The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

The other day, the radio played  a song that caught my attention. It was a John Sousa march, up tempo, as marches are wont to be. Bingo! A memory triggered by that song popped into my mind! It took me back over 60 years.

Suddenly, it was around 1960, and I’m in the one-room schoolhouse I attended eight grades in, in rural Iowa. It had room for four rows of desks, although the row on the left was shorter due to the large coal-burning, shiny enamel heater.

And the memory that came with the march on the radio? It was our teacher, Miss Martin, whom I can best describe as grey-haired, a bit stout, never married, reliable, a bit stern, pretty humorless, and quite rigid in her regard for us students and our future–the heavy responsibility for which she shouldered gladly.

She was indeed stout, and for all the many years she taught Douglas # 8, she lived in town and walked the four miles to the school. I can still remember her anger when her school board–which consisted of our parents, all farmers–insisted that she ride the school bus out to at least within a mile of the school. After all, she was older, don’t you see? From her viewpoint, such a reminder was unwelcome, as it would be for all of us as age socks it to us. It was a change, simple as that. What if that bus got in an accident? What if it was late? What if? What if? As I remember, she finally gave in, but she didn’t give in quietly.

The school house itself was like many of them. One large room; a small entryway where people could hang their coats and stash their boots. There was a large water cooler, from which we could dip a drink, and which the oldest students were responsible for filling, from the farmer across the road.

And cold in the winter? No insulation. Single pane windows. Floor up off the ground so it could be as cold under our feet as it was outside. Without a doubt, in colder weather, one of my best memories was getting my turn to go up to the large heater to warm my feet. In the winter, when that stove was really cooking, the favorite goal of us boys was to smuggle some cap gun caps into school, scissor off one or two, and flick them onto the top of the stove as we were leaving.

PSSSSHHHSSTTTTT!!!!! They would ignite and hiss and smoke wonderfully! And the blame would be on whomever was sitting there. Well, I say blame. But for Miss Martin, one frown in your direction was sufficient. Extreme behavior drew a note home, and since our parents were the school board, and since country school teachers were impossible to find, that note was nigh on to a death sentence. 

But the caps? Sigh. Made our whole day worthwhile, kind of.

In the right front corner of the school room sat a large crank-up Victrola, which scratchily played the old 78 rpm records. That Victrola was the focus of our musical education, as we were supposed to memorize songs and sing them, accompanied by the Victrola, while standing up there. It was best to get it right the first time, because you were at that point the center of entertainment for the rest of the students, who all knew they would be subjected to this ordeal. Or had been already.

You blew the words? Sit back down. Have to do it again.

When the John Sousa march played on the radio the other day, the memory that came back was focussed on that Victrola record player, because in the winter when outside weather became too cold, our PE–physical education–involved Miss Martin playing that same John Sousa march that I heard on the radio. We all marched around and around inside the school room. Weaving among the aisles of desks until the song was over. Around and around.

I suppose this was Miss Martin’s way of taking the edge off our natural fidgeting. And I guess it worked.

I was the last student to graduate from the Iowa Rural School Systems. In some ways, as I find myself struggling with computer software, cell phones, and automobiles that talk back to me, it was the best time of my life.