Posts Tagged ‘School’

The expression “May you live in interesting times” supposedly is an old Chinese curse. It’s considered a polite way of wishing someone ill, owing to the fact that interesting times usually involve strife and unpleasantness.

For America, “interesting times” accurately describes the entire decade of the 1960s. And in my case, it started with a bang.

In January 1961, when I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, a major brouhaha erupted in Athens when UGA was ordered by a federal judge to enroll its first black students. I wrote about that in some detail here.

A lesser brouhaha, one that barely made the national news, occurred in Athens not long after that. I’m referring to a series of protest marches to desegregate a popular local restaurant.

The restaurant was the Varsity, a beloved fast-food joint that had been an Athens institution since 1932. Owing to the time and place, it was open to whites only. A bit of background to set the stage.

In 1928, businessman Frank Gordy opened the original Varsity drive-in near the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta. The business was an immediate success. The day he opened, Gordy had 300 customers. By the end of the 1930s — a Depression economy, mind you — Gordy was a millionaire.

It’s the burgers, the chili dogs, and the fries, people. Varsity food is fast food, not health food by any stretch, but it tastes great. And, incredibly, it tastes exactly the same today as it did when I had my first meal there in 1960.


In 1932, Gordy opened a Varsity in Athens. It was located downtown, across the street from the UGA campus.



It remained there until 1962, when a larger building with loads of parking was built on Atlanta Highway. That location is still in operation today.


The closing of the beloved downtown Varsity was traumatic, and it took a while for Athenians to warm to the new location. But they did, and the Varsity has remained popular with students and townies through the years.

The desegregation of the University in 1961 prompted the black community to address the irksome fact that the Varsity did not allow black customers in the restaurant. Ironically, most of the employees were black.

In my student days, it never registered with me that the Varsity was white only. Yes, the place was a sea of white faces, but Athens was a college town in the 1960s, perpetually awash in white faces.

I was a liberal Democrat then as now, and I agreed that admitting black students to the University was the right thing to do. But in other ways, I was just an oblivious white kid.

Not until years later did I learn that the downtown Varsity only served African-Americans through a walk-up window on the sidewalk.

The new Varsity on Atlanta Highway didn’t even have a walk-up window.

In 1963, taking a cue from the successful lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina, Athens civil rights activists began marching on the Varsity in protest. Sometimes the marches were peaceful, sometimes they weren’t.

Protesters regularly were arrested and hauled away, but the city usually released them immediately. Prisoners in jail have to be fed, clothed, and looked after. That costs money.

Reportedly, the largest and most contentious march happened in the spring of 1964. And, yes, I was there to see the fireworks.

At the time, I was a senior, set to graduate in June. Everyone knew about the protest marches, and we had heard talk that the Varsity management was weakening, fearing that the negative publicity would affect business. That would never do.

That spring evening, a friend said he heard that the KKK had arrived at the Varsity to protest the protesters. Immediately, we went to see for ourselves.

We arrived just after dark. The black marchers had gathered under the trees on the south side of the building. Between the protesters and the south entrance stood 15 or 20 Klansmen in white robes and pointy hats. Only a few wore hoods that covered their faces.

Earlier, heated words were exchanged and a few bricks were thrown, but the police had made no arrests. Everyone — protesters, Klansmen, cops, and onlookers — stood around more or less quietly, waiting for what came next. The mood was calm, but tense.

I guess it was tense enough to make me thirsty, because I excused my way through the line of Klansmen and went inside to get a drink from the water fountain. No problem, I’m white.

As I passed them, one Klansman pulled back his robe to reveal a holstered pistol on his hip, as if to say: look here, boy, I got me a gun.

I was genuinely embarrassed for the guy. Personally, I think being a Klansman identifies you as a mental midget and a detriment to society. Being a Klansman who flaunts a weapon to a passing teenager further identifies you as an obnoxious jerk.

Somehow, the situation that night remained calm. The protesters occasionally chanted, and the KKK guys watched in silence. Then the protesters walked in single file back to a nearby church, where the march began. Then the Klansmen left, then the police, then the onlookers. The Varsity was back to normal.

A month or so later, I graduated from UGA and left Athens to begin a new adventure in the Air Force in exotic New Mexico. The Athens Varsity was rarely in my thoughts.

But, indeed, not long after I departed, the restaurant saw the error of its ways and opened its doors to all paying customers, regardless of skin tone.

Nowadays, when I stop there for a chili dog fix, I observe that most of the employees are either black or Hispanic, and of the customers, a few black faces might be peppered among the white.

But in truth, the Varsity never became a big thing for black people in Athens. Maybe they don’t like the food.

No matter. What counts is they have the choice.



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(My report on The Village Idiot, a short-lived humor magazine at the University of Georgia in 1964, continues herewith.)

In 1956, Patti Carruthers graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Education. (I looked it up on the Google.) After teaching for a time in Missouri, she moved to Hollywood, where she worked as a substitute at a junior high school. Her salary was $550 per month.

In 1959, at age 24, Patti Carruthers accepted an offer of $1,000 a week to become a stripper at Hollywood’s Moulin Rouge. She took the stage name Patti White.

“I miss teaching because I love boys and girls,” she said in an interview at the time. “But this is a great switch, getting up late and sleeping late.”

Miss White, who measured 37-22-36, said she was glad she made the career change because “the traveling involved is so educational.” But, she added, stripping was just a stepping stone. She aspired to be an actress.

“Now I can afford acting lessons, singing lessons, and dancing lessons,” she said.

By 1961, due to circumstances I was unable to ascertain, Patti White was working as a stripper at the Domino Lounge in Atlanta.


Promo flyer from the Domino Lounge, 1961.

And it was there that the editorial staff of the Athens magazine The Village Idiot (see my previous post) interviewed her…


Q & A

An Interview With Miss Patti White in Which She Exposes All

NOTE: This story was so important to our first issue that we decided not to entrust it to one reporter. Miss White’s tale, we reasoned, required the attention of our whole staff. So off we went to Atlanta and THE DOMINO, where the following conversation occurred.

Q. (By the staff) May we buy you a drink, Miss White?

A. No, thanks, boys. I don’t drink. Well, maybe just… you know. But, please be my guests. I feel I owe you a great deal, you know.

Q. Aw, you don’t owe us nothing, Patti. (Double scotch, waitress.) (A double CC, ginger chaser, doll.) (I’d just like a whiskey sour, please.)

A. But I do owe you something. Anything I can do, please ask.

Q. Well, now… (Shut up!)

A. I mean, really. After all, it’s not every day a girl gets to be the Village Idiot. I mean, I’ve just never been an idiot before, you know?

Q. Great sense of humor there, Patti. Great, just great. (Another Scotch, please.)

A. Now, boys, tell me about your publication. I’ve always been interested in books and things like that. You know, I’ve been thinking that someday I might go back to teaching again. Or maybe I’ll open a string of Patti White clubs. I mean, after all, why not? Playboy has its rabbits springing up everywhere, so why not me?

Q. Do you mean you’ll have white rabbits? Ha-ha. (Write that down.) (Yeah, we may have to use it.) All right to order another round, Patti?

A. Sure, boys. I get a discount. But let me tell you my idea. See, the Patti White clubs would have all these darling little waitresses — all young and beautiful and eager to serve, and guess what they’d be wearing!

Q. A happy face? (Scotch on the rocks.)

A. No, silly. You’re pulling my leg.

Q. (Pregnant pause while the Idiot staff grins.)

A. Now, in my club, the girls would be first class. They’d wear mortar boards and cute little shorty gowns. Wouldn’t that be clever?

Q. Sure it would. (Yeah, they could take orders on cute little blackboards.) (In chalk.)

A. Oh, that’s a wonderful idea. I ought to have you boys help me, you’re so clever.

Q. That calls for a drink, right Patti?

A. Right! And I’m buying. After all, a person in my position shouldn’t risk getting on the wrong side of the press.

Q. Speaking of blackboards and chalk, Patti, how did you happen to quit teaching and become a stripper?

A. Oh, I’m not really a stripper. I mean, well, I take off my clothes and all, but when I’m up there, I still feel like a teacher, you know?

Q. We’ll have to admit, it’s a revelation.

A. You see, I was really a dedicated teacher. I tried everything I knew to get across to my students, and I think, I mean I really do, that I must have been pretty popular with the boys at Sun Valley School. I mean, I could tell. hey would watch me very carefully, no matter what I was doing. But then, the administration began to watch, too.

Q. And what did they think?

A. Well, I think they looked pretty hard at me, too. But it wasn’t my fault I was a healthy girl. Why, ever since I was 14, I could pass for a… well, you know what I mean.

Q. Yes, ma’am, we know. (I can understand how you’d have trouble with the administration.) (Another Scotch, please.)

A. Well, the whole trouble was in the way I dressed. Do you see anything wrong with the way I’m dressed?

Q. No, ma’am.

A. So, either my clothes had to go, or I had to go.

Q. So, both of you went, huh? (Tragic loss to Sun Valley.) (Another example of inept administration.)

A. I keep hoping that someday, I’ll find a principal who’d like to have me.

Q. Well, now, I’m sure there must be many. (That brings up the big question, Patti.) (Anybody want another drink?)

A. Order up, boys. I have to perform in a minute. Say, you boys are pretty clever. I wish you’d tell me what you think of the act.

Q. I’d be glad to tell you. (Uh, the big question, remember?) Oh, yes. Patti, do you think a college degree is a liability or an asset?

A. Well, in my case…

Q. Thank you, Miss White.

A. I didn’t finish. You see, after college, I went into teaching. Now, the California system doesn’t pay too badly, but teaching doesn’t pay enough for what the administration wants you to do. Sometimes, I could hardly make out. But what was a liability in teaching turned out to be an asset in show business, and now I make up to a thousand a week.

Q. A thousand a week?

A. Oh, yes. I mean, well, I work very hard. Twice a night, six times a week.

Q. Wow! Miss White, we of the staff salute you. Now, gentlemen, let us quaff a final toast — one more, Patti? — to Patti White, the Idiot’s Delight.




The Patti White interview no doubt was the pride of The Village Idiot staff. They probably thought the story would make The VI an overnight sensation.

For all I know, it did. I didn’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of Athens in those days.

In truth, I was just an anonymous 20-year-old, no car, chronically broke, a guy with Buddy Holly glasses and a flat-top haircut. My chief interests, beyond keeping my grades respectable, were observing females and conspiring to get alcohol.

In other words, The Village Idiot easily could have been the toast of Athens that year without my knowledge.

Anyway, that’s the story of The Village Idiot. If you know what became of the magazine, the people who created it, or, for that matter, the lovely Patti White, fill me in.


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In January 1964, during my senior year at the University of Georgia, a “provocative variety magazine for University students” made its debut in Athens. It was The Village Idiot.


An editorial said it would be a monthly publication similar in concept to such college humor magazines as The Harvard Lampoon and The Florida Orange Peel. To set the tone, the VI featured this depiction of the Idiot himself.


Note his lapel button, which is a slap at The Red & Black, the longtime University-approved student newspaper.

Volume One, Number One of the VI consisted of 32 mostly black-and-white pages plus a two-color cover. Inside was a mixture of articles, cartoons, and short fiction. Much of the content, if you’ll permit me to be frank, was forgettable. Still, several things stood out.

First, no Volume One, Number Two ever materialized, to my knowledge. And I don’t think I simply missed it. More likely, the people who conceived The VI (students, I assume) simply walked away. The Dublin musicians in the movie The Commitments come to mind.

Second, for a modest startup, the staff did a good job of selling ads. Scattered through the publication are two dozen display ads by respectable Athens businesses of the day — restaurants, clothing stores, drug stores, news stands. Making those sales took some skills.


Third, even though the writing isn’t as funny/thoughtful/compelling as the staff probably thought it was, some of the stories have their moments.

There is, for example, “Requiem,” a nice remembrance of the Old South Tavern, a beloved Athens beer joint. The Old South was a local institution for two decades until, over the 1963 Christmas holidays, it abruptly closed, causing widespread anguish.

I was among the anguishees. I wrote about the Old South, its mystique, and what it meant to the students of UGA in this post in 2016.

Here is the story from The VI.



By William Straightarrow


There was no epitaph, no word of explanation: there was only a crude sign, “CLOSED FOR CHRISTMAS.” I sat on the curb outside and watched the line of students step up to the door. A rattle of the glass and a long perplexed stare at the marker provided the prelude for a chain of oaths.

The Old South was dead. Athens’ most famous beer hall has passed into history without even the fading scent of magnolias. There were no street demonstrations by the D.A.R. The Athens Historical Society had not even proposed a marker. The local temperance league commemorated the event with a wild party that ended with everyone getting stoned on the communion wine.

But the Old South Tavern was just as much one of Athens’ institutions as Henry Grady’s home, the first garden club, Crawford Long’s ether-filled handkerchief, and Effie’s.

(Ed. note: Effie’s was an Athens brothel that operated for nearly 50 years before the law finally shut it down in 1974.)

“Closed for Christmas,” locked tighter than the lace on a preacher’s daughter.

Why so much concern for a beer joint? The question is unanswerable. It’s like standing on the corner and gazing at girls, or shooting pool for a round of beer, water-battling on a warm spring afternoon, listening to a forgotten tune on a raspy radio late at night. Nostalgia is a cheap and childish emotion, but we are all guilty.

The history of the Old South is linked directly to Athens and the University. Stories of its past reek with the distinct, often offensive odor of the brew it dispensed. At the same time, the Old South was not offensive.

“They were perfect gentlemen… drunk or sober,” recalls Miss Lula Blakey, who worked in the Old South from its beginning in 1946. She had been everything to the establishment: busboy, barmaid, waitress, cashier and occasionally ex-officio manager.

“I just can’t sleep since they closed this place,” she says when recalling the happy hours she spent in the tavern. Reaching back into the foamy past, she recalls the many Homecoming Weekends which always meant “elbow room only at the horseshoe bar and rickety booths. The boys brought in such pretty girls with such pretty flowers… and they’d just be so drunk.”

Miss Lula had an added role at the Old South — confessor for the myriad characters who needed someone to listen to their woes. She’s probably patched up more engagements than anyone around.

Few people in school now can remember when the tavern gained a wide reputation as some sort of fairyland without frills. A few fraternity men would still come in for a quick beer and a hamburger, but public opinion had indicted the clientele, thus the reputation of the Old South.

The well-known haven of hops was dominated in those days by limp-wristed leftovers from Greenwich Village. Such sensual sipping and intellectual intercourse had long since found another haven before we first learned to chug-a-lug and eat hard-boiled eggs.

University alumni always used to come back to the old malt emporium as if it were some fraternity lodge. Miss Lula seldom forgot a name of a former regular customer. She could spot them in spite of physical changes. Some were broader; some lacked hair; all were older.

“Everyone would come back on football weekends — already drunk — and stay up all night raising all kinds of hell.”

“The brotherhood” had its peculiar “grip” — a hand extended to receive a frosty mug or some luscious little lass.

“Nobody ever drank us dry,” said Mangleburg, the Old South’s third owner since it opened. Customers would drain about 10 kegs of beer a week, but the draught just never really caught on. “We sold about 3,000 mugs a week, but four times as many cans.”

A good weekend would put $800 or $900 into the till. The personality of the dim hall kept the taps flowing. Nowhere in Athens could you find the same kind of atmosphere that hovered in the Old South.

Stories about the Old South are as numerous as the names carved in the booths. Most of the tales are attributed to Miss Lula and Chuck Cain, who managed the tavern for several years.

One afternoon, a strapling jock-type lumbered into the door carrying an overloaded armful of mugs. “I’m graduating next week, and I thought maybe you might like your glasses back,” he explained.

Chuck’s face was stern as he raised hell with the boy for stealing the mugs. “Well, if you’re gonna be so damn mean, I ain’t gonna bring the rest of ’em back,” was the embarrassing reply.

An unusually busy evening resulted in a shortage of mugs and soon a complete lack of them. Chuck bristled his feathers and steamed. He watched several fellows return from the head without their mugs. He found his entire stock of mugs stacked neatly in a closet which stored other items more directly associated with rest rooms.

Chuck fathered the Old South inspiration and furthered its relations with the students. Just as Miss Lula played housemother, Chuck was a natural big-brother type. He had a glibness about him which was excelled only by his knack of knowing when to use it. After closing, Chuck often bought a case of beer and went out “drinking with the boys.”

Chuck made the Old South hamburgers famous, preparing them with an undisclosed technique of his own. Miss Lula says the hot dogs have kept many boys in school. A few of the regulars used to be able to get credit on food bills.

One of the most famous (and popular) features of the Old South was its bathroom. Its decor was early American outhouse, but necessity overlooks much. Drunks found pleasure in knocking holes in the wall, ripping off plaster, and generally contributing to its character. The commode was busted, and the floor received its share of punishment… not always with city water.

Ah, but the art work. Sheer genius. Not including a local female directory, there are the complete works of Kilroy, Zorro, Melvin Ford, Anonymous. The proper poems for an occasion, the profound thoughts of deep meditation were constantly being replenished. Outstanding revelations of our time startled the wandering eye. Best known is the inscription, “God picks his nose.”

So another tradition falls without a protest. No mention of the death in the newspapers, no Society for the Restoration and Preservation of the Old South, no SOS movement. No one seems to want to save the Old South.

Mangleburg says he is trying to find someone to operate the place. Rent is very high for the location, high overhead, various notes on equipment are discouraging for operators. Perhaps our favorite oracle is doomed. We can only hope that the South will Rise Again!


“Requiem” celebrated a colorful local joint that was remembered fondly by multitudes of UGA students. Considering the abrupt closing of the Old South, the story probably was a last-minute addition to the magazine. The article is a bit rough, a bit lacking in places, but still a solid effort.

In my next post, another noteworthy article from the first and perhaps only edition of The Village Idiot: an interview with Miss Patti White, an exotic dancer at the Domino Lounge in Atlanta.




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In 2006, during high school volleyball competition in North Carolina, a kid named Dana Griffin set a record (as far as I can determine) by serving 48 consecutive points.

That’s 48 straight points while serving, not points scored during play. He did it over the course of three games won by his team 25-0, 25-1, and 25-6.

Impressive, yes, with the caveat that in any sport, fantastic streaks happen only at the lower levels. In college and the pros, the talent is too good to allow it.

I mention this because young Dana’s record of 48 points may not last much longer. Don’t be surprised to see it broken by Maddie “Mad Dog” Smith of Jefferson, Georgia.

At age 12, my granddaughter Maddie is a volleyball phenom in the making. On the court, she is steady and effective. She understands the game, plays smart, and gets better every day.

Three years ago, she started playing on a team at the Jefferson Recreation Center, and it quickly became apparent that volleyball is her sport. Today, she plays for her middle school team in the fall, and she plays “club volleyball” in the winter.

Her winter team, Lanier Volleyball Club, is affiliated with the Junior Olympics organization, which prepares girls 10-18 to play in college. Maddie and her teammates are serious, dedicated, and surprisingly good. Many of them, including Maddie, also take private lessons.

Last weekend, Lanier participated in a regional tournament featuring a dozen clubs from around Northeast Georgia. The entourage of parents, grandparents, and other supporters packed the stands, and the noise level was high.

Saturday morning, Lanier won its first game and lost the second. As the tie-breaker was about to get underway, I moved to a spot on the sidelines to take photos. Sports photography isn’t my thing, but I take so many photos that some are always worth keeping.

As I watched the girls practice, a man and woman in their 40s arrived, got settled nearby, and nodded a greeting.

“Our daughter plays for Fayetteville,” the woman said. She pointed at one of the players. “That’s her, number 11. Where is the other team from?”

“Gainesville,” I told her. “My granddaughter is number 16.”

The three of us chatted for a few minutes about the girls, the gym, the weather, and what-not. Then the teams took their positions, and the game began.

Fayetteville served first, and the ball was out of bounds. Lanier was ahead 1-0.

Maddie, who has a killer serve and is the designated opener, approached the line.

She served, and the ball dropped neatly between two defenders. Lanier 2-0.

She served again with the same result. 3-0.

“My goodness,” said the lady from Fayetteville.

Maddie proceeded to serve and score another 12 points straight. Some serves were returned, and several volleys occurred, but each time, Lanier managed to score and retain the serve.

In the end, Lanier won the tie-breaker 15-0. Maddie had served 14 consecutive points.

The couple from Fayetteville walked away without speaking. Maybe they had to be somewhere.

Serving 14 straight was just the beginning. During the next round, Maddie extended her streak by scoring another 24 points in a row. In all, 38 consecutive points served.

After the games, when I rejoined my relatives and the contingent of Lanier supporters in the stands, everyone was abuzz about Maddie’s scoring streak.

“I’ve been around volleyball for years,” said one parent. “I never heard of anyone scoring 38 straight points.”

No, Maddie doesn’t deliver that kind of performance every time. She has served 10 or 15 straight a few times, but never more than that.

And, like all the girls, she has occasional bad days. In fact, later that afternoon, Lanier lost twice and finished the tournament in third place. They were bummed.

As you can tell, I’m proud of my granddaughter and her accomplishments at such a tender age. She has genuine talent and the support she needs to strengthen it. For me, it’s a joy to watch.

Next year will be Maddie’s final year in middle school, but she probably won’t play there. Jefferson High School plans to invite the more promising middle-schoolers to play on the JHS junior varsity team, and Maddie is a prime candidate.

Last weekend, the volleyball coach from the high school came to the tournament to assess the play of Maddie and the other Jefferson girls.

Mad Dog picked the right time to show her stuff.





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This being Mr. Write’s Page, I often post stories about words, wordplay, puns, and other interesting uses of the English language. No big surprise there.

But honestly, if the goal is using English artfully and correctly, then highlighting fractured English can be just as informative a method, and often a more entertaining one, in pursuit of that goal.

Richard Lederer is a teacher, author, and syndicated columnist, mostly about language and history, mostly from a humorous standpoint. He has written 50 books, including the best-selling “Anguished English” series. This is a guy who has been named “International Punster of the Year.”

His article below, which has bounced around the internet for some time, is self-explanatory.


The World According to Student Bloopers

By Richard Lederer

One of the fringe benefits of being an English or History teacher is receiving the occasional jewel of a student blooper in an essay. I have pasted together the following “history” of the world from certifiably genuine student bloopers collected by teachers throughout the United States, from eight grade through college level.

Read carefully, and you will learn a lot…

The inhabitants of Egypt were called mummies. They lived in the Sarah Dessert and traveled by Camelot. The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere, so certain areas of the dessert are cultivated by irritation.

The Egyptians built the Pyramids in the shape of a huge triangular cube.

The Pyramids are a range of mountains between France and Spain.

The Bible is full of interesting caricatures. In the first book of the Bible, Guinesses, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, asked “Am I my brother’s son?” God asked Abraham to sacrifice Issac on Mount Montezuma.

Jacob, son of Issac, stole his brother’s birthmark. Jacob was a partiarch who brought up his twelve sons to be partiarchs, but they did not take to it. One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, gave refuse to the Israelites.

Pharaoh forced the Hebrew slaves to make bread without straw. Moses led them to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread, which is bread made without any ingredients. Afterwards, Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten commandments.

David was a Hebrew king skilled at playing the liar. He fought with the Philatelists, a race of people who lived in Biblical times. Solomon, one of David’s sons, had 500 wives and 500 porcupines.

Without the Greeks, we wouldn’t have history. The Greeks invented three kinds of columns — Corinthian, Doric and Ironic. They also had myths. A myth is a female moth. One myth says that the mother of Achilles dipped him in the River Stynx until he became intolerable.

Achilles appears in “The Illiad”, by Homer. Homer also wrote the “Oddity”, in which Penelope was the last hardship that Ulysses endured on his journey. Actually, Homer was not written by Homer but by another man of that name.

Socrates was a famous Greek teacher who went around giving people advice. They killed him. Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.

In the Olympic Games, Greeks ran races, jumped, hurled the biscuits, and threw the java. The reward to the victor was a coral wreath. The government of Athen was democratic because the people took the law into their own hands.

There were no wars in Greece, as the mountains were so high that they couldn’t climb over to see what their neighbors were doing. When they fought the Parisians, the Greeks were outnumbered because the Persians had more men. Eventually, the Ramons conquered the Geeks.

History calls people Romans because they never stayed in one place for very long. At Roman banquets, the guests wore garlic in their hair.

Julius Caesar extinguished himself on the battlefields of Gaul. The Ides of March killed him because they thought he was going to be made king. Nero was a cruel tyrany who would torture his poor subjects by playing the fiddle to them.

Then came the Middle Ages. King Alfred conquered the Dames, King Arthur lived in the Age of Shivery, King Harlod mustarded his troops before the Battle of Hastings, Joan of Arc was cannonized by George Bernard Shaw, and the victims of the Black Death grew boobs on their necks. Finally, the Magna Carta provided that no free man should be hanged twice for the same offense.

In midevil times most of the people were alliterate. The greatest writer of the time was Chaucer, who wrote many poems and verse and also wrote literature. Another tale tells of William Tell, who shot an arrow through an apple while standing on his son’s head.

The Renaissance was an age in which more individuals felt the value of their human being. Martin Luther was nailed to the church door at Wittenberg for selling papal indulgences. He died a horrible death, being excommunicated by a bull.

It was the painter Donatello’s interest in the female nude that made him the father of the Renaissance. It was an age of great inventions and discoveries. Gutenberg invented the Bible. Sir Walter Raleigh is a historical figure because he invented cigarettes. Another important invention was the circulation of blood. Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.

The government of England was a limited mockery. Henry VIII found walking difficult because he had an abbess on his knee. Queen Elizabeth was the “Virgin Queen.” As a queen she was a success. When Elizabeth exposed herself before her troops, they all shouted “hurrah.” Then her navy went out and defeated the Spanish Armadillo.

The greatest writer of the Renaissance was William Shakespear. Shakespear never made much money and is famous only because of his plays. He lived in Windsor with his merry wives, writing tragedies, comedies and errors. In one of Shakespear’s famous plays, Hamlet rations out his situation by relieving himself in a long soliloquy. In another, Lady Macbeth tries to convince Macbeth to kill the King by attacking his manhood.

Romeo and Juliet are an example of a heroic couplet. Writing at the same time as Shakespear was Miquel Cervantes. He wrote “Donkey Hote”. The next great author was John Milton. Milton wrote “Paradise Lost.” Then his wife died and he wrote “Paradise Regained.”

During the Renaissance America began. Christopher Columbus was a great navigator who discovered America while cursing about the Atlantic. His ships were called the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Fe. Later the Pilgrims crossed the Ocean, and that was called the Pilgrim’s Progress. When they landed at Plymouth Rock, they were greeted by Indians, who came down the hill rolling their war hoops before them.

The Indian squabs carried porposies on their back. Many of the Indian heroes were killed, along with their cabooses, which proved very fatal to them. The winter of 1620 was a hard one for the settlers. Many people died and many babies were born. Captain John Smith was responsible for all this.

One of the causes of the Revolutionary Wars was the English put tacks in their tea. Also, the colonists would send their parcels through the post without stamps. During the War, Red Coats and Paul Revere was throwing balls over stone walls. The dogs were barking and the peacocks crowing. Finally, the colonists won the War and no longer had to pay for taxis.

Delegates from the original thirteen states formed the Contented Congress. Thomas Jefferson, a Virgin, and Benjamin Franklin were two singers of the Declaration of Independence. Franklin had gone to Boston carrying all his clothes in his pocket and a loaf of bread under each arm. He invented electricity by rubbing cats backwards and declared “a horse divided against itself cannot stand.” Franklin died in 1790 and is still dead.

George Washington married Matha Curtis and in due time became the Father of Our Country. Then the Constitution of the United States was adopted to secure domestic hostility. Under the Constitution the people enjoyed the right to keep bare arms.

Abraham Lincoln became America’s greatest Precedent. Lincoln’s mother died in infancy, and he was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands. When Lincoln was President, he wore only a tall silk hat. He said, “In onion there is strength.”

Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope. He also signed the Emasculation Proclamation, and the Fourteenth Amendment gave the ex-Negroes citizenship. But the Clue Clux Clan would torcher and lynch the ex-Negroes and other innocent victims.

On the night of April 14, 1865, Lincoln went to the theater and got shot in his seat by one of the actors in a moving picture show. The believed assinator was John Wilkes Booth, a supposingly insane actor. This ruined Booth’s career.

Meanwhile in Europe, the enlightenment was a reasonable time. Voltare invented electricity and also wrote a book called “Candy”. Gravity was invented by Issac Walton. It is chiefly noticeable in the Autumn, when the apples are falling off the trees.

Bach was the most famous composer in the world, and so was Handel. Handel was half German, half Italian and half English. He was very large. Bach died from 1750 to the present. Beethoven wrote music even though he was deaf. He was so deaf he wrote loud music. He took long walks in the forest even when everyone was calling for him. Beethoven expired in 1827 and later died for this.

France was in a very serious state. The French Revolution was accomplished before it happened. The Marseillaise was the theme song of the French Revolution, and it catapulted into Napoleon. During the Napoleonic Wars, the crowned heads of Europe were trembling in their shoes. Then the Spanish gorrilas came down from the hills and nipped at Napoleon’s flanks.

Napoleon became ill with bladder problems and was very tense and unrestrained. He wanted an heir to inheret his power, but since Josephine was a baroness, she couldn’t bear him any children.

The sun never set on the British Empire because the British Empire is in the East and the sun sets in the West. Queen Victoria was the longest queen. She sat on a thorn for 63 years. Her reclining years and finally the end of her life were exemplatory of a great personality. Her death was the final event which ended her reign.

The nineteenth century was a time of many great inventions and thoughts. The invention of the steamboat caused a network of rivers to spring up. Cyrus McCormick invented the McCormick Raper, which did the work of a hundred men. Samuel Morse invented a code for telepathy. Louis Pastuer discovered a cure for rabbis. Charles Darwin was a naturailst who wrote the “Organ of the Species”. Madman Curie discovered radium. And Karl Marx became one of the Marx Brothers.

The First World War, cause by the assignation of the Arch-Duck by a surf, ushered in a new error in the anals of human history.


How genuine, you may ask, are the alleged bloopers above? Lederer addressed that.

“I am sometimes asked if I invent any of the bloopers that appear in my collections. My answer is an emphatic ‘No way!’ No way would I violate the code of ethics of the bloopthologist — the collector takes what he or she finds and contrives nothing.

“These uncut gems are self-evidently genuine, authentic, certified, and unpolished; they have not been manufactured by any professional humorist.”

Sadly, that’s probably true.


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This is a typical Tyrolean hat or Alpine hat, a style associated with the Alps region of Europe — namely, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and northern Italy:


Almost makes you want to yodel, doesn’t it?

This particular hat is festooned with Volksmarching pins earned for participating in fitness walking events. They do that a lot in Europe.

This is a typical Oktoberfest hat, commonly worn by merrymakers attending the annual Oktoberfest celebration in Munich:


As you can see, the Oktoberfest hat is modeled after the Tyrolean hat. It’s usually made of green or black felt, features a spiffy decorative band, and is accented with feathers, flowers, a tuft of goat hair, or a spray of hog bristles.

Here, for example, are some Oktoberfest revelers in a Munich beer hall, attired in the traditional manner:


Oktoberfest is a lavish two-week fall festival that dates back to 1810. It began when Crown Prince Ludwig threw a party to celebrate his marriage to the lovely Princess Therese, who chose him over Napoleon. Munich has been partying ever since.

And a whopper of a party it is. Attendance in recent years is about six million people. They listen to oom-pah music and consume mass quantities of roast pork, ham hocks, bratwurst, knackwurst, bochwurst, weisswurst, frankfurters, sauerkraut, red cabbage, potato salad, and pretzels. Not to mention seven million liters of beer.

As a teenager, I had the good fortune of living in Germany for three memorable years, when Dad was stationed in Stuttgart. But, even though we lived just two hours from Munich, I was sadly unable to experience Oktoberfest properly.

Yes, Mom and Dad took us to Oktoberfest one year. But being just a teenager, all I could do was follow my parents glumly as we wandered through the crowds. I listened to the polka music, and I ate my fill of brats and kraut and pretzels. But I got not a single sip of a Hofbräu, a Löwenbräu, or a Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen.

To this day, the loss of that opportunity stings me tragically.

Not that it counted as any consolation, but while we were in Munich, I bought myself a very natty Oktoberfest hat. It was green felt, similar to the hats pictured above, but the feather was much longer.

In fact, my feather was a fuzzy white ostrich feather, something like this:


Or this:


Debonair young fellow that I was, I thought the hat made quite a statement. Even Dad admired it. In his youth, he told me, such hats were called “go-to-hell” hats.

Monday morning after our trip, I showed up at the school bus stop wearing my jaunty Oktoberfest hat. My classmates knew the Smiths were going to the festival, so no one was surprised to see me sporting the thing. Admiring comments followed, and I took a seat on the bus.

In those days, the Army had half a dozen installations around Stuttgart, but only one high school. We kids had a bus ride of 25 miles, twice a day, between our housing project on the east side of Stuttgart and the high school on the south side.

The buses were converted Army ambulances, not traditional school buses. Here’s a photo I took one day:


Note the kid on the left who is facing the rear of the bus. If we wanted to face each other to talk or play cards, the seats could be folded down.

(Remember, this was in the late 1950s. Safety hadn’t been invented yet.)

The bus ride was long and boring. People napped, read a book, chatted, played bridge, and got restless.

Imagine, if you will, young Rocky on the bus that morning, wearing his green Oktoberfest hat — lost in thought, much like the young man above wearing the hound’s-tooth hat.

Imagine you are seated somewhere behind young Rocky, looking up at a long white ostrich feather — a wing feather, which is the fluffiest and most luxurious on the bird — looming above the seat and bobbing gently with the motion of the bus.

Wouldn’t you be tempted to… do something to that feather?

A wave of laughter from the back of the bus was my first hint that something was amiss. I turned and noticed a few kids smirking, but saw no reason for their jocularity. Puzzled, I faced forward and resumed whatever I was doing.

But the half-suppressed bursts of snickering continued. Before long, I turned toward the back of the bus again and looked around inquisitively. Except for the giggling of my friends, nothing seemed unusual.

Everything finally clicked when I smelled smoke.

Instantly, I snatched the hat from my head. The luxurious ostrich feather had been reduced to a smoldering stump. Tiny wisps of gray smoke arose from the glowing nub.

Nobody owned up to setting fire to my beautiful feather. Nobody ever told me who did it.

And frankly, I didn’t ask. In truth, the episode WAS pretty funny. And in my heart, I knew I probably would have done the same thing.

Although the feather was history, my stylish hat was unharmed. That night, I removed the burnt stump and replaced it, wisely, with a more modest and less tempting feather, like this one:


I wore my Oktoberfest hat proudly for a long time. During school hours, of course, I stashed it in my locker, but I always donned it for the long bus rides. It was, indeed, a fine hat.

When we returned to the U.S. after my high school graduation, I lost track of the hat. Where it went, I don’t know. It may have been lost during the move.

Or, Mom may have thrown it out when I went away to college. That was when she jettisoned my sizable and quite valuable collection of comic books and Mad Magazines.

But that’s a subject too painful to talk about.


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Payne’s Place

Back in olden times, when I was a student at the University of Georgia, the legal drinking age was 21.

A decade later, in 1972, Georgia and most other states lowered the drinking age to 18. I was indignant.

Why change it to 18? Because in 1971, the U.S. adopted the 26th Amendment, which established 18 as the legal voting age nationwide.

Back then, the Vietnam War was vacuuming up 18-year-olds at an alarming rate. The rallying cry in favor of the 26th Amendment was “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” By that logic, lowering the drinking age to 18 seemed right.

But, no big surprise, college campuses began to see an alarming upsurge in alcohol-related problems. In 1984, the federal government reacted. Congress passed the Drinking Age Act, which reduced the highway funds of any state that allowed persons younger than 21 to purchase alcoholic beverages.

The states reacted speedily to protect their highway funds. By 1986, most of them had bumped the legal drinking age back up to 21.

ANYHOO, at the University of Georgia in the 1960s, the drinking age was 21, and 90 percent of the students could not legally purchase or drink alcohol. Plenty of them, of course, did it anyway. After all, when there’s a will, there’s a way.

One way was through the fraternities and sororities, which provided the booze and the protection to drink it.

Another way was to persuade a 21-year-old friend to purchase the alcohol for you. Sometimes they charged a service fee, sometimes they didn’t.

In addition, there were cases where students obtained fake I.D. cards. Sometimes the phony cards worked, sometimes they didn’t.

And finally, some lucky students were able to find a drinking establishment where the proprietor was willing to serve them, drinking age be damned.

In the fall of 1960, early in my freshman year, when I was a lad of 17, it was my good fortune to discover such a bar on the outskirts of Athens.

Payne’s Place was a small, no-frills Southern beer joint, located a mile or two east of town in the middle of nowhere. Technically, I suppose, it was a juke joint, because it had a jukebox. Payne’s Place was too minor-league for live music.

The bar was owned and operated by Mr. Dorsey Payne, a stoic, unflappable man in his 40s who ran the place and maintained order with authority and efficiency. Anyone who got out of line was ousted on the spot and banned from the establishment. He was cordial if he liked you, icy cold if he didn’t.

Dorsey was a stocky, solid, balding guy, sort of like a Southern Tony Soprano. He was a typical man of his time: reticent, proud, and hard-working, with a dry wit he displayed on rare occasions.

On a typical Friday or Saturday night, Payne’s Place had perhaps 25 patrons. The clientele was roughly one-third UGA students (virtually all of them underage) and two-thirds blue-collar locals.

Neither group had any use for the other, but we coexisted by blithely ignoring each other. The rules of the house demanded it.

Dorsey, of course, was a blue-collar local himself. Accordingly, the townies called him Dorsey, and the UGA students called him Mr. Payne.

No one patronized Payne’s Place without Dorsey’s explicit approval. If he didn’t like someone’s looks or attitude, he told them not to come back. Thanks to Dorsey, the bar was an oasis of civility and good cheer.

Payne’s Place occupied a small one-story building, a former residence that at some point had been gutted and rebuilt. It consisted of two large rooms — the main bar room on one side and a large open dance floor on the other. In the back were restrooms and a couple of small storage rooms.

Over time, the dance floor got smaller as Dorsey brought in more tables and chairs. Before long, he added two pool tables, and the dance floor was history.

The pool tables were a welcome addition, but within a few months, they caused Dorsey a huge round of aggravation and expense.

It happened because, unknown to Dorsey, Clark County had an ordinance that prohibited a bar from operating under the same roof as a billiards parlor. Dorsey was told he had a choice: keep the bar or keep the pool tables.

Dorsey was furious with the county for intruding on his business over a law he considered ridiculous. But he was a practical and determined fellow, and he came up with a way around the law.

His solution was ingenious. A team of carpenters descended on Payne’s Place and, using the empty attic space and a series of strategic beams, created a large vaulted ceiling above the two main rooms. Then they sliced open the roof of the building, dividing it into two separate roofs that overlapped in the center.

When they finished, the main bar room and the pool tables, technically, were under separate roofs.

Heat loss through the narrow opening wasn’t a problem; they filled it with insulation. As far as I know, even in the hardest downpour, rain never got in.

Probably because they admired Dorsey’s mettle, the county officials relented. Dorsey was allowed to keep both the bar and the pool tables. He had taken on the bureaucrats and prevailed.

Business was good at Payne’s Place for the entire time I was in college. For four years, it was my bar of choice. I spent numerous Friday and Saturday nights there with my pals.

For the record, I did not fritter away my college years in a haze of merry-making. I went out with friends on weekends only. My grades were good, and I stayed out of trouble. I made sure of that, because I knew Dad’s wrath would be swift and terrible otherwise.

After I graduated and left Athens, I rarely thought about Dorsey Payne and the little country bar that meant so much to me as a student. I regret that very much.

On a trip to Athens years later, I tried to pinpoint the bar’s location on Lexington Road. But by then, the street had been widened, and both sides were lined with new homes, apartments, and businesses. Finding where the bar stood was hopeless.

What happened to Payne’s Place after my time, I have no idea. Odds are, Dorsey continued in business, serving beer to a succession of grateful underage college students over the years.

If so, I hope the business prospered. When the time came, I hope Dorsey sold his land to a rich developer, or to MacDonald’s. I hope he retired to the beach with a windfall of cash and plenty of time to enjoy it.

An unidentified drinking establishment from the 1960s. Payne's Place wasn't quite this fancy.

An unidentified drinking establishment from the 1960s. Payne’s Place wasn’t quite this fancy.

This one is more like it.

This one is more like it.

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Here in Jefferson a few months ago, a group of high school kids got busted for underage drinking. They had quietly gathered at some secluded spot to toss back a few, when suddenly, cops were everywhere.

Some of the young merry-makers bolted into the woods and escaped, but most stayed to face the music. They were taken to the station and booked, and their parents were summoned to collect them.

Ultimately, the teens went to court, and their names and faces appeared in the local newspaper. They suffered varying degrees of humiliation, but were not severely punished.

As the drama unfolded, the local citizens separated into two camps. One side favored harsh punishment to teach the little villains a lesson. The other side dismissed it as harmless youthful high-jinks — something everyone did in their youth.

I suppose both sides were right. And the story certainly is nothing new. Teenagers have been scheming to obtain alcohol since alcohol was invented.

Which leads me to the prominent role that beer — premium-quality, high-octane German beer — played in my life at that age.

I was raised a Military Brat, the dependent kid of an Air Force officer. Over the years, we followed Dad on assignments around the United States, as well as to Japan, France, and Germany. It was a pretty cool way to grow up.

I attended high school on an U.S. Army base in Stuttgart, Germany. My alma mater, SHS, was a typical American high school, except for the location.

The location factor made for some interesting dynamics. I mean that from the standpoint of American teens living in Germany and having easy access to alcohol.

When I lived in Stuttgart, the situation was this: we kids lived inside a walled compound and were allowed to wander unsupervised around the base. As aspiring adults, we were afforded an appropriate degree of latitude. That also applied when we went off-base.

In our world, “off-base” consisted of three wholly different experiences. One was our various organized trips — group outings to sporting events, the zoo, the museum, the municipal swimming pool. We usually went by bus and were well chaperoned.

The second was family trips, such as vacations and shopping excursions with our parents.

The third was our below-the-radar trips — the quiet, illicit visits we teens made, usually in small groups on a Saturday night, to the local gasthauses and biergartens.

For us, sneaking off to a bar was ridiculously easy.

For one thing, American families lived on half a dozen military installations scattered around Stuttgart. The Army post where I lived, Patch Barracks, was 20 miles from our high school in the Pattonville housing project. Cross-town trips were routine.

For another thing, we were living in a non-English-speaking country where most of the population wanted us gone and avoided us. Had we been back in the U.S., the surrounding community would have been our home town, where people knew us. Frequenting the local bars? Probably not in the cards.

If a legal drinking age existed in Germany in those days, it didn’t seem to apply to us. If we chose the right bars, we and our money were perfectly welcome in the establishment. And we learned quickly how to choose the right bars.

In reality, many of the local gasthauses were off-limits. Some were frequented by locals who hated Americans. Others were operated by locals who hated Americans. Some bars were already taken — the turf of U.S. enlisted men who had no intention of sharing them with bratty American teens.

So, we worked within the system, and we found the watering holes that were appropriate and satisfactory for us.

To be clear, my friends and I carefully avoided trouble, and we did not sneak out constantly to go drinking. An individual kid managed to pull it off, say, once every month or two.

In total, during the three years we lived in Germany, I went bar-hopping about a dozen times. In truth, I never visited the same gasthaus more than a time or two. Frankly, most of the places have faded from memory.

But I still vividly remember one of them. It was called Bruno’s, and we could see it from the windows of our high school.

Bruno’s was located beyond the baseball fields at SHS, on the other side of a hedgerow, past a high fence topped with barbed wire, inside a massive Czechoslovakian refugee camp.

The refugee camp was there because of the Cold War, which burned hot in those days. West Germany had to accommodate a steady influx of people fleeing from behind the Iron Curtain.

Such camps, I later learned, were called DP camps — for “displaced persons.” Most had been built by the Nazis to house Jewish, Polish, and Czech slave laborers. After the war, they were converted to refugee camps.

Naturally, a sizable refugee community required services and amenities. These refugees being from Czechoslovakia — the country where Pilsner was invented and beer is called “liquid bread” — one of those amenities was a proper gasthaus for the refugees.

Bruno’s was that establishment.

My night at Bruno’s happened in the fall, during “Fasching,” the German period of celebration and revelry that precedes Lent.

A few of us were spending the weekend with friends at Pattonville. One of them knew about Bruno’s and had a Czech friend who offered to take us there.

That Saturday night, we went to the main gate of the refugee camp. We were met by a young man in his early 20s who vouched for us to the guards. The gate was opened. We proceeded to Bruno’s, where the residents were observing Fasching with gusto.

Bruno’s was a joyous place. The residents of the camp being Czechs, not Germans, they loved Americans. They loved everybody. They had escaped communism, and the future seemed bright.

The Czechs at Bruno’s were a delight to be around, and they welcomed us enthusiastically. Music played, beer flowed. People danced. The air was thick with laughter and cigarette smoke.

At some point, we were given brightly-colored party hats. Mine was a cardboard fez, metallic silver in color, with a yellow crescent stapled to the front and a dangling yellow tassel. Whether the fez was symbolic of something or merely festive, I neither knew nor cared.

The fez looked like this, only silver and yellow.


After a terrific evening of beer and merriment, we said our farewells and stumbled back to Pattonville. No trouble, no unpleasantness, no complications, no regrets.

When I got home, my parents asked where I got the fez. Mom zinged me by calling it “silly-looking.”

Personally, I thought “garish” or “tacky” would be more accurate. But I told them the literal truth: we went to a party where everyone got a hat.

For years, that fez was one of my most treasured souvenirs. For the rest of our tour in Europe, it sat on the dresser in my bedroom.

When I went away to college, the fez went with me. It was one of the decorations in my dorm room, along with some beer coasters from Stuttgart and my favorite pencil caddy, a souvenir beer stein from the Hofbräuhaus in Munich.

Naturally, after I got married, the fez was relegated to a souvenir box. I didn’t think about it for a long time. Then one day, after we moved to Ft. Lauderdale, I went looking for it. The little thing was gone. Nowhere to be found. I was deeply saddened.

Mind you, I’m not implying in any way whatsoever that my ex-wife was responsible.

The  last time I saw good old SHS was at graduation in June 1960. By the end of the month, we were on our way back to the U.S. and Dad’s new assignment in Atlanta.

By September, I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, living in Athens. For the first time in my 17 years, I was on my own.

More about that in Part 2.


My alma mater, Stuttgart American High School.

The view behind SHS. The refugee camp was over there.

The view behind SHS. The refugee camp was over there.

Residents of a DP camp in Germany, late 1950s.

Residents of a DP camp in Germany, late 1950s.

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Other than being an avid hiker — an activity I have pursued with relish for the last 40-odd years — I am not an athletic dude by any stretch.

As a kid, I tried my hand at the usual sports. I played Little League baseball for two years, mostly as a bench-warmer. Late in a game, the coaches might put me in right field, if we were far enough ahead.

Sprinkled among my walks and strike-outs were a few hits (including a double that I still remember fondly), but they were sheer accidents. I simply didn’t have the skills, or the inclination to develop them.

In my high school years, Dad was in the Air Force, stationed in Stuttgart, Germany. As I’ve indicated before on this blog, military bases overseas are miniature American towns, with no lack of facilities for the soldiers and their families, including organized sports.

So, even though we lived overseas, I had plenty of sports opportunities. I played football as a sophomore and basketball as a junior. But again, my talents were meager.

In football, if I took the field at all, I played offensive tackle. In high school, the interior line is a safe place to send your mediocre players.

In basketball, I was a forward. I had the necessary stamina to run around a lot, but the good players rarely gave me the ball.

Actually, I did have a hot hand in one memorable game. Somehow, I got a rebound and quickly scored. When it happened a second time, my teammates started feeding me the ball. And I delivered — 16 points in all.

It was most gratifying. But it never happened again.

Over the years, I tried a succession of other sports — softball, golf, tennis, volleyball (soccer wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen in those days). Nothing really lit my fire and was enjoyable enough to continue.

Then, after college, I discovered hiking. And backpacking and camping. And kayaking. With those activities — which, you will note, are for individuals, not teams — I was considerably happier and more comfortable. For me, they clicked.

Looking back, there may have been clues that I was never cut out for team sports — that if I excelled at anything, it would be the solo stuff.

I say that after having a flashback recently to an episode during my junior year of high school in which I showed a genuine and unexpected degree of athleticism.

But let me begin at the beginning.

I don’t know if high schools require Physical Education these days, but they did in my time. PE was daily and mandatory.

The PE teachers did their best to give the hour some variety. We might play basketball or flag football. We might run laps or do sprints. We might lift weights or line up for calisthenics by the count.

And once a year, as most Americans kids have done for decades, we participated in the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge.

Most adults probably aren’t even aware the program exists. It was instituted in 1956 by President Eisenhower to get America’s increasingly soft and indolent children off the couch.

Ike got the idea from Dr. Hans Kraus, a professor at New York University. In 1953, Kraus warned that the nation’s kids were losing muscle tone because of “the affluent lifestyle of 20th century America.”

And this, by the way, was decades before video games came along.

In response, Ike created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, which developed a physical fitness test for school kids. In the beginning, the test consisted of a softball throw, a broad jump, a 50-yard dash, and a 600-yard walk/run.

Over time, the name of the council and the nature of the test have changed. Today, it’s called the President’s Challenge, and it requires school kids to do the following:

– One minute worth of curl-ups (modern variation of sit-ups)
– Sprinting between lines set 30 feet apart
– Running and/or walking 1/4-mile or 1/2-mile, depending on age
– As many pull-ups or push-ups as the kid can do
– A “sit and reach” test to measure the flexibility of the lower back

I don’t remember which events made up the President’s Challenge in 1958, only that it was a series of the usual exercises: running, push-ups, sit-ups, and so on. I recall it as being more tedious than strenuous.

PE at my high school was under the auspices of Coach Jack Larkin, a gruff, but decent guy in his 40s. Coach Larkin, bald and bespectacled, was from Kansas.

PE class on the day of the incident was during 4th period, just after lunch. The final event of the Fitness Challenge was to perform a timed series of sit-ups. We did them with a classmate sitting on our feet to keep us stationary.

As the class went about the exercises, Coach Larkin bellowed that time was short. After the sit-ups, we needed to hustle to the showers, because 5th Period classes would start soon.

In my case, 5th period meant geometry, which I loathed.

“Coach!” I yelled out from the supine position, “Bruce and I want to stay here and see how many sit-ups we can do without stopping! Will you get us excused from geometry?”

I was speaking for my friend Bruce Jones, who was stretched out next to me. I assumed Bruce would be agreeable if it meant missing geometry. He was.

“Yeah, Coach!” Bruce chimed in. “Let us try! How long can we keep doing this, anyway?”

“No! Don’t be ridiculous!” Coach Larkin snapped.

Bruce and I continued to plead with feeling. Finally, the coach relented.

“Okay, you can stay as long as you can keep doing sit-ups,” he said. “But when you have to quit, I want you out of here and off to class!”

He looked at the two guys who were sitting on our feet. “Can you two stay and keep count? Can you miss the next period?” Indeed, they could.

All around us, hands shot up from boys who wanted some of this action. The coach wouldn’t have it.

“Just these four!” he growled. “The rest of you, finish the set and hit the showers!”

Bruce and I grinned at each other and slowly continued doing sit-ups in unison.

After the gym was empty, Coach Larkin moved us to a small alcove near his office and handed each foot-sitter a mechanical counter. He told us to take a break, then start a new count.

We got up, walked around, got a drink of water, and got back in position. When the tardy bell rang, we commenced to doing sit-ups, and the count began.

If I were tasked with doing sit-ups today, I probably wouldn’t last very long. But when you are 16 and indestructible, and your choice is between sit-ups and geometry, the choice is already made.

The period rolled along. Bruce and I did our sit-ups at a slow, steady, easy pace. The four of us chatted matter-of-factly.

I don’t recall getting especially tired or sore. I was in the zone — sitting up, lying down. Sitting up, lying down. Talking, thinking, looking at the beams of the gym ceiling overhead. Sitting up, lying down.

Ten minutes later, Coach Larkin came out of his office to check on us. He asked our sit-up counts. Both of us were approaching 300. He nodded and went back to his office.

Occasionally, a student from one of the PE classes would peer around the corner at us. I wondered if word about us had spread — if people were talking. I never found out.

Halfway through 5th period, the coach reappeared and asked for the latest count. According to our foot-sitters, I was at about 700, Bruce a little ahead of me. We showed no signs of fading.

“You two will go to any length to avoid math class,” Coach Larkin observed. “But I’m impressed anyway.” He turned and walked away.

Near the end of 5th period, he was back. Bruce and I were still at it, slow and steady. Although we didn’t think of it as a competition, Bruce was 30 or 40 sit-ups ahead of me. At that point, we were at about 1,200 sit-ups.

“Okay, boys, the bell’s about to ring,” said the coach. “Ready to call it quits?”

Bruce and I protested mightily. The foot-sitters joined in, begging the coach to let us continue. None of us knew what the outcome of this odd little drama would be. None of us knew what we wanted it to be.

Again, Coach Larkin relented. He asked for our 6th period schedules, and, with a sigh, departed to inform our 6th period teachers. Bruce and I continued doing our sit-ups, slow and easy.

Midway through 6th period, Bruce finally gave out. Maybe it was a tortoise-and-hare thing; maybe in building up a lead, he wore himself out. His final count was a little over 1,800.

Bruce was okay with having to stop, but I knew he wasn’t going anywhere until I stopped, too. As for me, I wasn’t sure what to do next.

Stop and be done with it? No way — not after all the time and effort I had invested. I wasn’t worn out yet, and I wanted — needed — to keep going. But for how long?

With the end of 6th period about 10 minutes away, the answer suddenly came to me. It should have been obvious. I was approaching 2,000 sit-ups — a good logical stopping point.

Bruce and the two foot-sitters were still there, waiting. I told them my intentions. They concurred. Bruce went to get Coach Larkin to witness the finale and wrap things up.

In the end, I did 2,001 sit-ups. Coach Larkin said he was proud of both of us. Then he chased us off to the showers, which we finished in a rush so we could catch our respective buses home.

For the rest of the week, I was a minor celebrity in some circles. I did my best not to be a jerk about it.

But, of course, my fame was fleeting. Something else soon materialized on the student body’s collective radar screen, and when it did, I became old news. Life returned to normal.

I’m not bitter, mind you, but the fact is, I pumped out 2,001 sit-ups in less than two hours that day, and I don’t have squat to show for it.



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Last Tuesday, I got this text message from my son Dustin:

— Sarah is requesting that you go to lunch with her tomorrow.

My youngest granddaughter Sarah, age six, is in first grade at Jefferson Elementary School. Around here, having lunch with the kids is a common thing for parents and grandparents — so much so that the “Parents Cafe” was built to accommodate visitors. I replied thusly to Dustin’s text:

— I can do that. What time?

I felt a little guilty at having to be asked. I’d been intending to do lunch with her ever since the school year started, but things kept interfering.

Not the least of those was Sarah’s abundance of relatives in Jefferson. All four of her grandparents live here, and every time I was about the do the lunch thing, someone else already was going.

Anyway, at Sarah’s request, Wednesday was my day. When Dustin gave me the particulars, he asked the key question: should he pack her lunch that day, or did I want to bring it?

Sarah was always big on the lunches at Sugar & Spice, a local sandwich shop, so I said I would order our lunches from there. I asked what she preferred.

— Grilled cheese and chips and a water.

Wednesday morning, as I was about to call Sugar & Spice to place the lunch orders, another text message came in from Dustin.

— Sarah has changed her lunch request. Now wants 6-in Subway meatball sandwich on white with no cheese or other toppings and plain Lays chips. Water.

No problem. An hour later, after a stop at Subway, I arrived at the school, signed in, and went to the cafeteria to wait for Sarah’s class.

Jefferson has a four-tiered school system. Kids from pre-k through second grade attend the elementary school. Grades three through five go to Jefferson Academy. Grades six through eight make up the middle school. High school is nine through 12. The system divides the kids into sensible age groups and works pretty well.

As I waited in the hall outside the cafeteria, an occasional pre-k or kindergarten class would file past me, lurching along in ragged single file, following their teacher. At the end of the line came the class’s teaching assistant, herding the stragglers.

Being an unfamiliar presence, and an old bearded dude holding two plastic Subway bags, I received inquisitive looks from practically every passing kid. Some smiled, some frowned, some gave me a blank look.

The hallway isn’t very wide, so the kids passed fairly close to me — close enough so that a pretty, blond-haired little girl raised her fist as she passed and punched me in the stomach.

It wasn’t a serious punch, mind you. Just a casual statement. She continued on, looking back over her shoulder with a mischievous grin. I let out an oomph and pretended to gasp in distress.

Before long, Sarah’s class filed in, and she ran up to greet me with a hug. As she chattered excitedly about a girl named Riley who gave her a BFF bracelet, we retired to the Parents Cafe and found a table. I spread out the sandwiches, chips, and bottled water.

For a while, we chatted about this and that. She told me she would introduce me to her friend Riley. She showed me her electric blue paracord survival bracelet and her new fuchsia and fluorescent green shoes, which she said glow in the dark.

When I told her about the girl who punched me in the stomach, she sighed and shook her head in dismay.

“She’s probably in pre-k,” she said, licking at the marinara sauce in the corners of her mouth. “Those kids are very young — very emma-toor.”

“No, really!” she said, warming to the subject. “They are so emma-toor that all the pre-k and kindergarten classes have two teachers! It takes a teacher AND a teaching assistant to handle those kids!”

I expressed my understanding and grave concern.

“The first and second grade classes, we only have one teacher, because we’re more ma-toor, and we know how to behave!”

The conversation proceeded in the usual spasmodic manner. She told me about the antics of various kids, some who met her approval, some who didn’t. I asked how she liked her new teacher and got the expected reply: “Fine.”

I also asked what she normally brings for lunch, when no visitors are scheduled.

“I get peanut butter sandwiches a lot,” she said. “Which is fine. But you know what? I always get applesauce! Mott’s applesauce! Which I never eat!”

“Well,” I offered, “maybe you could do a trade with another kid. Like, trade the applesauce for something they don’t want.”

“Are you kidding?” she huffed. “Nobody likes apple sauce!”

Half an hour later, as if guided by some internal clock, she stood up and walked over to the window overlooking the main cafeteria. She peered intently for a moment, munching potato chips, and returned to the table.

“Yep, my class is lining up,” she announced. “I gotta go.”

I stood up to clear off the table. Sarah hurriedly crammed the last of the potato chips into her mouth and chased them with a slug of water.

Before I could collect a departing hug, she thrust the half-empty water bottle at me and raced from the room. As she turned the corner, she looked back and gave me a quick wave and a cheery “see ya!”

“Bye!” I yelled, suddenly feeling sad and disappointed. In the past, Sarah always — always — gave me an arriving hug and a departing hug.

She meant nothing by the omission, of course. It’s just that things change. The young ones, they ma-toor.

She caught up with her classmates and fell in step at the end of the line of bobbing heads. I stood there for a long time, watching as they receded down the hall.

A few minutes later, back at my car, I took a quick sip from her water bottle before heading home.

It tasted like potato chips.

Sarah on her 6th birthday, wearing a telltale smear of green cake icing.

Sarah on her 6th birthday, wearing a telltale smear of green cake icing.

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