March 28, 2008

The Child in School (Sketch #7)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:49 pm


“And now, whetted intemperately by what he
had felt, he began, at school….to breathe the
mixed odors of the earth….”

—Thomas Wolfe, “Look Homeward, Angel”

He yearned to go. He was too little, they said, and too young. Wait a few years. Your time will come soon enough. He watched his brothers leave each morning, swinging their lunch pails. The house was quiet when they were gone. They returned each afternoon around 3:30. They spoke to him of their day, of the things they had seen and learned. And of the books they’d read.

He chafed. The days passed, the weeks and months. He was five years old. He waited impatiently.

When you turn six, his mother told him. Then you can go. She smiled at him.

He was her fifth son and ninth child. His curly black hair a mass of wild uncontrolled waves, he peered about with large deep brooding brown eyes. “Shock-haired Peter,” his sisters teasingly called him. He harbored in his heart no exalted perceptions of his own importance.

He was soft-hearted and sensitive and a bit shy, not particularly manly traits in the earthy culture that had produced him.

Once, in the barn, he had caught a young sparrow, fluttering vainly against a window pane to reach freedom it could see but not attain. Sparrows were pests. But instead of twisting its head from its body, as he’d seen his brothers and friends do, he’d felt in his hands the frantic pulse of its trip-hammer heartbeat, and pitied. He’d walked a few steps through the barn door to the open air and set it free. It flew away. He had never told anyone.

His birthday arrived in August. His sixth. Now he was old enough. And big enough. He could go to school.

His first day. Early September. The bite of fall weather and a faint whisper of frost in the air. He was excited. He left the house with his brothers and trudged importantly down the road to the west, clutching his pencils and a slide rule. And a new blue-green lunch box. Oblong and rectangular, the top half flipped open to reveal a little wire contraption that cradled a thermos. His mom had fixed a sandwich, a little jar of fruit, and some crackers. The thermos had been removed.

They approached the east school house, where children attended from grades one through three. His brothers Stephen and Titus kept walking the half mile west to their school, which took grades four through eight.

Swinging his lunch box, he strode bravely up the cracked and ancient concrete walkway, past the old pump with its weathered handle and up the steps into the big white school house.

To him it was an imposing structure. The community had purchased it at public auction a few years before from the local English school district. He entered the little porch and walked into the classroom. Many of his classmates had already arrived and were milling about. He knew them as playmates in church. Harold Stoll. Jerry Eicher. Willis Stoll. Abraham Marner. Lydia Wagler, his first cousin. And Lois Gascho, neighbor John’s daughter.

He gaped in awe at the interior of the old one-room school house, its high ceiling, the great square wood stove in the back. At the massive double oak doors separating the porch from the classroom. The doors and all the trim were painted a dull pale green. A row of great windows, tall as a man, provided natural light from the east and west.

They stood around, wide-eyed and shy. The second and third graders marched about importantly. They glanced condescendingly at the little first grade rookies. They were old hands who knew what it was all about. He knew all of them.

Miss Eicher, the only teacher for the three grades at the school, came around and greeted the first graders and assigned to each a desk. She smiled and spoke to them kindly in their native PA Dutch. A few looked like they might cry. She showed them where to place their lunch boxes in the large green shelved closet with double doors that stood in the corner.

Miss Eicher’s title would be simply “Teacher.” She told them they could go out and play until the bell rang. They clamored out, relieved. Some minutes later she rang the hand-held bell. They trooped back in and sat for the first time in their old-fashioned desks, set in straight rows and fastened to slats on the floor. Where they would spend many hours in the coming months.

He knew his ABCs. He’d learned them at home from his older siblings. He could read a bit from the tattered remnants of Dick and Jane books he had at home. He could count in blocks of ten.

With his classmates, he quickly fell into the routine at school. They learned to print their letters, on rough paper in uneven heavily pressed pencil lines. They learned to count and write their numbers. To add and subtract.

They learned to speak English. That was the rule, English only at school. After a few months, they all were moderately fluent in the language.

They used the Pathway Publishers textbooks. With real phonics. They sounded out the words. Learned the vowels. Long and short sounds. A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y. Stood beside their desks and recited them at a moment’s notice for occasional visitors.

They played outside during recess and the lunch hour. Softball, with a soft rubber ball, an air-filled replica of the real thing. They played King’s base and hide and seek. Played “Andy Over” across the woodshed roof. Swung on the great green iron swing set. Laughed and shouted and ran hatless in the sun among the dandelions through the coarse tall unmown grass.

Aylmer School yard around 1972-73.
Linda Wagler, not Miss Eicher, was the teacher that year.
Old woodshed in the background.

He liked and feared Miss Eicher, and tried to please her. She was a decent teacher. Pretty fair, overall, in her treatment of students. Like most teachers, she had favorites, a few pets. He wasn’t one of them. But he and his friends didn’t really discuss the matter; it was just a fact of life. They survived the best they could.

He liked school, although he could not admit it. Girls liked school. Boys weren’t sup-posed to. When asked by an adult, he scoffed and claimed he didn’t. But he did.

During winter, they played outside in the snow, sledding and making trails. He loved the grown-up feel of carrying a packed lunch to school in his blue-green lunch box. In the winter months, he sometimes had hot dogs, wrapped in aluminum foil. At 11:30, students were allowed to place their foil-wrapped food on the hot wood stovetop, where it simmered until noon. The delicious aroma of roasting hot dogs permeated the classroom.

The first year passed, then the summer and he entered second grade. Now he could strut about with his classmates and look pityingly on the poor, confused little first graders, huddled in groups. Some looked like they might cry.

Miss Eicher was his second grade teacher, too. They progressed in their learning. Read more complicated lessons. Calculated more intricate arithmetic problems.

He loved books and spent hours absorbing great chunks of words, to the detriment of his other studies. He gorged on the colorful pages of the tattered set of Golden Ency-clopedias, and later the World Book Encyclopedias. Reading the volumes at random from front to back. He tried to imagine the pictures he saw as real places, but could not. They existed only on the flat world of the pages before him.

During that year, his class learned penmanship, writing in script. He loathed and hated it passionately. Their usual lesson consisted of writing sentences from their lesson book. Ten or twenty. Usually when they were done, Teacher allowed the class to go outside and play, even though it wasn’t recess.

His friends Jerry and Harold zipped through their writing exercises, scrawling their sentences in mere minutes. They then rushed outside to play. He sat at his desk, laboring mightily to finish his writing so he could join them. It took him forever.

It happened again and again. Eventually, his frustration reached a fever pitch, becom-ing too much for him to bear. So one fateful day, he scrawled a few illegible lines across the vast barren expanse of his notebook paper and claimed to be done. Rushed out to join his playmates. With no thought of tomorrow. Teacher didn’t usually check their writing assignments.

He kept doing it and got away with it for weeks. It was his furtive little secret.

But the day of reckoning approached. Then it arrived. The first bell rang to close the noon hour. He was outside. A sudden clamor. A public buzz. He heard someone call his name. Teacher wanted to see him at his desk. A tremor of fear sliced through him.

He walked inside with a sinking heart. She was sitting at his desk, looking down at his writing notebook. A crowd of his classmates clustered around her. A low murmur drifted through the group. He caught snatches, whispers, “aaaahhh, oooohhh, didn’t do his writing, just made scribbles, Teacher just caught it…..gasssp.”

His classmates lined the aisle as he walked the gauntlet, staring at him with wide accusing eyes, jostling for a better view of the imminent inquisition. He sensed no pity in them. Only morbid fascination.

He bravely approached his desk with dragging feet and stood with hanging head before his judge. She looked at him sternly.

“What’s the meaning of this?” she demanded, motioning to his notebook, spread open on his desk. The damning scribbles seemed to leap from the pages, screaming accu-sations at him before all the world.

He stood mute and wide eyed. He’d get a whipping now for sure. For lying. She had her established methods for dealing with miscreants. The prisoner was escorted out-side to the woodshed. Left there to ponder his fate while she came back in, slipped on her coat and walked by her desk at the front of the room. There she quietly slid open a desk drawer and slipped a sturdy wooden ruler into her coat pocket and marched back out to the woodshed. Where swift and severe punishment was administered.

He had seen it. He had heard it. It had happened to his friends. Now his time had come, he knew. He swallowed, his brown eyes brimmed with tears. But he didn’t cry.

He feared that his mom would find out. Oh, the shame. And his dad. He’d get another whipping at home too. The seconds crawled by. Teacher did not soften her stern unrelenting gaze.

Abruptly, she instructed his classmates to fetch their writing books so she could check their work. Jerry and Harold, the two swiftest writers, scrambled piously to comply. They gleefully showed her all their finished lessons. They cast scornful glances at him. They wouldn’t dream of doing what he had done.

He stood hunched silently in the docket, guilty before them all. He offered no defense.

Teacher got up and rang the second bell. Afternoon classes resumed.

She did not spank him, or ever tell his parents, as far as he knew. But she did make him stay inside at recess and during lunch hour and finish every single abominable writing exercise he had avoided. It took a few days. She carefully checked his pro-gress. When he had laboriously completed the last dreadful assignment, she released him to join his classmates. He ran outside gratefully.

And that was the end of that. It was never mentioned again.

They had art class twice a month, on Friday afternoons. Art consisted of the students drawing simple little things like birds and a sun with cascading beams in the upper corner with short slogans like “God is Love” or “Love” at the bottom. They colored their work with crayons. Teacher hung their little masterpieces on the wall, where they stayed until replaced by the next batch of crude pictures.

One day, at recess he and his friends Willis and Jerry and Philip stood examining the art displayed on the wall, trying to guess who drew what. One drawing had the usual “Love” slogan at the bottom.

They stood there with their hands in their barn-door pants pockets, or with thumbs hooked on their galluses, as they’d seen their fathers do at church. They discussed whether they should love everyone. Even their enemies.

They agreed they should.

“But what about Satan?” Philip asked. “Should we love him too?”

They respected Philip. He was a year older and a grade above them. Next year he would graduate to the west school, where the big students went.

It was a startling thought. They grappled with the disturbing concept.

“Satan is bad. We shouldn’t love him,” he said tentatively. But he was unsure of his statement.

Satan was wicked, that they knew from countless sermons. He’d tempted Eve in the Garden and even now lurked about trying to get little children to do bad things.

But weren’t they supposed to love everyone? Even him? They could not imagine that they should hate anything or anyone.

In the next few minutes, the four of them, clustered before the bulletin board, hashed it out with serious observations and solemn comments. Balanced the sin of loving evil versus the sin of not loving at all.

They finally reached consensus. Agreed that perhaps they were obligated to love Satan just a little bit. Not much, but just enough so they wouldn’t hate him, because hating was wrong.

Satisfied, they disbanded as the bell rang, and returned to their desks.

They told no one of their conclusion.

He pondered the issue in his heart for months.

March 21, 2008


Category: News — Ira @ 5:34 pm


“How are the mighty fallen, and the
weapons of war perished!”

—2 Samuel 1:27

I first heard the news in my truck as I was returning to the office around noon that day. Eliot Spitzer, the Governor of New York, had been caught in a prostitution sting, patronizing a call girl. A huge scandal. I gave an involuntary little whoop of triumph, reflexively rejoicing in the news.

Immediately cognizant of the Scriptural admonition, in Proverbs, I think, not to rejoice when your enemy suffers misfortune lest the Lord withdraw His wrath from him, I tried to restrain myself. So the Lord wouldn’t withdraw His wrath. Wouldn’t want that to happen. Restraint was difficult. Racking my brain, I reasoned that Spitzer was not my personal enemy, but a cultural one. Restraint fled and my joy flowed forth again. I reveled basely in his misfortune.

It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving perp. Eliot Spitzer is a vile little weasel of a man who aggressively created a fearful reputation over the last decade or so as the Attorney General of New York. He developed a particular fondness for hounding Wall Street businessmen, sometimes trumping up charges where none existed. During his mad scorched-earth tenure, he ruined scores of families, and imprisoned men who had committed no crimes along with those who had.

All because he could. Because he had the power. Raw, unvarnished power. Power that defined his existence. Power he drank as a nectar. And he used it ruthlessly for his own personal benefit, to forge his own career path, all the way to the Governorship of New York state.

Raised in soft comfort of staggering wealth accumulated by his real estate magnate father, Spitzer grew up with a golden spoon in his mouth. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. He attended the finest private schools and graduated from Princeton, an elite Ivy League college and later Harvard Law School. Nothing wrong with that either.

He emerged from his educational track with a singular goal. Change the world to his own image. There was something drastically wrong with that.

He wasted no time establishing his reputation as a tough ruthless prosecutor. Pushed the limits of his official power to the extreme. Wall Street bigwigs soon quaked and turned pale at the mere mention of his name. He went after high profile CEOs and squeezed ruinous settlements from petrified victims. Once-vibrant companies were left bankrupted in his wake, often with no charges proven against them. He continued his destructive swath unabated. No one could stand up to him.

His anti-business fanaticism did not go unnoticed by the media. Before long, he was the toast of the liberal elite, who despise business. The darling of the Left. They loudly cheered Spitzer on, elevating him over time to the realms of the gods. He preened and basked in the false glory of their soaring adulation.

But the gods, as the Greeks said (or was it the Romans?), have feet of clay. Especially puffed-up little liberal human moral crusaders. As Spitzer was soon to discover.

Somewhere along the line, around ten years ago, it turns out, he developed a particu-lar fondness of another sort. He began soliciting call girls. Breaking the very laws he so publicly and adamantly enforced. He got away with it for years. But the whole sordid mess was unveiled a few weeks ago. Because of some stupid amateurish mistakes he made moving his funds to pay the escort service.

The mighty little god crashed to the earth in ruins. Poetic justice prevailed. His weapon of war, the law, triggered his own destruction.

At the peak of his power, with almost unlimited future potential, he threw it all away. His power. His prestige. His office. His public reputation. More importantly, his family. A beautiful wife, who may or may not have known of his shenanigans. And three lovely daughters. His life in shambles.

His children, I’m sure, have banished him to his own personal Hades.

To be fair, we are all capable of doing what Spitzer did, I suppose. The human heart knows no boundaries of depravity. Including our own. But most of us don’t do what he did. Because most of us are restrained by some standard safeguards such as con-science, morals, or just plain good old fashioned fear of getting caught, and publicly shamed. Whatever our reasons, whether our motives are pure or impure, we just don’t do it.

The revelations of his crimes instantly smoked out the usual vast army of left wing apologists. Singing their litany of excuses. Victimless crime. Wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Europe. America is so prude and old-fashioned, to ruin a good man for such normal activity. Many of the apologists had not been seen in this capacity since the Clinton years. The spittle-spewing Alan Dershowitz, virulent atheist and prominent Clinton defender, was especially vehement in excusing Spitzer’s actions. (And no, I DON’T watch news programs at home. I saw it at the gym and read it in the paper.)

Why did he do it? Why would a man in his prestigious position pursue such a reckless course? Gamble everything, put so much on the line? For so little?

Probably because he actually believed all the fawning accolades of the liberal press and his elitist friends. Because he was nihilistic. Above the law. He was all-powerful. The rules didn’t apply to him. For no other reason than he was who he was.

Hubris. Arrogant pride. Subject to no laws but his own. He was a god.

Only he wasn’t. No man is.

The hubris bug stings a lot of people a whole lot less prominent than Eliot Spitzer. In their own little fiefdoms. Who believe the rules don’t apply to them because they are who they are. Who selfishly plunge about in pursuit of their own agendas, with no thought or consideration for anyone but themselves. Who embrace devastation and worship desire.

They wipe their mouths and say, “I have done no wrong.”

When they have.

But there is always a price. A day of reckoning. In the end, their arrogance will be futile. Their power and pride reduced to ashes. As was Spitzer’s.

They too will learn what he learned, or die absorbing the lesson.

The real God’s laws will see to that.

When it comes to the culinary arts, I relate to the Apostle Paul, who considered himself the least of all the saints. I consider myself the least gifted, the least capable, the most unskilled of all cooks. I don’t do it. Period. Unless you count grilling as cooking, which it might be. I consider heating prepared soups an accomplishment. And toasting bread.

A few weeks ago I met my friend Allan for coffee. He spoke glowingly of the bean soup he’d made in his crock pot. I perked up. It sounded simple enough. And I had a crock pot at home.

Allan was very enthusiastic. Nothing to it, he claimed. Just soak the beans overnight, throw them in the pot the next morning with some meat and water, and presto, a delicious concoction is born.

So I bought a one-pound bag of beans at Giant. A 16-bean mixture. Looked delightful in the bag. On Saturday night I called Allan for final instructions. Soak overnight, place in crock pot the next morning with bacon and water, turn the crock pot on high, and go to church. Oh, and I’d need a medium onion. The onion. I’d forgotten it. I immediately rushed to Giant and bought one.

I soaked the beans overnight. They swelled tremendously. The next morning I poured them into the crock pot with water and a dozen chopped up slices of “Steve Beiler” organic bacon. Diced and added half the onion. Stirred in pepper and a few spices I found in the pantry. Left the pot turned on high.

When I returned from church, a delicious aroma wafted through the house. The soup looked succulent. Juicy and rich. I opened the pot and poured in a spoonful of sea salt and mixed it in. I turned the pot to low and left it to simmer through the afternoon.

Around six, my friends Allan and Bill arrived to help me eat the soup. I was a little nervous. Figured I’d order pizza if the beans were inedible. Needn’t have worried, though. The beans were just plain mouth watering. We wolfed them down with slabs of homemade bread and great hunks of Swiss cheese. I couldn’t believe how delicious it tasted. I felt like a five-star chef. My guests were generous with their accolades.

I definitely plan to experiment with more bean concoctions in the future. I’m thinking barbecued beans with sausage. Or other exotic sauces. Maybe I’ll even add beans to the menu of my famous summer cookouts.

About five years ago at work I sold a post frame garage to a customer. A young guy and a bit of a hothead. It was a small project and I babied him along through the three or four days of construction. He was happy with the building.

A year later he called me. He had installed an opener on the garage door. It had mal-functioned and the door cables were tangled up, immobilizing the door. He wanted me to send someone down immediately to fix the mess for free. I politely pointed out to him that we had not installed the opener. I could send someone, but we would have to charge for a service call.

He argued. Became increasingly heated and irate. I stood firm in my refusal. Then he cursed.

“(Bleep) you and your (bleeping) company,” he shouted and slammed down the phone. I quietly filed his name in my memory.

The years passed and I thought of him sometimes. I don’t get cursed at every day. Very rarely, in fact. I wondered if we’d ever hear from him again. Then one day recently, out of the blue, he called. He was moving and wanted a quote for a new garage. To be built ASAP. I heard and immediately recognized his name. He was the man who had sworn so savagely at me.

I would not work with him again. I conferred with the office staff and asked for a volunteer to deal with him. Andy offered to take the quote. I refreshed him on the situation and told him word for word what the customer had said when he cursed me. Andy looked indignant. We decided to add a hefty extra fee to the quote just for the hassle of dealing with his temper.

Andy prepared the quote. I asked how much he’d added for curse insurance.

“Seventeen hundred dollars,” he said. I gulped. It was a bit more than I had expected, but I let him run with it. The customer, of course, was free to go elsewhere for his building. There’s plenty of competition out there. He could take or leave our quote.

He bought the building. His heated moment, loss of temper and six unfortunate words had cost him $1700.00. Calculates to around, let me think, oh, about $283.34 per word. Pretty expensive swearing.

Spring is here, but it’s still March. Among other negative things, March is the month of the sports drought. Football long gone, baseball still weeks away. I abhor basketball. I yawn at March Madness and the Final Four. Nascar is on, but only a few hours a week. I’m in withdrawal here. Come on, April. Come on, baseball.

Congratulations to John and Dorothy Wagler of Bloomfield, Iowa on the birth of their daughter, Kara Lyn, born on March 18, 2008. Her sister Vanessa and brother Brandon welcome her.

Easter is here. As early as it ever comes. I observe it as a Holy Day, but don’t usually attend the sunrise services. I’m just not a morning person.