Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Warrior Pride

As the date for my 40 year high school reunion draws near (39th actually, but whatever), I am reminded of one unmistakable fact:  I fucking LOVED high school. All four years.  There was lots of teenaged angst and bullshit and boring teachers, bad grades and bad dates and bad football games, but none of that mattered. I have some very strong memories and emotional ties to experiences that occurred during my time at La Puente High School, circa 1970-1974, memories that trigger visceral feelings, joyous visual images, painful yet valuable lessons, but most of all, a sense that I was experiencing a singular youthful period of import and consequence. Plus, I MISSED THE DRAFT!!!!!
These vignettes are dedicated to the classmates I counted as friends, those I never knew, anyone who avoided me like the plague, and everyone who felt that same rush of pure unadulterated panic at not having finished their homework.

Summer School Basic Math with Mr. Jenkins
Thanks to being in the MGM (Mentally Gifted Minor) program in junior high, I was allowed to enroll in a couple of junior and senior-level classes during my freshman year at LPHS.  However, I also sucked at math and was required to take a Basic Math class in summer school prior to starting in September.  This meant I was going to be exposed to the Dreaded Overhead Projector and droning, flat, incessant monotone voice of a teacher who would become the bane of my existence that entire summer, Mr. Robert Jenkins. I would experience the sickening humiliation that could be dumped on the head of any student whose name was called and couldn’t answer his questions (like me), writ large on the projector screen for all to see.

I recall the place was packed with us low-math-achievers, a hot and airless classroom with high ceilings and harsh lighting . Robert Jenkins appeared to be a harmless, balding, bespectacled milquetoast of a man with a faint smile, a wiry build and a stunning tan.  And yet, his method of teaching us the multiplication tables wreaked havoc among the class, causing us to shrink in our seats trying to avoid his bland death gaze, hoping upon hope that he wouldn’t call our name to give an answer. But he always did (his seating chart took care of that), and we were all Frosh meat, ready to be slaughtered.
If you were there, you knew the dilly: a multiplication table was projected onto a huge screen at the front of the class, showing only the outside multipliers and blanks where the answers should be.  The Very Evil Robert Jenkins sat at his Overhead Projector of Death, facing the class, felt pen in hand, and would calmly call out a student’s name and a multiplication question that had to be answered within a second or it was a great big fat FAIL for YOU. Hemming and hawing did not allow escape, he would simply say ‘Wrong’ and move on to the next problem, the next victim, and a demerit for your dumb ass.

And he ALAWYS came back to you if you got it wrong the first… second… third time.  It was excruciating to watch some hapless Fresher go down in flames, his or her name getting demerit marks for incorrect or no answers, grades plummeting right before our very eyes. Mr. Jenkins was tenacious and venal with his questions, his faint smile making the brutality even more gory and terrible.
But guess what? WE LEARNED OUR MULTIPLICATION TABLES, and I got hold of basic math skills that I use to this day.  How could I have known his horrific teaching M.O. would result in my ability to multiply and divide in my head, and pretty damned fast, too! I reckon Robert Jenkins was the right kind of teacher for those classrooms filled with math flunkies, and he most likely taught that way for his entire career.  Thanks, Mr. Jenkins… I owe you.

They Call Him ‘The Streak’
Several of us knew it was gonna happen, so we were hanging around the Senior Quad to be there when it did. I think it was somewhere near the end of Senior year, Spring of ’74, when the streaking craze swept this land of ours, naked asses and bouncing junk and (rarely) bouncing boobies on the teevee and in the local paper. Hell, even the Oscars were streaked!

It was between morning classes, the Quad was filled with the hoi polloi of LPHS, and there we were on the fringes, standing around, waiting… waiting… waiting… when we heard the first screams of laughter and knew it had begun.  Here he came, running towards us, wearing a long-sleeved sweater, ski mask, hiking boots… and nothing else, junk flying to howls of laughter at the First Official LPHS Streaker. He ran with grace and strength, legs pumping easily, obviously an athlete, but his sweater was pretty ugly.

He entered the Quad which had already dissolved into total chaos and laughter, ran up to a group of very important girls that were sitting on the grass, stopped in front of them, turned around, bent over and gave them a two-handed full cheek-spread browneye. The girls were choking, sputtering, screaming at him… we were on the ground in hysterics, dying with laughter.  He stood straight and tall, bowed to the outraged girls, then ran out of the Quad to make his escape.  Somewhere on the way out the mask was yanked off his head, but by then it was too late, his escape was successful, his place in the pantheon of awesome things at LPHS had been secured.  We knew who he was, so did lots of others, but as far as I know nothing bad ever happened to him as the result of his public nudity.
A moment of complete and total awesomeness, cast like stone in my mind’s eye, which is also brown.

 Cultural Anthropology with Alan Eggleston
That freshman year of 1970-71 was a watershed for me in so many ways and opened my eyes heap plenty big. The class that had the biggest impact on me was Junior-level Cultural Anthropology, which sounded cool on the registration form but I had no idea what to expect.

On the first day of class in that Frosh year, meek little me finds Mr. Eggleston’s classroom, walks in and sees… a bunch of students standing around along the walls and a large pile of desks in the middle of the room, heaped on top of each other.  The bell rang for class to start, but there was no teacher in sight and we all looked at the pile of desks without saying a word.
After a few minutes, some of the girls started sitting on the floor, looking bored and pissed off. Me and another guy had the same idea to start pulling desks off the pile and setting them upright, so once we started several other guys pitched in and in about five minutes we had all the desks upright and, without even realizing it, formed rough lines of desks all facing the blank chalkboard. Once that was done, we all sat down… and waited.

He must have been watching us, because seconds after we were all seated in our ad hoc configuration, in bounds Alan Eggleston, with his Buddy Holly glasses and shock of wavy black hair and thick black beard and gigantic toothy grin.  He proceeds to cheerily inform us that we are all pre-programmed drones based upon our decision to accept well-worn roles as students and take our places in the educational hierarchy, our self-imposed desk layout an example of how brainwashed we were.  As a fresh Frosh, this was mind-boggling experiential teaching, and I loved it.

Mr. Eggleston’s class was tremendously eye-opening to me for more reasons that I can say here, but his expansive ideas on race and civilization, society and the human condition, all the things that affect our unnaturally aware selves, it changed me completely in just two short semesters. From his slideshows of trips to the pyramids on the Yucatan peninsula to the weirdo made-up societies and artifacts the class cobbled together… and then buried in the Ag unit for one another to dig up and try to figger out the following semester, it was a formative, foundational class that I was lucky enough to grasp and absorb.
The capper? It was in that class that one of the guys handed me my very first copy of NATIONAL LAMPOON Magazine, and it was all downhill from there for this former MAD Magazine reader. I mean… political satire, college-level humor AND boobs in the same mag?  This Frosh mind reeled.

Getting Jumped
I was a Junior and had finally ginned up the courage to ask her to go to the Prom with me, and she agreed.  One problem:  she had just broken up with her long-time boyfriend, who was mightily pissed off about getting dumped AND he was a Senior AND was still in love with her AND was gonna do something about it.  I knew all of this, but my 16-year-old ego was chuffed at having a cute date for the Prom and not really worried about some dude who she’d dumped.

I was taking a night class in Drama, having discovered a new outlet for my weirdness, and had just come out of class and walked to my car parked in a darkened lot near the edge of campus.  I was unlocking the door when I heard someone behind me say “HEY, ASSHOLE!” I spun around only to be met with a flying fist that barely caught my jaw but was enough to knock me off balance and onto the ground.  It was really dark and I couldn’t see who was pounding me, but he wailed with fists and kicks for about 10 seconds while I sprawled on the ground, stuck between two cars and trying to cover my face from his fists, rolling into a ball to protect my nuts.
He stopped, towered over me and said “That’ll teach you to ask MY GIRL to the Prom, ASSHOLE!”, then one more kick and he was gone, slipping into the night. I staggered up, took stock of myself to see how bad off I was. Slightly dirty clothes, one side a little sore, minor bloody nose, no black eye or facial damage to speak of… actually, not too bad. His last comment gave away his identity, and although I had considered filing a report, I decided not to for many large and small reasons. When she found out what had happened, I was smothered in gracious high school loving, but it was only a temporary reprieve before I was subjected to…

My First Prom
A few weeks before the 1973 Junior-Senior Prom in that very hot month of May, she informed me that she had been grounded by her parents and forbidden to attend the Prom, but was gonna go anyway whether her folks liked it or not. She would hide her gown at a friend’s house, lie about what she was doing that evening and I would pick her up from there.

I was not amused.
The day of the Big Prom, our family had just arrived back home from a sweltering week of ‘vacation’ at the nasty Salton Sea, so I was badly sunburned with a huge and painful blister on my shoulder. I didn’t feel like washing my car, but Mom insisted she would help so together we bathed my ’57 Chevy and she crawled inside and wiped down the interior while I stood in the driveway, sunburned, moody and uninspired. Thanks, Mom.

I drove to El Monte to pick up my blue-and-white brocade tuxedo (ew) and naturally had a flat tire on the freeway. I pulled over to the shoulder and changed out the spare in the hot sun, my shoulder blister screaming ‘I’M GONNA POP!’ as I wrestled with the jack and the nasty spare while cars whizzed by behind me. I grabbed my tux and was able to get the tire repaired so my sled would have all four shiny Cragars in place for the night’s festivities because a spare simply wouldn’t do.
When I got home and tried on the tux, I discovered they gave me the wrong pants so I had to race back to El Monte for the right ones, just barely making it before they closed shop.

I drove to her friend’s house where she was dressed and lovely, ready to Prom it. The corsage I bought matched her summery halter gown perfectly, but her friend’s parents were obviously aware of our subterfuge and made it exceedingly clear they didn’t approve.  “Great”, I thought to myself, “they’re gonna fink us out.”
We drove to the (now demolished) Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles with Al Green crooning ‘Let’s Stay Together’ on my cassette deck (no 8-track for me, bucko), getting lost in the maze of streets but finally finding our way into the main ballroom for the festivities. She looked beautiful, I looked semi-respectable.  We found our table, sat down and started the evening.

She didn’t want to dance. Not even once. WTF?!?!
I spent the whole evening terrified that her Dad would find out that we’d gone to the Prom and tear over to the hotel, walk in to find us and then punch me out right there in front of everyone and drag her out. The fact she didn’t want to dance should have been a clue that she wasn’t enjoying herself.  Guilt? No-fun-having? Something else?  How the hell did I know?

We left Prom without having danced even once, drove home and I got a simple kiss on the cheek and thanks for the date.  The following week, she got back together with her ex and I never spoke to her again. Not even once.
I won’t detail them here, but the rest of my Proms and Winter Formals, even one I was invited to after I graduated, were crazy and fun and weird.  I reckon that made up for the off-kilter and underwhelming first time.

Cruising Hacienda Boulevard
Of course, everyone cruised Whittier Blvd. in those heady days because it was the thing to do.  However, he and I had a little thing we loved to do on Hacienda Boulevard in the evenings that left us in stitches, but probably left other motorists pissed off.  Luckily, we never got caught doing it.

It started with a trip to McDonald’s on Hacienda, just North of Francisquito. Natch, we would scarf down an unholy amount of food, although he could eat more at one sitting than any normal human being I ever knew, mostly because he had an enormous mouth filled with giant teeth (but he had a brilliant smile, right girls?).  Remember, this was when you could get a burger, fries and small coke for ninety-nine cents.
We would stuff our pie holes, then order at least three Big Macs to go.  Not to eat… to FLY. Think about it:  a Big Mac is bun-meat-bun-meat-bun, five Frisbee-shaped layers o’ goodness. We’d pull out of the lot and onto Hacienda and just motor along, me driving and him in the passenger seat. He’d open one Big Mac, grab the top bun with his right hand, hold it out the window and then FLING it straight up into the air, the trajectory and direction totally unknown but it would come down somewhere behind us and, if the traffic was just right, would land SPLAT on the windshield of an unsuspecting motorist. We watched for the landings in the rear-view mirrors.

Much hyena-like laughter would ensue. Now you understand the reason Big Macs were the perfect flying food… FIVE FOOD FRISBEES IN EACH ONE.
Yes, it was wasteful.  Yes, it was mildly dangerous. And yes, it was hilarious.  We usually waited until just past sunset but before it got totally dark because we wanted to see the landings. Speed, distance and stealth were all at play, so it was important for the driver to pay attention. Good thing cell phones didn’t exist.

We only did this on Hacienda for reasons that are still a mystery to me.  Mebbe it was such a wide and busy street that we knew we could fly food without getting caught, but I doubt we gave it much thought.  You know, like almost everything else teens did/do.
Now that I’m an official Mudge, every time I have a Big Mac, all I can think of is flying food on Hacienda Boulevard.

Meeting Kurt Vonnegut
Thanks to Mr. Kumar’s Literature class, I was able to sign up to attend a Science Fiction convention at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles late in my senior year. I had hoped to get the chance to attend IHC as a student in the Fall, but the GPA and tuition requirements were both out of my league, so being there for the convention would have to be sloppy seconds.

The list of meetings, speeches and events was long and weird, but I took in a speech by Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura from ‘Star Trek’) and a roundtable discussion on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that was waaaay over my head.  However, the crown jewel of my adventure would be the Q&A session with Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors and philosophers. I felt lucky to have a chance to ask this great man a question or three, or at the very least listen to him expound on his writing and views on life and science.
The session was held in an auditorium-style classroom that held perhaps 100 people, all seated on a series of risers that surrounded the dais. By the time I got there, the room was almost full, so I grabbed a chair and waited for the Great Man to appear.  The bell rang and, a few seconds later, in walks Kurt Vonnegut, dressed in a rumpled corduroy coat and slacks, smoking a cigarette. The room was silent as he walked to the front of the room, sat down in a chair facing the lot of us and… smoked and said nothing.

Now remember, the room was filled to capacity with antsy, anxious students waiting to be bathed in great words of wisdom from a famous author, but there wasn’t a sound to be heard from anywhere inside that room.  All 200 eyeballs were targeted on Kurt down there in front, where he sat and smoked, finished one cigarette and then lighting another. Some of us looked at each other with a “WTH?” look, shrugged shoulders and then more silence.  No one moderated, no one took charge, no one spoke up.
It went on like that for the whole hour.

After the most uncomfortable hour of my life to that point, the bell rang again to signal the end of the session, so students slowly got up and began to file out of the room, their heads filled with questions about what had just happened… or rather, what DIDN’T just happen. Kurt still sat there, smoking away, so when I finally got down to the floor I walked up to him and said “Mr. Vonnegut, I’m a big fan of your writing, especially ‘Slaughterhouse-5’ and ‘Breakfast of Champions.” He smiled big, shook my hand and thanked me for taking the time to read his books and attend the day’s activities. A few more stragglers walked up to him and he thanked each one of them too, but we were all mystified about the previous hour. No one knew what to say, and then he stood up and walked out and was gone.
Was he waiting for someone to ask him a question?  Was it some sort of weird performance art piece? Why wasn’t there an event moderator to help start things? Did he wonder about the silence like the rest of us, or was it part of the plan?  I’ll never know. But at least I shook his hand and we traded thanks.

And for the record, Nichelle Nichols was SMOKING HOT.

Carlos Magallanes, Sociology Monster

A teacher among teachers, a spiritual mentor to those of us who chose to listen and learn from his bearded bad self. The fact that so many years later he is now my Facebook friend gives me much, much pleasure. He still RULES.
Becoming a Letterman
Being in Drama during my Junior and Senior years made all the difference for my youthful self-esteem, and not just because the girls in Drama class were quite a bit different than all the rest. Teacher Jim Ellis (R.I.P., Big Guy) was a tremendous mentor and supporter of us all, a motley group of high achievers, weirdos and geeks.  He helped us to transform into a confident band of thespians (or thesbians, as some critics would shout out across the room) that made a name for ourselves on campus.
Mr. Ellis figured out a way to have us perform scenes from whatever play we were rehearsing for the English, Sociology and Literature classes during regular school hours, so we'd get to spend a whole day in the Little Theater performing for a packed house while practicing lines at the same time.  This had the unexpected consequence of making us all better-known in school that we'd otherwise have been, which was almost startling. I'd be walking through school between classes and someone would shout 'HEY BOB!' and I'd spin around and wave, unaware of who'd just shouted at me.
As the end of my Senior year drew near, Mr. Ellis asked me to stop by his classroom after school for a few minutes to discuss something.  I was worried about I-don't-know-what when I sat down and asked what was up.
Him: "Bob, I have something important to tell you."
Me: "Ummm... OK, what is it?"
Him: " Well, you've been in quite a few plays the last two years, and your grades in my classes have been really good, so I've submitted your name as having qualified to earn your LPHS Letter in Drama. That means you'll be a Letterman at graduation."
Me: "Wait wait wait... are you telling me that I'm a Letterman, same as the football players?"
Him:  "That's right, it's all about your achievements, no matter the discipline."
Me:  "Areyoukiddingme?!?! Do I get the jacket too?"
Him:  No, you'll have to buy that, but the Letter is gonna be all yours."
Me: "!?!?!?!?!?!"
So I got my LPHS Letter, complete with an embroidered comedy/tragedy icon to indicate it was for Drama.  I never bought the jacket, and I gave the letter to my Mom.  She dug it, and so did I.
I can't wait for the reunion to meet and greet so many of my classmates from high school, junior high and even grade school. I suspect there will be missed connections, some tears and lots of laughter and drinking (no drinky for me) and, with any luck, not a single fight will break out and cause chaos and wind up in the parking lot with the City of Industry Sherriff's swinging batons.  That would both suck AND rule.
Stay tuned...

Blue Swede 'Hooked On A Feeling' video (Billboard Top 100, 1974), muchismas gracias de; lead image of the author in his first Boy Scout indian dance costume, circa 1970, muchismas gracias Papa!