It seems like an eternity since I was in high school and there is a very good reason for that; it HAS been an eternity since I was in high school. A little more than forty seven years, to be more or less exact, and with that passing of time a weird thing is beginning to happen in my head. Rather than fading with time as one would expect for the mental images of those long ago days, my memories seem to be getting sharper as I savour the promise of reuniting with a small number of those friends and acquaintances who shared all or most of those crazy teen-age years that I spent at Herbert Hoover High School.
I have no experience with high school life today, but I feel comfortable in assuming that it is far different from the high school environment of 1966. School was much more regimented in the middle 1960’s. Dress codes forbade shorts or sandals on boys and dresses with thin “spaghetti straps” on the shoulders or skirts above the knee of girls. Proper hair length for boys was determined and enforced by the school administration, and boys with hair to the collar or facial hair of any kind was not to be accepted. All disruptive behavior would receive immediate and unwanted attention from a vice-principal and repeat offenses led to expulsion from Hoover and a transfer to one of the two continuation schools in the city, or “Hard Guy High’s” as we called them.
In such a regime one might suspect that every trace of individuality would have been snuffed out like a candle in a hurricane, but this was not the case at all. Those of us who felt disinclined to conform found no end of ways to express our individual personalities. My purpose for writing this memoir is to share a few of my brighter (or dimmer) moments as I navigated the uncharted teenage sea that was my young life during three years of Herbert Hoover High School.
I was acquainted with a surprising number of my fellow students at Hoover. People tended to not move much in those days and a group of us knew each other from the earliest grades of elementary school. My junior high school, or grades seven, eight and nine, was the distant point of a triangle made by my three K-12 schools, so I picked up another set of acquaintances there. Even with this large peer group it was easy to get lost among the nearly three thousand students that attended Hoover every year. Therefore I naturally gravitated towards a smaller group with whom I could enjoy a closer relationship. Or three subgoups really, which consisted of kids from my neighborhood, kids who were considered nerds, and oddly enough, quite a few really pretty girls.
The kids from my neighborhood were of course my natural allies, and this group gave me entry into a variety of subgoups at school. Matt Robinson, for instance, was a Popular Kid and was my best friend. We got into a fight on the schoolyard in the fourth grade and were inseparable ever after. Matt had everything I did not have, or so it seemed to me. Matt was handsome and I had freckles. Matt had muscles and I was so skinny that if I stood sideways and stuck my tongue out I looked like a zipper. Matt could grow his hair to the limits allowed by the high school administration but my military father kept mine unacceptably short.
Matt and I went on our first date in the ninth grade. Somehow we managed to get two girls to go to a movie with us, and the movie we chose was “The Longest Day”. Matt and I were both very shy then and both of us, after multiple soft drinks, had bladders the size of the Hindenberg but were too embarrassed to get up and say that we were going to the bathroom. I know, it sounds ridiculous today. Back then however bodily functions were much more of a source of embarrassment, especially if you were fourteen years old and with a girl for the first time in your life. That movie seemed to stretch on for as long as the actual D-Day in Normandy that it depicted.
After the movie the parents of one or both of the girls, I can’t remember if they were sisters or not, picked us all up to drive us home. When we were within walking distance of our homes both of us told the father that we were close enough and would walk the rest of the way. The dad complied and let us out of the car. Matt and I waved as they drove off and then we ran like the wind to a neighborhood gas station one block away and spent a blessed few minutes relieving the pressure of what could have developed into two major and embarrassing accidents. For some reason which I don’t recall we never saw those girls again. Matt later on became much more comfortable with girls, and in fact married his sweetheart by the time I returned from the Army, but that is another story.
Matt and I also had dreams of being football stars. We knew that the girls were crazy about football players so it was straight to the fall tryouts we went just before the beginning of our sophomore year. I knew I lacked the skills to pass, catch, or run with the ball, so I determined that I would play on the offensive line. All 120 pounds of me. I felt very much like an athlete as I bought my high-top boots, my mouthpiece, and got my physical exam and subsequent certification to participate. I lifted weights and ran laps and ate a little more than my usual microscopic portions of food and when the first day of practice arrived I was ready for action.
Or so I thought. I quickly learned that it is exceedingly difficult for a guy who weighs 120 to block or tackle a guy who weighs twice as much. I also learned that in football people do not hit you because they are mad at you or because you have had a disagreement; rather, they hit you just because they CAN hit you, and they are SUPPOSED to hit you, and the harder that they hit you the more the coaches like it. I was never a particularly aggressive kid so this was extremely difficult for me. I stuck it out however for about one and a half weeks until one day a prospective defensive tackle rolled over my head, and even with my helmet on I thought my head would pop like a zit. As quickly as I could get my shit together I walked off of that field, turned in my gear, chucked the boots and mouthpiece in the trash and walked home, forever cured of any aspirations to play football at any organized level.
From that lofty point my athletic ambitions quickly receded to a much more manageable level. In gym class, a class in which anything more than a ‘C’ for me was a miracle on the order of the parting of the Red Sea, the boys were divided up into three groups. The ‘A’ Class was made up of the boys who were not quite good enough to be on a varsity or junior varsity teams but were still quite sports minded. They would hustle, grunt, sweat, and act for all the world like the olympic athletes that they thought they should be. Then there was the ‘B’ Class. These guys knew that they were not physically gifted enough to play with the big boys but they gave it all that they had for what it was worth. For my money, these were the kids who should have received grades of ‘A’, as they pushed themselves more than anyone else in that class. And then there were the Culls.
I was a Cull. We were the guys who just didn’t care about gym one way or another. We knew that we were not athletic, we were not impressed by the kids who were athletic, and the coaches sensed our antipathy towards the whole macho circus that was gym class, so they labeled us Culls and gave us a ‘C’ grade if we would do anything at all and not get in anybody else’s way. I suppose that I should explain what a cull is. In the days of the western cattle drives when a herd got to Dodge or Kansas City or wherever, the herd would pass through a chute one by one before the buyers. The prime cattle would be sold at a certain price, but the sick, lame, lazy, crippled and crazy cows would be ‘culled’ from the herd and sold for practically nothing, which was what they were worth. The funny thing is that we had a very positive sense of identity and took proudly to the label. If ‘Cull’ meant somebody unwilling to march to a tune that was totally unfit for them then Culls we were.
It was in this class that I hung out particularly with two guys, one from my neighborhood and one possibly from Mars, but most likely a more distant planet. David Triplet was a classic nerd. David was a little taller than me and weighed a good fifty pounds more. Most of David’s weight was around his middle, and he seemed to spread out from smallish shoulders to large, round hips. If I looked like a zipper, David looked like an avocado or a pear. David also had poor eyesight and therefore already had rather thick glasses. To top it off, on those occasions when David had to run he did so in an odd, flat-footed stumping sort of manner. David would stump around the track rather than run, fat giggling around his waist and his moobs, or man-boobs, giggling on his chest. Sometimes the coaches would make David run just for a laugh for themselves and the A and B Classes. David would run cheerfully, laughing at them far more than they were laughing at him.
What they didn’t know is that David knew how to make wine. That’s one of the things that nerds know but popular kids don’t. David would somehow manage to make wine out of different fruits a long time before making alcohol at home was legal. Perhaps he lived in an attached house or maybe his parents allowed his unusual hobby. Perhaps they shared it. Either way, David would occasionally bring a flask of his wine to school and we would toast each other’s health out behind the bleachers. I remember one day when we were at the top of the bleachers making and flying paper helicopters. We would see whose creation would whirl and flutter and sail the farthest distance. David told me how grass is made of a complex sugar which he should be able to break down somehow and ferment into an alcoholic beverage, and since his parents made him mow the lawn it seemed only right that he should take his payment for that labor in the form of grass wine. I do not know if he ever succeeded in his endeavor. I was acquainted with several of the popular kids through my neighbornood connections like Matt and others. All of them could sport the latest clothing styles and do the dances that they saw on American Bandstand and Soul Train, but not one of them ever talked about making grass wine, at least not in my hearing. I found David a lot more fun to be with than anyone in the A Class.
Another of my Cull friends was Leonard Chinn. Leonard lived near the edge of my neighborhood and we hung together at the local park, so it was natural that we hung together at school too. What was a little unusual for the time however was the fact that leonard was what was then called ‘Colored.’ It is funny that we came to be friends at all. My parents were both Southern and there were few good feelings in my family towards a group that would come to be called African Americans (although my father later supported Colin Powell for president, except that he declined to run). Yet Leonard and I hit it off at once and we spent many long hours together talking and goofing off as boys of any color will do.
One time my relationship with leonard paid off in a big way. The mid 1960’s were a time of considerable racial turmoil, and added to that was the tendency of people even from the same neighborhood to form smaller groups which viewed people from other groups with suspicion and hostility. I don’t know if it is still that way, but it certainly was then. I was walking home from a friend’s house one evening and took a route a couple of blocks south of the one that I usually did; why, I don’t know.
As I turned a corner and headed in the direction of my street I saw a group of three colored kids on the corner a half a block away. We actually saw each other at just about the same time and I was fixed upon the horns of dilemma. I could continue to walk forward and face certain humiliation and probably a beating, or I could turn and run which would still probably result in a beating since I was not very fast, and the shame of running would haunt me forever.
My choice was reluctant but immediate and I walked forward with as much courage and appearance of unconcern as I could manage to project. When I arrived within a dozen feet of the group I recognized Leonard’s brother Richard at the same time that he recognized me. “Oh, that’s Leonard’s friend. He’s cool” Richard said, and I said “What’s up?”, and we slapped hands and I continued on home a little quicker than before so that I could change my underwear.
Anyway, Leonard and I hung together at school just as we did in the neighborhood and one of our favorite times was when we ate lunch together. We would bring sandwiches or buy hamburgers in the cafeteria and eat them with a host of other students next to the gym building. leonard and I however would eat standing up in the three or four foot deep recesses in the building where the doors were placed. That would give us cover while we tore pieces of bread off of our sandwiches and threw them out of our covered doorways onto the pavement where hordes of seagulls were attracted to the promise of a free lunch.
Anyone who has any experience with seagulls knows that these debased yet egalitarian creatures will cheerfully crap on anybody at any time, and we lurked in our stucco bunker and laughed until we were sick as the circling seagulls bombed the unwary diners with raucous glee. To this day I can’t tell you why Leonard and I weren’t pounded to a bloody pulp by the white-painted victims of our demented prank, but nobody ever put two and two together.
Another fond memory that I have of high school is the very good relations that I had with a number of very pretty and popular girls. One must not however assume that I was a Casanova; in fact I was quite the opposite and that was the key to my success. I was terribly shy all of my early days and found it nearly impossible to communicate a romantic intent to a girl for fear of what I considered the inevitable rejection, and that with laughter. I surprisingly did have a girlfriend in high school and we were together romantically for a few months. Terry was a very pretty girl and very nice and I wanted to continue our relationship, but as with so many first relationships it drifted inexorably apart. For the rest of my high school years I was destined for a life without romance and I knew it. The funny thing is that I found this reality in some weird way liberating.
It turned out that I could very easily talk and make friends with some of the most popular and pretty girls at Hoover because I projected no romantic intent whatsoever, and they could easily sense that I was not pursuing them for anything other than conversation. I have always liked to talk. Claudia Ramsey, Rebecca Crum, Denise Sherman, Elizabeth Shoup, all were girls with whom I chatted in classrooms and in the hallways, and even sometimes on the phone. Many times the jocks and other Popular Dudes would see me yakking it up with some angel in white and later ask me if I was having any luck. To make an empty claim would be the end of the whole thing so I truthfully replied “Nah, we’re just friends.” Just that alone was enough to buy me some cred and gave me access to the popular group which afforded a bit of protection to me and the more interesting nerd friends who’s company I preferred, and I accepted that bonus with grace.
One time I was playing poker with the homecoming queen in a Spanish class. I had brought a deck of cards and had been playing some hands with the other culls earlier. When I got to Spanish class on this day I was early for a change, and pulled out my cards to play a few hands with Roxanne Taylor whom had known since kindergarten. Right when she was asking for two cards a stern looking adult entered the classroom and Roxie took on the look of a bird caught in a trap. The stern adult faced me and said “I have a meeting after school. You want to drive home?” My father taught ‘Bonehead English’ at Hoover because his Navy career and natural pugnaciousness prepared him uniquely to deal with the academic and social misfits of Hoover. “Sure” I answered, and dealt two cards to the homecoming queen.
It would be easy to continue telling stories of my three years at Hoover, but that is enough for now. I don’t look back on those years with nostalgia, but I don’t regret them either. I correspond with Matt every once in a blue moon, and the girl with whom I learned to kiss lives far away but communicates occasionally on Facebook. Unhappily, three of my friends were dead by the time I came home from Vietnam. I wondered at the time where I was more safe. When I attended my twenty-fifth year reunion I saw a cluster of the popular kids. They were clustering just like they clustered twenty five years ago. Pathetically it looked like they hadn’t changed a bit over the years; they had hit their Elvis year at seventeen and nothing better seemed to be offered. I wonder if it will be the same for fifty years?
To be honest, there are only a few people whom I would like very much to see; Matt, Leonard, Terry and a few others who’s stories will be told at a later date. Perhaps I will be more interested in seeing who’s still alive than simply who’s at the reunion, and since it is a little less than three years away perhaps I shouldn’t get too cocky about my own chances. Still, it was a distinct and formative period of my life and I enjoyed it at least as much as I did not, so i look forward to the reunion with more than a little positive anticipation.