From the Relief Society Magazine, 1927 –
The First Spur
By Fay Ollerton
It was at a watering station in a little Wyoming town that the two men fell to talking. They had been on the same car from Chicago on, but they first became interested in each other at the wind-swept village. The travel-worn passengers at the announcement form the porter that the train would make a fifteen minute stop, filed noisily out of the warm cars into the penetrating chill of the February afternoon. Curtis, the older of the two, was short, stockily built, with shy, friendly eyes, yet with the assurance in them of a man who has grappled victoriously with many perplexing situations. There was about him an air of subdued excitement, as if he were on the verge of some long expected pleasure. Lester, the other man, was scarcely more than a college youth. he was tall and sure of himself, but with the surety that has seldom been tested.
They agreed to walk up the main street of the town, which was only a block from the station. The wind from the low hills whistled about their ears and made conversation for a few moments impossible. When they reached the main street, with its one and two story brick and wooden shops, of a nondescript gray under the cloudy sky, school must have been just out, for the boys and girls were walking and running down the street, their shrill voices rising above the wind and the puffing of the not distant locomotive.
Two lads, about fourteen, with stooped ungainly postures and tight-fitting coats and worn caps walked close together, their blue overalls flapping in the gale. Occasionally they lifted their heads a little, shouting taunts to a group of tittering girls a pace ahead of them. As the boys reached the square-fronted post office where a number of men were huddling with upturned collars, a young woman with a smiling face, whipped to an apple-red by the wind, came out, her hands full of letters and papers. Instantly the two boys stopped. With awkward movements they removed their caps. They grinned from ear to ear as they called the girl’s name, using Miss before it, and then passed on, a shadow of their smiles remaining in spite of the grim cold.
Curtis watched the two boys until they turned into a side street.
“I’ll wager,” he said to his companion, “that that young woman is their teacher.”
There was so much sympathy in his voice at the word “teacher” that Lester looked at him questioningly. Later when they were again seated in that blue plush comfort of the observation car, he asked, “What made you think the girl with her hands full of mail is their teacher?”
The darkness of the coming twilight, not yet broken by the turning on of the electricity, was enfolding them into a friendly privacy. Curtis leaned forward, his slender fingers tracing the pattern in the plush, as if he were groping for words.
“I had just such a looking girl for a teacher once,” he explained not looking at the young man. “She had the same inviting brown eyes, the same warm color, and she was the only one I would ever have raised my hat to in those days.”
A white-coated porter interrupted them to announce the first call for dinner. Most of the passengers, except the two men, followed him. Curtis settled back in his chair, stretching his short legs over the low foot rest, while Lester leaned towards him, waiting.
“I didn’t even know there were such things as plush chairs then,” Curtis resumed, gazing at the blurred scenery, now a flashing of telephone poles, sagebrush, and cedars. “I had the dirtiest clothes, the most unkempt hair, and could make more noise over my lessons with fewer attempts at study than any other youngster in the whole eight grades of Utah.”
“Boys of that age,” he continued, still gazing at the Wyoming scenery, “are usually in a dangerous place. They are beginning to get the outlook and desires of a man with nothing to back them up. They haven’t yet realized how important it is to believe in their own abilities to get them where they have but vague dreams of going. Instead of faith in themselves, they have great trust in another person. If they haven’t that, there’s not much help for them. I hadn’t any particular respect for anyone, not excluding my parents, until I found a certain school teacher.”
Lester’s face again repeated its doubts. It seemed hard for him to believe that this well-groomed, clear-skinned man, whose bearing and movements spoke confidence and decision, would speak so. It was easier to think of him as coming from a family in conventionally prosperous circumstances, with all traditions and manners that go with such conditions.
“I appreciate that perplexed look. If you had been some twenty odd years older, and we had lived in the same town, you would probably not have bothered to even pick a fight with me unless I got in your way.”
“Why?” the young man asked. Here was a man he would undoubtedly be proud to introduce to his parents – and his wife when he got one.
“There were seven in our family,” Curtis explained, more to himself than to the boy. “I was the fifth. We lived in three rooms in a battered old house just beyond the railroad tracks. Before the town began going northwards, our place had been a residence of one of the first citizens. Now it was subdivided for four families. Our part was in the rear, and the clothes, if ever they were washed clean, were always spotted from the smoke of the round-house and the passing trains. Father worked in the shops and came home drunk at least once a week. His disposition was about as bad, sober or drunk. My clothes were always so dirty and greasy that the girls used to pull in their skirts when I passed them. I must have looked like a cross between a bag of rags and a yellow dog, for my hair was seldom combed, and my coat, when I was lucky enough to have one, was either out at the elbows, or torn at the armholes.”
Lester felt a tightening in his throat. His face showed his wonderment of what to say.
“Oh, there’s no need for feeling pity for me,” Curtis assured him, “I didn’t feel the least bit sorry for myself. I had definitely, without being aware of it, decided on my status in life. I had a mother whose thin hair hung in wisps about her lean face, and whose voice held a perpetual scold. I had new shoes when it was winter and my old ones fell apart. I was always late to school; was among the slowest in my class, for I never studied the dirty books I sometimes carried back and forth because the other boys did. I intended to get out of school as soon as the probation officer would let me alone; then I was to get a job. Already I had worked a little around the shops; couldn’t get work further up town in the drug stores and shops, because the boys had to wear clean shirts and keep their hair trimmed. I suppose I looked forward to being another Curtis, senior, drunk every week, grumpy and full of profanity. I can’t remember now of thinking what my wife would be like.”
Lester leaned forward eagerly to ask what happened, and neither man noticed that the porter came through with the second call, and that all of the passengers had left the car.
Nothing, for a long time. Curtis was again tracing the pattern in the blue chair, while the telephone poles flashed by in quick succession, and the sagebrush showed only as a blackening mass. “The eighth was to be my last year in school – I figured I could beat the officers out of two years. I entered late as usual. The language class had started work. When I came in everything was quiet, with the September sun pouring in through the newly cleaned windows and giving that brightness that is supposed to go with the first few days of school. The teacher wasn’t visible until I had stumbled into a back seat. Then I wouldn’t have known her if she hadn’t worn her skirts longer than the rest of the girls. She was the smallest girl in the room, with the exception of one poor creature whose mother worked out by the day and fed her family with the things she carried away without permission.
“Our teacher’s name was Miss Reed, and I can remember to this day exactly what she looked like and what she wore.”
But when he tried to describe her he could only tell that her eyes were large and brown, much too large for her thinface, and that they were almost the color of her hair which hung in curls over her shoulders instead of being elevated over a rat or wire, such as the girls wore then. She had a smile, Curtis said, like a person who is enjoying something immensely and is about to share the enjoyment with some favored person. Her skirt was long and gored, and her sleeves puffed out at the shoulders.
“I believe her dress was green. I can’t recall the color for a certainty, but I’ve always associated green clothes with brown-eyed women, and I think it was because she was fond of that color.”
He was silent then for so long that Lester asked him what there was so remarkable about the little school teacher.
“I don’t know if I can put it into words. She was so small that one of the boys could have lifted her easily; yet she managed us with scarcely ever raising her voice, and there wasn’t one of us who wouldn’t have run at one beckoning from her little finger. She ‘had’ me so thoroughly that I was making an attempt to study after the second day.
“I wrote some smudgy compositions. Instead of laughing at them, or reading them to the class, she would call me in after school, or during a study period. ‘Couldn’t you write them with a little less pressure?’ she would ask, pointing to my dirty finger prints along the margin. When she called on me in class she listened patiently to my halting answers. If there were a grain of truth in my reply, she let the rest go and held fast to the other. Because she accepted me with the same interested sympathy that she did all of the class, I began to feel at home. Once I joined in a school discussion about conjugating verbs without being aware that I was doing anything unusual. It didn’t occur to me until I was on my way home that the mayor’s daughter, who had snapping black eyes and even white teeth, had asked me a question. Up until now most of my social contact with girls had been to avoid them when we passed on the school grounds, or to throw snowballs at Minnie Schwartz who lived in the same house, and was cross-eyed and mouse-faced.
“Life went on in much the same way, except that I tried to work in the study-hall instead of looking out the window or sticking pins into the boy who sat in front of me. I don’t know if the school kids still do it now, but we used to run the heads of pins between the soles and uppers of our shoes, then when we elevated our feet to the desk ahead the pins would pass through.
“I’d tired of working one day and was doing this to Sam Hardy, who had lately tried it on me, when Miss Reed walked in. All the giggling and shuffling stopped, and we started working. She came to the head of the desks and asked us to meet in her room after our last class; she wanted to plan the program which our class was to give for the eighth grades of the city.
“I was not appointed on any committee, neither was I suggested for a part in the play that was to be a part of the program. I did think I might get a place on the committee for seeing that all the stage properties were in place and afterwards removed, but I didn’t. About a week later, I saw that every other member of the class had some kind of a part. They were either in the chorus, or woodmen in the outdoor scene. For the first time in my nine years at school I felt sorry that I wasn’t on a program. Miss Reed had been telling me that I could do just as well as anyone if I tried; now she would know that I wasn’t capable of trying. I thought about it for several days, then an idea, so new that if Solomon had experienced it he would never have written concerning there being nothing new under the sun, came to me. I hung around Miss Reed’s desk until everyone had gone.
“She asked me to help her arrange her papers. As I piled them in alphabetical order, we chatted about the coming vacation and program. That gave me my opening.
“‘I’m the only one in the class who hasn’t a part,’ I told her, my voice shaking and my knees knocking each other.
“‘It must have been an oversight,’ she replied, utterly ignoring my palsied condition.
“‘No, it’s not,’ I corrected her. “I’ve never been on a program before, and no one thought of putting me on.’
“‘Would you like to be?’ she asked as casually as if she were requesting me to put the papers into different piles.
“I told her I would, then she asked me what I would like to do. I couldn’t sing; I couldn’t have any of the speaking parts, for they had all been taken days ago, and I didn’t want to be a woodman. I knew what my parents would say when I asked them for the green cloth and hat they were to wear.
“‘There’s going to be an opening prayer, isn’t there,’ I suggested, each second expecting my voice to crack on the words. In our school programs we always opened with prayer, and sometimes a student did it instead of a teacher. If no one had been chosen, there was my chance.
“She agreed that I could, promising to make the arrangements. Because I had a part, I wanted to be early that morning of the twenty-third. I knew I had to be more respectable in appearance, and at the last moment the pants I had to wear developed a long slit in the seam. As I remember, mother must have made some reproaches to father for his not providing me with better garments. He resented this and declared that I was old enough to get my own.
“‘I never thought,’ he said disgustedly, ‘that a son of mine would be turning chaplain.’ Mother went on sewing, and when she refused to answer he grew profane. She turned on him, then, and they were still at it a few minutes later when I had combed my tangled hair and washed behind my ears, preparatory to leaving. I made an attempt to shine my shoes with some water and soot from the stove, but it was not a very successful one, and I left hurriedly, glad to be away from the scolding voices.
“When I opened the classroom door, some of the boys snickered, and I could hear tittering remarks from the girls as I slid red-faced into my seat. My altered appearance, due to clean clothes, slickened hair, and a scrubbed face, had not tended to make me feel at ease. Miss Reed didn’t scold the forward ones, but agreed with a ‘Yes, doesn’t he look fine,’ and then gave us a written spelling test.
“It was almost time for the curtain, with the Venetian street scene, to go up, before I thought of being frightened. The girls’ chorus was to sing; I was to follow, and then the curtain was to be raised for the program proper. My teeth began to chatter, and I made a desperate attempt to smooth down a shock of hair that stood straight out from the back of my head. The girls’ song, ‘Holy Night,’ I believe it was, ended, and someone – Miss Reed no doubt – pushed me gently forward in front of the curtain. Out in the wings two girls giggled. One’s giggle I recognized as the mayor’s daughter. I clicked my teeth together so firmly that they must have been heard for several rows down the assembly room, and prayed. I must have prayed for a whole two minutes, about what I have no recollection of. I’d been to church occasionally, enough to get the run of a few prayers, and I used all my knowledge. When I had finished, there wasn’t a sound in the hall, except the noise of the ascending curtain.
“In the wing, two girls were waiting, arm in arm, for their cues. One of them had the black eyes I referred to a moment ago. As I passed, she smiled and whispered, ‘That was a good prayer.’ She was, I am sure, sincere.
“The next day the town semi-weekly came out with our program printed on the front page. Right in the second paragraph was ‘Prayer by Donald Curtis.’ I spent my only nickel on the paper, and when no one was looking I folded it into my pocket. Mother had tears in her eyes when she saw it. I didn’t cry, but my ear drums felt as if they would burst, the pressure in my head was so great. I, Donald Curtis, had appeared in a school program, and my name had been printed in the paper. I was no longer Don Curtis who shambled about town with his head thrust downward, and hands in his pockets, but I was Donald Curtis whose name was important enough to be printed on the front page of the newspaper.
“I was so excited, I wanted father to see the story. I don’t know whether he was suffering from want of drink or too much, but he was not pleased. He tore the thing in two and told me never to let him see my name as a sniveling “prayer” again. Then he called for supper, and said something about the house not being cleaned for weeks. It wasn’t ready, mother had spent too long over the paper. I was trembling with anger and mortification as I stooped to pick the torn parts of the front sheet. When father saw what I was doing, he cuffed me a smart one, telling me to get out, that I was a disgrace to any hard working man.
“‘I won’t come back,’ I mumbled as I shuffled out, and the queer part of it was that I kept my word. It was almost sundown when I went into the yard, and a cold wind was sweeping down from the north mountains. So far, there was little snow on the ground, for winter had been late coming. I stood about dejectedly, and then began walking. My ears were still hot from the cuff, and I paid no particular attention where I went except to avoid seeing people.
“I got out in the west part of town, where there were few homes, and close to the fields. I had come almost to the edge. I saw Miss Reed climbing over a fence that stood at the end of the unpaved walk. I wanted of all persons to see her least at this time, and I would have turned to the other side of the street, but she recognized me and called a greeting. I could do nothing, then, but join her.
“She told me that she had been to the fields for a walk to celebrate the closing of school for two weeks, and called my attention to the gorgeous crimson of the whole western sky. It didn’t take her long to see there was something wrong, and I finally blurted out the whole story. It was no new one to her, for she had taken the trouble to inquire about my home conditions months ago. It was the first time I had ever had a woman listen with complete sympathy to my troubles and I made the most of it, ending with ‘I don’t want ever to go back. I never will be nothing different, if I hang around there much longer.’
“Then she said a surprising thing. ‘Why should you?’ she asked. ‘You are meant for better things than you will ever get from your home, but they will never be yours unless you find a way for yourself of taking them. Sometimes,’ she said in her quiet voice, ‘it is easier to run away to new conditions than to fight the old ones. Familiar persons and habits have a way of holding us down. It isn’t always weakness to leave them.’ She was not looking at me then; her head was turned towards the fading crimson in the sky. After a while she turned. ‘Come on, Donald, I’ll race you to the corner. My feet are cold.’
“She left me on the corner. I was tingling with a new excitement. It was the first time I had ever thought of escaping the things which had lately grown so hateful. In a half hour or so I was down to the railroad yards, and when the nine o’clock freight left, I was huddled in a box car. I hadn’t lived about the yards for fifteen years without observing a thing or two. I didn’t go home for any extra clothing, and I hadn’t a cent of money in my pockets, or any supper for that matter. I only knew that I was leaving home for good, and that I had Miss Reed’s faith back of me. It seems a pretty courageous thing that I did; yet I suppose the adventure of it was as strong as the new determination. I wondered what my teacher would think when she heard of my disappearance. It would be in the paper – all runaway boys were. Would she be surprised that I had taken her words so literally? It would be twice that Donald Curtis would be printed; this time only on the inside sheets under City Happenings. I thought of what would become of me; if ever the gnawing in my stomach would stop; and if I would freeze to death in the box car before we came to the warmer climate of California. I knew I had been strong enough to run away, and if I could do that, why worry about the outcome! Anything would be better than the life I had been living. A boy who could take part on a school program could take care of himself! I’d never grow up to be a drunkard! Some day I would write Miss Reed to tell her what she had done for me, some day when I had made a name for myself, one that would not be snickered at when it was heard. ‘Who knows,’ I thought, as I drew my thin coat tighter together and tried to rub my hands to keep the numbness out of them, ‘what I may become.’ Of my parents I thought very little.
“There is a lot to tell between then and now, but I’m not going to bore you any longer. There isn’t much that a man can go through, and still exist with hope left, that I haven’t felt. I knew what hunger meant, many times other than that night, and I knew what it was to lose faith, too. I suppose my story,” Curtis admitted with an apologetic laugh, “would sound like one from the popular success magazines.”
There was a long silence, with Lester waiting for him to go on. There were a thousand and one questions he must have wanted to ask the older man.
“Have you never been back?”
“But your mother – ”
“She died about ten years ago, and I didn’t know of it until a month after it had happened. I regretted that, of course, but I’d been sending her money ever since I got my first dollar ahead. The news of my father’s death a year or so before wasn’t enough to make me leave the East, where I’d just begun to work.”
“But why are you returning now?”
Curtis asked him what date tomorrow would be, and smiled appreciatively when he was told that it would be the twenty-third of February.
“I promised myself I’d go back some day,” he defended himself with a boyish wistfulness, “and now seemed as good a time as any. I haven’t done all the things I’ve hoped to – never will – but I’m not ashamed to tell Miss Reed what I have done.”
“But what if she isn’t there? Has died or moved away?”
Curtis smiled slowly.
“I can go home and tell my wife there isn’t another woman in the case.” Then he grew serious. “But I believe I’ll find her. She married some boy from the same town. When a man has waited twenty-five years to be able to tell a woman she’s been the means of getting him out of a dilapidated house by the railroad tracks to a palace built to house a railroad, she’s likely to be in some findable place. It isn’t that I want to brag to her about my worldly success,” he earnestly explained to the boy. “I could come back in a private car if I wanted to herald my return that way. I’m going back to tell her that because of my belief in her I’ve kept faith with myself. It isn’t often that a teacher hears that, and I’m crossing a continent to tell her. She’ll be there all right. I’m not worrying.”