The Immaculate Re-conception / a new poem by Tom Evans

What do you think about when you’re dying?

What will your last words be?

Of course it depends on the person

And the circumstances.

Perhaps it’s so sudden there’s no chance to think,

Or say anything,

You may slip into a coma or be on life support,

Or under so much medication you’re delirious.

So many scenarios are possible.

Huxley drank liquid LSD on his death bed,

Administered by his wife

(Not everyone has such a wife),

Leary’s death was filmed for future viewing.

And then there are the commonly held beliefs

That your whole life flashes before you,

Or, as in a near death experience,

You see a blinding light at the end of a long tunnel

Or hallway, or above one’s head.

 

I’d like to think it’s a return trip

Back up the birth canal,

Not necessarily to stay there

But to simply enjoy the tranquility,

(The only you’ll have known, or will),

While you can, before it’s time to go,

And go you will have to, at some point,

Or die.

 

Which brings me back

To my beginning,

Which may also be

My ending.

Either way

I have no choice,

But at least now

Know which I’d prefer,

And that is this:

‘If I had to do the whole thing over again

I wouldn’t.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Long-Ago First Love Song / a poem by Tom Evans

I met her in the meadow, a girl

with apple blossom on her lips,

magnolia in her hair.

A goddess she was,

her gown borne by

the earthy spring wind,

her hair twining the sun

and the tall grass.

We sang our song on a mountain,

the tree and the stream replied:

A tender harmony woven by the stars.

 

The crying of a distant mare

has carried her away,

and I am in darkness since leaving the meadow

that day.

Installment #12 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir

Although we had avoided that run-in with Mrs. Barnes it was inevitable that another one would arise, which it did a few weeks later. All of a sudden Mrs. Barnes began poking around, asking us questions about girls, if we liked one in particular, what we would do if we met one, even if we were fairies and liked boys.

This was all very disturbing of course and we clammed up immediately, revealing nothing, not even sure why she was asking. We surmised she must have heard about the goings-on at the Lutheran Basketball Tournament, though we didn’t know how, just that news traveled fast between school and church. And although we didn’t say a word about Melissa or Jean, I’m sure she couldn’t help but notice we were writing on one another on a weekly basis, making grandiose plans of riding our bikes over to their town, which was about ten miles from ours, over the summer. We were surprised we even got them without her opening them (we would have died if she had), although it didn’t look like it.

—–o—–

In the meantime, while we mooned over the three cheerleaders and moped about our lost season, spring was in bloom and things brightened up a little and then quite a bit.

Every year the 8th grade class went on a class trip and this year was no exception; we were going to Dearborn Michigan as guests of a Lutheran school there ironically also named St. Mark’s and, as was the custom, they came here first to get to know us. We awaited their arrival with great anticipation, caught up in the excitement of going somewhere we’d never been and meeting new kids our own age, not really thinking any ramifications would occur, that somehow it would be all good clean innocent fun. That was until we met the class and saw there were pretty girls and hoody guys and we immediately became embroiled in a territorial dispute.

Naturally the girl I liked already had a boyfriend, Mark, a tough guy who smoked, had slicked back hair, wore muscle shirts and Cuban heels, and didn’t like me one bit. And as with Melissa, the girl I liked, Kathy, was taller than I, a blonde wraith who didn’t prove to be so ethereal when we made out in the janitor’s closet the very next day. When her boyfriend got wind of it that very day he wanted to settle it right there in the gym. There was some shoving but Rory and the rest of my teammates had my back and we decided to settle it on the basketball court instead, even though none of the hoody guys were on it.

We were about equal in talent but we narrowly won two out of three hard-fought and foul-laden and were so tired afterwards we magnanimously called it a draw. At first I liked the fact that Mark was sitting on the sidelines (even if it was with Kathy) because I could show off in front of her, but quickly regretted it because soon after the game started they both disappeared. Seems Kathy was proving to be very fickle, if not worse.

Rory liked a girl named Barb, a girl with short brown hair who smoked, was just the right height for him, wore short skirts and was willing to put out as much as he desired, according to him, although I had to admit they seemed to disappear for long periods of time. It seemed Rory had a type, because Barb was almost the spitting image of Cindy from Judy’s Halloween party.

I don’t remember much about what we did after that, probably because I saw very little of Kathy the rest of the weekend, which I tried hard not to think about, except eat a lot and listen to music but I do recall being embarrassed because there didn’t seem to be anything to show them except boring stuff like the zoo and downtown. Before we knew it they were gone but it wasn’t as disappointing for me as for Rory, who’d wouldn’t see Barb for a few weeks, which I don’t need to tell you for a young kid in love seems like an eternity.

——o—–

We were amazed that Mrs. Barnes was even allowing us to go on the class trip, and wouldn’t be certain she wouldn’t change her mind until the bus pulled out of the parking lot. Thank goodness, though, anything where school was involved had her imprimatur so we seemed to be in the clear on that.

School was beginning to wind down and the Barnes’ had already decided we’d attending the local middle school for 9th grade. We were against that from the first time we got wind of it but what could we do, most of the private schools were catholic (there had been some early discussion about sending us to a catholic boy’s high school) and we certainly didn’t want to go to them, although there was a private boy’s school near the city but we knew we wouldn’t fit in there just from the few kids we’d met who went there. We had money but not that kind of money, old money, we didn’t belong to any of the upper class clubs, or travel in those circles, which was fine with me. So public school it would be and all we could do in the meantime was dread it and hope for the best when it came time to start.

We soon forgot all about it as this was our favorite time of the year; summer was coming and all the end-of-the-school-year stuff was fun, the track meet, class picnic, and this year graduation and the class trip. The winters seemed interminable and there wasn’t much spring but before you knew it was warm, flowers were blooming, trees were leaving, and the air was redolent with all those fragrances, all seemingly having changed from one day to the next.

It was on such a day in late May that our trip began. Leading up to it that was all we talked about. There was even a rumor we might go to a Tigers game. It would be our first trip alone anywhere and we were going to make the most of it, within limits of course, as there would be plenty of supervision, with two teachers, Joe the bus driver, and Mr. Hellman, who accompanied the 8th grade class every year, as chaperones.

Besides our clothes and dop kit, the only other things I brought was my baseball glove and trusty transistor radio. Rory didn’t even bring those as he said he’d be busy enough with Barb. Since this wasn’t considered an official school day we couldn’t take the bus to school, a parent had to bring us. That meant Mrs. Barnes, who rarely drove, would drive us, which was embarrassing because it meant going in her loud gas-guzzling behemoth 1949 Buick, nicknamed “The Boat” by Mr. Barnes. Thankfully no one seemed to notice and Mrs. Barnes, never a mingler, left soon after.

There were plenty of scheduled activities (we’d even been given an itinerary) such as visiting Greenfield Village, the Ford Museum, and, (the rumor having been verified by Joe the bus driver) the baseball game between the Twins and Tigers. Instead of a basketball game against St. Mark’s there would be a friendly softball game, Mr. Hellman emphasizing the word “friendly”; there would be no repeat of the rancor displayed in the aforementioned basketball game.

Still, we assumed there would be plenty of free time in which we would become reacquainted with our girls, as we naively assumed they were (or in my own case, and even more naively, would be). I sat with Tom and when Joe closed the bus door we settled back in our seats and took off. I remember the hit songs at that time were “Ticket to Ride,” “Help Me Rhonda,” and “Satisfaction,” and I put my radio up against the window and blasted it, ignoring Mr. Hellman’s “shut that noise off” as long as I could.

A beautiful day, so warm we were wearing shorts for the first time that year, and with more freedom than I’d ever known, it didn’t get any better than that. For much of the way the scenery was pretty familiar from our trips to Cleveland until we entered the long tunnel that connected Michigan to Canada.

When we emerged we were in Michigan, a different time zone, and a hop and a skip from Detroit. Soon after we arrived at our destination in Dearborn, a local community college, where we would be rooming in the dorms. I roomed with Tom Drollinger and after we got settled in I turned on the radio to listen to the Tigers game, the soothing familiar tones of Ernie Harwell coming through clear as a bell.

We would be eating in the school cafeteria, which I was dreading, as I hated eating in strange place in front of people I didn’t know all that well. As I perused the offerings I settled on a salad loaded with chickpeas, a carton of milk, and an ice cream sandwich for dessert. As I was going to a table where Rory, Tom, and John Saxon (Rory was rooming with him) were, I noticed a toaster across the room and went over and toasted a piece of whole wheat bread then slathered it with peanut butter and honey. This would be my bill of fare for the remainder of the trip, with the exception of peanuts, a hot dog, and a coke at the ball game, and perhaps cereal with fruit for breakfast. I felt much better after this had been decided as it had caused me a great deal of trepidation until this was settled. Now I could really relax.

Imagine my surprise when, listening to a local radio station that night I found out that the game we were going to was a scheduled twi-night doubleheader. That was almost as exciting as knowing I was going to see Kathy the next day, although I couldn’t help worrying if she’d even remember me.

We were meeting the St. Mark’s class at Greenfield Village in the morning, I’d hoped we would go to their school first and hang out, re-acquaint ourselves as it were, but it was not to be. When we got off the bus they were already assembled there waiting for us. I spotted Kathy right away and was about to wave when I saw she was with Mark, who had his arm around her and she had a big smile on her face. I guess they patched things up, I thought ruefully, how nice for them. I wasn’t going to give up right away, though, if only I could get some time alone with her.

The village itself was quaint, and I enjoyed looking at all the period furniture and implements, but overall, as with most museums, I found it boring and not a little bit creepy, mausoleum-like, if you know what I mean. Still no chance to even say hello to Kathy as I spotted them up ahead, Mark shepherding her with his arm. Right then I hated that guy, which made me raring to go at the softball game scheduled for that afternoon.

Already on edge, things came to a head during the game, where there was an unfortunate repeat of the playground incident with Mr. Brockman, only this time it was Rory’s turn. First of all it was the boys against the girls, which told me right off it wasn’t going to be a serious game, and with Mr. Hellman and Joe the bus driver umping, the girls would get all the calls.

Again I was eager to show off in front of Kathy but as I looked around neither she nor Mark were to be seen anywhere. During the game Judy Freeney, who had as much power as some of the boys, hit a ball into the right centerfield gap. I retrieved it and got it back into the infield quickly. Judy was slow as molasses and when Rory got the ball at second he immediately tagged her out. The throw and tag had beaten her by a mile but Joe the bus driver called her safe.

Rory was livid, as he had every right to be, and pushed Judy off the bag and tagged her out none too gently, jerking his thumb and saying “Yer out.” Joe immediately grabbed Rory and told him in no uncertain terms to go to the bus. By the time I got there Rory was standing with his arms crossed and I knew there was no way he was going to budge. I finally convinced him to go to the bus and he reluctantly did, but he was still seething. I looked at Joe and said you know she was out. You wanna go join him, he replied?

Mr. Hellman, who hadn’t been involved in the fracas appeared out of nowhere. I saw him get on the bus and then felt even worse for Rory. I just imagined what was going on and when Rory got out of the bus and came over to me he confirmed it. He said my behavior was disgraceful and promised that he would deal with me when we got back, Rory said. Great, I thought, Kathy and Mark hadn’t even showed up for the game and now we had that to look forward to when we got back. The game was over, the girls had been declared the winners, so the trip was already ruined for us.

In spite of all that, there was still the doubleheader to look forward to and I was determined to enjoy it to the best of my ability. In the meantime Joe, though he usually came off as a hard-ass, turned out to be a pretty good guy,  even interceding for Rory with Mr. Hellman, saying he was a good kid who just got caught up in the heat of the moment, and to let bygones be bygones. Besides, he admitted, I might have blown the call. Well, you’re the one who was there, Mr. Hellman said, and I’d be willing to do that on your say so. But no more shenanigans the rest of the trip, he admonished Rory. Joe assured him there wouldn’t be any more problems and the incident was soon forgotten.

Joe also turned out to be a big baseball fan and we talked about the game on the way over to Briggs Stadium. I didn’t know that much about the Twins, except for their stars of course, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Rich Rollins, and Zoilo Versalles, in the middle of his MVP year. The Tigers, though, always in contention, with Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, and Willie Horton, were the team I was there to see. I got a hot dog, a Coke, and a bag of peanuts, Joe a hot dog and a beer, and we settled in for the start of the game, Joe sitting among all of us, while Mr. Hellman and the St. Marks’ chaperones were off somewhere by themselves, in another section altogether.

I happened to glance over my shoulder and there were Mark and Kathy and most of the St. Mark’s kids, including Barb Kuhn several aisles over. I was worried lest Rory broke his promise to behave and, sure enough, the next thing I knew he was gone and so was Barb. I don’t know if Joe noticed but if he did he didn’t let on.

The first game was a nail-biter, with Camilio Pascual and Frank Lary, both at the top of their game, locked in a pitcher’s duel, with the Twins taking the opener 2-1. The second game was a different matter altogether, a slugfest, with Kaline, Killebrew, Rollins and Northrup all homering, Killebrew’s tying the game in the top of the ninth. I’d never seen a ball leave the yard so quickly, his compact swing so violent the bat hit him in the back on the backswing.

Fantastic, Joe said, echoing my sentiments, extra innings. I looked around and not many of my classmates were paying much attention to the game. It was getting dark and the lights were on. There was even some talk as it got into the twelfth inning that the game might not be finished before the midnight curfew.

It was a real stalemate, the relievers for their  respective team setting the other team’s hitters down in order inning after inning until the 16th, when Michigan native and fan favorite Bill Freehan sent everyone home tired but happy with a game-winning shot over the centerfield fence just before the stroke of midnight.

—–o—-

Not soon enough for me it was back home, the ride seeming much shorter on the way back, our days at Martin Luther School coming to an end. We somehow knew things would never be as good for us again. That was a new worry, attending public school in the fall, but we had all summer to go, and tried not to think of it.

Thinking about the trip I couldn’t help but be disappointed, as things hadn’t gone at all as I’d hoped with Kathy, I’d hardly even spoken to her, though I was glad to have gone, to have seen new sights, to get away from home. At least I didn’t have to go through the mooning Rory was over Barbara, who, strangely enough, didn’t share any of the details of his time with Barb, and I didn’t know if that was a bad or good thing but didn’t ask.

—–o—–

The remainder of the school year seemed an afterthought, culminating in the 8th grade class picnic, the Lutheran schools field day, and graduation, when we walked up on stage and got our certificates. Little did I know it would be the last graduation of any kind we’d attend. Cleaning out our desks for the last time it still hadn’t quite hit us it was over, especially when we knew we weren’t saying our final goodbyes yet, as one of our classmates was going to have a party over the summer so most of us would see each other again.

All that summer I felt like a fish out of water, not quite ready to accept the fact that I wouldn’t be going back to Martin Luther School along with dreading going to the new school, or that I was no longer in Little League, with tryouts coming up for the next level, Babe Ruth, too much change altogether for my taste, and always the possibility for failure lurked. It helped when we received a reading list from the middle school we would be attending for a year before starting high school. One title in particular caught my eye, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. I immediately went up to the library to get it, and the instant I saw it knew I would have my hands full in an enjoyable way.

It was a big book, totally unlike anything I had read before, with its torrent of words yet still lyrical, its wealth of characters worthy of a Dickens novel. I took my time with it, wanting it to last all summer, the rest of the books on the list uninteresting to me when I perused them at the library. I certainly identified with Eugene Gant and his life became a part of my nighttime reverie, especially those recurring phrases… a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a doorO lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again

Rory, on the other hand, totally dismissed the list, embarking, as it turned out on a more esoteric reading adventure that consisted in part of The Decameron, Marquis de Sade, and Rabelais. The Decameron I could understand, it was funny, even interesting, and Rabelais was kind of a bridge between the two, again comical, but leaning toward the grotesque. I drew the line at the Marquis de Sade, however, covering my ears when he insisted on reading parts of it, with the little I did hear revolting, making me wonder how on earth he tolerated something that made me so squeamish.

—–o—–

Although extremely nervous I did much better in the Babe Ruth tryouts than I ever imagined I would, which was usually the case, and ended up being the second draft choice overall, by the Braves. I had tried out for pitcher and centerfield, and hit very well in my turn at the plate, slashing line drives to all parts of the outfield. I also won the sprint portion of the tryout in my group which really surprised me.

Rory didn’t do as well and was chosen much lower than I was, by a completely different team, which would be the first time we wouldn’t be together, though he said it didn’t matter to him. I felt bad about it because I suspected it did, but we didn’t discuss it any further, although I did consider it another turning point in our relationship, seemingly going our separate ways.

Little did I know that being drafted so high would cause resentment among my new teammates, who were all from the local Catholic school, and none of whom I knew. I was never one to back down (at least verbally) and gave as good as I got, meanwhile playing my ass off, batting leadoff, playing centerfield, and pitching every other game. Still it was stressful, and I dreaded each encounter.

One of the two ringleaders of the group was the team captain, which didn’t help my cause, an all-American type, very popular with both players and coaches, the other a low-life lanky pimply kid who I disliked right away. At first I was ostracized but then things seemed to settle down until one day after a game, when Mr. Barnes was late picking me up, a group of them surrounded me after everyone else had left and pushed me around, warning me not to come back if I knew what was good for me.                                                                                                                                                                                                             I was shocked and a little scared but had no intention of not coming back. I played even harder, hitting .348 and leading the league in stolen bases, hits, and triples; we won the championship, and I heard nothing more from them. It did make me a little wary, though, and I wondered if the same thing would happen when I started public school.

—–o—–

John Saxon’s mother sent out the invitations to the farewell party in mid-July and a week later we were gathered at his house (everyone that is except for Caroline Nelligan, who never went to anything). Being out of context, everyone already seemed to look so different to me, although it had only been a little over a month since graduation; the mood was festive but also bittersweet, nostalgia already hanging in the air, full of reminiscence. When it was time to go we all gathered together and swore our fealty to one another, promising to keep always in touch, but deep down I knew that part of my life was over.

—–o—-

The major event of the summer was Camp Pioneer, a Lutheran camp in the town of Angola, on the shores of Lake Erie. The area had a Cape Cod atmosphere as there were many summer homes, hot dog and ice cream shacks, and even a beach before Lake Erie became too polluted to swim in.

This was our second year at the camp and knowing the ropes this time around we expected it to be much more fun. In addition we were staying two weeks this year, having gratefully declined the Barnes’ offer to accompany them on their annual summer vacation, this time to Montreal. There was a Walther League (the Protestant equivalent to CYO) Week, which was the one we had gone to the year before and which would be our second week there this year.

We loved going there, couldn’t wait to get out of the car once we had parked in the gravel parking lot across the road from the camp grounds, where, when arriving, we stood in line under a shade tree in front of the office, waiting to check in, greeting people we’d met the year before or avoiding those we’d ostracized with our bad behavior.

This year was quite different as the first week it wasn’t crowded at all, in fact we seemingly had the whole place to ourselves. Another difference was, since the camp was so deserted the horseshoe of cabins with Indian names (Tuscarora, Adirondack, etc.) we usually stayed in weren’t open and we were assigned a different type of cabin, a white rectangular structure among some pine trees near the snack bar, which was also closed that week, to our great chagrin.

Two boys had also been assigned to our cabin, southern boys from Virginia, which seemed like a foreign country to us their speech and habits were so different from ours. Jimmy was a small intense outgoing kid with dark hair while Phil was his exact opposite, a laid back lumbering shy kid with light hair. Besides their drawls (as we called) them, which cracked us up, they were also heavy smokers. Jimmy already had the raspy voice of a chain smoker, while Phil did it mostly because Jimmy did, and took only brief puffs, holding the cigarette far from his face and blowing smoke rings.

We got along famously, each getting a kick out of the other’s speech, Rory and I even attempting to smoke very unsuccessfully, which also amused them though they didn’t force it on us. They seemed to come from money, dressing very preppy, wearing button downs or golf shirts, pressed jeans, and tasseled loafers with white socks.

We didn’t do all that much that week as not  many scheduled activities took place it being an off week, accepting the fact that our respective families had each dumped us, which was fine with us. Phil and Jimmy played off each other as they talked nonstop as we lay in our bunks, Jimmy poking fun at Phil, Phil accepting it gracefully, though each well aware of the size differential Jimmy between them, so nothing was pushed too far, it all being in good fun, the two as close as cousins. Jimmy would have been into all sorts of things if there had been things to do, but there weren’t, while Phil, not exactly ambitious, was perfectly content with sitting on the edge of his bunk, legs dangling over the edge, matter-of-factly squeezing his zits. They weren’t staying over the next week, which disappointed us, though secretly we were a bit relieved knowing they wouldn’t have fit in, but having this quiet break while looking forward to the big event next week, was just what we needed. Before we knew it, the week was over and we were saying goodbye with promises to keep in touch.

Now it was time for the main event, Walther League Week. Since we were already registered we were afforded the luxury of being able to watch all the kids as they came in, especially the girls, observing how each and every one of them couldn’t wait to get away from their parents.

There were a few we recalled from the year before, a hippy-dippy type nicknamed Amby (I guessed it was short for Ambitious) popular with all the girls, who went most of the week shirtless, which showed off the beaded necklace he wore like a lei; his friend Willy, a shy Peter Noone look-alike, also much in demand by those of the female persuasion; a kid Rory had dubbed “Horseface” after a volleyball game argument the year before; and last but not least, Jan Olsen from Endicott, a tanned girl with shoulder length sun-bleached hair and serene smile, extremely well-endowed, who Rory was gaga over.

We were assigned the Shoshone cabin along with some guys we knew from our Lutheran League basketball days, one of whom had a stash of Mallow Bars that would last the entire week if he ate them judiciously. “Dirty Water” was big that summer, as was “Black is Black,” and a song we heard for the first time and were blown away by, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” which we would thereafter consider the greatest rock song of all time. Early each morning Rory and I would blast the Beatles’ “Good Morning Good Morning” to wake our fellow campers, much to their demonstrative annoyance. Our horseshoe of cabins were all boys, the girls’ cabins being practically at the other end of the camp, past the Snack Bar even. Didn’t matter what religion you were, I guess, and never the twain would meet, not if the powers that be had their way.

Things began to look up for me on the romantic front when I became enamored with one of the counselors, a recent high school graduate several years older than I with short brown hair named Bev. She seemed to favor me also, except I sometimes got the feeling she was just being nice. I didn’t actually see that much of her as she was extremely busy with her counselor duties, but we talked at great length on several occasions, especially after church and at night around a campfire or a bonfire on the beach. What did I know about such things? I was very smitten with her despite Rory mocking me, blind to the fact that it was inappropriate for a counselor to get involved with a camper and she didn’t feel the same about me as I did about her.

As it so happened Rory had gotten involved with a group of guys from the camp, as well as some townies, hatching a plot to buy a case of beer and get drunk at the Friday night bonfire on the beach, the last big shindig before we went home the next day. Like the Lutheran field days, the whole day was devoted to games of all sorts, there was a carnival, and plenty of food and pop.

Days at Camp Pioneer were full if routine: up at sunrise, optional shower in a cement block building outfitted with ten open showers each with their own wooden slatted platform, making the hundred yard trek with your towel and dop kit in your bathrobe be it a hot or cool morning, hoping to get there before anyone else (I would never have waited in line) and shower as quickly as possible; breakfast in the long dining room abutted by the industrial-strength kitchen, though eating was once more a problem, having to sit at long wooden tables with Formica tops, still refusing to eat in front of other people in a public place so making due with copious cartons of milk, lining the empties up in front of me to everyone’s amazement at how much I’d drunk, or maybe escaping with a few wrapped sandwiches, hoping for an outdoor barbecue for dinner where I wouldn’t be cooped up and eat freely, supplemented by candy, pop (cream soda), and chips at the Snack Bar; church in the chapel in the woods among pine trees after breakfast then back to our cabins to clean up and make our beds for inspection, after which some form of recreation (volleyball was a favorite), lunch, in the early afternoon arts and crafts (which I hated except for  making boondoggles which I tolerated), afterwards a trip to the Snack Bar and then back to our cabins to rest or do whatever we wanted during our brief free time as long as we din’t leave our cabin or be loud, before dinner, after dinner Bible study then a brief service at the chapel (mosquitoes eating us alive) where we sang campfire hymns and spirituals, then finally back to our cabins with lights out at eleven.

It was at these times any hanky-panky going on would be occur. If you listened carefully you could hear cabin doors in either camp close quietly well after midnight when most people (including counselors) were fast asleep, and to meet at a predetermined location with their chosen one, usually the small wooded area before the Administration building. I imagined nothing more went on but making out although older guys like Amby intimated if not outright bragged otherwise. Every once in a while someone got caught sneaking out or in the act and were either grounded or sent home.

As I mentioned before Rory was involved with a group of guys (mostly townies) who got together every night (as far as I knew) while the evening service was going on, oftentimes left the camp (subject to immediate dismissal if discovered) to hang out at a hamburger stand down the road. Rory said very little about it and I worried every night he would get caught.

The final straw was when I heard from Willy that they were planning to make a beer run somewhere in town to buy a case with illegal ID. I was really worried when I heard that although I didn’t confront Rory about it as I should have, but, after agonizing over it decided to tell Bev the night before it was supposed to take place. I hated to rat Rory out but didn’t want him to get in trouble as Mrs. Barnes would flip out, especially if they had to return early from their vacation, but also knew that deep down part of me wanted to gain Bev’s notice and approval for my maturity.

The plot was thwarted and Rory wouldn’t be sent home because it was the penultimate day of camp and no one was the wiser (except Rory) that I was the one who blew the whistle. He didn’t seem all that upset about it, in fact seemed to be relieved, and though I did have Bev’s full attention for a brief moment and she was glad I had told her, I also got the sense even she was a little disappointed I had betrayed Rory.

Amazingly I was smitten three times that week, the second time after I had been jilted by my first love, a short smiley girl named Anne with short reddish-gold hair, cuit in bangs across her forehead, reminding me somewhat of Brian Jones. She hung around with a group of friends and it was one of them who in a thinly veiled way informed me that Anne liked me. I took the bait because I had been staring at her since I first spotted her early in the week, trying to get her attention. We sat together in the chapel several times and went to the Snack Bar, where I bought her strawberry ice cream cones afterwards, and just generally walked and talked together a lot.  I was quite smitten and from every indication so was she, and we made plans to go to the dance after the Friday festivities, the closing event of the week, and perhaps sneak off somewhere afterward if I was lucky. That was my impression at least, and imagine my surprise when I didn’t see any sign of her the next few days and heard a rumor circulating that she was mad about Willy Fitz, supposedly a friend of mine. I couldn’t believe he would steal Anne from me but sure enough I saw them together arm in arm, both smiling when they saw me as though nothing had happened. I was sick about it and out of desperation tried to win her back but she turned me down in no uncertain terms and that was the end of that. Even after we went home I wrote her several letters and even got one back; she’d broken up with Willy Fitz who it turned out was a philanderer and maybe we would get together. It got my hopes up but I never heard from her again.

Licking my wounds I remembered there was a another girl I had also liked named Charlene, a tall girl with bobbed brown hair and an inscrutable smile who resembled Barbara Feldon, so I proceeded to make goo goo eyes at her and we even talked a couple times, but it turned out she was going out with Horseface of all people. Rory pestered him about it and it looked like a fight was brewing, but he was much bigger than Rory and I finally persuaded him it was okay, that I was okay. Still, I continued to admire her from afar the rest of the week, heartsore she was already spoken for. I never forgot her and to this day think of her now and then.

Strangely Rory, who always seemed to end up with a girl of his choosing, evinced no love interest at all that week. When I asked him about it when we got home he said he was carrying the proverbial torch for Jan Olsen, and if he couldn’t have her didn’t want anyone else. Instead he decided to hang around with that group of kids I mentioned before and I didn’t see much of him at all, another indication things were changing between us.

All in all a tempestuous week it was, our last week at Camp Pioneer. We were glad to get out of there, making sure we were all packed and ready to go, practically standing by the side of the road to intercept Mr. Barnes before he mingled with the captain and crew as it were, and got wind of Rory’s little caper, aborted though it was.

“Cloud 9” / flash fiction by Tom Evans

At the end of days the infant/foundling/foster child/adoptee/teen/adult entered the room and perused it for his birth parents, though he had only the vaguest idea what they looked like. Instead, his foster parents/adopted parents/guardian angel/heavenly father gathered around him. ”Get thee hence from me,” he said, “where were you when I needed you? Besides, I’m searching for Jesus.”

To which they responded, “What do you mean, didn’t we give you food, clothing, and shelter?” Yes they had, he thought, though he’d never admit that to them. Besides, weren’t they supposed to do those things? Otherwise what was the point of it all?

“He always was an ungrateful child,” he heard his adoptive mother say to no one in particular as he walked away. He shrugged his shoulders and set out to look for Jesus.

Jeez, he thought, there are so many rooms in this place, I don’t know where to begin. After he’d rummaged through each one (which took a great deal of time) and found no sign of him he thought maybe he’d recommence looking for his parents.

How would he know them when he saw them, you might wonder, as he’d never seen them before except in faded photographs? He had to trust he just would, that if they were there he would find them.

Hmmm, he thought. Maybe they’re with Jesus. Sure, it was fine for Jesus to forgive them for abandoning him, but he couldn’t. Did they have any idea what he’d gone through? That was what was puzzling. Jesus did, in fact he’d been through it himself, and still forgave them. I guess he’s a better person than I am.

He had no answers to any of these things, but doggedly kept looking, retracing his steps through each room until he reached the main room where his foster parents/adopted parents/guardian angel/heavenly father had been, only to find they were no longer were.

So here he was, among a roomful of strangers.

Had it come to this? Alone again?

He couldn’t face eternity alone. Maybe he’d just glom onto the next normal looking couple he came across. But what if they already had children? He couldn’t bear to be taken in again out of pity, and play second fiddle to their natural offspring. He couldn’t – wouldn’t – go through that again.

So was this what heaven was, after all? Merely déjà vu?

If it was, he’d rather spend his afterlife on earth, as a bug, rodent, snake, perhaps a tree even, or another person, though he doubted he was worthy of that.

Maybe he could get kicked off the cloud, but he didn’t know what was on the other side, or if he’d even survive the fall. It was surely a long way down. Nevertheless, foolhardy as ever regarding his future, he took the plunge, and on the way down heard a voice coming from he knew not where, telling him he was about to inhabit the recently deceased body of the twin brother he never knew he had, and, as excited as he was to arrive after hearing this, still managed to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Installment #11 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir

It didn’t help that we had Mrs. Fischer for a teacher that year. She was new and she was beautiful, statuesque, with shoulder-length dark hair, pinkish-white skin, green eyes, and a nice smile. She dressed in tight dresses or skirts with frilly blouses and wore high heels, not the sensible blocky black shoes the other female teachers favored. Many a time I watched her walk, her hips swaying, her legs firm, imagining all sorts of things I’d never admit to anyonenot even Rory. Every once in a while, when her heels scuffed the waxed floor ever so slightly, I heard the resultant squeak, and knowing she’d bend down sometimes and touch the heel of the offending shoe, I’d be on the alert for the slightest glimpse of cleavage. She reminded me a lot of Mrs. Kennedy. She was no pushover, though, her green eyes flashing when she was angry, but since most of the boys in class were half in love with her, she had very few problems.

Unbeknownst to us right away was that her husband, also new to the school, taught 7th grade and was the boys and girls 6th grade basketball coach, having been quite a player himself at a Lutheran college (an All-American it was rumored), another reason we were on our best behavior. Of course Richard and Paul, the two best players, thought she favored them, as her husband probably told her all about them. The rest of us were content to worship her from afar, and hoped he also would notice us when we tried out for the basketball team.

It was going to be an exciting year, as the regular boys’ team, comprised of 7th (rarely) and 8th graders, looked unbeatable. They’d made it to the Lutheran School Basketball League Championship finals the year before, losing to St. Peter’s Sanborn, and were determined to win it that year. They had Frank Caldwell, a real jumping jack, at center, Art Dio, an overweight lefty who was lights out from the corners, Gary Fick, a pale quick point guard who sweated profusely and was so nearsighted wore glasses attached to his head with an athletic band, Howie Reitz, a tall reed-thin forward, a defensive wizard who usually guarded the opposing team’s best player, Hank Appel (Richard’s brother), the captain and all-around star of the team, and last but not least feisty little Eddie Drollinger, sixth man par excellent, and non-stop human buzz saw. Their coach was Mr.  Braun, Dodie’s father, a former boxer who owned a large nursery on the East side and was also a basketball referee in leagues around the city.

We hardly got to see them play at all as our games and practices were on separate days, and we weren’t allowed to stay after on the days they did (we were already putting Mrs. Barnes out by staying late for ours as it was), but we heard plenty about their exploits via the PA system, as well as through Mr. Hellman, who buttonholed anyone he could get his hands on to brag about their accomplishments. He was so proud of them, they were his boys. Martin Luther had never won anything in their albeit short existence but he was certain it was about to happen and he wasn’t going to miss a moment’s enjoyment watching it unfold.

Meanwhile, we had other things on our minds. Tryouts were being held soon for the 6th grade team, and, though we were pretty certain of making it, we were still pretty nervous about it, until something happened that made it all seem pretty insignificant.                                                                                                                                                                                                —–o—–

As I suppose with most people I’ll never forget the moment it was announced over the PA system President Kennedy had been shot. The whole classroom was stunned of course, including Mrs. Fischer, who immediately left the room with her hand to her mouth, telling us to put our heads on our desks until she got back. We all sat in stunned silence, not looking at anything, our heads bowed as she’d requested. It wasn’t Mrs. Fischer who came back soon after it was Mr. Fischer, wheeling the television cart into our classroom and turning it on immediately. I’ll never forget the bleary picture on the screen, the sound fading in and out, all of us watching in rapt attention, trying to follow what was going on.

Suddenly it seemed the picture came in focus and the sound became clear as Walter Cronkite took off his glasses, swallowed, and made the announcement that the president was dead. I remember the sorrow in his voice, his struggle to get the words out before he lost it, and then it seemed the bottom dropped out from under all of us. The girls were crying and I remember the boys were silent at first then sporadic individual outbursts began, the consensus of which was who did it and I hope they find the guy soon.

Mr. Fischer had been attempting to quiet us down but we hadn’t noticed until he came down the aisle and summoned Richard, Paul Barr, Rory and I to come to over to him. When we got there he told us quietly that an assembly was being held in an hour to inform everyone what had just taken place, and would we go to the gym and set up chairs for it.

Being chosen to leave class to go set up chairs for the assembly made us feel proud, which we needed at a time like this. We said little on the way there and as soon as we got to the gym grimly dragged the racks of chairs out from their storage space under the stage and dutifully began setting them up in straight rows, twenty rows in all, ten chairs per row.  We did this by rote, having done it many times before, the only sounds being the occasional grunt or clatter of chairs as we pulled them out of the racks or banged them on the floor to open them.

Suddenly there was a resounding crash and we all looked over to see Paul slamming a chair against the remaining chairs in the rack which dominoed in all different directions, causing quite a clatter. It was eerily silent for a moment as we all looked at Paul to see what he’d do next and didn’t have to wait long. EFF this he screamed, this time slamming a chair against the gym floor, denting it, then broke down sobbing, and it was all the rest of us could do not to join him .

We said nothing but listened to see if anyone outside the gym had noticed the noise, expecting an adult to come bursting through the double-barred doors to demand what was going on. When we heard nothing we all began to chime in our own way- Yeah EFF this, if I only knew who did it I’d fix them, just let me alone with him I’ll make him  pay, who could have done something like this, I can’t believe this happened here, in our country, what’s going to happen now? Once we got it out of our system it wasn’t long after we continued on and completed the job.

In addition to setting up the chairs we were also the color guard and even though we weren’t dressed for it (Paul and Richard usually wore their Scouting uniforms while Rory and I wore a suitcoat and tie) went up in the back of the stage and got the flags out and went to the back of the gym waiting for everyone to file in for the assembly.

We watched each class come in with the gamut of expressions on their faces- shock, worry, stunned disbelief, anger, horror- and when our class came in second to last we looked especially carefully at them, trying to catch someone’s eye but we didn’t. As usual Rory and I were in the front, escorting Paul and Richard as the flagbearers behind us, waiting for Mr. Hellman’s nod for us to march up the center aisle.

Usually we weren’t so attentive, often looking down each row as we passed by, but that solemn occasion we were, or at least started out to be. Things began smoothly with each of us in step when suddenly I felt a commotion behind us and heard Richard yell BARR and saw him fall to the ground, having apparently been accidentally tripped by Paul’s flagpole. I grabbed the flag as he went down, horrified lest it hit the ground. Richard of course was mortified, his face sunburn red, blaming Paul, who had a sheepish look on his face and shrugged his shoulders as if to say it wasn’t my fault, while Rory and I had to try mightily to not bust a gut or even crack a smile, knowing in the meantime Mr. Hellman was witnessing the misfortune of his fair-haired boy Richard, barely managing it as Richard and Paul placed their respective flag pole in its holder.

Our duty finished, we walked back down one of the side aisles to sit with our class, Paul and Richard sniping at each other as we did so, Richard not looking as cocky as he usually did, which somehow made me like him a little more. Rory and I, once our backs were turned to Mr. Hellman, allowed ourselves a grin as we made our way back, but dared not look at one another, or at Paul or Richard- not anyone actually- because we knew that would be the end of it, we’d probably be rolling on the floor as soon as we did.

We all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by an opening prayer, led by the pastor of our church (Amherst Lutheran), Pastor Brandt, who’d been called in specially, then Mr. Hellman took the microphone and announced that the buses were here and we were dismissed from school, and that there might possibly be no school on Monday, finally ending with a closing prayer, after which we filed soberly out of the gymnasium.

Strangely there was an admixture of excitement and anger as we went back to class to gather our things for our early dismissal. For myself I couldn’t wait to get home and follow the news if Mrs. Barnes would let us. Rory wasn’t taking it very well, though as usual he didn’t say much.

I needn’t have worried because the television was on when we get home and Mrs. Barnes was in a state I’d never seen her in, her eyes red, cursing at the television, That she’d already begun drinking was evident, she didn’t even try to hide it. She told us we could watch if we didn’t make a sound.

We saw they’d caught a suspect, an angry looking man in a tee shirt and a fresh bruise above his left eye, his lips tightly sealed, scowling, along with a photo of his surprisingly beautiful wife. When I first saw him I immediately assumed he had done it, but didn’t feel anger, I was just trying to fathom how and why anyone would do that and how he’d screwed up his life for good. They kept showing the motorcade in Dallas over and over and began calling it an assassination, a sinister-sounding word, then photos of the killer’s perch among the boxes in the Texas Book Depository. Even though everything had taken place in the bright sunshine the black and white television made everything seem dark. You could sense the chaos, the agony of the bystanders, everyone crying into handkerchiefs, the photos of the policeman who’d been killed trying to apprehend the assassin, the movie theatre (another assassin in a theatre) where he’d been caught, sitting there pretending to watch a movie after what he’d just done, I just couldn’t imagine it, but worst of all, President Kennedy was dead.

I felt like something had been wrenched from life forever and it would never be the same again. And beautiful Mrs. Kennedy looking so uncharacteristically disheveled, grief permanently etched in her face, crawling frantically over the back of the limousine to tell somebody what had happened, the hospital where he’d been taken, the names, the places, the underpasses, the knoll, the Texas Book Depository, the Texas governor, the secret service, rifle with scope, all so horrible and final.

Mrs. Barnes was cursed every time they showed the killer. You little man, you insignificant piece of s***, know one will ever remember you, you bastard, sonofabitch, practically spitting, wiping her nose and eyes with her daintily flowered handkerchief. I couldn’t help but notice the similarity to when she was angry with us.

She told us to get ready for dinner, that Mr. Barnes would be home soon, which was a surprise, him coming home early, but after what had happened he felt he must be with his family, but she made no move to go to the kitchen, rather remained there in front of the television crying unashamedly, swearing, glued to it, not wanting to miss a thing, though they were showing the same things over and over and over again.

It was a gloomy solemn weekend that seemed to drag on like a funeral dirge. All our activities were subdued, curtailed, we were barely allowed to go outside to play, which, despite the circumstances, we still wanted to do, anything to get our minds off of what had happened, though admittedly there was even a pall over that. It was the same throughout the neighborhood, very little activity, an eerie silence pervading it. Before we started running our pass patterns with Dick we talked about it. He felt the same way we did, shocked and sad. In the end it was a half-hearted effort and we soon went back into our respective houses.

The thing that worried me most was the way the adults were reacting, all normal activity practically ceasing while they stared at the TV screen uncomprehendingly. It was difficult to know what to think or do, so we followed their lead, saying nothing, acting all serious, as though we were at church.

Even at church that Sunday the traditional service was different, with Pastor Brandt giving a much longer sermon than normal, most of which was devoted to how to frame the terrible events taking place; there were very few hymns and a lot of prayers, the atmosphere very similar to our Good Friday service. There was very little talking afterwards, everyone left quickly and quietly, I supposed to get back to their televisions.

And it proved to be a fortuitous thing as everyone got home in plenty of time to see the assassin himself gut shot on live television and the chaos that ensued. It didn’t seem real, and despite all the cowboy hats the men surrounding Oswald were wearing, it definitely wasn’t a western either; I couldn’t get the sound of the groan Oswald made as he was being shot or the television commentator’s (I believe it was still Walter Cronkite, who never seemed to leave the anchor desk all that weekend) announcement, He’s been shot, Oswald’s been shot, nor unlike Russ Hodge’s call of Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard Around the World; or the grimace on his face and the look of surprise on the tall marshal’s face nearest him, though I couldn’t help thinking later that it looked like they’d let Ruby through to get a clear shot.

But nothing was more solemn and grave than the funeral cortege bearing the body of President Kennedy that Monday in the rain, throngs of people lining the streets to say goodbye, the grief on their faces palpable, and many more standing in line on the sidewalk of the Rotunda to see him lying in state, to pay their last respects, the lighting of the eternal flame, and the heartbreaking sight of John-John, prodded slightly by his mother, salute his father one last time.

The long ordeal was over, everyone was obliged to resume their normal lives, but something had ineffably changed the country for good, the dream of Camelot had been shattered forever. I went up to our room and sobbed uncontrollably for a long time.

—–o—–

As with all things, though especially for kids, life went on, and now our most pressing matter was the 6th grade basketball tryouts. We needn’t have worried, though, as it became obvious Rory and I worked together like a well-oiled machine, a natural tandem, he the point, me the shooting guard, having played together so much we knew each one’s moves and tendencies and everything became pretty much second nature between us.

I envied Rory a bit because he got to handle the ball the most while I mostly stood around like an outfielder waiting for the ball to come my way, but deep down I was grateful I didn’t have to do it, because I couldn’t have withstood the pressure. He broke presses and was a one-man full court press demon himself in perpetual motion, stealing the ball or harassing the other team’s point guard so he often caused a turnover.

We discovered we had a pretty fair team ourselves, if a bit callow in that we all had a tendency to hog the ball (especially Paul Barr), or hold it too long, not knowing what to do next, and were disorganized on both offense and defense, committing many forced and unforced turnovers. In addition to us at the guard spots, Richard Appel was the center, Paul Barr one forward, the other forward position being a rotation of guys, among them my friend Tom Drollinger, the wispy towhead, tenacious but easily overpowered, with a decent lefty shot. It continued to be a problem position until a new kid in school named George Birch arrived and capably filled that role. Not only was George a new kid, he was black, the first black kid I’d ever met and the first one in our class. He was stocky and affable, with a sparkling smile and glasses, but with an edge, as I found out when for some unfathomable reason I referred to him as a monkey, in what context I don’t remember, something I’m ashamed of to this day. The withering look he gave me was enough to put me in my place, and, to his credit (and my relief) that was the extent of it. His nickname was “Bull,” because he was impossible to bring down in rough and tumble, in addition to being one of the fastest kids in our class despite his size, and the newest member of our four-man relay team.

Mr. Fischer was a taskmaster, fond of drills and basic offensive plays (give and go, post ups, setting screens, rotations) I found boring but which Rory mastered quickly and often, becoming the quarterback of the team, calling out the offensive plays and defensive assignments. We won more than we lost and by the end of the year became a real team, with high hopes for the next year.

Mrs. Barnes wasn’t real happy with us staying after school for practice and games because it disrupted the dinner hour and she very rarely had to pick us up. Most times we walked up to Main Street after practice and caught the city bus, which dropped us off near St. Peter and Paul church a half hour later. One night, though, it was snowing very badly, so badly that, unbeknownst to us, either the buses weren’t running or were very behind schedule.

After we’d waited a half hour or so in the dark and the driving snow, it dawned on us that the bus might not come and we began to panic, never having been in this kind of situation before. We were hesitant to call Mrs. Barnes because we knew she’d be angry and besides we didn’t have any money, but we had to reach her somehow despite the consequences, what else could we do? We even thought briefly about hitchhiking though we’d been warned never to do that, and there was absolutely no traffic anyhow.

As we stood there under the streetlight trying to decide what to do, wet, our toes and fingers numb, lost in the middle of nowhere, feeling like we were alone in the world, the street rapidly filling up with snow, the trees laden with it, barely able to see around the bend where Main Street pointed to the suburbs, we knew calling her was our only hope. There was a large department store across the street called Hengerer’s and we decide to go in there and ask to make a telephone call and if they wouldn’t let us, at least we could get warm before we had to go back out in the storm.

I asked the first person I saw who looked like they worked there if I could make a phone call, explaining our situation, and we were led immediately to a back storeroom where there was a phone they thankfully let us use. Surprisingly, and a tremendous relief, Mrs. Barnes admitted she’d been worried and would come and get us right away. She had told us to stay where we were but after we waited another hour decided to start walking, thinking she had gotten stuck in the snow. Besides, the store was closing soon, what other choice did we have?

As you might imagine by then it was pretty bleak out. We were forced to walk in the street and into the wind so the heavy snow was right in our faces, as the sidewalks had been obliterated long before. The snow was furrowed deeply in the street, the street lights (although you could barely see them), were on (if you looked up at them you could see how thickly the snow was falling), everything was encased in a muffled silence, Cold, wet, our fingers and toes numb, the pelting snow caking our faces, it seemed hopeless, we’d never be rescued, but we had to keep forging ahead even if we had to walk all the way.

About halfway there (as far as we could tell) it suddenly seemed to clear slightly, enough that we could hear and gradually see a car approaching, headlights dimmed in the slanting snow. When it emerged we saw that it was Mrs. Barnes in her old 1949 Mercury heap! We’d never been so glad to see her and both piled into the back, sodden, close to exhausted, our extremities numb then tingling as they gradually thawed, the smell of wet wool permeating the atmosphere. Mrs. Barnes said she’d gotten stuck several times but luckily she’d been pushed out each time (Buffalo people were good like that), but it made her very late. She asked if we were okay and could tell by the look on her face she’d been worried, although it could also have been because of the rough driving, as she strove like a ship’s captain to keep the wheels straight so as not to get stuck again.

The wet-wool smell reminded me of the aforementioned time I’d fallen through the ice but also of when Rory had gotten into the toboggan accident in the woods at the end of our street. Late one winter afternoon a bunch of us were sledding down a hill there on all sorts of purveyances- sleds, a toboggan (that was us), snow shields, snow shoes, even ice skates. We’d built an ice hump in the middle of the run and kept polishing it with our gloves until it became glacier hard. Rory, ever the impetuous one, suddenly jumped on the toboggan and propelled it down the slope while standing up inside. The toboggan hit the hump and immediately veered off course, stopping when it smashed into a tree. When we saw he wasn’t moving a couple of us ran down to see if he was okay. When we got there he still wasn’t moving but then he seemed to suddenly wake up and tried to talk but his speech was all garbled. Then I saw the blood and immediately noticed he had a bad gash above his left eyebrow and his hair was matted with blood. I told the other guys to stay with him while I ran to get help.

I took off for home, not stopping once, lifting my knees high through the deep snow of backyards, over and around fences and boundaries. I can still remember vividly the white chimney smoke from the houses trailing slowly against the implausibly blue sky as I ran.

Arriving there breathless, I found Mrs. Barnes and blurted out what had happened to Rory. She called the doctor, who said to get to the hospital right away. She told me to stay home and answer the phone and she would call me from the hospital and that everything would be all right. She grabbed her coat and took off running through the deep snow along the path I had just made. I had never seen Mrs. Barnes come close to running before; I stuck my head out the door and could hear her stockings swishing against each other as she did. In her green coat she looked like an evergreen tree receding into the distance. The doctor said he’d had a slight concussion and stitched the cut and eventually Rory was as good as new but it was a bad scare I wouldn’t soon forget.

—–o—–

6th grade went quickly which was a relief as we no longer had to feel guilty about having lustful thoughts every day about Coach Fischer’s wife, which wouldn’t be possible any longer anyway because over the summer we’d heard she was pregnant and wouldn’t be back to teach any time soon, if ever.

Before we knew it we were in 7th grade and Mr. Fischer was our teacher and what with basketball and everything we saw a lot of him, which was okay because he was a nice guy, and although the guys on the team had to be on their best behavior at all times,  we liked to think he favored us in class, even if it wasn’t necessarily borne out in our grades.

The whole starting five from last year’s championship team had graduated, and we were now responsible for carrying the torch which meant defending the championship they’d won. We had the same team we’d had in 6th grade and in our youthful enthusiasm were confident we were up to the challenge.

We weren’t.

We got absolutely massacred in our first game by a team that had come in dead last the year before. Perhaps we were just overconfident, we thought, but after we lost three out of our next four we had no confidence at all, and began constantly bickering with each other, even during games, blaming one another for mistakes and bad play. It got so bad Mr. Fischer benched the starters for a game, playing the inexperienced and woefully undermanned second string if for nothing more than to teach us a lesson. We improved slightly the next few games and had a good showing in the Lutheran School Tournament, but all in all it was a big disappointment, and 7th grade itself was something we couldn’t get through soon enough and hopefully forget.

—–o—-

Our chances took a big hit even before our 8th grade season started when we heard the news that Paul Barr’s father had been transferred to another church out in the sticks, and they’d already left, so he wouldn’t be our basketball team but on that of one of our chief rivals, the aforementioned Saint Peter’s of Sanborn, which meant they’d be instant contenders, something else we hadn’t anticipated.

Once we got over the shock, however, we decided this might be a good thing after all as Paul had a tendency to hog the ball. We still had a solid nucleus with Rory and I and Richard, but Tom Drollinger was going to have to pick up the slack and we weren’t sure he was up to it. There would be time to worry about that, though, when it got closer to the start of the season. In the meantime 8th grade was proving to be such exciting year for many different reasons we no longer had the time or inclination to worry or even think about it for that matter.

The first significant event that fall was the second wave of the British invasion, which had our undivided attention. Not so much the Beatles, who had descended from their Pan Am walkway earlier in the year, though I watched raptly when they made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I couldn’t quite grasp all the female histrionics but followed the phenomenon in all the media, which you couldn’t avoid, it was everywhere.

The first wave over the preceding winter was the Dave Clark Five, then the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, Petula Clark, Chad and Jeremy, Freddy and the Dreamers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, among others I’m probably forgetting. I knew it was something big, and, though we didn’t fully realize it at the time, would engender a great awakening in our generation.

As we always had Rory and I would sit at the long table in our bedroom and listen to our leather-encased Philco portable radio, our constant companion. There were a lot of rock stations in Buffalo, and we also had Canadian stations, and we used to keep track of which ones played the best songs, literally making a list of them and putting hash marks in their column every time they played a song we liked. And then there was CKEY’s (Toronto) countdown of the top 100 songs of the year on New Year’s Day- that was the motherlode, and something we looked forward to each year, arguing with each other and with the list, trying to guess which song would come next.  Of course we had our favorites, for Rory it was Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, mine being Gerry and the Pacemakers, though we both liked the Searchers.

Rory used to laugh at me because I cried each time they played “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” at the very same place in the song, right after the break when he sings, “It may be hard to discover, That you’ve been left for another.” While Rory laughed I cried unashamedly unabashedly unwaveringly.

One embarrassing (thankfully just one) result of this, was Mrs. Barnes insisting Rory and I do a duet of “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” (why she chose that I don’t know, I guess she liked it or heard us singing a bit of it once) while she taped it on a tape recorder. She thought it was great but we cringed every time we heard it, though we were secretly glad we’d been able to please her.

Ultimately, though, for Rory and me music meant freedom, if only for a little while, and only in our room. But that was enough to get us through. This really took off when the second wave of the British Invasion came through that fall, with much edgier music from the Zombies, the Animals, and The Who, reaching a crescendo at its apex (as far as I was concerned) in the Rolling Stones! “House of the Rising Son” and “She’s Not There” became the soundtrack of my life, listening to my transistor radio on my paper route, which coincided or even caused in a way my first love, Samantha of “Bewitched.” New clothes, the World Series, those particular songs, my paper route, and Samantha- quite a potent cocktail to stimulate an adolescent’s imagination.

—–o—–

But that freedom came at a price, especially over the years, as our musical tastes became more eclectic and psychedelic and, as far as Mr. Barnes was concerned, loud. He definitely didn’t understand the long hair, offbeat clothes, and Mick Jagger’s androgony was an extremely sore point, not to mention that none of them could carry a tune in a bucket. It’s all noise, he said, and that thumping bass, it pounds in my head. I swear it will give me a heart attack. He began to think we did this on purpose, when all we were doing was something we enjoyed. It got even worse when we eventually got a record player and began to buy and play our own records. Still, they did allow us to watch “The Ed Sullivan Show,” even if we had to endure the epithets Mr. Barnes hurled at the TV screen.

Of course he didn’t think it was going to last, but he’d said the same thing about rock and roll. Give him Benny Goodman and the Mills Brothers any day. Mrs. Banes had a bit more sophistication (though she was corny about it, using words like “camp,” snapping her fingers to the beat and the like), liking Billy Eckstein, Peggy Lee, Earl Hines, and, of course, Old Blue Eyes.

Wouldn’t you know that the station that played the best music by far was the smallest, so small we wouldn’t have gotten its signal if we hadn’t lived fairly close by. Seemingly hokey, with DJs named Mike Melody and Gerry Jack, and a Saturday night dance show, they played not only the consistently best music (and believe me we had the figures to back it up), but songs you’d never heard before or would never hear on other stations, songs like “Little Black Egg,” “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “Live,” and “Good Guys Don’t Wear White.”

Then there were the clothes, Carnaby Street being all the rage now: British Walkers, Princeton shirts, blades (very tight pants, like Eric Burdon wore, best worn with Cuban heels), madras everywhere. We made list of what we wanted for Christmas and out of those got only the British Walkers, but that was enough for us, we were thrilled, and couldn’t wait to show them off when we went back to school.

In the spring, around Easter, for some reason I still can’t fathom we were both allowed to get the madras suitcoats we’d had our eyes on, and never dared dream we’d get. The coats were very well made, which was the saving grace in Mr. Barnes’ eyes, they both fit each of us like a glove, and were very comfortable, but the most important thing, the only thing he really cared about was that it was high quality, he was a stickler for that, it even trumped cost. To this day I don’t remember for certain if we were allowed to choose the coat we wanted, though it was more likely Mr. Barnes chose them for us. Which made it even stranger because I got a bright coat comprised of small patches of all different colors, blue being the background, while Rory got a very drab (in my eyes) coat, muted brown and white, with a light blue background. I don’t remember if Rory liked his jacket (I didn’t see how he could it was so drab) but I think he did, while I loved mine so much I wore it every chance I got when before I’d never worn a suitcoat except for church or going out to dinner.

It was perfect timing too, because the Lutheran School basketball tournament was coming up and I wanted to show it off, I was sure no one else had a coat like that. Even Mrs. Barnes remarking that it looked like a horse blanket didn’t dim my enthusiasm one bit.

—–o—–

As for the Lutheran School Basketball Tournament it was time to put up or shut up and we were growing increasingly nervous as that weekend approached. We were putting our undefeated season on the line and deep down we knew we weren’t as good as St. Mark’s, who’d only lost two games- to us, although both were very close. While on the surface this looked good, we knew that each time they were missing one or two of their best players, who would be back and well rested for the title game.

They were bigger and stronger than us, and, though we matched up well in most areas, the two missing players, one of whom we hadn’t seen at all that year, were the wildcards, and we knew how we played them would decide the final outcome. This unknown aspect didn’t inspire confidence in us that we would win. We would have to play our very best to have a chance, and knew keeping our undefeated record intact would motivate us to do that, but would it be enough? Either way, it wouldn’t be a blowout, it would be close in every way.

The kid we hadn’t seen since last season, Gary Hanes, was a ‘tweener, a swingman who could play forward or shooting guard and was a demon on defense. I heard he was going to guard me, which made sense, as I’d been the leading scorer in both of our victories. The other returning player was the center, Mark Carpenter, and although Dick Apple usually played him to a standoff, he did have four inches on Dick, and was leading the league in scoring and rebounds.

Not helping the matter any was the fact that Dick, Rory, and I were sweet on three of their cheerleaders, Jean, Melissa, and Nora, and probably wore ourselves out preening as we walked around the court during the early games wearing only our madras coats- in the middle of winter and at a basketball tournament mind you (we’d had to sneak them out of the house knowing full well Mr. Barnes would have killed us had he known)- pretending we were looking for seats, when all we wanted was for the girls to see us in our new duds. For some reason I remember “Game of Love” playing over and over, so much so that it seemed to be the soundtrack for the day or at least the only song I remember, and have the sneaking suspicion (though I hope to god not) I had brought my transistor Philco with me.

It got so bad that during both our games we were glancing and waving at them and almost lost the first one to a much inferior team. It was almost like that was part of St. Marks’ strategy, having these sirens so near the field of battle. Mr. Fischer saw what was going on and berated us on the sidelines. You’ve got to pay attention to the game, for goodness sake, you’re undefeated, don’t let all your hard work go to waste. Do you think St. Mark’s is going to automatically lay down for you? You’ll get slaughtered if you play this way. You’ve got to get your heads into the game!

That was the best part of the weekend for us.

Alas, we never quite did come around, and as Coach Fischer predicted, the championship game was probably over from the moment we tipped off.  Gary Hanes did indeed guard me and, while I scored 14 he scored 21, which was the main reason we lost. He was too big for me to handle but there was no one else besides Dick to cover him and he had more than his hands full with Mark Carpenter, who had 18 points and at least as many boards himself. In spite of everything it was still a close game, but in the end we lost by 4 points, not only our perfect season down the drain, but with no championship to show for it.

As a team we were inconsolable despite the fact that Coach Fischer told us he was proud we’d played such a fine game, we just got beat by the better team that day, that’s the way life was. We’d been so cocky all year and it was a complete embarrassment. I know it was the most painful thing I’d ever experienced and I blamed myself for the loss though no one else did. Looking back I ascribe some of it to puberty, but there was no excuse for my mind not being in the game and by the time I realized it, it was too late. Small consolation that second-place trophy, or that I made slight headway with Melissa (a girl who was almost a head taller than me, the star of her basketball team, who in my darkest moments I imagined could have guarded Gary Hanes more effectively than I), and afterwards I slunk out of there and back to the school bus.

And then just like that it was all over and we were going home.

—–o—–

It was near Easter, we were to be confirmed the next day, which meant Uncle Clyde and Aunt Johnnie and my cousins would be there with the hay-am and everything else that attended their visits, but we had determined not to say a word throughout the ordeal, maybe not even go downstairs for dinner at all.

Luckily for us Mr. Barnes set us straight. He understood how bad we were feeling and he felt for us, but we still needed to come down for dinner as getting confirmed was a big deal and our in-laws had come a long way to be there, and there would be hell to pay, Mrs. Barnes would see to that. We acquiesced as we really had no other choice, but it was a miserable feeling to realize we’d lost, we tried not to think about it but couldn’t help it, it was constantly there reminding us, and each time we did had a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. It took a long time to get over it but eventually we did. Unfortunately more pressing concerns developed.

discussion of the writing process; contributions of all kinds welcome