Ninth grade, The year I spent in Sodom and Gomorrah Junior High, Part I
Be careful what you wish for you may get it… then again you may not. I presumed I had my life figured out by the time I finished the seventh grade. I would complete my eight year term as a catholic elementary school student; move on to catholic high school and probably attend a catholic college. Notre Dame seemed like a good choice. They were Catholic, had a good football team and like I said they were Catholic. Truly a match made in heaven.
After college I would become a world renowned surgeon, the first America pope, or perhaps the first pope who was a part-time surgeon. Once I was rich, respected and universally admired, one of the beautiful young ladies from my class would gladly consent to be my Mrs. Pope. Admittedly, I did not think the whole thing through. If somehow my stars did not align exactly right, I could follow my father’s advice, save my money and buy a large pumper truck and clean septic tanks for a living. I must say my dad had the soundest logic. “People eat, people… (Let’s say he said poop, truthfully he knew plenty of four letter words but poop was not one of them) poop. The surgeon is not going to put his hands in poop; the damn pope ain’t putting his hands in poop. They are going to pay someone to do it for them. It might as well be you. A case of bleach is much cheaper than a college education.”
Early in the eighth grade there was a disturbance in my universe. The stars didn’t just fail to align properly but they got sucked into a black hole. Times were changing and the run down dump of a high school my sister attended was shut down. It wasn’t like it was a sudden change; it had been discussed for a while and they actually closed the school in 1963. It was at this time I discovered my superpower. I am able to completely ignore the inevitable.
They had already built John Carrol High School. The deal was that it would welcome all the students from my school. It was big and bright and expensive. It seemed like it would work out until we got to the expensive part. My parents just about filled our septic tank when they saw the price of my dreams. That was a common occurrence when money was discussed. I started to understand why my dad wanted a pumper truck in the family.
After the initial shock, a public school education did not seem so bad. I knew a couple of kids in the neighborhood who attended public schools. Most of my teammates on the sports teams never experienced growing up in the sister knows best world. They seemed quite normal. There were five or six classmates parents were also experiencing digestive problems and they, like me, would experience the cultural shock of the public school system. My mother said everything would fine and I would meet new friends. I realized she had told me the same thing eight years ago, before she walked me to my first day of Catholic School. Fool me once, shame on you. Mom lost some credibility after that. She just went to the “you will meet new friends” well once too often.
For some reason I felt a real empathy for the nuns and classmates, I would leave behind. Years later I discovered this feeling had a name it was called the Stockholm syndrome. Everything in the classroom seemed to change after I announced I would not be accompanying my class to the new high school. It was as if I contracted some rare disease. Sister Caroline tried to be nice, while she patrolled the classroom carrying a ping pong paddle just in case nice wasn’t getting it done. An experienced more worldly nun, she maintained a safe distance just in case the fire and brimstone started to rain down. My classmates were more subtle but were torn between praying for my lost soul and holding up a crucifix when I came within contamination range.
My options were limited. I could graduate with my class or take a dive and get held back a year. In those days, schools had no problem with keeping you back a year if you didn’t do the work. Parochial school didn’t mind taking your parents for another year’s worth of tuition. But, option one was never really an option because the last thing you wanted to be was a stupid kid the nuns could not heal. The sisters operated under the premises that they may not be able to cure stupid, but they sure as hell could beat it into remission. My final option was a miracle from heaven where my parents would suddenly come into a large sum of money and hear God say. “For Christ’s sake send the boy to the new school.” I knew it was over when I heard the fat lady sing in church. I was in the pre-pubic school curriculum.
I spent the majority of my last year in Catholic school trying to remain part of a group that was speeding away. In my dreams I was running with my class but could only watch as the distance between us grew. I was out of breath, running as fast as I could but I could not move. Looking down, my feet and legs were stuck in sand. When I looked up, my classmates were gone and I was alone, standing in a dessert. I would wake up with my heart pounding and extremely thirsty. Metaphorically, I said good bye long before the school year ended.
It was the summer 1965 and I was waiting to see what hell awaited me. I had no idea.
I was fourteen with the house to myself. This should have been one of those magical summers. A summer I would relive over and over again in my mind: an adventurous time I would never be able to tell my future children. At summer’s end I would stroll into my new school with a smile and a confidence that told my story without words. Yes, it truly would have been magical… if I had thought of it. Damn it sister. You may have saved my soul but you ruined my summer.
We did not take family vacations or individual vacations for that matter. There was an occasional day trip to one of the local beaches. Mom liked the one with the clean sand where she could read and worry about her children drowning, my dad getting drunk or the Russians dropping a nuclear bomb on our house while we were enjoying our day out. My dad wasn’t as complicated; all he wanted was a place to buy beer and a chance to agitate my mom as often as possible. There was not a lot of eager anticipation about a vacation. The prevailing attitude was “let’s just try and survive this day and move on.”
Most of the time a trip to Bergs to get ice cream was about as good as it was going to get. Of course we didn’t have the money to spurge that often, so usually we were content to wait for the Good Humor truck come down the road on Sunday afternoons. We didn’t have to go anywhere, no conversations were needed. It was the perfect day.
My parents, who were always looking out for my welfare, decided that I needed something to do with my summer. They purchased a couple of gallons of orange shellac, some alcohol and brushes. This gave me everything I needed to refinish all the woodwork in our house. If you have never experienced opening a can of shellac in 95 degree weather with no air condition, don’t!
Shellac is made from a South American beetle. It is like trying to brush on water. It drips, it is smelly, sticky and dries quicker than you can say, “Is it dry yet?” 1965 must have been the Chinese year of the bug because I would not able to escape them.
About four weeks into my summer, my parents noticed I had a few brain cells left so I was appointed the resident exterminator. If you grew up in that era there was a good chance your house had bugs. Not the cute lady bug type but the nasty ones we don’t talk about… roaches. Paying someone to come in and spray was out of the question. My parents looked no further than the kid with time on his hands and brain cells to kill. My dad was exempt because he had already donated most of his brain cells to Natty Boh. To make sure I was exposed to the maximum danger, my mom really liked a product called Bright Sails which she purchased from the Acme. Now this was one of those products that seemed to make the roaches mad more than actually kill them. There was always a window open for my protection. I would breathe in about two minutes of air, hold my breath then spray the corners and crevices. Go back to the window, take in another shot of air and spray some more. Big ones, little ones; they came running out, running in every direction. With a fly swatter in one hand, a rolled up newspaper in the other and two stomping feet, I was the ninja exterminator. There would always be a few bugs that made it to the ceiling that either succumbed to the chemicals or just decided to give up. They would come crashing onto my head or down my shirt. Some of the quicker little buggers would dart over my shoe and up my pant leg. By the end of the skirmish, I was the almost naked ninja. The house would reek of that deadly spray for days. There was not a living insect to be found in Kingsville afterwards. Except for the roaches, they would return the next week.
After an hour or so of the extermination process, the walls, the ceiling and the floor would be covered with the squashed carcasses of the vanquished. To the victor belong the spoils. Victory meant the long tedious job of cleaning the walls, ceiling and floor. Victory wasn’t sweet, it was downright messy.
By the end the summer of 1965, I learned to paint, squish lots of bugs and cuss. Cussing was the only skill I mastered. I am not talking about the simple cuss words that mom would say. I am talking about the heavy duty stuff that would cause my mother to give my father the look from hell because he corrupted her son. To this day I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur. Over the years someone would be discussing my heritage in a rude and socially unacceptable way. Instead of being upset or angry, I would be critiquing their performance. Thinking… Hold that first syllable longer, stretch out that phrase; what’s your hurry? God gave you those glaring eyes and bulging veins, use them to get your point across. Add a little saliva spray to your argument and you can turn a gentle bonfire into a barn burner. We need the whole world to know you’re nuts, be loud. It was a skill I couldn’t take to school but years later my skill proved a necessary tool as a Beth steel paint department supervisor. Nothing personal, it’s just business.
Throughout the summer, I was able to utilize my superpower to its max. Day after hot summer day passed without any thoughts that my summer was coming to an end. Even when a letter arrived with my bus schedule, I was confident things would fall into place. I was on my way to Loch Raven Junior High School. I did not know it then, but there would come a time when I wished I had looked back and turned to stone.