I don’t think it has ever been easy for a young man to learn proper boundaries with authority figures. I’m sure that there was more than one 19-year-old Roman legionnaire making bunny ears every time his centurion turned his back, and plenty of lewd comments were made just out of earshot when Shaka Zulu paraded his retinue of wives in front of the unmarried warriors’ regiment…but I do think that learning proper boundaries was a little more complex for for those of us coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Challenging the establishment seemed to be a required subject in any course of study and a required component of every other comedy show on television. The mixed messages I got at home just complicated the issue – it seemed like every day I’d hear my dad talk about telling off someone at work and my mother seemed to be constantly calling other parents to task for the misdeeds of their children.
There was a good reason why Eisenhower chose the 29th infantry division to lead the assault on Omaha Beach. They were young, green and had no idea what they were getting into. I was the same way when it came to learning about talking tough.
Harvey Stroud was somewhat of a mystery to me. He looked like a battered Chicago precinct captain with a perpetual scowl that convinced me to avoid any sort of situation that required us to be in the same room. He was the principal of Kenai Central High School during my freshman year, but left the following summer for the same post at a much smaller school forty miles down the road. The next time I heard anything about him was the fall of 1970 when it was announced that he had died; several rumors as to cause of death circulated around the school but the only solid information dealt with the memorial service that was going to be held in our gymnasium. For some reason the news was never announced over the loudspeaker so it was a bit surprising when a school bus pulled up two hours earlier than usual one afternoon…and doubly surprising when students poured out of the bus and into the front door.
I was in Miss Mahoney’s short story class1 when the bus pulled up – that is, me and my ego. I was doing quite well in the class because it combined two of my strengths- literature and drawing. Each short story report was to include an illustration and while the stuff I came up was nowhere near as good as the card, game and book illustrations I created years later, it was still dramatically better than the work of my 10th and 11th grade classmates. I was definitely the big fish in the little pond.
I had turned in my work and was kicking back as unobtrusively as possible in the back row alongside the windows when the bus pulled up. As the rest of the class rushed over to see what was going on I heard someone query Miss Mahoney about the bus, but before she could respond I piped up:
“Oh, it’s just a pep bus from Ninilchik for Stroud’s funeral”
The room went silent, then one by one my classmates started to snicker. My ego inflated just a bit more. The Smothers Brothers couldn’t have said it better. Robert Klein couldn’t have said it better…and neither my mom nor my dad in one of their ranting commentaries could have said it any better.
“Ha-ha-ha-ha!” It was Miss Mahoney. “That was really funny. Take a walk!”
“I said take a walk. Get out of my classroom. Now!”
There went my ego.
Rumor had it that Nora Mahoney spent a tour of duty with the United States Marine Corps before teaching so I offered no excuses or smart talk. I slunk out of class, making some weak joke as I left but I was too caught up in basic survival to come up with a more memorable quip. While I hadn’t been a particularly good kid during high school I hadn’t been an overly bad one and getting kicked out of class was a rare experience for me. I had just hit on hiding in a restroom adjacent to the new cafeteria when the loudspeaker squawked something unintelligible about an upcoming football game.
Football practice! My salvation!
If you’d seen me play football you’d take issue with the game ever being my salvation. As I have written elsewhere I was a late-bloomer when it came to physical strength and coordination so I was not a star player…which would be an advantage in this situation. I could go to practice and blend in with all the other muddy jerseys, let whatever turmoil my comment made burn itself out and get back to real life the next morning.
It was late enough in the season for the rigid discipline of practice to relax a bit. After getting suited up we were to go out and run four easy laps around the field, go through some basic calisthenics, and then practice the repertoire of plays scheduled for the coming game. After slinking into the locker room I quickly got into my gear and trotted out to the field in the middle of four or five other players, and as we reached the track circling the field and started running I broke into a sly grin.
I’d made it!
There was no mistaking that voice. It was Coach. The head coach. Coach Gordon Prentice. Gordy P. The – I abruptly shut my internal monologue down. My smart mouth had already gotten me into trouble once and I didn’t need a repeat performance.
” GET OVER HERE! “
The black hats at jump school couldn’t have locked my heels any tighter than he did. I stood perfectly rigidly still as he leaned over and continued at a much lower volume – always a bad sign.
“You know, you might think that because you’re not playing all the time no one notices what you do. Well, you’re wrong. I don’t know why it is but these younger guys watch you like a hawk, especially the guys in PE class. You need to think about them and the example you’re setting for them the next time you think about making a smart remark.”
As he went on with his corrections I made sure to look repentant and nod my head at the right moments. By this time most of the team had finished their four laps and were gathering for calisthenics so when Coach Prentice was done I started to trot over in that direction.
“Oh – and be sure to get all four laps in before we’re done with warming up,” at which point I veered back out to the track and started to pick up my pace at a dead run. After finishing my run, I wheezed my way through the balance of practice, then carefully avoided all “how was your day” inquiries on the ride home. I came close to aspirating a hamburger patty when dad went into one of his “so I told him” stories at the dinner table but after coughing my airway clear I beat a hasty retreat to my attic loft where I spent the rest of the evening listening to the Moody Blues and trying to mentally reorder reality to avoid any consequences the following day.
The next morning, I kept a low profile, carefully sidestepping any faculty members that knew my parents. I jumped a bit higher than normal at the first bell; there was no avoiding Coach as I was his aide in PE during the first period but all I got from him was an abbreviated repeat of his lecture on setting a good example as I left the locker room. My outlook brightened a bit and by the time I got to my second class of the day I was actually smiling – it looked like I was going to leave yesterday’s indiscretion behind.
“Sociology/Contemporary Issues/Modern Problems” – it was called one of those names, though for most of us my second period class was known simply as “The class you take to avoid Anderson’s Government class”. Tom Ackerly (AKA “The Ack”) was the instructor for the class as well as history, geography and assistant football coach. The Ack was a recent transplant from Florida and more than one foolhardy soul had taken his ursine build, calm demeanor, and soft southern accent as signs of weakness, only to find that when they engaged in a duel of wits with The Ack they were essentially unarmed men. He had a razor-sharp intellect, an even sharper wit, and I had finagled my way into at least one of his classes each year…
…. which meant exactly nothing when I caught his icy stare as I edged through scattered desks to my regular perch. I inwardly groaned as we started working in teams on a group project – “I am never going to live this down” – the despair only deepening when The Ack motioned me over to a seat next to his desk, where I braced myself for an encore of Coach Prentice’ admonition from the previous day.
“Pep bus for Stroud’s funeral eh?”
He cracked the faintest of smiles and said, “That’s a pretty good one” – and as my jaw dropped he went on “Mahoney told everyone in the teacher’s lounge last night. Everyone figured it was the best joke we’d heard since our last paycheck.”
By the end of the day it looked like I’d dodged the bullet. My comment was no longer front-page news as the entire student body was collectively frothing at the mouth over being assigned student numbers. The measure was meant to streamline attendance reporting and record-keeping but was taken as a dehumanizing establishment plot to enforce conformity and reduce individuality (2).
…at least that’s what I said to one foxy lady after another as I hand-lettered student numbers on their t-shirts “as a protest!”. Later in the year it was determined that the numbers ultimately served little purpose other than giving students something to get worked up about, which that day conveniently drew attention away from my snarky remark.
I walked away from the incident having learned three valuable lessons:
- Everyone – even my parents – must cope with stress in daily life. My mom and dad’s stories about telling people off and talking big were a way of blowing off steam and I need not take their comments too literally.
- Avoid snarky remarks in general unless you’re in trusted company.
- If there’s no way to stop the remark – make it funny.
- The year before English classes were radically changed for sophomores, juniors and seniors. Instead of taking one class from one teacher for the entire school year students were to enroll in a different module every nine weeks. There were some guidelines – you had to take a set number of classes in three categories (literature, composition and oral skills) but other than that students were free to put together their own program.
- Popular entertainment was full of stories of a dehumanizing dystopian future. On the radio we listened to “In The year 2525” by Zager&Evans and we were all reading the pessimistic novels that would end up as the motion pictures “Soylent Green” and “Logan’s Run” just a few year later.