In the summer of 1960, my parents finished their new rambler in Dalton Gardens, just north of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The home sat on three pastoral acres, its east picture windows filled with Canfield Mountain. All things were new. My folks hoped and worked. The year before, I almost flunked out of first grade at Bryan Elementary, which was hard to do. Mom and dad prayed I might improve at Dalton Elementary. Second grade teacher, Mrs. Smith, stumbled, coping with me. She called me “precocious,” which was polite for “unruly.” But by November, Mrs. Smith had wrangled me. In class, I progressed beside rural ruffians. During recess I showed less restraint.
November delivered a frigid week, every cheek bitten by Arctic jaws. The gutterless two-story Dalton Elementary building, poorly insulated, produced abundant roof melt. That dripping froze at eaves, icicles jutting down three, four, five feet. I found those stalactites irresistible. I was not alone.
Being new to Dalton, I followed. Ron, the tallest of Dalton’s crop of second-graders, organized our recess raid. Seven boys crunched snowballs, then marched around the corner to the thickest crop of icicles. We launched our missles. Cracking, spears of ice tumbled, exploding on frozen ground. Cheering, we reloaded. Distantly, a door creaked. Ron pushed me forward alone, “Go for it, Lancaster.” One boy giggled, a signal I missed. Honored, I split off a big one, just as Principal Chariton rounded the corner. Ice chips skittered. “Mr. Lancaster, come with me,” growled Walt Chariton. We crunched toward his office, when he spun, an eyebrow raised. “Ron, you come with us too.” Ron slunk up behind.
We got a lecture, which was lost on me. The principal painted sordid tales of icicle impalements, pointed at rules plainly explained only yesterday, and decried thoughtlessness. I was distracted by plans to knock the rest of the ice down after school. The diatribe ended. “Grab your ankles,” Walt Chariton said. Ron and I folded ourselves. Then we met Mr. Woody. The plank slapped hindquarters, first Ron’s, then mine. Once. Twice. Thrice. Alternation left sufficient time to savor each previous impact. The pain was startling. I cried, which salved none of the sting. It was my first blunt conversation, that talk between Mr. Woody and me. My father had administered amateur spankings; Mr. Woody was professionally licensed to afflict. The board’s elemental logic convinced me. I never again liberated Dalton icicles.
Culturally, we have decided against corporal punishment of children. Abuses warrant that prohibition. But some of us may need measured pain to focus attention. I did. Talmudic rabbis (1st to 6th centuries A.D.) advise: “If you are visited by pain, examine your conduct.” Mr. Woody visited. I suppose I might still be standing under falling icicles were it not for his blunt talk with my buttocks.