The summer went by too fast, but he was excited to get back to school. He liked buying new notebooks, pens, and pencils. His mom even bought him some flared pants that had become the latest fashion craze. This year he is in the fifth grade. The teacher’s name is Ms. Snell, but some kids have already started calling her Ms. Smell.
Being a teacher has got to be rough, he thinks when you have a strange or funny name.
He’s halfway through grade school and as his mom told him when school started, it’s all-downhill now. He’s not quite sure what “downhill” means but hopes it means something good and not something to do with the reports his teachers have been sending home to his mother.
Teachers tell his mother that he is a good listener, but that he’s a little lazy. Doesn’t pay attention enough in class. He learns the word daydream. He doesn’t always do his homework, but he’s good in reading, spelling, and social studies. He’s a voracious reader. On library day, he checks out four-five books. Likes to read biographies of Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, James Whitcomb Riley and George Washington Carver. The other kids laugh at him and call him a bookworm.
Poor in math.
Poor in science.
If you ask him, he can tell you a little about the USS Pueblo, Tet, Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Apollo 1.
The night he went to the carnival with the Sharpe boys was the night Bobby was assassinated.
He can’t add or subtract fractions though.
“He reads a lot Mrs. Miller,” one of his teachers tells his mom during a teacher-parent conference after school one day, “but he doesn’t pay attention in class. His mind wanders. He has the tendency to daydream.”
He can name all fifty states and capitals.
This past summer, he got to visit seven of those states when his grandparents took him on his first long vacation to Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. His grandfather wanted to go to South Carolina and visit Fort Jackson where he had been stationed in World War II.
They got to drive right on base after the MP’s manning the main gate asked his grandfather what was the nature of his business.
“I told him I had been stationed there during the war,” said his grandfather whenever he had the chance to tell his story. “Well, he took one look at me, probably thought I was someone important, nodded his head and then waved us right through.”
Of course, much had changed since 1944 and his grandfather had a hard time finding any familiar buildings. They drove around for almost thirty minutes trying to locate the barracks his grandfather had stayed in but it had been demolished. The only thing that hadn’t changed was that America was in another war. They passed hundreds of soldiers marching and running. Some were carrying M-16s. Maybe Danny Sharpe is here, he thinks.
He wonders if any of them will come home in flag draped coffins like the ones he sees on the evening news.
“This week in Vietnam, there were 25 killed and 100 wounded.”
He likes Archie comics.
Someday I am going to write to the Archie Fan Club he tells his friends.
“They pay five dollars for the best letter,” he tells Sam and Glenn one afternoon.
“Pay you five dollars?” Sam laughed. “In your dreams.”
The Cherry Coke comes in a tall, plastic glass that is scratched from months of use; the fries are served in this red and white checked cardboard tray. The fries are greasier than usual, but he doesn’t mind. Soon, they’ll be swimming in a pool of ketchup. Why is ketchup sometimes spelled catsup? He ponders this as he squeezes out the red sauce from a red bottle. He’s been doing that a lot these days: questioning everything.
He likes the simple things in life, like these red and yellow bottles: red for catsup, yellow for mustard.
He hears the door open and a group of seventh and eighth graders come in. They’ll take over a corner of the room before the noisier L-P freshmen and sophomores arrive.
Johnny Lucas, one of the eighth graders walks by his table and steals some of the boy’s French fries. Lucas’ friends laugh.
Bonnie intervenes before Lucas can take some more of his fries; she used to baby-sit him but he probably doesn’t remember or is embarrassed to admit it. Either way, he knows that Bonnie is not someone he wants to tangle with and plops down on a padded chair. The same kind of chair made at Spiller & Spiller, this furniture factory on Brunner Street in LaSalle, where the boy’s mom works the dayshift from 8-5
His mother bends tubes of steel on a machine called a “bender” into chair and table legs.
“You kids want something?” Bonnie asks.
The way she says “kids” puts them in their place, at least for now. She snaps her gum again. Loud enough to sound threatening.
A round of Cokes is ordered. Three orders of fries.
“Hey Jude” ends. There is a grating sound emitting from inside the jukebox as a mechanical arm is lowered to retrieve another record and place it on the turntable.
The next song is “Green Tambourine.” Good choice because Lucas and his friends like this one a lot. The single reaches Number 1 in 1968.
Another semi rumbles through town shaking the plate glass window. The boy looks up at the clock. 4:00. His mom will be home in another hour. She’ll be tired again and smelling of grease and oil. Tonight she has to work at the Holiday Inn. It’ll be pot pies or a TV Dinner again. That’s okay. She promised to order some fried chicken from the Mel Rose Tap on Saturday.
He finishes off the last of the fries, now coagulated with ketchup and takes a sip of the Cherry Coke. A bus from the high school passes outside. The high school kids will be in soon. They are always loud and a little rowdy. They won’t bother him but Lucas and his friends will have to be careful.
Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” begins to play.
He likes her voice. It sounds so sweet. Makes him think about two girls in his class, Janie and Debbie. They have sweet voices, too. He sits next to them in music class. They don’t seem to mind.
Those were the days.
We thought they’d never end.
We’d live the life that we’d choose.
Something like that.