Monday, November 16, 2009

Part 17: The McKenzie Break

"Hiding places there are innumerable,
but possibilities of escape are as many as hiding places"

~ Franz Kafka

"These prison walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them"
~ The Shawshank Redemption

Having passed the "test" and proved myself worthy, I was now being granted access to the inner sanctum. This was great because Pat provided occasional refreshments for his guests and I was always hungry. But my being chosen to be an active operative in the Chocolate Syrup Caper was not by accident. Despite my antics during the Halloween Carnival's Cabaret performance of Pete & RePete, I had demonstrated that I could be a trooper. Then came an incident that brought me into conflict with Pat Dillon some weeks later.

One afternoon a bunch of us kids were down at the gym messing around the set of an upcoming play. They had been painting scenery and there was a huge drop cloth on the stage. Some of the kids discovered that if we grabbed the ends and billowed it up, it was just stiff enough to hold its shape when you set it down and you could crawl under it. We were doing this when Pat Dillon came along and proposed we play a
hide n seek of sorts. There would be one person on the outside and the rest would be under the tarp trying to hide. The person on the outside would run across the tarp tagging the kids underneath. Each person tagged had to leave the tarp. Last person tagged was It. Pat would be It first. Things were going along fine, but because he couldn't see who he had tagged we began to scramble away to another part of the tarp that wasn't collapsed. This pissed Pat off and he began to knock us down until the taggee gave up and crawled out. Stay down! But I wouldn't give up. Like the scene in Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman and George Kennedy duke it out, he knocked me down again and again, each time getting a little rougher, but I just kept getting up and crawling to a new spot. Stay down!

Finally he tackled me and sat on my chest, then pulled the tarp back to expose my defiant face. I struggled to get free but he weighed twice as much as I did and I couldn't move.

Stay down you stupid little jerk!
For several minutes I kept trying to get my arms out and thrashed my legs about. He just sat there watching me with a grin on his face, waiting for the fight to go out of me.
Are you done?
I nodded.
Pat stood up and grinned as he held out his hand to help me up.
Waldo, You're OK
And so the partnership began.

Theater was a big deal at Brent, the school usually producing two plays a year. For the '71-'72 school year we had "
The Drunkard", "Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs" and "Down in the Valley". The casts of these particular plays were made up of Seniors, faculty and in the case of "Down in the Valley" parents too (some of us kids were used in scenes requiring children). But Brent was a small school and they were always looking for extra hands to do the dirty work. The whole thing fascinated me and I spent my afternoons hanging out around the gym. Mr. Craig and Mr. Guerra soon had me hauling, painting and running errands for the director. As the opening night approached things got more hectic. There was a steady stream of students coming and going from the gym. One of the advantages to working on a play is that you could have permission to be out of the dorm at night. All the activity and this loophole to a strict dorm rule gave Pat an idea.
Let's go see a movie.

My heart stopped beating. what?

We will go down to the gym after supper tonight and then sneak off Campus and go see a movie. We'll be back in time for bed check.

Part of the problem with being a flunky is that occasionally you get put in the position of having to do crazy things. I had just risen to a new level in the pecking order and I didn't want to go back down. So that night after supper we signed out to go to the gym to "work on the play". Then after a few minutes of work we slipped out and worked our way across the soccer field to a hidden hole in the fence. This secret exit was well known to the Seniors and Juniors and a select few sophomores and freshmen. And now me.

It seemed like it took forever crawling along the fence to that hole. Then we were through and we hurried down along Brent Road keeping to the ditch, past the Pink Sisters Convent. We caught a cab at the end of the road downtown to the Pines Theater. We bought tickets to see
Rio Lobo.

I had a hard time enjoying the movie, I was way too nervous to pay attention. We sat in the balcony and every time I glanced over at Pat he was calm, cool and collected. As the minutes went by I became more anxious till finally Pat leaned over and said let's go.

We retraced our route, catching a cab back to the bottom of Brent Road, keeping in the dark as we walked along the ditch. A taxi came up behind us just as we passed the convent and we dove into the ditch. The car pulled up at the Brent gate and some people got out and started talking to the guards and pointing in our direction.
Teachers! Pat hissed through his teeth
. Hurry!

We quickly scrambled through the hole and raced across the field in the darkness. Behind us a guard was slowly walking down the road shining his flashlight in the ditch along the fence. We scurried behind the gym and raced down the path that led to the Infirmary. There we parted ways. I was
signed in and in bed before Mr Swanson came to do the bed check. I was thinking never again, never again, never again.

The next day we watched as the hole in the fence was being patched, eliminating an illegal route off campus. The Seniors were not too happy at these developments, but as word spread of our exploits I discovered I was a celebrity! Even though the escape route had been discovered, not getting caught was everything, so our expedition was viewed as successful. Pat was happy and more adventures for us were in store.
Over the next four years, I only snuck off campus two more times . I found there were easier ways around the rules and more exciting places to sneak off to on campus.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Part 16: The Dinner Ritual

"A man seldom thinks with more earnestness
of anything than he does of his dinner"

~ Samuel Johnson

"Bless us O Lord, this food to our use and us to Thy service. Make us ever mindful of the needs of others. Through Christ our Lord, Amen."
~ Brent School Prayer

When I think back to my days at Brent, the images that first come to mind are those in and around the dinning hall; waiting for meals in the rainy season in the student lounge, trying to find a warm spot by the fire, in the dry season we would sit outdoors on the steps. Housed in a large, three story building directly across from the main building (Ogilby Hall), it had originally been built as a dormitory and was called Toddler Hall. As the student population grew it was continuously expanded and enlarged over the next six decades and eventually would be renamed Binsted Hall, after Norman Binsted, a former Episcopal Bishop of the Philippines.

In the 1950's and 1960's, as American involvement in Southeast Asia increased, so did the need for good boarding schools. By the mid 60's the boarding students at Brent numbered over 100 and keeping track of everyone and making sure all students were fed became extremely problematic. Meal-times were a raucous affair, necessitating strict rules.

These rules carried over to later years even as the enrollment dropped.
During the school week, mandatory attendance was required at all meals for the boarding students. Dorm masters would count heads at every meal. While breakfast and especially lunch were more casual affairs, students were allowed to leave after they finished eating, the evening meals were much more structured. At times, when we got too noisy, an order of "silence" was imposed on us. Offenders were issued demerits on the spot.

Suppertime for the boarding students was always special. The sound of the dinner gong clanging to that Kalinga beat sent us scrambling
from all over the campus, soon we would be getting the best meal of the day!

More than that, it was an important daily ritual that made up the social fabric of dorm life. It tied us to the past, to the beginnings of the school. Dinnertime was where we came together to learn about each other. We youngsters listened to the teachers talking politics, we told each other stories about our families. We watched the older students interacting with each other. It was a laboratory, teaching us skills in dealing with the opposite sex.

Just as I had learned how to get to dinner unscathed, over the previous six months I learned my place within the pecking order. There was an undefined Class System for the male boarders and the divisions ran by grade and dorm: At the top were the Seniors in Binsted, then the Juniors and Sophomores in Weiser and finally the Freshmen in the Infirmary. Anything lower that and you really didn't exist on the social register. I was in that lowest group of
untouchables. Although it technically was a first come, first seated affair, tables were segregated along those caste lines, although from time to time some of the cockier kids tried to sneak in to a "cool" table. Transgressors were severely dealt with; they would be unceremoniously dumped from their chairs on to the floor, repeat offenders would be taken out for a cold shower. As for the girls, well they were enigmatic and mysterious, all grades living together in Hamilton Hall. They had rules and a class code of their own that we didn't know anything about.

Sundays were extra special and the biggest and best meal of the week was preceded by mandatory Chapel services. A formal affair, we all turned out smartly dressed, girls looking especially lovely, usually in dresses or sometimes in a pantsuit. Among the boys, those that had them wore sport coats, the rest of us in shirts and ties or Barong Tagalogs. After Chapel we would walk to the dining room, where it would be warm and glowing, candles flickering, white tablecloths and napkins on every table. In those early days there might be a reading from the Bible, or a few words from a visiting Bishop. Then, after any announcements from dorm masters or the assistant headmaster, we would stand for the mealtime prayer, followed by the boys holding out the chairs for the girls, waiting for all the ladies to be seated before we took our seats. Occasionally there might be classical music playing softly in the background from Mr Craig's stereo.

Then there was the food; served in courses, there would be salad, soup, rolls and an entree. A teacher at every table would educate and enforce proper etiquette: napkin upon the lap, which fork to use for the salad, please and thank yous.

Smiling waiters appeared, bearing steaming platters that smelled so heavenly. The kitchen did all the baking for the week that afternoon so the bread was fresh and warm. But for me the highlight of the week was ice cream! The only thing that might have made it perfect would have been a little chocolate syrup for the ice cream. Not an item readily available in sufficient quantities from the local stores to make it a regular part of the kitchen's menu, we had to do without.

One Sunday evening, just as I was about to pass through the Chapel doors, I was collared. St. Nicholas Chapel was
Sanctuary, Hallowed Ground so I was quite surprised to be nabbed right at the threshold. Actually, I was grabbed by the arms on either side, lifted off my feet and carried into Weiser Hall. This was off limits territory for any underclassman, and the only time you were ever allowed inside was when you were having your head flushed in the toilet, you were being given a cold shower, or having your stomach pounded on with spoons. So naturally I was quite terrified when I was deposited in front of Pat Dillon. As Head Inquisitor, the majority of my hazing had been by his hands. But apparently I was not there for sacrificial entertainment but for a business proposition. I was very relieved to not be a victim and looked about excitedly. Pat's room was decked out with psychedelic black light posters and a collection of wooden owls. He ran an after hours canteen, selling soft drinks, chips and American candy to the boarders and the goodies lined his shelves. It was a treat to be allowed into his room and especially so since it did not involve torture.

Pat had determined that to overcome the lack of chocolate syrup we would have to make our own. And we would make it before supper. During Chapel.
Getting caught making contraband during the service was a serious offense, so the person making it would have to be
expendable. Thus, the reason for my presence was explained.

His game plan was simple: at Chapel surround me with the biggest upperclassmen and during the hymns they would sing extra loud whereupon I was to stir like crazy. The trick was to stop stirring when no one was singing. I was given the ingredients and the tools and we proceeded to Chapel.

I quietly added the ingredients to a large beaker and waited for my cue. Then when my conspirators began to sing I stirred furiously. The noise of the spoon sounded awfully loud, but my pew mates just sang all the louder. With the end of the hymn I would rest my weary arm and waited for the next song. A few of the teachers looked over at us suspiciously but they couldn't see that we were doing anything wrong. I'm sure Father Houghton was very gratified by our enthusiastic participation that night. The culmination of all this was some tasty, though still rather lumpy chocolate syrup. The biggest treat for me, however, was being allowed to sit with the upperclassmen (but not the seniors!) during supper that night. I had risen a grade in the pecking order.