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The Rowboat (Part 6: Home Again)

December 1, 2016

My first months at the junior high school were so traumatic that memories of the experience are etched as vividly into my brain as are the photographs of slithering beasts and snarling gargoyles carved on the walls of a Sumerian tomb I saw in National Geographic when I was a youngster. I was so scared and tried so hard to not screw up that I can still remember my schedule, my teachers and where my seventh grade rooms were. First was Home Room on the second floor of the main building, then Grammar (Mr. Lynn in the Lincoln Building); Math (Mr. Olgenbruns back in the main building, first floor); History (Mr. McWhorter back to the Lincoln); Science (Mr. Poorbaugh, over in the Central Building); Geography (Mr. Coleman, next to the main office); then, finally, lunch back in the Central Building basement.

Quakertown Junior High 1964

I wasn’t especially small or weak, but I could hardly carry all my books. The halls between classes were a confusing chaos. It was noisy, and everybody was in a hurry; pushing and shoving. The principal (Mrs. Alhum), told us they would help, but instead, eighth and ninth graders liked to knock the stacks of books out of our hands then watch us scramble on our hands and knees while our homework papers were trampled underfoot. Though often on the verge of it, I don’t remember actually crying in the junior high, but a lot of my classmated did. I did have some nightmares I can still remember, though. They were about slithering beasts, snarling gargoyles and Mr. Olgenbruns.

The Lincoln and Central Buildings on 6th St.

By sixth period I was starving. A lot of the time I’d forget to fill-out my lunch order in Home Room and, instead of the Platter (white slip), I had to get a ‘pink slip’ lunch: soup and a bologna sandwich or something. Just getting up to Seventh Street on time, from our place way down near the Neidig, was tough. I didn’t get to take a bus and had to walk most of the time. Expecting me to remember to order lunch when I’d just barely gotten there, and was worried because I didn’t do my Math homework again (usually because I didn’t understand it), was unreasonable by my thinking.

Afternoons in seventh grade were shorter but more confusing. On different days I had either German, or Art, or Music, or Gym, or Reading, or Wood Shop. And, there was always another English class . . . then Home Room. For Home Room we were sorted alphabetically and, naturally, I was with the “R’s” and “S’s”. We were in the Home Economics Room. Mrs. Brown was our Home Room teacher and most of us thought she was an old witch. We were supposed to work on homework that period but it was almost impossible. Girls would come in to get measured for the dresses they were making. David Se— got sent to the principal’s office for hooting out loud when they measured Kathy La— right in front of everybody (she looked a lot more 'mature' than most of the girls in our class). Half the time, I just sat there with a book open on my sewing machine desk feeling antsy and warm.

By the time Brian Ka-- stole our rowboat I wasn't doing so well in school, particularly in German and Math. I got Yellow Slips in both of them part-way through the first grading period, warning my parents that I was flunking. It didn't seem to matter that I was getting A's in History and Geography. When on top of that, Ezzie's mom yelled at my mom again because Dan and I were such bad influences, we got grounded: not for stealing back our rowboat and hiding it way down the Tohickon, but because we were gone all day without telling her where we were. I was officially a teenager by then, and protested, but it didn’t do any good.

A couple of days later Tim Re-- came up to me in school and said he'd found our rowboat. Tim wasn't one of Ka--'s regular gang, but he hung around with him sometimes because they were neighbors. It was always safer to pretend to be Ka--'s friend. I was shocked that someone would follow the creek that far down, over a mile out of town, looking for our rowboat. 

“It was the obvious place to take it, up that little creek.  And, you didn't hide it very well," he said.

I was sure Tim was going to rat me out to Ka—, or maybe blackmail me. He didn't, though, just let me know he knew. I decided we had to move the rowboat as soon as possible, get it back up the Licking Run to our place. But how?  I was grounded and had my parents staring over my shoulder the whole time I was doing my German and Math homework (they didn’t understand it either and couldn’t help much, so it was just miserable torture).

Both my parents worked on Saturdays a lot of times; my mom at Fields Shoe Store, I think (if Hinkel and Biehn was already sold), and my dad up at Sears. By the next weekend, neither of them seemed to be as mad at us about everything, anymore, so we were grounded on the honor system. We had honor, but only to a point. Some things were more important. We had to go get our rowboat back before Ka-- found it. We stayed in our PJ's and pretended to be watching TV, but as soon as they left for work Dan and I quick got dressed and headed over to the Tohickon.

To be sure it was safe, I ran over to the corner of the fifth grade classroom and peeked behind the Neidig to see if maybe Ka-- and his gang were there and looking for the rowboat. They weren't. Dead-eye was out in his yard but he didn't see me. On the way back, I saw Ezzie looking out his living room window and waved to him (he waved back). There was no way he was going to be able to help this time, though. His mom didn’t use the honor system when he was grounded.

Instead of crossing the school field, where somebody might see us, Dan and I went up Penrose St. to Erie Ave. then walked out Erie Rd. We saw Lee St— in his yard when we crossed the Rocking Horse Bridge, but he was afraid of Ka— too, so we didn’t worry about it.  When we got to the bridge at Hager's Woods, we climbed through the barbed wire fence and followed a hedge row to the sewer plant chain link fence, then followed it.

We weren't sure exactly which way to go until we got to the old farm ruins. Again, Dan wanted to snoop around; which we did. We found some old bricks, broken bottles and pieces of rusted metal but nothing worth keeping. We dropped rocks through the crack in the flagstone cover and down the well again, to be sure it still had water in it. It was creepy, knowing there was a deep, dark pit there. We wondered if something maybe lived in it, like a Wendigo or something. There were big holes dug in the ground nearby with bones in front of them, so we scrammed out of there (we learned later it was a fox den).

After we crossed a pasture and found where Richlandtown Creek joined the Tohickon, we had to go right through the overgrown apple orchard. There was something real spooky about the place. It was a lot scarier walking through it than just sailing past it. It wasn’t that big, but it felt like we were lost in it. We expected the trees to start moving, like in the Tin Man’s forest in the Wizard of Oz. When we finally got to the other side, we ran into another rusty barbed wire fence. I tore my pants leg trying to quick get over it. We kept looking back toward the orchard because it felt like something was following us.

We had to plow our way through a sticker patch but in a little while we found the mouth of the Licking Run. Tim Re— was right; it was an obvious place to take a rowboat. We were lucky Ka— hadn’t made it that far downstream, yet. We went up the Licking Run a few dozen yards, and there was our boat, just like we left it; turned over and half covered with weeds and sticks.

We wanted to take it up the Licking Run back to our house and scouted upstream. First, there was a big tree fallen across the whole creek. We might have been able to get the rowboat under it if we sunk it first. Further up, there was a section where the creek was filled with thousands of rocks. It was the old driveway crossing, to get from 313 to the farm ruins. It would be tough for just two of us to drag it past there. After that, we weren’t sure where the creek went. It was deeper above the rocks and we’d have to wade through it up to our waists. We didn’t know how far it was, but knew the Licking Run eventually went behind the houses on Broad and Elm Streets. The creek there was full of black, stinky mud, old tires and other junk. Plus people would see us there. We also knew we’d eventually have to get over the dam at the Rocking Horse Bridge at Erie Ave.

We finally decided, since we knew that way and it looked easier, that we’d just take it back up the Tohickon and hope Ka— wasn’t around. The water was cold and we had to drag it the whole way, going against the current. It took us forever just to get back up to Hager’s Bridge. We took a break and scouted upstream again. We didn’t see them, but up past The Narrows we heard kids in the woods. We were sure it was Ka— and his gang (it wasn’t, but we didn’t know that, then).

Because of that, going on up the Tohickon was out. Dan and I almost killed ourselves but we got the rowboat up the bank and into the ditch along Erie Road. We dragged it past Hager’s Woods and to the edge of the stubbled cornfield that went all the way up, behind the houses on Erie Road, to Kelly’s driveway. If we got it that far we’d have to take it straight across the school field to get it to our house. I thought we could maybe just drag it up the road instead, until a car came by. The guy blew his horn and yelled at us to get off the road. We had no choice. We had to take it cross the cornfield.

We thought it might drag easy since the cornfield was muddy, but it didn’t. It was a thick, sticky mud and we could hardly move it. Finally, we decided to try rolling it. We turned the rowboat sideways and flipped it over, then flipped it over again, and again and again. It thumped the ground hard. Nails and caulking started coming loose, but we were too tired to care. We stopped to rest, sat on our upside down rowboat and looked up the cornfield. I figured we’d have to flip it over a thousand times before we got to Kelly’s road.

“It’ll fall to pieces by then,” Dan said.

He was right. “We can’t just leave it here in the middle of the field. Ka— will find it for sure, just sitting out here like this,” I said.

Dan said, “Let him have it, then. I’m sick and tired of this stupid rowboat!”

It made me mad.

We had no idea what time it was, and our parents were home from work already. While we were sitting there, covered with mud and arguing about what to do, we saw my dad come driving down Erie Road in the station wagon. He’d gone over to Ezzie’s to find out if we were there when we weren’t at home, like we were supposed to be. Ezzie had no choice, withhis mom standing right there, and ratted us out.

My dad was really mad. He made us drag the rowboat over to the car by ourselves. He tied the rope to the back bumper and made us get in. He drove slow but dragged our rowboat right up Erie Road, scraping the bottom along the asphalt the whole way. He didn’t even stop at Penrose St.; went right to Ambler then down to Forest Ave., turned the corner and pulled up in front of our house.  He slammed the car door, didn’t say anything and went straight in the house. We had to cut the rope because the knot was so tight then dragged our rowboat into the back yard.

Later that week, I saw Ka— somewhere. It must have been out town where there were people around and I was safe. I was still scared, though. He stormed right up to me, got two feet in front of my face and said, “I heard you were dragging my rowboat down the street! You better not have wrecked it.”

I mumbled, “It’s our rowboat,” and walked away.

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