Thursday, July 8, 2010

An Ode to Memorial Day

Memorial Day was a more important day than July 4 in my family. It truly was a day of memorium for our fallen Armed Forces members. My Grandmother was active in the American Legion Auxillary - the "sister" group to the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). On the Island, the "American Legion Hall" was a popular social center in the 40's and 50's. Memories of WWII and a few short years later, the Korean War, were still fresh. Veterans were honored members as well as a big proportion of the country's citizenry.

So - every year, my sister and I helped Gramma twist wire hangers into crosses and then wound Memorial Day Poppies all around them. It was our job to stand at the ferry terminal and sell the poppies. Some people bought singles of the red crepe paper flowers but many bought a whole cross. All the money went to the Legion and the VFW for helping indigent and injured vets. It seemed everyone wore one of the flowers and the cemeteries were dotted with the crosses. On the Day itself, we went early to the Port Madison cemetery to put out our remaining crosses and make certain all the grave sites were clean because later, there was a ceremony honoring those who had died in service to our Country. It was a solemn and heart-felt occasion. Until I moved away from Washington, my sister and I spent each Memorial Day cleaning my grandparents' grave sites right there in Port Madison. I still feel a pang of irresponsibility along with my memories of those long-ago "Poppy Days" as we called Memorial Day. I've seen grizzled, grey-haired Vets with a handful of sad little poppies in recent years - I always buy them all; and my tears fall.

I have many, many memories of my grandparents. They raised me and my sister and brother in more ways than did our parents. Gramma Hulda was tiny; her voice was gravelly probably from smoking the Camel cigarettes she carried in her apron pocket all the time. Grandpa was a reformed smoker and railed against anyone smoking near him, 'specially Gramma. So, she hid in the pantry to smoke and hid her cigarettes in the bread box. She opened the tiny window and blew her smoke rings outside. On Sundays, Grandpa's buddies came over to play poker. They sat around the dining room table for hours. Gramma brought them whiskey which she kept watered down to stretch it farther. But, the guys who came to the back door on Sundays, cash in hand, she charged full price for a pint of the diluted stuff. (Sundays are "dry" in Washington so Gramma made her pocket money from those unsuspecting visitors.)

I recall a story about Grandpa being a "star" curling player in Minnesota and that he always had a cigarette dangling from his lips. When his team won a championship, Grandpa was awarded a bonus prize - a long cigarette encased in a glass box. I don't know what ever happened to that memento but Grandpa probably threw it away when he piously gave up smoking - because his doctor told him either to quit or die!

Island lore includes a few colorful if not so savory locations before it became a popular destination for "upscale" residents and businesses. On the waterfront where there now is a marina dotted with yachts and sailboats; jazzy restaurants and the like, there used to be a tavern and a Chinese restaurant, Van Louie's - both enterprises were off-limits to upstanding citizens and kids.  Van Louie's suffered a bad reputation because of its neighbor - the Old Winslow Dock Tavern, Mac's, commonly called "the Bloody Bucket." Drunken loud brawls were common and not only on Saturday nights - any night would do. The Fire Chief and the Sheriff ordered the owner to keep his place "clean, decent, and orderly." Plus he was admonished in editorials in the weekly paper. The guy didn't seem to worry much. Maybe because he was almost the "only game in town" and law enforcement, isolated as the Island was, was lax.

One time, though, he nearly did himself and his establishment, in. A three-alarm fire at the rickety old place in early 1949, was barely kept from blowing up all of Winslow by skirting a nearby out-building where large quantities of oil and gasoline were stored. In spite of more warnings, the fire scene was duplicated only three months later. It still remained open! There was speculation that someone's palm must have been pretty slippery.

It wasn't uncommon for hazardous stuff to be stored. Islanders knew they had to be pretty much self-reliant. In the winter, power outages were frequent. Roads were often treacherous from bad weather, downed electric lines, fallen trees, mud, snow, ice, etc. It would take one winter for any new resident to know that heat, cooking, and lighting equipment had to be kept on hand and pipes had to be wrapped to prevent freezing. Food, batteries, and flashlights were in every pantry. Not being prepared was foolhardy. The only predictability of the weather was that it could be counted on to be unpredictable. One time, a lightning storm created a sensational Port Madison home fire as a bolt struck an outside radio aerial. The strike followed the aerial's line into the house, scorched across the wood floor, set fire to the living room drapes, and finally grounded itself in the circuit box.

A large cedar tree fell and grazed our house in Wing Point during a fierce storm. It was pure luck that it hadn't come down six inches closer because it would have smashed that little house to smithereens. As it was, Les Inch, the infamous 7th and 8th grades math teacher and a good family friend, raced to help us examine the damage. He and I were both late to school. I say he was infamous because of his role as disciplinarian to the junior high school boys. He had a paddle with holes in it and a well-worn sneaker that he kept close at hand. Instead of an uprising against him, it was a rite of passage for boys to be whacked by Mr. Inch for some misdeed. Now, of course, he would be thrown in the hoosegow. Personally, I believe his strict guidance helped steer some of those kids in the direction of sanity.

But the poor guy had to suffer weekly embarrassment by being a dance partner to another of the teachers. Most of the teachers performed dual duties. In the case of Mr. Inch and Mrs. Jessie Schroeder, they were our physical education leaders in addition to their regular assignments. Mrs. Schroeder introduced square dancing to the delight of the girls and groans of the boys. Every Friday the boys' and girls' P.E. classes were combined for lessons in the refinement of square dancing. It was suspected that Mrs. S. had a secret crush on the bachelor, Mr. I. Who knows but it was obvious he would rather be wielding a paddle than squiring the lady in dance demonstrations. I don't know how many years and dozens of kids they performed for but they were pretty much legendary. Mr. Inch did finally marry. He became mortal then.

It seemed the same teachers continued their posts for many years and because it was such a small community, they became almost family members and certainly as influential to most of us kids as our parents. Even now at reunions, they come and are warmly greeted just like kin. And they remember us as individuals - amazing. Until his passing, Coach Paski was certainly the most popular to the boys and his wife, Mrs. Lois Paski, an icon to the girls. Mr. Ed King of junior high school and for a couple of years, second grade at Lincoln; Mr. Neal N. Nunamaker, principal and "Triple Threat" (NNN!), Mr. Alan Hellner, the likeable journalism teacher and prankster; Mrs. Daisy Sams Wilson, French teacher and butt of too many pranks - by us students not Mr. Hellner. Miss Corrine Berg introduced us country hicks to classical music. Mr. Samek taught and led Band for countless years. Mr. Bert Klingbeil was principal of the elementary schools for so long he was an institution. And so many others who all were part and parcel of our lives.

I listen to my grandson now and in his years of kindergarten through high school, he only recalls two of his teachers. I'm convinced not only have the times changed but the geography and size of the Island gave us a unique relationship with all the members of the school system. We were lucky.

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