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Bruno’s

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.

Bruno's-1

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.

Bruno's-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.

Kides-1

Kides-2

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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.

One little girl smiled broadly and waved. I waved back, then gave her a peace sign. She beamed anew and returned the gesture.

One little boy gave me an exaggerated smile and stuck his tongue out. He was greatly amused when I did the same.

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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Both of my sons are avid runners. For them, every week involves something — a fun run, a few hours on the local streets and trails, occasionally a marathon or half-marathon.

Me, I never got into running. I consider walking and hiking to be more genteel ways to exercise. I especially like the serenity of being on the trail, alone, with plenty of time to ponder any topic my brain selects.

Running undoubtedly has great benefits, but I’ll never know. If I switched to running at my age, my knees would not take kindly to it.

There was a time, however, when I was quite capable of sustained running — as well as capable of a mighty burst of speed when necessary.

In fact, I can remember two times in my life when I ran so fast that my legs began to outrun the rest of my body, and I was in danger of falling over backwards.

One of those times, I was in college. I had just caught a pass from the University of Georgia’s star quarterback and was racing for the end zone. No, I didn’t play for the Bulldogs. It happened one Sunday in a game of touch football on a frat house lawn.

The other time, two decades later, I was running for my life to get out from under a falling tree. Which I had just cut down with a chainsaw. I did not escape by much.

I remember both events as if they happened yesterday.

The Pick-up Game

Up through high school, practically any inept kid can participate in sports. From elementary school on, anyone can wear a uniform. To compensate, sports teams have two rosters: the starters and the benchwarmers. All kids know the difference.

Did I just use the word inept? That certainly describes my athletic ability as a kid.

Growing up, I was a blah outfielder in Little League baseball. In high school, I warmed the bench for one season of football. (I was an “offensive tackle” in both position and performance.)

The next year, I played junior varsity basketball; I had a hot hand in exactly one game. It was a sublime moment of glory.

By the time you reach college, however, all that equal opportunity stuff  comes to an end. College sports are for the elites. It might as well be the pros. Come to think of it, it pretty much is the pros.

With so many used-to-be athletes around, it isn’t surprising that flag football and touch football are popular campus pastimes. That was the case at UGA when I was a student.

In the spring, if you drove down Milledge Avenue — which was, and still is, Greek Row — you would pass four or five such games in progress. As you might expect, the rules and the quality of play varied considerably.

One fine spring Sunday in 1963, my junior year, I went to see my friend Al at his fraternity house on South Milledge.

Al and I were best buds throughout our college years. (In 2009, I wrote about Al and his friendship with a group of Thai students.) Sadly, he and I went our separate ways after graduation, me into the Air Force, Al into matrimony.

Anyway, when I arrived at the frat house, Al and a few others were sitting on the front porch watching a touch football game on the lawn.

To my surprise, playing on one of the teams was Larry Rakestraw, UGA’s starting quarterback.

Rakestraw was a genuine campus superstar — a superb quarterback with an outstanding record. He was Georgia’s starting quarterback for three years straight.

To refresh my memory, I looked up Larry’s record. He passed for over 3,000 yards, was an All-SEC player twice, and was Senior Bowl MVP. Against Miami in the Orange Bowl, he had over 400 yards passing. He broke three SEC records and one NCAA record. He went on to play three seasons as QB of the Chicago Bears.

On top of that, Larry was a nice, friendly, modest guy — the kind who would roll up his sleeves and play touch football with the little people on a warm spring afternoon.

Being one of the little people myself, I did not travel in the same lofty circles as the football players, but I knew some of them from various classes.

I wrote about one, Richard Brooks, in a post in 2012. Another was Larry Rakestraw. For a while, we were fellow cadets in Air Force ROTC, and we both graduated from UGA in 1964.

So, there I was, sitting on the front porch of a frat house with my friend Al, watching a casual game of touch football being played on the lawn, four to a team, and the quarterback of one of the teams was the famous Larry Rakestraw.

Before long, one of Larry’s teammates got tired, or had to be somewhere, or whatever, and left the game. Larry surveyed the spectators in the porch and pointed at me.

“Rocky, you’re up!” he yelled. “Get in here!”

A wave of dread washed over me, but I got to my feet and trotted with a grin toward the scrum of players.

I got over the dread soon enough. I wasn’t exactly a great addition to the team, but I ran and grunted and sweated and did my pedestrian best.

And then, my moment arrived.

Our team had the ball. In the huddle, Larry told me to go downfield, then cut left and stop. When I looked back, the ball would be waiting for me.

And it was. When I turned, Larry’s perfect spiral was whistling toward me, mere feet away. Somehow, I reacted quickly enough to grab it and hang on.

That was the first miracle. The second miracle came when I took off down the left sideline, running as if my life depended on it.

As I ran, all four members of the other team were in pursuit, as hell-bent to intercept me as I was to score.

One by one, they failed. With a few yards to go, I only had to elude one last man.

Mentally and physically, I was in overdrive. Until that moment, I had never run so fast. It was exhilarating.

At the same time, I had the unsettling sensation that if I did not slow down, my feet and legs would literally outrun my head and torso, and I would crash with disastrous results.

But by then, I was over the goal line. The last player missed touching me by inches. It was a magnificent personal victory.

Of course, in the overall scheme of things, my astounding feat of athleticism meant nothing. It was just one touchdown of many that day. The game continued, and my epic run promptly was forgotten.

But, oh, how sweet it was.

In my next post, I will describe an incident in which I ran as if demon-possessed to avoid being sent to Glory by a falling tree.

A pick-up game at UGA, 1962.

Ace Georgia QB Larry Rakestraw in 1963.

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Hoodwinked

In my little town of Jefferson, the Recreation Department has a very comprehensive after-school program for kids. My granddaughters Maddie and Sarah, ages eight and five, spend weekday afternoons at “the Rec,” and they love it.

At the Rec, the kids are monitored in age groups. They play indoor and outdoor sports, go on field trips, do craft projects, have story time, and otherwise stay entertained until late in the day when family members begin trickling in to take them home.

The staff people are young and kid-friendly, and Maddie and Sarah seem happy and comfortable with them. (It’s easy to tell when that isn’t the case.) The staff members  are called “Coach Mike” or “Coach Jessica” or whatever.

Normally, one parent or the other will pick up Maddie and Sarah on the way home from work, but sometimes, one of the grandparents is pressed into service. It happened to me last week.

At about 4 PM, the phone rang. It was my son Dustin, who was marooned at home after foot surgery, hobbling around on crutches, unable to drive.

“Dad,” he said, “Leslie is stuck in a meeting at work. Can you pick up the girls at the Rec?”

I’m always happy for a chance to see my girls.

An hour later at the Rec, I approached the fingerprint i.d. machine, placed my index finger on the glass, and — voilà — was granted permission to sign the girls out.

The device doesn’t always grant permission. Sometimes, you hold your finger wrong, and the machine rejects you and flashes red. All eyes turn in your direction, wondering if you might be a terrorist or a pervert. It’s quite intimidating.

But this time, the device lit up green, and a voice boomed out over the loudspeakers, “Maddie Smith and Sarah Smith to the office for checkout.”

Minutes later, the girls arrived, dressed in their school uniforms, weighted down with giant backpacks, brandishing assorted papers and artwork while dropping their lunchboxes and babbling non-stop.

Sarah was excited about her illustrated Christmas wish list. It consisted of small photos of stuff she wants, cut out of magazines and pasted onto a sheet of paper. The paste was still wet.

Simultaneously, Maddie was telling me an elaborate story about Coach Bob, who inadvertently took home a paper bag that contained Maddie’s candy, and, even after a string of promises, has neither returned the bag nor replaced the candy.

That story, I found as we walked to the car, was the preamble to a request.

Rocky, sometimes Mom and Dad let us stop at the CVS, because, you know, we pass it every day on the way home, and we ask them if we can please, please, stop and get something, and they say yes — not always, but a lot — and today, I have two dollars, and Coach Bob won’t bring back my candy, even though I keep asking him, and the candy is Xtremes Sour Candy, which is like a chewy flat plank, and it’s really good, and the flavor I like is Rainbow Berry, and that’s what Coach Bob took home accidentally — Rainbow Berry — and since I have two dollars and we’re gonna pass the CVS anyway —

Sarah then interrupted.

Rocky, I have two dollars, too! I have two dollars, so Rocky, can we stop at the CVS and get something? Pleeease, can we stop? I want to get Xtremes Rainbow Berry, too! Or maybe I’ll get a Juicy Drop Pop! The Berry Bomb kind like Maddie got once!

“Don’t get the Berry Bomb Juicy Drop Pop,” Maddie advised soberly. “The Berry Bomb flavor makes your lips blue.”

I managed to cut in. “Berry Bomb Juicy Drop Pop… Maddie, is that what you had last week, and it made your lips blue, and you didn’t want to go to school, and Dustin made you go anyway?”

“Yeah. It was embarrassing.”

“I don’t care if it makes my lips blue!” said Sarah. “Berry Bomb is the best flavor! I want that! Unless I change my mind and get Rainbow Berry Xtremes! That doesn’t make your lips blue, does it, Maddie?”

Maddie affirmed that Rainbow Berry Xtremes do not turn your lips blue.

“Well,” I said, “You’ve got your own money, and we’re not in a hurry, and CVS is on the way, so I guess we can stop.”

We loaded up, buckled up, and were off to CVS.

The CVS candy display is cleverly located at the checkout counter at the front of the store, which every customer passes twice, once when entering and once when exiting.

We, of course, never got beyond that point. The girls ran to the display and spent the next several minutes kneeling there, discussing the relative merits of the staggering, brightly-colored assortment of sugary goodies.

True to her word, Maddie chose a plank of Xtremes Sour Candy, Rainbow Berry flavor. Xtremes, I discovered, are fruit rolls with a sour taste. The slogan of Xtremes is “Devour the Sour.”

Sarah changed her mind numerous times, but eventually, blue lips be damned, settled on the Berry Bomb Juicy Drop Pop.

Juicy Drop Pops consist of a hard candy sucker at one end and a dropper at the other end that dispenses liquid candy. “Dare 2 Drop!” the label says, “Can You Handle It?” The drops in the Berry Bomb variety appear to be made of concentrated blue food coloring.

When the clerk rang up the two purchases and announced the cost, Maddie and Sarah stood silently, eyes downcast.

“So,” I inquired, “Who’s going to pay first?”

Maddie looked at me sheepishly. “I just remembered that my two dollars is actually Daddy’s money. It’s change I owe him.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Sarah chimed in. “I need to give Daddy his change.”

All three of them — Maddie, Sarah, and the clerk — waited quietly until I took out my wallet and paid for the candy.

Hustled. Bamboozled. Hoodwinked.

Xtremes

Juicy Drops

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Last Thursday, the family assembled at Jefferson Elementary School for an art show by the second graders. Word was, my granddaughter Maddie had made a clay owl.

We — being Maddie, her sister Sarah, both parents, and all four grandparents — met at the school at 6pm. I observed that the eight of us arrived in five different cars.

Sarah, who turns five later this month, is an affectionate kid. She ran over at top speed and greeted me with an enthusiastic hug.

Maddie is less touchy-feely. She ran over, too, but instead of a hug, gave me her patented head-butt. This is a move wherein she plants her head in your midsection, which provides contact, but prevents you from pulling her too close.

They both began chattering at once, Maddie about the art show, Sarah about a scratch on her face — an injury she suffered earlier on the playground when she fell off the monkey bars.

I tried without success to follow both narratives, but I managed to document Sarah’s wound.


We met in front of the school, a spot familiar to us all. That’s where the cars queue up after school to pick up the students.

The school has an ingenious pick-up system that uses color-coded stations. As the cars arrive, the students are sent to stand next to one of the colored posts — red, blue, green, etc. — to be collected. All very elaborate and efficient.


As we passed the pick-up stations on the way to the gym, I fell in step next to Sarah.

“Which color post is your favorite?” I asked her. “If you got to choose one pick-up station to go to every day, which color would you pick?”

“Any one except pink,” she replied.

“What? I thought pink would be your choice. Pink has always been your favorite color.”

“I am SO over pink,” she announced. “And I’m over princesses, too. And mermaids.”

“Wow,” I said. “Do people know about this? I mean, your birthday is coming up. You always get pink things and princess dolls for your birthday.”

“Haven’t you seen my gift list?” she asked pointedly.

I had indeed. Come to think of it, the list made no mention of princesses, mermaid dolls, or pink.

Abruptly, Sarah veered off to join the two grandmothers, and I put an arm around Maddie’s shoulder. “So,” I said, “You have an owl in the art show?”

“We’ve been studying prehistoric people and how they did cave paintings,” she said. “We had a choice of doing an owl or a cave painting. You’ll see my cave painting when we get inside.”

“I’m confused,” I said. “Your dad told me you made a clay owl.”

“I did,” she answered.

As I was about to try again for an explanation, a voice from behind us yelled, “Don’t chase me, Maddie!”

We turned to see a grinning boy of Maddie’s age, arriving with his parents. Maddie glared at him and didn’t reply.

“Is that kid in your class?” I asked after they were gone. She nodded yes.

“Is he a decent guy?”

“No, he’s mean.”

“Well,” I said, “That’s the way it goes. Some kids are nice, some kids are jerks.”

“Adults are like that too,” her mama Leslie added sagely.

Inside the gym, the artwork was surprisingly good. The cave paintings had a rustic authenticity. Displayed on the walls in groups, they were colorful and attractive.


The clay owls looked stamped from a mold, but some classes displayed chalk drawings of owls — which, like the cave paintings, ranged from pretty good to very good. By the second grade, kids know what they’re doing.

I never got the connection between cave paintings and owls. Maybe there isn’t one.


For the next half hour, we made the rounds of the gym, saw all the art, mingled with the crowd, and signed the yellow tablecloth, which is a tradition at Jefferson Elementary.


Eventually, it was time to choose a restaurant for dinner. We let Maddie decide. She picked Ali-V’s, a home cookin’ restaurant.

Ali-V’s is named for a legendary local cook and beloved aunt of the proprietor. Many of the menu items came from the kitchen of the late Aunt Ali-V.

A low rumble of approval rippled through our group. Maddie had chosen well.

Ali-V’s was busier than usual that night, but we didn’t have to wait long. The staff pushed some tables together, got us seated, and took the drink orders.

Then a woman appeared and handed each of us a bingo card.

Thursday night at Ali-V’s, we learned, is Bingo Night.

“Wow, Bingo Night,” said Dustin.

He held up his card, studied it like Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yorick, chuckled, and said, “This is how you know you live in a small town.”

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When the major claim to fame of your local school board is burning books, you have a self-righteous-moralistic-toad problem.

In 1973, a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School in Drake, North Dakota, gave his sophomore students a reading assignment — Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughter-House Five.

Slaughter-House Five is an admittedly odd duck. It is an anti-war black comedy, more or less based on the horrific World War II fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, which Vonnegut lived through as a POW of the Germans.

As the story unfolds, Vonnegut’s protagonist becomes “unstuck in time,” encounters multi-dimensional aliens, and lives his life out of sequence. The book is classic, fiery-eyed satire from Vonnegut.

An odd duck, yes, but the novel shouldn’t be underestimated. It is ranked by Modern Library as number 18 among the greatest English novels of the 20th Century.

Bruce Severy, the Drake high school teacher, reported that most of his sophomore students immediately related to the book and were enthusiastic about the assignment.

“C and D students were suddenly writing A papers,” Severy told The Minot Daily News.

One student, however, complained to her mother about obscene language in the book. The mother complained to the Drake Public School Board.

The students were about one-third of the way through the novel when the school board ordered all copies of the books confiscated and fed into the school’s coal burner.

“We didn’t approve of its obscene language,” said school board president Charles McCarthy. “It might pass in a college, but not in this school.”

Another board member said the book “should not be read by anyone.”

A local minister called the novel “garbage.” A local priest said he didn’t like its “barnyard scenes.”

When the confiscation order went out, some students claimed they had lost their copies; the school board promptly ordered their lockers searched and telephoned their parents.

The students made their displeasure known. The novel, one of them said, “is respectable and interesting, and better than what we’ve been reading.” They presented a letter of protest to the school board.

Slaughter-House Five wasn’t the only book burned that year in the Drake High School coal burner. The school board also ordered the burning of 60 copies of Deliverance by James Dickey.

Also into the burner went the school’s copies of Short Story Masterpieces, a 1966 collection with works by 35 distinguished authors — James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Sinclair Lewis, James Thurber, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Carson McCullers, to drop just a few of the names.

Severy, to his credit, remained civil about the incident. He gave this long and eloquent statement to the Minot newspaper.

————

I chose the book for its immediacy, its modern style, its brevity. It is a book which addresses itself to current problems in an honest and straightforward manner. I believe the theme, or message of the book is a question: why are we killing each other still?

The book deals with other concerns as well. The lack of dignity and respect with which we treat each other in increasing doses. The dissatisfaction that Billy Pilgrim, the hero of the book, feels with his life of obvious material success. The emptiness of his marriage. The matter of man’s own free will, that seems to be no longer functioning. The resulting apathy.

It is this apathy towards an increasing state of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man that the author is crying out against in protest, through Billy Pilgrim. This is a moral book. It deals with a moral question that we as humans have been trying to deal with for time immemorial. The book begs the reader to come up with a workable answer.

Most of the criticism so far focuses on the language the author uses, specifically some four-letter words commonly referred to as slang, swearing, whatever. All I can say is that the author is trying to tell his story like it is, using the language as it is being used today, out there in the real world.

I would also like to say that no one who objects to the book that I have talked to has read the book. Another told me that he hadn’t read any of the book. I say that no one can make judgment about an entire book without reading the entire book and taking it as such. Anything less is academically dishonest, anti-intellectual, and irrational.

I would also like to say that only one student in my two classes objected to the book after reading two chapters. This is fine. I have never forced a student to read any book if that student objected or if the parents objected.

————

The teacher’s union joined the students in condemning the book-burnings. The ACLU threatened a lawsuit. Ultimately, a settlement was reached out of court, in which high school juniors and seniors were permitted to read Slaughter-House Five, and Severy received the sum of $5,000.

To my knowledge, the Drake Public School Board has fed no more books into the coal burner. In the years since the settlement, the incident has surfaced only occasionally, as an example of crude behavior by narrow-minded people who get into positions of power.

Then, a few months ago, came interesting news. A letter surfaced that Vonnegut reportedly wrote to board president McCarthy, one week after the copies of Slaughter-House Five were burned.

This is the letter.

————

November 16, 1973

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else.

You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers.

I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes — but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books — books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Kurt Vonnegut

————

According to news accounts, Vonnegut never received a reply.

You have to question the authenticity of a letter like this, surfacing after nearly 40 years. It’s the kind of thing that triggers a person’s baloney detector.

The letter’s statement, you now hold the only copy in your hands certainly doesn’t bolster its credibility.

On the other hand, nothing had popped up to indicate that the letter is a phony. It does, in fact, sound a heck of a lot like Vonnegut.

And if Kurt Vonnegut didn’t write this letter, then dammit, he should have.

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