Country Sketches: Grandview School, 1967-1968
My poor sixth-grade teacher wasn’t pleased when he noticed me holding hands with a Mexican girl in the bus on our way to the city library. He marched back through our classmates to where we were sitting and told us to stop. By his expression and tone, I knew what was bothering him. He had seen boys and girls holding hands before without becoming upset. What he didn’t like was that the girl and I weren’t both Mexicans, or both, as he saw it, white. The sad part is, we were just giggling and having fun. But by ordering us to let go of each other’s hand, a fleeting, innocent moment was transformed into something it should not have been, and burned into my memory forever. . . .
One day, the teacher became involved in an impromptu spitting contest between several of the sixth-grade boys. Caught up in the excitement, he had us line up along the walk near the front of the school and take our turns. I don’t remember who won, but I do remember who lost. It was the same physically slow boy who always lost, and who was forever striving to prove himself to the rest of us. After using a big wind-up that involved hunching his shoulders and swinging his arms, his effort dribbled down his chin and onto his shirt. . . .
The school was bordered by vineyard on the north, east, and south sides. Road 64 ran by it on the west side, and beyond that was more vineyard. The playground was a lumpy expanse of bermuda grass that occupied several acres, with a ball diamond and backstop at the southwest corner. There were gravelly basketball courts near the road, graciously provided by the taxpayers so we could skin our knees. One afternoon, a school bus from the nearby town of Traver pulled into the parking area, and a bunch of mean-looking kids spilled onto the basketball court, ready for the “big game.” It was brutal. Blood was running down our shins, and kid-spectators from Traver threw gravel at the Grandview boys from the sidelines as we raced frantically up and down the court. Traver won, 16-14. . . .
I was never sure whether I should believe an Armenian buddy of mine when he told me that a rather “forward” Mexican girl in our class had lured him behind the backstop one day after school, quickly removed her clothes, and said, “Why don’t you take yours off and we’ll have some fun?” It seemed unlikely, though the girl was probably crazy enough and reckless enough to try such a thing. She was also on the ugly side and well known, but not exactly popular. Other than that one episode, at least as far as I know, the backstop was used in a more wholesome manner. Wisely, the principal and his staff had arranged for each day to end with recess. In the early fall and then again during the spring, baseball was the game of choice. The kids screamed and laughed with delight and the competition was great fun. Then, during cooler weather, we played football and basketball. The football area was so big and the ground so bumpy from gopher mounds that it felt like we were playing in a pasture. I still remember making another buddy of mine mad at the beginning of one game, after we had won the coin-toss and I elected to kick the ball away rather than receive. In a loud voice, he confronted me with my stupidity. But it was too late. The decision was made. We kicked, and after two or three plays, the other team scored a touchdown. I was embarrassed and ashamed, and didn’t have the nerve to explain my choice. I had been reading a lot of sports stories at the time, and in one heroic game I read about, the team captain had won the toss and chosen to kick. It seemed like a brave and noble thing to do. His team won the championship in the end, and the captain was carried off the field on the team’s shoulders. It’s a little late to bring it up now, but that’s what I was thinking about when I decided to kick. . . .
Toward the end of the school year, with summer already exerting itself on our young raging bodies and on the land, the sixth-grade boys spent the night camping at Hume Lake, a former logging puddle situated amongst giant Sequoias in the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains east of town. Our teacher was there, along with my father and the father of the boy who had scolded me for being a lousy football captain. As it happened, my father’s Uncle Archie was staying at our house for a couple of days, so he went too. Uncle Archie was a cigar-smoking comedian and storyteller with one of the loudest voices I’ve ever heard — an adult child who was a painter and poet with a gift for entertaining every bit as wonderful as the great Jackie Gleason or Charlie Chaplin, but much more fun because he was “ours,” and because we always had front row seats. We packed our gear, which consisted of one large tent for the boys, a sleeping bag apiece, several ice chests full of food, cast iron frying pans, wood, and a coffee pot. A German boy who lived not far from school on Avenue 400 tried to bring a gallon jug of fresh, warm milk from one of his cows, but the milk smelled horrible so we wouldn’t let him. Once we had set up camp, Uncle Archie was in seventh heaven, and as excited as the rest of the boys. He kept us up half the night telling stories in a voice loud enough to keep the bears away, and had our teacher convulsed with laughter and with tears in his eyes. Then, at about four in the morning, he came in and woke us up, saying he didn’t want us to miss the best part of the day. The men had spent the remainder of the night under the stars, slipping down a hill strewn with pine needles in their sleeping bags. They got a fire going. After it had burned down, Uncle Archie and my father started frying bacon, each in his own pan. Archie, not known for his patience, kept taking out his slices before they were done. My father’s, meanwhile, were perfect. While Archie roared that the worst thing in the world was bacon that was overdone, a line of eager, hungry boys formed behind my father. The vote was in. The people had decided. . . .
While in the sixth grade, I was also given a dented trumpet by the district’s traveling music teacher — not because I had asked him to or because he wore black-rimmed glasses and a flat-top, but because trumpets were the only thing available. I quickly caught on, and discovered I had a knack for trumpet playing that made it possible for me not to practice and still earn perfect scores on our weekly lessons. At the same time, I truly hated the thing and found it offensive, because I was expected to play idiotic marches instead of something Herb Alpertesque like “A Taste of Honey.” And so I faced my first creative crisis — that of being torn between my natural musical ability and the senseless demands of others. Under the circumstances, I did what any self-respecting artist would do. I returned to the piano. . . .
To celebrate the end of the school year, the sixth-grade class was invited to a swim party at the German boy’s house. This time, thank goodness, milk wasn’t mentioned. To heighten the adventure, those of us who usually rode the bus to school in the morning rode our bicycles instead. Then, when school was out, we continued on our bikes to the party. Everyone was excited but me. I knew how to swim, but never really felt at home in the water. I felt in water as I imagine a fish would feel when it is first hauled into a boat — as if I would survive, but in a diminished capacity that is less than ideal and in fact truly frightening. Another disturbing aspect of the whole affair was that we would need to take off our clothes and put on our swimming trunks before jumping into the water. I dreaded this, owing to some perfectly natural physical changes I was undergoing at the time, and which, I soon came to learn, had yet to overtake many of my friends. Several of us were crowded into a dressing room when one exclaimed, “God, you have hair!” as if I had just arrived from another planet — as, in a strange sense, I suppose I had. It was an awkward moment, sad and difficult and troubling. But I lived through it, sustained, as always, by arrogance and pride, as well as the sudden realization that I was being envied, not scorned.
April 26, 2005
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