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My parents  sent me off to a Catholic military boarding school when I was four years old.  When I tell people that they usually jump to the conclusion that I was an impossible problem child who needed to be whipped into behavioral patterns that others could tolerate.  Either that or they thought my parents were cruel monsters.  Neither assumption is true.

September, 1942. Wartime’s special demands required that both Mom and Dad had to work—often on different shifts. There was a succession of housekeeper-baby sitters who looked after us children during working hours, but problems kept arising. The boarding school solution may seem odd at this remove in time, but wartime logic was then at work.

Signal Hill’s oil fields that abutted the Long Beach Naval Air Station and Douglas Aircraft Company not to mention the Port of Long Beach were considered reasonable targets for Japanese aggression. My brother Kevin was ready to start first grade, and St. Catherine’s Military School was located in the safe orange groves of Anaheim some fifteen miles away. Both Mom and Dad were convinced of the superiority of Catholic schooling over public schooling, and being able to board us under the care of the nuns was an answer to the child care problems.

So it was that Kevin and I were outfitted in uniforms at Desmond’s department store and sent off to school. I at the tender age of four!  We would be able to go home on Sundays, except for month-end, when we would be free both Saturday and Sunday. Kevin would begin first grade, and special arrangements were made so that I could remain in the dormitory with the nun who was in charge of “the Juniors” for my first year. I would start school the following year at age five and for the rest of my academic career would be usually the youngest in my class. Kevin skipped second grade to remain two years ahead of me in school as in age.

I have only fleeting memories of that first year. The Dominican nuns were all from Germany and spoke German with one another. I have often wondered why we didn’t consider them “the enemy” because of the war in Europe. I remember Sister Sophia letting me try to run the floor buffer and laughing as the machine took me across the floor into a wall. I did a lot of jigsaw puzzles and worked with crayons in coloring books.

I lived for Sundays when I could be with my parents. They would pick us up in the morning after Mass, and often we would ride the rides at the Pike, Long Beach’s amusement park, or go to a war movie. Joy would ebb quickly during the evening ride back down Carson Boulevard to the school. I would listen to Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Fidler on the car radio but pretend to be asleep. I always thought that if I was asleep Mom and Dad wouldn’t wake me and make me go back. The tears would commence as I left the car and we all walked into the school building. Jolly Captain Murphy, the school commandant, would try to cajole me but would fail. Murphy was succeeded in my second year by a stern, unsmiling Major Schmitt.

In later years my mother would claim that eventually I got used to the situation and would return to the dorm laughing gaily. My memory is of four academic years of tearful Sunday nights. Mom and Dad would lean out from the ground floor balcony area of the school’s reception center so that Kevin and I could wave a last goodbye to them after climbing the stairs to the third floor dormitory, where eventually I would sob myself to sleep.

Certainly the most traumatic moment of my life was a bright spring Sunday when I was bubbling over with happy anticipation of spending the day with Mommy and Daddy.  After Mass, we fell into formation on the parade ground for the routine inspection by Major Schmitt.  The dress uniform coats that year had a cloth belt.  In my five-year-old’s excitement, I got the belt twisted as I was putting it on.  When Major Schmitt came in front of me during the inspection, he paused for a long moment, then pointed his finger at my side where I had been unable to see the twist in the belt.  “Step out,” he commanded.

Failing to pass inspection meant that I could not go home with my parents for the day.  Since I had to stay at school, Mom and Dad decided that Kevin should remain too, so that I wouldn’t feel so bad.  It would not have mattered.  I was as  desperately unhappy as any five-year-old could possibly be.

After the war ended, Kevin and I left that school and were enrolled in an ordinary Catholic day school close to home.  But decades after that failed inspection, I was bothered more than others my age by prolonged separation from my parents and the comforts of my own home and bed.

Some summer during my grade school years, Mom and Dad decided to have Kevin and me experience summer camp. Arrangements were made for us to spend two weeks at Camp Junipero Serra in the mountains above Palm Springs. Of course, it was a Catholic summer camp.

I recall a frightening swerve of the bus on the way up the mountain. The driver explained that he was trying to run over a rattlesnake that was crossing the road. More than fifty years later, I remember the lyrics to the campfire songs we learned, and getting lost after one campfire and being punished for arriving late back at my cabin. I learned to call kool aid “bug juice” and toilet paper “ki-bo tickets.”  I was a blue cap swimmer and could go over my head in the lake but only if there was a “buddy” with me. In arts and crafts I tried to do a beautiful soap carving but ended up settling for an ashtray. I learned how to make a lanyard but I had nothing to hang from it. I was too young to go on the overnight hike. My cabin produced a terrific flop for Skit Night. Mostly I remember wanting to go home.

The events were reawakened for me many years later when my wife Sally and I decided to send our sons Brian and Derek to a three-week mountain summer camp that our closest friends’ children had been delighted with. Brian, the elder, was rather neutral about the experience, but nine-year-old Derek was more outspoken and direct than was his father at that age.

July 14, 1980

Dear Mom and Dad,

What is this place of saviges where I don’t

have any friends? The activites are boring. I dont want

to play tennis. I dont want to take drama! I dont care if

you think it’s neat to sleep under the stars and all that.

I came not that I wanted to I came because that’s what

you wanted. I’d rather be at home with Mrs. Langworthy

[a babysitter] than up here. Now if you were smart you’d

get up here pronto and get me. And bring Baylor!

Derek

I drove up to collect him at the end of the second week. I got a lot of amused glances from other motorists on the way because Baylor, Derek’s huge stuffed bear, was belted into the passenger seat next to me. I wondered if Derek had inherited from me my feelings about being away from home and family even without the trauma of being sent to boarding school at too tender an age.  I had heartfelt sympathy for him.

 

©Kerry Wood, 2012

Kerry Michael Wood is now retired from 38 years of teaching in schools public and private in California and Istanbul. He was a member of BAWP’s second summer group back in 1970-something.

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