Tarzan Shows Me the Light… The Friday Essay

The Episcopal Church in Placerville that played a significant role in my life for 16 years.

The Episcopal Church in Placerville played a significant role in my life for 16 years.

In my last Friday essay on Finding God in all the Wrong Places, I learned that some miracles are best witnessed with your eyes shut, and that the radio preacher my brother and I listened to on Wednesday nights believed the road to heaven was paved with gold— for him. It was not the best introduction to religion. My parents had a burgeoning seven-year-old skeptic on their hands.

But they weren’t giving up on introducing their children to church.

Next on their parental road map to religious enlightenment was the Episcopal Church of Our Savior in Placerville. This time they used a different tactic, bribery. After church, we stopped at Tom Raley’s grocery store and were allowed to buy a Pepsi and pick out a comic book. I would eagerly search the rack for the latest issue of Tarzan, and, on really lucky weekends, find one. It was like winning a gazillion dollars in the lottery. The mere thought of joining the ape-man on his romp through the jungle was more than I could resist. I became a devout Episcopalian.

Gradually, Tarzan was replaced by other rewards. Marshall and I were recruited to carry the California and American flags in the procession. They had great yellow tassels that we would wind up tightly and release during over-long sermons, anything beyond five minutes. The challenge was to see whose tassel would twirl the longest. When that became boring, we could always watch our parents frantically mouthing words to make us behave.

Then I was given an immense promotion. I was invited to sing in the six-person choir that consisted of five elderly white-haired ladies and me. We all had loud voices; singing on key was secondary. I often pictured Jesus wearing earplugs.

Eventually I was allowed to carry the cross and lead the whole parade. I became an acolyte and served the priest, lit candles, rang bells, carried incense and even served as a junior lay leader. I became seriously religious and entertained the thought of becoming a priest. Crosses that glowed in the dark and Brother Jones were in my distant past.

There were numerous side benefits as well. The first was having a Godmother who became my second grade teacher. She was willing to overlook my extensive first grade rap sheet. I still have my report cards where every subject was given a C and every behavior trait was checked below the line. Listens in class, no; comes to school on time, no; wears appropriate clothing, no— you get the point. I think the latter came about because I didn’t like to wear underwear. Once I got a rather delicate part of my anatomy caught in the zipper and the teacher had to help get me unstuck. That cured the underwear bit.

I quickly learned in the that being a teacher’s pet beat being spanked, which was still an option in those days. Both my grades and behavior improved.

Gainful employment was another benefit. At age 11, I obtained my first serious job of working for one of my fellow choir members, Mrs. McKenzie. She lived in a large house overlooking Placerville and had a yard full of weeds that I was paid $.75 an hour to pull. She also had a big German Shepherd named King who topped the scales at 100 pounds and had a serious attitude problem. His idea of fun was to run at me full speed, bark ferociously, and screech to a halt about six inches away, with his jaws snapping.

“He just wants to play,” Mrs. McKenzie would assure me.

Yeah, right. That dog wanted to eat me. He knew it and I knew it. My third time there he made an attempt. By the time Mrs. McKenzie responded to my yells, King had helped himself to a generous portion of my pants and was about to start on my leg. I went home with a few bruises, an extra five bucks, and the promise that King would henceforth be kept in the house. Of course he wasn’t. A month later King climbed over the fence and took a chunk out of a passerby. Mrs. McKenzie ended up with an $1100 dollar fine and a court order to keep the dog muzzled.

After that, King took a liking to me, unfortunately. I would enter the yard and he would come charging at me just like old times. He would slide to his six-inch screeching halt, pound his muzzle on my leg in a symbolic bite, and then roll over so I would rub his belly. It was a very one-sided friendship.

Along about 12, I was invited to be the church janitor. Each Saturday I would hitchhike the three miles to Placerville and earn my weekly paycheck of four dollars. While this may seem rather paltry in our present age of instant billionaires, it was a fortune to me in 1955. After cleaning the church, I would beeline it to the Hangtown Bowl, buy cherry cokes and play my favorite pinball machine. I was hot. With one thin dime I could coax enough free games to last all afternoon. My newfound wealth also meant I could peruse the Placerville Newsstand and spend $.50 a week on the latest Max Brand or Luke Short Western. I became hooked on cowboy books. Then I discovered the Gold Chain restaurant and its incredible coconut cream pie. Talk about addiction. One fourth of my weekly salary went to support my pie eating habit. After all of that, I still had a buck to get me through the week and a buck for savings.

I joined the church Boy Scout Group and the church Youth Group in addition to my roles as acolyte, choir member, janitor, etc. Had there been any more church groups, I would have joined them as well. The church became a central part of my life and got me through some tough times. I did a lot of growing up there. It even played a role in my ‘discovery’ of girls. Fortunately, confession wasn’t a requirement of the Episcopal Church given what I learned in the basement stairwell. Had I been a good Catholic, I would still be saying Hail Marys.

By my senior year in high school, I had given up my youthful thoughts of becoming a minister but still took my religion seriously and attended church regularly. College was coming, however. My faith and many other things I accepted as true were about to become maybes.

NEXT FRIDAY’S BLOG: My rock that was Peter relocates itself to an active fault zone.

A Cold and Stormy Night… Lost in a Snow Storm: Part I

Having friends for a long time means having lots of stories about each other. Getting together means reliving the best ones.

Some stories fit the R category “If you don’t tell that one about me I won’t tell about the time you…” Black mail is an effective ploy. I’ve used it frequently with my friends Tom Lovering and Ken Lake.

Bob Bray, my friend for over 60 years, is different. Most of our tales are G, PG and PG 13 rated.

I’ve been posting stories over the past three weeks in honor of our 50th Reunion for the 1961 Class of El Dorado Union High School in Placerville, California. I started with a story of Bob and I shooting out the window of an ‘abandoned’ bum shack with our Wham-o slingshots. It reconfirmed his mother’s belief that I was not a child her son should be around.

It’s only appropriate that I finish off this series with another story about Bob. This one was 20 years later and had more serious consequences.

When I returned to Sacramento after my stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa and as a PC Recruiter in the South, I reconnected with Bob and other friends from Placerville. One thing we enjoyed doing together was hunting and fishing. Our usual companions included Hunt Warner and Chuck Lewis although putting a rifle in Chuck’s hands was scary.

While I wasn’t particularly good at shooting things either, I was great at wandering in the woods. Hunting was yet another excuse. And, I must add, I enjoyed hanging out with the guys. Lots of male bonding took place.

In this story, Phil Dunlop replaced Chuck as our fourth companion.

We were hunting north of Highway 50 in El Dorado National Forest one Saturday afternoon in late October when snow flakes started drifting lazily out of the sky. It wasn’t much to worry about; we zipped up our coats and went about our business. If anything, the gently falling snow was quite beautiful.

But it kept snowing and the flakes became more serious. After a couple of hours, there were six inches of the white stuff on the ground and my tracks began to disappear. I decided it was time to forget the macho requirements of being male and make a judicious retreat to the T-bone steaks waiting for us back at Hunt’s jeep. I soon ran into Hunt who was walking with Phil.

“Have you seen Bob?” I asked. He and I had parted a half hour earlier at the edge of a large thicket of brush where Bob had been convinced he would jump an evasive buck.

“I haven’t seen him for an hour,” was Hunt’s reply. Phil hadn’t seen him since the snowstorm had started. Normally we wouldn’t have been concerned; Bob’s very competent in the woods. But evening was coming, the temperature dropping, and the snow accumulating.

“Maybe Bob has more sense than we do and has already returned to the jeep,” Phil suggested. That seemed logical so we made the short 15-minute trek back to the jeep. No Bob.

“This is getting worrisome guys,” I said in a definitely worried tone. It wasn’t like Bob to take undo risks. “Let’s go back to where I saw him last and see if we can’t hunt up his tracks.”

The advantage of snow was that it left a trail even a city slicker could follow, assuming that it hadn’t already covered the tracks. Even then there were usually obvious dimples in the snow.

Unfortunately, no tracks were to be found and not even our overly active imaginations could turn the various dimples into a trail. I did spot the tracks of a very large deer, but they disappeared at the edge of the thicket.

“It looks like the buck stops here,” I said to Phil and elicited a weak groan. I suggested we split up and look around.

“We need to meet back here in 30 minutes,” I urged. “Don’t go far and pay attention to where you are going. It is getting close to dark and the last thing we need is a second person missing. If you come across Bob’s tracks, fire your rifle and we will join you.”

My degree of concern was reflected in my bossiness. Normally we were a very democratic, almost anarchic group.

Twenty minutes later I had made my way to the other side of the thicket and found nothing. Neither had I heard any rifle shots announcing either Hunt or Phil had success. Somewhat discouraged, I turned around to rejoin my fellow searchers. It was then I spotted tracks leading out of the thicket. I pointed my Winchester toward the sky and fired off a shot.

“Bang!” the sound of another rifle being fired resounded from the direction Bob’s track had headed. I quickly levered in another bullet and fired again. There was no response. I did hear Phil and Hunt making their way through the brush toward me, though. They sounded like a pair of large bears. We held another council. Once again, we decided to split up.

Phil would return to the road where the jeep was parked and flag down a car. His job was to get a message through to the El Dorado Sheriff’s Department that Bob was missing. Hunt would cut back through the thicket and wait on the jeep trail where the thicket began in case Bob made his way back there. He’d fire his rifle if Bob appeared.

I was going to follow Bob’s tracks until dark to see if I couldn’t catch him. There were only about 30 minutes of daylight left so the odds were slim. My concern was that Bob had broken a bone and was stranded.

Next Blog: Still no Bob but the night is so cold the doors on the jeep freeze solidly shut.

The Revenge of the Ex…

The old adage about ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ should also apply to ex girlfriends, boyfriends, wives and husbands. They have, one hopes, moved on. As should we. Still, these friends and lovers from our past played an important role in our lives, ‘for better or for worse.’  They helped mold us into who we are today.

I made it all the way to my senior year at El Dorado Union High School in Placerville, California before exploring a serious relationship.

Deanna sat next to me in speech class. She was cute, blond, bright, sexy and interested, an irresistible combination. D and I started dating, we agreed to ‘go steady,’ and I gave her my class ring. We became an item in the lexicon of today, a couple to be invited out together, a future with a question mark. We even had matching shirts, the ultimate in commitment.

But my question mark was bigger than D’s, or at least it came to fruition sooner. I was graduating from high school while she had another year. There was a big world waiting for me and I wasn’t ready to limit its horizons. So, with a degree of sadness, I ended the relationship.

D was not happy; she had our future planned. Eventually, she would pull off what can only be described as Machiavellian type revenge.

I stopped off at Sierra Community College for two years on my way to UC Berkeley. I’m glad I did. Berkeley is a big place. It’s easy for a country boy to get lost. Instead I ended up as Student Body President of Sierra. This is where D reentered the picture. She came to Sierra and was beginning her freshman year when I started my stint as Student Body President.

Our cross-town rival was American River College. Like most such rivalries, ours was consummated in an annual football game. The winner received undying glory and the coveted Pick Axe. Why a pick axe? I asked and was told it was because of our 49er heritage.

We had won the previous year’s game so we had the Axe. It was my sacred responsibility to carry it to the game. A special ceremony would be held during AR’s Homecoming Dance where we would formally give up or retain the Axe depending on who won.

One more thing: it was a tradition for the school that didn’t have the Axe to try and steal it. My job was to protect it, with my life if necessary.

With this in mind, I recruited my friend Hunt and several other large bodyguards. We arrived at our stands in full force and moved watchfully along the walkway in front of the stands. I was surrounded by muscle power and carried the Axe firmly in my hands. About half way down the stands, D was sitting in the front row. She gave me a big smile.

“Hi, Curt,” she greeted me in her kittenish way. I swear she was purring. Instant regrets of lost opportunities and more than a little guilt played tag among my memory cells. “Can I see the Pick Axe?” she asked.

“No, sorry D,” I responded. “I am supposed to protect it with my life.”

“Oh come on,” she urged, “what possible harm can it do?”

I gave in. What harm could it do?

I must admit the theft was neatly planned. The guy sitting next to her grabbed the Pick Axe, leapt over the railing, and handed it off to another guy who was waiting. That guy dashed across the field with a burst of speed that almost guaranteed he was the anchor on AR’s championship relay team.

My security team jumped the rail in hot pursuit, but they didn’t stand a chance. They were recruited for their size, not speed. By the time they reached the opposite bleachers the Axe had disappeared into an ocean of AR supporters. A roar of approval went up from the fans. Pursuing the Axe would have been suicidal.

Well, needless to say, I felt terrible. I had failed in my sacred duty and been done in by a pretty smile, by a woman scorned. I was down, but not quite out.

At half time the AR mascot, who happened to be a diminutive woman dressed up as a beaver, came prancing over to our side of the stands, taunting us with the fact AR had stolen the Axe. She strolled by and flapped her tail at me.

“Grab the Beaver!” I ordered my muscle men in a moment of sheer inspiration. And they did.

“Let go of me you son-of-a-bitching goons,” she screamed in unlady like beaver prose. The air turned blue.

“Gnaw on it Beaver,” I growled as I grabbed her papier-mâché head and yanked it off. The invective level increased 10 fold. The little Beaverette had an incredible vocabulary.

“Quick,” I urged Hunt, “make this beaver head disappear for the time being.”

We lost the game, I am not sorry to say. Had we won, my losing the Pick Axe would have been a much more serious crime, punishable by banishment from Sierra. As it was, AR had simply obtained its Pick Axe early.

And I had the beaver head. I made my way through the dispersing crowd to the dance. The floor was already packed with gyrating Beavers. The bandleader willingly turned over his microphone when I looked official and said that I had an important announcement to make.

“Hello everyone, my name is Curtis Mekemson and I am President of the Student Body of Sierra College,” I jumped in. There was immediate silence. “I came here to present you with your Axe but you already have it.” (Laughter) “But,” I went on with a pregnant pause, “I have your Beaver Head.” (More laughter)

The crowd was in a good mood. They had won the game and could afford to be generous to this enemy within their midst.

“Getting it was not easy. Do you have any idea of the extended vocabulary of your Beaverette?” (Extensive laughter) “I do, however, wish to apologize to her and note that the language was justified.  Having your head ripped off is never a pleasant experience. As for my defense, she flapped her tail at me one too many times. In wrapping this up, I have a proposition for you. Do you want your beaver head back?”

“YES,” was the resounding answer.

“OK,” I replied. “If you will send an appropriate delegation up to Sierra next Wednesday at noon, I will personally return the head.”

That was that. Arrangements were made for AR to appear at the Sierra College Campus Center the following week. The day came and the Center was packed. I had turned the head over to our cafeteria staff for a special presentation.

The AR delegation dutifully showed up at noon on the dot. I welcomed them to our campus, complimented them on their victory and encouraged them to enjoy the Pick Axe for the short year they would have it. I also urged they keep it well guarded.

“And now,” I announced, “it is time to bring out the Beaver Head.”

Out from the cafeteria came a formal procession, complete with the campus cook and her assistants. The Beaverhead had been carefully arranged on a huge platter that included all of the trimmings for a feast. The piece-de-resistance was an apple carefully inserted into the Beavers mouth. Needless to say, a great time was had by all, including the AR delegation.

D’s revenge and my debacle with the Pick Axe had been turned into a minor victory.

This blog is part of a series in celebration of the 50th High School Reunion of the Class of 1961 of El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. Next up the concluding blog: Bob Bray Is Lost in a Snowstorm.

Lust, Love and Like…

Figuring out our relationship with the opposite sex is a lifelong challenge. I was in my late forties when I met my wife Peggy and finally got it right… from my perspective. Twenty years later I suspect Peggy still considers me a work in progress. I know her sister Jane does.

As a friend, co-worker and sometimes boss, Jane had been training me for 15 years when Peggy appeared on the scene to take over. Jane also assured me that their mother, Helen, was prepared to step in if necessary. I am probably lucky that Grandmother Honey had already passed on. Today, my daughter Tasha has joined the fray.

I’ve never met a more formidable group of women and I am not sure how I ended up as a community project. (“Okay, whose turn is it today to civilize Curt?) But my guess is I got lucky. My family and friends agree.

I am convinced that Lust, Love and Like are the key ingredients to a happy relationship. I’d throw in respect if it started with an L. Lust is around to light the fire and keep it lit. It lurks deep down in our brain as a primitive urge to assure that little people are born, which is a messy, painful process that needs all of the encouragement it can get.

Love is the deep bonding that comes along to guarantee the little ones are raised and survive their early teenage years. It’s also helpful in encouraging Daddy to hang around and help with the process. It may even last a lifetime so you have someone to talk to when you get old and grouchy.

But for me, like is the crème de la crème, the frosting on the cake. The partner you lust after and love can also be your friend, even your best friend as is the case with Peggy.

So, where was she 60 years ago? My interest in girls started early.

The long-legged blond Carol Butts caught my attention in the third grade; she could outrun me. Red headed Judy Hart became my passion in the fifth grade, as she did all of the other boys in our combined fourth and fifth grade class. Judy obligingly cut off lockets of her hair and gave one to each boy. I’m surprised she had any hair left. It was the Kludt twins that occupied my seventh grade year and the raven haired, dark-eyed Ann Pierce who I fell for in the eighth grade.

It’s in high school when relationships take on a more serious, urgent tone however.

I blogged about my disastrous freshman year last week. Things started improving my sophomore year. I ditched my thick glasses for contact lenses and came back to school buff and tan from a summer of working in the pear orchards. A few girls even provided a wiggle or two to see if anyone was home. There was.

More importantly, I had my first date.

Paula Griggs called me. Her mother was obviously encouraging the process. The date involved Mom, Boyfriend, Paula and I going out to dinner in the small town of Sutter Creek, about twenty miles away from Diamond Springs over California’s curvy Highway 49.

After we filled up on Italian food, Mom and Boyfriend promptly climbed in the back and suggested I drive home.

“Um,” I noted nervously, “I only have a learner’s permit.”

“That’s okay, it will be good practice,” Mom stated before I could add that I had obtained the permit the week before.

Paula, meanwhile, was waiting for me to open the door for her on the passenger side of the car. She gave me an encouraging smile and my options dropped to zero. Any further hesitation would appear wimpy.

After doing the gentlemanly thing for Paula, I dutifully climbed into the driver’s seat and miraculously found the keyhole and lights. Minimal gear grinding got us out of town and I breathed an audible sigh of relief.

We had made it just past Plymouth when I ran over the skunk. Its response was to become a virtuoso of glandular activity.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Boyfriend said as the first powerful whiffs of eau de skunk came blasting through the air vents, “it happens all of the time.”

“Yeah, sure,” I mumbled to myself through tongue-biting teeth, “young men always run down skunks on first dates, especially first dates with Mom and Boyfriend along.”

Fortunately I made it home without further incident. As for the date, I can definitely say that is was memorable.

I previously posted the story on Paula several months ago. This blog is part of a series in celebration of the 50th High School Reunion of the Class of 1961 of El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. Next up: I Discover True Love… or Not.

Bleeding Like a Speared Mammoth… The Joys of High School Chemistry Lab

I would have made a good Greek Philosopher, working out problems in my head. I quickly learned in high school that I am not particularly fond of long dead frogs pickled in formaldehyde or chemicals that smell worse than an old dog’s fart.

But there is more to it than that; I am convinced that good lab technicians are mechanically inclined. They like to tinker.

I have lots of friends like that. They love to take things apart and put them back together. They can fix anything and go out of their way to find things that need fixing. My brother Marshall is a good example. He had an old Citroen in high school that he’d spend hours working on out in the back yard with grease up to his elbows.

Ask him anything about carburetors, water pumps, generators, horsepower or timing and he had a ready answer. I admired him for it, but my interest in carburetors was zilch and my primary interest in automobiles was (and is) that they get me from point A to point B without breaking down.

I feel pretty much the same way about other fix-it items. I am just not excited about getting into the bowels of a toilet and replacing its thing-a-ma-bob. Nor am I interested in replacing light switches to see how much voltage I can send coursing through my body. Yeah, yeah, I know… you turn off the electricity first.

I am not sure where this lack of enthusiasm for things mechanical came from but it was probably a combination of aptitude and attitude. Me father wasn’t particularly fond of working on automobiles and some of that may have rubbed off. But he was very handy. In addition to being a skilled electrician he loved puttering around outside making things.

I classify all such activities as chores to be avoided if at all possible. In fact, over the years I have developed a number of strategies for not having to fix things. Here’s my guide on how to avoid fixing things:

  • Don’t own any tools. You might be tempted to use them, or even worse, someone such as a wife might suggest that you use them.
  • Don’t buy a house. Every scientific study ever done confirms that the single most important reason for having to fix things is owning a home. I was 53 years old before I made that mistake.
  • If something doesn’t work, go buy a new one.
  • Plead ignorance. “What do you mean there is more than one kind of screw driver?” As a corollary, hide your repair manuals. My wife Peggy has the irritating habit of looking up things that need fixing and then saying sweetly, “Oh, this looks easy to do, Curt.”  My manliness has been challenged. It doesn’t matter that this ‘easy’ chore requires that I make four trips to the hardware store, purchase $500 worth of new tools, work ten hours straight and injure myself at least once.  I have to do it.
  • Or you can praise your wife’s ability to fix things and then hide. Peggy is a natural with hammer, saw, paint brush and screwdriver.
  • Curse a lot. Your partner may figure that leaving something broken is easier than listening to you.
  • Stall. “I’ll do it right after I cook dinner, honey.” Stalling is easier if you are doing something the other person finds desirable.
  • If all else fails, compromise. I have an agreement with Peggy that I will do one manly chore per month. That’s my quota. Some activities such as fixing toilets even earn two months of credit.

Even my hobbies as a kid reflected my non-mechanical tendencies. Building model ships, airplanes, cars, trains, etc. had no interest. My concept of a great hobby was rock collecting. I would hike along the Southern Pacific railroad tracks in Diamond Springs and pick up interesting rocks until all four pockets were bulging and my pants were about to fall off. I would then go home and smash them apart with a hammer to figure out what I had found. Geology became a life-long interest.

I do understand the arguments for being able to fix things: saving money, being self-sufficient, and obtaining satisfaction from a job well done.

These same arguments, however, apply to going out in the pasture, shooting Elsie the Cow, gutting her, bringing home the meat, grinding it up, and throwing it on the grill. Just think of the satisfaction involved and dollars saved! Or, you can go to the local fast food joint and help employ a kid who might otherwise turn to a life of crime.

Now, back to chemistry. One day we had to shove little glass tubes through rubber stoppers. Apparently this is an important skill for budding chemists. It’s not a difficult task if you ignore the fact that the holes in the stoppers are approximately half the diameter of the glass tubes and, more importantly, you have a gallon of Vaseline.

I was half way through my first masterpiece when the damn tube broke and ended up jabbed into my hand. Bleeding like a speared mammoth, I was carted off to the emergency room of the local hospital and sewn up.

There was plenty of time while sitting in ER to contemplate my future as a scientist. My conclusion: there wasn’t one. I decided that the best way to avoid long-dead animals, smelly chemicals and miscellaneous dangerous objects (not to mention higher level math skills) would be to choose a career that depended on verbal agility. In other words, my future would be based solely on my ability to BS.

This blog is part of a series in celebration of the 50th High School Reunion of the Class of 1961 of El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. Next up: A Choice: Graduate or Go to Jail.

The Train Wreck and Miss Kaste

I did better at academics in High School than I did at sports. Fortunately.

I quickly learned that the humanities were my forte. I also did well in English. It was a natural given my love of books and communication skills.

Science and math proved to be a bit more challenging.

There’s an old adage that we are supposed to work hard at those things we find difficult, that it gives us character. My belief is that I already have plenty of character. If I had any more, little men in white coats would be chasing me with nets.

I prefer to spend my energy on things I enjoy, like reading a good book or hiking in the wilderness. I have little tolerance for doing things that I don’t do well or fail to interest me. In other words, the Protestant Ethic and I have serious compatibility problems.

But I can be stubborn. Math is a good example. In the fourth grade I discovered that long division was nasty. I got beyond that but word problems gave me a complex. Two trains are hurtling at each other on the same track with Train A going 90 miles per hour and Train B going 70. They are 252.5296 miles apart. How long will it be before Train A conductor says, “Ooooh shit!”

Not nearly as soon as I did.

My own expletive arrived on my lips .0000001 seconds after seeing the problem. I concentrated on sending the teacher vibes. “Curt is not here today. You do not see Curt. You will not call on Curt.”

But I continued plugging away at math. I even managed to get A’s in Algebra I and Geometry. Algebra II was different. That’s when I ran head on into Miss Kaste. It was not a pleasant experience.

Miss Kaste, according to those who were seriously into math, was very good at what she did. Students leaving her class were reputed to have a solid foundation in the basics and be well prepared to move on to the ethereal worlds of calculus and trigonometry.

Basics, I quickly learned, meant that there was one way of coming up with answers and that way was chiseled in stone. One did not diverge from accepted formulas or leave out steps; right answers obtained the wrong way were wrong answers. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

This created a problem. I had a true talent for coming up with right answers the wrong way and this brought me unwanted attention. I could have lived with that except for another problem, Miss Kaste’s teaching technique. She oozed sarcasm. She made people cry. My response was to freeze up. I started dreading her classes and developed the proverbial ‘bad attitude.’ I received my first C in high school and vowed never to take another math course. Life is short and then you die.

It was my decision and my loss. Miss Kaste was not to blame. Still, it speaks to the power of teachers to turn students on, or off, to various subjects. I wasn’t a total dunce at math; ironically, I scored in the 98th percentile on the Iowa Test in math the same year. Theoretically, that placed me in the top two percent of math students.

The upside of my decision was that I saw an immediate improvement in my GPA and attitude. The down side was that it eliminated a number of future options, particularly in the fields of higher education. It was an era when the social sciences were eager to prove their scientific nature.

This blog is part of a series in celebration of the 50th High School Reunion of the Class of 1961 of El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. Next up: Bleeding Like a Speared Mammoth… the Joys of High School Chemistry Lab.

The Most Desperate of Times: PE Dance Class 1… The 50th EUHS Reunion of the 1961 Class

Forty-six years ago I became a freshman at El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. The number of young women on my horizon was zero. I was deathly afraid of girls.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and I was a desperate man. I signed up for dance classes in P.E. I would learn to dance and become a combination of Arthur Murray and Elvis Presley. (Yeah, I know that dates me a little.) Step, step, slide and swivel your hips. Girls would flock to me.

It wasn’t until the day of the class that I learned the magnitude of my mistake. I would have to dance with girls to learn how to dance and there they were, lined up on the opposite side of the gymnasium, staring at me.

“God, why did I do this to myself,” I thought as I stared across the distance at twenty females who I knew were thinking, “anybody but Curtis.”

“Okay, boys,” the female P.E. teacher announced in a stern voice, “I want you to walk across the room now and politely ask a girl to dance with you.” Wow, that sounded like fun.

Reluctantly, I began that long walk across the gymnasium floor. I was a condemned man and the gallows were looming. I walked slower. Maybe an earthquake would strike. Maybe the Russians would shoot off an IBM missile. Maybe one of the surly seniors would throw a match in a wastebasket and the fire alarm would go off.

Maybe nothing.

I approached the line and looked for a sign. One of the girls would smile at me and crook her finger. But the girls looked exceedingly grim. A few looked desperate, like deer caught in the headlights of the proverbial 18 wheeler rushing toward them at 90 miles per hour. I picked out the one who looked most frightened on the theory that she would be the least likely to reject me.

“Uh, would you care to dance,” I managed to blurt out.

“Uh, okay,” she responded with about the same level of enthusiasm she would have if I had offered her a large plate of raw liver. It was P.E. Dance Ground Zero after all, and she wasn’t allowed to say no. We were destined to be a great couple.

“You will put your left hand in the middle of the back five inches above the waist line.” The teacher, who was beginning to sound like a drill sergeant, carefully described what we would do with our hands. It was quite clear that there would be minimal contact and no contact with behinds.

“With your right hand and arm, you will hold the girl away from you.” There would be no accidental brushing of breasts either. I assumed the correct position with marine-like precision. I was going to get this right.

I studied the chart the teacher had put up to show me what I was supposed to do with my two left feet. I listened carefully to the lecture on rhythm and down beats. I watched with intensity as she demonstrated: step, step, slide, step-step.

All too soon it was our turn. A scratchy record blasted out a long-since-dead composer’s waltz. I didn’t know who it was but it wasn’t Elvis or even Benny Goodman. With one sweaty palm in the middle of the girl’s back and the other sweaty hand holding her a proper distance away, I moved out on the floor. Step, step, slide, step-step.

One, two, and three, four-five the coach barked out. My feet more or less followed the proscribed pattern as I avoided stepping on the girl’s toes. I tried a turn and managed to avoid running into another couple. Ever so slightly I relaxed. Maybe things would be okay. Maybe I would have fun. Maybe Hell would freeze over.

“Stop class!” the teacher yelled as she blew her whistle and yanked the needle across the record, adding another scratch. We dutifully came to a halt. What now?

“I want everyone to watch Curtis and his partner,” she announced.

“Hey, this is more like it,” I thought to myself. Not only was I surviving my first day of dance class, I was being singled out to demonstrate. I smiled, waited for the music to start, and boldly moved out on the floor where many had trod before. Step, step, slide, step-step. We made it through all of three progressions when the teacher abruptly blew her whistle again.

“And that, Class,” she proclaimed triumphantly, “is not how you do it. Curtis is moving like he is late for an important appointment in the bathroom.”

The class roared… and I shrank. I don’t know how my partner felt, but I wanted a hole to climb in, preferably a deep hole with a steel door that I could slam shut. And I was more than embarrassed, I was mad. My normal sense of humor had galloped off into the sunset.

“You don’t teach someone to dance by embarrassing him,” I mumbled. An angry look crossed the teacher’s face and she started to reply. I turned my back and walked for the door.

“Where do you think you are going Curtis? Get back here!” she demanded in a raised voice.

“I am leaving,” I replied without turning, calm now the decision made. The class was deadly quiet. This was much more interesting than P.E. Other kids might challenge teachers, might walk out of a class, and might not even care.

But not Curt. This was a guy who always did his homework, participated in class discussions, and was respectful toward teachers.

I reached the door and put my hand on the handle.

“If you walk out that door, you may as well walk home,” the teacher barked. “I will personally see to it that you are suspended from school.”

I opened the door, walked out, and went straight to the office of the chairman of the P.E. Department, Steve O’Meara. Steve worked with my Dad in the summer as an assistant electrician but I knew him primarily as my science teacher.

He was a big man, gruff, and strong as a bull elephant, a jock’s jock. He demonstrated his strength by participating in the annual wheelbarrow race at the El Dorado County Fair. The race commemorated the fact that John Studebaker of automobile fame had obtained his start in Placerville manufacturing wheelbarrows.

The County’s strongest men would line up with their wheelbarrows at the starting line and then rush to fill a gunny sack with sand at the starter’s gun. They would then push their wheelbarrows and loads at breakneck speed around an obstacle course that included mud holes, a rock-strewn path, fence barriers and other such challenges.

In addition to making it across the finish line first, the winner had to have fifty plus pounds of sand in his gunny sack. Underweight and he was disqualified. Steve was always our favorite to win and rarely disappointed us. He had a very loud voice.

“What’s up, Curt,” he roared when I entered his office. I knew Steve didn’t eat kids for lunch but you always wondered a little.

“I think you are supposed to expel me,” I replied. He started to laugh until he saw my expression. Mortification and anger on the face of a 14-year-old are never a pretty sight.

He became serious. “Sit down and tell me what’s happening,” he suggested in an almost gentle voice.

Ten minutes later I walked out of his office with a reprieve. I didn’t have to go back to the dance class and could finish out the quarter playing volleyball.  Steve would have a discussion with the dance instructor.

I imagine she ended up about as unhappy as I was. At least I hoped so. I entertained a small thought that she would hesitate the next time before traumatizing some gawky kid whose only goal in attending her class was to become a little less gawky. It would be a long time before I would step onto a dance floor again.

Next Blog: A Penguin’s Guide to Long Distance Running

A Terminal Case of Puberty Blues… The 50th Reunion of EUHS’s 1961 Class

The 50th Reunion of El Dorado Union High School’s 1961 Class was approaching like a runaway freight train. Emails from Placerville California were filling my inbox. Ancient memories kept bubbling to the surface. Fortunately time and a sense of humor had smoothed off the sharper edges.

Something happened between my eighth grade in Diamond Springs and high school in Placerville. It hit me right between the eyes with all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Here I was a happy, well-adjusted and relatively successful young man one day and a serious candidate for a strait jacket the next.

Pimples popped out on my face overnight and my voice became dedicated to practicing random octave jumps. Teenage-hood, which had promised to be a mild adventure, arrived with a vengeance. I was being hormonally challenged; I had a terminal case of puberty blues.

Things I had taken for granted became illusive, almost impossible to obtain. Take girlfriends, for instance.

I expected to lose a little ground in the field of romance when I became a freshman in high school. Sophomore, junior and even senior boys cruised the hallways in a mad scramble to harvest the new crop of freshmen girls while the older girls weren’t about to date a freshman boy, that lowest of low creatures.

But I didn’t expect to bomb the way I did.

I became intensely, almost painfully shy. I would walk down the hallways staring at my feet in fear that some young woman would look me in the eye. If a girl tried to talk to me, I would mutter inanities and make a run for it. The strangest statements came out of my mouth. As for asking a girl out, the odds were a little less than being struck by lightning and the latter seemed like a less painful alternative.

It wasn’t that I didn’t notice girls. My body was one huge hormone. I just couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it. I pined for a young woman who sat in front of me in Mr. Crump’s Geography class. She was gorgeous and came with a full complement of accoutrements: smile, brains, hips and breasts. I was in deep lust.

My knee and her fanny were mere inches apart and her fanny was like a magnet. I had the most intense fantasies of moving my knee forward until it made contact. In my fantasy she would of course turn around, smile at me and suggest we get together after school.

In reality, she would have turned around and bashed me with her geography book, or worse, told Mr. Crump. I would have died. I kept my knee where it belonged. It is a strong testament to my love for geography that I didn’t flunk the class under the circumstances.

Next blog: Desperate times call for desperate measures. I sign up for dance classes in PE.

Diamond Springs, California: From Gold Rush to Sleepy… The 50th EUHS Reunion

The message arrived by mail. My 50th High School Reunion was coming up. Once again the mighty Cougars of Placerville, California’s El Dorado Union High School would roar.

Or at least meow.

Teenage angst, hormonal overload and dreams of glory had long since been dimmed by the realities of life and aging bones. My classmates and I have reached the point where looking back is easier than looking forward.

A Memory Book was being created. What had happened to us since that warm June day in 1961? It was time to sum up our lives in 400 words or less. Should I lie?

Naah. I dutifully begin to put the words down on paper. I found, however, that my mind kept wandering back to what had happened prior to our graduation, during the formative years of our lives. Always on the lookout for blog material, I decided to post a few stories from those years. First up:

Many things influence whom we become. DNA, parents, friends, teachers… it’s a long list. Where we are raised also has to be included. It doesn’t matter where we go in life; our hometown remains our hometown. And this takes me back to Diamond Springs, a small town outside of Placerville.

Sleepy is too lively a word for describing where I lived from 1945 to 1961.

In Old West terminology, Diamond was a two-horse town. There were two grocery stores, two gas stations, two restaurants, two bars, two graveyards and two major places of employment: the Diamond Lime Company and the Caldor Lumber Company.

On the one horse side of the equation there was one church, a barbershop, a hardware store and a grammar school. High school was in far off Placerville, three miles away.

It hadn’t always been quiet. Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, Diamond was once a major gathering spot for the Maidu Indians and later became a bustling Gold Rush town.

To the Maidu it was Mo-lok’epakan, or, Morning Star’s Spring and a very holy place.  Indians came from miles around bearing their dead on litters for cremation. Souls were sent wafting on their way to where ever deceased Maidu went.

Apparently they had been living in the area for a thousand years. It is a sad commentary on both our education system and how we treated the Indians that I grew up in Diamond never hearing the name Morning Star’s Spring much less Mo-lok’epakan. Our only connection with the Maidu’s lost heritage was finding an occasional arrowhead or Indian bead.

Then, in 1848, John Marshall found some shiny yellow baubles in the American River at Sutter’s Mill, 13 miles away. The worlds of the Maidu, California, and Morning Star’s Spring were about to be shattered. “Gold!” went out the cry to Sacramento, across the nation and around the world. Instant wealth was to be had in California and the 49ers were on their way.

They came by boat, wagon, horse and foot… whatever it took. And they came in the thousands from Maine to Georgia, Yankee and Southerner alike. They came from England and Germany and France and China, pouring in from all points of the compass. They left behind their wives, children, mothers, fathers, and half-plowed fields. The chance of ‘striking it rich’ was not to be denied.

Soon the once quiet foothills were alive with the sound of the miners’ picks and shovels punctuated by an occasional gunshot. Towns grew up overnight: Hangtown (Placerville), Sonora, Volcano, Fiddletown, Angels Camp, Grass Valley, Rough and Ready and other legendary communities of the Motherlode.

In 1850 a party of 200 Missourians stopped off at Morning Star’s Spring and decided to stay. Timber was plentiful, the grazing good and a 25-pound nugget of gold was found nearby. Soon there were 18 hotels, stables, a school, churches, doctors, a newspaper, lawyers, vineyards, a blacksmith, some 8000 miners and undoubtedly several unrecorded whorehouses.

Morning’s Star Spring took on a new name, Diamond Springs. The Wells Fargo Stage Company opened an office and the Pony Express made it a stop on its two-year ride to glory.

The town burned down in 1856, 1859 and again in the 1870s. By this time most of the gold had been found and the residents were forced to find other means of gainful employment.

The timber industry came to the rescue in the early 1900s when the California Door Company out of Oakland set up shop in Diamond to handle the timber it was pulling out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Starting with oxen and then moving to steam tractors, the company finally settled on a narrow gauge railway for retrieving rough-cut lumber and logs from its forest operations. By the 50s, it had moved on to logging trucks.

A couple of decades after Caldor was established, Diamond Lime set up business by opening a quarry two miles east of Diamond and a processing plant on the edge of town. The lime was so pure that a block of it was used in the Washington Monument.

This was pretty much how things were when the Mekemsons arrived at the end of World War II. Next blog… the Mekemson/Bray gang terrorizes Diamond Springs.