I am the man that I am thanks to the forge known as seventh grade in my hometown of Humboldt. We all know that the plunge into adolescence is chaotic at best for most of our breed but after sharing tales with other small-town expatriates, I now look back in wonderment at that tempestuous year.
Humboldt is an industrial town at its core with a large cement plant dominating the hamlet from the south and now to the east as it gobbles up land for its ever-expanding quarry. A couple of smaller manufacturers are also located in the town pushing the farm economy to the side. Which gave us a more itinerant flavor in our school as desperate families moved here for whatever jobs could be had and moved out again if the economy sagged or they suddenly vanished due to their old man showing up for work drunk one time too many.
Starting in kindergarten, I was exposed to their progeny and because of their numbers they had an influence on quite a few of the locals as well-giving our elementary school a never-ending supply of goons. Fortune would smile on us mild-mannered (and often smaller) boys as many of these gentleman would not pass the academic rigor of second or third grade and be held back and we would be mostly free of them. However, the downside was in late August we would go to our assigned seats in a newly painted and decorated classroom and spot a looming troglodyte or two from the grade ahead of us apparently needing an extra year of seasoning with regards to long division or knowing the capital of Idaho, giving us a jaundiced stare, as a cat would to a mouse.
While this training was top-notch in persuading one to peer into the bathroom before entering, desisting the riding of a bike to school (flat tires), and not drawing praise from the teacher thus putting you in the recess bullseye, it was not enough preparation for the move over to the high school where grades seven through twelve attempted to co-habit for seven hours each day. It was like making it through Cub Scouts and going directly into training for the 82nd Airborne.
First, we did not have a teacher that watched over us all day and could ameliorate much of the huns’ mischief. We were compelled to rush to a different class each hour and another harried instructor-with no hall monitors thrown in as a bonus. It was as if the thugs had died and gone to Valhalla. Quickly books were being slapped out of sweaty hands, the gum shakedown increased exponentially, and underwear defied gravity as it rose up the backside towards the hairline of boys without a benefactor. And I didn’t have one. No older brothers or even a sister who dated a lineman. It was evident to me that John Donne had not attended Humboldt High.
The horror intensified as we were initiated into seventh grade boys physical education class. Our teacher was an ex-NFL lineman and WW II vet who was from New Jersey. How he got out here to southeast Kansas was a mystery to me and his Italian/Jersey philosophy of life and linguistic patterns were as foreign to me as linguini. He was also the varsity football coach and believed in making twelve year-olds into men (and future cannon fodder for the first string) and that tough love was the way to go-only leave out the love part. Additionally, we were burdened with 3 stalwart fellows (two later convicted of armed robbery) who had flunked p.e. from the year before. My mind reeled with the riddle wrapped in an enigma of failing what was essentially recess. Putting this trio in with some of the brain surgeons we already had been gifted with quickly bore bitter fruit.
Each day we would go through the normal harassment in hallways and toilets but the special hades was the boys locker room where we would have to undress and put on the p.e. uniform before heading up to the gym for grueling calisthenics and whatever game we would be assigned to that day. The coach preferred games of contact to make “men” out of us and the guys that had flunked a grade or two were quite enthusiastic in applying the laws of physics to hasten the rest of us becoming mini-Clint Eastwoods. The losing team each day would then have to line up single file in front of the winning team which was lined up mirroring them. The vanquished would have to crawl across the hard gym floor through the legs of all of the winners as they got their butts slapped by the conquerors. This was called the “Tunnel of Love”. If your buddy was crawling through you might give him a light tap-others you would hit harder and vice-versa. Most of us were resigned to getting the cat o’ nine tails if we were doing the crawling but it was a suicidal tendency at best to really smack one of the behemoths who daily made our lives sheer hell if the tables were turned. Because after the Tunnel was done the coach would take off for the coach’s room to smoke and leave us to shower and change for the next class quite unattended-a recipe for disaster for some poor schmuck who got on the bad boys bad side.
Every day before lunch we would endure this 3rd ring of damnation and then have an hour to recuperate. I would race home to a hot meal from my mom and dad would come home from the plant joining us as well. After lunch he would take me back to school and that’s when we would see Ernie trudging that direction as well. Ernie was one of the guys that had to repeat the p.e. class and to be honest, he had to repeat some other classes in the past as well-making him 14 years of age. He had a moustache already, for chrissakes. I knew him a little bit because he lived over by my grandparents and he was actually a decent guy who didn’t say much but I kept my distance because he was usually in a cluster with the freaks that I did not want to go anywhere near. I don’t remember if it was Dad or me who suggested we give Ernie a ride but it became a habit and every day we would cut 6 blocks off of his walk to school and then we would go our separate ways.
As winter rolled through I dreaded each day of school wondering what possible torment awaited me or fearing I would draw the ire of some guy 15 or 20 pounds larger than myself. The tension would build as the day went on and I feared p.e. for the potential pitfalls and punishment it served up fresh every time. One day was particularly bad as a game of rugby-basketball (don’t ask) was particularly brutal. One of my more neolithic classmates Rick, and his little henchman Eddie singled me out that day for some extra vitriol and I was bruised and battered by the time the match was over. I was also on the winning side. The losers lined up for their perfunctory swats in the Tunnel and as Rick crawled through my legs I snapped, and with less forethought than Napoleon’s gambit to Moscow, came down with all my might and tattooed his ass. He let out a yelp but had to keep going due to the coach’s watchful eyes. Eddie had seen what happened and hesitated but ducked through my legs as well. “In for a penny, in for a pound” I thought as the gym rang out with my exertion. A sense of exultation and freedom coursed through my veins that did not want to dissipate. Then, the coach dismissed us and faded into the distance.
I assessed my situation and with easy clarity the best strategy was to rush to the locker room and get lost in the melee of 30 boys showering and changing clothes. This was not going to be a Head and Shoulders day to be sure. Sprinting down the stairs three at a time I ripped my t-shirt off and snatched my clothes before ducking into a small side room where I normally didn’t change. I had jumped into my jeans when I heard Rick yell, “Where’s Griffith?”. Shoes slipped on as I ducked low to the ground and then my adrenal system kicked in as I heard some snitch stated helpfully, “He’s in there.” I looked up and there were Rick and his remora glaring at me. I remember being lifted up and placed against the wall when somewhere deep in my cortex with no forethought a signal flew to my larynx and I yelled, “Ernie!”
Rick’s mistake (one of many strewn across his life) was to shove me against the wall one more time as a warm-up before settling down to business. All at once his eyes widened in puzzlement as he levitated through the air landing against the other wall. Eddie flew with even a greater ease and had, I must say, a less graceful landing than his cohort. Their confusion cleared up as Ernie loomed over them and he apparently wasn’t done as he lifted Rick up like a rag-doll and slammed him up against the wall till a hat trick was completed. “Leave him alone!” Ernie shouted in Rick’s face before he turned his attention to Eddie who was attempting to crawl out of the room while squealing a mea culpa. Ernie’s foot slammed into Eddie’s already tenderized posterior sending him scooting across the wet locker room floor. Without another word the avenging angel returned to his locker and continued dressing like nothing had happened. I on the other hand was encountering a transcendental moment. I realized for the rest of the year I was bulletproof. This revelation revealed its full splendor immediately but the realization hadn’t hit the huns as of yet that if they lost a game in gym class, and I was on the other side, that the Tunnel was their French Revolution and I was Robespierre. Conversely, if I was consigned to the losing side, I was to be handled like One of the Anointed and only lightly blessed. I only had to make sure of only one thing:
“Hey, Dad, there’s Ernie, slow down.”