THE YEAR WAS 1979. I think the local police force must have finally admitted drugs were a force to be reckoned with in my hometown. Now, understand, I had spent twelve very enlightening years enjoying the many pleasures of daily existence sitting under the learned tutelage of the esteemed educators of my local ISD. I knew what was going on in the high school.
Yes, I said the high school. Back when I attended, you could shake two sticks together and call all the seniors to lunch. The student parking lot was just that, one square parking lot, and the teachers’ lot consisted of a few rows of painted stripes outside one of the school’s front doors.
I know they must have had drug dogs back then, but, well, we never seemed to see them. The giveaway should have been the cars in the parking lot filled with more students than you could cram into a classroom. The only thing was, I guess no one could tell how many students were in the cars due to the white smoke . . . er, fog filling the interiors and seeping from any gaps in the cars’ door gaskets. Dead giveaway, I should think. But then, that was the seventies, an age of innocence for many small-town police forces.
I think 1979 must have been the year the drug dogs were introduced. The use of these magnificent tools surely located stash upon stash of long-forgotten drugs that were conveniently dropped into the local water supply. How else would I have signed that contract? I got a phone call from the local school district superintendent. Now, it was only spring, and I didn’t have a college degree in hand yet. But this phone call, it was asking me to stop by the school district’s office.
It was 1979, remember, and I had graduated the local high school only three years earlier either twelfth or thirteenth in my class. Did I mention those drug dogs? Maybe it was eighteenth. A national magazine I read reported that college freshmen tend to remember themselves as better than they really were in high school. After thirty-five years . . . I like twelfth or thirteenth. Anyway, that either tells how smart I was or how much time all the other students had spent pureeing their brains in those smoke-filled cars in the parking lot. I would have had that degree and probably a nice lucrative job somewhere when that phone call plunged me into insanity, if I hadn’t taken a semester off from my university to travel eastern Canada one summer. I guess the quivering excitement of a twenty-one-year-old without a college degree being offered a contract was too much for my teeny brain to turn down. That plus the drug dogs.
I did know the superintendent’s son. And his wife. And his dog. But none of that should have made any difference. I’m certain I know the real reason I signed that contract, and it had nothing to do with wrapping up my university work in three years, cum laude at that. It wasn’t even that I had an employment offer on the table before I had my degree in hand. Honest to God, it wasn’t even knowing the big boss’s family.
It was those despicable drug dogs.
Drug dogs, you ask. How do drug dogs screw up a person’s life? Well . . . I have this theory. This is only a theory, you must understand. But that contract. I signed it. For fourth grade. Fourth grade? I hadn’t baby-sat before. That contract alone could propel my theory into the undisputed realm of scientific fact. I had a piece of paper with my name next to the superintendent’s name, committing me to teach a fourth-grade class for the 1979-1980 school year, in a school that wasn’t built, and which wasn’t scheduled to be completed in time for the school year to start in September.
September? Yes, you heard me right. September. Remember 1979? Rules were different back then. The moon traversed the sky at night and the sun by day . . . except when walking through the student parking lot at the high school. Then, all bets were off, all that smoke wafting from those cars and all. But, back to those rules. In 1979, time flowed normally. School started after Labor Day, we got two weeks for Christmas (not a “holiday” break), and the idea of a Spring Break was naught but a gleam in some rich district’s eye. We had school.
Now, back to those drug dogs. I know what happened to all those drugs found at the high school. Today, finding an excellent stash of drugs might mean the local law enforcement team goes off-line for a weekend or two, the evidence burned up in a cloud of white smoke, the evidence seeping from the back of the station house. Not in 1979. Not in my hometown. We had a lake.
Our lake, the one whose shores are graced by my hometown, is the only lake in the entire Southwest lighted for night sailing. At least, when I had my sailboat, it was the only one lighted at that time. I don’t think that has changed, though.
I loved that sailboat. Everyone thought I was the stupid one when I owned that boat. I wasn’t considered stupid for buying the boat; they just thought I was stupid. Perhaps they were right.
I also loved the wind. Perhaps too much. I’d come back to work after a windy weekend when even I wouldn’t go out, and people would rush up to me to ask how my weekend on the lake went. After one particularly rough weekend, a good friend at work gave such a sigh of relief when she saw me walk in the door that I asked her what her sigh was about. She had seen a sailboat almost go over in the lake that weekend, and she just knew it had to have been me.
My favorite memory in my sailboat was one windy day that started out with my wife and son. The breeze was up, and the water was very choppy. With two green-gilled deck hands aboard, I finally gave in and dropped them at the dock. The next four hours I skated across that lake. I braced my feet against one gunwale, wrapped the sail line around the cleat, and let the far rail play with the waterline. That boat just flew, spray flying across the bow, my heart pumping adrenalin through my veins. Exhilarating!
My worst memory on that boat was when I had my son out at about eight years old. We were taking the boat in, and I had secured the boom. I let my son hold the tiller, and suddenly the boom released, hitting him directly on the head. Jumping to ensure he was okay, I secured the boom again. As I turned away, it came loose and whacked him again. I still feel guilty about that second hit he took. I apologized years later for that double whack on the head, and he assured me it was only a minor memory. It remains a major memory as well as a guilt trip to me. Funny, that boom had never done that before, and it never did it again. Eventually, we sold that sailboat. So many communities were drawing drinking water from the lake, the water level couldn’t keep up, and my dock was located on a shallow section of the lake. Now, the water district has built a pipeline from a large lake in East Texas, also owned by them, and our lake is replenished each spring.
For years while I was growing up, our favorite swimming spot on our side of the lake was known as Road’s End. Hmm . . . bet you never guess where it got that name. Before the lake went in, people had been able to drive across this lake. Years later, the city made Road’s End an official park, had a drawing to name it, and gave it a really goofy name. Now, Road’s End, that’s not a goofy name. The new name for the park? I could hardly pronounce it. Thirty years later, and it’s still Road’s End to me, except that now it’s not a park at all. And that’s a whole other story. You might find it later in this book . . . and then you might not. You see how this story is going to go? We’ll just see where this takes us. Right now, I’m supposed to be back on those despicable drug dogs.
Our station house was a little hole in the wall. It was on Main Street, I believe. Now, Main Street makes it sound like we had lesser streets like Second Street or Third Avenue. Nope. We just had Main Street and the highway. You took the Ski Jump to get down to Main. The Ski Jump was very aptly named. A few eighteen-wheelers as well as a few cars took the Ski Jump a little too quickly, flying right back off onto the highway. Eventually, they rebuilt the curve leading into the Ski Jump, softening the angle. After that, only the most ambitious drivers got to take the plunge. For several years it was closed, one of the most heart-stopping thrill rides in my hometown just dust in the wake of a too-tall eighteen-wheeler.
The other end of Main put you back on the main highway. Do you see the irony here? Drivers would exit the main highway, drive down Main Street, only to re-enter the main highway. Now, I’ve wandered off my topic, and just where did all those despicable drug dogs get to, anyway?
We didn’t live on or anywhere near Main Street, but we did live right off the main highway. In my home-town, back when the highway went through, the city didn’t want to annex large rural areas. They didn’t want anyone else to annex them, either. The city just annexed the highway (and Main Street, of course), giving the city dibs to the land up and down the highway should they ever want to annex it. It also meant the local police force could patrol the highway since it was officially “city.”
I think they really wanted the Big Bend in the highway just before the turnoff to my house, because the patrol cars would park on the median, essentially hidden from view, until it was too late for oncoming traffic to slow down. Remember the seventies and those outrageous (-ly fun) speed limits? The unincorporated highway speed was seventy miles-per-hour, but at the city limit sign, the city decreed the speed was sixty miles-per-hour.
I think the income generated by the Big Curve kept the local police force funded for many years until they realized that those despicable drug dogs could do the same thing. That and the energy crisis of the late seventies came about then, and the speed limits everywhere dropped to only fifty-five miles-per-hour. That sure caused the ticket revenue to go down the toilet faster than you could flush a full load, necessitating a quick search for another source of city income.
These days, on the water they get for free from the local lake, they crank up the water bill for delivering it to our homes. Several years ago, when the city ran short of money, for several months, each resident had a fifty-dollar surcharge added directly to his or her water bill.
It took a while for the police force to figure out the drug thing and how to dispose of its confiscated stashes. For a while I think the lake was their answer. You should picture how my hometown gets its water. It pulls its water supply directly from the lake. Cities not on the lake drop wells to the underground aquifers, risking septic tank contamination and all that good stuff. Not my hometown. They just pull it directly from an offshore intake. Then after all that water is used and reclaimed through the sewer lines, the sewer effluent is cleaned and piped right back in.
Back then there was no information on how drugs in city reservoirs could find their way into our household tap water, but, you see, it’s now a documented fact. There have been studies of major metropolitan water supplies in which correlations have been found between the percentages of medicines prescribed to city inhabitants (in one case, birth control pills) and the levels of those drugs in the water supply that eventually make it into people’s homes. The medicines are flushed through the wastewater systems, back to the treatment plants, and on into the reservoirs. They remain suspended there until the city water intake systems draw that same water, along with the suspended drugs, into the city water mains. The city then provides these medicated waters back to their populace.
That’s why it had to have been the drugs the local police force disposed of in the water that year. There was no other conceivable reason that I would have put my name on that contract. Well, I mean, not if I’d been able to see ahead about thirty-five years or so.
If only the police force had never gotten those despicable drug dogs!
Read and Weep
$525.00. READ THAT NUMBER and weep. I do every time I think about it. Several years ago, my wife actually had a job. I keep reminding her what that is. I pull the dictionary out and leave it open with the word job highlighted in bright pink. On the few days of snow each winter, I stomp the letters J. O. B. into the fresh snow, hoping she’ll look outside and see them. When that doesn’t work, I sit inside, wrapped in a blanket, and shiver. Then I get up and check the thermostat, rattle it a bit, and comment just loudly enough for her to hear, “If we had more money coming in, maybe we could afford to run the furnace.”
The only response I get is for her to fasten her sweater up another button higher and sigh, “Yeah. That’s too bad, isn’t it?”
I’m certain there’s a gene bank somewhere out there with a slightly crazed technician pulling out what’s left of his hair. If you get close to him, I’m sure you can hear him muttering, “We have far too many female sympathy genes left over. Oh, my! There are too many that didn’t get given out.” Well, I’ll tell him where one of them didn’t go, and I’m married to her.
Back to that job, back to when my wife had a job, and we could make real car payments on real cars. My wife’s car cost us $625 a month, and mine was $535. After all that, we still had money to go do stuff. I just shake my head to think my first paycheck was $525. Now, some of you are already thinking how that was 35 years ago, and everything was cheaper. Nuh-uh! Cheaper would be $0.39 a gallon for gas or a nickel for a loaf of bread. Cheaper would be $17 a week for apartment rent. Let me tell you, that first year I taught school, money was tight. My car payment was $165. Gas was a dollar a gallon even then. Also, there was the rent on my apartment. $265 a month, and that wasn’t even for the best part of town. The railroad tracks were across the street, the wallpaper was coming down, and when it rained, well, you didn’t need to be outside to know it was raining.
I was assigned to a school—once it got completed—that was out past the Three Bridges. These were low bridges built over a flood plain that fed directly into our lake. Three times that first year I taught, my school was inaccessible due to flooding at the Three Bridges. The entire district would shut down. This was the first campus built out past the Three Bridges, and duh! Had no one driven out there before? However, it did have to rain a good gully washer to get the Three Bridges to flood, and I tell you, there were nights I’d hear the rain start up on the roof of my apartment building and pray, literally pray for a gully washer. I don’t remember getting out of bed and on my knees, but that didn’t make the prayer any less desperate. I think the prayers might have gone something like this:
“God, I notice you’ve let a little rain fall from the skies. That’s nice, God. The flowers and the birds will really thank you for that. God, I don’t have to pay the water bill here at the apartment, but I think the owners of this place will be glad for the rain.
“God, remember the farmers in my hometown where I work, and the lake, God, it was kind of low the last time I was there. Enough rain to fill the lake would make a lot of people happy, and I’m sure you could answer a substantial portion of your caseload of prayers that way.
“God, it’d take a pretty heavy rain to fill the lake, wouldn’t it? You think you could do that, God? I know it’s just a little rain here, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t still making it rain really hard there to fill the lake and answer all those prayers.
“I admit, God, if it rains that much, there’s a chance the Three Bridges might flood. But I’d be willing to stay home just this once to help you answer all those prayers. Since I’m being selfless here, God, won’t you please, please, PLEASE make the Three Bridges flood? Just for all those other people?
“In your name, amen.”
I’d be praying that sanctimonious prayer all the way to where I worked, just hoping that as I topped the rise in the highway where I could finally see the Three Bridges, I’d view that precious water flooding the road-way, answering my prayer to help out all those other good folk.
One of those times my prayer did get answered. You know how it is with prayers. Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it all, plus the tailings that come along for the ride. I was so happy to see that water lapping the guardrails that morning. I had the stereo on in the car, not even regretting the twenty-two miles of gas I’d burned out for no reason other than to find out I could have stayed home. Even the twenty-two I burned returning home didn’t bother me. I bounded up to my second-floor apartment, the parking lot blissfully free of cars, with all the other suckers at work for the day with not having the Three Bridges to bail them out, so to speak. Unlocking the door, I stepped inside, psyched (Psyched. That sure dates me, huh?) for an easy day of relaxation. Nope. Instead came the ominous drip . . . drip . . . drip of impending disaster. The drains on the roof had stopped up, backing the water into the light fixture in my kitchen. When I flipped the switch, there was the light bulb floating in water, the fixture full to the brim, and the overflow filling the kitchen floor.
There was nothing to do except put on my waders—ropers, for us Texans—and go up on the roof. Now, roofs are nothing to me. For years, the roof of my parents’ house threw the glow of Christmas across our small town. I’m sure all the lights I used each Christmas on my parents’ roof also put a glow in the electric company’s heart, if it had one. Ladders were my friends, easy to climb and fun to use. The only thing was, my parents lived in a one-story house. On our one-story house, the edge of the roof was only seven feet from the ground. I could reach up and grab the edge of the roof if I wanted, no ladder needed. On a lazy day, when I didn’t feel like looking for the ladder, I’d just shimmy a tree and drop to the roof.
When I stood outside my apartment and looked up to the top of the building that rainy day, all that my simple, first-year-teacher eyes saw was a roof. In reality, the roof of the apartment building was two stories plus a four-foot parapet above the ground. I knew the complex had an extension ladder, one of those fire truck types that keeps getting longer and longer and flimsier and flimsier. Knowing water was flooding my apartment, and that I didn’t dare touch anything electric with Niagara Falls coming through my kitchen ceiling, I couldn’t just sit on the sofa holding my feet out of the water in a darkened living room all day. So, I climbed the mountain.
The first time I leaned that long, long extension ladder against the wall, I shook it and bounced it to make sure it was sturdy. Looking around the vacated parking lot, I kept wondering just how long I could survive with a broken back—long enough for someone to get off work? It wasn’t lunchtime, yet.
Leaving a nice overlap in the two ladder sections made it feel stiff and reassuringly sturdy. Using those math skills I’d so lovingly learned in my high school math classes, I stood back, judged the angle of the vertices versus the shadow cast by the sun, and doing a little trig in my head, I determined it didn’t quite reach the top. I guess you caught that “shadow cast by the sun” part. I didn’t even take trig. I made all that up because it sounded good. But the ladder didn’t reach the top, any idiot could see that.
I had no choice but to push it out a little farther. A good shake convinced me it wasn’t going to break, so I climbed up it a bit to test it out. The higher I got, the more I could tell I wasn’t going to stand on the top rung of this extension ladder and still reach an additional six feet to the top of the wall. Not without getting down the quick way—straight down.
I climbed down and stretched the ladder as far as it would go, leaving only one rung overlapping in the middle. I had to lay it down to do this, and when I picked it up to lean it against the building, that should have given me my first clue.
Have you ever cooked spaghetti, boiling the water first, and only after dropping the pasta in, realized the pot is way too small? What do you do? You fumble in the cabinet for the biggest pot you can find and try to move the spaghetti. The only thing is, that pasta is no longer easy to move. That rigid, easy-to-handle pasta has now softened. When you grasp the dry section sticking out of the pot, you think you’ve pulled it off, so you grab the pasta and flip, aiming for the other pan, thinking you’re home free, except the pasta doesn’t cooperate. It droops right in the middle, just like that fully extended extension ladder.
I didn’t realize the ladder was drooping in the middle just then. When it was on the ground, and I picked up the middle, it drooped on the ends. Now, that was okay. I’d pulled trailers before, and I knew that if you camber a beam in the middle, it makes it stronger so it can carry more weight. In the rain, my waders filling with water, and the cold seeping into my intimate spots, it really seemed just that way.
I raised my nicely cambered ladder, eyed the height and angle with my well-versed trig, clicked off the numbers in my head, and I decided that almost to the top would have to do. Then, I started to climb. Remember, I was cold and wet by then. I didn’t even shake the ladder this time. About a third of the way up, I got this seasick feeling, like walking a rope bridge on a windy day. Up and down, up and down. There was a spring in that ladder with only one rung overlapped. I didn’t lose my breakfast, but I was sure glad when I had my hands firmly on that brick ledge at the twenty-four-foot mark.
I haven’t mentioned that the roof was flat. I got to wade a lake on the roof of my apartment building, kicking away enough tree debris from the roof drain that I thought for an anxious moment the whirlpool was taking me down to the nether world along with all that water disappearing inside the drain pipe at my feet. I felt very satisfied with myself and the job I’d done until I went back, and with the cold rain falling against the back of my neck, I looked down at the top of that ladder on the other side of that four-foot parapet wall. I could’ve sworn that the bow of that ladder had increased so much that the top of that ladder had moved two feet down the wall. Now that I think back, I could have probably blamed it on the ladder sinking into the mud at the bottom. No one at that complex ever knew that I risked my life on the top of that building that day. I’ll tell you this, though. I never prayed again for enough rain to flood the Three Bridges. It just didn’t seem worth my walk on the wild side.
Have you ever spent time in a classroom with a first-year teacher? That first year, I was so jealous that other teachers in the same building doing the same job as I was, were getting paid twice as much as me. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been so concerned. After all, twice almost nothing is still almost nothing. Seriously, from the thirty-five-year vantage point, I can clearly see that experienced teachers are worth every dime. Back then I had no clue.
That new building that wasn’t ready, as in not even started, had been filled by the school board with green teachers. We were cheap to come by, and my home-town didn’t have the finances the big districts had to get more experienced teachers that might have filled in the students’ educational gaps. In addition, that first year, the district knew they had no place to put the teachers assigned to my brand new campus, so they just stuffed us in any old nooks and crannies throughout the district they could find.
I wound up with three female teachers, each second year “veterans,” in a giant, rock-walled storeroom on the oldest campus in the district. When I say oldest, I do mean old. This was the original school building from when the entire school district was just one building, as in a hundred years before.
The four of us and our students were in one room, and we had portable walls to separate, sort of, the classrooms. Of course, being the newbie, I got the windowless inside corner. Remember what I said about it being a storeroom? It really was. Personnel permanently assigned to that campus would be in and out all day as if our classrooms were hallways. In fact, mine was. Everyone on campus had to walk through my “room” to get to the other three “rooms” or to the smaller storeroom at the back of the building. I was a regular Macy’s, people coming through just window shopping, helping themselves to whatever supplies they needed. I learned quickly to put tags on things I wanted to keep.
YOU STEAL MY STUFF, AND I’LL COME STEAL YOURS.
Or, STOP. ACID WILL DROP FROM THE CEILING IF YOU TOUCH THIS.
One of my favorites was MY DOG JUST PEED ON THIS. ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO TOUCH IT?
I left that school after two months in that dungeon with less stuff than when I arrived.
Remember those rock walls? Someone hadn’t for a hundred years. Originally, the room was built as an auditorium with a sloping floor and an elevated stage. Somewhere in the history of the ISD, it was voted to level the floor so the stage and auditorium were flush. Somehow, the room ended up with a knee wall eighteen inches high and eighteen inches deep running down both exterior walls. If you’re a new teacher assigned to a new campus that’s not even finished, permanent is not a word in your classroom decorating terminology. That knee wall became a great place to store anything boxed that wouldn’t be needed until later in the year. It was exactly what it seemed, too.
I also remember the time as a kid I got a candy bar. I wanted the big one because it cost only a little more than the regular-sized one. I didn’t eat the whole bar, which just shows the sensible dietary habits I’ve carried through to my adult life. At this point, you’ll have to excuse me for a moment while I get a bite to eat. Hmm . . . now where is that freakin’ candy bar I put under the sofa cushion yesterday? Let me feel . . . ah! Just where I thought it’d be, right next to the beer nuts. Now, back to that candy bar I knew I wouldn’t finish. I ate about half, folded the wrapper over, and slipped it into my back pocket, where I promptly forgot about it. That night I discovered that candy-coated, it wasn’t. That pair of jeans always seemed to attract every ant on the playground after that.
I know, this story isn’t about the ants in my pants. It’s that knee wall that’s grabbed everyone’s interest. Remember my prayers? One day, while the four of us—the Four Musketeers, as we became known—were teaching away, safe in our hundred-year-old building, with those rock walls serving as our stalwart bulkhead against a raging thunderstorm outside, the elements came inside to greet us. We noticed the walls forming dark spots at the junction of the ceiling, and then with an unabashed rush of tears—of glee, it seemed at the time—the walls opened up. Somehow, the roof parapet was funneling water down through those hollow rock walls, and it was evacuating itself onto that eighteen-inch knee wall where our boxed supplies were safely stored. Did I say safe? Safe like ants onto a chocolate bar. Safe like a breadstick in a poorhouse was about like it.
Children, those two adorable classes of fourth graders and the other two of third graders, were flung aside as we teachers finally realized what was happening. Everything was madly pulled from the knee wall, the boxes were dismembered, and everything was laid out to dry. Those parapets have since been sealed, but in a hundred years, no one had figured this out. I guess some offhand statements must really be based in fact. I hear this one occasionally. Not in a hundred years. I’m still looking for proof to back up a few others. Eats like a horse . . . built like a brick house . . . thunder thighs . . . and quick as lightning. Although, now that I think on it, I do suspect I saw living proof the other day for beat with an ugly stick. In retrospect, that might have been a real cow, though.
The thing I most remember about that first two months isn’t the flood or the knee walls or even my “hands off” signs. Texas. September. Need I say more? That year we were in a heat wave of triple digits, and there I was. There was no air conditioning in that storage room, and I was in the corner with no windows. Duh. I still didn’t get it. Could a message have been any clearer? A contract signed under the forced influence of a near drug overdose administered by the local police force, then two months of triple-digit Texas heat in a windowless storeroom. I should have cut my losses and run. That would have been the smart thing to do.