I’ve been watching historical episodes of Vermont counties on Vermont Public Television this week. Some scenes depict things I remember quite well from my own grammar school days. It’s somewhat of a shock to see ‘old’ people reminiscing about incidents that happened in their childhood, only ten to fifteen years earlier than similar things I recall myself. No, I don’t have memories of horse drawn carriages, except for Dave Mac’s rag wagon down in Rutland, but I do remember watching cars driving up Mendon Mountain on Route 4 with my big, mustached great-uncle who would joke, “Bobby, if you see a car not painted black, tell me”.
Uncle John and Aunt Margaret were up from New Jersey visiting her sister Betty, our grandmother who lived with us. Their big four-door Buick Super was a lustrous dark green, very unusual in the early 1950’s. Immigrants from Germany, my father’s relatives stayed in contact with each other no matter where they lived.
I remember the phenomenon of unpainted wooden buildings; clapboard houses weathered to a silvery gray dotted the Vermont countryside, and I thought that was really strange. Traveling home from visits to our relatives in New Jersey, where all the houses were painted, I could tell we had returned to Vermont when I saw the familiar bare gray houses gliding by my dad’s car windows. His car was a faded brown ’38 Pontiac that had lost one rear fender.
Living in Mendon and going to school in Chittenden Town I grew up among some very poor families although I never thought of them as particularly needy. There were really poor folks around. People in desperate situations. I knew this for certain as our next-door neighbor Mrs. Hubenet was an overseer of the poor and she explained it to me: There were people at that time, nearby, who had starved or frozen to death.
We were adults when a schoolmate told me this story…
Back when we were in the fifth or sixth grade some of my Barstow School classmates thought of me as a rich kid! The box lunch I brought from home, with a Thermos bottle full of hot soup, drove them crazy with the smell. True, I suppose, but how could a boy of nine or ten tell? The free hot lunch program, I hope, put an end to that. A kid like me would have to fight to keep his lunch these days I’ll bet.
Some of my classmates at Barstow Memorial School had no socks or shoes and wore only the green rubber farm boots they called pacs to school and their clothes were full of holes. Some of them lived in homes severely damaged by the 1947 flood.
A house half gone, but still lived in, was a common sight on the school bus ride to school. But I never pitied my friends, I admired them and often envied their abilities in class and on the playground. And they in turn did not pity themselves.
My mother, however, was appalled by the tooth decay she saw in the children at Barstow and it drove her to become particularly diligent concerning her own children’s personal hygiene. This was before fluoride was added to public water supplies or put in toothpaste. The State did have a rudimentary dental program for rural schools. We would all be driven in a train of school buses to Pittsford once a year to get our teeth painted yellow with fluoride and that was the extent of dental caries prevention in Vermont. They gave us jars of vitamin pills to take home too.
Poverty back then was something to overcome, I think, not a thing to accept, embrace or explain away. My classmates at Barstow in the fifties went on to success or failure in life just like anyone else. In retrospect, it is obvious to me now and has been for years and years that my family was in fact, pretty rich.
The show on VPT is great fun to watch, it is well constructed and tells a tale that reminisces of simpler times, true Vermonters living fulfilling agrarian lives.
But, from what I remember seeing from my privileged childhood perch, it wasn’t all that simple.