Memories Are Made Of This

Recollections of Chatham Grade School and High School
1927 to 1939

Enough of this kindergarten, I told my mother. No more building blocks and beating on drums, so I skipped over into first grade. And with the Great Depression before me, I started first grade in 1927. Miss Lindermann soon questioned if my father signed my report card, since the seven signatures looked like a rubber stamp, and did not even look like R.T. Stokes. After all, he was then president of the Board of Education!. Sixty years after that first year, Miss Lindermann remembered me when I met up with her in a nursing home where my wife’s mother stayed. The report card of 1927-1928 showed A’s and B+’s, maybe the last time I saw an “A” in spelling! 

I seem to have had many days absent that year, as I went through all the childhood diseases: Whooping Cough, Measles and Chicken Pox. But I survived! Few teachers in Chatham left in those days, with the Depression on, and so I remember most of them, including Miss Anderson, the principal. The town was growing, so new teachers arrived as the graduating class in high school grew from 16 to 79 by 1939. I remember that in third grade, being impressed that the teacher had just come back from a trip to the Near East and Egypt, and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers came to life. My fourth grade teacher, Miss Heller, lived across the Street from us, and later married the son of the woman whose house she stayed in. The French teacher boarded next door and the high school principal lived just up my street. 

In 6th grade it was Miss Ayres, but the big event of that year was getting started building model airplanes, this due to a great Sunday School teacher who was an Annapolis Graduate who worked as an engineer for Otis Elevator. With his Naval knowledge, he worked during the war with the New York Port Director and was able to feed me information as to when my ship and convoy would be sailing. A later Sunday School teacher got us started on stamp collecting. 

From our house on Watchung Avenue, it was only half a mile to school, and as the years went by, transportation became a pair of skates or my bike, and I came home for lunch. My first bike, a two wheeler, was a “doozie” since it had no coaster brake and the pedals kept going around whenever the bike was in motion. My 28 inch Columbia did not arrive on the scene until high school. Before going into the school there was always marbles or other sports with a tennis ball. 

Seventh and Eighth grade was geography, history, math and English, all of which I liked and did well in. Except when I had to stay after school and do long division as a penalty for doing something wrong. ME?? 

Boy Scouts took over for several years, with one great camping trip on the bank of the Delaware River, plus the fun of earning merit badges. And for at least two years, my mother had me enrolled in woodworking classes after school. Also, at home, I built every Erector Set they made, and had some fun with a fundamental chemistry set. Dad made sure that I did the chores, like lawn cutting and snow removal. 

Ah, high school, and the luxury of a charge account down in the village at CHIEF’S SODA SHOPPE. where I could go for lunch with a B. and T. sandwich and a chocolate “Float”. The school added a music and an art teacher, and I started out playing trombone, ending up as lead trombone with the band and orchestra, and playing in a dance band, a church orchestra, a concert orchestra, and the New Jersey All State Band. 

Chatham schools were undergoing big changes in 1937 as a new addition was built, double sessions were confusing us to the point where orchestra practice took place in the Fire House at 8 AM, home room was the chemical lab, and four of us had free time with no teacher, so we did our basketball practice in the old gym. 

It took Dancing Classes, starting my junior year, to get me interested in dating, but playing tennis at the tennis club for four years taught me that there was another sex! The dancing classes were held in Madison, the next town west, and four of us, Chatham lads, went for free to balance out with the surplus of girls, the latter very properly dressed in long gowns and white gloves. That junior year paid off later when I married Caroline, then a senior. In my senior year, she had gone off to college in South Carolina, but we met up again a few years later. We had after-school basketball and baseball, but I liked soccer and ice hockey the best. No Little League in those days, and no inside hockey rinks. It was Kelly’s Pond for hockey. 

In those days I do not remember problems in the school with drugs, drinking, or smoking. My dad smoked good smelling Chesterflelds and an occasional cigar. At last, at age 17, I could drive a car, and my parents even allowed me to take it all the way to the Jersey Shore for a class party, and without a Garden State Parkway, that was quite a trip. It also made dating easier, and allowed for swimming trips to various lakes, ponds and pools. Summers were for Camp Morris and summer music school for two years, giving Saturday night concerts with a great band comprised of students from all over northern New Jersey. Our little dance band had a few engagements. 

n high school, beside the music and sports, there was our Hi Y group, and indoctrination by being dunked head first into the Chatham horse trough in the center of town. For the winter months there was good skating on the Freshet where the Passaic River overflowed into the corn fields, and I was beginning to get my feet into skiing. 

In my last two years of high school, we had Friday night dances with records, and with a car I could take a date to some of the neighborhood road houses to dance, and particularly, to The Meadowbrook which featured the big bands like Dorsey, Tommy and Jimmy. For a $2.00 cover, this included one drink, a low “octane” Tom Collins. 

The school had several day trips that I remember, such as New York museums, the ‘39 World’s Fair, and Hamlet. And of course we all had dates lined up to help the pleasures. And here again, the lasting memories of teachers came through, as Miss Partridge had visited me over fifty years after teaching me English for two years. For college, I needed four years of math, chemistry, and physics, and for languages I had two years of Latin and two years of German. 

Europe was getting into a turmoil as we studied other forms of government and watched Hitler come to power. The Nazi swastika was quite evident as the Hindenburg flew low over the school in route to Lakehurst. 

By my last years in high school, my early nickname of “SPIKE” was gone except for a few earlier friends. My friend Craig gave me the nickname “SUNBATH” after an afternoon soft ball baseball game where I was playing third base. When no one was hitting down the third base line, I stretched out on top of the base just in time for a line drive which I stopped lying down. The coach asked me if I was taking a sunbath, and the name stuck, from Craig at least! 

The Chatham High School had a good reputation, and I do not remember taking any special exams for college entry. My father, having graduated from Dartmouth, paved the way for me to go to Dartmouth as my first choice. Dr. Jeter, the assistant high school principal, thought I should think of Harvard or Yale, having little knowledge of Dartmouth except as a small college up in the sticks of New Hampshire. I only knew of one recent graduate that had gone there. With my friend Whit and his Princeton family, I attended many hockey and football games in Princeton. In the program, the Princeton team members looked smart in ties and coats, while the Dartmouth roster were all pictured in their football jerseys without shoulder pads. Not only that, we always lost. Times changed as Dartmouth had won the first and last games played in the old Palmer stadium, now replaced this year with a new one. 

Graduation came in 1939, and 79 seniors made the last two weeks into one big party. June, 1939, with Dartmouth ahead, and the World beginning to fall apart, in Europe. There was the swimming party at Craig’s family house in Point Pleasant on the Jersey shore, and the graduation prom at THE BROOK in nearby Summit, followed by a trek to Frank Dailey’s MEADOWBROOK to dance to Jimmy Dorsey. High school was over, as the class went their separate ways, some to college, some undecided, and some into military service. 

Robert Pierson Stokes August, 1998

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