Wednesday, May 2, 2012

At first I got in Line ...

Line Avenue Elementary School
     The main building still stands at 1800 Line Avenue, and it's been preserved and maintained  because it's on the National Register of Historic Places. To me, it's a majestic place.
     Don't drive by there very often any more, but whenever I do, it's a good feeling. It's nostalgic.
     Line Avenue Elementary closed many, many years ago; a lot of it was torn down and replaced by a building that is now the Northwestern State University school of nursing in Shreveport.
      The playground I remember is paved over; the school's most memorable feature, the huge black spiralling fire escape that went up to the third floor, is long gone. You could slide down that baby, a great joy ride. (I never tried it -- no guts.)   
    On Jan. 12, 1956, just hours after we first came to town by train, Line Avenue became my school.
     My parents, the head of the Shreveport Jewish Federation, and my little sister (Elsa, 4) went to the school office and the principal, Mr. Tatum, and his staff placed me in Miss Davis' third-grade class. I was 8 1/2.
      In Amsterdam, my first school -- for 2 1/2 years -- was a Montessori school, just a couple of blocks from our little house there. The distance from our duplex on Jordan Street in Shreveport to Line Avenue Elementary wasn't much farther. (More on this in a moment.) 
      My dad always regretted enrolling me so quickly; looking back, he felt I should have been given time to acclimate to America and to the new surroundings in Shreveport. I must've been scared, but I don't remember that.
       I don't have any regrets; the kids there were wonderful to a small, non-English speaking little boy. I feel the same way about those kids as I do about the kids at Sunset Acres Elementary a couple of years later -- I'm forever grateful for the way they took me in.
      My first friend -- he was in my class -- was Meyer Brener, the rabbi's son. Agudath Achim, the synagogue, was just down the street on Line Avenue; Leo Brener, at this point, had been the rabbi there for 22 years and would be there another 18. He and his family couldn't have been kinder to us and Meyer, a smart, violin-playing, studious kid, paid attention to me.
       The names stuck with me ... Paul Courtney, Tom McCuistion, Chris Mitchell, Charlie Powell, Marilyn Meyer (who later would be in my Sunday School/confirmation class at B'nai Zion Temple for years), a little girl named Judy Reed, a big girl named Naomi ... and Jan Prothro.
       Jan was a tall, slim, cute girl. Her family, like ours, would move southwest in town and she was in my graduating class at Woodlawn High; she's a Facebook friend now. At a Woodlawn reunion a decade ago, Jan recalled the Line Avenue days.
       "You might not remember this," she said, "but in those first few days you were here, Miss Davis assigned me to walk you to and from school every day until you knew where you were."
       How sweet. Thanks again, Jan.
      Those kids. There was no bullying, no nastiness, no resentment, only people trying to be helpful and encouraging.
      Learning the daily routine, learning the language, learning to read and write in English took some time. But I had one big advantage: I was about a year ahead of the third-graders here in math. That allowed me more time to work on my reading skills. It was a blessing.
      At Montessori school, we were free on Wednesday afternoons but had school on Saturday mornings. So that was an adjustment. Another was that I'd always taken my lunch to school in Amsterdam; here one of the first things I learned was how to go through the lunch line.
       And imagine this ... I'd never seen corn in Holland nor fish sticks nor much of anything that was on the menu at Line Avenue. I remember my fascination at the little milk bottles here, with the pull tab. Nothing like that in Holland.
       Soon, as soon as we were settled and my mother could manage it, I was bringing my lunch to school at Line Avenue. Some American food would be put on hold.
       Recess I liked. Didn't know where to go or what to do, but the kids showed me. And when the weather wasn't as cold -- this was mid-January, remember -- I noticed the boys playing a strange game with a stick and a ball.
        The only thing I knew about baseball was that in Holland it was honkbal; I'd read about it in my comprehensive Dutch sports history book my mom and dad had collected for me (I still have it). I'd never seen a game, nor a baseball field, the rules were foreign. I knew the best Dutch team was OVVO, the best player was a pitcher, Hannie Urbanus, who had a tryout with an American team (the New York Giants) a couple of years before.
      The kids at Line Avenue were playing something called speedball -- a ball just a little bigger than  a baseball with a softball-like cover. That's what SPAR sponsored in the spring; hardball -- real baseball -- was for the summer.
      Soon I learned a little about playing -- and what not to do. One day I got behind the batter in a catcher's position, got too close and the bat caught me flush in an eye. Came home with a huge black eye. My parents were appalled. But there was no big blood loss and, fortunately, no major damage. It really was the worst injury I ever had (losing my appendix wasn't an "injury," was it?)
      One thing I noticed. Almost all the gloves were for right-handers, and I was a lefty. Trying those gloves on my right hand didn't work too well. And here is where Paul Courtney was important.
       Not only was he a nice kid -- I went to his house on Boulevard Avenue, right near the school, a couple of times -- he was left-handed, played first base and pitched some. He let me use his glove.
       "Nobody was sure about you," Paul told me a couple of years ago. "We were little kids; we didn't know the story, didn't know what your family had been through. ... You were a crazy little kid."
      Paul was also in my fourth-grade class -- we remembered Mrs. Anding as our teacher and she had a three-sided ruler that she used to rap the back of people's hands or their knuckles when she needed to get a disciplinary point across. But the "crazy little kid" reference is Paul's recalling me "dropping your pants and running around the room, yelling at people. Don't know what sparked that."
      Well ... I'm trying to forget.
     I was too little and too unskilled to play on a team, but some of the kids were on the school  speedball team. They wore white T-shirts with red lettering "Line Avenue" and blue jeans. And here I found my first American sports hero.
     Mickey Mantle, in his greatest season, was in my future. But Line Avenue had Jimmy Boddie, the team's pitcher. He was a small guy, but a good athlete, and popular. The kids followed him. To everyone at school, he was "Bookie" (pronounced Boo-key). He was in the other third-grade class.
       Don't think the Line Avenue team was all that successful -- didn't see its games or even knew where they were played -- but I loved watching Bookie play on the schoolground. And for years, I would look for his name and my other Line Avenue friends' names in the SPAR statistics and writeups in the paper.          
      Bookie would show up again in a couple of years on Hamilton Terrace Junior High's basketball team, then he pitched for Byrd High. He went on to what was then known as Northeast Louisiana University and didn't play, but for the next 20-25 years, every time I covered or attended a game at NLU, Jimmy Boddie was there as a spectator, and we'd often say hello and visit.
       When LSU played Texas A&M at the Cotton Bowl two years ago, my son and his friends were tailgating before the game. Jay introduced me to a young man named Peyton Boddie, a business associate, and said he was from Shreveport. Immediately, I said, I know someone named Boddie from there -- Jimmy Boddie.
      "Uncle Bookie," Peyton said joyfully. And in a minute's time, he had Bookie on the phone, and handed the phone to me. Now that was a reunion.
        Jim Boddie is a sales manager at a car dealership in Ruston, lives in nearby Calhoun. He's been through heart surgery recently, and we've talked a time or two. I told him what I said above about his first-hero status.
        It's a good memory. Line Avenue is a good memory.

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