I smell elephants… by
(168 Stories)

Prompted By Kindergarten

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More and more these days, I been working overtime in an attempt to channel this little guy. I have a lot to learn from him. I think my old man took this picture with a giant Speed Graphic just before we moved from the federal housing projects in Boston’s Jamaica Plain. We relocated 30 miles to the north and west, in a small Massachusetts town called Littleton, before the area was re-defined as the suburbs. Back then, Littleton was all about cows and apples, farmers and mechanics, a landed gentry that went back to the Revolutionary War, and a brand new electronics factory that had just been erected in a raw clearing, bulldozed out of a pine, maple, and birch forest.

The factory had been carved into the New England woods by Theodore Roosevelt McElroy, an entrepreneur who had become the world’s fastest telegrapher, had made a bid to buy the Brooklyn Dodgers, ran for Congress in Massachusetts and eventually had a mountain named after him in Antarctica. He had been pals with my old man when they both worked at Submarine Signal during the war.

Now, my old man joined Ted’s development team at the new factory. Pop was an electronics engineer, an inventor, who moved his family out of the projects so that we could savor the bucolic joys of the countryside. I think he would have preferred to stay in the city with his political, artistic, and scientist friends but he accommodated my mother and us. I vaguely remember registering the change. When we first drove out to Littleton, so the story goes, I said “I smell elephants,” as we passed a well-populated cow pasture. We had just been to the Barnum & Baily Circus in Boston, and the aroma must have lingered in my young mind.

Once settled in Littleton, my father commuted a short distance along New England roads to the  electronics factory in the WWII surplus Jeep that had become the family car. So the city boy in the pic became the country boy at Mrs. Frost’s kindergarten. I can still conjure up an image of my wooden dog, as I dragged the battered pull toy up the granite stair slabs, over the great oak sill and through the front door of Mrs. Frost’s revolutionary-era home. Mrs. Frost’s kindergarten was housed in a great wide-planked domicile that featured a giant colonial hearth with wrought-iron swing arms designed to hold pots over the fire in the shadowed, distant past. I remember that first day, the air indoors felt cool and smelled of very old wood and fireplace ashes.

At the back of the old house, a yard featured swings, a slide, a jungle jim and assorted kid gear including a nail keg that I once landed on, leading with my left eyebrow. I still have the scar. I think we started in early summer. I met kids there that I would know through high school. Karen, an angelic kid with blonde ringlets, Roger became my best friend all the way through high school. Roger’s father had eschewed his blue blood past to run an iron works just off Littleton Common. There must have been others who lasted the 12-plus years to graduation, but I only remember Roger and Karen in nursery school.

Madeline Ruth aka Mrs. Frost, ca 1926

Although Mrs. Frost, AKA Madeline Ruth Miles Frost and her husband, “Uncle Sherman” Frost are a complete blur, I do know that Ruth Madeleine Frost lived to be 100. She had been born in Cambridge and graduated from Cambridge Latin and Mount Holyoke in the 1920s. She studied early childhood education and moved Littleton with Sherman where they ran a diversified farm through the Depression. During World War II, she became the town Civil Defense Evacuation Officer, and started my nursery school so that mothers could go to work in the war industries. Mrs. Frost continued running that nursery school into the 1980s! Here she is when she graduated from Mount Holyoke.

They were good people, Mrs. Frost and Uncle Sherman, and they greeted us city slickers as warmly and fairly as did so many of the other good people of my rural colonial “home” town. Country living had its drawbacks and I was outta there right after high school, but Mrs. Frost and her nursery school gave the little guy in the picture a good start on the road to being me… for better or for worse.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

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Characterizations: well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Charlie, you have given us a fascinating story about much more than kindergarten. I loved learning about Littleton (truly a little town, as the name says), and Ted McElroy, and Madeline Ruth Frost. What a great cast of characters. And your picture is beyond adorable! Who could look at it and not smile back? Thanks for another wonderful tale!

    • Thanks, Suzy. This prompt allowed me to dig deep into long-submerged memories, especially about Ted McElroy, who was an amazing character. I wrote a scene that included a character similar to Theodore Roosevelt McElroy, who worked hard to protect my old man in the early years of the blacklist. Quite a guy!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    I love the details in your story, Charlie. I vividly remember that wooden dog toy and all of the (what would now be considered unsafe) kiddie play gear. I guess it was unsafe because one of my brothers has a scar around his eye as proof. I love that you have a picture of Mrs. Frost. And you were a very cute little guy.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    And what a cute little guy you were, Charlie! After leaving our roach-infested first apartment in Waltham, we moved to the western edge of Acton, almost in Littleton. This was 1976, so quite a bit after your family moved there, and it was, as you point out, already suburbia, You paint a charming picture of Mrs. Frost, but I, like you, am really a city slicker at heart. After returning from my stint in Chicago (which I loved), moved to the Back Bay, which was much more to my taste. I decided I could never live outside Rt 128 again! Or I 95, as it’s been dubbed these days.

  4. Marian says:

    This is so evocative, Charles, I could see, feel, and smell the setting of this story. I loved the rustic details and the fact that Mrs. Frost lived to be 100.

  5. Thanks, Marian! I had to dig deep to find that one. Kindergarten! Yikes. And, without the miracle of Google, I would never have known the story behind Mrs. Frost. Eons to cross.

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