(This is the unabridged version of the story I told last Monday at the Olio Storytelling event at Kenosha Fusion. I dd the math and about 17% of this really happened.)
In December of 1972, I was a freshman in a high school in a small town in southeastern Wisconsin. I was born in 1958, at the height of the post-world war two baby boom. There must have been a whole lot of procreating going on at that time, because fourteen years later the small town high school was bursting at its seams. The school became so overcrowded that fall that they had to rent out some classrooms in the church across the street.
The school cafeteria was modern and clean, brightly lit by the daylight that streamed in through windows high upon the walls. It had long tables with attached benches. After the last lunch period was over, a custodian would fold the tables up into compartments on the wall, where they’d rest until late morning the following day, when they’d be unfolded in advance of the first lunch hour. Each table sat about twenty kids, ten on each side, and there were about fourteen tables. As nice as they were, there still weren’t enough of them to seat the expanded student body, so they knocked out a wall on the north end and expanded the cafeteria enough to fit in about six old black tables to handle the overflow. There weren’t even any chairs, you’d just stand there at the table and lift forks full of Spanish rice or soy casserole to your mouth. This overflow area became home to the misfits and oddballs who didn’t fit in with enough kids to get a seat at one of the nice, fold down tables. Needless to say, that included me.
It’d be difficult to believe looking at me now, but at the time I was small. Ridiculously small. I was the smallest kid in my class, possibly the smallest class in the entire high school. I was short and scrawny. I was five foot two and weighed 95 pounds sopping wet.
There was one part of my anatomy that was disproportionately large, and no, unfortunately, it wasn’t that – rather, it was my mouth. I had a big mouth that I’d shoot off with little regard for consequence. I was a smart ass, my big mouth writing checks that my tiny body couldn’t cash, constantly getting me in trouble that I had no business getting into.
So I ended up with three other oddball freshmen who were also exiled to the chair-less tables at the new end of the cafeteria. There were also about a dozen or so upper class men, juniors and seniors, who also occupied this space. They were what at the time was commonly referred to as “greasers,” the thugs and hoods, the bad asses and tough guys, the bullies who are a part of every public high school.
The leaders of the greasers were three older guys – the Kowalski brothers, Earl, Butch, and Alfred Lord. Alfred Lord Kowalski was the sensitive, cultured one of the three – he’d recently mastered the art of using silverware. Nobody knows how many years the Kowalski brothers had been pursuing that elusive high school diploma, but rumor had it that Earl, who was the oldest and the alpha dog of the pack, had recently acquired his AARP card. To say they were scary looking would be an understatement. They wore black leather jackets and had tattoos on their arms. In 1972, tattoos hadn’t become fashionable yet – unlike now days, when everybody’s little brother and sister has a dozen or so. In 1972, only legitimate bad asses like the Kowalski brohers had tattoos. They also had scars on their faces and they occasionally walked upright. They had a una-brow – you know, one uninterrupted eyebrow over both eyes – only in this case, it was one eyebrow shared between the three of them, covering all six of their eyes. It started over Earl’s left eye and then his right and then it would leave Earl’s face and dangle in midair until it connected to Butch’s face and covered his eyes and then suspended in the air it’d connect to Alfred Lord’s face and cover his eyes.
Most of the time, the greasers left us alone, immersed as they’d get in their philosophical conversations, debating, for example, whether fire good or fire bad. I was learning to keep my big mouth shut, and we gave the greasers their space and they gave us ours.
Except for that day in December. Me and the other three oddball freshmen were standing in a row on the same side of our chair-less table, me on the left end, the other three to my right, eating our lunch when all of the sudden we noticed that our table was surrounded by greasers, standing silently in uncomfortably close proximity. It felt suffocating, claustrophobic. We could feel their warm mouth breathing on the back of our necks. Then the Kowalski brothers emerged. Butch stood next to the kid on the far right, Freshman Number One, and Alfred Lord was standing next to me. I turned and tried to walk away, when Alfred Lord stopped me. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.
“Me? Oh, I’m sorry, I have to leave. I have an appointment with my podiatrist.”
“You ain’t going nowhere,” Alfred Lord Kowalksy said.
“Hey, Butch,” Earl said. “You know what?”
“What?” Butch replied. Butch was the dimmest of the three, his vocabulary limited to mono syllabic grunts.
“It just don’t feel like Christmas this year, does it.”
“No,” Butch grunted.
“I’ve been trying to figure out why it don’t feel like Christmas, and I think I finally got it, I think I finally figured out why it don’t feel like Christmas,” Earl said.
“Why?” Butch replied.
“It don’t feel like Christmas cause we ain’t had us any of them Christmas songs. Ain’t nothing get you in the Christmas spirit like some of that there Christmas music.”
“Music good,” Butch stated.
“We’re gonna change that right now. We’re going to have us some Christmas music so’s we all get into the Christmas spirit.” With that Earl approached Freshman Number One, standing on the far right of the four of us. Earl grabbed Freshman Number One by the shoulders and said “kid, get up on the table and sing us a Christmas song.”
“Oh, golly, gee, I don’t think so,” Freshman Number One replied, “I’m kind of shy, kind of …”
“Kid,” Earl scowled, “I don’t think you understand. I ain’t asking you if you wanna sing us a Christmas song. I’m telling you. Now get up on that table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re going to kick your ass”
Now, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the phrase, “kick your ass.” If only it were that simple. Sure, it might involve pointy-toed boots, and if they really got good leg speed into it, a kick in the ass might hurt for three hours, four hours top. But the expression was never meant to be taken literally. No, if I intend to “kick your ass,” I intend to beat the humanity out of you, until your last frayed nerve ending is screaming in pain, and you are a mere hollowed out shell of yourself, and then, when there is nothing left of you but a quivering pad of gelatinous goo spilled on the floor, then, maybe then, I might add in a swift and hard kick at your posterior just to serve as an exclamation point, but that’s not really necessary.
So Freshman Number One, his options made clear by Earl, responded the only way he could. “Oh, golly gee whiz there, Earl, I’m really uncomfortable in such demonstrative displays. Could you find someone else? Could you?”
At that point the greasers converged on Freshman Number One and beat the daylights out of him until he was left there in a crumpled heap on the floor, oozing blood and tears and other bodily fluids, all draining out of him and beginning to pool right there on the cafeteria floor. And Freshman Number One lay there in a crumpled heap, and he was bruised and battered and broken and bent and bloodied.
Then Earl moved on to Freshman Number Two, and said “Kid, either you get up on this table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re gonna kick your ass.”
To which Freshman Number Two replied, “I wish I could, but I’m afraid that my religion strictly prohibits such enthusiastic displays of enthusiasm as singing Christmas songs, so I just can’t.”
And the greasers converged on Freshman Number Two and beat the living crap out of him until he was left lying there on the floor, just a crusty and lifeless spoonful of unrecognizable goo. The greasers lifted him off the floor and threw him on top of the crumpled heap that used to be Freshman Number One, and now the crumpled heap was two freshmen deep, causing their bones to lock together in impossible and painful angles, and Freshman Number Two was oozing blood and tears and other bodily fluids, all draining out of him and intermingling with Freshman Number One’s blood and tears and pooling right there on the cafeteria floor. And Freshman Number Two was bruised and battered and broken and bent.
At the table, there were only two freshmen left, Freshman Number Three and myself. Earl approached Freshman Number Three and said, “Kid, either you get up on this table and sing us a Christmas song, or we’re gonna kick your ass.”
Freshman Number Three, of course, responded with, “I’m sorry, Earl, but I’m getting a scratchy throat and have a hoarse voice, and I think I’ve got a fever, so could we take a rain check? Maybe sometime next week? A rain check?”
At which point the greasers descended upon Freshman Number Three and just destroyed him, as he disappeared beneath them and when the savagery was over the greasers backed off to reveal about 150 broken pieces of Freshman Number Three scattered on the floor, and then a greaser emerged from the crowd with a shovel in his hand, where he got a shovel in the middle of the cafeteria, I have no idea, but he scooped up all the pieces of Freshman Number Three and dumped them on top of the crumpled heap, and now the crumped heap was three freshmen deep, and, since I was only five foot two inches tall, the crumpled heap was now nearly as tall as me, making it even more intimidating a sight than it already was. And Freshman Number Three was oozing blood and tears that intermingled with the blood and tears of the other freshmen and drained into a pool right there on the cafeteria floor. And Freshman Number Three was bruised and battered and broken and bent.
Now there was only one Freshman left standing, all five foot two, ninety five pounds of me. As Earl approached me, I felt my heart pounding so hard I thought it was going to leap right out of my chest. Then Earl was there, right next to me, and he started, “Kid, either you get up …”
And he stopped.
In mid sentence, Earl Kowalski stopped.
The reason he stopped, was, when he looked up at me, I wasn’t there.
I was gone.
I was already up on that table, halfway through the first verse of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Now, you have to understand that in December of 1972, the television airwaves were dominated by the cheesiest and schmaltziest of all forms of entertainment, the celebrity Christmas special. They were these awful variety shows, and for some reason, the Las Vegas style entertainer was popular at the time, with stars like Dean Martin, Tony Orlando, Wane Newton and Sammy Davis Junior all over emoting and swinging through lip synced renditions of the most horribly clichéd pop standards. It was all awful, and as I didn’t exactly have an active social calendar at the time, I watched them all and studied their acts.
Now, on the table performing for the greasers, I found all the time I’d invested watching those shows was informing my performance of Rudolph. I started it out as a slow and soulful ballad and then, halfway through, kicked the tempo up into gear until it was a swinging and rollicking production number, accented by my finger snapping and the random “heys” and “babys” I punctuated each line with.
I looked down at my audience, the dozen or so greasers that had surrounded our table, and they were all silent and still, mouths gaping open, looks of utter confusion and bewilderment on their faces. Even Earl Kowalski was stunned, and it became clear to me that they had no idea how to react. They knew only one thing, how to kick ass. They had never estimated that any kid would have low enough self-esteem to get up on that table and humiliate himself rather than take his ass-kicking. This plus the fact that I seemed to be enjoying myself really blew their mildly developed minds.
I finished singing Rudolph to no reaction, just stunned greaser silence. I’d done my song, but nobody knew what to do next. We were in unchartered waters. It occurred to me that as long as I remained up on that table, it meant that the greasers weren’t kicking my ass, so I plowed forward with the rest of the show. I decided to throw in a little joke next – playing the part of Rudolph, I said, “I just flew in from the north pole, and boy, are my antlers tired!” Still, no reaction – just stony, or maybe stoner, silence.
I looked at the clock on the wall, and there were still a few minutes left, so I kicked into my second song, “Jingle Bells,” really rocking it, making it swing, baby! Still only slack-jawed silence from my audience. So I launched my rendition of “Deck the Halls,” fa-la-lalling with all my heart, when, in the midst of a fa-la –la, the school bell sounded.
The end of lunch hour! Saved by the bell!
I announced, “Sorry, folks, that’s all the time we have. Thank you, and good night, ladies and gentlemen. I’m here all week. Good night, and drive safely.”
The greasers were still standing there, stunned, as I jumped off the table, into the perimeter of the circle of greasers that sill stood unmoving, surrounding the table. I confidently tapped the one in front of me on the shoulder and boldly said, “Excuse me, please.”
Much to my surprise, the greasers parted as if I were Charlton Heston and they were the Red Sea. And I walked, no, I strutted out, past the greasers, past the hideous specter and painful moans of the crumpled heap, past the now coagulated and hardened pool on the cafeteria floor, as if I were walking out on a red carpet. And I exited the cafeteria and walked into the afternoon, intact and unscathed from my encounter with the still discombobulated greasers.
The next day, I entered the cafeteria, feeling good about myself and the performance I’d given the day before. I walked past our table, and there was no sign of either the bloody pool or the crumpled heap or, for that matter, the other three freshmen, who I could only assume were in a hospital somewhere in different degrees of traction.
Then I saw the Kowalski brothers approaching, and for a split second, my heartbeat accelerated, but only for a second. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t afraid of them anymore. Sure, they could kick my ass, but so what? I had two older brothers, so it wasn’t like I’d never had my ass kicked before. You get over an ass-kicking pretty quick, but one thing I’ll never get over, one thing the greasers could never take away from me was the fact that the day before I’d gotten up on that table and rocked the joint. I gave it everything I had, and I was swinging, baby! And no Kowalski or any greaser could ever take that away from me. So at the sight of them approaching, I kept walking. I will not back down.
Then they were there, right in front of me, when Earl says, “Hey, kid …”
I braced myself for the pending ass-kicking.
“Kid,” Earl continued, “I just wanted to tell you, how much I enjoyed your show yesterday.”
Stunned, I replied, “Thank you, Earl.”
Then Butch added, “Show, good!”
Even Alfred Lord Kowalski, normally the quiet one of the three brothers, chimed in. “Dude,”, he said, “I thought you had a real stage presence, although some of your material lacked a cohesive core.”
“Thanks, I think, Alfred Lord,” I said. They liked me! They really liked me!
“Kid,” Earl started, “your show was so good, that I think everybody in this school ought to have a chance to see it.”
“Why, thanks,” I replied. “That’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me.” And it really was the nicest thing anybody had ever said to me. The fact that it came from Earl Kowalski of all people made it all the more meaningful. This was turning out better than I could have ever imagined.
I closed my eyes, basking in the moment, feeling the adoration and adulation of the Kowalski brothers wash over me, and I felt my feet leave the ground, and I was floating, and with my eyes shut I could see in a future T.V. Guide, the Bob Hope Christmas Special, the Bing Crosby Christmas Special, and now, the Dave Gourdoux Christmas Special, with guest Star Ricardo Montalban, and …
Suddenly I felt some unidentified force grab my arms and lift them above my head and I opened my eyes only to realize that I wasn’t floating after all, and that Alfred Lord Kowalski had a hold of my legs and Butch had hold of my arms, and they were carrying me, through the cafeteria exit to the hallway beyond, where all the other greasers were waiting for us. Then they lifted all 95 pounds of me above their heads and they were passing me along, like I was body surfing in a mosh pit, and I could see in front of me, on the other side of the hallway, the big rectangular doors that opened to the gymnasium. As they passed me closer to the gym door, I could see, high above it, a hook that protruded from the wall. And they lifted me up as high as they could until my belt loop in the back snagged and caught on that hook, and there they left me, dangling helplessly by my belt loop high above the hallway below.
Earl Kowalski looked up at me and said, “Kid, it looks like you’re gonna be up there for a while, so, if I were you, I’d start singing now.” The Kowalski brothers and all the greasers had a good laugh at my expense as they entered the cafeteria, leaving me alone in the hallway, dangling up above the gym door. Then, looking the other way down the hallway, I could see the horde of kids headed for lunch hour, and I knew Earl was right about one thing. Since you had to pass that gym door in order to get to the cafeteria, every kid in the school would get a chance to see my show.
I decided to open with my brand new arrangement of “Silver Bells” …