Cannon Ball Hill
Cannon Ball Hill
Shelburne, Massachusetts, October 1975
I jumped on my sled at the top of the hill and just as I started to gain momentum, I saw him, an old man, standing at the bottom. He was dressed in a black suit and leaned on a cane. It was no ordinary suit, it looked like it came from the 1800s, and he didn’t wear a coat. Even the cane looked like an antique, although it was black and shiny, except for a large silver ball on the top. His face was completely expressionless, yet there was something very wrong with his eyes. As I was rushing towards him, I screamed.
On most days after school I walked home with my friend Sean. I never understood how “Sean” was pronounced “Shaun”. “I’m Irish, that’s why,” he would say proudly, if asked. As if that that was all the explanation needed. Afternoons at Sean’s consisted mostly of watching old Three Stooges and Little Rascals reruns, sometimes chugging Pepsi and having burping contests. Mostly we complained about not having anything to do. That was, of course, until The First Snow.
What a glorious sight it was to look out the window during Mrs. Stratton’s 4th grade math class that October afternoon and see the flakes start to trickle down from the heavens. I was so excited I blurted out “It’s snowing!” Mrs. Stratton stopped in mid sentence, every boy and girl in class first looked at me, then to the windows, instantly joy and understanding spread through the room as every kid jumped out of there seats and ran to the windows, some of them jumping up and down with anticipation. “Children!, Children!”, scolded Mrs. Stratton, “Get back to your seats this very instant!” I didn’t run to the window, I just sat back, basking in my glory as being the first one to notice The First Snow. On any other day Mrs. Stratton would have freaked, and there would have been serious repercussions especially towards me, I was the anti-teacher’s pet. Something about kids getting excited about The First Snow stayed even her evil wrath, at least for the moment.
The next afternoon, Sean and I brought our sleds to Cannon Ball Hill, that’s when things got weird. It was no wonder we had the hill to ourselves. I didn’t have any other friends or even knew of any kids from the neighborhood that would ever go into the woods. Sean figured Cannon Ball Hill was safe enough. It was actually at the edge of the woods, right near the soccer field that was part of the grounds of Ten Mount High school, in the other direction it was short walk to The Shelburne Library, although the grounds to the library were not accessible, they were walled in with wrought iron sharp spikes on top of the wall.
I jumped off my sled in mid-descent, the sled kept going, I started running uphill. “Sean look!” I gestured frantically to the old man; Sean was just getting ready to jump on his sled. He saw the old man and his eyes got as big as saucers. “Follow me!” He exclaimed and took off running. We ran down the other side of the hill through the trees. We kept running until we ended up in the field north of Ten Mount High. Sean had pulled his sled along behind him the whole time without letting go of its rope. “That was him!” Sean declared. “The old man! I can’t believe we saw him!”. “Did you see his eyes?” I asked. “No, but I saw his cane, it has a knife blade built into the bottom of it, it comes out like a switch blade, he uses it to kill kids.” “How do you know he has a knife in his cane?” I asked Sean. “That’s what everybody says”, He replied. “Whose everybody”, I wanted to know. “You know, everybody.” “Yeah, yeah everybody talks about the old man in the woods who kills kids”, I said. “Last summer I spent all kinds of time walking around in those woods,” I said. “If kids got killed the police would be looking for the guy, and it would be in the papers.” “Well, maybe it was a long time ago,” said Sean, thoughtfully. “So what was with his eyes?” Sean asked. “I don’t know, I can’t describe them” I was still breathing hard. “Try” Sean goaded. “Well, they were… sort of…dead.”
I knew the old man stories. I heard them when we first moved here from New Jersey last year. There were also the crazy monk stories. “They live in the woods, they wear robes, their fat but they can run real fast, they kill kids, blah, blah, blah.” Even to an 11-year-old the tales seemed bogus, akin to “The Boogie Man”. Now I was no longer the new kid in school, no one called me “the new kid” anymore or worse; “the kid from New Jersey that talks funny”. After a year or so the Jersey accent was fully taken over in the land of “pahk yah cah in the gahrahge”. Currently I was in my second 4th grade at Shelburne Elementary. I was held back from moving on to 5th grade. 4th grade in Jersey was a whole different world. For one thing it was a modern building with “modern” teaching methods. I remember lots of movie watching and even still coloring, coloring as in with coloring with crayons. In the 4th grade in Jersey, we were just starting to learn how to write in cursive, one letter at a time. About half way through the school year, my father announced we were moving to Massachusetts.
It was like traveling back in time that day my father drove me to my new school. The building was huge, made from stone and brick; it had arches and pointy things and round, old looking windows. “What are those monster looking things?” I asked my Dad. “Those are gargoyles,” he replied, “they ward off evil.” Later I figured they didn’t work if Mrs. Stratton could get in everyday.
My father left me in Mrs. Le Nae’s office, a woman principle? I marveled, (it was 1974). She seemed kindly enough, like somebody’s grandma. Mrs. La Nae escorted me to Mrs. Stratton’s classroom, up three ancient looking flights of stairs. “You’ll do just fine here Brian, as long as you follow the rules, just fine”. We walked in the classroom, my heart was pounding, every kid in that class was looking at me, and it was so quiet you could hear a pencil drop. The room itself was huge, the ceiling was about 50 feet high, and everything looked like it was made of wood. Even the desks were old fashioned, the kind I had seen in movies with the tops that lifted up, and with the circle cut out in the middle where ink used to go back in the Neanderthal era. Mrs. Le nae announced: “Mrs. Stratton, children, I want you to meet Brian, he’s going to be in your class, and he’s from New Jersey.” “GOOD MORNING BRIAN!” Every kid in that class practically yelled in unison. I almost fainted.
“Have a seat over there Brian” Mrs. Stratton indicated off to her left with a nod of her head. The classroom was laid out with 4 different groups of desks, like individual islands. Each “island” was made up of 7 desks, rows of 2 facing each other, with the 7th desk on the end. This is where the group “monitor” sat, the privileged teacher’s pet that was charged with making sure nobody in their group spoke, but I didn’t know that yet. I saw the empty desk in the group Mrs. Stratton indicated. With shaky legs I walked over and had a seat. I wondered what happened to the last kid that sat there. Without further ado Mrs. Stratton announced it was time for dictation. “What’s dik-tay-shun?” I asked a scared looking girl across from me. She looked even more scared. I looked over at the kid on the end, he was writing my name down on a piece of paper. “What are you doing?” I asked him. He looked up at me, astonishment on his face. Mrs. Stratton or “The evil one” as I would soon be calling her in my mind, said: “Brian, there is no talking in my class; I can see you didn’t bring any writing material, do you have a pen?” I didn’t bring a pen; I thought first days were supposed to be easy. After Mrs. Stratton gave me a pen and paper to use, with a harsh warning to be prepared tomorrow, she sat back down and started to read aloud. All the kids immediately began to write. I looked at the boy’s paper next to me, he was writing in cursive. “Do we have to do it in cursive?” I asked him. The kid at the end, the “monitor’s” left hand went straight up so fast I jumped. I saw with his other hand he was putting a check mark next to my name. “What’s the problem over there?” asked Mrs. Stratton, sternly. “The new kid doesn’t know how to write!” Monitor boy announced to laughter.
The next day started a little better. We began the morning with the pledge of allegiance. Hell, I’ve been doing this since Kindergarten, I thought. Then it got strange. Right at the end every kid yelled out “GOOD MORNING MRS. STRATTON!” “Good morning class” she calmly replied, and then we all sat down.
In the afternoons I had to have special writing and math classes with the other dumb kids. Friday Mrs. Stratton sent a note home to my parents. I opened the envelope on the way home and read it. Mrs. Stratton couldn’t understand why young Brian didn’t say “good morning” to her with all the other children.