The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Schoolmaster

By John Hassell Yeatts © 1983

Issue: November, 1983

schoolmaster 1A familiar scene at Vesta for many years was merchant Fred Clifton & his postmistress wife, Selona.His merry blue eyes twinkle and a warm and engaging smile wreathes his weathered face as he settles himself into his favorite chair to discuss his favorite subject, education; for education has been his life, even during the years when he was a prominent and prosperous merchant. It’s not possible to talk very long with Fred Clifton of Vesta, Virginia and not learn something new. His quick mind is an encyclopedic computer of knowledge and facts that are often emphasized with humorous yarns and stories. He’s a pleasure to know. And this writer has known him for more than half a hundred years.

He first arrived at our old four room school - grades 1 through 10 - at Meadows of Dan driving a rather sporty 1930 Chevrolet Coupe. He was attired in a handsome three piece suit with a matching visor cap that topped him off very much like a typical English School Master. It was the first day of school in the autumn of 1932 and his reputation had preceded him. He was known to be a “no nonsense” teacher and principal who had only one rule; “Do Right” and his style of teaching “doing right” was so gentle and subtle that one scarcely knew when he was being taught, if, in fact, it became necessary.

We had become a collection of somewhat undisciplined, rag-tag youths who sought forcefully (among other things) to attract the attention of the teenage females in our midst. This sometimes led to trouble. We didn’t consider it a day well spent if we didn’t earn the punishment of one of the young lady teachers. The punishment was usually mild and the rewards of having pushed some attractive young teacher near the brink kept the day, in our opinion, from being totally lost. We weren’t actually very mean, no muggings and such. But we were, indeed, quite mischievous and disruptive. We needed the grip of a firmer hand, but we dreaded mightily the coming of Mr. Fred Clifton.

schoolmaster 2Private Fred Clifton. He once blew reveille and taps for his Doughboy buddies during World War I.But here he was and we knew a new era had dawned. We discarded our cigarettes and chewing tobacco and actually tried to smell, as well as act, innocent. We didn’t fool him at all. At the first assembly he called for the reading of a passage of Scripture, led us in the Lord’s Prayer and made a short impressive speech. “I’m assuming that each of you knows the difference between right and wrong,” he told us, “And we aren’t going to have a long listing of rules and regulations. We are, however, going to line up, weather permitting, each morning raise our Nation’s flag and pledge allegiance to that flag. And then we’re going to march in an orderly fashion into the hall, go to our respective rooms, and take our seats at our respective desks, and we’re going to do this with a minimum of noise and horse-play.” We did just that and we did it with regularity, only falling weather prevented it.

But we couldn’t properly pledge allegiance to our flag without a flagpole. So, Mr. Clifton selected several of us young bucks and we piled into a homemade school bus and we went shopping and chopping. Our future flagpole was finally located, in the form of a young, tall locust on some of Mr. Tump Spangler’s land on the mountain side of Light Ridge. Well sir, we finally got the sapling back to the school ground where we commenced a masterful job of peeling and chopping and sanding and smoothing, and I don’t know what all, and then Moss Spangler added the final touches of glint and paint. It was smooth as any aluminum cast flag pole is today; and how we did love that flagpole and the large flag that flew from its mast. When an interloper cut the flag rope one night, Tom Spangler became more enraged, possibly, than the rest, and volunteered to shinny up the pole and rethread the rope through the pulley. An almost impossible task, yes, but Tom did it. He believed in our new school and our new principal.

We had our share of basketball and baseball and always there to coach us, was Fred Clifton. But we also had lots and lots of books and study periods and we had plenty of classroom instruction. Our science laboratory was next to nothing, but we made do. We improvised and we improvised. Mr. Clifton brought an empty gallon oil can and we heated it on the stove, thus expanding the air and allowing some of it to escape. Then he plugged the hole and allowed it to cool. To our utter amazement, the sides caved in. He had just demonstrated the weight of air. Then he taught us more about air pressure and how it affects the weather. Then we were taught a lesson in sanitation; we somehow earned enough money to purchase a gravity-flow drinking fountain and abandoned our old zinc cooler. We had no electricity and didn’t know we needed it. We lighted our dramatic productions sometimes for the P.T.A. with Coleman lanterns. You bet we made do. Sometimes we took long, organized hikes and had wiener roasts. And Mr. Clifton shared the fun and frolic. But always, there was the proper aloofness to insure proper discipline. He might be laughing and he might be playing, and he might be telling us stories. But you could bet your bottom dollar that he was always teaching.

It was not uncommon to see him touring the playground during recess with one or more small boys close at his side. They were the ones for not “doing right” had been sentenced, for a spell, to not stray for more than 20 feet from his side except to visit the latrine. When he hit the baseball and ran, the boys ran at his side. The boys usually looked grim, but seldom in pain. They became better friends for having walked close to Mr. Fred’s side. Most of us accepted promotion with mixed feelings of joy and sadness. We hated to leave Meadows of Dan School with Mr. Clifton on the podium. Probably he shared the same feeling.

Today this kindly gentleman who calls himself a “Full Stock Hillbilly” says he never really wanted to do much else than teach school. He was a bugler for a while in the U.S. Army and he once studied pre-dentistry. But his heart was really in education. He doesn’t like some of what he sees in education today; “Too lax; Too much extracurricular activity that doesn’t prepare a student for life; and not enough dedication from all sides.” But we’ll survive he thinks. He has an unwavering faith in human destiny.

Standing on a high hill between Vesta and Meadows of Dan is a large flint rock shaped somewhat like a giant arrowhead. It bears the inscription of “The Cliftons Fred and Lona.” This marks the spot where Lona is already at her final rest and where Fred, who is now 88, will also be someday. But this is much more than a common field stone. It is a monument to the unpretentiousness and sincerity of a “Full Stock Hillbilly” who wanted nothing greater than to leave his little corner of the world a better place than he found it; right on Fred Clifton. You’ve done more than your share.