Monday, October 29, 2012

The Whistle Blower

I used to play a lot of tether ball when I was in elementary school.  It was a simple game; a volley ball "tethered" by a thin rope to a tall steel pole.  The object?  Two players would face off against one another and try to clobber the ball in opposite directions.  The first to wrap the rope and ball completely around the post like the colors of barbershop pole, would win the game.  

The victor usually had a really strong arm or was just a tad taller than his opponent and was able to hit the ball high, foiling the defender's attempts to leap up and block its cork screwing flight.   When mismatched in height  the serve was of prime importance.   If the smaller kid had the serve, he could create sort of an angled, elliptical orbit by starting the ball low and sending it on a rising trajectory, sort of like an electron zipping around the nucleus.  If he smacked the ball right, the top of its arching flight would peek just above where the taller kid was positioned.  As it came round the pole again, it would dip low and the little red-faced server would smack it a second time, speeding it along the same out of reach path.  If the tall kid was lame and didn't move and he'd keep missing the ball until he lost.  I loved that game!

My other favorite game was a total guy thing with a modicum of violence and much battle field theatrics:  dodge ball.   Played in gym, with two teams on either side of the center line, and all you tried to do was hit each other with the volley ball.  If you could dodge the shot, you were still in the game, if not, out to the side lines you went.   The team with players left on the floor won.  Simple.  But my seventh grade gym teacher came up with a new version he called Combat Dodge Ball. Mr. Royer was a bald, squat, muscle bound, ex- Marine sergeant who made us line up in squads for roll call.  He would walk the lines of seventh and eight grade boys and with his index finger, stretch and release the elastic waist band of our jock straps.  A stinging zap made sure we had them on.  If not, back to the locker room we were sent.  Chas (his first name, uttered only behind his back) also checked our hair length to insure the bangs where no longer than the width of two fingers above our eyebrows and that no growth had touched the top of our ears.  If a kid was in non-compliance, Chas would let out a very pronounced nose grunt; a short nostril "HMMMFFFH" followed by the word "hairCUT!!"  He would then move on down the squad line, checking and rechecking his students.   

If your hair was too long (this was the 60's and every kid wanted long hair) you had until the next gym session to get to a barber (we had gym every other day) or he would send you to the assistant Principal's office for a talk with Mr. Fritz.  Fritz kept a file of index cards on which he recorded each student's disciplinary indiscretions.  I had a thick stack of cards (hyper-active kids usually did) that Mr. Fritz loved to thumb through as he interrogated me.  Earl Fritz was about 6' tall, had ink black hair cut in a squared flat top and always wore a white shirt and a black suit and tie.  He was intimidating and distributed detention liberally, but it was the principal... whose name I have blocked from my mind... who one time pulled me from a line for laughing and slammed me against the wall during a fall-out shelter drill.  He had sandy blond hair and a sort of pleasant demeanor.  Looks can be deceiving. 

Yeah, so combat dodge ball.  I assume Chas Royer invented it because no one had ever heard of it before playing it in his gym class.  Two big rule changes.  First, no player left the court during the game.  Instead they were forced to lay face down on the spot where they were hit. (the quick and the dead).  Second, we didn't use soft volley balls.  Nope, Chas' version of Combat D-Ball used rock hard basket balls.   Obviously the bigger boys had an advantage.  The basket balls required a big palm to handle and in comparison to a volley ball, were heavy.  Either you had a hard time throwing it, and missed a lot, or the ball worked fine for you and you could truly hurt your opponent.   And then there were Chas's disciples, the sadomasochists.   Big lads who were destine to be stars in high school football.  They loved to throw the ball at the dead and wounded, skinny little kids, pale and malnourished  symbolic of the world's underclasses, lying face down, heads covered with their frail arms, easy targets strewn across the maple floor of the gym.  No good moving target to throw at?  Slam a dead kid on the floor.  If they hit the cowering body just right, they could make the ball bounce back to them along with the moans of their victim.  That made Chas smile and his disciples loved to see him smile.

Its funny, those memories.  I am quite sure Chas Royer and Earl Fritz are dead by now, but they are quite alive in my mind, unaltered by time. 

Mr. Fritz and detention hall.  It was a small desk-chair unit placed in the corridor outside the main administrative office, the place everyone had to pas to come or go from the building.  If you were prone to shame, it was a horrible seat to occupy.  On the other hand, if you were slightly brazen, it could be a rather rewarding social experience.    My longest stint of after school incarceration was in punishment of good healthy capitalist spirit.  Something that should have won me praise from my elder educators.  It was 1968 and bird whistles were all the craze.  The whistles were tiny devices, made of a little piece of leather and a thin reed of clear plastic connected together by a U-shaped grommet.   This 1" long, 1/16th of an inch thick device was inserted behind the front teeth on the tip of the tongue.  Exhaling softly through the mouth caused the plastic reed to vibrate emitting an ear piercing screech with lips barely parted.  You could blow a bird whistle in a crowd, and no one could tell who had made the shrill noise.

So these little devices, which I imagine resulted in a good many deaths by suffocation when inhaled, were sold at the candy store across the street from Highland Junior High school.  There, along with sweettarts, jaw breakers, baseball cards, tootsie roll pops and a million other temptations were bird whistles, selling for a nickel a piece.  Unfortunately, we had two things going against us when it came to visiting Paisley's Candy Store.  Most kids attending the school (which was torn down some years ago and replaced with a mini market) rode the big yellow buses to and from home and lived miles from the town's sole source of bird whistles.  Second, we did not have what was called an "open campus".  That is, we were not allowed to cross the street to Paisley's or anywhere else not on the school grounds.  

Displaying the entrepreneurial genius of a young Bill Gates I sensed the potential popularity of the bird whistles. So, disregarding the distance, I mounted my bicycle one afternoon and rode the ten miles from my house to the store.  There I bought a big 40 cent bag of Cheetos and invested another buck sixty in bird whistles.  The next day I took them to school and began selling them for a dime a piece.  As my supply quickly dwindled, market pressure drove my price first to twenty and then twenty five cents a unit.   The profit was not only incredibly intoxicating, but with it came a new form of popularity; that of the "pusher-man."

Not more than two days passed and I was again aboard my Huffy one speed making another covert run to Paisley's Candy Store.   This time, with company profits, I bought five dollars worth of bird whistles.  Similar success was enjoyed at lunch hour the following afternoon. My pockets jingled with coins as the school came alive with the piercing call of unseen raptors.  But then the heavy hand of government, that hated thing called regulation, was placed upon my shoulder.   From the wall intercom came an announcement:  "Ronald Boyd, please report to the Administration Office.  Ronald Boyd, report to the office."  

There I sat in front of Mr. Fritz, a pile of discolored and misshapen bird whistles in a water glass beside him, my stack of index cards in his hand.  

"But what have I done wrong?"  I pleaded.  "I went after school to the store!  I'm not the one using the whistles during school hours.  How can I be held responsible for what other students do with a perfectly legal device?"

Had my case been heard before a jury, had I an attorney who could have expunged my prior school convictions from evidence, I believe I would have been vindicated.  But with Fritz manning the gavel of justice it was three weeks detention for possession with intent to distribute... BIRD WHISTLES.

I had a lot of problems with authority as a kid.  Real authority garners respect which must be earned.  Few of my disciplinarians in early childhood ever achieved anything close to my respect.  What they did instill was a healthy sense of how flawed most bureaucracies are and how corrupting even a small amount of power is.  

What can I say, once a whistle blower, always a whistle blower.

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