The other day, the Angry Czeck received an interesting item in his mailbox. It’s a black-and-white, self-mailer announcing the Malvern High School Class of 1992 15-Year Reunion. Which got me thinking about my best friend in the Sixth Grade, Shane Bissell.
That school year, the City of Malvern was constructing a brand new middle school. As a result, all the 5th and 6th graders were herded into temporary classrooms at the old Wilson Grade School, which was originally built as the segregated school to educate The Negroes.
As far as school buildings are concerned, Old Wilson is a charmer of architecture. It’s made of a dull red brick, one level, with an immense, barn-shaped gym serving as its center. Since its erection, Old Wilson has absorbed several additions, but the original floor plan featured large classrooms with dramatic, Lego-shaped windows that extended nearly floor-to-ceiling. My classroom overlooked the courtyard, which was totally devoid of imaginative landscaping. Just a postage stamp of struggling grass and a cakewalk of concrete.
So old was this building, you could almost feel the asbestos tickling your nostrils with every inhale. Footsteps echoed on the linoleum in empty hallways. Each classroom contained a radiator-like heating unit that could superheat a nickel to a thousand degrees. (A form of fun was to hand an unsuspecting rube a lightening hot nickel and cheerfully observe the hijinx unfold.) During the summertime months, the only thing that got superheated was the student body.
Shane sat next to me that one year in Old Wilson. Our desks were the kind that an ancient janitor would have stored beneath a condemned auditorium stage, stacked dangerously without any real expectation for seeing them again. Mine featured a fairly smooth wooden tabletop, while Shane’s was a moonscape of carved initials and crudely drawn caricatures. His desk was definitely more interesting, though it was hell to complete a spelling test on it.
Like his desk, Shane was composed of descriptive elements. His hair was wildly curly, and it was perched upon a long, slender face. He was, and currently is, the only person I knew with one blue eye and one orange. He was taller than me, but possibly lighter. If Shane had any faults, it was a tragic inability to whisper, which lead to several stints in Detention Hall.
Shane had a passion for which I held a mild interest, and that was for professional wrestling. In those days, the popular characters were oddly-shaped behemoths like King Kong Bundy, Big John Stud, Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, and The Macho Man Randy Savage.
Pro wrestling was experiencing a kind of salad days where wrestlers’ images were fully ingrained within the culture. Wrestlers dominated the toy aisles. A Hulk Hogan and “His Friends” cartoon entertained children on Saturday mornings. Hulk Hogan himself received a guest appearance on The A-Team, and Big John Stud played an unstoppable villain on Hunter. It was easy to see why Shane was so infatuated with the profession. One afternoon, he confided in me that his mission in life was to become a pro wrestler.
Even a twelve-year-old like myself could see some of the obstacles that lay in Shane’s path to The Square Circle. First, he was plenty scrawny. Second, he wasn’t very tall. A guy like Shane would be permanently bent into a U-shape by a guy like The Iron Sheik, and when I told him that, Shane only shrugged. We were in the sixth grade. He’d have time to bulk up.
After our sixth grade year, when we left Old Wilson for junior high, Shane and I rapidly drifted apart. We were still friendly, but we adopted separate circles that didn’t regularly intersect. On graduation night, during the Spring of 1992, I can’t even remember seeing Shane.
Five years later, I received notice that The Class of ’92 was hosting a Five Year Reunion. I didn’t know five-year reunions existed, but we were having one anyway, to be held at The Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs. Freshly graduated from college, and struggling to retain employment by my first ad agency in Memphis, I arrived to the reunion hoping I wouldn’t forget a name.
And I did forget names. About a dozen at least. But one guy I recognized right away: Shane Bissell. His motley head of curls had been cut super-short, his thin facial hair trimmed way, and his posture was unmistakably armed services. When he shook my hand, it was like being gripped by a pipe wrench. Shane greeted me in voice roughened by 10-mile hikes grunting “Hoo-hah!”
I asked Shane what he had been up to, and he mentioned a couple years stint in the Marines. That wasn’t surprising. What surprised me was what he told me next.
“For the last year, I’ve been a professional wrestling manager,” he revealed.
“What? Like Bobby ‘The Brain’ Hennan and Mr. Fuji?” I stammered.
Shane nodded, and he then plied me with stories of wrestling school, which included lessons for safely absorbing a body slam. I couldn’t believe it. Of all the people who graduated from Malvern High School in 1992, Shane Bissell was the one living his childhood fantasy. The rest of us were hacks.
I have three stories about Chris Davis. Here’s one:
Chris belonged to my Cub Scout Pack. Different Den, same Pack. Once, during the summer, he appeared at a Cub Scout event sporting a brand new, highly unfashionable crew cut. Somebody, and adult, told him that the haircut looked “cool,” meaning “not hot.” Chris ran his hand across is severed locks and agreed. The end.
Here’s a second story:
All seventh grade boys in Malvern are given a choice: join the school choir, or join the school marching band. If you were on the football team, like me, it wasn’t practical to join the marching band. So I joined the choir.
The choir sucked, because instead of a playlist of songs from bitching bands like Poison or Def Leperd, we were conscripted into singing either corny oldies like Barbara Ann, or wildly inappropriate ballads like These Dreams from Heart. (Imagine an all-boy choir singing: White skin, in linen / Perfume on my wrist…) By the year’s second week, each boy in the choir class was longing for a tuba.
The year concluded with a big concert for the choir class. I forget who was supposed to be in attendance, but we were performing on the Senior High stage, so it was a big deal. Our choirmaster was frantic to squeeze the best performance out of us. She drilled us like recruits on Paris Island, decrying every lackluster performance with a scathing diatribe of disappointment. How grueling!
The most taxing number in the set was Barbara Ann. Because we were all 13-year-old boys, the majority of us were consigned to the falsetto section. Barbara Ann was practically all falsetto, and the crescendo involved several breathless minutes of singing Barbar-aaaaaaaaaaannnnne as high as our pubescent voices would carry. We had a final rehearsal on the Senior High stage, beneath boiling hot lights while we stood upon a set of narrow risers. The die was cast for tragedy.
The choirmaster wanted to conclude the concert with a bang, you could really tell. In her imagination, she directed not thirty boys who’d rather be kicked in the nuts than be caught dead singing cornball oldies, but thirty young men inspired to musical glory with her Wall of Sound rendering of the Beach Boy classic. “More enthusiasm!” she implored as we strained for higher notes.
Rock’in and a roll’in, reeeallly got me reeling…
Chris Davis was standing in the front row. I couldn’t see him clearly, but if he was like me, he was twisting his vocal chords to the limit of human endurance while forcing a gallon of blood from his brain to his lungs. Finally, just as we were concluding with the final, apocalyptic note of Barbara Ann, Chris Davis did what the rest of us wanted to.
He fainted. Face first. On the stage.
Barbara Ann! BAM!
His head bounced on the polished wood floor like a bowling ball dropped from the hip. Nobody laughed. Nobody said a word. No one had air for laughter or words. The choirmaster bolted from behind her podium and knelt to Chris’ side. Chris was out cold. We were herded off the stage and loaded back onto the bus.
My last Chris Davis Story takes place about two years later, in my freshman science class.
My freshman science teacher was enthusiastic, eager, and exceptionally non-descript. Though he was one of maybe half-a-dozen male faculty in the Malvern Public School System, I can’t remember his name or his face. I can’t recall much about the curriculum either, except that we spent an unordinary amount of time on whales.
I do remember that I sat in the far, rear corner of the classroom, next to David Long and Chris Davis.
Chris and David were pals. In fact, they were essentially two-of-a-kind. They were both slight of stature and prone to wearing too-large t-shirts. There was a sort of unknown quality to them. Neither participated regularly in school organizations. Neither frequented D-Hall. You couldn’t count on either to volunteer an answer in class. They seemed to speak primarily to one another.
For whatever reason that year, Chris and David de-evolved into a class time irritant for me. We constantly exchanged biting barbs before the bell rang. Everything they did aggravated me, and they seemed to take a very dim view of me in general. Maybe to them, I represented some kind class hierarchy of which I was an elite member. I didn’t see myself this way, but maybe Chris and David did. I don’t know.
Aside from the insults, I didn’t pay much mind to Chris and David. Sometimes, thanks to our close proximity, we were conscripted into group projects. This kind of circumstance generally yielded cooperation and even a low-grade comradeship. I began to believe that despite our verbal jabs, we were friends beneath the surface.
So imagine my surprise when Chris and David jumped me.
I had to cross the length of the classroom to reach my desk. With my science text and notebooks in tow, I weaved through the aisles and the legs. Just as I reached my desk, I heard David say, “Get him!”
Working in concert, David and Chris leaped upon my back. On reflex, I shrugged my shoulders and twisted my hips, and my attackers tumbled to the floor in a tangled heap of limbs.
“What are you doing?!?” I shouted, completely puzzled. Neither boy acknowledged me. They couldn’t seem to get off the floor.
“Get off me,” grumbled Chris.
“Get your elbow out of my stomach!” bellowed David. Their coordinated attack concluded with a bit of comedy for my amusement. I sat in my desk and watched the two untangle themselves.
Like prisoners of war, neither David nor Chris revealed their motives. In fact, they simply pretended the assault never happened, and it was back to ignoring-science-class as usual for all three of us. But it was Chris who troubled me most. David, though relatively benign in the scheme of things, was the loudmouth of the bunch.
Left to his own, Chris was usually quiet and thoughtful. I remember that he had a splash of freckles across his nose and cheeks, and his tongue tended to protrude slightly from his lips when concentrating on a pop quiz.
I remember how he sheepishly ran his hand through his new crew cut. I remember his head bouncing on the auditorium stage.
Barbara Ann! BAM!
Chris Davis died in 2005. Suicide.
Kyle Franks arrived late to class because the school’s vice principal detained him for wearing cardboard wings and an enormous diaper.
Two weeks before high school graduation, our Advanced English class was briefly teleported to Mount Olympus. As a result, we ourselves became Greek gods (not Roman gods, who are pale facsimiles). I credit this transformation to an overly romantic English teacher and a copy of Edith Wharton’s Mythology.
That morning, in the boy’s bathroom, I put on my gray sweatshirt and sweatpants and stuffed them with tubes of socks. My transformation to Hercules was complete. I’d have felt like an idiot, but I was in good company.
My brother arrived to class as Zeus. He wrapped his The Empire Strikes Back bed sheets into a half-assed toga, and then he fashioned a lightening bolt out of cardboard and aluminum foil. He sauntered around the classroom, drinking Kool-Aid nectar and menacing assorted goddesses. His godly wife Hera, played by the mortal and buxom Heather Dial, kept a glowering eye on Zeus’ good-natured philandering.
Amy Turner, who had fantastic legs, strutted about as Demeter, aiming her bow at the leering gods. The lame Hephaestus was played by Brian Golden. He carried a red hammer to show he meant business. With plastic grapes in hand, Aaron Wright was Dionysus, recruiting everyone within earshot to “join the Bacchantes!”
Some of our costumes were more elaborate than others. Paul Key, who had apparently gotten his dates mixed up, took note of the black t-shirt he happened to be wearing that morning and winged it. He declared himself Hades, God of the Underworld, and hoped to hell his minimalist approach would earn him a passing grade.
Meanwhile, Brian McDade went all out as Poseidon, showcasing a white beard made of cotton balls and a trident that appeared to be the genuine article. Brian Burks, however, simply donned a leather jacket with a fury collar and tried to pass himself off as Pan. Few were fooled.
I can’t remember the entire cast of characters to arrived to the party that day, but I think Julie Griggs was Echo (or was that Amy Wathal?). And either Jeremy Smith or Scott Nolen was Apollo (perfect casting either way).
And then there was Kyle, who shambled in late, wearing his shirtless, diapered, winged Cupid costume that led to his interception by the school’s Gestapo. He was greeted to much applause, and our teacher, Ms. Cranford, in an accurate portrayal of Persephone, presented him with a ceremonial Dixie cup of nectar.
Each god was expected to entertain the party with an interesting story of his or her divinity, followed by a curious Q&A session. Zeus earned some big laughs when asked, “Which god do you find most overrated.” (“Hestia, Goddess of the Hearth…ohhhhhhh!”)
As Hercules, I presented the most longwinded of anecdotes (something about how I was too drunk and stupid to realize that my host’s wife had just died, compelling me to wrestle Charon for her soul). Then I scored big laughs too by declaring Apollo to be the most overrated of the gods because he seemed a bit “light in the lyre.” That’s divine comedy, my friends.
After the tales and the questions, the gods were released to mingle. I challenged Dionysus to drink “many jugs of wine,” a proclamation that would serve as our battle cry for the remainder of the semester. Demeter defended her shapely legs by pointing her arrows at the chortling Zeus. Hades sulked in the corner while Apollo and Pan compared lyres. Several of us were nearly skewered by Poseidon’s trident, and Echo kept repeating herself.
Standing among the gods, I sensed that our innocent years of nectar and ambrosia were coming to an end. Like the gods, our days of lore were fading into a new age. An age where mortgages and parenting and career building would take the place of study groups and Friday night football games. The time of the gods was waning. Even the cup of Dionysus could be sipped empty.
I didn’t realize it then, but I would later discover that while we would always be The Class of 1992, we could never be a family again. No longer would we each have the power to intravenously inflict joy and pain. Our lives had become extrapolated from the cloth we weaved during twelve short years of public schooling, and as individual threads we sought the excitement of newer fabrics.
To reassemble those threads to its original form, even temporarily, seems an unbearably risky exercise. Is it better to remember who we were than to discover what we have become? What is there to gain by observing an aging Hercules with a spare tire?
I have yet to decide whether or not to attend my 15-year class reunion. I’m inclined to remain at home with my wife and children and the future. But part of me wants to pull out that old blanket and see if it still warms.