by Thomas J. Scheff (May 2011)
When I was 15, my dad sent me off to a military high school far from home. I argued with him, cried and appealed to my mother, but to no avail. He was determined, as always. For him the matter was straightforward: if he didn’t get me out of town, I was likely to get into deep trouble of one kind of another. He also pasted on a second justification: it would make a man out of me. He thought that I spent far too much time reading, and not nearly enough at athletics, work, and other manly sports.
At the time I was short and thin, and a reader, so he wasn’t entirely wrong about wanting me to be a mensch (In Yiddish, it actually means A REAL PERSON, but to me he seemed to be referring to masculinity). I got my reading habit from my mother. With almost no schooling, she had educated herself by reading everything she could get her hands on. So I taught myself to read even before I started school, which was very unusual in the rural South at the time.
There were four of us in the Katz family: my father Herbert, my mom Sarah, my younger brother Kenneth, and me, Jake, known as Jakey until I went to college. Since my mother was humorous, she played many a variation on our family name. She couldn’t stop with saying that it was raining cats and dogs, but had to elaborate. For example, on one occasion when she used that phrase, she looked up at the sky, praying to heaven that it didn’t rain any more Katz.
The immediate cause of my expulsion from home was that I had threatened to shoot two men who were standing on our doorstep. It seemed quite necessary to me at the time. We lived in a small (less than a thousand people) Texas town near a huge army base. The base was used for training new soldiers before and during WWII. The headcount may have been something like twenty five thousand.
When the men were free on weekends, they had nothing to do except stay on base or visit our little town, some ten or fifteen thousand of them. There was little to do there either, except to get drunk and look for women, so it got pretty rowdy on Saturday night.
One Saturday night when my dad was on a fishing trip, two soldiers came to our door. Standing close to me on the other side of the screen door, they looked drunk and determined. I could smell liquor on the the breath of the one standing closest to me. He said “We want the woman in there. We know she’s there, so no fooling around. If she doesn’t come out, we’ll go in and get her.” They must have followed her when she was coming back from the grocery.
I said “Wait a minute.” I went into my parent’s bedroom where my dad kept his duck gun, a 12 gauge pump. I loaded it with three shells, one extra just in case. I came back with the gun pointed at the speaker’s head. I said “Get out of here.” He said “What did you say, son?” “I said, if you don’t get out of here, I am going to blow your fucking heads off.” That was the first time I had used that particular word ever, but they understood, since they left in some haste.
My mother was appreciative, but not my dad. Mom argued with him, but he thought I had over-reacted. Off to backcountry, small town, Michigan Military Institute I went, as a junior in a small all-boy high school. That is, there was not a single GIRL among the students. Since I was deeply interested in girls at the time, the thought of not having any in my school was revolting.
We had moved from town to town in the South about every two years. It was during the Great Depression, so it was hard for my Dad to make a living. He realized about the time I was born that the oilfield riggers who established new fields had money. They would spend some of it for what they thought of as dress clothes, khaki pants and shirts, Jarman shoes and boots, and Stetson hats. We followed them as they moved from strike to strike. So he opened and closed a series of men’s clothing shops, town after town.
Moving was good for business, but hard on my social life. About the time I had made a friend or two, we up and moved again. I had to start all over in each little town. Also when I was old enough to push a broom, I became the part-time janitor in each store, along with being in school much of the day. I had to put an oil soaked batch of sawdust on the floor first, to keep the dust down. Not my favorite smell by far. It seemed to me that all work and no play made me a dull boy.
However, a big change occurred when we moved to Ledlow, the town that I later came to think of as Shotgunsville. Our life was more stable there because the Army camp didn’t move around like the riggers. Another big plus was that my dad’s insistence that I join a Boy Scout troop had a welcome outcome. Peg, a girl who lived near the church where the troop met, invited several of the boys, including me, to her house after the meetings.
Several other girls who lived nearby joined us, so it was a weekly party that was incredibly delicious to me. We supposedly played two tables of Hearts. But me, poor sap, couldn’t pay much attention to the game. I was delighted to have my own little crowd, and entranced by the near presence of girls, real live girls. I was in Heaven.
But next thing you know, descent into Hell. As I said, no girls at MMI. All boys, and most of them more athletic than me, with little interest in their classes. I could run a mile, but not fast enough to place. I was very poor at baseball, football, and boxing. Furthermore, because I came to the school as a junior, I ran up against distinctions of rank. All of the officers had come to school as freshman, the sergeants as sophomores. I was a buck private. Since the officers inspected our rooms every day, shouted at us during marching drill, and more or less ignored us underlings, it made a big difference.
My one distinction was grades. I was an A student, but the boys didn’t notice. Even the teachers seemed indifferent, except for one of them. Captain Winn was the English teacher, and also librarian. I would go to the library to chat with him. First about a book or story we had read in class, later about books in the library. Finally after many visits in the library (he and I were usually there alone), about anything I felt like talking about. During my two years at MMI, he helped me preserve my sanity. Thank you, kind sir!
My second buddy, my cousin Jimmy, came to MMI for my last year. He was sent up for his senior year. I warned him that it was a jail, but like me, it wasn’t under his control. His dad figured that if it was good enough for my dad to send me, he would have to send Jimmy. Jimmy’s presence, like Captain Winn’s, was a help. But like Captain Winn, he was not available much of the time. He had a different roommate in a different part of the barracks, which was off limits to us in the other building. I was lonely most of the time, since I couldn’t relate to most of the boys and teachers.
There was a showdown between me and the school at the end of my junior year. MMI prided itself as a center for entry into science. One of the paths into science was the yearlong course on algebra. It was seen as by far the most difficult course because no one in the long history of the school had ever passed the exam the first time around. All graduates had had two algebra courses, passing, or being allowed to pass, only the second time around.
My first look at the exam was a shock. It was a two hour exam with a hundred problems. Glancing thru them, I didn’t see a single one that looked solvable. The test was to simplify, and thereby greatly reduce in size, all the expressions. But they all seemed much larger and more complex than anything we had seen in class.
To keep from freaking out completely, I raised my hand to go to the bathroom. When I got there, a boy from another class was smoking a cigarette. I bummed one to smoke, and a match. Since I had never indulged, I didn’t know what I was doing. The best I could do was to imitate Humphrey Bogart. I squinted my eyes, held the cigarette in my right hand between my thumb and all four fingers, and took long puffs. In that moment I begin to feel together again, and tough to boot. No puny little exam was going to get me unglued.
So I asked myself, what would Humphrey do? The answer, go back right now and take another look. This time I tried to find among the hundred expression one I could handle. I saw three slightly smaller ones scattered around. When I started working on one, I knew immediately I could do it. They were all like what we had done in class, the size and complexity didn’t matter. I finished first, a few minutes before time was called. The teacher was to remember that and make it part of the charge against me.
I was in trouble the very next day. The teacher had ordered me to his office. I had passed the class my first time around. Not only had I finished ahead of time, but I had solved every problem correctly. As it happened, the teacher, Colonel Lee, was also head of the school, and he was incensed. He didn’t ask me how I had managed, but where I had gotten the answers. When I told him I had worked every problem, just me, myself and I, he scoffed.
He glared at me from across his desk for what seemed like forever. Finally, he must have decided that I wasn’t going to confess. He said he was going to remove my privileges until I told him where I got the answers. I didn’t care much about the privileges (such as going into town on Saturday morning, and to church on Sunday), but I felt he was treating me unfairly.
I said “I thought in this country you are assumed innocent until proven guilty.” His face reddened. He said in a loud voice “Get out of my office.” I left, but instead of going to my room, I went to a phone booth. I called my father in his store, telling him what happened and that I wanted to come home. He told me no, because it would all work out. I left the phone booth one perplexed kid.
I was upset to the max. The other boys quickly heard about the incident through the pipeline. Except for my cousin and a few others, they were not sympathetic. Most of the boys seemed to think that either I had cheated or that I had actually worked all the problems correctly. Both possibilities were probably unappetizing. What to do?
I arranged to have a talkathon with my cousin Jimmy. He finally suggested that I hold out for a hearing with the director and two other teachers of my choice. I added my cousin to the group. I sent a note to Col. Lee, bluffing that I would leave school unless I got the hearing. He ruled out Jimmy, but set up the hearing for the next day in his office.
For the teachers I chose Capt. Winn, of course, and Capt. Nelson, my geometry teacher and track coach. Col. Lee started the proceedings off with a long indictment, including the naming of former students who had flunked the class the first time but went on to become scientists and engineers.
Capt. Nelson was quite brief. He said that I had gotten an A in his geometry class. He went on to say that he taken the liberty to look into my other grades, including those at Ledlow high school. He found them straight A's. Although his comments were supportive, they were brief. He seemed to feel that he was wasting his time.
It was Captain Winn who actually saved the day. He posed only one question, the one not asked earlier: how did I solve the problems? I told my story. When I got to the part about smoking in the bathroom, I imitated Humphrey bogarting a joint. I must have looked pretty ridiculous, because all three teachers laughed loudly. The mood changed, and by the time I was finished I could see they believed me.
My privileges were restored, and I got to be read the valedictory address at my graduation. As a reward for our fortitude, our parents and my brother came for the ceremony, and took us off afterwards for a vacation in New York City! That was a real treat for us small town kids.
But I can’t resist telling a story from the graduation events. Finishing high school didn’t improve my handwriting, and nothing else has since. For graduation days, I had signed for reserved rooms for our parents in a nearby motel. When I called to confirm, the clerk couldn’t find my name. Finally, after much too-ing and fro-ing, he said “Do they call you sometimes Jackie Klutz?” When I told this story to my parents, my father, never much of a laugher, cracked up. I heard him repeat this story many times, usually laughing.
Another benefit of my experience was that my brother Kenneth was spared being sent out of town for high school. My father was irked by the treatment I had gotten, so he let Kenneth attend the local high school. If Kenneth is not thankful for this service, he ought to be.
Its nice to have the last word also. I heard recently that MMI is losing money and will have to fold in a few years. I must be lucky, because I not only survived MMI, but will also probably outlive it. Not bad for a small town boy from the rural South.
Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Sociology, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His latest book is What's Love Got to Do with It?: The Emotional World of Popular Songs (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers) 2011
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