In 1954 I graduated grade school and launched my secondary education at Ellsworth Wisconsin, home of the Panthers. Those of you familiar with my essay on attending a one room grade school probably understand how lacking I was in any degree of sophistication. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to this new adventure. Our high school was seven or eight miles away. Transportation was provided in the form of a school bus that traveled a route through the country side. When we went counter clockwise around the route it was a short trip. I boarded the bus about 0745 and arrived at school about 0830.
The route direction changed every other week. Going clockwise involved 65 or 70 miles still arriving about 0830; we boarded around 0620. I think we went clockwise that first day while making introductions to strangers who would become colleagues over the next four years - and sometimes friends for life.
Ellsworth HS was not especially large. Yet in someways, it's size may have been close to ideal. There were about 300 students, give or take. We started with about 100 kids in our freshman class. Maybe half came from the country side with the rest residing within the local village limits. Obviously the human nature of things tried to make this a sort of country kids vs town kids. Luckily this silliness didn't stick.
Our school offered all the scholastic necessities as well as well as sports, music, forensics and so on to prepare us for more studies or life. T here were no explicit college prep courses but plenty of vocational courses like agriculture, animal husbandry, shop, and home economics.
So all of this rambling is meant to be an introduction to an oral essay I prepared for a class reunion some 30 years down the pike. A dear friend, Joanie, from our class called and requested I do something for the reunion program. It seems that the scheduled speaker had dropped the ball. Of course I said OK even though I had no idea what I would do. I procrastinated until I was on the flight from Albuquerque to Minneapolis. A couple of scotches set the mood. So here it is reconstituted from my notes. Please be aware that the various quotations assigned to folks are entirely fictional although some might say probable given the times. Some of these thoughts were given in 1958 only to become patently absurd in the years to follow.
A Tour of old EHS - enjoy the smells.
The year is 1958 and we are going on a tour of EHS paying attention to what we hear and what we smell. Those smells will help us return to the environment and recreate the platform of our memory. You must acknowledge that memories of words may fail us but olfactory memories are quite exacting.
Walking up the walk and opening the doors immediately exposes a potpourri of odors signifying our presence in the Midwest. The smells of the fresh mown clover and blue grass lawn slides under freshly painted lockers and deeply waxed floors. On up the hall we find wood resin scents from the hall to the left and smelly sneakers to the right and down the stairs toward the athletic changing rooms.
But the home ec room is straight ahead at the next left. They must be making bread as evidenced by yeasty, baked flour and shortening accent with the flavor of mildly roasted molasses from last hour’s cookies. Listening for a moment we hear Mrs. Sullivan, "really, Jane, always cut tomatoes and onions thick to retain the flavors. Even the French avoid slicing too thin.". So much for that.
Around the corner the cooking smells receded into the background but sounds come from up beyond the stairs were the band is preparing for another season of sports support. There are strange sounds leaking out from the practice rooms. Our beloved but deranged Mr. Jensen left the previous spring. Now Mr Anderson is heard,"the English will never make another impact on popular music. Stick to the trumpet, Howard and leave your guitar at home."
Across the hall we find the odor of slightly mildewed canvas maps and old geographic gazettes. Many of these publications still do not reflect changes resulting from the second great war. Mr Dunn is answering a question about French provinces, "That is Viet Nam. I wouldn't worry to much about that region. Few Americans ever go there."
Smells give way to the scent of paper and fresh ink in the next room where we catch up with Mrs. Rice. "Really David, my advice is stay away from public speaking." And there is more ink and paper smells on down the hall. This time it is mixed with the adolescent body smells of an active class. Mrs. Huber is getting control."Settle down class. You know, Vernon, someday you will wish you had studied these sonnets."
Back on our stroll there is a distinct smell of spilled milk and spoiled eggs. We are near the bulk milk dispenser where 5cents will get 8 ounces of locally sourced beverage. The chemical smells seem even stronger when we look in on one of Mr. Brandt's science class. "The atom is the smallest particle in the universe, Tom. To answer your question, transistors are an interesting curiosity. We won't worry about them in this class.".
Then a bell rings in the distance followed by shuffling crowds of feet in the hall and on the stairs and more body smells. Lockers are slammed up and down the hall. Then another bell, one last locker door slams shut and the hall returns to silence as the sounds seem to evaporate away. Just then our Superintendent, Mr. Nygaard comes past. He seems to be on a mission to bring back the bow tie. He is followed by our secretary, Mrs. Gardner protesting that "25 cents is really to much for a school lunch."
Down another hall leads to a room filled with Smith-Corona type writers, mechanical adding machines, and an additional large keyboard contraption in one corner.[. Mrs. Quinn is offering some career advice. "Learn all about the comptometer, Kay. But, never forget how to add with a pencil. You can't put a comptometer in you pocket."
In another class room we find Mr. Drier lecturing on matters of civics. " You should try to get into politics. It is a nobel profession.". There is another bell and the rush is on to change classrooms. Heading downstairs the smells are distinctly more earthy. In the classroom more career advise is being handed out by Mr. Ken Wall. "Good farmers are concerned about crop yield, Raymond. So make sure you cultivate and kill off that hemp weed so your corn will grow tall."
Around the corner near the locker rooms Kirby Simms is commenting on one of our favorite spectator sports. "that new guy at Green Bay is never going to make it. He doesn't have any quarterback material.". Close by Pat Monahan is discussing local sports. "Skill is far more important than height in basketball. Phil should have a terrific future on the court.” In the meantime the smell of tennis shoes and old jock straps is near to overwhelming. Luckily the gym is next door where Mrs. Swanson is conducting a PE class. "Girls, girls, turn off that radio. You should never mix music and exercise - it destroys concentration."
Then, there is a hint of formaldehyde wafting in from the open door of another classroom. Mr. Knoll is instructing basic biology. "No, Gene, Beatles can't play music. Bugs don't have ears.". Do I detect a hint of a smile on Mr. Knolls face?
Again more bells and more rushing about. More lockers slamming before the inevitable quiet returns. From a nearby class room Mr. Edsel Vergin is explaining that the entire universe is filled with a substance called ether. That is how radio works."
Finally, we arrive at the library where whispers are drowned by the sounds of papers and books being shuffled around. Mrs. Ritchie has announced her intent to retire but still offers sage advise. "Class, you must read, books are the treasure of the world. I am going to retire but all of these books will stay so your children and grand children can read them too."
So, life goes on. 1958, 1965, 1974, al the way to 1988. The world has changed and is likely to continue to change. Maybe we can reflect on what it smelled like "back then". Now just to put this transition in perspective I should note that this month's playboy (1988) centerfold was born 12 years after we graduated.
Thank You for asking Joanie. It was fun.