Doggie Tie Racks Galore

As mentioned before, West Junior High provided all sorts of exciting new opportunities--a whole new world. As a f'rinstance, the larger student body was considerably more diverse (to use the overworked slogan of the current decade). At Louise Elementary, pretty much all of my classmates emanated from academic families, since the surrounding neighborhood lay a mere one block from the ISU campus. Now, all of a sudden, my friends were the kids of plumbers and electricians, street maintenance men, garbage haulers or heavy equipment operators. There definitely was something different about all this, and I found it refreshing. Moreover, my vocabulary grew. It seems not everyone spoke the same way as my family.

And, for the first time, we had a black girl in class. That she had skin darker than mine, of course, I noticed in passing, then never gave it another thought. But that she was exceedingly attractive did stick with me; I've always had a weakness that way. I remember playing with her name, which used to annoy her somewhat. It was Anita, which soon became "I Need-a Somethin' to Eat." Didn't think about it at the time, but this was probably unconsciously anticipating certain appetites.

A kid from India, Vinode, also joined the mix. Both he and his brother (the latter who happened to be in my brother Bill's class in high school) were the biggest smart-asses you could ever imagine. So, yes, they took some heat in both instances, not because of their cultural heritage, but because they lipped off with the greatest of ease. Vinode definitely invited some pranks from my fellow equal-opportunity hellions.

As described in Priapus in Our Midst, having more extensive athletic facilities and a shower room was also a novelty. Rope climbing, soccer, wrestling, basketball, military marching, calisthenics, even archery, were all at our disposal now. The latter was probably not a wise choice. I remember one day vividly, some one hundred pupils romping about in the various sports areas encircling the school, with Mr. Reynolds loosely supervising. He usually taught Speech, a course in which I excelled, so I was rather his pet, but he apparently got pressured into guard duty that day. So imagine if you can, tons of kids screaming and playing at all sorts of diversions, Mr. Reynolds keeping a watchful eye on the activity.

There were several of us using the archery set-up, three straw stuffed targets on tripods, backed against the hill side for maximal protection from errant projectiles. Mr. Reynolds stood well off to the left, but had his back turned. From out of nowhere an arrow whistled by him, precariously close. He instantly spun on his heels, but not before I threw my bow down, and turned as though looking at something else altogether, at the right. Unfortunately, David, a kid I didn't much care for, was still holding his bow. His eyes and Mr. Reynolds's eyes met, as the latter marched over in a high dudgeon.

If ever the riot act was read, it was then. David kept trying to break in, sputtering, "It wasn't was Studs" and so forth. I nonchalantly turned as though noticing the ruckus for the first time, and with my best baby-face ever, indicated I didn't know what tommy-rot David was speaking of. Of course, Mr. Reynolds accepted my version at once and David was instructed to report to the principal's office, sporting a glare as he left in a huff.

By the way, both Vinode and David were always touting how intelligent they were. Indeed, during the West chess tournament, these two were the finalists. During the last match, Vinode passed some sort of slighting remark, with a smirk on his face, as checkmate grew increasingly more certain. In a fit of pique, David picked up the entire board, pieces flying helter-skelter, and busted the whole lot over Vinode's head. Poor old seemed like he was destined to spend quite a bit of time in the principal's office. If truth be told, his natural anger got in the way of his ever hoping to become a practiced delinquent like the rest of us. Don't get mad, get even, you know.

Yet another thing about West which I loved was the increased variety of courses available. The literature classes (seventh through ninth grade) were always my favorite, and I whizzed through countless classics accessible to that age group, along with some notorious books on the side, the type sold under plain brown wrapper.

Seventh grade English was particularly interesting, taught by Tillie-Bomber. She was quite elderly by then, coiffed with gray hair tinted purple, and built like a scarecrow. Tillie detested me from the beginning, and I soon found myself sitting in the special chair next to her desk for weeks on end. Part of her antipathy probably was no doubt inherited. Six years previous, brother Bill gave her some cause for concern. Even before that, my eldest brother had made a reputation for himself at West. At that time, the school was running a contest to name the athletic teams. (It eventually became the West Wildcats). My brother's nomination was the West Pimple Poppers, which got him into a bit of trouble. My mother was probably indignant, but I bet Pa giggled.

Despite Tillie-Bomber, I became entranced by English grammar. Diagramming sentences soon became my crossword puzzles, and just in general my fascination with language began then. Indeed, I embarked on Spanish in the eighth grade, a pursuit to be continued through college.

The less said about Mr. Trunnell repeatedly picking his nose in Algebra class and ostentatiously flicking boogers on the floor, the better.

But, it's really Boys Shop Class that I want to tell you about. This was taught by Rip, who basically was the coach for all the athletics at West. I've mentioned him several times before, in the context of the infamous Box Social. We shared a mutual antipathy from the start. Again, part of this is probably hereditary.

Rip never smiled once in his entire life; of that I'm certain. In appearance, he could have served as a double for Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In behavior, he made Cotton Mather seem like a cut-up.

As near as any of us could tell, Shop Class's raison d'être was to keep Rip occupied and off the public dole. His approach was to frame it entirely around memorized procedures drawn from tattered looseleaf notebooks of dittoed instructions from forty years previous, never about understanding the principles at play. Nine-tenths of our time was devoted to collating those notebooks, or learning how to take the tools down from the extensive racks, sharpen and clean them, only to return them to their marked places. That left very little time for actually using them.

However, the beauty of hand tools is that they are completely amoral. They quickly found all manner of new and unexpected uses among my coterie. For example, a big bellows can inhale as easily as it exhales. Thus, it was but a step further to discover it could ingest a powerful quantity of sawdust, which soon found its way filtering through the atmosphere of the so-called clean room in which freshly varnished projects were currently drying. The steel "dogs" on vises were adept at dulling planes in a trice. Handsaws had the curious property of slicing through the marked wall cabinet in which they hung between jobs. And so on...

You have to wonder about the advisability of letting junior high kids near power tools. Especially if the user is lacking in imagination. I've always felt that safety is mostly a matter of common sense. Which explains why Randy approached the wood lathe one day sporting a necktie. It's a good thing those things are belt driven and that the belts slip under too much stoppage, or we would have had a reenactment worthy of the Bastille.

But here's my favorite aspect of class, which will really give you a feel for Rip's pedagogic innovations. Hanging on a column in the middle of the shop was a masonite clipboard, with a pencil dangling from a string. The metal clasp had been carefully decorated with painted letters to read: DEMERITS.

Every time you were guilty of some infraction of sound shop practices, you were expected to enter your name and the offense. The latter would include such things as dropping a tool, failing to keep the clean room (ahem) clean, using a bad word in anger, neglecting to don your shop goggles, failing to return a tool to its marked holder, not removing your cravat when approaching the lathe and so forth. Of course, recording your crime was strictly by the honor system.

Just to demonstrate how egalitarian our little society in the basement of West was, Rip would periodically inscribe his own name, making sure we all noticed his devotion to jurisprudence.

At the end of every month, Rip would tally the demerits, and hand you the total on a mimeographed piece of paper designed expressly for that purpose. Tickets! We got tickets from the fuzz at age thirteen! Naturally, he made a big show of distributing these.

There were two ways in which you could work them off. One was entirely obvious: for each demerit assigned, you would labor fifteen minutes in the school yard picking up litter.

But the second method is the kicker, and really gives a deep insight into Rip's enlightened outlook, suggesting to me a no doubt Roman Catholic upbringing.

You could remove one demerit from your total each time you turned someone else in, inscribing his name and offense on the clipboard!

Seriously! Sanctioned squealerism!

I've mentioned before what a lippy little son-of-a-bitch Jack was, always cocking off (if I dare use that verb in his case; see Priapus in Our Midst). He really was constantly impertinent and starting something with someone. And so, by a month into Boys Shop, his name appeared over and over and over on the demerit clipboard. Hell, Tommy, Fake-Nose, Whitey and I had eased our burden so much, that you might say we had crossed from the negatives to the positives, earning MERITS. I don't ever recall collecting trash in the school yard.

And the title of this entry? Well, in order to pass Boys Shop, each pupil had to fashion a doggie tie rack. This was a cute little painted thing cut from plywood, of a doggie looking over his shoulder at you, with a dowel protruding as a tail. Its purpose, of course, was to provide a handsome and convenient rack for hanging your neckties. Just the sort of thing we all needed. Well, Randy in any event.

This project was required of each and every student for eons. My eldest brother, some twenty years earlier had built one, my elder brother built one, I built one and who knows how many other kids built one, all under Rip's careful tutelage. Given his longevity and resistance to change, I hazard Rip may be responsible for quite a few thousands of these abominations populating garage sales to this day.

Could it be that fashioning a doggie tie rack is a metaphor for what went on in that class?

More to the point: I always wanted to fabricate one with the doggie looking forward.

Next installment: Leaving the Nest 

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