What a Difference a Year Makes
by Rainer Klauss
I started the fourth grade at Rison School in 1955 with a sense of foreboding. During the summer after the third grade, my parents informed me that our neighborhood, Darwin Downs, had been rezoned to a new school district. They explained that I would have to leave East Clinton Elementary behind and continue my education at Rison, a school formerly beyond the city limits—a school that older friends were soon eager to warn me about.
“Those mill kids are mean. They’ll beat you up. They hate Germans,” one of them declared.
“Mad dogs run loose around the school,” his sister reported, unknowingly poking one of my basic childhood fears.
“Yeah, it’s a rough part of town—practically out in the country,” her brother added.
I had spent almost three years in the genteel halls of East Clinton near the heart of Huntsville; it had become familiar and comfortable—one of the centers of my life. So that we might get a glimpse of my new school, my parents drove me and my younger brother by it one day late in the summer. It was closer than East Clinton. With its shadowed portico entrances positioned at the front corners of the building, Rison projected a somewhat guarded, mysterious presence, almost as if it were holding itself back, yet inviting discovery. The dire tidings I had heard about the school did not bode well; the forewarnings suggested the lineaments of a grim fairy tale. What lay in store for me?
The first clear sign of the changes coming was Mrs. Hazel Ward, the young, auburn-haired teacher whose classroom I was assigned to. She had a prosthetic left forearm that drew attention almost immediately, but her strong, confident manner belied any notion of a handicap (and we would all soon learn, whether directly or indirectly, that she could wield a paddle quite effectively with her right hand). At a time in my life when I needed a firm, but caring presence for a teacher, Mrs. Ward appeared as a godsend. Corralling us with her imperturbable authority, she took us seriously and was dedicated to guiding us in our encounters with the approaching educational and social challenges.
For me, the fourth grade at Rison marked the point when the learning curve spiked and climbed steadily upward. It became many-stranded. Several years ago, I made a list of the subjects we studied that year: geography, science, spelling, arithmetic, Alabama history, and reading. The first three grades laid an “easy-does-it” foundation for schooling—an introduction to the basics. Then, with our growing cognitive skills, we engaged—with more or less difficulty and enthusiasm-- the new levels and types of work.
Geography and Alabama history crowned my lists of favorites that year. Learning about the wider world—its people and features-- stretched our horizons beyond Huntsville. Maybe because geography enthralled me all those years ago-- and became a life-long interest-- I remember that first book being slim and sporting a tannish-green cover. Studying our state’s history (a red book?) provided a counterpart to the geography lessons. We were introduced to the dimension of time through an appropriate perspective: a chronicle of the significant events, notable personages, and special places of our home ground.
The fourth grade also marked the start of deeper personal relationships outside our families. We grew curious about those around us and discovered an impulse to be and share ourselves openly. We were avid for social interaction.
Bill Whyte became my buddy, one of my companions in my new life at Rison. Blonde and thin, he was a native son who lived just a few blocks from the school on Oakwood Avenue, close to Optimist Park. That proximity may have been accidental, but it was surely influential. Bill had baseball in his blood. He would become a star left-handed pitcher for the Lee Generals. At Rison, he told me intriguing things about the facts of life, educational matters that weren’t going to come up in class. He tipped me off to the advantage of using wax paper on the slide. I brought some to the playground the next day, seated myself on it, and away I went, zipping down the slide totally out of control. As I sprawled in the dirt, everyone laughed. The next time down, I knew to hold on tighter. One day early in the year, when Bill didn’t come to school, Mrs. Ward conveyed the sad news that his father had died. That was a somber day.
Walt Thomas, tall and sturdy-- features that would help make him a valuable end on the Lee football team—brought humor to the classroom. Sharp, spirited, and fun-loving, he, Bill, and I spent a lot of time during the play periods outside wrestling and running around. Bill was quick, Walt was strong, and I improvised a lot of wrasslin’ moves.
Ron Hingenitz became another good friend. He and I were crazy for comic books, especially Army comics and those featuring the Blackhawks, who battled evil world-wide. When we had free time in class, Ron and I drew elaborate secret fortresses bristling with cannons, rocket launchers, and other exotic weapons. He lived on Oakwood, too, about halfway between Rison and my house on Bide-A-Wee Drive.
Other classmates that I remember: the late Gale Thompson and her twin, Dale; Buford Cagle; Joan McCutcheon? Spencer Thompson? I wouldn’t mind being reminded by those who I’ve forgotten.
Of course, no rabid dogs ever threatened the playground, but I quickly learned to be wary of certain schoolmates. The late Sonny Turner was one such hellion. His cursing and aggressiveness signaled “Watch out!” I came to know him better later in his life and found out that much of his truculence stemmed from his early family situation. Young Sonny never got much of a break, and his pugnacity alienated some of his classmates (and teachers). I think he found peace through his marriage and work with the postal service.
Once upon a time my third grade teacher sent me out into the world with these final comments on my report card: “Rainer could do better. He plays too much. I’ve enjoyed having him this year.” My playful spirit—involved in living and learning-- emerged fully under the tutelage of Mrs. Ward, a skillful and simpatico teacher. She was instrumental in fostering and encouraging a budding young soul. I did do better.
Memphis, TN - I've had a pretty good week this week. I had an old college friend visit from California and the weather has been wonderful. I am feeling good. We continue this week with our look back at one of our Saturday morning treats, an exciting continued series from our earlier days. Great football is going on and the basketball season has started already.
We also continue with out virtual jukebox, and feature three more songs selected by one of your classmates. Remember, I am doing these in the order they were received, so do not get upset if you have not had your songs featured yet. For those who have not done so, remember, each of you has a virtual quarter to play three songs on our virtual jukebox. This week we feature some great tunes.
This week we listen to the songs picked by Dwight Jones, LHS '64.
Dwight writes, "Hello to ya Tommy. I loved your 3 picks of favorite songs. I have about 500 or more, seems like, when I start listening to all the good ole music. But, since you ask for only my top 3, I would have to say number one would be Blue Velvet, done by Bobby Vinton; number two would be Only You done by the Platters; and number three, I Fall To Pieces done by Patsy Cline."
The most successful recording of "Blue Velvet" was released by Bobby Vinton in 1963. Vinton's version reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on September 21, 1963, and held the top spot for three weeks. It also spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the U.S. Middle-Road Singles chart.
The Platters first recorded the song for Federal Records on May 20, 1954, but the recording was not released. In 1955, after moving to Mercury Records, the band re-recorded the song (on April 26) and it scored a major hit when it was released in May. The song held strong in the number-one position on the U.S. R & B charts for seven weeks, and hit number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It remained there for 30 weeks, beating out a rival cover version by a white band called The Hilltoppers.
"I Fall to Pieces" is a single released by Patsy Cline in 1961, and was featured on her 1961 studio album, Patsy Cline Showcase. "I Fall to Pieces" was Cline's first #1 hit on the Country charts, and her second hit single to cross over onto the Pop charts. It was the first of a string of songs that were written by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard (not always collaborating) for Cline.
"I Fall to Pieces" became one of Cline's most-recognizable hit singles. It has also been classified as a country music standard.
Patsy Cline was killed in a plane crash on a flight leaving Dyersburg, TN in heavy weather on the evening of March 5, 1963. The plane was found some 90 miles from its Nashville destination, in a forest outside Camden, Tennessee.
From Our Mailbox
Subject: Last Week's Issue
Thanks for recognition of the many US Military Veterans who attended Lee in those first years. My interest in serving began after my 17th birthday in December of '62, but it wasn't until March of '63 that I joined the Naval Reserve as a two by six'er as it was called then, two years active duty following graduatiion at Lee and a total of six years Reserve time. But I went on to a total of 24 years service. My main point was the fact of arriving in South Vietnam at the anchorage at Vung Tau on the northside of the mouth of the Saigon River. That was early January 1966. There was no welcoming party and the war along the coast had not developed for the duration we were there. But we supported some Army action and operated with the Carrier Ranger as ASW screen and SAR, coming back to Pearl Harbor end of May, 1966. My claim to fame is being a member of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club, for services rendered.
And how I wanted to be "Rocket Man," in those early movies. And aliens camped out on the moon...the Government still won't owe up to their presence. Laser beams and moon rockets...where did they get that idea.