In the fall of 1961 I re-entered public education, entering North Hagerstown High School along with over a thousand other students. I was tossed into a figurative ocean and I didn’t know how to swim. I quickly learned to tread water. Based on past experience, school was easy so I naturally signed up for five academic classes while working on a milk delivery truck every morning before school. I quickly realized that I was no longer at the top of the class. This was partly because the class size went from six students in the eighth grade private school to nearly four hundred in the ninth grade public school class. So, there was more competition, but the bigger issue was that I was unprepared to do serious academic work. I was also confronted with the social pressure that all ninth grade students face when moving into a new school with upper class students who know their way around and have formed social groups. Most of my classmates had moved from public middle school with their classmates. I was the new kid and I was a Mennonite with limited cultural sophistication. Things were changing fast. There were threats, lockers were slamming, kids danced in the cafeteria before school. There was smoking in the bathrooms. Biology and Algebra were confounding. French had masculine and feminine nouns. Somehow, English was a boring class. I sat in the back behind a girl who turned and asked if I wanted to feel her breasts. Of course, I did. Ancient History was interesting mostly because Mr. Holmes was an engaging teacher. Even he was competing with a girl named Penny who sat next to me. There were just so many pretty girls. They were everywhere! Penny slowly removed the large decorative safety pin from her wrap around tartan skirt and turned the skirt back to reveal her leg while she stared into my eyes. Somewhere in the background, Mr. Holmes talked about ancient Greek Civilization.
I was intimidated by the academic expectations and the social environment. My parents had just turned fifty and were distracted by work, church, and other adult issues. Since I was youngest of my three siblings by four years I was not getting much attention at home. In some ways that suited me because I was not interested in discussing anything I was dealing with. I did not expect my parents and sisters to relate.
It was a particularly rebellious time for me. Daddy had hired a man to help run the grocery store. He smoked cigarettes in the egg refrigeration room, a cooler in the garage part of the store that kept a moderately cool temperature. I often would sneak cigarettes from his jacket pocket and go to the egg room to smoke. I bought a sport jackets with my own money and tried to hide it in my closet. I don’t know when I expected to wear it, but I did not like the “plain suits” that my parents expected me to wear. I somehow got access to magazines with nude pictures. I was not really bad, but by my parents’ and adult peers’ expectations I had reason to hide many of my activities and as a result became secretive and had feelings of guilt.
The extent of my parents’ interest in my education was focused on controlling my exposure to contemporary culture, or as they would define it, “worldliness.” This meant I did not sing in the school choir. I did not play an instrument in the band or orchestra. I did not play a sport. I did not go to dances or any after-school activities. Any social activities were church-related and when I was not at school or church, I had jobs and chores.
During the summers and after school I had regular duties at home and in the family business. I sorted empty “pop” bottles, stocked shelves and burned trash, mowed our large yard and worked in the garden. I gradually started helping out as a cashier. Daddy was busy with his insurance business. Mother ran the “dry goods” department and as a 14 year old, I was learning to be a grocery manager.
While I was denied cultural experiences at school, I was being immersed in community culture though the family business. Maugansville was a small town and our general merchandise store was its literal and figurative center.
During my ninth and tenth grade, I was employed by Clarence Witmer to work with him delivering milk door-to-door early in the morning. I worked about three hours each morning. I was getting up every day at 4:30 am when he would pick me up in the truck. Saturdays, we did “collections” and I worked until noon. Saturdays were special because he would often buy “White Owl” or “Phillies” cigars for us to smoke. I liked a cigar with chocolate milk! I don’t know how I concealed the cigar odor from my parents! We delivered milk from a traditional Divco milk truck. The driver had a high, standing level, swivel seat. The delivery guy (me) stood and would pull an overhead lever to open a folding, floor to ceiling, door. The regular milk, chocolate milk and cream was bottled in quart size glass bottles with paper caps. I sometimes carried two quart bottles in each hand as I ran to the houses. I would be out of the truck before we stopped with full bottles in hand, drop them into an insulated box by the customer’s door and run back to the truck with empties. Clarence would start the truck moving when he saw me coming. I would catch up and jump in. In the year and a half that I worked for him, I did not have any serious accidents. Late in the summer before I went back to school for the tenth grade, a kid who was riding with us one morning fell out of the open door while the truck was moving. He had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. When school started, child labor officials called me out of class and questioned me about the job. It turns out that I was underage. I had to quit but within a few weeks I was back on the job. I’m not sure how my parents agreed to that, but so it goes. Work went hand in hand with religion. I liked the job and my parents valued physical labor over education. There were two milk routes on alternating days plus the Saturday collections. I learned the routes well enough that Clarence took a week vacation and hired a driver. I found the driver for him. It was Galen, who would later become my brother-in-law. The routes covered parts of Hagerstown, Maugansville, and surrounding rural areas. It was 1960 and I made $12.50 per week. That worked out to about 57¢ per hour. I changed clothes in a gas station restroom and he dropped me off at North Hagerstown High School. As you can imagine, I was often sleepy in class. That was during the ninth grade and continued for the four months I spent in the tenth grade before I became a “high school dropout.” In the summer, the milk delivery job had a more relaxed schedule with longer hours and without the school deadline.
One morning that summer, I woke up early and decided to surprise Clarence by walking the approximately two miles to his house rather than wait for him to come pick me up. The road to his house took me past the school and the John Deere dealership owned by my Uncle Leroy across from Uncle Harry’s farm. On the walk, I looped into the row of tractors at the dealership when I saw a police car coming. It was dark and for some reason I felt frightened. I hid behind a large tractor when the car stopped and a spotlight scanned the dealership. Suddenly the red lights started flashing and I had a lot of questions to answer. What was I doing? My answers: going to work on a milk truck, this was my uncle’s dealership, and I was just walking at 4 am in the morning. The policeman was obviously suspicious, so I had to climb into his car and we headed back to the house to get Daddy out of bed to verify my story.
Around the time that I was interviewed by social service workers about my morning job and the child labor violations, I was called to the school counselor’s office for a conversation about school and future career aspirations. I guess I was tired from work, frustrated by social and academic challenges, or maybe I needed psychiatric counseling and medication for anxiety. For whatever reason, I was unable to talk because I sat across from his desk and cried. He was obviously in over his pay grade, confused and unprepared to be helpful. When I finally was able to control my crying, he suggested that we would go to lunch and he would sit with me. There was no follow-up session.
I don’t remember my grades that year but I guess they were average at best. Even though I started the ninth grade year with an expectation that I would do well, it was probably sometime during this year I decided that I was wasting time and I was done with school.
Sixteen had been the magic age for me, for many years, because I would be getting my driver’s license and that represented some significant freedom. A year before I had spent twenty dollars and bought an old panel truck from a neighbor a few blocks away. It had been sitting in his garage. It was old enough that it had bullet style headlights, a gear shift that came out of the floor connected directly to the transmission and a crank-start in addition to a modern electric starter. I don’t remember how I got it home. Maybe I rounded up some local kids to help me push it. After messing around with it and cranking the motor, I got it running. Our backyard was large enough that I could speed around in a tight oval. I was more interested in the noise and speed than the actual mechanics. A church friend named Lehman Diller, who also lived in Maugansville at the time, helped me paint and clean it up. He had graphic art skills and painted pinstripe designs on it that were popular at the time. I was underage but I remember sneaking out with it on a few nights when my parents were away. I wore a dirt track into the backyard doing laps. By the time I was old enough to drive on the highway, I was sort of done with it and when a local guy offered me a few hundred dollars for it, I took the deal.
I had a record player and a transistor radio. At night in bed I listened to local radio stations. There was a program hosted by a local DJ, called “The Platter Party.” He played rock and roll and ballads that were popular at the time. It was a call-in show. The audio was not great on the pocket radios and at night I would use an earphone which further obscured the sound quality but it still gave me access to ideas outside my religious and small town world. Sometimes late at night I could pull in distant stations and I was transported to Nashville’s “Grand Ole Opry” and “The Wheeling Jamboree” from Wheeling, West Virginia. Some tunes stuck in my head. I remember hearing Jan and Dean’s Honolulu Lu Lu, broadcast over some distant AM station, and Cousin Brucie, WABC New York. In addition to Nashville and New York, I could often pick up power stations in Boston and Chicago. I even heard the famous Wolfman Jack.
I bought used 45s that were cycled out of juke box machines. I especially liked the Bill Black Combo records. Bill Black had been the bassist for Elvis Presley’s early trio. I joined the Columbia music club and got to choose 10 free LPs for joining and I purchased one LP per month. I was listening to everything from classical orchestral music to bluegrass. I had music from “The Brill Building” and from “Motown.” I bought early Bob Dylan records and was excited by the poetry and raw sound.
My social life was centered around my church friends. There was a group of about ten kids my age at our church and another forty or fifty kids from affiliated churches. There were activities for both groups. I was very comfortable with the small group from our church. I especially liked going to their homes because some of their parents were younger and often participated in the games we played. The meetings with the larger group were more like organized parties and they were opportunities to meet other teens that could become someone you may want to date when you were seventeen or eighteen. We played games that encouraged innocent handholding. One game we played, usually after dark, included walking in pairs, holding hands. We walked along a country road in a long line, girls on the left and boys on the right. There would be one extra boy who would tap another boy on the shoulder and take his place with the girl. The boy who was tapped would then go tap another boy. It was an opportunity to walk, hand in hand for a while, with a girl of your choice. Now that I think about it, it was a lot like dancing. Ok, not really like dancing but with the same rules about “cutting in.”
When September rolled around in 1962, it was time to go back to school. I was starting the tenth grade. I was determined to drop out after the Christmas holiday since I would turn sixteen on the first day of January. My parents took a dim view of education. In fact, I remember them saying, “too much education is a dangerous thing.” I don’t know where that statement originated but I just “Googled” it and it is apparently still repeated in some families. Higher education provides information about alternative lifestyles and beliefs. Education is fact-based and religion is faith- based. My parents did not want me to question what they believed and had taught to me. Education encourages questions that often do not have easy answers. It was ok with my parents for me to leave school if I went to work, maybe it was more than ok. I was ok with work!
Knowing that I would leave after Christmas holiday, I enrolled in easy vocational classes. In a study hall that was scheduled over one of the rotating lunch periods, I erased my name from the attendance sheet during the first class when the teacher was out of the room. That allowed me to have a double lunch period. Since there were two cafeterias, I just rotated from one cafeteria to the other. This is an example of how students can get “lost” in a large school. Well, eventually it was discovered a few weeks before Christmas and I was being punished by some ungodly number of hours in detention. Since I was already planning to leave school, this was an ironic punishment.
The tenth grade vocational classes were much different from the academic ninth grade classes. The girls were not as pretty. The classes mostly consisted of boys and many of them were really scary. The teachers were likely to say something like, “Ok, everybody, shut up and sit your asses down!” They were focused on discipline. Kids teased each other, shared cigarettes and fought. I used various strategies to survive. One was to identify the scariest kid and try to make friends with him or pretend to be his friend. I had a shop class that was ridiculous. It was the last period of the day and the teacher mostly sat in his office and we just hung out in the shop. There was a kid in that class that annoyed the heck out of me. One afternoon I guess I was giving him some grief and he walked away from me and I turned and walked in the opposite direction. Suddenly, someone shouted, “Look out!” I turned just in time to see him charging at me. He hit me full force with his fist to my right eye and I went down. Somehow I made it to the bus and home. I was physically sick and embarrassed. I went straight to bed and could not open my eye for a few days!
I don’t remember many classes during that half year of school. Since I was taking a double lunch, I was not in class as much as intended. I remember a young attractive English teacher who was fixated on the Elia Kazan film, “Splendor in the Grass.” She must have discussed the William Wordsworth poem that provided the title but I just remember her talking about Warren Beatty and she was obviously passionate. She is the only teacher who seemed sincerely sad that I was leaving when I handed her the form to sign. Some of the teachers just told me I would never be successful without a high school diploma. I think they meant it as helpful advice but to me it seemed like I was rejecting what they were selling and they were angry. I must have looked like a child as I had a young and immature appearance. I do recall some concern but I was convinced that my situation at school was dreadful and I needed to get out. I knew that my Dad was doing ok without much education and I had a naive confidence that I could survive. My uncles had little formal education and most of them had successful farms and businesses. My sisters had taken some correspondence courses and I may have been considering that option. Nate was already married and had two years of college, Gerri was getting a masters degree, and Janice had a high school GED (General Educational Development) diploma and was taking classes at Hagerstown Community College. I was not thinking beyond getting some freedom from the classroom! It seemed intolerable.
I had helped in the family business and had no fear that I would ever have difficulty making a living. I did not think about the limits I may have been placing on my ability to create wealth and experience other benefits of a profession. I had not learned to study and did not have an appreciation for academics. I liked physical work and I had learned to trust my ability to work and to be creative. Later, I would say that my education started when I left school. To the degree that it was true, I now think that I wanted a self-directed, diverse education. With a few exceptions, my teachers were not particularly talented, and I think I was what would now be designated as a “special needs” student.