This was our first full year in Sheridan, Wyoming, where we moved from Tucson, Arizona, during the summer of 1973. I was twelve years old, and my younger brother Andy was five. Grandpa Johnson died a couple of years earlier, and Dad felt obligated to run the family’s coin-operated machine business. After staying with Grandma for a couple of months, we found a house, just in time for us to start school.
The two-bedroom white structure was at the top of a hill, and Linden School was at the bottom. For the first time in my life, I could walk to and from school. In the past, I’d been driven, and I’d read stories about other kids walking and wished I were one of them. Now, I was, and it gave me a great sense of independence. I often walked to and from school with friends, and at other times, I walked alone. I rarely walked with Andy because he had his own friends who accompanied him to and from school every day.
In the winter, I slid down the hill, often landing on my rear end, but like any other kid, I got to my feet, dusted the snow off my pants, and continued walking. Andy often sledded down the hill with his friends. I tried it once or twice, but I wasn’t impressed because I was afraid of falling off the sled. In January of 1974, we were sent off to school wearing new coats, hats, mittens, and boots that we’d received for Christmas.
I got two other gifts that year that I really liked. One was a remote control box that Dad installed in my room and connected, along with a speaker, to a jukebox in the basement. Unlike the jukeboxes he serviced, this one was rigged so I wouldn’t have to put any money in it. I could play it any time I wanted.
My friends and I listened to such songs as “The Lord’s Prayer,” “Seasons in the sun,” and “The Streak.” Andy and I took “The Streak” a bit further. We ran through the house naked yelling, “Ethel, don’t look!”
The other gift I received was an electric blanket. My room was once part of the garage, and it was chilly during the winter. Although there was a heat register, it didn’t always work. It was nice to climb into a warm bed on those cold winter nights.
It was in 1974 that I first developed an ambition to be a singer. I started singing and accompanying myself on the piano. In February, I entered a local talent competition where I sang “El Condor Pasa”. I didn’t win, but I didn’t give up. I entered the contest every year and finally won first place during my sophomore year in high school.
Andy’s room was in the basement, and it contained, among other things, bunk beds. One night during the winter of 1974, he fell off the top bunk and cut his head. Mother and Dad rushed him to the hospital, leaving me alone with my imagination. What would happen to him? Would they cut off his head and give him a new one? What would his brain be like?
When they returned home with Andy, he was sleeping peacefully in Mother’s arms. A white bandage encircled his head. Mother said he had six stitches, and that was that.
In the spring, Andy was playing with matches near an abandoned shack when the structure caught fire. The police picked him up on suspicion of arson, and Mother and Dad had to bail him out. Dad asked the police to put Andy in a cell for a while. In the meantime, I was home alone, again a victim of my imagination. I pictured Andy being handcuffed and tossed into the back of a police car and thrown into a jail cell. I developed the idea that they might arrest me for being his sister. Since this happened during the day, I called my friends next door, two girls about my age, and they came and stayed with me until Mother and Dad came home with Andy. My brother told me that in the jail cell, besides a couple of bunk beds, there was a rotten peanut butter sandwich. I used this story later on in my novel, We Shall Overcome.
My sixth grade year at Linden School was different from any of my years in Arizona. All the grades, except for kindergarten, had two classrooms, each with their own teachers. Mr. Mathis, my homeroom teacher, taught English, spelling, and social studies and read to us each day. Mr. Smith taught math and science. The last period of each day was set aside for studying.
A Braille writer was set up in the hall outside Mr. Mathis’s classroom, and I used this to do written assignments during the school day. At home, I read the assignments to either Mother or Dad who wrote them in print, and I gave them to the teachers the next day. Some of my textbooks were in Braille, and other materials were read to me either by another student at school or by Mother or Dad at home.
Soon after I started the sixth grade, the school board bought me a closed-circuit television reading machine which was set up in Mr. Mathis’s classroom, and I used it to read printed material. I hated it at first because my eyes kept getting tired, but once I got used to it, I loved it. The first book I read was The Wizard of Oz, still one of my favorite stories today.
At Linden School, book learning was supplemented with hands on activities. In Mr. Mathis’s English class, we produced a yearly school newspaper. I was assigned to interview the kindergarten teacher, along with another student, and write an article about what her class was doing. To be more frank, I volunteered for this job so I could check up on Andy, but I didn’t see him because the interview took place while his class was at recess. When I introduced myself to his teacher, she asked, “Are you Andy’s sister?”
“Yes,” I answered, but I wasn’t surprised when she said no more about him.
In Mr. Smith’s science class, we built rockets and launched them. We assembled the rockets in teams of two. I was paired with Robert who was glad to do all the work while I observed. I felt inept when it came to building things, and I wasn’t encouraged to help with the process.
In the spring of 1974, we took an all-day field trip to some point outside of town to shoot the rockets. Mr. Smith rigged some sort of launching apparatus that was connected to his pick-up truck. Although other teams’ rockets soared above the field, ours never left the ground. Several times, we yelled, “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, blast off!” I pushed the button on the apparatus. Nothing happened.
The sixth grade had weekly business meetings which incorporated officers. I was elected secretary. I used a cassette machine to record meetings, wrote the minutes in Braille, and read them aloud.
When I look back on 1974, I smile. It was the year of my first walk in the snow, my first attempts at journalism and rocketry, and my first job as a secretary. It was also the year of Andy’s first incarceration and his first visit to a hospital emergency room. It was a memorable year because it was the first year of our new life in Sheridan, Wyoming.
After my husband suffered his first stroke, we moved into a house down the street from Linden School. A child development center now takes its place, but the hill is still there, and in the winter, we occasionally hear the happy cries of sledding children. My life has turned a full circle.
What were you doing in 1974? Did you have any favorite songs or activities? What was school like for you? Tell me about it. I’d love to hear from you.
I leave you now with a link to a recording of me singing “El Condor Pasa”. The link will only be available for about a week so enjoy!
Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome