Yankee Doodle Boy

I don't want you to think I live in the past, but still, high school days have never pulled up stakes in me. Pranks, ogling hippy chicks, outracing Beetface, protesting the War, narcotics, questioning authority, hooting with hilarity at Fugs phonograph records, congregating at King's Food Host, growing long hair and beards, marveling at Janis, Jimi and Jim, dreaming of Woodstock, rallying behind Abbie, Jerry, David, Tom, Rennie, John, and Lee, motorcycles, the College Girls on Welch Avenue, chewing enough tobacco to make Huck Finn green at the gills, a disgruntled Mayor Daley "running" the Convention, dirty books, Joe Pyne, screeching the Duggmobile's brake, chemistry gone crazed...those three years were an amazing circus. I even learned a few things along the way in class, the collateral benefit of attending high school. Had the nonsense of homeschooling existed then, Lizzie Borden would have been the rule, not the exception.

With some 1200 students, there was considerable variety in the day-to-day routine. As usual, I kept my eyes open all the time, remained silent and never failed to marvel at the quirks, hang-ups or obsessions popping up in the humans all around me. Up through junior high, I was pretty much of the opinion that my classmates (and me) were more or less uniform, like the kids you see on Father Knows Best or the Patty Duke Show. But more and more, it was becoming clear that there was an awful lot going on below the surface in each and every human being. I could never understand why it was so important for society to artificially smooth out everyone like Plasticine under a trowel, making sure the subconscious is at all times in harness. I hadn't even read Oscar Wilde or Robert Louis Stevenson yet, but drew great pleasure in thinking thoughts one wasn't supposed to, just like they did. No fear at all.

High school meant new people. Some became more than friends, while some became far less, especially the oaf who knocked me out in the hallway with a sucker punch. I was still somewhat leery of those who had come by way of Central Junior High. They were a bit of a pugnacious lot as a rule.

First day in English class, I'm seated behind three Centralites: Mark, Ricky and Itchy Archer. All were unfamiliar to me, and as usual I sat back and watched. Ricky was a little pipsqueak of a guy with horn-rimmed glasses dwarfing his face. He was constantly cocking off to anyone who would pay him the least attention. Mark, on the other hand, was a big muscular guy, not too bright, and despite his propensity to wield fisticuffs, always laughing at something. He was very welcoming to me, the West kid plopped in their midst. And then there was Itchy Archer. Man, that cognomen still cracks me up to this day. Upon further inquiry, I learned that she had borne the name from junior high on up to high school. I don't know if head lice or an exceedingly parched epidermis accounted for it, but certainly that first day in English class she was expertly giving credence to her name. You have never seen such spasmodic twitching, scratching, head-shaking and the like. Itchy had lengthy straight dirty blonde hair, a perpetual scowl and was as skinny as Twiggy, but substantially taller.

The lecture hadn't begun yet, so all the students engaged in a bit of banter. The first day of class is always so exciting, figuring out what's what. Mark, sitting directly in front of me, apparently directed some slighting remark at Itchy, and she responded with a remarkably bold extended boney middle finger including the brief annotation: "Fuck you, Mark."

Pretty obviously, they had been acquainted for a spell at Central.

You won't be surprised to learn that Itchy Archer, despite her anorexic appearance, took part in the only girl-fight at Ames High (that I'm aware of). Those buggy whip arms left a couple beautiful shiners, believe-you-me.

As for Ricky, well, he too was always taking umbrage with anything Mark said. Repeated rumpled collars and lapels cooled his jets. Mark stood a good foot taller than Ricky, which should have given him sufficient pause to reconsider intemperate rejoinders.

I found this roundabout all terribly amusing. Uncovering their individual characters and what made all three tick kept me quite occupied.

One final thing about Ricky. He owned one of those miserable little cars, the Corvair. This was the earliest model, of course, and rusted beyond belief. 

One day, whilst returning home from school, heading south along Grand Avenue, he was waiting at the Thirteenth Street stoplights, first in line. Both of these are major arteries, and so there were many other cars lined up, me included, raring to go.

The light turned green and he goosed it. Some disturbing sounds followed, but no motion. And then klunk.

Unbelievably, the engine dropped from its rusted mounts, plopping to the concrete in an undignified posture. By the way, that particular model, the Corvair, had a rear-mounted engine, making it easy to observe the commotion from the comfort of my car.

We all worked our way around the hobbled vehicle, but I paused on Thirteenth and pulled over, just to witness the outcome. Ricky didn't let me down! He nonchalantly exited the rustbucket, grabbed a large screwdriver and proceeded to remove the license plates, front and back, and coolly proceeded down Grand Avenue on foot, leaving the eyesore smack-dab in the middle of the road for others to deal with. Clearly, he was unaware that ID numbers are always stamped on the engine block. He got a nasty fine for that escapade, at least by high school economics.

Back to English class. So there we were, all five of us, ready to start reading and analyzing A Tale of Two Cities. Five of us? Well, I forgot to mention Wesley, who sat in the very front. He was a West kid, and I had known him for some five years now. Reading was not his strong suit, nor was acting. A little later in the semester, the class interpreted The Lottery aloud, each of us taking a part in the drama. I will ever remember his lifeless and plodding rendition of "Imagine that, wooden chips." Apart from his breathy high-pitched voice, just in general Wesley's thespian skills lacked a certain truthfulness. I'm afraid, too, that he always sort of just blended into the woodwork, so that even teachers often forgot his name. You have to wonder whatever became of him. He would have been an ideal agent in the CIA.

Incidentally, despite all the screwing around, this class really committed me to Dickens. I had previously devoured Great Expectations and loved every page of it. Now with A Tale of Two Cities, I was completely hooked on the guy. Just five years later, I'd be standing by the very desk upon which Dickens penned these masterpieces, on Doughty Street in London. Quite a writer, quite a guy. He's still in my top ten list to this day.

I loved the fellowship at our high school, the constant interaction with tons and tons of new people. Call me a social butterfly. Lunch time was forever a hoot. Most of us would bail out and head to BeeVee's, a burger stand not too far away. The scene was quite lively. Some fifty or sixty kids would converge at once around 11:30, followed by mock punching amongst the lads, lascivious leers directed at the chicks, shrieks and obscene jokes filling the air. The blue exhaust from ear-piercing revved motorcycles and hotrods definitely seasoned our double-cheeseburgers, but no one complained. And there was segregation. While the bulk of the crowd hobnobbed, Itchy Archer and three other tough girls kept completely to themselves, concluding their repasts with Kool cigarettes. I never tangled with them, knowing that any one (including Itchy) could do me some real damage. Mark however, with a smirk or two, wasn't quite so timid.

When next you watch The Hollywood Knights, know that Tubby's Drive-In existed in my hometown

Right next door to BeeVee's was the dance studio, a venue to contribute so much to my growing up. Some time in junior year, I got a bee in my bonnet to learn tap dancing. It didn't take too much coercion to sell my parents on the idea. They may have conjectured it would provide a socially acceptable outlet and steer me away from juvenile delinquency. Hah! That was the farthest thing from my mind.

So, anyway, I enrolled at the dance studio for private tap lessons. I got a very nice set of shoes, and a series of phonograph records overdubbed with training cues. In fact, the records were put out by the very guy who taught Pinky Lee his routines, so I knew I was in good company.

I adored my lessons, once a week, followed by tons and tons and tons of rehearsal on our kitchen floor, the only non-carpeted surface in the house. After a lesson, I would be pouring sweat, maybe lose a pound or two, and every muscle in my legs felt like it would explode. Tap dancing is tremendously rigorous work, yet somehow there was always a smile on my face, right up to collapse.

I did have a goal.

Fairly early on, perhaps in junior high, the works of George M. Cohan intrigued. By age 15, I had taught myself enough piano to play Give My Regards to Broadway, You're a Grand Old Flag and Yankee Doodle Boy reasonably well, but wanted to interpret these gems in a more physical fashion. Hence the dancing. It was always my ambition to tap to the latter song just mentioned. I never quite made it to my satisfaction (it's perhaps the toughest of the three and neither my coordination nor muscles could quite keep up to it full speed). Next incarnation.

I have no idea why the terpsichorean muse hit back then, for as a rule dancing sickened me (apart from getting a chance to rub provocatively against nubile babes at school sock-hops, in which case technique is totally irrelevant). You might remember from On Patience that Cohan had enchanted in an amorous sense once before, the time I asked Gloria, the glorious redhead with sparkling teeth, to the musical extravaganza at the Iowa State theater. It is more than likely I was thinking of her during rehearsals while sweat rolled down my forehead, calves bursting, gasping for breath.

As I compose these reminiscences, the pattern is truly becoming clear to me for the very first time. From Louise Elementary to West Junior High to Ames High, it has always been a craving to see with my own eyes just how varied humans can be beneath the five-and-dime veneer imposed by a society blind to the individual. In not so many words, back at that dance studio, I vowed not to live someone else's life.

It was almost time for the Yankee Doodle Boy to leave. But first let me tell of a good-bye.

Next installment: Cuds

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