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Country editors boy, p.10
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.10

           Hal Borland
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  “Yipeeeee!” Spider yelled. “Let’s go!” The dogs barked and ran after Spider as he started down the steep slope, leaping like a pronghorn antelope and somehow maintaining his balance as he jumped over rocks and bushes, unable to stop.

  Little Doc and I followed, after Little Doc had put the spade back in the original cave and thrown a few handfuls of sand over it. He carried the bone, the day’s treasure. We made our way down the slope, zigzagging from bush to bush and rock to rock, and found Spider waiting for us beside the bikes at the road.

  It was midafternoon. The sun was just passing its hottest point. We coasted down the winding road to the bridge, going fast enough to blow a breeze through our hair and balloon our shirts. The dry air evaporated our sweat so fast I felt almost chilly. Then we were climbing the long, gradual slope beyond the river and it was hot again, blazing hot with the sun coming back at us off the yellow gravel road and not a whisper of air stirring. We rode, and got off and walked, and rode again, and pushed; and we were at the top of the long hill and Flagler was only three miles away. Mirages danced in the road ahead of us, and when we stopped on one hilltop and caught our breath I looked west and saw a big, gleaming lake only half a mile away, a lake that sparkled and lapped the grassy shore and was cool and sweet. I pointed it out to Spider, and he said, “That’s the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t want to mention it because our doctor friend, here, would say I was crazy as a cross-eyed coyote again.”

  The mirages were with us all the way to town, wherever we looked, ahead or to the west. Some people say they have seen mirages there on the flats of eastern Colorado that had palm trees and sail boats as well as water. I never did. All I ever saw was water.

  We got to town and stopped at the drug store. Little Doc’s father was there, a thin man with dark hair that was getting sparse and with dark eyes behind steel-rimmed spectacles that always seemed to be crooked on his nose. His name was Harry, but I never heard anyone call him that. He was Doctor Williams, and few people shortened it to Doc. The other doctor in town was almost always Doc Neff, and I never did know his first name, only his initials, which were O. S.

  Dr. Williams was at the drug store. We went in and he said, “So the archaeologists are back. Make any big discoveries?”

  “We found some beads,” Little Doc said, hiding the bone behind him and holding out the scant handful of glass beads.

  Dr. Williams glanced at them and nodded. “Trade beads. Worth about twenty-five cents a pound. What else? What are you hiding?”

  “A humerus,” Little Doc said, triumphant, and he showed him the bone.

  Dr. Williams frowned, took the bone, looked at it for a moment, then smiled.

  “It is a humerus, isn’t it?” Little Doc asked.

  “Yes, I guess you could call it a humerus. If a calf had arms, this would be the bone of its upper forearm.”

  “A calf?” Little Doc asked, incredulous.

  “That’s right, a calf. You found it in one of those caves?”


  “And this was the only bone you found?”


  “Probably left there by a coyote fifteen or twenty years ago. That’s about how old it is. Indians didn’t go around burying one arm or one leg. They tried to bury their corpses whole. Find one Indian bone and you find a whole basketful. But keep digging. You may find an Indian yet…. How about a soda? It’s a hot afternoon.”

  And we all went over to the soda fountain.


  SCHOOL WAS SCHEDULED TO start the day after Labor Day. We boys knew it but, as usual, we didn’t think that Labor Day came so soon after the Fourth of July. By the middle of August we thought we were only halfway through summer. Then, bang, September was right in front of us, and school again. It struck us the Saturday afternoon that we played the boys’ baseball team from out in the Shiloh district, in the North Country. We had won five games in a row and had begun to think we were unbeatable. Then those country boys came to town and beat us 5 to 2, on five hits, three walks, eight stolen bases, and four errors, or some such humiliating box score totals. After the game Leon Lavington, who had been graduated from the university in Boulder only the previous June, came over to us and said, “If it wasn’t so late in the season I’d take a week off and show you kids how to play baseball. You should have licked the pants off of that team of Jake Wolverton’s. They beat you on fundamentals.” Jake Wolverton was a farmer who once had played professionally in the Three-Eye League, back in Iowa. Until that day we didn’t know he was coaching the boys from Shiloh. Jake thought it was a wonderful joke, beating us Flagler boys that way. We wanted another game with them, and we wanted Leon to coach us. But Leon said, “It’s too late. School starts in another two weeks, and then it’ll be football season. If you want to play football, let me know.”

  But we weren’t listening. We were an angry, beaten baseball team, and we had just been reminded that we were going back to school virtually day after tomorrow. We growled and made up excuses for our defeat and tried not to think about what was ahead, but by Monday we conceded that summer was virtually at an end. It wasn’t that we hated school. It always seemed to me that the hate-school tradition was largely an adult fabrication. There are the inevitable truants and delinquents in every society, but the ideal of schooling, all you could get, was ingrained in those of my generation who grew up in a culture just emerging from frontier limitations. Our parents had faith in education and were determined that we should have more than they had. We knew it was our job to get it.

  Schooling in Flagler that year was going to be pretty well mixed up, though. The townspeople had voted, by a rather narrow margin, to build a new school. The contract had been let and work was under way on a red brick building at the north end of Main Street, half a mile north of the railroad tracks. But it wouldn’t be ready for classes till after Christmas, at the earliest. Meanwhile, there would be the biggest enrollment in the town’s history, and classes would have to be held in two old frame school buildings several blocks apart and in the Congregational church. A part of the increase was from new people in town, like us, but most of it was from the country. Flagler had raised its school from ten grades to twelve that year, making it a full-fledged high school, only the second one in the county. The other one was in Burlington, the county seat, forty miles east of Flagler. Partly as a consequence, four one-room rural schools had been closed and were going to send their pupils to Flagler as tuition students.

  Besides the problem of finding classroom space, which was solved by using the church, there was the problem of housing. Some of the country pupils came from farms twenty miles or more from town, and there were no school buses in those days. Parents could bring small children to school by horse and buggy from as far as five miles away, and older pupils could come that far on horseback. But families from farther out had only two choices. They could find someone in town willing to provide bed and board for a helpful boy or girl, or they could go in with several other farm families and rent a house for the children to use as a kind of dormitory.

  I have heard those who had no first-hand knowledge speak of the first solution as just another version of the “bound-servant” system. In our part of the country it was, rather, a foster-home arrangement by which many a farm boy got his basic education and many a farm girl got both an education and a taste of town life under wise supervision. During the school year almost every family in Flagler that didn’t have a houseful of youngsters of its own had a boy or girl from the country who helped make the beds, wash the dishes, shovel snow, feed the chickens, milk the cow, or anything else that needed doing. And all, for the most part, with a minimum of cash exchange. The farm families came to town every couple of weeks, when weather permitted, and brought what they could spare to help “set table” at the homes where their youngsters were living—fresh meat, milk, cream, butter, eggs, and any home vegetables they might have.

  The other solution, the dormitory, required first that they find a vacan
t house, and second that the mothers take turns living in town, cooking the meals, and seeing that the homework as well as the housework was done. The big problem that year was finding a vacant house in Flagler. One group from out north rented the converted boxcar next to ours. Another group bought a vacant lot and moved two old homestead shanties in, hooked them together, covered them with tar-paper, and made a habitable house of them.

  But most of the families had to rely on the foster-home system, which persisted, in that area at least, for another fifteen years, until centralized schools were established and far-ranging buses were as much a part of the school setup as the classrooms. It was a part of the tradition of self-help and neighborly assistance that had marked frontier life ever since settlement began to move west beyond the Alleghenies.

  As a newcomer, I had to register and as far as possible lay out my whole high school program. Mother had gone to my eighth grade teacher in Brush and got a full transcript of my record. In Brush I had made up enough of the schooling I missed on the homestead to finish the eighth grade not only at the top of my class but only one year behind my normal age group.

  The school principal, head of the whole school system in Flagler, was Professor W. L. Conley, a short, fat, firm, dignified man to whom education was not merely a profession but a calling. In the usual way of small-town schools, he was teacher as well as administrator, disciplinarian as well as counselor, practical as a piece of chalk, routine as a calendar. His wife, a slim, red-haired woman with a tongue like a whip, taught English and Latin. With four other teachers, they were responsible for all twelve grades.

  I went to see Professor Conley in his cluttered little office in the old grammar school building. He looked up from his desk, pushed a pile of papers aside, sat back in his squeaky swivel chair, pushed his steel-rimmed glasses up onto his forehead, and asked, “Yes?” I told him my name and he frowned, summoned his mind from wherever it had been, blinked his eyes tightly, and said, “Yes,” again, this time in recognition.

  I handed him my record from Brush. He stared at it for a moment. “Brush,” he said. “Good school. I knew a Mr. Johnson, Fred Johnson, from there. Met him in Greeley.” He hesitated. I made no response. I didn’t know any Fred Johnson from Brush. Professor Conley said, half to himself, “Or maybe it was from Eaton. No matter.” He picked up a pencil. He was the first person I ever knew who couldn’t seem to read without a pencil in his hand ticking off the lines. He nodded, glanced up at me. “You seem to be well prepared. I hope you plan to go on to college.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “You will need sixteen credits for college entrance. Four credits a year, four courses. This first year you will take English and geometry and Latin and a science, chemistry or physics. Which do you want to take this year?”

  “Professor Conley,” I said, “I want to finish high school in three years. So I want to take—”


  “I missed quite a bit of schooling while we were on the homestead. I made some of it up in Brush and I want to make up the rest of it now.”

  He frowned at my record, then at me. “I like to have a student take enough time to get everything out of a course. Not just race through.” He shook his head slowly. “Suppose you take the regular freshman course and perhaps take a heavier schedule next year.”

  “Couldn’t I—Look, Professor Conley, I hoped I could take six courses this year and six next year, and then have only four courses in my senior year. Wouldn’t that work?”

  “Six courses is a very heavy schedule.” He took his watch from his pocket, glanced at it, and I knew he wanted to cut this short.

  “I think I can handle it,” I said.

  He gave me a quick, hard glance and reached for his chart of class schedules. He made several check marks with his pencil and reached for a memo pad. “Very well.” There was an edge on his voice. “You may start with six courses and we will review your work at the end of the first month. I am putting you down for chemistry rather than physics, to leave you a free afternoon period. That’s the only way you can get the two electives. And there are only two that don’t conflict with your other classes, botany and geology.” He smiled at me then, a strangely triumphant smile, and dismissed me with a sigh and a gesture.

  I left thinking I had got what I wanted, feeling quite set up. Then I thought of botany and geology on top of chemistry. Three sciences. But I was interested in both botany and geology, we had had an elementary course in botany in the eighth grade in Brush, and I had read several books from the library about geology, including one textbook.

  High school classes were held in the old grammar school building and in the church, diagonally across the street from each other. Even now when I think of a Latin phrase I think of the church basement where we declined Latin verbs for Mrs. Conley beside the big coal furnace. When I reach for a botanical name I think of the upstairs corner room of the old grammar school, dingy and cluttered with makeshift scientific equipment—Professor Conley’s classroom, where he taught all the science courses. All of them, which included chemistry, botany and geology, exactly half of my schedule. That was why he had that triumphant smile the day I registered. It was sheer coincidence that the geology textbook was the one I had read in Brush. And since this was the first time he had ever taught botany, the whole first semester’s work covered ground I had already been over. If I hadn’t been only a good average student in chemistry, about which I knew virtually nothing to start with, I might have passed myself off for a time as a genius. Instead, he probably knew that I was simply a lucky smart-aleck.

  School soon began to settle into a routine. But I was restless. I wanted to play football. The boys I knew and went around with in Brush played football from the time they were ten years old. Every grade in grammar school had its football team, and there were two high school teams. Boys learned the game early and thoroughly. But in Flagler the only game that counted was basketball, which, of course, was the ideal smalltown sport. It could be played with a squad of only seven or eight players, and in those days they used any big room with a moderately high ceiling as a basketball court. As someone said, you could play the game “any place big enough to swing a lariat and high enough so a man on a horse won’t get his hat knocked off.” In Flagler they used Seal’s Hall, a second-floor room over the hardware store that was also used as a lodge hall by the Masons and the Odd Fellows and as a theater for home-talent shows and an auditorium for lyceum lectures and concerts. It was too narrow for a regulation basketball court, and the ceiling was only twelve or fifteen feet high, but it was the biggest hall in town. Some said, and I think it was true, that the bond issue for the new school building was voted in good part because the plans included a gymnasium with a full-size basketball court and a spectators’ gallery.

  Flagler’s basketball team had lost only one game in four years, and that one by a narrow margin to a semi-pro team from Kansas. Every boy in town with any talent for the game was expected to turn out for the team, but membership on the squad was almost like knighthood in King Arthur’s day. Freshmen hadn’t even as much standing as pages had in Arthur’s court. Everybody knew that the three members of last year’s team who were still in school would pick the members of the squad and lay down the rules of practice.

  A couple of Saturdays Little Doc and Spider and I went jack rabbit hunting, not for the rabbits so much as for the going, to get out, do something active. I brought up the subject of football, but neither of them was interested. So I finally went to talk with Leon Lavington.

  Leon was supposed to have been the first white child born in Flagler. He was the older son of W. H. Lavington, the man who started a grocery store in a tent and who now was the head of the Flagler State Bank. He had played baseball and football at the state university. Now he was in charge of the Ford garage, which his father had established only a few years earlier as the first automobile agency in town. Eventually Leon went into state politics, became an unsuccessful candidate for governor,
then was elected state treasurer for a term or two. But that was years later. Now he was fresh out of college, married only a few months, restless in an office, and still very much the athlete.

  I went to the garage office and found him sitting back of a desk, looking sour and surly. I said hello, and he just sat there staring at me. Then I said, “You said if we wanted to play football you would coach us.”

  He brightened immediately. “Have you got a team?” he asked.

  “No, not yet. But I’d like to play.”

  “Oh. Well, ten more and you’ll have a team, won’t you?” He looked at me and began to smile. I didn’t know why, but I know now. I was five feet seven inches tall, and I weighed 115 pounds fully dressed.

  “Did you ever play football?”

  “I played halfback on the eighth grade team in Brush. I did the kicking, and some of the passing, too.”

  “Well, well,” he said, not quite laughing at me. Then he went to a closet, got out a football, and said, “Come on.” He led the way through the garage to a big vacant lot out back. “Go down for a pass,” he ordered, and I trotted off. He threw a high, hard pass that I had to leap for, but I pulled it in and threw the ball back to him. We threw passes back and forth for ten minutes. Then he said, “Give me a punt this time.” The coach in Brush had taught me to put every ounce of my 115 pounds into a kick. I did it now and sent the ball a good forty yards, well over Leon’s head. “Do that again,” he ordered, and I did. A few more punts and I made a thirty-yard drop kick. Leon signaled that was enough, and we went back to his office. He put the ball away and said, half to himself, “Might even lick Hugo.” Then he turned to me and said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

  The next day at school several of the boys said, “Leon Lavington’s starting a football team. Let’s go see what happens.” Beyond that, I can only guess how it was done, but probably the athletic rivalry with Hugo was used as bait, especially for the boys who expected to play basketball. Hugo, county seat of Lincoln County and more than twice the size of Flagler, had been an athletic rival for years, the rivalry so keen that basketball games sometimes ended in free-for-alls, and baseball games between town teams always erupted in fist fights. Hugo was still proud of its cow-town past and liked to pose as a swaggering, two-gun cowpuncher who shot out the street lights every Saturday night. Actually, it was a law-abiding, progressive community that just happened to have a few leading characters who habitually thumbed their noses at conventions. Typical was the editor of the Hugo paper, Jerry Messimer, who had a ribald sense of humor and a colorful vocabulary of invective. When Hugo installed a municipal sewer system, Jerry ran the full text of James Whitcomb Riley’s underground poem, “The Passing of the Backhouse,” in a bordered box in the middle of his paper’s front page.

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