In continuation of my previous blog about my high school days at a vocational school, where I was the only female in my Boat Building class. This section describes my 'academics' classes.
During our Academics part of the week, I was free to spend time with other kids besides the guys in Boat Building, as our class was too small to fill the average academic classroom, so other students from other shops were mixed in. This included my lifelong best friend, Jennifer, who was a very attractive blond with a sharp wit, and two boys from other shops, Adrian and Johnnie. Adrian was sensitive and gentle with big glasses and Johnnie had shiny black hair, dark skin and a sculpted, handsome face. He was also an outrageous class clown.
Jennifer and I had been best buddies since elementary school and she did her best to help me learn what clothes I should wear, how to apply makeup and do my hair. Unfortunately, as I developed a feminine figure, I was also developing muscles from years of hard physical labor. I looked at Jen’s petite form, my mother and sister’s hour glass figures and cringed at the thought of my own physique. I was had a generous bust line by the time I was twelve; so much so that strangers thought I was my fathers wife when we went places together. But, because of my arms and shoulders, I hated to be seen in sleeveless or short-sleeved shirts. I’ll never forget walking into a store one summer day as two women were walking out and I heard one whisper to the other;
“Did you see the arms on that girl?”
Instead of calling me the “Girl of My Dreams” my Dad called me the “Gorilla of My Dreams”. It was embarrassing to beat boys at arm wrestling; although one benefit to getting older was that the boys were finally catching up and surpassing me in strength. All the same, I didn’t feel comfortable in wearing girlie clothes and they just didn’t look right on me, no matter how hard Jen tried to help me. At the time, there was a children’s TV show called Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, which starred real chimpanzees who were dressed in ‘people clothes’ and Lancelot was accompanied by a girl chimp who romped around in frilly dresses. And that’s how I felt when I was similarly attired- like an ape in ‘people clothes’. Also, my wild hair refused to be tamed, so I gave up on trying to wear it in fancy styles and make up looked garish on my fair, freckled skin. But, Jen’s gesture, however futile, was appreciated. She was always a good friend and stuck by me through thick and thin.
One of the teachers at our school found out that I played several instruments, including the accordion, and he needed an accordion player for his German Oompah Band, so he asked if I’d be willing to audition for it. I said sure and Jen volunteered to come with me for moral support. The audition was to he held at the teacher’s house and he gave Jen and me and my accordion in its special velvet lined case that resembles a suit case, a ride. He had a few other friends coming over for coffee and pastry, too. Jen saw that they were all male and she whispered to me;
“What are you getting me into?!”
I assured her that everything was okay and told her not to worry.
We arrived at the teacher’s house, and apparently, his wife did not like what she saw. She looked from me, to Jen and the case that I was carrying and her husband with the two other men and she must have assumed that we were there for nefarious purposes. She began to scream at her husband, which in turn made their golden retriever bark loudly and continuously. Finally, the teacher soothed his wife and explained that this was just an audition and the poor woman blushed with embarrassment. She apologized over and over and offered us refreshments. The teacher brought out his accordion and began my audition. He played a song. I listened. He played another song. I listened. He played more songs and I wondered when he was going to let me play so he could judge my talent or lack there of. I played mostly classical music so I didn’t know any of the songs that he was rendering, but he did finally let me have a turn. I got the job, but it seemed that the Oompah Band didn’t get many gigs, because I was never asked to play professionally before I graduated from school and then was no longer available.
Then came the day when I was finally able to return the favor and help Jen. We were at her house, baking oatmeal cookies with her Mom’s supervision, when there was a knock on the door. We answered it and there stood a young policeman, who asked for Jen. She asked what was going on and he responded that he had a warrant for her arrest! Our jaws dropped! I said;
“This has to be a mistake!”
The policeman glanced at the paperwork in his hands and said;
“No. It’s not a mistake. This is a warrant for her arrest!”
I looked around the kitchen at Jen’s perplexed mother and Jen, still standing at the bowl of cookie dough and I went on;
“There’s got to be some misunderstanding! I mean, look at her! She’s baking cookies! Does she look like a criminal to you?”
At this point, the policeman and Jen’s mother began a heated debate and while they talked, I tilted my head sideways and started to read the papers that were still in his hands. I broke in;
“Wait a minute! This isn’t an arrest warrant! This is a court summons! This says that she was a witness and she has to appear in court to testify!”
The young policeman studied the papers again and reluctantly admitted that it was a summons, after all. Jen had seen some kids vandalized a mail box some months before and the home owners had asked her to be a witness and she had agreed and then forgotten all about it. So, she wasn’t taken away in hand-cuffs, after all.
My High school schedule was pretty full. I took the most stimulating classes I could find because I was trying to avoid being bored, but this also meant that I had a lot of homework. Doubly so, because we only had our academic classes every other week, and we were expected to still accomplish a lot of school work even during the shop weeks. I was the only kid I knew who got in trouble with my parents for doing too much homework. One morning, as I sat at the breakfast table, my Dad yelled at me;
“What time did you go to bed last night?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. I’d been so bleary eyed when I’d finished my homework that I couldn’t read the clock.
“I’ll tell you what time!” He continued, “It was FOUR AM!”
My hard work was giving me the edge I needed to skip a grade and graduate a year early, and I was always on the Honor Roll or High Honor Roll. But this meant that I had less time for hobbies so I had to rethink my schedule. I enjoyed playing various musical instruments, but my favorite was the piano and I’d been taking weekly lessons for a few years. As with my dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, I was not a very good musician, either. So, I thought I could gain some time and also save my parents some money by giving up my futile lessons. I was sure it wouldn’t cause my piano teacher any heartache, because she must have dreaded every sour-noted session. There was one day, when I had badly cut the fingers on both hands and came to my weekly lesson with splints on all eight fingers. I could still move the fingers so I played along with the splints making click, click, click noises as they hit the piano keys. My poor teacher was so un-nerved that she sent me home.
I still found time to play the guitar, piano, accordion and recorder when I could, but I was never very accomplished at any one of them. However, Adrian asked if I would teach him the basics of playing an accordion. He had been given a second-hand accordion but he hadn’t the slightest idea how to make music with it.
I readily agreed and Adrian came over one afternoon and we sat across from one another, knee to knee as I explained;
“Here’s your keyboard, just like a piano except that it’s vertical and your cords are played with your left hand. There are 120 cords, but don’t worry- there’s only a half-dozen or so that are used often and so you don’t have to learn them all.” I pointed out a few other things and showed him how the cords were played and Adrian said;
“I see that you only push one cord button at a time; what would happen if you pushed down a whole bunch?”
“The buttons might get stuck,” I replied.
“What would happen if I do THIS?” Adrian flattened his hand and ran it down all the cords so they were all depressed at once. And they stayed that way; like one hundred and twenty little gophers crouching in their little hidey-holes.
“That happens!” I took off my accordion off my shoulders and retrieved a long hat pin from my mother’s sewing box, “But we can use this to pry them up. If you can just get one to come up, they all will.”
I sat down across from Adrian as he too un-slung his accordion and placed it on his lap. I choose one cord button in the middle and started to pry and SUCCESS! All the buttons popped up! But, the hat pin had somehow got away from me and I heard Adrian’s cry of alarm. I looked up and there was Adrian staring cross-eyed at his nose, with the hatpin standing straight out as though he’d been harpooned like a whale.
I quickly plucked off the offending projectile and apologized immediately.
“You’re dangerous!” Adrian exclaimed.
Adrian bravely continued to come over for accordion lessons and also asked me to teach him how to play the piano. We didn’t have a piano, but the school had a nice piano that was located on the stage, so I asked permission for us to use it during lunch breaks. One day, as I was demonstrating something to Adrian, a couple of boys came up on the stage, throwing what looked to be a wadded up towel back and forth like a ball. Then, one of them hurled it at the piano, where it bounced off with a resounding crash. I picked it up and said; “Hey, I know my playing is bad, but it’s not THAT bad!” Not easily deterred, one of the boys approached the piano and banged on the keys before bounding off again. Adrian seemed a little frightened; these were tough looking kids; but something made me call to the boy;
“Hey! Get back here and finish the song!”
Both of the trouble makers froze in place and I just smiled at them;
“Well, come on! Finish the song!” I insisted.
Adrian was looking at me like I was crazy, but the boy sheepishly grinned back and slowly returned to us. We made room for him and he tentatively struck out a few notes of a familiar song, gaining confidence as he played. It turned out that he actually did know how to play the piano and while we never became close friends, both of the ‘toughs’ always had a hello and a smile for me from that point on.
Johnnie was the kind of guy who was always grinning and always had a joke for you. He was also an animal lover. One day, he came to school with an orphaned baby bunny tucked in his coat so he could bottle feed it every couple of hours. I met him in the school hallway as we walked to our classes and he unzipped his coat a little ways and showed me the bunny. I stuck my hand in his coat and petted it;
“Oh, Johnnie! It’s so cute!”
At that moment another boy came around the corner and saw us and he looked a little taken aback. I withdrew my hand out of Johnnie’s coat and said;
“Ut-oh! That must have looked suspicious to him!”
Johnnie waved it aside;
“Oh, well! It could have been worse!”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“It could have been the other way around!”
When Johnnie’s seventeenth birthday arrived, it was a bittersweet time for him. The dog that he had owned since he was a year old had passed away, but his father had bought him a new cocker spaniel puppy, so he had some consolation. Jen and I decided to invite him out to pizza for his birthday and he happily agreed and said he’d pick us up in one of his father’s spare trucks. His father had many businesses, including fish transport. Because Johnnie’s birthday was in December, this was a slow fishing month and his dad had several trucks sitting idle. Johnnie had his new puppy with him when he came to get us in a large white box truck from his dad’s fleet of fish trucks, and we all climbed into the cab. Johnnie had just started down the road when he inquired;
“Which pizza place are we going to?”
Jen and I suggested a few places but Johnnie decided to pull over into a convenience store parking lot so we could discuss this further. The convenience store was a little mom and pop joint and it was closed at the time. But, little did we know, it had been robbed the night before, and people had seen a large white truck leave the scene of the crime! As we talked amongst ourselves, a police cruiser swung into the parking lot and two officers came up the driver’s side window. Johnnie rolled down the window and greeted them;
“Good evening, Sirs! How can I help you?”
They ignored his pleasantries;
“License and registration.” One of them demanded.
Johnnie gave them his driver’s license and then proceeded to look about the truck for the registration, the officer added;
“This store was broken into last night and a large white truck like this one was seen leaving. Were you in this area last night?”
“Oh, no!” Johnnie smiled sweetly, “I was home in bed last night.”
He handed the registration to the one closest to his window and they started to walk away, but stopped and pointed to the box of puppy biscuits that Johnnie had placed on the dashboard and queried;
“What’s in the box?”
Still smiling, Johnnie replied;
“Those are puppy biscuits. Sorry, we don’t have any PIG biscuits!”
The policemen frowned and stalked back to the cruiser and Jen and I gasped;
“Don’t worry! They’re going to radio my name into headquarters and ask about me. I’m related to just about every cop in town, so they’re going to say: ‘Johnnie? He’s a good boy!’”
A short while later, the officers came back to the truck and shoved Johnnie’s license and registration through the window opening and requested to look in the back of the truck. As obliging as ever, Johnnie said to help themselves, but he snickered as they walked away;
“This truck hasn’t been opened up since August! It ought to smell good and fishy back there.”
We heard the box’s doors creak open and felt the officers’ weight bounce the truck a bit as they stepped up on the bumper and into the back of the truck. Then we heard:
“Argh!!! This is gross!”
Followed by retching noises;
More retching noises;
“Let’s get out of here!”
And they let us go without further ado.
Jen and Adrian and I were taking Driver’s Education at the same time, so we usually went in a group to go to the Driver’s Ed classroom to sign up for driving time. The Driver’s Ed teacher was Mr. Marino. He was from Italy and had moved to America when he was a boy. He spoke poorly of Italy, which I thought was a shame because I’ve always been fascinated by Italian history and art and I love Italian food. I’m not much of a traveler, but I’d be thrilled to visit Italy. But, Mr. Marino told unflattering Italian jokes and to show his dedication to his new homeland, he became a Country Western music enthusiast. Country Western music was seldom heard in this part of New England and all of us kids groaned as the radio wailed with the laments of the trials and tribulations of being a cowboy in the Driver Ed car.
But, Mr. Marino was easy to get along with in all other respects and he was an amazingly calm driving teacher. The only problem was, because he was on the road all the time, it was hard to find him in his classroom so we could sign up for a driving session. After a few fruitless attempts, I decided that we could just slip a note under his locked door. I wrote down the times we were requesting and then, just to make him feel at home, I added ‘How’s Mom? Please send ten dollars and lots of spaghetti. Hugs and kisses’ and I signed our names with an Italian flair. This went on for months, with more notes slipped under his door. He never mentioned them and he always had us signed up at whatever times we’d asked for. Finally, when it was time to sign up for our last drive, we went to his classroom again, but he was present this time. Jen, Adrian and I eagerly approached him and asked him to take our names down. He said;
“No?” We repeated.
“Why not?” I asked.
He pointed at his door;
“Leave me a note.”
We exchanged glances and shrugged;
“Okay,” I said and we all filed out.
I figured if he wanted a note, I’d make it a good one. I wrote the craziest things I could think of, as always signing it with hugs and kisses and our 'Italian names' and slipped it under the door.
After we received our Driver’s Licenses, Jen and I baked Mr. Marino and pizza and brought it to school for him. We weren’t the best pizza makers, but he was so pleased that he walked around showing it to all the other teachers.
In addition to teaching Driver’s Ed, he also coached basketball. He planned a surprise at the start of one home game. He took went to the microphone and asked all the home team’s mothers to stand up. He then sent all his players into the stands, who each presented his mother with a gold necklace. He was that kind of guy.
I was fortunate to have many excellent teachers who took a sincere interest in the students and their work. Not every teacher was great, but most of them were. Many of my teachers stayed after school with me to help me succeed in graduating early and the really dedicated ones read the manuscripts that I turned out on a regular basis and critiqued them for me. There were people who pooh-poohed vocational schools, but at this school, if you didn’t get an education, it was your own fault. All the tools were there to turn young people into tradesmen and well rounded citizens.
My life outside of school was always hectic. My Dad sold his fishing boat and began to build a 42 foot schooner in the back yard. This was a fiberglass boat, so I didn’t get involved in its construction because I am very allergic to fiberglass. I can do little jobs that don’t expose my skin to too many fibers, but that’s as much as I can tolerate.
I had a few part-time jobs, one at a local museum and another cleaning house for a wealthy lady. Sometimes I babysat for the neighbors, but babysitting only paid ten to twenty-five cents an hour back then. My dad taught us how to shoot by standing fifty cent pieces up in the crack of the picnic table for a target, and if we could hit them, we could have them, so I could make more money shooting than babysitting.
The rich woman I worked for was a single, retired business woman who had recently moved to our town after living in South America for many years. Her home was filled with antiques and artifacts. She was unfailingly kind and paid me very well. She usually planned her errands to coincide with my cleaning times so she wouldn’t be in my way while I cleaned the kitchen and the bathrooms and vacuumed and dusted the rest of the house. While I was still new to her employ, I began to dust her old grandfather clock which was strangely silent. I assumed that she kept it because it was so beautiful, even though it didn’t run, but as I ran the cloth over its case, suddenly it commenced chiming very loudly. I was stood back, stunned! It chimed and chimed – I stopped counting at twenty-five and hoped that it would stop before my boss returned from her shopping expedition. Then, as abruptly as it began, the clock fell mute again and it never made another sound in all the time I worked in that home.
One sunny, crisp fall day, I was asked to sweep the fallen leaves off the front porch in addition to my usual duties and I thought nothing of it until I searched for a broom. I looked in all the closets; there was no broom, anywhere. The closest thing I could find was an obviously hand made broom that was among her artifacts and it looked like it’d been taken from an Incan tomb. I nervously swept the porch with the ancient broom, afraid that my employer would drive up at any moment and see me using some Incan king’s precious broom for the mundane task and fire me on the spot.
I dodged that bullet, and went on to work for her for three years. In addition to keeping her home tidy, I also did her ironing. She always wore tropical ‘whites’, even after she moved to New England, which all needed to be ironed. It was a hot job during the summer, and air conditioning was not common, so I usually worked in skimpy outfits in an effort to stay cool. One day, I was ironing in her galley kitchen, and I couldn’t help overhearing her telephone conversation she was having around the corner from me. She must have been on the phone with her accountant, as she was giving directions for sending birthday gifts to her long-time staff at her mansion in South America. I was astounded to hear;
“Send my house boy $1000.00; his birthday is coming up in a few weeks.”
This was a small fortune in those days and I was so surprised that I accidentally ran the iron along my thumb and burned it. I stifled a yowl of pain and continued to iron as she continued to speak; “My housekeeper’s birthday is on the seventh of next month, so be sure to send her $1500.00.” I gasped and bumped the iron against the inside of my left arm, singeing myself yet again. I mumbled a few curses under my breath and she finished, “And don’t forget my cook! His birthday is on the sixteenth and I want to give him $2000.00.” This time, I ironed along the edge of the ironing board, where it also ran along the front of my bare stomach, leaving a bright pink line on my skin in its wake. I whispered more curses as she said good bye and hung up the phone- just in time; I was afraid to find out what I would burn next!
I didn’t often curse; I was usually a very patient person no matter what was happening. One early morning, I was stumbling about the kitchen half asleep as I was preparing to make breakfast and get ready for school, when I went to throw a tissue into the waste basket, but missed, so I moved the waste basket to look for the crumpled tissue and in the process, knocked the basket over and spilled the trash all over the floor. I calmly placed the trash back in the receptacle and again looked for the tissue. My parents had just bought a dishwasher and it was placed against the wall, between the counter and the waste basket, but it wasn’t installed yet, so I could see where the tissue had rolled behind the dishwasher. I kneeled down to shove the dishwasher ahead a few inches so I could reach behind it, when the whole thing began to tilt! The door fell open and I grabbed for the forward-pitching dishwasher with my left hand, but it’s momentum was too great and it fell with a loud crash on the floor, the toaster, a few pots and pans and a loaf of bread that was on top of it went flying as well. My fingers were being crushed between the dishwasher and its door, but I managed to right the thing, put everything back where it had been and since I’d knocked the waste basket over a second time, picked up the garbage again; including the errant tissue. If any episode over deserved to be cursed over, that was it.
There was another early morning when I wasn’t so serene. I’d dislocated fingers playing sports, but I didn’t know that I had a condition that causes spontaneous dislocations for no apparent reasons.
My parents were up at sunrise as my siblings and I still slumbered. I remember moving my right leg in my sleep and suddenly I was wracked with the most excruciating pain! I wasn’t quite awake and if my parents had been wondering about what kind of colorful language I’d picked up by the age of sixteen, now they knew. Every swear I’d ever heard came out of my mouth at the top of my lungs. I wasn’t even aware of what I was saying. I hopped out to my parents with my knee jutting out at an odd angle and my foot was twisted almost backwards with my toes pointing every which direction. It turned out that me knee had dislocated and pinched nerves that caused my foot to contort at the same time. It looked so grotesque that my mother exclaimed;
“What’s the matter with you foot?!”
I hadn’t even noticed what was going on with my foot up until that point.
“There’s nothing the matter with my foot- it’s my knee!” I replied.
The leg recovered, but I could hardly walk on it for a few weeks, so I was on crutches for a while. But, it wasn’t until later that day that I realized what awful words had come out of my mouth and when the family gathered at supper time, I apologized. My father was normally a very strict disciplinarian, but this time he laughed and said;
“Well, under the circumstances I guess we can forgive you!”
After three years at High School, I had more than enough credits to graduate and although I was eager to move on to my next stage in life, I was sad to leave a place where I had met so many friend and known such happiness. I decided I would buy six dozen donuts for the guys in my shop and I found a store that sold heavy crystal beer steins that could be personalized, so I ordered three with Mr. McCabe’s, Mr. Herberts’ and Mr. Larson’s names on them and brought everything to school on my last day as a student. I set the paper bag containing the wrapped beer steins and a letter to thank them for all they’d done for me on the boat shop office desk and went in search of the three teachers. When they were gathered in the office, I brought out the donuts for the guys and Mr. Herberts sent a boy to the Culinary class to ask if we could have some milk to go with them. Then they opened their gifts and they were happily surprised. In the past, I had sometimes brought in homemade cookies, so they assumed that I had just made them more cookies. Mr. Larson said;
“You know what I’m going to do with your present? I’m going to put in on my favorite shelf!”
“Yeah,” one of the freshmen teased; “the one facing Finland!”
Mr. Larson, Mr. Herberts and Mr. McCabe thanked me for the steins but insisted that I didn’t need to give them anything or thank them for teaching me. All the same, my gift was trivial compared to the priceless knowledge and life lessons they had passed on to me. Another highlight of the day was when one of the guys, the usually taciturn ‘Mack Truck’ who had rolled over me in Gym class years before, told his younger brother, who was now a freshman in our class;
“You gotta watch out for her! She’s smart! She knows more about boat building than I do!” That was one of the nicest compliments I’d ever been given, especially considering the source.
Graduation day arrived and the only problem I had was getting my cap to stay on top of my head. My bushy hair didn’t want to stay contained under the awkward little graduation caps and it kept sliding off whenever I moved my head. A couple of the girls tried to help by lending me some hair pins to pin the cap to my hair with limited success.
I graduated without causing any up-roars or breaking anything in the auditorium.
On the cover of one of my High School journals I had written a quote from an unknown source;
“Do not pray for an easy life; pray to be a strong person.”
I was only seventeen years old, but I must have had some inkling that life would have its challenges and mine were out there waiting for me.
To be continued....
Updated: 10:42 AM GMT on September 11, 2006
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