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By Dave Ruckert… I was a nerd in high school, so I didn’t do all the transcendentally wonderful things I imagined the cool kids were doing. For example, we Math/Science Club members’ idea of entertainment of an evening was to drop a rock from a speeding car while an observer tried to see if the rock dropped straight down or continued moving forward as it dropped. The results were indeterminate. Our math teacher, Mr. Stevenson, a distinguished, gray-haired man in a suit and tie, was the first teacher to call me Mr. Ruckert.
I had an afternoon class in the old building, and I loved it. There was something grown up about having to go outside and get to another building. My first school was a one room schoolhouse for all 12 grades in Cumberland Foreside, ME. Since I was youngest, the teacher came to me and said, “Draw apples!”, which I did all day. (Suzanne has one of my apples hanging in our kitchen, along with kindergarten apples from our two granddaughters.) The old Staples building classrooms reminded me of that one-room schoolhouse in Maine.
My best friend in high school was Walt Soderlund. Walt and Lou Sabelia (class of ’54, I think) would swing by in Lou’s father’s new Chevy—a turquoise and white beauty, and we would cruise streets trying to pick up girls. It never worked. But one night in Danbury, two black girls did get in the car. I was too naïve to grasp it, but Walt knew right away they were Ladies of the Evening. We created quite a stir when we stopped for gas, with two guys wiping our windshield and one the rear window. Of course, we had no idea what to do with the women, so we simply took them where they wanted to go. They skipped away from the car, giggling…
We went to the Danbury dirt track stock car races Saturday nights, wearing satiny racing jackets with our names on them, watching guys swing the wheels right in order to turn left. The first night my father lent me his truck for the occasion, it screeched to a smoky, smelly stop on Route 7 on the way home. I had left the emergency brake on. Fortunately it was midnight and there were no other cars around. I don’t think father ever found out. We also drove to Langhorne, PA, to see a NASCAR race, where Lee Petty was driving, father of Richard, grandfather of Kyle. We saw the midget cars on an indoor track in Bridgeport. Below my yearbook picture, it reads: “Secret desire to accelerate [excel?] in stock car races.” And my father thought I had no ambition…!
Another high school friend was Orrin MacLeod, who lived close to us on Manitou Road near the Longshore Country Club. Orrin was a year older, so he got his license before I did and would drive me to school in his old Plymouth coupe. One day a minor fender bender revealed that the back of the Plymouth was made of paper-mache. Orrin lost respect for the car after that. And so when passing the steel “Go School Slow” sign in the middle of the road by Saugatuck Elementary, Orrin would swerve abruptly left, smack the sign with his fender, knocking it across the street, and calmly drive on.
When his parents left on a trip, Orrin threw a fantastic three-day party at his house. Living close by it was easy for me to drift in and out. I had the impression some of the other revelers stayed the whole three days.
Walt, Orrin and I had a magical spring break week in Vermont at my father’s hunting cabin (shack, really). We sang Hank Williams tunes to Walt’s guitar and cooked over a fire and bathed in the Connecticut River. The indelible memory from this trip, aside from the stunning beauty who sold oil and coal at her father’s place in a nearby town, is the three of us in the middle of the night chasing a hungry porcupine in wild circles, brandishing sticks and flashlights in the pouring rain in our underwear! A scene straight out of the Three Stooges…
Orrin joined the Marines after high school and visited me one summer when I was in Dallas, between semesters at the Missouri School of Journalism. We went bar hopping but got separated in the wee hours after Orrin met a buxom southern belle. The next day he called from a Dallas jail. I went down and talked with him through a steel slit in a wall. He was his jovial old self, extremely pleased to have a cellmate who was an expert at cracking safes. That was the last time I ever saw him. The Marines freed him and flew him back to Quantico, where punishment could not have been pleasant.
Orrin’s father was an executive with Standard Oil who had high ambitions for his son, but Orrin was very much his own man and left the Marines to become a baggage handler at Washington’s National Airport. Despite being handsome and charming (I remember girls fluttering around him in the halls at Staples), he never married. When he died, nearly blind, he left a million dollars to a society that provides audio books for blind people. [Ed. See In the News article here.]
I’ve always loved music. Walt and I went to see Ernest Tubb in an upstate New York dive. Ernest wore a bright red suit with huge green pine trees on it. We went to New York City, where we were refused a hotel room because of a New York law that prohibited two men from staying in the same room together (didn’t you love the 50’s?). We wanted to see jazz on fabled 52nd street, but the 40’s jazz scene of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis had disintegrated into low-life strip clubs. Yes, we stayed, watching pudgy gals who had been around the track a few times bump and grind to a blaring sax while we downed 7 and 7s (I was 16 and looked 12 but it didn’t matter…).
The musical experience highlight of my Staples years was when my mother, a saint, took me to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to see Big Joe Turner and an all-star R&B revue. We were the only two white people in the place. Joe’s lyrics on record are fairly risqué, but live—the songs were outrageously raunchy. Mother and I kept our eyes straight ahead and didn’t talk of it later.
I’m a lifelong Pittsburgh Pirates fan, and mother also took me to see Pirates games at the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field. The Pirates were awful during the Staples years; a movie called “Angels in the Outfield” came out in 1953 where angels helped hapless Pirate players catch the ball. (I still follow the Pirates daily, on MLB.com on my iPhone, and I drag Suzanne to see them each summer when they come to San Diego. It’s a sickness.)
I acquired a gunmetal gray 1936 Packard with a slipping clutch for $50 and took Rose Doino on a movie date. We had a flat tire, and Rose, God bless her, stood in the rain as I rushed to change it. Rose doubtlessly would be horrified to know that the next day, the tire flew off the car and rolled across South Compo Road, narrowly missing a kid on a bike. The cops came and refused to believe I was old enough to drive.
I had a crush on Shirley Dexter in high school, but her boyfriend was one of the cool guys so I never even talked to her. Just like in junior high, when I had a crush on Francine Caldwell, but she moved to California and I never talked to her, either. Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl…
I was a pretty good softball player. I remember Don Von being furious at me for repeatedly catching his towering fly balls. I tried out for the Staples baseball team and struck out on three pitches. They offered me the job as “Manager”. Turned out the manager is the guy who schleps the bats and balls to and from the games.
I wistfully remember sitting around a fire all night on Compo Beach after the prom, sparks lifting lazily into a clear night sky as we contemplated the wondrous and scary prospects of life after Staples—just like a scene out of American Graffiti.
In those days I drove a truck for Westport Lumber Supply in the summers, and fellow driver Joe fixed me up with an ID that said I was 24. It rarely worked because I looked so young. Once, after a night when it worked rather too well, I tiptoed into the house trying not to wake my parents. Instead, I fell head over heels over a laundry basket mother had left in the hall, making enough noise to wake the entire neighborhood.
Joe also tried to fix my virginity problem, hooking me up with a young lady of questionable morals (from Bridgeport, not Westport). This turned into another catastrophe, as a police searchlight flooded the car shortly after I parked and a loudspeaker instructed us to go home, which we did.
That particular problem was resolved without Joe’s help the next year at UConn, when I was 18. To borrow from the title of Thomas Pynchon’s book of stories from his Cornell years, some people are just slow learners…