Mr. Eberspecher was not always present, but I don’t blame him. What happened in shop class on that fateful day in the spring of my eighth-grade year of schooling could have happened to any teacher. Well, maybe not. The incident occurred during the last period of the day in a class called Enterprise, a concept concocted by teachers to encourage our junior high minds to think outside the box, long before it was touted as a common business practice. It was one of those phrases I came to resent for its overuse; I saw it as a feeble attempt to shake people from doing something by rote, then shift blame if it didn’t produce results. Opening books to copy sentences, for example. That was ‘by rote.’ What good it did? The jury’s still out.
The practice might have, with a sliver of effect, benefitted my own writing, but for the most part, all the sentence diagraming in Mrs. Harvey’s class, all the T crossing and I dotting only made my peers learn to hate our English language. Penmanship went out the door. Mrs. Haas’ typing class too, eventually reducing the instruction to keyboarding to keep pace with the advent and proliferation of personal computers. Talented fingers weren’t necessary though, because in my field I’ve witnessed news reporters getting the job done by tapping out stories with only their index fingers, sometimes faster my own nine digits. Funny how the left thumb sits idle and useless; I think of it as an anchor for my thoughts, like storing notes in the margins.
The Enterprise classes got our heads out of books. We met new heights with hands-on projects like homemade pin-hole cameras and rocket building because such activities taught us about processes. Most kids liked the Enterprise projects because they didn’t require homework, and gave us a reprieve from the pain of lugging heavy texts home in backpacks, for those of us fortunate enough to have one. There were other classes but these stand out.
Mr. Thompson, who taught us about photography, picked his nose incessantly when he thought no one was looking. We said it “grossed us out.” That was putting it mildly. How could a grown man continue with this juvenile habit, especially in front of kids who were chided for doing the same? Barbra (like Streisand) giggled when she saw him do it. He knew full well the jokes told behind his back, and occasionally in front of him. He seemed aloof or unbothered by our opinions, and continued with his lessons about timing our exposures, honing our senses to detect the finer shades of gray. Barb volunteered to model for me. One afternoon our class walked to the football field where we practiced using our pin-hole cameras; I was completely skeptical about any positive result, given the nature of the flimsy apparatus, which could be crumpled with one false move. Barb stood on the steps of the stadium flipping strands of her long blonde hair. She bore this nonchalant gaze proudly, which captivated a lot of boys. Ironically, her hazel eyes won them over. She had the elbows and knees of a birdlike frame, and could have easily graced the cover of Seventeen, but I thought she tried too hard.
I wondered about the attention she gave to me. Even if I liked her, there was no chance of us ever getting together in any intimate sense. I didn’t associate with the right people, a clique our classmates resentfully called ‘soshes’; yeah, just like the kids described in the ‘Outsiders.’ I was not one of them. Some of them thought well of me. I went out for football and wrestling but I was by no means at their level of rich and famous. I felt more comfortable sitting with the nerds at lunch. They were the fringe personalities, the ones who kept it real or were loners unabashedly confessing truths about their own struggles as teens – what they thought of school, their parents, and their peers. All the rest of our junior high experience was a blur of trying to fit in. The soshes couldn’t possibly think the right fashions could save us from our hormones, zits, changing voices, budding breasts, pubic hair, and smelly armpits.
A few of us seemed immune walking the hallways among the motley monsters with grace and dignity. Stacey. All I had to do was say her name and I’d fall into a dream-like trance, a lull, a mid-day siesta, audibly emitting sighs. Unlike Barb, who also fell into this category of untouchables, Stacey floated unscathed above the symptoms of adolescence. To a large extent, Barb did too. While Stacey embodied innocence, Barb moved like a wild child, throwing herself in front of the camera and at me, maneuvering herself to block me from any chance of immortalizing Stacey on film, and the images I really wanted to capture. I couldn’t escape this odd burning sensation down to my roots. Ah, Heaven.
Come time for developing our rolls of film, washing away emulsion, Barb was in nearly all the frames with Stacey in the background wearing a puzzled look. My 13-year-old brain had to sort through this odd behavior of girls vying for attention, acting like fools, trying to define cool. Mr. Thompson gave us instructions to pair up for the dark room. We laughed, not really knowing why. Perhaps the most obvious reason, he mentioned ‘dark’ and ‘room’ in the same sentence. Then of course, we were giddy by day’s end, trying to maintain control of our hormonal, overheated circuits. Mr. Thompson steadied us and lined us up by rows. Barb sat in the front row next to me. She smiled, as I recall, an awkward, crooked expression with eyes wide, and a bead of drool at the corner of her mouth after she licked her lips for fun, trying to get a rise out of me.
For a moment, I couldn’t think of anything else but being close to her in the semi-darkness of the tightly packed room, bathed in red light when it wasn’t pitch black. We’d be joined by our classmates but that didn’t take away from any of the thrill of accidently brushing up against her budding breasts or of wrapping my muscular boy arms around her small waist so she could position herself just right in front of the viewer. I helped her place the freshly minted negatives onto the tray, knowing she already knew the answers to my questions as she longed to hear my voice. She played the dumb blonde because she thought a girl having smarts scared guys away, some hollow wisdom laid on her by her drop-dead gorgeous older sister.
I did get a few good photos of her. Mr. Thompson used them as examples for filling the frame. I wanted to say, I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t get away from her. Barb was standing three feet in front of me the whole time. What I liked was catching her at a moment when she wasn’t trying so hard. Her look was saying “I like you,” not, “I’m desperate for attention.” The day was overcast near the end of a harsh winter heading into spring (my favorite time of year), wearing our puffy parkas, zippers undone, I liked her too. I stored a few prints of that image in a shoebox which has since been lost to numerous storage bins and finally the trash. The only memories I have now of that day stay in my head, and now grace these pages.
Who knows, maybe she recalls how mixed up those days seemed, too. A few more days was all we could stand with Mr. Thompson, and the nose picking encrusted sleeves of his neatly pressed button-down shirts. One of the stories which horrified us described wiping boogers on kids’ jackets hanging off classroom chairs, and eating other green globs with glee, so easily done in the dark room. After hearing these tales, I kept my distance from him, lest my mom wonder how snot was smeared on my own clothes while she did laundry.
During another class with Barb, one called ‘careers’ or some such indoctrination that would get us on our way to becoming productive citizens, we took tests and surveys, which magically determined our job interests. Mine pointed to architecture and interior design; the studies of such fields never came to fruition. I was dissuaded by an elder relative from following said interests. He claimed such jobs were drying up but never gave a reason. Maybe automation? The moral of the story here: Don’t give up on your dreams. Hence, I never discouraged my own students. The morning hour was led by either Mr. Bolander, whom we called Moses, for his likeness to Charlton Heston on the Mount, witness to God’s miracle of carving the Ten Commandments onto tablets of stone, or Ms. Burnham. Both counselors appeared on the verge of burnout, realizing the great energy it took to guide young souls. Ms. Burhnam had the look of sadness in her eyes, and often lost control of our small group, which seemed so desperate to get in touch with ourselves. Forget careers. Barb was more interested in getting in touch with me.
During fountain and restroom breaks, I found her in my face again, testing me on how tolerable I’d be to her fawning, and the weird offbeat way in which she said “hi,” by saying it like a drunkard, an elongated “haaaaaaaaiiiiii.” The rush of her exhale and perfume mixed together nearly bowled me over, like we were squeezed together by a milling crowd, too close together. I could smell her breath, close to knowing the brand of cereal she had that morning. Honeycombs, I asked, yet she wasn’t telling. She had breathed on me so often during class that I finally had to say, “stop” in my meek unassuming way. Taking a stand was not my forte. She brushed it off as cute. I found out the hard way that playing hard to get only gets a hormonal girl even more hormonal.
At one point, which she’d probably deny today, she grabbed me by the shoulders. I’d never been more afraid of a girl. Her face was inches away. If she had kissed me, I’m not sure what I would have done. All kinds of scandalous results reeled off before me like visions, a series of worst-case scenarios, all the way from getting punched out by her boyfriend to being forced to get married, standing at the altar; her father behind us with a loaded shotgun. Realistically, our lips touching, even accidentally, would have served only to stir rumors around our school for a few weeks, if that. So much can happen in a few hours, minutes and seconds, as they did with Barb.
The Enterprise program continued, next up was shop. Heading into the first few weeks of spring didn’t help matters much. Mr. Eberspecher stood outside the door of the shop leaving us to our own devices. Building our rockets took less time than our teacher had planned. So, we had a few free moments in which he expected us to work on assignments from other teachers. “Now’s the time to take advantage.” That’s all he would say.
At the final bell, Mr. Eberspecher allowed us to go through the garage door of the shop, happy to see the backs of our heads, and the steady stream of the other escaping students. We might have considered him one of us if not for his age. In a way, he was cool. He reminded me of an easy-going Saint Bernard, sauntering through the hallways, jowls hanging loose from an altogether drooping face, getting to know his students like long-lost friends, watching over them with engaging friendly eyes. He didn’t waste our time on gobble-dee-gook lectures, never spoke down to us or past us. He appeared disheveled and out of sorts from his brown mussed hair to the misbuttoned Navy-blue shop coat hanging over his plaid work shirts. Khaki Dockers pants and coffee stained boots completed an unkempt wardrobe that probably lived under piles of laundry on the floor of his bedroom whilst not on his pudgy body. He smoked too, probably not his only vice. There was a sharp tobacco odor hanging over him, and likely the reason he often left us alone.
On that fateful day, he could have been any number of places from the teachers’ lounge or in the classroom next door, where he often met with fellow industrial arts teacher Mr. Knott. Both were looking forward to the end of another school year. I sat at on a stool in front of a shop table with nothing better to do than twiddle my thumbs. We shot our rockets high into a clear blue sky over the junior high stadium several days before. Our week wound down in boredom.
Barb and Stacey sat in the row behind me. Barb couldn’t help herself, she had to poke me in the back to get me to turn around. Stacey showed interest too. Close to that time, we received our yearbooks; to my surprise, both agreed to sign mine. A poor pauper like me, all I had to do was ask. Barb scribbled the usual tripe, trying to sound cool. She remarked about all the fun we had in Enterprise and surviving Bolander’s diatribes on how we could improve our own lives if we took the time. Living in rural west Nebraska told us there wasn’t much to support his theories. She signed off with KIT which stood for Keep in Touch. Unexpectedly, Stacey wrote an honest message, I’d say even close to heartfelt. Using big looping cursive letters, she wanted me to know she “thought a lot about me.”
Knowing summer was on the horizon, all that was about to change. Barb wrenched my attention from my books, I didn’t mind. It helped pass the time. A rocket engine lay on the table in front of her. She rolled it back and forth while we talked about inane matters. She rambled on about how the school year sped by and what we would be when we finally grew up. Would I become an architect? She wanted to be like her older sister, lamenting household restrictions, and she wished she could be in high school already. Then our talk settled down to a more practical question that played out in a dare. She said, “I wonder what would happen if you stuck the two prongs of this rocket engine into an electric socket,” a row of which ran along a strip embedded into the shop table. One of our nearby classmates said, “I wouldn’t if I were you. It might not do anything, but you can’t be sure.”
Barb’s eyes lit up, which could have been read as cheery excitement or the ponderance of a menacing scheme. Danger, Will Robinson. She liked danger. In truth, she knew what the rocket would do. I however, stuck to the ulterior motive of impressing her by accepting her dare. My grip tightened around the rocket engine. As the idea settled in, I twirled it between my thumb and forefinger. A tingle spread the length of my arm. Oh, the possibilities.
The back and forth of a short debate ensued, while a few other classmates chimed in, eventually catching onto the hysteria of “do it, I dare you!” Someone yelled out, I double-dog dare you. I thought of ‘A Christmas Story’ and the irrefutable code held by the kids in that movie, a scary level of honoring beliefs. I knew there was no turning back at the double-dog level, and seeing the clock a few minutes away from striking midnight or in our junior high world, the final bell, I carefully placed the two prongs of the rocket engine into the electric socket… Nothing. A collective breath let out. “Maybe it was upside down,” Barb suggested. Maybe, I thought. I turned the engine around and tried the prongs again certain nothing would happen.
“What’s happening?” a short spectator asked from the back of the crowd clamoring to move in for a closer look. “I can’t see shit.” Some girls gasped at the four-letter exclamation, and duly scolded him. “No cussing” was their answer. A mere few seconds passed by. Their attention turned back to a hissing sound that began to build. I felt the heat between my fingers and let go. There was no way of holding the engine back… anyway. To me, it sounded like a 747 taking off; finally, the engine ignited, first slamming into the wall behind Barb where I thought it would die out.
Instead, it rebounded with more fuel to burn. Like a mad speeding bumble-bee it bounced off the ceiling, the cement floor and a few other distant surfaces in the shop, but not before leaving a cloud of smoke in its wake, too much for me to see Barb. I squinted, trying to find her through it all. Most of the smarter kids hit the deck, putting hands over heads to protect vital brain cells. I, like several others, stood in shock at the gravity of the situation. A burning feeling of embarrassment started at my feet. What had I done?
Finally, the smoke began to dissipate after someone hit the controls to the garage door to let in fresh air. Barb stood frozen against the wall, clutching her neck. I looked around and everyone else seemed to be OK. Then I saw the look on Stacey’s face. Disappointment. Heaven crumbled to the shop floor. The hero had fallen on his own sword. There would be no way I could redeem my actions, no matter what good deeds I might try for the rest of my public-school days.
Barb was helped by a few of our classmates to the nurse’s office. I sat on my stool, chagrined, waiting for the worst. Mr. Eberspecher returned. He motioned me with his hands to follow him through the exit. We stood outside, and he took a moment to light a cigarette. “You don’t mind,” he said, and wouldn’t have stopped even if I objected. I shook my head, confused. “You know what you did was wrong?” I nodded. He smirked, and kept a half smile on his face. “Well, you know, so I won’t lecture you,” he said. “Let’s go back in, and I need you to pretend like you got a butt chewing, OK?” He led me back into the shop with my head down. “Down the hallway,” he said, adding that he’d need to take me to the counselor’s office. Would it be Moses?
Mr. Bolander wanted to know how things were at home. They weren’t great, but I wasn’t going to tell him. The last thing I wanted to do was see my parents in the principal’s office. When I emerged from his office, we found a host of kids in the hallway, nearly an hour after the final bell. “All you kids need to go home,” Bolander demanded. Most of the kids ignored him. “What happened?” they asked, getting right to the point. What could I tell them they didn’t already hear from others? Barb appeared among a throng of her friends, including the guy she was ‘going with’ at the time. Rick appeared vaguely sympathetic and not the least bit angry, which boded well for avoiding probable fisticuffs in an adjacent alley. I’m not saying he would have been a pushover, but he was nearly skin and bones, and I was a budding jock. He probably decided the best course of action was to avoid the skirmish, save his hide and reputation, and appear more interested in Barb’s welfare.
In the end, almost everyone saw it as an accident. It could have happened to anyone, restating the rules of a double-dog dare. The white bandage on her neck resembled a revolutionary war battle wound. She paused in the hallway when our eyes met. I wanted to express my sorrow, and ended up asking if the wound was bad. She pulled back the gauze to reveal a rather ugly swollen burn. No broken skin, or blood, but it was going to leave a mean bruise, no worse than a hickey. Leave it to her closest friends for that bright-side assessment, more accurately described as hormonal humor.
Considering the context, the incident had an uncanny way of making my mark on junior high and girls, both. In the following days, I was given slaps on the back by classmates who thought I had the biggest balls, they never figured a quiet kid like me to have it in him. The story filled the gaps of boredom the last few weeks of school, I was a living legend… I was the Rocket Man.