Friday, August 27, 2010

***Entering North, 1960-For The Atlantic Junior High School (Middle School) Class Of 1960

Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of Mark Dinning performing his teen tear-jerker, Teen Angel to set an "appropriate" mood for this post.

Al Johnson, Class of 1964, comment:

Entering North, 1960-For The Atlantic Junior High School (Middle School) Class Of 1960

Funny, here I am, finally, finally after what seemed like an endless heat-waved, eternal August dog day’d, book-devoured, summer, standing, nervously standing, waiting with one foot on the sturdy granite-chiseled steps, ready at a moment’s notice from any teacher’s beck and call, to climb up to the second floor main entrance of old North, an entrance flanked by huge concrete spheres on each side, that are made to order for me to think that I too have the weight of the world on my shoulders this sunny day. And those doors, by the way, as if the spheres are not portentous enough, are also flanked by two scroll-worked concrete columns, or maybe they are gargoyle-faced, my eyes are a little bleary right now, who give the place a more fearsome look than is really necessary but today, today of all days, every little omen has its evil meaning, evil for me that is.

Here I am anyway, pensive (giving myself the best of it, okay, nice wrap-around-your soul word too, okay), head hanging down, deep in thought, deep in scared, get the nurse fast, if necessary, nausea-provoking thought, standing around, a little impatiently surly as is my “style” (that “style” I picked up a few years back in elementary school down in the Germantown “projects”, after seeing James Dean or someone like that strike the pose, and it stuck). Anyway its now about 7:00 AM, maybe a little after, and like I say my eyes have been playing tricks on me all morning and I can’t seem to focus, as I wait for the first school bell to sound on this first Wednesday after Labor Day in the year of our lord, 1960.

No big deal right, we have all done it many times by now, it should be easy. Year after year, old August dog days turn into shorter, cooler September come hither young wanna-be learner days. Nothing to get nervous about, nothing to it.(Did I say that already?)Especially the first day, a half day, a “gimme” day, really, one of the few out of one hundred and eighty, count ‘em, and mainly used for filling out the one thousand and one pieces of paper about who you are, where you live, who you live with, and who to call in case you take some nasty fall in gym trying to do a double twist-something on the gym mat or a wrestled double-hammer lock grip on some poor, equally benighted fellow student that goes awry like actually happened to me last year in eighth grade. Hey, they were still talking about that one in the Atlantic locker rooms at the end of the year, I hear. Or, more ominously, they want that information so that if you cross-up one, or more, of your mean-spirited, ill-disposed, never-could have-been-young-and-troubled, ancient, Plato or Socrates ancient from the look of some of them, teachers and your parents (embarrassed, steaming, vengeful Ma really, in our neighborhoods) need to be called in to confer about “your problem,” your problem that you will grow out of with a few days of after school “help.” Please.

Or this “gimme” day (let’s just call it that okay, it will help settle me down) will be spent reading off, battered, monotone home room teacher-reading off, the also one thousand and one rules; no lateness to school under penalty of being placed in the stocks, Pilgrim-style, no illness absences short of the plague, if you have it, not a family member, and then only if you have a (presumably sanitized) doctor’s note, no cutting classes to explore the great American day streets at some nearby corner variety store, or mercy, Norfolk Downs, one-horse Norfolk Downs also under severe penalty, no (unauthorized) talking in class (but they will mark it down if you don't authorize talk, jesus), no giving guff (ya, no guff, right) to your teachers, fellow students, staff, the resident mouse or your kid brother, if you have a kid brother, no writing on walls, in books, and only on occasion on an (authorized) writing pad, no(get this one, I couldn’t believe this one over at Atlantic) cutting in line for the school lunch (the school lunch, Christ, as poor as we are in our family we at least have the dignity not to pine, much less cut in line for, those beauties: the American chop suey done several different ways to cover the week, including a stint as baloney and cheese sandwiches, I swear), no off-hand rough-necking (or just plain, ordinary necking, either), no excessive use of the “lav” (you know what that is, enough said), and certainly no smoking, drinking or using any other illegal (for kids) substances. Oh, ya, and don’t forget to follow, unquestioningly, those mean-spirited, ill-disposed teachers that I spoke of before, if there is a fire emergency. And here’s a better one, in case of an off-hand atomic bomb attack go, quickly and quietly, to the nearest fall-out shelter down in the bowels of the old school. That’s what we practiced over at Atlantic. At least, I hope they don’t try that old gag and have us practice getting under our desks in such an emergency like in elementary school. Christ, I would rather take my chances, above desk, thank you. And… need I go on, you can listen to the rest when you get to homeroom I am just giving you the highlights, the year after year, memory highlights.

And if that isn’t enough, the reading of the rules and the gathering of more intelligence about you than the FBI or the CIA would need we then proceed to the ritualistic passing out of your books, large and small. (placing book covers on each, naturally, name, year, subject and book number safety placed in insert). All of them covered against the elements, your own sloth, and the battlefield school lunch room, that humongous science book that has every known idea from the ancient four furies of the air to nuclear fission, that math book that has some Pythagorean properties of its own, the social studies books to chart out human progress (and back-sliding) from stone-cave times on up, and, precious, precious English book (I hope we do Shakespeare this year, I heard we do, that guy knew how to write a good story, same with that Salinger book I read during the summer). Still easy stuff though, for the first day.

Ya, but this will put a different spin on it for you, well, a little different spin anyway. Today I start in the “bigs”, at least the bigs of the handful-countable big events of my short, sweet life. Today I am starting my freshman year at hallowed old North and I am as nervous as a kitten. Don’t tell me you weren’t just a little, little, tiny bit scared when you went from the cocoon-like warmth (or so it seemed compared to the “bigs”) of junior high over to the high school, whatever high school it was. Come on now, I’m going to call you out on it. Particularly those Atlantics who, after all, have been here before, unlike me who came out of the "projects" and moved back to North Quincy after the "long march" move to Atlantic in 1958 so I don't know the ropes here at all. They, especially those sweet girl Atlantics, including a certain she that I am severely "crushed up" on, in their cashmere sweaters and jumpers or whatever you call them, are nevertheless standing on these same steps, as we exchange nods of recognition, and are here just as early as I am, fretting their own frets, fighting their own inner demons, and just hoping and praying or whatever kids do when they are “on the ropes” to survive the day, or just to not get rolled over on day one.

And see, here is what you also don’t know, know yet anyway. I’ve caught Frank’s disease. You never heard of it, probably, and don’t bother to go look it up in some medical dictionary at the Thomas Crane Public Library, or some other library, it’s not there. What it amount to is the old time high school, any high school, version of the anxiety-driven cold sweats. Now I know some of you know Frank, and some of you don’t, but I told his story to you before, the story about his big, hot, “dog day” August mission to get picnic fixings, including special stuff, like Kennedy’s potato salad, for his grandmother. That’s the Frank I’m talking about, my best junior high friend, Frank.

Part of that story, for those who don’t know it, mentioned what Frank was thinking when he got near battle-worn North on his journey to Norfolk Downs back in August. I’m repeating; repeating at least the important parts here, for those who are clueless:

“Frank (and I) had, just a couple of months before, graduated from Atlantic Junior High School and so along with the sweat on his brow from the heat a little bit of anxiety was starting to form in Frank’s head about being a “little fish in a big pond” freshman come September as he passed by. Especially, a proto-beatnik “little fish”. See, he had cultivated a certain, well, let’s call it “style” over there at Atlantic. That "style" involved a total disdain for everything, everything except trying to impress girls with his long chino-panted, plaid flannel-shirted, thick book-carrying knowledge of every arcane fact known to mankind. Like that really was the way to impress teenage girls. In any case he was worried, worried sick at times, that in such a big school his “style” needed upgrading…”

And that is why, when the deal went down and I knew I was going to the “bigs” I spent the summer this year, reading, big time booked-devoured reading. Hey, I'll say I did, The Communist Manifesto, that one just because old Willie Westhaven over at Atlantic called me a Bolshevik when I answered one of his foolish math questions in a surly manner. I told you that was my pose, what do you want, I just wanted to see what he was talking about. In any case, I ain’t no commie, although I don’t know what the big deal is, I ain't turning anybody in, and the stuff is hard reading anyway. How about Democracy in America (by a French guy), The Age of Jackson (by a Harvard professor who knows Jack Kennedy, and is crazy for old-time guys like Jackson),and Catcher In The Rye (Holden is me, me to a tee). Okay, okay I won’t keep going on but that was just the reading on the hot days when I didn’t want to go out, test me on it, I am ready. Here's why. I intend, and I swear I intend to even on this first nothing (what did I call it before?-"gimme", ya) day of this new school year in this new school in this new decade to beat old Frankie, old book-toting, girl-chasing Frankie, who knows every arcane fact that mankind has produced and has told it to every girl who will listen for two minutes (maybe less) in that eternal struggle, the boy meets girl struggle, at his own game. Frankie, my buddy of buddies, mad monk, prince among men (well, boys, anyhow) who navigated me through the tough, murderous parts of junior high, mercifully concluded, finished and done with, praise be, and didn’t think twice about it. He, you see, despite, everything I said a minute ago was “in.”; that arcane knowledge stuff worked with the “ins” who counted, worked, at least a little, and I got dragged in his wake. Now I want to try out my new “style”

See, that’s why on this Wednesday after Labor Day in the year of our lord, 1960, this 7:00 AM, or a little after, Wednesday after Labor Day, I have Frank’s disease. He harped on it so much before opening of school that I woke up about 5:00 AM this morning, maybe earlier, but I know it was still dark, with the cold sweats. I tossed and turned for a while about what my “style”, what my place in the sun was going to be, and I just had to get up. I’ll tell you about the opening day getting up ritual stuff later, some other time, but right now I am worried, worried as hell, about my “style”, or should I say lack of style over at Atlantic. That will tell you a lot about why I woke up this morning before the birds.

...Suddenly, a bell rings, a real bell, students, like lemmings to the sea, are on the move, especially those Atlantics that I had nodded to before as I take those steps, two at a time. Too late to worry about style, or anything else, now. We are off to the wars; I will make my place in the sun as I go along, on the fly.


....and a trip down memory lane.

MARK DINNING lyrics - Teen Angel

(Jean Surrey & Red Surrey)

Teen angel, teen angel, teen angel, ooh, ooh

That fateful night the car was stalled
upon the railroad track
I pulled you out and we were safe
but you went running back

Teen angel, can you hear me
Teen angel, can you see me
Are you somewhere up above
And I am still your own true love

What was it you were looking for
that took your life that night
They said they found my high school ring
clutched in your fingers tight

Teen angel, can you hear me
Teen angel, can you see me
Are you somewhere up above
And I am still your own true love

Just sweet sixteen, and now you're gone
They've taken you away.
I'll never kiss your lips again
They buried you today

Teen angel, can you hear me
Teen angel, can you see me
Are you somewhere up above
And I am still your own true love
Teen angel, teen angel, answer me, please

***Just When You Thought It Was Safe To…, Not Bop-Doo-Wop-For Betty, Class of 1966

Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of the Capris performing There's A Moon Out Tonight.

CD Review

Best Of Old Town Doo Wop, Various artists, 2-CD set, Ace Records

Confused by the headline? Don’t be, all it does is refer to a previous series of Oldies But Goodies (1950s-1960s oldies but goodies, just so you know) CD reviews in this space. That gargantuan task required shifting through ten, no, fifteen volumes of material that by the end left me limping, and crying uncle. See, as I explained in the last few reviews of the series, just when I thought I was done at Volume Ten I found that it was a fifteen, fifteen count ‘em, volume series. In any case I whipped off those last five reviews in one shot to be done with it.

The reason for such haste at that point seemed self-explanatory. After all how much can we rekindle, endlessly rekindle, memories, teen memories, teen high school memories mainly, from a relatively short, if important, part of our lives, even for those who lived and died by the songs (or some of the songs) in the reviewed compilations. How many times can one read about guys with two left feet, the social conventions of dancing close, wallflowers, the avoidance of wallflower-dom, meaningful sighs, meaningless sighs, the longings for certain obviously unattainable shes (or hes), the trials and tribulations associated with high school gymnasium crepe paper-adorned dances, moonlight-driven dream thoughts of after dance doings, and hanging around to the bitter end for that last dance of the night to prove... what. And there and then I threw in the towel, I thought.

Well now I have recovered enough to take a little different look at the music of this period-the doo wop sound that hovered in the background radio of every kid, every kid who had a radio, a transistor radio, to keep parental prying ears at arms length, and who was moonstruck enough to have been searching, high and low, for a sound that was not just the same old, same old that his or her parents listened to. Early rock and rock, especially that early Sun Record stuff, and plenty of rhythm and blues met that need but so did, for a time, old doo wop-the silky sounds of lead singer-driven, lyrics-driven, vocal-meshing harmony that was the stuff of teenage “petting” parties and staid old hokey school dances, mainly, in my case, elementary school dances.

As I mentioned in the oldies but goodies reviews not all of the material put forth was good, nor was all of it destined to, or meant to be, playable fifty or sixty years later on some “greatest hits” compilation but some of songs had enough chordal energy, lyrical sense, and sheer danceability, slow danceabilty, to make any Jack or Jill start snapping fingers then, or now. As I asked in that previous series and is appropriate to ask here as well what about the now seeming mandatory question of the best song in the compilation? The one that stands out as the inevitable end of the night high school dance (or maybe even middle school) song? The song that you, maybe, waited around all night for just to prove that you were not a wallflower, and more importantly, had the moxie to, mumbly-voiced, parched-throated, sweaty-handed, asked a girl to dance (women can relate their own experiences, probably similar).

Here The Capris’ There’s A Moon Out Tonight fills the bill. And, yes, I know, this is one of those slow ones that you had to dance close on. And just hope, hope to high heaven, that you didn’t destroy your partner’s shoes and feet. Well, as I have noted before, one learns a few social skills in this world if for no other reason that to “impress” that certain she (or he for shes, or nowadays, just mix and match your sexual preferences) mentioned above. I did, didn’t you?