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Remembering elementary school
and those days of milk and Esther

It's weird how certain people and trivial incidents find their way into our memory banks. Equally weird are the things that trigger recollections.

Recently I experienced something that had me wondering if Nature, God, or whatever you choose to call the force that determines our destiny, has a sly sense of humor, something along the lines of lightly jabbing us and saying, "Hey, do you remember the time ... ?"

It happened to me in the wee hours of February 2, 2017. Why I was so amused may have been due to the lateness — or earliness — of the hour (1:43 a.m.) or to my advanced age (78 years, 249 days).

All I know is that I lay awake several minutes that evening thinking about fate and why we recall so much that, on the surface, seems so insignificant. In this case, it was a person I hadn't seen since second grade, and her role in a daily ritual that is my most unpleasant memory of elementary school.

ABOUT EVERY five years or so, I scroll through the obituaries on syracuse.com, the website for the only remaining newspaper in Syracuse, New York. It's also where I'd read about people from my childhood, since I grew up neighboring village of Solvay.

That particular evening, I was looking for a cousin's obituary. William Smolinski (known as "Bimby" to his oldest friends and all of his relatives) had died days before in California, and I intended to lift his obituary from syracuse.com, and publish it on this website.

It hadn't been posted there, but while I was scrolling, I stumbled upon an obituary for Esther DeJohn, who, for a very short time, was an elementary school classmate.

How I found the obituary was strange enough. As most Internet users have experienced, particularly those who skip stories and go directly to the idiotic comments that follow, when I scroll down a page, I often click my mouse in a way that turns my screen into a slot machine.

SO IT WAS that night. I was aiming for obituaries beginning with the letter "S", but this particular page had four sets of obituaries, each set listing names in alphabetical order. I was scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, and as I headed for the last (and longest) set of obituaries, the whirling page stopped on obituaries beginning with "D".

It was merely by chance, and also by chance that I read the name on one obituary before clicking my mouse again. As the page resumed whirling, the name I had just read suddenly jumped out of my memory bank, prompting me to return to the obituary to see if this Esther DeJohn could possibly be the person I remembered. She was.

The reason I remember Esther is detailed elsewhere as part of my recollection of Prospect School. She provided the only bright spot I recall from a chore we endured daily through second grade — the milk break.

This was the mid-1940s; Americans believed the most essential food was milk. If you drank milk until it flowed out your ears, you were guaranteed health and happiness for life.

Trouble was, milk made me gag. I could drink it only if I stirred in chocolate syrup, which wasn't allowed at school. Not that it would have helped, because even chocolate milk was something I could drink only if it were cold. The milk we were given during our break at Prospect School was tepid, another way of saying, "Yuck!"

I ASSUME the milk was delivered daily, though it often tasted a week old. That's because it was stored on the basement floor, next to the stairway. There was no refrigerated room, probably for several reasons, including the danger of a student being accidentally locked in. (Frankly, I would have preferred being locked in a refrigerator overnight to drinking the milk we were served.)

I don't recall Esther DeJohn going to Prospect School the following year. But for all of the years since then, whenever I saw someone who was in our second grade class, and we talked about those good old days, someone mentioned Esther.

May she rest in peace.

— JACK MAJOR
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