The Radnor Primary School, where I went for Kindergarten, First, and Second grades, was two‑and‑a‑half blocks away, a distance I walked by Second grade: down Bloomingdale over Wayne Avenue to Runnymede, and down Runnymede to Audabon, across the street. The building had steep concrete steps and white columns in front (it had been the high school in Dad's time), and was flanked on the left by the block‑long new High School building, and on the right, as the street curved and changed into Windemere Avenue, by the Grammar School, both of which seemed distant and forbidding. On the playground black‑top, the older kids' swings were too big, their play too rough, and we never ventured into their territory, except as a class, with our teacher.
My Kindergarten teacher, Miss Katherine Langley, was second in beauty only to Mom, or to Cherry, Mark Trail's girlfriend in the comic strip (The Suburban reports that she had been hired the year before, along with Wayne Miller, who had just been released from a Japanese prison camp). John Barnett and Kit Wilkes became my friends, and I had a crush on Jean Clark, whose father was fire chief and had a scarred and deformed ear, where he'd been burned. We marched and danced in circles and files; lay down for naps all over the classroom, each on a blanket (I'd fight for a place near Jean's); had storytelling and singing; played triangles and tambourines; went on nature walks; played Red Rover; observed the ant farm and aquariums on the window sills, which John Barnett supplied with turtles, frogs, and other flora and fauna, since he lived on a farm; and for our class project, dug a birdbath outside and poured in concrete. For First grade, I had Mrs. Sweazy, a stricter, older, and stockier woman than Miss Langley; we had desks, learned to write, and began to read and do sums. Miss Langley married and became my second grade teacher, too. She praised me for my writing and handwriting and singled me out to help First graders, who would follow me to an anteroom and earnestly tell stories that I would try to structure for them and write down.
Kit Wilkes was a commercial model, and had to leave school sometimes for shooting sessions in town. His father worked for Sealtest milk and ice‑cream, and Kit's picture mainly appeared in ads for those products. Mom was vaguely critical of the Wilkeses using their children this way (later they would use his little sister, Susie, too), but it gave Kit an aura of celebrity. They lived on Lansdowne Avenue, in a house and yard about half the size of ours, but similar in style; the parents, as a couple, were handsome, young, affectionate, and, I was aware then, socially ambitious. Susie was four or five. I was attracted to their "normality," the cheerful mothering of Mrs. Wilkes, who resembled Donna Reed; the hearty presence of Mr. Wilkes, who took us to the Shriners' circus in their boxy station wagon. We read and traded comic books, stacks and bundles of them.
John Barnett, on the other hand, had the glamor of the farm. A head taller than I, he would later become class strongman, but in these years, we usually wrestled to a draw and sometimes I won. Before our class ever took field trips to the farm, he invited me over to play. Mom would drive me in the Buick, out Conestoga to Church Road, beyond Wayne's residential outskirts, to only woods and fields along the road, to stone gate‑posts, up a rutted, pot‑holed driveway that rocked the car, past a frame house with its own drive, then steeply down to the Barnett's stone cottage on the left, silo ahead, a long dairy barn to the right, a creek running through, and the meadows rising in the distance. We'd be greeted by barking, leaping dogs, a few cats (there were 26, more or less), perhaps some ducks and geese scattering, and John would come running from the cottage door, followed by Mrs. Barnett, a short, plump woman, all round and soft, with straight black hair hacked to her neck, and missing teeth; who always wore sneakers and loose, smock‑like dresses; and whose frank and gentle spirit shone not merely in her eyes, but in her whole face. She would talk to Mom at the car window, as I got out, and John and I ran off.
At first, before Cubs, and before we graduated from cap to BB guns, mostly we played cowboys. With Mrs. Barnett's permission, we'd cross the creek and carefully open and close the front pasture gate; then chase up the hill, with me squeamishly wary of stepping in cow pies (the cows were usually elsewhere, being milked, or in another pasture, but sometimes if there were any, we'd charge them, hooting, and they'd scatter). Near the top of the hill was a group of large boulders, our fortress, from which we commanded the entire farmyard, where we imagined outlaws or Indians attacking. Pow! Pow! Phewee (a ricochet)! John had no other playmates, no kids nearby, except some girls up the hill; his younger brother, George, was still a toddler, and the third, Barry, wasn't born yet. He'd show me proudly through the dairy barn, where we weren't allowed normally. His father and the hired man would be shirtless, washing down the concrete aisles and gutters with a hose, tending the cows, or pouring milk from big cans into a steel sink. The walls and ceilings were spotlessly whitewashed; two rows of cows faced a center aisle, with heads locked in metal collars, while they were milked by machine behind, mechanical fingers jerking. Their big‑eyed heads turned as we passed, one or two loudly mooing and setting off other moos, which echoed. Past the milking room were hay‑lined stalls, with wooden gates, and in the back of one was a litter of kittens with their languid, watchful mother; the kittens were still blind, mewing like birds, prick‑clawed, coarse‑ tongued, and so fragile, John warned, that if you petted them too much they would die. You had to pick them up the way the mother did, by the scruff of the neck. Another time he had a calf to show, just struggling to its feet and coming to wet‑nuzzle us. He also raised angora rabbits, which he'd let me pet. Still later, they kept beagle pups in wire enclosure, with a dog house inside. We slip inside and they would fawn all over us. They were being raised as fox‑hounds for "the big owner," whose horse‑farm was over the hill.
Inside the cottage, where we went only for lunch, or for shelter if it rained, the dirt and squalor of John's life embarrassed me; and both John and Mrs. Barnett seemed shy about having me see it. I never saw John’s room upstairs. We'd stay in the front room, which had tile worn to floorboards, several bloated arm‑chairs with worn and ruptured upholstery, tables piled high with family junk, and along the back wall, away from the windows, a long, sway‑backed sofa. George would be crawling on the floor. Mr. Barnett might come in, having to stoop at the door, with great, muck‑covered boots. He was a silent, powerful man, affectionate and kind with me always, yet frightening too. He'd sink down heavily on the couch, take off his boots, then stretch out full‑length for his noontime nap. Originally he'd come from Wales, and his first name, Vivian, struck me as feminine and strange. He'd met Mrs. Barnett as a girl, while he'd worked on another farm, where her father had worked also. They'd married; and now he had charge of this barn, herd, and section of fields, called farm #5, one of eight, which all together made up the Ardrossan Dairy Farms.
For my part, I can't recall John's visiting Bloomingdale, though he came regularly later to our St. Davids house. Instead, Mom took us to Valley Forge State Park, which we came to know as well as we did the farm. Our favorite site was Fort Washington, an earthworks fort on Mt. Joy, with batteries of cannon, overlooking a valley where British armies had once threatened.
Our friendship grew despite and because of our social differences; because of our love of nature; and because of the encouragement of our mothers. Mom felt special regard for Mrs. Barnett because of her devotion to her children; her warm heart; her personal cleanliness ("she was clean, clean with a fresh damp look about her face as though she had just scrubbed it"); her "simple horse sense" in handling her problems with her boys within their family relationships; and her forthrightness in the face of "the fancy Main Line Station Wagon set," which she encountered not only through school and the P.T.A., but later through den mothering for the Cub Scouts.
"To her the most important thing in life," Mom wrote in reply to my questioning some years ago, "was for her boys to make the right friends. This she told me many times. She was out of her element with the stylish young mothers, but she was determined to give her children every advantage, and cared nothing about 'being accepted' for herself. Both parents appeared at most school functions and scouting events. She would take the floor anytime in any meeting when she felt she had something to contribute‑‑the eyes on her would make her blush, but she invariably offered an opinion. The mothers ridiculed her, 'Wouldn't you think she'd learn how to dress? Wouldn't you think she'd clean up the place, and fix herself up? They live like squatters, ugh.' But these women, who would drive their Cubs out to the farm, dump them at the gate, then run off to bridge parties and cocktails, did not realize how poor the Barnetts were, and that everything was done to keep the boys fixed up, looking like the other boys when they attended school."