This morning going through the 20 mile- per-hour zone in front of my town’s grade school I watched the little kids walking along the sidewalk with their enormous backpacks. Little kids, first graders; what on earth is in those bags? And the older kids look like they are setting out on a serious trek, and they are just going to school. Maybe it is full of sports equipment; it can’t all be books. There were a few kids with bikes; besides the packs on their backs there was a bag fixed over their back fender. It looked stuffed too. (It must be sneakers). I asked one of my grandkids once, he was maybe eight or nine, what was in his bag. Were there books? Food? Water bottles? The cat? He shrugged. “Shoes,” he said. “Mostly. And my baseball glove.”
When we were that age, we biked all over the neighborhood, to school with books and afterward to the park with our softballs or tennis racquets, and what wouldn’t fit in the wire basket on the handlebars didn’t go. I think we probably had some cookies crumbling away in a pocket somewhere. Maybe a paper bag with some penny candies in it was as close as we got to a backpack. And a baseball bat just got held. There was also a flat seat on the back of the bike, over the rear fender, on which you could tie books or whatever, or a person could be toted when the need arose.
When we were in grade school we had something called a satchel, drab brown, with a flap and two buckles. I think there was a pencil and ruler pocket on it somewhere, and it served to hold our writing tablets and maybe a book. It looked, and was, a pretty important piece of equipment. Remember writing tablets? They came in various degrees of simplicity. A No. 1 for the youngest children, with widely spaced lines, then a No. 2, and a No. 3, the lines coming progressively closer together as the child mastered his letters and began to write in script. Penmanship! With a bottle of ink, and a pen. A wooden tray holding many individual bottles of ink was passed around and on our desktop was the ready-made hole to receive the little bottle. When we were ready with our pens we copied the letters in script that our teacher had put up on the blackboard in front of us. We did a couple of lines of an “e” or an “m” or a “p” — all of the letters, over and over. We had a pencil box which held our pens and pen holder, some HB pencils, an eraser and a tiny pencil sharpener. (I remember one year when we got our new school supplies in the fall, there were pencil boxes, red ones, with the logo Coca Cola stenciled on in gold — wow! I think we really said that.) Since our exercises all looked the same, intentionally so, it’s interesting to speculate how a child developed an individual style. When my granddaughter wrote me a thank-you note the other day (in an envelope with a stamp), she said, “Sorry for my terrible handwriting,” that it was the first time she had “written” in months, and must have “multiple hand-writing disorder.” What she has instead is agility on a keyboard.
But supplies are essential if you have a mind that way. And when you are dealing with ferries and oceans and wind and weather there is always the possibility of — something. I have to go off-Island tomorrow for a couple of errands and for this short journey I’ve gotten the little canvas cooler out to pack with the usual to get an early ferry. The usual is: water, some coffee, an apple, cheese, crackers, a ham sandwich, cookies, a little bottle of sherry — the latter a habit from the time we lived in England and that’s what was in our (tiny) backpacks. Also my needlepoint, a couple of books, my cell phone charger and two newspapers I haven’t read. I like to hold books and turn pages; I don’t own a Kindle. “You’ll have six books (or a hundred) in your Kindle right there with you, you won’t have to lug books around any more,” says an exasperated friend. I don’t read six books on a day trip. Sometimes I take a toothbrush. The lingering idea of “if I miss the last ferry” is in the back of all our minds. It only has to happen once, pulling up to the SSA in a black late-night storm and seeing the boat tied up, solid as a piece of the land. Battened down. Canceled. People looking blank, a few heading to the Leeside, some just driving away. Ferry riders know to have some supplies tucked away somewhere. A blanket, some apple juice and pretzels . . . just in case. Water. Like I said, it only has to happen once. And we pack for it. What a lot of gear we all still have. What clever ways of carrying it all: the backpacks, the many-pocketed carryalls, the water-bottle pouch, the vests with nine pockets and two hidden security zips, these latter probably derived from the real safari clothes of wild game hunters of yesteryear. Pockets for bullets I suppose. Steel reinforced handbags, the laptop, on and on.
Oh, for the days of a wire bike basket; you knew where you were going (usually), where everything was, and there wasn’t much, and the basket held it all.
Jeanne Hewett is a fabric artist and freelance writer who lives in Edgartown.