Friday, August 22, 2008

Home Schooling

As I have previously mentioned, I contracted polio in June, 1948 just three months shy of my 4th birthday. After coming home from Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis following a stay of nine months and two days, out of necessity I became a unique little kid in many ways. As an only child, my parents and grandparents doted on me constantly. I don’t know if it was because they felt responsible for or guilty because of my illness, but they didn’t let me out of their sight for a long time.

As a result, I had very few friends my own age for the next few years. My family sheltered me to such an extent that the neighbor kids didn’t know how to act when they were around me, and for many years I felt like the gorilla in the room that nobody wanted to talk about. I was much more comfortable around adults than other children.

My wonderful grandmother, Alice Rench, read to me constantly after I came home from the hospital. She even taught me to read before I started the first grade. By the time I was six years old, I was reading books like Treasure Island and The Five Little Peppers. In fact, for my seventh birthday, I received a complete, 20-volume set of the World Book Encyclopedia which I read cover to cover over the next few years, including the annual supplements. We didn’t have a television in those days, so while other kids were out playing, I would usually be sitting at home reading.

As Bill Edwards so eloquently phrased it in last week’s Elnora Post, Elnora High School (which housed all twelve grades) was a majestic 3-story building (including the basement) with grand staircases at each end of the long hallways. Since I had to learn to walk all over again with the aid of leg braces and crutches, I was unable to negotiate those (or any other) steps and needed to be home-schooled through the first six grades.

My first tutor was a dedicated lady named Mrs. Rodocker who was provided and paid for by the state of Indiana. In those days, school started just after Labor Day. My 6th birthday was on September 28, 1950 and I still didn’t have a teacher until early October when I was finally able to start first grade, a full month behind my classmates. Since I was my teacher’s only student, she accelerated my studies and I finished all of the first grade material the first semester and actually began and completed the second grade after Christmas that school year.

When the next Labor Day rolled around, I was still only six when I started third grade. My original classmates were beginning second grade, so I had a new bunch of names to learn even though they were at school and I was being taught at home. Realizing that I was now younger than all of my new classmates, my parents wisely told Mrs. Rodocker to put on the brakes and make the third grade last all year so I wouldn’t get even further ahead. I should also mention that my teacher was only at my grandparents’ house one hour each day. After she taught me, she went to her next assignment elsewhere in the county, and I would complete my homework and have the rest of the day to play or to read. I had made some friends by now, but they would still be in school until later in the day, so I’d play by myself, read, or hang out with my grandfather in his barn or slaughter house and watch him butcher hogs.

Then, just before starting the sixth grade in September, 1954, the unthinkable happened. Mrs. Rodocker and her family moved to Illinois and I was once again without a teacher. I got lucky, however, because local resident Neva Eubanks agreed to teach me for one year only. Mrs. Eubanks had spent some time teaching in the public school system, but she had planned to stay home that year. She and her husband, Sheldon (who owned Elnora’s barber shop), had two daughters, Jana and Cheryl, who were both near my age, so she was able to teach me and be back home before her girls arrived from school.

By this time, I was starting to get stronger and was also getting around much better. I very much enjoyed my year with Mrs. Eubanks, but after I completed the sixth grade, my parents agreed that the time was right for me to leave the safety of my grandparent’s “classroom” where my tutors had laid the foundation for the rest of my life.

This decision became even more binding with the sudden death of my grandfather in August, 1955. Less than one month later and just a few weeks shy of my 11th birthday, I headed out into that great unknown to begin the seventh grade at the gigantic (to me) Elnora school building, totally unaware of the many challenges ahead.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Me and Harve

Because my parents seemed to almost work around the clock, my maternal grandparents, Jim and Alice Rench, pretty much raised me until shortly before his death in August, 1955, about a month before my 11th birthday. My other grandfather, Marion Johnson, had passed away in 1930, fourteen years before I was born.

Harve Vories and his sister, Bertha Machan, lived just across the street from my grandparents. I always liked Harve and often pestered ‘Berthie’ and him long before my grandfather’s death.

Harve was a crusty old man. When I knew him, he was retired but always seemed to keep busy. In his younger days during the early 1900’s, he operated a ‘dray’ in Elnora. It was a light wagon drawn by one horse, and was used to deliver freight and other goods all around the town and surrounding area. Harve’s dray was pulled by his magnificent black horse named Prince and when people talked about Harve, they almost always mentioned Prince.

After my grandfather died, Harve pretty much adopted me as his grandson. Other than his sister, I don’t think Harve had a family, so he and I became really close. In my young eyes, he could do about anything. He had a workshop in his garage (he didn’t drive, but Berthie did) where he made wooden outdoor furniture including lawn chairs, benches, and porch swings. When I started school, long before my grandfather’s passing, Harve crafted a sturdy wooden desk for me complete with a center drawer in which I could store pencils and other supplies. He was also adept at carving hickory nuts and walnuts into little Easter baskets. I still have one that he made for me so many years ago.

We spent many days on his yard bench swapping stories and hand feeding the squirrels that ventured near. Some of his tales were a bit too ‘adult’ for my young ears, but rather mild by today’s standards. He always had a supply of Canada peppermints which he would share with me near the end of each visit. He kept the white ones in a big brown paper sack and the pink ones in a smaller bag. He’d hand me a few white ones and when I’d eaten them, he followed up with a pink one. At that point, I knew it was time to head home.

Harve was a pipe smoker and taught me how to make corncob pipes. He puffed Old Hillside tobacco which came in a little white cloth bag closed by a yellow drawstring. One day, after I’d made another corncob pipe, I finally convinced him to let me load it up with Old Hillside. He handed me a big kitchen match so I could light it myself, and after a few hearty draws, I felt like I’d swallowed a tub of dirty dishwater and the result wasn’t pretty. I don’t think I’d been that sick since my grandfather slipped me a wad of his Beech-Nut chewing tobacco years before.

I was amazed at what a great rifle shot Harve was. There were four mailboxes clustered on a wooden stand directly across the street from his house. He could take an old-style kitchen matchstick, put it into a crevice in the wooden post, sit in his yard chair across the street, and light it with one shot from my .22 rifle without knocking the match from the post. In those pre-PETA days, I also remember him shooting a big, black crow out of the top of an old, dead oak tree in my grandfather’s barn yard. The shot was also made from Harve’s front yard, a good hundred yards from the bird’s perch.

Grocers certainly didn’t make much money with Harve Vories as a customer. He ate the same thing every day of the year: Post Toasties and milk for breakfast, Dinty-Moore Beef Stew for lunch, and two slices of bread crumbled into a bowl of milk for supper. He was even more frugal when it came to haircuts. After the winter thaw, he’d head down to Sheldon Eubanks’ Barber Shop for his annual haircut, or should I say his annual shave. He would have his head completely shaven clean so by the time cold weather rolled around again, between his hat and the fringe of hair around his bald head, he’d keep warm until the next spring.

I didn’t see much of Harve after I went off to college in 1961. I’d visit him occasionally during summer breaks and even less often after graduation. Harve never forgot me, though. When our first son was born in 1967, Harve made him a little stool to sit on, saying it was the first project he’d done in his workshop in many years. After Scott outgrew the stool, it remained a fixture in our house, used primarily as a stepstool for Carol to reach to the tops of high shelves.

I learned of Harve’s death after it was too late to attend his funeral. To some, he was probably just a strange old man who sat on his bench with a squirrel on his shoulder. To me, he was like another grandfather.