Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Greetings from Form Four

I read a story online yesterday about A & P grocery stores declaring bankruptcy. I started reading it in Norwich, Connecticut but by the time I'd finished, I was seated in a tiny classroom on East 62nd Street in Manhattan nearly a lifetime earlier. Greg L. was at the desk in front of mine and to my right was George B.. To my left was one of the three floor to ceiling windows we had in the room, five stories up.

Our English Lit master, Mr. C., was also our homeroom teacher which, prior to first bell, was always bedlam. He wore what seemed to be the same wool grey-flecked suit everyday and smelled of too many cigarettes and had nicotine stained fingers.
We were the sort who don't know how little they know, making us both stupid and dangerous. Rumor had it that his unsteadiness was induced by alcohol. We all 'knew', though no one dared ask, to include the uppers or any of our parents, that Mr. C had been in "The War" (back then, the definitive article was reserved for WWII) and he had survived the Bataan Death March. We only thought we knew what that was.

My classmates, white, privileged, protected upper-class children and me, Roy O. and George, their middle-class mascots, watched Mr. C. warily as we waited for the bell to ring and the school day to begin. Most of us had seen him erupt with little provocation as he would began shrieking and keening in a high-pitched voice sitting absolutely rigid and straight-backed in the chair at his desk until, eventually, alerted by one of us running to the secretary's office, another faculty member would help him out of the classroom and take him around the block while a second colleague took over for him. One or the other of the two was always my father who was the lower school headmaster. I was a student on a faculty scholarship since we had no means to pay the tuition, however much it was, and I spent high school as an amiable leper, socially.

Decades later I met another man, a submarine Sailor, whose boat had been scuttled and was part of the crew captured by the Japanese. He had also survived the Bataan Death March. He didn't know my teacher but he told me stories that were far more horrible than any of those we had told one another all those years earlier. It made me realize what a horse's behind I had been to a man eaten alive by his own past.

Mr C. was a fan of John Updike and so we read all of the Rabbit Angstrom books so often all we were missing was a hutch (that was actually a Charlie H. joke, by the way). I enjoyed Updike's novels though it was his short stories that made me a fan and that has stayed with me throughout travels and travails up and down the East Coast and lands far away and very different with people who proved to be the same until the day when I had my own family and we came to live not far from Ipswich, Massachusetts from whence Rabbit Angstrom sprang.

The best day of all was the day we read A & P. My parents shopped in an A & P when we lived on Bloomfield Avenue in Franklin Township, near the Kilmer Pharmacy that reminds me of the one our daughter, Michelle, works in now down the street from our house. Someday, like the A&P fighting for its life, the small shops for neighborhood people will disappear and everything will be from online or a big box and we'll feel terrible but we will have done this to ourselves. And children will wonder what the point of the story was supposed to be without ever realizing the point was in the telling.

I thought of all of that, but especially the importance of the telling. Sara J shared some weeks ago a marvelous piece by Stephen Fry on Soundsex. In that same spirit I remembered a spectacular turn of phrase from that short story on a day so long ago "it just having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known were there." Half a life later, it still causes me to hold my breath in admiration, envy and despair.
-bill kenny

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