ONE morning in February a Boston radio station took 35 minutes to read off the no-school announcements, and it hadn't started to snow yet. This shows the mass credence accorded the ``whether'' forecasters, who otherwise have a record of 135 percent error. There came a lull in the recitation, somewhere between Marblehead and Methuen, during which a travel agency sold vacations in Bermuda, and I said to my perennial breakfast companion, ``Remember how the Barlow boys told us if we'd have school?''
School, in the days of the Barlow boys, was never called off because of snow all by itself. There had to be a reason - maybe the teacher couldn't get her door open, or perhaps the janitor couldn't nurse the furnace along. If any such reason developed, then a no-school signal would be rung on the town fire bell, and we'd all stay home and drive our mothers up the wall. The fire bell, for no-school, would ring at 6 o'clock - any other time meant a fire.
Most towns, then, had a hose house, as did ours. The engine(s) stood there ready, and on the back was a tower for drying hose. Wet hose returning from a blaze would be hoist into the tower to drain and dry, and after a couple of days would be folded back into the pumper for next time. Atop the tower was the bell - one of the four bells in our town at that time. The Baptist and Congregational (our only) churches had bells, and there was one on the ``old'' high school building. The high school bell had been cracked for 50 years, the clapper was long gone, and the building was now a shoe shop. And the fire bell was first of all the fire bell - if anything caught fire somebody would come running, charge through the hose house, and yank the bell rope until the laddies arrived to crank the fire engine into a response. Those are sometimes called ``the good old days.'' But if the weather were propitious (meaning mean enough to favor us youngsters), that bell became the no-school harbinger, and we had to open the shed door at 6 o'clock and listen.
But at our end of town the prevailing wind in a good northeast snowstorm would cut off the bell before it reached us, so we often couldn't have heard it any way. That's where the Barlow boys came in. They were twins, strapping lads, and lived four houses beyond us from the bell. Upon any morning that might bring no-school, we could look out about 6:05 o'clock and see the Barlow boys wading hip-deep in snow on their way to the hose house to inquire if anybody had rung the bell. The fact that the hose house was a quarter of a mile beyond the schoolhouse never suggested that this errand was ridiculous - nobody ever thought, ``Well, if you can get to the hose house, you might's-well go to school!''
Then, soon after half-past 6, we'd see the Barlow boys wading back, and they'd give us a signal if - O frabjous day! - we were going to stay home and drive Mother up the wall. But if school was going to ``keep,'' we'd bundle up and with our books in bags and our lunches in lard pails we'd start for school with Mother calling after us, ``Now, don't dally or you'll be late!'' And the Barlow boys would catch up with us, and other youngsters would fall in, and we'd arrive at school in Indian file.
Teacher would ask us how we made out, and if we were late she'd want to know what detained us, and we would hang our snow-drenched coats and hats and mittens in the cloakroom so they could dry while we enriched our minds with converse with the wise of all ages. As we applied ourselves, we could smell our clothes drying - a ripe, rich, wet, woolen reek that shortly prompted Teach' to speak to one of the bigger boys, ``Willard, would you please open the back window just a trifle?''
At that time there was no more than a faint suggestion that radio would ever amount to anything. Wireless telegraphy was in use, and we did have an ``amateur'' operator in town. Broadcasting stations were up ahead. The amateur operator could send and receive, but only in code, and there weren't too many others like him out there to play with. Besides, the spark coils on any passing Model T jammed his rig, and he could pick up every motor in the shoe shop. In winter, the Model T's got ``put up,'' but the shoe shop had three shifts. So we had the fire bell, and it only, to alert us about no-school, and the Barlow boys.
There was one winter we had so many severe snowstorms that the fire bell went into action twice. The Barlow boys gave us the signal as they returned from the hose house, and along about 9 or 10 o'clock we had Mother in a dither and she readily let us know just what she thought of no-school. Teachers didn't like no-school, either, because on no-school days they didn't get paid.