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The Oaks of Midland's Valley



The Oaks of Midland’s Valley


Dedicated to
Paul and Louise Squibb, Ben and Kay Rich and Carl and Kathy Munger

I

Seems like yesterday
I sprinted for glory and ribbons,
Hers and mine

We lived surrounded by majestic oaks,
Abundant fields, men with knowledge,
Lost boys with potential yet unrealized

I grew up in the fields of Midland's Valley
Where a teacher, student and an idea were paramount
We sat on wooden desks inside sparse classrooms, rain or shine, and learned

A liberty-type bell mounted between two six by fours announced the start and end of days,
Wake-up times, period changes, meals, study hall and the last ring for 10 pm lights-out.
Then we listened for the lap-masters' footsteps outside our windows before playing cat and mouse

Small, wood-burning-stoves warmed our rustic cabins at night until morning’s reveille,
Testosterone-filled boys lived with civility around deadlines, chores, class ranks,
Homework, transistor radio rock and roll and wet dreams. Fights were few and far between.

We learned from upper classmen the traditions to be followed, passed down from class to class,
Success inscribed in trophies, the past validated by black and white photos of boys on walls
Inside the Main House, a converted two-story farmhouse, where the headmaster made his office

Across the courtyard, inside the Chapel, redwood planks graced its walls and held names
Of those who came before, inscribed by hand in Gothic script then varnished for preservation,
Crosses added to those who lost their lives in wars and to those whose time had come

Coats and ties were required uniforms for dinner, chapel and Sunday lunch, shorts accepted on hot days
Birthdays were celebrated with a birthday greeting song then a drag and toss into the horse trough
The first heavy rains, a tactical mud, rain-soaked capture-the-flag battle between classes on Varsity Hill

II

Seems like yesterday
I sprinted for glory and ribbons
Hers and mine

On a hard dirt track flattened by
Countless laps on a tractor-pulled road grader
Teammates piled on top for added weight

 

We held on with purpose, fear, to flatten that track
Wearing bandanas around our heads or red handkerchiefs around our faces
To keep the swirling dust away

We played sports to win, going against odds against bigger schools.
I ran between white limestone chalk lines
Against any opposition or the wind across the finish line, toward acceptance

The tall, spring grass in the fields around our school hid gopher holes, fallen branches, rocks,
Odds and ends that nature, boys and time left behind,
Burrs in our socks were a reminder of where we were or had been

We cleared fire circles with hoes and cut tall grass with steel serrated weed cutters
Swathing left to right, back and forth, pinging blade-dulling stones into the air
Working off laps, the demerit system of our school, cursing at having been caught or wrongly accused

Laps meant the loss of free afternoons, trips into town, sometimes more
Some got lucky though when picked by a teacher's wife to clean windows, baby-sit small children,
Get to drink ice-cooled lemonade and snack on a home-baked treat

We kept our cabins clean, swept dust off floors, posed as waiters, dishwashers, plumbers,
 Electricians, window glazers, library helpers, freshmen and sophomores, juniors and seniors,
Our contributions to the system ensuring the smooth running of the school

III

Seems like yesterday
I sprinted for glory and ribbons
Hers and mine

Competitions of wit, of mind, for class rank, strength, endurance, speed, or popularity
Always had a winner. We fell into place in line, pushing, adjusting, except for those who didn't care
In the end, somehow, we knew where we fit in and how and where we might fit in someday

There were those, they got picked up in fancy vehicles or flew home for their vacations,
One got a sports car as a graduation gift, others already practiced golf, wore white, played tennis
Got taken to expensive restaurants, their nonchalant self-confidence intact

Then there were us, we boarded the school van to be taken into town, a sack lunch in hand
We took the Greyhound home to Oakland, or Downtown LA
Or the drop off point in front of the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Blvd across from Grauman's

Home was where a single parent or a relative waited, after another ride on the local bus,
And for some, like me, to a shared bedroom or to sleep on the living room couch,
A widowed mom thankful to be reunited with her son, a son grateful for the pre-arranged part-time job

The bus ride home took me back to my reality, a small downstairs apartment off Sunset Blvd
Where at night I would long for the majestic oaks and fields of Midland's Valley,
And would miss the air that was free from smog, car horns blaring, or helicopters circling overhead

The colors of my vacations seemed unreal, the city drumbeat and dirty, spat-on sidewalks,
Drugs sold on side streets, invites to dark corners of the park, solicitations from some passer-by,
Undigested filth in alleyways; people unfazed, day after day, night upon night

So, I always felt blessed to return to the wooden cabins and classrooms of my alma mater, to nature's dust,
To three meals in Stillman Hall, to routine and Chapel and hymns sung with vigor and determination:
Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord, God Almighty

IV

Seems like yesterday
I sprinted for glory and ribbons
Mine and only mine

The bus ride out of the city meant goodbye to a loving yet fractured family,
Goodbye to the kaleidoscope of reflections in broken glass, of waste and wants,
 And back to the open spaces, golden hills, browns and deep greens of the oaks of Midland's Valley

Dusty walks, runs on unpaved roads and hikes on scattered trails in solitude or with friends
Surpassed paved streets, tall buildings, fast cars and LA's sidewalks.
Sunday’s bumpy wood crew rides on an old truck-bed outdid any ride on any city bus or fancy car

The lights and sounds of the Sunset Strip and Hollywood Boulevard
 Were dull compared to the stars at night above the hills and tree trunks and branches of majestic oaks
Whose silent shadows hid frogs, invisible crickets, coveys of quails, and the occasional wild pig or deer

Yet there were days and nights when my thoughts went back to city lights
And the longing for the girls in short skirts, the smell of their perfume,
To the girls on the beaches of Southern California and the smell of sun lotion on their skin

Private moments were hard to come by at a boys' boarding school
Men’s magazines hid under mattresses
Centerfolds came down when families visited or got covered up with posters

All of us anticipated the Spring Dance, the lucky few were mostly upperclassmen,
The rest of us sat along the benches around the converted dining hall. We watched and learned
Wondering what it would be like, waiting our turn to get older
 
Perhaps our time would come when the girl’s boarding school invited us
Then the planning, timing of the first embrace, the kiss, the fumbling, the awkward wrestling,
Hope for an address or a phone number, get close enough to send love letters back and forth

V

Seems like yesterday
I sprinted for glory and ribbons
For Her, my alma mater


Grades mattered, the future mattered, Vietnam mattered, the Rolling Stones blared
Older classmen grew restless during finals week before their graduation
Hidden home-made stills got disassembled, conscientious objectors spoke up, others quietly enlisted

Yet She was ever steadfast
“In Robore Virtus”
Throughout her seasons, heavy rains, droughts and teen-aged boys

Her balance sheet dependent on grateful families
Alumni, Foundations, friends, and word of mouth
There is good reason in molding independent, purposeful lives

Teachers and their families nurtured students willingly, lovingly, and guided those less fortunate.
Project Open Future opened doors for some like me, gave us chances beyond our expectations,
And the majestic oaks of Midland’s Valley gave us roots, turned us boys into young men

We learned to fix anything that needed fixing, do what needed to be done.
To chop and split wood, build fires to make spaces warm, showers hot,
And perhaps most importantly from this labor and her classroom to learn to stoke the fire within

We learned outside the walls of comfort about living and stretching our minds beyond curriculum
To forge new lives, to build on a foundation of separating needs from wants.
But in the real world, on the outside, it has been a harder task

There are days when I clearly see the colors of the rainbow
Break through the gray clouds inside my head when a sprint for glory and ribbons,
Hers and mine, made all the difference

About this poem

Growing up in a boy's boarding school

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Written on May 14, 2019

Submitted by gbaranoff on September 23, 2021

7:21 min read
34 Views

Gregory Baranoff

Gregory Baranoff was born in Shanghai, China to Russian parents and came to the United States in the early sixties. more…

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