While listening to the BBC broadcast of Choral Evensong, I am reminded of my days at the Patterson School for Boys in Happy Valley, North Carolina. It was a boy’s school run by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina and also by a headmaster named George Wiese or “Cap’” as he was popularly known. “Cap” because he had been a captain in the Salvation Army Corps, a necessarily protestant organization. Since my days at Patterson I have aligned myself with the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, a return to catholic thought and practices, i.e., what is known as “High Church” or "smells and bells". I am not going to discuss religion here, but rather my days in that beautiful valley so long ago.
Patterson School was nestled at the foot of a small mountain range just across from the Yadkin River, where, incidentally, I encountered my first cottonmouth water moccasin while swimming. It was my last swim in uncharted waters where I could not see the bottom. Patterson was a typical boys’ school in the mid-20th century south. Most boys were there because of some problem at home. They were either delinquents, misfits or idiots. Sometimes all three. I was there to escape an alcoholic father and his cold, mean second wife. And I was glad of the refuge the school provided. Yes, I was “glad when they said unto me, we will go unto prep school.” My translation!
My principal happiness came from the fact that it was a church school. I love church, mostly because that’s where you find pipe organs and music. Usually pipe organs, but sometimes electronic horrors. But most important, I just love church and ritual and the King James English. So the 1926 Book of Common Prayer, originally written in the 16th century by Mr. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and later burned as a heretic by Mary I, became my daily friend and ritual at Patterson School.
Our days began at 6am when the electricity was turned on in the dorm. It was turned off every night at 9 to make certain that none of us stayed awake listening to radios or sneaking small lights under the covers of the bed to read. I had a battery-operated radio and spent many a night listening to “Music In The Night” from WCBS-AM in New York: glorious classical music from midnight to dawn every night and sometimes even a complete Broadway show album. I spent much time under the covers and most of my money on batteries.
On rising with the coming of the light, we prepared for the morning rituals. If you had ‘work detail’ as a waiter in the dining room you went out into the cold mountain morning at 6:30 to eat your breakfast and get your tables ready to serve. Many times I walked that path to the dining room and, looking across the valley, would see little streams of smoke rising from the woods. I thought it was poetry seeing such a bucolic wonder amid all that beautiful scenery, and only later realized the smoke was from stills producing demon alcohol! Happy Valley was part of the path of the famous Thunder Road which today is known as NASCAR.
The boys came to breakfast at 7:30. Food was plentiful at Patterson and most of it came from the farm which had originally sported a dairy and employed some students in a work-study environment. In my day we only realized the benefits of the farm and the dairy and did not have to slop the hogs, as it were.
Following breakfast you prepared for classes but not before the entire student body went to Morning Prayer in the Chapel. Here I was elected to play the organ for the service and became fully accustomed to the rituals and practices of the Episcopal Church. Morning Prayer consists of psalms, prayers and holy scripture set aside for each day of the liturgical year. At school we always sang the Canticles for Morning Prayer and some hymns. And I got to play, so I was very happy.
The Prayer Book is so organized that you will read the entire Bible if you follow all the readings for a full year. This Morning Prayer service also served as assembly for the school where Cap Wiese would pontificate any news he had to impart to the student body. The service was conducted by The Rev. Henry D. Moore, a kind and benevolent young priest who was also the supervisor of the junior school dormitory. It was Fr. Moore who prepared me for confirmation into the Church. I had long wanted to become an Episcopalian and was planning to do so with my mother, but she died before we could complete the switch. So I rejoiced in the opportunity to make the transition at Patterson. In later years I thought it odd that the school never contacted my father to ask his permission for this change in my life. But change I did, happily.
All morning was spent in class and noon brought a return to the dining room and lunch. We were joined here by faculty and wives of faculty who, as part of their pay, got to eat the fruit of the fields of Patterson.
After lunch on Wednesday was choir practice. This was conducted by Cap Wiese’s wife, naturally Mrs. Wiese. She was a woman afflicted. Cap often said that she had more wires in her than a radio. She only had one good kidney and it had dropsy. She was regularly taken to Charlotte for kidney treatments. I had a special connection to her because her mother had been the Dean of Women at my mother’s college, Wesleyan Conservatory in Macon. Her name was Lula Comer and I often visited with her up a the Wiese’s house at the top of the hill behind the school. Being up there was like Valhalla and Cap Wiese and his wife were Wotan and Mrs. Fricka Wotan looking down on us mortals below. (Or maybe she was “Erda, The Green-Face Torso”? I borrow from the immortal Anna Russell.)
Mrs. Wiese conducted choir practice and usually played for Sunday services except when the dropsy was on her and I was called into action at a moment’s notice. Jimmy Farnsworth, my friend and tenor and I gave her fits at all times during the choir rehearsals. We were certain that we could do everything better than everyone else, typical for teenagers, and we probably could have, but were rarely given the chance. Later on, we made our chance happen. But that is another tale.
Afternoons were spent in classes followed by sports or activity in your room of your own choosing. I rode a horse up into the mountain twice a week. Yes, there actually was a brood mare large enough to support me and off we would go into the woods and I would sing “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” at the top of my voice and pretend I was in a production of “Oklahoma!”. Yes, even at that early age I was destined for a life in show business.
After dinner came the hated Study Hall. If you were on Honor Roll you got to study in your room. But the rest of us slobs were corralled into a large classroom and made to study from 7 to 8:30. And you had to study, you couldn’t be caught reading a Tennessee Williams play or a Harold Robbins novel. Somehow I managed both.
It was on the way back to the dorm following study hall that we had Evening Prayer in the Chapel. This time the service was voluntary, but I always went because it was done by candle light and I got to play the organ once again. It is where I learned the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimitis and all the wonderful evening hymns of the church. It is such a pity that both Morning and Evening Prayer are no longer part of the ritual of the Episcopal Church. And that’s yet another story. There is such a beauty in Cramner’s translation of the Nunc Dimitis from St. Luke ii, vs. 29: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”
And the most beautiful prayer in the whole of the Prayer Book:
“O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen.”
That is my memory of Patterson School and my wonderful days in that happy and beautiful valley.
C. 2008 Richard C. Wall