It’s been one and seventy years since Larry walked to and from that old stone schoolhouse. The walk home sometimes took various routes but the walk to school and Mrs. Viles’ first grade classroom was always the same. Larry said goodbye to his mother each weekday morning as he walked, with brown paper lunch bag in hand, to the antiquated stone building that the children living in the southwest Missouri town of Noel called school.
Larry and his family lived in a rented house on North Kings Highway in Noel. The family owned a home and property in an area known as Blankenship Hollow a few miles from the Noel city limits’ sign but on Thursday April 12th 1945 the wrath of nature came calling.
As that day’s sunlight transformed into the dim haze of evening, Larry’s parents talked about an event that shocked the country and, for that matter, the entire world. Earlier that day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, affectionately referred to as F.D.R. passed away at his Warm Springs, Georgia home.
Larry knew his parents spoke with serious and saddened words but he didn’t fully understand the meaning of the conversation, however the boy realized that his father was also concerned about the weather. He left the house several times and while standing on the front porch gazed intently toward the blackening and ominous sky and it wasn’t long before terror came to Blankenship Hollow.
A rash of tornadoes had, earlier that day, brought devastation to Muskogee, Oklahoma and to towns throughout the country’s Midwest. As the winds picked up and the treetops bent a tornado came to the once peaceful hollow. The cyclone’s devastating circular winds tore at the windows and roof of the house rendering it unlivable. After a day or so, the family gathered up their belongings and moved into the old Leeming house on North Kings Highway in Noel; a small stone house that would surely keep the uprooted family safe from any future winds.
Living within the city limits of the small town brought several changes to the family’s lifestyle and for Larry there was one very noticeable difference; he no longer sat on the hard seat of the #2 route school bus driven by Luther Hatfield. The five year old first grader would now walk several blocks to school.
The children in grades one through twelve attended classes in an old stone building. Classrooms were on the main floor while lunches were served to hungry children in the basement cafeteria. The basement was also home to the coal fueled, blackened soot producing furnace that sent a moderate volume of heat upstairs to the classrooms.
Larry’s walk to school and Mrs. Viles’ first grade class each morning lasted fifteen or so minutes and was usually very uneventful. The Main Street stores hadn’t yet opened for business and the parade of cars and farm trucks that normally moved along the narrow street was still an hour or so away from arriving. However, the walk home from school was about to take an unexpected turn.
The walk home always seemed to take a little longer as the streets were full of interesting sounds. As Larry walked along the old Main Street sidewalks his eyes darted back and forth as he tried to capture a glimpse of the source of those sounds. While his shoes moved along the old and broken concrete the aroma of spring was carried by the south winds. The cold clean breezes of winter were soon to be a thing of the past as the flowers and trees were starting to bring color back to the Ozark hills.
But wait, that breeze carried with it yet another smell and it was one easily recognized by the young boy. Larry instantly recognized that fragrance as being that of freshly baked cookies. You see, five year old boys can’t hear their mother calling their name or see the mountain of clutter on their bedroom floor but they have the almost instinctual ability to detect the slightest of odors left by the baking of cookies.
The sound of a door opening suddenly distracted Larry from his game with the broken bits of concrete and as he glanced in the direction of that sound the image of an old woman came into view. As the woman walked through the doorway of the log home and onto the porch the youngster noticed how cautiously the short in stature woman moved. It appeared that each step taken was deliberate and well planned.
“Larry, would you like a cookie,” she asked. Larry couldn’t explain why but although the name of the woman was unknown to him she looked familiar. “I sure would,” he replied as he ended his game with the fall leaves and walked onto the porch.
In the woman’s hand was one, and only one, chocolate chip cookie. “Hello, I’m Mrs. Jefferies, a friend of your mothers. I see you in church on Sundays once and awhile.” The accumulation of more than seventy years of life had caused Mrs. Jeffries’ posture to become somewhat stooped over and less than straight. The years, and gravity, seem to have that effect on the elderly.
While Larry couldn’t recall seeing the old woman at the Methodist church located just around the corner, she never the less must have seen him, after all she knew his name. “Thank you mam,” Larry responded. “I really like chocolate chip cookies.”
Each afternoon as Larry left Mrs. Viles’ classroom he wondered if he would again see Mrs. Jeffries standing on her front porch with a chocolate chip cookie in hand. To his delight the event became somewhat of a tradition and each and every day for the remainder of the school year the two said “hello”. Mrs. Jeffries asked how his day was, cautioned him to be careful walking home and gave him one chocolate chip cookie.
Larry didn’t know exactly why, perhaps the tradition was a secret only to be shared by the old woman and the young boy, but he never told anyone about Mrs. Jeffries or the cookies. Larry sometimes saw the baker of cookies in church but he didn’t speak to her; he only waved and smiled.
There were no more cookies after first grade and Mrs. Jeffries eventually left her Main Street log home in Noel and moved to Neosho. Route #2 school bus driver Luther Hatfield left this world on June 8, 1991. He was 88 years of age. Larry’s first grade teacher, Mrs. Bernice Viles, taught at the Noel school for only seven years. She passed away on June 14, 1986 at the age of 80. Mabel Jeffries died on December 18, 1987. Larry’s childhood friend was only one year shy of the century mark when she died.
With the passage of more than seventy years Larry finds that he still enjoys an occasional chocolate chip cookie but none have ever been as good as those he had when he was five years old.
There has always been some difference of opinion as to which is the more tasty, oatmeal raisin or chocolate chip; cookie-wise that is. For Larry the preference has been, and shall always be, chocolate chip.