Head Straight, Eyes Forward
“What will your parents think about this boys?”
Mr. Constantine sat there staring a hole through us. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. No, all I could do was stare at the peculiar duck design on his tie. The ducks weren’t in any kind of formation. They just sort of floated around his tie. They seemed to be moving. I kept waiting for one to swim off the edge right onto his desk. Why ducks? Why not a manlier animal like a lion or tiger? Why not Flash Gordon or Superman? My mind wandered aimlessly, like a self-destruct response to outside danger, like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. I may have looked like an idiot, silent and staring at Mr. Constantine’s horrible tie, but that was a better option than looking him in the eyes.
It had been two hours since my best friend Jeff and I had rushed out of English class at the sound of the bell and sent papers flying everywhere. We didn’t start the mission off well, bumbling around like that. We collected the debris and handed Mrs. Oglemeyer our group story and set off towards our objective. This day was different. We were growing up, practically men at the old age of 15. We carried a certain air of maturity as we strutted through the school halls. Every schoolmate we passed seemed so young and innocent, even the upper-classmen: naïve, blind to the wiles and devices of the adult world. Normally we fell into this category, but no more after that day. We were embarking on a journey that we were certain, no other kid from our High School had taken. We were about to encounter something new, but carried the boastfulness of those who had already experienced it. Like replacements, fresh out of boot camp before they get their first taste of battle.
As we exited the school we hastened our pace, half in fear that a teacher would somehow know our plans and attempt to stop us, slowing our steps only to look back on all those round-eyed adolescents sitting on their school buses. There we were, going out into the world as men, while the children anxiously looked on from their safe, yellow vessels. To be honest, very few noticed that we passed by at all.
We set off across the railroad tracks and headed toward our friend Baron’s house. As we rounded the corner we could see that his mother’s car was in the driveway, but she wasn’t supposed to be there. Baron was homeschooled and his parents were artists. They were the hippie sort, the sort that would wave the peace sign at you instead of saying hello, the sort that names their son Baron.
We stopped at the corner to assess the situation and decide what to do. Jeff thought we should throw rocks at Baron’s window while I wanted to take a less abrasive route. As we stood there, our English teacher Mrs. Oglemeyer pulled up to the four way stop in her car. We waved at her, still proud of our English paper we’d turned in, and smiled since there’s no harm in buttering up a teacher. She didn’t make any gestures or show a response. She just stared at us with a sullen expression and drove past. Jeff said that it looked as if her cat had died and we were suspects. We weren’t sure why she’d looked at us that way. She was actually the most mild-tempered of all the strict Catholic school teachers, almost timid.
We looked back to see Baron’s mother pulling out of their driveway and drive down the street heading through Arbuckle Park. We walked around the block to pass a few minutes, in case she’d forgotten something. One paint brush was all it would take to ruin such well laid plans as ours. We approached Baron’s house, all while keeping our heads on a swivel. We acted like we were patrolling an area, considering every sudden sound or movement a possible attack. Years later, while in Vietnam, I often thought of this day and though of how sneaky and covert we thought we were. However, if any neighbors were watching our actions from their window, I’m sure they had a good laugh at the obvious mischief afoot.
Baron poked his head out the door, surveying the area, making sure his mother was gone. Once he saw that the coast was clear he waved us in. We followed Baron up the semi-circular stairway and down the hall to his bedroom. As we sat on the floor, he kneeled over a shoebox he had retrieved from under his bed. He opened it with the precision of a bomb defuser. He turned around and in his hand laid the first joint that I’d ever seen in person. It was like this mythical object come to life. It was the Holy Grail. I felt guilty and alive, all at once.
Baron lit it and showed us how to smoke it. Jeff was up first. He coughed so furiously that it nearly dampened my spirits for experimentation. His face turned a shade of red I didn’t know faces could turn. Baron had to take the joint from Jeff to ensure he didn’t drop it and burn the carpet. Then he handed it to me and I sat there looking at Jeff, still coughing, now a shade of plum. I closed my eyes, said a small prayer, raised it to my mouth, and took a large inhale.
Much too large, I soon found out. Inside Baron’s room it sounded as if some sort of primeval coughing match had broken out. I coughed so hard that the thought of choking to death on air suddenly became a realistic way to die. Soon enough it ended, and I sat there, slumped over, unable to bring my head upright, feeling as if I might pass out. Through the one bloodshot eye I could open, I looked over at Jeff who appeared to be counting and recounting his digits as he waved his hand in front of his face. Then I looked up at Baron, sitting legs crossed, calm as ever, taking another drag from the joint. There he was, what we thought we were a short while before, so cool, so mature.
He played some rock n’ roll records which previously our parents had forbidden us to listen to. Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, and Jackie Wilson infiltrated my ear drums, set up base, and have occupied that position ever since. We’d always been told that we should never listen to rock music because it was a gateway to sinful actions. I thought it was funny, that for us, it was sinful actions that led to rock music, and we loved it. Baron’s walls were covered with posters. Elvis Presley, Micky Mantle, James Dean, and Muhammed Ali surrounded us, titans watching boys become men. We argued about sports. Who was the best basketball player, Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain. Who was the best baseball player, Hank Aaron or Willie Mayes. Baron showed off some impressive juggling skills. We each took turns trying to solve a Rubik’s cube to no avail. Jeff told us one of the worst jokes I’d ever heard…and we laughed, like idiots, for at least 5 straight minutes.
After we had passed an hour discovering new experiences and examining all the items in Baron’s room worth examining, we began to search for new surroundings to amuse us in our newfound state of enlightenment. We decided, in a moment of our most sound decision making, that we should return to the school and watch the girls’ softball game. Baron declined the invitation to the game and bid us farewell as he spooned at a bowl of cereal big enough to feed a small family.
We walked back to the school’s baseball field, taking a looping route to avoid any run ins with teachers or parents milling about the property. Once we arrived we sat at the top of the far bleachers all by ourselves, as far away as we could get from any possible interaction with an adult. We could see the school principal, Mr. Constantine, speaking to our History teacher Mr. Walsh who also coached the girls’ softball team.
“We should bail before Mr. Constant Stink sees us!” Jeff whispered to me.
“Don’t worry; even if he sees us, he’s too far away to notice anything.”
Mr. Constantine said a few more words to Mr. Walsh and then began walking in our direction.
“Shit, he’s coming right for us. I told you we should leave.”
I was sure he was wrong. I had entered a stage of lackadaisical wonderment, enjoying the trees swaying in the spring breeze and the clouds passing by, and I didn’t want a sense of impending doom ruining my high. I could see that Jeff was feeling very uneasy, but I was cool and calm, so cool. I knew that pot made you paranoid and that you should ignore it and relax. I thought about all this while I watched Mr. Constantine. He was walking right towards us, and was looking right at us.
“Mr. Winters, Mr. Pencala, I’ll need you both to come with me.”
Each word he spoke made my heartbeat rise exponentially. We’d been caught. We’d be expelled. My parents would kill me. I’d be grounded until the Cubs won the pennant. Every possible punishment and every possible lie to get out of each one raced through my mind on the walk to the school. However, this wasn’t the perfect time to test my problem solving skills. We were already at the school doors and I hadn’t thought of one decent alibi. Mr. Constantine was a bear and I the salmon flopping around on the ground, suffocating, waiting for the kill.
“What will your parents think about this, boys?”
Between my heart pounding, my head spinning, and those damn ducks, I couldn’t begin to think of a suitable response. Our heads hung low, afraid to make eye contact and fully display the bloodshot remnants of our sinful afternoon. He waited for a while and reached into his top desk drawer and pulled out a manila folder. He opened it up and pulled out a report. It was my handwriting. I immediately recognized what it was, but how did he get it? Jeff looked at me, his eyes wide.
That day in English, we’d had a writing assignment in which Jeff and I had to take a children’s fable and change some of the details to make it funny. Mrs. Oglemeyer thought it would be a good test for our imaginations. She was correct. Our story was a cross between Rumpelstiltskin and Humpty Dumpty titled Rumple-Spilled-Skin, but that wasn’t the title written in my handwriting on the page in front of us. No, it was the title of our personal, childish first story idea…The Boy Who Cried Obscenities. This expletive laced anecdote was supposed to be our private inside joke, not meant for any church going person’s eyes. This was why Mrs. Olgemeyer seemed so upset when she saw us. Our stories must have gotten mixed up when our papers fell on the floor. We’d been so focused on our day’s mission that we’d turned in the wrong damn paper. Now here was our “mature” sense of humor on full display. A thought hatched and forgotten about just as quickly.
There I was, being informed that I would be suspended for a week and at the same time I was the happiest I’d ever been. I’d gone from being terrified that I’d be labeled a druggie and expelled, to being suspended for a silly paper that had accidentally fallen on the floor. Here, Mr. Constantine came down on us as if we’d defaced school property or flattened the tires on his new Buick Skylark. But I couldn’t care less. What would my parents think? I didn’t have a clue. They may be angry, or disappointed. But not nearly as much as they would have if Mr. Constantine had quit ranting and raving for one minute to notice the two obviously stoned students sitting in front of him. In Vietnam, I’d often think of this day and Mr. Constantine’s lack of situational awareness.
He would have been a terrible soldier.