This is an excerpt from my second novel, Come on, Fluffy, This Ain’t No Ballet (published in 2011), available as a paperback or Kindle at Amazon or as a paperback at Barnes & Noble.
Chapter 10 Politics, Algebra, and Gossip
The presidential election of 1960 was the first of which I had much awareness. When Eisenhower was elected in the early 1950’s, I was only six years old. At home in 1960 my family and I watched the Kennedy/Nixon debates on our black and white television set, and I remember only that something about Richard Nixon didn’t ring true to me, because everything he said sounded prepared or even memorized. My Aunt Hazel and Uncle Walter, staunch Republicans, paid me five dollars to wear a Nixon campaign button to school for a whole week, and as a fourteen-year-old, I thought five bucks was a huge amount of money. However, I wore the button to school only once, as it seemed every other kid wearing a button wore one for JFK. When cute Shirley Bodner offered to give me a JFK button, I immediately put the Nixon one into my back pocket in order to fit in better with my peers. None of this had anything to do with actual politics. Once again it was all about image. Jack Kennedy seemed younger, more confident ,and more articulate than Richard Nixon, who appeared to represent more of the same old thing from Ike’s eight years as President. Change meant some excitement, and to us fourteen-year-olds, that was a good thing. Not wanting to disappoint Aunt Hazel and Uncle Walter by revealing my betrayal of the Republicans, I continued to wear my Nixon button whenever I was around them. Despite feeling two-faced about the whole thing, I never returned the five dollars. That decision was based upon the rationalization that if my aunt and uncle were prepared to bribe a future voter or attempt to buy votes for Nixon, they were as guilty of political graft and corruption as I was of being a freshman hypocrite. As it turned out, I spent all five dollars over a period of two weeks on sodas at the Walgreens on Hohman Avenue in downtown Hammond. Guilt did follow me, however. When Nixon lost the election, I felt personally responsible, as though my not wearing his stupid campaign button had made him lose. Sodas after that election never again tasted as good.
The Kennedys made me feel proud to be an American. Their taste, style, elegance, eloquence, and beauty were lavish in the media, and no one could ever forget January, 1961 on that very sunny but bone-cracking, cold day watching the inaugural speech in black and white and hearing those immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Despite the cold day and the cold war with the Soviet Union, I felt happy that the President and his beautiful and accomplished wife, Jacqueline, represented us on the world stage where, by contrast, Premier and Mrs. Khrushchev looked like Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. By the spring of 1961 even the Sears catalog had pill-box hats, Chanel-like suits for women, and sheath dresses. Girls at school were already copying Jackie’s daytime bouffant hairstyle. The problem was that some girls copied Jackie’s evening formal do with hair piled high in elegant but inappropriate swirls that didn’t really go with pleated plaid wool skirts the girls wore to school or the white tennis shoes with white anklets. The result over the next two years was that hairdos for girls became quite large, so that some, like Wanda Jenkins and Judy Sabo looked top-heavy, and wearing those tiny bows in front made it look as though the whole giant wad of hair was being held in place by the miniscule piece of ribbon, which might give way at any moment so that all that hair might just give way to fill the room with the ratted thatch.
I also felt proud, because of the Kennedys, to be of Irish descent on my mother’s side. Despite Joseph Kennedy’s shady amorous and business dealings going back to the 1920’s, the Kennedy family did become the closest thing America had to royalty. My Irish connection, remote as it may have been, somehow made me and my Irish friends and relatives feel a little closer to Hyannis Port and Martha’s Vineyard, and even the White House. I knew nothing yet of Vietnam, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was a year down the road. Life was good.
As an aging baby boomer, if I ever feel elderly and begin to regret my lost youth, all I need do is to remember algebra class. It all looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs to me. Everything about algebra mystified me, and I never cared a rat’s behind what the unknown was. In fact, algebra itself was for me the great unknown, a vast and incomprehensible experience that no painting by Hieronymous Bosch could ever capture. Nightmares came to me often of a big black, masked “X” pursuing me to demand I correctly identify it. Being in algebra class was like being the victim in Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I lived in absolute terror of being called on in class for fear of my blithering answers becoming new fodder for class gossip. I never actually cut class in terms of going to Dairy Queen instead, but I did fake illness a couple of times to avoid quizzes. Factoring, graphs, bell curves, and all those unknowns chewed my brain cells to nothing. Mr. Graham, our teacher, was sympathetic only in his complete lack of awareness that anyone could not see how easy and full of fun algebra was. Almost everything he said seemed an absolutely foreign language to me. The meaningless squawks of teachers in Charlie Brown cartoons express perfectly the way I felt in that classroom. Poor Mr. Graham wanted so much for me to understand, and he tried everything short of sign language to help make things clear to me. Even his tutoring me after school came pretty much to nothing, due partly to the distractions of his very thick eyeglasses, which any boy scout would have coveted for starting fires in the wild, and his herringbone tweed jacket, which contained more chalk dust than the White Cliffs of Dover. Whenever he moved his arm to make a gesture or write on the black board, white clouds would billow up from previous months of chalk usage that somehow became stored in the fibers of that frightening sport coat. It seemed hopeless that either of us would ever enjoy any success on the conveying or absorbing end of algebra. I was his Helen Keller, and he was my Annie Sullivan, except that in our case, I remained deaf, blind, and mute without anything ever clicking in my head to help open my brain to what he saw as the vast and endless joys of algebra.
There were, in fact, only two things that helped to make algebra class endurable. I sat in the back of the room, and Brenda Sanders was to my right. Algebra was child’s play to her, which for a while made me suspect that she was some kind of extraterrestrial creature merely posing as a freshman at Gavit High. She was, however, lots of fun and would often try to explain to me our algebra homework. Some days Brenda would bring a candy bar to class and split it with me on condition that I play “Camptown Races” on the rubber band of my retainer, which when plucked, made a sound like a Jew’s harp so that changing the shape of my lips in larger or smaller circles, I could use a real musical scale. On a really good day I could even manage “Oh, Susanna.” In spite of my efforts to play the songs “pianissimo,” Mr. Graham would sometimes hear me or hear Brenda, who regardless of her terrifying skill at solving algebraic equations, had no control when it came to keeping her laughter inaudible. Mr. Graham had already warned me twice and used his favorite classroom expression, “Three strikes, and you’re out.” I mean, we did make an effort to keep things as quiet as we could. Brenda had even stopped bringing PayDay candy bars, because the crunch of the peanuts made too much noise. She switched to the silent alternative of Three Muskateers bars. The double-edged sword of having Brenda there was that she was certainly entertaining, but she made the experience of algebra worse by making me feel like a dunce in math class sitting next to Isaac Newton.
My final performance of “Camptown Races” was given in the spring of 1961, when only several notes into my rendition of the song, Mr. Graham broke a piece of chalk in anger as he was attempting to write a new equation on the board. There was a long line drawn hysterically that stopped right where the chalk had broken when he heard the music, whirled around, and confronted me about the rude interruption. Brenda was of no help whatsoever. She actually fell out of her seat laughing uncontrollably, but as usual, she was not a suspect in this behavioral breach. She was brilliant and would eventually be the class valedictorian, so any possibility that she could be the instigator in this travesty of manners was never even considered. She was also smart enough to wipe the smears of chocolate from her lips. I was not. The result was that I was caught playing a song on my braces with a piece of melting chocolate candy bar in my hand, for which I was sent to the principal’s office and assigned two early-morning detentions. The candy bars continued, but I never played my “Jew’s harp” retainer again.
The only other thing that brought life and interest to algebra class was the gossip about amorous adventures and misadventures of classmates. Though I myself never had any such news to contribute, I was an enthusiastic listener, who drank in every sensational, even if fictitious detail. There was, for example, always some juicy tidbit about Barbara Fredericks, who was distinguished by her enormous ratted hairdo that was consistently punctuated by a tiny black silk bow dropped in the front center of the great hammock of hair, where eagles were said to have nested. Barb was further set apart by her very ruddy complexion, which displayed what could have been skin made raw from being dragged over chenille bed spreads all night long. She had, in fact, a panting sexual energy that made it impossible for anyone talking to her not to wonder what Barb had been doing the night before. And don’t think that these little gossip sessions were only for the girls. Boys leaned over desk tops like veteran contortionists to get their share of the “news.” Every item seemed to have earth-shattering significance to us, worthy at least of front-page coverage by THE NEW YORK TIMES. Boys gossiped too, especially about girls in our class and how it was possible, according to Bruce Mason, to tell which girls had buns in the oven by the way they walked, and that walks could also reveal who was actually still a virgin. Stud status seemed excessively important to some guys, who in the locker room would brag about conquests that even I knew were as likely to have happened as my getting an “A+” in algebra, but I never contradicted their stories, because refuting the sexual exploit stories of a teenage guy with a frail ego is very dangerous business.
Then there was Barney Blue, a sixteen-year-old kid who looked twenty-five and was in our freshman class with his muscular physique, five-o’clock shadow, and deep tan, as though he had just returned from some tropical island. He had one of those severe crew cuts with a perfectly flat top that anyone could easily have used as a tea tray or a desk. In addition to his height of well over six feet, Barney had straight, black eyebrows that merged over the bridge of his ample nose to make them look like a single menacing eyebrow, unyielding and very angry. I honestly don’t know anyone who ever heard Barney speak, but his total silence only added to the mystery of his personality (if he had one) and his dark, mysterious past. There was almost always a new story about how he had made another girl pregnant, and according to class legend, he had populated little towns in the Midwest with the many bastards he had already fathered. OK, THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER had nothing on us for stories that could not really be substantiated, but Barney Blue became the great enigma of our class, even though he never graduated.
He sat next to me in English class, and the only time I ever saw him smile was the day our teacher, Mr. Warren, asked me, during a vocabulary lesson to use the word “feat” in a sentence. My naive and incomplete response was, “Jimmy was very proud of his feat.” Others in the class laughed as I realized the ineptitude of my answer, but Barney just smiled broadly as he continued to look down at the top of his desk. No teacher I know of ever pressed Barney into an actual oral response in class. One day Mr. Warren asked Barney a question, but Barney merely shrugged his shoulders, his face showing no expression at all, and that was that. He was just scary to observe. In gym class one day, before our teacher, Mr. Smith walked in, we were all shooting baskets, and a little pip-squeak of a kid named Gordon called Blue Barney Fife after which Barney picked up Gordon by the throat and held him in mid-air until the little jerk’s eyes crossed, and then dropped him into an embarrassed and shapeless heap on the gym floor right under the basket. Of course, that incident only increased Barney’s legendary status as a possible psychopath. After that I was much more attentive to evening newscasts, always watching for images of Barney Blue, serial killer, still at large. Years later I heard that Barney had married and was raising a family. Go figure. At any rate on those news programs where I expected any moment to see Barney’s picture for some heinous crime, I was instead delighted to see more and more news about the Kennedys at the White House, where concerts and state dinners continued to be given, and Jacqueline would speak French, Italian, and Spanish when the need arose. Then there was that wonderful TV special of Jacqueline giving a tour of the White House, which she was working so hard to restore. It was then that I decided that I had to visit the White House someday. JB