Graduation Day, Part II

I was standing in a line of graduates who’s last name began with “Do through Dz” and walked forward to receive my diploma from Mr. Ahearn.  That worthy gentleman was standing in full graduation regalia and extended to me a diploma, a handshake, and a plastic smile.  I wondered if he really wanted to be there any more than I did, and later decided that in fact he did.  It was his job; he didn’t know any better.  I did notice that Mr. Ahearn didn’t have so much as one bead of sweat running down his face or a splotch of moisture on his collar.  “Does this guy ever sweat?” I asked myself as I walked back to my seat to await the completion of the other twenty-two letters of the alphabet.

My part in the whole thing had only taken a moment, but since our class was one third of a student population of three thousand at Hoover, that meant that this business would require a thousand other moments besides my own, give or take a few.  As I sat back in my chair I checked to see if I felt any different.  After all, I was a high school graduate, and I was told that many doors would open to me once that celebrated slip of paper was in my possession.  “No”, I decided.  I didn’t really feel any different than I had before I did that graduation walk.  I was still uncomfortably warm under the cap and gown, still seventeen, which meant that I could not buy cigarettes or get drafted yet, and still seemingly stuck to that chair by forces I didn’t fully understand yet fully trusted would bear down on me if I made a premature move to walk away from it all.  Oddly, I have continued to feel those forces, one way or another, ever since.

With nothing else to do my mind slipped into daydreaming, which was common for me then as it continues to be now in situations such as this.  This happened a lot in algebra class too.  Looking out the open south end of the football field I could see the complex of school buildings with the bell tower poking up into the sky over them all.  You remember the bell tower?  It’s the one through which a herd of pigs would fly before I would invite a girl to come and watch me wobble through a dance.  As I sat there I remembered a time when there was something other than flying pigs that sat in the top chamber of that tower:  My brother Brad, another kid in the neighborhood named Larry, and me, to be exact.

Brad is four years older than me and was always up for an adventure.  Almost every night Brad would be out with his older friends doing who-knows-what while I would usually be at home, although I was probably allowed to accompany him on more occasions that a lot of other younger brothers could boast.  For the most part on those occasions we would hang out in Brad’s 1949 Mercury, or the “Taco Wagon” as we called it, or in Calvin’s car of similar vintage.  ’49 Merc’s were popular with the teenagers after James Dean rolled out of one while it was headed for a cliff in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause.”  Or was it the other kid, the one who couldn’t get out of his car before it did a grill-plant at the bottom of the cliff, who was in the Merc?  Anyway, they were popular with the teens who drove at all and we would pile into Brad’s, listen to the AM radio, smoke cigarettes and maybe nip a little vodka when we could get Hank, the twenty-one year old guy with cerebral palsy, to buy it for us.  Hank was an amazing character and deserves a story all by himself.

On other nights we would just walk through the neighborhood, smoking and talking about whatever it was that teens and their little brothers talked about.  It was on one of those evening rambles, probably when our parents were out for dinner and dancing with friends, that we found ourselves at Hoover High.  “Come on, let’s climb to the tower” my brother said.  “Can we do that?” I asked, awed by such a preposterous proposition.  “We won’t know until we try” replied Brad.  At this point Larry chimed in with “Have you ever done this before?”  “No, but I’ve climbed onto the roof at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park, and how could this be any harder than that?”  The Museum of Man was a soaring structure and I could no more imagine successfully climbing onto that roof then than I can now.  But if Brad could climb onto that roof, and I always accepted Brad’s pronouncements as gospel truth, then this act of madness must be possible too.

We all agreed to give it a shot and Brad led us straight to a place near the cafeteria where a tangle of pipes and supports for the covered walkway gave easy access to the fist level of roofs.  On reflection it seems odd that Brad knew exactly where to start our assent, since he did not attend Hoover.  The rigidly structured education program and tight control of students’ activities at Hoover did not suit Brad, and he got himself purposefully ejected from Hoover so as to attend E. R. Snyder Continuation High School, or “Hard Guy High” as some of us called it.  That school was set up more on a college model, where greater or lesser class loads could be taken by the students and, as long as they didn’t cause any outright trouble, experienced far fewer restrictions placed on them in terms of class attendance and performance.  There was no football team at E.R. Snyder, nor a Thespian Society or Key Club, but a person could apply themselves and graduate early with a perfectly good education, and that is what Brad did.  He then joined the Army and began another adventure, which I envied and followed four years later.

From the first roof we climbed up onto another one and crossed the flat expanse to our third barrier.  This one looked like the Green Monster behind left field at Fenway Park in Boston.  Brad had an answer for this wall too.  “I’ll boost you up to where you can reach the top.  Then you pull yourself up and hook your elbows over the edge and we’ll climb up over you.  Then we’ll pull you up.”  I was not at all sure about this, but I was definitely not going to be the reason why we failed, so up I went and, somehow, up and over me they climbed.  In a remarkably short amount of time we were on the third level of roofs.

This is where it got ticklish.  We climbed two more low walls and gained the roof of the third floor.  Now we had to traverse to the left over a flat roof to the eastern edge of the square building complex.  That eastern edge had a sloping roof covered with the red, curved ceramic tiles that are popular in Mediterranean architecture.  Those tiles were pretty well set, but were not designed to be walked over by teenagers at night.  Any misstep could lead to a short ride over the slope of the roof and a drop of three stories to the asphalt surface below.  Such activities are difficult to survive and even harder to explain to parents and police.

Once we succeeded in our transit of the sloping roof the rest was easy.  We walked on a flat surface to the southwest corner of the complex and Brad boosted me up and into one of the four openings in the relatively small, square bell tower.  I reached out and pulled Brad up and we both hauled Larry in with ease.

Once in the bell tower it was all anticlimax.  There was no bell there, and apart from a great view of El Cajon Boulevard, and that blocked by a palm tree on the right hand side, there was little to be gained for our efforts.  I thought of scratching my name in the wall with my pocket knife but Brad pointed out that leaving tangible proof that I had done this silly act was probably not the smartest thing to do, so after only a few minutes of savoring our achievement we began to backtrack, and in only a couple of minutes had survived the sloping roof once again and finally lowered ourselves to the ground in the patio by the cafeteria.

“Hanley, Matthew.”  Matt Hanley was one of my best friends.  We met inauspiciously on the playground at Hamilton Elementary where, after a few testy exchanges, we got into a full-fledged fight.  Well, as much of a fight as usually happens in whatever early grade we were in.  A little wrestling on the hard, sandy dirt surface of the outer playground, no real punches thrown or landed, and ultimately a draw, after which we left each other alone for a while.  Gradually our relationship grew from détente to acceptance to full-grown friendship.  Within a month of graduation Matt and I would be attempting to ride freight trains from Yuma, Arizona to Florida, where his girlfriend’s parents had relocated.  Matt was slightly better at procuring girlfriends than I was, but still such a rare thing was not to be let get away without a fight, so a trip across country with virtually no money in his pocket in order to reconnect with the love of his young life seemed like a reasonable thing to do.  Accompanying my friend on such a hopeless adventure, and with only a little money in my own pockets, seemed like a reasonable thing for me to do too, so after purchasing two tickets on a Greyhound bus from San Diego to Yuma Arizona, where there was a large train yard with tracks going in the direction that we wanted, we set out to find Florida sunshine and sweet Janelle Tompkins.

What we found was a well-guarded train yard with no schedule telling us which freight trains were headed to Tallahassee and which to Tacoma, unimaginable heat, considerable humidity due to the proximity of the Colorado River, and mosquitos which would make Count Dracula look like a vegan.  We considered asking some rather rough looking characters whom we spotted close to one corner of the yard how the process works but in one of those rare times that good sense broke into my young life – or perhaps it was Divine protection – I told Matt that I didn’t think that would be a good idea.  Later conversations with folks who were, and may still be, homeless, have confirmed that we might easily have ended up bleeding and stripped of everything we owned, or worse.

So now what to do?  We had left San Diego telling our friends of our plan.  To show up the next day back at the neighborhood park with nothing to show for our efforts would result in a major loss of face.  We had to stay away for a couple of days at least, and so with part of our stash of money we rented a motel room and prepared to sit a few days by the pool and concoct the story that we would tell upon our return.

It was our good fortune that one of the other units at that motel contained three young women from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who were on a summer cruise of discovery in the American Southwest.  We struck up a friendship, as young people can often so easily do, and learned that their plan included going to Tijuana, Mexico.  “Oh, I’m not sure that’s a good idea” Matt said.  “Three women alone in Tijuana can take a bad turn in no time at all.”  We went on to paint a lurid picture of the possible dangers which existed for three women unaccompanied by male escorts in Tijuana, most of which were true.  Sadly, much of it was and continues to be true to this day in any American city.  “What should we do?” they asked.  “We really want to see Mexico.”  “We’ll go with you to Tijuana and then you can drop us off in San Diego” I suggested, and the suggestion was snapped up immediately.

The next morning we packed up our stuff, which was minimal in the case of Matt and I, climbed into the Canadians’ car, and set off for Mexico.  Tijuana was not as frightening as we had made it out to be and we had a good time poking into shops and eating street food (never a good idea but we dodged a bullet on that one) and having one drink at the Chicago Club.  Later that evening a car with Canadian plates, three pretty girls and me and Matt rolled up to the the curb in front of the Park, where we introduced the ladies to our friends who almost always could be found hanging out there, and then later that evening sent the Canadians on their way back home.  The three days of our absence and the manner of our return provided Matt and me with enough fodder to dazzle our friends with one bullshit story after another for weeks, until within a month of that day we had taken a bus downtown and joined the Army together, but that leads to another story.

“Zabicki, Tadeusz.”  At last!  It’s over!  The last graduating senior made the walk and returned to his seat, diploma in hand.  We had to endure one more short speech and then we would be free to pursue the rest of our lives.  “I will now say this for the last time in your public school lives:  Class Dismissed!”  I jumped out of my seat and walked to where my parents were sitting in the bleachers, accepting their congratulations as I handed them my mortar board hat and diploma.  Meanwhile, Matt and Frank and Teddy and a couple of other guys were doing the same thing.

Are you going to be home for dinner?” my mother asked.  “I’m not sure.  If not I’ll call and then get something on the way home.”  Dinner had been a sacred time at our home, and Dad expected everyone to be there when the food landed on the table.  This had led to more than one unpleasant scene over the last eighteen years.  I was a graduate now, and roles were changing.  We all had felt it by now and I was testing just how far the change had gone.  “You’re going to the beach?” asked my father.  “Yes.  I’m riding with Matt and Frank.”  “Here,” he said.  “Take the car.  Your mother and I can walk home.”

Change declared and changed acknowledged!  I took the keys and went to turn in my gown.  At the first trash can that I found I pitched in the old black leather shoes and socks.  The soles of my feet were already beginning to put on their summer layer of calluses.  Wearing shoes was the last thing any of us wanted to do and the end of summer would find us ambling carelessly across wide asphalt streets either feeling no discomfort, or refusing to show it if we did.  I returned my gown and told the guys that I had wheels for the day, and with a lightness of heart that I had rarely felt in my short life I stepped out of childhood and began to make my uncertain way in the wide world.


Graduation Day, Part I

June 10, 1966 dawned warm in San Diego.  This was something of a rarity, as the hated “June gloom” condition of fog in the morning with a few hours of sun in the afternoon was the more usual pattern for the weather in that city which is celebrated for its climate. True summer usually returned to the neighborhoods, parks and beaches of San Diego much later in the season, or so it felt to us.  This was a very special day for me however; me and almost one thousand other seventeen and eighteen year olds who attended Herbert Hoover High School.  This day was graduation day.

The approaching end of my public school years had been a muted affair up to this point.  I was aware of a great many events which made up the Senior experience; the prom, something called a Baccalaureate, the rehearsal for the actual graduation ceremony and perhaps a few other activities which I have now forgotten.  None of these appealed to me, and the prom was never so much as a possibility as there were two unattainable requirements for attending, being 1. an ability to dance, and 2. a date.

Dancing was for those who had some sense of rhythm, and of that I had little.  I was threatened with dance lessons by my father as a young boy, but I think he mostly used that as a club to get me to agree to taking piano lessons, which he wanted all along.  Dad was pretty crafty like that.  If I really wanted to learn to dance I could also have learned a move or two by sitting in front of the television and watching American Bandstand.  Every week the newest dance, and there was a new one every single week, was premiered on that program, and a roomful of kids bobbed and weaved and gyrated in manners which resembled epileptic fits as much as anything that I would call a dance.  They all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely however and that was attractive, but they were also dancing like they had done those dances all of their lives.  There was no “beginners’ section”, and no intermediate.  They just danced their hearts out.  With my imperfect mental filters and underdeveloped neural processors I assumed that any performance that was less than I was seeing on TV would open me to ridicule, and in the sometimes harsh and challenging culture of the pre-teen and teenager in America there is a very good chance that some of that would happen.  And after ridicule comes humiliation, and then there is a fight which I would most likely lose.  No, it just wasn’t worth the pain.

And then there was the problem of a date.  I had very little experience at securing one of those, as this usually required talking to girls, something which I eventually got pretty good at.   But then, rising to the next level of expressing interest in some sort of relationship required facing the possibility of rejection.  That possibility I had little stomach for.  Over the years I had watched as Hollywood hunks Cary Grant, Clark Gable and others won the hearts of the fair lady with witty conversation delivered with impeccable timing to gorgeous leading ladies, who became putty in their hands in no time.  Complicated putty perhaps, but putty none the less.  I tried a few of those lines, and even thought up a few of my own, but my timing was no better than my rhythm on the dance floor, and the responses to my witty lines were never what Vivien Leigh said to Clark or what Eva Marie Saint said to Cary.  On those times when I tried it their looks were like “I’m sure that you’re normal on your home planet,” or so it felt.  With that background, asking a girl to accompany me to a dance at which I wouldn’t be able to dance in the first place was as likely as a herd of pigs flying in formation through the bell tower in the front of Hoover High, so after one short and superficial romantic relationship in my junior year with a lovely young woman a grade behind me I let the whole thing go for quite a few more years.

When the Senior Prom came around I saw it as an opportunity to hang out with some of my slacker friends.  I told my parents that I was taking a girl whom I had known since elementary school to the dance.  I don’t remember now who I said I was taking because the odds against such an event actually happening were so remote that the cover story never really stuck in my head.  I actually owned a suit which I wore to the piano recitals which I was periodically coerced into performing at, and it was in that suit that I strode out the front door, acting like a man in charge of his world.  I climbed into the family car and drove off for my evening of teen revelry but instead of meeting up with my “date” I stopped at the neighborhood park and picked up Gene and Benny and Roy.  I changed out of the suit and got into some more comfortable street cloths I had stowed in the trunk.  From there we drove to a supermarket where we shoplifted half pints of whiskey and then headed to a dark canyon which led to the base of the dam that held back the city reservoir.  We spent the evening putting on a good buzz, and when I returned home well after midnight with more than a little wobble nobody was up to bust me, and nobody would have bothered me much anyway.  It WAS the Senior Prom, after all.

The baccalaureate was another event that I passed on.  I had no idea what a baccalaureate was then and I still don’t know to this day.  Oe thing that I did know was that I had no interest in spending time at school when I didn’t have to be there.  My neighborhood was my community and nearly all of the relationships outside of my family that meant anything to me were centered there.  As the baccalaureate approached I had to choose between spending time at school with people I hardly knew, doing I had not a clue what, or hanging out at the Park with all of my favorite people, including the lovely Elizabeth Wentley and her even lovelier older sister Margaret, to whom I would of course never even dream of hinting of my attraction to them.

The rehearsal for the graduation exercise I could not avoid, and especially not the main event itself, so as one O’clock rolled around on that June Friday I sat on a metal folding chair among the thousand other students who covered the track and part of the football field.  The sun was now hanging right over the top of us and more than a little bit of sweat began to trickle down the back of my neck.  The flat mortar board graduation hat sat comfortably on my head while the speakers droned on, but I noticed that some of the surfers in my class were not having such an easy time with theirs.

“Surfer” in San Diego in 1966 meant more than just guys who road on fiberglass boards in the waves off of San Diego beaches.  Some guys who identified with the surf scene never touched a surfboard, but wore the long (for then) hair, sometimes bleached a weird yellowish orange version of blond, a Madras shirt with colors suitably blended by many washings, and shorts with huarache sandals.  But they never once got up on a surfboard.  We who actually touched surfboards, even if ever so little, called those guys “Hodads” or “Grimmies” which was short for “Gremlins”.  I have no idea why we called them that or where the names came from.  The joke was that their surfboards, if they had any, were bolted to the racks on their cars.  Anyway, the surfers real and imagined who were seated in the metal chairs had their mortar boards perched on their big, poofy heads of hair and those aerodynamically unstable hats wobbled first one way or the other on their owners’ big hair, which offered me some amusement while I waited in youthful agony for the whole thing to be over.

“As we therefore go forth into a bright future—.”  A person called a valedictorian was giving a speech, but my mind was elsewhere.  First I thought about the past, and how I really did not like school at all.  I could remember sitting in Mrs. Stanton’s first grade class at Hamilton Elementary.  I was gazing through the high windows in the back of the room which opened out onto the playground and the canyon which I knew lay just beyond the high fence that enclosed the school yard.  I remember thinking “I have eleven years more of this to go” instead of paying attention to Mrs. Stanton’s instruction.  Probably that was the day when she was covering “how to dance” or “how to talk like Cary Grant or Clark Gable”.  At least this episode demonstrated that at the end of the first grade I could successfully subtract one from twelve, unless you include kindergarten which blows that theory out of the water.

“And now, as (at this point fill in the name of the forgotten valedictorian.  Any name will do) so beautifully just spoke, we will begin to send you graduates into your bright futures.  I will begin to call the names of the graduates, who will then come up onto the stage and receive their diplomas from the Principal, Mr. Marcus Ahern.  Abaados, Theodore—.”  I knew Teddy and I knew that he hated the name “Theodore” more than he hated anything in the world.  I laughed out loud at the thought of Teddy grinding his teeth, and one of the teachers looked my way with a frown.

“Screw you” I thought.  “You can’t touch me anymore.”  And that was true I suppose. I broke eye contact and looked away however, over the football field where during my incoming sophomore year I had attempted to make the hight school football team.  A place on the team meant a letterman’s jacket of the school’s colors, and a sure ticket to popularity.  Kids wearing a letterman’s jacket didn’t have to know how to dance to be interesting to the opposite sex, but kids weighing 110 pounds didn’t do very well on the offensive line either, and after a two week course in pain and humiliation I threw in the towel on that absurd notion.

For the next two years my athletic efforts at Hoover were next to nil.  I had wanted to work some little job somewhere and make a bit of money but my father insisted that only after I brought home a report card with “straight A’s” would I demonstrate to his satisfaction that I had extra time enough to to hold a part-time job.  Even if I somehow managed to overcome the barriers of algebra, geometry, and chemistry, gym class would certainly be the wooden stake in the heart of any dreams I might have held of straight A’s.  I had quickly learned that grading in gym was based on output rather than effort, and I was never, ever, going to be an athlete.

As a consequence I found myself in my junior year placed in the “cull” class.  The kids were divided into the “A”, “B”, and “C” groups, according to their abilities, and then there were the culls.  I happened to know what culls were because I read dime paperback western novels.  When the cowboys completed a cattle drive to the railhead, the cows were sold to buyers who waited there.  The cows were sorted as they went through the chutes according to the shape that they were in.  The most miserable ones, the ones worth only their hides and their hooves which could be turned into soap or glue or some such product, were the culls.

This designation was, of course, meant to denigrate us, but that is not how we took it.  We were not jocks and had either lost, or never had in the first place, any interest in being jocks.  The deal was “you’ll get your “C” grade if you just keep busy and stay out of everyone else’s way, and that is exactly what we did.  We would play basketball or lift weights or loaf around the track untroubled by coaches with their stupid whistles shouting instructions or barbs, but my favorite exercise was “doing the bleachers.”

A real bleachers workout was a strenuous mix of sit ups and push ups and running up and down the stairs.  We mostly walked up the stairs or sat in the press box and yakked and daydreamed.  Sometimes we made paper helicopters and floated them off of the top of the bleachers to see who’s the wind would carry the furthest.  One cull, Tim Elspeth, talked about how grass was made of cellulose which was a complex sugar, and since his parents were making him mow the lawn he was trying to figure out a way that he could break down the sugars in the grass clippings and then ferment them into a grass wine.  I never heard that Tim ever succeeded in that quest but I used to love listening to him as he described how he tried.  It was certain that such conversations never occurred in the “A” groups and it was damned certain that Tim had a better grasp of chemistry than I ever did!

My one last-gasp attempt at jockery came in my senior year when I joined the diving team.  I was always a better than average diver and could do a number of flips and gainers and so forth off of the diving board.  I have written elsewhere of doing a perfect one-and-a-quarter flip off of a high board (this maneuver is also known as a belly flop) when I was  trying to impress a girl.  Also, my father and I took a vacation once and went to the town swimming pools whenever we would stop at the small towns and sub-cities where we would take our evening rest.  I would always go straight to the diving board and frequently would soon be in competition with the local talent.  I could always hold my own, and many times won the contest, which usually led to my inclusion into the local pack and a fun evening.  My father took vicarious pleasure in seeing his son stand up with the small town kids; I think because he came from a small town himself and could identify with both me and them.

So we would meet at a country club on the eastern fringe of the city and there practice our dives.  We didn’t have a diving coach; all of the coaching was directed towards the swimmers, so we mostly horsed around and tried new dives that one of the other divers knew.  One time I was trying to keep a backward flip “tight”, or close to the diving board. I was too tight as it turned out, and almost did a face-plant into the recoiling fiberglass board.  A very quick adjustment on my part just averted a potential disaster, and ever after I landed a good distance away from the board, giving up points on my dives and considering myself the winner of the bargain.  Ultimately, I only made junior varsity on a diving team which only sported half dozen members total, and my understanding of my non-jock status was now carved in stone.

“Carleston, Jennifer.  Carpenter, Edith.  Carpenter, Franklin—.”  Argh!  I was dying for this to be over so that I could spring into my “bright future”.  On the short term that future would be a trip to the beach, and I was more ready for that than appeared at the moment.  Under my gown I was dressed in shorts covering a swimsuit, and a tee shirt.  On my feet were two old black leather shoes that were too small for me and an old black pair of socks.  Those black beasts were past their prime by a long shot and today was their last hurrah.  My feet felt like sausages stuffed into two hard leather skins, and those leather vises would be exiting my life as soon as this annoying exercise in torture was concluded.

“Davis, Alfred.  Davis, Lisa —.”  Another vision of my bright future flitted around the edges of my consciousness.  For the last twelve years we had been involved to one degree or another in a conflict that was simmering in what had been known as French Indochina, but was now divided up into the countries of Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam.  For the last two years that simmering conflict had evolved into a first class war.  Many of the older kids in my neighborhood had already volunteered or been drafted into one branch of the service or the other, and the probability that I would soon be in the military was always lurking in my sense of the future.

I was OK with that.  My father had fought in a war and I was ready to prove my mettle and go fight in one too.  Of course, I knew that people died in wars, but it seemed like they always died well.  In the movies there was little blood and no pain.  Well, at least I didn’t feel any pain while I was sitting in a soft theater seat munching popcorn.  And it was always very heroic too!  So I knew that my path out of the aimless humdrum of my teen years led through one of the services, and since I wouldn’t go Navy because my father had been a sailor (my little rebellion) and I wouldn’t go Marines because I had watched “The D.I.” staring Jack Webb and it looked like Marine boot camp sucked, and the waiting list to get into the Air Force was so long that you got drafted into the Army before your name was called for that (unless you were rich or the offspring of a politician), I just figured that it would be the Army for me.

“Dupree, Martin.  Duquesne, Cecilia —.”  I’m next!  At last I’ll get up and walk to the stage, and when I come back to my seat I will still be a few days shy of eighteen years old but I will be finished with school, and the scowling teacher can kiss my ass.  Maybe I’ll laugh out loud and flip him off when he looks my way!  No, that won’t do.  Mom and Dad are in the stands and Dad is a teacher at my high school, so anything I do will reflect on him, and he is still an overwhelming presence in my life, which is another way of saying that this salty old ex-sailor can still kick my ass.  I will, therefore, remain silent.   It’s done though.  The end that I dreamed about in Mrs. Stanton’s first grade class is here.  What comes next I don’t know and, to be honest, I don’t really care.  What I do know is that it’s coming, and whatever it is, it’s coming soon.

“Durden, Glenn—.”


Let’s Go Bowling

I have heard it repeatedly on the sports talk shows:  We are drowning in meaningless bowl games at the end of the college football season.  Nobody attends most of these bowls.  Some of the bowls even feature teams with records of five wins and seven losses.  Blah, Blah, Blah.  Part of this, I think, represents the need of talking heads to have something to say.  A chattering class with nothing to chatter about soon leads to unemployment and the need to do something productive.  But I believe that there is more to this than merely adding fluff to an already-fluffy job.  There is an agenda, I think, and I wish to propose my explanation of it.

College football right now is basically a minor league for the National Football League.  Major League Baseball must maintain a wide-ranging system of minor leagues in cities ranging in size from Oklahoma City to Salem, Oregon.  Probably, some funds from the major league teams are expended upon maintaining those minor league teams, but it is hoped that crown attendance and perhaps some advertising on broadcasts of the games will generate funds to make the minors in some degree self-supporting.  This situation does not exist in professional football.  The college football teams are, as far as I know, financially independent of the NFL, while providing the pool of talent from which the professional teams will draw their new players as old players retire or are broken beyond repair.

Right now, the vast majority of the really good players coming out of high school go to a rather limited pool of colleges.  You know all of the names:  Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, USC, Oregon, etc.  Out of 128 colleges represented in Division I football I count 25 that would be considered legitimate contenders for a national championship, and since 1998 only eleven schools have claimed the eighteen titles.  I think that it’s safe to say that the game is pretty well rigged for an aspiring high school athlete to be easily drawn to one of the football factories that those schools have become.

This makes things very cozy for a lot of people.  The schools themselves earn vast amounts of money from their football programs, and after spending a few million on their coaches and a few million more on their facilities, they have an enormous amount of money left over since they do not have to pay their players.  “Their compensation is their degree” we are told, but a great many of those degrees are as useless as a rubber blowtorch and everybody from the janitor to the college president knows it.  If an independently-administered testing program was instituted to evaluate the basic knowledge of reading, writing, math and physical sciences and the results of those tests factored in in the process of declaring a national championship I strongly believe that the we would see a far different outcome.

And this is very cozy for the NFL teams.  How many scouts must one team support to keep an eye on eleven, or twenty-five or thirty teams?  A heck of a lot fewer than it takes to keep an eye on sixty four.  If all of the four and five star recruits are to be found in ten or fifteen stadiums, that takes much of the hard work out of recruiting.  We blow our horns and sing praises to the Ducks and Trojans and Gators and Tide, and then sit back to pick the low hanging fruit to populate our pro teams.  What could be easier?

The multiplicity of the bowl games makes all of this much harder to do.  This year marked the sixth year in a row that San Diego State worked its way into a bowl game.  The effect that this has on SDSU’s recruiting efforts is striking.  A kid in San Diego or perhaps the Los Angeles metroplex previously had to play for one of the big teams in the PAC 12, or perhaps meander out east to Alabama or Tennessee or Michigan in order to be seen by the scouts, and could only hope to play in front of family and friends if he was so fortunate as to be recruited by USC or UCLA.  Alternately, he might go to Oregon or Washington or some other PAC 12 team if some visibility to family was valued, or venture to the more far-flung schools if visibility to scouts was higher on the agenda.

Now, the coaches of SDSU can say “Come to our school and you are very likely to be on local and regional television and play in a bowl game.  The opportunity to be seen by scouts AND family is geometrically increased and the good high school player is now more likely to think about staying hope.  “Nobody watches the little bowls” the talking heads say, but they are wrong.  The scouts are watching those bowls and so are the high school kids who and wondering where they will go next year or the year after.  So too, apparently, a host of ordinary college football fans like myself watching those games, since the networks would not be broadcasting them if people were not watching them.

Far from being insignificant, those small bowls are perhaps the most significant innovation in the recent history of college sports.  The utter domination of college football by the Big Dozen or Two is threatened at it’s core by the exposure that a good player can get playing at his home college, and you can expect the people currently on top of the NCAA football dog pile to do everything that they can to keep it that way, and that includes their mascots in the media to trash the threat of the small bowls at every turn.  I hope with all of my heart that they fail at this.

Can You Play Me A Tune?

“Glenn, you are going to learn how to play the piano.” My father’s words fell upon my ears like a death sentence, and one that I had known was coming for the past year. “Mr. Kadir says that you are old enough to get started, and that’s what you will do next Saturday.  I expect for you to practice one half hour every day and pay attention to Mr. Kadir.”  “Why do I have to learn how to play the piano?  I don’t want to play it” I whined. “That’s fine,” Dad replied.  “I intend for you to learn about some of the more refined things in life than climbing trees and playing with your useless friends, and so if you would prefer to take dance lessons rather than piano I will agree to that.”

Dance lessons! Just the thought of it gave me the shivers.  That would mean holding hands with a girl, and sometimes even putting your arm around one of them!  I didn’t want to play the piano but I certainly did not want to dance.  Imagine the reception that I would get at the local playground when I told Wes and Ralph and Dutch and Jake and my other friends that I had to leave on a Saturday afternoon to go take DANCE lessons.  “Go put your tutu on,” or “Can we see you in your leotard?” were only two of the taunts that I could already hear.  It was clear as crystal that my nervous system would not be able to sustain that, and so I mumbled a half-hearted assent and turned to face the new spinet-style piano that rested in the corner of our living room.  The spinet is a small piano, and that is what was needed to properly fit in the tiny living room of our small stucco cubicle of a home in San Diego.

“Good,” Dad grunted, and walked away, leaving me to stare glumly at the blond-colored vehicle of my immanent loss of freedom.  Later I would have to face my neighborhood pals who would be suffering no similar loss of their freedom, and that thought hurt like fire.  I walked over to the piano and lifted the hinged wooden cover which slid back into the body of the instrument to reveal the eighty eight black and white keys, which looked to me like teeth which populated a smirking smile.  “Screw you Kid.  I own you now” they seemed to be saying to me.  I covered the keyboard back up and left the house to go play in the dirt and try to forget this new intrusion by grown-ups into my life.

My father was on a mission to civilize his two boys.  Brad, my brother, had begun to take violin lessons from Mr. Kadir a year before, and he was pretty good at it although he liked music lessons even less than I would.  Already we had attended a concert at Balboa Park where Brad had played his violin.  Many of the music teachers in San Diego would show off their best students at concerts like these, partly to gain experience at playing publicly for their students and partly to showcase the accomplishments of their own studios.  Many a young boy or girl found their weekends doomed as mine had been after a parent attended one of those concerts and said to him or herself “That’s just what my little Johnny or Judy needs.”

Dad had grown up dirt-poor on a farm in southern Georgia during the Depression.  There was very little refinement in his life, and it was not until he joined the Navy and visited the world outside of Tifton, Georgia, that he realized there could be a lot more to life than sweet potatoes and cornbread.  He was determined that Brad and I would be exposed to finer things from an early age, whether we liked it or not.  And what Dad decided for us was absolute, unquestioned law.

So the dreadful Saturday came and Brad and I were packed up by our mother and trundled off to Mr. Kadir’s studio.  Dad would dictate our removal from all things fun on a San Diego weekend but had no intention of sacrificing an hour himself.  Mom introduced me and then left to do some shopping or go back home or whatever it was that she did when we were not slowing her down, and I sat on a sofa and watched Mr. Kadir put Brad through some scales and other exercises, and then practice some piece or other from the thick, yellow music book with the black notes all over the cover.

I looked through the National Geographic magazines which covered Mr. Kadir’s coffee table, paying special attention to the bare-breasted women from Africa or New Guinea or someplace like that.  I was engrossed in those photos and didn’t notice that Brad had finished his lesson and was putting his violin and bow back into their case.  “OK Glenn, it’s your turn” said Mr. Kadir in the cheerful way that adults do when they’re trying to convince kids that they really want to do something which in fact they really do not.  I arose and trudged over to the piano bench while Brad took my place on the sofa and began to look at the magazines too.  And so began my eleven year ride as a piano student under the tutelage of Mr. Kadir.

Brad did not take violin lessons for very long after I began to learn the piano.  Brad was, and remains to this day, four years older than me, and was more able to assert his will against our father’s in some ways.  He was also a pretty good baseball player and was successful in little league play, and when Dad retired from the Navy and began to take college classes in a teaching program Brad’s disinterest in the violin and his considerable skill at playing third base, plus the idea of saving twelve dollars a month, looked pretty good to Dad.  I had no such skills in baseball however, and had shown an unexpected talent for playing the piano, so Dad mandated that I continue on that track.

And I suppose that I was pretty good.  At the concerts which students all over the city had to endure, the order of performance went from least to most accomplished.  I was steadily moving up later and later in those concerts, and Mr. Kadir was certain that I had a future at the keyboard.  That rise in my skill was interrupted one day when my parents announced that they were separating and getting a divorce.

Freedom at last!  No more would I have to disrupt my Saturdays and waste a half hour every single day after school banging on the piano’s keys.  “Oh yes you do” said my mother, but she enjoyed little of the persuasive ability of Dad in making me practice and go to my lessons.  Consequently I learned little, and frequently “forgot” to practice or to go to my lessons.  Mom was working at a drug store in the evenings and could do nothing about my rebellion.

That all ended six months later when Mom, at her wits end with two boys who were spinning out of control, dropped her divorce proceedings and invited Dad to return.  This he did, and with him came the LAW.  On the first Saturday that I “forgot” to go to a lesson Dad came up to the Park where I was playing wiffle ball with my friends and walked me home, where he began to point out in unmistakable detail the error in my logic and the behavior that was expected of me, with a level of persuasion similar to that which was exercised upon two unlucky cities in Japan on August 6 and 9 of 1945.  Sitting on the piano bench was uncomfortable for the next day or two, but there was never any doubt thereafter that for one half hour every day and a full hour now on Saturdays I would be sitting on a bench practicing at home or learning from Mr. Kadir.

With my return to an enforced diligence of my practice habits I began to advance once again in my studies.  A year after Dad’s return I was accepted by our junior high school Boy’s Chorus leader as an accompanist.  My job was to learn a certain piece of music in order to play it while the chorus would sing.  I never really got the hang of this however.  My model for learning new music was to practice over, and over, and over again, for weeks or months or more until my fingers seemed to remember where to go on their own.  This model was not at all suited for a setting where the boys would begin to practice their singing almost immediately, and the accompanist must be up and running from the beginning.  To say the least, I failed miserably at my mission, and only accompanied one song before I was installed in the baritone section as a singer rather than a player.  It all worked out in the end however.  As a result of my dilatory effort as a pianist I was standing on the risers with the rest of the Chorus when we sang as President John F. Kennedy rode past us in 1963, which was one of the most stirring moments of my life.

I played the piano for four more years after that, gradually improving in the complexity and length of the pieces which my fingers came to remember.  I had moved up to the point where I was always last or second to last at concerts, and usually I played a boogie version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov or “Malagueña” by Ernesto Lecuana.  I had become very good at playing both.

One day Mr. Kadir took me to a gathering of students where he took his own lessons from a Mr. Strahan.  That worthy teacher was a retired concert pianist who had studied under a student of a student of Franz Liszt, or something like that, and gave lessons to piano teachers from around the city.  I got carsick on the way there, which was no surprise since I got carsick all of the time, and Mr. Kadir and his teacher took great pains to patch me up with Alka Seltzer and Seven Up.  Later, I was introduced and asked to play “Bumble Boogie”, which I did, and rather well as I remember.  Later, on the way home, Mr. Kadir told me that his teacher virtually never allowed people who were not his pupils play at his gatherings, and that this was a great honor that had been shown to me.  Fortunately I had been too carsick to worry about anything, even if I had known about this, and performed at the top of my game.

The last piece of music that I was working on when I gave up the piano was “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin.  I loved that tune then and I love it today, and I set out to remember all thirty two pages of it.  I had memorized something into the twenties of pages when, in my junior year at high school, my interest in the piano collapsed completely.  My father had begun to recognize that his son might be a reasonably skilled technician at the keyboard but would by no means ever become a real musician, and so he was not entirely surprised when one day I told him that I just didn’t want to do it anymore.

To my considerable surprise Dad agreed.  The freedom that I felt was immense!  I do not remember exactly what I did that moment but a good guess would be that I went directly to the Park and hung out with my friends like all of the other teenagers in my neighborhood were doing, happy as a pig in mud.  To my mother fell the task of driving over to Mr. Kadir’s studio and telling him of my termination of lessons.  My mother told me many years later that Mr. Kadir cried upon hearing the news.

I have hardly touched a piano since that last day.  Two years later I was in Vietnam, a future that my father could perhaps see when he allowed me my freedom.  A few years after that, in college, friends at parties might ask me to play when they learned of my lessons, but they wanted improv, honky tonk and rock and roll, not “Bumble Boogie” and “Malagueña.”  I eventually stopped mentioning my piano history.

But there is a legacy.  Fifty years after my last lesson I still love the great music laid down by Bach, Beethoven, Lecuana, Chopin, DeFalla and Gershwin just as much as I love the work laid down by John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Mr. Kadir, don’t cry for me.  You made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and I will always remember you as one of the most appreciated guides of my life.