Friday, July 10, 2015

The Lady With The Long Black Hair

Back in the early 1960s, when I was but a wee tyke, my mommy signed me up for a pre-school program at Bay School, the “Little Red Schoolhouse” tucked into the eucalyptus grove along Highway 1 just south of Carmel. This 19th Century one-room schoolhouse had been revitalized several years earlier by a colorful woman named Rosa Doner, who had a way of bringing joy, adventure, and just the right amount of discipline to what is now called early childhood education. Back then we called it nursery school. Parents were part of the program, and Rosa required every mother to participate in the operation one day a week.

It was here I learned how to paint with brushes and fingers. I learned to play the triangle and tambourine. I observed that raccoons had human-like hands. I learned to chew the sour grass that grew alongside the playground. I saw first-hand where wool came from and that the school's sheep looked funny naked. And I found out that popcorn made me throw up and I refused to touch the stuff again for at least five years. Rosa Doner, who we always referred to by her full name, also taught us a couple of songs, one about a little acorn brown and another about an eensy weensy spider. All very important lessons.

I'm not sure exactly how long I attended the Little Red School House as my internal chronometer was not yet developed, but I believe it was somewhere between one and a half to two years. I was there long enough to know it well as a one-room schoolhouse, and I clearly remember watching the annex being built and my excitement the first time I stepped inside the new part. From then on Bay School was a two-room schoolhouse.

It was in the new part where a small group of little chairs were arranged in a semi-circle and some of us kids were seated. In a chair facing us was a pretty lady with long black hair who played guitar and taught us songs. One of the first we learned was a lullaby called “Hush Little Baby.” Then we learned one about an old lady who swallowed a fly. I was particularly interested in this one because I knew flies were bad. I can still remember my thought process as the lady with long black hair unfolded the song for the first time.
“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly...,"
Uh, oh.
“I don't know why she swallowed that fly...."

She probably had her mouth open and it flew in.
“Perhaps she'll die."
Yup, this confirms it, flies are bad and swallowing one may end your life. Gotta be careful around flies!
Next, the old lady swallowed a bird to catch the fly. This seemed like a reasonable remedy. Certainly better than doing nothing. But then she swallowed a cat to catch the bird, and a dog to catch the cat, on up the food chain. I could tell this was not a sensible course of action by the time she got to the goat, but it was an amusing song anyway.

Next the pretty lady with the long black hair taught us “I've been working on the railroad.” Oh boy, I already knew that one! My daddy often sang it to me in the rocking chair before bed. But the lady with the long black hair did it differently. Daddy sung the “old banjo” part as “Fee-fi-fiddly-i-o” whereas the lady with the long black hair sang it “Plink, plank, plinkity-plank-plunk” which confused me. I wasn't sure which way was the right way. I thought daddy's way sounded better, but the other way was coming from a teacher, the definitive voice of educational authority. Her way must be the way the rest of the world sings it, and thus my daddy's way was the wrong way. That disturbed me a bit. One night I shared the plink, plank version with my daddy, and he didn't care for it. “Where'd you hear THAT?” he said. I told him that the lady at school taught it that way. He scoffed at her version and I decided I could accept daddy's version if I wanted to.

We had several more singing sessions with the lady with the long black hair, and I know we learned more than three songs, but those three were the only ones that stuck with me.

Somewhere between songs one girl noticed the lady with long black hair had pierced ears. “Did it hurt?” the girl asked. The lady with long black hair said a nurse did it, and used ice to make her ear lobe numb so she wouldn't feel anything. I must have found that bit of information interesting and potentially useful enough to file it in my long-term memory. A bit of science with the singing lessons.

The lady with the long black hair was in the background quite a bit, but outside of those lessons in song, I only have one other clear memory of her. One day Rosa Doner announced that the entire school was going to take a hike the next day to see a cross. I knew from Sunday School that a cross was something important, so I was eager to see one in person. We kids marched two by two, employing the buddy system (very important on adventures!) along the trail below the fancy houses of Carmel Meadows. Towards the end we climbed a small hill where, at the top, stood a twenty foot wooden cross.

I knew exactly where we were. We were overlooking the lagoon at Carmel River Beach (which in those days we called “lagoon beach”). I had been on that beach, and waded in that lagoon, many times. I wondered why I had never noticed the cross before. I certainly noticed it from then on!

It was quite windy that day, and I found it uncomfortable. I complained about it to the lady with the long black hair. She was sitting on the ground with her back against the cross, her hands wrapped around her raised knees. She invited me to sit on the ground with her, saying “It's not windy down here.” I did as she suggested and sat down. She was right (another early science lesson) it was much less windy near the ground. But the ground was uncomfortable and a little too boring for a four year old full of energy. I don't think I stayed there more than a minute before I was back up and walking around, ready to go back to the school house. 

About 34 years later, on a November morning in 1998, I woke up and spontaneously began singing:
I'm a little acorn brown,
Lying on the cold cold ground,
Everybody steps on me,
That is why I'm cracked you see,
I'm a nut, [click, click]
I'm a nut, [click, click]
I'm a nut, [click, click]
I'm a nut.
Out loud.

That's kinda weird, I thought. It was one of the first songs Rosa Doner taught us, and I hadn't thought of it for years. Why did it suddenly come to me now? A few minutes later I had my answer. I opened the morning's Herald and found Rosa Doner's obituary.


A public memorial service was held on the playground of the Little Red School House. Graham crackers and juice were served for communion under the canopy of fragrant eucalyptus trees. I didn't meet anyone from my class, but there were several folks there who were just a little older or younger. At the end of the ceremony it was announced that orders were being taken for commemorative shirts. I ordered two sweatshirts, one for me and one to send to my mother in Oregon.

A week or two later I went back to pick up my order. A lady somewhat younger than myself handled the transaction. She asked about my connection to the school, and I told her I was a graduate from the class of 1964. “Oh, you were here during the days of Joan Baez,” she said, “that must have been special.” I said “Well, I don't remember her specifically, but I've been told she was a volunteer here at about that time.” Then without thinking I added “But I do remember a pretty lady with long black hair who played guitar and taught us songs.” She looked at me with a knowing twinkle in her eye as the realization suddenly dawned on me....

“Oh, of course!" 

Now, I had known from a very young age that Joan Baez was a famous singer, that she had some connection to Bay School, and that she was Rosa Doner's neighbor. But it took me until I was 39 years old to realize she was the lady with the long black hair! Soon after, I learned that she had recorded "Hush Little Baby" and when I had a chance to hear it, it was just as I remembered her singing it to us in that semi-circle in the Bay School annex. And speaking of the annex, I recently learned that she helped helped raise the funds for its construction by performing a benefit concert at Sunset Auditorium on June 22, 1963.*

But I wasn't the only guy who failed to recognize her true identity. In the mid 1980s I worked at Brinton's, a home oriented department store at the mouth of Carmel Valley. One of my co-workers was an elderly English gentleman named Stafford Hook. He occasionally spoke of his days when he was a salesman of British luxury cars, names like Rolls Royce and Jaguar. But I didn't hear this story from him. I first read it in the Monterey Peninsula Herald's Professor Toro column, for it had become a part of local folklore.

In the early 1960s British Motors was located on Del Monte Avenue in Monterey, right across from Lake El Estero. One day the lady with the long black hair came in, on a bit of a whim as one source tells it, and she was attracted to a silver Jaguar XKE. She decided then and there that she wanted to buy it. Stafford didn't think such a young lady would have the means to purchase such an expensive automobile, and he didn't take her very seriously. But the young lady with long black hair wrote out a check for the amount of $6,000 (almost $48,000 in today's money) and presented it to him. Still skeptical, Stafford phoned the bank to confirm she did indeed have sufficient funds to cover the purchase. After she drove away his amused co-workers, who recognized the famous folksinger right away, explained to Stafford who she was.

When I was five or six years old I, too, acquired a Jaguar XKE. It said “Matchbox” on the bottom. My oldest sister told me “That's the kind of car Joan Baez drives.” At the moment she said that I immediately pictured it parked at Bay School, even though I couldn't remember actually seeing an XKE parked there. So clearly, even at that age I knew who Joan Baez was and that she was connected to my school in some way, but I was still far from the realization that I had met her and sang with her.

When I was 25 I had one more face-to-face encounter with Joan Baez. I was working the cash register at Brinton's when she came to the counter to purchase a basket. This time I recognized her immediately. I believe that by then she was living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I assumed she was visiting Carmel to attend Bay Day, the annual open house at Bay School, which was happening just a mile down the road that very day. Yet I still had not made the personal connection. If I knew then what I know now I would have introduced myself as one of the kids she taught songs to two decades earlier.

In the unlikely event that she and I ever cross paths again, I shall certainly take advantage of the opportunity to thank her for some of my fondest childhood memories.