Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Ambiguous Shirt

  I dressed pretty conservatively in my youth. To be more accurate I should say that without a clothing budget of my own, I was dressed pretty conservatively. Button-down short-sleeve shirts, striped t-shirts, jeans, slacks, nothing out of the ordinary. In fourth grade I remember asking for some psychedelic pants, thinking my folks might find some tie-dyed or paisley trousers for me but instead receiving a pair of slacks with a weird yellow-and-green herringbone pattern. Not psychedelic in the least, but I wore them to school one day and was terrified I was going to get expelled for flouting sartorial norms. 

  Skip forward to seventh grade now, and I realized I was maybe the only kid who never wore t-shirts with sayings on them. That’s how I described them: shirts with sayings on them. I wanted to make a statement, so one Friday night at JCPenney Mom let me look through a rack of t-shirts with sayings on them and I picked one that said “Caution. Polluted air. Breathe at own risk.” I thought it was perfect, a trenchant statement on the smog running amok in American cities in the early 1970s. I wore the shirt to school a few times and then one day noticed another student wearing the same shirt, an older girl who could charitably be described as slovenly. Seeing that message on that girl made me realize, to my absolute horror, that the shirt referred to farting. 

  Not the trenchant statement I wanted to make.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

It Happened on the Bus

  My granddaughter is a freshman in high school and to my knowledge she’s never ridden the bus to school. She’s always been dropped off and picked up by her mom or her nana or me.

  Which is fine. But it occurred to me recently that maybe she’s missing out. I had some of the weirdest, funniest, most harrowing, and most surreal experiences of my life while riding a school bus.

  If my folks had taken me to school, second-grade me never would have met a high schooler named Raymond Clark, who had his own theme song set to the tune of the Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy vs the Red Baron.” Seriously. This guy would sing:

   Up in the air

   A man in a plane

   Raymond Clark

   Was his name

  In first grade I rode Johnny Hester’s bus to Kingman Elementary, and it was on that bus ride home one afternoon when I noticed some high school boy wearing a white t-shirt. At home that night I said “Some kid was wearing an undershirt to school.”  Mom asked how I knew. I said I could see it. “An undershirt?” she said. Yes, an undershirt. She wanted to know if it was the kind Dad wore, which is the kind charmingly referred to today as a wife-beater. No, I said, it’s the kind I wear. Because I wore a freakin white t-shirt under whatever madras-patterned short sleeve shirt I was wearing, every single day. Sometimes I wore a white t-shirt under a different t-shirt. Mom assured me that it was fine to wear a white t-shirt to school but probably not an undershirt of the style Dad wore.

  Then why, I wondered, do you refer to my white t-shirts as undershirts? For that matter, why am I wearing them at all?

  I probably shouldn’t have paid such close attention to the high school kids, considering my naivete. I overheard a discussion once in which a girl told a boy that one of her teachers said it was wrong to drink. This ran counter to everything I thought I knew about sustaining life, but fortunately this statement was clarified before I was completely dehydrated. Another time I watched a boy give his friend the finger, and since he didn’t bother explaining what it meant to any six-year-old observers, I just assumed it was a friendly greeting and passed it along to my one-year-old brother at supper that night. My dad was shocked and furious, and for some reason I said “It doesn’t mean anything,” He proceeded to explain that it does mean something without actually explaining what it meant, and I’m pretty sure that to this day I have never given anyone the finger.

  (This incident found its way into the prologue of the first part of Trombone Answers, when Parker Graham calls his baby brother a cunt. Nobody told Parker what that meant either.)

  My folks moved from Wallace to Hillsboro in 1967, so for second grade I attended Richland Elementary and rode Reed Rice’s Bus 8, where I first heard Raymond Clark’s theme song. This was a fairly uneventful year for bus memories, but then in 1968 we moved again to the house Dad built west of Hillsboro and I switched to Stan Austin’s Bus 5. This was an eye-opener. For one thing, I had never heard music on a school bus before. I had heard shouting, screaming, the occasional caterwauling, and at least one philosophical discussion on the morality of drinking, but never music. Stan Austin played WLS, the rock station out of Chicago, and I was amazed. Stupefied. Was this even legal? I was one of the first kids on the bus in the morning—boarding in darkness during the winter months—so I might hear the Archies’ “Bang Shang-a-Lang” three times before making it to school.

  At the time, I thought each band was playing live in the WLS studio. Logistics was not my strong suit in third grade.

  Other highlights and lowlights of my time on Stan Austin’s bus (third grade through my senior year):

⦿ Third grade. I was sitting behind a gorgeous sixth-grader named Marlea Rogers one day and she had her gray winter coat draped over the back of the seat. When the bus stopped and she stood up, the coat fell into my lap. She didn’t notice, so I picked it up and handed it to her. She said thanks and I joined the ranks of every other heterosexual Richland Elementary boy with correctible eyesight by developing a gigantic crush on Marlea Rogers. (This was the inspiration for the scene in Trombone Answers where Parker Graham rescues Carrie Denham’s coat from under the bleachers, then waits to make sure there won’t be a thank-you kiss before going on his way.)

⦿ The bus made three stops in Mellott on the way to Richland. At the second stop one morning there was screaming outside—and not just the usual wild shrieks of kids playing grab-ass. No, these were some legitimately horrifying screams, and when I looked out the window I could see a spreading pool of blood from someone’s dog that had been backed over.

⦿ My friend John Curtis and I were semi-suave men about town in fifth grade, and witty and likable enough to find ourselves befriended by a couple of high school guys named Mike Grenard and Homer Fawcett. Mike and Homer were our source for a variety of life lessons and explanations of sexual terms, although they refused to answer one question in particular. It was the day after all the fifth-grade girls had mysteriously been taken into one room, leaving us guys to wonder just what the heck was going on. The girls returned with permission slips they refused to show anybody, until John and I persuaded Melanie Rice to let us read hers. We read it and learned that the girls were going to see a film of some sort about a word we’d never heard. So the next morning we asked our mentors: “What’s menustration?” (Yes, that’s how we pronounced it.) Mike and Homer looked at each other and Mike finally said “Boys—you’re going to have to ask your moms about that one.”

⦿ This one is just weird.  I was riding home one day in high school when some goofy junior high kid started calling people a “mothersucker.” And then, when they took offense, he would say “No, no, mothersucker. Like we all did when we were babies.” I don’t know why he thought that would placate anyone, but I do know he thought it was pretty clever.

  By far the worst experience I ever had on the school bus happened when I was a freshman. I was riding home, minding my own business, when I felt a sharp pain in my ear. Not a Paul Anka “Having My Baby” kind of pain but a someone-behind-you-has-decided-to-flip-an-imaginary-bug-off-your-ear pain. Who would do this? I looked around to see who was playfully engaging me and saw a sophomore named Jim, with whom had I never had a single interaction in my life. Why was this the first such interaction? I had no idea, but I shot him a grin—ha ha, you got me—and turned back around. Seconds later, another flip on the ear, harder this time.

  Now, I was a fairly scrawny 14-year-old. No brawn whatsoever. Wrists I could encircle with thumb and pinky. I had never hit anyone and assumed I never would. But the second ear flip made it clear that Jim wasn’t just goofing off. He was trying to hurt me. So I swung my left arm behind me without really thinking where it was going to land but assuming it would be interpreted as a move made by someone who wasn’t to be messed with.

  That ship, of course, had sailed. I was on the mess-with list. Jim caught me by the elbow, squeezed, let go, and said “Turn around, pussy.” I did. And for the next year and a half I lived in fear of Jim—on the bus, in school, everywhere. I planned my route to each class based on which hallways I knew he could be found in. I tried to make sure there were two seats between us when I got on the bus in the afternoon, but that only worked until he got in trouble on the bus and Stan Austin made him sit in the front seat. At that point there was no avoiding him—I had to walk past him when the bus came to my house every single day. Sometimes Jim surreptitiously hit me, sometimes he didn’t. The uncertainty made the fear worse.

  On top of that, I still didn’t understand why it was happening, unless it had something to do with me being a teacher’s kid or Jim just being a complete bastard. The psychology of bullies is probably pretty fascinating from an academic standpoint, but personally I neither know nor care what was missing from Jim’s life. I just know I wish he’d ridden a different bus home.


  I detasseled corn with Jim’s brother Jeff in the summer of 1976 and found him as likable as Jim was hateful. Jim himself grew up to become The Ultimate Warrior, and died of a heart attack in 2014.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Just A Little Short of Credits

   For the last 38 years I’ve been just a few credits short of having a Master’s degree in English, and by just a few I mean I have three and need 27, although honestly I suppose it’s possible that I have no credits at all, that they’ve expired or been revoked. It’s possible that the Purdue University Graduate English Department did an audit not long after I left and uncovered those three credits and bet they could take them back without me noticing. There are certainly no hard feelings on my part if that’s what happened. By all means, give them to someone who might actually use them.

   I think about my one semester of grad school from time to time and while some people would regret spending their meager life savings on three measly credits, I consider it an investment in something that’s going to pay off any minute now. Let me put it this way. In the spring of 1983 I’d had a BA in English for almost a year. I was working an enjoyable but not lucrative—certainly not get-your-own-apartment lucrative—in retail. I had broken up with a nice girl for some fairly goofy reasons. I also had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life, except that I was locked into a mindset that I had to find a career-type job. So at some point that spring I thought I should go back to school, get the credits I needed to become a teacher, and jump with both feet into a career only marginally more lucrative than part-time retail.

   That’s not exactly what ended up happening.

   Sometimes when you’re golfing you find yourselves about 150 yards from the green and you know you can reach it with an 8-iron but the practical joker part of your brain says no, no, you can do it with a 9-iron, so you pull out the nine and hit it and land well short of the green.

   That’s the best way I can describe my one semester in grad school. Shoulda used an 8-iron.

   I got the first hint that things weren’t going to go my way when I talked to a counselor at Purdue, told them my plans, and got a list of the courses I would need to get my teaching license in Indiana. This list was two years long. Wait a minute, I said, if I had decided to get an education degree at Wabash College it wouldn’t have taken me six years. I just need to pick up the education courses I didn’t take at Wabash, not take all my English courses over again.

   Well, no, they said, you kinda do.

   And I believed it.

   Among these additional classes were another three semesters of Russian, which seems like a lot considering I had only averaged a C in the two semesters I’d taken at Wabash. I’m still not sure how five semesters of Russian were going to help me teach English. My professor, a Latvian refugee named Pete Silins, said I pronounced the language like a native, but politely declined to add that my vocabulary was that of a native with a massive head injury and that my spelling was worse.


   In Indiana teachers are required to start on their Master’s degrees within five years of landing their first job, so I thought I should just get mine at the same time I was picking up the teaching requirements. I don’t know how I thought I was going to do this in the same two years. Paying for it wouldn’t be a problem because I was laboring under the delusion that grad students all had scholarships or assistantships. Professional students, my dad once called them. I applied to be a Resident Assistant in a dorm, which would have paid my tuition and room and board, but the interviewer was not overly impressed that I had never lived in a dorm, that I spent one year in a fraternity house and then commuted from home during the last three years of undergrad.

   I was not offered the RA position. Tuition was due, so I wrote a check for the summer semester, 1983. I was vaguely aware that I would not have the funds to write a similar check in the fall, but figured something serendipitous would occur before them. Perhaps a rich uncle would leave me a fortune.

   I had no rich uncles.

   The summer semester began with me enrolled in two undergraduate-level classes: an English course called The Bible as Literature and an Education course whose name I can’t recall because after attending the first class I freaked out and decided I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. I made a beeline for the registrar’s office and said I wanted to change my plan to a plan I’d just made up during the beeline: Now I want to go for a Master’s in English.

   Are you sure? they asked.

   As sure as I am that I can reach this green with a 9-iron, I replied, though not in those words.

   But here’s another perfect example of how clueless I was at the time: I dropped the Education course and added a grad-level course on 20th-Century British Literature, but stayed in the undergrad-level Bible as Literature course.

   Why? I do not know. That class wasn’t going to help me in the least.

   Still, I aced it. I think I pulled down a B in Brit Lit. Enjoyed the professor and read some great books in that class, including the first and last novels in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and the funniest novel ever written, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. But I was still reticent about participating in class discussions and still not all that excited about looking for meanings and symbols. I knew before the end of July that academia and I were destined for a parting of the ways.

   So I have three credits toward a Master’s. Or maybe I don’t.

   But now I’m pretty sure that 9-iron analogy isn’t accurate. My one semester at grad school was more like trying to reach the green with a golf umbrella.



The Ambiguous Shirt

  I dressed pretty conservatively in my youth. To be more accurate I should say that without a clothing budget of my own, I was dressed pre...