First Grade Flunkee… Blogging the MisAdventures Book

 

After being kicked out of the first grade for a year, I was given a second chance. This is my class photo. I am fourth from the left in the top row with my hands in my pocket. Don’t I look sweet and innocent?

 

This begins a series of tales that may or may not make it into my book on MisAdventures. My goal is to post one tale on each Friday until the book is concluded. For the most part, these stories stand alone. They are in the early stages of editing. Several of these tales will have been included in earlier posts. I apologize in advance for the language, but I had an extensive vocabulary of swear words as a youth.

 

I can still hear the clanking treads and feel the bite of the blade as my D-8 dug into the side of the steep hill. Dirt and rocks tumbled over the edge, crashing into the canyon below. I was working alone, cutting a logging road across mountainous terrain. The hot September summer sun was beating down; my body was drenched in sweat and covered in dirt. And then it happened. A portion of the cliff gave away— and the bulldozer went tumbling off the edge.

“Oh, fuck!” I had yelled.

It was a wonderful word, one that I had learned from my seven-year old brother. I didn’t have a clue what it meant, but it was deliciously bad and had an amazing effect on adults. At five years of age, I was too young to be operating a bulldozer by myself out in our backyard, even if it was only five-inches long and the road I was cutting was along the edge of our compost pit. But my mother wasn’t the hovering type; she drank a lot. Empty wine bottles had a way of mysteriously appearing under her bed and in the clothes’ hamper that hid out in the closet.

I wasn’t totally alone. Coaly, our black Cocker Spaniel, was assigned babysitting duty.  At “fuck!” she wagged her tail and barked into our compost pit where the toy had fallen.

“Go get the bulldozer, girl” I urged. She gave me a ‘go get it yourself’ look. She wasn’t the ideal little-boy companion. The gray hair around her nose and aching joints spoke to her advanced years.  She had little tolerance for my youthful pranks. Healing scars on my foot reflected how little. It was my job to feed the pets. I’d open a can of Bonnie dog food on both ends, push it out with one of the lids, and then use the lid to divide it up. The smell still lingers in my brain. Coaly got half, and each of our cats— the black Demon and the white MC— got a quarter.

That summer I had discovered that Coaly growled ferociously if I messed with her share. I fed the animals outside on paper towel plates.  I always went barefoot in the summer and it was easy to reach over with my big toe and slide their food away. I quickly learned to leave the cats with their lightning fast claws alone. But Coaly was all growls and no bite. At least she was until she sank her teeth into my foot. I ended up in the ER with a tetanus shot, stitches and zero sympathy. Coaly ended up gobbling her dinners in peace.

At the time of the bulldozer incident, I had been granted a reprieve from school, or, to put it bluntly, I had been kicked out of the first grade— for a year. My mother was not happy. She had been eager to get me out of the house. Make that desperate. The evidence is irrefutable. California had a rule then that five-year-olds could go to the first grade if they turned six on or before March 1 of the following year. There was no such thing as kindergarten, at least in Diamond Springs. Since my birthday was on March 3, I missed the deadline by two days. Darn. Mother’s reaction was more colorful. She made a command decision. Forty-eight hours were not going to stand in the way of her little boy’s education, or her freedom. So, she changed my birth certificate.  March 3 was erased and March 1 entered. I was bathed, dressed and shipped out, not the least bit aware that I had matured by two days. I think I recall hearing music and dancing as I left for school.

Things weren’t so rosy at school. The other kids were all older, bigger, and more coordinated. For example, one of the boys could draw a great horse. It came with four legs, a tail, a head and a flowing mane. Mine came with unrecognizable squiggles. It was hard to tell whether my objective was to draw a tarantula or a snake with legs, but the world’s wildest imagination on the world’s most potent drug wouldn’t have classified the picture as a horse. It was not refrigerator art. The whole exercise created big-time trauma.

This negative experience was compounded by the exercise of learning to print within lines. Forget that. If my letter came anywhere close to resembling a letter, any letter, I was happy. The teacher was more critical.

“Curtis, I asked you to make Bs, and here you are printing Zs.”

“So what’s your point?” was not an acceptable response. Mrs. Young was suspicious and that suspicion increased each day I was in school. She was a tough old coot who had been teaching first grade for decades. She knew first graders and I wasn’t one. As for the birth certificate, Mother’s forgery was in no danger of winning a blue ribbon at the county fair. I still have the original for proof. After a few weeks, Mrs. Young sent off to Oregon for a copy. I remember her calling me up to her desk on the day it arrived. (You don’t forget things like this, or at least I don’t.)

“Curtis” she explained, “you have a choice. You can either go home now or you can go home after lunch. But either way, you are going home and can’t come back until next year.”

Just like that I was a reject, a first grade flunkee.

Mrs. Young couldn’t have made it any clearer; Mother was going to get her little boomerang back. This was okay by me, if not by her. Playing out in the backyard was infinitely more fun than competing in ‘Scribble the Horse.’ I did decide to stay the day. Mrs. Young was reading about Goldilocks to us after lunch and I wanted to learn if the bears ate her.

It would have been interesting to listen in on the conversation that took place between Mother and Mrs. Young, or even more so between my mother and father, or Pop, as he was known to us. I’ve often wondered if he participated in the forgery or even knew about the March 1 rule. I doubt it. He was not the parent frantic to get me out of the house during the day.  (Had it been in the evening, the jury might still be out.) But I wasn’t privy to those high-level discussions. My job, which I took quite seriously, was to enjoy the reprieve. I was about to begin my wandering ways. Mother’s alcoholism was my freedom. The Graveyard was waiting.

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39 comments on “First Grade Flunkee… Blogging the MisAdventures Book

  1. That is a great story Curt, I really enjoyed it.

    I remember when I was about 9 or 10 there was a boy who lived opposite called Richard Wright, one day he told us that he knew a swear word but his mum had forbidden it to ever pass his lips. Like the Gestapo we tried to get him to give up the secret but he wouldn’t. Eventually he half gave in and with a bit of chalk wrote the word ‘bugger’ on the side of his house. How dumb was that? He got into a lot of trouble as I recall!

    • Thanks, Andrew. Swearing was a significant part of our youth. It was how we insulted each other. It wasn’t something we did in public, however, or around adults (as soon as we figured out how much trouble we might get in— I have a few more stories). Neither did we swear around girls. They didn’t. But when I met a girl who did, I found her fascinating and became enamored with her. –Curt

  2. I clicked on the picture to enlarge it and I can see a little bit of a devilish look on your face kiddo. But whoa, left back a year for it? That seems a bit harsh.

    • You caught me on the devilish part, G. 🙂
      As for being left back a year, it was the right decision. I wasn’t ready for the first grade. I think that having an extra year made a significant difference in how I viewed the world and my place in it. Thanks, as always. –Curt

  3. I think you look rather mischievous myself. Love your idea of book writing done in this way Curt. Really enjoyed your story. You had me imagining a massive bulldozer going over a cliff.

    • Thanks much, Sue. I blogged the book on my Peace Corps experience and really enjoyed the process. I decided to try again. 🙂 It helps me get the job done while continuing to blog.
      I would never deny the mischievous, fun loving part of my personality. It helps form a balance. And I am devoted to the concept that a sense of humor is critical to existence. How could it not be? –Curt

  4. Hmm, has a feel like a Patrick F. McManus story but with more grit, I like grit. There is always a back story with families. Alcohol plays into these a lot. Especially when you have Mormon Aunts and Uncles who point out every flaw with their brothers and sisters… I like flaws.

    • A comparison I like, Bradley. McManus writes a lot about outdoor adventures with a sense of humor. The majority of my stories will be in a similar vain.
      Having flaws is part of being human, which makes me rather human. 🙂 I didn’t realize the full impact of alcoholism as a child and it seemed to impact my brother and sister more than it did me. But looking back, I understand more now. The good part was that I was free to wander, which was a factor in developing my love of the woods. –Curt

      • Ok! I am totally impressed Curt. You know Patrick’s writings. Mostly with a hunting flavor but his stories of Rancid Crabtree and his childhood bring a warmth to the soul. I too struggled with alcohol but found life to be enriched without and gave up tobacco as well. at 65, fly-fishing, target shooting and riding my motorcycle seem to be enough to keep the blood flowing. Write and share with all of us. You have a very devoted following, more, a group of friends. Tell Peggy her composure and perspective are amazing. As a former Photographer, (Medium Format, roll film) I am impressed with her gifts as well…

      • I’ve always watched my alcohol consumption. And for a while, I loved my pipe with a true passion. I might still except I helped set up Sacramento’s non-smokers rights movement as part of my job. There was no more smoking in public for me. 🙂 So I decided I might as well give up smoking altogether.
        And, thanks, Bradley. I very much consider the people who follow me as friends. I’ll pass your comments on to Peggy. –Curt

    • It was a small town, Greg. My next four grades were combined, i.e. second and third and fourth and fifth, but there still weren’t more that 20-30 kids in the combined classes. And I think nuns were supposed to be mean. 🙂 –Curt

  5. Those English swear words were a real mystery to me after our arrival in Australia from Holland. We had similar swear words but it wasn’t part of everyday language. What also stumped me that it was impolite to swear in front of women. Swearing in Holland wasn’t gender separated. It was either rude (or not) no matter what gender was involved.

    • Gerard, I cannot speak for Australia, but in the American West, swear words were indeed Gender specific. While we tried not to use the Damn and Hell in front of ladies, they would occasionally slip up and, “Pardon my French” was the appropriate apology. Why? No idea. The F-word was never used in my childhood around women but today, it seems to be a regular part of a young girls vocabulary.

    • It was more a part of our everyday language among kids and within that category among some and not others. Much less so among adults. I never heard my dad swear outright except when he hit his finger with a hammer. I learned a few that time. He had an extensive collection of substitutes such as ‘darn’ and ‘gol ding it,’ however. I have one more story coming on swearing. –Curt

  6. What a story, Curt. I feel for you as I also started directly in first grade, since there was no kindergarden either where I grew up. Born late in the year I was and looked very young.
    My mom didn’t forge my birth certificate, though, but my dad’s mom forged her husband’s signature on her son’s report card to hide his poor results that semester:(
    My grandfather found out and erased his wife’s signature, making a hole in the report card my dad had to return to his teacher who was as severe as his dad. No need to add that my dad was punished.
    A lot happens in schools.
    By the way you look adorable on the picture 🙂

    • Sounds like your grandmother was protecting your dad from an overly severe grandfather, Evelyne. An A for effort. Obviously, your dad remembered the consequences. Mrs. Young was the most severe teacher I ever had. There’s another story coming. But I think at least part of it may have been as a result of my mother’s efforts. Or not.:) I was a pretty wild child.
      Adorable? Hmmm. –Curt

  7. I find sharing healing. Thank you for your candid recollection of your childhood. I also wrote about my early childhood in my memoir, “Ring of Fire” that is soon to be published. I added an excerpt of my story of childhood in my blog site, yennayi.wordpress.com. Keep going! I want to read more of your wandering.

  8. Do you remember Eddie Haskell? I’m seeing him in your impish little face. Always sorry to hear about a child affected by a parent’s alcoholism, but you seem to have weathered that storm just fine. The cut-off in my state for school was January 1, and I remember my mom talking our school into taking my sister, her 4th child, even though she was born on Jan 18! Back in those days of full-time motherhood, they really needed a break, I guess!

  9. Curt, I loved this! Great writing of your early years and I can imagine there are many many misadventure tales to go in your book! You did start wandering early! As for the photo, what a sweet lad with a cheeky smile.bless! 😀

    • “what a sweet lad ” Well, appearances may have been a little deceiving, Annika. 🙂 Thank you for your words of encouragement. Yes, many many more tales are coming! A whole years worth, I imagine. –Curt

  10. I can tell already that this is a book I’ll need to read. You captured the perspective of your 5-year-old self perfectly in the ways you described your mother and your decision to stay at school that day. Can’t wait to read more!

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