By Rebecca F. Rikleen, a member of Get Your Wordsworth
We could hear it from around the bend. he boxy bus, bright yellow, high on its wheels, bumped around the curve and stopped at Oatis Viele’s garage each morning at 7:30, barely daylight in December. Up its steep steps my younger brother and I hoisted ourselves and sat down quietly. Our cheeks were red and our breath was visible. Already on the bus were the silent gangly boys from the farms: one from Turnwood, another from the farm next to the fishery, and a third from next to the YMCA camp. My brother and I were new. If they noticed us, it was with a deep reserve, the withdrawn quiet of people who worked alone with their strong arms and their own thoughts.
The sounds of the slow 13-mile ride to school were the noises of the motor, the clutch, the brakes, the laboring up a hill, no singing, no shouting. We sat shy, not even talking. We stared out the window, watching to see if the schoolmate at the next stop was there. The bus would wait three minutes, longer if we were early. Was he sick? If he came on he sat silent like the rest of us.
The high seats with straight backs bounced and swerved us along the winding road, keeping to the course of the stream. The water might be high, surging noisily around the worn stones, or it might be low with the stones all exposed. In the long winter white crusts of ice and tall hats of snow sat over the water’s rush. “Water is low” or “Water is high” was the appropriate conversation. We were not likely to spot animals because our noisy motor gave warning.
We memorized the route. There was Lew Beach, the small crossroad with only a garage and bar. The father, Cliff Stewart, tall and gaunt always in the same overalls waited at the gas pumps. His oldest son, Cecile, slight and pale, later got elected to Town Supervisor, and enveloped himself in a sex scandal with a farmer’s wife. He was a drunk and died before he got old. A younger son, in school with us, died when a truck hit his motorcycle. The entire high school attended his funeral in the small Lew Beach Cemetery.
Around the next curve was an old farm cemetery, a dozen old stones on the slope. Around another curve stretched the horse farm, then the exclusive fishing club for rich members from the city, with their hip boots and casting rods. We passed acres of state park, covered with second growth trees and brush. Before the state bought them these stony fields had been cleared of the maples and oaks; the stones had been lifted out and piled on one another to fence the fields. These fields yielded meager crops. Finally we saw the small cluster of homes built by generations of Decker family; the half dozen homes bore the honorary title Deckertown. At last we turned onto Route 17 where smooth highway took us the remaining 2 miles to Livingston Manor and school.
Classmates who lived in town were children of shop keepers, or of taxi drivers, carpenters, the bakery. They chatted and flirted in the lunch room, and I imagined them on sports teams, having outings and romantic times together. They dressed better and had a confident air. They went to movies and the ice cream parlor. They knew everyone in town.
The new central school, first grade through twelfth, was big and fine for a poor community in the Catskill Mountains. Red brick wings stretched out from a central spire along the Beaverkill Stream. The corridors were wide with marble insets. Large parking space and playing fields lay behind. WPA had built it shortly before I arrived, my grade had twenty-six students, my French class, five. The science teacher took our graduation photos with his hand camera. He printed our personal calling cards which we exchanged with classmates. We wrote “best wishes” or “have a happy life” on the backs.
School for me was strictly classes, because the school bus waited, ready to take us home. No teams, no clubs, no night time functions, no parties, no hanging out, no social visits. No distractions from homework. In the long idle winter evenings I invented a game: telephone one of the boys, laugh and hang up.
That bus came without fail, never late, as the season grew soft and warm, then hot, and in the next season once again crisp, windy and cold. The driver stopped, swung open the door for us, nodded, then closed it and went on. No need to waste words.
For my brother and me it was always a scramble to get to the pick-up spot on time. In our headlong morning rush, our books slowed us only a little, but on the long trudge home after school, the uphill mile and then the steep rise to home, they pulled our arms down and dragged our legs. We kicked the pebbles on the red dirt road. No hurry now, warm afternoon, tired, shackled. I asked my brother to carry my books, but although he was altogether a very satisfactory brother, he refused.
We stopped at the spring and bent far over and put our mouths to the rusty pipe for a swallow of its icy water. Across the road wizened shrunken Hank Christian rocked on his meager porch and waved to us. We visited him sometimes, in his two tiny rooms with low ceilings, walls tightly sealed from the weather with sheets of plastic. On cold days his coal stove warmed us for a few minutes. In the dark interior a small table was set with tin cup and plates, all old. Nothing had been shifted or painted forever. He pulled up his pants leg to show us the growth on his leg the size of a cantaloupe, brown, with raised surface veins. No, he wouldn’t see any doctor. And if he had only a few teeth left, they sufficed.
In the spring of 1940 a plague of gypsy moths infested the mountain maples. All along that mile to the school bus each morning and afternoon we walked through the silken threads of the caterpillars lowering themselves from the overarching trees. We could not avoid the sticky threads or the small caterpillars dropping on our hair, our shoulders, the back of our necks as we bent forward to protect our faces. Then once clear, we gingerly pulled off the squirming green caterpillars and brushed off the white threads. It did no good to step on them; we were outnumbered. The forested mountains turned brown with bare branches for the rest of that growing year.
Now years later I ride from time to time on a yellow school bus, as teacher or helper for a children’s trip, or for a senior tour. It is the same bus, with the same uncomfortable seats, but buzzing with chatter and laughter. Inside my aged self I am the same young girl, sitting with my adored younger brother, shyly noticing the boys in the back, memorizing every curve of the road.
Everything has changed on our old route. Even the road is different from my school days. The red dirt is now tarred and widened to two lanes. The little graves are still there, headstones leaning into the slope. Oatis Viele’s garage is gone. The Lew Beach garage is gone. The beautiful stream and hills are now large estates for wealthy men. Nothing stays the same. But I will end up there in the small Agudas Achim Cemetery a few miles away, on a steep hill next to my husband, near my mother and father. I accept it matter-of-factly, although I don’t like thinking of the cold and wet sticky clay. I can sense why it would be comforting to imagine a reunion, a resurrection. But I won’t be comforted by such wishes. I will be part of those stony hills that keep changing yet remain the same.
Jan, 1996 updated Feb, 2007
Rebecca Rikleen ran an early childhood full-day program, used her spare time to create assemblages out of discarded children’s toy pieces, wrote, and finally worked hard at painting when she retired.She is a young painter and fledgling writer. She says, “Even though I am an old woman, and unfortunately, there is no short cut to honing skills. In my head I was always a painter and a writer. The eye and hands are trying to catch up.”