The Witch

I don’t use the word lightly. But I am not sure how else to describe her. You’re judging, I can tell, and normally I’m with you on that. But hear me out, some people have rotten hearts.

A good teacher can do a world of good in a child’s life. A bad teacher can do immeasurable damage. I have been blessed with many excellent teachers but the witch, we won’t use her actual name, was not one of them. She was not about children, she was about herself, and her perfectly ordered life.

I was a mid year transfer from another school. The principal brought me into the class and introduced me. She did not say hello. She did not ask the class to welcome me. She did not ask me where I came from. Rather, her first words to me were “Great, and we just finished updating the seating chart.”

Thus began a test of wills and I spent the rest of the school year in battle mode. She may have been a witch, but in 5th grade I was a world class motherfucker. Seriously, I was a handful.  Her problem was I was smart.  This was the smart class and I was easily the smartest one in it,  but I wouldn’t work for her. She catered to her pets, the perfect blonde Hitler youth suck asses. She wasn’t talking to me, and I wasn’t listening, all I did was read. Finally,  in exasperation she put me by the class library. “Just sit there and read then”.  I was happy. There was a good selection of Beverly Cleary books and The Mad Scientists Club.

Eventually, my grades sank enough that she got me kicked out of her class and into the not smart but not stupid class. “Good riddance” she said as I was told to switch rooms one day. As much as I hated the idea of going back to her class I was not going to let her win. I immediately started to destroy every task put in front of me and you guessed it: back to her class. Collective groan encouraged by her…though not everyone. There were a couple of boys and one girl that were happy that I was twisting her ass in a knot. I did have a few friends you see. At that age, if a teacher hates you, that’s major school yard cred.

The standoff continued through the last of the school year until it was time for her crowning glory moment of the year. The final assembly was where all the classes put on a performance for the parents and the entire student body, after which there would be a rousing rendition of the school song, set to the music of the Notre Dame fight song. Then everyone would return to their classrooms to gather their gear and head out for the last time and into summer break.

You won’t be surprised when I tell you that she prided herself on always having the best class play. And you have already surmised that it wasn’t about the kids but about her.  But this year was going to be different. Believe it or not, this grown ass adult set out for revenge.  Dig two graves.

The whole thing was so transparent that she could not have been thinking straight. Even my one little girl ally said to me “you’re not going to do it are you? In front of the whole school? She’s so mean.” I thought about letting her in on my plan. After all, she was the only girl that would speak to me, but I couldn’t afford any leaks.

Rehearsals all went off without a hitch. The other students played their parts as the seasons passed. Trees would bud, birds would sing, brooks would babble and then leaves would fall and cold would swoop in. Until the climax, and I would dutifully run in a circle around the stage while one of the Hitler youth informed the audience that “The sap was still running”. And then the whole class would cheer and tell me I was going to be the highlight of the assembly. It was like one of those things where a sociopath takes over and gets everyone else to act like sociopaths, and they start believing that the laws of physics don’t apply to them.  The applicable law of physics here was that kids from a neighborhood like Hollis are not going to fall for some bullshit cooked up by a bunch of spoiled assholes from a rich neighborhood.

On the day of the big assembly kids were telling me to break a leg, do a good job etc. Even the witch cow was in high spirits. It wouldn’t last. The skit got underway and things went perfectly, just as we rehearsed it. Until it was my turn. I didn’t budge. “Get out there!” someone hissed. I crossed my arms “no”. The narrator, with nothing else to do on stage delivered the punchline before the joke. The witch cow started to grab me by the arm and then stopped. I think that was the moment her rationality came back in a blinding flash of clarity. She saw that I was playing a bigger game. I wanted a confrontation in front of the entire school and all the parents. She didn’t rise to the bait. I’d done enough though. The joke was blown and that was the entire point of the skit…for an adult to humiliate an 11 year old in front of hundreds of people. She shoved one of the Hitler youth on stage to run in a circle and the the narrator delivered the punchline again. There was laughter but they were laughing at the obvious foul up.

She never spoke another word to me. We just went our separate ways. The only smart thing she did all year was that moment when she backed off. It was a good thing and probably for both of us. What she did not know was I was already destined for Military school the next year. Which meant I was untouchable. They could suspend me. They could expel me. It wouldn’t matter. There was nothing the New York City School system could do to me and I was primed to take full advantage.

Thanksgiving Kindnesses…

I have a lot of memories of Thanksgiving dinners in a lot of different places, with families that were not my own.

One of the strangest, and perhaps the sweetest, was when I was in military school in Virginia. The school did not completely shut down over the holiday. Most people went home, but you could stay if you wanted, and a few of us did. They would feed us, but other than that we were generally on our own.

I never would go home to New York, it was a long set of bus or train rides for just a few days, especially with Christmas so close at hand. Not to mention the cost. We didn’t have a lot of money and so I stayed. One year I went with some people from a little town in the valley. I had met them at church and they’d befriended me. Kind souls,  they lived in a house built in the late 18th century in the middle of nowhere. But that’s another story, warm and sweet in its own right.

The teacher’s name was Captain Mason, but upon meeting him I immediately nicknamed him “Dancing Bear”. The name stuck, but it was not a mean name. He was much loved among the cadets that took his classes. I had him for French and English and he ignited my love for theater by encouraging me to appear in two plays he and another teacher produced. I owe much to this man, as he challenged us with literature and writing , and spent his own time and money exposing us to the arts in various places around Virginia. Romeo and Juliet at the University of Richmond, “The Miser” by Molière at the University of Virginia, in a beautiful theatre that looked like Jefferson himself had designed it…because he had.  And the play was completely in French.

But this was not about learning. This was about kindness and two cadets who didn’t have family to go to and would have had something not very special in the mess hall on that particular Thursday.  Instead he took us with him to his mother’s home on the family farm.  She lived in a mobile home in the snow covered beauty of the Shenandoah Valley.

The other cadet and I wandered around the farm in the deep snow, talking to animals, and exploring a huge stone and wood barn, before returning for dinner with our two hosts in the tiny trailer. We were treated like kings, and the trailer was warm and cozy.  It might as well have been a mansion.

Mrs. Wheeler

Image by ivabalk from Pixabay 

I’m not sure what her maiden name was but it sure as hell wasn’t Wheeler. She was as Hungarian as Hungarians came but she married a guy by the name of Wheeler. He was an airplane mechanic for a huge airline and he made good money so they had a very comfortable house in Queens where they boarded me.

I was clearly a source of revenue for them but overall they did not treat me poorly. I was like an associate family member and went wherever they went; shopping, visiting relatives, fishing…whatever. She was a good cook and that combined with the fact that she believed I was too skinny led me to become more filled out.

And so food was never a problem. I got anything I wanted. And plenty of it. Goulash, chicken paprika, spaghetti and meatballs, devil dogs and black cherry soda.

She had asthma, had gained weight and so the image and rough coughing voice was not pleasant, especially when she wanted me to bring her a cup of tea or cigarettes up to her headquarters on the main level.

This was during an important part of my life. 5th grade, well you go through a lot. I had to transfer schools to live with her and the new school was better but the teacher sucked. More on her in another story. I had to leave behind a girl named Claudia…maybe a blooming first love and my best friend Ricky to go where I knew no one. But there were decent kids in the neighborhood, and her sons took me under their wings and taught me about their music scene…Kenny Rodgers and the First Edition, The Cream, all kinds of psychedelic shit. Her wanting to fatten me up with her cooking was an act of caring. Overall they were okay, and it may have fueled a life long affinity for things Hungarian.

© Glenn R Keller 2021, All Rights Reserved

Late…Again

Image by martakoton from Pixabay

“MOM!!!! I swear we were going to be here on time. Early evening!”

Shelly’s mother stared a hole in her.

“Look, I know it’s hard to believe but I swear it’s true. It’s not fair! We left the movie early and everything. I missed the ending just to make you happy and now I’m gonna get grounded.”

Head shaking.

“I wish I could prove it but how do you prove something like that? It’s not like we can interview him.”

Her mother reached for the phone.

“Yes. Call him! You will see. Our story will be exactly the same.”

While her mother spoke to Johnny’s father, she glared at her little sister who was watching from the kitchen, giggling and clearly enjoying the show. “You shut up or I’ll pop you good once mom is gone.” Her sister stuck out her tongue.

“Oh nothing momma. I was just speaking to Tammy.” Tammy snorted from the kitchen. More glaring.

Her mother hung up the phone.

“See! Our stories are exactly the same right? What? How can you not believe us if we had the same story? I swear it was a racoon!” Tammy was howling in the kitchen. “I’ll knock your block off I swear to god!”

“No…Not you momma! It’s Tammy she’s being a little jerk.”

Her mother pointed to her room and held out her hand for her car keys…a sure sign of a long grounding.

“It’s not fair…wait! What do you mean he said it was a skunk? That IDIOT it was supposed to be a rac…oops.” Tammy was making raspberry noises from the kitchen now.

She started up the stairs…defeated, to a chorus of ‘liar liar pants on fire’ from Tammy. “You’re gonna get it.” she hissed at her sister.

The Girl On The Steps

In a different life, I’d still know her. We would have gone to Kindergarten together, had the run of the neighborhood when we were old enough, Andrew Jackson High School; maybe Queens college.

I started off with a picket fence, little brick house, type of existence. The picture was from 1961…the fifties really, because the fifties didn’t end until Kennedy was shot. It was still a post war American exceptionalism type of world. There was no question of America’s greatness. The evidence was all around us, working class folks, all owning beautiful little homes with beautiful little lawns in a beautiful little neighborhood in the greatest city on earth. Vietnam had not yet taken the piss out of us as the Brits like to say. There was a lot of piss to take out. Still is.

Ours could have been any neighborhood in any Norman Rockwell inspired movie. Boy played by Jimmy Stewart. Girl played by June Allyson. Fetchingly normal…all in our little ecosystem within the larger confines of the great city that was the capital of the western world. In that movie, she was the girl next door.

I have several old family pictures of us together…the adults thought we were adorable. She must have some too. I wonder if her life stayed together better than mine…I hope so. If not, I hope it came back together like mine. I can’t say I miss her…I can barely remember. But I miss the idea of her. I wonder if she misses the idea of me.

Doon

Memories are more than just recalled thoughts that flow through our brains.  The memories also evoke feelings, and can even excite the same senses.  For instance, you can still smell the coffee brewing each morning in your grandparents kitchen.  Something like that.

In 1965,  I was a seven year old city kid from Queens, NYC.  I knew nothing but pavement, subways, buses, crowded streets, cramped apartments, and Cunningham and Central Parks.  You think of the midwest as flyover country.  But if you have eyes, and senses and the openness of a young child,  it is a place, like many others, that can explode your horizons.

It started with my first plane trips;  leaving out of of the iconic TWA terminal at JFK,  then a sleek 707 to Chicago, followed by a wingover turboprop in Ozark Airlines livery.  The Ozark flight was the more interesting of the two.  It operated much like airlines did in the thirties…hop-scotching across the country from one small/big midwestern town to another.  Land. Taxi to a small terminal with people waiting on the tarmac.  Drop off some passengers, pick up some more.  Over and over until it was our time to be dropped off in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Sioux Falls was the big town.  I had not seen Doon yet, a tiny town in Iowa that was fully self sufficient.  Bank,  grocery, hardware,  luncheonette,  gas station, and of course the standard midwestern town park.  Shady,  with swings and a baseball diamond.

A few miles outside of Doon lay the farm of my second cousins Dot and Ike.  And it was here that my horizons expanded.  I learned to ride a bike here,  I learned to ride a horse here (I was also stepped on by a horse here), I learned to swim here,  and I saw what it took to put food on all of our tables.

We had fun, but we also did chores.  We were not there as laborers but Dot and Ike were solid parents.  They believed that daily chores were important to a child’s upbringing.  And so we put away hay, and cleaned stalls,  and fed the animals.  It was a small farm, only 44 acres as I recall.  but to me it was like a universe.  And when we had free time,  which was most of the time,  we wandered its woods, and its streams and its ponds.

I was too young to make anything out of it other than it was fun and that New York now felted stifling and confining.   And I am only now understanding how it impacted me.  I need space.  I am now an accidental Midwesterner.  I am also at heart a Southerner.  I reject the labels that are put on both places by those with smaller horizons and closed minds.  Over my young years my mother piled on more and more of these type of experiences,  and they always involved space, and they always involved the outdoors.

Post Script:

I travelled there with my Great Aunt and another distance cousin.  I have been reading a history of my family from both geanological and historical records.  I got sent down this path after reading ‘Evangeline’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  We called my great aunt “Vange”.  I always thought it a strange name but that is normal in our family.  Looking at some census records I just saw that her actual name is “Evangeline”.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

Dad

I liked the darkness.  The smell of sawdust from the game table.  Blue or magenta glowing lights back-lit a wall of liquor bottles.  Rough women and rougher men. No one wanted to talk to a kid. They had serious drinking to do and the world’s problems to solve. I had to entertain myself.  There was always a TV with a ballgame on if all else failed.

On days with my father,  we went to the Worlds Fair.  We went to the beach.  We went to his job driving a city bus.  But the days always ended the same way;  sitting in a bar where he drank himself stupid before driving me home in that Chevy Bel Air station wagon.

On bonus days,  where I was just being babysat,  I could stay at the home of some woman he was shacking up with.  Once,  staying at one of these places, I was bored and made some friends with the local kids.  Older, they encouraged me to throw a rock at some other boy.  I opened up his forehead.  Everyone split and I remember the kids mother complaining to my father.  The was the last time I saw my father and when I was a little boy I assumed it was because I had been bad and thrown a rock at a boy.

I still have a hat that he bought me from the NY Worlds Fair.  He had my name embroidered on it.  He spelled it wrong.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved