Saturday, January 1, 2011

Part 43: Whistle Down the Wind

"People forget that when you’re 16,
you’re probably more serious than you’ll ever be again."
- John Hughes

In December of 1974 I turned 16 and I was terribly serious (when I wasn't being goofy). This generally was an impediment, girls like boys who are not so serious or too goofy. It was hard deciding on one or the other and the middle of the road seemed kind of blase. The Seniors were cool and seemed so mature, they were on their way to change the world and I, well sometimes I still wanted to be a kid.

Being a kid meant playing Frisbee or Red Rover on the Neutral and Capture the Flag in the Valley. It also meant doing the duck walk down Session Road arm in arm with my favorite girls. It meant sneaking into Paul Bowman's room every night to turn his electric blanket on high, then waiting for him to wake up screaming. Or helping my buddies Mike Kendrick and Tom Lowman build a secret hideout in the ceiling above our rooms. We opened up the recessed florescent ceiling lights to make a hatchway up into the attic of our dorm. We drug up a couple of mattresses and some throw pillows from the lounge and Tommy wired it up for lights and a fan.
Tommy was a fun guy to hang out with, he loved The Beatles, martial arts, scuba diving and was something of a genius. The hideout didn't get much use, after all we had the entire campus to hang out in, but it gave us something to do.

Mr Pettitt was directing a play called Henry IV. No, not the one by Shakespeare, the one by Luigi Pirandello. It is an examination of the fine line between sanity and insanity. A wealthy man falls off his horse during a historical reenactment and wakes up thinking he is Henry IV of Germany. A lot of the characters had pages of dialog, Jaime
was playing the title character and had a speech that was 3 pages long. We were all struggling to memorize so many lines, and Pettitt was getting really impatient during our rehearsals. He got fed up one day and issued an ultimatum: have all your lines memorized by next week or the play is off. We practiced hard, each of us helping the other work on their lines when ever we had a free moment. Finally, just a few days before the deadline we thought we had done it. Well, most of us did. A few were still having trouble. I had been working with Jaime and Kevin and they finally had it down. The rehearsal came and we went through our lines and a few made some minor mistakes but not too bad. But then Kevin did his part and forgot a few words of his last speech. That was it. I had worked with Kevin in Murder in the Cathedral and knew he could get it down, but Pettitt was like my dad and had no patience.
Pettitt said "it's off".
For days we tried to reason with him but he wouldn't budge. Months of hard work down the drain. Some of the cast were pissed at Kevin, most were mad at Pettitt for being such a hard ass.

A few months later some of us found it rather annoying that Mr Pettitt took a part in the play Oklahoma! Jaime was still pissed and didn't even try out.
It was a big production, it seemed like most of the school was involved one way or the other in the play. Mrs. Tabafunda was real busy sewing costumes for everyone and Mrs. Villaba had her hands full as music director. Some of the roles had multiple actors which made rehearsals complicated and confusing. Leigh & Leeanne got the part of Aunt Eller, Kevin & Jim Evans were Jud Fry, Cindy Johnson and Noni Donohue were Ado Annie, Dayne Florence was Ado Annie's father Andrew, Dana Busse was Curly, Beth Wagner was Laurie. I had a tiny part as one of the cowboys, but I didn't mind, it gave me plenty of time to flirt (in the dark) backstage with Marie Strasser and Margie Molina. Kevin poured himself into the role and gave a memorable performance.

Life in the dorms at Brent School was a wonderful, transformative experience. A school within a school, our education did not conclude with the last class each day. Not having parents or a family to guide me, I put into practice the archaic things I picked up from old movies and novels: a gentleman
always holds out the chair for a woman at dinner and always carries a clean handkerchief to present to a lady for those inevitable moments of tears. I learned to listen or at least to pick up on a stray word here or there, a look on the face. In spite of and because of my limited budget I learned to give thoughtful, insightful gifts.

We were a diverse lot, we all came from different social and economic backgrounds. We didn't watch much TV after school or at night, we usually sat on the student lounge steps and talked about the books we were reading and what was going on in the world.

Nixon had resigned, Ford took his place and in February we were let out of class to watch TV as a large group of recently released POWs arrived at Clark Air Force Base. Music was changing too. Something called "Disco" was infiltrating the airwaves. The times they were a changin'.

We didn't always agree and many a heated debate that started on the steps of the student lounge would carry on into the dining room, sometimes afterwards they would carry on late into the night back at the dorm. But in spite of it all, in some strange way, we were bonded together.

In a discussion about empathy, Rug once said that it was all relative. Everyone sees the same event slightly different. My worst or best experience could be minor in the eyes of someone else.
"So how can we empathize with someone if we don't experience things the same way?" a classmate asked. You first have to admit that their point of view is valid. Then you have to try and learn what experiences may have formed and shaped them into arriving at that viewpoint.

The boarding students were my surrogate family and though the boys lived in one dorm and the girls in another, most managed to form close bonds. Some were to last a lifetime, some were lost, others found again.

"Whistle down the wind, let your voices carry
Drown out all the rain, light a patch of darkness
treacherous and scary
Howl at the stars, whisper when you are sleeping
I'll be there to hold you, I'll be there to stop
the chills and all the weeping
Make it clear and strong, so the whole night long
every signal that you send, until the very end
I will not abandon you my precious friend
So try and stem the tide, then you'll raise a banner
Send a flare up in the sky, try to burn a torch
and try to build a bonfire
Every signal that you send, until the very end, I'm there
So whistle down the wind, for I have always been right there"


  1. My closest and dearest friends are still the ones who I lived with in the dorm in Japan. I treasure my high school yearbooks so much and have thought of throwing my college yearbooks away (they mean nothing to me). I have been to a multitude of high school reunions, only one college reunion (and was ready to leave once I got there). Funny how that second culture, dormitory experience is the most important one.

  2. You hit the nail on the head. It is funny isn't it, the difference we have in the magnitude we have in our attachment to our boarding schools vs our stateside education experience.