1970: The Great Escape

1963

As much as I loved the sweeping epic motion pictures of the Fifties and Sixties I did not see “The Great Escape” when it first came out. Oh, I saw all the previews and was extremely interested in the subject matter but wasn’t able to actually see the movie because I was on the losing side of an ideological divide as vast as  Crown & Colonists or Union & Confederacy.

I was a Fourth Avenue theater kid and the “The Great Escape” was being shown at the Denali.

In those days before the Good Friday earthquake  there were just two movie theaters in Anchorage and they were located at the two ends of Fourth Avenue. Kids from the west side of town went to the Fourth Avenue theater while the kids from the east side went to the Denali….and never the twain did meet.

 1970

 “You’re welcome to finish out the year but I don’t see you accomplishing much other than developing good lab technique. Based on what you’ve done so far there’s no way you can get a passing grade.”

  I had to give Mrs. Denison credit; the executioner’s axe had cut quickly and cleanly, but as it swung three thoughts came to mind:

  • Shirley Denison and Mom were friends, so my folks probably knew about this already.
  • With the new English program1 I had a lot more options that I would have had the year before.
  • Given the axe-analogy I had to expand my leisure reading beyond John Carter of Mars and Conan the Barbarian.

The change to my class schedule was just as quick and clean; by the next day my newly-vacant third hour was filled with a brand-new journalism class to match my existing sixth hour debate class. I put up a token fuss about the move, but my protest was more of the “don’t throw me in that briar patch” variety. With a schedule made up of physical education (teacher’s aide!), history ( always a breeze!), geography (ditto), and two English classes I would have my first-ever “easy” semester.

…which would be finished off just as pleasantly by a sixth period motion picture class during the final nine week period.  Introduced as part of the new Literature & Communications curriculum, the Motion Pictures class had been the subject of some controversy until instructors demonstrated that the class entailed some academic rigor and was not just a “rocks for jocks” fluff course. We would start out with basic instruction on script-writing and cinematography, but the bulk of the class involved viewing/discussing two movies:

  • A Thousand Clowns: An Oscar-nominated MGM classic from 1965 starring Jason Robards as a nonconformist Madison Avenue drop-out forced to take conventional employment.
  • The Great Escape: The aforementioned United Artists epic concerning a mass POW escape in World War II Germany, also an Oscar nominee.

The class was possible only because of another recent change at KCHS – after eight years of unanticipated growth, an addition had been made to the building that included a cafeteria, a suite of business classrooms, and a little theater. Normally  partitioned off into three separate classrooms, the theater could be opened up into one large space for the motion picture class – or classes to be precise. Overwhelming demand meant that there were three sections scheduled for the one Motion Pictures class, which meant that in addition to regular classroom challenges the instructors had to:

  • Maintain order among a mob of 50+ students sitting in a dark room for fifty minutes at the end of a school day.
  • Keep students on task during a spring break-up  warmer and sunnier than usual, which should have posed no problems in a darkened classroom but fire laws required the rear exit doors to be open to a breathtaking view of the aforementioned glorious spring.
  • Complying with licensing and technical limitations which restricted students to viewing the films for less than half of the class period, including scenes from the previous day’s viewing repeated to maintain continuity.

Not to be out-done I had my own personal list of bullet-points to contend with:

  • I was concerned about my current girlfriend2. Our schedules were such that we  saw each other at most twice a day, which didn’t include Motion Pictures class. It might not have been quite so worrisome if there had been any depth developing in the relationship3.
  • I was quickly getting bored with the class. I’d been a movie buff since fourth grade making me better prepared than my peers. Repeated reviewing of very basic principles quickly became boring.
  • I was developing junior-osis. While it’s common knowledge that accumulated fatigue, boredom, and arrogance can lull fourth year students into an end-of-the-year malaise called senioritis,  junior-osis is a similar ailment that strikes at end of the third year of school as well. Year three involves minimal pressure – no letters to write, plenty of time left to clean up your GPA, and the closest you get to any sort of crunch point is the pre-SAT, which is just a warm-up for college placement tests the following autumn. It’s another example of a valuable lesson I learned later in the army: “Morale is lowest when the duty is easiest”.

…all of which conspired to rob me of any sense of urgency or dedication for that sixth and last hour of the school day. Snoozing in class was quickly ruled out by the clackety-clack and warbling sound track coming from the projector, and in 1970 I could draw in a darkened room about as well as I can now (I can’t). The semester was shaping up to be just one step up from Chinese water torture when fate smiled on me in the form of Mike Cole.

Mike was a service brat living on Wildwood Air Force Station, and in addition to the motion pictures class he was also in that first hour PE class. Our common service brat heritage and similar sense of humor made for an instant buddyship, and as he was equally bored with the motion pictures class we’d entertain ourselves by quietly chatting during the movies. It was during one of those conversations that he literally dropped a bomb shell: my former chemistry class had covered the required material a little early so Mrs. Denison was filling the final two weeks with for-real “BWAH-HA-HA” Mad Scientist projects that involved mixing chemicals, heating test-tubes and extracting the results with filter paper, said results subsequently given nonsense names like “flaming yekk” and “booming yakk”. It was obvious that the yekk and yakk were in fact  weak versions of flash paper and contact explosive, and at first the idea of supplying teenagers with such materials had me wondering if Shirley had been huffing some of the chemicals herself …but when I discovered the process required an eight-hour drying time, it didn’t seem quite as worrisome.

That all seemed to have no bearing as the class limped along the final week of school  – but then the perfect storm hit. We were on the last reel of the The Great Escape and collectively chewing the armrests while nervously watching  Steve McQueen’s attempts to jump a motor cycle over barbed wire when the power went out, halting the movie and extinguishing the aisle lights. The room was pitch dark and totally silent for several seconds, then there was a creak-CLUNK and a waft of fresh air when one of the instructors opened the exit doors.

Have you ever been on a horse that smells water after a long ride? They are uncontrollable – you may think you’re going to the house, but the horse is heading for the barn and the water trough whether you want to or not. That’s what was happening in that darkened room: students surged en masse towards the sun-lit exits like a 1950’s movie monster but hesitated momentarily at a brief flash of light and a low pop from the center of the student-blob.

Mike quietly dropped the “F-bomb”.

It turned out end-of-the-year indifference hadn’t existed in just the motion pictures class. Chemistry students had been a bit casual with measurements for the latest batch of yekk and yakk which halved the expected cure time, which in turn meant that today’s output was fully weaponized four hours early. The first few explosions had been purely by accident, but as I looked around, students were gently touching fingertips to the chemical-laden filter paper giving them a magic finger tip that either flashed or popped when touching a surface of any kind.

As a mature young man of seventeen  I took the proper course of action and acted in a responsible manner –  I reached down to Mike’s chemistry book and loaded up both sets of fingers with yekk and yakk, then started finger-popping everyone around me.  After initially resisting the impulse Mike reacted in kind and we were having a great time until we noticed three instructors methodically moving toward us through the darkened student mass, checking for the yekk and yakk. We figured we had time for just one more round but as we both reached down to “reload” there was a blinding flash of light that left me temporarily daze /visually impaired and within grabbing range of at least two of the instructors.

I would still be serving detention KCHS to this day if the end-of-class bell hadn’t gone off at that moment, followed seconds later by the power coming back on. Between the blinding glare of restored classroom lighting and the collective surge toward the exits I was forgotten by the patrolling instructors and eventually made my way out to the bus. The trip home was uneventful other than slight bewilderment when I spied Mike wearing a polka-dot shirt as his bus pulled past mine and out to the highway.

The next day was Friday and the end of both the school week and the academic year, a half-day with time for little other than signing yearbooks and settling out financial obligations. In my case, that meant paying Mike ten bucks for my share of the damages inflicted during the motion picture melee:

  • The polka dot shirt Mike was wearing on the bus home was in fact the same light blue garment he’d worn during the day – what I had mistaken for dots were little burnt marks left from me tapping him with the yekk.
  • That last big flash? In our scuffling Mike ended up dropping his chemistry text book from about knee height, which wouldn’t have been a problem had he not stashed three additional sheets of yakk, inside the front cover, which together contained enough potential energy to blow the cover off the book as it hit the ground.

With my debts paid I blithely went on to a wonderful summer filled with Boy’s State, Youth Conference, a summer job in Seward and football,  and when I came back in the fall it was to a kinder, gentler chemistry class – a special section Mrs. Denison had formed for math-impaired students like me.

The lab component was different too. No more flaming yekk or booming yakk.


 

Notes:­­­­­­­­­­­

  1. In the fall of 1969 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.
  2. Bachelorette #1 from: 1971: “…then Dave turned sixteen and discovered girls…”
  3. The unsettled nature of my relationship with Bachelorette #1 didn’t stay that way for long and I soon learned why she’d been evasive whenever I’d talked about dating over summer vacation. In a note delivered by her half-sister she explained that she’d be working on a set-net fishing site during most of the summer break and didn’t think she’d be able to get back up the bluff at the end of a day and get cleaned up in time for a date. There is definitely an air of finality when you get brushed off by someone  who has to “wash her hair”  for three months.

 

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