Category Archives: D: High School Pt 2: The Awakening

East High – The Final Year: The Girl in the Office

As for teenage romance in my senior year at East High, the best opportunity for something special presented itself in September of 1963. An opportunity which I — being at the time a complete idiot and fool — totally wasted.

In the autumn of that year there was a girl who started working in the office (that is to say the front end or customer service part) of Aurora Cleaners, where I still toiled part-time, sorting and making up hangers, cleaning up after hours, and performing other such chores.

This new employee was my age, a senior at West High, and pretty, intelligent, sweet, and generally, as I saw her, a dream come true. After a short period of time — in which I took advantage of every excuse, real or imagined, to “go up front” and possibly talk with this girl – I mustered my courage and asked her out for a date; and she accepted.

We went to the Sandwich Fair, which I have always liked for its autumnal theme. We strolled about doing Sandwich Fair things. We looked at animals, both familiar and strange. I tried to win a bear (I did not). We drank hot spiced cider, and rode the Tilt-O-Whirl, and all in all had a rather nice time.. Because the air was a bit nippy, we wore light jackets, and she wore a scarf; which she absentmindedly left in my car at the end of the evening.

Soon after, on a day when my recent date was not working, the ladies of the front office – all friends of my mother and my aunts – surrounded me and were questioning me closely about my date. When I mentioned the scarf, a wave of satisfaction rippled through the group. They began to chatter excitingly, saying that this was a tactic. That she wanted to see me again, and this was her way to ensure that I would call. The ladies were pleased. It was at just this point however, when my being an idiot assumed control.

Rather than taking advantage of these invaluable allies, I instead somehow resented the involvement and vowed to myself that they weren’t going to orchestrate me into some workplace romance, just for their own entertainment. The next day, I brought the scarf in and gave it to one of the ladies, asking her to please return it for me. And that was that!

I say again, for it certainly bears repeating, I sometimes was, and hope I not too often am, a complete fool.

 

East High – The Final Year: Academics

As the final football season of my high school years came to a close, my interest in East High athletics waned. At least for a while – I would be back before the decade was over; an East High Alum and a rabid fan of both the football and basketball teams. But for now my attention shifted to getting through the school year, and to the Navy, which lay just beyond. As I settled into my last year at East, it was evident, as it had been so all along, that while I got by, I would not excel in the high school environment. Not athletically, not scholastically, and not socially.

The Freshman Clique were now of course all seniors, and had complete control of the East High student society; their portion of it at least. The rest of us just sort of did our own thing, and rode the continuum, waiting – for my part at least – for it finally to be over, and for life’s next phase to begin.

The school year progressed as expected. The academic portion was, for me, actually no struggle at all; I just didn’t work very hard at anything. Consequently I concluded with a solid, well-deserved low “C” average. I was a bit wiser now, however. I knew what to do to not fail, and that was good enough. And in art class, the one thing I would normally look forward to, I was saddled with a teacher with whom I had no rapport, and for whom I had no respect.

There were exceptions, however, such as American history, in which I got an easy “B”. As usual, I expended no real effort, but the march of time, as presented by Mr. Davis, was both interesting and compelling – kind of like an adventure/drama story, but one whose conclusion remains, tantalizingly, just beyond the last page. In later years I would wistfully regret, more than a few times, not pursuing a degree in, and a career teaching — and perhaps even writing — history. But at the time, such a notion would’ve seemed laughably far-fetched.

Given my previous experiences, both bad and good, with books, it was with extreme irony that I got through senior English to a large degree, it seemed, by reading novels. As I have previously noted, I had just recently discovered the pleasures of reading. My teacher was English Dept Head Mr. Blackwell, whom I recall as being an OK guy — despite being old. But I didn’t really get to know him very well for he had, that year, a student teacher who “assisted” in class. Actually, from my perspective, theirs was more like the relationship between a Professor and a T. A. In this case, the teacher hovered, and observed, and I’m sure advised, but Professor-like, left most of the actual student contact to his protégé.

This earnest young fellow noted my interest in reading, and encouraged me; recommending and later discussing books which were, I now think, just a bit above my level, causing me to stretch a little without even knowing it. Thus I slid through senior English doing mostly what I enjoyed, and only occasionally having to burden myself with such tedium as conjugating a verb, or diagraming a sentence.

I don’t recall this young student teachers name, but I’m quite sure that, if he didn’t burn out somewhere along the line, he went on to a career as a great teacher. At least I hope so, for in a small, but significant way, he helped me as much as anyone to advance along the academic pathway.

But the real bright spot of each school day was Mr. Amyx’s Auto Mechanics/Metal Working shop class, in a far corner of the lower floor; between the machinist’s “classroom”, and the print shop. It was to there that I migrated after my sudden and complete loss of interest in electronics — for I had heard the siren song of the internal combustion engine, and it was this classroom in which its secrets could be discovered.

It was there that I became part of a small group of “teacher’s pets” who formed the team that participated in the annual Chrysler Corporation sponsored, interschool competition in automotive troubleshooting. We didn’t win, but no matter, it was great fun and a very intense learning experience.

Those who continue to read this narrative will learn that, to no one’s surprise, the school year ended (not without some drama) and I graduated, depositing me in an eventful, if somewhat surreal period of my life, as everything in the following months was influenced to some degree by my impending departure for the U.S. Navy.

East High – The Final Year: Athletics

My senior year at East high featured a mixed bag of athletics. My classmates were now the seniors on the ‘63 Tomcat football team and – supplemented, to some degree, by some of the more talented juniors – were totally, and completely, unbeatable; winning the inaugural year championship of the new Upstate Eight Conference, as they had won the final crown of the old Big Eight Conference the year before.

Sad to say, but I had given up on football a year prior. Not through lack of desire, or of wanting to be a part of a team. But the team was just so damn good. My decision to leave was based on the reality that in this group, the time, effort, and the grueling practice schedule (especially the brutal two-a-day sessions in August) led only to the frustration of sitting on the bench until the last minute or so of home games, and the humiliation of never ever wearing an “away” jersey.

Still, I attended the games, and rooted for my former teammates, and took pride in “the schools” accomplishments. But, I reasoned, if I were going to just watch, the view was better from the bleachers, and there were girls there as well.

To round out the year athletically, the basketball team was the yang to the gridiron yin. Several members of the Wrestling team went to the state tournament and did well, but they had been there before so that was no surprise. The Track and Field, and Baseball teams were average, but unremarkable.

For me, as I have previously mentioned, “athletics” meant ice skating, where Gang Tag was not an IHSA sanctioned sport, unfortunately, but where I — I don’t mind saying — was a standout.

 

The Music of My Time – Random Thoughts

Having met and surmounted the challenge of kindergarten, and endured the long, slow drag through grade school, in the fall of 1958 I achieved the next major milestone in my life — the transition to junior high school. At about that time I was also becoming a aware of, and increasingly interested in, the popular music of the day, and the dominant music of the demographic into which I was now entering was of course Rock ‘n Roll.

For the most part early Rock ‘n Roll was an uncomplicated music, at least from the listener’s perspective. Sure there were back-up singers, and a lot of orchestration in some of the hit songs — mostly violins it seemed — but to start a band, all that was really required was the tried and true four-person formula; lead and rhythm guitars, bass, and drums. Or simpler yet, a few guys and an acoustic guitar, or maybe just some guys standing on a south Philly street corner singing A capella.

As to the singers, there was Elvis of course, Bill Haley and his Comets. Buddy Holly, Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, Bobby Rydell, and the like. There were the ballads of Connie Francis, The Lettermen, and Brenda Lee, and the upbeat songs of Dodie Stevens, Paul Evans, and The Playmates (Beep, Beep). And the teen idols such as Frankie Avalon, Dion DiMucci, and of course Ricky Nelson.

Rock ‘n Roll instrumentals included the guitars of Duane Eddy, Santo and Johnny, The Virtues, and the Ventures. And, lest we forget, there were a few orchestral holdovers from prior times; Percy Faith, Prez Prado, Al Caiola, the beautiful, but lesser-known, “Our Winter Love” by Bill Purcell and his Orchestra, and always Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”.

As time moved along, as it always does, the music was changing, as it also always does; but it was a slow evolution and hardly noticed. And then something happened. On a Friday evening in September 1963, I was allowed to use the family car – the 58 Chevy – to go to the Y, or the CYA dance, or wherever Vern and I would decide to go. While driving to pick up my friend I was of course listening to WLS on the car’s radio. During a break from the music, and the occasionally frantic patter of the DJ, I heard a very cryptic ad stating simply – “The Beatles are coming”. I didn’t know what that meant, so the phrase passed quickly through the conscious part of my brain. But it stuck somewhere because I do, in fact, remember quite clearly the time and place where I first heard mention of the Beatles.

From such innocuous and insignificant moments sometimes spring life-changing events, for soon the Beatles did come, bringing with them the rest of the British Invasion, and Rock & Roll — as we knew it — was dead. Actually, even before the Beatles, popular music (that is to say, the music of the young) was starting to splinter into many genres. In addition to the introduction of the Brits, which brought us everything from the Beatles and Stones, to Petula Clark, Herman’s Hermits, and Mary Hopkin, the homegrown stuff now suddenly seemed different as well.

It wasn’t just Rock ‘n Roll anymore. Hits like The Rooftop Singers’ “Walk Right In” and “Washington Square” by The Village Stompers, and groups like the Kingston Trio gave a hint that folk music could join the mainstream. And so it was that traditional folk music, transitioned by the likes of Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs, Peter Paul and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel, became “Folk Rock” and was now a large part of the popular music scene.

Phil Spector changed American pop music forever with his “Wall of Sound”, and with the girl groups of the 1960s; the Crystals, the Chiffons, the Shirelles, the Ronettes, and so on.

That old time rock ‘n roll now had a theme; the music of “Big Surf” and “Fast Cars” was rolling, or catching a wave. Spearheaded by the Beach Boys, the genre included Ronny and the Daytonas, The Rip Chords, and a lot of good stuff by Jan & Dean.

Doo-wop was gone, but Motown added a rich diversity, bringing R & B to everyone’s transistor radio and phonograph, and introducing us to superstars like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes, and oh so much more.

And thank God for all of it. I’ve stated elsewhere in this narrative that I believe we are all defined, to a large degree, by the music we experience in a narrow band of years*. For me that time was the first half of the 1960s. What a grand musical era in which to come of age.

      *See “Generations” in the Jr High School Category

Joining The Navy?

One Friday morning in October of my senior year at East High I walked into homeroom and sat down beside my friend Stanley. His first words to me that day were “I joined the Navy last night, and you’re going to join too”. After a couple of moments of mirthful amazement, I listened skeptically to what he had to say.

 Stanley had a good friend whose father was a chief petty officer — of some aviation rating — in the reserve unit at Glenview Naval Air Station. As the first step into his father’s footsteps, this friend had joined the reserves at the Aurora Armory, taking Stanley along.

I had grown up proud of my father’s service commanding a Sherman tank in World War II, and I’d always known that I would follow his example and be a soldier (for as long as the obligation lasted, anyway). This was enhanced to a large degree by watching “Combat” on TV, various WWII movies, and of course by reading the comic book tales of Sgt. Rock of Easy Company (“Nothing’s easy in Easy Company”).

But at the same time I’d also been influenced by my uncle who had been a gun mount captain on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. And many of those war movies with which I grew up informed me that I also liked naval ships.

So this immediately available opportunity presented me with a dilemma. I had spent a fair portion of my youth re-creating, in my minds eye, the “adventures” I imagined my father and his peers had had winning the “Good War”, and knowing that one day I would also be a G. I. (Everyone — myself included — based my academic prowess on what I had demonstrated to this point, so college wasn’t an issue). But now, an altogether different future was presenting itself, and I decided that I at least owed it a fair hearing.

Having just achieved the age of 17, I was a free agent in the matter, so on the following Thursday evening I met Stanley and together we went to the weekly meeting at the Naval Armory in Phillips Park. Perhaps it was a tactic, but once I was introduced to the appropriate people, I was treated as if I had arrived with my mind already made up. It was explained to me what I would be doing WHEN (not IF) I signed up, and where I would go, and what I would learn, and so on.

I was given, that very evening, the aptitude test which was then used by the Navy to evaluate potential enrollees. When I finished I was told the number score which I had achieved. Having nothing to compare it to this meant little to me, but I was told that it was a high score; one which would pre-qualify me for almost any service school which I would choose. This pleased me, but strangely — given my academic history — didn’t surprise me. I knew I was a terrible student, but deep inside I nonetheless felt that I was smart.

The result of this full-court press was that before Stanley and I left that evening, I was a member of the United States Naval Reserve. Serendipity Again! Was this an impetuous decision? Yes. Did this have the potential to be a foolish decision? Yes. Did this turn out to be the right decision? Yes!

Graduation In Jeopardy – 2nd Offense

The second, and I suppose last, offense which jeopardized my impending graduation from East High was less harmful in general than cutting into the lunch line. But it was in fact a bit more serious and could indeed have gotten me suspended, just weeks before graduation. In that final semester the last class of my day was Art Class — which you would think I looked forward to. Not so. For the senior art teacher, to whose class I was assigned, was the elderly Miss Pooley.

Close to retirement — my Uncle Ray had had her for a teacher some 20 years earlier — Miss Pooley’s technique for teaching art was sometimes to snatch the brush, or pencil, or charcoal, or whatever from your hand saying “No, like this”, thus forcing you to watch while she completed most of your project for you in a sort of show and tell. Any respect I might have had for her as an art teacher vanished the first time she pulled this on me. It may have been acceptable to some in the class; but art class was one of the few where I actually looked forward to learning something, and to me represented the very definition of a participatory activity, not a lecture.

My best friend Vern, on the other hand had signed up for “Cinema”, and spent the final period setting up and showing movies to those classes requiring an audio-visual experience. When no movies were scheduled, it was to be regarded as a study hall. In fact, if no movies were scheduled, Vern would wander down to my art class and signal to me from the hall.

Miss Pooley, it turned out, was largely unaware of what actually went on in her classroom; at least as far as attendance was concerned. After she took the roll, if Vern was waiting outside, I would simply slip out one of the two doors when her back was turned, and off we went. I don’t know how many times we did this, but only once did she question whether I had been in class the previous day. I, of course, professed that yes, I had been there, and others in the class — knowing full well what I had done — backed me up.

I wasn’t too surprised at her question. On the day prior, as Vern and I were making our way off school grounds, we were spotted by our old nemesis, Ewald. Off we went in a flash, diving into the residential neighborhood beyond the parking lot. I think we must’ve been far enough away that Ewald couldn’t make a positive identification, but he did hurry to his car and give chase.

It took us twice as long to get home that day as it would have had we stayed until the end of classes. We dashed across streets and hid between houses as Ewald cruised back and forth; hoping to catch us in the open. But we finally managed to break contact and get to Vern’s house.

The reason I believe he did not make a conclusive identification was that the next day we were called to his office, there to be subjected to another stern warning. I’m certain that had he been able to prove it was us, our school year would’ve ended then and there.

But the school year ran out before my luck did, and I have a clear memory of marching — after the football field graduation ceremony — into the locker room wherein, in a most un-Vern-like fashion, my friend launched himself at me, wrapped me in a major-league hug, and exclaimed “We made it, We made it”!

Graduation In Jeopardy – 1st Offense

FOR ME, THE earlier part of the 60s era featured my graduation from Aurora East High School in June of 1964, and my entry into the US Navy in 1965, culminating in a visit to Viet Nam in 1966.

The former event almost didn’t happen though, as I managed to misbehave just enough in the closing months of the school year to possibly put the issue into doubt. Suspension may have been merely a threat — My grades, though not stellar, were adequate to see me through, and misbehaving was a far cry from causing real trouble — but I took it seriously nonetheless. Taking it seriously, however, didn’t mean my behavior changed all that much; but I was quite concerned and consequently more careful. My two worst offenses, which seem so trivial today, were actually, even then, quite benign.

In the last semester of my last year at East High, the study hall to which I was assigned just prior to lunch was quite a long way away from the cafeteria, and a long line would form before I could get there, thus consuming a large portion of my lunch hour — actually half hour. This seemed unfair, so to avoid standing in the long cafeteria line, I would merely find someone near the front of the line whom I knew, and cut in. Problem solved.

I was plucked out of line several times and warned that this was unacceptable behavior; the last warning threatening me with banishment from the cafeteria for the remainder of the year. I’m not sure what I thought would happen, but sure enough, the next time I cut in line I was almost immediately removed and taken to see the vice principal, Ewald Metzger. “Ol’ Ewald” was the subject of a great deal of derision and ridicule — at least among those whom I knew, or associated with — but the fact was, he had the Power. I was indeed banished from the cafeteria until the end of the school year; fortunately now just a few weeks away.

So I brought my lunch and ate it, alone, in the anteroom of the teachers lounge. The alone part was bad enough, but as the teachers passed to and from the lounge, they all managed to give me that disgusted, disappointed look which teachers all seem to develop, and hold in reserve for those whose performance falls well below standard.