Back to Stories

Part 8

by Betty Dahl


When it became clear that the war would last a while, the mission board asked Papa to begin a private high school for youth in Reedley, California. Parents were disturbed by the growing minority population; in particular they were afraid of the influence of Hispanic youth, children of immigrants who worked in the fruit industry in the San Joaquin Valley. Word was that there were many unsavory gangs among these youth. Papa was selected to set up a Christian high school with an emphasis on good moral behavior, but the school was not open to the minority population.

Because of the distrust our Mennonite folks had of the migrant Mexicans, we children absorbed a rather scary image of Hispanics and would go out of our way to avoid any contact with them. One Hispanic gang was called the Zoot Suiters, named after the type of suit worn to identify the person as belonging to this gang. This gang was especially frightening because they were known to steal and carry on other illegal activities. Eventually the term Zoot Suiters came to apply to all Hispanics in the area. When walking to a neighbor's house to get milk or to play, or when going to and from the bus stop, we would hide in the grape fields if we saw a rusty old car thought to be filled with Zoot Suiters. We would wait until the car was out of sight before we resumed our mission.

Immanuel High School in the 1990's

Dad spent three and one-half years developing this high school, which was named Immanuel Bible Academy. He also served as assistant pastor of the Reedley Church. The hours were long and hard. He had to deal with many student problems. We kids were frightened the time some high school students turned hookies in our yard, and one of them ran past the back of our bedroom. I can also recall that another time a student threatened to kill Dad while visiting him in our living room. Dad quietly talked him out of such action, and the student returned years later to thank him for saving him from such a destructive direction in life. In spite of being scared, we were really proud of Dad for being strong enough to handle the problems.

The family rented a farm home about 13 miles from Reedley. When I think back to these days, I find I feel this was the part of my life during which I had a real sense of our being a whole family; no one was at boarding school. Lois was the only one of us children who had not yet been born so unfortunately she missed out on this time. Later, after her birth in India, Phyllis and Grace were attending college in the U.S., so all eight of us siblings never did live as a complete family. I was fortunate to be a part of both family groups.

Our house was in the middle of the grape country; peaches, apricots, walnuts and other produce were also grown here. Gwen, Jo, and I shared a room together. Paul had a small bedroom originally designed as a study. The girls complained about his having his own room, even though it was very small and appeared to be the only manageable way of dividing the space. Phyllis and Grace shared a room, and Mom and Dad had the fourth room; Margy was still little and slept in folks' room. At times it was fun to be for me to be with the younger girls; yet when I had a friend over, there was no quiet space in the house to play without having them around.

Windsor School

Since they were high-school age, Phyllis and Grace attended the new Immanuel Bible Academy. Phyllis was a conscientious student; Grace liked boys a lot, which gave folks some concern. I worried about their being in school with Dad as their principal. What would happen to them if they had to go to the office for discipline? That would be mortifying for both. I envisioned discipline as a spanking with a razor strap, similar to those I got at home.

Paul, Gwen, Joanne and I attended a country elementary school named Windsor School. We were picked up by a school bus each morning and returned each evening to a road crossing about a half-mile away (though I could have sworn the distance was more than a mile; it must have seemed long to shorter legs because when I visited the area as an adult, the long miles seemed to have shrunk). If we missed the bus, we had to stay home or walk four miles through the orchards and vineyards alone. Thus there was some incentive to get to the corner on time. Often we left earlier than we needed to out of fear of missing the school bus.

My Windsor Class
(I'm in the middle of the back row)

Students at Windsor were representative of a cross-cultural group of children. We had Japanese, Japanese-American, "Oakies" (migrant children), Hispanic "gringoes," and German-American children. One of my closest friends was Keiko, a Japanese American. Her family was among those of Japanese heritage who had been rounded up and put into a confinement camp because of America's distrust of anyone who was Japanese. Keiko's family lived in a quonset hut in a camp surrounded by barbed wire; armed guards were at the front gate. Our bus would pick her up along with the other Japanese students in the morning and return them to the camp after school; they had to remain in camp during their free time, so they could not play with the rest of us.

Winters got rather cool and there was only one heating vent to the back three bedrooms. All of us would race to get a little heat when we got out of bed, and the first ones up got the best spots. We put our underclothes on the heater so we could put on warm garments. Naturally with seven children and one vent, we did a lot of jockeying for space. A common complaint was that one of us was using more than his or her fair share of space.

Mama insisted that on cold days we girls wear long stockings and woolen underwear, which we found very irritating to the skin. As soon as we reached the end of the driveway and out of Mama's view, we would duck into the grape fields and off came the stockings; out came a pair of anklets hidden in the school bag. The long stockings were left hidden among the leaves until after school, when they were exchanged. The trick was to remember which row of grapes one had left the long stockings so as to find them easily after school. We tried a variety of marking systems. Mama never caught on and we girls had a conspiracy of silence. Probably Mama was too busy to notice if any of us forgot to change.

I enjoyed all subjects except sewing. I could not seem to get the hang of embroidery, hem stitching, darning and hemming. I did not pass my sewing course, though I made good grades in all academic subjects. All students were to exhibit a sampler with a variety of stitches and patches at the school open house. Mama insisted on going early. I wondered why until I happened to see her quietly tuck my sampler under my workbooks so people would not notice my sampler but rather notice my workbooks (which had my best work). I was sorry I had disappointed Mama by sewing so poorly, but I was grateful she cared enough to spare me comments on my poor work. I vowed to do better. I was not made to retake the course.

I was a good speller, however, and had a long record of no errors. One day I misspelled a word for the first time that year, and the whole class cheered. I broke into tears. The teacher could not console her even by apologizing for the behavior of the class. I had finally come off the pedestal and could make spelling errors just like the others. We would hand our spelling tests to the student behind us to be corrected. Sometimes kids would unobtrusively erase a letter or change a letter so that the student would not have a perfect score. Many angry words were spoken and many tears flowed over these tests.

Teachers at Windsor School

The boy who sat behind me in class, Roxy Radcliffe, teased me unmercifully. He would dip the ends of my braids in the inkwell. Mama got tired of trying to get my clothes clean and told me to get up and tell him, "Quit putting my pigtails in the ink or start paying for a new dress." I complied, adding a kick. A shocked teacher scolded me, but agreed that action should be taken for the problem. I was moved to a safer location, but did not have to stand in a corner or leave class to go to the principal. I had memorized what I was going to say to the principal if I ended up in his office.

Paul tells of an incident when Roxy hit him on the baseball field. Paul had just had a Sunday school lesson on turning the other cheek, so he turned to Roxy and said, "Hit me again." Expecting Roxy to have "coals of fire heaped on his head," as the Bible said, Paul was surprised when Roxy hit him again. Paul decided to try out the Sunday school lesson again, but Roxy kept hitting him. Finally, Paul escaped and went behind the backstop and cried. Our parents insisted that we remember that Roxy lived with an elderly grandmother who had little control over him, so he was very undisciplined. I remember times when he climbed on the roof to escape her discipline and would sit there eating boxes of crackers for hours on end. Sometimes his grandmother called local authorities to get him down from the roof since he wouldn't obey her when she would order him down.

At lunchtime my friends and I found it particularly hilarious to sneak into the school hallway where the single telephone was located. We would call local business establishments and ask if they had "Prince Albert in a can." (Cigars were then sold in cans.) If someone answered, "Yes," we told him or her to "Let Prince Albert out." Or we would call service stations and ask if they had gas and then told them to "Let it out" or "Take Alka-Seltzer." We thought this was hilarious. Mr. Krause, the principal, caught us and that was the end of the noon-hour calls.

A healthy competition in sports was set up for the rural schools. I played every competitive sport: basketball, softball, track, and even boys' touch football since there were not enough to form a team. There were other activities we enjoyed during recess, like jacks, Capture the Flag, jump rope, marbles, catch (a baseball), HORSE, and hop scotch. I can still recall some of the usual jump rope rhymes, many of which related to love relationships between boys and girls, how many children you would have, how many kisses did someone give, and so forth. (See Appendix for rhymes.) I was a good jumper, but not the best by any means. We had four jumpers or more in at one time or did backward jumps. It was quite an art form.

Our backyard......with my good friend Barb

Outdoor play occupied many of my hours after school. Many of us would congregate at the Ens ranch because they had laid out a baseball field where we could play baseball, soccer, kickball, and volleyball. We would walk considerable distances to play together and came to know all sorts of shortcuts through vineyards to our friends' homes. If the vines had leaves it was easy to get lost as each row seemed the same, so we sometimes put in markers so we would find our way back.

With puberty came the stirrings of infatuation. I was mostly in love with the feeling of being in love. In particular I "loved" Leroy (two grades ahead of me) because he was as tall and certainly heavier than I was. Even though he had poor grades, I loved him because he was a good athlete; athleticism was at that time the prime requisite for affection. Leroy would sit next to me on the bus after school and on the way to athletic and musical events (he played the trumpet). I was so thrilled when he would let me wear his athletic jacket. Moreover, since he was a Mennonite we could attend the same church events. We went canoeing at Mooney's Grove, an amusement park, ate together at picnics, and talked in one of the rows of grapes so as to get away from others.


Piano playing was a given in the family. Dad, who loved music, insisted that all of us children learn to play the piano. He wanted us to have a chance for some of the things he never was able to have. I began formal piano lessons during these years at Reedley. My teacher was Miss Ruth, a pleasant single lady who eventually taught six of us children in Reedley and then Kodai through a long span of years. Since there were so many of us needing to practice each day, folks bought a second piano and practice times were allotted. (Later in Mahbubnagar we again had two pianos; one was a half-note higher than the other, so we learned to transpose when we played together at evening prayer time.)

Piano lessons were in Reedley on Saturday afternoons. Dad would drop Paul and me at Miss Ruth's house while he shopped and worked on a sermon for the Sunday service. Paul's lesson was first. This gave me time to look through the assignment to see which, if any, assignments had not been finished. Sometimes I scrambled to get a written lesson done or chewed my nails down to an acceptable length. First came the scales and chords and a mental lesson. Next was a review of the written work. If I had not completed the written assignment, I would distract Miss Ruth by asking for help with a song that I had practiced. If she realized what I was up to, she never let on. Finally came the assigned musical pieces, which I almost always had practiced because I got points on them.

Points earned at lessons were very important. These points were counted, and the winner went with Miss Ruth to a concert. In this way I was introduced to the music of Rubenstein and Iturbi on the piano, Piatagorsky on the cello, and other musicians of note. I was thrilled to see them live in concerts. I was so enthralled that I would work hard to get to these concerts. Mama would dress me in my Sunday clothes and shoes, and Miss Ruth would accompany me to Fresno. These concerts were very special and inspirational--at least motivating enough to practice hard for the next month or two. I also had the chance to accompany various musical events, such as county sing-a-longs and school functions.

When the lessons were over, Paul and I went to the public library to return books and check out new ones and to wait for Dad to complete his business, do the grocery shopping, and finish his sermons. These were wonderful hours: so many books to choose from. Each time we would check out the maximum allowable books. In addition, we checked out several more at the church library on Wednesdays after Bible School. I read all the romances I could find, especially those authored by Grace Livingston Hill. All of us children read books because we were allowed to have a bed light on after bedtime if we read a book in bed. Way into the wee hours of the night I would read with a flashlight--long after Mom and Dad were in bed. Sometimes Mama would check in on us younger girls before going to bed and with a smile turn off my bed light. I would protest, "Oh, Mom." Mom would smile and remind me that tomorrow would be another day and another chance to read since the characters were not going away; I secretly knew Mama was pleased by my interest in reading and about my good grades at school. Mama always expressed regrets about not finishing college, and wanted her girls to value education as highly as education was valued for boys. My favorites books were Girl of the Limberlost, Lorna Doone, and the Anne of Green Gables series. I also read the classics, including Dickens' books such as Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield. All had a romance that touched my heart.

Each month Miss Ruth held recitals for parents and friends to attend. She had about six students present and she required that we memorize our renditions. The winner got to have his or her piece recorded on a small record. Sometimes a student would forget a transition to a new section of his or her piece and have to start over, forget, start over, hoping to recall the transition. Miss Ruth would come to their rescue but the rest of us shook, hoping we wouldn't make such an obvious mistake. I never quite got over stage fright to the point where I enjoyed being alone on a stage.

Dad enjoyed the recitals, and also liked listening to us play our pieces at home in the evenings. At devotional time we would take turns playing hymns while the others sang, giving us good practice on sight-reading.

Growing Up

I grew to my adult height and weight very early in life, so I was the biggest kid in class during my early years at Windsor. The boys would tease me, so I became very self-conscious about this. I would plead illness on the day the children were to be weighed and measured for height since everyone could watch. I often begged Mama to let me stay home. She gave me the thermometer test: a fever equaled a stay at home, but if one had no fever it was off to school. Mama finally figured out why I was "ill" on the days the nurse checked us and soon the school nurse weighed us privately, without all eyes on the scale. I was also as tall and heavier than Paul, who was two years older than I. Often people asked if we were twins, and Paul would be offended. I could beat him in almost any sport, and he resented any comparisons and would rather compete in table games. He excelled at most of these except in word games, which were my favorite, of course.

There was a bright side to my size, however. I found that I could outfight most of the boys, was better at baseball and basketball, and was a strong member of our touch-football team. Being larger and rather well-coordinated gave me an edge in competing for the various teams selected to play other country schools. I enjoyed sports and thrived on competition. When Valentine's Day came, I did not feel I would send cards to the boys as they were such shrimps. Moreover, they teased me unmercifully about being the biggest kid, giving me the nickname "Lizzie Lizard." Fortunately Mama helped me give it back in kind. Winning a few fights gained me some respect, and the boys were less likely to want to tangle with me as they did not want it known that they had been beaten up by a girl. As I think back about these years, I realize how progressive Mother was by encouraging me to participate in boys' activities and applauding when I won a fight.

Unexpectedly at the age of 8, I menstruated for the first time. Later I found out that the start of menstruation is often related to the body's height-weight ratio, and I fit the mold for early development. Mama had not informed me of future body changes and absolutely nothing about menstruation. I had gone out to the mailbox when I noticed blood running down my leg. I ran home, threw the mail on the table and yelled for Mama to come because I was sure I was bleeding to death. Whereupon Mama, very shocked that menstruation had come so early, told me about the events of puberty. At first I thought Mama was describing a one-time occurrence, and then was very upset at the thought of a lifetime of these events. I hated the elastic band that held the Kotex pad in place. In addition, I often would have such a heavy flow that it became a constant fear that I would spot my clothes and be ridiculed by the other children. I also experienced such severe cramping that I would have to be bedridden for a day each month or be placed in the nurse's room for the duration of the day until Dad could come with the family car. Mama tried a heating pad, exercises, pain pills, wine, and other suggested remedies, with little relief. All this pain and fuss contributed to my very negative attitude about the whole process. If Mama had church functions, I stayed with Auntie Wiens and she would try to get me to relax with a hot water bottle and hot chocolate.

Most clothes in the stores or catalogs did not fit me or were too expensive, so Mama sewed most of my clothes. Mama sewed one dress with the flowers upside down. To make things better, she told me to explain that this was so I could see it right side up when I looked down. This worked well, and I wore the dress again with little attention to this matter. Another time Mama accidentally put the buttons on the wrong side of a Sunday suit she made me. I wouldn't have known that these were like a man's suit if Mom hadn't noticed it and felt so bad about it. Once I realized it was made wrong, I felt awkward wearing it. There was no use telling Mama that I had seen an outfit I really liked in the store window in Reedley. Buying new cloth to sew an outfit that resembled the store one was out of the question because that was too expensive. So I wore the suit for Mama's sake and hoped no one would notice.

I found that I needed glasses. I thought glasses were ugly, so I was miserable. The thought of wearing glasses with braids conjured up images of nerdy girls. Mama offered to get me a permanent since I was so upset, and I took her up on her offer. My first perm took hours but my hair didn't get at all curly. Mom was upset because the curl had not taken and the money for a permanent was high enough to disrupt her grocery budget. At the beauty shop, the operator said she would redo it in a week or two but could not do it immediately as it would hurt my hair, so we went back to see if it could be corrected. A wee bit of curl was all I got and the operator said I would ruin my hair if I had a third one. How disappointed I was. I wanted to stay home until it all grew out but Mom insisted I go to school. I tried to make myself invisible, but not a word was spoken about my hair--not positive, not negative. Surely someone noticed this total disaster! I finally accepted the fact that no one seemed to care so why make such a fuss about it. All other attempts were through home permanents, which cost a whole lot less but were pretty hard on the hair.

(To be continued)