Snowballs, sit-ups, and a jumping jerk

“So, Mike,” says the interviewer in my fantasy, which occurs a few weeks after some major popular web site has linked to Mike’s Circular File and I have achieved momentary web fame, “who would you cite as major influences on your writing style?”

“I would have to say Calvin Trillin,” I reply. “Reading him has taught me how to channel my ‘inner grouch.’ I also have a lot of respect for Gene Weingarten, who writes for the Washington Post. You know, Gene Weingarten is the guy who discovered Dave Barry, and gave him his big break.”

“You mention Dave Barry,” notes the interviewer, who is obviously hanging on my every word. “Would you consider him an influence as well?”

“Well, Phil,” I say, assuming the interviewer’s name is Phil, “actually, Dave was a major influence, but in a negative sense.”

I go on to explain that when I was in high school, I wrote a humor column for the school paper, and thought myself quite the talented humorist. Then, I discovered Dave Barry. His influence on me was to make me completely give up writing humor for many years. Barry was so good at it that I decided not to even try anymore. In college, the little writing I did was primarily short stories.

My university published a literary magazine once a year, with an all-volunteer student staff. One year, I submitted a short fictional story that had the distinction of being the only non-staff-written piece chosen for publication.

My celebration was short-lived. When the issue appeared, I found that my story had apparently been typeset by a visually-impaired person, and had not been proofread, so that it appeared to have been written by a non-English-speaking dyslexic. Furthermore, the editor of the magazine, who was homosexual, had decided to use most of the magazine, including the entire center spread, as a forum for publicly “outing” himself. His revelation was hopefully therapeutic, if somewhat lacking in literary value.

At any rate, I’ve obviously got plenty of material for that big interview, when it happens. In the meanwhile, I continue to read Trillin and Weingarten and Barry and marvel at their talents. As a matter of fact, I just spoke with Calvin Trillin on Wednesday. He was in Chicago to promote his new book, “Obliviously On He Sails – The Bush Administration in Rhyme.” I went to hear him speak and had him sign my copy of the book, and I thanked him for providing me with another weapon to wield against the right-wingers in my life.

He said, “Thanks.” So I am being completely accurate when I say I spoke with him. Okay?

Bite me.

The right-wingers are very much on my mind this week, what with the death of Ronald Reagan. I was sorely tempted to write an essay about him, but I don’t have anything nice to say. (Not that that would have stopped Trillin.) Furthermore, I am truly at a loss to describe my exasperation at the incessant news coverage devoted to a corpse, especially after Weingarten sized it up beautifully using only a few choice words: “hypocritical, media-sponsored, weepy Reagan hagiography.”

Isn’t that brilliant? Did you have to look up “hagiography” too? What a great new word to add to my vocabulary!

Anyway, even though I don’t have anything to say about Reagan, I thought I’d participate in the big nostalgia craze in my own way, by resurrecting a humor column I wrote for my high school newspaper, the HELM of St. Laurence H.S. in Burbank, Illinois. This column was printed on April 18, 1980, and is presented here with minor revisions. (I like to think I can make some improvements on something I wrote at the age of fifteen.)

* * * * * * * *

Many people think that gym teachers are sadistic. I tend to disagree with them. In fact, I was thinking about the subject just this morning during work-out while counting off my 450 push-ups. No, I concluded, gym teachers have changed.

In grammar school, we had a rather colorful gym teacher, whom I will refer to as Mr. Fatass. Mr. Fatass was a rather stout fellow in his early thirties who was personally incapable of doing push-ups – when he would lie down, his arms would not reach the floor. Whenever he got really angry, his eyebrows would come together until he looked like a 400-pound Cyclops. Whoever hired him as a gym teacher must have had a great sense of humor.

Our grammar school physical education program was the best on the block. It consisted of somersaults, cartwheels, running back and forth, and a lot of noise. All this was done in our school uniforms, since we had neither the time nor the facilities to change clothes. We would never get much done in the classes after gym, since the teacher would spend the whole class just trying to maintain consciousness, especially on hot days.

In third grade, I discovered that I had a disability – I could not turn a somersault. As a result, I was sent to the Guidance Counselor, Sister Cecilia, who attempted to teach me how to do them. I assumed the squatting position and tried to force myself over, while Sister Cecelia grabbed the seat of my pants and pushed (commenting how she wished there was a snowplow handy). Finally I toppled, pulling every abdominal muscle I owned. It took me ten minutes to stand up. When I did, I found Sister Cecilia on the couch, exhausted from laughter.

As a result of this traumatic experience, I never again attempted a somersault. Whenever the class did them, I had to sneak past Mr. Fatass, who would be seated on two or three folding chairs, filing his nails. This worked for two years, but one day he caught me and made me do sit-ups the whole period. I was tempted to tell him that I’d do 200 if he could do one, but I figured I was in enough trouble already. Besides, if his eyebrows came together, I was going to laugh in his face.

I decided that any physical exertion would have to occur outside of gym class. Much to the surprise of my friends, I developed an uncanny aim with a snowball. I threw “like a girl,” but I could hit anybody within twenty feet. When the kids stopped picking snowball fights with me, I practiced on anything – trees, moving cars, elderly women, the dog, my sister – just to keep in shape.

My favorite team sport was softball, and my snowball prowess made me a rather competent pitcher. As a hitter, I was fair, but I was haunted by bad luck. One time I got rather angry at the opposing team. When I came up to bat, as a sign of disrespect, the outfield pulled in slightly (the center fielder was three feet behind second base). The pitcher threw one five feet over my head, and another which rolled over the plate. They were both called strikes by the umpire (Mr. Fatass). Finally, the pitcher lofted a beauty – slow, waist high, and just a bit outside. I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and destroyed that ball. It soared past the outfield into the church parking lot where a senior citizens’ meeting was letting out. The ball bounced off the ample left buttock of Mrs. Pushpulski and was easily caught on the rebound by the third baseman, who tagged me as I ran by.

In January of 1975, I learned that Mr. Fatass was leaving the school, to the relief of the entire fifth grade class who had suffered under him for three years. A rather heavy snow had just been plowed away, leaving lots of snow banks to hide behind. I planted myself behind one in an alley and waited for Mr. Fatass to leave the school. As I sat there, I pondered how sweet my revenge would be. The snowball would sail from my hand straight and true, there would be the unmistakable “plahm” of snow against face, and I would be gone before he could clear his eyes. A perfect going-away present.

Then I heard it. The school doors slammed, and the thud-crunch-thud-crunch, like a Mack truck on gravel, headed towards me. It was accompanied by the high-pitched off-key whistling which had worn my eardrums well for three years. My adrenalin pumped and pumped, and then…

He was in position.

With a shriek of “Aha!” I leapt from behind the pillar and released the missile. I stared in shock as it sailed nine feet to the right of his head. Mr. Fatass’ eyebrows began to come together.

Have you ever done ninety push-ups in six inches of snow?

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