When I was a kid my father was in the Navy, so we moved around the US with some frequency. As a result of his service, between 1969 and 1972 we lived in Richmond, California at a small Navy oil storage facility called Pt. Molate, where my father was the Commanding Officer. My three brothers and I loved Pt. Molate because the house that the Navy provided for us looked out over the San Francisco Bay, and we spent a good deal of our time on the rocky beaches below the house. A eucalyptus forest rose behind the house up the hillside, and when we tired of the beach we would play in the forest. Eucalyptus is not indigenous to California, at least I don’t think it is, but the base had once been a winery and before Prohibition closed the winery, the winemaster (in whose house we resided) planted eucalyptus trees for protection against the almost constant Pacific winds that rose off of the Bay. The trees thrived in the environment, and by the time we lived there the forest was well- established and quite large. The pervasive and pleasant smell of the eucalyptus leaves accompanied the atmosphere already laden with the smell of the salty Pacific. Suffice it to say that Pt. Molate was a wonderful place for a little boy and I miss it to this day, 40 years later.
What does this all have to do with school lunch? Well, it sets the scene for the fact that my brothers and I attended St. Cornelius Catholic School in Richmond. There was a cafeteria at the school, but it was never used by the students and as a result, my mother made our lunches every day and we ate lunch at our desks. This meal took place under the watchful eyes of the Sisters of Notre Dame who operated the school, and eating at your desk was an acquired talent because the desktops were slanted towards your lap. Gravity being undeniable, most of what you might spill while eating would quickly deposit into your lap, this to the disdain of the formidable Sr. Christine, my first grade teacher.
Despite the dangers inherent with such an arrangement, accidents were relatively rare because we could not speak during lunch, at all. As a result, we were less distracted and able to concentrate all of our mental powers against the constant threat of food falling into our laps. Add to this scenario the loud strains of John Phillip Sousa marches that were blasted over the school’s PA system during each lunch period. I suppose this was done to drown out the desultory sounds of chewing and swallowing made by 100s of otherwise silent children as they ate warm, fragrant food brought from home.
The only part of the midday meal not provided from home was milk. We paid 25 cents a week for milk, and my mother inserted a quarter into our lunch bags every Monday, along with strict instructions requiring immediate delivery of the money to the nuns upon our arrival at school. Milk was delivered from a local dairy every day, and from the window of Sister Christine’s classroom we could see the dairy van as it pulled into the schoolyard and squealed to a halt outside of the almost entirely unused cafeteria. The driver would then unload cases of small milk cartons onto the granite stairs that led from the schoolyard to the doors of the cafeteria, where they would sit and sweat in the beating California sun until the school janitor would bring the cases inside and place them in coolers until the lunch hour arrived.
I was fond of milk, but could not drink it warm. To me, drinking warm milk was torture because it always resulted in unpleasant gastric consequences that I quickly discovered were uncondusive to the closed classroom environment that was so carefully stewarded by the Sisters of Notre Dame. The nuns also required the consumption of every drop of milk on each and every day. As a result, from the first grade on when the dairy van rumbled into the school yard each day, I prayed the most ardent prayers of my young life. I prayed to every Saint I could think of. I prayed to Mary. I prayed to Jesus. I prayed to God. I even prayed to St. Cornelius, thinking that as the patron saint of the school, he would take particular notice of me and cause the janitor to move the milk out of the intense sunlight before it got too warm. The janitor, an ancient relic named Mr. Barnes, did not suffer from a routine schedule, so the milk could sit in the sun for up to an hour on any given day, regardless of the outside temperature and the number of prayers I completed. On those days, my dismay would escalate with each passing moment as lunch approached. My only line of defense from that point forward was to gulp the warm milk down as quickly as possible and pray further that any audible consequences would “pass” before the end of the lunch period, during which my sounds and identity might be concealed behind the violent strains of John Phillip Sousa.
Looking back, I don’t know how I lived through first grade without developing an ulcer. Fortunately, as I matriculated through second grade and third grade, alimentary maturity began to set in and I was slowly delivered from my daily brush with gastric distress. In 1972 my father was transferred to the Pentagon and we moved from Pt. Molate to Alexandria, Virginia where our new school, St. Mary’s, used a milk delivery protocol that delivered ice-cold milk to the lunch line every day. In addition, the students ate together in the basement cafeteria, without censure against speaking and in the total absence of John Phillip Sousa. Virginia was nothing like California. We did not live on the beach and there was no eucalyptus forest. It was the Land of Cold Milk, however, and I loved living there too!
Photo courtesy of jwgreen on Flickr.com.
Patrick Moore is a good friend of the Catholic Foodie. I am grateful for his humorous article.