School picnics were time for games and treats

The entire community gathered for a day of three-legged races, ball games and ice cream — if the weather co-operated

A few days before the big event, the caretaker was busily rounding up boards for the makeshift booth. The sound of his hammer as he nailed it together was a major distraction, especially when the teacher opened the windows for some fresh June air.

I could picture the boxes of chocolate bars, the suckers, the balloons, the icy cold bottles of orange soda, the strawberry ice cream cones. Who cared a fig about Canadian history on the eve of the annual school picnic? Not me.

If providence smiled, the day was hot and sunny. If it rained, cancellation of the picnic created the most downcast, grumpy bunch of students a teacher ever had to face.

On the other hand, trying to contain a classroom of overly excited pupils was a challenge of a different sort the morning of the picnic. A tangle of scarves retrieved from the box marked “Lost and Found” indicated the possibilities of a three-legged race. The earthy smell of used gunnysacks piled at the back door must surely mean a sack race. A ball of twine would mark the start and finish lines. A collection of bats and balls and gloves awaited the ball games.

Every time the teacher opened and closed her desk drawer, I heard the prize money jingling in its jar. First place in the wheelbarrow race and my friend and I could load up on treats.

The storekeeper was already stocking the booth. I could hear his pickup idling as he pulled into the shade of the fir trees along the west side of the school. He and a friend would be unloading the red and white Coca Cola cooler filled with ice and soda pop, while his wife arranged the candy display.

Come noon hour, I wolfed down my jam sandwiches and headed outside to find my mother. She was with the older women who were already fussing about the arrangements for the picnic supper. Farmers were cutting lengths of the binder twine for the finish lines, and uncoiling a long rope for the tug-o-war.

The whistle blew, the picnic was underway, and the afternoon was one long blur of races and shouts and cheers, interspersed with ice cream and candy and laughter and the occasional skinned knee. Mothers clucked over grass stains and sticky hands, flushed faces and tangled hair. The victors proudly wore their prize ribbons and nibbled on candy bars, while the losers among us licked our penny suckers for consolation.

And then it was time to spread blankets on the grass and fill our paper plates with food spread out buffet style on long makeshift tables — yellow potato salads and hard-boiled eggs in brown shells, full circles of bologna and homemade bread and butter and green onions and shiny red radishes and cakes and pies and ice cream and more ice cream.

The men folk groaned in mock discomfort as they began warming up for the final ball game against farmers from the adjoining district. The umpire was the local cattle buyer, a big, fat jolly fellow who was alternately cheered and booed when he cheated a little for the home team. Whenever a fly ball disappeared into the government ditch alongside the school yard it was automatically deemed a home run because nobody wanted to get their feet wet trying to retrieve it.

As I sat on the sidelines with my friends, comparing sunburns and reliving the excitement of the day, I concluded it had been a good afternoon, even if I hadn’t won a first prize ribbon.

Next year my legs will be ever so much longer, so then I’ll win for sure…. What I didn’t know is that I was destined to remain relatively short, that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.”

(Ecclesiastes 9:11)

In other words, life is no picnic.

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