Thursday, December 23, 2010

Prank, part 3 final

I was in the school cafeteria when I was contemplating how to make a good prank to Amaze My Friends and increase my social standing when I saw the beginning of an idea. A cricket. A dead black monster of a cricket as big as my thumb. We had them at home too. We would follow after my stepdad after spraying pesticide in the cracks around the base of the home and watch them crawl out, kick a few times in defiance and eventually die.

I picked it up and put it in my pocket. I didn't know yet what I was going to do with it but I knew it was a treasure in the world of pranks.

Put my little insect friend in someone's food was too obvious and probably dangerous. My victim might not notice it and eat it. This would ruin my prank and possibly poison the prankee. I made that plan B. Maybe plan C.

In a locker wouldn't work. I couldn't get credit for a dead bug in a locker. Smashed in a book, in a gym bag all had the same problem. I was getting discouraged when I glanced over at Michelle Wilson rubbing the side of her head behind her ear. This escalated into her shaking her head sideways the way swimmers do to get rid of pool water.

I had my idea.

"Hey Michelle, Is there something in your ear?" I yelled from across the cafeteria table.

"No, just water" she replied

"Want me to look at it?" I offered
"No, gross" she answered and started pounding the side of her head like a clogged ketchup bottle.
I wasn't entirely defeated. I could still rescue this prank. When the whistle blew announcing the end of our lunch hour I made my way over to stand in line next to Michelle.

Keep in mind I held no animosity toward her. She was a sweet girl and was generally nice to everyone. She wasn't a target so much as the person who set me up the best.

"Oh no wonder" I said, "there's something in your ear. Let me get it"

Before she had time respond I reached, out brushed my finger tips against the inside of her ear and with a flourish I produced my cricket. I held him by the back legs so he could be seen at his full height, his eyes and rather large mandibles facing his victim. Then, in a stroke of genius, I gave the legs little twist to mimic life. It was a beautifully executed marriage of magic and prank.
Maybe it was too good. Michelle didn't react with anger and flying fists that my sister and trained me to expect. First her eyes bulged to the point of exploding as she took in my little friend and the idea that he had just come out of her skull. So that her eyes wouldn't feel self conscious about their new increased girth her mouth joined in and gaped open to a size more appropriate to a bass.

The words "Oh Shit" were yelled into my brain by my own inner voice and my stomach sank. This was a mistake. I braced myself for the scream that was building up.

But the scream never came. In the next second Michelle's over inflated eyes showed only the whites. I had the sensation of falling as her head moved away from mine and it was a moment before I realized she was the one falling. When she hit the floor arms, legs and books exploded away from her like ripples in a pond. Two hundred students went silent.

The cricket was gone before she hit the ground and a teacher was on her checking her breathing and pulse in seconds. We were shoo'd out of the cafeteria. An hour later, from the window of my algebra class, I could see her being wheeled into an ambulance. An oxygen mask covering her face.

This did not go as planned.

For the rest of that day, a Thursday, I waited for the call to the office. Or was it going to be the police this time? Was I going to go to jail for a prank? Friday came and I contemplated feigning illness so I could stay home. It was too obvious though. I went to school just like an innocent person would.

I learned that Michelle had been kept over night in the hospital for observation but was probably fine. No call came from the office. The police didn't show up. Maybe she hit her head hard enough that she had amnesia like on the soap operas. I knew brain damage was a terrible thing to wish on someone who did nothing to deserve it but my ass was on the line.

My stomach was in knots and I couldn't eat all weekend. I knew I had blown it this time. I was done for. I heard stories of Juvy from wayward cousins and bad kids at school. It was worse than gym class.

Monday came. I had worried myself so sick it wouldn't have taken any talent to convince my mother to let me stay home. I went to school though. Whatever punishment coming my way couldn't be worse than what I was doing to myself.

The grapevine told me nothing except that Michelle was there. I didn't have classes with her but we tended to sit at the same table for lunch. When the time came, when she had her opportunity to confront me... Nothing.

She was of course the star of the day. Everyone wanted to know what had happened.

"I don't know" I heard her say, reveling a little in the attention but not embellishing, "I was just standing there then all of a sudden I was looking at the ceiling.". I overheard the story repeated for the sixth time before it completely dawned on me that she had no memory of the cricket or of me. I was off the hook. I was going to get away with it!

There are few feelings greater than getting away with something you know you did. People will tell you that God knows what you did or that you will feel better if you confess but they're just screwing with you.

I decided to avoid Michelle as much as I could to avoid any accidental memory triggers. I also decided that I would never pull that prank again. Probably. It was hard to believe myself because, except for the fainting and the hospital visit, it was a pretty good prank.

Our Senior year I had a class with Michelle and a few times I caught her staring at me. It was now five years after the cricket incident and I had nearly forgotten why I was avoiding her. One day towards the end of the school year she was standing next to me, in the cafeteria, and she gave me a funny look.

"Hey Steve, " she asked a little tentatively "This sounds weird, but did you ever stick a bug in my ear?"

I used my most indignant voice "No!". Then I rolled my eyes like she was the craziest girl in Missouri and walked away.

Prank, part 2

Since magic wasn't going to work I could turn to pranks. At that age pranks were mostly harmless and played on people too weak or too smart to fight back. The social impact of playing a prank on someone was to establish a type of twisted mental dominance on the prankee. This makes perfect sense when you're still in grade school.

I had plenty of practical experience with pranks at home. In a family where adulthood is reached four to five years after your first child is born teasing, bullying and pranks are a huge part of home life. My mother would leave the individually wrapped cheese slices individually wrapped on my stepdad's sandwiches. My Stepfather would retaliate by tying knots in my mothers panty hose. It would escalate then to cookies made with salt instead of sugar, hidden car keys and holes cut into underpants with pinking shears.

My brother Bubba and I tended to stick to basic scare tactics. My brother, Bubba, or I would hide behind our sister, Becky's, rather large stuffed animal collection. It wasn't a large amount but the animals themselves were large enough to conceal a twelve year old boy. We would alternate jumping from behind them or making them fly at her the minute she turned on her bedroom light.
If we were brave enough to face total darkness one of us would wait under the steps leading to the basement. When an unsuspecting sibling would come down the stairs, to do laundry usually, we would grab their ankles through the steps. The screaming dance that results is hysterical as long as you put aside the possibility of someone plummeting to the smooth concrete floor below.

Parents weren’t immune from being pranked by us either. My first opportunity to get my mother came one evening at a grocery store. I don’t remember how old I was but I was young enough to run around the filthy grocery store floor barefoot. If you get enough wax and dried fruit on the bottom of your feet you can ice skate down the aisles.

During one really long Olympic quality slide I noticed a toy mouse on the floor made from real fur. It must have fallen out of the pet toy display. Except for a snake there was nothing better for scaring moms than a mouse. I grabbed it up and skated down the aisles until I could come up behind mom while she was pondering a can of pork and beans.

I tip toed up to her, the only noise I made was the light tapping of grocery dirt encrusted feet on tile floor. In my right hand was my mouse. At two feet away I had already discarded the idea of a mouse toss and decided on a simple placement. I would put it in the cart where she would see it. This was going to be great.

Then it moved. The mouse was alive. I would like to say I stay composed but the truth is I screamed as loud as I could and threw it down. My mother, still contemplating beans and thinking she was alone in the grocery except for her dirty kid jumped and did some of her own screaming.

“What the hell is wrong with you!” she yelled at me. Too scared to worry about embarrassing herself.

“I... I... I saw a mouse and I thought it was a toy and and and I was going to scare you then it moved in my hand!” I was starting to sob now. Scared and embarrassed.
In a rush of motherly affection my mother started laughing so hard she doubled over in the aisle barely able to stand.

This is the vivid memory of my first prank. My mother and I both debilitated by tears, her from laughing and me from shame, in the canned bean aisle of a dirty grocery store. Somewhere in the shadows a mouse died.

Prank, part 1

It was that advertisement that started it. It was listed in the back of a comic book between the always present X-ray specs and Grow Your Own Sea Monkeys. There in large bright red letters was the call to action for lonely kids. Amaze Your Friends!

Normally I didn't fall for such cheap theatrics but for some reason I was having a weak moment. Maybe I did need to add some amazing new abilities to my personality I thought to myself. When I finally got some friends I could amaze them.

There was a black and white illustration depicting tendrils of smoke curling up from white gloved fingertips and another showing a cigarette that had been pushed, unharmed, through a quarter. Learn Magic! The ad persisted "Everything you need to know to become a magician. Only two dollars!"

I was still a kid and hadn't been burned by ordering products from magazines and still didn't know how to translate such an advertisement. First of all "Only two dollars" meant two dollars was the first part of the equation. After you added the seventy five cents for tax and an additional two dollars and fifty cents for shipping and handling the end price was more than double. Five dollars and twenty five cents. Roughly the amount of money I made delivering newspapers for two weeks.

The money wasn't a problem. There wasn't much to spend it on way out in our broken suburb but how to get it to them was going to be a problem. Check or Money Order only. I didn't have a checking account and had no idea what a money order could be. I could try to get my parents to write a check on my behalf but I knew from trying to get the Magical Sea Monkey Castle that it wasn't going to work.

"It's just a waste of your money" My mother would say if I asked her

"But it's my money to waste" I would remind her, but it never worked. After the first such argument I hid any money I had from her. I wasn't worried she wouldn't take it from me but she would try to censor what I would use it for.

The cure was to go over mom's head altogether to grandma. Not only did Grandma outrank mom but she even gave me the stamp. For free.

Four to six weeks later I found out the other mistranslation from the ad. "Everything you need to know to do magic" did not mean "everything you need". The instruction kit was little more than twelve pages of poorly copied pages describing the easiest tricks followed by a good thirty or forty pages of catalog that would conveniently sell you the rest of the items needed to amaze your friends.

Two months and five dollars and twenty five cents later the only thing I had learned was the quarter from the ear trick and not to trust comic book advertisements. The fact that I became really good at the trick did nothing to cover the fact that it was just a lame trick. Needless to say friends weren't amazed by a trick their grandfathers and uncles had pulled on them since they were three years old. Worse yet, I didn't let them keep the quarters.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Snow Day Part 3

A week or so later we had our first real snow of the year. At least five inches had fallen the night before and it was still coming down. It was a dry snow. This meant that when it fell if the snowflake didn’t particularly like where it landed it would blow around until it found a few million of its friends creating huge snow drifts.

Unfortunately it landed on a Saturday so it didn’t have the rich feeling of a day of skipping school but it was still a chance to play. First order of business was to explore the drifts. Our house was situated on the side of a hill so the driveway was about twenty feet below the front porch on one side. The wind had built up an immense pile of snow nearly halfway up the retaining wall. It had to be at least ten feet deep.

Our first year in the house there was no rail on the patio. It was one of those small home improvement projects my stepdad was going to get to after we moved in. At some point in the two years before he could install a guard rail Bubba and I had an argument while playing outside. In the race to get inside and tell mom my side of the story I grabbed the screen door handle just as Bubba did. I pulled the door open and he went flying over the side of the porch down to the concrete below.

I watched fall in slow motion and I watched him hit and bounce once before running into the house for adult help. “Mom”

But she cut me off before I could continue. “What are you doing in here? Get out!" We had been banished from the house earlier in the day so she and her best friend could can tomatoes and she was used to us arguing.

“Bubba fell off the cliff!” I yelled. I don’t know why I said cliff. It was the only thing I could think of in the heat of the moment to convey a high place to fall from. It probably would have been less confusing if there weren’t actual stone cliffs fifteen feet behind the house.

Our mother picked up Bubbas lifeless body, checked to see if he was breathing then put him in the front seat of the station wagon and took off toward the hospital.

I watched this from the front porch wondering if my brother was dead. Wondering if I would get in trouble. Trying not to wonder what it would be like to finally have a room to myself.

Mom’s friend Yolanda put her hand on my shoulder and backed me away from the side. To comfort me she said “Don’t you worry none. Boys bounce a lot when they’re youngin’s. He’ll prolly be fine”

Unless you count the need to complain about it for the next forty years Bubba was fine. There wasn’t a scratch on him. I guess he was still a little traumatized though because it took a lot of talking to convince him to jump off the porch into the snowdrift below.

“Come on” I said “It’s just like jumping in to hay in the barns”

He didn’t move so I continued, “Snow is even softer than hay and look how how that drift is.”

It was a nice drift too. Whipped up like white cupcake frosting only smooth and sparkling. It looked sculpted and perfect. Like the top of peanut butter when you first open the jar or a clean sheet of construction paper. It was perfection that begged to be unperfected.

“So why don’t you jump?” Bubba asked.

No plausible response sprang to mind. It seemed the time for words was officially over so I pushed him.

He landed feet first in the snow and, when there was no immediate blood, I jumped myself. I still felt the need to be the one to jump first I just had to test it out scientifically so he didn’t count. Maybe I should have waited another minute or two.

There’s an art to jumping into snow just like there’s an art to jumping into water. When jumping into water you don’t know the depth of, or don’t know what is covering the bottom, you jump feet first with your arms out to your side. Snow may be made of water but the technique is very different. I pondered these differences after I found myself up to my shoulders in, what was now, tightly packed snow. My arms were trapped at forty five degree angles above my head a human letter Y. This would never happen in water.

Bubba was in nearly the same situation except that when he jumped he held his arms down to his said so they were trapped against his body. All I could see was his eyes and his stocking cap as he tried to wiggle free.

He looked like a mole waiting to be whacked and I looked like the upper half of a cheerleader.

After what felt like hours of being trapped but was most likely only a few minutes Bubba and I didn’t really improve our situation much. Moving around would give us a little more room but the surrounding snow became more packed and more impenetrable. We weren’t in danger of freezing since we were coated with layers of plastic and the variety of other unnatural fibers that made up our cold weather gear. We were getting desperate though. Any minute the snow plow could come up the road ruining it for any decent downhill action.

It was our younger sister Becky that ended up saving us but not without some negotiating. She looked like a pretty little girl in her pink plastic coat with the mittens pinned to the sleeves but she was shrewd.

“I’ll dig you out but you have to play with me” she knew she had us.

We hated playing with her. She couldn‘t keep up and if she didn‘t get her way she would run crying to her dad, our stepdad. It didn’t matter what the story was, or even if it was true or not, as the favorite she knew she would be believed and get her way.

“Fine” I conceded “Just dig Bubba out first”. My plan was to have Bubba dig me out but she must have figured out my plan and ignored me. The deal was struck now we had to play with her.
The layer of snow on the street was too soft for our sleds so we cast about looking for something we could make into a toboggan. A gray plastic cloth didn’t get us anywhere, the wheel barrow that was missing one handle tended to fall over even though we did get a little movement from it. I was figuring out if I could take the wheels off of an old wagon when I saw the perfect makeshift toboggan. Made of hard plastic, curved bottom side with handles for the rider to hold on to this bright yellow laundry basket was as close as we were going to get.

The downside of this particular bright yellow basket was that it was too small for anyone but Becky. All of the other baskets had been systematically destroyed. Their walls crushed under the weight of one sibling trapping another under it.

I sprayed the bottom of the basket with WD-40 and we headed out. A few cars had made it up and down the hill so there were two grooves of hard pack in the snow. I put Becky in the basket in one on of the ruts, her pink coat in bright contrast to the yellow basket. Thankfully Bubba always forgot about being talked into life threatening situations. With very little coaxing he laid down on his back in the rut parallel to the one Becky was in head facing down the hill.

The other neighborhood kids started coming out then carrying sleds and even one circular actual store bought toboggan. They gathered around for the race. I gave Becky a push and Bubba used his legs to push himself. After a few false starts Bubba pushed himself down the road. Even with cheating he was no match for the yellow basket.

The groove made by the car tires held kept Becky in a general path but since there were no runners to keep her facing the same direction the basket rotated. Any neighbors looking out the window at that exact moment would see a pink and yellow blur shooting down the street. A loud high pitched scream echoing from the surrounding homes.

The cross street provided fresh soft snow to slow and eventually stop the basket dumping her lightly into the road. . Becky jumped up and grabbed her basket, triumphant. She was a hero. Nobody ever made it all the way to the bottom of the hill and all the neighborhood kids saw it.
And it was my idea.

And I told everybody. Over and over and over again.

The hill was steep enough that Becky could only go a few more trips down before it was too dark and it was time to go to inside. During the night the snowplow came and scraped off the most useful part of the snow. It didn’t stop Becky for trying to recapture the previous days glory. With a slide a little and scoot a little approach she was able to make it laboriously about three quarters of the way down the hill before giving up.

The gravel poking through what was left of the snow wore a long jagged hole in the bottom of the basket ruining it forever for any snow sports. And for carrying laundry.

With sliding down the hill eliminated as an activity Becky decided to call in her debt to play with her.

“What are you talking about?” I asked her “ I played with you all day yesterday”. I only argued for myself, Bubba was on his own.

“No, I had to slide up and down by myself yesterday because I was the only one that would fit in the basket.” She said.

“But it was my idea! If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t get to sled at all!” I could argued more but my heart wasn’t in it. There was nobody else outside to play but the three of us so I may as well get this out of the way. I suggested a snowball fight.

She declined, and smartly so. The neighborhood snowball fights were near legendary. Days would be spent shoveling snow into fortresses to hide behind. Water, from the hose if it would flow, or carried out in pans if it wasn’t was used to reinforce walls and turrets. The arsenals were stockpiled.

Calling our weapons snowballs wasn’t exactly correct. They were round and snow made up part of the construction. But as the fight would wear on and it was important to increase fire power a high content of rocks, ice and the occasional frozen dog turd made it into the mix. The fight wasn’t over until someone bled. We were very serious about snowball fights.

“Let’s make a snowman” Becky decided.


I didn’t like making snowmen and I blame Television for that. Any time you see a snowman on TV or in a movie it’s body is white and pristine. The separate parts are perfect globes and various sizes of coal making up facial features. One try and I found out rolling snow into a giant ball isn’t easy. rolling into a cylinder is pretty easy though. After a few rolls the snow starts getting mixed with grass and dirt and your snowman starts to look more like a sod man.

Forget about finding coal in the modern day. The best we could do was charcoal briquettes. The disadvantage being that the briquettes only came in square and were all exactly the same size. This made eyes look ok but the smile never looked like he meant it.

Our snowman that day sported a wilted celery nose and hands made out of the sweatsocks we used instead of mittens until Christmas came and we got annual allotment of winter gear. The dried brown grass picked out of his body gave our snowman a bad comb over that made him look a little too much like a clown version of Adolf Hitler.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Snow Day part 2

Once the sun was fully up we would properly assess our surroundings and decide on our Snow Day activities. If it was a white out storm then we would beg for thirty minutes to an hour to be allowed to play outside in it “just a little bit”. If some last lingering strand of maternal instinctual protectiveness was left in our mother and we were refused or request to go outside then we would each claim a good heating vent and set up camp.

Our home was heated with a furnace in the basement that pushed hot air up through vents in the floor. By shutting off all of the other vents in the house we could get enough air pressure to inflate a bed sheet or light weight bedspread. Inside these mini sweat lodges we would camp out with a stack of books or, if you were the lucky one fast enough to get the vent with the view of the TV you could continue watching cartoons. A kids head sticking out of an inflated bedspread always looked like some sort of Medieval torture device.

Later, when we relied on a wood stove for heat, we would spread out blankets on the floor, lie down on one end and roll ourselves up. In front of the TV would be three lumpy human sized kid burritos.

More often than not the motherhood gene remained dormant and we were allowed to go out into the blinding arctic conditions and amuse ourselves.

Our house was located at the top of the tallest hill for hundreds of miles. It wasn’t a mountain by any means but when you’re in the plains it doesn‘t take much much to be the tallest. This should have made for perfect sled riding conditions. In reality it made for only eighty five percent perfect sledding conditions. Our long, straight street with it’s nine degree incline was conveniently free of traffic but inconveniently covered with limestone gravel.

Our sleds with red painted metal runners worked great on the road for the slim sliver of time between the packing of the first snow and the plowing of the street. When the conditions were perfect the sleds were impossible to steer and adventure came in trying not to hit one of the cars parked on the side of road.

Most of the time the conditions for sleds wasn’t perfect and the risk would come from a sudden stop when the runners hit a thin spot in the ice and struck gravel. This would send the rider sliding down the hill on his or her butt. It wasn’t fun but it didn’t stop us from trying over and over.

Two major events happened in the Winter of 1979 to make sliding down the hill a lot more fun. The first was I saw new sliding hardware I had never noticed before. On the way to school during a freezing rain I saw kids sliding down a hill. There wasn’t even snow on the ground yet and some how they were pulling it off. This feat was accomplished with the use of a red plastic vehicle about the size of half of a bathtub. A toboggan.

I don’t know how toboggans had evaded my attention for so long. I had seen them at the stores but never seemed to understand the versatility of that cheap piece of plastic. No metal runners to snag on rocks. Hell forget rocks we could run that on grass. All we needed was ice! I had to have one.

But my timing was off. My paper route job was paying about twelve dollars a month and it was too close to Christmas to ask my parents for anything that wasn’t necessary for survival. I would probably miss out on a least a month or two downhill action.

Or would I? The second change that year was the increased popularity of plastic coats. Before then our coats had always been wool, jersey or if you were and older rich kid, leather. The plastic coat was cheap, waterproof and came in a variety of colors. Even better for my purposes, if the coat had a hat attached it was really a soft toboggan you could wear.

A remarkably cold night in early December gave me the opportunity I needed to test my theory. We awoke to frost covered grass.

“Bubba” I yelled to the bed next to mine “Get your coat on, come on we’re going to go sleddin’”

I needed my little brother because my plastic coat didn’t have the built in hood and ,since I was experimenting, I had to use him. Moments later dressed and outside he was on his back on the modest slope of our front yard. He didn’t move. He lay there on his back like a corpse. I pushed him luge style like I had seen on the Olympics but he still went nowhere.

I was standing over him and blaming him for his inert behavior when he looked past me to the water tower that was on the lot next to our home. “Oh cool, look!” he said pointing.

The water tower was such a visual fixture in our lives we never really looked at it. It was only because he was on his back that he noticed that the tower had overflowed during the night. At some point during the freeze water had spouted from the top and over the sides of the great sphere at the top coating it in ice and leaving immense icicles several feet thick and twelve feet long in some cases.

We discovered the thin sheet of ice under the tower was too thin to do anything practical on but the overflow had created a run off between the backyards and the embankment separating the neighborhood from Interstate 10. Frost might not work for a personal toboggan but ice should.

The first try was a false start. After ten feet Bubba’s plastic hood folded under his back and turned him sideways. It was a good start though. Second run I had him hold the hood over his face with both hands. I aimed him headfirst down the hill and pushed. It worked this time and he took off down the hill like a rocket.

After Bubba passed the border of our yard the newly formed creek changed in characteristics. I guess at that point the water flow had slowed down some and the ice formed over tufts of grass and rocks making the sliding surface very bumpy. After a few significant hits to the head it as obvious my tobogganer wanted to stop.

The first method he tried was to drag his boots on the ice. This turned into dragging one boot after the left one flew off and followed him down the hill. This had almost zero effect on his velocity so the next tactic was to throw down his left arm and grasp at the grass. His right arm still grasping the hood of his coat.

One arm down when you’re a human toboggan isn’t a good stopping maneuver. It is, however, an excellent turning maneuver. He made a sharp right turn and in seconds was up and over the berm separating the yards from the highway. Either because the incline was steeper or the frost was thicker I don’t know he continued on his journey.

Interstate Ten was cut through the limestone bedrock that mad up our hill. From your car you would drive by and see a wall of rock topped by a sloping green hill. From our house you saw grass then a shelf of rock that dropped down to asphalt. Bubba only saw sky because he was still on his back.

He had given up trying to hold on to the hood and was grasping at grass with both hands as he reached the rock shelf. The rock stopped him but not until his head and shoulders where extended out over thin air. I yelled “Bubba!”
Our eyes met and for a split second I could see what was going through his head. He remembered falling twenty feet to concrete the last thing he saw before hitting the ground was me. He remembered getting bitten by a dog as I was running away. He remembered being convinced to put a spoon handle in an electric outlet. He remembered the incident with the dead cow.

He stood up and stomped past me, tears running down his face. “Bubba don’t tell you’ll get in trouble” I tried to convince him.

He turned and yelled at me through sobs “You’re” (sob) “ trying to kill me!”

I wasn’t trying to kill him. I knew I wasn’t. But I had to admit the evidence was piling up.

Snow Day part 1

For over twenty years now I've successfully avoided Winter. First by fleeing Missouri to New Orleans for a few years. In The Deep South I experienced two years of warm and sultry days interrupted by one extremely cold Mardi Gras. That February the temperatures dropped to well below freezing for the first time in decades. After seeing three hard nipple related injuries and witnessing a flasher have his penis frozen and shattered to the base, all for a chance at some plastic beads, I decided it was time to find someplace warmer. I found South Florida. I was willing to face elderly drivers and man-eating lizards if it I could avoid frostbite in the process.

Looking back I guess my relationship with Winter was of the Love/Hate variety. Like all relationships of that variety the hate part eventually grows faster and eventually wins out. Then there’s nothing left to do but pack up your things and move on with your life.

I didn’t always hate the cold. In the beginning of our relationship, when I was young and naive, I loved the Winter. Snow and Ice made everything new and exciting. But, like with all things time and maturity will make your perspective change. What is at one time considered great fun changes to tedious or dangerous and probably not covered by insuance.

Building a snowman is no longer frozen folk art but is, instead, an invitation to myocardial infarction. Icy roads no longer appear before you as a perfect place to take your sled and ice skate. Now a thin sheet of ice looming in front of you produces the image of your car careening off the road and into a tree or, at the very least, is a reminder of how fragile the human pelvis really is.

But like I said there were times of great happiness and joy in the early years of Winter. As a matter of fact I have yet to recreate the euphoria I experienced after waking up on a January morning after a heavy snow. Overnight the landscape would change from the drab browns and charcoals of the normal landscape to crisp clean whites. I would wake my brother, Bubba so he could share in the wonder of it all. One of the few things I willingly shared with him.

After the regular school breaks of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years the only chanced we had for a day off before President’s Day would be the Snow Day. The most fun holiday of them all.

It took more than mere snow to make a Snow Day. The powers that be had to use some ancient and secret formula to determine whether or not to cancel school. There was no shortage of rumors as to the exact method used to determine the holiday. One was that if the superintendent of schools couldn’t get out of his driveway, in his four wheel drive, then school would be closed. Everyone involved agreed that it wasn’t fair he used four wheel drive for this test.

Other huddled conversations of kids came to the conclusion that Snow Days never happened in the middle of the week since the furnaces in the schools were already going and the buildings would be warm. The opposite theory was also passed around. If there was a Snow Day on Thursday they weren’t going to turn the massive heaters for just one day of the week. The exact method is, to this day, secretive and suspect.

While we were waiting for the official word I would plead the case of a personal Snow Day. Since we lived in a slightly more rural area I made the case that it was too dangerous, no not just dangers, a death sentence, to get on one of those rickety old school busses with no seat belts and no four wheel drive and try to brave frozen back woods dirt trails roads of Missouri. Allowing us to do it was probably a form of child neglect.

It never worked.

“If that school is open you’re going even if I have to drive you there myself” was our mom’s final word. Her children sliding into an icy canyon and freezing to death was a risk she would just have to take in order to some peace and quiet while watching One Life to Live.

Since the final final word could only come from a voice on the radio the three of us would huddle by the huge wooden stereo to wait. We would be wrapped in blankets to avoid getting dressed unnecessarily. If the official word came as “no closings" it was a mad scramble to get dressed make a mad dash to catch our bus.

One morning after our hopes were dashed I used the forty minute bus ride to to fix my hair once it thawed, re-button the shirt that was off kilter and regret that I had forgotten my belt. Once I arrived at the Middle School I regretted not having my belt even more. These jeans just felt wierd and they kept falling down. On closer inspection I saw the Sassoon label. I was wearing my mothers jeans. The entire day I kept my hand in my front pocket trying to look non-chalant, trying to keep my pants from falling off and praying nobody saw me in mom jeans.

If we heard the news. THE news the good news that made it an official Snow Day then the festivities began. The holiday tradition started with our disgusted and defeated mother going back to bed. Her day ruined. We would grab more blankets, comforters or sleeping bags off of our beds and planted ourselves in front of the television for the elusive midweek late morning children’s television that we never got to normally watch.Popeye the Sailor was stronger and funnier on a Thursday for some reason and Miss Sally from Romper Room always knew your name during the week.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Drama Mommas

I started hearing whispers about Mr. Gibbons while I was still in the eighth grade.

"I hear they got a queer teacher now". This was said by Brad Minton who, as it turns out, was gay himself but was still playing Hate The Queer in hopes that nobody would find out.

“Oh yeah?” I asked but didn’t allow myself to show much interest. “You mean here?”

“Nope, at the Old High School. He’s s’spose to be teaching drama or somethen’” He paused to pick up his gym bag “All them drama kids are queers that’s why I don’t do it” Then he left to change into a spandex unitard so he could practice wrestling on a mat with other boys.

While I knew in high school I would be offered classes for learning Spanish and how to drive properly, for some reason a class in dramatics was completely off my radar. A queer drama teacher, I thought. Well, I have to sign up for that.

Taking over the drama department in our rural Missouri town was Mr Gibbons' first teaching job out of college. I first saw him my last year in middle school. The high school kids were putting on the play You're A Good Man Charlie Brown and he brought the cast to do a scene for us during our lunch period. Like most high school productions it was loud, over acted and turned the stomach slightly less than school lunch chili. Mr. Gibbons beamed as though the middle school had just witnessed their first brief glance at Broadway.

Mr Gibbons was young, no more than twenty four, and looked even younger. A blond beard was grown to try to add some age to his face but it didn't quite work with his features. He also wore mirrored aviator sunglasses giving him the appearance of being in disguise. If Seventies porn star could be considered a disguise. If this didn't make him stand out enough he showed up to school that day wearing a sweat suit. A pale pink baggy oversized sweat suit. If there was any doubt before it was gone now. "Yep" I thought to myself "that's a queer".

I knew already that I had to be in drama class. I would be one of those bad skinned kids yelling lines at the top of my lungs butchering classic theater in front of the future farmers and factory workers of Middle America. I didn't crave the limelight since I'd had enough of that in my younger years and I wasn't particularly interested in live theater but I knew it was just something I had to do. Some type of instinct was drawing me there. I also wanted to be next to this new teacher. I wasn't sexually attracted to him but I wanted to be around him. I thought I could learn something important, something stylish, something gay. I wasn’t sure then what exactly what it was I was looking for and I still don’t know.

As it turned out, as a Freshman I wasn't eligible to take a real drama class. Instead I had to take the only option available to first year high school students which was Theater One. Calling this class "Theater" was false advertising. It was held in a classroom that was nowhere near a stage. We had to learn the history of theater which is a tale about the first time a caveman stood on a fallen tree log to get the attention of his cave audience all the way up to the modern opera house. Instead of learning to act, we learned terminology like “fly space”, “house lights” and “Upstage”. The only information I had any use for was that I finally knew what that pink cartoon tiger, Snagglepuss, was talking about when he said his famous catch phrase “Exit, stage left”.

Because I wasn’t very interested in the material I didn't pay much attention to the class. But, as it turns out, I didn't really have to. Much of the material on the tests was subjective and by some miracle, I finished the class with all E's. Which is the equivalent to getting all A’s in the rest of the world.

My plan to create some camaraderie with Mr. Gibbons never quite worked out. He would whisk into the classroom after the students were all seated, fling open his book with a flick of his wrist and start the lesson. With arms flailing and wild gesticulations he would give his disjointed lectures rapidly and in short bursts. Much like the monkey he was named after.

At the end of the semester we were finally allowed near an actual theater. Our class was to be the stage crew and do make-up for the play Up The Down Staircase. But this meant we took direction from a Senior student and not our teacher. During the production and rehearsal he was everywhere all the time like a nervous butterfly. He always spoke like he was out of breath and most importantly the older kids got to call him "Mark".

I ended my Freshman year knowing less about Mr Gibbons than I did about most of the other teachers and only slightly more about theater. My greatest accomplishment was that I was the only kid in my Theater One class to receive the final grade of E+. I've had high grades before but I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I did not earn this high mark and this made me feel warm inside.

Sophomore year I signed up for the real drama class. This was the first class you could take and then be eligible to be in any of the school productions. I had also signed up for the Forensics team, an after school activity I originally looked into it because it sounded like something with crime scene investigation and corpse handling. I realized later it was an acting and speaking competition. I stuck with it anyway since the coach is always the drama teacher. I still wanted that connection to this flamboyant teacher and to be inducted into the inner circle that was allowed to call him "Mark".

Our first practice meeting of the Forensic Team was scheduled to meet before our actual classes started. This was when we found out that two years in Missouri was too much for Mark and he had quit during the Summer. He whisked out of town as secretly as fast as he had flitted in. I remembered what Brad said about “all them drama kids are queer” and kept my fingers crossed this held true for Marks replacement.

The new drama teacher's name had been printed in the local news starved paper a week before we met her. So even before we showed up at school we were all sadly aware of Cruella Oddley (I'm not one hundred percent sure I remember that name correctly but I can assure you it's very close). The name conjured up all types of movie star types in my head so I decided to stay in forensics even though the reason I joined the team in the first place was now gone.

As it turned out Cruella didn't look like some sexy and sultry Disney villainess. Instead she was rather rough looking with cheeks so pock marked she looked like a large dogs favorite chew toy. She wore denim overalls like a farmer and her chemically burned hair looked like a sick and dehydrated poodle. I have to give her credit for knowing how to make a first impression. Not a good first impression but a lasting one.

If she was gay or not I couldn’t tell. All I knew for certain was that she didn’t have any gay friends. Not with that hair. So self respecting gay man would allow her to walk around looking like that. I realized she wasn’t going to get burned out by the school system. Life had burned her out already and she wasn’t going anywhere.

I decided to step up to the plate and made a conscious effort to be nice to the new teacher. Since, even if I quit the Forensics Team, I was already signed up for drama class she was all I had. So at our first meeting I took the initiative and stood up after a moment and said "Hi Cruella!".

I thought I was being friendly and making her feel at home in her new job by using her first name. Mark would have appreciated it. Miss Oddley thought otherwise. The look she shot me was one that wasn't hard to figure out. It said "don't use my first name, I hate men, I hate you and this is going to be a long and painful class for you". All of that from one look. The lady had some talent after all.

That next semester was miserable for me and the few other boys in class. Cruella seemed to have the philosophy that drama class is for no talent chubby girls that were probably just going to get knocked up before prom anyway. I had a feeling she was getting back at all the men that had dumped her over the years. All of the men that had ignored her. Or maybe she wanted to get even with the man did that to her hair.

I thought I had her all figured out as a jilted man hater when I noticed her having lunch with a male teacher that also started that year. His name was Mr. Watkins and he was short, dumpy and had skin as bad as Cruella's, though, without the benefit of stage make up she applied heavy enough it could have repaired a crack in a dam.

Cruella and Watkins would huddle down over their food when they ate, their eyes darting around the huge cafeteria. They looked like they were plotting against the students and possibly the other teachers. Whatever they were talking about I was convinced at least half of it was about me.

The next semester I had Yearbook class and School Newspaper classes back to back. This was my opportunity to meet Mr. Watkins face to face. He saw me come into class and shot me a glance I read as dislike but with a bit of fear. I knew it. That poodle haired bitch had been talking about me. I instantly disliked him for taking Cruella's side and automatically disliking me without even meeting me. The little weasel.

Watkins was a brand new teacher and didn't have a lot of self confidence and that was something I knew I could exploit. I decided I'd get back at Cruella through her only friend and it started today. "Hi Johnny" I bubbled from the back of the room . Johnny was already on the defensive and mumbled something about respect. Maybe his face turned red it was hard to tell through the shiny film of oil. I had him now and he didn't have a chance.

As bad as Drama class was for me my yearbook and newspaper classes were great. I maneuvered myself to be in charge of advertising for both publications. This came with the responsibility of assigning which of my other classmates had what advertising accounts among the local businesses. Of course, I took the companies like the funeral homes and car dealerships that took out full page ads every year for myself thus insuring that I had almost no work to do the for both periods.

The school had an open campus policy which meant I could show up for class and then jump in my car and disappear for two hours to supposedly sell ads. Before Mr. Watkins got mad enough or suspicious enough to say anything in protest I’d shut him down by bringing him donuts. You can never go wrong bringing a fat teacher donuts.

Many years later I found out that the our Newspaper/Yearbook teacher Mr. Watkins was having an affair with one of the male students from my grade. I walked into the classroom unexpectedly one afternoon and interrupted an argument between teacher and student. Both parties assumed I knew I had witnessed their lovers spat.

I only found out over a decade later when the boy that was the student at the time asked me why I never told anyone about the affair. It sure wasn’t because I was such a nice and understanding guy. I would have loved to have lorded that information over a teacher’s head. The truth was, even though the argument looked a little odd to me, I didn’t put two and two together. Mostly because I didn’t think this shiny whiney teacher was gay and partially because I didn’t want the though to him in any sexual situation to be embedded in my brain.

To Kill a Mockingbird was our first school play of my Sophomore year. Because of the lack of students in drama class Cruella was too desperate for bodies to deny me a part. She didn’t give me the male lead of Atticus, she wouldn’t allow that, but she did relent enough to give me a speaking part. I was cast as Horace, the prosecuting attorney.

I loved To Kill a Mockingbird and thought the book was brilliant. I had read it at least a dozen times so learning my six lines took all of two minutes. This meant for the rest of the rehearsals I had a lot of sitting around time to deal with and Cruella hated this.

Even though this was to be my live acting premier and I had a speaking roll I couldn’t look at rehearsal and just be happy to be on the team. The boy cast to play the judge said every line like he was Paul Lynn and so all I could think was how she was turning this play into a Southern version of Bewitched. Which in retrospect would probably have gone over much better.

Not much exciting happened until a week before we were to perform. Sets were built and painted by the freshmen while we ran lines and Cruella was going over where were all supposed to be during each scene. I was in one scene. I was supposed to be sitting the entire time. Off to the side of the stage a gaggle of girls took turns painting black face on our otherwise white Tom Robinson.

I was lounging on stage in my prosecuting attorneys chair and making a show of doing nothing when, out of the blue Cruella had a visitor. Walking toward the stage between the seats was a boy I had never seen. He looked about high school age and was wearing overalls and hiking boots. In his left rear pocket was a wallet with a chunky silver chain running to the denim loop normally used for carrying a hammer or a paint brush. In a town where most people knew each other it was odd to see someone your own age you didn't know. Especially if he's kind of cute.

Cruella was expecting him. As this boy walked toward the stage, Cruella jumped down and pulled out her own wallet, this one without a chain, and offered it to her guest. As the boy reached forward to trade his own wallet for hers I saw through the sleeve in his tee shirt the side of his bra.

Wait a minute.

This wasn't a boy. This one of those girls that looks like boys. Well, well, well. I guess Cruella and I had something in common after all.

Part of our drama training was learning how to project our voices to the back of a theater and Cruella soon regretted teaching us that skill. One of the girls bellowed "Who was that?”. But it wasn't the polite "who was that" as in.."my it would be wonderful to make that persons acquaintance" it was "Who was, THAT!" as in "how could you bring something like that into our school?".

Cruella wasn't ruffled she simply replied "That was my roommate, I accidently grabbed her wallet this morning" Everyone exchanged odd looks. Whether it was because her roommate looked like a boy or because she admitted she carried a wallet I'm not sure. I was sure that Cruella didn’t like boys but it was starting to look like she liked girls who look like boys.

She looked around the theater with one of her practiced looks. It said "this is me and it's a non-issue" it said "I will not let anyone look down on me for what I am" with an undertone of "If I keep going on as though nothing has happened nobody will say anything". She was convinced it was working when rest of the students were going back to whatever it was they were doing.
Then her eyes met mine.

I had been staring at her and so she stared back tightening up her facial expression like it was some magic spell she had to try harder at for it to work. I was also a student of facial expression and conveying messages through my eyes so I showed her my best smirk that said "I know your secret and I'm just letting you know that I know" She should have given me a passing grade just from that one look.

Though I was brilliant the play was a terrible flop. Cruella had no problems telling everyone that either. She blamed us for not knowing our lines and for not following the direction and for over acting. It was a lot like a coach yelling at a football team in the locker room after a particularly bad loss.

She didn't say anything specifically to me about my performance but she did make some of her former pets cry. Emboldened by my own lack of criticism and seeing a chance to be a hero I sailed to their rescue. "Cruella, this is an award winning script from a brilliant author and you still couldn't seem to pull it off, I really think this is more about you than it is about us.” to make it sting a little more I threw in “Mr. Gibbons always had great plays". I wasn’t lying, I told myself, I was acting.

Her face turned so hot and red some of the heavy make ups she used to cover her pock marks started to slide off her face in large sheets leaving deep cracks that looked like a dried up lake bed. "Mr Gibbons also ran off with three thousand dollars from the theater account" she said through gritted teeth, the split ends of her dried out perm quivering around the edges.

Well that ended the mystery of why Mr Gibbons left so quickly. After that I gave up on all things theater. I knew that as long as Cruella was drama dictator I didn't stand a chance on stage. I never bought her excuse that she was under funded, instead, I thought she was under talented and would bring it up whenever the chance showed itself. I coasted through the rest of the year with a barely passing grade and no real confirmation or or denial that she was indeed a lesbian.

At my ten year class reunion I found out Mr Gray had retired and moved out of town. Cruella and Mr. Watkins still worked at the same school but had more or less segregated themselves from the teaching staff, a few of whom had been my classmates . It is my sincere hope that she's mellowed some, picked up some teaching tips and gotten better information on hair care. I also hope she's no longer crushing the dreams and talents of the other small town gay boys coming through her class.