Just put one foot in front of the other till you get there. Those were not the words my father said to me, but that was their general meaning as I was to set off for a new school in Port Orchard, WA. Having recently moved from city living to this small waterfront town, everything was new to me, and I knew no one. The small white wooden schoolhouse I would be attending was at the top of a hill, and the well-worn path leading to it led past few houses, meandering through mostly vacant pastureland with an occasional horse in residence. In Long Beach I had walked the few blocks to school on city sidewalks accompanied by a number of other eager first and second graders, and the closest I had come to a horse was the pony ride at the Pike. This would be my first long walk, and my mother and I had checked time and distance out beforehand to make sure I was not late on my first day. We were summoned by the ringing of an old school bell, which resounded throughout the area, and was loud enough so that no one could use the excuse that they hadn’t heard it.
We passed a gypsy encampment on the way, which was a great fascination to me. There were colorfully decorated caravans and raggedy children who apparently did not have to go to school and were able to run around their campground all day without too much adult supervision. I never found too much about them because the word from parents was that the gypsies stole little children. It was the gypsy form of the “Boogie-man” to keep you on the path to school. The Lindberg kidnapping had taken place in 1932, three years before, and my mother had instilled a great sense of fear of strangers in me, so I always sprinted past the gypsies. When the first snow fell, I was disappointed to find that the gypsy camp had mysteriously disappeared during the night. To my knowledge, they did not kidnap any children from our school.
Another cautionary tale for children was to stay away from a grassy hillside which fairly beckoned you to slide on it. Part of the hill had given way a year or so before and a small boy had been buried alive. This story frightened me far more than the possibility of being kidnapped by the gypsies.
I spent the second grade at the little schoolhouse on the hill, where I distinguished myself once as the curator of the end-or-the-semester art show, guiding parents around the wall of watercolor paintings. I credit the teacher at that little school for introducing us all to the thrill of watching color flow unfalteringly into our puddles of water. What glorious possibilities opened before us!
I came away with many memories, some quite good, and others reflecting the angst of a seven year old during the year we lived in Port Orchard. I once fell out of the Admiral’s cherry tree while picking cherries, while my mother was enjoying tea with the Admiral’s wife. A rusty nail found it’s way into my knee as I landed on the ground, but the stolen cherries were delicious. One memory which stays with me is of a warm August morning walking on the pier and watching the seagulls with my mother. Suddenly the news came that the beloved Will Rogers had been killed in a plane crash in Alaska.
Will Rogers was one of the world’s best known celebrities in the 1930’s, beloved of everyone for his folksy, homespun manner, as well as his penchant for poking fun at gangsters, politicians, and celebrities who grew too big for their britches. His humorous aphorisms had a national audience and were widely quoted. “I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Another famous comment was “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son”, Rogers was born to a prominent Cherokee Nation family in Indian Territory; now part of Oklahoma.
Rogers became an advocate for the aviation industry after noticing advancements in Europe and befriending Charles Lindberg, the most famous aviator of the era. In 1935 he and Wiley Post, an aviator interested in surveying a mail and passenger air route from the West Coast to Russia, took off in a modified aircraft from Fairbanks, Alaska for Point Barrow. Rogers hoped to collect new material for his newspaper column.
Rogers even provided an epigram on his most famous epigram: When I die, my epitaph, or whatever you call those signs on gravestones, is going to read:
“I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn’t like.” I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved.