Fourth-Grade Photo Stirs Childhood Memories

A 60-year-old photo posted recently on Facebook by a former classmate really got my wheels spinning.

Shot on the final day of school in June 1963, the black-and-white image appeared on Deerfield Now. It showed my fourth-grade class standing on the front granite stairs leading into the two-story, brick South Deerfield Elementary School that then stood on Conway Street, which in those days was Route 116. The building long ago met the wrecking ball, clearing the way for the Deerfield police station.

Our teacher was Nancy Judd, from the family that owned Turners Falls’ Judd Wire. To us she was Miss Judd. In fact, I wouldn’t have known her first name had it not been provided by the Facebook submitter.

Miss Judd was young and innovative – a breath of invigorating air on a staff dominated by old bats. She was by far the best grammar-school teacher I had. Easy for me to say now. The rest of my grammar-school teachers are dead. Which doesn’t mean I’d hesitate to criticize most if they were still among the living. Uh-uh. In this case, it’s not necessary.

My path to Miss Judd was a stroke of dumb luck. Strictly a right-place, right-time dynamic. It happens. I was the beneficiary. If I’m not mistaken, she was a one-year wonder. She popped briefly into my young life, like a hummingbird feeding through a flowerbed, and was gone soon after school ended. She got married, became Mrs. Coughlin, and soon transitioned into an office job at her family business.

At least that’s my recollection. Don’t hold me to it. It was long ago. I wonder if she’s alive? It’s possible. She’d likely be in her mid-80s.

Although I can’t say how many of my pictured classmates survive, I know the two friends I’m standing between are gone. One received a tough cancer-recurrence diagnosis after recuperating from unrelated open-heart surgery, and chose a bullet over surgical intervention. The other drank himself into the grave, 50 years after murdering his younger brother with a serrated steak knife during a drunken scrap over the last piece of cheese available for wee-hour ham sandwiches at their parents’ home. The suicide victim and both brothers were my friends. Life takes strange turns.

That said, I can’t say my first thoughts went there upon viewing the photo.

What immediately came to mind was the summer that followed – when I accompanied my maternal grandparents on a retirement tour of the Midwest. We started by driving the New York State Thruway to Niagara Falls, then stayed with family in Illinois and Minnesota.

The trip gave me my first peek into Black urban poverty, driving through the Gary, Indiana ghetto. Then I was introduced to desolate, rural, Native American poverty on the high plains of South Dakota. There I still vividly recall tattered sheets of flimsy plastic window coverings flapping in sultry prairie breezes. Both glimpses shocked an impressionable, small-town boy from South Deerfield.

My grandfather’s sister, Delia (Keane) Berg, owned a bar and restaurant in Stockton, Illinois, joined to her son John’s downtown gun and tackle shop. Both establishments attracted a steady stream of chatty Midwestern characters. Stockton, a farm town, was an interesting place, a tasty slice of latter-day Mark Twain’s riverboat America.

John Berg, my mother’s first cousin, was then about 30. He took me fishing on the Mississippi River, brought me along to a friend’s dairy farm to reduce a nuisance pigeon population, and taught me how to catch pond snapping turtles on baited overnight droplines attached to floating plastic jugs.

The highlight of my extended Illinois stay was a Sunday dinner of baked snapping turtle prepared by Great-Aunt Delia. It was delicious and unforgettable, to this day my only snapping-turtle feast. Delia told me in her Irish brogue that snappers offered an assortment of seven different types of meat from under one shell. Though I sampled them all, don’t ask me to name them. I know three were beef, pork and chicken. Maybe lamb, too. That’s the best I can do.

Our next stop was Minnesota, the so-called “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” My mother’s older brother Bob lived in a northern Twin Cities suburb of St. Paul named New Brighton. My late uncle, a World War II vet and Georgia Tech graduate, was a well-paid electrical engineer at Honeywell. He had four children close in age to me, including a namesake son who would be killed as a teen 10 years later when his car was struck by a train near his rural Saugerties, New York, home.

Salient memories from my extended Minnesota visit included discovering tiny snapping turtles hatching from the sandy, undercut bank of a backyard “crick,” learning about developing film and making black-and-white prints in my uncle’s well-equipped cellar darkroom, and shooting trap and skeet at the local sportsmen’s club.

From there we embarked on a camping adventure through South Dakota and eastern Wyoming – what I would then have called “cowboys and Indians” territory. We visited the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, the gold rush town of Deadwood, the Badlands, and Devils Tower, all of which left deep impressions.

I saw my first buffalos, visited the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was killed by Jack McCall, fed wild Badlands burros, and even found an Indian artifact I still own in the small creek flowing through our campsite on the prairie-dog infested Devils Tower plain.

At Mount Rushmore, I met Benjamin Black Elk (BBE), a Sioux Native of the high plains, who joined us for a lunch of buffalo burgers and fries. His calm dignity impressed me greatly.

My grandfather, a Galway Bay native and kisser of the Blarney Stone, had the so-called Irish gift of gab. He struck up a conversation with the Oglala Lakota elder dressed e struck up a conversation \in full Native regalia, headdress and all, as he shook hands and promoted the now-classic Western movie How the West Was Won, in which he had a bit part. When an invitation to join us for lunch was accepted, I got the opportunity to meet him up close and personal.

BBE was the son of iconic holy man Black Elk, a Custer’s Last Stand witness who knew Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and many other warriors associated with the famous 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn. In 1932, Black Elk collaborated with poet John G. Neihardt to write Black Elk Speaks, a classic anthropological work that’s still in print and widely read. We knew nothing of it at the time.

I realize now that that glorious summer, combined with Miss Judd’s enlightening fourth-grade class that preceded it, were the high points of my uninspiring 13-year journey through Deerfield’s public schools.

It was all downhill after 1963, beginning with the hiring of a new, sadistic elementary principal named Dan McAllister, who greeted me to fifth grade with an evil snarl. McAllister was an angry, handicapped man who acted upon his frustrations by intimidating boys to tears in his office – a small, stuffy room situated off a landing halfway up the staircase. He would invite you in for disciplinary matters, and close the door behind you. His next move was a firm grip with thumb and forefinger on the back of your neck, followed by the vicious threat to smash your head through the east wall.

In today’s world the man wouldn’t last six months in a Massachusetts school. He’d be disgraced by news accounts, never again to torment helpless young schoolboys.

Two years of dealing with that man’s cruelty under puberty’s spell didn’t teach me to curl into a fetal ball of submission. No, it taught me to hate, to fight back, and to question authority. Before the calendar moved into 1964, toward the final bell of a November fifth-grade afternoon, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, igniting the tempestuous Sixties. When I got home, Kennedy was dead, and my mother was bawling. I will never forget it.

Soon the sound of protest and the smell of tear gas were in the air as Vietnam lingered on, political assassinations continued, cities burned, Nixon was reborn, and challenging authority became cool.

Even the likes of sinister Dan McAllister, with the fearful “clump, clump, clump” of his elevated shoe hitting the wooden floor, could not stem the idealistic tide. I followed autodidactic paths to knowledge, and found a few college mentors to nudge me in the right direction.

I found a way.

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