Tuesday, April 25, 2017

76 Years to Mars

76 Years to Mars


© Wally Lee Parker

The following article was first published in the August, 2016, issue of the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society’s Newsletter, the Mortarboard.  It appeared in the editor's (my) Letters/Brickbats column.
The small towns of Clayton and Deer Park are located in the Little Spokane River Valley to the north of Spokane, Washington.

A portion of an illustration from
“The Book of Knowledge: The Children’s Encyclopedia,” 1910 edition.


                In September, 1951, your current (Mortarboard) editor began the first grade at Clayton.  At that point, the not quite as old as now school housed the 1st through 8th grades — its unaccredited high school having been discontinued just before the beginning of the 1939 school year.
                In 1955 — just a few days after the beginning of your editor’s fifth school year — Consolidated School District #414 stated its intention to rearrange things — to send all of Clayton’s 7th and 8th graders to Deer Park, and then bus a selection of Deer Park’s 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders to Clayton.  Reportedly the reason for doing so was to eliminate Clayton’s longstanding practice of doubling up the classes — 1st and 2nd grades together, 3rd and 4th together, and so on as deemed practical.
                That two-classes-per-room thing had never seemed much of a problem to the kids attending Clayton.  We still somehow learned to handwrite in cursive, march in silent double-file, and tell time by noting the position of the hands on the clock (just like kids nowadays).
                But for those of us who thought of Clayton as our neighborhood school — and therefore had long expected to go there through the 8th grade — this didn’t settle well.
                As for Deer Park, the schoolboard requested that parents willing to have their kids bussed to Clayton step forward.  Since — according to Deer Park’s Tri-County Tribune — that call for public sacrifice didn’t work out so well, that first year eleven 3rd graders, twelve 4th graders, twenty-one 5th graders, and seventeen 6th graders were drafted by lottery, packed into one or more buses every curriculum morning, and shipped north.
                This yearly reshuffling apparently continued until the Clayton school was shuttered in the summer of 1973.  As to what degree the resentment abated over time, we’d have to ask the community in general.
                Note that I said “this ... apparently continued.  Even though I was there for the first two years of this primary resorting, what I recall most vividly is just a strong distaste for the way our lives had been upset.  To get the story as then seen (and detailed above), I had to shuffle through the back issues of the local paper — the Tribune.  Which is to say, I recalled some of the story, but not all — in part because I was still very young and not really paying attention to the why of it all, and in part because that was sixty some years ago.  And even though the local paper was somewhat notorious for getting its facts twisted (and being an editor and publisher now myself, I only have sympathy for how easily that can happen), it was remarkably better than my well-worn memory at getting things right.
                This is to say, the funny thing about our memories — especially the vintage kind your editor deals with most every day — is that they’re a lot less reliable than most people think.
                The truth is, humans prefer that the recollections they recreate inside their heads be complete.  Due to that preference, if we only have part of a recollection, we’re more than capable of filling in the rest of the picture from the deep well of our imagination.  In fact, we’re psychologically compelled to do so.  The problem begins when we forget which parts of our reconstructed memories are real, and which are fictions invented to fill in the blanks.  Or better yet, fragments of other memories borrowed because they fit so comfortably inside our current model of the truth.
                As noted, there’s a scientific underpinning for this phenomena.  Filtering through all the jargon, what it seems to suggest is that our memories should be approached with a reasonable expectation of unreliability — especially as regards the specific details.
                If the story we’re recalling is something personal, there’s seldom a problem in our memory’s tendency to factually drift.  It’s likely close enough.  Which means we’re usually safe in applying that enduring journalistic adage to the tales we relate — never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
                However, if facts and figures are central to the story, then our tendency toward creatively filling in the blanks can come back to haunt all those involved — especially any writer forgetting to add an occasional “it seems as if,” or “as this writer recalls,” or some other suitable qualifier to the script.
                If something more than the above noted “suitable qualifier” is needed to cover everyone’s hind-side, then your editor has to take on the role of “fact-checker” — another incredibly time consuming job small publications like ours have to somehow manage with nothing more than the resources at hand.
                And all this draws us around to one of your editor’s recollections of his time at the old Clayton school — a memory that involves a drawing of a locomotive on its way to Mars.
                Note the qualifiers in the following.
                I can’t recall exactly when this incident occurred.  If it was 5th or 6th grade, I would have been a student in one of Clayton’s upstairs classrooms.  If it had been earlier, I would have still been residing downstairs — though my recollection definitely places the location of this particular incident upstairs.
                It wasn’t common for 1st through 4th grade students to go upstairs at that time.  Unless we were headed to the office or library, there wasn’t really any reason.  And if you couldn’t cite a reason for being there, the kids on the upper floor tended to be a bit territorial.
                As for why such territorialism, there is indeed a rational scientific basis.  But the science behind the notion wouldn’t enter the general consciousness until a decade later — with the publication of Konrad Lorenz’s “On Aggression,’ and Robert Ardrey’s “The Territorial Imperative.”  These gentlemen would suggest that the trepidation the 4th and below graders felt when ascending the stairs, especially if such was done without adequate excuse, was real.  If the lower floor dwellers were captured, at best the upper floor’s defenders would tell one of the teachers.  At worse some mild violence would be involved.
                That aside, the recollection I have in mind is of an illustration seen in a set of encyclopedia sitting on a table pushed against a wall in one of the upper-floor classrooms.  I’m thinking the west wall of the southeast classroom — that being the 6th grade classroom during the 1955-‘56 and 1956–‘57 school years.  The thing to remember here is that memory is malleable.  So who really knows?
                Though I didn’t particularly like to read at the time, I was reasonably capable at it, so I understood the book’s explanation of the above alluded to illustration.
                As I remember, spread across facing pages of one volume of the encyclopedia was an ingenious illustration attempting to suggest the size of the solar system with drawings of locomotives and trailing Pullman’s speeding away from planet Earth; speeding away along railroad tracks to the sun, to the moon, and to the other planets.  And along with each image was a label stating how long it would take each train, traveling sixty miles an hour, to reach the indicated celestial body.
                I’ve always wanted to see that illustration again, just to confirm my memory.  But I couldn’t recall the name of the encyclopedia.
                Whenever I was on my computer and this puzzle came to mind, I’d type something like “encyclopedia, train to Mars,” or a variation thereof, into Google’s search engine.  And eventually that tactic returned a meaningful thread.  Following that thread led to volume one of the Grolier Society’s “Book of Knowledge: The Children’s Encyclopedia” — the 1910 edition.
                I’m not sure the illustration posted ... (above) ... is exactly what I saw, since the 1910 version of the encyclopedia appears to have gone through several major revisions before I started school.  But the degree of simplicity used in that early edition to demonstrate the solar system’s immensity — 166 day to the moon, 76 years to Mars, 177 years to the sun, 5,055 years to Neptune, 40 million years to the nearest star — well, that ingenious bit of clarity was exactly as I recall.
                And in essence that’s what publishing and its attendant use of explanatory illustrations is all about — taking a complex concept and making it accessible to the reading public.
                Part of the editor’s job in this process is to evaluate and then make suggestions and/or changes that are likely to help the proffered publication do exactly that.  And if the publication does that well, as “The Book of Knowledge” clearly did, some trace of the idea being explored — even if it involves a locomotive to Mars — might still be in the reader’s memory a lifetime later.

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