Mystery Meal

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They say, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” And I believe it to be true. Having known my younger brother, Kenny, both before and after his service in the U. S. Marine Corps, I’m convinced that being a Marine is much more than a brotherhood of comrades; it’s a unique way of looking at life.

Allow me to explain.

Ordinary people—myself included—play by the rules of life. We drive the speed limit, arrive on time, stand in lines, say “please” and “thank you,” watch our cholesterol, and change our oil every 5,000 miles.

Marines—including former Marines—view the items above as roadblocks in the game of life; a temporary setback if you will. To them, a speed limit is merely a suggestion, an appointment time is pushed to the very limit, courtesies are closer to guttural sounds and cholesterol concern is a complete waste of time.

A Marine views any roadblock as an obstruction to be scaled over, tunneled under, run around or blasted right through the heart. It’s a mindset that is instilled into their very being during basic training. And once it’s been turned ON, it never gets turned OFF.

Truth be told, I wish I possessed just half of this USMC mindset. Instead, I tend to follow the path of least resistance. I’ve have always thought that my little brother has lived his life a little fuller than I have lived my own. He eats, drinks and smokes whatever the hell he wants and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about him. He has been his own boss—and his own man—ever since he left the Corps. And whenever I visit him and his family, it’s fun to go along for the ride.

Kenny commutes like a NASCAR driver swapping paint. When he takes the four of us out for sushi, the bill always exceeds $300. He has missile-locked on the 747 that was transporting the space shuttle, destroyed several of my father’s transmissions while driving on railroad tracks, (“Smell this clutch, Tiny. This was a heavy-duty clutch,”) and played “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC over WHLS radio during the live Sunday morning service broadcast from Griswold Street Baptist Church. He even turned my mother’s wake into a legendary party (among my friends, anyway) at the Brass Rail, (“Mare, Mare, just one more, Mary.”)

Visiting Kenny in Arizona is always an adventure. (I wish I could go more often.) Thanks to my brother, I have hot-air ballooned over Cave Creek, raced Mustang Cobras at Bondurant, shot a fully-automatic Uzi, Jeeped rocky trails in the desert, watched the sunset at El Tovar and celebrated New Year’s Eve at the largest block party in the world—The Fiesta Bowl Party—with over 100,000 revelers. (Thanks, little brother.)

So, you would think I’d be used to his Type-A personality, but no, he still surprises me.

A few years ago, we flew out to Phoenix for a visit. Kenny arrived with his Yukon XL just as we walked out to the Arrivals curb. (Again, pushing the time envelope.) Always the good host, he asked us if we wanted some fast food for the hour drive north, and we did.

He pulled into a McDonald’s on Scottsdale Road only to find the drive-thru line backed up to the street. There were eight cars in front of us. At two minutes per car, we were looking at a 15 minute wait, but not Kenny.

Without any hesitation, he drove past this real-life roadblock. He rounded the back of the restaurant, drove past the menu board and pulled right up to the cashier’s window.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.

Kenny shushed me. The drive-thru window slid open.

“That’ll be twelve dollars and eighty-seven cents,” said the McDonald’s employee.

Kenny did a quick head count and handed over a twenty.

“And add four large Cokes,” Kenny said.

“Instead of the coffee?” asked the clerk.

“Yes,” said Kenny.

“Your new total is seventeen dollars and sixty-three cents,” said the cashier.

He handed Kenny his change and we pulled forward to the next window. I was dumbfounded. WTF?

“But you didn’t order. You don’t know what we’re getting,” I said.

Kenny shrugged and replied, “We’ll get burgers, fries…you’ll see.”

They handed him a bag of food and the four Cokes. He handed the bag to me and drove away. I opened the bag and—sure enough—there were burgers, fries, a Big Mac, and a couple of pies inside.

“See? I call it Mystery Meal,” he said.

Within one minute of pulling into a very busy McDonald’s, we were back on the road — with a bag full of food.

“But Kenny, you screwed up everybody’s order behind you,” I said.

He popped a few fries in his mouth as he processed this (apparently new) information with raised eyebrows.

“Oh yeah,” he said with a nod.

Once again, the ordinary person’s rules of life did not apply to my brother.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

Memories stay fresh, even after (40) years

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Note:  I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that 40-years have gone by since 1974. So, I dug deep in a box (that I keep out in the garage) and dusted off an article that I wrote for the Port Huron Times Herald after I had attended my 20-year class reunion. Enjoy.

TH articleWe scattered.

After an encouraging speech—that hardly any of us listened to—and after walking up on stage to receive our diplomas from Port Huron High School, it was over. 12-years in the system—13, if you count Kindergarten—and we were being released from Neverland to face our destinies. We hugged. We laughed. We cried.

Many of our paths crossed during the summer; Port Huron just isn’t that big. Friday night cruising through town, Power’s Hamburgers, Lakeside Beach…”Hey, this isn’t any different than last summer.” But time is silent; it sneaks up on you and leaps past when you’re not looking.

With each passing year, the number of faces I recognized from high school became fewer. A tightly knit clan of classmates began to congregate every Friday at the Zebra Bar. We clung to each other not wanting to let go, but knowing deep down that the odds were against us. Some of us were now students at St. Clair County Community College and we knew we were short timers in Port Huron; just waiting for our exit ramp up ahead. Others had already begun their careers down the highway of life and a few were driving down roads with warning signs that say “Dead End” and “Bridge Out.”

We got married. We stayed single. We had kids. We had none. We moved away. We stayed in Port Huron. Mortgages. Car payments. Sofas. Tuition. Vacations. Disposable diapers. Life insurance. Maytags. Time had passed by again. We had become grownups.

And, then the invitation arrived for the 20-year reunion for the Class of 1974. Who would show up? What would they look like? Were they still my friends? Of course they were, but some of them I hadn’t seen in 10, 15, hell…since graduation. What happened? Was it really possible? I mean 20-years had gone by. Twenty. Years.

I hesitated as my wife, Julie (also a Class of 1974 alumni,) and I walked up to the entrance of George’s Upper Deck Bar. It wasn’t too late to turn around and go back. After all, this was just the pre-reunion party the night before. This was optional. Maybe we could just take a peek and see who was here without committing to going inside.

“Bluegene!” someone shouts.

It was a name I hadn’t been called in decades. Immediately, I was swept into the midst of old friends. As if by magic we had traveled back in time, but we all knew that the dream was just on loan. We went back not just 20-years, but 33-years, for these were the kids I had gone to elementary and intermediate school with as well: Jim, Linda, Mitch, Shelly, Oscar, Peter, Greg, Randy, Jane, Laurie, Chris, Dan, Carl, Paul, Gary, and Phil. These were my childhood friends and they were all here. Photographs were pulled out and passed around. Peter, a friend from Kindergarten days grabbed my arm.

“Remember the time we won the plastic hockey tournament?” He asked.

“Yeah, I do,” I replied.

“We got our pictures in the paper for being the hockey champions and we won the Christmas and Easter door-decorating contests too. Remember Mrs. Monk? She always said, ‘I’ll shake the stew out of you,'” Peter continued.

I wouldn’t have remembered that on my own, but the memory was there, just waiting to be picked up and held for a while. It was a night of revisiting long-lost memories and filling in the blanks.

The next night at the Thomas Edison Inn, I saw even more faces from the past. Everyone was eager to talk. The walls were gone. Old flames talked to one another with a flicker of “what if…?” Trailing spouses were pulled into inner circles of conversations. Cameras flashed continuously. And when we danced, it was lunch hour at Washington Intermediate once more. We showed our silly sides in the line dances. One-by-one, we soloed down the chute to the hoots and jeers of our classmates.

And then people began to get their coats. Please don’t leave; not yet.

Silently, persuasively, time was passing by again. The evening was, all too quickly, coming to an end, but many of us refused to let it win. Not tonight anyway. We pushed back on the hands of the clock. Some of us went to a bonfire beach party at Lighthouse Park and then we hopped on a classmate’s boat docked at the marina. That night, we were still in Neverland. We didn’t want to grow up and we refused to give up without a fight. Still, subtly, the sky began to lighten and the birds began to sing their morning serenade. An hour later, the first rays of dawn peeked over the horizon.

We were the same and we were different in a weird sort of way. There were winners, but no real losers, (although a few of us had crashed and burned.) They say that the most important things are said last—as the the door is closing—and I believe it to be true.

“Good-bye, my friends. I miss you.”

We hugged. We laughed. We cried. And, then we scattered, again.

Gene for the Defense

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Speeding TicketIt was way past midnight on a wintry Saturday night in 1975. It had just started to snow and through my windshield, the falling flakes looked like that scene in Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon blasts into light speed. Everything was blanketed in white, but there were still two well-worn tire paths where the road was still visible.

The speed limit on Busha Highway in Marysville is 55 miles-per-hour, but since the roads were slick, I dropped my speed to 45. As I rounded the bend by the refinery, I passed an oncoming car. In my rear-view mirror, I noticed that the car made a U-turn and was quickly gaining on me. I fully expected this fool to pass me, but instead red-and-blue flashing lights pierced my back window. I was being pulled over, but I had no idea why I was being pulled over.

A friendly Marysville Police Officer told me why he had pulled me over: my speed was too fast for road conditions and he suggested that I slow down. Now, I might have gotten off with a warning at that point, but I couldn’t leave well-enough alone.

First, I pointed out that I was was driving 10 miles-per-hour under the speed limit, and second, not only had he passed me in the opposite direction, but he turned around and caught up to me within one mile. So—being the smart ass that I am—I asked him if he was driving too fast for road conditions too? And that’s when his attitude changed.

He wrote me a speeding ticket and advised me to slow down. Dripping with sarcasm, I said “Thank you, officer.”

I pissed and moaned to anyone who would listen to my sad tale of injustice and everyone gave me the same advice, “Go to court.” Damn straight. Hell yeah. I signed the ticket, checked the box marked ‘not guilty,’ and—since I worked in the same building—I hand delivered it to the County Court Office. They scheduled my court date. My case would go to trial in 30 days at 9:00 a.m. in front of Judge Hamm.

“Damn straight” and “Hell yeah” quickly turned into “What the hell have I done?”

The morning of my trial was another snow storm; how appropriate. And it wasn’t just a snow storm, it was a blizzard with drifting snow. Schools were closed and driving was treacherous. I wasn’t really sure if the County Court would even be open in such severe weather.

It was a good thing I showed up because Judge Hamm showed up, and so did the Marysville Police Officer. We both stood up when he entered the court. I was the only defendant in the court room, but before my case was called, he read the names of every other person who was scheduled to show up that morning and ruled their cases as guilty since they neglected to appear before the court.

Next thing I heard was, “The court calls case number blah, blah, blah, the City of Marysville versus Eugene Renaker.”

Judge Hamm instructed me to take a seat at the front table to his right. I gathered all of my evidence, including: a month-old weather report from the daily WHLS news bulletin, a large road map of the incident and a photograph of the snow-covered road that I had shot the morning after I received my ticket. I came loaded for bear, but I would never get a chance to show any of my dazzling articles of defense. I took a seat in my suit and tie.

The officer was sworn in and asked by a prosecutor to explain what happened. The officer made it sound all very legal, “At 1:12 a.m. while traveling south on Busha Highway, I encountered a vehicle that was traveling at a speed that I deemed to be too fast for road conditions because it was snowing. I turned around and pursued the vehicle. At Michigan Road I pulled the driver over.”

The prosecutor asked, “How hard was it snowing?”

The officer pointed to the blizzard just outside the window and said, “Just like it is right now.”

Judge Hamm reacted to the blinding blizzard that blew past the window in horizontal gusts, “Good Lord.”

I jumped to my feet and yelled, “Objection your Honor! Isn’t that just a little too coincidental?”

Everything stopped. Time stood still. Everyone was looking at me; the bailiff, the Marysville Police Officer, the prosecutor, and even the stenographer. Last, but certainly not least, Judge Hamm was staring at me.

I thought I was going to be charged with contempt. It was as if some crazy 19-year-old understudy had taken over my body and shouted out lines that weren’t even in the play. I just stood there with my hand still in the air.

The Judge gently waved me back into my chair and said, “Sit down, Perry Mason.”

In the end, I didn’t even have to take the stand. I think Judge Hamm envisioned more theatrics on my part and quickly dismissed the case if I agreed to pay court costs of $35.

“What?!”  I remember thinking, “Why should I have to pay anything? This is bullshit” However, logic prevailed and I cooled my jets as Judge Hamm explained that also meant no points or ticket on my record.

Dripping with appreciation, I said, “Thank you, your Honor.”

A Simple Misunderstanding

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It was the winter of 1974 and my high school architecture instructor, Mr. Belt, was teaching our class about stress points. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember anything he taught us on the subject. It involved a lot of math—not my strongest subject—to determine the location of the breaking point when a load was placed on a structure.

I’m sure he explained it correctly, but his lesson eluded me. It wasn’t just me, either. None of us really understood what he was trying to convey to us. He might as well have been speaking Swahili as he scribbled formulas on the chalk board.

Mr. Belt must have sensed our complete lack of understanding, so he decided to make it interesting. He introduced dynamite into the equation.

“Imagine you want to blow up a bridge, but you only have one stick of dynamite.” he said.

Hello. That piqued our interest. We sat up and paid attention.

He produced a small engineering drawing of Seventh Street Bridge located in downtown Port Huron. The drawing showed the bridge in the raised and lowered positions. It also displayed the hidden workings of the bridge including the motors, gears and cantilever weights.

“Where would you put it? At the weakest point on the bridge. Right? That’s what I’m asking you to find…the weakest point, or as we call it, the stress point,” he said.

Now, as far as I can recall, he only said “dynamite” once, but that was enough. After that, the assignment suddenly became very interesting. Isn’t it amazing how a different perspective can change your whole outlook?

We were told to work in teams on this assignment. With a simple knowing nod to Ed, one of my fellow classmates, we were teammates. We divided the work: I would draw up the plans; Ed would calculate the equations.

Within a week, we had completed our assignment. I had drawn orthographic views of both sides of the bridge, plus a top view of Seventh Street and the Black River. A call-out line with an arrow pointed to an “X” on the thin part of the bridge’s arch. Hand printed next to the line were the words,”Place dynamite here.” It was awesome. Really.

I made a set of blueprints of our drawings at Mueller Brass where I worked every morning in the engineering department. The plans were rolled into a tube and I took them to school—where I promptly lost them.

Of all people to find the set of blueprints was our American Literature teacher, Mr. Mitchem. Earlier that same year, Ed and I had left a shoebox on his podium that contained a fake time bomb, complete with a ticking clock, a six-volt dry cell, and bell wire connected to large radio resistors (blasting caps) and highway flares (dynamite.) It was a prop for a skit we performed, but that’s a different story. Note: see “American Lit Book Report.”

Mr. Mitchem called us out of other classes and we reported to his class room as instructed. His mood was serious as he confronted us.

“Are you guys planning to do anything illegal in the near future?” he asked us, point blank.

My mind raced. What the hell was he getting at? Cheating on tests? Smoking pot? Drinking beer? Riding trains? Taunting the mounted police at the football games?

Ed was always better on his feet.

“Nope,” he said.

I followed Ed’s lead.

“Nope,” I repeated.

Mr. Mitchem stared at us using his silent tactic, as if one of us would break down under the tremendous pressure. (No chance.) He unrolled the set of blueprints on his desk.

“Can you explain this?” he said.

Ha! He thought we were terrorists? We both laughed and relaxed.

“You think we would blow up a bridge? This is an assignment for Mr. Belt’s architecture class,” Ed said.

Mr. Mitchem simply stared at us. He wasn’t buying this incredulous explanation, but we didn’t care; we were in the clear and we knew it. We were both chuckling as he rolled up the blueprints and marched across the hall to Mr. Belt’s class. The door was locked and Mr. Belt was teaching a class, but Mr. Mitchem didn’t care; he was on a mission. He knocked on the door. Ed and I stood behind him; grinning.

Mr. Belt opened the door and saw the rolled blueprints in Mr. Mitchem’s hand. He knew the question before it was asked.

“It’s an assignment to find stress points on a structure,” he said.

With that, he extended his hand and took possession of the blueprints and returned to his class. Mr. Mitchem turned around and simply told us to return to our classes.

Neither teacher ever mentioned this incident again. And in retrospect, it wasn’t really much of an event; it was just a simple misunderstanding. It was long forgotten when our yearbooks arrived in June. Like most students, we filled our yearbooks with grand salutations, wishes of luck and simple signatures.

And that’s what I expected from Mr. Mitchem; a simple signature, but instead he wrote a poem in my yearbook. Word got around, and for the next week my fellow classmates repeatedly asked me to show them Mr. Mitchem’s poem; which I did with a smile.

And I still chuckle about it to this day.

An explosion in the night,
7th Street Bridge is gone,
It went without a fight,
In the Magic Bomber’s dawn.

— W. P. Mitchem

The Stolen Christmas Tree

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To be honest, none of us thought it was vandalism at the time, but that’s how it was described in the Sunday morning edition of our local newspaper, The Times Herald:

“Vandals destroy trees at Chippewa School.”

One of those pine trees—and many evergreen branches from the others we butchered—decorated the sanctuary at Griswold Street Baptist Church.

Traditionally, the youth group trimmed the church at the beginning of Advent. In years past, they purchased a tall tree from the Ruby Tree Farm, cut it down, dragged it to a truck, drove it to the church, dragged the tree inside the church and decorated it. The reward for this day of hard labor was hot cocoa and cookies.

This year was different because, being high-school seniors, we were the oldest kids in the youth group. My friend and I had a better plan: find a tree for free and spend the $25 (designated for the Christmas tree) on pizza.

It’s important to point out that Domino’s Pizza didn’t exist at the time. In fact, there were no pizza chains to speak of and only a handful of restaurants served this Italian treat: Saffee’s, Joe’s, Dino’s, and House of Pizza. My point being, pizza was a big deal in 1973.
After the Wednesday night church service, the Youth Group Chaperon gave us $25 to spend on acquiring a Christmas Tree. All we had to do was find a tree—a free tree—between now and Saturday morning.

This is much harder than it sounds.

The next day after school, four of us piled into a pickup truck and we combed the area looking for a suitable tree. There were many trees that fit the bill, but cutting them down and making a clean getaway would be next to impossible. We ruled out trees located in neighborhoods because one of the girls thought that would be rude. Next, we continued to search the industrial areas, city parks, beaches and cemeteries, all to no avail.

I had an epiphany.

Years ago, I went to Chippewa School for Saturday morning basketball games. Since I didn’t have a bike lock, I hid my bicycle behind a thick grove of evergreen trees. Better yet, Chippewa School was isolated at the end of a secluded road. Bingo. We selected our tree and returned after dark.

We chopped down the best-looking tree and severed the branches of many other trees for trimmings. It was a well-executed surgical strike. 15-minutes later, we dragged the tree inside the church, placed it in the tree stand and washed our hands—figuratively and literally—because they were sticky from the sap. The rest of the youth group would decorate the tree on Saturday morning. Our part of the job, procurement, was done.

It was time to celebrate.

We spent our ill-gotten gain at Joe’s Pizzaria by ordering two top-of-the-line 16″ Supreme pizzas—and they were absolutely delicious. (Stolen fruit tastes the sweetest.) Living the dream, we gorged until we were stuffed and pumped coins into the juke box all evening—a perfect ending to a perfect caper.

On Sunday morning, my co-conspirator approached me in the church parking lot.

“Did you tell anyone where the tree came from?” he asked.

“Hell no,” I said.

He unfolded the newspaper article and I read it. A wave of fear came over me as I looked at the photograph of the barren trunks and one-lone stump. I have to admit, it did look a lot like vandalism.

“Holy shit,” I whispered.

The short article ended with a request for anyone with any knowledge of this crime to contact the St. Clair County Sheriff’s office. Well, anyone with half a brain could solve this crime; the evidence was right inside the church for everyone to see. We would be caught for sure; it was just a matter of time. The cops were probably on their way here right now.

My friend refolded the article and stuffed it back into his suit coat pocket. We were doomed. It occurred to us that, most likely, we would spend the rest of the holidays at the juvenile detention center on Krafft Road.  We walked into church with our guilty heads lowered. And there it was, in all its glory, (Is this the same tree?) the most magnificent and radiant Christmas tree I have ever seen in my life.

It was unrecognizable.

The youth group had done a spectacular job.  The tree was decorated from top-to-bottom with strings of colored-lights, ornaments, tinsel and a star-spire capped the top. Canned goods for the needy surrounded the base. Evergreen trimmings adorned with red ribbons were hung down the halls and aisles of the church. All that was missing was the choir singing, Joy to the World. No one would recognize this tree. Not now. Not ever.

We walked into the Youth Bible Study Class, took our seats and said a prayer of thanks.

The Dirty Blanket

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My mother was convinced that Satan was using rock-n-roll music to destroy the youth of our country; present company included. More than once she confiscated and destroyed a rock music album that she deemed to be offensive. Remember the cover of Who’s Next by The Who? Gone. Or the bible verses on the back of Aqualung by Jethro Tull? Blasphemy. And Give me an F… chant by Country Joe McDonald on the triple album Woodstock. Gone. Gone. And gone.

Rock and roll was evil—pure and simple—so I learned to hide my albums and my activities. The less she knew, the better it was for both of us. It was just self preservation on my part.

In 1973, a new hard-rock tune, Frankenstein by the Edgar Winter Group, caught my ear. WRIF played the hell out of it. It quickly became my favorite song. I bought the album and I played the hell out of it too. And, I turned it up to eleven whenever I could. A few months later, I saw an ad in the Sunday Detroit Free Press for the Edgar Winter Group’s concert at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. It was a dream come true. I mailed off a money order and received four tickets a week later. I asked my best friend, Lorena, to go with me. She was thrilled. Better yet, she had a driver’s license.

Lorena wasn’t my girl friend; she was one of my best friends that just happened to be a girl. Get it? We went out together all the time, but our friendship was strictly a brother-and-sister” type relationship. Most people assumed—my mother included—that our friendship was much more intimate. It wasn’t.

The day of the concert arrived the same week that report cards were sent home. Lorena had received a “C” in some class and she was grounded until the next marking period. The next marking period? That’s six weeks! That’s like forever in teenager time. Since she couldn’t go to the concert, she set me up with one of her good friends who could drive and we went to the show with another couple. The concert was awesome.

It was around midnight when I arrived home. My parents were already in bed. The phone rang as I entered the house.

“Hello?” I answered softly.

It was Lorena.

“Eugene? Is that you?” my mother called from her bedroom.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Who called?” she asked.

“It was a wrong number,” I said.

I returned to Lorena’s call. She wanted to hear everything about the concert. Not wanting to wake up our families, we both whispered. About this time, Lorena’s father walked through their dark house into the kitchen and cut an extremely loud fart. Pffffffffft! I even heard it over the phone. We could barely contain our laughter and we couldn’t understand our whispers.

“Can you come over, right now?” Lorena asked.

“I’ll be right over.” I said.

I slipped out the back door and rode my bicycle over to Lorena’s house. She met me in her driveway around one in the morning. We walked down to her boat dock on the St. Clair River and wrapped ourselves up in her blanket. We watched chunks of ice float by as we talked about the concert, our high school classes and life in general.

At one point, I distinctly remember impersonating Bill Cosby. I recounted the skit where he had placed a frog in his pocket that croaked on cue.

“Hey old weird Harold, I’ll bet you fifty cents my leg can burp.” “Croak,” I said.

We laughed and talked for hours. The time flew by. Around four-thirty in the morning, the sky began to lighten. Our time was over. When we stood up, we noticed the bottom edge of the blanket was dirty from the wet dock. Lorena didn’t want to explain to her parents why her blanket was soaking wet and filthy, so I rolled it up and offered to wash and dry it. (What a guy.) Done deal.

It was around five in the morning when I crept back into my house. I threw Lorena’s blanket in the washing machine, added some soap, started the wash cycle and went to bed.

My mother woke me up with a start that afternoon.

“Eugene! Whose blanket is this?” she asked with an irritated tone.

She was holding the wet blanket and she was very upset. I was still very groggy. She repeated the question a little louder. It didn’t occur to me how incriminating this evidence might appear to my mother.

“It’s Lorena’s blanket,” I said.

“And why is it in my washing machine?” she asked.

“Cause we got it dirty,” I said quite matter of factly. (Sheesh. Get a clue, lady.)

You could see the fruit spinning in my mother’s mind. One-by-one, they all lined up. Her eyes widened.

“Tiny! Get up here!” she called to my father who was downstairs.

He climbed upstairs to my bedroom and stood next to my mother.

“Your son has got some explaining to do,” she stated like a prosecuting attorney.

I was wide awake now and I quickly went into damage control mode. I tried to explain that this wasn’t how it looked, but she would hear none of it. Abruptly, my mother left my bedroom and my father followed her.

Cool. That was easy.

I fell back into my warm bed with every intention of going back to sleep. A moment later, I heard my mother shouting downstairs. (Now what?) Whoever she was yelling at now wasn’t saying anything. Unless…unless—oh shit—unless she was on the telephone.

And she was.

“Lorena, you need to get over here right now!” she shouted.
“Oh, I think you know exactly what this is about. A dirty blanket!” she said.

I scrambled down the stairs and tried to stop my mother before she completely ruined my life.

“Mom! No! Stop it. She’s already in trouble,” I said.

Now I was referring to Lorena being grounded, but that’s not how it sounded to my mother. She freaked.

“Tiny!” she yelled.

My dad walked back into the melee.

“Eugene has gotten Lorena in trouble,” she said.

“Great day in the morning,” he said.

“What? No! That’s not what I meant,” I said.

Lorena was still on the phone and I’m pretty sure she was laughing.

“Get over here right now,” my mother told her.

Lorena said she was eating dinner with her family and then she hung up. (What balls.)

“Hello? Lorena? Lorena?” My mother spoke into the dead handset.

I loved it.

But I was also pissed. And embarrassed. I took the wet blanket from my mother and put it in the clothes dryer. My mother called her pastor and spilled her guts to him. I went upstairs to my bedroom, shut the door and put Frankenstein on the turntable and turned it up to 11.

They say nothing spreads faster than a good rumor.

The following Monday at school, it seemed that everyone knew that Eugene had gotten Lorena in trouble and there was a dirty blanket to prove it. I hadn’t told a soul. I’m positive Lorena hadn’t told anyone. That left the Pastor and the Deacons of the church. So much for confidentiality.

American Lit Book Report

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My 11th grade American Literature teacher, Mr. Mitchem, used an unusual method to make oral book reports more interesting. He encouraged our class to team up and perform skits on the theme of the book we had read. We were given a reading list of the usual American authors such as Hemingway, Twain, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, plus many others, and we were required to read four books per semester. (Thank God for Cliff Notes.) In addition, we were allowed to read a book of our choice, provided it was written by an American author and Mr. Mitchem approved the book first. And that’s where this story begins.

William Powell, an American author, wrote a subversive book, The Anarchist Cookbook, in 1971. It was not a novel, but rather an instruction manual for destroying our country. His reasoning for writing a book that not only condoned terrorism, but provided step-by-step instructions, was the continuation of the Vietnam War, corporations that polluted our natural resources, and the corrupt Nixon administration. The book centered on drugs, sabotage, surveillance, weapons, explosives, booby traps, and even included a poem that Ho Chi Minh wrote while he was imprisoned—perfect reading material for two small-town teenagers. I’m assuming Powell was under surveillance by the FBI.

My friend and class cohort, Eddie, showed me a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook and suggested we perform a skit book report on the theme of this book. I flipped to the table of contents. A few of the chapters were: “How to make Mercury Fulminate,” “How to make Tear Gas in your Basement,” and “Formulas for Blasting Gelatin.” Cool! I was hooked and I agreed without a second thought. My previous theme book reports were for The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath and The Old Man and the Sea. I was ready for something different. Something wild. And this book sure as hell fit the bill.

Mr. Mitchem abhorred censorship and was very open minded when it came to approving our books of choice—hell, he even let one student give a book report on the telephone book—but our book of choice gave him pause. He agreed, reluctantly, with a reminder that our book report must be about the theme.

Theme was king. He was known to interrupt any student’s presentation if the book report even hinted about the plot. He wanted to know what we got out of a book, not a recount of the storyline. I always struggled with theme. As a student with decent grades, I had learned over the past 11 years how to read, remember and repeat whatever any teacher wanted me to know for a test. So, after years of regurgitating the plot of a book for previous teachers, it took me a while to figure out what Mr. Mitchem wanted to hear. He actually wanted—no, demanded—that we think about what we had read.

“Usually, what you learn from a book IS the theme of the book,” he said.

Eddie and I read the book from beginning to end. Devoured, would actually be a better word. We learned “How to Drill Pistol Barrels to Silence a Gun Shot,” “How to Prime a Homemade Stick of Dynamite” and “How to Build a Pressure-sensitive Release Detonator.”  Powell justified the contents of his book with his own personal political commentary. He was a wannabe revolutionary that was convinced that the only way to save America, was to destroy it and then rebuild it. I didn’t agree with his radical political views, but I knew theme when it stared me in the face. Revolution. That was the theme of the book. And we would use selected quotes from the book to state the theme. Our book report would practically write itself.

Eddie and I went to work on our skit.

We built a working time bomb using instructions from several chapters of the book. Other than using real dynamite and blasting caps, (we used highway flares and large radio resistors,) the bomb was functional. We wired a dry cell battery to an alarm clock that would send six volts of current to the blasting cap which would ignite the three sticks of dynamite causing it to explode. We housed the entire device inside an ordinary shoebox. Again, to be clear, it was fake, albeit, a very convincing fake.

On the day we were to present our book report, we walked into our classroom wearing long trench coats and sunglasses. We didn’t speak to anyone. We stayed in character from the moment we walked in the room until Mr. Mitchem called on us to present our book report.

We could hear snickers and giggles from fellow classmates as we stood at the podium. Eddie placed the shoebox on the podium. Mr. Mitchem stood at the back of the room leaning against the wall with his arms crossed; no doubt waiting for us to recount the plot. Ha. No chance. This book report would be over in 30 seconds.

I stepped forward and said, “We read The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell.”

“The only laws a man can truly respect are the ones he makes for himself. Allow your love of freedom to overcome the false values placed on human life, for the only method to communicate with the enemy is to speak to him on his own level, using his own terms,” I said.

Eddie stepped forward.

With conviction in his voice he said, “Freedom is based on respect, and respect must be earned by the spilling of blood.”

We left the shoebox on the podium and exited the classroom into the hallway.

Our classmates told us what happened next. Mr. Mitchem walked up to the podium, opened the shoebox and his eyes went wide. He picked it up with both hands, walked briskly to an open window and threw the shoebox into the courtyard. He found us in the hall and he was pissed. We quickly assured him that the prop was a fake, so he sent me to the courtyard to retrieve it. We weren’t allowed to keep it. That was probably a wise decision on his part. Who knows what Eddie and I might have done with our fake time bomb.

Now imagine the world of hurt Eddie and I would have been in if we had pulled this stunt today. Our school would have been locked down. The S.W.A.T. team and bomb squad would have evacuated the entire building. We would have been permanently expelled from school and probably faced criminal charges — and rightfully so. Hell, we would have been on CNN within the hour.

But 1972 was a long time before Columbine, so instead of being taken into custody, we both got an “A” for our book report.