"My Summer Vacation" - a composition written in the mid 30's
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Norman A. Rubin
Springtime is the season when all supposedly sensible people don coveralls, roll up their sleeves and enter into the land of Spring-cleaning. What does it mean? It simply means entering the dark confines of the attic, or the back of the garage in order to create a sense of order. Namely to delegate the accumulated memorabilia piled up through the years to the trash cans - an old rickety rocking chair, uniforms and other memories of a past war, and cartons and chests of so-called hidden treasures. Only returning the so-called valuables back to their original places.
That was my occupation last spring. There I was sitting on a wobbly chair, my cane nearby in readiness, as I busied myself rummaging through boxes in my dimly lit storage room. It was a ritual every spring - the search into the past. A opened box was at my feet as rifled through the contents - the yellowing pages of old National Geographic magazines, fading photo albums, and.."Hello, what's this!"
I picked up a folio of paper, covered with a thin crumbly piece of cardboard and tied with a shoelace. I looked closely through my thick specs'. There written in the middle of the pasteboard were the words 'My Summer Vacation' by Norman A. Rubin, 49 Browning Ave, Dorchester. - September 5, 1936. Underneath the words was a faded scrap of a map of Australia. I chuckled to myself as I turned the worn pages of an essay, which I had written, in my first year of junior high.
"Quiet children! Quiet!" exclaimed the teacher in her attempt to establish order in her classroom.
It was the first day of school after the long summer vacation, one of pitching a baseball about, hanging around the drugstore and getting into one sort of mischief or another to escape the doldrums of the hot days and sultry nights.
But, for the some of the lads and lasses, it was summer of sweating at part-time labour at small workshops and in the delivery of goods. All earned for a pittance. The money was needed to augument the budget of the household and we dared not to complain. Yours truly delivered tele-grams for Western Union, which continued after lessons during the school year. True we had exclaimed our disliike of school, but for the majority, the lessons were a relief from the miseries of the depression years.
It was an eventful period at the beginning of September of 36'. For for the thirty-odd pupils of the class, that day marked the start of the first year of junior high at the Oliver Wendell Junior High School in Dorchester, a suburb of Boston. We were rather excited and full of exuberance, thus causing a ruckus in Miss Schaffner's English class, the first class of the new school year.
Poor Miss Schaffner was red in the face as she attempted to create order with the rapping of her ruler and the piping of her high pitched voice. Somehow she managed and the class waited in a hushed silence to her words of wisdom. Poor Miss Schaffner, old and white haired, aged through the many years of teaching children from the run-down tenements that blighted the area. She never married, nor did she know of a love of a man - only later I found out she was engaged to fine-looking fellow, only to lose him in that first Great War in Europe.
Miss Schaffner searched out the pupils in the class; then she introduced herself together with a smile of welcome on her thin lips. She chatted a bit about the coming lessons, and that she expected our earnest endeavors in our studies... "I'm afraid our books have not arrived, so for the first assignment, I will ask the class to write a composition about their summer vacation." She explained that we should write something of interest like a holiday trip, an excursion to a museum, or even a visit to a relative in another city.
Well, for the youth in those years, a summer holiday was a day-to-day shuffling about at jobs or just hanging about. The only trips we had were the daily treks to the summer-day camp at the Hecht Community Center where we made paper and straw crafts, played endless rounds of catch the ball and other silly games. A couple of times bussed in crowded conveyances to the rock strewn Savin St. Beach.... And that summer camp, a charitible gift from the municipality, occupied our time for two weeks only. As for going to our relatives, it didn't pose a problem, as they were forever schnorring at our doorsteps.
But, this adventurous scrawny lad from Dorchester did go on a trip to a faraway land - to Australia. Well it was in my wildest dreams. It seems that I had a penpal living in a sheep station near Adelaide, Southern Australia; Stanley Copely was his given name and we corresponded for many years, right to the beginning of Second World War. Then suddenly he stopped writing; never knew the reason, but, most probably, it had to do with the encroaching conflict.
We exchanged stamps, small gifts and our dreams. Stanley sent me brochures and leaflets on the many facets of life in the southern continent. Whereas, yours truly, sent him second-hand comic books - picked them up at Isadore's candy shop for a penny apiece. As we grew older I replaced the comics with more mature literature. Somehow we were thankful for small mercies - Stanley raved about Superman, Batman. Captain Marvel, etc., and I let my imagination roam through the territories of Australia.
Well, time to pen my composition, "My Summer Vacation" for Miss Schaffner. Words flowed from the running of the ink on the white of the paper, coupled with the wild gamboling of my imagination. My essay was on a supposed trip I had made to my penpal in the continent of Australia, but I had never written in the copy that it was all in my dreams.
The sailing on the P&O liner across the quiet Pacific was mentioned at the start of my composition; a quiet sea with dolphins jumping hither and yon and whales blowing through their spouts. A cutout picture of the Empress of India liner, together with one of whales was pasted under the descriptive paragraph. The copy fortunately didn't include a romantic interlude with one of the charming passengers. Well, a bit exaggerated as the only boat trip I had ever taken was one on the Swan boats riding back and forth under the glow of the gilded dome of the State House. And the fish I had ever seen were the herrings my mother chopped and pickled.
I had to write quickly of my warm welcome by my pen pal at Adelaide as I wasn't sure if the city was a seaport or not. But I wrote a descriptive passage through the bush country, filled with animals of all sorts - kangaroos, platypuses, dingos, wombats, koala bears, etc.. I had plenty of postcards with images of these animals, which I pasted a couple under the paragraph. Yet, I had to make a special trip to the nearby Franklin Park Zoo to get an idea what some of these animals looked like in order to make the phrases a bit more convincing.
My description of the outback was not better. The only knowledge I had of wilderness was the studio lots of Hollywood pictured on the silver screen. Later did I learn that plant life 'Down Under' consis - ted of many species unknown in other areas of the globe - eucalyptus and gum trees, the saltbush shrub and a low scrub dubbed with the name 'malees'. Of course there are the thousands of species of wild flowers of the Australian highlands, the desert and in the outback - one called 'kangaroo paw' bears flowers 3 inches long.
The composition continued with my so-called two-month stay at the sheep station. There, in the flow of the pen, was a description of the undernourished adventurer from Dorchester during this period - dressed in khaki shorts, short sleeve bush shirt, booted with 'Wellies' and decked with a bandana lined 'digger' hat. Became a real 'dinkum' of a 'jackeroo' riding my trusty pinto as I helped herd the 'mob' through the 'billabong' along the Murray River near the sheep station.
"Real mishmash, if I do say so myself," as I continued reading the essay.
Off course the 'jackeroos', including the brave one from the city of 'baked beans and cod. I wrote that we had a minor attack by Indians - somehow my imagination coupled the Tom Mix movies at the Saturday matinees with the life in the Australian outback. If I had done a bit of research I would have avoided the mention of Indians as the only primitive people in that country. The only natives are the half-naked aboriginals who are quite friendly and harmless as they go about in their daily life. Well, the pen of that half-savage from the wilds of Dorchester pictured a bloody confrontation. A scarey photo of an aboriginal all decked out in ceremonial paint gave a possible credit to my phrases (I hoped).
My composition really ran the gamut of imagination that would put 'Walter Mitty' to shame. - Travel by camel caravan through the harsh desert in the interior of the country, trapped on the corals of the Great Barrier Reef, fighting the man-eating crocodiles on the Murray River. Off course I wrote of many peaceful scenes, coupled with a few printed images cut from a leaflet. My pen pictured the Dorchester 'bloke' sitting with 'cobbers' around the camfires at our campsites in the bush as we shared our 'billies' of tea; the real 'dinkum' belly filling meals at the homestead; and, off course, my friendship with a true 'cobber', my pen-pal Stanley.
I was a a bit of a wiseguy in my days, so I decided to add a few tongue twisters to my composition; it was in the form of a trip I supposedly took to the 'Cadibabarrawirracanna' Lake to see the Kookabura birds. I wrote that this bird is called the 'laughing jackass' because of its loud braying call. All this was copied from a brochure, but the only evidence was in the picture cut from the pages and pasted in the composition.
I rounded out the copy by telling that I had a wonderful and interesting vacation, and that I had invited my friend Stanley to my home in Boston. Then, with a flourish I penned the words "THE END".
I passed my composition slyly to Miss Shaffner. I caught her in a busy moment of doing a spot of paper work. She commented on its bulkiness. "Quite busy, right now!" she exclaimed as she placed my literary efforts at the corner of her desk, "but, the first chance I have to spare, I will read your composition." Well, I supposed she liked it as I got an ‘A’ for my endeavors.
The following week, Miss Shaffner called her usual words for attention. When quiet reigned, she returned the marked literary masterpieces to the class that told of each individual pupil's summer vacation. She lauded the scholars on their effort but she mentioned that there was one essay that was quite outstanding. "Before I continue the lesson, I would like Norman to come to head of the class. I would like him to tell the class of his wonderful and exciting vacation in Australia..."
As I looked back to those years, two questions entered my mind. One - did Miss Schaffner actually believed my gobble-de-gook? The second question being of how did I escape the ordeal of telling about my so-called summer vacation in Australia, which, for the love of me, I can't remember how I succeeded?
Norman A. Rubin