The Bugtown Hideaway of Dr. Fandom
by Ted White
Recently two events occurred, a week apart, which tossed me back 40 years.
The first was my 40th High School Class Reunion. And the second was the death, a few days after that reunion, of the father of one of my closest childhood friends, bringing my friend back to the area that weekend. He was (and still is!) two years older than I, and I hadn't seen him since the year before I graduated high school.
I'd last attended a class reunion 20 years ago, in 1976. There was a 30th Reunion, but it took place while I was in jail, and I missed it. So it was with some eagerness that I made it to this one.
It started a couple of days early, with a phone call from Chris Farrell, who had just gotten into town. Chris and I were high school buddies. We'd known each other throughout much of grade school, but in junior high we became part of a small group -- four or six of us -- who shared a lot of common interests and liked each other. Chris and I both had Salsbury motor-scooters, for instance, and we tore down and rebuilt their engines in his driveway, under his father's watchful eye. And, with Skip Simpson and Jimmy Terrill, we formed the ATL in 8th grade. The Anti-Teacher League's symbol, drawn on blackboards surreptitiously, was a round bomb with a burning fuse. On the last day of school that year we painted a croquet ball black, painted ATL on it in white, and bored out a hole for a small firecracker, to which we attached a big long ropelike fuse (rope, soaked in a solution of potassium nitrate), and suspended it on a high wire between two trees, smoldering and looking ominous. It went off around noon, with a tiny noise, to our vast amusement and the consternation of teachers who'd stood around looking at it and muttering, "Those damned fools!" all morning, unable to reach and deactivate it. Ten years later, and it would have been amateur rocketry, but this was before Sputnik, so we played with our chemistry sets and manufactured nitroglycerine and such things. (One experiment left a sizable crater in an empty field.)
I was stunned to learn that Chris had several degrees, held patents for a number of medical devices, was the pastor of his church, and held a full professorship at a midwestern college. But the same mischievous twinkle was still in his eyes.
We looked forward to getting together with Skip, but Skip never showed up that weekend, despite assurances that he would. "He won't drive his car in the rain," Chris told me. Skip had bought a 1986 Porsche new and had never taken it out of his garage during inclement weather -- and it rained much of that weekend. "You know Skip," Chris said, and we laughed.
The real surprise was Jon Sweet. I wrote about Jon back in the mid-80s, in Egoscan. He was the class victim. Bullies loved to pick on him, just to hear him whine and squeal. Our coach liked to pick on him in gym class, and once actually kicked Jon in his shin. Of course Jon squealed. I befriended him out of a desire to stand up for an underdog, and he was delighted to see me again.
But Jon was no longer an underdog. He exuded self-confidence. He'd been enormously successful in business and now had his own place in the deeply rural part of West Virginia. He looked good, and so did his wife.
Our old nemesis, Rodney Phillips, was there. Rodney (now just "Rod" of course) used to call me "Space Boy" and "Mars Boy" with great derision -- back in those glorious days when rockets had nothing to push against in space and space travel was obviously impossible. And he liked to physically beat up on Jon. Rodney is fat, now, and sells insurance for a living. He seemed to want our approval now, an irony which escaped neither Jon nor me.
The Cooper twins were there. I'd known Joanne and Georgena since 2nd grade. They were identical then, but by high school Joanne was taller and thinner. I never thought about them much in school, never entertained romantic fantasies about either one of them. My mistake. They became very attractive women, easy to talk with and imbued with sparkling personalities. I realized this 20 years ago and it was still true this year. Good solid conversations with each were highpoints of both get-togethers.
We met Friday night at Terp Palmer's house. Terp is one of three of us (I'm another) who still lives in Falls Church. And everyone agreed that Terp has changed the least of any of us -- still instantly recognizable to all of us.
We all wore name badges, with our high school yearbook photos attached, and that was a good thing. It was only with the help of such photos that I recognized several former classmates, and they me. Mike Morrison had come around a couple of years ago when he was running for Sheriff, and while he remembered me I could not place him then. Once I saw his high school photo, my memory clicked and I knew who he was -- or had once been.
All of us were in our late 50s -- 57, 58, 59 -- for some strange reason, and many of us had totally changed in appearance.
So had our school, which we toured Saturday afternoon. It was hard to find even an untouched spot in the hallways, and were those lockers always so narrow? Jon remembered more details (and teachers' names) than any of the rest of us. Enrollment hasn't changed much, but the school is three times larger. No one has classes in the gym or hallways any more.
Saturday night was the formal dinner, but it wasn't too formal and I had a chance to talk with others there. Jerry Olsen, whom I'd known since kindergarten days (and his mother was Denmother for our Cub Scouts group), laughed and said his teachers always said he had "great personality" before noting that his grades were just above failing. Corky Feagan was a university president, and still had the same hairdo she'd worn in high school. Jim Crooks -- class of 1955 -- sent a letter and photos of several of us in his old car, a 1939 Cadillac limousine. I loved to ride in that car.
The Heeters lived only a short block up 11th Street from me, and they bought their house in about 1942. Their son, known to his parents and family as Wayne, but to everyone else as Bob or Robert, was older than the handful of us kids who lived then in what was still a semi-rural area. At first we were afraid of him, but our choices were limited, so we made friends with him. I was four or five at that time, Bob six or seven. He Went To School. He was a Big Kid -- to us. In the years that followed he was my best friend. I had a bicycle, but hadn't yet learned to ride it (no one had training wheels in those days). When I started in first grade, there were no school buses; like everyone else, I walked the mile to school. But Bob started taking me to school on my bike, me riding the bar between the handlebar and the seat, "sidesaddle." We did this for most of that school year, before Bob finally grew tired of pedaling me everywhere. (I don't think he had his own bike then.) It was in late spring that he decided I needed to learn to ride my own bike, and set out to teach me. "I'll hold onto the back of the seat and run alongside while you get the hang of it," he said. This worked pretty well, and I managed to wobble successfully down 11th Street for half a block or so before asking him, "How'm I doing?" There was no answer, so I glanced back over my shoulder, to see him standing back at the beginning of the block, grinning, and shouting, "You're doing fine, Ted!" I made it to the end of the block safely but didn't negotiate the wide turn I attempted. Still, that got me started, and I rode my own bike from then on, except when we both wanted to go somewhere on it.
Bob was not only bigger, he was from his early childhood a very handsome boy, and a skilled athlete. We formed a brains/brawn combination. He kept me from getting beaten up, and I taught him all I knew about weighty topics like sex (I knew where babies came from). By the time we were both in our teens, Bob was chased by the most attractive girls in school, while I had only one date in high school. I envied and resented him for that, of course.
By mid-high school I'd found fandom and a whole new community, and we drifted apart, still friends. Bob quit school a couple of weeks before his class graduated, to join the Army. I didn't see him again until the next year, when he stopped by briefly. "Why'd you quit right before graduation?" I asked him. He gave me a slightly pitying smile and said, "Ted, I wasn't going to graduate." I was into jazz by then, and he raved to me about Stan Kenton, which I then rather condescendingly regarded as whitebread jazz.
I didn't see him again until this year.
His father died of cancer, at 92. Bob and his two sisters (attractive women who had been born when we were in our teens and disdainful of the "little brats") came back to see their father on his deathbed. When Bob arrived, his father squeezed his hand and died. The following Sunday Bob's mother held an open house in lieu of a funeral or formal services. I hugged her, greeted the sisters, and then found Bob.
He was as handsome as ever, looking 10 years younger than his real age, but no longer taller or bigger than I. He was delighted to see me, and we laughed and reminisced for as long as we could without being rude to the other guests.
Bob has lived an interesting life. He got his GED (high school equivalency) in the Army, and then went on to college, ending up with a degree in education. He then became a teacher, and, later, vice-principal in a nearby high school. "I enjoyed it until they put me in charge of enforcing discipline," he told me.
"That's ironic, considering how anti-authority you were as a kid," I commented.
He laughed. "And still am! But I knew where my problem kids were coming from." He and his then-wife decided to pull up stakes, quit their jobs, sell their house, and buy a boat to live on, down in the Florida keys. That sounded more like the Bob Heeter I knew. And, along the way, Bob had become a jazz drummer, playing and recording with, among other bands, The Airmen of Note.
"We ended up in the Virgin Islands, running a charter service. It was great -- lasted more'n 10 years -- until a hurricane wiped us out, destroyed the boat." Currently Bob lives in Florida, teaching again. He has, like me, grown kids in their 20, one of whom -- a daughter, almost Kit's age -- was with him. Also there was a nephew of his who looked amazingly like Bob as a teenager.
These two events, one week apart, really hit me hard in unexpected ways. It was great to renew acquaintances with childhood friends, 40 years later, but it was also disquieting. A major effect was to remind me of who I'd been 40 years ago. All of us related to each other in ways that had as their starting points the ways we'd related to each other as kids.
Some of us were confident and assured as teenagers. But I was not. My teens were stressful and full of unpleasantness -- thank ghod I discovered fandom when I did! -- and my self-image was not good. In the interim I've done a lot of growing up, and I did not enjoy the restimulation of my adolescent feelings and doubts.
Nonetheless, I'm really looking forward to our 50th class reunion, in 2006.
Return to the table of contents.
Previous article: The Corflu Reminder Box.
Next article: Apak Stat Box 2: Writers, by Victor M. Gonzalez.