by Joe Tortorici
Kodachrome – Paul Simon
When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all
An though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall
As the fiftieth reunion of my high school graduation approaches I’ve discovered the depth of my selective memories. From the dark corners of a life misspent come the faces of people long forgotten and places that should ever remain invisible. Ah well…it wasn’t all that bad. There were plenty of laughs and formative events to recall with a grin. I marvel at how the times have changed. It was an age of transition. We had no “gang-culture” like today. We had a defined caste system and you simply mingled with your own.
You might be a “Greaser.” You would wear boots and a motorcycle jacket with lots of chrome snaps and buckles; or pointy toed black shoes, white T-shirt and a Cabretta leather jacket. Hair style spawned the moniker of “greaser” as it involved applying some variant of Brylcreem combed back into a D.A. (Duck’s Ass).
“Jocks” were the elite, with their ubiquitous crew-cuts and sneakers. The more gifted individuals were on multiple teams and moved effortlessly from one sport to another. I don’t wish to sound conspiratorial, but jocks never seemed to suffer from poor grades or disciplinary problems…hmmm. The entire flow of high school life centered on team spirit, seasonal pep rallies, school colors, the mascot, big games, and sex with the cheerleaders. Hot cheerleaders were the exclusive territory of jocks…damn them!
A larger general category was the Rah-Rah’s, or “Rah’s” in its colloquial form. The standard issue uniform was loafers or saddle shoes, chinos (khaki’s), and something called “bleeding madras” plaid shirts. Look them up. Tommy Bahama is making a fortune on their re-issue. These nice people were in choir or glee club. They learned Latin. Excellence in all things related to the arts and literature was also a strong suit. National Honor Society was the pinnacle of scholastic achievement. I remember dreaming of an invite to the Honor Society that I would turn down. It never happened as I forgot getting good grades was a “thing.”.
On Sunday, February 9, 1964, The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show for the first time. On Monday morning, February 10, just about every male student wore his hair differently…it was the beginning of anarchy. The administration went carnival-freak crazy.
For the younger readers, some historic perspective is necessary at this point in my tale. What is now referred to as the “Cultural Revolution of the Sixties” began as youth around the globe found a new musical voice. The seeds of an audio revolution were planted in the 50’s Beatnik era. Coffee houses, black turtlenecks and berets, poetry readings, folk music with a social message…bongos. These things melded into a huge outpouring of creativity in what became the folk era and rock & roll era. We were listening to Barry McGuire singing “The Eve Of Destruction” while Bill Haley was shaking “Rock Around the Clock.” The Top-10 “teen hits” in my freshman year (’63) included straight ballads (Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet”) and the first inkling of what would be the Motown sound.
Be My Baby – The Ronettes
Phil Spector ruled!
When the band from Liverpool came upon the scene…everything began to change quickly. It frightened many adults.
I attended high school in the environment of a Lilly-white, Republican fortress of suburban Chicago. The new school was named after James B. (Bryant) Conant. Why not Benjamin Franklin or Eleanor Roosevelt? Some school board member decided to make obscurity a virtue by naming their new high school after a shadowy chemist who roamed the halls of academia and government for decades. Without delving into deeper history, suffice it to say James Bryant Conant worked with the U.S. Army to develop poison gases in World War I…enough said.
We had some cool teachers, but the administration of James B. Conant High School reflected strident conservative, authoritarian values. The men in positions of authority had strangely onomatopoetic names. Our principal was Martin M. Plate. He was a dour, rotund man always dressed in a black suit and tie, with a white shirt so tight at the neck, it seemed to extrude his multiple jowls into a head. It screamed “undertaker” and was exacerbated by a humorless countenance and deep gray shadows encircling his eyes.
If Mr. Plate was the Grand Pubah, the evil minister was his surrogate Vice-Principal, the hawk-featured Karl Zdeb. Mr. Zdeb would pull you out of class and ask to scuff your heels on the tile. If you left a streak of rubber, you were instructed to begin sitting flat-footed at your desk and not mar the classroom floors. This was deemed as “respect” for school property. One notable incident involved the most affable student, John E’. During one of Mr. Zdeb’s sweeps, he noticed John was wearing bright red socks. The student was ordered to wear something more neutral in the future and refrain from drawing attention to himself. True.
The “revolution” invaded our lives. Amid the chaos was a skinny Italian kid from the inner city; a stranger in a strange land. My father died suddenly midway through my freshman year and added another variable to an already confused life. I was angry, always testing authority, demanding attention, avoided cliques, certainly not one of the “cool” kids…but I survived. I survived in large part because my mother, with her infinite wisdom, bought me a used Silvertone archtop guitar…the die was cast for the form of my future life.
I joined a band. My mates and I became the mutual support system, such as it was, I could never find in the general student body. It was grand. My greatest wish is to see Marshall, Dave, Jim, and Howie again…there is my reunion. I hope they feel the same.
When I discovered Firesign Theater many years later, one of their brilliant sketches parodied perfectly that time in my life.
I remain on the fence about attending the three day extravaganza. I may show up for the drinking portion of the party, at least. There might be a couple of old girlfriends in attendance…right. Good memories are hard to come by and perhaps we are richer for those made when we were young. I leave you with this thought:
Hey Nineteen – Steely Dan
Way back when
I was the dandy
Of Gamma Chi
Sweet things from Boston
So young and willing
Moved down to Scarsdale
Where the hell am I?