School began again and I took the most valuable course I was to have in high school; typing. I used to say that it was the only thing I had learned in high school that had any value but that isn’t entirely fair. There were some good teachers who tried hard to turn me around, but I was as difficult, or worse, than ever.
I was sitting in speech class when Kennedy was shot. We listened over the intercom. The next day I was watching TV with mom when Ruby shot Oswald. We both cheered. Kennedy’s death was the first in a series of murders that impacted my generation. Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Anwar Sadat, Indira Ghandi and John Lennon all fell, and each death hurt. Ghandi’s murder hit me harder than it might have some other folks because I had enormous respect for her father, Mahatma, and considered him one of the century’s great men. Still do.
Speech was enjoyable for me because I was good at it. Speaking in front of groups has never intimidated me; I’ve spent most of my life doing it in one situation or another. I can’t explain why—but it has always seemed natural. I truly can’t recall a time when I didn’t feel comfortable except perhaps when I officiated at my second funeral. The deceased, in addition to being a terrific guy, had two sons who were pastors, and there were also two or three District Superintendents present. But almost as soon as I began speaking the nervousness vanished and all was well.
Rather than try and tell things in chronological order I’m going to jump around a bit and take things (mostly) by subject. It will be less confusing to the reader and will help me get past worrying if the dates are exactly right.
To begin, I’ll go back to school—and I will begin by offering an apology.
In my history class (Junior or Senior year) my teacher was Mr. Otto. He had lost one of his arms at the elbow yet he drove an red Porsche 356 and he was a good teacher. I cut school a lot and he got on me for it. I told someone (I can’t remember who anymore) that I thought he was an asshole and it got back to him. He called me out in class by saying that people who called others names should have the courage to say it to their face. I replied that I was happy to do that and called him an asshole in front of the class.
He sent me to the office, and after taking some heat from a couple of Geneva guys in class for kicking me out for doing what he said I should do he came down, too.
Before he took me back to class he sat with me and sincerely pled with me to change how I was acting. He said he had seen my tests—he even quoted my scores (Math 99th percentile, Science 96th percentile, History 88th or 89th percentile and English 84th or 85th percentile) He told me he knew I was a bright kid and that I had potential, etc. What’s more he wanted me to know he cared how I did.
My response was to tell him I wasn’t as smart as he thought because otherwise I’d listen to him. I told him he was wasting his time. I’m apologizing because he looked more hurt than angry. He did care and I blew him off.
I’m sorry I did that to him. He didn’t deserve it. But I was still angry at everyone.
I had an English teacher, Mr. Blomberg, who rekindled my interest in poetry. He had us all write poems. I still have one paper I turned in with his comments. He only gave me a B, but he explained why in a way that was encouraging.
Of course even in his class my temper got the best of me. The kid behind me had taken the spring out of his ballpoint and was flicking my ear with it. I told him to stop. He didn’t. I stood up and punched him hard enough that the desk tipped over with him still in it.
Our Western Civilization class was taught by a short, fat red-headed man, Mr. Gustafson. We weren’t buddies. Class was held in the auditorium. One day when the bell rang I was standing talking with a couple of other guys. Mr. Gustafson said that he wanted the idiots (meaning us) in their seats. The other two sat. I tugged on the seat in front of me—it was fastened to the floor. He asked what I was doing and I told him that if he wanted the idiots to sit he was going to need a chair.
I could cite more incidents, but you get the idea.
Sports remained important to me. I tried and failed to make the sophomore basketball team, partly, I believe because it was coached by the JV baseball coach I had accused of losing my physical papers before. I compensated by playing in the YMCA and church leagues.
Even my unpopularity with the coach couldn’t keep me off the baseball team. I was too good for that to happen—but I didn’t always play.
In my junior year I didn’t even try out for basketball. We had a good varsity and I hadn’t the talent and knew it. Again, baseball was different. My making the team was never in question, although I played behind a Geneva guy who was nowhere near as good as I. We were about equal as catchers but I could outhit him by a mile. Nevertheless I played more than enough to earn a letter.
The school offered an opportunity to juniors to go on a trip to New York and Washington each year. How she came up with the money I’ll never know, but mom was able to pay for the trip. I was excited. We went by train to New York and visited the World’s Fair as well as many of the wonderful places in the city and then took another train to Washington D.C. to see the capitol, Arlington, Mt. Vernon and more. Later in life I lived near enough to visit New York many times and never tired of its charms. It is a unique and wonderful city.
The chaperones were careful that no one smuggled booze into the hotels. They checked every bag. After gathering money from all interested parties I went to a liquor store, bought a bunch of booze and had the clerk gift wrap them as presents. They made it past the chaperones as souvenirs and we had a ball.
The trip took a bit more than a week, and it meant that one other fellow from the team and I missed two games. One of those games was not completed, but suspended.
The coach, Stan Hilgendorf was angry that we went on the trip, but he said nothing else.
When time game to resume the suspended game Hilgendorf told me I would be pinch-hitting and to get ready. In the last inning he had me go to the on-deck circle, but before I could get to the plate he called me back and let the other catcher bat. He struck out on three pitches. Game over.
Several on the team were shocked and told me so. But the worst came later.
At the end of the year Hilgendorf held a team barbeque at his home and gave out awards. I was excited. I was going to get my first letter. I couldn’t wait.
After we had eaten Hilgendorf called those who had qualified for a letter up one by one and presented them with their letter and a handshake. Two player’s names with enough qualifying innings weren’t called. Mine and the other fellow who had went on the trip. It was humiliating and it hurt like hell.
When I asked him where my letter was he told me that next year, if I didn’t go on a trip, he’d give me the letter.
During school in my senior year he monitored my grades and reminded me to stay eligible. In the interview he gave to the local paper he mentioned how fortunate he was to have some good players returning. I was mentioned by name as the starting catcher.
I didn’t show for the first practice. The next day he hunted me down and asked why. I told him I wasn’t going to play. He looked shocked, tried to convince me, but I told him no. As far as I was concerned he could kiss my fanny.
And so my sports career ended, not with a bang, but a whimper.
I’ll pick up the story in the next post.