When the Army assigned Dad to the Territory of Alaska in the fifties, my twin and I spent third and fourth grade in an Army school at Fort Richardson, near Anchorage.
Our principal at Ursa Minor Elementary School was Nellie Belle Horseman. Rumor had it that she had lost her ears to frostbite. Every time we saw her, we would try to see if it was true, but her hair always covered the area where her ears were—or weren’t. That didn’t stop us from staring. Third-graders can be insensitive.
In Alaska, we all walked to school even when there was deep snow. The Army took care of clearing the intersections, but the families had to clear the snow off the sidewalks in front and in back of their quarters, so we didn’t need snowshoes to get to school.
Even when the temperature was below freezing, girls were not allowed to wear jeans or slacks during school hours, so we would put them on under our skirts before the long, cold walk to school. Then we would stand in the hall, take off our jeans or slacks, and stuff them in our lockers before first period. At the end of the day, we would put them back on before heading home. The boys in the hall must have seen lots of panties.
Even when we had a blizzard, we still had to walk to school. I suppose Mother could have kept us at home that day, but by then she had seven children, and the twin boys were still in diapers. I think if they had called off school, Mother would have sent us to school anyway in hopes we would find something to do on the playground.
During the long winter months when we were cooped up in the house, I’m surprised she didn’t turn into Johnny, the Jack Nicholson character from “The Shining.” The movie came out in 1980, when I was 45. When I saw Johnny’s son running through the snow maze in that movie, I had a flashback to the blizzard in Alaska, when the snow drifts were over our heads on both sides of the sidewalk as we walked to school and back. I understood the boy’s terror.
Back in third grade, I was most afraid of being attacked by a moose. When there were moose out on the playground, our teachers wouldn’t let us go out for recess even though we promised we wouldn’t hurt the moose. I’m sure the teacher thought it was the other way around.
On the way home to and from school in the dark, I was glad there were several of us walking together. I was sure the moose would pick off only one of us, so I made sure I was in the middle of the pack. I didn’t know then that moose are vegetarians.
One day my teacher kept me after school for misbehaving. My twin sister did not wait for me, and I trudged home in total darkness at 4 p.m. The whole way, as I hurried down the sidewalks with snow piled high on both sides of the path, I was certain there was a moose stalking me, ready to charge. Surely that was the moose’s breath I felt on the back of my neck. If I turned around, it would see the fear in my eyes and it would attack. Third-graders have great imaginations.
When I arrived home unscathed, I made my sister promise never to leave me at school alone again. I also made sure I never misbehaved after that. I still haven’t forgiven my twin for that long walk home.
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