In continuation of my prior blogs.... My High School Days
In this vocational high school we spent half our time in our “shop”; Boat Building in my case, and half our time in “academics” where we earned a high school diploma. Our academics included what was called “shop theory” where we learned the mechanics behind whatever shop we were taking. Boat Building theory was teaching us how boats are engineered and how to be able to design and loft out a boat. The math was very complicated and the teacher, Mr. McCabe was very strict, but I still enjoyed the class even though I thought that Mr. McCabe was mean to the boys and was too heavy handed when he dealt out discipline. But, I found out that he had been in the Navy for most of his career and he’d been the father of eight sons, so it was little wonder that Mr. McCabe, already intimidating at six foot six and at least 250 pounds, ruled with an iron fist. We were not allowed to talk in class, so any conversations had to be whispered on the sly. One day, the boy who was seated across from me leaned over with a “psst!” I looked up at him as he put his fingers to the outer edges of his eyes, stretching his eyes horizontally and he hissed;
“Mommy! Mommy! My braids are too tight!”
This tickled my funny bone, because I have fine, wispy hair that my mother had tried to control by plaiting it into braids that were so tightly woven that my head hurt! I could really relate! I spent the rest of the 90 minute class trying not to laugh and I was relieved when the bell rang and I hurried to exit into the hallway, where I could finally guffaw to my heart’s content.
Despite Mr. McCabe’s stern ways with the kids, for some reason he had a soft spot for me. He called me “Sunshine” and he always had a ready smile. He knew that I had a sincere interest in the class and luckily, I grasped the concepts easily. Some of the other kids had a tougher time figuring out what was being taught and there were times when Mr. McCabe would give up and ask me to explain it to the kids, because I “spoke their language”.
The boys managed to toe Mr. McCabe’s line while he was in this classroom, but if another teacher came to the door and asked to speak to him out in the hallway, erasers, elastics and other odds and ends would fly across the room as soon as the door closed behind him. When he returned, I would notice a barely suppressed grin as he walked by all the newly disheveled and breathless students to the front of the class to resume his lesson. I began to realize that he wasn’t such a meanie. This was confirmed by the time I was in my senior year and there were times when I had to enter his classroom to get some blueprints or something and I’d hear Mr. McCabe yelling at the boys, threatening all kinds of dire consequences if they didn’t straighten up, just like he used to yell at my freshman class and then he’d turn around and wink at me.
The Boat Building shop was a very comprehensive course. To earn your certificate, one had to know how to design, loft and build a boat from raw lumber. We were also required to take a short welding course. I was ready and willing to learn how to weld; my father was an experienced welder and had already explained the basics to me, but I’d never done it myself. I was disappointed to find that the welding instructor was laboring under the mistaken notion that he was teaching us how to take coffee breaks. He was always sending the kids out in the school van to buy coffee and donuts and he’d lounge around with the students, gabbing, eating and slugging down coffee. Just for kicks, he’d have us weld once in a while, but sadly, that class was a waste of time.
My shop teachers, Mr. Herberts and Mr. Larson, were less strict than Mr. McCabe, but they still expected the students to put in a conscientious effort. Mr. Herberts had a red face and he looked perpetually enraged, but he was actually a very kindhearted man. Mr. Larson was from Finland originally and he had a mischievous sense of humor. Where Mr. McCabe and Mr. Herberts were both very sweet to me, Mr. Larson was the only one who said that he didn’t think I belonged in the boat shop. Not that he made an issue of it, or said why he thought I should be elsewhere. It might have had something to do with the time that he’d asked me to cut two dory transoms out of a sheet of plywood which was set up on two saw horses. I’d start to saw, but the vibration of the saw made the saw horses come to life and start walking away. Two hefty boys took note of my predicament and they volunteered to sit on the sawhorses, which helped to cut down on the vibration problem. Afterward, I mentioned it to Mr. Larson, and he said that I should have put my knee up on the plywood to hold it still. I was skeptical, since the boys combined weight of over 300 pounds hadn’t made it hold still, but more importantly, I was too short to easily place my knee that high. I began to demonstrate how awkward it was on a plank, not remembering that I had left the saber saw on the plank’s far end. Had I remembered the outcome would have been obvious; the plank tipped violently under my weight and the saber saw flew through the air. Mr. Larson caught it in mid-flight, so no harm was done, but he looked at me incredulously. What could I say but:
He treated me just like one of the guys and joked with me about my Danish ancestors. He told me that the Finns were superior to Danes- just kidding, of course. He used to take a handful of my waist-length, wavy, auburn hair and lay it across his own bald head and ask if he could have some of my hair “since you have so much of it.” Mr. Larson saw that I had a lot of patience and taught me the how to do fine finishing; giving yachts a mirror smooth paint job and how to stain and varnish the brightwork properly.
If Mr. Larson was skeptical about me, Mr. Herberts on the other hand, was generous with his praise. At a parent/teacher meeting he told my father:
“Even at the end of the day, I can’t get enough work for her, and she gets a little frustrated with me. She doesn’t say anything, but she likes to keep busy.”
I never gave a thought to the fact that I’d be the only girl in the class, and in fact, I didn’t even notice it, until other girls remarked;
“How can you stand to be the only girl?”
Actually, the guys were wonderful to me. They were gentleman and I had to be the most spoiled student in the whole history of modern education.
I had a couple of special friends that I got on particularly well with; Gino, Blondie and Katt. Gino was tall and darkly handsome with curly black hair and a handlebar moustache. He was very funny and a longtime friend of Blondie’s. Blondie was my nickname for him, because I didn’t know his real name for a quite a while after we’d met. He was about the same height as Gino, had pale blond hair and he was quiet and shy at first, but once we became pals, he showed that he had a remarkable sense of humor and could do great imitations.
Blondie had a tendency to find himself in unexpected situations, so I felt a special kinship with him. It may have been his eyesight or maybe he’s just a klutz like me, but all the guys knew to watch him when he’d walk across the shop with a long board, because he never failed to bonk the unwary on the head as he passed by. One day, I saw him trying to get a board off the lumber rack, where all the band saw blades were coiled up and hanging on pegs, and he accidentally bumped the blades, which had the same effect as giving an electric charge to Frankenstein. The blades sprang off the pegs and unraveled all in one motion and soon Blondie was totally encircled by the blades. Getting him out of there was like getting him out of a cocoon of barbed wire.
One morning, Gino, Blondie and I were waiting for attendance to be called and as we talked quietly, Gino sipped coffee out of a Styrofoam cup and Blondie was absently tossing a small ball bearing up in the air and catching it again. While Gino’s attention was focused elsewhere, suddenly Blondie misgauged his toss of the ball bearing and it landed with a dainty plop into Gino’s cup of coffee. Before either Blondie or I had a chance to warn him, he took a hearty swallow from the cup and a look of alarm came to his face. He cried out:
“Tommy,” that was Blondie’s real name, “look in my mouth!”
“Look in your mouth?!” Blondie repeated.
“Yes! I just swallowed something- I think I lost a tooth! Look in my mouth and tell me if a tooth is missing!”
Blondie and I couldn’t help laughing a little. We had to explain that yes, he had swallowed something, but, no, it wasn’t a tooth! Blondie finished;
“Don’t’ worry. It’ll all come out in the end.”
This was one time when Gino didn’t appreciate his humor.
Katt had just moved to New England from the West Coast and he bore a strong resemblance to a young Arlo Guthrie. Most of the adults didn’t know what to make of him but the other kids thought he was very cool. But, there were times when even we kids were scratching our heads. He arrived to school wearing furry boots one winter day. I had never seen anything like those boots and at first I thought he had come to school wearing fuzzy bedroom slippers. Wouldn’t you know it, before the day was out, I saw a woman going by our shop windows who was also sporting fuzzy boots! I pointed her out to Katt and his eyes lighted up:
“Wow! Just my type!” And he began to bark and howl. Fortunately, she couldn’t hear him through the thick glass and paid him no mind.
Like Arlo Guthrie, he was a very good musician; he played guitar and harmonica quite well. Once, he was standing near a collection of empty tin cans that were collected to use for mixing resins and a powdered glue called Weld Wood that was blended with water to make a paste. Katt began to tap the assortment of cans with a couple of sticks as though he was playing the drums and singing a little song he dubbed the “Weld Wood Wiggle”. It was a pretty catchy tune.
The other guys in the shop were unfailingly kind and very tolerant of my sometimes silly female behavior. My mother referred to them as my ‘harem’, but both she and my father had serious reservations about my associating with a bunch of rough boys. However, they needn’t have worried. They always treated me like a lady and if I was dating someone, they looked him over really closely and guarded my virtue as though I were their own sister. Several individuals told me that I was like a sister to them. It was a good thing, because I even had to share gym class with them. I was not equal to them, physically, but they humored me. If I struck out at bat, they insisted that I stay at bat until I got a hit. When the boys were being given their wrestling lessons, I played ping-pong with one of the teachers, because, as I was told, there was “no one in your weight-class to wrestle with.” During one gym class, we were supposed to learn to trust ourselves and trust one another, so we were doing things like falling off a platform backwards into each other’s arms, leading some one who was blind folded, etc. One of these exercises was when we were all supposed to be rolling down a steep hill. I was minding my own business, rolling along when I heard one of the guys yell:
“Oh, no! A Mack truck runs over a sports car!”
A moment later, I found out what he was talking about as one of the guys rolled right over me! We were a tangle of arms and legs and we both sat up, a little dizzy. This boy was about six foot three and he was very a very serious, shy type. He sat up and solemnly apologized and then continued rolling his way down the embankment.
Part of our education was learning how to loft a boat. To do that, a boat is designed and blue printed, then sheets of plywood are scarfed together until they are large enough for draw a full scale rendering of the boat. Then the plywood is painted white and you take the measurements off the blueprints to loft the boat onto the newly painted surface. This provides much more accurate measurements when the ‘jig’ – the mold that the boat is built on- is constructed. So, one of the guys and I were given the task of painting the plywood white and it was like painting a billboard size picture of a white cow in a snow storm eating marshmallows. My mind was drifting as I slapped the paint on and then an indignant holler brought me back to reality:
“Aw! Did you have to?!”
I looked up. He was holding his left hand out for me to see; as he’d been leaning on it, I had somehow painted it white up to the wrist. He began to chuckle and then we both started to laugh. I helped him clean up and made sure I watched what I was doing after that!
One day, as I was talking to another one of the guys, we were standing next to the scrap wood bin, which was about four by eight feet, four feet tall and it rolled around on casters. The guy motioned to the steam box, a wooden box about twenty feet long and a foot square that was used for steaming planks, as it was balanced across the top of the scrap wood container:
“You want to teeter-totter?” He asked.
I climbed up on a work bench so I could mount one end of the steam box as he held it steady, and then he did the same thing at the opposite end. The only problem was, we didn’t anticipate that he outweighed me by sixty pounds and the steam box slowly tilted down, down, down and I went up, up, up! At last, his end bottomed out with a sudden thunk which sprung me up in the air for a moment and I let out an involuntary scream. It became evident that there would be no further teetering or tottering.
“I’m coming down!” I announced. I put my feet in front of me on the steam box and began to carefully slide down hill until I was at a point where I could climb off onto the work bench again. No one had witnessed our prank, but one of the teachers later found the crumbled edges of the scrap bin under the steam box and speculated as to how that might have happened. Somehow, they never guessed the real reason.
But, even the shop teachers joined in the on the fun sometimes. One day, some of the older students thought it would be entertaining to shut a few unsuspecting underclassmen into the toolbox cage. The tool box cage looked like a jail cell, except it was filled with all the student’s tool boxes. The incarcerated boys stood with their hands griping the bars and begging to be let out. Mr. Larson disappeared for a moment and then returned with a bag of small cookies which he started to poke between the bars of the cage;
“I always feed the animals when I go to the zoo!”
Another time, Mr. McCabe and Mr. Larson were having a discussion about Viking long boats and Mr. McCabe produced a boat with photos of real Viking ships that had been excavated in Norway.
“I was there!” Mr. Larson piped up, “I was there when they dug it up!”
Mr. McCabe started to laugh;
“Oh! I thought you were going to say you were there when they laid the keel!”
The teachers also encouraged the boys in their academic subjects. One of the boys was complaining that he was nervous about having to write and give a speech in front of Miss Peabody’s English class, so Mr. McCabe asked if he’d like to practice public speaking and maybe he could give him some pointers. The boy decided to take him up on it. He stood before the class and adopted his best newsman demeanor and began to ad-lib;
“In such and such port, they build nice schooners, which is good for a number of reasons. For these reasons, oranges grow in Florida and fishermen leave Provincetown harbor every morning. Miss Peabody, you are very sexy and therefore....” That was as far as he got before the whole room was consumed with laughter, including Mr. McCabe.
Another one of the guys was very interested in Sci-Fi, and he was a huge fan of the original Star Trek series, which was still new at that time. He asked permission to design star ships in the boat shop theory class, so Mr. McCabe gave his okay. The space ship drawings were truly impressive, but Mr. McCabe would look at the beautiful drawings and question him;
“What does this do?”
Then there’d be an explanation that it was the ship’s engines. Mr. McCabe would ask what kind of engines and where was the fuel supply and how did they actually propel the ship and so on and so forth. There were sometimes that the poor kid had no idea what was the function of some of the things in his drawings, he just drew them in because it looked artistically pleasing. Mr. McCabe feigned horror; “You mean it just hangs there?” I felt kind of bad that the boy learned his design lesson this way, but it didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for Star Trek. I never saw him again after Graduation Day, but he was still insisting that he was going to build a space ship and fly away. Good for him! May he “live long and prosper”!
Before writing this, I read through all my old journals and looked at my High School yearbooks to refresh my memory. I had forgotten many things, including how big my boat shop classmates were. Otto was the tallest, at six-eight. He was a very handsome young man with wavy blond hair and a thick moustache, and like all the guys, he looked the part of a boat yard employee, dressed in jeans, plaid flannel shirts and work boots. It was said that as you walked in the narrow alleys between the boats in the shop, if you suddenly came upon Otto, “the sky would turn plaid”.
One of the other guys was a big bear of a man at six-five and he had older brothers who were about the same size and all three had the same red hair. They used to let me hang around with them and they’d tell me stories about their boyhood adventures. They were accident prone, so I could relate to their tales of woe, like when one of the brothers fell down a fight of stairs with an arm load of dishes. With every thump down the stairs, more dishes fell out of his grasp and flew in all directions, smashing into a million pieces. When he arrived at the foot of the stairs he was miraculously unhurt- and still holding one tea cup.
When Nerf toys had just hit the store shelves, the boys were given a Nerf baseball set. They ran outside to play in the back yard and during the game, one of the brothers threw the bat after he swung, and the bat some how was flung into the mouth of another brother. His mother had been watching and she had just read an article about a kid who had been shot with an arrow and had bled to death when the arrow was pulled out, so, imagining the worst, she refused to let her son remove the plastic yellow bat from his mouth. The brothers could not convince her otherwise. She rushed him to the hospital emergency room where the bat could be removed safely; however, I don’t think he ever recovered from the humiliation of having to spend several hours with a toy bat in his mouth, as they waited their turn to be seen by the doctor.
Years later, I was shopping in a store and I heard someone calling my name. I turned to see my red-headed friend as he ran up to me and picked me up off the floor in a big hug. It was liked being embraced by a Kodiak bear and my bones made loud crackling noises. He gently set me down, looking at me aghast;
“Oh, no!” He cried, “I BROKE you!”
I assured him that I was fine;
“I think you gave me a major chiropractic adjustment, though!”
All upper classmen were assigned an under classmen as a ‘shadow’ who was someone we were charged with mentoring. My underclassman was a tall, blond boy named Owen. Because I’d skipped grade and he’d been held back a grade, we were only a year apart in age, so we were more like peers and we became very close friends. He was upset to find out that I had no intention of going to the Prom, because it just wasn’t something I cared to do. He tried to talk me into going- not as a date- but he just felt it was an important part of the high school experience and that I should go. But, I’d turned down a date to go and even if I changed my mind, I had no money for a dress. Owen said he’d buy me a dress. He wasn’t going to make this easy for me! Finally, after having this conversation for several days in a row, we compromised. He said he’d take me on a moonlight cruise. One of the larger harbors had a big boat that took people out for evening cruises with drinks and dancing. This was more my style, so we went and had a wonderful time! We stayed friends for a few years after graduation until he moved away, but I never forgot what a sweet and caring guy Owen was.
Episode III coming up soon~
Updated: 12:41 AM GMT on August 30, 2006
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