a music teacher once a week and art classes on Friday.

Then a new family with a half dozen youngsters moved into the house next door to Uncle Bill's "shack" where we batched in town. The Ryder family came from Missouri and had brought a barrel of sorghum molasses with them. There was a girl about my age, so I'm afraid I found it convenient to drop in there to play about mealtime, after I found that they kept a bowl of molasses mixed with butter on the table. The Ryder daughter also showed me how to make "the cutest little scissors." We would lay two straight pins crossed on the street car tracks and after the street car had run over them, the heads were little flat circles and the pins did indeed, look like miniature scissors. We were careful to make scissors only when no one else was at home at the Ryders or at our place. One day, hearing the rumble of the car approaching, we placed our pins on the rail and ducked back, waiting for the machine to go past. The motorman had had enough of this and he stopped his car and took after us. He chased us right into the Ryders' yard with my friend yelling "Mama! Mama!" Why was she yelling for Mama, I wondered, fleetingly. She knew Mama wasn't home, but the motorman didn't know it. At any rate it ended the scissors trick and possibly saved our mischievous little skins.

Before the end of the term I got a bad case of measles, terminating with an abscessed ear which kept me out of school for three weeks. I had now, in the course of my education, taken home measles, chicken pox, whooping cough and head lice. Of course, my younger cousins had to endure the benefits of my doubtful contributions.