Chapter I – The Players
Friendship – Spring 1907
The rooster had not yet crowed to awaken the Polk family, but nine-year-old Charlie was already out of bed preparing to begin his morning chores. As usual he put on his clothes under a mountain of covers for a more comfortable transition from warm bed to the icy cold morning air. His reason for getting an early start was to complete his assigned duties before the five-mile walk to school and, more importantly, avoid another morning whipping from his father.
Every day, no matter the weather, his job was to feed the chickens, slop the hogs and milk the cows. Then he made one last stop in the kitchen where he dumped whatever he could find into a paper sack for his lunch. Today’s fare consisted of an apple, a hunk of hoop cheese and soda crackers. Soon after, as the sun was rising over the Shenandoah Valley, he began his journey to Stover School.
Unlike most children his age, Charlie Polk loved to go to school because it provided a refuge away from the hard work and abuse of home life. It also afforded him an opportunity to interact with his friends. Severe weather and sickness never kept him away. In fact, the only time he missed was during planting and harvest when he was required to labor from sunup to sundown.
Even taking advantage of a shortcut through the woods it still took him two hours to make the trip but he was never late and sometimes he was the first to arrive. Charlie dearly loved the land through which he walked and, although he had never been anywhere else, he believed that the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia must be the most beautiful place on earth.
The dogwoods were in full bloom as he followed the path through the forest where he could smell the smoke from a distant fire and crows signaled his arrival. He was happy to see Bailey Creek was no longer iced over, and he was always on the lookout for arrowheads left by the Valley's earliest inhabitants. His teacher told him if he found any fossils or seashells to bring them to share with the class.
Miss Beulah, the teacher at Stover School, taught that the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia was once an ocean and that the surrounding mountains were its shoreline. Conversely, his granny insisted that the region had a Biblical origin, formed by the receding waters of the great flood depicted in Genesis. He figured the debate could be settled once and for all if he could just find a seashell.
Once out of the woods he slid down a steep embankment to the dirt road that would take him to his destination. The log cabin schoolhouse stood at the intersection of Wissler Road and Orkney Grade where children from Edinburg to Mt. Jackson and the surrounding countryside received a first through fifth-grade education.
Some of the older children were allowed to ride a horse or a mule to school while others traveled with their parents in horse-drawn buggies or wagons. Many of them, like Charlie, walked to school and when they met up with their friends it resulted in great fun and occasional mischief. Old man Bauserman liked never to get rid of the stench caused by the dead skunk he found in his storage shed.
Standing on the front steps, Miss Beulah shaded her eyes from the morning sun with one hand while ringing a bell with the other. “Got a lot to do. It's ciphering day,” which resulted in immediate groans from the students heading to their desks.
For the next 3 hours, they worked on arithmetic that was, next to recess, Charlie's best subject. As the lunch hour neared, Charlie's stomach began to growl prompting some giggles from his classmates and a stern frown from the teacher.
When Miss Beulah dismissed them for lunch, Charlie and his friends sat together on the ground at their favorite meeting spot under a tree where the schoolyard ended at Stover Cemetery.
“Teacher says we need to work real hard in school, so we don't end up like that fella,” said one of them as a grave-digger grunted and heaved another shovel load of dirt.
Ten-year-old Franklin Hickman Wissler III, son of Franklin Erb Wissler, Jr. and Caroline Ann Hickman Wissler was undoubtedly not destined for such menial physical labor. He was, after all, born into a family of means and lived in the lap of luxury at Strathmore, one of Virginia's most prestigious farms. Nonetheless, Frank never flaunted his privileged status. He fit in just fine as one of the gang.
“Ain't worried about ending up like no grave-digger,” replied Mable. “Ain't never been any girl grave-diggers and I don't expect there ever will be none,” she said admiring the growing pile of dirt.
Mable Shown was the ten-year-old daughter of Moses and Mary Shown, who lived next to St. Mary's Pine Church, where her daddy worked as the caretaker of the church and its cemetery. “There is men's work and there's women's work. That's men's work.”
“Hey, Mister! How deep you going to dig?” yelled Charlie snatching a pickle from Frank's hand.