Howard Lake Herald, December 28, 1998

It's the little lessons that count

By Burton Kreitlow

Some incidents from one's childhood and youth are amusing at the time. Some only when recalled year's later.

For me, the incidents that first come to mind are those where I am the smart one, in the right or never the goat. Yet, being ignorant or the butt of a joke sweetens with the passing years. I am now able to share embarrassments, youthful naivete or downright stupidity. Or am I, really?

My freshman year in high school included several such experiences. This 12-year old, fresh from the farm, was initiated into the modern world of flush toilets on his first day of high school.

It was the fall of 1929, I entered this giant school of over 100 students. The security of the one-room Highland country school with its jacketed wood stove, three-gallon water bubbler and outdoor toilets was over.

No longer could I raise two fingers and get permission to leave the room for "number two." For number two, the permission was automatic. For "number one," we were told to wait until recess ­ except when our faces became red, legs crossed and one hand tended to fall to the crotch.

On my first morning in high school, the frightening history class was over, with a 50-minute wait in the assembly hall until the next class, English. I had to go number two and was petrified. No response to the two fingers I raised, just a severe stare from the principal. I waited. Later I saw one of the bigger boys get up and leave the room. No hand raised, nothing said, he just walked out.

"Where are you going?" The question came from the principal, a goddess speaking from her raised platform in the back of the room.

I'm not sure whether or not my voice signaled my fright, but I did answer, "I'm going 'out' to the toilet."

I did know it was not "out," but "out" was my response.

"Go," came from the back of the room. It had a strange lilt to it but I was in too much of a hurry by then to wonder.

I continued in a rush to the basement where the sign "Boys" was on a door. I walked in. The new world of indoor plumbing appeared in all its splendor. Three box stalls that looked about right for Shetland ponies, four strange porcelain bowls standing on end. The boy who left the room first was using it for number one. Weird.

At this point, I guessed that the pony stalls were for number two. Gathering whatever courage remained, I opened one of the doors and went in. Nothing but a bowl of water about 18 inches off the floor with a strange wood cover. In it a hole very much like that in the Highland School four-holer. Conclusion: this was the right place. I sat down.

One of the worst events of my four years in high school occurred as soon as I stood to button up. Water began rushing into the bowl, the roar of a flood to me. How could it be stopped? I sat on the seat again and the flood stopped. I got up and it was Niagara Falls all over again. Conclusion: I wouldn't flood the school if I kept the seat.

Holding the seat down with one foot worked as well as sitting on it, but I knew that I couldn't stay in that pony stall all day. I considered leaving it and getting out as fast as I could but my value system, though limited, signaled a message, "If you do something bad, admit it."

I had to tell someone, but whom? It was then that I remembered the furnace room nearby and Patrick, the janitor, was there much of the time. I concluded that a small flood was better than a large one.

I would let the toilet flood and find Patrick as fast as I could.

I rushed to the furnace room with that roar of water behind me.

"Patrick, Patrick, I broke something in the toilet and its flooding!"

Patrick led the race. All was quiet as we entered.

"Someone must have fixed it," I said.

Here was that "teachable moment" I learned about later in life. During the next five minutes, Patrick, the janitor, taught me how plumbing worked and gave me more needed security than all the teachers gave me during that first semester of high school.

"Thank you, Patrick."

I've often wondered why, in those early years, the Howard Lake High School open house day held each spring for incoming freshmen from the country schools didn't include a "walk through" by Patrick to meet the "real needs" of naive country boys.


Burton Kreitlow is the brother of Willard Kreitlow and Lois Munson's cousin.


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