Monday, August 27, 2007

Back to school

I was reminded yesterday, by C., that next weekend is the Labor Day weekend. How the hell did that happen? While the past couple of weeks have, by virtue of the stifling weather, crawled by, the summer has pretty much flown. What ever happened to the long lazy summers of my childhood? What ever happened to the warning shot over the bow that summer is drawing to a close?

I sometimes have a hard time after 30 odd years of life in the city remembering what summer was like when I was a kid, though I can remember the signal to the end of summer as clearly as if it was yesterday even though the world of rural Vermont where I grew up is as far away and improbable as a fairy tale.

The true signal to the end of summer when I was a kid would be the day that Doris would announce that we would be going to Rutland to shop for school clothes. My father worked for the state, so payday arrived bi-weekly on Thursdays. When the fateful Thursday would arrive, we would get piled into the '53 Ford and head up Route 4 to Rutland. This was before the days that the highway had arrived and we would take the winding road, through Castleton, Hubbarton, Putney, Ira and West Rutland, traveling from the valley up through the foothills, past Birdseye Mt. Farms and isolated homes were the furniture of the landscape in the distance the mountains would loom green in the foreground and indeed going to purple in the distance. The cool days and cold nights not yet setting the mountains on fire with the colors of autumn.

Looking back now, I realize how dangerous some of these stretches of road were. Narrow roads cutting around properties and natural barriers, semi's barreling around sharp turns, but the sensation of traveling through the hills, in between them and sometimes, precipitously on the sides is not to be compared to the rather pedestrian experience of the safe, gently curving highways that would cut across natural barriers and through forest, farmland and the granite of the mountains themselves and would replace these old roads.

Eventually, the old Ford would pull into a parking space hot as an oven. Those were the days when air conditioned cars were a rarity for the wealthy, or at least the middle class who seemed wealthy to us. There were no rolled down windows on those days. The best we could hope for was that we would be allowed to open the wing vents to let some air circulate in that rolling steel oven. Doris would have done her hair put on a nice dress and heels and in my early childhood, gloves and a hat. In those days a woman would no more think about going grocery shopping without getting properly dressed first than she would contemplate leaving the house naked. Any woman foolish enough to go to the grocery store in curlers would be talked about for weeks over coffee in various kitchens.

After a final spray of Adorn, Doris was ready to face Rutland and was not about to be mussed by any refreshing air pouring through open windows. We had not escaped either. We had been scrubbed, combed and dressed and threatened with the direst of consequences if we dared to even think about getting dirty before we got in the car. Somehow, we managed to escape the fate of some of our friends and were not throttled by having to wear ties. I guess even Doris thought that was overkill.

For all of the dread that school shopping would bring, there was also the frisson of excitement. There was Woolworth's, Fishman's, Montgomery Ward's and Ames. There was the annual visit to the shoe store, where our feet would be measured and if we could beg the change off our mother, the florescope that let you see the bones in your feet! I don't remember any ritual order of shopping. The progress through the stores was ad hoc. Sometimes if we had been behaving and Doris was feeling generous, there would be an ice cream sundae or a banana split at the counter of Woolworth's with it's shining glass cases, the bright appealing colors of the desserts on display and the enticing smell of the nuts in the roaster at the counter.

Mostly though Doris was all business. Pastel button down shirts and perhaps the occasional plaid. Slacks. At St. Mary's, indeed even at the public school, jeans were forbidden. In hindsight the idea that blue jeans were forbidden as school wear in a farm district, where most kids were doing barn chores before school and stepped off the bus to do yet more work at the end of the school day seems more than a bit odd, but it was the case. Instead we wore slacks. Not chinos, slacks. Glenn plaid, herringbone, houndstooth, tweeds and flannels. Everything, to our howls of protest, was purchased with room to grow. Pants that would later be taken up in anticipation of being "let down" as the school year progressed. Cloths were held up, sweaters were forced over heads, arms stuffed forcefully into sleeves. A process to be repeated in each store we visited as childish patience was exhausted and maternal patience worn thin with the cry of "Do I have to?" Until finally the dreaded day was done, all parties tired out, the Ford pulled into the driveway and We were dressed like miniature adults, heading off to our offices. It wouldn't be until I was in my junior year of high school that the school systems would finally catch up to the flood of change that the 60's brought, but in 1963 the 50's of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best and residual McCarthyism was still hanging onto our little corner of the world with a death grip.

Within a few years, everything would change. My parents alcoholism would deepen, and my mother would pronounce that she was not going to waste that kind of money on clothes that we would only outgrow, cheap clothes and seconds would become the norm in order to save money wasted on children that could be better spent on beer and shopping would take place in outlet stores.

Viet Nam which was a strange place half way around the world and only existed in geography books would burn itself on the national conscience and a war would be watched on TV's across the nation and our country would find itself in a storm of change because of it.

The highway system would cut through mountains and farmland where the old country routes had skirted and meandered around properties and natural barriers and would both physically and metaphorically bring the rest of the world to our doorsteps.

But before that we lived in a brief window of time which looking back as an adult, only existed in my perception of the world as a child. Untroubled by a larger world, that made Burlington on the other end of Lake Champlain seem as distant and exotic as China had not yet broken the spell. Childhood still unaware of the ugly changes that were taking place in our own family. The biggest worry was changing from Sister Perpetua's class to that of Sister Grace Mary and the dread of being bathed within an inch of ones life and then sent off to the first day of school.