By Catherine C. Brooks
May Day at Milford Haven School never arrived too soon for the students. The fair-like atmosphere of the event captivated all the children in grades one through six, attending the school, as well as, their parents and neighbors. We would forget the fact that our parents could lose their homes before another May Day from affects of The Great Depression, or how hard the winter that had just passed. A day filled with fun from our arrival before 1:00 p.m. until the last ball game was won or lost, the last dinner served and the last dishes washed and stored to await another event.
When we entered the schoolyard, Daddy parked Grandpa Callis’s Plymouth in the designated area. The appearance of the schoolyard had changed overnight. A stage, made with even blocks and rough boards, sat to the far left side of the yard near the community hall with white sheets draped over it. Atop the stage, two lonely-draped chairs sat in the center with a background of vines and flowers on a trellis. Bright-multicolor-crepe-paper streamers encircled the white pole, which had been driven a few feet into the ground, for the May Pole Dance.
After we parked, I climbed out the back seat with my white-Sunday shoes in hand to change before the program began. Daddy helped Momma with the food, which they had packed in the trunk of the car just before we left home. With my younger sister, Lou, following close behind, Momma carried a large platter of fried oysters in one hand and a dish of deviled eggs in the other. Daddy followed with two jugs of tea, and they headed for the back classroom where parents were assembling all the food on a makeshift table to serve later. I certainly didn’t want any of that food because I had those things at home, but I looked forward to using my nickel for a hot dog sandwich with mustard and onions. And if Daddy had another nickel, I’d have a cone with homemade ice cream. Yum m! Yum-m!
The spring of 1933, the teachers had planned a different May Day program than they’d had in previous years. Instead of a queen from the sixth grade, they selected the queen, with a king, from the first grade—they chose my cousin, Jack Sadler, as king and me as queen. I didn’t know that to be considered an honor until later years.
As soon as Momma delivered the food, she went to the classroom designated that day as the girls’ dressing room where I was changing my shoes. She helped me change into a dress made with rows of white crepe paper, which had been sewed to thin cotton cloth, with an attached crepe paper train. Then she combed my hair again, giving me explicit instructions that I could only wear the new-white shoes during the program.
Then Miss Mae, my teacher, took a package of construction paper from the desk drawer, making me a crown of the white to fit my head, and she left with my crown and gold construction paper, which she had cut into the proper points, but needed to fit it to Jack’s head.
When Miss Mae guided us out of the back door, Jack looked rather sharp in his white pants and short-sleeved-white shirt. He didn’t seem a bit frightened, but my throat felt tight and my body almost stiff for fear something would go wrong. Would I sit correctly? Would I trip on the train going up the step to the stage? Would my crown fall off when I left the stage?
I sat sideways in Jack’s almost-new-little-red wagon that had been covered in a piece of white material—probably the side of an old sheet. When we heard music playing from a hand-wound phonograph, which Miss Hall, the principal and the fifth and sixth grades’ teacher, had brought, Jack slowly pulled the wagon to the base of the stage.
Jack walked ahead and stood by the chair on the right. Then two boys escorted me to the other draped chair, one holding my flowing crepe paper train, and the other held my elbow, leading me to the chair. After they saw Jack and me seated, they stood to the far sides of the stage. A king and queen must have a court, so six girls served. Dressed in frilly pastel-crepe-paper dresses, the court marched by twos, parting, one to the left and one to the right when they reached the stage. With everyone in place, the escorts brought the crowns to place on Jack’s and my heads. Then they slowly marched to the foot of the stage, standing guard like sentinels.
After a lull, piano music began to flow from the community hall. The older boys had rolled the piano the length of the floor, forward from the stage area to the doorway. And Miss Mae had taken her position as pianist with a group of fifth and sixth graders, standing on the grass outside of the stage nearest the music. The group sang an appropriate song that they had learned for the occasion. By this time, I had relaxed and enjoyed the program that we had practiced over and over—only this time in pretty dress-up clothes of crepe paper for an audience.
When the music stopped, students performed on the grassy lawn out in front of the stage, acting out several children’s stories that we all knew almost by heart. Parents and friends, who stood beyond a dividing line made with twine, attached to posts, hushed so they could hear what each child said.
Well into the program, music from the community hall’s door rang out loud and clear. Girls, dressed in bright-colored dresses of pink, yellow, green, blue, orange and lavender, which had ruffle after ruffle layered on thin cotton fabric, skipped from behind the front of the schoolhouse to the May Pole. Their partners, boys dressed in white slacks and shirts with black ties, belts and shoes, skipped at their sides. Each took their place at the end of a crepe paper streamer, which had been temporarily pinned to the ground, before they began the dance. Over and under, over and under, and around, and around, braiding the streamers as they went. They would go first one way and then the other, making the audience wonder would they ever complete the design. When they finished the braids wrapped the white pole with vivid color. As each couple completed their braid, they skipped back to the unseen area back of the front classroom, one following the other.
Imaginary streamers had given me no idea of the real May Pole Dance. So it became the focal point of May Day because I was dazed with the beauty. Music changed to a slower tempo, and my escorts came to lead me back to the draped wagon that had sat back of stage during the program. Jack pulled it to the back door of school where we had left more than an hour earlier. Miss Mae continued to play the march as the court followed, returning to change their clothes for play. Every crepe paper costume was carefully stored for another year. Money may still be even scarcer if the Depression continued.
Bedlam began where quiet had prevailed for more than an hour. The visiting ball team yelled to each other as they headed across the yard to the ball field. The Milford Haven Team matched their bellows when they began to throw the baseball to each other.
Meantime mothers hurried to the back classroom to begin chipping the block of ice, which had been wrapped in many sacks to prevent melting, for glasses of tea. Others filled plates with either fried chicken or fried oysters for the dinners they would sell. Whichever meat they used, the plate included a deviled egg, potato salad and a homemade roll. Visitors lined outside the open window and began purchases as fast as the plates and glasses filled.
The fathers took their places either where they were needed or near the ball field to see the game. Daddy brought Lou to me so she could be a part of the girls’ outdoor action and have a hot dog when I purchased mine, giving me her money.
We girls, who cared nothing about a ball game, gathered in groups, discussing the day’s events and just enjoying girl talk. I had to let Lou meet my best friends, even a sixth grade girl, who paid lots of attention to me during recesses.
I was ready to go back home when the mothers finished dishes, washing them in cold water with a bar of soap—perhaps homemade from pork fat and lye. There was no way to heat the water unless they made a fire in the potbelly stove, and that would send them all outside for cool air.
I attended May Days as long as I attended school and many times since, but 1933 still stands out in my memory. Today’s children don’t know the innocent fun they have missed with May Days being passé.
© 2003 Catherine C.
Brooks. All Rights Reserved.
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