Yesterday, Oh Boy

About ten years ago, when my father was dying of cancer, I wrote a comic novel that took place on one sunny October day in 1970.  It’s called Today, Oh Boy. I copped the title from the Sgt. Peppers Beatles song “A Day in the Life.”

 

The novel chronicles one day at Summerville High School.  It features a host of characters — teachers, students, administrators, parents, dropouts, derelicts, and a basset hound called Hambone/Mr. Peabody.

There’s a redheaded zit-faced protagonist named Rusty Boykin, a flat-chested National Honors Society officer named Jill Birdsong, and other characters also based very loosely on people I knew in high school.[1]

It’s supposed to be funny.

What brings it to mind is that this morning my first true sweetheart sent me a photo from those days with this message: “Ha! Thought this might come in handy for one of your future blog posts.”

If you’re dying to know why I’m missing a tooth, click here.

Otherwise, I thought I’d offer you a taste.  Here’s the opening.


First Period

 Homeroom (8:00 – 8:05 A.M.

A classroom.  Concrete block, pale lime green. A mango-hued, pockmarked bulletin board on the near wall, pencil stabbed and compass point gouged. Among the graffiti the names of star-crossed lovers: Wendy + Tripp, the tragic Tripp who dived off Bacons Bridge and broke his neck and was found tangled in blackberry bushes growing along the banks of the Ashley River. That very W-E-N-D-Y + T-R-I-P-P produced by either Tripp or Wendy’s own hand.  Who else would have done it?

Rusty Boykin, a skinny freckled redhead who sits on the bulletin board row in Mrs. Laban’s homeroom right next to the artifact, thinks its Tripp’s work – the letters looking like fat-fingered boy letters. Wendy hasn’t been to school since it happened, four class days ago, and now it’s Monday, and she’s still not here. Right in front of Rusty she should be sitting, a girl with honey-colored hair hanging like a curtain to her waist.

Ollie Wyborn, who is unpacking his books, sensibly has compartmentalized Tripp’s accident into the “one of those foolish things” category, the accident reinforcing his cautious approach to life.  Right after the dark news, Ollie overheard Alex Jensen call Tripp’s death “Natural Selection at Work,” and Ollie laughed in spite of himself, realizing immediately it was a sick joke, not rightfully funny, except that it does neatly correspond to Darwin’s theory as Ollie understands it.  It really surprises Ollie, though, that AJ  – as everybody calls Alex – knows enough science to make a witty crack like that. AJ never does his homework, and if he is ever reading anything, it‘s a magazine that has something shocking on the cover, like a man holding a gun to a dog’s head.  Ollie has heard that AJ smokes marijuana, whose active ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) can conceivably cause birth defects. Smoking marijuana to Ollie is just as stupid as diving at night head first into a stump.

Well, maybe not quite as stupid.

Mrs. Laban is tidying in front of the room, a science lab/classroom with a black cabinet (with sink) standing as a barrier between her and the blackboard, which is actually green.  On it color-coded chalk homework assignments rendered in businesslike cursive: economical loops, emphatic exclamation points.   Others are milling in, Sallie Pushcart, the principal’s daughter; petite, blonde, glassy-eyed Margie Blackthorn; Mama-Cass-sized Althea Bovinni; Josh Silverstein, wired as usual, a manic metallic grin flashing beneath old-fashioned black framed glasses.   Up-classroom, Mrs. Laban stands smiling her Jesus-loves-us smile, her posture dauntingly perfect, as if her spine has been nailed to a straightedge, her blue-tinged silvery hair carefully coiffed, a work of Pentecostal perfection.

Rusty, whose eyes have crusted sleep on their lashes, and a fresh sprinkling of zits competing with his freckles, dislikes and fears Mrs. Laban, because he senses, or thinks he senses, her disapproval of him, of his tangle of uncombed red hair, his scruffy blue jean jacket with Mr. Zig Zag silk-screened on the back.

Although he doesn’t smoke tobacco, Rusty’s parents light up like fiends so there’s always the stale scent of cigarette smoke about him. Unhappily, he didn’t do his homework last night, so today’s Biology II midterm will be a testament to his ability to make intelligent guesses based on esoteric bits and pieces of disjointed information about the digestive system.   Information that somehow has penetrated the almost impermeable force field of his daydreams: the puffy cloud, golden light land of the Maxfield Parrish poster taped over his single bed in a room that he shares with two of his brothers.

Here comes AJ right before the bell, rushing to his seat, shirttail halfway untucked. He’s leaning forward Groucho-like, an old-fashioned leather briefcase in his left hand.  He, too, hasn’t done his homework, having spent last night with Rusty and others at Will Waring’s, who has dropped out of school and taken residence in a carriage house behind his widowed mother’s crumbling estate. AJ ’s no athlete and pants as if he’s just competed in the 1970 Pan Am Games’ 400-meter dash. Chuckie Cooper, Sallie Pushcart’s boyfriend, starting linebacker of the Mighty Green Wave, sports closely cropped black hair and an eye-singeing red alpaca buttoned up cardigan.  He’s muttering something about hippies under his breath, but AJ ignores the would-be witticism.  As it happens, Chuckie is one of the characters AJ frequently impersonates in his impromptu mockery routines (Chuckie’s never quite closed mouth, the deep duh-ness of his inflections), but homeroom isn’t what you would call a friendly audience.

The sounding of the bell is excruciating, drawn out ridiculously long.  Mrs. Laban now stands to the right of an anatomical dummy whose plastic flesh-colored chestplate has been removed so that his bright, color coded internal organs (also removable) are on display. The dummy stares blue and vacant eyed smiling like an oversized cousin of Barbie’s Ken.

“The Silent Majority,” AJ calls him.

As Mrs. Laban peers over her half moon reading glasses to open her roll book, star quarterback Danny Duncan sidles in and takes his conveniently located front right row desk, one seat in front of missing Wendy.  Even Jill Birdsong, the tall, levelheaded, flat-chested, straight-A student, is aware that Mrs. Laban plays favorites with Danny.  If that had been AJ or Rusty, a detention would have been “awarded,” but Mrs. Laban is literally looking the other way. And Danny is nothing if not quick.  Jill is one of the few girls who aren’t enthralled by dashing Danny, who looks as if he could be Troy Donahue’s younger brother with that thick blondish wavy hair and strong jaw.

Mrs. Laban calls roll, glancing from name in book to supposed person sitting in his proper seat.  Most students say “here” – with a couple of “presents” thrown in – but Danny barks “yo” when his name is called, followed by a friendly chorus of chuckles. Ollie notices that AJ is writing or drawing something in his notebook, grinning like a maniac, then hears his own name, the last one called, annunciated in Mrs. Laban’s careful Upstate drawl.  Rusty has noted that Mrs. Laban skipped Wendy’s name and so probably has inside information on her mental condition.  Sallie Pushcart snaps her mirrored compact open and surveys her plump rouged cheeks.

Once roll is completed, Mrs. Laban says, “AJ, I believe it’s your turn to read the devotion.”  Although Summerville High is a public school, Mrs. Laban “provides an opportunity” for students to read from The Weekly Devotional, published by the Southern Baptist Convention.  The testimonies the students read aloud aren’t prayers but first person accounts from missionaries, often rendered in gender inappropriate adolescent voices. It’s not mandatory that you read, but even Josh Silverstein obliges when the booklet passes from row to row down the line.

“Yes, ma’m,” AJ says, and as he starts to read, he alters his voice, making it more Southern, inflecting the words like a backwoods preacher.

“When Eye-ah was a Seminarian-uh, in the Nineteeeeeen For-ah-ties- uh.”

In a battle to stifle his giggles, Josh Silverstein succumbs.

“Alex, that’s enough!”  Mrs. Laban snaps.  “Button it, Josh!”

She’s fuming.  After what the school went through last week, here he is mocking the Lord. “Alex, hand the Devotional to Ollie, and you go, son, as fast as your little legs will carry you, straight to Mr. Pushcart’s Office.”

“What for?”  AJ asks in mock incredulousness.

“You know, young man.  Now get.”

“Cause I was just trying to bring the devotion to life?”

“You know what you were doing.”

“Yes, ma’am.  Trying to dramatize the reading to make it more effective.  Isn’t that better than reading it in a monotone?”

Mrs. Laban’s thin mouth is drawn tight, her glowering eyes twin-barrels.

She fairly screams,  “I said, ‘Get out!”

Alex Jensen: rising with a Raskolniscowl.

Mrs. Laban: purpling.

Jill Birdsong: looking down embarrassedly at her Pre-Cal.

Rusty Boykin: musing about how wonderful it would be if Mrs. Laban would keel over with a massive stroke and/or coronary, maybe not die, but be rendered incapable of administering the impending midterm.

Now that the door has closed behind A.J, the silence is palatable.  Mrs. Laban is inwardly struggling, trying to control her breathing.  Josh has put his head on the desk, and from Althea Bovinni’s perspective from her backseat spot on the third row, it looks as if he could be violently weeping.

“Ollie,” Mrs. Laban manages, “please read.”

Ollie pushes his wire rims up on the bridge of his nose, and says, “When I was a seminarian in the late 1940’s, I met many men who had served –“

Rinnnnnnngggggggggggggggggggggggggggg!!!!!!!!!!!. . .

 

Between Classes (8:05-8:10)

 

All alone in the main hall, AJ’s doing the Bataan Death March boogie, head lowered, feet shuffling, headed for the gallows.

As the last painful pitch of the bell dies, classroom doors fly open, and AJ is swallowed by the crowd, melting into the menagerie of chattering students headed for first period, jostling with a swarm of kids right past the glass-walled administrative offices. He glances forlornly at the glass wall, the bustling secretaries, and now he’s breaking off discretely and pushing open the double glass doors to freedom.

In bright sunshine, he quickens his pace, afraid to turn around.  The blonde-bricked school behind him is only ten years old, designed to be functional – but it’s oh so, so, so soulless – the landscaping, like what AJ ‘d expect to see in some sub-Soviet housing project.  The scrub beneath his white high top Chuck T’s can’t keep the sandy dirt from blowing away.  A balled-up piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook tumbleweeds past.  He sneaks a peek over his right shoulder to see the Stars and Stripes flapping in the stiff October breeze.

Bent over and groping, too afraid to look, Rusty has plopped into his desk in Mrs. Rimsky’s American History class, hoping against hope that he’ll feel the comforting bulk of his missing history text in the compartment beneath his desk. Rusty is a master of losing things, things like notebooks, wallets, birth certificates, report cards, shopping lists, discount coupons, his religion, only to name a few.

This is an honors class.  Jill Birdsong is seated, ready to go.  Others from different homerooms file in:  Julie Robinson, class president in a plaid polyester pantsuit; Carl Whetsell, one of the few blacks in the entire school system; James Hopper, who takes little short steps, his clarinet and books pressed defensively to his chest.

Down past the left turn in the hall outside the math wing, Dana Richards, one of Wendy’s closest friends, is whispering something to Sallie Pushcart.

Rinnnnnnngggggggggggggggggggggggggggg . . .


[1]Actually, I met Judy in graduate school.

 

 

Folly Beach: Tales of Intoxication

Folly Beach Tales of Intoxication

Trigger warning: The following post tells the story of the first time I got drunk and mentions common topics of intoxication like lying to one’s mother, entertaining foolish possibilities, dancing on tables, and vomiting a retainer-like false tooth out of the window of a moving Oldsmobile going at least 70 mph on an Interstate Highway.

Here’s the sad story of the first time I got drunk, a tale of self-inflicted woe, a narrative featuring Brazilian exchange students and bad choices galore.

It occurred on a Saturday night in the late fall of 1969 when three Summerville High juniors and two Brazilian exchange students decided to skip the parent-sanctioned dance at the American Legion Hut and head to Folly Beach for some more sophisticated fun. My pal – I’ll call him Arthur – had connections, could get us in a Citadel Senior Party. We’d be posing as college students from Wofford in a daring act of James-Bond-like subterfuge [cue 007 guitars].

I was all for the change in venue, Folly Pier trumping American Legion Hut for sure. And who knows — it was not out of the realm of possibility — I might conceivably maybe could perhaps find myself in the arms of some jaded older almost-woman and receive backseat tutelage in the arts of love — about which I had only the slightest of cinematic clues.

It was possible. That very July we had put a man on the moon.

None of us were at the legal beer drinking age of eighteen at the time, but in Summerville in those days, that was not, as the sales clerks say, a problem. If you were tall enough to be able place a quarter and a dime on the counter of S_______’s Grocery, Mr. S________ himself would go back to the cooler and procure for you a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, place it in a brown paper sack, and presto — fun ahoy! – off you drove.

Our driver was Gordon Wilson, a capital cat, and my other friend — I’ll call him Gene — was someone I’d known for so long we’d been playpen mates.

Two Brazilian exchange students, Paulo and Jacó, staying with Gordon, also accompanied us. As it turned out, these two would be our saviors, or at least Jacó would. Thanks to his anti-samba sobriety, his reckoning of his own safety, he volunteered to chauffeur us home (despite not having a valid South Carolina driver’s license).

Sure, he got confused about which way to go and got us stuck for a while in a sand dune, but with the help of Good Samaritans, we – make that the Samaritans — somehow extracted the Olds, and we made it home, not only alive/unparalyzed, but in my case, undetected by my parents, even though the doors were locked and I had to crawl through a window (and in my condition, my locomotion, Buster Keaton pratfallful, you would reckon).
5c32b4f66bd5488d8cb0f2e45f7d254a

Okay, I’d be lying if I tried to turn the party into a coherent narrative.

Montage time:

Inside the Folly Pier. Bright lights. Beach music. Citadel cadets, their dates. Bottle-guzzling. Flirting. What you see when looking down from a table you’re dancing on at a Citadel Senior Party.

Slipping and falling and getting up laughing.

Now, I’m in the car. After a long time of not, the car is moving. What’s his name’s driving. We’re going fast. I’m puking out of the window.

I awake, not unlike Satan on the burning lake of fire in Paradise Lost; only, actually, I’m in my bed in my underwear and desert boots.

No need for montage here. I remember all too clearly.   It felt like someone had jabbed and twisted a screwdriver in the base of my brain after water boarding me during my unconsciousness with bile from the liver of Jackie Gleason.
tA7UmXb

I vaguely remembered something about my tooth missing. I felt with my hand. No, it wasn’t in my mouth, nor on the dresser, nor in either pocket of my wadded up Levis. Not in the front pocket of my vomit stained shirt, whose smell almost prompted a heave. No, my fake tooth was long gone, runover, crushed, obliterated somewhere along the shoulder of I-26.

16-year-old-despair.

I’ve never liked lying, and I’m not good at it. But on this occasion I lied to my mother. I told her I had gotten sick at the dance (technically true) and gone out to vomit (technically true) and lost my tooth somewhere outside the American Legion Hut (patently false).*

She asked me if I had been drinking.

“No ma’am.”

The American Legion Hut in Summerville

The American Legion Hut in Summerville

She went to look for the tooth because I was in no shape to. I felt fearful and wretchedly guilty, my mother on a Sunday morning scavenging in vain among the discarded beer cans and cigarette butts in the grass of the yard of the American Legion Hut.

The next week, though, Mama got her revenge and tricked me into telling the truth.

The following Saturday, Gordon and I stayed out to 2 am, and when he pulled up to my house, I said. “I sure hope my parents are asleep.”

Like I said, Gordon was a capital cat. He smiled and said, “Isn’t that them sitting there?”

There, there, very there, sitting in lawn chairs on the edge of the yard, the tips of their cigarettes glowing orange dots. Gordon let me out without pulling into the driveway, and after offering a meek wave to my parents, drove off.

No, I had not been drinking. I blew into their faces my untainted breath, whose purity did practically nothing to abate my father’s fury. He kicked me in the back of my legs as I walked up the steps. Mama told me that Gordon’s mother had told her Gordon had gotten drunk last week and so had I. I fell for it, cursed Gordon’s mother, which resulted in an “ah-ha!” Mama said she had made that up to trick me. Now I think of it, she probably was lying herself, covering for Mrs. Wilson.

Lies beget lies.

My punishment: I was told that I could no longer be me. I had to start dressing like a preppy and to change my attitude.

But, of course, that was impossible. Like Bob Dylan had sung in that record going on ten years old, I was beyond their command. I did, though, have to go to school without a false front tooth for a month. Being a redhead and freckled, I looked like a skinny Alfred E Neuman. (By the way, that’s actually my head photoshopped on the male hula-hooping dancer on the comic).

AlfredENewmanHippy

So I did suffer for my sins and still feel guilty for sending my mother on that wild goose chase. Let’s not forget that “The evil that men boys do live after them./The good is oft interred with their bones.”

*See first comment below.