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The Shipwreck Rose: Children of the Corn

Wed, 04/10/2024 - 12:57

The eclipse on Monday brought back memories of an eclipse in the 1970s, when I was little, a day that is — I have to say it, I cannot resist –- burned into my memory, into the retina of my memory, and lingers there. I’m not sure what year it was, but I was between 4 and 8 years old, somewhere in there. A Google search reveals various eclipses in my early childhood but one of those fell on a Saturday and the other on a Monday in July — neither of which sounds like the correct eclipse, my eclipse, because I remember perfectly clearly where I was when it happened: standing with my classmates in the untidy play yard at the Hampton Day School, beside a long, low school building that I think was originally a potato barn. We stood with our backs to the sun holding some sort of D.I.Y. viewer made with tinfoil and a box. I don’t remember the sun, or the moon, but I remember how we stood with our backs to the sky.

The long, low building at the Hampton Day School that may have originally been a potato barn is the scene of many of my early memories, memories that I expect will be among those that unspool in visions as I lay dying (eventually, many decades from now, in a comfortable featherdown bed). Hiding in sorrow in a fridge-size cardboard box because my friend Antonia had corrected my grammar. Lying on a mat as a teacher led us through yoga mediation: Your toes are very relaxed. . . . Your ankles are very relaxed. . . . Your knees. . . . Plowing casually through every reading-exercise book on the shelf and recording my progress on small cards in a reading-log system, in the expectation that my teachers would notice and admire my reading genius. The primary-colored mathematics “logs,” rectangles of red, green, orange, yellow wood in graduating sizes, with which we learned the principles of division, subtraction, and addition. (I still think of math in colored logs.) A Volkswagen-Beetle-slash-tow-truck that I built from wood in shop class, with a reel, string, and hook that could actually drag other toys across the floor. Lounging on the pebbles that surrounded the barn, on a sunny day, with all the time in the world, to use a magnifying glass to burn my initials into a railroad tie. Learning to sing “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” (“chicks and ducks and geese better scurry!”). A sweatshirt with Snoopy on it. Writing and illustrating our very own books, and choosing the subject of earthworms. Gazing at a teacher who stood by the door of the potato barn classroom holding a notebook and telling us it was bad form to start a sentence with the word “but.”

But it won’t do. When I try to convey to my children a true picture of what hippie school was like in the 1970s, I come up short. Children of the 2020s, raised on screens, will have deathbed visions that are a little short on sense memory — textures, smells — it seems to me. Our lives, these days, ironed flat, all smooth, inorganic surfaces, the touch of glass and aluminum alloy. I worry for the future poets. I may be wrong. Maybe I’m wrong.

The didactic principle of the Hampton Day School, its educational philosophy, was that the children should choose their own avenues of learning and organize their own days. Let the children lead. There were no formal class times or lessons. At least that’s how I remember it. You want to sit and slide math rods into colorful configurations on the table? Solve for “X” with math rods. You want to burn railroad ties by focusing sunbeams through a magnifying glass? Burn railroad ties. (I smell the dark wood, the creosote.) You want to run out into the fields, high with endless rows of corn — it must have been September — corn so high it was overhead, and no one could find you or track you, as you pretended you were a soldier in Vietnam? Well, that one thing we were forbidden to do, because the farmers of Bridgehampton didn’t appreciate hippie children trampling their crops. But we disappeared into the corn, nonetheless.

Bridgehampton and Sagaponack in those days had a distinct aroma of pesticide. It hovered over the whole thing at certain points of the year, the 40,000 acres from the bridge to the woods at Sagg Road (a troll lived under it) to the deserted ocean beach at Peter’s Pond. Anyone over, say, 45 will know exactly what I mean. Crop dusters flew low over the fields, dispersing clouds of some chemical or other. You could smell it as you drove down Montauk Highway in your mother’s station wagon, singing the “Burger King” jingle. (Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce.) Maybe it was fertilizer, actually, but I think everyone said pesticide. Maybe it was the infamous Temik, but that was, Google says, applied at the roots and not with a crop-duster. Has my memory invented a phantom crop duster?

Out the station wagon window, the rows in early spring before the potatoes or corn came up created an illusion, from the highway to the horizon, like long legs running alongside the car, stick legs running, the green man, like the long stick legs of Abraham Lincoln or the long stick legs of a figurative sculpture by Bill King.

Run, children, run. Run, run, run.

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