Editor's note: This is a memoir written as the concluding appendix for Lori Radcliffe-Meyers' 130-page master's thesis in landscape architecture at the University of Arizona, titled, "A Landscape of Memories: A Master Plan Design for the Crawford Town Hall," which was published this past spring. Radcliffe-Meyers is a former Crawford resident who, along with her sister, Melanie Radcliffe-McCabe, attended the old Crawford School, as did their cousin, Mark Ratliff.
By Mark Ratliff
Special to the DCI
I was a student at Crawford School from 1971 through 1973, attending seventh and eighth grades there. At that time, the school was a kindergarten through eighth grade institution.
When I started at Crawford School, the kindergarten through second grades were in a small wooden building that sat on the northwest corner of the school property, which was approximately 2.75 acres in total size. That little building was destroyed early one morning by an act of arson, and the classes that had gone there were then moved into the main school building, where they remained until Crawford School was decommissioned.
I don’t recall the date of that fire, but it was in the spring of 1972. I do remember that it was a cold night, and that Crawford’s volunteer fire department was hampered in its efforts to fight the fire because of the low water pressure that was available due to the school’s location being at the highest point in town (a major factor, as the town’s water supply was pressurized not by pumps, but by gravity – the drinking water reservoir was above the town, thus the pressure was directly dependent upon the relative vertical fall between the reservoir and the particular hydrant in question.)
My memory of Crawford School dominating the landscape of our small town may be because, as noted above, the old stone building sat at the highest portion of the town, with the main street, Colorado State Highway 92, cresting in front of the school and sloping downward in both directions of travel, toward the east and toward the west. All the other buildings which comprised the core of the town – Crawford Kitchen (a small restaurant with an attached coin laundry), the church, Hagie’s General Store, Crawford Building Materials, Silver Spruce gas station, the Post Office and McCleod’s bar – lay just to the east and southeast, and all were more or less below the school’s elevation. To the west, Wally Kaufman’s gas station and a long-abandoned flour mill were the public landmarks along Highway 92 heading out of town, whereas the majority of the town’s residences were situated along three streets to the south, but again, all were below the school. This, then, was the greater portion of the incorporated city limits of Crawford, which, according to the state highway department’s sign, had a population of 170, and an elevation of 6,800 feet above sea level.
A smattering of houses to the northwest and northeast were above the school, but their lofty viewpoint only helped their residents to see that the old stone building, from any perspective, was the community’s dominant structure.
However, had the school not commanded this physical prominence within the town, it is likely I would still, to this day, elevate it in memory in its importance, as would be naturally expected of any building where one spent, for two years, most of his waking hours during the week. Yet that is an incomplete explanation of why, 40 years later, my recollections of Crawford School are indelibly written in a memory ink of a deep saturation of emotional color. It was not merely the amount of time spent there that accounts for this, but the nature of that time, which not only drew some of its character FROM the building, but perhaps more importantly, it was the people and day-to-day events associated with being a student there which imbued the building with life. Indeed, it can be argued that everyone who walked the wooden floors of that building during its seven decades as a school became part of the collective living spirit of the structure, whether they realized it or not at the moment.
Unlike the majority of my seventh-grade classmates who passed through the double doors on the first day of school in the late summer of 1971, I had never been in the building before. I was a “transplant” from some 1,700 miles away, having moved earlier that summer from Anna Maria Island, Florida, to take advantage of an opportunity to expand my 12-year-old horizons to live with my uncle and aunt, Logan and Dorothy McMurry, on their small cattle ranch just west of the city limits. For an urban Florida boy (if Anna Maria could be called “urban,” it being more like Martha’s Vineyard than a bustling city), there was a bit of culture shock in store for me – I was definitely the new kid in school, with my slightly longer hair, my Eastern pronunciations, and the fact that I had never driven a pickup truck or wrestled putting firmly upon me the “alien resident” stamp as I found my desk among a bunch of kids who had grown up in that community, many of whom were from old families that had established in the area in the middle to late 1800s. The kids were friendly enough, but I soon realized that going to Crawford School was going to take a bit of acclimation on my part to shake from my feet the beach sand of Anna Maria and put down roots in the clay loam of a community where the dominant patterns of surnames on the weathered headstones in the cemetery above the church were still found in similar proportion among Crawford School’s 1971 class rosters.
Although the town itself was tiny, the geographic area Crawford School served was relatively large (in excess of 50 square miles) due to the rural nature of ranches of hundreds of acres spread out across the countryside with miles of state and federal public lands in between, thus most of the student body rode a bus to school. There was only a handful of “town kids” (those who lived within the actual city limits), and they walked to school. I was one of those, only by virtue that my Uncle Logan had gone to the effort to annex to the city limits just that portion of our land where our home was located. This he did in order to tap into the city’s water supply, thus avoiding the need to install a cistern for our potable water.
One of the other town kids was a girl I met on that first day at Crawford School, or I should say, she met me. She was the first to make the effort to say “hello” to me, and from that moment on I was aware of her. More than aware of her. Although her desk was all the way across the room, I could not keep my eyes off that girl with the beautiful blue eyes, a shy smile, and long black hair. I suppose it was her hair, or her slightly darker complexion, but to my eye she looked like an Indian princess. In any case, that girl who said “hello” that first day of school would become a massive part of the emotions that stir within me even when I see a picture of Crawford School, much less those times over the years I have actually visited it as an adult.
Inasmuch as that girl was shy then – I can only imagine what it took for her to cross the room to say hello to the new boy! – and she remains a very private woman today, I am not at liberty to use her name, but inasmuch as she will appear again in this narrative, for the sake of convenience of the reader I shall merely refer to her as “RKC,” for “remarkably kind classmate.”
The Class of ’77 is what we called ourselves in 1971 in the seventh grade at Crawford School, even though we would finish eighth grade in the spring of 1973 and then start being bused to a high school 11 miles away later that summer. It was from this that we drew our “Class of ’77” identity when we were 12 years old, with our eyes fixed on the prize of high school graduation, six years away in 1977. So important was this, that Crawford School’s current eighth grade class would proclaim its status by putting a large white “C” near the top of a large hill that rose some 650 feet above the school, just behind it, and within the “C” would be two numerals. This feature, which was visible from several miles away, was formed by rocks that were appropriately arranged and then painted white. My first year at the school the number was 76, as that was the current eighth grade’s high school graduation year, though, occasionally, the number would change overnight to 77, if there were any seventh graders bold enough to climb the hill at night, rearrange the whitewashed rocks, and then endure the resulting inquisition by the eighth graders the next day at school.
A remarkable aspect of Crawford School (and this is one of those things not really noticed or appreciated until one is an adult), was the quality of the faculty, and the education we received there. Here was a school, located in a tiny town in Delta County, which if memory serves, at the time was the second poorest county in Colorado (based on family income). And within that setting, each morning three dedicated teachers took to their classrooms to give us not only the required curriculum, but to my way of thinking, a good measure more.
Mr. Mott, our principal, was also our math teacher, who in his teaching of beginning algebra taught us ways of analyzing problems that I still find myself resorting to 40 years later.
Mr. Gustafson, who told us to call him simply Mr. G., taught Colorado history and social studies, and led us, as a class, through an exercise in writing to our district’s representative in Washington, for which each of us received a reply. Even though the years have given me a fair amount of cynicism when it comes to things political, Mr. G’s lessons – taught with the passion of a man who was a product of the turbulent 1960s – still resonate at some deep level within me that there is hope, and the process can still work.
And then there was Mr. Van Vleet, who we mostly called Coach, as he was also our basketball and wrestling teams’ coach. He was our teacher for science and art, and in each, his expectations were high, and his enthusiasm in instructing even higher. I look back now and realize that no private school – anywhere – had a better teacher than Coach. There we were, in seventh and eighth grade, learning perspective in art, and the subtleties of shading, and in science tackling the periodic table of the elements, learning what valence is, and why when an electron changes its orbit, energy is either absorbed or emitted. Coach taught us the taxonomy of plants and animals, and took us on field trips into the mountains to gather mineral samples as part of his lectures on the indigenous rocks of our area. This in an (even then) old school building, in a tiny town, in a very poor county.
So, the Class of ’77, in the years of 1971 through 1973, was the beneficiary of some top-notch teachers – this we can look back on now and appreciate. Yet, at the time, as we returned from summer vacation in 1972 to begin our eighth grade year, our minds were on something else – the 1973 Eighth Grade Banquet and Dance to be held near the end of the school year. Probably a holdover from many years before when Crawford School was also a high school, the banquet and dance was, for us, the prom. From day one in the eighth grade, we were thinking about, planning, and raising money for the banquet and dance. By now, Mr. G. had moved on to a new position in the East, but Mr. Den Beste took over and cleverly worked in his teaching of government and parliamentary procedure to allow us to conduct planning meetings – properly run according to “Robert’s Rules of Order,” of course – so that we could work out all of the details of what we looked forward to as THE reward of being an eighth grader. That, and being allowed – on school time – to climb “C Hill” and change, officially, the number within the C to 77. No longer under cover of darkness a clandestine prank, that changing of the number took place on a bright blue morning, and as a class, accompanied by Coach, we took the hill, and with the moving of some rocks and the application of fresh whitewash our academic year began beneath our own banner. The town of Crawford was now under the reign of The Class of ’77, holding court within the halls of Crawford School.
Our class set a record as the largest seventh and eighth grade classes in the history of Crawford School with 22 students – 13 girls and 9 boys. In this, we were the only class to occupy an entire classroom – while the fifth, sixth and seventh grades would share a room with a teacher for a particular lesson period, when our class moved into a room at the sounding of the bell, it was just us, and no other grades.
In addition to the main school building, there were two other structures at Crawford School that played significant roles in our lives, and these were the lunchroom and the gym.
The lunchroom was directly behind the main building, and was a wooden structure where we had our freshly cooked lunches every day. It would serve as the site for our pre-dance fancy banquet, to which all of our parents were invited guests, and it was also where the entire class took its hunter safety training. In Colorado, a 13-year-old could get a hunting license if he or she had successfully completed the hunter safety curriculum, and it was in the lunchroom where we all gathered to learn from a state wildlife officer all that we needed to know in order to receive this certification. Among other things, we learned first aid, hunting laws and how to safely handle firearms. This last part involved actual shooting which took place out on the school’s large lawn, where we shot clay pigeons with.22 caliber rifles firing tiny bird shot. The load and the shot assured that no one passing by on Highway 92 was in danger, but if your aim was true the weapon was enough to shatter the “pigeons,” and raise one’s status among the class.
Indirectly, the lunchroom played a part in one of the significant events of my life, and sealed forever why Crawford School is a building that is important to me. Jumping back a bit in the chronology to our seventh-grade year, it happened like this:
Our class had finished lunch, and we were released to go back to the main building as soon as we had returned our lunch trays to the counter. As it turned out, RKC and I were the first to do this, and thus, were the first to find ourselves back in Mr. G’s room. Though I had no idea that morning when I walked to school that this would happen, the fortuitousness of our timing found RKC and me in the classroom alone, and aware that we were perhaps 30 seconds ahead of the other students. So, in that moment, at the back of Mr. G’s room, near the door by the west windows, RKC and I shared our first kiss as childhood sweethearts.
RKC’s home was one of those that was on the hill above the school, and every school day ended with me walking her home. The walk from the door at Crawford School to RKC’s door consisted of a total of three left turns and two rights (though not in that order), about a quarter of a mile, most of it uphill, and was always over way too quickly for me. There was always the next school day, of course, therefore Crawford School, as the starting point for these afternoon strolls, assumed – as I noted before – a place of immutable prominence in my life.
In addition to being the location of our much-anticipated eighth grade dance following the banquet in the lunchroom, the gym was the secondary focal point of Crawford School after the main building itself. It was here that our Crawford Cubs basketball team practiced under Coach’s guidance for home and away games that always pitted us against much larger schools, where sometimes just not to lose too badly seemed a victory, and our actual wins felt like clinching championship finals. The gym was also where we had physical education when the there was too much snow on the school lawn to play there, with the boys at one end of the basketball court and the girls at the other. Additionally, there was one school play each year, and this took place on the stage which was at the north end of the basketball court.
And, it must now be revealed for the first time in print, one other thing about the gym (which, if not mentioned, no anecdotal account of the impact of Crawford School would be complete): The back doors on either side of the gym, being recessed within the shadow of the embankment, and without any lighting, were where occasionally seventh and eighth grade couples would steal away for a few minutes during basketball games.
On my first visit back to Crawford after having been away a good number of years, the first place I went after stopping in at my aunt and uncle’s place, was the school. The sight of the remnants of the gym made my heart sink. All I could think is, “Why? What was the purpose behind this? Whose idea was this?” I was heartened to learn that the old gym had put up such a fight to the wrecker’s ball that the demolition was stopped when nothing was left but the backstage area, and I smiled a little when I saw that the aforementioned recesses – where the back doors were – were still there.
Better news was to be found inside the main building, which at that time had been turned into the town library on the side of the hall were Mr. Mott’s classroom had been. But the other side of the hall was…well, it was like stepping into a time machine. Mr. G’s room, the school library, and Coach’s room, were exactly as I had remembered them from decades ago. The chalkboards, the paint, the hanging light fixtures which were already antiques when I had been a boy – they were all there. Even the way the doors sounded as they closed – memories that were more than perfect, but pristine. I walked slowly through each room, finally returning to Mr. G’s room, finding myself back at that west window where I had first kissed RKC. I stood there for several minutes, but I could not remain forever. My aunt was cooking dinner, and I was expected back soon, so I turned around and headed down the hall and left through those east doors as I had done so many times with RKC, thinking that Thomas Wolfe had it wrong – sometimes you can go home again.
Mark Ratliff currently lives in Sarasota, Florida, where he is a technical writer for L-3 Aviation Recorders, the company that manufactures the so-called “black boxes” (flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders) which are installed on commercial airliners around the world. Ratliff is an award-winning newspaper reporter, and has been the editor of several newspapers and a magazine in Florida, and says that even after 40 years that not a day goes by that he does not think about the time he lived in Crawford.blog comments powered by Disqus