Prairie Tayles: George Washington And The Mumps

Jan 26, 2018

After receiving scores of Presidents Day sale flyers in my mailbox and e-mail, I’m flashing back to childhood celebrations of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington’s birthdays. Keep in mind we didn’t combine birthdays fifty years ago. We turned February into one long party. We celebrated Lincoln on February 12 and then Washington on the 22nd. When you added in a Valentine party, February was a festive month for elementary students in the late fifties and early sixties.

Due, I’m sure, to Lincoln’s distinctive features, me and every classmate cut and pasted our 16th president’s side view out of black construction paper every year.  I still recall the teacher arranging these on either white or red background stapled to our class bulletin boards.  Along with the annual artwork, we heard the story about how difficult it was for Abe to attend school. That story stuck in my mind and made me grateful my classroom was a short walk from my home.

February 14 distracted us momentarily from our patriotic lessons.  Twenty or more of Abe’s sharp facial outlines served as the backdrop to an equal number of homemade containers decorated with crudely cut hearts and lacy doilies. Candy and cookie-fueled primary students stuffed cards with scrawled signatures into narrow slits in friends’ “mailboxes.”  Those who could wait hauled this loot home and spent the evening pouring over sentimental sayings tucked into teeny-tiny envelopes.

For the next eight days, we practiced for the birthday blowout for the Father of our Nation, George Washington. This involved American flags of varying sizes along with a pageant or musical directed by either the most patient or the most commanding elementary teacher in the school.

I loved the hours of preparation that led up to these events. Dozens of scrawny grade-schoolers would practice trailing in wide circles to either a John Philip Sousa selection or to “America the Beautiful.”  After we perfected parading to the beat until we could do it without a teacher’s intervention, we’d have flag care lessons. 

Our teachers would drill into our flighty brains that the flag must never touch the ground. They emphasized we were never to mistreat the red, white, and blue in any way. Once our rarely focused gazes acknowledged this serious responsibility, an adult would hand each of us a dowel with an attached American flag about the size of a small hanky. I don’t recall any of my class mates poking or stabbing at someone else with these handy weapons. During these years not long after WW II and Korea and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, even little kids knew the American flag was more than a piece of fabric.

My greatest sorrow in grade school occurred during second grade. Mrs. Hill chose me to lead the flag procession onto the stage, and I was giddy with self-importance. This was better than a box full of Valentines stuffed with extra lollipops. Unfortunately, two days before my starring role in the pageant, I awoke with a temperature and swollen jowls. These were the days before vaccinations, and I had caught the mumps.

While I was home examining a paper bag filled with sour red candy cherries my parents bought me to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, one of my classmates led dozens of wriggling, healthy primary students dressed in their best onto the lighted, wooden stage.  To this day, when I see those round, red jelly balls at Orscheln’s, I remember the buckets of tears I cried at missing my moment in the spotlight.