1973 was a tumultuous year. The Watergate scandal was on everyone’s television set, Spiro T. Agnew resigned as Vice President, and the Yom Kippur War kept Middle East tensions in the forefront of the world’s attention.
In Beaumont, Texas, I played a lot of baseball and then started attending Joseph J. Vincent Middle School that autumn. The school used to be Forest Park High School, but a new Forest Park HS was opened in 1971, and the old one was converted for use as a middle school.
The biggest event for me that fall, however, was beginning my musical career. All of my brothers had been band members. Warren (the oldest) played flute and then tuba (an odd combination, yes?). Ted was a percussionist, and Mark played trombone.
Before we had moved from our house at 3185 Gilbert, my mother had gotten her teaching credentials and, as a graduation gift, my dad had gotten her an electric organ.
Ted went on to play guitar in a rock’n’roll band, and both he and Mark continued as avid amateur musicians. With this heritage, it was inconceivable that I should do something other than join the band and, quite honestly, I never considered any other option.
I chose the drums; my parents acquired a new Ludwig snare drum, and I started tapping on things.1 My band director, however, was a remarkable man named Don Knapp. He taught me the rudiments of drumming, some of which I remember to this day.2 If you’re not careful, you might learn about the diddle, the flam, the paradiddle, and the roll, not to mention the drag.3 There will be more about “Mr. Knapp,” as we called him, in a future chapter but, for now, let me just say that his introducing me to music is one of the greatest joys my life has known.
In 6th grade we “dressed out” for gym class, for the first time in my life. The school provided jock straps, shorts, and t-shirts (most of a uniform gray color) of the “one size fits none” variety. On my first day in gym class, one of the other kids pointed at my paunchy belly and laughed. For the remainder of my life, I was fat. The reality of my actual weight had nothing to do with it. At that point, I was perhaps 250 lbs lighter than I am today, and yet I was fat. I was always a “big kid,” even to the event of playing a defensive lineman on the 4th-grade football team when I was in the 3rd grade, but my body image had never been a source of humiliation before. I regret the incident, of course, but I’m not looking to blame someone else.
My interests have always leaned towards the introspective (music, poetry) and I’ve always felt blessed that I grew up in an era where I could pursue those interests and not have to work hard for a living. My parents, of course, grew up in the midst of the Great Depression as well as World War II, and tried to instill in me a respect for the value of hard work. I even spent a few summers doing hard work myself—working in a chemical plant, roofing houses—and that was enough to reinforce my desire to have a career that was both cerebral as well as air-conditioned. In reality, that incident was a minor episode compared to some of the other events of my middle-school years.
A very important event was, I think, being selected for the school district’s Honors program. Basically, those of us who were selected completed two years' worth of English, Science, and Math during our seventh-grade year, and started taking courses at least a year ahead of our classmates. In addition to the advanced coursework, it had the side effect of grouping me together with approximately 20 other people in the same situation, and that particular group shared a large number of courses in the following years. It led us to having a very close-knit relationship that lasted all the way through high school.4 My memories of this two-year period5 are disconnected and scattered. I’ll relate some anecdotes, in no particular order.
The boys' bathrooms at Joseph J. Vincent Middle School had urinals that consisted of a long, tin trough attached to the wall. The trough had water that was continuously running down its sides and out the drain. The idea, of course, was that the boys would like up along the trough, facing the wall, and relieve themselves. The troughs could probably accommodate a dozen or more boys each, and the bathrooms had at least two of them.
I’m sure the architects of this system felt that it would be much more efficient and cost-effective; whereas the troughs could hold a dozen boys each, there was probably only room for individual urinals to accommodate half that number.
Of course, boys will be boys, and there were numerous episodes where two boys would stand at the end of the trough to see who could pee the farthest. I don’t recall ever being one of the participants, but even the spectators found it amusing. There were variations on the game, of course. For example, the boys could stand at opposite ends of the trough and see if they could pee on each other.
My math teacher much preferred bass fishing to teaching. He was actually quite a good teacher, but we knew that every Monday would be spent reliving his fishing trip from the weekend before.6 During the finals that year, he announced that, if we happened to have a borderline grade (for example, an 88.5% average), he would give an additional point for each bag of rubber worms we brought in for him, up to a maximum of 10 points. Thus, for the cost of about $20.00, a student with a low B grade could ensure an A on his or her report card. I’m sure that such behavior would be reported on the nightly news today, but no one at that time seemed to think much of it, and the teacher had at least three dozen bags of worms on his desk by the last day of class.
The problem of evil
After playing Little League for a few years, I finally saved up enough money to purchase a top-of-the line baseball glove (specifically, a first baseman’s mitt). Very excited about my purchase, I took it to school to show my friends, and it was stolen from my locker even before lunch. My youthful optimism died that day, and I was never quite the same again.
The best science lesson ever
The year was spent on learning the scientific method, on understanding observation, comparison, and documentation. At the end of one semester, my science teacher announced that we would have a very simple oral exam as our final. No need to study, because we had been seeing the material ever since the first day of school. On the day of the exam, she had us stand outside the room and called us in one at a time. Then she asked us each three questions:
- What was the title of our textbook?
- What was on the brass plaque outside the main entrance to the school? and
- What was written in 2-foot-tall letters on the wall outside the cafeteria?
As an exam, it was one of the worst grades I ever received. As a lesson on the importance of observation and analysis, it stuck with me the rest of my life.
A bad habit that continues to this day. ↩︎
Drum rudiments are the basic strokes used for playing a drum. There are 40 standard ones, and the traditional method of teaching percussion involved learning, memorizing, and practicing all of them. “Modern” percussion has loosened up on some of these traditions and has altered the basic strokes to be more in conformance with what a drummer in a stage band would use rather than someone in a military band. ↩︎
It amuses me to no end that this page may end up in the search engine results for various pornographic queries. ↩︎
And beyond; I attended college with some of them, and I still keep in touch with a number of those friends. ↩︎
Like much of my life. ↩︎
The caricature of the drunken fishing outing does not play here. In Southeast Texas, bass fishing was approached with deadly seriousness. There was beer, of course, but everyone knew that the point of the trip was to catch fish. ↩︎