During 1952-53, I was in Mrs. Fannie Taylor’s fourth grade class at Henry Johnson School opposite Kiwanis Park. She was the wife of Alf Taylor, whose father, Alf, was a former Tennessee Governor. Subjects included reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, English, geography, health, music and library.
Mrs. Taylor had a unique talent for reading books to her students and incorporating a heavy dose of realism into each one. There were no idle minds or flickering eyelids anywhere in the class during her well-received recitations. Instead, we were kept spellbound on the edge of our seats.
One of the books she read was “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The plot involves Mary, a sickly and spoiled little girl and Colin, a pitifully lonely young invalid as the main characters. The story centered on a flower garden surrounded in mystery by a high wall containing a door that was locked and the key discarded.
Perhaps the most memorable books Mrs. Taylor read us were from the “Uncle Wiggily” series, a collection of short stories authored by Howard Garis, a prolific writer whose books became a daily favorite of youngsters because of his witty and unique writing style.
Uncle Wiggily Longears was an elderly rabbit with rheumatism. He always dressed immaculately when he went out, wearing a sports coat, trousers and a silk top hat. He wore spectacles and carried a red, white and blue walking crutch. The extraordinary animal had the ability to carry on a two-way conversation with all the forest critters. He could also understand people, but they were not able to communicate with him.
Most stories began with the aged animal leaving the comfort of his hollow stump bungalow each morning in search of an adventure. He shared his natural abode with his private nurse and housekeeper, Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy, a muskrat. He usually departed each morning under Nurse Jane's stern admonition to “be careful”; “Keep your eyes open for the Woozie Wolf or the Fuzzy Fox”; and “You aren’t thinking of going out in this storm are you?” A usual daily escapade for Uncle Wiggily was encountering some person or animal that needed help and then figuring out a way to assist them in a non-threatening manner. Violence was completely unacceptable.
Some of the principal characters were (no snickering) Curly & Floppy Twisttail (pigs), Jacko & Jumpo Kinkytail (monkeys), Johnnie & Billie Bushytail (squirrels), Charlie & Arabella Chick (chickens) and Jackie & Peetie Bow Wow (dogs).
Each story ended with Garis’s unique “and if” promotion for the next exciting exploit, an example being “and if the sunflower doesn't shine so brightly in the eyes of the potato that it can't see to get out of the oven, I'll tell you next about Uncle Wiggily and (the next adventure).
The company issued several soft back books containing ten Uncle Wiggily adventures: “Uncle Wiggily Starts Off,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Paper Boat,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Troublesome Boys,” “Uncle Wiggily and Granddaddy Longlegs,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Black Cricket,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Milkman,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Cowbird,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Starfish” and “Uncle Wiggily and the Red Monkey.”
Mrs. Taylor was one of the most memorable teachers I had during my formative school years. Let me conclude with a Garis-like ending: “And if the two salty over-light eggs can keep from overcooking on the plate from hot runny buttered grits and sizzling smoked bacon strips,” next week I will tell you about a Tweetsie Railroad happening in 1941.