1970: Bob, Brandy and the Bus

” Road Warriors”

One of the more common topics in business publications –  urban-based workers facing a long commute each morning and afternoon. I have some compassion for them, but not much.  I spent four years of my life making a daily round trip that would make a Los Angeles commute seem like a stroll in the park. This arduous daily trek? Getting to and from high school.

Before your eyes start to roll and the coffee spurts out your nostrils let me qualify this a bit. High school for me meant Kenai Central High School located in ( where else) Kenai, Alaska. At the time KCHS served the central part of the Kenai Peninsula with a student body numbering not quite a thousand kids drawn from an area fifty miles in diameter. I lived about half that distance out, but that still left me with at least an hour trip in the morning and evening – and sometimes the trip clocked in longer than that.

Because periods of light and darkness vary so much during the year we often left for school and returned home in darkness which ruled out doing any sort of reading or homework during the trip. The school district was too poor to equip each bus with an AM radio and as it was ten years before any sort of Walkman-type personal music systems and forty years before smart phones the only entertainment available consisted of reciting to each other as much of the latest episode of The Smothers Brother’s Show as we could remember.

…and at this point I can imagine the winks, smarmy grins and knowing looks starting to spread over all your faces, accompanied by one or more of the following comments:

  • “Well, we can just imagine how they spent their time.”
  • ‘What did that last issue of National Geographic say about gonorrhea in frontier areas ?
  • “How high is the teen-age pregnancy rate in Alaska?”

 

Well – forget it. No matter what you think or what statistics may infer, our school bus was not a rolling version of the Playboy mansion. Our school year included five months of icy weather which wasn’t just cold – it FREEZING cold, often including endless weeks of well-below-zero weather. Nothing dampens a teenager’s ardor quicker than trying to navigate through two layers of underwear, street clothes and a parka, scarf, sweater and gloves – and even if you could manage the task there was no place to snuggle. The seats were designed to accommodate the average student, i.e. third graders, so any bus-born amorous adventures were exclusively imaginary in nature.

You learned early on to deal with it.  The lucky kids were those with their own cars, followed by those able to hitch rides with friends or parents with jobs close to the school. Hitch-hiking was always an option but entailed an element of risk – and not just the kind of risk you saw on The  After-school Special. There was always a chance that you might not catch a ride at all, which was the case once when Todd Moore and I tried to hitch home from football practice and ended up walking 12 miles from Soldotna to Sterling without a single car even just slowing down.

For most students it was a matter of enduring 60 minutes or longer in the bus – but for a selected few the ride was longer and even more demeaning. Those of us living on Scout Lake Loop road had to complete the last leg of the trip on the Sterling Elementary School bus. School district bean-counters had determined that a transfer where the routes intersected would save the school district a fortune. Well, maybe fifty or sixty bucks, but considering how close the school budget came to not being approved the previous summer they were out to save any amount possible.

Switching buses was like switching worlds – even though the seats in our regular bus were cramped, the temperature was comfortable, but the iced-over windows of the Sterling bus put you in mind of a scene out of “One Day in the Life of Evan Denysovitch” or some other gulag documentary.  The temperature inside the Sterling vehicle was at least twenty degrees cooler than the high school bus and while it was reasonable to assume that the warmth of the insulated coveralls Bob ( the bus driver) wore while prepping the bus caused him to err in properly setting the thermostat, I suspect that he deliberately kept the bus interior cold to numb the kids into submission.

We were not thrilled about making the switch but managed to cope. As my friend Sherry and I usually sat together on the regular bus the transfer was little more than a simple change of scenery as we talked about music, school, clothes and our respective non-existent love lives. Such diverting conversation should have taken our minds off the rolling refrigerator we were riding in but unfortunately we also contend with the elementary school kids. They were animals. In a larger community kids their age would have given high school students wide berth but in a small place like Sterling we were all like family so the fear was not there…which meant riding for twenty minutes in a bus full of little-brother clones at their worst behavior . Bob  was well aware of the problem and had devised a system of assigned seats to separate the worst offenders, but for Sherry and I it meant we had to sit in front of the Renton brats on every trip.

I say boys plural because even though only one of them spoke coherently so I never knew how many of them there were – they’d recently moved into the state so I had yet to put names to faces; compounding that uncertainty was the fact that the three of them never stopped moving AND moved as a pack to boot. They weren’t triplets but each one had that identical Cub Scout age look: two missing teeth, a facial dirt smudge that stayed for weeks, hair so unkempt it would scare a comb to death and nostrils that rarely lacked for the company of a digit or two. They didn’t talk so much as snarl, and watching them in action brought to mind the Tasmanian Devil of Warner Brothers cartoon fame.

They would start the minute we got on the bus, leaning over the seat, yelling in our ears and making a general nuisance of themselves. They were astute enough to keep their hands to themselves knowing that Bob would have made quick work of them had they actually hit someone …but on this particular late March afternoon something was different. Maybe there had been a full moon or some trace radiation in the water but they were much more brazen than usual, swinging closer and closer until one of them grabbed a lock of Sherry’s long brown hair and gave it a sharp tug.

I twisted around to face the assailant; it was the oldest brother Brandy and he was sitting there speechless with a slightly dazed grin as if he didn’t know what had just done . I  grabbed the front of his sweatshirt and kind of bounced/shook him back and forth against my fist, repeatedly thumping his chest. With my hand wrapped up in the cloth it wasn’t really so much a punch as shaking – like a terrier with a rat but still with enough force enough to calm all three of them down for the balance of the trip.

There was a specific reason for that tactic: I knew it would get his attention without hurting him and the low level of force applied combined with the location of our seat should have kept everything out of sight of Bob. It wasn’t until I glanced up at Bob’s eyes in the rear view mirror minutes later that I realized that I was mistaken. Bob  was looking right at me , his pale blue laser gaze letting me know that I was definitely busted. I began to sweat; Bob was an institution in Sterling , the custodian/bus driver since the doors opened in the late 1950s. He was this big, taciturn mountain of a guy and even at sixteen I was respectful.

It wasn’t just Bob’s opinion that had me worried though. While it is true that in those times school systems weren’t as jittery about conflict and fighting like they are now, if Bob were to report me I could have gotten into real trouble and possibly lost my bus privileges .  For a minute I considered trying to sneak off the bus before Bob could talk to me but the bus was all but empty before that thought occurred to me.

“David” Bob’s deep voice rumbled more than spoke ” I want you to come up here where I can talk to you before we get to your house.”

( Oh no. Dead meat. Could I get kicked out of school too?)

” I saw what happened back there with you and Brandy – the way you shook him up.”

He paused.

” He needs that to happen to him more often.”

WHAT?

“All three of them all need it. They can’t keep their hands to themselves and I can’t personally take care of them every time they act up. I’m not telling you it’s OK to beat him all the time, but you helped me out a lot  by shaking him up. Made life a lot easier for Sherry and the other girls on the bus as well.”

…and at that point we pulled up at our driveway and I hopped off the bus and went straight to my loft bedroom. During supper that evening my mom kept asking me why I was smiling so much. Was there a new girl at school? Was NBC bringing back Star Trek? Did I have gas? I countered each comment with some vague joke as I finished my meal.

Life on the frontier did not come with a lot of entertainment. Movies were six months in getting to our theaters, songs took six weeks to get to our radio stations, television shows were delayed two weeks …and when they did get there the reception was terrible. The closest bookstores were three hours away in Anchorage so we had to depend on grocery and drug store news stands for a thin supply of comics, magazines and paperback books. The town of Soldotna was referred to as “Slow-dotna” – and not in jest. Into this monotony I had been handed a golden ticket. As I ate dinner I kept thinking of the entertainment value in Bob’s directive to me. I never again laid a hand on any kid on the elementary school bus but one hard glance was enough to send them all scrambling, the sight of which was better than anything I’d ever see in a two week old TV show or 6 month old movie.

Sherry Prinzing

 

My friend Sherry….several years after this story

1970: “My Biscuits Are Burning!”

A few years back I got a copy of Leatherheads in my Christmas stocking. If you don’t know the movie, it is a light-hearted historical interpretation of the beginnings of the National Football League and starred George Clooney. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as much for the visuals and period costuming as for the script and acting, but as I watched the various game scenes I was amazed at the way players would hit so hard with such little protection.

When I finished watching the DVD I tuned in a current NFL game, and as I watched it I was amazed at the protective equipment in that broadcast as well. The helmets, pads and equipment all seemed as far advanced over the gear we used in high school as our gear seemed advanced  over the 1920’s football pads of  Leatherheads

…and then I remembered about the time our helmets and pads didn’t do us much good at all…

Kenai Central Highs School played its inaugural football season in the fall of 1968, joining the Cook Inlet Conference as the smallest AA school in the state of Alaska. We were not a rich school and the district had notoriously tight purse strings – a good portion of the money for equipment came from student donations which meant the best we could get was second-hand gear, an option with both good and bad aspects.

On the good side

  • The gear was cheap

On the bad side

  • It was already pretty beat up from use by the original owners
  • It used older, less effective design

As the resident yokels in the conference we were never expected to achieve much by the Anchorage sports writers but surprisingly enough we tied for second place during that first season. We tied for second again the next year, but were not expected to do well in our third year. Supposedly all our real talent had graduated and third place was the best we could expect – which made for quite a surprise when we beat the league favorite in the season opener.

This upset insured that as we went into our first “away” game for the season we were VERY confident. It was a night game with Dimond high school and general consensus on the team was that we were going to fly up to Anchorage, thump the Dimond Lynx, then swoop back home covered in glory to spend a weekend basking in the adulation of parents, class-mates and (especially) girlfriends.

Reality started creeping into this vision as we boarded a bus to Anchorage on a day of the game – and it wasn’t a comfortable long-distance people transporter like Greyhound.  It was a regular school bus and from the pain and dislocation the seats were causing it was a kindergarten bus rather than one for high school students.  It was a painful four hour drive and as personal stereos were ten years in the future and the bus had no radio we entertained ourselves by quoting dialog from The Smothers Brothers show or Warner Brothers cartoons (my favorite being Yosemite Sam). The trip was so painful that even with a mid-trip break to walk off the cramps we arrived having difficulty simply walking much less engaging in full tilt athletic completion.

Nevertheless we were confident, from the head coach down to the assistant team manager for towel control. As we drove to the stadium we were both optimistic and curious – while this game was one of the few wins predicted for us the Lynx ran a novel defense formation called the “Monster Man”. One very capable defensive player was designated the Monster and had full freedom to line up/position himself anywhere on his team’s side of the scrimmage line, the rationale being that the designated player was large enough, strong enough and smart enough to make a significant difference whether he set up as a defensive lineman, a linebacker or defensive back.

Dimond’s Monster Man looked to be all that on paper. While not too terribly tall he was dense, tipping the scales at 245 pounds but reportedly could run almost as fast as a sprinter and could bench press his own weight plus 25 extra pounds.  As we drove and watched the Lynx warming up he certainly didn’t look to be all that formidable, but our coaches weren’t taken in.  “He’s putting on a show” one of them muttered “He’s running and drilling at half-speed to throw us off….”

No sooner were those words out of his mouth when we were rushed off the bus and into the locker room.  Our bus trip had taken longer than expected and kick-off was going to happen very, very soon – and to complicate matters the maintenance crew was just finishing reworking the line work on the field.  Back-to-back games the previous weekend combined with heavy autumn rains had obliterated so much of the yard, sideline and end-zone markings that the stadium crew had had trouble getting enough of powdered lime to do the job.

We got dressed and headed for the field and as usual I was the first guy through the paper hoop, after which I ran to the end of the bench to sit down to play guard and tackle (I was to guard the water bucket and tackle anyone trying to drink out of it who hadn’t just come out of play). The inactivity of “riding the pine” got on my nerves so started in with my Yosemite Sam imitations …but I also got a chance to study the game at close distance and it was evident that this game was not going to be the walk-over we had expected.

I learned that lesson first hand when it came time for me to go into the game with one of the special teams. It all went like clockwork:

  1. I lined up in correct stance
  2. The center hiked the ball
  3. I looked up to see Dimond’s Monster Man heading towards my side of the line
  4. The lights went out.

When the lights came back on my first thought was “when did they plant a tree in the middle of the field?”– then it dawned on me that the Monster Man had been doing exactly what our coach had surmised: he had been sand-bagging during warm-ups but went full-tilt during the game – and was knocking the stuffings out of us.

Not that he was doing it alone, but at the end of the game Dimond had beaten us 28-12. Never one to be shy and retiring, our head coach proceeded to chew us out from one end of the locker room to another –  and while I am not a fan of negative reinforcement, I do have to admit that  given the cocky attitude with which we went into the game some of his  comments were well deserved.  However, the pain of that dressing down paled into comparison with what was to come.

Remember the last minute effort to re-line the playing field? In their haste to get the job done by kickoff time the maintenance crew had somehow gotten their hands on industrial-strength lime which formed a caustic paste when mixed with the water left on the field after the previous week’s rainfall. For once I was glad to have spent most of the game on the bench, escaping with minor burns around my ankles. Other more active members of the team weren’t quite so lucky, particularly the starting center, guards and running backs who’d spent most of the night grinding yardage out in the mud.

The worst case was one of our halfbacks who was badly burned across his posterior from playing with this shirt tail out which allowed the lime to work its way down the back of his pants. I will never forget the sight of him hopping and howling around the shower room with the coach chasing behind him armed with the spray-can full of analgesic foam.  I will no doubt burn in hell but I couldn’t help but whisper “My biscuits are burning! My biscuits are burning” in my best Yosemite Sam voice as that young man bounced around the locker room trying to avoid the additional pain of the analgesic spray.

It was the kind of thing that would probably bring on a lawsuit in this day and age but back then we just dealt with it as a cosmic comeuppance for our pregame hubris. It was a stinging blow to our collective adolescent ego, but some good came out of the defeat. Emphasis changed from grandstand plays to good solid technique, making us a better team, eventually tying for first place. ..and while I didn’t play much that night it prompted a change in me as well.  I went away from the game a little wiser as well, remembering to add a bit more caution to decisions I made later in my life.

…and I still can’t watch a Yosemite Sam cartoon without thinking of Mike hopping around the locker room and trying to dodge that spray can….

1970: Crowbar Choices

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My personal hard-drive came preloaded with “Believer” software – I didn’t have to acquire the idea of a “Higher Power” because it was already there.  Sadly a sense of personal relationship/connection was not quite so automatic and it has taken me a lifetime to figure out how I fit into the Eternal scheme of things.  My innate tendency to be very literal didn’t help much either and I often had to devise my own parables and analogies as aids in understanding.

For example, in James 3:4 it says “Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth” I kind of got it – I’d been on several types of ships and boats and ships and understood the idea of a rudder, but it just didn’t click.

I had to come up with my own version.

I grew up on the Kenai Peninsula (in Alaska) and worked blue-collar labor as a teenager and young man. Some of that work consisted of building things – and some of it involved tearing things apart. I spent the summer of 1971 building a house but before we could start we had to tear down an old homesteader’s shack and I found that the demolition process went much faster with the use of a crowbar.  Nails that defied all other efforts would ease out with a loud squeak when I hooked the notch of a crowbar under the nail’s head.

1971 was also the year I graduated from high school and as my departure date for college loomed I realized I would be facing some important decisions that would have an impact on my future life all out of proportion to the immediate thought or effort involved.  I could see a correlation between those decisions and the way a moderate amount of force on that crowbar exerted a much larger upward force on the nail to be removed.

Small effort yields big results.

Now that was an analogy that I could understand and remember – and I use often it to describe some of the turning points in my life where actions seemed insignificant at the time but brought about very important developments later in my life: crowbar choices.  For example, making the drawing pictured above was a very small thing entailing at most an evening’s work, but it crowbarred me into my creative career.

Working as an artist was never considered an option for me as a kid. Growing up on a frontier meant my role-models were blue-collar working men, almost all of them veterans so I anticipated becoming a carpenter, roustabout or soldier when I was grown up. Besides, my older sister had the art field staked out and the most encouragement I ever got at home was “those sacks of horse feed look real good stacked in the tack shed.”  Art was just another interest I periodically cycled through like archery, Scouts, models or sports– until I hit high school.

The first week of school I ran into three artistic types – Nils Osmar, Jim Kluting and Pat Malone – and they were all wicked good.  In my judgment they were ready right then to be penciling for DC or Marvel, their talent so totally overwhelming that I almost quit drawing out of frustration right then and there. To my amazement (and benefit) though none of the three were overbearing about their abilities and I ended up learning from each one of them.  From then on each time art would surface in that cycle of interests I would get a little better, until I came up with what you see above.

I drew it in the winter of 1970 and when I was done I was quite pleased (a first).  I showed the drawing to my mom; she smiled and said she liked it (another first).  I don’t think I showed it to any of the Big Three but it was at that point that I decided I was going to work on my drawing all the time rather than just when it turned up in the cycle. That was the crow-bar point for my creative career. There wasn’t much effort in making the decision; just a matter of picking up a pencil more often but it was enough to get me going in a positive manner.

It was another two years before that commitment turned into a resolve to actively pursue a creative career and it took another five years of training and four years of part-time work before I became a full-time illustrator.  I have been working in the field and garnered awards for many years since then but during all that time I’ve had this nagging fear that one of those three creative wunderkind would surface and poach all my clients

After high school I soon lost track of the Big Three: Nils moved to Seattle, Jim joined the Marines and Pat stayed on the Kenai while I left for schooling.  For years I had no idea what they were up to, but I lived in dread that someday one of them would surface in my market  possessing skills as far ahead of mine as they had in 1967 – and take all my clients away. I’d  like to be able to say that I have put that fear to rest but I can’t; I finally made contact with Nils and Jim and they both pursued slightly divergent fields from the one I took …but I haven’t been in touch with Pat Malone.

I’m not so sure I want to know what he’s been up to…