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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.