Sixth grader, Dennis stood behind the curtain and sang “I’m Overall Jim” as I, a first grader, lip synched it, in response to fellow first grader Susan’s refrain “I’m Sunbonnet Sue.” Susan and I represented the first graders at the Wolf Creek School fall program. Susan (her real name) was sitting in a rocking chair wearing a long calico dress and a sunbonnet. I was sitting next to her in a matching rocker, wearing a straw hat, striped Lee Overalls. Our piece was a duet about being farm kids.
I was too timid to use my outside voice inside in front of a hundred parents. Dennis was recruited to actually sing my part, hidden behind the makeshift sheet curtains pinned to a wire at the front of the planks on short sawhorses, our stage.
Dennis was 12 years old and a sixth grader. He liked to sing and could carry a tune well. His voice was changing, but he could still sing high like a first grader. I got to know Dennis a little that fall as we practiced the song together.
He was slim, light complected with light brown hair. He was quiet, an average student, always polite and smiling. He and his clothes were clean, but patched. He liked the outdoor games, especially softball. He had a very old glove, but could catch any fly or grounder that came to him. He seemed like the rest of the farm kids, but with a serious side.
Dennis lived a mile from school. His mother and father were divorced. She lived in Denver and he stayed with his dad, a drunk. They lived in a decrepit old two story house, weathered dark gray with no signs of paint, a few upstairs windows boarded up, and junk filled yard that a few wandering goats trimmed.
His Dad did odd jobs when he needed money for beer. Dennis was left pretty much to raise himself after his mother got a divorce and took his younger sister to live in Denver with her. Dennis worked for his farm neighbors to earn money for his own needs starting that year; his school clothes and a bicycle were his first purchases. His neighbors to the north, Mac and Nancy, raised string beans for Stokeleys. Dennis could earn a dollar for a long day, crawling up and down the rows picking beans into a mesh sack. Nancy insisted he join them for meals. They kept his money for him, carefully keeping a ledger of his account. If he needed groceries or other items, Mac let him ride along in the old Model A truck when he took the string beans to Milltown. Dennis and Mac had worked this out to keep his dad from beating him to get his money for beer.
His neighbor across the road, Old Man Wicklund, raised 20 acres of watermelons on the sandy River Road land. Dennis earned a little money hoeing melons and in the fall, helping him load the trailer with melons to take to town. He got all the melons he wanted for free. Many fall days he would bring a melon to school, overfilling the basket. He left it sit in a spring emptying into Wolf Creek near the school house, and would bring it out at noon for the teacher and kids to share with him for lunch.
Dennis bought most of the groceries for him and his dad and did what cooking and cleaning was done at the home. Dennis pumped the water, heated it on the stove and washed up every morning. He always came to school clean and with clean clothes that he patched himself.
The summer Dennis finished 7th grade, he got a job with board from a farmer nearby. He earned more money and took a 20 year old car as part of his payment. When school started he proudly drove his nicely polished old car to school. He kept working for the farmer during the winter. Everyone in the neighborhood knew he was too young to drive and that he hadn’t licensed the car, but as the constable told my dad, “He has it hard enough with out us piling on.”
When spring came, he passed his eighth grade exam and graduated with his class. At the last day of school picnic he told us “My Dad say’s I am 14 and on my own from now on. I got decent tires, two good spares, and all my stuff loaded in my car and a little money I saved. I am driving from here to Denver to see how Mom and Sis are doing. If they will have me, I will stay and get a job and try to go to high school there.”
He brought out a well folded US highway map and showed us his route. As the picnic wound down, he went around to his neighbors and his school chums and said his thank you’s and good byes. We gathered round as he got into his car, lightly loaded with all his worldly possessions. He started it up, waved a last time and disappeared forever from our lives, south down the Old River Road. We watched until the faint trail of blue smoke disappeared. We hoped he was heading into a better place.
(True story written for Wisconsin North West Regional Writers topic "Behind the Curtain")