As you could surmise from my rambling inaugural What Weekly piece Wrestlin’ With Baltimore (if you happened to catch it – and if not – just think of it as your summer reading assignment), athletics helped insulate my baby boomed butt from the increasingly routine near-death experiences growing up in a backwoods slumdog environment in Northeast Baltimore. Dare devil Gonzo-ish writing came into the picture when I realized that a humorous interpretation of life’s game – i.e. mastering the art of creatively confusing one’s imagination with one’s information – had a softening effect on everyone’s dreary reality and cut me some desperately needed slack while I attempted to stampede countless schoolboy chums into some less than traditional (read: reckless) social and sporting experiments.
Creative Non-Fiction (an actual discipline believe it or not – they have conferences and even a newsletter!) came into my life with the passing of a hormone laced 8th grade story notebook back and forth with my best friend, Steve Cook, who had a dad who worked for the meat processing company Esskay (never out of hot dogs – how cool was that?!) Our risqué dialogue was focused on one Senie Bartoli , the brightest and most buxom babe of our St. Ursula grade who held such an uncanny resemblance to the Mickey Mouse Club’s Annette Funicello that I’m certain that Senie and Annette were never ever seen in the same photo. Anyway, the sensible side of Senie would have nothing to do with our lowly lot (especially mine since I was a good foot shorter than Steve) because she was already hooked up with the older, legendary, all everything Loyola High catcher/tight end Don Beck, son of a former pro baseball player dad who got his pitching arm shot off in WWII (how cool is THAT!). And when one day in class she finally intercepted our sordid scribblings, we were relieved that she was actually a tad flattered that she was crowned the prize in our ongoing fantasy. Thus we were spared a squishing from the Mighty DON of All Loyola Dons.
Once out of grade school I somehow successfully matriculated into Loyola High, class of ’65, with brainiak Steve (he was smarter too)…Steve was placed into the “Brain Class” while I was flushed down into the “Jock Class”. There were 5 distinctly descending levels of placement in this Jesuit prep school caste system: Brain, Greek, Latin, German, French. I made the 5th tier where most of the athletes and kids who had only “legacy” to brag about composed cluelessly on their derrieres. By junior year – I was doing pretty well in three sports – football, wrestling and baseball but piss poor in French. For some reason, there was a revolving door of French teachers at Loyola. My class alone went through three teachers in one and a half semesters. The first one was a rather combative chubby prof with a New England accent who quit after one month after only teaching us how to say “where can I phark my khar” in french. I remember him giving our class an obscenity-filled tongue lashing about being total barbarians before slamming the door in a huff. He was followed by a rather menacing looking German fellow (a Klaus! teaching French for godsakes?) who slipped into a serious lisp when upset. He lasted barely two months because he got overly sensitive about our group speech impediment impersonations. Then came the good-natured, bi-focaled Dr K. – a real deal Frenchman – a melodiously soft-spoken, educated elderly gent who most certainly did not deserve one bit of our rapidly esculating mischief. We tolerated his stories and enjoyed his funny French accent for quite some time until he gave us all Ds. T’was then our Lord of the Flies tendencies began boiling over. First it was turning out the lights and hiding against the hall wall so that Doc thought he’d come to the wrong room. Then it was turning all the desks around (including his) to face the back instead of the blackboard which he really didn’t figure out until the period was over. The coup de grace was the chip chop. You remember the chip chop doncha?
You know you do – you just won’t admit it.
To refresh on the workings of the Chip Chop drill: First, row one, seat one waits till the prof has turned his back and says under his breath but loudly enough for all to hear: “CHIP”. Then seat two, row one waits for his chance and drops a “CHOP” and so on, throughout the class period, up and down each row…hopefully undetected – until we come to the last “CHOP” from the guy in the last seat, last row – I believe it was Arnie “Feelin his Wheaties” Wheatley this time (a defensive tackle on the football team known for wearing his helmet backwards during practice – you know – one of our future leaders). Well Wheatley jumps up and yells “TIMBER” and everybody bangs their desks and pounds the wood floor with their feet to simulate a falling tree while Wheatman collapses into his desk which happened to tip over and hang precariously out the window (with him half in it). You see this was because that classroom had stadium seating and his desk was at a window sill level… well it was a truly GREAT moment but I guess you had to be there.
We learned the lesson of unintended consequences the next school day because good old Dr. K failed to show. This gave our somber-pussed Prefect of Discipline the rare opportunity to inform 32 Loyola junior men that we had done killed our French teacher. Evidently heart failure after a particularly stressful work day read the autopsy…
Hey, don’t look at me like that – Dr. K was…like, really, really old. Lordysakes.
Our entire class (even the remorseful, blubbering good kids (yeah, there were a few hidden amongst us) was put on indefinite after school detention for the rest of the spring. This was not good. Not good at all. Me and five of my in-the-middle-of-a-championship-run varsity baseball teammates were stuck in this accursed purgatory. After three of the longest weeks in the history of prep school torture, we finally got sprung out on fairly decent behavior by a desperate assistant baseball coach. I miraculously found that the time spent in the Jebbie Jail actually produced an upside for me. You see in Jesuit “Jug” (their nomen for detention) kids were assigned ridiculous 10-page compositions to write entitled “how high does the meatball bounce” or “why is there air”, etc. Turned out these were questions I was uniquely prepared to answer. I was even kinda sad when my meandering mind got released back out into the real world. But once out on my field of dreams, another amazing upside occurred.
When the playoffs arrived and I finally got back into the line-up as a last inning, last ditch pinch runner after riding the pine for good measure because of our school’s prejudice (against murderers) – embraced with relish and mustard by head coach Willie Ryan (who was so strict ‘cause he played on one of Fordham’s legendary football “Seven Blocks of Granite” teams – a bully for billy!) – I was a tad out of shape and found myself sprinting ‘round third and heading home when I encountered a rain-caused rut along the third base line, and my spikes caught and I spilled mightily, flipping onto my hip and dislocating it. Yes – it hurt like a mother bear but I valiantly climbed up on one leg and hopped the remaining distance falling heroically backwards with my head resting on home plate to score the tying run just as the relay came in. My girlfriend at the time was there – a redheaded steelworker’s daughter named Yvonne Wasilewski and she came running out of the stands and propped her perfumed sweater under my head until the ambulance arrived.
I missed the rest of the championship games – and we lost – thanks a lot DK… But Yvonne made my convalescence bare-able by skipping school every other day, taxiing over to my house while my mom was at work. My sweetheart Florence Nightingale may have done this one too many times because on a fateful lunchtime Friday, Coach Ryan brought the team over to my place for a surprise chow down with its fallen comrade. So what was the upside? Heck – finding Yvonne and I prone on a living room couch did absolute wonders for my reputation and ok, maybe not so much for hers. (But lookit – she is still gorgeous, married, kids, and has her doctorate and does childhood development research on NIH grants at Duke …and you know, somehow I feel I’m a part of all that). And then here I am – talking to you…Actually, I did OK too, got my high school average up to a hard fought 2.5 in order to nail a half college scholarship and I made All Catholic and All MSA Honorable Mention in both football and baseball and captained our prolific but controversial high school wrestling team – so there.