Mom woke me at dawn. I washed up, put on my new school clothes, and grabbed my Roy Rogers lunch box. She walked me down our dirt driveway and held my hand while we stood on the shoulder of Route 60, waiting for the school bus.
It was the first day of the first grade, and I was scared. There were no pre-schools or kindergartens where I lived, so I didn’t know what to expect.
Mom was scared, too. Her hand tightened around mine when the bus came over the hill, and she had tears in her eyes when she helped me up the steps and sat me in the front seat.
The bus pulled away and rolled along towards Williamsburg, stopping to pick up kids at falling-down shacks, trailer courts, and truck farms. At a run-down gas station, Georgie Thompson, another first grader, climbed aboard and sat next to me. Too scared to talk, neither of us breathed a word until the bus pulled up in front of a dark hulking brick building that looked like a jailhouse, whereupon Georgie said in a small voice, “Oh, God.”
Two sixth-grade girls were waiting for us on the curb. They pulled us by the hand into Matthew Whaley Elementary School and down a long hall through a swarming frenzy of shouting, laughing kids. Georgie’s guide shoved him through a door on the left; mine pushed me into a classroom on the right.
Mrs. Pearson, a short frail gray-haired teacher, met me at the door and sat me down at a table with other dazed first graders. After a few more stunned kids trickled into the room, she launched into a welcome-to-school speech.
In the middle of it, a tall stout woman dressed in Sunday-go-to-church clothes appeared at the door.
“It’s the principal,” a girl at my table hissed. “Somebody’s in big trouble.”
“Is there a Kenny Oder here?” the principal asked.
My stomach did a backflip.
Mrs. Pearson pounced on me and handed me off to the principal. With a grip as tight as a pair of pliers, she pulled me across the hall into another classroom and plopped me down in a chair next to a boy slumped over a desk bawling hysterically at the top of his lungs.
“Calm down now,” the principal said to the boy. “Here’s the friend you asked for.”
The boy raised his head and looked at me. I sucked in my breath at the sight of my dreaded childhood nemesis, Robert West. Once a week Robert visited his ten-year-old cousin, who lived next door to me, and they teamed up to torment me mercilessly. Robert tried to make me cry every time he came around, and with his cousin’s help, he usually succeeded. I hated him.
Robert stopped crying when he saw me and clamped his sweaty hand onto mine. I tried to jerk free, but he held on like his life depended on it. He scooted his chair closer to mine and grabbed my arm with his other hand. I couldn’t make him let go, so we sat like that until the principal finally returned, disentangled me from Robert, and took me back to my class.
“Thank you, Kenny,” she said. “You’ve been a big help to your friend.”
Inside my head I screamed, “He’s not my friend! He’s a big dog turd!” But out loud all I could manage was a meek “Okay.”
I don’t remember the rest of the day except that Mom hugged me for a long time when I got off the bus, and later when I told her about Robert, she laughed so hard she cried.
The first grade turned out to be fun for the most part – storytime, craft time, nap time. Recess was the best. They turned us loose on a playground that would qualify as a killing field under today’s safety standards. No plastic slides, rubber mats, or guardrails, and a fall from the giant iron jungle gym’s monkey bars held the promise of permanent paralysis, if not outright death.
Miraculously, I didn’t get hurt on the playground. As it turned out, a much greater menace lurked on the school bus. Our bus carried kids in grades one through twelve, and the big kids bullied the little ones. I was especially afraid of a teenager I’d heard talking to other boys about washing his hands in the blood of a deer he’d killed and strangling chickens just to hear their panicked death-squawks. I was careful to stay away from him, but one day when I got on the bus the only open seat was behind him.
He turned around and smiled at me with a wounded look in his eyes, sad and hurt, but mean at the same time. He reached over the seat, wrapped his hands around my throat, and began to choke me. I don’t know if the other kids didn’t notice or just didn’t care, but none of them did anything.
I clawed at the boy’s wrists, but his grip only tightened and his sick smile grew wider. I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t scream.
Polly Crawford was a fat ugly eighth-grader with dirty hair who smelled bad. No one liked her. That’s why the seat next to her was empty when I got on the bus.
“Let him go,” Polly said.
The boy squeezed harder. My vision began to fade.
“I said let him go!”
“Shut up,” the boy said.
Polly slapped him as hard as she could. He let go of me and lunged at Polly.
I must have fainted because the next thing I recall is lying on the floor, coughing and gagging.
There was a big fight. The driver, a William and Mary student, stopped the bus, threw the boy off, picked me up, sat me beside Polly, and drove on as though nothing had happened.
Where I lived you had to be tough, even as a little boy. For the rest of the year I sat beside Polly every chance I got and avoided the boy as best I could, but I didn’t report him to the principal or anyone else. I didn’t even tell Mom and Dad about him.
As a counterbalance to that god-awful trauma, the first grade produced one of the most important learning experiences of my life. One afternoon Mrs. Pearson arranged our chairs in a circle and asked us to share stories about our fathers’ jobs. The first kid said her dad was an engineer at VEPCO. A boy’s dad worked for Chesapeake Bank. And so on. No one’s dad did anything interesting, and the stories about them were deadly boring.
When Mrs. Pearson called on me, I started to say my dad sold cars, but a strange feeling came over me and I fell silent.
“Kenny?” Mrs. Pearson said.
I looked at her blankly.
“What does your father do for a living?” she said, trying to get me back on track.
The strange feeling swelled up inside me. “My dad drives airplanes in big races every Saturday in Richmond,” I said.
The kids perked up.
“Your dad races airplanes?” the boy next to me said, awe-struck.
“Yeah. He almost crashed in the last race.”
Everyone stared at me, wide-eyed.
Ideas bubbled up so fast my mouth could barely keep pace with my brain. I put Dad in a blue plane shaped like a cigar with wings, smaller than the others, but sneaky fast, dipping, rising, zig-zagging, and soaring. The kids were on the edge of their chairs when Dad lost power and had to use the gasoline choke to restart the engine and pull the plane up off the ground just before it crashed, and they were hanging on my every word when Dad opened the throttle, steadily gained on the other planes, caught the leader at the end, and won by a nosecone.
After the kids stopped cheering, I looked at Mrs. Pearson. Her mouth was hanging open. A chill went up my spine. She knows it’s a big lie, I thought. She’s going to yell at me.
But she didn’t yell. Instead, she said, “That was a wonderful story, Kenny, and you told it well.”
Then she called on the girl to my left, whose father was an accountant. While the girl droned on about keeping track of bills, Mrs. Pearson smiled at me. I smiled back, and a bond formed between us that inspired me long after I left her class.
That was my first story; it was really fun to tell; and it set me on a long winding path that eventually led to Whippoorwill Hollow.
Several months ago, almost seven decades after Dad won that airplane race, my deep well of stories finally seemed to have run dry. I tried hard, but nothing good came forth. With more than a little sadness, I stopped writing and told Bobbye to let my blog go quietly into that goodnight.
A few weeks passed. Then Against All Odds cried out to me. Turning Points came along soon afterwards. The Downfall followed. Now this one. As I close it out, I hear more ghost-voices whispering from the bottom of that deep well.
The time to quit may come someday, but it seems I’m not there yet.
Post Script: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou