The thin yellow line

Posted on Posted in Life

Napa satellite view
This is the city. Napa, California. 1978. It’s 18.1 square miles of manicured lawns and dusty strip malls, tucked inside some of the most valuable vineyards anywhere. The schools are for learning, the parks are for playing and the streets are for getting hard-working folks to and from their places of labor and commerce.

That’s the way it’s designed and that’s the way it works. When it doesn’t? That’s when I go to work.

I wear a sash.

My name’s Skoog. Greg Skoog. Sixth grade. I’m a sergeant – a sworn officer of the Northwood Elementary School Patrol. Where innocent kids meet the street? That’s my beat.

Keeping kids safe is what it’s all about. Because little Johnny’s got to make it home with the macrame owl he just made in arts & crafts and somewhere out there is a crazy beatnik, hepped up on goofballs and enough PCP to tranquilize a walrus. Right now he’s stoned enough to think he owns the road. But when Johnny steps into that crosswalk, he’s got my helmet, sash, sweater and semaphore watching over him. Oh yes, Mr. and Mrs. Everyman, you can rest well. Your little Johnny will make it home safely this afternoon. I’ll see to that.

But school patrol is more than that.

The rookies

Toward the end of fifth grade, we were selected. The best of the best. The bright. The responsible. The willing. We were like lumps of clay for the molding. (Hold on, wait a minute. I just said all those good things at the beginning of this paragraph, but “lumps of clay” doesn’t sound very flattering…so…um..) We were like lumps of clay with little flecks of gold in it. And we were ready to be molded.

Each of us was assigned to shadow a member of the 1977-78 squad for a few weeks. We were the rookies. The recruits. We learned drill and ceremony on the playground blacktop. We marched. (“Double-to-the-rear-with-a-slight-hesitation… March!”). We trained. (“Simon says Left Face. About Face.”) And we had semaphore drill beaten into our heads through constant repetition – learning to flawlessly execute each of the four drill routines that would start with a patrolman at his or her resting position on the side of the street and end with an alert crossing guard in the lane, semaphore extended, fearlessly blocking traffic.

Lead from the front

By the end of of that fifth-grade school year, the cream rose to the top. Blond-haired, Rod Wieldraayer, with his friendly smile and easy-going version of popularity was selected our Captain. His Lieutenant is the bright, likable Cathy Wigington.

Those two chart the course, and any of us would take a Buick for either one of them. But they couldn’t get the job done without a handful of sergeants to help shoulder the load. And that’s where I come in. There’s a certain swagger that comes with a sergeant’s sweater.

In my case, it happens to be a hesitant, pigeon-toed swagger. But it’s a swagger, nonetheless.They don’t just hand these sweaters out, you know. There’s a precise and exact science to it…

[Flashback sequence to uniform handout day. A tiny, scrawny Greg stands at the end of the line. Step. Wait. Step. Wait. Step. Wait. Finally:
Greg: “Size small, please.”
Mr. Callison (turning to rack and flip, flip, flipping through the remaining couple of sweaters): “Um… Here you go.”
Greg: “But that’s a sergeant’s sweater, sir.”
Mr. Callison: “Good eye. Congratulations, Sergeant.”]

Being a sergeant on the Northwood School Patrol means a couple of different things. First and foremost it means that, on the intersections that require more than one patrolman, you call the shots. (That means Berks Street, Oxford Street and Briarwood Street.) You march your troops out to position. And, when the time comes, it’s your whistle that tells the patrolmen when to move and in what pattern – so they not only get out into the street to stop traffic for the kids – but they look damned sharp doing it. Northwood satellite view But it also means you’re in the rotation for the corner of Trower and Oxford.

The trauma of Trower

Oxford and Trower is the most remote intersection we cover. It’s not used by many students, so we only send one officer out there each day. We staff it because Trower is a suicide gauntlet of gasoline-fueled assassins. It’s a fast, busy street, and that’s what I love about it. There’s a vibrant energy to Trower that lets a man know he’s alive.

But Trower’s a cruel mistress. Lose your focus for a second and your mom will spend the next week scrubbing splattered second-grader off your sweater. Those are the harsh realities. And they’re heavy burdens that we carry. I don’t want to make excuses for anyone, but with pressures like that, is it really any wonder you see a few patrolmen hitting the 7/11 after their shifts? A large cherry Slurpee is cold comfort and, even though I know it’s impossible to freeze those images out of your brain, I know the temptations that lead a wayward patrolman to try.

Speed trap

Anyway, Trower’s lonely duty. So you’d think that the day I got some unexpected company would have been the most relaxing day of my tour. You’d be wrong.

As a member of the Northwood Elementary School Patrol there are certain protocols to be followed. They’re the veggies and side dishes of honor and respect that go along with the meat and potatoes of child safety. One example is respect for the flag. Every morning, we raise it. Every afternoon, we lower it. And every day we watch the skies out our classroom windows. On those rare days when it rains in California, we’re there to take it down and wait for fair weather. Another little-known school patrol protocol is respect for the grown-up men and women in blue. When a patrolman is in uniform and in the presence of a uniformed police officer, the patrolman should remain at the position of attention until such time as the police officer offers the command, “at ease.”

I knew about that protocol. Looking back on it, I’m not sure that the NPD motorcycle officer who decided that Oxford and Trower looked like a good spot for a speed trap that day did. I didn’t care. I stayed there, silently, at attention, for my 45-minute shift – breaking position only occasionally to help a few students cross the busy road. He probably thought I was a weird kid. And he was right.

Guess it comes with the uniform. No, that is NOT me in the plaid pants. I'm not sure where I am in this photo. But that's Captain Rod directly behind Mr. Callison, and Lieutenant Cathy to his immediate left.

Epilogue: The story you have just read is more or less true. No names were changed to protect the innocent. I’m not sure about all the street intersections – I’m making those up from memory and that Google maps satellite image. You get the idea though.

But here’s the truly awesome part about this post. I can offer legitimate third-party validation. And it’s seriously legit. Because 1978-79 Northwood Elementary School Patrol Lieutenant Cathy Wigington is now Northwood Elementary School 5th grade teacher Catherine Wigington. (For real. How awesome is that?) Her daughter just started kindergarten at Northwood. (My little sister was a kindergartner at Northwood during our school patrol year.)

Anyway, here’s what a noble, honorable elementary school teacher with an unquestionable reputation has to say about school patrol back in the day: “Yes, school patrol WAS INDEED cool.  You were considered cool if you were on patrol and everyone wanted to be on patrol.  It was definitely a position of prestige.  You do have my permission to quote me or use me as a reference.

Take that, haters.

PS: This post also falls outside the realm of my current Corinne challenge, so don’t bother searching for a less-than-obvious topic in this one. This is just one I had to do to defend the honor and reputation of school crossing guards everywhere.

3 thoughts on “The thin yellow line

  1. You have an AMAZING memory! I loved the post. Plaid pants has to be Glen Fletcher, whose two children I taught.

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