First Grade Two Times
I was 5 when I went to first grade. I had a new red dress, white socks, and red shoes.
My mother had made my dress and had braided my hair in two braids. I wasn’t nervous at all. We lived in Caney, Kansas, in a little house not far from my Aunt Cora Jean and Uncle Charles. They owned a dime store and had two children. Their son Chuck was already six and had already been in school for a whole year. Their daughter Susan was too young to go to school.
My mother had taught school in Copan, Oklahoma, the year before, but now she stayed at home with me. My daddy was in the army, and he was away in a place called Europe. My grandparents Daddy Art and Grandmama had lived with us in Copan. When my mother and I moved from Copan to Caney, my grandparents moved too. I thought they were going to live with me. I didn’t know that my daddy would be coming home in October, but all the grown ups knew. Daddy Art and Mother had talked a long time and agreed that Mother and I needed a place of our own. And what about Grandmama and Daddy Art?
They moved to a farm. It was a long time ago. The farm house did not have a bathroom or water inside.
I loved my grandparents very much, but I didn’t like to go to the bathroom at their house because they didn’t have a bathroom inside the house. There was a small “house” outside, called the out house where we used the bathroom. It didn’t matter if it was cold or dark; if someone wanted to use the bathroom, they had to go outside to the out house. It smelled bad out there. If it was hot weather, the wasps made it scary to go to the out house because there were wasp nests all around.
Taking a bath was hard to do.
If someone wanted to take a bath, my grandfather would pump water into a bucket. Then Grandmama would heat it up on the stove. When it was hot enough, she would pour it into a big metal wash tub. In the winter the wash tub was placed in the kitchen so that the person taking a bath was in a warm room. When the bath was over, Daddy Art would haul the tub to the door and dump the water on the ground outside. That is, of course, unless someone else wanted to take a bath. The second person to bathe would use the first person’s bath water. I was never really sure that you could get completely clean like that.
In the summer the tub was put on the screened-in porch. I liked that better than baths in the kitchen, but it seemed to me that someone was always walking through the room while I was taking a bath, and I didn’t like that either.
It was hard to wash clothes.
Grandmama did her washing outside using the same wash tub, filling it with water she had heated in the kitchen. She scrubbed the clothes on a wash board, wrung out as much of the soap and water as she could and then rinsed them in another wash tub. Then they were hung on the clothes line to dry.
They had no lights in their farm house.
They used kerosene lanterns after it got dark. Or they just went to bed when it got dark because the lanterns were smoky and smelled bad, too. Daddy Art said, “We go to bed with the chickens.” That was true. The chickens went to sleep when it got dark and got up when it was light again in the morning.
Daddy Art really did have chickens on the farm. The chickens even had their own little house where they slept at night and where they laid their eggs.
My grandmother thought that the best laying hens were white leghorns which everyone else called “leggerns,” but she always correctly pronounced their names.
Leghorns or “Leggerns”
I liked my house in town better. We had a bath room and water inside. We had lights too.
Our house had two bedrooms, and I shared one with my mother. The other bedroom had been made into a play room with shelves for my toys. There was a garage at the end of the driveway where my mother kept our green Chevrolet two-door car. Our yard had lots of flowers since it rained nearly all the time.
I liked the sweet peas, snap dragons, and the tiger lilies. I liked the names of these flowers.
As silly as it sounds, these flowers were almost like people to me. The Sweet Pea liked everybody, and she was so pleasant to be around that every other plant wanted to be near her. In fact, we had one sweet pea who had a real name. Her name was Miss Willmott.
The Snap Dragon had a bad temper and would “snap” at anyone who came too near. He wasn’t nearly as nice as Sweet Pea. The Tiger Lily was dangerous, and was proud of his beautiful spots.
Tiger Lily Snap Dragon
Daddy Art grew flowers, too. He had a big garden with peas, not sweet peas which are flowers, but peas for eating. He also grew lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, and green beans. I loved his garden, and so did the bunnies that lived in the yard.
Right in the middle of the vegetable rows he would plant zinnias, and at the back of the garden he had rows of hollyhocks.
My first grade teacher’s name was Mrs. Jones. She was very old, and she wore funny glasses. She wore her gray hair in a bun.
I already knew how to count and say my ABC’s. Before long I was learning how to read and print.
The first day of school Mrs. Jones gave us our own piece of chalk, but she wouldn’t let us write with it on the black board. Instead, she just had us roll the chalk in one hand. One little boy got in trouble for choosing to put the chalk in his left hand, and she made him put it in his right hand. He cried, and I felt sorry for him.
She did let us color a drawing of an apple that day. Somewhere in a box or book, I still have the apple I colored because my mother saved it for me to remember first grade, and I didn’t notice if the little boy used his right or left hand to color.
We had just eight colors in our Crayon boxes, and I was glad we were coloring an apple because we had the colors we needed. Thank goodness she didn’t ask us to color a rainbow.
My daddy came home in October. He had been gone so long that I did not know him very well. He wore an army uniform that had thunderbird patches on the shoulders.
I remember that he taught me a new tongue twister:
Once I heard a mother utter,
“Daughter, shut the shutter.”
The daughter said, “The shutter’s shut;
I can’t shut it any shutter!”
Even more fun was a counting rhyme that I had never heard. It was much better than “One potato, Two potato.”
Erie, irie, orie, ann,
Filisum, folisum, Nicholas, John,
Quevy, quavy, English nave,
Sticklum, staglum, buck.
He did and said all sorts of things that were different. If I was talking too much he would say, “Artis Ann, I don’t want to hear any more watermelon conversation.”
He put cake in a glass and poured milk over it. Then he ate it with a spoon out of the glass. If he wanted only milk, he drank it right out of the bottle.
He ate bacon and tomato sandwiches. I knew about bacon and eggs, and I knew about tomatoes in salads, but I never knew anyone who ate bacon and tomatoes together.
Just about the time I got used to all these changes, my parents told me that we were moving to Texas. Even though my mother showed me on a map where we were going, I just couldn’t imagine it. Besides it looked awfully far from Grandmama and Daddy Art.
It was 649 miles, a very long way from Caney, Kansas, to Odessa. We moved after Christmas in 1945.
Well, it really wasn’t a move to Odessa; we moved to a Phillips oil camp in Penwell.
It about twenty miles from Odessa.
Penwell was so different from what I expected. What was called the garden didn’t have anything planted in it. It was a grownup joke that I didn’t understand. My daddy did have some chickens and a horse. It seemed to me it was hard to be an animal in such a place.
Coming in and out of the camp were cattle guards. That’s just pipes laid over an open place in the ground so that cows can’t get into your neighborhood. Cars can go over a cattle guard, but not cows. It seemed silly to me.
No cows. No rain. No flowers. No trees. Just wind and sand, cactus and mesquite.
It was hot even in the middle of the winter.
Our house didn’t have an air conditioner. If we left the windows open to try to stay cool, the sand filled up the window sills. The roads were dirt, and every time a car came by, the sand boiled up and came inside our house.
The plant where my daddy worked was behind the houses. This plant made gasoline and smelled pretty bad from the raw gas coming out of the ground. It was a different smell from the outhouse, but it was just as bad. Since I couldn’t hold my breath all the time, I finally got used to the smell. The most interesting thing was called a flare. In the plant (some people called it a refinery) was a pipe about fifty feet high. The raw gas came up through the pipe and at the top of the pipe the raw gas burned. It was like a giant candle that could be seen for miles. It was bright orange.
In our neighborhoods the trash dumpsters were called incinerators. They were made of metal, and because there was so much raw gas, they burned all the time. They never had to be emptied because the trash burned up immediately. There were never any flies around the incinerators because it was too hot for them. Our neighbor went out to dump her trash and accidentally threw her trash can in the incinerator. Too bad because it was in the fire before she realized what she had done. Children did not get to throw out the trash.
Children did not get to go inside the plant. I just got to see it from my back yard. The plant was nicer than my house.
It had lots of tanks and pipes and things that looked pretty at night. First there were the flares that burned day and night and then there were lights everywhere. I thought it looked like a fairy land. Even though I loved fairies, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t want to live inside the plant because my daddy said it was dangerous.
Beyond the plant there were lots of oil derricks. They reminded me of the windmills in Kansas and Oklahoma, except, of course, they did not have the big turning fans at the top. Windmills brought water out of the ground. These derricks brought oil out of the ground.
Later the derricks were removed, and pump jacks were put in their place. They looked like big grasshoppers nodding up and down as they pumped the oil.
At night I could see the flares out of my bedroom window. And all the time, I could hear the pump jacks going up and down.
It did not rain, and I wanted it to rain.
On the day I was
supposed to start school, my mother drove to Odessa. I wore the same red dress, white socks, and red shoes that I had worn on the first day of school in Kansas. The school was named Austin Elementary, and I liked the way it looked from the outside.
Boy, were we in for a shock. When the principal looked at my report card and other school records, he said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Corley, but your daughter cannot go to school here.”
“I can’t go to school? Why not?” I asked.
He explained that I was only five when I started school in Kansas. In Texas a student had to be six to start school.
“I am 6 now,” I said.
It didn’t matter how old I was in January; I had to be six in September when I started school. It didn’t matter that I had already been in school half a year.
“I can read and print,” I said.
That didn’t matter either. I could not go to school in Odessa. My mother said we would just go to Monahans if I couldn’t go to school in Odessa.
We drove to Monahans, and guess what. . . they told us the very same thing. It was a Texas law, and I would not be allowed to go to school any where in Texas.
For the rest of that school year, I would have to stay at home. And I did.
I looked at the carbon black plant on the way home and felt like the dark smoke that poured out of it 24 hours a day was a lot like my life.
The ground all around the plant was black from the smoke. People who worked there came home in clothes that had turned black. The cars at the plant had turned black too, inside and outside. And my life was all black too.
Then mother said, “You will have more time to play,” and things looked better.