Janice and Mindy Kaiser

Carolyn Harmon’s momma, Janice, and her baby sister, Mindy, in front of one of the locked gates at Garfield Elementary School, in the early 1970s.

It seems the scariest events happen closest to home.

Garfield Elementary School was about a mile from my childhood estate in Heath, Ohio. The base of the school’s property was met by a gravel path, which at the time seemed endless, guiding us up and up to the blue and white building with multiple doghouse dormers.

At first I was in love. In addition to the gravel path, the pristine school paved the way for new ideas, friendships and opportunities. It was there that I crafted my first corn-husk doll, also learning that corn cobs can draw blood when meeting one’s head.

The activity took us across the street to McDonald’s Farm, also our sweet corn provider, harvesting our materials required for the dolls. During the activity, some of the students found joy in blindly throwing the corn cobs over the high stalks, hitting some of our heads on the way down causing random screaming.

While hospitalization was not required, it came close. It also brought out the temper from our art teacher, shaking the students violently through clenched teeth causing her auburn hairpiece to fly through the fall whirl.

It was also the place I received my first part in a play, when a very embarrassing incident took the importance. During my recitation I heard laughing. My skirt was tucked into the top of my underwear, something that happened when I was in the bathroom moments before. Who could remember the brilliant thespian when such a display of vulgarity competed?

From without, the school seemed innocent enough — windows decorated with the fall leaves we collected and ironed between pieces of wax paper. But the danger within, feeding his fire in the boiler room, was hidden.

He had two hands, one without fingers, and his height was as small as some of us. And then there was the thick accent from a far away land, probably a place where they ate children.

We imagined the worst of our janitor — King of the Halls — as his frustrations in life were forced upon us through his ghastly exhaling of ire. The mere sight of us brought out his monster seen punching its way out very much like Dr. David Bruce Banner’s chest when the Hulk appeared.

It became a place of oppression, him lurking in the halls or in a far corner outlined by the burning ash of a lit cigarette. The powerful fear came ripping through my body settling into my gut at every sight — avoiding him until I had to face him.

The halls were sealed off at night by iron bars rolling on a track from the walls and were locked in place on the other side, creating cages.

One night I had forgotten the boots required for a field trip, leaving early the next morning to Dillon Dam. Without the boots we were warned, we were forbidden to enter the chilled water with our fellow classmates to study the biology.

These were the family boots shared by all five children — rubber and green with a felt lining bunched up in the toe from sweat, water and mud, making a home for many unidentified organisms.

Nearly dark, I crept into the school hoping against hope the gate was not locked. It was, keeping me inches from my locker — if only my arms were a few inches longer, I prayed.

Then I smelled him — the smoke. My stomach lurched and it was fight-or-flight time. Holding my breath I prayed, causing the reminder of skills cultivated from living in a large family model. Realizing I had fought larger demons than this tiny man, I waited, fingernails digging into my wet palms.

He bellowed with his nasty scowl, “What are you doing here?!” I explained that I left my boots in the locker. He said I had to go, and then with ferocity ripped open the gate, and my fear competed with the desire to get my boots. Swallowing hard, I ran beside him, knowing I may never see my family again. Listening for the gate to slide back, I thought he might lock me in.

Grabbing my boots and slamming my locker, I ran back by him, sure that I saw a red light in his eyes, a tip of a fang and his forked tongue licking the tobacco bits from his lips.

After the fear subsided, 12 hours later, thinking back through I realized his kindness and his risk. Allowing the retrieval of my boots was against the school rules; it was a kindness.

I started seeing this man in a different light, and somehow discovered he was from Vietnam. Without knowing what happened to his fingers, after that small favor, it was easier to feel sad for him. What happened? Was he a veteran? Did he hurt his hand trying to save a baby from the mouth of a whale?

The late author Samuel Butler said, “Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.”

Still a student; and that is all.

News Editor Carolyn Harmon can be reached at charmon@rrdailyherald.com or 252-410-7058.

News Editor Carolyn Harmon can be reached at charmon@rrdailyherald.com or 252-410-7058.