Part 1

Saturday, November 7, 1970

Jim Frayne paced the length of the Manor House veranda, peering down the curving gravel drive towards Glen Road. After two circuits of the veranda, he sat down on one of the wrought-iron settees that flanked the front door and pulled back his sweater sleeve to check the time. Only seven-fifteen. Brian Belden was to pick him up at seven-twenty-five so that the two seniors could sit for the SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, at Sleepyside Junior-Senior High School this cool November morning.

Jim wasn’t too worried—at least that’s what he told himself—because his grades were excellent, and he’d always been a good test-taker. But still… this test was vital. His score could determine whether he’d be admitted to his preferred college. True, the scholarship he’d won in Albany would pay the majority of his tuition and dorm fees to any of a long list of colleges in New York State. He’d still have to line up some kind of a job, because college textbooks weren’t cheap, and he was sure there were additional fees the scholarship wouldn’t cover.

His adopted father, Matthew Wheeler, was wealthy enough to pay every dime of Jim’s college costs and never miss the money. But Jim took pride in earning his own way. He’d earned this scholarship on his own merits and was determined to pay for his education without asking for help from the Wheelers.

Just as he checked his watch again, he heard the crunch of gravel on the drive, and the familiar engine rumble of Brian’s ancient rattletrap, fondly christened “The Queen.” It was seven twenty. He might have known—Brian was always prompt.

Jim jumped up from the settee and stuck his head inside the front door of the Manor House. As if she had been waiting for him, his mother appeared in the foyer.

“Brian’s here,” he told her. “Wish me luck.”

Madeleine Wheeler surprised him by reaching out and pulling him into a quick hug. “Knock ’em dead!” she advised with a wink.

Too surprised to speak, Jim just nodded and stepped back outside. His mother watched from the open doorway as he galloped down the steps to the circular drive and the Queen, now parked in front of the veranda. Opening the passenger door, he slid inside, waving to his mother as he pulled the door shut with a thump. “Morning,” he greeted his friend. “You ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Brian assured him. He turned his attention to the road. Although it had been daylight for over an hour, fog made visibility iffy, and once Brian turned onto Glen Road, the two boys didn’t speak until they turned into the student parking lot of the high school.

“Got your two Number 2 pencils?” Brian asked as he pocketed his keys.

“Check,” Jim answered. “What two schools are you having your results sent to?”

“Harvard and Columbia,” Brian answered without hesitation. “I’m aiming high, but why not? How about you?” Extricating himself from the vehicle, he began to stride purposefully toward the front doors. Jim matched him stride for stride.

He shrugged. “Probably Albany and Rochester. I’ll probably decide at the last minute.”

Brian glanced at his friend in surprise. “I figured you’d choose Harvard for sure. Didn’t your dad graduate from there?”

“Yeah, both of my dads did. But remember the scholarship I won before I came down here? It specified any in-state college. Harvard’s out.” Jim’s jaw tightened.

“What did your dad—Mr. Wheeler—say about that?” Brian asked. “You know he could afford to send you, even without the scholarship.”

Jim shook his head. “I didn’t tell him yet. Sure, he would take care of it. But I don’t like to take anything I didn’t earn myself. I earned that scholarship, and I don’t need him to pay my way.”

The boys had reached the front doors of Sleepyside Junior-Senior High School, and were greeted by a group of their classmates, all here for the same reason. As they passed through the heavy double doors and made their way down the corridor to the designated classrooms among a throng of students who were either muttering or giggling, Jim was silent. Brian also seemed to have decided to drop the subject.

Jim was glad. He didn’t want other people questioning his motives. He had worked his tail off for his slave-driver stepfather, Jonesy, before running away to find his great-uncle in Sleepyside just a year earlier. Despite the drudgery that his life had been, he’d still managed to earn a scholarship. Jonesy hadn’t been able to stop him, and he wouldn’t let anyone else stop him, either. At the same time, he refused to be beholden to his adoptive parents. No one would be able to say Jim Frayne had everything handed to him on a platter.

Brian had gotten in front of him somehow, and Jim nearly ran into him when he stopped. “We’re supposed to test in Mr. McLane’s room today,” he reminded Jim. Mr. McLane was Brian’s social studies teacher, and Jim was in his class for homeroom.

“I remember,” Jim said. “I was just a million miles away in my head, I guess.” The two followed Todd Maurer and Mark Nelson into the classroom. Both waved at Loyola Kevins, who had reached the room before anyone else and was already settled at a desk, Number 2 pencils in front of her.

Mr. McLane stood at the front of the room and clapped for attention. The buzz of voices died down. “Every other seat, and no one may sit directly across from another tester,” he announced. “If anyone needs to use the restroom, please do so now. During the test, only one student may leave the room at a time, and you must be accompanied by Miss Darcy or Mr. Sanborn. The test will begin at eight o’clock and end at twelve noon. If you complete the test and turn in your paper before noon, you may leave. You’re not required to check your answers, but I encourage everyone to make sure you marked the correct row for each question. If you don’t finish by noon, you must still go ahead and turn in your test paper. You’ll be able to retake the test in December as well as January, and your best score will be the one that counts, but you can’t spend more than four hours on it.”

Jim and Brian, along with the other students, found seats that complied with Mr. McLane’s instructions. The scrape of desks on the floor as everyone settled in was nearly as loud as the buzz of conversation had been before. Once they all chose seats, the noise level rose again as almost everyone got up and headed for the restrooms.

Ten minutes later, all the students had returned to their desks, and Mr. McLane went over the instructions for properly filling in the computer-readable answer sheets. Jim sighed. He was ready—as ready as he’d ever be. He was grateful when Mr. McLane finally said, “You may begin now.”

An hour later, Jim raised his head and glanced around the room. Most of the students were bent over their desks, busy reading the test questions and carefully filling in the answer bubbles. Brian, seated across the aisle and one seat ahead of him, appeared to be fully concentrating on his work. Jim was sure his friend would ace the test.

Brian was the leading candidate for valedictorian, and he’d always been at the top of his class—Jim had learned that from a number of their classmates. He wasn’t envious… not exactly. He was solidly in the top ten himself, but definitely not salutatorian, either. He wondered how much better his own record might be if he’d had the stable, supportive family and security of his home that the Beldens took for granted.

Brian worked hard, and he was certainly no show-off. He deserved every academic accolade he received. Jim’s own record was very good, despite his checkered home life, the abuse he’d endured from Jonesy, and the stress of changing schools halfway through high school. Lacking support at home until his adoption by the Wheelers, he’d pushed himself in school because he was determined to master the material perfectly; often he felt he had to work twice as hard as most of his classmates. He hated uncertainty.

Jim stretched and rolled his shoulders to try to relax his tense muscles. Then he directed his attention back to his test book, making doubly sure his question, and the numbered row for its answer, matched up. He was forcing himself to get as far as possible before stopping to review answers, rather than trying to decide if every answer was correct before moving onto the next question. He glanced up at the clock above the blackboard from time to time. He wasn’t the fastest, but he felt certain he’d have time to complete the whole test. An hour to go!

Out of the corner of his eye, he glanced at Brian again. His friend was obviously checking over his answers, reconciling the test question numbers with his answer sheet. Jim got back to work. He gave himself fifteen more minutes.

He made it to the end just as the clock read 11:15, and turned his book back to the beginning to check through the answers. He vowed not to change any answers unless he discovered he’d moved onto a different line accidentally—that would be terrible.

With twenty minutes left, Brian got up, shrugged back into the light jacket he’d worn, and turned in his book and answer sheet. He left the room quietly. Several other students did the same in the next few minutes. Jim was only halfway through with his checking. He reminded himself to take some deep breaths and relax. They wouldn’t force him to leave until noon, and he could tell that several of his classmates hadn’t even started checking their answers yet.

Finally, he was finished. With five minutes to go, he laid his answer sheet and test book on Mr. McLane’s desk and walked out, feeling as if a huge weight had dropped from his shoulders.

Brian was waiting for him in the Queen, lounging in his seat with his head back and eyes closed. Jim stretched and let himself into the car. Brian opened his eyes.

“One more thing down! Now to make it through to graduation.”

“How did you think you did?” Jim asked.

“Probably okay; I usually do pretty well on standardized tests. But I wouldn’t say I’m one hundred percent confident of getting a top score.” Brian laughed. “Ah well, what’s done is done. I just wonder if we’ll get the results before the December testing date.” He turned the key in the ignition, and the Queen growled into life. Brian backed out of his space, carefully watching behind and beside him to make sure no one was at risk of being hit.

“Mr. McLane said it would be about six weeks, so probably not.” Jim sighed. “I hope I did well enough that I don’t need to retake it. I hate multiple choice tests; I always seem to overthink the questions and change my answer because I read too much into them. Then it never fails that I stick with the change, and my first instinct was the right one.”

“Yeah, that’s a problem,” Brian agreed. “I’ve almost trained myself to stick with my first answer, but sometimes I still pick the wrong one. Let’s don’t think about it anymore. We can’t change our answers now.” They had now passed through the business district and were headed out of town toward Glen Road. “Wonder if the girls are finished exercising Lady and Susie yet?” Brian asked. “We’ve barely seen them this week, it seems like.”

Jim smiled, thinking of his adopted sister and her best friend, Brian’s sister. Trixie Belden was his special girl, in his mind at least, although she was too young yet to be officially dating. “I hope they’re not finished yet. But maybe we can have a cookout this afternoon with all of the Bob-Whites, to celebrate getting through the SAT.”

Brian agreed, and they passed the rest of the short drive making plans for a backyard cookout.

At home, Jim learned from Miss Trask that Honey and Trixie had already exercised Lady and Susie and gone to their friend Diana Lynch’s house to work on Thanksgiving decorations for the Belden family’s Open House. Mart Belden and Dan Mangan had exercised Strawberry and Starlight, and Regan, the Wheeler groom, had ridden the spirited gelding Jupiter. His mother had gone into the city for an afternoon of shopping, and she and her husband would attend the final performance of Purlie on Broadway that night.

“Cook saved you a nice portion of her special chicken salad and the last tomato from the kitchen garden,” Miss Trask said with a smile. “We thought the Bob-Whites might plan a cookout this evening, but the girls will be working on their project for a couple of hours, I think.”

He felt a little let down. The morning of testing had seemed to drag on forever, and it was also stressful. Now, it seemed, there were no chores he could do to work off energy from the hours of sitting, and it seemed as if all of the other Bob-Whites had gone about their usual weekend activities.

“May as well eat some lunch, I guess,” he told himself silently. Making his way back to the kitchen, he greeted Cook with a smile, as if there was nothing more on his mind besides lunch.

Although Madeleine Wheeler was back at the Manor House by Sunday morning, she told Jim and Honey at breakfast that their dad had flown up to Vermont with his friend, George Kimball. The two men had learned that a small, family-operated ski resort was for sale, and Matthew Wheeler and his old friend were eager to inspect a potential investment opportunity.

“How was the SAT, Jim?” his mother asked. A cup of yogurt with fruit, and a mini blueberry muffin sat before her, and she took dainty bites between sips of coffee.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “It was long, of course, and all multiple choice questions. The worst part was making sure I stayed on the right line of my answer sheet, compared to the questions. I tend to overthink those kinds of questions, but I probably did all right.” He picked up his glass of milk and took a drink, before cutting into the hearty portion of baked breakfast casserole in front of him.

“Ugh, I hate standardized tests,” Honey exclaimed in sympathy from the sideboard, where the various Sunday breakfast dishes were set out. “I do the same thing—read too much into the questions.” She took a scoop of breakfast casserole from one chafing dish and a slice of buttered toast from another, before sliding into her chair across from Jim.

“Are you able to direct the testing company to send your scores to any colleges?” his mother asked. There was no pressure, nothing threatening in her look or tone of voice, but Jim felt a prick of apprehension as he swallowed his food and started to answer.

“Yes,” he replied. “I’m having them sent to SUNY in Albany and Rochester. Those are my two top picks for a degree in secondary education, and I can take a lot of business classes at either of them, too.”

Mrs. Wheeler put down her spoon. “I thought you would try for Harvard, like Matthew and Win. Weren’t you considering it?” She quirked an eyebrow in puzzlement.

“Well… you know I won that scholarship at my old school, before I came down here. It’s a great scholarship, but it’s limited to in-state schools. I’ve been looking at the catalogs of every college in the state since school started, and those two seemed like my best bet.” Jim used his napkin. He felt his appetite dwindling, although his plate still held half of his portion of food. Would his parents be angry that he didn’t plan to follow in his dad’s path for higher education? He saw that Honey was glancing back and forth from him to her mother, a line between her eyebrows indicating anxiety.

“It’s certainly your choice, Jim.” His mother smiled, although she had that same expression of slight anxiety. “But you know, we would be glad to send you to the college of your choice, wherever it might be. We can afford it and we’d love to.”

“Mother, I appreciate that.” Jim stared at his plate for a moment before deciding he couldn’t eat anything else. He used his napkin and returned her gaze with a level gaze of his own. “But I mean to earn my own way. I don’t want any… handouts.” He swallowed again, aware that Honey‘s eyes were filling with tears. “May I be excused, please?”

“Of course.” Madeleine Wheeler smiled at him, although Jim couldn’t help wondering if she was just putting on her public “game face.” He pushed his chair back and stood, just as his mother began to speak again.

“But I wanted to let both of you know that your dad and Mr. Kimball are staying in Vermont for a few more days to look over the resort’s books. He’s asked me to meet him there Tuesday and then we’ll have a business trip to London and a little ski lodge in the French Alps toward the end of next week. He wants to squeeze in those overseas trips before everyone is busy with the holidays and the weather makes air travel iffy.”

“Oh, Mother!” Honey’s voice held a quaver of disappointment. “That means we won’t see you or Daddy until almost Thanksgiving!” She used her own napkin, blotting her eyes quickly after dabbing at her lips.

“I know, darling, and I’m sorry!” Jim thought his mother did look upset. “But we’ll be home for Thanksgiving, and afterward we’re blocking our schedules until after the New Year. You’ll be tired of me and your dad by the time we have to travel again.”

“Mother, you know we won’t be tired of you!” Jim smiled at her. “Honey, I’m going to get ready to exercise Jupe now,” he said, turning his attention to his sister. “Do you and Lady want to come along, too?”

Glancing at her mother, Honey also asked to be excused. At her mother’s nod, she pushed back her chair and nodded her head emphatically. “Sure! In fact, why don’t I call and see if Trixie, Mart, and Brian would like to ride, too?”

The siblings walked out together, heading upstairs to change into riding boots. Jim looked back once, to see his mother thoughtfully sipping her coffee, the worried crease between her eyebrows evident again.

When Jim and Honey reached the stable, they found the Beldens and Dan Mangan, already mounted on Spartan, waiting for them. During the next hour, the Bob-Whites expended their energy in the fresh, crisp fall air. Gradually, thoughts of the SAT and college selection plans faded from Jim’s mind.

Saturday, November 21

The past two weeks had been busy for Jim. His teachers were pushing to complete the fall semester’s work well before the Christmas holidays, and his fellow students were consumed with their plans for the two-week break from classes—which wouldn’t begin until just a few days before Christmas, anyway.

The burden of class assignments helped him push the thought of SAT scores as well as his father’s reaction to his college choices back to a dark corner of his mind. Why ask for trouble before he needed to? But finally, his parents returned from their travels, and they sat down together for dinner on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Miss Trask and Regan often ate supper with the family, but this evening both had other commitments. Miss Trask had traveled with her sister to visit their brother at Pirate’s Cove for an early Thanksgiving, and Regan had a monthly checkers tournament with Mr. Maypenny and Dan.

Matthew Wheeler glanced around the table at his son and daughter and smiled. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be back home and spend time with both of you,” he said. “I know it’s been a couple of weeks, but it feels even longer.”

“Oh, Daddy, we’ve missed you, too!” Honey was almost vibrating with excitement and Jim felt happiness welling up inside as he watched her. His sister had never lived with her parents regularly before moving to Sleepyside, and she still seemed to be unable to believe her good fortune. It was sad that she and her parents were almost strangers to each other. That was changing, and Jim knew he was part of the reason. But it was a different kind of family life than he’d ever known, for sure.

Matthew carved the savory rib roast Cook set down in front of him and served a slice to his wife, his son, and his daughter. They passed dishes of buttery mashed potatoes, gravy, and tender broccoli florets mixed with baby carrots around the table, and for a few moments the table was silent as the family began to eat.

Jim swallowed his third bite of roast smothered in gravy before taking a sip of water. “Cook has outdone herself again,” he remarked. “Everything is delicious.”

“Yes, it certainly is.” His father set down his fork. “So, I haven’t had a chance to ask you about your college entrance test—you took the SAT, right?”

Here it comes, thought Jim. “Yes, sir.” He nodded. “I’m not the best test-taker in the world, but I think I did all right. I finished the whole test and had time to make sure I marked the answers I meant to. We won’t get our results back for six weeks, though.”

“Your grades are good, and you work hard,” Matthew acknowledged. “I’m sure your scores will be fine.” He took another bite of mashed potatoes, swallowed, and drank some of his own water before speaking again. “Your mother tells me you had results sent to SUNY at Albany and Rochester.”

“Yes, sir, that’s right.” Jim hadn’t been able to take another bite once the college talk started.

“Can I ask why?” Matthew looked honestly puzzled. “I’d hoped you would follow in the footsteps of Win and myself at Harvard.”

“The scholarship I won at my old school is only good for any college in New York State,” Jim explained. He felt as if he’d said this already. “I earned that scholarship on my own merits, and I want to stand on my own two feet.”

“I understand that,” his father acknowledged. “But it’s not necessary, when we could afford to send you to any college you choose. You’ve set some high goals for yourself, and you deserve to have every chance at success. The connections you could make at Harvard would be invaluable to any future plans you have. I’d like to help you on your way, and there’s such a thing as false pride.”

Jim felt his jaw clench, and he quickly dropped his gaze to his plate. It was terribly important to him that he prove himself, on his own. “I don’t want people to look at me and think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he managed to say after a moment of uncomfortable silence.

“Son, I wish you’d reconsider.” Matthew Wheeler’s own jaw was stiff, and Jim hoped he wasn’t angry. It was usually easy to tell if his adopted father was on the verge of losing his temper, but of course he couldn’t have been as successful as he was if he couldn’t maintain a poker face at the same time.

Neither Honey nor her mother had spoken during this exchange. Now Honey broke in. “Jim, have you decided whether to major in elementary or secondary education? Or are you thinking of something else?”

“I haven’t really decided, Sis.” Jim shrugged, glad of the distraction. “I’m not sure yet whether I’d like to work with younger kids or teenagers. If I keep my focus on opening a school for kids at risk, I’ll probably need to study school administration and business, too. There are so many facets, it almost boggles my mind when I stop and think about it.”

“I know you’ll be amazing with any age group,” Honey praised him. “But how soon do you need to choose?”

“Once I get my scores back, I hope to make a campus visit to each of the schools that received the results. With any luck, those visits will help me decide and maybe I can even talk with an academic advisor. I hope to have all of the details locked down by the first part of April.” He found that his appetite had returned, and he took another bite of roast beef with gravy.

“I think that’s a very good idea, Jim.” Madeleine Wheeler spoke for the first time since the discussion had turned to college. “Please let your dad and me know when it would be a good time for you to make those campus visits. I believe Sleepyside Junior-Senior High allows three excused absences per senior for campus visits.” She gave him a warm smile. “We’d love to go with you, wouldn’t we, Matthew?”

“Of course.” Matthew took another drink of water. “You can always request the College Board to send your results to another school if you change your mind later, can’t you?”

“Um… sure, I think so. It costs a little extra, but our senior advisor said we can request the results be sent to other colleges.”

“Well, good. I can see you’ve given thought to this process, Jim.” Matthew smiled, but Jim had an uneasy feeling that this comment was just the start of a campaign to get him to change his mind. He nodded and rededicated himself to his dinner, but the flavorful roast and vegetables might have been sawdust. Honey began to chatter about the elaborate decorations she and Diana were making for the Christmas dance. Jim was glad to have his parents’ attention deflected from himself.

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Story and graphics copyright by Mary N. December 2022. Images for banner and background from and used with permission.

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