October 9, 2014
By Michael A. Calvert
“Why can’t you be on the Honor Roll like your buddy Mike here?” Joe Humphery’s dad asked him as Joe put his arms into the sleeves of an Ohio State sweatshirt. I stared down at the laces on the football I was tossing from one hand to the other, but I saw Joe squint at me beneath lowered eyebrows before he pulled the sweatshirt over his head.
“My grades are OK,” Joe said as he walked out the door ahead of me to play “keep away” with me and the kid next door.
Mrs. Mowry, our third grade teacher at St. Leo’s, often called me to the blackboard first to work multiplication and long division problems. When Joe and other classmates who followed made errors or stood there stumped, Mrs. Mowry would have me explain the problem to my classmate in front of the class. Girls glared at me, and I stared right back at them, but when my buddies gave me hard looks, I focused on my shoes.
On the gravel playground, Joe and I often raced to the last open swing, but I always let him have it. I grabbed the next one in a few minutes, and we pumped in tandem to get higher than the crossbar. My stomach turned when the chains went slack at the top of our arc, but I was determined to keep up with Joe.
Throwing and catching footballs and baseballs did not come to me as easily as reading and writing. Smaller and slower than most of my classmates, I hustled to get to the ball and attempted hopeless diving catches. I kept up a chatter of encouragement, and shouted, “Way to go!” even when a teammate made a routine play. I worked at being a team player.
I helped Joe fill in his arithmetic and spelling workbooks after school. When trash cans had to be taken out to the curb at his apartment, I carried one while he carried the other. Joe never made the Honor Roll, but I remained his best buddy.
In the middle of the third grade, my family moved to a new house in Amvet Village, a subdivision with houses still under construction. Our new parish, St. Gabriel’s, had built a church, but not a school. I rode a bus with my neighbors Ronnie, Bernie and Mike to St. Augustine. I hardly noticed the girls on the bus.
We watched our school rise next to the church as we passed by on the bus during the fourth grade. A skeleton of steel girders and cement block walls took the shape of an extended rectangle with the narrow side facing the street. When construction of the low, one-story structure was completed, the front entrance opened on a central hall flanked by classrooms except for the principal’s office near the front door. Casement windows between brick columns formed the classroom walls.
Joey and Dick joined Ronnie, Mike and Bernie in the fifth grade at St. Gabriel. After school, we nursed cherry cokes at the soda fountain at Lynn Drugs until the ice had melted and the fizz was gone. The last booth became our domain. We debated whether Notre Dame could beat Ohio State, whether the new Fords were better looking than the new Chevys, whether Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was was cooler than Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lot of Shaking Going On” and much more. We were all about discussion, not at all about conclusions.
Everyone but Dick gravitated toward Joey’s straightforward opinions which reflected his self-confidence and popularity. Dick argued with Joey although he craved Joey’s approval. Perversely Joey ridiculed Dick’s ideas, and other guys piled on. I always affirmed my support for Joey’s position, but I conceded some of Dick’s points and offered some additional thoughts. Over the course of an afternoon, everyone evolved to views close to mine on Saturday’s football games, the new car models, and the songs likely to move up the Top Forty chart.
One afternoon, after the manger had asked us to keep it down for the second time and the waitress had collected our glasses, we ambled out and decided to walk to our new school to kill time. Joey had to go home. As we walked outside the classroom windows, no one spoke. Perhaps the silence resulted from Joey’s absence or maybe everyone was talked out. Eventually Bernie said to no one in particular, “I’ll bet I could climb onto that roof.”
“Bullshit! You’re full of shit,” said Dick, and he added, “Let’s see you do it, then.” A raucous chorus of taunts ensued.
Bernie stepped to the building, grabbed a drain pipe with both hands and began to walk up the brick column with his tennis shoes, moving his hands up the pipe as he ascended to the roof. After he heaved himself onto the roof and stood above us with his hands on his hips, he peered down at us and said, “OK, all you goddamn wise guys. Let’s see if any of you assholes have got the guts to do it.”
While the others stood motionless and craned their necks to look up at Bernie, I grasped the pipe and soon joined Bernie on the roof jeering at our buddies.
“It was a dumb ass thing to do anyway,” Dick said. Ronnie and Mike agreed. Ronnie said, “If you’re so damn brave, let’s see you jump.” Dick and Mike loudly concurred.
I was already thinking about how hard it would be to get from the roof onto the drain pipe to get down when I heard Bernie shout, “Stand back, assholes.” He leaped out with his arms raised high. He hit the grass and rolled, laughing as he got to his feet.
I was not laughing. I forced a grin, squatted as low as I could and pushed off. When I found that I was able to stand up after landing and rolling on the grass, I didn’t have to force laughter. I was jubilant that I had survived. Bernie took my hand and raised it like a referee proclaiming the winner of a prizefight. No flash bulbs were popping, but we smiled proudly. Pretty god-damned brave for an Honor Roll student, I thought.