Part II of a multi-part series.
In 1968, my family lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the then-semi-secret installation known as Sandia Base, a place I have referred to as “the ultimate gated community.” We attended Albuquerque Public Schools both on and off the base. In 1968, I attended Van Buren Junior High School at 700 Louisiana Boulevard SE, very near the base. Albuquerque, then a city of about 250,000 in population, could seem like light-years away from the strife in the rest of the Nation. There was relative calm after Dr. King’s assassination. When the 150th Fighter Group of the New Mexico Air National Guard (the so-called “Enchilda Air Force”) was called to active duty in January 1968 in response to the USS Pueblo incident, there were no protests, but instead, great civic parades. The somewhat skewed view of civil rights events troubled my parents with respect to their children’s limited experiential education.
School was out just before Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles. And a little while later, we were off on what would be the last of our California vacations. But so much had happened in such a short period of time–well, I felt I had to talk it all out with somebody. Who? Kathleen Gregory came to mind first. She was one of the sort of bright people I always had found attractive–at least since my encounter with Ginny Lodge in the fourth grade. Kathleen read the newspapers every day, unlike most eighth graders [The editor of the city’s leading newspaper, The Albuquerque Journal, was the father of our classmate, Mary Beth Brown.] And apparently Kathleen had a family that encouraged her to read, learn, and discuss current events, quite like mine.
But Kathleen’s family was off on vacation while we were still in town–they’d be back about the time we left. I spent the rest of the summer talking to Kathleen Gregory in my head.
Apart from the vacation, it was quite a summer. I played in the Senior Division of Little League baseball and had my best season ever. It was actually as if over the off-season, I had magically acquired some talent. Dennis Johnson and I were on a team called the Devils; I don’t recall the names of the other teams in the league. In any event, we pretended that we were a major league team–an expansion franchise. We located our team in San Diego, which would not have its own major league Padres for another year. Of course, our perversely named “San Diego Devils” were a National League team.
The Devils laid waste to the rest of the Senior Division league and won the league championship. This was remarkable for several reasons, not the least of which was that we didn’t have an adult coach. We managed ourselves and once in awhile, some adult or another would stop by our practice and make sure we were doing the fundamentals.
One afternoon as we were practicing in a field along Gibson Boulevard, sirens pierced the air as an ambulance and military police vehicles raced toward lower A Street which ran parallel, mostly, to Gibson. We stopped to watch what was happening. The official entourage pulled into the next to last cul-de-sac on A Street. We couldn’t see what they were doing, so we went back to baseball. The MPs and Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies were still there by the time we left for home. That evening, Mom told me that Mrs Baker of lower A Street, had killed her husband with a shotgun as he walked through the door from work that afternoon. [The Bernalillo County District Attorney said there was insufficient evidence to charge Mrs Baker with a crime. Albuquerque Journal, July 3, 1968, p. B-8.]
School started all too soon again. But, as was traditional, the Albuquerque Public Schools had a holiday for the Opening Day of the New Mexico State Fair. Dennis Johnson and I decided to go to the Fair. I also decided that at almost 14 years old, I would forgo the boots, spurs, cowboy hat, and faux six-shooter that I and a lot of kids had worn to Opening Day in the past.
When we got to the Fair that evening, Dennis and I headed straight for the food booths where we each bought a foot-long corn dog. To fully appreciate what happened next, it is perhaps useful to have an example of the deportment of Dennis Johnson.
Dennis was a tall and lean blond kid who looked like he was or could have been a surfer. Dennis was extraordinarily bright, which was obvious when he and I won the regional science fair the following year. But Dennis was not a nerd or geeky in any sense. Dennis was just a bit short of being Lex Luthor — a handsome, brilliant guy who finds less than socially redeeming outlets for his creativity. In the fall semester of our eighth grade year, Dennis had caused panic among a segment of the faculty–and outrage among those who weren’t panicked. He had brought a “Batman” action figure to school and hung it in his locker. I mean hanged it, with an elaborately contrived noose! When other kids saw “Batman” having been “executed” in this manner, it touched off a frenzy of similar “hangings.” Barbie and Ken were lynched, for who knows what offense. Gumby was strung up. And certainly most offensively of all considering where we were and who we were for the most part, somebody hanged G.I. Joe, naked from the waist up, with a bag over his head. Most of the hangings were in the lockers of kids who were not known as troublemakers–who were in fact the National Junior Honor Society types.
Now the capital punishment of these effigies was widely known among the eighth grade, and perhaps part of the seventh grade. But it was weeks before any faculty member caught on to it. It happened that some ne’er-do-well was being suspended or expelled and his locker was being cleared out by a teacher who discovered that he had hung somebody, er, something in his locker. Well, this was to be expected of his type, I’m sure the teacher must have thought. But then, Mr. Ne’er-Do-Well spilled the beans on the rest of us and the faculty went into a 100% meltdown.
I don’t know if it was the hangings alone or if it was the fact that “the good kids” had done them that set the faculty on the path of believing that they were dealing with a major psychological epidemic. The entire eighth grade was summoned to open their lockers and to explain everything therein that was not a schoolbook. The principal, Mr. Mock, himself, arrived to oversee the operation. One could read the palpable distress in the teachers’ faces as they discovered that their high achievers had undertaken to “kill” various superheroes and glamorous dolls. But I could see a slight, ever so slight, grin on the face of Dennis Johnson. Then I got it. He had not set out merely to put some crazy thing in his locker; no, that wasn’t it. This was it. Horrified and dismayed teachers . . . confused classmates struggling to explain the unexplainable . . . this was what Dennis Johnson had had in mind all along!
[Note: Some will find this story deeply troubling, given the history of lynchings of African-Americans in the South not that far removed from the time of this story and the then-recent assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I can say that the idea seemed to have been inspired by a Halloween display several kids had seen. I can also say that neither nor my younger brother had ever experienced any racial incidents from white students at Van Buren Junior High School (except the one time a white girl told me that her father, a preacher, had told her that I was going to hell for “liking” another white girl–and I got the better of that in the end). I can also say that there is some similarity here to an incident in which I had purchased at the State Fair a piece of jewelry the vendor described as a “”surfers cross” and assured me that all the “cool” kids in California were wearing them. When I wore it one Saturday, my father exploded in anger and forbade me to ever wear it again. He said, “Don’t you know what that is? Don’t you know what that stands for?” Then he explained that the “surfers cross” was an exact replica of a Nazi military decoration called the “Iron Cross.” The fact that this story may evoke such a response from some is evidence of the necessity of educating our children–all of our children–of the evils that have existed in the world that they may never be repeated and that each succeeding generation learn empathy for those around them.]
At the Fair, after we got our foot-long corn dogs, we decided to go see one of the several “freak” shows. We went over to the area where it was, but stood outside to finish our corn dogs since food was not allowed in the short squat building that looked something like a mobile home, bizarrely decorated.
As we stood there chomping on our dinner, a loudspeaker on the building described what we were going to see. The voice was not the enthusiastic voice usually associated with carnival barkers. No, this voice was low in volume and creepily monotone.
“You will see a cow give birth to a three headed calf . . . a woman with hundreds of snakes growing out of her head . . . it’s all real . . . the two headed baby . . . it’s real . . . a man with seven foot fingernails . . . .”
Perhaps it was the heat; maybe it was the corn dog, but I began to get nauseous. I glanced over at Dennis, who was slightly green as well.
“I don’t think I really need the rest of this,” I said, chucking a good nine or ten inches of the foot long corn dog into a wastebasket.
“Me neither,” Dennis replied somberly, “And, it’s okay with me if we skip the freak show.”
October 1, 2008 Wednesday at 6:51 pm