Field Stones

The drive up to my in-laws for Thanksgiving was not too hard. Though the way up was prematurely darkened by changing seasons and daylight savings, it was nice to get out of the house and then farther away from the city where we spend much of our time when out and about. A few years ago, Jack and Ellen decided it was time for them to look for a new place to call home. Back in the Last sixties, they were fleeing New York and Jersey City and landed for many years in a valley of central Vermont. Having raised their children there, they had grown accustomed to country living and even after the kids had all moved away to other New England states, they stayed in their valley for many more years. As grand kids entered the scene, they took to driving long distances to see recitals and ball games, baby sit and gather for holidays. As the years went by, they decided that it was time for a change of geography.

Unlike many their age, they elected to move north, rather than join the conga line to the southern golf courses and bridge tournaments. That’s not their style, at any rate. They’d go crazy in two weeks. With two out of their three children living in Maine, they sold their house of thirty or so years and moved to the Pine Tree State. They live about an hour and a half away and though in a pleasant location, it’s not what I’d call picturesque. It’s farm country, plain and simple. Slowly rolling hills and young tree forests where vast fields used to cover the landscape. The old, colonial style farmhouses still perch on the hillsides, looking down on their slowly shrinking and mostly unused fields.

Even so, there’s still a good deal of farmland being used, mostly for hay and corn. One of these small “gentleman’s” farms sits next door to my wife’s folks. Being outgoing people and good of heart, they immediately became friends with the old bachelor farmer who lives in the old, white farmhouse nestled in a dip on the way up a hill, leading out of town. Short Stack loves visiting there too. There are chickens!

The morning after we arrived, a heavy fog was sitting over the land, giving things a softened quality that one would usually associate with snow. Snow had, in fact, already arrived just a few days before but didn’t have cooperating temperatures to keep its foothold. The five or so inches that had covered everything was gone with the warm front and had found new life as the fog and a heavy rime-ice dew that gave what would otherwise be smooth surfaces, a spiky shell of minute crystal. The grass, though wet looking, would crunch under each footfall. After getting the various children fed, visiting with rarely seen relatives and topping up my internal coffee tank, I decided to take a walk in the foggy fields.

farm-equipmet

One of the things that I love about New England is the stone. More accurately, I should say, the stonewalls. This area of North America was covered in a massive ice sheet over a mile thick during the last ice age. The action of that weight and motion ground down our mountains to their roots and left us with few imposing peaks. Where all that stone till went was directly into the soil. This makes for a difficult soil to plow since it’s full of beautifully smoothed, rounded rocks ranging in size from a small orange to a plush living room chair.

Years ago, I went for a walk with a friend of mine who grew up in Nebraska. As we strolled along path through a deep wood, he stopped at a pile of boulders and exclaimed, “Will you just LOOK at these rocks!” When I replied with something witty like, “Um. Yup. Those sure are… rocks” he set me straight. He explained to me that where he was from, a rock was about the size of an unshelled almond, and that was it. To him, the stones that had vexed New England farmers long enough to turn most of them into Nebraska farmers, we amazing to see littering the ground.

With all these massive balls of granite filling your fields and cows that were none too clear on where they were supposed to graze and where they were not, it was natural that stonewalls would quickly crisscross the landscape, and indeed, they do. If you go out for a walk in any New England wood and head off in just about any direction, I will guarantee that you will eventually find a stonewall. Eighty percent of the state of New Hampshire, to give you an idea, was open farmland just a hundred and fifty years ago. Now it’s eighty percent forest. The trees here grow quickly. When the leaves have fallen but the snow has yet to obscure things, you can fly around in a small plane and get a clear picture of the way things once looked. The arrow-straight walls run off to the horizons, transforming the rolling geography into the ghost of a quilt, long since nibbled away by nature as she reclaims what was always hers.

As I crunched out through the field across the road from the house, I was lamenting the use of a modern electric fence to keep livestock in place, rather then the traditional wall. So many traditional, if labor intensive fixtures of life have disappeared from our culture. The modern solution, though simpler and faster, will simply not stand up to the test of time. That’s for sure.

I walked a bit farther on in the mist and could, in the silence of the countryside, just make out the sound of a brook somewhere. What my eyes I couldn’t see through the fog, I found by ear. As I got closer, the sound was beautiful and entrancing.

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stones

The farmer had dug a huge drainage ditch to allow a stream to pass through this place with a minimum of flooding come spring. It measured easily ten feet wide and was roughly five feet deep in a smooth half pipe curve. The entire bed of it, he had lined in beautiful round stones, doubtless from his fields. Beneath the layer of rocks came the sound of a hidden run or water, showing its self only briefly here and there before once again vanishing under the bits and pieces of broken and smoothed mountain tops. This, the traditional building material of the northeastern farmer, will endure, and that makes me smile.

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Standing on Tradition

There is no point in me denying that I’m a hopeless romantic. Freely, I will admit to having a rose tinted view of things that I have done or seen in the past. Hind sight might be 20/20, but perception can be heavily altered when viewed through the filter of nostalgia. The bad times fall away and only the interesting and fun tend to float to the surface; especially if that reflected time is of the simplicity of youth, now being viewed from under the worries of adulthood, covering us like a heavy bearskin on a hot summer day.

Such are my memories of primary school. I was fortunate enough to spend the first seven years of my scholastic life at Saint Joseph’s, a fairly small, private, Catholic school in south western New Hampshire. The building its self matched pretty closely to what most of you are thinking when I say “Catholic School”. Built of red brick with concrete, decorative touches, the structure was two stories tall and monolithic in appearance. Inside, the rooms had impossibly high ceilings with plasterwork that rounded flawlessly down to the vertical and became walls, creating a beautiful vaulted feel. The windows were of the type that were so common in the schools of old. Huge expanses of glass made up of dozens of individual, leaky panes with an opening portion at the bottom. These are never seen in public buildings anymore, all having long since been bricked up or covered over with depressing slabs of plywood in an effort to reduce heating bills with the added effect of sentencing the occupants to life under blinking florescent tubes.

The steps leading up to the massive, oak double doors are huge slabs of granite and though the thousands upon thousands of small feet from generations past barely shows, the black internal stairs are deeply rutted on either side, looking for all the world like they have been shaped by two endless waterfalls, now run dry. I can clearly recall walking them and wondering how many others had climbed them. Even as a little kid with the requisite lack of enthusiasm for all things scholastic, I had a very special fondness for this place. There was a lot to feel good about when it came to my attendance. My Mom had gone here as did all her sisters. Not only that, but this was my Grandfather’s school as well. The impossibly old and venerable man who I revered as the head of the extended family had been just another small boy here, walking these exact stairs just like I did. It was a fantastic thought.

There were no uniforms to wear, but dress code was closely adhered to. No jeans, no sneakers, No shorts and undershirts were just that; to be worn under a shirt. Decorated t-shirts were not acceptable attire. For what it was, the code was quite lax, really. Ties were not required for the boys and skirts, though often worn by the girls, were not mandated over slacks. Every kid simply had two drawers in their room: school clothes and play clothes and never the twain did meet. We thought nothing of it and to my knowledge, no one ever chafed under the rule.

The first floor contained the smaller grades, going from kindergarten up to second. Even with the expansive rooms and unreachable ceilings, it was a friendly place and made you feel safe. Every morning after attendance we would pile out into the hall way and sit down on the floor, one small butt per linoleum square, and the teachers would start the daily program. This was usually made up of announcements for upcoming special events, kids birthdays, or simply talking about the changing seasons. It was always concluded with songs and heartfelt prayer. That was my morning routine. Quite a nice way to start the day, if you ask me.

Upstairs, were the higher grades. Third and fourth, a small but well run library, the music room and the principal’s office took up the space. I believe that the administration for the entire school was simply the principal and his secretary. As I recall, the secretary also doubled as the receptionist and school announcer. No councilors, no vice principals, no department of redundancy department. It was all overseen by one principal, the school secretary and the teachers. I might also add that it ran very, very smoothly.

The central hallway off the second floor let to the “big kids” wing. There were swinging, double doors to this hallway and they were always closed. We feared it. They might as well have scrawled, “Here be giants!” over the doors. Little kids had no reason to be there and we craned our necks in tense curiosity to get a peek through the glass when walking single file, to the library. When they opened with a groan, we jumped and moved faster.

The day I was finally old enough to walk through those squeaking gates was memorable. It was a very literal right of passage. Nothing remarkable was down there of course. Just fifth and sixth grades, but it had grown huge in our imaginations over the last five years. Below these class rooms on the first floor was our double duty gym/auditorium where I had the chance to humiliate my self both on the basket ball court and the stage. It was a place for equal opportunity childhood embarrassment. Ah, the memories.

The last important part of this place was the church. Across a shared parking lot is the cornerstone Catholic church for the city. Every Wednesday, we would line up and head over for an hour or so for a private… well, I was going to say lesson, but it was somewhere between a lesson and a mass. What ever it was, it meant that I didn’t have to go to spend my precious Sunday afternoons in a classroom, and for that, I shall always be thankful.

With one exception (there’s always one, isn’t there), I had wonderful teachers there and over all, received a really top notch education at St. Joe’s. The school was never wealthy and I vividly remember cracks in the plasterwork and a finicky boiler that sometimes didn’t heat the place as it should have, but I never minded that. The tuition was not expensive but it was there and need to be paid. It was a sacrifice which all of our classmate’s parents made and I think it made us better students in the process.

There were no school vouchers, there was no support from the government and I firmly believe that it made the place better. They were beholden to no one except their beliefs and the parent’s of the students. If a student was a bad behavior, they were gone, and gone permanently. I wonder what ever happened to Shawn “The Toy Smasher”? He was history by second grade. Elitist? No, I don’t think so. It was a place of rules though, and if a kid couldn’t follow them, well… That was your problem, not theirs.

A lot of things have changed as time has marched along. First, there was my own personal break from The Church. A decision that was not made lightly. I harbor the institution no ill will but it no longer fits my world view. I do, however, miss the place it occupied in my life, though. I’ve also moved away. This is something that really eats at me sometimes because I would like nothing more then to see my own children get dressed up and head off to this wonderful place. They would be the fourth generation to do so in my family and the missed opportunity leaves me sad sometimes.

The last change is a happy one though. Not only is Saint Joseph’s School still there, but it had expanded to seventh and eighth grade as well. I have no idea where they have made the rooms, but it pleases me to know that it’s healthy and vibrant. On an impromptu visit I made a year or so ago, I noted that much is the same and much has been improved. The peeling paint and cracked plaster has been repaired beautifully and the stage where I had stood in school productions long past has seen a complete refurbishing. The massive and leaky windows were replaced with equally massive, brand new expanses of glass and steel, changing the look not one bit.

I will be sure to bring the kids there someday, just to show them where Great Grandpa, Grandma, and their Dad spent so much time in their youth. I doubt very seriously that they will ever have the chance to attend school there but hey, you can’t have everything.

Every tradition meets its end sometime and from that end, new ones begin.

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