In fall 1967, after our one-room schoolhouse closed, most of my former schoolmates and I found ourselves on the schoolbus, headed for DeKalb County’s public schools. As of a year or two earlier, the graduating eighth-graders were no longer going to Ashley for high school; there was now a new consolidated high school, absorbing most of the county’s school districts, over between Waterloo and Auburn. Ashley had now become the junior high school for our corner of the county, and Fairfield Center remained the local elementary school. As a new seventh-grader, I was headed for Ashley.
I was not necessarily well-prepared for public junior high school. For one thing, I got knocked around a bit. At Zion, the one-room schoolhouse, everybody knew that you were not supposed to hit other kids in a way that would hurt them. You could punch on the shoulder, but never in the stomach or on the face. There were very few breaches of that rule. One time, Pete Spornhauer freaked me out when he made a move as if to punch my nose; but I got over it after reflecting that this was probably due to the influence of his father, a former Golden Gloves boxer. Another time, Kim Casselman kicked me in the balls during a round of steal-the-bacon. But Kim also liked to draw male genitalia on the blackboard, dressed up to look like flowers and leaves, so there were evidently some exceptional circumstances there too. Whatever. Point is, at Ashley I quickly found myself slapped silly by Steve Berryhill, and would have experienced the same from Leonard Kott, but for the intervention of Danny Haifley; Greg Pitts tossed me over his shoulder, ripping my shirt and getting himself a whacking from Leland Fee, the principal; one of the big girls, Debbie Smolek, would apparently have kicked my butt if I hadn’t defended myself with my pencil; and so forth. It wasn’t a pretty situation. The only kid I beat up was Chuck Martz, and in that case we both wound up crying. What can I say? I was a lover, not a fighter.
Not that I was actually much of a lover, either. I did have a crush on Debbie Cox in the first grade, but that got me into trouble. I should have pursued Debbie Hasselman but didn’t; first of many boats missed. I made out with Linda Lowe in the back of Ashley’s basketball team bus, coming back from an Away game in which I did manage not to get completely run over by the big boys; I also managed to break Colleen Botset’s heart, on the day when I went steady with her and then changed my mind; but for the most part Ashley was not a scene for romance in my life. It would have been very different if Debbie Warner had felt the love for me that I long nursed for her, but she was too busy trying to choose between Bill Wilhelm and Craig Gramling and maybe some others. Compared to those Romeos, I was just a skinny runt. My folks were often willing to haul a station wagon full of kids to the Silvermoon Roller Rink (over by DeKalb High) where they, themselves, had met, and I did get some kiss-and-fondle action there. But I was highly virginal, and would remain so until age 22.
That was probably just as well, for academic purposes. Given the fascination that women would have for me at that advanced age, I speculate that they might have completely distracted me from my studies during my formative years. Instead, I was free to read all of the books in the one-room schoolhouse (except for the dictionary and, I think, a set of encyclopedias). I assumed I should do the same thing at Ashley, and I began that process, but I stopped when kids on the schoolbus laughed at the stuff I was bringing home. Generally speaking, I was overprepared for Ashley. Mr. Metzger, the math teacher, asked Curt Hartman and me how we managed to see patterns in logarithmic tables. Or something like that. I forget what we did, exactly, but somehow we impressed him. I’m sure I irritated other teachers by writing sarcastic and nonsensical answers to exam questions, when I felt the questions were too stupid for words.
Fortunately for my teachers, I soon fell in with rowdy and troublemaking boys, and began to develop the criminal side of my existence. I was never their match in shoplifting; indeed, I am the only person I have ever met who got caught trying to steal a bottle of vitamins. Life might have turned out very differently if I had failed to persuade the drugstore proprietor, intent upon dragging me next door to the police station, that the vitamins were actually for my mother. Sobering experience, that. I hung out with those kids on through the first two years of high school, and got into some scrapes, but never graduated to the level of those who were already shopping in the store that they referred to as Midnight Auto Parts. I remember one of them telling me, for instance, of a time when the cops showed up with dogs, late one night, at the dealership where he was under a car, trying to steal a transmission. He said he crawled up into a space around the rear axle to avoid detection. He was a tale teller, but cars were big enough then that I could believe it. Others were getting visits from the police; one or two had already been in juvenile hall. One, overdeveloped for his age, was having sex with his stepmother. He would masturbate in the back row of Mr. Lockamire’s science class, and then try to get other boys to eat the output. Talk about Deliverance.
One of the three boys I spent most of my time with did wind up with a criminal record, but that was the least of his worries: he was later nearly killed in an alcohol-influenced car wreck that gave him permanent brain damage and left him semi-incapacitated. A second one also got brain damage in a car wreck, but that was different: it was an attempted suicide.
The third of those three was Rodney Diehl. He died of testicular cancer at age 40. Rodney was just a farmer’s son, but he was hilarious, in a physical way. His room was always a maze of wires and gizmos, linked in novel and creative connections. His idea of fun was to tie a disk sled behind his snowmobile and persuade Dale Stackhouse to climb onto the sled — and then take off through the woods. (We will not speak of his experiment involving me and Fuzzy, his big, mean German shepherd.) Rodney is the only guy I ever knew who tried enduro riding with a Harley dresser — you know, one of those huge, pristine motorcycles with all kinds of windshields and saddlebags hanging all over them. One time, Rodney stole a lawn mower and decided that it would be useful for making trails through the woods. I went over to visit, followed the noise, and sure enough, there he was, trying to cut down tree seedlings. That mower didn’t survive very long. He and I used to scrounge through garbage dumps, looking for aerosol cans to throw into fires for the explosions. One such can gave us more than we bargained for. It was nearly full of some kind of flammable sheep de-worming substance. When it went off, it set our tree house on fire. Rodney was the driver of the tractor — hotwired from Stackhouse’s farm, one day when they weren’t home — that rolled over on top of me, up on Highway 327 near Helmer. The plan on that occasion was just that Rodney was going to crank the tractor’s big lug tires back and forth, to tear up the soft tar of the highway on that hot summer day. Imagine our surprise, however, when the wheel locked in an extreme right turn. The tractor did a one-eighty, hit a barn, and bounced back. As it was rolling over, I cast my gaze across the driver’s seat, only to behold — no Rodney! He had jumped. I held on tight and, by some miracle, did not get crushed by either the tire on my left or the driver’s seat on my right, both smashed flat into the ground. Did have my shirt fall apart from battery acid, though: the battery was under the seat, and I remember looking straight up at it when the crashing and scraping stopped.
The criminal mischief came to a rapid end in fall 1971, when my idle musing about religious matters (and, lately, my reading of the Psalms) ran up against the Jesus Movement. Before long, I was witnessing about Jesus to my bemused DeKalb High classmates. Dusting off my academic inclinations, I found myself deep in Bible study and discussion. Thanks to our prayer group and other distractions, I thus progressed directly from having no interest in high school academics due to troublemaking, to having no interest in high school academics due to religion. I still remember the shock on the face of a woman in the principal’s office, one time when she reviewed my transcript after I had been hauled in for something. “Why, these are all As and Bs!” she exclaimed. I did do enough homework to get by; my grade school preparation hadn’t completely deserted me; but I had little clue what all those “Soc” (pronounced sosh, short for society) kids were doing – the Thespian League and the Forensic Society and the Jaycees and Junior Achievement and all that. I guess I was more in the Farmer clique.
I went back to DeKalb High in summer 2011. I wanted to take a stroll around inside and reminisce. I quickly found that some things hadn’t changed: there was still some dumbass administrator with a surly attitude. Just like 1973! On this occasion, he informed me that I was not allowed to wander. So I didn’t. I did peek in some windows, though, and saw that they seemed to be using the same kinds of chairs and tables (possibly the very same chairs and tables) that we had used so long ago. I remembered the football and basketball games and the dances, like the one where Arlene Sebert did her best to teach me to actually dance, basically overwhelming me with how good she smelled and felt. I recalled some of the teachers, doing their best to try to reach kids like me. It wasn’t a bad place. And yet, when graduation day came, I climbed into my car – actually, my brother’s car; he had gotten roped into making sure I had a steady supply of wheels – and I drove away; and as I went, I had this odd feeling, like, “Well, that’s that.” It felt empty. Four years had passed, and it felt (indeed, it turned out) that I would never see most of those people again.
There are some epilogues, though. One has to do with former classmates at DeKalb who have worked hard to arrange reunions over the years. The current group, led by Steve Hampshire, seems to be doing a great job. Some of my fellow students have died – including one, Phil Drerup, whom I wish I had talked to, when I saw him at the last reunion I attended, back in 1988. Some have gone missing, by choice or otherwise. I am in touch with a few. There is some potential that I will be in touch with others, and may even attend another reunion sometime, if schedules work out. It still feels empty, but it is a small emptiness now, within a much bigger context.
Another epilogue has to do with the old Christian group. I am still in touch with a few of my former prayer buddies, including Rosie Drerup (now in Texas), and I wish I could find others. The old Silvermoon Roller Rink is long gone, but I have visited what used to be Ashley Junior High (now replaced by a consolidated junior high), and in 2011-2012 I did some bicycling around the old roads and contacted a few of the old friends. I even went to the Auburn County Fair – although now, for some reason, it was no longer sparkly and exciting; it felt rather drab and poor. Maybe it was always like that, and I was just not equipped to see it, or maybe the times were reflecting the decline of the Rust Belt and the Great Recession, neither of which was remotely on our horizons in the early 1970s.
If I had high school to do over again, I am sure I would get involved with a bunch of those Soc activities. I would stick with the gymnastics team, or something else, despite my lack of obvious talent. There were really a lot of opportunities, and they didn’t have to seem so remote from me. I would surely date girls, which I didn’t do except for a trip to see Godspell with Helen Geary and a few makeout sessions with one or two of the young Christian women. To my detriment in some ways, I probably wouldn’t invest so much time with crazy/funny people like Rodney; I think I’d be too busy trying to learn about law school and other career possibilities, so as to make wiser and better-informed career decisions on down the line.
But that’s the way it goes. From high school, after a summer as a night watchman and drill press operator, I went on to college and other things.