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Restigouche River, New Brunswick

SCHOOL DAYS

    A few years ago I visited my old school grounds. I sat down on the new school steps and sadly turned hack the pages in the book of time, some sixty years ago. I saw myself as a little boy almost as though I were a stranger and I wondered where the years had gone. Most everything had changed, even the big tree that we played around, had long since gone. I thought of my first day at school. It was just as vivid in my mind as though it was yesterday. The sounds and the strangeness of it all, it is something I will always remember, but I suppose every child remembers that first day. It is one of the most important days of their lives.
    I remembered the class opened at nine A. M. with a morning prayer. I remembered the strange smell of my new slate and pencil and the horse that I drew instead of the letters A. B. C. that the teacher had put on the top of my slate and told me to copy, but to me that horse was a real masterpiece. I again saw the pointer that the teacher held in her right hand, sometimes slapping her left hand with it. I suppose just a reminder of things to come if we were unruly. I re membered we little boys eating our lunch under a big spruce tree at the back of the school yard and that terrible cat and nine tails the teacher was supposed to have in her desk, although no one really seen it, but they knew it was there because they saw her looking in there once in awhile. I remembered our closing hymn: 'Abide with Me." It has been my favorite hymn throughout my life.
   On my first day in school I was entering a new world. In the old days, when I was a boy, we usually had to leave school at an early age, so our school life was gone all too soon, but a few lucky ones got through high school and were considered fairly well educated. In those days we respected our teacher and never were on a first name basis. We avoided her if we could, but if we met her on the street we tipped our caps to her.
   I use the term 'her' as we never had a male teacher in our school. When people speak of the old schools, they always refer to them as the 'little red school house' and that is just what ours was, little and red, painted about every ten years, maybe.
   It had a class room, an entrance and a cloak room, and a wood shed built on the back. This shed had a very steep roof. This afforded us a great sliding place in the winter and it also kept our mothers busy patching the back of our pants. These were happy days, although we had our troubles too, sometimes magnified out of proportion, but they were real to us. As I sat there I remembered again those things that one would think would have been forgotten long ago. On this day they marched through my mind as though on parade. In those days teachers seemed to change schools more often then they do today. Some were what we called cross teachers and some were more kind, but one I remember best was a Miss Mami Firth. Let me tell you why I remember.
   She was a young and a pretty girl with red hair which looked to me like gold when the sun came through the window and shone on her hair as she sat at her desk, but what I admired most was an opal ring she wore on her finger.
   I have always been fascinated by precious stones. They are like exquisite music to me. This ring with its changing colours on her beautiful hand held me spell bound and I admired her and was delighted when she came to my desk. One cold rainy morning all this changed and I will say here it was the worst day in my school life. This is how it came about. One of my chores on the farm was to bring in the cows from the back pastures to be milked, so my brother Herb and I went to the pasture, but the cows were hard to find. Shortly we found them where they had taken shelter under the trees. We wore short pants; bare legs and bare feet: badly dressed for such weather, so by the time we got home we were cold and miserable and also a little late for school, so we decided to stay at home that day. Our parents decided otherwise and told us to get along to school, so we started alright but lingered along the way, so my father decided we needed a little help, so he followed us. No doubt our parents were doing what they thought was the best for us but we didn't under stand how they could do this to ones they loved. When we arrived at the school, one mile from home, we were miserable in mind and body, but the worst was yet to come.
   We were one half hour late and to enter that class room looking like we did and face the teacher and the stares and giggles of those boys and girls was a heartbreaking thing to do, but the pressure from behind was even greater than the fear of the school door and my father was making sure we would enter it. Sick at heart we went inside and without raising our heads we went to our desks. It wasn't long before the teacher said: "Roderick, what kept you boys so late this morning?" I answered: "I don't know." I thought Miss Firth is more than my teacher, she is also my friend, surely she won't be too harsh with us, but I was wrong. She asked me again, "Why are you late?" Again I answered: "I don't know". She said again: "Tell me why." This time I had no answer. Then she reached into her desk drawer and I thought that is where they keep that dreaded cat and nine tails, but instead she brought out a small switch. I saw her coming up the aisle and I saw that switch and that opal ring with its ever changing colour on her other hand. Then she said: "Come with me." She led me into the cloak room and closed the door. By this time I was badly shaken but I remember her saying: "Understand I am not doing this because you were late but because you won't tell my why.
   So I will ask you again, why are you late?" To save my life, I couldn't tell her why and then she beat me on the bare legs with that switch and I cried but through my tears I saw that opal ring on her left hand and the awful switch in the other. I don't know how many times she hit me but every time she did, it broke my heart, but she did not find out why we were late that morning.
   But this is not the end of the story. The years went on but I never forgot that day and I often wondered where Miss Firth had gone but sixty years later I was to meet her under different circumstances. One day I was in our town hospital. I looked through an open door and spied a little old lady in bed so I thought I would speak to her. She seemed friendly. So we talked awhile and she asked me where I was from. I told her, "Tidehead." "Oh, she said, I taught school there when I was a girl." I asked her name and she said: "My name at that time was Mami Firth." Then I said: "You must be the teacher that beat me on the bare legs." She said: "Yes, I have not forgotten and I have thought of it many times. I hope you have forgiven me." I thought I saw tears in her eyes and I knew then she was hurt as bad as I was. I looked at those frail hands but instead of an opal ring I saw a worn wedding band.
   Yes, I had forgiven her long ago but every time I see an opal ring, I remember that awful morning so long ago.
   In our school we had a rundown wood stove which we used to huddle around on cold days and we had many and our school was really cold. One day one of the boys was playing with a rifle bullet, although the teacher did not know what it was. She told him to burn it and he walked up and put it in the stove and blew a piece out of the front. Luckily no one was standing there. However it gave the old stove more draft. It was still there when I left the school.
   It always seemed that some of the boys had a little chewing tobacco in their Pockets. One day one fellow took a tittle chew and spit in the other boy's He put his hand over his eye and tore around the inside of that classroom like a whirling dervish, screaming like a lost soul. Nobody knew what the trouble was and he didn't have time to stop and explain, but after he had made four or five turns around the room, the teacher with a little help, got him cornered, bathed his eye and got him cooled down.
   When school was dismissed, everyone made a rush for that little house in back, perhaps for some, a little too late.
    Ball was our favorite game. We played with an inflated rubber ball and a flat bat made with a piece of board. Any old board did the trick, but we had lots of fun.
   In school there always seemed to be more fights among the boys in those days than there is today. It was a way of life in those days on the Restigouche, not because they were a savage or vicious people, just a sport, as it were. So it was in our school, some of the boys always seemed to be quarrelling. Although I was small and slight and not a fighter by any chance, I was a target for bigger boys, but I learned to be quite saucy. One day I went fishing on Christopher brook. After I had fished for awhile I noticed two fellows coming up the opposite side of the brook. One was Jimmie, a school mate, but the other was a fellow I had never seen before. When they got opposite to where I was this strange boy cast his fishing line in my direction and his hook caught on something about the middle of the stream. He called out to me: "Unhook my line." I said: "Unhook it yourself, you are just as close as I am." He answered: "You had better if you know what's good for you." We argued back and forth for awhile and I still said, "No, I will not."
   Then Jimmie said: "Do you know who this fellow is?" I answered: "No, I have never seen him before in my life." "Well this is Eugene Hougmark. He is a Norwegian and he is a boxer." This seemed to change things a bit for me that is. Now I had never seen a Norwegian before, much less a Norwegian boxer, but it was too late to back out. I almost panicked when I saw him take off first his coat then his cap and lay them neatly on the ground and I thought to myself, this is no bluff, he really means business. Then with a little help from Jimmie he rolled up his shirt sleeves right to the shoulders. Then he took off his shoes and stockings and after a little discussion, that I couldn't hear, they were ready and they started to wade over to where I was. Now this Eugene was a blond fellow with a shock of hair that stood straight up and ears that stood straight out, a sure sign of a boxer, at least that is what I thought. With his sleeves rolled up he looked pretty awesome to me. I just stood there and had made no preparation to meet this Norwegian boxer and on they came, but the worst of it was, he seemed to be getting bigger all the time and I was getting more scared. Now I knew Jimmie was a fighter, but I also knew he never picked on a smaller fellow than himself.
   Although he was backing Eugene he wouldn't see me get too badly hurt, Eugene being a boxer and all. They scrambled up the bank and Eugene hesitated as though he wasn't sure what to do, but Jimmie assured him everything was alright. I just stood there and he took a swing at me and missed by about two feet. I thought to myself if he is a boxer I had better do something about it. He made another half-hearted swing and missed again, then I grabbed him and we both fell into the brush. In the meantime Jimmie was having a ball, hopping around and telling his man what to do. If he was a boxer, and I found later that he wasn't, he didn't get a chance to use his skill. After we had tumbled around for awhile, mostly trying to untangle ourselves from the brush, our fight ended abruptly. We were so busy we didn't notice we were getting close to the bank and we rolled into the water, luckily it wasn't deep but deep enough to get wet. This gave Jimmie a great laugh and I think he was well satisfied with the show. He told us to get up, which we did. We looked like two dish rags. Otherwise, accept for a few scratches, we were unhurt. Jimmie told us to shake hands. Then they waded to the other side and we went on with the business of fishing.
   Eugene was in school the next day and we became good friends until he moved away four years later. He came back to Tidehead for a visit when he grew to be a man, we had a good laugh about that little episode on Christopher Brook.
    There were many more things that passed before me as I sat there but I will not bore you with them here.
   One by one those boys and girls dropped out or finished school and went their separate ways, some to success, some to failure. Most have passed on and those that are left are growing old, as we all must, but in my memories I still see their faces and hear their laughter, but I realize those days are gone and will never return but my memories will often return and linger around the 'Little red school house' in the village of Tidehead.
   We have been almost to the head waters of the Restigouche. Now we are back again to its mouth. It is summer once again and the river is beautiful as it flows to the east to rendezvous with the mighty Atlantic ocean and where better than here could we end our tales of the Restigouche. I hope you have learned something of its features and its rugged and charming Restigouche River People.

   This beautiful river has known a lot of joy and happiness and sometimes sorrow as it winds its way to the sea and I look back with no regrets on the days that I've spent on the shores of the Restigouche, and generation after generation will see the tide flow up the river a short way and watch the sea weed float upstream. In the evening they will hear the robin down by the river and the voices of the children at their play before they go in for the night, for this is the children's hour. People will look to the east where the moon is rising as big as a barrel. A little later they will see it ripple on the water and it will do something for them that nothing else can. They will feel closer to God and it will be good for the soul and I often think that the happiest people on earth are the ones that were born, grew up, loved and were loved and lived out their lives and never left the banks of the Restigouche.
   Why have you stayed with such patience listening to these tales of some sixty years ago? Why indeed, because you were born on the Restigouche River and you are my three sons.

THE END

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