Tween, Teen And In-Between Stories

The summer before I moved to California in 1962, I was eleven years old and was spending June, July and August in our country home in Heath, Massachusetts. My best friend Stevie Wolf’s parents subscribed to Life Magazine (my parents did not) which he and I would read together from cover to cover every week, drinking Kool-Aid and Sands Springs ginger ale on the swinging couch in their 18th century living room, which featured an incredibly long ancient flintlock rifle prominently displayed above the fireplace mantle. 

That summer Life Magazine had featured a long article about kids in California who were growing up too fast and were having “Make Out Parties” in elementary school, an article that described a life that seemed frightening and other worldly to me, and was certainly nothing I had ever worried about in my life at P.S. 125, in the heart of Harlem in New York City, or during my one year stint in Scotland in third grade. I had only been kissed by a girl once at that point. Barbara Jellineck had kissed me on the top of my head as I was kneeling down to look at a book in the library at the back of the classroom in fifth grade and it just about made my head explode. I felt warm, dizzy, very happy and quite confused at the same time – a future portent of all of the exotic symptoms of love.

The day after I arrived in Palo Alto, California in August of 1962, my cousin Prill McAfee took me to Stanford Elementary School, where she was also a student, to show me my new scholastic home for the next year. We were resting on a couple of low brick walls next to what I would soon learn was called “The Multi-Purpose Room” when two boys appeared; Tom Eastman and Brian Jones. They were friendly, outgoing and welcoming and soon began bragging about how many girls they had kissed in make out parties the previous year in fifth grade. I thought back to the Life Magazine article I had recently read and felt an overwhelming sense of wonder and dread.

Fifty years later Brian told me that the kissing party stories that he and Tom had told me about were figments of their fevered eleven year old boy’s imaginations, and had never happened, but at the time I believed every word that they said.

First Love

Lessons in how to kiss a girl

The beautiful Mary Ellen James asked our buttoned up Sunday School teacher,  Mrs. O’Brien, if it was OK to fool around just little bit with your boy or girl friend. Mrs. O’Brien, snarled back at her: “Tell me Mary Ellen, how can you just get a little bit pregnant?” This sort of anti-life, anti-love nonsense catapulted me away from Presbyterian Sunday School in Palo Alto when I was in high school. I started going surfing on Sundays, rather than going to church and Sunday school, much to the displeasure of my mother.

Indigenous Woman • Edgar Guerrero • More than just a little bit pregnant

My mother liked to say this jokingly to her kids. She had heard it from one of our Stanford neighbors, a very conservative Christian woman who had two sons who had become Eagle Scouts. There was no moral slippage or lack of focus or ambition in her family.

God’s wrath over moral slippage

Eagle Scout in action

A very old Stanford professor told me this when I was a paperboy at age 13 and was unsuccessfully trying to get him to subscribe to the Palo Alto Times.

Final resting places • Lafayette Cemetery, New Orleans • Photo by MMB

A Palo Alto policeman and member of the narcotics squad was schooling us on the dangers of the demon weed in 1969 at Gunn High school. There were about 40 of us in a large classroom and he placed three joints on a plate and passed them around the room for us to look at. When the plate returned to him a few minutes later after making the rounds of the room, there were four joints on the plate.

All American joint

I read this quote in an interview with Salvador Dali when I was first discovering the Surrealists and Dadaists in high school in the late 1960’s. Dali posited, quite correctly, that many of the world’s tyrants and dictators favored mustaches. While the beard is depicted throughout history as the symbol of manhood and wisdom, nothing spells tyranny and despotism better than the mustache.

Some of the infamous and cruel men favoring this hairy upper lip include;  Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Augusto Pinochet, Rafael Trujillo, Saddam Hussein, Mouammar Gaddafi, Benito Mussolini and the young, pre-bearded Fidel Castro. Fortunately for the world, I shaved off my mustache in the early 1980’s and was able to avoid becoming a member of this rouges’ gallery of tyrants.

Mustachioed Tyrants • Collage by MMB

We had a large hay field up the hill across the dirt road from our house in Heath, Massachusetts where we sometimes played softball on late summer afternoons. Many friends would gather for pre dinner sport at Pickerel Field. During any game, both teams were known as The Heath Pickerels. “Pickerel Field,” was named for the green and silvery needle toothed fresh water sharks that lived in our pond at the bottom of the hill. The Heath Pickerels were once mentioned on Garrison Keillor’s live nationally syndicated radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” 

My father played The Commissioner of Baseball and before every game he would give an inspirational pre-game talk to both teams and the spectators, using every sports cliche ever uttered and some metaphorical, metaphysical and theological ones that he made up on the spot. He would always conclude his talk with the statement that “The Pickerels playing the Pickerels is like the Kingdom of Heaven, because no one strikes out, everyone is safe, and everybody wins.” To that end no score was ever kept, and batters stayed up at home plate until they got a hit. We did keep track of outs and otherwise played by regulation rules. On A Prairie Home Companion we were introduced to the nation as “the undefeated Heath Pickerels.”

During one game the young girl pitcher had been eating a large slice of pizza while waiting her turn to hit, and when her side was retired before her turn at bat, she took the partially eaten piece of pizza with her to the pitcher’s mound and laid it down directly on the grass beside her, alternating bites, munches and pitches, grandly multi tasking in a distinctly American style. My father was standing right behind her in his role as The Commissioner and when a line drive was hit directly toward her, she dived down to the grass to avoid it and the ball hit my father it the center of his chest, instantly knocking him to the ground. A hush fell over the crowd and for a moment as it seemed that he had been badly injured or killed, but The Commissioner soon rose up and declared the hit to be a ground rule home run and the pitcher was able to pick up her pizza, take another bite and continue the game.

The American National Pastime

Pizza for the pitcher

Halstead Knowlton was my wood shop teacher in 9th grade at Terman Junior High School in 1966. He was a very old school shop teacher; gruff and balding with a big beer belly. He was the faculty advisor for the student Bowling Club. He drove a giant gold Buick with fins that he always parked in front of the shop. If he did not think you were paying sufficient attention to him he would sentence you to write sentences – Kids had to hand write 50 times “I will not talk in class,” and turn them in the next day. Hal would assiduously count them, and if there were only 49 sentences he would sentence the student to 100 additional sentences, due the next day. 

Dick Dawson was in my wood shop class. He was a small kid with shoulder length blonde hair, the first long haired kid I saw at Terman. His older brother was John Dawson, (later know as Marmaduke) who was the lead singer and songwriter of the pioneering country rock band “The New Riders of the Purple Sage” a Grateful Dead spin off. Hal Knowlton did not like Dick Dawson’s long locks and needled him mercilessly, encouraging his classmates, especially the greasers, to do the same. One afternoon he told Dick to come to the front of the shop where he put him in a headlock and cut off a big chunk of his golden locks with some huge shop shears. He taped Dick’s hair to the blackboard and wrote “Laura” under his exhibition of sadistic cruelty. The hair and the chalk name Laura stayed there for the rest of the school year.

Halstead Knowlton’s Buick Special model

Halstead Knowlton style discipline

These “inspirational” quotes were emblazoned on the wall in the boy’s locker room in the gym at Gunn High School and were a glimpse into the mind of Clayton Henry, the football coach and a very old school macho gym teacher. Mr. Henry was a burly unsentimental man’s man. He made us run the 330 yard race every Tuesday and the 660 yard race every Thursday, timing us for grades with an omnipresent stopwatch which he always wore on a chain around his neck like an ever ticking, sadistic chrome plated piece of bling.

When teaching us how to hike the ball at the beginning of a football play, he told us that the quarterback had to be as close as possible to the center to transfer the ball correctly. He shouted “The Quarterback has to put his testicles right up tight against the Center’s butt.”

Once while having us run the 660, he had not timed his return to the finish line properly to shout out our times and ran over to the race’s ending point, slipping in a mud puddle and falling down and badly injuring his back. We had to pull him up out of the mud and we did not see him again for several weeks after that as he slowly recovered. He was not missed and was pleasantly conspicuous in his absence.

He was also my Driver’s Training teacher. The only driving I had ever done previously was to pilot a 1948 GMC pick up truck around a hay field in rural Massachusetts. Mr. Henry put me behind the wheel of a large Buick and with no instruction or even a practice run around the parking lot, he had me cruise out onto a busy 4 lane boulevard.

It was tough, but I got going and I was able to power through without quitting and won the day, returning the big Buick undamaged and undented, as the fear, pain and weakness left my body and I finally became a manly, driving man.

A winner never quits! • No stopping me now!

1948 GMC pickup – The first vehicle I ever drove

Here is a Bob Dylan song about Catfish Hunter, a major league pitcher and a member of five World Series baseball teams. I first heard this song performed by T-Bone Burnett at one of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue shows in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1975:

Here’s Seal singing about getting a kiss from a rose: