Here Yesterday, Gone Tomorrow
Commander Lee Crane eyeballed the crowded parking lot, then scanned the road ahead of him. People were parking as far up town as the Methodist Church. He spotted someone pulling out from a space on a grassy area near the side parking lot. His small rental car slid into the spot before anyone else was the wiser. There was a fine drizzle falling which added to his mood. He would not have missed this event for the world, but it was bittersweet. He stood by his car ignoring the rain, gazing at the old red brick school building. The chimney from the long unused coal oil furnace still stood proudly above the roof of the main section of the school. Though showing its age, Lee thought the whole place was still grand and proud. It was where he had gone to school for six years, middle school through high school.
When he had first come here as a kid, Lee thought he had been relegated to the lower depths of Mongolia. After his graduation, though, he was glad he had gone that long to a smaller school. It was what he needed during the time before and after his dad’s death.
This old building had educated kids for over 80 years. Along with its predecessor, the country school boasted almost a hundred years of continuous operation. Crane could see where the old shop building had been added; the gym, new cafeteria. He chuckled. Well, the cafeteria and gym had been new in the late fifties. Memory came flooding back.
"Gentlemen, I am only going to tell you once. This is a brand new gym and a new gym floor. You WILL NOT wear your street shoes in here. You will not bring any drinks in here. No food, except during basketball games and then heaven help you if you spill your Cokes on the floor. Don’t even think about sneaking in skates—before, during or after school. And gum will not be tolerated!" Coach Stevens, Lee remembered. He was not that tall, bald as a billiard ball, but he was a bull dog and in your face if you did or said anything he considered stupid. Lee thought the guy was as big as a Mack truck the first time he stood in line getting instructions. Yet, if Coach thought there was anything wrong with one of ‘his kids’, he would call them into his office; give them a chance to talk about it. Like the year his father died. "Lee, you’re right. You’ll miss your dad for a long time; all your life. But you’re wrong if you think he won’t be here for your meets. He’ll be here, son. I promise you that and he’ll be cheering you on."
As the student population shrank and the school became a K through 8 school, the side building with its connecting covered walkway had been converted into a community health clinic. That had been several years after he had graduated. The first year he attended, an inside playroom on one side of the gym had become the library. Lee smiled. He wondered if his spit-wad was still stuck to the middle twenty-foot high window. It had remained all the way to the year he graduated. He didn’t blame the janitors for not wanting to get up on ladders that high to clean the windows. It was bad enough that they had to climb up on the flat roof next to the playground to get the stray kick balls and baseballs. Seemed every time they did, they found other stuff, too. There was the time they brought down three shoes, five pairs of socks (not matched) and a pair of boxers. Lee didn’t even want to venture a guess whose that was.
The librarian didn’t mess around either,; ("Students, this is a library, not a track meet!"), but Lee was sure her extra sick leave on the days his class came to the library wasn’t by chance. They were a large class, almost thirty of them, and by his own admission, they could be a handful. He remembered the times it got below freezing and the pipes from the furnace to the radiators were clanging almost too loud for Mrs. Cole to be heard. Crane remembered the first time he had heard those pipes. He leaped to his feet wondering if the Communists had invaded. Everyone stared at him. Some began snickering. "Mr. Crane, heated steam in cold pipes creates a clanging noise as it travels to the radiators," Mrs. Cole informed him. More snickering. Lee felt the heat rise in his face. "I know about radiators, Mrs. Cole, I just didn’t know they made that much noise." Then Andy made a smart remark. He thought he was a real comedian. "Why do you think you’re sitting over there, Crane? Too much pressure—Pow! There goes the valve! One less kid in the class." As though on cue, the pressure release valve whistled and blew a small blast of steam. Lee jumped again and everyone laughed out loud. He could see a slight smile on Mrs. Cole’s face before her lips tightened together into her ‘she’d had enough’ look. He saw that often in his class, but when he was checking out books, she would help him find just the right ones and in his favorite subject—the sea and ships. Mrs. Cole had recommended Moby Dick, A Year Before the Mast, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Horatio Hornblower for his fiction and Jacques Cousteau, John Lilly and other scientists for his non-fiction reading. Lee remembered her handing him a copy of The Living Sea one afternoon. He knew it had not been in the card catalog. When he looked up, she had a smile on her face. "Don’t worry about getting it back to me right away, Lee. Enjoy it as long as you want." He figured she had gotten it at the book store for him. His mother returned the book after he left for the Academy. Mrs. Cole penned a note in it and gave it right back. The book had a spot of honor in his office at the Institute. Crane wondered if Mrs. Cole was still alive. He would find out today. Everyone was here for the celebration before the school closed forever.
Crane walked down the hallways, remembering. There were third, fourth and fifth grade classrooms where he and the other middle and high school aged kids used to prowl. Most of the lockers had been painted to look like scenes from a city. Candy store, library, bank, grocery store, etc. He chuckled. That wouldn’t have been tolerated in his day. The kids at the school now had done timelines and events cards and pictures of the school’s history and put them up in the halls. He peered closer at some of them, feeling that some of this talent was going to be lost in the effort to assimilate in a school four times the population of this one. Of course, he had assimilated into the Academy pretty quickly. These kids would too. Change was part of life, but would they have the same wonderful memories he had? He wondered.
It felt like he was at a funeral thinking about this building standing empty and lonely; reading epitaphs on the walls. There was something….
Lee turned and saw an older woman, someone who looked familiar and not-familiar at the same time. The eyes…. "Mrs. Rayburn?" She had been the office assistant when he attended.
She stared at his uniform. He had chosen to wear his NIMR uniform rather than civilian attire. Her face crinkled into a huge smile. "Lee Crane! Or should I say Commander Crane?"
Lee felt himself blushing. "You call me what you always called me, Mrs. Rayburn."
"Trouble-maker? Scamp? Speedy?"
They both laughed.
"I’m so glad you were able to come, Lee."
"So am I. It’s hard to believe…. I thought this place would always be here."
She laid her hand on his arm. "I know. We have seen this day coming for some years. Ever since they started sending our high school students to Deever Valley." She looked him up and down. "I am so proud of you. So young and doing such important things." She took his arm. "Come with me. I want to show you something."
Mrs. Rayburn led him down the hall to the lower grades and then out the door. There was a portable building that hadn’t been there when he attended. Of course, the school hadn’t always been under-populated. Inside were yearbooks on tables, pictures on the walls, drawings, trophies on the shelves…. It was a kind of hall of fame. Mrs. Rayburn pointed, but Lee had already seen it. There was a drawing of Seaview and a picture of the command crew in dress blues next to it. Below was a neatly written paragraph about his tenure at the school and another paragraph describing some of his accomplishments after graduation. There were a few pictures below that Lee knew had been reproduced from yearbooks past. Track, a pep rally photo, science fair, class picture. He felt flattered and embarrassed at the same time.
"The kids thought it was really cool that the school had a submarine commander among the alumni," Mrs. Rayburn continued.
Lee looked at the other mini-biographies. He knew some of the students, but was impressed with all the accomplishments of his fellow ‘Braves.’ Jeffrey Burris had become a heart surgeon. Wendy Mills was head nurse at a large hospital in Atlanta. Mike Willis was a district attorney in a nearby county. There were businessmen including a CEO of a company, technicians, and many other professions. Most surprising of all, Andy, the comedian had built a chain of restaurants. Not bad for a school that had begun as something the farmer’s kids could learn their letters and figures in.
Lee finished and wandered back down to the main part of the school. He bought the final yearbook that also contained details about the school’s past. He looked at more displays, read more students’ writing. On his way to the gym, where speakers would be celebrating the school’s past, he stopped at the cafeteria. Mrs. Crawford always gave him extra scoops of mac and cheese or potatoes or fried chicken, trying to ‘put a little meat on his bones’. Cookie would have loved her. She was a darned good cook, too, despite working in an institution like a school. Lee knew her daughter was a teacher here. There were many families whose children had gone through the school system and returned as teachers or administrators. Just another tradition that was going to disappear.
They were serving pulled pork sandwiches with all the trimmings. Free. What a nice way to expend the funds at the end of the last year, Lee thought. He got in line and watched the workers fill up his tray. Some things never changed. After grabbing an iced tea Lee looked around for an empty space. He finally found one next to a very old lady—someone else who looked familiar/unfamiliar. Again it was the eyes. "Mrs. Cole?"
She peered at him closely and adjusted her glasses. "Lee Crane! You came back!"
"Yes, ma’am. It’s wonderful to see you!"
"I almost didn’t make it, Lee. This weather does a number on my joints." She pointed to the younger man next to her. They were obviously related. "This is my son, Mark. He was gracious enough to bring us out today. My husband is wandering around somewhere."
Mark laughed and shook hands with Lee. "I came here a couple of years, so Mom didn’t have to coax me very hard. Glad to meet you, Commander. Mom’s told me a lot about you."
"It’s so good to see you, Lee," Mrs. Cole said. "I don’t have to ask what you’ve been doing these past few years. You made use of your reading."
"That book you gave me sits prominently in my personal library. Thank you for helping me so much." He took bites of his meal in between reminiscing with his former librarian. She told stories about him and his classmates until he almost choked with laughter. When they both finished their meal he asked about other teachers. "Coach?"
She shook her head. "Died about five years ago. Continued teaching until his health forced him out. Same story for me." Mrs. Cole wiggled gnarled fingers. "Arthur Itis came visiting," she said, her eyes twinkling. "Retirement is good, too, but I often miss teaching. Margaret Reynolds is here; so is Millie Warren, except she’s Millie Montgomery now."
Miss Reynolds was his twelfth grade science and history teacher. Miss Warren taught English. Lee and Mrs. Cole talked a little more until it became obvious that the cafeteria was getting crowded.
"Why don’t we go on into the gym? They’re going to have a program soon, aren’t they?" Lee asked.
"Yes. All those lovely pictures of principals past are going to be given to them or their families. County officials, superintendant’s going to speak, too. The children are going to put on a program, at the end. Can’t miss that!"
Lee held out his arm and Mrs. Cole took it. They walked slowly into the gym and found seats. He gazed around and saw the Indian brave still proudly displayed on the wall above the bleachers. The stage had the back drops of a play. It was green and sparkly and there seemed to be a city in the far background. Wizard of Oz, he guessed. Appropriate, Lee thought. These days Oz and little country schools lived only in the imaginations and minds of those who loved them.
"It gets in your blood," Mrs. Cole leaned over and whispered. An older man had joined her. Mrs. Cole’s husband.
"Like an entity," Lee murmured. "Something formed of all those who have walked through these hallways."
"And loved and learned and cried and dreamed…. You feel it, too? I always have."
"It’s the same with my boat. There is something special there that watches over and protects us. It’s a part of the submarine."
"Maybe the bricks will someday disappear, but a part of this school will always live in the hearts of those who were a part of her," Mrs. Cole replied. A tear trickled down her cheek. Lee handed her his handkerchief.
As he walked back out into the rain after the program, Lee repeated her words in his mind. He watched the old school recede in his rear view mirror and realized that a part of it had always resided in his heart. It had helped form who he was. He took one last look as he rounded the curve out of town. In his mind, he saw the sun shining on the main entrance, inviting and warm. It would always be there, Lee thought . . . in his memory.
Dedicated to Birchwood School and all who had the great fortune to walk her halls. slk
This is a piece based on the school I worked in for six years. Birchwood School closed forever on May 24th, 2013. I loved that school. It took me in and made me a part of it when I didn’t think there would ever be another school for me to go to. As I told several of the teachers, I died and God sent me to heaven when I was hired there. I would still have been at Birchwood Elementary had I not been transferred two years ago. It had grown too small to support a full time certified librarian. Birchwood Elementary is a dying breed of school—a community school.
I used Lee Crane as the protagonist not only because he is the one I am most comfortable writing, but also because when I showed a picture of the school to David Hedison at a convention, he said he had gone to a school that looked like that. Whether it was a country school or not, I remembered and pictured Lee Crane being a part of a school like Birchwood.
Below is a recent write-up about Birchwood and some of the other people who have been a part of it. sue