Sunday, June 27, 2004


This is part of an interview I conducted in July, 2003, with 99-year-old Pearl Mt. Castle of Lewisburg, Ohio. Pearl taught school for forty years, usually fifth grade. She taught Sunday School for sixty-four years, retiring from that when she was in her nineties. She still lives independently in the house and on the farm her parents moved into in 1913. She still takes care of herself. She still sometimes refers to herself in the third person, in the manner of old school teachers. I found that my job during this interview was to stay out of the way and let Pearl tell her story. Pretty much I succeeded in staying out of the way; there's no question but that Pearl can tell her story. Try and keep up with us, now.

Pearl Mt. Castle lives in the country southeast of Lewisburg, Ohio, north of Eaton. She was 99 years old when I interviewed her, still living on her own in the house she grew up in, with a nephew nearby to check on her as necessary.

Her parents were born and reared near Roanoke, Virginia. As a young couple with three children, they migrated to Ohio in 1897, to Montgomery County just over the road in front of Pearl's place.

"I was born November 13, 1903," Pearl said, "so I was the fifth child in the family, of nine children altogether. I was born east of West Alexandria, Ohio. Six months after I was born, my parents moved to a farm about fifteen miles from where I live now. When I was about six, they moved again, about a mile and a half, to another farm, and from there they moved to this place. So I've only lived in four houses all this time."

And, I might add just to make it clear, she's lived in just one house since she was ten years old.

Pearl had polio in 1907 or 1908 and "was not able to walk," and couldn't start school on time.

"I tried, but was too weak, so mother took me out for a year," Pearl said. "Then I became a little stronger but had to be transported to school. Back in the horse and buggy days, that was a problem."

"I went to a little school in Prymont, Ohio," Pearl said. "It is about eight miles from here, a two-room school building with four classes in each room, the first eight grades. As I went to first grade I loved every day, every day, every day - I just loved it. When I was in second grade, my teacher let me help the slow learners in the first grade and that's when I decided I wanted to be a teacher. It was second grade, I started teaching."

"When we moved here in 1913," she added, "I went to the little one-room school for a couple years."

"My mother was in favor of me becoming a teacher," Pearl said. "She and I were very close. When she died at the end of my school years, my life was gone. Because we were so close."

"I was to graduate from high school in 1922," Pearl said, "the only one in the family to decide to go to high school. My mother was so proud of that. Wanting to be a teacher - she tried to promote that. In a family of nine, it's a question whether you have the resources for that. It was a question."

"I had a very happy education," Pearl said. "I had a very happy life, with a big family - working in the garden, canning fruits and vegetables, regular old farm living."

"My mother was so happy about me graduating," she said. "In those days mothers sewed for their children. She had all our clothes made for graduation, which would be two or three different dresses."

"She passed away April 12th, when I was to graduate in May," Pearl said. "So I lost my mother. My world came to an end."

"At that time," she continued, "my older brothers and sisters were all married. I was 18. My younger sisters were still here - three younger sisters and a little brother. So what was Pearl to do? Being a little country girl, I didn't have the understanding we have today that you could do this, you could do that if you wanted to. I just thought the world was coming to an end."

"In our neighborhood," she said, "there was another family with a daughter the same age as I was. We were friends. Our fathers worked together, trading farm work, helping each other. This other fellow was a little more aware of things going on in the world. My father was a great man, but uneducated. Well-loved by everybody who knew him. Hitch his horse in a moment to go help a neighbor, in horse and buggy days. The two fathers got together and said 'What about these two little girls, here in the country. They're through school now. What's before them?' We knew the woman who was Dean of Women at Miami University that summer - we knew her because she was from West Alexandria. So the two men and the two little girls drove down to Oxford. We found out what we were supposed to do to matriculate."

"This was in August," Pearl said. "My mother was gone. We matriculated. Started to school in September. This little girl and I were room-mates in college. We spent the year down there together."

"When the year was up - one year at the teachers' college," she said, "I took the examination for teachers and I started teaching school. I was only 19. At Lewisburg. The superintendent knew me, knew my background. He was a great help to me. I'd had only one year of study for teaching elementary school."

"I came home," Pearl said, "I lived here, packed five lunches a day, taught school, oversaw the housework. Before, I had always milked cows. My younger brother and sisters had to do the milking now. I took over the household at 19 and also started teaching school at 19. I took over care of my younger sisters and younger brother, and of course of my father who was heartsick over the loss of that beautiful mother of mine."

"It was not easy living," she said matter-of-factly. "Having had polio, I didn't have the strength of body some girls might have had. But I had tenacity."

She laughed. "I was going to go on. And I did. I did."

To be continued....


JUNE 25, 1998 - PART TWO

At Havre, it starts to look as if we are coming into badlands, with a rough roll to the land. The Indians used to drive buffalo off the cliffs about town.

East out of Havre, a whole range of peaks to the south. We are on the high plains here, but those are not high plains there. A little farther east, the peaks appear to be much nearer. There are very dark, thick, grey clouds in the sky above them. And then, suddenly, the range ends abruptly and is replaced with what looks like a flat-topped plateau overlooking a wide plain below. Still the Great American Desert is greener than you'd reasonably expect. There are even trees in places, long groves of them.

In the Bear Paw Mountains east of Havre is where Chief Joseph surrendered. It was Chief Joseph who said: "From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever." Would that he had been speaking not only for the Nez Perce but also for the rest of humankind.

Further east, a couple small peaks, like a hiccup on the landscape, and then another ridge starts up.

Rain in the distance. Now it is difficult to know what we are seeing to the south - everything fades into the grey curtain.

This travel by train is the life for me - I am sitting back with my feet up, watching America unroll like a spool of film.

East of Malta, the landscape has really been roughed up. Though there is some farming, much of the land is used for grazing. Rolling land, flat-topped buttes as we head east towards the Fort Peck Dam and, farther on, the Missouri Breaks. Grey sky and a darkness like dusk, only it is still 5:15 p.m. Mountain Time as we head into Glasgow, Montana. We are nearing the eastern edge of the Mountain Time Zone, but that does not explain the dimness of the sky above. Thick grey paint has been spilled over the dome of sky. I cannot imagine, simply cannot imagine crossing this land in a wagon, not one drawn by oxen, not one drawn by horses. This iron charger eats up the miles, but even so we are still in Montana after eight hours of traveling east. You could damn near drive across Europe in eight hours, couldn't you? And we're still in Montana.

Between Glasgow and Wolf Point, six antennas are set upon a distant ridge to the south. We suppose they are radio antennas beaming away their signal into the low grey sky.

In Wolf Point, a boy standing on a gravel street throws stones at the train entering the station. Well, in Wolf Point, saying "the train entering the station" is perhaps exaggeration. High cheek bones, broad noses, bronze skin of one couple departing from the train here suggests an Indian heritage. Constant reminders here about from whom the west was won.

Even farther east, in the grey evening air, a green house, an unnaturally green house I must say, on the green plain. Beyond that, to the south, the ridge that we've been running along for quite a while continues. Which river was it we could see from the train?

An old threshing machine holds down its part of the world, bound to it by rust.

During supper we saw the Missouri and the Missouri Breaks. We saw it raining "on both sides of the train this time," as a fellow passenger said. We ate with a couple from Platteville, Wisconsin. He teaches engineering at the university there. She has had bad luck with her food on the train in the past - lasagna overdone, steak too dry. Warns me that my steak will be too well done. I tell her I usually have good luck with food; and my steak was excellent. It's karma - if you want good food, expect it; then eat what you get. Those who complain about bad food get bad food, that's how it works. They will be getting off at Columbus, Wisconsin.

There is blue sky out the window now. We went back to Central Time in Williston, North Dakota, as we finished supper.

The staff of the train is amazing - they have done their tasks thousands and thousands of times yet they make everything seem fresh this time, as if the first time. They also do an excellent job of teaching us the ins and outs very quickly. Our attendant, Henry, a young black man, "owns" this car and wants to make sure we are satisfied; and yet he doesn't hound us.

Night descends. It won't be long and we'll be asking Henry to make up the beds in this small cubicle.

The fields are flatter for longer stretches now. The farm houses are larger. Everything looks more prosperous.

A white school house and a church, once white - they are both windowless and decaying. I'd say we are on an Indian reservation where another promise has been broken, but there are large fields of wheat and alfalfa. There are roads and powerlines. There is water. I didn't know land this good was ever set aside for reservation. (When I look at a map later, I'll see that it is not reservation land.)

The roads crossing the train tracks seem to be all gravel roads in North Dakota, few and far between. The farm houses too are few and far between. We are somewhere between Williston and Stanley, North Dakota, I believe. The sky darkens. A mile to the south, a semi moves east on US Highway 2. The ditch alongside the train is full of water for a quarter mile. A grain elevator, a lot of anhydrous ammonia tanks, a farm implement dealer with a lot full of rusting machinery, 15-20 houses. Didn't catch the name of the settlement. Intercom says we are approaching Stanley and will stop there soon, so that must have been Ross, North Dakota, we passed. In the distance, a blue A.O. Smith silo. Can that be a church with a red neon light in the steeple? One if by land, two if by sea? Isn't this the part of North Dakota where there are ICBMs poised in silos, ready to right the world?

Minot, North Dakota - we step outside for a breath of fresh air before we sleep. It is after 11:00 p.m. The air is still warm, but refreshingly clear. We have our beds made up.

Thought before sleep: The system knows itself. Understand the system and use its knowledge of itself to your advantage.


JUNE 26, 1998
Rise at 6:30 a.m. We are west of St. Cloud, Minnesota, still, but we have slept across a great swatch of North Dakota. Any form of travel has to be A-OK if it lets you travel at 79 m.p.h and sleep the great long miles across North Dakota. Don't get me wrong - I love North Dakota, but there's just so damn much of it. We have breakfast, sitting with a retired bricklayer and his wife from north of Chicago. She is unhappy with the rough sleeping, he pretty much knows how it is.

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