Over the years, my father acquired a thirst for knowledge. He was a voracious reader, devouring every issue of twenty-odd years of National Geographic. Anything that dealt with history, geography, science – these were his loves, and he could recall nearly everything he had ever read on a subject.
I suppose it was natural enough that he would want to see his son and daughter share his appetite for learning. That may have been part of the reason he would become so livid when I brought home report cards that honestly reflected my level of effort. I remember when he once asked me how anybody with a sound body, and a presumably sound mind could manage to get an ‘F’ in Physical Education. I wisely refrained from telling him how easy it had been.
After a number of report cards, indicating little or no effort in one subject or another, he pointed out to me that I was failing in the same classes in which I was receiving low conduct marks. This didn’t seem to me to be an earthshaking discovery, but it seemed to hold great significance to him. He further pointed out that I was failing because I was the class clown, and that I was clowning around because it was fun. He paused to let this sink in, and I thought to myself that so far, he hadn’t told me anything I didn’t already know. Then he informed me that he had a solution. I began to get a nervous itch on the back of my neck. He said he would simply take the fun out of it. This had an ominous sound to it, and my neck now itched furiously. He asked me if I knew how he was going to do that. I thought that if I knew that, I wouldn’t feel as though a doberman were gnawing my head from my shoulders. The he dropped the bomb! He said that he hadn’t decided on the method yet, but that I could be sure of three things: It wouldn’t be fun, I wouldn’t like it, and my grades would improve dramatically.
I hated it when he did that. Now the doberman had left my neck, and was devouring my stomach from the inside.
He never got around to telling me his plan, although, from time to time, he would implement one remedy or another that lived up to at least 2/3 of his description. The problem is, my grades rarely improved appreciably.
Most of my most serious conduct problems arose in my 10th and 11th grade Spanish class. I had the same teacher both years, Mr. Berger Berlenstein. “Bergie”, as we called him, was nearly 7 feet tall, weighed in at around 120 lbs., and spoke with a very thick German accent. He was Jewish, and had been imprisoned for 2 years by the Gestapo, suffering sufficient injuries to necessitate wearing a colostomy bag, which we, being the unfeeling, ignorant teenagers we were, found very amusing.
Two of us in the 11th grade class were inveterate clowns, and led the class in disrupting every effort by Bergie to steer us in a constructive direction. As we moved from spit-wads and paper airplanes to what we saw as bigger and better things, we were often guests of the vice-principal.
When my brother in law had returned from Army A.I.T. school, he had brought home some purloined training devices used on the obstacle course. He gave me several of these, with a passing warning to ‘be careful’. The smaller of these devices, he called a “whistler”. When tripped, it emitted a shrill, descending whistle, like the falling bombs of WWII. The second and larger one, did the same, only much louder, and ended with a substantial bang. Both came in boxes with trip wire, nails, springs, everything you needed, except common sense.
A week or so after I acquired these goodies, it dawned on me that someone that had lived through a World War might be inclined to “hit the dirt” if suddenly faced with the sound of a falling bomb. So my partner in crime and I carefully planned the execution of our greatest disruption.
After class began, I raised my hand to be excused to go to the restroom. When I returned, before entering the room, I affixed my booby trap (the larger one, of course) to the outside of the door, wrapping the trip wire around the outside knob as I entered. I quickly took my seat, waiting for the show, but seconds passed and nothing happened. We decided that I had closed the door too slowly, and that what we needed was to have somebody open the door sharply in order to properly trip our surprise.
My buddy sat near the door, so he reached over and knocked sharply. Bergie turned from the board, and called out “Come in”. Obviously, nobody did, so he went back to his board-work. Another knock and this time, an impatient “Come in!” After a few seconds with no response, he stalked to the door, yanked it open, and as predicted, when the whistle began, he threw himself back inside, knocking my cohort’s desk over.
What happened next surprised us as much as him. My brother in law had described the larger devices as “bangers”, but had only given me two of them, so I had not yet tested them. If that is what he called a “banger”, I‘d hate to see what he might consider a “boomer”!
When the thing finished whistling, it immediately removed the door from its frame, and planted Bergie on top of us. Then, the door landed on top of him. In addition, all fourteen windows of the library across the corridor scattered themselves throughout the library. When the dust had cleared, we landed in the back seat of a police car, with expulsions promised in short order. Later that evening, when my father got home from work, I landed between the TV set and the piano… twice.
Our expulsions were reduced to 3 day suspensions, and we were allowed to pay for the damages. $758 worth! Fortunately, nobody was injured, and no charges were pressed. A couple of days after we came back to school, I sought out Mr. Berlenstein to apologize. I recall being truly shocked that he wasn’t in the least bit interested in me or my apology. It was nearly three years later when I offered that apology again, and he finally accepted it, graciously. It felt like someone had lifted a weight from my shoulders. I wish I could have lifted the weight from his shoulders as easily.
There are a few things I have done in my life, which I truly regret. Tormenting that man, that had survived so much in his lifetime, is high on the list.