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.

 

1969: With a Little Luck

“Hey Dave – what did that new guy have to say about moving to the Peninsula?”

 “New guy? Hey Pat – I wasn’t talking to a guy – I was talking to Rhonda the girl who just moved up from somewhere in Texas.”

 “You need to clean the wax out of your ears – and maybe get some glasses too. The name is Ron and he’s most definitely a guy. I’m pretty sure because he’s in my gym class and unlike you I don’t need glasses”

 “What?”

 “Hey – it was probably his long hair that threw you off. Well, gotta run!”

 I stood at my locker long enough to jump when the tardy bell rang. Well this was a first – I had notoriously bad luck with girls, but never had I been desperate enough to mistake a slim long-haired guy for a chick.

 “I ought to have my head examined…”

…a sentiment that came up again when I walked into the pep rally later that afternoon to see Pat Malone sitting up at the top row of the bleachers, arm-in-arm with the new girl Rhonda whose tailored blouse firmly established her gender once she’d removed her parka.

He’d done it again. Not only was Patrick light years ahead of me in drawing skills, he was ahead of me in fox-hunting as well. It didn’t matter if I’d set my sights on Joan, Jeanne, Joni or Pam – Pat Malone was always one step ahead of me with one arm around the young lady in question. I couldn’t fault him for taste, but just once …

“Pretty slick, isn’t he?”

I jumped just a bit at the unexpected comment – I hadn’t noticed anyone behind me. Doing my best to channel all the class of Sean Connery I turned and replied

HUH?”

(better make that George Lazenby)

Sitting next to the exit was the merriest pair of brown eyes ever. Attached to those brown eyes was Jeanne Lyddel, one of those near-miss-to-Pat-Malone young ladies that I had been just thinking about.  I had a weakness for brown-eyed blondes and had noticed her during registration the previous fall, but then Pat magically appeared next to her sitting in the bleachers that day as well, her hand in his while they compared class schedules.

“What is it about Malone and the bleachers in the gym? I thought “The guy can do magic in here. I cannot believe his luck! It’s like he drew a perpetual cow tag during moose season and dropped one in his back yard on opening day!”  Nevertheless, I had to admit he was good. I walked out of the gym murmuring “…since day one of our freshman year he’s never failed to shoot me out of the saddle…”

“Shoot you out of the saddle?” Jeanne had overheard my murmuring….

“It’s just an expression. When another guy manages to hustle-away a girl just before you get a chance to ask her out.”

She sat up and interrupted “You mean you -? Did you know that Pat and I…?”

>URK<

I looked away blushing, my face as scarlet as the KCHS Kardinal mascot and casually changed the subject “Hey – why do you th>INK< its spelled with a “K” instead of a “C?” my voice cracking with sheer terror mid-dodge.

“What?”

 “The ‘K’ in Kardinals. Kenai Kardinals.  Why isn’t it a C? Oops – gotta go now!”.

I narrowly avoided running over my friend Jim on the way out and he smirked in my general direction, launching a “I’ve-seen-you-do-better-Rave!” rocket at me as I shot past to a blush-free sanctuary outside the gymnasium door. My goal for the 1968-69 academic year had nothing to do with grade point averages; my goal was to be able to stand near a girl I liked and not become terminally twitter-pated. To be able to carry on an intelligent conversation with someone I was interested in, to somehow escape the nerd boy inside that could dissolve into “homina-homina-homina -duuuhhhh – drool. Me like pretty girl”. Judging from my trip-hammer pulse I wasn’t quite there yet – so it was no wonder it took an exit from the gymnasium at a dead run to achieve some semblance of cool.

I was semi-surprised the next day to see Jeanne sitting in the same set of bleachers during lunch, but the surprise became total when she looked over, made eye-contact and smiled. I walked over and sat down, and when I managed to not spontaneously burst into flames we were able to have a nice conversation. At that point we started to became friends, which slowly began to morph into a pattern of stealth-dating which was the only way for me to see  someone given my age and situation.1 Something like a “Boy’s Night Out” with Jim and Jesse would be the plan presented when getting permission to go to the show or a dance but in reality, once I was dropped off I’d link up with Jeanne who’d pursued much the same tactics in getting out of her own home for the evening.

The relationship was very low-key, but spring2 was in the air and I was quite taken with the novelty, the magic of a girl who ACTUALLY LIKED ME AT THE SAME TIME I LIKED HER!. Signs of serious twitter-pation began to appear:

  • Absently mindedly writing her name over and over on my notebook.
  • Saving pencils she’d chewed on.
  • My heart skipping a beat whenever I’d hear “I Can Hear Music” by the Beach Boys.

Most importantly I was learning to relax, enjoy her company and be myself.

It was all developing nicely until our abnormally spring weather turned chilly and the high school’s water pipes broke one early morning just before the busses started dropping off students. Citing health hazard brought about by the lack of water fountains, showers and toilets, the administration (eventually) decided to cancel classes for the day. Unfortunately, at that point every bus was either back in the garage or moving elementary school students, so we were all left to mill about for a couple of hours…or in my case cruise around Kenai with my friend Gary. Given the state of the Kenai Peninsula’s infrastructure in 1969 we quickly ran out of road for cruising and that’s when I got the bright idea to go find where Jeanne lived and pay a visit.

I knew that she lived somewhere in Woodland Subdivision, so we drove over, parked the truck and started walking up and down the streets looking for her home.  We been afoot for just five minutes when we noticed residents of the subdivision watching us carefully out of their windows, understandably concerned to see teenage boys wandering around during the middle of a school day. By the time I found Jeanne’s house, word of our presence had preceded us, and she was not happy to see me. For the first time those brown eyes were definitely not merry and when my every effort to draw out a laugh from her failed, I elbowed Gary and we left.  On the long drive home, I kept telling myself that everything would work out OK, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something major had happened that I just wasn’t getting.

Again, there was no “happy” in her eyes when we met up the next morning at school. She quietly told me that she was disappointed and felt I had been too forward in showing up at her house the day before. While she didn’t specifically hand me my walking papers I took the hint and from then on avoided our spot on the bleachers during lunchtime. We spoke only intermittently during the rest of the school year as I assumed any relationship that may have existed between us was rapidly fading away if not already gone.

There have been times in life when I have been lost to epic proportions, but whether we’re talking about flying to a stage field at FT Rucker, running an orienteering course at FT Lewis or searching for bogus referrals in Rhode Island, I have never been as lost as I was at that point. I was feeling some pretty complex emotions and could not figure out what was going on.

  • I could tell when someone disliked me.
  • I could tell when someone was angry with me.
  • I could tell when someone thought I was a total dork.

…but the idea of simple conflict resolution in a relationship was utterly foreign. I had no previous experience with the situation due to the dynamics of a bi-polar family, especially a bi-polar family of Celtic extraction, which did not foster belief in happy endings.  All I could tell was that there was a new kind of hurt going on. I didn’t feel like hitting anything, I didn’t feel like crying, but I did have a kind of sick, hollow feeling that had all the indications of sticking around the long haul.

That all-or-nothing mindset persisted, and I missed several shots at resolution:

  • My best friend Jim ran into Jeanne at the mall and later reported that the conversation was basically “please tell David to call me!”
  • During my own mall run-in her next-door neighbor said the same thing and pointedly told me several times in the conversation that Jeanne still liked me.
  • When her father was transferred to Kansas a third friend passed on Jeanne’s new address, urging me to write.

…all of which I failed to act on.

In retrospect the experience was a bit more than just six lost weeks during the spring of 1969. I really did learn some important lessons.

  • I discovered that there was a depth and complexity to relationships that I hadn’t realized before. Love wasn’t just a matter of people liking each other.
  • I got a brief look at how truly functional families interacted – caring, responsible parents and responsible teenagers. The day I showed up at Jeanne’s house her mom had been present in the background doing some nondescript chore and while she didn’t actively participate in the conversation it was plain she was aware of what was going on. I was more accustomed to kids just being yelled at or totally ignored.

Because the whole thing covered such a brief time span and happened so long ago I hesitate to say I was in love with Jeanne Lyddel, but I do know that it was the first time that my attraction for a young lady had any measure of complexity… so the odds are she was in fact my first love.

… and my heart still skips a beat when I hear “I Can Hear Music” by the Beach Boys.

 

 


 

  1. See 1971: “…then Dave discovered girls…:
  2. More like the musty smell of Break-up

 

1969: “Party Hearty…hardly”

One of the first things you learn when starting a running program is this:  The best runners don’t compete with other people – they compete with themselves. Rather than trying to best another person, they try to beat their own time. It’s a good idea in general to set personal standards to measure success. I’ve applied the concept several times in my life, but the most useful personal benchmark has to do with “getting in trouble” and by that I don’t mean life-altering hardship, setbacks or personal challenges – “trouble” as in “Awwwmmmm – you’re in trouble. Mrs. Blinzler wants to see you after recess.”1

In early 1969 I helped organize a party that got me into so much trouble I’ve used it as a gauge for the rest of my life. How did it come about? The same way normally rational people get in unforeseen trouble: Life became too comfortable. Whether you’re reading academic records, scriptural accounts or even bardic oral tradition, one lesson humanity has had to learn over and over is that any time life gets too comfortable we get into mischief. Such self-inflicted shots in the foot can take many forms, but in my case my it wasn’t a golden calf, it my part in planning a beer bust at Jim Kluting’s house on the last night of February 1969.

As I have written elsewhere, my sophomore year in high school was much better than my freshman year and in some ways it was the most enjoyable of my entire high school experience. I was doing well in my studies, I was part of a tight circle of friends and involved in an after-hours judo program. There was a happy balance in my life – for example while it looked like Star Trek was going to be cancelled in the spring, the Beatles graced us with the White Album just after Christmas.

It was also just after the Christmas break2 we started planning a party. Looking around It seemed like everyone in the school was going out on weekends and getting tanked/smashed/blitzed/blotto/feeling no pain while we just shared Playboy party jokes at lunch time. Even I could see we were missing out on something, so we arranged our own “event” for the last Saturday in February – which took some careful coordination as our average age was fifteen and only a couple guys could drive. Through a bit of low-grade subterfuge and careful planning we ended up with three different sleepovers scheduled for the weekend; the sleepovers serving as marshalling areas for the party supplies which we would then amass at Jim Kluting’s house for the event.

My base of operations would be Spike’s house where  we made liberal use of his father’s liquor cabinet in our preparation, carefully stowing the bottles in my old seventh grade book bag. Our friend Louie had somehow convinced his dad to drive him (and his beer) to the party but the white-hot rumor of all rumors involved the Holland sisters who were reportedly coming with beer of their own as well.

The weekend finally arrived, and the various teams started their preparations. I was a little concerned – Spike and I had jumped the gun by knocking back a beer apiece, but most of mine ended up on my coat and the alcohol that did make it into my system was apparently having no effect. I was beginning to wonder if the party was going to be as “off the hook” as we had hoped.

I started into an emotional yo-yo:

  • YO-YO UP: We got out of Spike’s house with the alcohol undetected.
  • YO-YO DOWN: At the last-minute Louie’s dad backed out on giving him beer.
  • YO-YO UP: The Holland sisters showed up for the party.
  • YO-YO DOWN: They weren’t able sneak any of their dad’s beer out of the house.

Undeterred and primed for a raucous, wild night of hedonistic depravity we showed up at the appointed hour at Jim’s door, which I proceeded to pound on wildly with my fist.

Quiet.

“Did we get the date wrong?”

The door opened to a scene of sedate activity. Jim and a half-dozen early arrivals were sitting at card tables playing various games. Jim’s mom had some Jiffy-Pop on the stove and the tables were laden with such exotic and forbidden beverages as Shasta Orange Soda, Seven-up and for those with even more sophisticated taste there was Coca-Cola. Once again, my literal sense of perception had blinded me to the fact that most of the talk about the “off-the-hook” party had been just that: talk  and that only a few of us really did come prepared for a blow-out.

Spike and I were shortly joined by a few other true believers and our party-within-a-party retired out to the driveway to salvage the night. I ended up with one of the Holland sisters in Greg Matranga’s El Camino where nothing more noteworthy than a little snuggling went on. Oh, we did have a Mason jar full of a screwdriverish mix of Shasta Orange Cola and vodka but drinking it made my lip curl and I gave up when more of the hideous concoction ended up on my coat than down my gullet. I went back in the house, apologized to Jim and his mom, and then Spike and I caught a ride back to his house, a little embarrassed but glad everything had been tied up nicely by the end of the evening.

It was early the next week that I found out I was mistaken when I encountered one of the greatest dangers of the Last Frontier; something infinitely more dangerous than bears, wolves, moose, earthquakes, avalanches, ravenous clouds of mosquitos or plane crashes.

A threat to life and limb that made all of these perils fade next to nothing.

An angry mom with high standards for her kids.

Evidently the Holland sister I had been cuddled up had spilled a single drop of our pseudo-screwdriver on her polka-dot slacks – which was enough to wake her mom up from a sound sleep in the master bedroom on the other side of their home. After grilling her daughters most of the night for information, she started tracking down other party participants to their homes, met with parents and started a cascade of parental discipline that had a significant percentage of the sophomore class grounded within 48 hours of the party.

For some reason she didn’t get my name, but Spike’s mom did call my folks and warn them that a crazy lady from North Kenai had started a witch-hunt. As soon as the call was over Mom and Dad started grilling me about the weekend, but I managed to avoid any real punishment by deflecting my parent’s inquiries in a masterpiece of verbal legerdemain:3

  • “Mom, where would I get money to buy beer?”
  • “Who would buy it for me?”
  • “Do you really think I would do something like that?”

For the next two weeks Spike and I lived like escaped POWs trying to blend in with the general German population while Mrs. Holland kept up the witch-hunt for other party-goers. I was so spooked at the prospect of Serious Trouble my stomach was constantly upset but eventually life settled back down to normal and I no longer jumped whenever our phone unexpectedly rang in the evening.

I laid low and rode out the clock, spending two weeks holed up in my room entranced by the White Album, then losing six weeks when I fell in then out of love4.  By that time the academic year was coming to a close; final exams and starting a new job with the Neighborhood Youth Corps absorbed all my spare time and thought, but it was our big pointedly non-alcoholic group date/end of school party that painted over the February debacle for good.

In my best neurotic fashion, I over-analyzed the issue in my mind several times over the summer break and came up with the following conclusions:

  • Alcohol was definitely not my friend. The drunken pleasure or “buzz” that classmates were always talking about just didn’t happen for me.
  • Nothing in life was pleasant enough for me to deal with that much trouble again.

Two Years Later

Debbie and I were cuddled up on the bleachers at a wrestling match, the action on the mat taking second place to the simple pleasure of each other’s company. We were also having a good time with other friends sitting in the general area, one of them being the younger of the two Holland sisters who had been at Jim’s party. Pam was now a varsity cheerleader and we were laughing and responding to her routine, and in general having a good time.  During a break she came over to talk but as she ran back out she waved to a middle-aged woman sitting just to the side and said, “Love you Mom!”

URK!

I was sitting within slapping range of the Witch Hunter from 1969!  My distress must have shown because Debbie started asking if I was feeling OK and when my Dad unexpectedly showed up (he didn’t know about Debbie5) I didn’t blink an eye. That familiar yet unwelcome churning in my stomach started up again and I began mentally calculating how quickly I could get to the exit, but then there was another break in the action and Pam showed up at the side of the bleachers.

Again, my distress must have been very obvious because she leaned over and whispered, “Don’t worry, she forgot about the party a long time ago”. All the tension left my body and I settled back down on the bleachers in relief – and thankful that my resolution to stay out of trouble had also kept me out of Mrs. Holland’s radar long enough for the trouble to go away.

…. now I just had to figure out what to tell my Dad about Debbie.

___________________________________________________________________________

  1. Why do little kids all instinctly say “Ahhhmmm – you’re in trouble” Why that particular phoneme? Why don’t they say “Ah-oogah – you’re in trouble”?
  2. Most of the dumber stunts I’ve witnessed in myself and friends happened deep in the winter. I think the lack of sunlight has something to do with it. The lack of daylight is supposed to bring on SAD (Seasonal Adjustive Disorder) but I’ve also though it was more accurately expressed as Seasonal Adjustive Dumba**)
  3. It was only later that I realized I probably hadn’t been as clever as I figured. Dad was standing a step behind Mom as they were grilling me, and she couldn’t see him roll his eyes at that last response.
  4. See blog post 1969: With a Little Luck (to be published).
  5. See blog post 1971: …then Dave discovered girls.

1970: Requiem for Harvey

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!”

“What?”

“I said take a walk. Get out of my classroom. Now!

>POP<

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!

“DEITRICK!”

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! “

“NOW!”

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 onMahoney 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Avoid snarky remarks in general unless you’re in trusted company.
  3. If there’s no way to stop the remark – make it funny.

 


 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

StrikeAPose1969

 

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 coming.  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….