Before heading out to see the live-action Beauty and the Beast flick last Tuesday, Maura and I took a side trip out to Wilmington to return a pair of cable boxes to the local Comcast storefront. It wasn’t until we got there that we learned the place had relocated to one of the mixed-use developments that have sprouted up like so many upscale mushrooms in neighboring Burlington, but the trip wasn’t entirely in vain because it gave me a chance to roll through my old North Woburn stomping grounds and catch a glimpse of the Linscott-Rumford Elementary School.
I attended the Linscott-Rumford from kindergarten straight through to sixth grade. It was the product of a before-my-time merger of two older schools — the *gasp* Linscott and the *shock* Rumford — its two linked buildings kept maintained the individual names. The Rumford was the newer of the pair, and housed the gym, administrative offices, and classrooms up through grade four in Cold War modernist style. The Linscott was the older building — kitted out with dark-varnished hardwood and flesh-searing steam radiators — and housed the fifth and sixth grade classrooms, cafeteria, library and an “auditorium” which resembled a 1970s panel show set (and was where I watched a grainy print of The Man Called Flinstone and countless educational filmstrips).
As the domain of the elementary upperclassmen, the Linscott had a certain mystique that was enhanced by the budget-mandated anachronisms of its physical plant. “Moving to the old building” was a rite of passage, separating the infants from the wizened tweeners. The place had an additional allure for me, because it also contained the school library
In truth, the school library was just an assortment of free-standing bookshelves and study tables and desks arranged around the front half of the open area between the classrooms, but there was magic to be found on those shelves — forgotten and uncirculated tomes that hadn’t been touched in years, if ever. My favorite of the lot was a prose retelling of the Iliad and Odyssey illustrated with mid-century modern takes on Grecian urn art, but the close runner-up was a book I can still recall in vivid detail.
Well, everything except its title, which was a string of drug slang terms worthy of Jack Webb. “Mary Jane, Yellowjackets, and Angel Dust,” or something along those lines. The book was preachy slice of late Sixties/early Seventies anti-drug agitprop. Its assortment of clinical details and cautionary tales was illuminated by “psychedelic” line art laid over an assortment of trippy inkblots, and depicted things such as an acid casualty burning out his eyes while staring at the sun and the little brother of a glue huffer suffocating from a plastic bag over the head.
It fascinated me for the same reason stories about Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, and poltergeists fascinated me. It offered a glimpse into a terrifying other world, but in this case one that was reinforced by a steady drumbeat of nightly news stories about hulked-out dustheads and playground whispers about LSD-laced tattoos getting handed out by a van-driving deviant in a clown costume. Kids are always drawn to (and terrified by) suggestions of the nightmare realm at the fringes of their limited perspective. Kids of the Seventies were especially spoiled for choice.
Though no one had touched the book prior to my discovering it, it soon became the most popular item in the school’s collection. The waitlist for checking it out came to include every member of my fifth grade class, much to the chagrin of our teacher and the school’s principal. Then, one day, the book — and its card catalog entry — mysteriously vanished, as if it had never existed.
If the book hadn’t been subject to surreptitious deletion, it would’ve been eradicated by the fire set by a trio of teens three years later. That act of adolescent arson completely destroyed the Linscott (though the Rumford was spared) and everything within it. My family had moved to Woburn Center by then, but I made the two mile bike ride down Route 38 to gawk at the blaze alongside pretty much everyone else in the neighborhood.
As blazing fragments of mimeographed pages fell from the sky, I cursed myself for not swiping that Iliad book when I had the chance.