Kevin O'Hara: In search of Millard Fillmore
"If you're set on risking your life, go to Pittsfield, Mass., and take a trolley ride."
— Teddy Roosevelt, September 1902
Mrs. Rita Sherman, our sixth-grade teacher at St. Charles Borromeo School, was the only lay teacher among our dozen Sisters of St. Joseph. Rather than wearing a black outfit to coincide with the nuns' habits, she opted for the girls' school uniform: white blouse, blue plaid vest with matching skirt, blue knee socks, and scuffed brown shoes. When an eighth-grade transfer student spotted her for the first time, he gasped, "Holy cow, how many times did she stay back?"
His new classmates couldn't resist: "Thirty-seven times, and counting."
Mrs. Sherman's favorite subject was U.S. history, and she spoke of our country's conflicts with such passion, you'd think these bloody clashes had played out in our little schoolyard. Portraits of her favorite presidents, intermingled with the church's most beloved saints, hung above the large blackboard. If a Martian happened to descend upon us, he'd easily mistake Francis of Assisi for our 17th president — sparrows and all.
In January, 1961, our friendly Crescent Creamery milkman addressed our class, while handing out posters with 35 designated squares marking the U.S. Presidents.
"Boys and girls, starting today you'll find bottle caps of our presidents beneath the crimped covers of your milk, including our newly elected John F. Kennedy. Collect 'em, trade 'em, and stick 'em onto your charts here. But make sure you wash the cream off first, or your posters will soon stink to the high heavens."
When the recess bell rang that morning, the stampede for our milk bottles rivaled the Oklahoma Land Rush. Back in our seats, we excitedly tore off the covers to find our red, white and blue presidential caps. My first cap was of Herbert Hoover, and I promptly pasted it onto the poster's 31st square, titled, "Man of Great Heart."
Mrs. Sherman found these caps to be the perfect learning tool, and walked down each aisle, offering tidbits about our past presidents.
"Herbert Hoover kept an opossum at the White House, but his son kept two pet alligators," she shared with the class. "I just hope they were properly secured during the annual Easter Egg Roll."
Maureen Kilfeather scored George Washington.
"How could anyone eat an apple with wooden teeth?" she asked.
In previous lessons, Mrs. Sherman had debunked the story of George cutting down a cherry tree, so we listened with queasy stomachs as she explained that his false choppers were made of human and animal teeth, along with hippopotamus ivory for a better bite. Fearing I might end up with hippo tusks by age 15 due to my fondness for sweets, I ran home after school and laid waste to a tube of Pepsodent.
Throughout that long winter, our morning recess resembled a bull run at the New York Stock Exchange. Classmates frantically waved their doubles in the air, eager to make trades, and be the first to complete their sets for bragging rights.
During this stretch, we learned many of the president's nicknames — Kid Gloves Harrison, Sage of Monticello, Old Rough and Ready, Tennessee Tailor, and the Red Fox of Kinderhook.
We also learned many of their quirks and mannerisms. For example, Ulysses Grant smoked 20 cigars a day. Andrew "Old Hickory," Jackson was involved in multiple pistol duels. Rutherford Hayes was wounded four times during the Civil War. Honest Abe was once a bartender and champion wrestler. John Tyler fathered 15 children during his two marriages. FDR married his fifth cousin, Eleanor.
In addition, Grover Cleveland, a former sheriff, was occasionally called upon to be a hangman. William Harrison died 33 days after taking office. Franklin Pierce ran over a woman with a horse, and Teddy Roosevelt was thrown off his horse-drawn carriage by a railway car on Pittsfield's South Street.
When April came around, I noticed that fewer milk bottles were topped with presidential caps, thus signaling that the campaign was coming to a close. No, this couldn't be, as I only needed Millard Fillmore to complete my set.
The following days, I scoured the schoolyard in search of Number Thirteen, but to no avail. Imagine, over a 12-week period, three hundred pupils in our school had consumed a whopping 18,000 bottles of milk, and I still couldn't find one blooming Millard Fillmore. Sure, the other kids had their Miltys, but no one had a double to offer me — not even for my five Lincolns.
With all hopes fading, my classmate, Maggie Hayes — no relation to Rutherford — handed me a bottle cap out of the blue.
"Is this what you've been whining about for the past month?"
"Holy Kamoly, Millard Fillmore!" Thanking her profusely, I hastily licked the cream off my prized cap, wiped it dry on my shirt sleeve, and glued it into place.
That done, I raised my poster high above my head, and shouted, "Bingo!"
In writing this column, I found an identical set of bottle caps on eBay for $20. I didn't buy it, but it was wonderful to see my old boyhood collection once again.
Studying the presidential caps, I thought of all our fine leaders who have occupied the White House, but also a number of Yankee Doodle Doozies. Many will say that we still do. But cheer up, everyone, and enjoy the holiday. After all, our great republic has always found a way to survive.
Kevin O'Hara is a longtime Eagle contributor.
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