Friday, July 15, 2011

The Teacher

      Paula Richmond spent the first nineteen years of her life on a farm west of Great Falls, Montana.  She was married one very wet spring when the hills were more lush with grass and wild flowers than anybody could remember.  Two years later, in 1941, the farm boy she had wed went to war in Europe.  He came home only to be buried.  Friends unloaded his body from the train, and there was a memorial service in Great Falls at the Lutheran Church.  "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away." 

      Life on the land alone, even with the love of family and neighbors, was more than Paula could endure.  She gave their wedding endowment, a two-room house and a few acres of range land, back to her father-in-law, packed a footlocker and trunk, and made her farewells.  The train took her to Seattle where she worked for the Boeing Company for the remainder of the war.  Always a reader and a good student, she enrolled in evening classes at Seattle Pacific College.  In a few years she was a sixth grade teacher across the ship canal in Ballard.

      The spring of 1950 was a dreary one even for the drizzly Northwest.  When school recessed for the summer, the children would ordinarily have found Vacation Bible School a cross to bear, but this year the weather was so bad they didn't seem to mind.  Paula loved the children as if they were the family she had been denied.  Volunteering to teach was natural for her.  Teaching was her life, whether in school or in church.

      The second day of Bible School the sun came out.  The children were ecstatic.  A high tolerence for noise is part of an elementary school teacher's constitution, and Paula was able to enjoy the sunshine flooding through windows of the church classroom.  It was nearly noon.  Her brood would be finished for the day in thirty minutes.  She spoke to a boy intent on the drawing before him on the table.

      "This is good, Douglas!  You like to draw, don't you."

      The boy looked up at her, pleased that she had noticed his work.  The day's promise seemed greater for her interest.

      "May I hang this on the bulletin board when you're finished?"

      Douglas took the drawing and pencils home with him and spent the rest of the afternoon putting the finishing touches on his drawing.

      Paula went home for lunch and changed into more comfortable shoes.  The weather was so splendorous that she walked down to the ship canal.  Fishing boats and cruisers rocked in the foaming water that was rising in the locks.  Salmon were braking water along the far edge of the canal.  The decks of the boats were so near you could hear Norwegian fishermen joking in their sing-song English while they waited for the bell.

      Leaning on the rail, an unshaved gate tender was watching as Paula sat down on a bench with wrought-iron arm rests.  The man spit his chew of Copenhagen over the rail and brushed back his thinning hair with his hand.  His job as a gate tender led nowhere, and fortunately or unfortunately, he was smart enough to realize it.  He saw Paula take a fountain pen and tablet of paper from her bag.  She glanced in his direction and seemed unconcerned that he had noticed her.

      The bell rang, and the man stopped the pedestrians who had been crossing a roped-off catwalk along the top of the water gate.  He whistled and motioned at the controller in a glassed-in cabin on the other side of the water.  The water level had now risen as high as that on the far side of the gate.  Boats were untied, and after the gate opened, they continued, a few at a time, on their voyage toward Lake Union.

      Paula's letters to her mother and father back in Great Falls were always folded into the envelope with a prayer.  They had moved into town now, and her brother was tending the farm.  He and his wife had three kids.  It meant a lot to Paula to stay in touch, and she got back as often as she could on the train.

      Another bell rang.  The sun was bright on Paula's pad of paper.  She looked up and saw the gate tender sit down cross legged on the grass with his lunch box.  He was just far enough away not to disurb her, but close enough that he could hear her if she said anything.  She smiled politely.  It was a warm enough smile that he moved a little closer and held up a thermos bottle.  She shook her head.

      "Nice day," he said.

      "Isn't it."

      "It'd be a lucky feller gets a letter from you," he said, testing the water.  She didn't look like the type to freeze you out.

      He was smiling at her, his teeth stained with tobacco.  Not much older than she, he was as rough as the hull of a boat from which the barnicles had not been scraped.  "My parents," she said.  "I'm writing to my parents."

      "You better write your sweetheart.  He'll think you've taken up with a fisherman."

      "No need to worry about that," she answered.

      As if to finish for her, he said, "You're a one man woman; there'd be no doubt."

      This made her feel a little self conscious, but conversation came easier.  He must be on his coffee break, just passing the time.

      She listened long enough to learn he was from Klamath Falls, Oregon, a lumber town near the California border.  After the war he had drifted from one logging camp to another.  She gathered he was not too well liked by the other loggers.  He had ended up in Seattle with the intention of working the fishing boats to Alaska.  Apparently he hadn't hit it off too well with the fishermen either.

      "During the war, I had a farm job that allowed me a draft deferment," he said.  "If I could go back and do it all over again, I'd enlist.  The recruits on the troup trains coming through Klamath Falls on their way to Ft. Lewis thought I was a Mennonite or something.  They yelled out the windows at me--called me 4F.  I don't know what I was, but I kept my deferment."

      "My husband had a deferment as well," she heard herself saying, "but he volunteered."  A great deal of pain came back suddenly.  She remembered the prayers at the memorial service and how her neighbors had assured her that Dwayne had done the right thing.  She had studied history to satisfy herself that he had.  Somebody had to.

      This man's trouble was that he agreed with her.  Most of the men with whom he had worked would have been able to accept him if he could have lived peaceably with his own conscience--even though most of them had served in the armed forces.  Many had wept bitter tears in their chaplain's office, but on the burned-over pastures of France and Germany they had learned to kill.  In the long run, even their nightmares couldn't dislodge the feeling in their gut that it had to be done.

      A gull shrieked overhead.  Sunlight glared on the canal.  "If I had it to do over again, I'd marry a Mennonite," she said, partly out of sympathy.

      He shook the last drop of coffee out of his red cup and screwed it back on the top of the thermos bottle.  "There are still some valleys where the sweet grass grows," he answered.  "I guess you make your bed where it's greenest.  I don't sleep very well anyplace.  My father told me this might be how I'd end up."

      "You have some of that problem either way, I think," she said.  "Try to get on with your life.  God could have made us perfect and saved himself a lot of trouble, but it seems he didn't."

      "Don't know about God," he said.  "The Bible is a little beyond me."

      "Do you go to church?"

      "I do, now and then; that isn't the point.  I can't read."

      He was getting up to leave.  Paula let his last words hang in the air for a moment before she answered.  She finally said, "If you want to learn, I'll help you."  He looked back at her as he put his lunch box under his arm.  "You might ask for me at Calvary Lutheran."

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