by: Russ Lancaster
In the spring of 1957, I was caught skipping school. It was hard to keep a secret in Hamlet back then and I imagine it is just as hard today. I was caught "fair and square" and paid the appropriate price. I was 15 at the time and nearing the end of the school year, tenth grade.
I was a skinny little kid and extremely self-conscious. You would not believe that if you knew me today. I am 192 pounds with a lot of the weight centered around my middle and I am not self-conscious in the least. The United States Air Force took that out of me way back in 1959. But, you know how it was when you were a teen-ager, always conscious about what others thought of you. You had to fit in. Being skinny was extremely difficult to deal with.
Anyway, I was so self-conscious about my thinness that if a shirt or pants didn't fit me exactly right, I felt it made me look even skinnier. I "pegged" the sleeves of my short sleeved shirts thinking it made my arms look thicker. I wore long sleeved shirts early in the fall before the summertime temperatures had given way to coolness. I wore my undershirts backward to hide my protruding collarbone. I tried to hide my thin arms and legs in every way possible.
That spring, I needed new short sleeved shirts. My mom bought me three or four but they seemed too big for me. The sleeves were wide and even being rolled up and pegged with a safety pin, in my eyes, they made me look awfully thin.
My solution was not too bright and only lasted five days. I decided to skip school.
We lived on Hylan Avenue and I walked to and from school each day, including the lunch hour. I felt every car that passed by was filled with classmates commenting on my size. It probably wasn't true at all, but that's how I felt.
During the week I decided to skip school, I would leave home at the usual time, about 8:10 a.m. But instead of crossing the railroad bridge between Jefferson and Charlotte Streets, I detoured to the stand of woods just to the northeast side of Jefferson. There were paths through there that other kids used as a shortcut to school so I had to hide far enough away in the pines and blackjacks not to be discovered. I was good at it. I wasn't caught in the woods or anywhere near them. But, I would be discovered soon enough.
I took copies of my mom's Readers Digests with me to occupy the time. Even if I wasn't going to be in school, I could still learn a lot from reading those good old soft cover monthly magazines. I didn't have a watch so I would have to guess at the time of day in order to be back home for lunch at the proper time.
I was good at guessing time, but not quite good enough. I showed up for lunch all five days about ten minutes early. We had a "maid" that came over every day to help with cleaning and ironing and each day she questioned my early arrival. I told her it had to do with exams and that I was being allowed an early lunch for good grades. I could tell by the look in her eye that she didn't believe a word I was saying. She knew I was lying and skipping school but she wouldn't turn me in either. My secret was still safe with her.
Another real problem I had was baseball practice every day and a game that Friday afternoon. I had to be at practice by 3:00 p.m. every day and was. But on game day, I had to be there at 2:30 p.m. to catch the team bus to Rockingham (we had an out of town game with them). Somehow I even got by with all that, not being turned in by my teammates or anyone else. My secret was still safe even though more and more folks were catching on.
I thought I was a good athlete but not quite big enough for the coaches to put me on the varsity baseball team. However, I was good enough to start for the JV baseball team coached by Gene Winfree. That Friday afternoon game would be when I learned that my secret was out.
I had a good game that day, I got three hits and a write up in the Hamlet News by Kirk Kirkley for something stupid I did on the base paths (see my "Kirk Kirkley" story for that). My dad was in the stands and I was feeling extra special. Heck, I might even get to warm the bench on the varsity team if I kept doing so well.
After the game was over and we had been taken back to the HHS gym on the team bus to shower and such, I found my dad waiting outside. All right, I thought. He is so proud of me. He's going to give me a ride home and brag on me.
Wrong... Dead wrong. He was going to give me a ride all right but there wouldn't be much bragging. He was only giving me fair warning about what I was going to get when I got home to face my mom.
He told me that I had been skipping school and that my mom knew and was waiting for me. I didn't deny it and he didn't scold me or even mention it again...not ever. I had been warned.
When I got home, I headed for the supper table but my mom headed me in the opposite direction. She told me what I had been doing and she KNEW. There was no use in making an excuse or explanation. I had done wrong... terribly wrong and was now subject to her punishment.
Not offering any excuse was a blessing. I only admitted that I had skipped but offered no reason why. I did have one question for her before accepting my punishment. WHO had told her?
It was a simple way of being discovered. I had been ratted out at the Colonial Store that very afternoon while I was playing baseball. It seems my mom had run into Grace Phifer, my homeroom teacher, while buying groceries. Mrs. Phifer expressed concern about my health since I had missed five straight days of school. My mom was flabbergasted. She told Mrs. Phifer I hadn't been sick. The truth was out. Not only did my mom know, my homeroom teacher knew. By the time I got back to school the whole class would know. Even worse, Mr. Haltiwanger (the principal) would know. Boy, was I ever in trouble.
My mom's punishment was tolerable. Straight home from school for two weeks, except for baseball practice and games. No TV. I think I was even made to wash dishes a few times, something she knew I hated doing.
Sure enough, the next Monday, Mrs. Phifer hauled me off to the principal's office and Mr. Haltiwanger dealt out his punishment. I was to "stay-in" one hour after school each day for a week. Hmmm.. I thought I was getting off easy. Five one hour punishments for five complete days out of school. Yes, I did get off easy but I learned a few lessons. I learned not to try to keep a secret in Hamlet, not to skip school and that my teacher had real concern for my well being.
I accepted my punishment and considered myself lucky. I remember that incident as though it happened only yesterday. I remember my dad's face as he warned me, my mom's face as she confronted me. I remember the baseball game, Gene Winfree and Mrs. Phifer and the way I disappointed all of them for what turned out to be no reason at all. I remember Mr. Haltiwanger and the look on his face, then I remember how we became golf partners after he reached his 70's and talked about the stupid things we kids had done. I remember that stand of woods and the Readers Digest stories I read when hiding out in those pines and blackjacks....
But most of all... I remember Hamlet
This section is to honor the works of Russ Lancaster who started the “I Remember Hamlet” web site years ago. Without his pioneering the web at that time we might not have gathered all these memories of our Hamlet, NC. We thank you Russ for what you started in 1996, may you Rest in Peace. Russ was kind enough to let me download his web site before he took it down. Thank you Russ.
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