I was seven when we moved to Flagstaff, Arizona. Being from Kentucky I had never been to an area that was so dry. In Kentucky trees grow naturally and must be mowed regularly if you intend on having a lawn. When you look at a map you see two different Americas (the wet one and the dry one) divided by the Mississippi River.
I was moving from the Wet US to the Dry US. Some areas of northern Arizona are so dry that no weeds will grow. The only thing that grows there is rocks and the rock formations are a natural thing of beauty.
My grew up in Kentucky where most of the race horses are raised - lush and green. Winslow is 50 miles from Flagstaff and looks as lush as the surface of the moon. I cannot imagine the sense of dread that my mother must have felt as we approached her new home. She had never been to Flagstaff and had to take my dad's word for it that there were trees.
Flagstaff is at the heart of the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the world. It sits at the base of the San Francisco Peaks and Mt. Eldon sits in the middle of the city. It is truly beautiful and will always be home in my heart.
I grew up as a kid spending countless hours exploring the woods immediately accessible to our home. The ditch, officially Rio de Flag, was half a block from our house. Mars Hill was a couple blocks away and Buffalo Park was about a mile through the forest. It was a child's dream with lots of places to get into trouble.
Flagstaff is a magical town. Nested under the watchful eye of the San Francisco peaks and surrounded by pine forests. The peaks have been considered the source of power by the native people for hundreds of years.
100 years have past since the first white men came with their logging operations and railroad. They tried to drive the magic from the area but the medicine still lingers in places.
Next came the tourists, with their caravans of families on a quest to see the Great Canyon. Soon cheap hotels with neon lights and crying children ruled over the town.
Then came the scientists with their equipment, the brought with them the belief that the magic could be quantified, studied, understood, and harnessed. They were called geologists, anthropologists, forestologists, astronomers, and astronauts. Each of these men brought their own conceit and a will to contain the magic.
The town held 30,000 souls. Throughout the sixties its character was shaped by tourism and science and logging. The native peoples were very much a part of the town and made the place special. There is nowhere, in any land, another place like Flagstaff.
Many ancient peoples lived in this area of the land. The Hopi and Pueblo tribes have roots that go back in time before Columbus and Queen Elizabeth. The white men are the newcomers to this party.
Sechrist School was named after a local doctor in Flagstaff. Located on the edge of town, the school was surrounded by pine forests. I had no way to know at the time that this school would shape my life. Sixth grade was the best year of schooling ever.
Of all the teachers that I have ever had, no one comes close to Mr. Dawson. His passion for teaching kids, learning, and embracing life filled every lesson. I could write a book on my sixth grade year and possibly will someday.
But for now here are things that I remember
Every summer Bob Dawson would run river rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. I was so excited by this class that I begged my parents to have Mr Dawson over for dinner. This is the only teacher that I ever remember coming over to our house. I am so grateful for this experience.
The principle of Sechrist School, was Tony Gabaldon. He became a legend among the people of Flagstaff. He was both respected by the kids and their parents for his fairness and how he ran the school. He created an environment where the teachers could be free to teach and innovate. My greatest educational experience was in Mr. Dawson's sixth grade class. I think that it was Tony's influence that allowed Bob Dawson to do so many ground-breaking things in the classroom.
Tony family was from Belen, near Albuquerque. But his family was there long before the Americans named the state New Mexico. Perhaps the family had lived there before the Spaniard conquest named it Mexico. No one knows but the roots ran deep.
Principle Gabaldon was a symbol of justice and authority for us kids. He had a paddle hanging on the wall that was the stuff of legends. It takes a sixth-grader's imagination to produce a suitable myth that can be passed on around the campfire.
The paddle was made of walnut (or some other hardwood). It was routed and shaped with large holes drilled in it. In our minds this was some kind of a medieval torture device, similar to the Iron Maiden. It had mysterious runes carved in it that looked like the letters "K K". We all understood this to mean Kid Killer, while few believed that any kids had actually perished.
I had a close call on two occasions with the legendary paddle. In Mr. Dawson's class we sat at strange desks that were arranged as a hexagon. Each desk was a trapezoid with two students sitting together. The hex arrangement would seat 12 students facing each other.
I was sitting next to this obnoxious girl at one of the desks. I was a chubby kid and Stacie felt that I was taking more than my amount of space. After many altercations I remember her drawing a line on the desk. This was to be the DMZ and the trigger point for reprisal. The problem was that the line was over half the desk. Stacie had given herself the lion's share.
I don't recall the specifics but it probably went something like this ... I saw that there was an injustice being propagated and would not let it stand. I stuck my elbow over the DMZ in an active invasion of the border. Reprisal was swift and brutal. Stacie's ruler would take its revenge.
Out of pure self-defense I reached down and removed Stacie's chair. This was done quickly enough to deposit my foe on the floor attracting the notice of Mr. Dawson. We were both exiled to the Principle's Office to face a disciplinary hearing. As we slinked toward the office we knew what was awaiting us.
The feared dispensing of justice was called "getting a swat". Both of our parents were well known in the community. My dad was a college professor and Stacie's dad was a school principle. There was no way that we could hide the disgrace of the discipline that was about to happen.
This was further complicated by the fact that what happens at school doesn't stay at school. Both our dads had a standing policy that a swat at school is met by one at home. And the butt remembers, making the anticipation worse than the actual event.
That day was my lucky day. When the Principle saw that the perpetrator of the incident was Stacie he immediate thought about his friend and college. He really didn't want to discipline his friends daughter and the charges were not that serious.
After he decided to be merciful to Stacie, he could not very well let the hammer fall on me. After all Stacie was to blame for the whole incident. I was just defending my honor as any righteous sixth grader would do. We were both release with a stern warning as the Principle mumble something about disappointment.
It seems a little ironic that Stacie and I have been married for over forty years. This rocky start would be a launch pad for much more intimate interactions later. We often amuse ourselves by telling this story to our friends.
I fumbled my reprieve and soon found myself back in The Office. This time Stacie was not involved and I was admittedly at fault. We had an ancient music teacher named Mrs. Cummings, known disrespectfully by us kids as the Hummingbird. I was not known for my decorum in those days and was making comments and talking to my friends, probably while chewing gum. This got me sent to The Office were disciplined was enacted.
The Swat began with Principle Gabaldon saying, "Grab your ankles." Then WAM out of nowhere the famous Kid Killer would strike. The sharp sting of justice would claim another victim. The child was left to dance a bit and cry softly until the stinging sensation subsided. Finally they would go back to class knowing that justice was served.
Now comes the hard part. Do I tell my dad? Do I really want to bring on additional pain? Or should I lie and avoid the next chapter altogether? I've always been a terrible liar, although I did improve this skill significantly in my teen years. I had read the "Tell Tale Heart" by Poe and knew that my fate could not be avoided.
The final discipline went according to expectation and my story passed into the Legend of the Paddle. A shout out to all ye who have felt the sting and lived to tell the tale!
I may be the only person I know to be spanked by the dad of my favorite author.