When I was a child, things were different. Life was hard, but kids learned the value of hard work, ingenuity, force, and fear.
My parents both worked in other states so they couldn’t take me to school. We were poor and could not afford a bicycle, so the only option for me was to walk. We lived sixteen miles away from the one-room school house, so in order to make my first class, which began at 6:00 a.m., my day began at 1:00 a.m. After a quick shower, I’d get dressed and be out the door at 1:30 a.m. to do my chores: feed the chickens, milk the goats, make breakfast for the babies, and castrate strays. Then, I’d leave the house for the walk to school at about 2:00 a.m.
There were no sidewalks and, for most of the way between my house and school, there were no roads. The longest stretch of the path to school was along a river bed that was awash in quicksand in wet weather and, during the dry season, was littered with sharp rocks, broken glass, land mines, and scorpions.
It was a tough trek during the wet season, but the dry season was brutal, since I had no shoes. I learned early on that the safest way to get through the dry season was to wear the sturdy pair of leather gloves my mother had given me. It took two, maybe three, years before I could make it all the way to school walking on my hands. Until I got good at it, my feet were a shredded mess by the time I got to my first class.
Our school day started at 6:00 a.m. with an hour of calisthenics. After that, we hit the showers and then, at 7:15 a.m., started our first lesson. In sixth grade, my first period class was differential calculus, followed by animal husbandry, and then 12th century Gaelic literature. After a 15 minute break, I went to gene-splicing lab, then to my harmonic religion class. Because everyone was in the same room, it was hard to focus. While I was trying to listen to the teacher talk about polymorphic geometry, for example, I had to listen to her teaching Spanish. At the same time, some people were in shop class and it was hard to hear over the noise of the table saws and metal grinders.
In those days, oxygen was expensive. We couldn’t afford to have oxygen in the air, so we made do with helium, instead, which made it hard to understand what the teachers were saying. They sounded like cartoon ducks. You can’t imagine how hard it is to learn differential calculus in that setting…listening to listen to a duck voice over the sound of band saws and loud Spanish conversations.
When school let out at 6:30 p.m. I’d walk down to Tiny’s Laundry, where I had a part-time job. Tiny owned two big washers and a dryer and it was my job to fill the washers with the day’s take and then, when the bills were clean, put all the bills in the dryer and monitor them closely so they got good and dry but didn’t burn. Then, I’d iron each one so it was crisp and clean and neatly stack them all in $1000 batches. As I said, it was a part-time job, so it only took me about two hours a day, but by the time I’d finished, I was terribly tired. That didn’t matter, though, because I had to walk home.
When the moon was full, the walk home was a little easier because I could see a little better, but it also made me more visible to the band of wild dogs that roamed the river bottom. The dogs were descendants of some family pets that ran off from the Collins house when old Mr. Collins got drunk one night and set his wife on fire. In all the commotion, the Chihuahua, the Mastiff, and the Jack Russell Terrier got loose. Over the course of about ten years, the progeny of that rag-tag group sort of turned into its own new breed of dog, tall beasts with big chests, wiry coats, pointed ears, and a tendency toward shrill and prolonged barking. When the dogs would see me against the backdrop of the moon as I crossed a ridge by the river, they would come after me with a ravenous glaze in their eyes. It took every ounce of energy I had to beat them back with the twirler’s baton I used as a defensive weapon. Knowing they would be after me, though, I always brought ham bones from the butcher to throw at them; that sometimes distracted them enough that I didn’t have to use the baton.
By the time I’d get home, usually around 12:30 a.m., I was dog-tired (forgive the pun). I knew I had only half an hour to sleep before I had to start it all over again, so I wasted no time going to bed.
Fortunately, I only had to go to school six days a week. On Sunday, I took full advantage of my freedom. I slept in until about 4:00 a.m. and took my time doing the chores, finishing up by 6:30 a.m. From 6:30 to 9:30 a.m., I practiced transcendental medication. Tiny, of the laundry, had hooked me up with a source of some exceptionally good hash when I was about ten years old. Since first experiencing the serenity I got from smoking just a bit of that hash I was, pardon the pun, hooked. Sunday morning smokes became part of my weekly routine. Those three hours on Sunday mornings were what got me through the rest of the week. I don’t recall what I did for the remainder of the day because I was really “in the moment” during that time, focused only on what mattered then and there, so I didn’t use any energy creating and storing memories. What I do remember is getting up, as usual, on Monday morning at 1:00 a.m.