Al Batt: The Eastland and study halls for adults

Published 8:11 pm Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Tales From Exit 22 by Al Batt


I went on a boat trip on the Chicago River.

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The guide talked about the steamer Eastland overturning in the Chicago River in 1915, drowning 844 passengers. Western Electric Co. employees were headed to an annual picnic. About 7,300 people arrived at the dock to be carried to the site by five steamers. Bands played while more than 2,500 people boarded the Eastland. Reports indicated the crowd gathered on one side of the boat to pose for a photograph, creating an imbalance. The Eastland capsized near the dock, trapping people underneath. There were recognized problems with the boat’s design, which had not been remedied, but the exact cause hasn’t been determined.

I knew nothing about the Eastland. I knew about the Titanic sinking after colliding with an iceberg in 1912 and the Lusitania being sunk by a German U-boat torpedo in 1915. I remembered the Maine sank after an explosion in 1898 in the Havana harbor.

But I don’t remember being taught anything about the Eastland. Did I learn and forget? Or, horrors, wasn’t I paying attention? Maybe I was absent the day it was covered? I’ll bet it was the day my mother took me to the eye doctor because I’d given her a dirty look? Yeah, that was it. If only I knew now what I knew then. Maybe I should go back to school.

Of course, that would mean I’d have to go to some back-to-school sales. It’s OK if I’ve missed them. The prices are probably reduced after the sales. Pens, paper, pencils (I love the smell of pencil shavings), new clothes, shoes (I like them prescuffed) — the list goes on. I’ll get an apple for my teacher. I wonder if she’d prefer an iPod or an iPhone? I want good grades.

Some kids are happy to go back to school and admit it. Some kids aren’t happy to go back to school and admit it. Other kids are happy to go back to school, but refuse to admit it. And there are kids who aren’t happy to go back to school, but refuse to admit it. The start of school gives reason for the shibboleth “Uffda!” used when you have to get up and go to school when you’d prefer to remain in bed.

I liked school. The food was pretty good — beanie weenies, tater tot hotdish, hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes and goulash. All the spinach and most of the beets (Were they supposed to taste like dirt?) went uneaten. The trouble with school lunches was that they weren’t as good as my mother’s cooking.

School is where we find out what we don’t know. It’s like a job and most everything else. Hills make the valleys and valleys make the hills. You can’t learn everything and, even if you could, you couldn’t remember it all. I learned a lot in school. I learned fractions in case I wanted to plead the fifth one day. There ain’t no such word as “ain’t.” Spit valves are nasty. Math classes taught me to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and divide and conquer. I had to laugh when someone’s stomach sounded like a beluga whale. Some teachers had no sense of humor. Other teachers completely lacked a sense of humor. Never eat green pudding. Chemistry class and Silly Putty don’t mix. Somebody likes a smart aleck. The principal isn’t always my pal. And when things get tough, think about Mom’s sugar cookies.

Grown-ups asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Are you going to be a farmer like your father? I didn’t know. One of the joys of being young is not knowing. When you become older, there is pressure to know everything. Saying “I don’t know“ becomes difficult. Then one day, it becomes easy again. It’s free and freeing.

I led wildflower walks for years. I loved seeing and showing the spring ephemerals, those early blooming, short-lived wildflowers emerging in early spring and disappearing by early summer. Some participants walked with me each year. Several confided that they’d forgotten what they’d learned the previous year. They said that was fine because they had the pleasure of learning about ephemerals again. Summer is just long enough to give students time to forget what they’d learned the year before.

I went to school and I turned out mostly all right. I’m going to forget about going back. I don’t fit comfortably into those seats. I’ll read a book about the Eastland instead.

Adults need study halls, too.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Saturday.