The first full week of school has begun. At last I can practice that vocation of which God has deemed me worthy. And that is teaching adolescents how to live. Oh, and if there is time perhaps some history as well.
The name of my course is ‘8th Grade US History’ or something like that. But the real course of study is life. I will give my students my version of it. They will take what they can use and write their own version of it. When they are husbands and fathers and wives and mothers perhaps they will remember.
They are at that age where they can look at adults and know the things that are right and the things that are not. And they will mark them accordingly.
Perhaps I did the same thing when I was in 8th grade. My teacher was Mr. Mansfield. He smoked cigarettes. Some of the other boys claimed to take a puff now and then. I did not dare. There was something vaguely sinister about smoking. It marked you as a tough guy and more than a little bit of an outlaw. I remember that the guys who smoked—or who claimed to smoke—always got the bad grades. The girls liked them, though.
I was no outlaw then—I became one later—but I still did my share of rash behavior. Once Bobby Kohn and I made hydrogen gas. We would put tin snips from a tuna can into a Coke bottle, add water and Drano and then put a balloon over the mouth of the bottle. The balloon would fill with hydrogen. When full we would take the balloon, tie it off and put on another.
Soon Bobby and I had a small arsenal of floating bombs. We got some fuse and tied about 10 feet of it onto each balloon and let them float away after lighting the fuse. The bomb got about 20 feet in the air before exploding—very loudly, thank you very much.
Once Bobby miscalculated the length of fuse, and the bomb went off while he still held it. He lost his eyebrows and much of his hair. And he did not see very well for a while. But after about a month all the hair grew back.
The last I heard of Bobby was that he had joined the Marine Corps.
When I tell this tale to 8th grade boys every one of them, even the timid ones, beg me for the recipe for hydrogen. Not a chance. They will have to devise their own brands of mischief and not copy mine.
I also refuse to provide them the makings of a crude bomb I constructed before my 8th grade years. And should I say that Bobby helped me? The bomb was small but effective. We tried it out on Saint Anthony’s outdoor drinking faucet. I still remember the beautiful stream of water that flowed when the bomb went off.
And I remember what Father Carroll did when he found out who had demolished the school’s outdoor plumbing. He was one mad priest. When I see him in Heaven I will apologize—for the bomb and also for stealing Holy Water. I don’t think he ever found out about that.
That summer before 8th grade was memorable for pyrotechnics and also for two rites of passage every boy must endure. I kissed my first girl and fought my first fight. I liked the kiss better. Her name was Millie. She had long blond hair and was a bit of a tomboy. She liked me though for reasons that today escape me. I can still conjure up her face.
The fight scared me. All boys will understand. When you know you have to fight there is a sensation that passes through your gut. It is exactly the same feeling a boy gets at his first school dance when he knows he has to meet a girl. You breathe differently and time goes in short bursts. But after the first blow all is well. There is no pain, only a desire to hurt the other boy until he is on the ground. I won that one and became the hero of the day. I lost my next two fights but emerged victorious in my last one—an acceptable record.
Those 8th graders I will stand before today will have similar things to tell their sons and daughters. By that time I will be either dead or well-retired somewhere in northern Idaho. I can see myself living in a one room shack. I will sit on the porch in a wife beater and rock in my wooden rocking chair. In my lap I will cradle a 12 gauge. On a crude stand next to the chair will be a half-empty—not half-full—bottle of Jack Daniels. Next to the bottle will be my Bible.
And what the heck, I might even have a pack of Marlboros next to the Bible.
If one of my ex-students comes for a visit I might—I say might—surrender that recipe for making hydrogen. As for the Saint Anthony’s plumbing bomb, that recipe is only for Father Carroll.
I will tell him when I see him.