Tuesday, October 24, 2006

i remember high school as a dark time, gray, cold, like buffalo winters. my family moved to buffalo in the middle of the winter of my first year of high school. i didn't know anyone and had trouble making friends in what seemed like a group of people who had known each other all their lives. they weren't so bad, actually, but i definitely had an attitude, being pulled away from my friends and a happy life, more or less, in pittsburgh. buffalo was flatter, snowier, grayer, with fewer trees, and houses that seemed to be cut out of the same mold, as opposed to brick, older, and with character, as the houses in pittsburgh had been.

the bus took me to school now; it had to go under thousands of power line transformer wires running down from niagara falls and supplying the whole east coast with power. walking was out of the question. sometimes there was one foot, two feet, four feet of snow. people went on grimly with their lives and hadn't seemed to consider that there were other places in the world- i got the strong impression that most of them planned to stay in the area after high school (which probably wasn't true) in spite of what seemed to me to be common sense.

the family would go up to niagara falls regularly, and watch the mist freeze on everything, and watch thousands of gallons of icy water pour over the edge. i was mad at my father for making us move, but what could he do? he had to work, and i knew this. my brother went off to college at harvard, leaving me with no option but to come out second best- even going to college seemed bleak- but where could one work without doing it? I had no idea of a future. i took my anger out on my poor little sister.

the high school was called sweet home- seemed like a joke to me, but it was on sweet home road, named after sweet home candy factory. seemed hard to cheer for the h.s. football team, but nobody seemed to have a problem with it. i was on the yearbook club and took a lot of pictures- also hung around with a radical crowd who was protesting the war, which was at its peak. the draft came; i got a low number; it looked like i might be on my way to vietnam. before this had happened i had been reading up on the war and becoming radical. some people in the high school actually put anti-war reading into my hands; it pointed out, basically, that the government was lying, which doesn't surprise us today. i was actually kind of fascinated with vietnam, and asia in general, but couldn't imagine going and fighting; i fantasized going and disappearing into the crowd, but knew that was a fantasy, and canada, in spite of being a bridge away, held no special pull for me. i really didn't know what i'd do. i was leaning most strongly toward just going to war, or, going to jail. in some ways i thought these would be the least different from what i was already experiencing.

my high school experience had really been most painful when the high school experienced a large anti-war strike directed against a gym teacher who had spit in a girl's face for not pledging to the flag. they were in a crowded auditorium- not having a homeroom, due to construction- and were not paying attention to the pledge coming over the loudspeaker. this particular gym teacher noticed when i and the yearbook/school newspaper squad went to the hearing to cover the event- even though it was held during the day. the following year i was put in his gym class and he tormented me, though basically, i became very humble, because i saw it as the only way out. ironically, the high school graduation was held in that very same gym, and it still smelled just as bad as all gyms did in those days. it was an extremely unpleasant graduation. i felt no sense of victory, no sense of anything except disgust at that gym smell, and my inability to move, or squirm out of my robes. i needed out.

during this time, you have to realize, kent state was just down the road; attica was a stone's throw the other way; woodstock was in the same state; watkins glen, a larger concert than woodstock, was also nearby. i felt like a hippie, but without the nerve to just leave home and drop out of high school. that wouldn't be wise. one summer i did some social work in the city of buffalo, but in general i didn't feel too connected to the area or any particular thing. i got a job at a fast-food fish restaurant, Arthur Treacher's, which provided a lot of badly-needed sanity and some money which of course i'd spend later. i'd come home covered with grease and the family dog was very fond of that. the washing machine couldn't really get it all out. i'd also occasionally get burned by the deep-fry grease. a guy and his girlfriend ran the place; they were either recovering druggies, or just druggies. or maybe they were going back and forth. gratefully they kept me out of it; i was only in high school, after all. many of my classmates were getting roaring drunk, but really i knew almost nobody except a few outcasts and we didn't really do that...

one summer day i set off on my bicycle to visit my father's workplace, hooker chemical on grand island. grand island was a huge, windswept place and i could barely get across the bridge and onto it, it was so windy and out there. the work complex was large and complicated also, but i found him, and he gave me a tour. he'd later say that he didn't like the people he worked with- they had, after all, been responsible for the love canal, many years back, and would do it again if they had the chance, he once said. he was kind of an environmentalist in a very conservative crowd, and eventually quit to run a nature preserve down in the wetlands by the old lackawanna steel mills, but at this time he was just trying to get by as a chemical engineer. absolutely nothing that he showed me made any sense to me. maybe i just blanked it out because of our relationship- i often blanked out good advice on such things as cars, at my own peril. such was our relationship. he loved me a lot, though, i knew. the ride home was worse. the place was vast, empty, windswept, difficult. it took me all day.

another time i checked out a bridge-guard's place by the old canals in north tonawanda- the place was not without its charm, its history, its proximity to canada. tonawanda, my father would say, was an indian word for "bring an extra snow-shovel." one time he was able to walk onto his own roof- up a 9-ft. drift of snow. another time we made a hockey rink out of the snow and ice in the backyard- but it melted into the basement in the spring (may, maybe?) and we couldn't do it the next year. when we went skating, little boys tore around our knees, growing up on their skates, while we walked tentatively on the ice. but mostly, i missed pittsburgh- the sun, the hills, the trees, the tunnels, my friends, and baseball. i counted the days, and finally went off to college. somewhere in there they cancelled the draft; announced that we were getting out of vietnam, no more were needed. some guy i knew had already lied about his age, joined early, and gotten killed; another waited until he turned eighteen, as i did that april, tried to join, and was rejected, as the camps were full, they didn't want any more. i was grateful, free, relieved, but dazed. i would not have made a good soldier.


Anonymous Bruce said...

You didn't mention Mr. Blank!

9:51 AM  
Blogger tom said...

Mr. Blank was actually a fifth grade teacher, at Julia Ward Howe. You're right, though, I forgot him. And a few other things too!

12:18 AM  

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