Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Random Act

The late summer/early fall of 1964 proved to be sunny and warm. I and all of my Woodbury Heights classmates and the kids from three other towns were getting used to our new high school in the fields behind my home.
Most of the guys I used to play with were becoming more interested in playing sports on the Gateway teams, so I didn't see much of them on the weekends now. In the past, Steve Kay and I and Paul LaPann and Billy Hills and lots of others would be fighting the battles of one war or another, chasing each other through the woods and fields all over town.
It was harder for Steve and I to get any of our former classmates to join in. I can't explain our fascination for playing war, except to say that we were comfortable in our imaginations. Whether charging across the grounds of the Episcopal Church or using the garage in the Clay's yard as the Alamo, it was an exciting way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
We delighted in making gun, aircraft and artillery sounds. Steve and I could spend hours in his basement moving German and British soldiers across the miniature desert, most likely driving his mother to distraction with all of our noise.
Steve had also introduced me to the world of Avalon Hill games, war games played out on large folding boards representing the terrain of some of the most famous battles in history. You moved little cardboard squares representing infantry, armor artillery and motorized units. Combat was resolved using dice: the outcome determined by the roll, the strength of the units, and charts that would tell you the results. The first game was called Tactics II, pitting the blue army against the red. Once you mastered this game you were ready for the more advanced and "realistic" campaigns like Afrika Korps and Gettysburg. For military history freaks like me, this was Nirvana. Here I was commanding the actual units that fought at Tobruk and Cemetery Ridge. I could play those games all day and never tire of them.
But there was to be one last battle with our old comrades, one last hurrah on the fields of honor - well, Steve's back yard.
Steve had somehow convinced Paul and his brothers Joe and Dave to join in the war with us one bright sunny day in late September or early October. There was Steve and his brothers Howe and David and me and a few others.
It didn't matter to me what battle we'd play out, Paul was with us even if it was to be one last time.
We charged and yelled and died on the steps of the Episcopal Church, our battle flags flying. Charge and counter charge and the occasional argument over whether or not you were really shot by someone and had to fall down. We screamed and died and made our best battle sounds, whirling and shouting throughout the afternoon.
The battle was drawing to a close with one side holed up in the small wooden shed behind Steve's house. The shed was assaulted time and again with each charge repulsed by its determined defenders. One last effort was made and the door was breached, and the attackers moved in, pushing the defenders into the walls of the shed. The wall moved under the stress of all those young bodies, and a large cracking noise could be heard.
It was a spontaneous move by all of us. We got caught up in some sort of hysteria and we all began to hurl ourselves at the wall of the shed, once, then again and again, until the wall had broken free and toppled onto the ground. We repeated this action over and over, bashing our bodies into the small structure, until nothing was left standing. We stood panting and sweating, surveying the results of our savagery. There was no longer a shed, just a wooden floor and a pile of boards. We laughed embarrassed laughs, amazed at the damage we had done. Some scurried away, not wanting to wait around to see what Steve's parents would have to say about all this.
Father Kay did not yell at us, which made us feel even worse about what we had done. No, he was cool and calm in his lecture to us with just enough edge in his voice to let us know how disappointed he was in our behavior. The shed would have to be put back together, and it would be some time before any battles could take place on the grounds of the Episcopal Church again.
We put the shed back together.
Steve and his brothers were grounded for quite some time.
None of us could ever explain why we did it.
Such senseless violence in the middle of our war.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Study Time

There were days during the week that you were given free time to catch up on your homework, or to read a book, or just sit there and vegetate. These moments were called Study Hall. A grand notion, a generous gift-time to do homework in school so you could be free to pursue other interests after the bell to go home had rung.
The only problem was, the places they picked for us to "study".
I had Study Hall in the auditorium of all places. Sitting in auditorium seats without a surface to write on, so your biggest book or your three ring binder became a desk top. If the subject you had homework in was in your biggest book, well then you might be out of luck. There was no place else to put the rest of your books and other stuff you might be carrying. Oh, you could try and place them on the seat next to you, but it would keep trying to close up on you, or your books would slide down to the floor. It was a juggling act. We looked like the Three Stooges at an informal dinner party, trying to balance plates on our knees.
The lighting was dim to non-existent, and most of the time my pen or pencil would pop through my paper from the lack of a proper hard surface to write on. My papers would be sliding out from under me, and those slippery book covers meant the occasional avalanche of text books sliding under the seats in front of you.
You could tell that teachers did not appreciate having to do Study Hall duty. They approached it with an air of resentment, that "I don't want to be here any more than you do" attitude. They patrolled the Study Hall like prison guards, looking for any signs of conversation and prodding those just sitting there to do something constructive. As if sitting in a semi-dark cavern that's too cold from the air-conditioning without proper seating was conducive to scholarly endeavors.
The cafeteria wasn't much better, but sometimes there I was sitting at one of those long tables jammed in with the rest of my classmates, shoulder to shoulder. The lighting was better, but there wasn't a lot of room if you needed to spread out, and the wardens were there to keep us all in line.
I tried. I tried to do my homework in Study Hall, but it was next to impossible for me, so I just perfected the art of looking busy. I could stare at a book with the best of them, or just doodle for the entire hour or so, looking like I was deep in thought.
There were the rebellious among us. A defiant sneer at the teacher when told they should be doing something, or an out and out protest, usually resulting in them being sent out of the room, something they wanted anyway.
For the vast majority of us, we kept our heads down buried in our books.
That is, if we could keep them from falling to the floor.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Book Covers And Other Junk

Seventh Grade moves slowly. I’m forging new friendships and trying to hold on to the old. Steve Kay and I are in 7C, the only boys from our former Sixth Grade class in Woodbury Heights. Vince Fitzgerald is in 7C as well, but he was in the “other” Sixth Grade, and didn’t share all of our experiences.
I miss the cloakroom. My locker combination doesn’t always work, so I have to bang the door just under the lock sometimes before it will open. I don’t have much that someone would want to steal. My jacket? My school books? Once in a while my gym bag? I didn’t have to worry about thieves in Woodbury Heights Elementary. I guess with more kids there’s more temptation.
Our teachers are obsessed with book covers. Some of them are rabid about it. All of the textbooks are brand new, and they want us to keep them that way. Remember to cover your books, they remind us. Some of them demand that we buy the “official” Gateway book covers and not use the paper bag covers our mothers make for us. The Gateway book covers are blue and white of course, with the Gator logo in a kind of laminated glossy paper. I prefer the home-made paper bag cover myself. They provide you with an empty canvas on which to doodle. Mine are usually covered with my “art work” by the middle of the year and a bit worn so I have to get my Mom to make some new ones. The Gateway covers are slippery which makes it hard to hold onto your books. They slide out of the racks under my desks if I’m not careful. Stacking your books under your seat is a daily juggling act I could do without.
There are other official obsessions.
The dress code for one. No blue jeans or shorts. Boys must wear shirts with collars-no t-shirts whatsoever. The girls must wear skirts and blouses or dresses. They can’t wear slacks. They can get away with wearing coullottes, which is a skirt that looks like a pair of shorts. We cannot have long hair like the Beatles or the Beach Boys, and every boy must be clean-shaven. Beards and mustaches are forbidden. Not too many of us can grow them quite yet anyway.
Are the girls’ gym teachers obsessed with them wearing their gym clothes the way Mr. Williamson is? Whatever you do, don’t forget your jockstrap or your white socks. I have nightmares about gym days. I dream that I’ve forgotten my gym bag and Williamson is having a ball humiliating me in front of the whole class. Do the girls have to endure this kind of nonsense?
The gym is finished and we run in circles in our half. There’s this pull-out wall separating the girls from the boys. This seems ridiculous after years of recess and lunch time on the playground. It was always boys and girls together, but now that we’re older they don’t want us to mingle. What is on the minds of our school board anyway?
When the sports season begins we have pep rallies. We’re supposed to whip ourselves into some sort of school spirit frenzy, all of us one mind and body united in hatred for the schools our teams will be playing. I feel weird going to pep rallies. They remind me of the newsreels of the Nuremberg rallies the Nazis used to have. We’re encouraged to scream and yell and worship our guys like they’re some sort of Olympic gods or something. I don’t want to be there, but I have to be. Inside I laugh at the spectacle.
I don’t consider myself a “Gator” yet. I don’t know what I am but I know I’m not a blue reptile that swims in a swamp.
Some days of the week they separate the boys and the girls for the special classes. Industrial Arts for the boys and Home Economics for the girls. Only boys want to be carpenters or mechanics or architects don’t you know? Only girls want to learn how to cook and to sew. It’s 1964 outside, but it might as well be 1954 in the building. No one asked me.
The shops aren’t finished yet so we spend most of our time watching films about how engines work and about shop safety. We have Mechanical Drawing using T-squares and funny – looking triangular rulers. This is precision three-dimensional drawing, displaying the sizes and angles. I have trouble getting the arrowheads on my dimension lines correct, but on the whole I like Mechanical Drawing and the discipline it encourages. I would like to know how to cook, though. Chef Boy-ar-dee had to learn somewhere, didn’t he?
I’m not enjoying Gateway Regional High School, at least not yet. My grades are good and I’ve got my best friend Steve Kay in my class, but it’s not the same as Woodbury Heights Elementary. I wonder how the kids from the other towns feel? How are they making out getting up earlier and waiting for buses to ship them off miles away from home.
At least I don’t have to ride a bus every day.
I’d hate to have to ride one of those damn things.
Wait a second- did I just say damn?
Now where did that come from?