There's history in the basement

Jun 30, 2014 By Randy Tucker

I've found treasures during otherwise mundane manual labor.

It was one of my least-favorite jobs as summer help at the old Wind River Elementary / Junior High in Pavillion. I'd signed on to mow lawns, move sprinklers and spend the summer outside, but the late Cliff Stickney had other ideas.

Cliff was the head custodian for District 6 (and later the longtime mayor of Pavillion), and he had a detailed schedule of what needed to be accomplished over the summer months. In those days Cliff did most of the work by himself, with just a couple of high school kids in the summer to help. At the high school a few miles away near Morton Jim Kelly did the same thing.

The job I disliked was clearing out old storage areas and hauling them to the dump just east of Pavillion.

It is amazing how much junk elementary teachers can cram into a classroom. When one of them retires or, heaven forbid, some enterprising administrator decides the teacher needs to move to another room, the bulk of the work falls on the custodial staff.

This summer morning in far-gone 1974. Cliff told me we were clearing out the athletic storage area under the old gym. Until it was demolished a few years ago the old gym at Pavillion was fondly called "Hoosier Gym," because it was reminiscent of the gym made famous by the Hickory Huskers in the film of the same name.

There is something unique about the ambience of a school in the summertime. No kids, no teachers, no bustle, no bells, just the building on a warm day, quietly waiting for life again in late August.

As we started to haul out deflated basketballs, threadbare uniforms, and assorted, broken athletic equipment, we came on a treasure trove.

In one of the boxes near the back of the storage room was a collection of several dozen leather football helmets. Some of them even had the names of older men I knew in the community still plainly visible in indelible marker.

Many of the boys who wore these helmets went off to World War II. They seemed old to me at the time but, I realize, were about the age I am now. It's evident that not only do you get better in your memory as a player as you get older, but age itself becomes less relevant.

After a few moments commenting on who wore this or that helmet, it was back to work in Cliff's no-nonsense fashion. All those little bits of history were thrown into the back of the school pickup and I tossed them into the dump. What would they be worth today?

A couple of years before that, I was hired for a few weeks to help paint the Crowheart School. My first wage was $1.15 per hour, and they even paid me to ride the half hour or so each way to Crowheart.

The summer of 1972 was blazing hot in July, and the paint nearly dried on the brush in the arid climate of western Fremont County. During lunch we took shelter in the basement of the old school.

Perhaps it was an inkling of my future interest in history, but there in a corner of the basement were a pile of old Morton High School annuals, a few scattered editions of a long-defunct student newspaper, and clippings of school activities from the distant past. Once again, the quiet of a school devoid of children created an ethereal atmosphere.

It wasn't quite as moving an experience a few years later when the coaching staff at Lusk was called on to clean out the athletic storage facility by athletic director Dick Price.

The boys locker room was under the Tiger gym in Lusk, just south of the training room and in close proximity to the coach's office. Most of the equipment was antiquated or simply worn beyond repair, and boxes of it quickly moved up the outside stair to a parked dump truck.

One basketball warmup caught my eye. Red, with white and blue trim, it had the improbable measurement of 44 inch sleeves and 15 inch neck.

"Who could have worn this?" I thought.

Price must have caught my expression. He came over and with a grin said, "This was Tall Paul's."

The late Paul Kruse was said to be more than 7 feet tall and very thin in high school. Near his jersey Price pulled out a tennis racket attached to a broom handle.

"I used this to get Paul to shoot the ball higher," he said.

The jersey and tennis racket didn't end up in the dump truck but made their way back to a storage locker.

Sometimes important bits of history are thrown absentmindedly on the ash heap. One spring day in 1991 the track coaches at Shoshoni were moving jumping pads and hurdles from the district bus barn. As we loaded the third high jump pad, I noticed several boxes of old trophies.

After unloading I returned to the bus barn and discovered five forgotten state championship basketball trophies from the 1950s and early 60s, along with dozens of conference championship football, basketball and track trophies. Regional and state second-, third- and fourth-place trophies outnumbered the rest. Many of them were broken and in obvious neglect. I snagged the state championship trophies, and they remained on the shelf in the back of my classroom until my departure in 1999. I hope these bits of past glory have earned their rightful resting place.

Sometimes history engulfs you in its grasp in the most unexpected ways.


Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired public school educator.

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