I was six years old today, and I was just beginning to learn what a birthday means. It wasn’t and isn’t only about getting presents and getting attention from the adults around you. It is about having been born. As a child, it is about being borne by the adults upon whom you rely. Later on, you find that a birthday is about the life you must carry with family, friends, acquaintances and strangers who, encompassed, carry you further. It is about what you give to all of them in return.
I attended Lincoln Elementary School, in Augusta, Maine. I had a new mom and a new home. I had a baloney sandwich with mustard in a brown paper bag, because it was any day other than Friday, the day when we Catholics had to bring tuna fish sandwiches or at least meatless lunches to school. I do believe that bagged lunches helped all Catholic moms remember which day of the week it was. I also had an apple in the brown paper bag. I had little youthful trust in my new mom, but, heck, she had my lunch ready most every morning, and she made Maypo for breakfast most every day.
Who hoards brown paper bags? Ecologists? Puppeteers? Practical moms? Many women are expected to be all three. I guess my new mom was getting to the end of the under-sink, brown bag reserve that day, for the bag was huge; she had scissored it down to a manageable height, but it still had far more interior than a boy’s lunch would ever require.
I was six years old today. I ate my Maypo, got my big bag of lunch, and headed off to school. I decided to take a shortcut and eat the apple as I went.
Dearly I ask you, do you know what a shortcut means to a six year-old boy? In all practicality, I needed simply to take a right turn out the front door, walk down Prospect Street, take Winthrop Street straight downhill for about a quarter mile, and go left at the huge, red brick public school. Not on your life. I knew then what I know now about shortcuts, and those in-the-know call them “the scenic route.” Eating my apple, there were fences to hop, brambles to untangle, neighbors to meet, and, eventually, thistles to pull from my socks, shirt, pants, and hair, as I would stand line for the morning bell.
How is school for a six year-old boy? If one may not have an adventure in transit, one must make an adventure of the classroom itself. To my experience, most schoolteachers are dismayed by young boys’ school day “adventures” in the classroom, so we try to get them while we can. That morning, I first decided to take the shortcut though Mrs. Spencer’s hedges, yard, and driveway. Mrs. Spencer and Betsy were a latter-day pair of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Mrs. Spencer had dementia and an Oldsmobile 98 with the original Maine State license plate of number 99. Betsy drove the Olds and was Mrs. Spencer’s caretaker. My shortcut had me climbing over that car to get behind their house where there was an embankment I could slide down on last autumn’s slippery oak leaves.
“What are you doing out there, boy?” Mrs. Spencer shouted through a window, “Bring about my horses!”
Of course, there were neither horses nor a stable boy since she had been a young girl. Now it was just the Oldsmobile 98 and Betsy. I slid down the hill on the leaves and lost my half-eaten apple. I dug around for it for a few minutes and gave up. I stuck some acorns in my pocket instead. My butt was muddy and wet. I crawled through some brambles, stood up, reached up, and tugged down a handful of lilac blossoms. I would suck out their pollen later. I put them in with my lunch, and then I crossed the street at the bottom of the hill. My shortcut continued toward an expanse of front, side, and back yards; there were quite some neighbors to meet and fences yet to climb. I ran through an open lawn toward an apple tree. It was near a short chain-link fence leading me to the next yard. I figured jumping from the crotch of the tree would get me over the little fence. It did not. I caught my pant leg on the top of the fence and plonked my head onto a spongy lawn. A woman wearing Bermuda shorts, an oxford shirt, a pith helmet and gardening gloves, holding a pair of pruning clippers, looked up from her gardening.
Stuck on the fence, my feet pointed to the sky, I had an earful of sod. She walked over to where I was hanging. She smirked.
“So, what’s up?”
“It’s my birthday.”
“Let’s get you down offa there.”
She unhooked my pants from the fence. I stood up and rubbed my ear.
She looked at the driveway toward a motorcycle. “You know, I have a boy a lot like you,” she said.
I saw where she was looking. “Is he still in bed?”
“No, he’s in Viet Nam.”
“Oh, is he in the army?”
“Uh-uh. He’s a Marine.”
“I wanna be in the army.”
“I want him to be a doctor.”
“Okay, well, I gotta go to school.”
She ruffed my hair. “Yes, my darling, you really do.”
“It’s my birthday.”
She pulled a piece of grass from my eyebrow and nuzzled in my ear, “Now it’s mine too, kiddo.”
I thought it strange that we had the same birthday.
I ran out her front yard, making sure that I closed the little chain-link gate behind me. As I did, I took a look back at the motorcycle, and I guess she had just washed it. There was still soap in the sand, and it shone in the sunlight. I hoped that lady wasn’t lonely.
The gate across the street was of blue picket fence, and I hopped it without catching my pants or hitting my head on the ground. I whipped around the house to the backyard and checked that brown bag with my lunch. It was losing its creases.
“HEY!” I heard, “What are you doing?” It was a man, sitting on the back steps, reading the newspaper and smoking a cigarette.
“I’m going to school. It’s my birthday.”
“Oh, is it? Well, let me see what I got.” He went to reach for his pockets, but realized he was still in his boxer shorts. “Hold on, kid.” He stood up and went into his house. He returned, clanking coins in his hand. “Here ya go sport. Happy birthday.”
He gave me thirty-five cents, two nickels and a quarter. I was rich.
“What time do you have to be at school?”
“Well, it’s five after. You’d better run, birthday boy.”
I stuck the coins in my pocket with the acorns. “Thanks, mister!”
Jumping his back fence, run I did. I got to Lincoln School ten minutes late. I scrambled up the staircase to Mrs. Brown’s kindergarten room and knocked on the door. They had already said the Pledge of Allegiance, and I interrupted her reading aloud to the class. She approached.
“Michael. You’re late.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Brown.”
“Wait here,” she ducked her head back in the door. “Class, please behave for a moment.”
She clacked to the first-grade classroom.
“Miss Harden, will you please watch my class while I bring this boy to the principal’s office?”
I was filthy with leaves, soil, and grass stain. I clutched my deteriorating lunch bag. Miss Harden glowered at me and said, “Yes, Mrs. Brown, of course.”
The first-grade class tittered. Mrs. Brown snagged me by the shoulder hem and pulled me back down the interminable stairs and halls to the principal’s office. He was Mr. Jordan. We marched to the front of his secretary’s desk.
“Hello Dorothy, is Mr. Jordan in?” Still holding my shirt, Mrs. Brown waggled me, as much to shake off my accumulated grime and foliage as to indicate her subject. “Michael is late today.”
We could all hear Mr. Jordan through his half-opened door shouting at somebody on the phone, so he was obviously in.
“Let me see,” Dorothy answered. She pushed a button on the intercom.
Mr. Jordan yelled, “What is it, Dorothy?”
“A tardy student from Mrs. Brown’s kindergarten class, Mr. Jordan.”
“Well, get him in here.”
I didn’t know what was the use of the intercom. They could hear each other fine.
In his office, Mr. Jordan was pudgy, seated, wore a dark, wrinkled suit, and his non-neck led up to a bright-red face stuck under the graying, balding pate of a television banker.
“Good morning, Mrs. Brown, what is this?”
“Michael Chandler was late for school.”
Mr. Jordan’s eyes narrowed, and he didn’t take them or his half-glasses off me as he opened a file drawer in his desk. He barely glanced down, and he drew out a mimeographed sheet of paper.
“Should we call his parents?” he asked.
“I think we should,” said Mrs. Brown.
Mr. Jordan looked at the piece of paper, pressed a button on his phone and dialed. “Hello?” he demanded, “Is this Mr. Chandler? Your son was late to school today.”
His face got redder.
“What? No. Who is this? Is Mrs. Chandler there?”
My folks had a party line which we shared with Mr. Burliss, a cranky old man who lived about five doors down and and didn't really know how to use the party line. He picked up about half of our calls. Mr. Jordan’s face got closer to purple.
“Yes, yes, I see,” and he slammed down the phone. He locked eyes with me. “I don’t like this, and I don’t have time for this. Why are you late?”
I looked down at my messy clothes.
“I guess because I took a shortcut.”
Mr. Jordan rose, and his clip-on necktie caught on the key of his top desk-drawer, yanking the tie from his shirt collar. He leaned on his big oak desk and shouted, “What do you think this is?! Your birthday?!!”
I reached into my lunch bag.
“Do you and Mrs. Brown want some lilacs?”