Guest Column: The Last Farewell

<I>MATT WINTERS COLLECTION</I><BR>Ocean Park's tidy little school, pictured not long after construction, provided a comfortable educational setting for generations of children on the north half of the Peninsula.

The old school in Ocean Park is gone forever. The new one is on it's way. It happened on the last day of September as I was driving along enjoying a nice fall day with blue skies and sunshine. That is, until I turned the corner on my way to the library. My heart stopped and my jaw dropped as I hit the brakes and saw the giant steam shovel bucket literally ripping apart the old school with its teeth. By the time I arrived there was a good-sized pile of rubble, but they were still going at it full steam.

Realizing I had stopped the car in the middle of the road, I immediately pulled over, totally forgetting about whatever I had planned to do at the library, and my first thought was - get the camera! Even though what I saw tore at my heart, I felt the need to preserve it for history's sake. It was no small feat trying to take photographs through the little holes in the cyclone fence, but time was critical and I couldn't wait to go get a ladder.

After I had taken several photos, I just stood there with my fingers clutching the fence longing to get close enough to salvage a small piece of something, but knowing it was forbidden. At that point I was caught totally unprepared for the surge of emotion that followed. I felt like my best friend had just died, and I was in shock! It wasn't so much that the building was coming down as it was the way it was happening, violently ripped apart with no respect for what it was and what it had been to the whole community so many years ago. Yes, I had known this was coming, but I had been mentally prepared for some sort of "remodel," not this! I could feel my throat choking up and was powerless to hold back the tears that followed. Tears for all the memories that old building held for me and many others who grew up here and spent the first eight years of schooling in that building. Back then, we had never even heard of junior high school or kindergarten. It was eight years of grade school and four years of high school. I'm sure that I am one of the few people left on the Peninsula who went clear through grade school in the original building even before the first addition was added. So my ties and my memories go back a long way.

The Ocean Park School was built in 1936 to replace the one in Nahcotta which had burned that same year. It originally was called the Ocean Park-Nahcotta Grade School and early photos will show that. But over the years various people saw fit to leave Nahcotta out of the picture and the name was changed. We don't even call it a grade school anymore. Now it's an elementary school.

What seems like 100 years ago, I started my first grade there with Mrs. Osborne as my teacher, just like everyone else in town did. It was a time when the school was the center of the whole community and everything of importance happened there. If there was a community meeting held, it happened at the school. When it was time to vote, our parents went to the school. If we wanted a library book, we could get it at the school because that's where the library was. In fact, the box-like protrusion that is the front entrance is really the old open porch that used to be there. When it was time to expand the Ocean Park Library, the front porch was enclosed to make more room.

At that time we were all tightly woven together by the demands of a new world war and there was a feeling of "togetherness" that I have not seen again in my lifetime. The required pile of scrap metal for the war effort was collected on the school grounds. The children, no matter how poor, would bring their little dimes each week to buy a stamp for their war bond books. We practiced air raid drills to learn how to get under our desks in case of an air attack by the enemy. We cringed at the sound of an airplane and were taught to stand up straight against the walls or in a doorway for protection if we couldn't get under a desk. And our parents learned to deal with ration stamps for everything from food to rubber tires because of the war. Teachers were no-nonsense people and we didn't sass them, ever. We obeyed the rules and did our schoolwork. At recess we played simple games in the school yard like marbles or Kick The Can and Double Dutch jump rope. We skated around and around on the old cement tennis court with our steel-wheeled roller skates that are now considered antiques.

In the fall, the ever-present Village Club always coordinated the very best annual Carnival you could imagine and, like everything else, it was held in the school. Oh, how we all loved the Carnival with its many chances to win some silly little prize we would cherish for months afterward. On the budget of a cannery worker, my Mom would dole out a few precious dimes to each of us kids so we could buy tickets for the big event. We would spend half the night at the Carnival checking out all the options to be sure we used our precious tickets for the right game with the best prizes.

The Carnival was such a big part of the community that the months of planning and the excitement leading up to it were almost as much fun as the actual event. I recall my father, Ray Stone, working on various ideas for weeks and weeks trying to come up with the best gadget game he could think of to capture young imaginations. I don't think he ever missed having a booth at the Carnival. It was all done with volunteer effort so that every penny of profit could be given back to the school to pay for needed programs and materials that the budget couldn't cover. Again, it was a community working together for the betterment of us all.

The annual Christmas program was pretty much a tie with the Carnival as the biggest event of the year. We started planning and practicing for the festivities very soon after school started in September. And every single kid in the school got to be in the program regardless of their talent, or lack of it. They each had a chance to stand up proud on the old wooden stage in front of what must have been the entire town. To this day I can remember singing "Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem" all by myself as a second grader up on that stage. No small feat for a bashful child, but I knew my parents were in the audience and they would be proud of me. I can still recall the dress I wore which I believed at the time to be the most beautiful in the world. Blue velvet on the top and plaid taffeta on the bottom. It's a very sad thing to learn we will not be getting a replacement stage built into the new school, but I guess "they" didn't think it was important.

Now days, it's not considered politically correct to even put up a nativity scene on the school grounds but back then, the annual Christmas program was a really big deal. Everyone in the community helped to make it a big success and each person did what they could to contribute. Again, my Dad stepped up to the plate and agreed to fill the shoes of Santa Claus for many years. After the final song was sung by the last group of kids in the program, he would come bounding into the gym in his Santa suit with a sack over his shoulder shouting, "Ho Ho Ho!" Everyone stopped in their tracks, and kids were wide eyed with amazement and anticipation. As they lined up in an orderly fashion supervised by the teachers, each child got to sit on Santa's lap and get their very own candy cane. It was a special time for us all. But for me, it was doubly special because I not only got a candy cane, but I also got an extra wink from Santa because we shared a little secret about who was behind the white whiskers.

In later years, seventh and eighth grades, I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the cheerleaders. Back then we had regular teams for all the sports and were known as the "Ocean Park Blue Devils". We won our share of trophies, and years ago they used to be proudly displayed in a glass case in the hall of the school. Now, I think they sit in a cardboard box on a shelf somewhere. At least I hope they are still around. How nice it would be to preserve that part of our school's past by including an appropriate glass case in the planning of the new building. This would teach kids about respect for the past as well as show some of their school's history.

Yes, we were the mighty Blue Devils during those earlier years and the hard wooden bleachers held kids and parents year after year for all the sports games as well as the annual Carnival and the Christmas program and whatever else went on in the community. Now those same bleachers are just a pile of rubble, as is the old stage and most of the school. It was a place where once upon a time every important thing in the community happened.

When I finally graduated from the eighth grade, I took part in my last official event in the gym and on the stage. It was there that I proudly received my diploma from - you guessed it - my Dad. He was still doing what he saw as his duty to the community and, at that time, was the president of the school board. His signature is on my diploma from the Ocean Park-Nahcotta Grade School, and I still have it tucked away in my treasures.

There are too many memories to count tied up in the old school that has now been torn to shreds. It's a painful process, but I will go back every few days and continue taking pictures to preserve this moment in history. I do understand the school needed to come down to make way for progress. But it doesn't make it any easier on my heart.

I would like to end my tribute to the old school with a nice thought that I wanted to share. While I was standing there that September morning hanging on the cyclone fence with tears running down my face, I was aware of one of the workers from the construction company watching me. Soon he walked over and asked me if I had gone to school there in the early years. I told him I had, and we visited briefly. Then he said, "wait a minute, I've got something for you." He went back into what was left of the school and came out with a couple of old musty textbooks from the 1940s and handed them to me. He said the crew had found a bunch of them under the gym when they started the demolition project and had decided to save them for people like me. People who came by and hung on the fence, and watched their childhood memories come falling down. I thought it was an extremely generous and understanding thing for this guy in a hard hat to do, and I will be forever grateful. It told me that they knew there was a job to be done, but it would be hard for some of us to watch. They wanted us to know they understood. It was the best thing that could have happened at the time.

Soon, we will see our new school begin to take shape and it will be a good thing. I am so pleased to see that the original section is being preserved as a part of the new plan. It will leave us a little piece of history that will always be dear to my heart, from another time that will never come again.

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