Category Archives: B: Jr High School: 1958-59

Christmas 1959

There are times and seasons which remain prominent in memory as if (to paraphrase Steven King) they are special small slices, cut from the cake of time. One of these, for me, is the Christmas season of 1959.

There was the family Christmas, of course, which was always special in itself. And I was now, at every opportunity, exercising my newly acquired ability to ice skate — My Uncle Ray’s old hockey skates were serving me quite well. But those are both somewhat generic. My best memories of that time recall the after school sessions in Mr. Ireland’s homeroom.

I believe Mr. Ireland felt a responsibility to his young charges that went beyond simply administering each morning’s brief homeroom gathering. In the first semester of 8th grade, at 13 years old we were all, outside the comfortable circle of family and close friends, sort of feeling our way into life; awkward, shy with girls — The girls, I would later come to find out, were shy and insecure as well, although we boys sure didn’t know it at the time — and I truly think Mr. Ireland’s mission was to help us, in his small way, to get through all of that.

So as the Christmas season approached, and some of us, in response to Mr. Ireland’s invitation to the homeroom class, started spending a few afternoons, after classes were over, helping to create Christmas decorations; not just for our room, but for the hallways of the entire school.

These gatherings brought us, boys and girls alike, into an informal, safe setting, focused on a common goal; decorating the school for Christmas. We were, of course, already excited about the season, and the work was fun as well. But soon these gatherings — by design I think — evolved into small, informal social events. Somehow a record player appeared, and we soon started to bring our favorite 45s, as Mr. Ireland’s after school arts and crafts sessions gave way to miniature sock hops.

While not my original reason for attending — the artwork, and the opportunity to hang out with a nice group of kids was enough — the best thing about all of this was April, with whom I always seemed to be partnered for the work, and soon enough for the dancing as well.

The song to which we danced most often, because we requested it be played often enough to wear out the grooves on the record, was “Mr. Blue”, by the Fleetwood’s. So as Gary crooned, and Gretchen and Barbara harmonized, April and I would hold each other — to an appropriate 13-year-old degree, of course — and glide away the afternoon. It was my first “Our Song”, and as the saying goes, you never forget your first.

December 1st – Christmas Memories

Aside from being my father’s birthday, the first day of December was a transitional moment in the cycle of each year. Thanksgiving and, sadly, the extended autumn have come to an end. But okay, the page turns and in earlier and more rational times, the Christmas season could now begin.

Christmas time arrived sort of slowly in the days of my youth. But once it was December, it was now okay for snow to fall, for we all wanted a White Christmas, and the possibility at least of experiencing an old-fashioned Courier and Ives-like scene as the season came to its fruition. Cold weather was okay too, for if the Phillips Park lagoon was to freeze for skating the temperature had to dip below zero for two or three nights — which in those days it almost always did in December’s first couple of weeks.

As the Christmas season itself began to get rolling, spaces around the entrances of grocery stores and other shops were festooned with green pine cuttings and wreaths, and the scent of the pine perfumed the cold, often snowy, air. Bunches of Mistletoe were available for hanging, and boughs of Holly for hall decking.

In the background, bells could be heard as people hustled about from shop, to shop, to market, to the lunch counter at a convenient drug store for a BLT, and finally, laden with packages, to home again. Empty lots were filled with cut fir, or spruce waiting to be selected, taken home, and transformed into that most magical icon of the season, the Christmas tree, which would then dominate the living room for the next three weeks or so.

I recall the occasionally secretive nature of my mother as she acquired, and carefully hid, presents for the big day. Although I knew her hiding spots, I never peeked. Yes, the waiting was agonizing, but to know ahead of time would diminish the unmatchable special-ness of Christmas morning.

Our after dinner drives in the ‘50 Plymouth would take us, more than once, to join the slow line of cars navigating Lenertz Avenue at the edge of Aurora. Homeowners of this semi-suburban street, with a lot of open land, had collectively decided to tell the story of the journey to Bethlehem and the Nativity with large cutout figures, and signs relating passages from the biblical story, and of course many many many lights. Cars, laden with mothers and fathers. and of course the children of the baby boom, came from miles around to join the parade, pausing at house after house to read the passages and admire the artwork and gaze in wonder at the lights.

At school our classroom was transformed, by our own efforts, into a wonderland of colorful cut paper chains, and bows, and drawings of bells and candles and holly, and all manner of Christmas decorations which we ourselves produced in — what at least seemed like — extended art periods. Absolutely the best time of the year, at least as far as school was concerned.

I recall little page size day calendars — a recurring theme with me it seems — with a small flap on the back so they could be stood up on the living room end table like a picture frame. On the front of these calendars was a painted Christmas scene of some sort, which seemed almost three-dimensional with flocked snow and silvery glitter. Little numbered doors, marking December’s days, were cut into the top layer and could be opened — one per day — to reveal a Christmas message printed on the layer below. Each day I would come home from school to open that day’s door to read the underlying message, and to feel my excitement grow, knowing I was one day closer to the two-day event that was Christmas**.

      ** See the earlier Post “Ghosts of Christmas Past”


Science Class

THERE ARE THREE things that I remember about science class in eighth grade at KD Waldo. One, the class was on the top floor of the building and as we were all filing into the classroom, before class convened, you could stand at the large, eastward-facing windows which offered a great view of rooftops and in the fall, brightly colored trees for a very great distance. Another is that every time I think of that class, for no reason that I can imagine, I think of the song, “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans”, by Freddie Cannon.

Lastly I remember a test which we were given in the middle of the fall semester. The test asked, among other things, the percentages of various gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. I’ve said it before, I was not a terribly good student, but somehow I learned, and remembered the makeup of Earth’s atmosphere, expressed as a mix of the various gases (20% oxygen, 79% nitrogen, and 1% of a bunch of other stuff), and some other materials which we had covered in class. I was somewhat surprised that I knew these answers; reading a book, as homework, was a chore with which I didn’t often burden myself.

I don’t recall the teacher’s name, but he was about 30, and looked to be the kind of guy who would knock your block off if you gave him a hard time, and we were all just a bit intimidated  by him, I think. The next day, he returned the graded tests to us, one by one. When he got to me he laid the paper face down on my desk, and gave me a stern look, asking if I had studied for the test. Altogether intimidated now, I meekly answered “Yes, a little”.

At that, he merely repeated my words and moved on. When I turned my paper over, I discovered a large red ”A”, and the words “Nice Job”. That moment, like Freddie Cannon I guess, is something I will never forget.


The Radio Kit: Part 2

My newly built radio did not have speakers, but had instead a hand-held ear piece, not unlike the receiver of very early telephones. I would lay in bed late at night with that ear piece pressed to my ear, listening to whoever was talking on the radio.  I have no idea what band I was listening to.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t AM because I wasn’t receiving the same programming as could be heard on the giant Philco set downstairs.  One of the programs I came across was dedicated to ham radio. Apparently some guy in a studio received transmissions from ham radio operators and the conversation was rebroadcast to me, and to whomever else was listening on that band.

In retrospect this was very much like today’s talk radio, but the topics had to do with ham radio, and the many technical issues involved.  After that I wanted nothing so much as to be a ham radio operator and talk to the world.  I would buy magazines dedicated to the activity. I would read the articles and the advertising, and dream of this or that piece of equipment in the way that a few years later, I would dream of hot rods and Corvettes and Ferraris.

When I entered high school, I took classes in electricity, and soon electronics.  Our next-door neighbor repaired televisions, part-time in his basement and, as luck would have it, he was pals with the high school Electricity/Electronics teacher, Mr. McCarville.  So I had an in. Because of the connection with my neighbor, and because I was so passionate about the subject, I received opportunities and extra tutelage to which I otherwise would not have been entitled.

This was all for naught, however, when sometime in my junior year, I lost interest in electronics, almost literally overnight. All of what I knew beyond the basics, I have forgotten.  This experience led me to the first of several, of what I believe to be, universal truths.  Nothing lasts forever.

The Radio Kit: Part 1

EARLY IN MY Jr. High years, I purchased, or more likely my mother purchased for me, a build-it-yourself kit marketed by the Cub Scouts. This crystal radio set was a simple device for a young lad to build. It was fairly easy; the components were all mounted to the back of a plastic panel and the most difficult part was winding copper wire around a wooden core, thus creating a tuning coil.  It required an antenna, and fortunately my bedroom window looked out upon the roof of our rear porch.  So, under my father’s supervision, I went out onto the porch roof to attach wooden braces to the house, and to string the antenna cable between them.  An antenna lead was then routed through the window and connected to my radio. I was in business.

Not only did I successfully complete the project, I understood it.  The miracle of the radio receiver was not in its construction, but in how, and why, it worked.  I don’t recall, but within the instructions I think there must have been some explanation as to the function of each of the components.  I was fascinated by that function – The flow of electrons, the synchronicity, and the concept that the completed, working device was much greater than the sum of the parts.  I remember explaining, perhaps at the family Christmas gathering, to a probably very bored Uncle Ray, precisely how a radio worked, and what each of the components did, and why they did it, and the absolute wonder of it all!

     To Be Continued in Part 2

Mr. Ireland’s Homeroom

IN 1959 WE RETURNED for a second year at Waldo (eighth grade). We were big shots now, and confident – not the timid newcomers of just a year ago. On the first day we found that we had been reassigned to a different homeroom; this one supervised by a Mr. Ireland, the senior art teacher. His room, our new homeroom, was a very large upper-floor space with long, wide tables, and chairs befitting a junior high art class.

Actually, as I would discover later, as an art room this space was much better suited than those at the new high school. Located on the third floor front of the northern “wing” of the old building, it featured very large windows on two sides, plenty of space, plus the best homeroom AND art teacher I ever had.

Mrs. Rodin (Rodan)

BUT BACK TO the Jr. High School experience. In the late 1950s Japanese monster movies were very much in vogue. Godzilla (giant lizard), Mothra (giant moth), and Rodan (giant flying lizard), were repeatedly destroying Tokyo, to the horror of the citizens, and the great frustration of the Japanese military.

By coincidence my 7th grade art teacher at Waldo was the elderly, (or so, at 12 years old, we thought) Mrs. Rodin. She was immediately dubbed “Rodan”, of course, and to this day I cannot think of that art class without envisioning the giant pterodactyl.

The unflattering sobriquet notwithstanding, I really can’t recall if she was a very good art teacher. I say this perhaps unfairly, but I do feel that had she been a greater influence as an art teacher, at least to me , I would probably remember more than just her name.