(Art by Anita Benson Bradley)
The Gulch School, stood alone on Far Rockaway Beach in the 1950s. I missed eating my lunch on my first school day because my mom had to come back to fetch me.
Mrs. Gulch towered behind me by the school’s entrance as my mom, approached anxiously, framed by the grey Atlantic behind her. Gulch tightened the grip of her ironwood claws upon my own tiny shoulders.
“I’m Almira, Almira Gulch,” said the old buzzard.
My mom had questions: “You called me at home and told me to come get my son. Is everything okay? And where’s the young teacher, Nancy, that I talked to yesterday?”
“Your boy is fine,” Gulch said releasing me.
“Thank god,” my mom said.
“But there is a problem,” said Gulch. He bores easily.”
To prove Mrs. Gulch‘s point, I jumped forward toward the sandy path, “What’s that, mommy?” I asked, pointing to a stone statue with a beard and crown, that stood, knee high, next to my mom. Gulch pointed with a long talon. ”Lousy Pagans dumped that thing in my yard.” she hissed. “That blasphemy is going into the trash, tonight.”
“Ooooh, I like him,” my mom said. “This looks very very old. Freddy, this is a statue of the Greek god of the sea. His name is Poseidon.”
“Is Seidon friendly?” I asked.
“Poseidon. You want to be his friend,” my mom said. “He can be very mean — to very mean people.” She waved her hands dramatically above her head. “He kills his enemies with great storms.”
“He’s ugly,” said Almira Gulch sniffing the metallic air with her raven’s beak nose.
The sound of a large wave, pounding the shore, caught our attention. A strong breeze buffeted us with sand, but Miss Gulch‘s tight hair bun remained steadfast. It began to drizzle. Grasping her cane, Gulch said, “Come inside. There is going to be rain. What a world.”
As we entered the old school, Mrs. Gulch pointed to a painting on the wall. “That’s my husband, Dorian. The picture makes him look so old. Mrs. Barnett, the reason I asked you to come back this morning was, I let little Freddy use my arts and crafts room to see if he had a creative streak.”
Actually, Gulch had locked me in the spare classroom because I kicked her in the shins — I was certain that she was Dorothy’s Wicked Witch.
Gulch walked ahead. “Freddy destroyed my art room with three gallons of red paint meant for the outside of the school. Come here, dearies.” Gulch opened the door to the windowless room.
My mom’s eyes widened and took in the panorama. “My god! It looks like someone was murdered!” she said — while I was thinking, It needs more blood.
“We’ll never get this cleaned up! Your son may end up a housepainter like…Ahem, that German feller with the little mustache. Look at this …” said Gulch while scratching the hairy mole on her chin, “Mrs. Barnett, you’ll have to find Freddy another school. He may be dangerous to the other children.”
There were no other children.
“Where are the children that were here earlier?” My mom asked while staring at an old straw broom leaning against a stack of red splattered boxes, labeled ‘Gingerbread Cookies.’ Mom shivered.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Gulch.” Mom nervously turned to me. “Freddy, tell Mrs. Gulch that you’re sorry so we can go home. Do it. Now.”
“Mommy! She hit me!” I lied, complete with make-believe tears.
“What! Is that true, Freddy?” My mom stared at the harridan.
Before I could lie to my own mother, again, Almira Gulch pointed her long crooked finger at me.
“Your little gentleman is a teller of tall tales, madam,” she said with an evil eye.
“Are you calling my boy a liar? Just a few moments ago you called him a little Hitler!”
I kept my own lip zipped as I was already in enough trouble.
“Let’s go.” Suddenly, my mother grabbed my hand and marched me away from the school, no doubt saving me from becoming one of Mrs. Gulch‘s gingerbread cookies.
We were about to pass Poseidon when an idea struck me. I turned back to Mrs. Gulch and said, “My mom says that you should be nice to the little Seidon statue!”
“If you sinners like Seiiiiiiiidon so much,” she cackled, “take him home with you!”
My mom picked up the statue and sheltered the heavy thing in her arms like a newborn. “C’mon, Freddy.” Mom propelled us home, away from the Beach. She looked worried.
“Mommy, what’s wrong?”
The wind and rain had been building since we’d started walking. By the time we reached the tall brick stairway that led up to our house the rain began to sweep horizontally. The tall pine tree in front was rocking wildly. Mom rushed me up the stairs and into the hallway as the sky began to turn black. She turned to secure the potted plants, slipped on the top step, cutting open her ankle.
The wicked witch did this! I thought., angrily shaking my stuffed dog at the lightning.
My mom had forgotten about my painting and fibbing. She was in pain when she pushed me into my room. “Play your records. I’ll be right back” She held back tears as she closed my door. At my bedroom window, I saw the churning clouds and, within, the bearded face of … Seidon!
I ran to the front hall and hugged the statue. There and then I promised Seidon my prized Patti Paige record, “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?” if he would help my mommy stop crying. I’d already played the record two-thousand times and had moved on to more hip music, ‘Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.’
Seidon must have been a Patti Paige fan, because ten minutes later the sea god had washed The Gulch School into the Atlantic by wielding a mighty storm that later bore my mother’s name……Hurricane MOMMY — I mean Hurricane Claire!
The next morning, the record, along with my record player, were gone from my room. The floor was wet and sandy.
That night, my dad had returned from his business trip to find that the storm had washed our big pine, westward, into Jamaica Bay. After dinner, mom told dad about my first and last day at The Gulch School and our hurricane adventure. Dad paused, stood up tall, removed the smelly cigar from his mouth and told us both that he was proud of the both of us.
He stared down at me . “So Freddy. You defeated a witch you say? Well, I’m especially proud of you young man. You passed your first test with an ‘A.’”
I had no idea what ‘proud,’ a ‘test’ or ‘A’ meant, but it sounded good.
“Son. You wanted to help your mother…Being a smart boy, you didn’t employ the services of some hobo. No, you went straight to ‘the top.’” There was a pause and he laughed, and muttered “Patti Paige? Ha! That’s funny.”
“What’s funny?” asked my mom.
“Well, Claire, remember when we were his age and remember when my mom got hurt?”
“Yes.” she nodded.
“Back then, if I recall correctly, didn’t that little Seidon feller have a thing for records by Ella Fitzgerald?”