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A Yankee Notebook

September 10, 2012


GILL, MASSACHUSETTS – There are nine of us here around the table, classmates from the Class of 1953. We’re discussing plans for our 60th school reunion next June. Sixty years? Is it likely that much time has gone by? I still recognize everybody here – though time has dusted us liberally with the ashes of age – and the mannerisms and personalities are much the same as they were in that distant time when the world was our oyster and anything was still possible.

I can’t help but reflect what a happy accident it was that I landed here in the first place. The juvenile justice system of Onondaga County, New York, had concluded that my sentence for imaginative high jinks was to be exile, to either a state or a private institution. My parents, with their ties in the evangelical community, found this school, named by its founder Mount Hermon, after the supposed Mount of Transfiguration. The symbolism didn’t dawn on me till decades later.

The school had, from my parents’ viewpoint, three outstanding virtues. First, it was cheap – at the time, a now-unimaginable $750 – and the school offered A $250 scholarship. Second, it was founded by the famous 19th-century evangelist Dwight L. Moody, and welcomed boys of every ethnicity and religion, though the so-called Bible course focused on the Christian gospels. I’m sure my parents prayed that would sort me out. Third, every student was required to put in two hours a day, five days a week, at some sort of job. The job included travel time on the large campus, so the actual time spent toiling was about 1 hour, 40 minutes. But it was a serious commitment, and our performance became part of our school record.

The theory was that work is ennobling, and that by doing it well we could advance to less strenuous and cleaner occupations. The school bards had adapted an old Yale student song, “Eli Yale,” to suit our work program. Thus: “When freshman first we came to Gill, of picking rocks we had our fill, Fol-di-rol-di-rol, rol, rol....In sophomore year we left the rocks, and went to the laundry washing socks....In junior year we left the sheets, and went to the kitchen pickling beets....In senior year we left the cooks, and went to the office keeping books,” all of this punctuated with a chorus of “DL, DL, DLM,” in honor of our founder.

Some of us noticed that the students who advanced most reliably up the ladder of presumably more desirable jobs were those who comported themselves with an old New England school dignity. They became student deacons, they sat in the balcony and took attendance in daily chapel, and they dined frequently with the headmaster. Responsible waiters became headwaiters, standing guard at the entrance doors of the dining hall and encouraging behavior required by their superintendent, the ever-vigilant Mr. Petschke. Others remained kitchen help.

I was among those not promoted to any exalted position, which I’ve long attributed to my wardrobe of cheap corduroy sport coats and flowered polyester ties. Whatever the reason, I really enjoyed the jobs I did get. Entering as a sophomore of 15, I was sent first to the apple orchard, where I met my very first bona fide Yankee, the supervisor of that part of the farm. From the orchard I went to grading apples and cranking the cider press. Then I was the inside man in the silo: As the chopped corn-and-molasses silage came squirting through a tiny hatch far above me, I spread it around and kept treading so as not to be suffocated. (The headmaster, in a brief talk today, pointed out that OSHA had caused a diminution in the work jobs available to students.)

When the silo was full, and my clothes shaken out and washed, it was off to the building where the chickens were killed, dipped, and plucked. This was a new one on me, which I shall not describe because it might be a new one on you, too. My job, as the carcasses were removed from a scalding that loosened their feathers, was to hold them by the feet while a rotating drum studded with rectangles cut from old rubber tires beat them featherless. OSHA would have balked at that one, too. Next in line were the eviscerator and a couple of students who picked off the pinfeathers.

When the hog- and chicken-butchering were over, the last of the turnips pulled, and the farm put to bed for the winter, I was assigned to the cow barn. While some of my classmates spent their two hours each winter day shoving icy coal down chutes at the school train station, or feeding the roaring furnaces in the power plant, I spent my time with a gentle herd of ladies as happy as I was to be in out of the weather. I shoveled ordure from the trough into a hanging overhead monorail dump cart that then traveled downhill through the lower barns to its destination in the manure room. My pals and I often raced to a junction switch where the rails converged. These races, like many in other sports, did not always end happily. And my roommate objected to my returning to our room without showering and changing. But it was a great winter.

I then graduated to my cleanest job – scrubbing the bathroom, shower stalls and floor, and swimming pool deck each day with Alpha Pine. Naturally, in order to really get into it, I worked in the buff – like Governor Shumlin chasing bears. Then, after sweeping the bottom of the pool with a very long-handled push broom, I dove down to the pool drain at the ten-foot-deep end and plucked the band-aids and other trash off the grill. All this without direct supervision or monitoring.

The kids here nowadays do only four hours a week, mainly because there are fewer jobs they’re allowed by law to do. I don’t care much for people who claim kids would be better off if they had to do what we did. I don’t know. It was fascinating, but we were lucky to graduate with all our digits. Sixty years later, mine don’t wiggle as freely; but at least there are still ten of them.

Photo by Willem lange