Our Pony Express
As a retired teacher, I habitually listen to the school report every weekday morning on our local radio station. When the snow is flying and the wind is whistling, I smile and think of teachers and students listening to other radios. I can almost hear a resounding “YES ! ” when the announcer lists the school closures.
Recently, on just such a blustery day, I lay back in the warmth of my bed and compared stormy school days of yesterday and today. By yesterday, I am referring to the 1950s and 1960s.
From grade one to grade eleven, I spent all my school days in St. Thomas Aquinas School on the Lower Road in Branch. The school was located a fair distance from most of the livyers. We did not get many breaks from school because of stormy weather. I am 100% sure that school never closed because of impending bad weather. No matter what the forecast predicted, we got up in the morning, went to school, walked home to lunch and returned for the afternoon session.
What happened when a blizzard developed during school hours? We did not go home early, that’s for sure. We sat in our wooden desks, warm and dry, because in Branch we were ahead of our time. Our school had a wood and coal furnace that spewed out steam heat. I can still hear the hiss of the large radiators and see the clouds of vapor rising from wet mittens and caps.
Yes, we sat there and we read from our readers “John Grumlie swore by the light of the moon.” We struggled to solve problems from our Caribou Arithmetic books. We studied what Bunga did in Malaya and how Erik and Inger lived in Norway. We knew that a storm was raging outside, but we never worried about getting home. You see, we had our own version of the Pony Express.
About fifteen or twenty minutes before dismissal time, we would hear them coming. Every different jinglejangle of the horse bells would signify that another father, uncle or older brother had arrived with horse and wood slide to deliver safe transportation home.
Our school had a different kind of parking lot than we are accustomed to today. Horses, slides and drivers lined up in the school yard or along the Lower Road waiting for their valuable cargo. If, for some reason, some man could not make it, a neighbour had been requested to drive his children home. Acts of neighbourly assistance were common in outport Newfoundland.
Some conveyances were much better equipped to transport youngsters than others. My father, whose forte was not carpentry, did not provide the smoothest ride. Some of my siblings remember hanging onto the horn of the slide for dear life on a rough piece of plank placed over the beams. I always glanced jealously at other slides which provided back and side supports, like benches, so there was no danger of slipping off.
The snow and ice whipped our faces as the yells of “Giddup Prince!” or “Whoa there, Bess!” mingled with the shouts and laughter of the children. With the horse’s hooves precariously close, while we clutched the contents of our homemade school bags, hanging on was no easy task.
My love for horses must have been partly cultivated by those delightful rides in winter storms. Our spirited horse, Prince, with a toss of his shiny brown head and with his nostrils steaming, could run with the best of them. In my ten-year-old mind, he was akin to the winged horse Pegasus.
Anyway, that is how I remember it. There are peers of mine who might argue with my boasting, for in our community a good horse was a valuable possession and there were many fine steeds. Whether my memory is being selective or not is now immaterial.
Nevertheless, I dearly loved those wintry experiences! The more bodies that crowded onto a slide, the more fun it was. I can only recall feelings of sheer exhilaration and adventure. I never felt nervous and I cannot recount one mishap. Pretty good statistics, I would say, for pre-modern transportation times.
—Marina Power Gambin was born and raised in her beloved community of Branch, St. Mary’s Bay. She is a retired teacher who lives in Placentia where she taught for almost three decades. She can be reached at email@example.com