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Ch. 10. If It Itches...

You know that story you mother tells that embarrasses you horribly, yet you can’t honestly remember doing it because you were too young? 

Miss Caudill tells a story like that about me. I swear I don’t remember it. I swear.

The play opened successfully, and everything went remarkably well. Lighting cues were on time, everyone remembered their lines, costume changes went without a hitch. As we performed we got a little better. I think we did three or four nights, and the crowds grew larger each night. 

One of the odd things about performing on stage is that it isn’t as nerve-wracking as you might think. When giving a speech in a boardroom, you can see everyone’s faces and get feedback on how well you are doing from their body language and attentiveness. The same thing is true for teachers–if you pay attention, you can tell how you’re doing. 

When performing on stage, for the largest groups of audience members, the opposite is true. The lights blind you to the darkness beyond as if you were performing in front of a darkened window or one-way mirror. They can see you, but you can’t see them. The only feedback you get is the occasional laugh or clapping or some other auditory feedback; and in a well behaved audience you might not even get that. 

Isolated on stage it becomes more and more like the world you are attempting to portray. Under these conditions I could do more than imagine that I was Grumio...I could be Grumio, really attend to and respond to Petruchio’s words instead of simply saying my line when it was my turn. 

These were all things our teacher taught us to think about explicitly. We talked about thinking. We thought about thinking while acting. I believe she wanted us not to just act with our bodies and voices, but with our brains. She said to us once, “One of the hallmarks of great acting is what you are doing when the audience is not supposed to be paying attention to you. Are you listening to the main character speak, or is your mind wandering because you know what she’s going to say? If you’re not focused, in character, every second on the stage, the audience will know it, and they’ll stop paying attention to the story in order to see you slip in and out of character.” 

After I had been a student of hers for a while, she told me what my internal theory of acting was. I wasn’t really conscious of it, but when she told me, it made a lot of sense. “You approach acting scientifically, Jeffery Mason,” she said. “You put on a role like layers of clothes. First a voice, then a walk, then mannerisms, then your face, then costuming, then, near the end, you tie it all up and actually become the character. Very methodical.”

“There’s only so much new information I can...program my brain with at once,” I said. “I need to master each thing before moving on.”

“If it works, it works,” she said. “Every actor is different. You’re going to be a great character actor. Not like John Wayne or Charlton Heston who always just acts like themselves in every movie.”

I had never really thought of myself pursuing acting professionally. I wondered if I could handle the competition in a city big enough to make a living doing it. The competition must be fierce.

Miss Caudill went to college in a small town called Berea, Kentucky. At Berea College, you could only be admitted if your parents didn’t make too much money. Once admitted, you were not charged tuition, just books and living expenses, which you could partially defer by working part time for the college. One of her professors there, a gentleman who eventually became one of my teachers, was a professor named Paul Power, who taught her – and later me– to act with our butts. 

“When you’re sitting there on the stage with your back to the audience,” he’d say in his mild New England accent, “even yoah butt is acting. Even yoah butt. You sit there and tell us what you’re thinking with yoah ahss.”

At the time when I heard him say it, everyone else laughed, but I knew he was serious, because I’d heard it before. This is one way teachers sort of gain a bit of immortality, I think... they pass on these little gems of wisdom that have a way of propagating themselves. 

Then there are things they’d rather not remember. 

I’m sure Miss Caudill has had second thoughts about the time she decided I had ham hands when portraying Grumio, then gave me a large wooden spoon to use as a prop. At first, it was hanging there like my hammy hands, but soon I brandished it like a sword when Petruchio says that Grumio must defend Kate. I tapped Curtis on the head with it to get her attention. I twirled it around my ear, as if to say, “He’s crazy,” as Petruchio attempted to befuddle Kate with contradictions and confrontation. 

“That’s some good business you’re developing,” Miss Caudill said. “Keep it up.”

During the second or third performance there was one scene where we were supposed to be lying on the floor, exhausted from hauling all of Petruchio and Kate’s gear, while Petruchio berated Kate for not being obedient. “It is the moon if I say it is the moon!” bellowed Benny. 

I tried to imagine what Grumio would do in such a situation. Momentarily deprived of the glare of Petruchio’s attention, he would take a nap, I decided. I pulled my hat down over my eyes and waited for the command to get moving again. I must have let my mind wander a bit too much, because Benny snatched the hat from my face and began beating me with it, like the Skipper beating Gilligan. I reacted with shock at this unrehearsed piece of business, and noticed Benny grinning at me in full view of half of the audience. What was he doing...? Was he going out of character?

Ah. He wants that fraction of the audience to see that Petruchio is pretending to beat on Grumio for Kate’s eyes, who could see Petruchio’s back and not his face. 

Now that’s acting. 

Eventually, the spell was broken, the play ended, and we heard applause from offstage even with the exit doors closed (and they were doors–one led to the music room, and the other led to a storage closet with no other exit, which was a challenge for blocking scenes.)

For the first time, I remember hearing what felt like thunderous applause –although the tiny theatre at the community college could only hold a couple of hundred people. The performance was sold out, and when the cast came out to take their bows, we all got lots of positive reinforcement due to standing ovations.  

Miss Caudill got roses from someone, and I stood, heartbroken, as Benny and Lyn stood holding hands and taking bows long after decorum and character would have required it. 

After the performance, we were excused from the usual after-practice grilling over our performances and sent home. I started to ask Miss Caudill a question, but she merely looked at me with a twinkle in her eye, and waved me away without saying a word. The next day at school we were debriefed. The debriefing started during the last period of the day (when I was still officially in P.E.) and continued through the afternoon before our next performance. 

I was puzzled by the reaction of everyone when I walked into the room after school. Miss Caudill, perched on top of her desk with her legs crossed like a little kid, took one look at me and howled. Just howled with laughter. Everyone else started laughing too.  I looked down at myself. Were my pants unzipped?

Eyes streaming down her cheeks, she said to me, “Tell me, tell me, did you do that on puh, puh, purpose?” 

“Do what?” I asked in all honesty, which sent her back into a gale of laughter. 

“You upstaged me, you little turd,” said Benny. “Nobody upstages me.” 

“What do you mean upstage?” I asked. 

“You stole the scene from him, ripped it right out of his hands,” choked Miss Caudill. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I repeated. 

“You scratched your ass right on stage, with that stupid wooden spoon, and everyone just lost it,” declared Benny. 

“I did not!” I indignantly declared. 

“Oh, yes you DID,” said Miss Caudill, “And it was absolutely the most brilliant, the most hilarious ASS-scratching I have ever seen in my entire life! What a HOOT!”

“I don’t remember doing that,” I protested, blushing hot enough to feel the heat in my face without looking in a mirror. 

“I don’t care,” she said. “It was during the sun and moon scene when you were all laying around the stage. “

“Yup, he did it all right,” confirmed my sister, who had been in the scene nearby during the...event. This, however, was the first I’d heard of it. If it was so shocking and funny, why hadn’t she said anything about it last night? “You little dweeb.” 

“CC,” said Lyn, “You told us once that if you were sufficiently well trained, no one could upstage us.” She looked pointedly at me, eyes wide, shaking her head. “I used to believe you.”

Of all people to be mortally embarrassed around, she had to be there. I started radiating into the near infrared. I blushed so much I think I started sweating from the sheer heat of it. 

Miss Caudill continued, “That was so completely what Grumio would do! Could you be any more in character? I don’t think so!”  This brought a surprised glance from Benny and from Lyn, but they said nothing and accepted the direction, as we all always did.  

“Let’s just discuss your timing, Hoss,” she continued. “There’s this one spot involving Biondello that drags a bit and could use a little excitement.” Benny and Lyn exchanged a glance, which I interpreted as Better him than us, and I sat down as Miss Caudill leafed through her copy of the script. 

“Yes, ma’am,” I managed to croak. 

 At that time, with those people in that play, we would have stripped naked for Miss Caudill and performed in the nude if she thought it was necessary.  And if we had been anywhere but Hazard, Kentucky, I wouldn’t have put it past her, given some of the things we eventually did in the name of good theatre. At least we never performed a simulated rape and childbirth like the dance troupe from Paducah–which was performed for the theatre competition. 

Miss Caudill was so enamored of this story she never hesitated to tell it to anyone who didn’t know me. Such as my future college professor, Paul Power. And my mother. The next time she has an occasion to talk about me in public it’ll probably be the first thing that comes out of her mouth.

I suppose it could be said that in high school I was an award-winning ass-scratcher.


Ch. 9. Break a Leg

After rehearsing the play in one way or another almost every night for four weeks, Miss Caudill arranged for us to have a dress rehearsal at the local community college theatre. The stage was a small proscenium arch with a seating capacity of about 200, which felt huge to us. There was a lighting booth with, I think, maybe six rheostats and half a dozen switches. The stage had exits off of stage left and right (although stage right was a dead end– exit right, you’re required to enter right or have to make a run for it under cover of darkness.)

We proceeded forthwith to dress rehearsal, which turned out to be practicing in front of a hand-picked audience. There were a few parents, a few students from speech class who were not in the play, a couple of Miss Caudill’s theatre friends (you wouldn’t think there would be any in Hazard, Kentucky, but there were some, even back then) and a couple of teachers, including Joanne Williams, who would eventually be my chemistry teacher.

I remember Miss Caudill explaining to us what “downstage” actually meant.

“In Shakespeare’s day, the audience sat on a level floor,” she explained. “So the people in the back could see the entire set, the stage was built tilted. The part farthest from the stage was higher, or upstage. The part towards the audience was downstage.

She gestured at the gentle slope in the theatre’s audience seating area.

“Now the stage is flat and the audience is tilted, but we still use the same terminology.”

“So the terminology is based on you being the center of the coordinate system,” I said. “Stage left is your left, stage right is your right, as you face the audience. Up and down is relative to your own position. Someone in the center of the stage can be upstage of you if you’re near the audience.”

Benny stared at me as Miss Caudill nodded. “That’s it exactly,” she said.

I looked at Benny. What?

He shook his head, and resumed work without commenting.

In theatre lore, there are a few superstitions that are traditional. You don’t say the name “Macbeth” in the theatre unless you speak it during the play; you say “break a leg” when you mean “I hope you do well,” and the quality of dress rehearsals are the opposite of the opening night. If the dress rehearsal goes well; opening night will be a disaster. If the dress rehearsal is a disaster....well, let’s just say that we anticipated a terrific opening night.

“You’re not allowed to call “line!” in dress rehearsal when you forget your lines!” hissed Miss Caudill at Tranio. “You get yourself into a mess, you get yourself out.”

It’s not easy to paraphrase or improvise Elizabethan iambic pentameter. In my only other theatre experience, I hadn’t been allowed to improvise anything.

My very first theatrical experience occurred in the second grade in an elementary school in Ohio. During the school’s winter Christmas pageant (which wouldn’t be allowed in our culturally neutered times today) everyone in the class was assigned a role as Jesus, a shepherd, a wise man, the proprietor of the inn, and so on...except for me. I got the honored position of “prompter,” which meant I sat backstage, unseen, and when someone forgot a line, I was supposed to follow along and read it to them. Even that menial task was taken from me, however, because the teacher stood behind me and hissed “Prompterrr!” fiercely if I didn’t supply the word instantly; and eventually she snatched the script from my hand and did it herself. That sort of gave me a negative perception of the whole theatrical “scene” until years later, when I had more or less forgotten this particular ignominy.

Now I stood upon a stage at Hazard Community College, with lights so bright in my eyes I couldn’t see the audience, I suddenly couldn’t remember any of my lines.  And in high school, Miss Caudill loftily informed me, we didn’t use prompters; you were expected to do the job right the first time.

“But what if I forget my line?” I whined some days after I started trying to rehearse without a script.

“Then you’re going to have to invent something to do while we wait for your brain to come back,” she said.

“Don’t TV people use prompters?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t know, Hoss. All I know is–”

“Shuddup and learn your lines,” growled Benny.

Miss Caudill paused just long enough to catch Benny’s attention, gave him the eyebrow and beamed don’t do my job for me into his brain, and continued, “All I know is if you have a prompter, you will get lazy and depend on the prompter. No prompters. All right, Hoss?”

I nodded.

“Knock me here sirrah, and knock me soundly!” bellowed Benny. He beat his chest, confusing me. Was I supposed to hit him? Did he think I was stupid?

“Uh...” I said, sweat popping out on my forehead. “Uh.”

“I said Knock me here soundly, you sirrah, or I shall poundeth your head!” yelled Benny, even louder. I believed him, because the veins were rising out of his forehead and his neck muscles looked like they were ready to do the beating all on their own.

“Knock you, uh, here, sir? Why, has anyone here abused your worshipfulness?” I managed to croak, accompanied by a distinct smack caused by Miss Caudill’s hand colliding violently with her forehead.

Other entertaining events occurred during the dress rehearsal. Lyn had a special Velcro-fastened costume because she had to change rapidly from traveling clothes to a wedding dress during a short scene. During her initial confrontation with Petruchio, it fell off, revealing her ordinary non-acting, if skimpy, street clothes she was wearing underneath to preserve her dignity when switching costumes in our mixed-gender dressing room–a temporarily appropriated music room off of stage left dominated by a grand piano with just enough room to walk around it.  Deathly silence ensued as she reassembled herself.

Missed cues, bungled entrances, and dropped props ruled the day. My sister, portraying the housekeeper Curtis, dropped a tray with cups and glasses which scattered everywhere. If the wine glasses had been actual glass instead of dime-store plastic that might have brought the show to a literal halt. Biondello was nowhere to be found during one of the few scenes where he has something to say. He had misjudged the time remaining and went to buy a pop. For you folks out in the wider world, we called sodas “pop.”  I knew older people who would say “Co-Cola” for “Coca-Cola” whereas the younger generation would just say “Coke” like the rest of the country.

Finally, the play ended. Some of the attendees had already departed, and we were sure we knew why. Miss Caudill simply sat there with her head bent over her forearm, which was resting on the back of the seat in front of her. We noted she had moved from second row to the back of the theatre when we weren’t looking.

Rehearsal notes followed as always and we practiced fixing whatever was wrong right then and there, usually ten times as least until we met her standard of perfection. Some rehearsals went as late as 9 or 10 PM, and we even crossed the midnight line on occasion. Especially on dress rehearsal night. Not that we had anything to dress up in.

Tonight, however, she had no notepad, and her eyes were red and bleary; it was obvious she had been quietly weeping in the back of the theatre.

“That has to be the most Gawd-awful thing I ever saw in my life,” she said, choking back a sob. Sort of like Scotty on Star Trek, her accent thickened whenever she was emotional. And she was emotional a lot, both in frequency and intensity. “And I have to have my name attached to it.” She rolled her eyes so far back in her head, I swear all you could see was the bloodshot whites of her eyes between her eyelids. “Oh Gawd Almighty, help me,” she wailed.

“We’ll get it right tomorrow night, Caudill,” rasped Benny. His voice sounded older than it should. I couldn’t tell if it was the cigarettes he smoked or the situation we were in.

“I am so sorry, Aunt Cheryl,” said Lyn, who must have been saving the “Aunt Cheryl” for when she was in big trouble.

“I didn’t mean to forget my line,” I stammered, “I wasn’t used to the lights and ...”

“Don’t make excuses,” said Benny. I started to object but snapped my mouth shut when Miss Caudill held up a hand.

“No, It’s my fault. You’re not ready. You’re not. Obviously we’re going to have to postpone the opening and return the tickets.”

“No way in hell, Caudill,” said Benny. “No way in hell.” He raked back his straight brown hair and scratched the stubble on his chin. “We’ll do it right. We’ll do it right right now. “

“I’d appreciate it if you’d restrain that language around me, young man,” said Miss Caudill. “I don’t curse at you and I don’t expect it aimed in my direction.”

Benny looked like he’s suddenly forgot to wipe his shoes before coming in the house. “Yes ma’m. Sorry.” It may seem like fairly innocent transgressions on our part, but in those days, in that place, you didn’t say hell and damn to your elders. Of course, I hear worse than that every day in the hallways of my school in California. Someone needs to explain to these young whippersnappers that they’ve entirely diluted the power of cursing by overuse. 

Of course, every generation says that.

Charmaine Marshall, who by some awful twist of fate was extremely attractive and mature-looking to my eyes but for some mysterious reason was assigned the role of Kate’s father, said “Sure, we can prove to you we can do it. Who can stay?”

My sister and I wanted to but couldn’t. Of course we tried to stay anyway, despite knowing our father would be already sitting in the parking lot and fuming about having to wait to go home for supper the late hour of 8:30 PM because he simply came to rehearsal after work, sat in the car and waited until we were finished. My sister went to the parking lot to talk to him, and when she returned she was in tears. “We have to go,” she said. “Dad is really mad. He said if we were going to stay that late we might as well just stay with Miss Caudill all night.”

Miss Caudill heard this whispered report to me, and tilted her head over as she often did when concentrating. She shook her head from side to side, swishing her hair and gaining her composure simultaneously. Then she glided out of the theatre and my sister and I stood there, commiserating.

“He’s going to make us quit drama,” she said. “I know it.”

”Nah, he won’t,” I said. “Mom will make him let us stay.”

“That might be true,” she said. “She lets you get away with anything.”  I allowed that was probably true; I had my first bike at nearly the same time Jane did although she was three years older; I went on my first overnight sleepover younger than she did; I certainly had an easier time getting driving lessons from Dad than she did. I think that might have been the first time I realized it was hard to be the oldest, always having to talk parents into doing things for the first time, taking care of the younger ones–

Just then Miss Caudill returned.

“You two are staying at my house tonight,” she declared.  Just like that, no forms, no paperwork, no school board approvals. We didn’t know what she said to our father, or what he’d said in return, but we had a pretty good idea what he’d say to us – “Then you can just damn well stay there all week for all I God-damn care–” Then she waved her hand at the stage like a swordmaster with a rapier.  “Places!”

We all ran to our places and did the entire two-hour play...again. A little faster than we should have, but we got through it, and it was good. We knew then we could finish what we had begun all those weeks ago.

I even remembered to say “rebused.”

Ch. 8. St. Matthews

Lyn had started out with an interest in theatre at an early age. While still in elementary school she wrote a play and performed it in the basement of her house for the neighborhood children. She was a beautiful child, and lived with her father Harvey Lee and mother Edie and sister Teri in a one-story brick home in St. Matthews, a suburb of Louisville. Harvey worked at a tractor manufacturing plant, and her mother stayed home to raise the kids. By all outward appearances, it was a picture-perfect setting: nice home, loving parents, good schools, beautiful children. Like many families–perhaps all families, to some degree– Lyn’s home life was more complicated than the picture presented to the outside world.

Lyn’s home was in a reasonably modern suburb of the 1970’s. Large leafy trees lined the streets, which were orthogonal and smooth, with unbroken pavement and lines painted neatly in maintained intersections. Sidewalks lined the edges of the yards. The interior of the home was dominated by a large living room window, which had blinds that were always open; passers-by could see inside the beautifully decorated home, with leather couches, tastefully decorated fireplace mantle, bookshelf lined with books, some of which were turned outward so you could see the covers.

Lyn’s older sister dominated the attention of the family, as older siblings sometimes do, by getting into things her parents wouldn’t necessarily approve of. Teri was mature for her age, and Lyn often said she looked 16 when she was 12. She was also startlingly attractive. She had long, straight black hair and an arresting gaze. I only met her once, I think, but I can certainly see what brought all the attention of the opposite sex. She had a presence around men that commanded their attention, with little or no effort on her part. This brought the (not unwelcome) attention of many boys. Unfortunately, it also brought Teri experiences best left to adults, and she became pregnant just a few years later, when Lyn was only 11 years old.

The pregnancy devastated the family. There was no question, in that time and place, that the pregnancy must be accompanied by a marriage; and in the brief but tumultous period that followed, Teri married, became visibly pregnant, had a child before she was old enough to know how to care for one, divorced, and married again at 19– to a boy who was only 16 at the time. But those events lay in the future. When Lyn was 11, Teri was pregnant with her first child.

When Teri first became pregnant, Cheryl, Edie, and Lyn’s grandmother discussed what was to be done with Teri. The family would continue to support her any way it could, of course...that’s what families do.

These events had a profound effect on Lyn. Not only because it diverted her parents’ attention from her just as she entered her teen years, but because it altered their expectations and behavior towards her. And their fears for what might happen to her.

“What about Lyn?” asked Cheryl. “Do you think she’ll learn anything from her sister’s life?”

“Lyn just adores Teri,” said Edie. “I’m sure anything Teri does is just fine with Lyn.”

“Well then, I think we’d best keep a close eye on Lynnie,” said Lyn’s grandmother, affectionately referred to as Mamal. (Isn’t it strange how there are so many terms of endearment for grandparents, somewhat regional in nature? Mamaw, meemaw, granny, grandmother: In my house it was “granny.” In particular my grandmother on my mother’s side was called “Granny Grunt” by everyone; but that’s a story for another day.)

“What do you mean?” asked Cheryl.

“She might get the idea that behaving like her older sister is...acceptable.” said the eldest of the three women, who had a habit of being polite, if honest. I know–she was always friendly with me when I met her later, but always told the truth.

“Good point,” said Cheryl. “You don’t have room for another family here, in any case.” Edie glared at her sister. Of course we won’t have to face that, her face said.

Unknown and unnoticed to the three women, Lyn listened quietly to the conversation, taking it all in and absorbing more than they ever knew. Children listen even if they don’t respond. I know I did.

“Lynnie’s a good girl,” said Edie. Unlike her sister went unspoken, but they all thought it.

“Well of course she is, Edie,” said Cheryl. “But mom’s right. We need to think about how to protect Lyn. If we don’t–”

“Cheryl–” said Edie. Cheryl held her tongue for a moment.

“The way I see it, she’s likely to wind up as a nun, a slut or a lesbian. We have to do something to keep her from following in her sister’s footsteps.”

“Cheryl.” Edie stood with her hands on her hips. “A person can only love their children. You love them, and do the best you can for them. Sometimes you have to let them stand on their own. You don’t have children, so you can’t know–”

“Don’t start in with me with the when-are-you-going-to-settle-down speech again, Edie,” said Cheryl. “I haven’t found a man who’d put up with me and I’ve got bigger fish to fry right now, anyway, so you can–”

“Girls!” snapped Mamal. “I’d like to have you note our conversation has not been entirely private. Behave.”

Cheryl and Edie looked around the room and saw Lyn, wide-eyed, staring from the edge of a doorway. She gasped as she realized they knew she had heard. Heard everything.

“Lyn!” said Edie. Cheryl merely shrugged as if to say Someone has to come out and tell the truth here. It’s about time she heard it from us.

Lyn struggled briefly to decide what to say–if she should even speak, or could even speak– and finally decided to flee. She escaped to her room and lay down upon the bed, tears slowly crawling down her cheeks to the pillow below. Lyn looked around at the frilly pillows, stuffed animals, posters and pretty furniture. None of it seemed to be of any comfort.

I don’t want to be a slut, she thought to herself, eyes squeezing a few more tears out. I don’t want to have a baby that no one in my family wants in the house. I want children. Loads of them. And I want them to be loved by my whole family and to love the family back. She lay there as the sky darkened and her father returned from work, and the conversation in the farther reaches of the house became more heated, more fraught with pain and anguish. Teri was already known for having an undesirable reputation, and was on her way to establishing notoriety as a poor mother as well. Would that be Lyn’s fate as well? Could she avoid it?

I’ve always been the good child. I never get in trouble. Why would they say something like that about me? Doesn’t all the time I’ve been good count for anything?

She lay there staring at the ceiling as the evening light crawled its way up her wall. Eventually, her tears dried. No one, she noticed, had come to her room to check on her. Not while there were Bigger Problems that needed solving.

What if Aunt Cheryl’s right, and I am fated to be just like my sister? What will I do then? Can I live with myself?

She lay there in the dark, trying to figure out a way out of her conundrum, but nothing presented itself. 

Ch. 7. Screwed

As it turned out Benny wasn’t the only one who had a nickname for our drama teacher–drama “coach” was the term she preferred, a perverse way of protesting the extra resources and attention diverted to our mighty basketball team. The other students called her “C.C.,” for her first name was “Cheryl.”  My sister, Raynard Smith, and the other upperclassmen called her “C.C.” Benny Doherty steadfastly called her “Caudill,” and I, as the youngest cast member by two years at least, dutifully called her “Miss Caudill,” which I think she accepted as a function of my status within the group. I hadn’t put enough time in to really be one of the “in” crowd. All the rest were veterans of previous plays–multiple previous plays–and I was the only person who hadn’t ever been in a play. (Well, there was that one time in 3rd grade, but that’s a story fragment for a later point in time than this.) Later on, as we added more supporting characters, some other younger students were added.

Even Lyn called Miss Caudill “C.C.,” not “aunt Cheryl,” which is what you would have expected. Unless she was in trouble or wanted Miss Caudill to pay close attention to what she was saying.

Throughout the next few weeks we practiced reading through the script, working on difficult words, stopping for clarification when necessary. Even Miss Caudill admitted that she didn’t know what some of the phrases meant–it had been so long since Shakespeare’s day, perhaps no one knew. We learned that scholars believed the word “soud,” which Petruchio repeatedly shouts in one scene, probably means “food.” All of us were startled to find out exactly how bawdy “Shrew” was, and snickered at the fact we were essentially getting away with saying bad words and sex jokes in front of other people who probably didn’t quite follow what we were saying. All sorts of stuff about cocks and tongues and such actually went over my head at first, and it took Benny Doherty five minutes to recover from laughing when I asked him to interpret it for me during a break.

Since Grumio and Petruchio spent much of the play on stage together, Doherty sort of took me under his wing. He helped me learn how to turn toward the audience when turning around instead of away from the audience.  What he forgot to show me Miss Caudill didn’t hesitate to add. Look at Benny, don’t look at her while performing. Chin up, stop hanging your hands like hams! PROJECT! Stay focused. Where are you right now? Don’t tap your foot or rock back and forth on your feet. Get your hands out of your pockets. Just stand there and more. He was a strong enough actor he didn’t mind surrendering to the fact that I was getting laughs when he was playing the straight man –another term that needed to be explained to me– to Grumio’s silliness. He got the scenes with Katherine, played by Miss Caudill’s lovely niece Lyn, and in my judgment he came out ahead in the deal.

At the beginning, she barely knew I existed, but she was polite to me. As far as that goes, I saw her being polite and friendly to everyone. Because she was Miss Caudill’s niece, a senior, and afforded the relative freedom to come and go as needed for various errands, I occasionally even saw her during English class, where she would sometimes sit in a little desk off to the side and process multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank papers for her aunt. She never got credit for doing any of this work; as far as I could detect she was just doing it because it was a thing that needed doing.

I told my mother once that she treated me like a little brother the entire time I knew her.  In truth, it wasn’t exactly like a little brother. Certainly my own sister never went out of her way to compliment me, or ask how I was doing even on a day when I wasn’t depressed about some 13 year-old’s issue of the day. But it wasn’t like a boyfriend, either. She is probably the only person from high school that never made an effort to tease me or make me feel out of place even when I was deliberately being weird. (And I was pretty weird. All the time. ) She even patted me on the top of the head occasionally, which invariably made me blush. She never laughed about that, either.

I always paid close attention to her whenever she was in the room, but after all, I said to myself, I was a freshman and she was a senior. She might as well have been a movie star as far as I was concerned. I know my chest tightened a little whenever she was in the room, and I also knew how little chance a boy like myself had with someone who was a hairsbreadth away from being a full fledged woman. She might as well have been on the far side of the moon.

We rehearsed–practiced was a verboten term for us, with its basketball connotations–nearly every day, several hours at a stretch. I still wince when I hear high school students talk about play practice. At first, it worked out for Dad to pick us up on the way home from his construction jobs. As long as it was convenient, we didn’t hear much more than what we were doing was a waste of time and effort and it had better NOT interfere with your grades because getting a good grades was sure-in-hell the ONLY way you’re going to college and get a job that doesn’t break your back the way mine does me and if you ever FORGET that I’ll cut out this stupid GOD-DAM SHIT faster than you can spit a watermelon seed

And that was on a convenient day.

We never knew if he was going to make good on this threat to make us drop out of theatre. He certainly threatened to often enough.  We knew he didn’t approve but helped us because he thought he was supposed to do the things he did. It wasn’t always a happy event, getting picked up after God-damn play practice.  These days, after the world has been wussified sufficiently, he’d probably be investigated for child abuse, but he never hit us unless we deserved it, and only after Mom demanded it. He put food on the table, toys under the tree at Christmas, heat in the winter and a roof to keep out the rain. He did what all men of his generation did and what good men of our generation do: he did right by his kids. We knew it; he knew we knew; but we yelled and cried and screamed about missing rehearsal anyway. And he cussed and pouted and yelled and ... drove us around a lot.

There were times, though, lying awake at night listening to my parents’ shouted bedtime arguments about our futures, twitching at the slammed doors, crying when my mother could be heard sobbing about finances, her lost son, and the hard life she’d lived, when I wondered whether or not I was doing the right thing in taking a stand and insisting that we be allowed to continue to work with Miss Caudill.

There just wasn’t anyone else at school who pushed us hard enough that we had to push back just to keep up. I don’t mean that in the sense that we opposed her (otherwise we wouldn’t have been there in the first place). I mean in a sort of a Newton’s Third Law sort of way. She provided the traction that made all of us feel as if we were actually making progress, going somewhere even if we weren’t sure where we were headed.

We didn’t have a theatre in which to practice; as I said we didn’t even have a basketball court, and if our school would have had any money to spare it would have first gone to a few hundred square feet of freshly scraped hillside and a layer of asphalt with two hoops instead of one. We had no stage, no sets, few props and rags and tatters for costumes.  Our makeup kit (there was only one) fit in a tackle box. What we had for a stage was a raised platform about two feet above the floor at one end of a long room used for study hall. It was room 111.

There’s a phrase you sometimes see on cute placards at truck-stop gift shops, that goes something like this: “We’ve done so much, for so long, with so little, it is now possible for us to do anything–with nothing!” I personally believe Miss Caudill coined this phrase, and if she didn’t, she owned the copyright on it. 

In those days there were so few courses offered and so few politically-driven graduation requirements you could actually have an hour a day to do homework. As I already mentioned, we called it study hall–and my primary experience was sitting in a desk and doing work, watching the teacher observe us from the raised platform at the far end. I believed the platform’s purpose was simply make the teacher more visible to us and us to them.  We thought the room was crowded when there were 40 or 50 students in study hall, but these days they’ll cram that many math or English students into a classroom half that size in California and call it world-class education.  I got pulled out of study hall so many times by Miss Caudill I eventually stopped going; instead I reported directly to Miss Caudill, who would send a note to the study hall teacher asking where I was if I didn’t show up, thus assuring the daily accounting of my whereabouts was accurate.

After school we moved the teacher desk off the platform (at 3 PM it was a stage; during the day it was a platform) and started working. Our lighting system was two switches on the wall. Costume changes were in the bathrooms at the end of the hall. Miss Caudill believed that actors projected voices as necessary; even if microphones had been available, we wouldn’t have used them.

Standing on the platform you got a better view of the forest of pencils stuck into the aging ceiling tile like a forest of stripped trees in Tunguska or Mount St. Helens. A stack of milk-crates provided steps on stage right (the right side of the stage as you face the audience). Stage left had a luxury– built in steps. We couldn’t even darken the room for scene changes– the windows had no curtains.

“Can you throw him down the steps?” asked Miss Caudill, rocking gently back on two legs of a chair, which was recently inhabiting the platform. I gobbled and gaped at Benny, who was looking at me like a side of beef he’d rather not have to touch if he could avoid it.

“Sure thing,” he finally said, shrugging nonchalantly. Miss Caudill nodded. Go for it.

Waitaminit,” I managed to spit out, before he lifted me in quite a competent fireman’s carry, twirled me around, and set me back down. “No problem,” he said. I wasn’t quite the imposing figure I cut today. In those days, I was a year younger than my peers and smaller than average. Benny was several inches taller and in better shape. No wonder he could pick me up like a rag doll.

“OK,” said Miss Caudill, astride the teacher’s study hall chair a few feet back from the edge of the stage. “Let’s do this nice and slow, Benny, we can’t give him a concussion.” She looked at my sister, who was serving as stage manager as well as the role of Curtis, the house manager for Petruchio. “We don’t have time to replace him again.” A squinty look at me. “You ready, Hoss?”

I don’t remember answering.

A few dozen tries later, Benny was essentially rolling me down the steps like a human bowling ball, carefully choreographed like a dance move. We did it exactly the same way every time, and I rolled in such a way that my head never came near a step and I wound up sprawled flat at the bottom of the steps.

“That’ll work,” said Miss Caudill. “During the play, Ben, don’t get excited and throw him into the audience.”

“Riiiight,” said Benny, somewhat unconvincingly, I thought. He grinned at me, wolfishly. I might do it anyway, that grin said.

My costume was modernized, as was everyone else’s because we couldn’t afford Elizabethan-style costumes. So everyone wore ordinary street clothes, jeans, t-shirts, sometimes with little accents.

I took up the issue with my mother, who had always patched all of our clothes and used them when they were worn out to make quilts. Mom was a child of the Depression, and she never threw anything away; you might need it someday.

She was peeling potatoes when I asked. Come to think of it, there were significant fractions of her life when she was always peeling potatoes. I loved her fried potatoes, made midwestern-style with nothing on them but salt, and not much of that. “Will you make me a costume for the play?” I asked. “And can I have some fried taters before supper?”

“Well, I might make you a costume,” she said, carefully pouring the peeled and chopped potatoes into a cast iron skillet coated with melted lard, shielding herself from the spattering grease with careful positioning of the potato bowl. “As for the taters, if you keep eatin’ them like you do, you’ll get foundered on ‘em.” Foundered means eating so much of a thing you get tired of it. “What’s this costume supposed to look like?”

You should understand that my mother had an authentic Eastern Kentucky accent, and she didn’t actually talk the way I am writing. She would have said, literally, “I reckon I might,” and “Wha’s ‘is costume s’posa look lahk?” while carefully not moving her jaw more than necessary. I don’t think I can pull off phonetic spelling consistently, so I think I’ll just do what I did when one of my girlfriends from Ohio met my mother for the first time: I’ll translate. It’s not just the accent, it’s the word choice. For example, if my mom didn’t know an answer to a question, she’d say it’s un-tellin’. ‘Help’ became hope. ‘Improvising’ was jinn t’gether. ‘Not one’ was naryun. Children are young’uns. This was not funny or weird to us, because we grew up with it.  People have said the language from Eastern Kentucky was descended from the kind of English spoken in the 1600’s, when the first settlers in the area arrived. (We knew our most distant ancestor arrived from France in 1611; his name was Benjamin Brasseur, which became distorted to the modern Brashear.) Maybe that made it easier for us to catch on to the cadence of Shakespeare. It’s un-tellin’.

People who have just met me often say, “You don’t sound like you’re from Kentucky.” Usually I just say, “There’s a reason for that,” and leave it at that. Hours of drills and listening to phonograph records and tape recording my own voice and Miss Caudill’s unending scrawls on long yellow pads are left unmentioned.

“Well,” I said to my mother, “I’m not exactly sure. This character, he’s kind of a goofball.”

“Huh, that there’s a perfect part for you then,” she said, grinning. “Something funny,” she said matter-of-factly, as if that defined the problem. “Go get your old jeans, the ones that are a little short on you.”

I got the jeans and found her coming back into the house from the outside, carrying some leaves.

“Now how about this,” she said, holding up the leaves.

“You want to glue leaves on my pants?” I asked.

“No, I want to cut out fabric shaped like leaves and sew the fabric leaves on your pants.”

I gaped at my mother, who obviously was getting whatever it was that needed got.


The other half of my costume was a floppy hat she had made for me. It was shaped like a cloth bowl, and was reversible. One side was multi-colored and filled with odd designs and contrasting patterns such as paisley and stripes together. That was the Grumio Side. The other side was blank white, and that was the Jeff Side.  She stitched an Apollo space capsule with flames shooting out of it’s retro-rocket pack on the heat shield (following a sketch I made for her) but everyone thought it was a mushroom. That’s why it became known as my Mushroom Hat. You could flip the front up to make it look like Larry Storch’s hat on F-Troop or you could flip up the brim all the way around to look like Gilligan’s cap on Gilligan’s Island. Both associations worked for me, so whenever I wore that hat I flipped it up a different way when I went on stage. Oddly enough I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning that they noticed.

When my father saw the get-up he nearly exploded.

“There ain’t no son of MINE gonna go out lookin’ like some bum wearing GOD-damn STUPID-looking SHIT like that!” he boomed. While my parents, and in particular my father, cussed a blue streak whenever they were even the slightest bit agitated, my sisters and I never uttered a curse word in their presence. Not if we wanted to live to see another sunrise.

I couldn’t cuss back or out shout him. All I could do was try to placate him.

“It’s just a costume, Dad,” I pleaded. “I’m not wearing it out in public. It’s just for school.Which, technically, was a lie, but Dad didn’t need to know that.

Well, why do you have to wear that God-damn ugly thing around the house?” He snatched it from my head and held it in front of my face. “Cain’t you just wear a regular ball-cap like a regular boy?” Dad was seldom seen in pubic (or private for that matter) without a grimy ball cap bearing some unlikely logo such as for some restaurant out in New York or a sports team he’d never seen, or, more typically, a blank slate-grey work cap carrying the sawdust of dozens of houses and jobs wormed into the cracks between the seams. It probably never occurred to him that he might hurt mom’s feelings by putting down the appearance of the hat. I was alert enough to know if your mother makes you a hat, you wear it and say you like it even if you don’t, just because she’s your mother.

Truth be told, I actually liked the hat, anyway.  It was different.

“He ain’t raglar,” said my mother. “He don’t backtalk you like Jane ner do them drugs and drinkin’ and smokin’ like most of them boys do.” Like my own two older boys did, and the one still alive still does. “He gets good grades in school an’ I don’t see what you’re so worked up about.”

“Why do you always have to take up his side on everything?” growled my father, tossing the hat on the kitchen table, stomping out the front door and jamming his own rumpled cap down on his thick black hair. He marched out of the house, not for the first time, muttering something about how he “had no say about nothing,” because he always, somehow, wound up deferring to my mother in the end. I retrieved my hat and folded it like a rocket parachute, folded in thirds as a narrow cone and rolled into a tube from the bottom up. and stuffed it into my back pocket.

One more thing I would have to edit about myself while I was around the house.

“Don’t worry,” said Mom. “He’ll come ‘round.”

“Mom,” I said, “Does it bug you sometimes that I don’t want to work in the mines or fix cars or build houses, whatever it takes to make some real money someday?”

“Well that’s what I reckon is buggin’ your Dad,” she replied. “Though neither one of us would wish the mines on nobody, for no amount of money. “ She closed her eyes tightly and shook her head. “I cain’t see how any mother can let her young’uns go down in that mine ever day. I couldn’t take it. I’d get sick ever single day from worrying.” She opened her eyes and stared at me. One of my boys dead before me is already one too many flitted across her eyes. She started washing dishes and shifting pots and pans around the kitchen, which is what she did when she was nervous or upset. “As far as me,” she continued, “Neither me ner your Dad finished school, and we’ve paid for it all our lives. I don’t even know enough about what you do to give you advice anymore.”

She paused long enough to fix me with a squinty eye. “I reckon the best thing I can do for you is get out of your way.” She looked at me as if assessing my potential for digging ditches. “Are you sure you want to spend your time on this drama?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I think it helps me be more confident about myself. Good for public speaking. ”

“Well, then,” she said, “Go, and do.” She returned a pan to the shelf she had just removed it from with a clank. “I’ll deal with Tad.” Tad was my dad’s nickname.

And so I obtained a costume and continued working in drama, for the time being at least.

Miss Caudill told me, years later after I became a teacher myself, that I wasn’t the only one that struggled against their parents’ better judgment to stay in drama. Nearly all of us did. Even Benny.

Benny wore a black t-shirt and jeans. Lyn wore jeans with a tie-dyed t-shirt that fascinated me more for the curvature it revealed than the colors it displayed.

I was developing a serious crush on this girl. I’d never really had a crush on a girl before, at least one where I let my interest show enough so that other people could tell. More than once she caught me staring at her, and she smiled when I pretended to look away or to look at something behind her.

Think about it– here was the prettiest girl I’d ever met, and not only was she tolerant of me, she was a nice person, and smart as well. She never seemed to have trouble learning her lines. Even Benny struggled with memorizing lines, and she often drilled him with a copy of the script she always seemed to have on her person. Later on she didn’t need that, and memorized most of the lines everyone had in her scenes and would provide gentle prompts when Miss Caudill would let her get away with it. She was a role model for many of the younger students because she acted like theatre was serious business– no goofing off (at least where Miss Caudill could see it), always prepared, helping other students rehearse, fetching things, working on costumes, constantly in motion. She put more hours in than anyone involved, except possibly Miss Caudill herself.

She must have known I had a crush on her all along, but eventually I made it painfully obvious by overcoming my rational voice (that told me she’d never consider having anything to do with me romantically) and asking her (a senior) out on a date with me–a freshman one year younger than his peers. She patted me on the head and told me I was sweet.  Well, I was supposedly in puppy love (at least that’s what everyone thought), but I wasn’t entirely stupid, and I knew what my chances of success would be. I’d tell you exactly how that turned out but the story says I must restrain myself and reserve that peroration for a more appropriate time.

We practiced on the stage in the study hall. I rolled down the steps. October rolled into November, and December approached, which would be when we did our first performance of the entire play for the public. We decided to do the play both at the school during the school day–for which a few students would be excused to see it–and for the public at the local community college.  We printed some flyers. We ordered tickets for the performance, all of the normal things you’d do to prepare for a play. Along the way, though, a few odd things happened.

First, we got better. I cleaned up my diction (quite) a bit. The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore. How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Diphthongs, glottal stops, breathing, projecting, adding a little burst of air at the end of word ending in a consonant (tuh) to make the ending crisper from a stage distance. That’s the same thing our Bible-thumping Baptist preachers did, in dozens of little one-room splintered factional churches up and down the creekside road (Jesus-HUH is a gonnUH take-UH you to Heaven-UH if you puh-Ray-UH for forgive-en-ess-UH!).

(Actually, Baptist preachers don’t thump bibles; that would be disrespectful of the written Word. They thump pulpits and pews and the floor and inattentive foreheads.  Sometimes we’re trapped by our own imperfect reflections in the popular media, a phenomenon I call the Jerry Springer Effect.) And many of those little roadside buildings have been replaced by more monumental structures of brick and stained glass and porcelain baptisteries today.

Our version of punching up the diction was just a little less intense than the preachers’.  Lying on my back, attempting to speak while Miss Caudill put pressure on my diaphragm with an impressive stack of books, helped me learn to project. I learned to roll my r’s.

Second, we learned to be professional. There was something going on between Ben and Lyn, but I wasn’t privy to it; and Charmaine Marshall was passing through teenage boys’ lives and leaving wreckage in her wake. Often you’d hear arguing and sniping and such after rehearsal and people would complain about each other to Miss Caudill...but when they stepped on the stage, it was like a switch went off and everyone just worked. Worked hard. It was as if everyone knew she was our last best hope for excellence and we’d best not squander the opportunity.

Miss Caudill took notes on her long yellow legal pad. Afterwards we’d sit in a circle and have to listen to her tell everyone what you did that was good or bad, mostly bad. There was no arguing, no defensiveness, just quiet nods and pledges to do better. Don’t turn your back to the audience when you speak. Stop looking at me and look to the entire audience.  Your timing is off. Check the line, you’re saying it wrong. Chin up. Different shirt. Two steps back on entrance. Exit faster. Exit slower. You sound like a mouse. Give it a three-count before responding. Don’t step on the laugh. Enunciate! For heaven’s sake it’d be better if you had your hands in your pockets than just letting them hang there like dead ham. Look like you’re paying attention. Don’t face her directly, it hides your face. Just turn your head a little in her direction and it’ll look like you’re facing her from our perspective. Get a haircut. Don’t get a haircut–don’t even wash your hair just before we open (that was to me). 

And always, always, every single day: Project! No one can tell you’re doing all those wonderful emotional things with your voice if they can’t hear you. Louder! Take a deep breath! Pretend your audience is deaf. Push from the diaphragm, don’t choke the sound in your throat, you’ll rip out your vocal cords. Project, project, PROJECT!

Most of us didn’t comment on the notes. We just hung our heads down, nodded when appropriate, leaped to our feet to redo a particular scene when commanded, and learned to deal with constructive criticism. What was it, I wondered, that made normally recalcitrant teenagers take such personally directed criticism in stride and not rebel or argue? Whatever she had done or said to them must have preceded my arrival. In fact, it seemed to me as if students were disappointed if they didn’t get notes from Miss Caudill; it was as if either there was nothing she could do to help them improve or the effort involved was not worth the payoff.

For me, a straight-A student who rarely drew the attention let alone the criticism of teachers, dealing with criticism of any sort was a hard lesson. The only time I’d been punished in school for anything was when the 6th grade teacher had taken it upon himself to paddle everyone in class who had never been in trouble just so the good kids would know what it was like.

Dealing with such constructive criticism served me well later in life, though. Don’t make excuses. Acknowledge the information and move on. Don’t gloat when others are criticized, because your turn will come. Everyone got notes, on every performance. Even Lyn. Especially Lyn. I suspect she even got notes in the car on the way home or at home as well.  Later I learned she probably got an order of magnitude more criticism, both professional and personal, than any of us ever knew.

Miss Caudill, for her part, felt she had pampered Lyn during those years. She loved Lyn with all her heart– I know, because she told me– and felt that Lyn had her aunt wrapped around her little finger and would let her get away with anything. Lyn, on the other hand, felt stifled and trapped –and loved as well– at the time, but loved perhaps from a different perspective.

I knew these things because of all the students in the play, Jane and I spent the most time with Miss Caudill and Lyn due to our ongoing transportation issues. Lyn and I discussed the best strategy to record blocking movements in our scripts. XDSR was Cross Down Stage Right. F-Pet was Face Petruchio. EN-SL was Enter Stage Left. We made notations in the tiny margins left to us in our paperback-novel style version of the script, marks that resembled football playbooks, with a rectangle representing the stage in the space above each new scene, and sweeping arcs showing which actors should go around others.

When she concentrated she would bite half of her lower lip, so the remainder would protrude off to one side.

“I think I have my blocking pretty much memorized,” I said to her one day as we lay on our stomachs on the carpeted area in the back of Miss Caudill’s room, sketching the blocking onto blank sheets of notebook paper. “I don’t think I need to refer to the notes any more.”

“Oh, the notes aren’t for us, silly goose,” she said, looking at me in some surprise. Why had we spent all this time recording everyone’s movements so painstakingly?

Aside from the opportunity to be in close proximity to her, I couldn’t think of a reason right away. Was I missing something?

Half of being smart is keeping your mouth shut so you don’t reveal your ignorance too often.

“The notes are for her,” Lyn noted, tossing her head at Miss Caudill, who was drilling Lucentio and Bianca (played by Benny’s sister Penelope) on pronouncing words in Latin. Hic est sigeria tellus, I remember hearing over and over. I trust you not. “Blocking is complicated. She wants a record of it so she won’t have to start over if she ever does this play again.” She smiled at me. “Besides, figuring out how everyone is moving, where everyone is supposed to be, is kinda fun.” More lip biting. “Check back to see where we had Biondello exit,” she said.

I also learned how to emulate a variety of Southern accents. Texans talk louder than us, and with a deliberate pace that assumed that everyone in earshot would naturally want to listen to what they had to say. Georgians add vowels everywhere and talk slowwwwwly.  You can’t eliminate an accent without being able to hear it and emulate it. The need to eliminate our Southern accents was so obvious to Miss Caudill she just assumed we saw the necessity; doing Shakespeare with a Southern accent would destroy the illusion that you were watching a story written by an English Playwright, and while it would be OK for Italian characters from Verona to speak with an English accent in a play, a southern accent destroys the illusion. This becomes more significant later in the tale, but the story is telling me to get back to the point.

Benny and I practically danced around the stage as he pretended to beat me up. Visitors to rehearsal actually gasped when he tossed me down the stairs, convinced I was injured. Benny and Lyn’s recital of lines took on depth and reflected what felt like, to me, to be an authentic relationship.

Sometimes after rehearsal we would go to Miss Caudill’s house, and she would cook for us as we did our homework and awaited the arrival of our father from whatever far-flung job site he was working at this week, at least when he had a job site to go to and return from.

Miss Caudill was many things, but a housekeeper was definitely not one of them. We moved stacks of papers, boxes of unopened food, bags of dog food for her Saint Bernard, and sometimes her Saint Bernard from chairs to find a place to sit.  Sometimes Lyn would be there, sometimes not. Lyn was a cheerleader and a band majorette and often was out doing one thing or another every day of the week. I remember wishing she wasn’t quite so busy so she would be home more.

Sometimes Miss Caudill scheduled rehearsals of scenes out of chronological sequence just to give her a little time at one activity or another before she was due back at drama practice. Sometimes though, she was there with us, and I asked her once about her seemingly intense relationship with Benny.

“There’s Kate and Petruchio, and then there’s Lyn and Benny,” she said. “They aren’t the same.”

“Of course not,” I replied. “But surely you must at least like Benny...I mean, after all, there’s lots of kissing and hugging and wrassling and fighting in this play...” my voice trailed. “How could you do those things if you didn’t like him?”

“Oh, I do like him,” she said. “And he certainly is a handsome devil.” She sighed, looking off into the distance as if I had just given her a nudge in the wrong direction.  “He’s a sweetheart. All that juvvie stuff he does, acting tough, smoking, that’s just for show. He’s really just a kindhearted fellow with a hard life.”  A shadow crossed her eyes as she shook her head and sighed. Miss Caudill arrived with a plate of meatballs and bread. She didn’t cook many things, but she did make some great meatballs. 

For once I had little appetite, and fiddled with my food, lost in thought. How could I compete with this charismatic, handsome, athletically fit older man? Benny was a junior, three years older than I and nearly Lyn’s age. From Lyn’s perspective, I must have been nearly invisible

No. From Lyn’s perspective, I was not even a term in the romantic equation. I was just a kid.sometimes  I liked Benny– he was something of a mentor to me and I stand in awe of his charisma and skills to this day–but sometimes, I wished he was just a little less talented and handsome.

A few days before dress rehearsal, I walked by C.C.’s room and heard her laughing, hooting really, and peeked inside to see her wiping her eyes. “Oh, Lord,” she said, nearly wheezing from the laughter.

“What?” I said. If it was funny, I was supposed to be involved.

She didn’t answer, but handed a thick yellow piece of paper to Benny, who handed it to me.

It said:



CC and Company presents

William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Schrew

December 8, 1976

Hazard Community College


I didn’t see it at first. We were going to do the play at the local college, which had a real theatre, I was told earlier. So what was wrong with the ticket?

“The Schrew!” She cried. “The SCHREW! Oh, my! Oh, my!”

“What’s the problem? It’s just a spelling mistake,” I asked, not really getting it.

Benny rolled his eyes, and inserted his index finger into a circle he made with his index finger and thumb of his other hand. “Screwed? Get it?”

“No,” I said. A moment passed as gears engaged in my freshman brain. “Oh!”

Which only set off Miss Caudill again, as she could not conceive that I was so innocent that I didn’t get it right away.  I blushed as was my usual habit in those situations (it took me a long time to stop doing that at the drop of a hat) but I noted, once again, that not only was Lyn not laughing at the joke–she was not laughing at me. She was sitting there thoughtfully, and smiling at me, I thought, not at my discomfiture.

At least, that’s what I hoped was happening. As I found out later, I was right.

We got the tickets replaced in time, and moved on to dress rehearsal.

Ch.6. You Can’t Look It Up

I spent most of my childhood in Ohio, but I was actually born in Kentucky. The hospital where I was born, like so many other physical manifestations of my early life, no longer exists. We moved from Kentucky to Ohio before I was old enough to remember as part of a large-scale cultural migration of people leaving Eastern Kentucky looking for work, a sort of artificial selection that continues to this day.

We moved around a lot when I was young. I never went to kindergarten–in those days it was optional, and while I never really discussed it with my mother, I don’t think it even really occurred to her. Kindergarten was something that rich people did, kind of like preschool is for kids today.

Before I started school, in Ohio, we lived in a trailer at the top of a hill behind a family named Dorfman. I have a distinct memory of telling my mother that I was not going to go to school, but somehow she managed to persuade me.

 Later on, when I was in the first grade, the Dorfmans moved away to Pennsylvania (which, my sister assured me, was a land really far away) and let us rent the house, which we referred to as the Dorfman house from that point onward. I used to watch spectacular thunderstorms from the porch of that house, with lightning and thunder that would most likely make the evening news in weather-starved California today.

When I was in the second grade we moved to a different house at the top of a tall hill near a town in Ohio called Sparta. I don’t remember a lot about that house except that the boys across the street fired off model rockets and I would watch them, from a distance. I was eight and too shy to walk across the road and introduce myself so I could see the rockets better. There was also an abandoned telescope in this house left over from the previous tenant. It wasn’t much of a telescope, just a small 3-inch mirror mounted on the end of a cardboard tube using a ball-and-socket joint–probably an old Spitz moon scope. I couldn’t make it work (because it was missing its eyepiece) so eventually I tore it apart and used the mirror for “experiments.” These were not real experiments, but the kind that any eight-year old might do, focusing light on a piece of paper, looking at the distorted images of things in the mirror at various distances, just playing to learn or learning to play, I’m not sure which. 

When I was halfway through the second grade we moved again, and I attended elementary school for half a year in a little town called Chesterville. The only thing I distinctly remember about this school is that I couldn’t remember which bus I was on when the school day ended, so I had to look for the driver who was wearing a cowboy hat. I do remember a classmate of mine saying his father worked at Perkins Observatory in Ohio. I asked what that was, and he told me it was a place where they used telescopes to look at planets. I begged and pleaded with my parents to go visit the place, but they didn’t see the point. Occasionally, on the bus, I could see a tiny white dome on a low hill in the distance. I wondered what it was like inside.

In the third grade we returned to the Fredericktown district, and I attended school at Fredericktown Elementary. We stayed there for a while, and I completed two and a half years of education at that particular school. That was where I first began to realize I was working faster than my peers. I remember learning to spell all the days of the week and the months of the year in second grade. That was kind of a big deal at the time, but of course now helicopter parents are drilling such spelling lessons into students before they even reach kindergarten. In third grade, I remember doing primitive algebra equations–the kind with missing boxes instead of variables. 

This was in 1972, and the U.S. was nearly finished with the moon landings. I watched these with rapt attention although I am ashamed to admit that while I was old enough to remember the first moon landing, I don’t remember watching it or hearing about it. I do remember the later missions where they used the rover to drive around, and the early Skylab missions that followed the abrupt closure of the Apollo program. This was about the same time as I snuck downstairs to watch Star Trek reruns at midnight. In 1972 Star Trek was fresh enough that it still looked like it had high-quality special effects.

In February we had a Valentine’s party and everyone was supposed to bring a box–but no one told me to decorate it. Apparently the rest of the class already knew.  I remember how all the other kids had elaborate boxes, some of them decorated with crepe paper and flowers, and all I had was a plain shoebox. Since I was relatively new to them, I got only a few valentines in my box even though the teacher had instructed the class to make one for everyone. At least I didn’t get a rock like Charlie Brown at Halloween.

Third grade is also where I began learning about astronomy. I bought a thin book called “Fun with Astronomy” by Mae and Ira Freeman at a book fair. It had the latest pictures of the planets from Mt. Palomar Observatory in California – which, by today’s standards, were grainy and lacked detail. It explained how to set up a scale model solar system using pushpins and string to draw enormous arcs. It even showed how to make a pinhole camera with which you could measure the size of the sun. Pretty cool stuff for a 3rd grader. I worked through all the suggested activities and figured out how to scale the model solar system to make it larger so it would fit on a giant piece of poster paper for a school project. I just took all the measurements in the book and multiplied them by two.

I memorized the diameters and distances of the planets from the table in the book, and knew the names of the larger moons, including Titan and Ganymede, both larger than the planet Mercury. Why?  Just because knowing a lot of things made me feel smart, I guess.

It always has seemed to me that the large Galilean moons and the larger moons of the solar system have been given short shrift. Many of them are larger than Pluto, and Pluto (until recently) was considered a planet since its discovery. I always thought that it seemed kind of prejudicial to allow Mercury to be called a planet, whereas Io, which is a much more interesting and active place, is relegated to obscure status as a moon of Jupiter. If it orbited the sun we wouldn’t hesitate to call it a planet.

I suppose there’s some sort of subtle message here in that I always felt less certain of myself because of what other people thought when they found out where I was born (Appalachia? How ever did you survive, dear?) and so I thought it seemed unfair that these interesting worlds are relegated to footnotes and tabular data instead of getting the attention they should in schools. I guess that’s sort of silly since they are inanimate objects, but I suppose that speaks more to my thinking about myself than any emotional attachment to the moons of the solar system.

With respect to the recent brouhaha about the status of Pluto, I suppose you can tell I’m in the leave-well-enough-alone-and-let’s-add-new-discoveries-to-the-list-of-planets camp.  Don’t get me started about Plutinos.

My favorite teacher in those years was my fourth grade teacher Esther Weller, who was really nice to me and encouraged me.

Among other things she did for me was obtain some lithographs from her son, who was an engineer who knew other engineers who worked for NASA. I remember one in particular was a picture of a hand controller for maneuvering thrusters on board the Apollo capsule used to deliver astronauts to Skylab, the first space station the United States had back in the early 1970’s. I kept that picture for years, and even included it as decoration on a science fair poster I did some years later on space station design.  I wrote letters to her for years, including one when I graduated high school.

During these years of my life, I was fairly isolated from affairs of national significance; my world consisted of my home and school, and we did not discuss such events of importance at either venue. I knew nothing of Vietnam, or Kent State for that matter despite the fact I was living in the state where it occurred at the time; I knew of the space program only because that was part of the evening news. What was said about matters Presidential or about the war was shielded from my eyes; war news and news of protests and civil rights was not fit for children, and my mother would turn off the news when these things came on, saying that the television stations had no respect for families. What I knew of the counterculture movement was distorted and made into caricatures by such shows as Gomer Pyle and even Star Trek, which always spoke about things that other shows avoided, if only through the mechanism of allegory and metaphor.

I had a great time in 6th grade in the fall of 1974, there in little Fredericktown, Ohio, especially in Mr. Cameron’s class in the first half of the sixth grade. He reinforced my interest in astronomy by having a round-robin work day where we had to go to stations to learn about each planet. One question, in the Saturn station, said, “Does Saturn have seasons?” I looked in the book, and couldn’t find the answer. I asked Mr. Cameron who said, “You can’t look up that answer. You have to figure it out.”

I never knew there were answers not contained in a book somewhere. It was probably the greatest lesson I ever learned from him.

Things were going great. Three other advanced students and I were given half an hour a day to attempt to teach ourselves Spanish with a record-based self-teaching class. I learned to play trombone enough to participate in the winter band concert. I developed enough hair to become somewhat embarrassed when I dressed out for gym.  I had a couple of friends by then, and had even visited a few of the neighboring kids’ homes, but that ended when they didn’t come to my house, which my mother took as a slight against us; her rule was we couldn’t go visit a kid who hadn’t been over to visit us. That even applied to my cousins from the next county over.

Then, halfway through my sixth grade year, my older half-brother Ida died.

My mother had been married to a man named Combs before she married my father, and had given birth to two sons during that time. One was Bill and the other was Ida. Both boys were “born to be wild” and got involved with things that would leave my mother weeping at night in her later years. Ida paid the price (so did Bill, eventually) when he died suddenly in his late 30’s of liver failure, undoubtedly brought on by excessive drinking.  Ida is the reason I am a teetotaler to this day.  Not because of what drinking did to Ida; rather, because of what his drinking did to our mother.

It’s a hard thing to watch your mother weep, night after night.

Consequently, Mom wanted to move immediately from Ohio back to Kentucky, where both sons of her unhappy union with “that man” had lived and one still survived. Her reasoning was that if she had been around she could have kept Ida out of trouble, therefore, she should move “back home” to keep Bill straightened out.

It didn’t help that Bill had gone AWOL from the Vietnam draft and spent some time in the penitentiary. He didn’t dodge the draft out of some objection to the war; he just didn’t want to fight, as far as I knew.  I myself was too young to be worried about the draft in Vietnam, too old to be concerned with the Bush wars. I was born at the trailing edge of the baby boomer generation and the leading edge of Generation X. I was in high school when disco music ruled the airwaves, even if our access to discotheques with mirrored balls and flashing lights in the floor was limited in Perry County. Even if I had been from a more mainstream American family (whatever that means) from somewhere else in the country, I think I’d still feel culturally misplaced, if only because the ‘top-40” music we heard on the radio, slotted between Bible-thumping sermons and Bluegrass twangs, was not much more than a brief fad on the American landscape. Baby boomers think we are too young to be of their generation; Gen-Xers think we are too old. Perhaps we need a new category; Tweeners, best symbolized by the movie Airplane! with its cultural in-jokes and parodies mirroring our cynical views about the significance of cultural generations in the first place.

Bill liked his beers as well as the next guy, at least at first. Later on, he liked them a lot more.  In my younger years he was healthy and vital and had a little boy, my only nephew. Kept a little garden, as we did, and grew enough food to make a difference in the budget. Played the guitar.  He used to play the Batman theme song for me when I asked. He kept a neat and well-decorated house, with nice leather couches that I liked to sleep on when I visited. He was a skilled carpenter like my father, and built several houses and worked in construction for many years. Eventually, though, poor choices in friends, worse choices for drugs (oxycontin, called hillbilly heroin by those who write about those who use it and oxy-tocin by my brother not realizing that was another substance entirely) finally precipitated his downfall. He used to keep his stash in multiple layers of plastic bags in the drop ceiling space above his bedroom, on the theory that drug sniffing dogs couldn’t smell it because it was too far from their noses. 

Repeated falls from grace, wildly fluctuating temper tantrums, declining health driven by the abuse and neglect, his never-ending put-downs and disparagement of his wife and son so obviously a reflection of his own lack of self esteem, led to near-total estrangement from everyone in the family.  People like that–drug users, alcoholics, gamblers– are like an energy black hole, sucking in and demanding all the time and money and energy of everyone around them until there’s nothing left, all forgiveness depleted, all last chances expended. Eventually no one could, or would, dedicate the energy necessary to keep him alive; thus he died as my brother Ida had all those years ago, albeit in a much more drawn out and torturous way.

So halfway through my sixth grade year, we evacuated during Christmas break from Ohio and moved to Kentucky. We knew we were moving only about a week before school dismissed for Christmas break. My father agreed to the move only on the condition that we never move again--he was tired of endlessly shifting our furniture from house to house. My little sister Brenda cried for days–she was in the first grade when we moved. Her biggest complaint was that we had left the swing-set behind, because it wouldn’t fit on the aging Ford pickup truck. Dad refused to make the eight-hour trip necessary just to get the swing-set. She was angry about that for years.

I wondered what it would be like to live in Kentucky. My classmates teased me that I would wind up marrying my cousins and that kids in Eastern Kentucky had legs of different length to better accommodate the hilly terrain.  We owned a small house there; a house perched on the edge of a ledge painfully scraped from the hillside, a house that would be considered a shack by my adult friends in California today.  These are the same well-meaning and friendly people who drop the phrase white trash without a second thought–repeatedly– and pontificate about the sociological effects of poverty and the tendency of families in poverty to have misplaced priorities, while never having actually experienced the condition for themselves.

Our Kentucky home had no siding, little insulation, and a tin roof for many years. The ground wasn’t quite level so the house stood suspended on several 4x4 pylons that made it look like some sort of beach house on a cliff from a distance. We stored lumber and coal under the house until we got around to digging out the basement and making the house a two story home many years later. When we moved in from Ohio the house had kuzdu vine that had crawled across the hillside from my grandmother’s house over the hill, across a couple of trees and fences, and halfway up the side of the house.

Our first week was spent hacking and chopping at the stubborn vine to make a path to the outhouse that perched on the edge of the ridge a short distance away.  I thought the weed was dead, but it was merely dormant in the winter. In the springtime the vines returned with a vengeance, with a large dark green leaf that scraped your skin uncomfortably if you let it. The ropy vines were difficult to cut in the first place, and my mother warned us that kudzu, originally imported from Japan during the Depression to help combat soil erosion, was so tenacious that if you merely threw a piece of cut plant on the open ground it would take root and start spreading overnight. You couldn’t literally see the stuff grow but it was rather like watching the hour hand of a clock; walk away and come back and you might actually notice the growth.  During that time I read a science fiction story about some astronauts who accidentally bring home a fungus from Venus that grows so fast it starts covering cars, houses, even sleeping dogs; a theme that is spooky enough it appears in War of the Worlds and in the if-you-find-a-meteor-in-your-field-don’t-touch-it story that Stephen King did for Creepshow. Our version, featuring cuzzy vine in the starring role, would be called Creekshow, I imagine.

I’ve always considered it the height of irony that in Eastern Kentucky, the rich people lived in the expensive, flat bottom land, and poor people lived perched on the side of hills, while in the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live now) the exact opposite is true.  The difference, though, is that in the Oakland Hills the roads are much better. In Perry County you would often find yourself on the edge of a road with a 150-foot cliff on one side, and an overloaded coal truck more than half the width of the road on the other. The roads had guardrails only occasionally, and no lines appeared to guide your choice of lanes until you got all the way to Viper. Sometimes you could stick your arm out of the window and have it suspended literally over a hundred foot drop or more.  Our bus driver once accidentally forced a coal truck off the road because both our vehicles wouldn’t fit on the narrow, winding road.

My story insists this particular digression is over, and it’s time to tell of magic, and the willing suspension of disbelief, and love, of doors opening and closing and of the hard choices that must sometimes be made in life. That’s the thing about storytelling; it’s a negotiation between the teller and the story on behalf of the audience, and the teller must listen to the story’s cues if communication is going to occur.

Thus, during Christmas break of my 6th grade year, we left, my mother weeping nearly every day over her lost son. And so I eventually wound up in Miss Caudill’s drama class, rehearsing a play written by some English guy, dead and buried hundreds of years ago.

Ch. 5. Story Tell

Editors and friends asked me why I decided to write this book, and what took me so long to start it. I guess I’m trying to figure out if I have fulfilled some of my childhood goals, and what my motivations were and what they should be today. Consequently I am sometimes telling a story so you can follow what I’m trying to delicately thread together, and other times, I’m sort of talking to myself and you’re along for the ride. For the longest time I viewed storytelling as merely a means of delivering information to my students, or a form of entertainment; I never thought about storytelling in the larger context. Upon reflection, I think there’s more going on than simple one-way communication.

Stories, it is said, can sometimes come alive. I believe this to be true. Not in the fantasy sense where a mythical creature can appear in your driveway and lead you to an enchanted forest, but in the sense where a story itself becomes a kind of living creature, reproducing itself through retelling, and evolving to become part of a cultural history. A living story influences the development of other stories, and minds, and lives. A story you tell yourself, repeated often enough, can even influence your own behavior, beliefs, and memories.

It’s also said that everyone has a story that’s simply waiting to be told. When a story can’t wait to be told any longer, it emerges, unbidden, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes humorously, and sometimes tragically. I’ve held mine in me as long as the story will allow, and now it wants out to see the larger world of stories, to see if it can hold your attention, and be related to others, and perhaps have a small influence in the world.

This next part gets a little metacognitive and perhaps a bit preachy. Sorry about that; there’s just some stuff I need to get off my chest that will help you understand the motivations for why this story exists and why I have to write it this way. Just bear with me, and it’ll be over soon, I promise.

Our world today has changed almost without our noticing. The connected threads of our lives and the events beyond our own personal experiences have become interwoven into the daily cycles of our lives. In the past, it might have been possible to live in a town so isolated from the rest of society that there would be differences between our cultures so dramatic as to be startling.

That is no longer true. Continuing a process started with the town crier, the newspaper, radio and television, the internet beckons us to reach beyond our grasp. Almost every house has a television; finding one without is newsworthy and notable. Stories of multiple families sharing a phone line are now several generations in the past for many families; indeed, the entire concept of a party line must usually be explained to modern students by their grandparents, if they hear of it at all.  Outhouses, drinking gourds, home canning, hand-dug wells, applesauce made from apples you picked yourself (cooked then squeezed through a clean cotton pillowcase), patchwork quilts, coal-fired furnaces and hot water available only from a stovetop all seem to be inventions of the distant past, as far removed from the experiences of today’s youth as musket rifles and log cabins.


I am only 44 years old, and yet I once lived in such a time and place.


Even as I did, I knew my experiences were so rare as to be uncommon at the time; a subject of derision, of ridicule, or worse.  Southerners of my generation were sharply aware that the division in the nation started in the Civil War extended into the mid-20th century and beyond. The most visible sign understandable to people not from the area is the fact that it is still politically correct to laugh at the antics of rural Appalachian white men. Of which I am one. As has been pointed out to me by African American friends, I can lose the accent, but they can’t lose the skin color. Losing the accent, though, turned out to be a little more traumatic for me than almost anyone who knows me would guess.

As I have grown and had the opportunity to travel across America, it is obvious to me that the disassembly of our small towns continues, with town after town essentially decapitated–when its school is absorbed into a larger unit, when the post office closed in the face of efficiency, when the mom and pop “peanut” stores too expensive to compete even with the cost of driving fifteen miles or more to the nearest Wal-Mart close.  We’re in the process of losing something vital as we continue this process. In part, this book’s purpose is to remind those people who read it, just a little, of what it was we once had. Our school was so small that there are many concrete, tangible, and financial reasons that it made perfect sense to consolidate it into the county school in the 1990’s. The intangible things we had, a sense of friendship, of family, of history and purpose, now lost or forgotten, can’t be measured quantitatively but they were nonetheless real.

There is, however, a price to be paid for having a small school. Our school was too small to wield a football team, and even our mighty basketball team did not even have its own enclosed basketball court–only half an asphalt basketball court with a single hoop, the other end occupied by the portable special education classroom that I don’t recall entering in four years of high school.

Daily practices were sometimes held on this half-court, but the team regularly got on a bus and drove to the nearby town of Hazard, Kentucky to practice in the old Memorial Gymnasium. This is also where the team played (and lost) basketball games. There was a team back in the 1950’s, I think, which had actually made it to the state championship in our division, but as far as I knew the team of my era never came close to winning anything except permission to run up and down the hallways without passes. Not that I paid that much attention to the basketball team. They didn’t pay much attention to me, either. No one else did either, except in drama class, as far as that went.

In fact, my only real exposure to organized sports had come in the 5th grade in Ohio. I went out on the football field as instructed on the first day I attended that school and found my new teacher, the middle school football coach, organizing the team. I sat on the sideline.

“Get off yer butt and get over here, son,” he grunted.

“Uh, Coach,” I stammered. “I don’t know how to play football.”

“That’s why you’re here, son.”  Despite this promise of lessons and explanations, none ever came. In fact, the ability to quote that line is the only tangible benefit I remember gaining from that particular teacher. By 5th grade in north central Ohio, where we lived at the time, I suppose it was just assumed you knew how to play football through osmosis. Eventually, I and another physically inept boy were assigned the task of repeatedly crashing into each other, primarily to keep us busy while the real football game moved off elsewhere.

Eventually I started figuring things out. We didn’t watch football, or any other sport, in my home. I’d never seen a game. But through simple observation it was pretty straightforward to see what the point was. The boy starting with the ball gives it to another boy, the quarterback. The quarterback, now possessing the ball, runs, and tries to avoid the other team, to deliver the ball to the goal post. Sometimes he throws it to another person, who carries it for him. If you touch the ball-carrier with both hands, play stops, and that is a desired outcome. Even in football-mad Ohio we didn’t play tackle football in 5th grade.

One day, the star quarterback, an entire head taller than I was, decided to keep the ball and just flat out outrun the rest of the class. We were all well aware he was capable of it. To gain room to maneuver, he inscribed a wide, circular path from the center of the field around to the edge. All the other boys, except me and my erstwhile opponent, took off running after the quarterback, all following along in a large, circular pattern that would, if the quarterback continued on his present course, lead him within just a few feet

“Excuse me,” I said to my opposite, and stepped aside to watch him miss our synchronized collision, and fall on his face on the ground with an oomph!

I trotted over to intercept the quarterback, who was looking anywhere but in my direction. Every other player on the team was pounding turf, trying to catch him.

As I approached the quarterback, the same boys who were trying to tag him– even the ones on the opposite side of the temporary teams formed for class play–were screaming at him to look out! look behind you! but he thought this was a trick and kept his focus on the nearest pursuers. For the most part, his own side was being singularly ineffective at stopping anyone from reaching him.  The only thing saving him from being tagged was the other boys were all equally matched and all equally slow; no one in class could catch him, and he knew it.

Except, just that one time, me.

I ran toward him to intercept. He still approached me, facing backward and watching the boys from the real football game chase him. At the last moment he saw me, attempted to change course, and almost stumbled.

I adjusted course and tagged the quarterback solidly in the chest with both hands.

I wanted there to be no question that I managed to actually do the dirty deed. The larger boy squealed in surprise, leapt aside, tripped, and fell down out of sheer astonishment. The ball fell to the ground. A whistle blew to stop playing. He had, in fact, lost a yard or two overall in the maneuver.

Everyone stopped running, still spread out in an elongated crescent curling around the field. Several of the boys gaped at me in amazement. The fellow I was assigned to “keep from moving from this here spot,” my erstwhile opponent, still sat on the grass where I had left him. Our quarterback cast panicked glances at me, and at the grinning boys scattered downfield.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he yelled at me, leaping to his feet.

“Tagging you,” said the coach, who proceeded to ream out the quarterback for not being aware of his surroundings, yelling as coaches are wont to do, gesticulating wildly and stomping back and forth.

A few of the smaller players in the class came over and clapped me on the back. “He’ll never get over being tagged by the slowest kid in the class,” said one. I didn’t know whether or not that was actually a compliment, but shrugged. Why hadn’t any of the other boys cut across the arc? They could easily have boxed him in and tagged him first, I thought.

The next day, the coach said it would be O.K. if I sat out on the practice if I wanted to, and I cracked open a book and took advantage of the free time. The quarterback glared at me, outran the rest of the class repeatedly, and never spoke to me again.

If they’d give both sides one of those funny shaped balls then they wouldn’t have to fight over the one they’ve got, I thought. That was effectively my last voluntary participation in organized sports. My attitude has matured, and I’ve known many fine student athletes and coaches who teach the value of teamwork, who keep themselves in good physical shape, and who try to motivate as many people on the team as can legally play to give kids purpose in school. But for me, at that time, at that age, it seemed pretty pointless; if you couldn’t use strategy to defeat your opponent, I was essentially bored and not interested.

I didn’t miss participating.  I never did well with sports, lacking the coordination to hit, dribble, throw or catch the ball well. I have no idea if I was incapable of it or merely lacked opportunity and practice time. I didn’t run fast, wasn’t terribly strong and was probably a little under average height. I succeeded at dodge-ball only because I was considered a target unworthy of attention. I never won, but came in 2nd regularly, winning meaning you dodged all the balls and were the last one eliminated. The only sports I ever enjoyed in high school were dodge-ball and kickball–kick a ball I could do, sailing it over the arms of even the tallest boys in the class. I couldn’t run fast enough to beat anyone in a foot-race, but if I kicked the ball hard enough and high enough, I didn’t need to.

My father made no effort whatsoever to get me to participate in sports. His attitude was, all that energy could be better spent working to make money for the family. He would have called it a waste of time and effort.

“Must be nice to have the energy to run up and down the field like that,” my father would have said. “I been working in real fields since I was 12, and I never had no time for such like that.”

It was in this context that I sat through my winter physical education class my freshman year in high school, unable to go to a gym to play indoor sports because we didn’t have an indoor gym and because bus rides to town were reserved for our basketball team. In all of my high school career I think I witnessed one basketball game–a girl’s game, at that, and the only reason I was there was because one of my friends was playing. Not that I’d do anything other than what was required even if we had a real gym.

So, in the late fall and wintertime we studied health. A little anatomy, a little stuff about communicable diseases (worms spread through the use of outhouses was illustrated in our book, which advised us to build the outhouses downhill from or at least a good distance away from the house and to never run barefoot in the dirt near the outhouse).  At my home, we didn’t have indoor plumbing (other than cold water from a ground well, which was deposited unceremoniously on the hillside after passing through the sink drain), so we dutifully built our outhouse near the edge of our property line, as far from the house as possible. Read into that whatever you will.

If you look at this minor digression in our larger tale in the context of storytelling, you can see that this relatively minor event in the life of a certain fifth grader was one of the many small influences that seemingly reached into his life and guided him, nudging him this way and that, choosing the path less travelled, as it were.

It made a difference in that it helped me to be ready for drama class, in that place, at that time. Sports held no interest for me, so drama filled the void.

All of us can point to events that would have changed their lives significantly had they turned out differently. There were many disparate threads that led our little troupe together for a few weeks in the fall of 1977, and none of us were quite the same afterward.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly how it happened.

Ch. 4. “To Be or Not"

One October day during my freshman year I was sitting in health class, having finished all of my homework in the period of time between lectures. I had read the chapter we were currently studying, which was sufficient preparation for the worksheets and quizzes we would be offered later.  There was a timid knock at the door, and my older sister Jane appeared. 

Jane is three years older than I. Like mom she had long straight black hair. Unlike mom she would often grin widely, with an infectious smile that made you want to grin whenever you were blessed enough to see it. She had a big gap between the front teeth of her toothy grin. I thought she was secretly self-conscious of the gap, but she never complained about it that I remember hearing.  She had no middle name, which I guess is pretty unusual, especially in the South. (I don’t have a middle name either. I like to tell my astronomy students that my middle name is “Space.”) Jane was a good student, and often helped me with my homework, especially when I was younger. Simply because she was a good student, not a party girl or a druggie, that reduced her circle of friends to a few good kids and a number of acquaintances. She was somewhat heavy then, and I teased her mercilessly about it as brothers do. That’s one of the things that led me to believe in karma, because now she’s much smaller than I am. What goes around, comes around. 

Jane entered the room and asked our teacher C.J. Holt if he minded if I went with her somewhere. Holt was a career P.E. teacher, destined for some assistant principalship or associate superintendent of something or other in the future. If you were an athlete, you called him “C.J.,” and if you were anyone else, it was “Mr. Holt.” He was a thin man with jet-black hair, with a coach’s air of worldliness and wisdom (as seen from a 13 year old’s perspective). He also had this way of walking that was almost languid. He just sort of flowed along the floor, like spilled mercury crawling along the top of a table (don’t ask.) I got along well enough with him because I didn’t talk back and attempted to do what I was told without complaining or whining, which was sufficiently rare, apparently, to be noteworthy in his mind. 

He gave me a discerning look, and said “You got your work done, son?” I nodded, surprised he needed to ask. “All right, but don’t make a habit out of it,” he said, languidly rippling his entire arm at me in dismissal. Jane waved at me (Cmon!), and I motioned her over to my desk. 

“What’s going on?” I asked. 

“Miss Caudill wants to see you,” she replied. 

My English teacher? Did I forget to turn something in? I asked, “What for?”

“She wants you to help read a play.”

“You mean act? On a stage?”


“No thanks.” I started to put my head down on my desk where it had been before my sister arrived. Mr. Holt looked at us, with a What’s taking so long? look in his eyes.  I swear it took him all of three seconds just to turn his head towards us.

“Oh, come on, you’ll love it,” she said, pleading with her eyes.

I shook my head no again.

 “I promised her you’d come.” 

Huh. On consideration it seemed a small price to pay to keep the peace with Jane at home, and it would get me out of Health. In another one of those odd moments of clarity I thought: Would I have to answer to my future self if I passed an opportunity to do something new and interesting instead of filling out worksheets and dozing in a chair? Why else had I agreed to go to high school early in the first place?

I got up and nodded at the coach. He grunted in reply, smoothly tilting his chin slightly upward and somehow aiming it at the door at the same time.

I reluctantly followed her down the hall. A few days ago I was standing talking to Jane in the hall when someone asked her if I was her little brother. She allowed that I was, reluctantly it seemed to me. In a little jab of little brother vengeance, I commented to Jane and her friend that by the time she graduated, people would ask her if she were my older sister.  Later I regretted the jibe as she really hadn’t done anything to deserve it, but she took it in stride even as she recalled it, and told me it came true, before she graduated. We were three years apart in age, but because I skipped a year, I was a freshman while she was a junior. 

Miss (Cheryl) Caudill was my freshman English teacher. She and everyone else pronounced her name Shur-ull. She was currently teaching us sentence diagramming, which was close enough to graphing that it made me really enjoy English. Frankly, I don’t remember much else I learned in freshman English; unlike most people, I don’t view that as equivalent to not learning anything. Like most of my other classes, freshman English was not inspirational to me but it became part of the general background knowledge I operate with on a daily basis. As far as sentence diagramming goes, I am sure that was vanishingly rare then, and even more so now because it is “pedagogically unsound” to teach sentence diagramming these days.

Miss Caudill ran a reasonably tight ship in freshman English. I remember we had to start each class by carefully lining up the feet of our desks on designated cracks and rows in the tile floor; when papers were written and ready to turn in they had to be folded lengthwise, no staples (because none were provided for teachers by the office) with name, assignment title, class period, and date on the outside of the left edge of the paper. She kept papers bundled with rubber bands, bundling them like stacks of money to be deposited in a safe somewhere.  Grading was done in red pencil with the final score circled in a swirl. 

A few steps away from my PE class I arrived at Miss Caudill’s classroom. It was dramatically different than the sparse container of desks and sleeping students I had just left. They had recently renovated the school by painting all the rooms, adding drop ceilings, and fixing window locks, etc. The door was covered with paint, too, bright orange and yellow and red, and looked like there had been fingerpainting and even feet walking up the side of the wall. My sister told me Athena Hamnill had been lifted by some of the boys as she walked up the door with paint on her feet. Every teacher was allowed to select the color for their room. Mr. Simmons (a redhead) picked green. Mrs. Hayword (Senior English and all that implies) selected bright orange, the better to keep her students awake, or possibly just stunned. Miss (Cheryl) Caudill’s room, on the inside, was primarily blue. Even the floor tile had been colored to match the decor. In today’s more corporate school environments such personal choices would never be allowed.

As I arrived in Miss (Cheryl) Caudill’s room, I looked at the pair of happy-sad faces (Comedy and Tragedy, I learned later) that were painted on a segment of plastered wall between two windows, one of which was open. There was, of course, no air conditioning, and few fans. A tattered carpet covered the rear third of the room, and a beat-up couch resided there as if it had been there forever. From the smell of it, it probably had. Strange sparkling fabrics and expandable hosiery, feather boas, hats and other costuming materials were strewn about. In fact, the room looked like a tornado had struck, in contrast to the neatly organized room I inhabited during the day during freshman English. 

The desks which were normally set into rigid lines during the day were scattered almost randomly about leaving a large empty space in the center front of the room. The room contained perhaps a dozen upperclassmen lounging around holding small folded-up copies of what I presumed were scripts.  I walked into the room and maneuvered between the jumbled desks to get out of the way. There was, I noted, someone sitting on the floor on the opposite side of Miss Caudill’s desk. 

Sitting cross-legged, perusing a script held in both hands, was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was wearing close-fitting jeans, sandals, and a blue blouse. I glanced at her and glanced away and then back, as if my brain were unable to decide if it was socially acceptable to stare.

Miss Caudill was talking to someone, and that afforded me the opportunity to look again at the girl, whose golden blonde hair flowed off of her shoulders, framing her face. She looked up and saw me, and smiled. 

Her eyes were blue, and her lips were covered in some sort of lipstick. Her hair was feathered in the style of the time, swept back from her face, which had rounded cheeks, a smallish chin, and an impish button nose.  As she noted me staring at her, her smile widened slightly. Her clothes match her eye color, I thought. Why is this the first time in my life I’ve ever noticed someone’s eye color matching their clothes?

Other incoherent thoughts raged through my head as my past, present, and future incarnations argued for priority.

Then Jane nudged me, and the moment, as they say, was lost. What? Whaaat? I started to say, but then saw Miss Caudill looking at me. 

Miss Caudill was perched on top of her desk, legs crossed, directing students as if she were directing traffic, with her hands.  This was considerably different than her behavior during English, where she directed the class mostly from behind her desk and often from a seated position. Miss Caudill smiled at me, and hopped off the desk. 

“There you are, Mason,” she said.  She often referred to us by our last names. She asked, “Have you ever been in a play?”

“Not really.” I replied. Would I just be a person carrying a cardboard tree, like in an elementary school pageant?  

“That’s all right,” she said. “You can learn as you go.” She picked up a copy of a paperback book and rifled through the pages. “Here we go. Now let me explain what is happening here.” 

“Benny here plays Petruchio,” she said, pointing at a tall, dark haired upperclassman. He stood with his arms folded, as if he might spontaneously decide to leave, hopping in a car or on the back of a motorcycle, departing for parts unknown.  He had hair that covered his neck and hung below his collar, cut tapered in rock-star fashion. Mostly it hung straight down. He had these long bangs that nearly reached his eyes, which I always though looked cool but would be annoying in practice. It seemed to me that he had been around the block a few times, most likely at excessive rates of speed. He looked like he might be one of those new crop of guys popular in the early disco era who spent time on his hair beyond just washing and drying it. Defined muscles flexed at where his biceps emerged from his black short sleeve shirt. Best not irritate this fellow, I thought. 

“Petruchio is a young wealthy aristocrat who is looking for a bride,” said Miss Caudill, pointing at Benny. “You, on the other hand, will be Grumio, his manservant.”

“Man...servant?” I said. “Like a butler?”

She chuckled. “Not exactly. More like ... a sidekick.” OK, sidekick any thirteen-year-old boy could understand. I nodded. I noted out of the corner of my eye the blonde-headed girl was looking at us. When she saw me look back at her, she rose, and I couldn’t help but notice the tightness of her jeans and the ...interesting curvature they revealed. She retreated to the back of the room. I followed her progress as long as I could without turning away from Miss Caudill. 

“A lazy ne’er-do-well drinking buddy sidekick,” Miss Caudill continued. “Not an assistant as much as much as loyal servant that is just competent enough to keep his job. Raynard, give him your script,” she continued. Raynard Smith, a tall junior with a crop of poorly-controlled red hair and a loping (not languid) gait, handed over his script. Handwritten at the top of the script was the word “Grumio” in Miss Caudill’s elaborately tilted script, along with strange coded notations such as XUSR, USL, Face DSR, and so on. Bits and pieces of the Shakespearean dialog were crossed out with lines through the text.  On a somewhat more ominous note, there were signs of extensive, and repeated, erasures. 

“Stand there,” said Miss Caudill. She was a large woman, with dark coppery-colored hair set high on her forehead. She had moved behind her desk after arranging us, and now was sitting astride a chair turned backwards as a man would. She was also graceful for a large woman. I noted how she pointed her toes as she walked, and seemed to glide along the floor as she moved. (I know it seems I’m a little overly concerned with how people moved, but believe me I didn’t think about it at the time. It’s something you sort of notice in retrospect once you learn how to walk... ask any dancer and they’ll know what I mean. ) She usually wore pants suits and that was true that day. I remember thinking her favorite color was brown since so many of her clothes were that color. She was leaning over the back of the chair making it tilt up forward on two legs in the fashion that would have caused any other teacher to smack a ruler on a desk and declare that a toppling was imminent. She pointed at an X marked on the floor in masking tape. 

Standing on an adjacent X was Benny. It was probably the first time he had ever laid eyes on me, even in a school of 400. That could have been due to the fact that the top of my head was even with the bottom of his chin, more or less. 

“You can’t be serious, Caudill,” he said. He always called Miss Caudill “Caudill.” As if she were the only one. 

“I’m dead serious,” she said. “You need someone smaller than you to play against, and Raynard is too big, so he can be Biondello instead. We tried to cast Pat as Grumio, but she dropped out because it’s a man’s part. Hoss here is a small fellow. He can be Grumio.” She said, looking at me but speaking to Benny, “Start reading at the top of page twelve.” She looked at me again. “He is going to get you to try to knock on the door, but you think he means for you to hit him instead. That’s the joke.” She waved her hands in little excited circles as she talked. She seemed so animated about it all. This was completely unlike her behavior in English class, where she was much more businesslike, less friendly, always behind the desk, and... less cheerful.

“Here, sirrah, knock me here and knock me soundly,” Benny said, in what seemed to me to be a fair facsimile of a British accent.  There was no door to knock upon, but Benny gestured to the wall, as if a door were there. 

“Uh,” I said, looking around. I was still trying to wrap my head around why she referred to me as Hoss when Hoss Cartwright was a great big strapping fellow. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Just read the words next to where it says ‘Grumio’,” she said. 

“Oh,” I said. “Knock sir, whom should I knock? Grumio assumes a fighting stance,” I said, in what must have been the worst possible delivery of that line in theatrical history. Everyone laughed, but they were quickly shushed. 

“Don’t read the part in the brackets, child,” said Miss Caudill. “Those are directions that tell you what to do with your body.”

“Oh. Uh, sorry.” Duh. That’s obvious. Why am I having so much trouble engaging my brain? I thought. Not realizing what would be the simplest explanation, my next thought was Where’s that girl?

“Villain, you shall knock me here and knock me soundly!” shouted Benny. I was so startled I almost dropped my script. Focus.

“Why, master, has any man here... refused your worship?” I read haltingly. 

“Stop,” said Miss Caudill. “It says ‘rebused,’ not ‘refused.’” 

“Caudill, this ain’t gonna work–” began Benny. He was speaking to her, but looking at me.

“Hush,” she commanded, and surprisingly, he did. We went through about two pages of the lines, haltingly, and then did it again, more smoothly. I wasn’t quite so befuddled as the first time. Just when I was starting to feel as if I was getting the hang of the pronunciation of the words, she stopped us again. She looked at my sister. “You said he was funny. He’s not funny.” She looked at me. “You’re not funny, Hoss.”

My sister, arms crossed across her chest and one knee bent, knew her reputation was at stake, so she gave me a stare worthy of Lucy Van Pelt as she said, “Use one of your funny voices.”

“Which one?” I said. I wasn’t, as they say these days, quite with the program yet. 

At home I liked to imitate famous people, and was a big fan of Rich Little. Most of my impressions were my impression of Rich Little doing people I’d never seen for myself. (“Will you shut up talking with those God-damn stupid voices! I work hard all day and don’t need to hear that–”) My father’s opinions didn’t stop me, though.  He didn’t like it when I whistled, either. That damn pucker makes you look like you got an asshole in your face, he would say occasionally. I honestly don’t think he was deliberately trying to be mean to me; he never called me stupid or, God forbid, lazy. He was just tired and grumpy from working so hard building houses and pouring concrete and driving untold miles to and from work. 

I viewed him as a force of nature, not controllable or solvable, but avoidable. I took to whistling when I was alone. 

“Richard Nixon,” Jane said. 

I shook my face to make my cheeks rattle to drop into “Richard Nixon” mode. Using my best impression of Rich Little’s version of the gravelly president, I said “Why, master, has any man here rebused your worship?” 

“No,” said Miss Caudill. Now she was holding her head in her hands. “Can you make up a voice for someone who isn’t too bright, sounds funny, but doesn’t sound like someone on TV?”

I considered this and responded with a nasal sort of doofus voice, with a sort of hyuk-hyuk quality to it, an exaggerated goofy voice. At the last moment I added a lisp. “Knock, thir? Whom thould I knock?”

“That’ll do for now,” she said. We read a few more lines and she said, “I can’t understand you now, tone it down,” and I did. A few more lines later, she said “Your diction needs work. You’re not enunciating when you say ‘Has any man...’.”  She waved her hand in a circle to indicate she meant to include the entire line.

“My diction is fine, thank you very much,” I said in a faux British accent. I thought I was smart for knowing what diction was, and confused knowing a definition with being able to do it. “I sound very educated, don’t I?” I continued. However, when I said “don’t I?” it came out without the “t”; which is why Miss Caudill said–

“Donii is the plural of doughnut. You mean to say “don’t I.” Try again.” 

I felt the heat of my flushed face, and to add insult to injury, I dropped my script. As I picked it up somehow managed to twist around and noted the blonde girl– a young woman, really– was facing the back of the room and hadn’t witnessed my minor humiliation at the hands of my English teacher. Concentrate. I repeated the line, enunciating the t. 

“Better,” she said. “Now say your line again with the funny voice.” 

“Why, Mathter, hath any man rebuthed your worthip?” I smiled broadly, finally letting the idea connect in my head that this was a comedy and I was being instructed to be funny. My brain felt like it finally managed to slip out of neutral and shift into a forward moving gear. I bugged my eyes out and feigned innocent indignation, raising my fists and gyrating them wildly. 

“You’re hired.” She turned to my sister. “Go tell C.J. to let him stay down here the rest of the period, and I’ll talk to him after school.” She said, almost muttering, intended for Jane’s ears alone, “He’s pretty bad but at least he follows directions.”  That was the first time, but not the last, that I learned being able to take direction was more important than being talented.

“Um,” I said.

“Yes, child?” she replied. 

“Um, what am I hired for?” Everyone looked at me as if I were mad. Miss Caudill merely smiled. 

“You’re going to be in a play,” Miss Caudill said. “Shakespeare. The Taming of the Shrew.”

“Oh.” William Shakespeare, my mind said to me. To be or not to be. Memory flashed; I had a sudden vision of myself reclined on my brother Bill’s leather couch, reading encyclopedia volumes for fun, thinking some day you’ll need to know almost everything you’ll ever read. I remembered a photo, a photo of a bust of Shakespeare on the page with the entry. He was bald on top with a rim of hair below, like our principal. English playwright and poet. 1600’s. Wrote a bunch of famous plays. Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet. I didn’t know anything about Taming of the Shrew, but I suspected it wasn’t about training small rodents. 

If it got me out of health class and the piercing stares of C.J. Holt, that was good enough for me.  Not that I was actually asked what I wanted. As it turned out, I had plenty of other motivations for coming to rehearsal.

As we rode the bus home that evening, I sat next to my sister Jane. Her long black hair flipped in and out of the window we had lowered when the ride began. 

“Well,” said Jane. “What did you think of your first day of drama?”

“It was all right,” I said. “I get to act goofy and no one tells me to stop.”

“I didn’t realize you would be such a ham,” she said. 

I looked at her and snorted like a pig. That made her laugh. I looked at her again, and after a couple of moments worked up the courage to ask, “Who was that girl?”

“What girl?”

What girl? “The girl, the girl, the blonde-headed girl in Miss Caudill’s room,” I managed to squeak. Oh, that wasn’t smooth at all. 

“Oh, that’s Lyn Anderson,” said my sister. “She’s Miss Caudill’s niece.” My sister looked at me as if she was noting that it was the first time in my entire thirteen trips around the sun I had ever asked her about a girl.  In all likelihood, it was. She raised an eyebrow at me. “She’s a senior. She’s nice.” 

Nice. “Um, yeah. I thought she looked older.” She looked like a college student to me, or could pass for one easily enough. 

“Why do you ask?”

A slight hesitation, less than a tenth of a second; still too long, though.

“No reason. Just curious.”

Riiight said my sister’s eyes. “She plays Katherine, who is in a lot of scenes with Petruchio. You’re going to see a lot more of her. Petruchio and Kate and Grumio have a lot of scenes together.” She pulled in her wayward hair from the open window and tied it into a ponytail with a rubber band. Watching me the entire time. 

“Mmm,” I grunted, noncommittally. My heart and my mind engaged in a high-speed race and kept me silent for the rest of the ride home. I pulled out the script Miss Caudill had given me to study and began reading the play from the first scene. The words on the page, curiously, did not match the words running through my mind at all. If I get a chance to talk to her, I thought, what could I possibly say that she would find interesting?

I had absolutely no idea. None of the various permutations and combinations of who I might be in the future had any bright ideas, either. 


Ch. 3. My Freshman Year Begins

My first day of high school was somewhat nerve-wracking, as I suppose it is for everyone. Devitt Caudill High School, by most people’s standards, was not a large place, but it was probably one of the largest buildings I had ever visited at the time. It was more than twice the size of Viper, although it housed only half as many grade levels. It was perched halfway up a hill on the edge of the moderately expansive bottom land that flattened out the wrinkled hillsides a little as various hollows fed into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. It was located in the small town of Jeff (no, I wasn’t named for it) that had a single stop sign, a gas station, a post office, a church and a couple of other nondescript businesses of less than permanent character. Kentucky Route 7 intersects the main road (Ky. 15) that goes through the town. “Fi-teen” was the closest four-lane road to my parent’s home. 

I had trouble finding classrooms despite the tiny size of the school. I was shorter than most of the boys, but not dramatically shorter. I was slender in those days, with dark brown hair, and an innocent face that some said made me look like a Beatle wannabe. I had to maneuver my way around giant upperclassmen, which I suppose most freshmen have had to endure.  

I barely understood my schedule; in Viper the school was K-8 (and still is), and while we did shift between rooms a bit, we all did it together, as a unit, and all of the rooms were less than 20 feet apart.  I kept checking my pocket to make sure that I hadn’t lost the handwritten schedule that told me which room to look for next. The last-minute schedule, not in the regular sequence of events because I missed the 8th grader registration and orientation, had been handed to me by a harried school secretary who had no time for explanations. This was the first time, I remember thinking, that I figured out that rooms that all start with 100- were on the first floor, and rooms with 200- were on the second floor. 

Our high school was small, only about 400 students total. My graduating class was 77 people. We were crowded into a 1950’s era brick schoolhouse consisting of a long hallway about 7 or 8 classrooms long, two stories tall, with an adjacent band room and a permanent “portable” classroom added later for special education.  Colonel Devitt Hayword Caudill Memorial High School was named after a school board member instrumental (I assume) in getting funding to build the school in the first place.  It was what is known as a consolidated school because it brought together the students from several different, smaller schools and allowed them to share the benefits of a larger school such as a greater variety of courses and a bigger pool of people from which to select athletic teams. (The real reason, of course, is that it is cheaper to pay one principal to work twice as hard than pay two principals each with a manageable job.) Whatever preceded it must have been much smaller. In the present day, it has been absorbed into a still larger school which effectively serves much of the entire county. The Devitt H. Caudill building itself is used as an office building now, what fragment of schoolyard there was now dedicated to parking, the wooden staircase winding down the hill to the store at the foot of the hill decayed and abandoned, half lost among the tall grass that grows in the summer. 

“You’ll be fine,” said Mom. “You’re smarter then half of them teachers down there at Devitt what gets paid for jes’ setting around on their ass all day.” When Mom wasn’t angry or shouting, the few curse words she uttered she sort of squeezed out like toothpaste; sparingly, and with effort. Sometimes you could barely hear them; when she said ass all you could really hear was the hissing of the s’es: sss.

Somehow I doubted my high school teachers would share my mother’s opinion. I know I didn’t. 

I was terrified of making some mistake, such as the time when I was put into the 8th grade spelling bee as a 7th grader and I was the first one out (glacier doesn’t follow the i-before-e-except-after-c rule). “You weren’t so smart as you thought you were,” said my classmates. Another time a fifth grade teacher had asked me a series of questions attempting to find some vocabulary word I didn’t know. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny!” he barked at me. “Whazzat mean, boy?” I had no idea what he was talking about, which made him snicker. “Y’see, boy? Y’don’t know everything.”  

I allowed as I had never claimed to, and there were huge amounts of things I didn’t know, but he never did acknowledge that I was attempting to be the very humble person he was ridiculing me for not being. 

Entering the 8th grade bee wasn’t my idea in the first place, but I had agreed to it. These memories burned in my mind as I worked my way down the hall that first day. Skipping the 8th grade wasn’t my idea, either, but once again, I’d agreed to the scheme.

I navigated carefully through the beginning of my freshman year, amused and embarrassed at the attention for skipping 8th grade for about a month. I was introduced to the principal as the “That Boy From Viper Who Skipped 8th Grade,” and that made me sympathetic with Harry Potter years later. I dutifully spent my days taking notes and filling in fill-in-the-blank questions from Mrs. (Wilhelmina) Caudill’s science classroom chalkboard, plodding my way through Health & PE, cranking out equations in Miss (Mary) Caudill’s Algebra I, and diagramming sentences for Miss (Cheryl) Caudill.  Perhaps a quarter of our teachers were one variety of Caudill or another. Harold, Halford, Byron, Wilhelmina, Cheryl, Nervis, Dary, Pauline and Loretta and God knows who else. Heck, even our school was named after Col. Devitt H. Caudill. (You pronounce Devitt with emphasis on the second syllable, De-VITT. ) For those of you who don’t know, a Kentucky Colonel is a title bestowed by the governor on pretty much anyone who ever had any connections whatsoever with the Old Boys Network, was owed a favor by the governor, was remotely famous, in some cases infamous, or relatively wealthy. 

Mr. (Byron) Caudill, the principal, didn’t think much of me when he first met me. “Too short for basketball, ain’tcha boy,” was his first comment to my face. 

“Yes, sir,” I replied. In Kentucky we always called our elders “sir” even when they insulted us. 

“Well, I sure hope you’re as smart as everyone says you are,” he said. “You sure ain’t gonna get an athal-letic scholarship.” He grinned at me. I didn’t know what to make of that; wasn’t the point of high school to get an education to get ready for college, rather than seeking an athletic scholarship as an end unto itself? Or rather, wasn’t the point of an athletic scholarship to get an education, and if you were going to get an education anyway without the assistance of basketball, why bother with the whole bouncing-running-throwing-keeping score part?

“Are you sure you’re up to high-school work, son?” he said. He peered at me over the top of semicircular reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. He was probably in his 40’s or 50’s, about the same age as my parents, but without the world worn, weary look of what my father would call a “real workin’ man.” He had a rim of hair bravely defending the open territory on the top of his head. Whenever I spoke to him, he made me feel as if I was being tested and I didn’t even know what the questions were really about. “I have had my doubts about them cutting out the eighth grade for some of these students,” he continued before I could compose an answer. “I don’t really think most of them are ready for it. They’re not mature enough yet.“ I wonder who the other skippers were, I thought. But I’m the only one from Viper this year. “Well?”

“I don’t know if I am or not,” I said. “I’ve never done high school work, so I can’t rightly judge whether or not I’m ready to do it.”

He looked at me with his mouth twisted to one side, trying to decide if this was a serious answer or some sort of smart-alecky remark. 

“Well, boy,” he said, folding his arms on his chest, “I reckon you’re about to find out. Good luck.” He dismissed me with twitch of his head. I left, wiping sweat from my forehead. That could have gone better, I thought. 

I had had few friends at Viper, and was invisible to the former 8th graders who were now my classmates. None of the people in my classes were my friends, or were inclined to be. Yer not from around here, are ye boy? was a phrase I’d heard more than once, despite the fact I had been born in Perry County like the majority of my classmates. Except for my older sister and a couple of cousins older than I, with whom I shared no classes, I didn’t know anyone. It’s nearly impossible to go to school in Eastern Kentucky and not be related to someone. 

The high school had several feeder elementary schools, and those few faces I recognized were absorbed into the mass of people who crowded the hall at every class change. Even a small school can seem crowded when you put everyone into two narrow hallways simultaneously. 

I’d always made some friends among the slide-rule set whenever we made one of our frequent school district shifts in Ohio; but it’s different in high school. An outsider behaving as an outgoing person, introducing themselves to strangers, is considered odd, a curiosity almost.  

I was so anxious to prove myself, and so used to being on my own in a new school, that I think I was kind of numb to the isolation and loneliness I had brought upon myself, and just accepted it as part of the Smart Kid’s Burden, just another thing that had to be endured like Finding A Way To Keep The Obnoxious Bully From Copying Your Homework and Always Getting Picked Dead Last For P.E. Teams. 

Days would pass when, if I didn’t answer a question for a teacher, I wouldn’t speak to anyone, about anything, all day long. Sometimes days at a time would pass where I would issue only one word, curt responses in social settings. I was terribly lonely and had no idea at all what to do about it. Once you start off in a group of people as shy and reserved, it’s really hard to break out of it and show your true colors. Your classmates will either think you’re weird, on drugs, in love, or something worse. So those first few impressions were critical. And mine were: quiet, unassuming, loner, nerdy. Like millions of other bright, but socially isolated kids, in every community in the country, I felt trapped by the first impressions that other people held of me. 

I’ve been a teacher long enough that I know that happens to a lot of people. Not everyone. But more than you think. 

Anyway, to give you a taste of high school life in that time and place: I even had a study hall. In those days we could schedule an hour to study, and during that hour you could do special things like practice basketball if you were on the team, or sleep, or get all of your homework done so you didn’t have anything to actually do at home. You can guess which of those three I did. When I finished I doodled cartoon aliens zooming around the universe. Endless drawings of the Starship Enterprise adorned my notebooks and binder covers.

These days we don’t have study hall because the adults are frightened of what an oversized class of teenagers with no specific assignment might do. They might organize, form a mob or some whole new gang no one’s ever heard of before with some distorted spanish-sounding name ending in a vowel, or perform identify theft with their cell phones. I guess it was a more innocent time then, although we didn’t feel particularly innocent. Probably everyone feels that way about his or her childhood. 

Ch. 2. The Boy Who Skipped

There’s an old joke that goes: When the world comes to an end, I’m moving to Kentucky, because everything happens 20 years later there. Like many of the other infuriating jokes at the expense of “hillbillies,” this one has a kernel of truth in it. I became aware of this because my family moved from Ohio to Kentucky halfway through my 6th grade year in the early 1970’s, and I had entered Viper Elementary in Perry County, Kentucky.

It quickly became obvious that the school I attended in Kentucky was not moving kids along as quickly as my school had in Ohio.

I remember learning about degrees and angles and protractors in the fifth grade in Ohio. The topic didn’t get introduced into our education in Viper, Kentucky until the sixth grade. Late in the sixth. Seventh grade found me so far ahead of my peers, and annoying everyone (students and teachers) by answering all of the questions, blowing the curves, and being a little rude about the slow pace that one day, I was called into the hall outside the classroom to have a “conversation” about it.

At first it was just a knock on the door. My teacher suspended the lesson and answered the door. Then he turned back to the room and gestured to me. “Jeff Mason,” he said, as I looked up in surprise. Again?

This time Mr. Caldwell and my mother were in the hallway. When the rest of the class saw her and the principal waiting for me in the hall, there was the traditional rolling chorus of “ooooOOOHHHoooo!” I rolled my eyes as I left. I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s probably something else.

The hallway was only six or seven classrooms long, but it seemed to stretch on forever, notably empty and silent except for murmurs from classrooms and the hum of fans futilely attempting to redistribute the heat of the day. Mr. Caldwell stood beside my mother, and my teacher stepped into the hall and joined us. I think my teacher was Bobby John Combs, who was also my bus driver, but I’m not completely sure I remember who my teacher was that year.

“Son, we’ve decided that going to the 8th grade here is a waste of time for you,” the principal said.  He always wore a tie with a short-sleeve buttoned white shirt even on the hottest of the humid, sticky days of early summer, and true to form he was wearing one today. He was also wearing a smile, which confused me.

I raised my eyebrows, but said nothing.  Was I being kicked out of class? Why was he smiling?

“What we were thinking is that it might be in your best interests to go on to Devitt H. Caudill Memorial High School next year. What do you think about that, Jeffery?”

Skip the eighth grade? I thought. But I’m not ready! Thoughts of the slow pace and the ease of work I’d encountered so far vanished from my mind. I’d go from being a year ahead of everyone academically to being a year behind chronologically. What did that mean to me personally? My mind whirled.

“Um, what about the stuff I’ll miss in 8th grade?”

“Your teachers tell me that you’re basically a year ahead in every subject and reading at 11th grade to college level already,” replied the principal. My teacher nodded. I was surprised. This was the first time anyone had said anything formal to me about being more advanced than the rest of my class. I didn’t feel advanced. Just... focused.

“He read that Carl Sagan book in less than a week,” said my teacher.

I had read Intelligent Life in the Universe in long marathon reading sessions over several days, and eventually learned how to use the formulas in the back to compute the Schwartzchild radius of a black hole (and taught myself from my calculator manual how to use scientific notation to finish the problems); but once again I was reticent. No one I knew, except maybe a kid down the road named Don I played with sometimes, even knew what a black hole was. I learned about novas and nebulas, and probably got my initial interest in science and astronomy, from sneaking downstairs at midnight when we lived in Ohio to watch reruns of Star Trek (the original version) after carefully twisting our old black-and-white television away from the open bedroom door where my mother snored and my father slept fitfully trying to ignore it. I got caught once when I inched the volume up too loud, and got yelled at for waking up my parents and being up without permission.

None of the television stations we could pick up in Hazard transmitted Star Trek. They went off the air at midnight, right after a brief newscast out of Lexington and the obligatory rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Reruns were limited to Gunsmoke and The Little Rascals.

“He did win that science fair, too,” said my mother. I had won the 6th grade science fair shortly after joining the school with a design for a cryogenically-frozen perpetual motion machine I had imagined after reading a library book on low-temperature physics– not a textbook or a graduate level thing, that would not have been in the school library in the first place–but an age-appropriate science book written for middle schoolers. I had been the first student to check it out, I noted.  The design was based on the idea that cryogenically frozen wires had no electrical resistance and thus no loss of energy. Certain mechanical parts had been demonstrated to be frictionless under those conditions as well. Why not use a cryogenic motor to turn a cryogenic generator, which powers the cryogenic motor? With no friction, and no energy loss in the wires (the wires in my makeshift electrical kit would sometimes get hot) the thing should run forever. A perpetual motion machine. It won’t work–I learned years later–because of the conservation of energy and the fact the thing would radiate buckets of electromagnetic energy– but as this is not a physics text, I’m going to have to let that go for now.

One of the judges said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you sure as heck did your homework on this one,” as a cluster of people surrounded my simple hand-lettered poster, flanked by the traditional clay volcano filled with baking soda, baby rabbits in cages, and coal-stained shirts soaking in different brands of detergent.

“Well, son?” said Caldwell. “What do you want to do?”

I looked at my mother. She was a small, wiry woman, already hunched over from years of hard work and worry.  At age twelve I was already taller than she was. Like my sister, she had coal-black hair, worn straight and simple. Today she was dressed in a brown polyester pants suit, the same thing she wore when paying bills or going to town for some official purpose. Serious business.

She shrugged, peered at me with her hands shoved into her jacket pockets, and said, “It’s up to you.”

I was a little worried about the academic preparation issues, but I’d been through similar transitions before (by this time in my academic career I had already attended five different schools in four districts) and I didn’t think it would be a big deal.  What about social issues? My only real friend was Don, and he was held distant from me by my mother ever since she had been offended that Don’s parents made me dig weeds in the potato garden for several hours when I stayed overnight to visit once.

“Kids ought not to have to work all the time,” my mother had said. “They need time to be kids now, or they never will be. Believe you me, I know what it means to lose your childhood.” 

This went back to her hard and laborious upbringing during the depression years. Mom worked in the fields and kitchens and yard and such since she was old enough to lift a hand. Such were the conditions in Eastern Kentucky that the Depression came and went and the region hardly noticed; for a time, the rest of the country came down to our level, then, later, most of the nation prospered as the people in the hollows and bottoms of Kentucky went on, unperturbed, unchanged and unnoticed. The same thing, I noted some years ago, happened again during the dot-com boom.

Maybe in high school I could make some new friends. I had never had many, and the few I had enjoyed the most I had left behind when we evacuated from Ohio. (I know you want to know why we evacuated, but I’m going to have to save that story for a little later.)

If I had been a little more worldly, or thought about it for a long time, I would have considered the equation

one year younger than everyone +

short kid+

from ohio+

academically gifted+

no friends

= high school misery

and said no. But, once in a while, I figured, you either step through the door to a new adventure, or you wonder the rest of your life what it would have been like if you had.

I imagined my future self looking back, trying to talk to me through some esoteric time portal. Why the heck didn’t you jump on this when you had the chance, said the sad, older me, shaking his head. Instead you just wasted your time. There’s only so much time to learn things in a human lifetime. Get started now!

So I said yes, but I wasn’t as confident as my voice claimed to be.

Caldwell produced an envelope from his jacket pocket. “Here’s your 8th grade diploma,” he said. “I already signed it.”

He must have known what I would do, I thought. Or, I thought, if I had said no he could have just tossed it. It’s just a piece of paper. “Do I get to go to the 8th grade graduation this year?” Viper held a formal graduation ceremony for students leaving eighth grade. It never occurred to me that for some of my classmates it might be the last diploma they ever earned.  Some of them didn’t even earn that.

“I’m afraid not,” he said. “We should keep this a little quiet from your classmates here at Viper, because otherwise every Tom, Dick and Delmer will want to skip 8th grade too. And frankly, there’s not many of them as could do it. You’re the first one we’ve had in a while now.” So there were other skippers.

I nodded, and he shook my hand and handed me the 8th grade diploma.

“Congratulations, son, you’ve just graduated 8th grade,” he said. He shook Mom’s hand, swept his thick shock of black hair back from his forehead. He smiled, slapped me on the back and departed. I turned to go back in the classroom.

“Where you going?” she asked. “You heard the man, you’ve graduated from Viper. You’re done.” She grinned at me, her false teeth flashing white. She didn’t smile much, probably a learned habit from years of having bad teeth until she surrendered and had the remaining teeth removed in favor of an entirely artificial upper plate.

I’m going to miss the last three days of school? I thought. But what about my grades? Then I realized it didn’t matter; I’d already graduated. I had the diploma in my hand. No one in high school cares about your middle school GPA. Once you’re done, it’s done. I looked at my mom, who was obviously proud of me, and smiled. For some reason, the thought came to my mind that I had just saved her an entire year’s worth of money on food, clothing, school supplies, and field trips. I doubt she ever thought of it that way. She probably thought I was stealing away one more year of living at home with the family, if she considered it at all.

All my life, for nearly as long as I can remember, people have told me how smart I was. I liked being smart. I got special privileges. My parents pampered me by letting me pursue my interests, even against their better judgment. The thing is, though, I’ve never really, down deep in my heart, felt smart. If someone asked me, “What’s it like to be a genius?” I wouldn’t know what to say. People have asked me that–mostly people I knew from school, but still.

Most people don’t know how much front-end work it takes to appear to be smart. Not to mention the fact that I personally considered the root of my academic success lay 400 miles to the north, because it was mainly due to the slower pace of schools in Kentucky relative to those I attended in Ohio that I gained a real reputation for being bright in the first place.

Because I had a kick-start like that, I’ve always felt as if I’m somewhat of a sham in that respect; as if someone really smart is going to come along and expose me for the fraud I’ve been all these years. And of course whenever I admit that to people they don’t believe me, or consider it a false modesty, and then they start in with that whole “you’re a genius” claptrap again, so for the most part, I keep my uncertainties to myself.

I’ve met some really smart people in my time. When I have a conversation, today, with a PhD about how to interpret space probe data and set up observations with my students, it can take me a week to decompress the amount of information coming my way in an afternoon.  College provided me with my first true academic challenges, and it damn near overwhelmed me. My attitude had always been that I just attacked academic problems early, without procrastination, and got help when I needed it. I forgot that for a while, and I suffered mightily in my sophomore year of college because of it. The risk to my major saved my collegiate academic career by making me focus again. Ironic, if you think about it.

Some people meet that challenge much earlier in their academic careers. Some people meet it much later. Some who fail to conquer the challenge of perhaps not being quite smart enough never recover, and never find out what might have been.

Most of the kids I went to school with weren’t dumb. Some suffered from the lack of opportunity or enthusiasm of some of their teachers. Some suffered from the lack of personal vision or having a mission, a niche for themselves in the larger world. They were perfectly capable of doing the work, but they didn’t see the work as having any purpose, and without purpose or goals, it would be boring and a waste of time to learn anything the teacher tried to teach.

What made the difference for me was that I had had it drilled into me since I was small that schooling was my ticket out of poverty. “Work with your head, not with your back,” my Dad would say. “Your back won’t last. But your brain will.”

Still, it’s hard to keep an even keel when you’re surrounded by people you love and respect, and all you hear is how smart you are, how gifted, how talented, how ... everything. The day you start believing everything people say when they praise you beyond your ability is the day you stop wanting to learn new things. Once you stop growing and having adventures, what fun would that be?

Complacency is the enemy.death sentence  Taking the easy way out of schoolwork is a for your brain.

I stepped back into the doorway and looked back in my 7th grade classroom. Already it seemed small, in the way that elementary school rooms seem small when adults go back to visit. That wasn’t the first or last time I had a sense of being displaced in time, conscious of what my future self would think when confronted with a memory that was still happening. Kids were still looking at me, wondering if I had finally managed to get myself in trouble. I got my books, told a couple of people I knew that I was going home, nodded in the teacher’s general direction, and left. 

Simple as that.

That’s how I became the Boy Who Skipped 8th Grade, and one of the reasons I wound up in Miss Caudill’s English and Drama classes a year early, just in time to meet Lyn Anderson, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, the first girl I ever loved with all my heart, and who changed my life forever.

Ch. 1. The Pool Hall

One hot, humid day approaching the end my seventh year in school, my principal, Mr. Caldwell, suddenly appeared at the door to my classroom and called me out of class. The other students in the room had never seen me extracted from class for anything before, so of course they said, “You’re in truuuuuubullllll,” as seventh-graders are wont to do.

“Get your stuff.” he said curtly, although he did have a tiny smile on his lips. Probably not a good thing, I thought. He pushed back the shock of black hair suspended above his forehead. His hair always looked like it was reaching forward as if it were somewhat dissatisfied with its current arrangements and was seeking a new home.

“What for?” I gulped. I didn’t know how to interpret what he said. Naturally, I assumed I was in trouble since I was talking to the principal, the Keeper of the Paddle. I didn’t know how to react to being in trouble, especially when I was fairly certain I had done nothing wrong. Pretty sure, anyway.

“You’ll see. I already called your mom,” he said. He jerked his head to the side, indicating the door. This gave his pompadour permission to resume its attempt to escape.

“OooooooOOOOOHHHH,” resumed the seventh graders, fulfilling their role. I got up. I was nearly as tall as he was, which was more of a testament to his short stature than to my height. I looked at my teacher, who shrugged noncommittally. So we turned and left. As we walked down the lone hallway bisecting the elementary school he said, offhandedly, “We’re going to town.” I looked at him in query but he did not pick up on the cue.

We went outside into the humid spring afternoon air. The school was surrounded on all sides by hills covered in trees, broad leafy green leaves alternating with smothering knots of kudzu. We got into his car, a nondescript four-door sedan you might expect an elementary school principal to drive. He turned off the radio, which had started wailing some country tune as the car engine sputtered to life. When I was done buckling my seat belt, he took off down the winding road that followed the river into Hazard. Actually, the road went up at first onto the narrow unlined two-lane road that was etched into the side of the steep hills surrounding the school.

It was 1975. 

Hazard was about a half-hour trip from school. In those days Hazard was a small town of some 7,000 souls, give or take a few, depending on whether or not it was the first of the month and the government checks had come in. The Dukes had not yet made an appearance on television, so people in other parts of the country had no sense of where the town was or what was in it. (Not that the television show gave them any sense of what the town was like even when the show was on.) It was the location of the county office of education, universally known throughout all school systems as “the downtown office.” At least, that’s where I assumed we were going.

The principal didn’t offer an explanation. It never occurred to me to call home to verify that he’d spoken to my mother or that no field trip forms or paperwork had been issued. He was the principal, like the boss; and as a student I dutifully followed directions. This was the 1970’s and the kind of precautions parents and students take for granted today would have seemed insulting then.  Along the way we chatted about inconsequential things, like school and grades and such.  I finally got the nerve to ask him where we were going. All I got in return was a cryptic “You’ll see soon enough.”

Once we arrived in town we stopped in front of the only pool hall in town, at one end of Main Street. Odell’s Place, declared a slightly unleveled sign hand-painted and suspended from a rusty chain attached to a rusty pipe extruding from a rust-stained whitewashed concrete block wall. A hand-drawn sign attached with decaying tape on the window declared No chilldren alowed. Rusted metal Coke and Bud signs clung to the walls and a neon COLDBEER fixture sputtered in the darkened window. Inside, the pool hall was a dank, dark, smoke-filled room populated by men with tattoos and enormous bellies alternating places with scrawny, gangly fellows sporting beards desperately seeking the ground, wearing half-length sleeveless t-shirts that exposed their ribs. These men trudged around the pool tables, faces lined with concentration, cigarettes hanging loosely from their lips, hair slicked back, shirts clinging to them due to the humid air. In the back the ching-ching-ching of mechanical pinball machines was only interrupted by the occasional cursing of a patron who missed a shot. One or two of them grinned at us, and revealed a competition between existing and missing teeth for space. No one seemed to notice it was strange to have an underage boy in the place, despite the fact that bottled beer was being sold from a cooler on the side of the room with a lid that slid sideways, like the ice cream cooler at the peanut store near my house.

“Mr. Caldwell,” I said, finally summoning the courage to ask, “Wh-why are we here?”

“I want you to meet someone,” he replied. “Louis Newberry.” He beckoned me to follow.

What could I do? Run for help? Scream?

I followed.

We worked our way to the back of the pool hall, where we found a pair of blue jean-clad legs, connected to feet, protruding from the open face of a pinball machine. It looked as if the pinball machine was an alligator eating someone alive. Alligator jaws open upward. Crocodile jaws open downward, said a voice in my head.

“Louis,” he said, poking the fellow’s ankle. “Louis. Lou. It’s me. I brought that boy I told you about.” Ching-ding said the pinball machine as he extracted himself.

Louis Newberry was one of those fidgety fellows who looked like he was always a bit nervous about something he wouldn’t divulge even if you asked. His pockets were stuffed with things, too many things that made them bulge uncomfortably. He lifted his head from the innards of the machine and stared at me. His eye twitched as he looked me over. Too much caffeine, or other substances, probably. He had yellowish grease spots all over his shirt, and bits of wire insulation suspended in his hair. He extricated himself from the pinball machine and hopped to the floor.

“OK,” he said, nodding at Caldwell. “I’ll take it from here.”

I still didn’t know what was going on, and then Mr. Caldwell suddenly decided he had to be somewhere else.

“I’ve got to go downtown to the district office,” he said. This was about a block away from our current location. “I’ll be back in twenty minutes or so to pick you up.”

I started to ask him again what was going on, but he turned on his heel and left.

“Come on, boy,” said Newberry. “We’re going upstairs.”

I swallowed my doubts and followed him into a narrow, twisting stairwell that turned this way and that and grew narrower as we climbed, until we arrived into a loft-like area above the pool hall. What the heck is going on? I thought to myself. In a different era I would have run away and called to strangers for help. Heck, if it had gotten any weirder, I would have done it then.

“What are you waiting on?” he said. “Come on, I don’t have much time.”

Calling for help might have been an option. But not then, and not there. I followed.

At the top of the stairs I realized that the loft wasn’t a living space–it was a workshop, containing boxes of parts–pinball machine parts– and electrical equipment.

My guide extracted a cardboard box and pulled out a large black box with a needle on the front accompanied by a large knob. The case was made of bakelite, I think. Wires dangled from connections on the front.

“This here’s a multi-meter,” he said. “See, you turn this knob, and this is how you get your Ohms, and your Amps, and your Volts.”

“It measures electricity,” I said.

“Yup,” he said. “It’s a ‘lectrician’s best friend. I use one all the time. This one here’s gettin’ a little old. “ He put it in a cardboard box. “Now over here are switches, and knobs and pots,” he said, gesturing. “wires, and light bulbs and sockets, ‘gator clips and such. Help yourself. Fill up the box and come on downstairs.”

I’m getting stuff to experiment with? I thought, incredulously. Multimeters like this were expensive. “Do I get to borrow this stuff?”

He nodded.

“How long can I keep this stuff to work with it?” I asked.

“I dunno,” he replied as he returned to the pool hall. “A couple of months, maybe. Just bring it back when you’re done.”

What was I supposed to do with it? I thought, as I filled the box with resistors and wires and knife switches.

Downstairs, he was again wrestling with the guts of the pinball machine.

“Look here,” said Newberry. “Down here, this is your actuator, and this is your momentary single-pole switch on the bumper. And this here is the relay that triggers the score counter when you go through that whirlygig there.”

I didn’t understand much of what he was saying, but I could see the chains of devices linked together, all wired together like a rat’s nest of copper wiring. “How does it know you put money in?”

“There’s a trigger over here from the coin box, see,” he said, pointing. “A coin makes it through the filter, it triggers this reed switch right here, an’ that starts up the game and resets the score with this line right here.”

“What’s wrong with it? Why do you have it open?”

“One of the flappers over here warn’t triggering the bonus it was ‘spose to,” he replied. “But I fixed it.” With that he closed the lid on the pinball machine.

The closing lid revealed that Mr. Caldwell was there, waiting for me to finish asking questions. I looked at him, holding my box of electrical treasures.

“You ready?” he said. I nodded. “Thanks,” he said to Newberry, who waved as we left the pool hall.

“No problem,” said Newberry. He was already fishing around in his pockets for some sort of a tool, on to the next task.

It never occurred to me to ask him how he knew Newberry, or if he made a habit of hanging around in smoky pool halls.

In the car on the way back to school, I pondered what had happened as the steep hillsides blanketed with trees alternately shaded us and revealed the sun. Vines completely covered one side of the road and were making a break for the other side via a power cable. Finally I asked him, “Mr. Caldwell, what am I supposed to do with this stuff?”

“Figure out how it works,” he said simply. “Play with it. You’ll think of something.”

“Why did you pick me to do this? Why not some other kid?”

“Jeff, we all know you’re capable of doing more than we have time to give you,” he replied. “There’s the potential in you to do great things. I was talking to your teacher and your mom, and we just decided to give you a little nudge today. Don’t know if it’ll lead anywhere. Might not. But if we never try to challenge you– and especially if you don’t challenge yourself– you won’t ever find out what you can really do.”

He looked at me with a little lopsided grin. Kind of made him look like Elvis.

“Don’t ever settle for just doing what your teachers ask you to do. That’s just a test to see who’s paying attention.”

I thought about that for a long time, and resolved to try to do something with the opportunity that had been handed to me.

For several weeks I tried different combinations of parts, and eventually figured out the essentials of Ohm’s law connecting voltage, current, and resistance. I learned to connect an ammeter in series and a voltmeter in parallel. My classmates were impressed when I showed them how to use an Ohmmeter as a lie detector; the conductivity of human skin changes when you sweat, and the theory is you sweat when you lie. 

You would think that such an opportunity would have turned itself into a science fair project, but that never occurred to me. I was just playing catch-up with things that were already known. I was in no position to make new discoveries with the multimeter, and I knew it.

On the other hand, I did learn enough about electricity I was able to construct a quiz-box that buzzed and blinked when you connected the answer to the question. I learned enough about soldering to disassemble a broken radio and install its indicator lights in the eye sockets of a plastic skull that had an unfortunate encounter with my sister’s fist late one night. I learned to test batteries, and to see if electrical outlets were live, and a lot of other fact-based things. The real effect it had on me was when I went to college I gravitated towards things electrical in my physics courses. I learned what I could on my own, and eventually returned the kit to its owner.

There was another side effect of the visit to the pool hall. I knew people were watching me, and expected me to do more than just get good grades. Eventually, I realized that that was more important than understanding Ohm’s Law.

© Jeff Adkins 2014