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—.”

 

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