Archive for June, 2011

“Don’t cry sister cry
It will be alright in the morning
Don’t cry sister cry
Everything will be just fine”
Song: Don’t Cry Sister  Album:  The Road toEscondido
JJ Cale & Eric Clapton

 Birth of “My Sister”
As a single young lady, Moni set eyes on me when, for her, thoughts of marriage and a child were unfathomable. As I rested in theWesternAlamanceHigh Schoolteacher’s parking lot, Moni noticed my decade old, gender-neutral, pearl white body and dark beige upholstery. TheCarolinasun light reflected from my bay window and Moni’s blue eyes sparkled as she peered into my interior.

During Moni’s teaching career, Mount St. Helen’s erupted and spewed ash toward the Big Sky territory, John Lennon was shot and killed in the streets ofNew York City, and, with a teacher on board, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded and shocked citizens across the nation. Earlier world events shaped my creation and life and, unbeknownst to me, my gender and name unfurled through the decisions and actions of this biology and physical science teacher.

Following the First World War,Germanywas economically depressed with high unemployment and low manufacturing capital. The morale of its citizens was shaken. But one citizen had thoughts of economic recovery.

In 1923, Adolph Hitler read a biography of Henry Ford while serving time in prison for a forceful attempt to overthrowBavaria, the homeland of Moni’s Great Grandfather, Charlie Schaffer. Ten years later, when Hitler became the German chancellor, his automobile fanaticism helped rebuildGermanyand laid the foundation for my birth.  This chapter discusses Hitler’s involvement in the origin of Volkswagen vehicles without suggesting his war actions as acceptable.

While Hitler was dreaming of how to restore a nation, an Austrian engineer named Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was designing cars. One of Porsche’s prototypes held four passengers and used air to cool the engine instead of water. That was a smooth idea. Porsche presented his concept to the German Motor Manufacturers who declined to produce a compact car. Instead they continued to build large vehicles with six cylinders and the corporate world rejected the precursor to the Volkswagen Beetle, my older “sister.”

Shortly after Hitler became the German chancellor, he declared his vision to stimulate the economy through government programs that would provide the infrastructure for vacationing citizens. Prior to this period, citizens either had no vacation time or spent their vacations at “porchville.” Hitler’s policy, called the “Strength through Joy,” provided each German worker with two weeks of paid vacation. The government purchased cruise ships and started to develop a transportation system to stimulate tourism. To address high unemployment, the German government hired citizens to build the autobahn system. By 1936, an asphalt ribbon connectedBerlinwithRuhr. However, the rubber did not hit the road because German citizens could not afford to purchase and operate the large cars available on the market.

In 1934, a meeting of Hitler and Porsche at the Berlin Motor Show influenced world events and history. Porsche possessed the engineering knowledge to realize Hitler’s vision of an economical family car. Hitler proposed that Porsche design a small car capable of carrying five people, two adults and three children. Even with gasoline costing only 25 cents per gallon, Hitler demanded that the car reach a speed of 65 miles per hour and obtain at least 33 miles per gallon. It was essential that the car be inexpensive to purchase, operate, and maintain. In 2009, President Barack Obama and the United States Congress passed a policy that requires vehicles to average 35.5 miles per gallon by the year 2016; 39 mpg for cars and 30 mpg for trucks. Progress, at times, moves about as slow as I do on Interstate 40.

Hitler expected that the demand for an economical vehicle would put Germans back to work. However, most citizens had little money to purchase new cars, thus Hitler offered state-backed, advanced monthly financial payment plans for car acquisitions. The total cost was 990 Reich marks, about the same price as a motorcycle.  Porsche achieved an inexpensive sticker price by designing a light weight chassis with the engine over the rear tires. Even though the car was inexpensive to produce, the German car companies expressed no interest in mass production of the car when larger cars were in vogue.  Again, my sister never got her wheels turning on the autobahn.

Even though Hitler never learned to drive, he was unstoppable in his quest to manufacture Porsche’s newly designed car. Without the support of private industry, the German government constructed a factory for the sole purpose of manufacturing my sister. Hitler laid the cornerstone on May 26, 1938 and declared my sister’s name, KdF-Wagen (Kraft durch Freude) or the Strength through Joy Wagen.  The stone was set on swampy, mosquito-infested, and desolate property owned by Count Werner Von Der Schulenburg. Even though the property was isolated, its proximity to theMittellandCanalthat connects Southern Germany with theNorth Baltic Seaports provided the three requirements for consideration in the real estate business: location, location, location.

Peasants once resided on the Count’s land and managed the grounds. However, in 1938, there were no towns nearby to provide laborers. As employees from distant cities were hired, a company town developed around the factory. The new town was named KdF-Stadt.  Finally in August 1939, my sisters disembarked from the one mile long production line.

The successful production of the KdF-Wagen enabled Hitler to become the first politician to campaign from an automobile. In 1963, towards the end of the Baby Boom Generation, this concept turned into a tragedy for the Kennedy family andUnited States. Moni heard the news of J.F. Kennedy’s assassination as she stood in line with other fourth graders in theCedarValleyElementary Schoolcafeteria inFarnhamville,Iowa. The children queued up with their small hands wrapped around empty glasses as they waited to reach the milk dispenser.  The youngsters could not grasp that like their milk glasses, emptiness was enveloping their nation.

Likewise, heartbreak struck the German citizens when shortly after their country was gaining its strength World War Two began. The German battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired the first shots at a Polish military outpost on the Westerplatte peninsula on September 1, 1939. Only 210 KdF-Wagens were completed when production stopped abruptly on September 8. The assembly line switched to producing the Kübelwagen, a military vehicle, and Schwimmkübel, an amphibious vehicle, for military purposes, in addition to tank parts, mine cases, and airplane wings, bodies, and engines. Many German citizens who paid monthly installments for a new car never received them and the autobahn still remained silent.

The town of KdF-Stadtwas new and, therefore, did not appear on German maps prior to World War Two. Thus, the Allied forces were unaware of its existence. During the later years of the war, Germanybuilt the V1, a flying bomb, and V2, a faster than sound rocket weapon, at the factory. Only near the end of the war did the Allied forces discover the factory when Royal Air Force plotters examined photo-reconnaissance pictures and spotted a tall furnace chimney. The plotters notified the Bomber Command and raids were initiated.  The initial bomb drops did little damage. That changed on August 5, 1944 when the Allied 93rd Bomb Group dropped 548 sticks of 1,000 pound bombs with 300 successful hits. Nearly two-thirds of the KdF-Stadt factory was destroyed. Shortly thereafter, the war ended.

After the war, neither the Americans nor Russians wanted the bombed factory, especially one in a mosquito-infested landscape. By default, the British Army gained control of the factory to help fill the need for light transportation for their occupation forces. The British Army appointed Major Ivan Hirst of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers to resume vehicle production. By the end of 1945, more than 2,000 cars were produced using left-over spare parts. The British finally accomplished what Hitler and Porsche started and within one year more than 10,000 cars drove out of the factory and onto the autobahn and other highways. In addition to resurrecting the factory, the British renamed KdF-Stadt toWolfsburg, after the fourteenth century ancestralcastleofCount Werner Von Der Schulenburgcalled Schloss Wolfsburg. My sisters were renamed Käfer, the German word for Beetle.

“Birth of Brother Bus”
When my Beetle sisters carried their first passengers acrossEurope, I was not even a conceptual sketch. The KdF-Wagen was originally created to restart the German economy; my creation was even more pragmatic. Major Ivan Hirst borrowed numerous British-made fork lift trucks from the army to transport material and components around the factory. When the army requested the fork lifts be returned, a replacement vehicle was needed. A flat-bed truck with a Käfer chassis was built with the driver’s seat at the back, leaving the front to transport material. This make-shift vehicle evolved into a bus.   I’m embarrassed to admit, but my incipience originated from a back seat driver.

Porsche and his automobile company were not involved in my creation and design.  Instead the credit goes to Ben Pons who was a business man and Opal distributor. In 1938, Pons foresaw a need for an economical vehicle and negotiated a franchise to sell KdF-Wagens inHolland. The war disrupted the endeavor and years passed before Pons continued his pursuit because of his reluctance to develop a business relationship with theWolfsburgfactory due to its previous Nazi ownership. This was with good reason because Pons applied for a franchise to sell Beetles in theUnited Statesand was denied.

Then in 1949, Pons reapplied for aUnited Statesfranchise which was accepted. At this time the American public was enamored by cars with copious chrome adornments and enormous decorative fins analogous to gigantic gargoyles. Americans thought the small cars were cute, but showed no interest in purchasing them.

Ironically, the World War Two servicemen who respected the German-made war vehicles became the initial customers. In 1950, Max Hoffman opened the first dealership in theUnited States. He sold 330 Beetles the first year, which contributed to the success of the compact car. Due to the high demand the production of the Beetles was transferred from theWolfsburgfactory toHanoverin 1956.

On April 23, 1947, Pons, inspired by the flatbed “fork lift” trucks, sketched on a piece of pocket notebook paper a cargo vehicle with the KdF-Wagen running gear and presented it to Colonel Radclyffe, Hirst’s superior in charge of the factory, to develop the idea. Still, due to limited resources, the evolution of the bus stalled.

InWolfsburg, the bus prototype was produced as a panel van. The first model was unveiled in March 1950 at the Geneva Motor Show inSwitzerland. By May, the Kombi rolled out as a multi-functional vehicle to serve as postal carriers, ambulances, hearses, taxis, and buses. The Microbus followed in June. These vehicles earned numerous nick names. The Germans called it the “Bulli.” “Breadloaf” was the soliloquy assigned by the Danish. Americans called it the “Splittie” because the front windshield was spilt into two parts, with a metal frame down the center. The last Splitties rolled off the assembly in July 1967 and terminated an era of the first generation of buses which laid the foundation for my generation.

Generation I "Splittie" Bus

In August 1967, the Generation II buses were introduced to the world and we differed slightly from the Generation I Splitties. Our front window was changed to a solid windshield called a “bay-window.” We grew in length by four inches and one inch in height. This inch is not appreciated by Moni who is just shy of five feet five inches in height and never styled her hair in a bee hive. But my additional inch prevents her nearly six foot son’s buzz cut from charging up like a Van der Graff generator when he slides into my driver’s seat during dry winter months. My fresh air grilles were moved to the front panel, my bumper is stronger, and my pop-up camper top is a light weight fiberglass. My turn signal lights are rectangular in shape instead of round and located between my bumper and head lamps. I have cool domed hubcaps, which remained on the Generation II buses for three years, and then changed to flat hubcaps which are mundane.  I have a more powerful engine than the Splitties, which helps me climb theAppalachian Mountains. After 1970, disc, instead of drum, brakes and wider tires were placed on the Generation II buses. I was one of the last buses built with drum brakes.  I wish I had disk stopping power, especially when the pavement is wet.

Fredrick - A Generation II Bay Window Bus

My Beetle sisters introduced Volkswagen to theUnited States, but the buses, like me, fulfilled Hitler’s vision and brought great joy to our owners and passengers. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Generation I and II buses transported families and hippies around the world. Many of these folks were seeking fun and adventure on a limited budget and the VW bus evolved into a moving political and cultural icon. By 1970, the production of Generation II buses reached three million. I am one of the millions, but each individual bus was or is special. Generation II buses were manufactured until 1979 which sadly ended an era of fantastic buses.

In the late 1940’s, the British wished to turn the factory over to another country. The Ford Company thought the factory was a waste of money and turned it down. Likewise, the French declined the offer. In the end, the British government relinquished control of the factory and company town to the German government when Heinrich Nordhoff was appointed the executor of the company named it Volkswagen, the “people’s car” in German.


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 “Operator, oh could you help me place this call
You see the number on the matchbook is old and faded …
 Operator, oh could you help me place this call
‘cause I can’t read the number that you just gave me …
 Operator, oh let’s forget about this call
There’s no one there I really wanted to talk to …”
 Operator by Jim Croce

As John headed toward my garage, I heard Moni scream, “JOHN, take your phone. I’ll call when dinner is ready.” When he walked in with a new phone he excitedly showed me what he called “apps.” With the special applications, John checks the weather forecast, searches the web, takes photos, and gets directions because males can not stop and ask for directions. I have no idea why one needs all that information, but I tried to act interested. His new high tech phone is called an Android. Another model is named Droid R2-D2.

Moni taught me about these Star Wars names because she calls her vacuum cleaner R2-D2. One day I looked up and Moni appeared pulling a cute stubby red canister, saying, “Come on, R2-D2. Let’s go on a walk about in Fredrick.” Then she stuck a black cord in two holes in the garage wall, and I heard vroom. A rather wimpy engine I might add. Like magic, R2-D2 sucked dirt from my carpet. That’s right. R2-D2 eats dirt. I plan to keep consuming fossil fuels; dirt looks disgusting.

After dinner, John asked Moni, “Do you remember your first telephone number?”

“Certainly, a long and two shorts.”

“What! You mean a crank phone?”

The phone hung on the dining room wall near the door leading to the kitchen in her family’s old farm house. Sunlight snuck through the front porch and south dining room windows to reflect the dark grain of the oak wood. However, no conservations snuck by the listening ears of the ten party line. The black plastic ear piece was hard enough to serve as a weapon in case of burglaries, which, of course, never happened in rural Iowa. The mouthpiece was a black metal megaphone. Moni’s parents spoke into it when conversing with family and friends. Moni does not recall using the phone; she was much too young and shy.

Antique Telephone

John and my own interest piqued even further when Moni informed us, “My Mom was a telephone operator at the Paton Telephone Company.”

“You mean she used a switchboard like Ruby?” asked John.

Ruby was an antique hotel switchboard that a girlfriend gifted to John during the 1970’s. John sure loves electronics. The new information about Grandma Net solidified his love for his mother-in-law even deeper.

This fondness started when John first dated Moni in the early 1980’s. At that time, I still lived with Gordon Plumblee. Once, after a day of teaching with Gordon, Moni received one of those famous, well-wrapped Grandma Net packages. After fifteen minutes of cutting tape and tearing paper, Moni opened the box to reveal a super cool wrist sling shot. According to John, a huge smile spread across Moni’s face just before she exclaimed, “Oh boy, this is going to be fun.”

John thought to himself, that confirms it, I’m going to marry this lady and have a great mother-in-law. To top it off, he now learned that Grandma Net had been a telephone switchboard operator. I decided to use John’s new phone to call Grandma Net and learn the details.

The Paton Telephone Company served Paton and other rural towns. Not the scandalous Peyton Place fictionalized on television in the 1960’s. But a town in central Iowa where the Wisconsinan glacier flattened the terrain between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and, today, telephone poles and grain elevators are often the only vertical objects breaking the wide horizon.

At that time, the phone company only hired employees of eighteen years or older, or so they thought. From the switchboard in her private home, Esther Swain rang up Moni’s grandfather, Grandpa Fred. The conversation probably proceeded along these lines.

“Fred, this is Esther Swain. Do you have all your crops in?”

“Yep, Jake and I got all the corn and beans planted before the rain.”

“Glad to hear it. I hope you have a good crop this year. By the way, I hear your daughter just graduated from high school. Congratulations.”

“The last one. Jake is farming with me, and Kay is in business school in Des Monies.”

 Then Esther got to the point, “You think Janet would be interested in working for Ronald and me as an assistant telephone operator? She sure is a polite young lady.”

“That’s nice of you to offer. I expect she would. I’ll talk with her tonight and get back with you.”

Esther and Ronald Swain

In June, Janet reported to the Swain residence for training. Esther and her husband, Ronald, assumed that the high school graduate was eighteen or close enough. However, Janet never attended kindergarten, thus graduated at an early age. So a few months later on August 23, Janet’s birthday, Esther wished her a happy eighteenth birthday. The new employee, who could not hide her age, corrected Esther, “No, I’m now seventeen.” Still today, Grandma Net can picture the shocked look on Esther’s face. Happy with their new employee, who was a fast learner, the Swains kept their secret for another year.

Grandma Net told me that Ronald and Esther were the nicest people who were former school teachers and she loved working for them. Moni frequently visited her grandparents, Grandpa Fred and Grandma Nan, in Paton when her mother was working. She played with her cousins and they often walked to the Swain residence and gently knocked on the front door. Their little feet entered a closed in porch. To the left was that mysterious switchboard. Wires and plugs were stuck in holes, other holes remained empty.
The small children never left with empty pockets, Esther or Ronald handed each child a dime. After a bit of small talk and meek thank-yous, the children exited the door and headed to the Super Valu Food Store onMain Street where large jumbo English walnuts and Brazil nuts sold for 45 cents per pound, as verified in the newspaper advertisement at the back of the photo of Grandma Net wearing her headset as seen below. Those nuts remained on the shelves, while Moni and her cousins purchased pop or candy bars.

When Goldie Hegwood, Grandma Net’s future sister-in-law, wished to call a friend, she made a short circle with the crank mounted on the right side of her telephone to reach the operator. Grandma Net answered, “Number please.”

“I would like to call 175.”

 “Thank you.”

To make the connection, Grandma Net pulled out the plug and inserted it into the other local number. If there was no answer, Grandma Net responded to Goldie, “There is no answer, would you like me to try the coffee shop or another line?”

“Well, yes, she might be at the coffee shop.”

It might take several attempts, but the operator and caller usually tracked down the party. It is the same principle why drivers don’t use their turn signals in small towns like Paton. Every body knows where you are going anyway.

When Grandpa Fred called his sister, Alma, inDexter,Iowa, he initiated the long distance call, like Goldie, with a short crank. His daughter answered, “Number please.”

“Janet, I would like to call your Aunt Alma and at 151.”

This necessitated a connection to the Boone operator, then theDes Moinesoperator, and eventually a connection to Dexter where that operator answered, “Number, please.”

Grandma Net answered, “151.”

Meanwhile, Grandpa Fred waited patiently with a cup of coffee.

After a few rings, Alma answered “Hello” in her unique pitched voice. Moni told me that her Great Aunt Alma’s voice sounded like those cars that pass me who are in need of a new fan belt.

Grandma Net replied, “One minute, please, Paton, Iowa calling.”

Since it was her aunt, she may have also added, “Hi, Alma. This is Janet. How are you and your dogs?”

At the switchboard, the final connections were complete and Grandma Net spoke to her father, “Your party is on the line.”

Once the parties were connected, Grandma Net recorded the time on a narrow note pad, then watched until the conversation concluded, signaled by a flap coming down on the switchboard. The end time was recorded and total time calculated for Esther to calculate billing. Grandma Net told me that thankfully there were a limited number of long distance circuits because things got hectic when there were numerous long distance calls taking place, in addition to local calls. I relate to hectic. That is the term I use to describe the highway when Moni or John drive me through rush hour traffic. It makes me nervous.

Grandma Net wearing head set while operating the switchboard

When John and Moni take me camping, I hear John using his cell phone even after dark. Sometimes he calls my favorite young man, Chris, who keeps late hours unlike the Paton Telephone Company switchboard, which closed from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am, except for emergencies. Back then widowed ladies spent the night to cover these infrequent calls because Ronald worked a day shift as a repair lineman and Esther was raising their daughter, Lorna. While Lorna attended high school, Esther and Ronald gave her a choice to detassel corn for a summer job or work the switchboard. She chose the latter; a smart girl who continued her education at Iowa State University.

Lorna at switchboard

Further education was not in the cards for Grandma Net, who continued working from 1946 to April 1949 until she married and started a family. After several years of long hours of farm work and raising babies, Grandma Net thankfully returned to the telephone office when Moni started kindergarten and worked for another few years, 1958 to 1961, until the birth of her youngest child, Rhonda. Pay ranged from $0.50 to $1.25 per hour. Better than farm pay!

By the late 1960’s, the Webster Calhoun telephone exchange bought the Paton Telephone Company and small switchboard operators became a thing of the past, just as I might have become without the love and care from Gordon, Chris, and John.

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“I been walkin’ the beans, been walkin’ the beans.
I been bendin’ low, no, no,
I been rippin’ my jeans.
Been walkin’ the beans in the burnin’ sun,
And it looks like I ain’t ever ever gonna get done.”
Greg Brown “Walking the Beans”

At Cedar Valley Elementary School, I sailed from kindergarten through third grade having fun with nice teachers and meeting new friends. Up to that point, my friends included cousins, other children in Sunday school, and the Schmidt siblings, who lived on a farm next to ours. At school we learned to tie our shoe laces, read Dick and Jane books, print letters, and count. Of course, the best part was when the teacher called, “Time for recess.” During the break, we shot marbles while tiny brilliant red bugs crawled through our playing field, sometimes distracting my aim. Teams played ball in a huge grassy field behind the swing sets. We girls, even with our skirts on, did upside down flips on the monkey bars.

School became even better in the third grade when our teacher introduced a new subject, science. That year my world expanded from Farnhamville, Iowa to Pluto.

Our farm became a laboratory. During summer vacations and weekends, my siblings, Becky and Bobby, and I roamed the 320 acres, caught critters in the creek, rode our bikes down gravel roads, leapt into shelled corn stored in the crib, played in the road ditches and barns, and built tree houses. Night time furthered my scientific imagination. We watched for falling stars from my brother’s bedroom window. I hoped that meteorite pieces would survive through the earth’s atmosphere and create an enormous crater in our pasture without obliterating our cows. That would not be the kind of backyard barbeque my folks intended for the steers.

This sense of wonder came to an abrupt halt in Mrs. Smith’s fourth grade class. In fourth and fifth grades, the authorities, whoever they were, assigned students to either the “A” or “B” class and claimed it was not based on academic ability. However, Becky and Bobby brought home report cards with glowing letters and were assigned to A classes. Even though I loved science and received A’s, the rest of my report card was covered with a letter shaped like the skid marks when I slammed on my rear bike brake. 

I, along with my classmates, knew the meaning of A and B classes. Our all-white, ruralIowacommunity was segregated: smart kids in the A class and dumb kids in the B class. Sure, I was the smart kid in the dumb class, but what consolation was that? I wished I were still in third grade studying constellations. 

The dumb kids and I sat in our uncomfortable desks and faced the witch teacher every day. Across the hall, the brains spent their days with Mrs. Jones, the sweet teacher. This pattern continued in the fifth grade. Plus, Mrs. Strickland, the fifth grade teacher, was going to be worse than Mrs. Smith.  Even her name sounded bad. How would I ever survive two years with witches?  My future looked bleak. 

My mom and her family took their religion pretty seriously. Every Sunday we attended a small, white, clapboard church in the middle of thousands of acres of corn fields. On weekends, I had a two-day break from the school witch, but one of those days, early in the morning, my mom always called into my bedroom, “Time to get up and get ready for church.” 

Whimpering, I usually responded, “Do we have to go to church today?”

Snuggled under my covers, I wanted to sleep, then get up, put on blue jeans, and catch craw daddies in the muddy creek banks. No chance. Mom corralled us into Sunday-best clothing and off we drove to learn about Jesus healing blind people (now that was some science experiment) or God’s presence everywhere (how could that possibly work?).  The congregation prayed and sang together. I sang out of tune and disbelieved that praying would accomplish anything. So I slouched on the hard church pew and dreamed of the free afternoon spent outdoors.

This religion business did not stop on Sundays. Every night, when Mom tucked me into bed, she reminded, “Don’t forget to say your prayers before falling asleep.”

“What do I pray for?”                                

“How about world peace?”

For many nights, I drummed up prayers that God must have considered trivial. One night I whispered, “Please God, make that rooster croak, because I’m getting tired of running like a banshee when it chases me through the hen house and yard. Or, at least don’t let me drop the basket and break the eggs.” Apparently, my prayers never made it to the top of His list. 

After an especially hard day at school with Mrs. Smith whacking students’ fingers if they wrote left handed, I conjured the perfect prayer. Once again my mom tucked me in and added her nightly reminder to pray.

That night and every night throughout the rest of fourth grade and summer vacation, I prayed for Mrs. Johnson to be my fifth grade teacher. She was married to the school janitor. They both were friendly and fun. Of course, both Becky and Bobby spent a year with Mrs. Johnson. I wanted her to teach me too. I could not imagine how the authorities would switch teachers, but that wasn’t for me to figure out. I would leave it to God.

Christmas vacation came and went with more church and more praying. In January, the dumb kids returned to the grumpy, black-haired witch with only snow days offering a much needed break. Five days a week school dragged on. But now, I had hope as I put my faith in God’s hands.

Like every year, the last day of school fell on the week of my birthday. Getting out of school was my favorite present. My classmates and I ran to the school bus faster than Jim Ryan breaking the mile record, chanting, “Schools out, schools out; teachers let the monkeys out.” 

When the bus stopped at the end of our long, gravel lane, my feet took off again. I zoomed into our farm house and up the stairs, skipping every other step, to my bedroom, and quickly changed into beating-around clothes. Next stop, the sand box surrounded by blooming lilacs and peonies. With the fragrance of delicious flowers filling the air, I built sand castles beneath the clear blue sky.

During summer, the garden became the center of our lives. Early ripe strawberries stained my mouth. I picked and podded peas for my favorite dinner—fresh garden peas and baby potatoes in cream sauce. In July, we feasted on sweet corn. Dad and the neighbors put up hay for the winter. I gathered eggs; we caught the rooster and, with smiles on our faces, ate him for Sunday dinner. We “walked the beans,”  trudging up and down the half-mile rows chopping and pulling weeds. I nearly forgot about fifth grade until my nightly prayer.

The sun began traveling lower in the southern sky as summer vacation waned.  One day, on our way home from town, my mom stopped at the mail box. The hinges squeaked when she reached in and pulled out a pile of official letters. Shuffling through them, she said, “Oh, we have one from the school.” 

Oh God, I thought, this time not as a prayer. Becky and Bobby were in junior high. They changed teachers with every class; no letter was necessary for their class assignment. My nerves caught fire—Mrs. Strickland or Mrs. Johnson?

Time stopped. I heard each grain of gravel crunch under the tires of the 1949 Studebaker truck as my mom drove to the house. She walked into the kitchen and dropped the letters and groceries on the table.

“Mom, are you going to open the school letter?” I anxiously asked.

 “Oh, sure. I wonder what it’s about?” She sliced the envelope. The tearing paper sounded like lightening crackling.

My nightly prayer had remained top secret. Absolutely nobody was privy to my attempt to influence fate. Soon I would know whether there was a God or not.

Mom’s hazel eyes scanned the letter, then looked up to me, “Well, what about that. They did away with A and B classes. Your teacher next year is Mrs. Johnson.” 

Stunned for a moment, I stood in silence, and then yelled, “Yippee, I get Mrs. Johnson!” Excitement pulsed through my bean pole limbs as I sang Hallelujahs. 

But, in the middle of one Hallelujah, I choked up when I realized that the smart kids assigned to Mrs. Strickland’s class would be mad as a cat with its tail on fire when they received their letters. Then and there, I decided never to divulge that the change was due to God, and me.

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