Emend by Eclipse
Copyright© 2020 by Lazlo Zalezac
September 5, 1973
The story, as told here, begins in September 1973. It begins in the lunchroom located inside a high school of an upper middle class suburb of Oklahoma City. The story’s actual beginning is not quite so clear. One could say that the telling could begin in December 1957 or in June 1972 or in September 1973 or in August 2017. It’s really hard to say where this story begins or ends.
A new school year had just begun. In 1973, in Oklahoma, the school year was bracketed by two holidays. It started after Labor Day, not in the middle of August. It ended before Memorial Day, not in the middle of June. As the second day of school, it was early enough in the school year that the students hadn’t yet settled into the activities that would become habits for the next nine months. Old friendships were being renewed and new friendships were being forged.
This year, the school was a little more crowded than usual. The junior high school had been damaged by a tornado years earlier and patched together, but had suddenly developed some structural issues that made it unsafe. Although, to be more accurate, one should say that the structural problems became too serious to ignore. While the high school normally held the ninth through twelfth grades, this year they had squeezed in the eight grade. The seventh grade had been squeezed into several elementary schools. Everyone was confident that this situation would last only a single year.
The school had been built in the early 1960s to deal with burgeoning population of high school students of the baby boom. Built as inexpensively as possible using cinder block, it had an institutional, almost prison-like appearance, with small narrow windows, heavy metal doors, and a dull gray brick exterior. The school board did add a touch of cost with ceramic tiling of some indefinable color (like the flesh color crayon, but not quite so creepy) which must have been the result of some dye injection error in the manufacturing process. If not, then school administrators all over the country must suffer from the some weird visual impairment which sees it as a soothing color. Only the sections along the hallways between the long banks of dull gray lockers were tiled. Interior classrooms had painted cinder block on the inside and outside walls with wallboard between classrooms. They were painted a nice generic yuck which is a real color but of an ill defined location on the color wheel.
Fortunately for the peace of mind and the sanity of the students, the exterior was only an issue while arriving and departing school; the hallways were normally filled with a mass of students rushing from one class to another; and the classroom walls were hidden behind blackboards, posters, maps, and other instructional aides. One had to pity the poor janitors who actually had to see the interior without obstruction while keeping the school clean once it was emptied of students. It was particularly depressing under the flickering fluorescent lights.
With the large population of students, lunch periods were split into three 30 minute periods with the imaginative names of lunch periods A, B, and C. There were typically a little over six hundred students in each lunch period. One would think that with that many students that it would be difficult to be isolated from others, but it wasn’t. A percentage of the students ate their lunch, come rain or shine, in the official smoking area in an exterior cull-de-sac at the back of the school building. Smoking was permitted in the parking lot, the smoking area, and in the bleachers during football games.
The fashions worn by teenagers in 1973 were diverse. There was a crowd who wore the trendy ‘hippy’ fashions with bell bottoms, tie dye shirts, and peace symbols -- girls in this clique occasionally went braless. There was a crowd who wore western blue jeans, boots, and work shirts. There was the conservative crowd of boys who wore corduroy pants, button down shirts, and black shoes and the conservative girls who wore knee length skirts, button shirts, and practical shoes. There there were the religious kids, only a handful in the entire school, with boys wearing black pants, white shirts, and ties with girls wearing dull gray dresses.
Hair length was a very big thing in 1973 with a strong correlation between social clique and hair length. Almost all of the females had long hair that came to the shoulders, at a minimum, with a style that ranged from long straight hair to the wild wind blown look. Long hair was almost mandatory for boys with styles that ranged from the traditional regular cut all of the way to pony tails.
The tables in the cafeteria were occupied by groups, small and large, of people with common interests and fashions. There was a continuous murmur of conversation that served as a white noise background. Unless you were seated with a group it was hard to make out what was being discussed at the table. Sprinkled here and there throughout the room were a handful of students sitting in isolation, some wishing to join in with others while the rest were happy at being alone.
Much as he did everyday at school, Benny Baker was seated alone in the school cafeteria eating his lunch and reading a book. Today he was reading a college book on partial differential equations that he had purchased from a kid who had just dropped out of college. He found it hard to believe that someone would sell a textbook rather than return it to the bookstore less than a week into the semester. He just assumed drugs were involved. He wasn’t going look a gift horse in the mouth. Normally one might consider the content of the book a bit advanced for a 15 year old, but Benny was different. To him, the book was good review material and far more interesting than anything he would be getting in class.
For the previous school year, Benny had been passed through his classes taking only tests. His attendance was mandatory since the school was reimbursed based on the number of butts in chairs at 8:30 in the morning. He could read anything he wanted so long as he sat in the classroom and didn’t disrupt any of the ‘official’ classes that he was taking in accordance with the school policy. Benny was universally considered the weird kid who sat at the desk in the back corner of the room reading ‘things.’
Early in the previous school year, he had pressed the issue by reading a copy of Fanny Hill in his English class, but no one said anything about it. He was pretty sure that his fellow classmates didn’t have a clue about the subject matter of the book. He knew if he were to carry it around school this year that some of the seniors would have recognized it right off. Last year, he had seriously considered reading a copy of Playboy in class but decided that protesting the futility of what he was doing wouldn’t have been recognized as dissent. Instead, it would be perceived as an advertisement that he was a horny young man (like every other male on campus) and that the young ladies in the school would require protection from his foul testosterone driven base nature -- meaning that he would probably have been suspended and the agreement he and his parents had managed to negotiate with the school would be rendered null and void. He was willing to do just about anything to avoid that.
Cementing his standing as the weird kid in the school was the fact that he was only one of three males on school grounds who had a buzz cut: him and the two football coaches. To be more accurate, the two football coaches had flattops. Benny just had a fine coat of hair that was a quarter of an inch thick. Every Sunday night, he picked up the home hair trimmer with the quarter inch hair guard attached to it and ran it across his head -- top to bottom and front to back.
It was not a fashion statement on his part. He was cursed with hair that seemed to take off in different directions as soon as it reached more than an inch in length and wouldn’t lay flat until it was unacceptably long ... at least, unacceptable by his father’s standards and that of the school. Regardless of the amount of Brylcreem used to mold the hair in place, his hair managed to take off in random direction as it wanted. That was saying a lot since Brylcreem was popular among World War II pilots who wanted to keep their hair perfectly in place even during intense air battles. Benny’s hair defeated Brylcreem.
This was all because Benny’s father hated his hair when he let it grow out. It wasn’t simple disapproval, but outright hatred. For two years it had been a constant source of tension in the household. He had grown his hair long so that he wouldn’t stand out in a negative way. His mother, being a social animal, thought she understood his situation thinking that he wanted to fit in with his classmates. His father, who worked in a very conservative engineering firm, would glare at him from across the room and snipe at him to either cut his hair or get it under control. In June of 1972, in move that shocked the entire family, Benny dug out the clippers and sheared his head.
Even his father quickly backed off on his stance upon seeing just how out of step with everyone else Benny looked. The fact was, Benny didn’t care about being in step with everyone else. A wall had always existed between him and the rest of the world. Benny was smart, very smart. He thought differently, he approached things from odd angles, and he had a good memory. He was also impatient with people slower than him.
Just recently, that wall between Benny and his classmates had grown taller and thicker. That wall couldn’t be crossed by growing his hair a little longer or fixed by wearing more fashionable clothes. Even his parents could see that he had no chance of fitting in socially with his classmates.
In June of 1972, Benny had gone from being a normal smarter than average fourteen year old kid to being a super genius. It was an overnight transformation. It was impossible not to notice that Benny had changed. His speech patterns become more precise, his mannerisms became muted, and his opinions matured. His family, terrified that he had taken some kind of strange psychedelic drug, rushed him off to be tested. No drugs were found in his blood. Several Xrays, EEG, and physicals later, he was declared physically healthy and drug free, although not a particularly impressive physical specimen.
Then his IQ test came back with a score of 183. That’s a score that’s so high that the value isn’t even viewed as possibly accurate. The IQ test can’t adequately measure an intelligence that is higher than 160. Another test was administered with a similar result - a value so high that it was essentially meaningless. He ended up taking the Stanford–Binet, Woodcock–Johnson, Raven’s Progressive Matrices, and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale tests. All had the same result, Benny had an IQ off the charts.
It doesn’t matter if one believes in IQ tests or not. It is clearly not a marker for potential success. It might not even be related to the quality of thought. It might have nothing to do with real intelligence, whatever that may be. However, having a score that is that far from ‘mean average,’ suggests something is going on in the mind that is different from just about everyone else.
That difference between Benny and his peers was obvious. It wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t an act. It was just that interacting with people his own age, took on an unpleasant edge. His tone and mannerism projected all of the characteristics of a crotchety sixty year old man talking down to a young whippersnapper with an impatience at the naiveté and the belligerence that only the abrasive young can combine in such an arrogant manner.
If his new persona irritated the young, it infuriated middle-aged adults. Words of wisdom, even if they aren’t that wise, coming from the mouth of someone in their seventies is one thing. It is acceptable even if a little irritating. It is entirely different when the advice is from a punk kid. That steps up the negativity an order of magnitude. He was fifteen, and that made him a punk kid, as far as any adult was concerned.
For now, Benny Baker was isolated and alone.
He glanced up and spotted Timothy Blake looking around for a table. Timothy was one of those eighth graders who had been pushed into the high school. Their eyes locked, a sad expression crossed Tim’s face, his shoulders slumped, and then he headed off to a seat on the other side of the cafeteria. Benny watched the young man, thinking that it was a shame. They had been great life-long friends. Now, they were strangers and were likely to remain that way. Benny wiped a little moisture from his eyes and returned back to reading his math book.
A small creek, a north/south trickle of water, ran through the housing development. It ran under a bridge along one of the roads between the high school and his home. Now that he was in high school, he would have to cross it twice each day. No matter the circumstances, he always paused to look down at the water.
It wasn’t much of creek. It was a runoff watercourse that normally carried a trickle of water except immediately after a rainstorm. Then it could swell to nearly overflowing. Even in the middle of summer it retained enough water to support a nice population of aquatic fauna and a diversity of flora. There was just a small trampled path that paralleled its length which had been used by a decade of young boys exploring the world and discovering the joys of hunting frogs, minnows, snakes, and crawdads.
The creek ran between pairs of cookie-cutter houses in the well to do suburban neighborhood.
Due to liability concerns, the property owners weren’t happy having kids tramping through the back of their property following the path by the creek during the day. Building a fence to prevent kids from walking along the creek was a waste of time and money; one good rainstorm and it would be gone. It was also a violation of a local ordinance.
Property owners did call the police if kids visited the creek at night. It wasn’t that bad of a situation. There were four age ranges of kids who visited the creek with any regularity. Going too far along its length was more freedom than most kids under the age of eight had. Older than twelve, the boys were more interested in sports than catching crawdads. With that limited age range among trespassers, there wasn’t that much intentional vandalism or casual property damage.
There were two basic ways to get to the path along the creek. The usual and easiest was to cut through someone’s yard to the creek. The same kids tended to cut through the same lawns, so they quickly became known to the property owners. The other, and more polite route, was to climb down to the creek at the bridge that crossed it.
Walking home from high school, Benny stepped off the sidewalk at the beginning of the bridge and climbed over the rail onto the path. He made his way down the embankment towards the creek taking care to place his feet to avoid slipping and falling. He remembered a time when he would run down that path. In those days, if he slipped and fell it was just one more scrape amongst many. It wouldn’t even be noticeable. The path did seem a lot narrower now, but his feet were a bit bigger.
He walked along the creek, pausing occasionally to watch a water strider, a crawdad, or one of the very few small fish. He wasn’t in any rush and could afford to take his time. He had only gone about two hundred yards when he finally reached his destination: an old cottonwood tree near the creek. He sat down with his back against the tree and looked at the slow moving water which, at this location, was only about four inches deep. There wasn’t much of a current to stir up the mud and silt so the water was clear as crystal.
He sighed and settled into place hoping that maybe now he could zone out and think without being disturbed.
Benny slowly turned his head to look at the person who had yelled at him. It was elderly man, if one wanted to call a man in his late fifties elderly. He didn’t look to be in the best health possible. Benny wondered if he was recovering from a coronary failure of some sort to explain why he was out and about at this time of day. Most men at that age had jobs that kept them away from home during work hours.
Although he was sorely tempted to reply, ‘Hey, Old Man!’ he chose the more polite, “Yes, Sir?”
“Aren’t you a bit old to be playing by the creek?”
Benny sighed and rose to face the man directly. “Yes, I am. However, I’m not here to play.”
“Why are you here?”
“I’m wrestling with some of the metaphysical issues that plague all of us. I figure sitting in the middle of nature is a better place to contemplate my position in the universe, than the patio of a suburban house. As unfortunate as it may seem, sitting beside this creek is as close to being in the middle of nature as I can get.”
“So your girl dumped you. Well, there are more fish in the sea.”
Benny chuckled. “Nothing like that. My issues are a little deeper.”
“You’re a kid. Deep for someone your age is losing a girlfriend, your parents not understanding you, or discovering that the world is unfair.”
“I’d say you’d normally be right. As I said, my issues run deeper than that. I don’t have a girl, so any issues that I could have in that regard is how to better bait my hook. My parents and I get along quite well; particularly since I buzz cut my hair last year. It is a well established fact that the world is unfair, and worrying about that is as useful as tits on a boar. I’m not searching for who I am, because, quite frankly, I know exactly who I am, and what I’m capable of being.”
The older man snorted. “Sounds like you’re another punk kid who thinks he’s got it all figured out.”
“Let me see ... you’re about 57 or 58 years old. You’re home in the late afternoon. You’re moving stiffly and look a little pale and drawn. I’d say in the last month or two you had a coronary failure, perhaps blockage of an artery. Your doctor told you that you were lucky to be alive. Am I right?”
The old man wasn’t surprised by the accuracy of Benny’s assessment. He assumed that people in the surrounding area knew his story. He answered, “Yes.”
“I assume that you spent the time in the hospital assessing your life. You’ve probably got some regrets about what you’ve managed to accomplish despite your obvious success. In all likelihood, you’ve been thinking about how you might have been better off spending more time with your friends and family than at work. You’ve hashed over all of your fumbles and your successes, good times and bad, and dreams fulfilled and those forgotten. After all that existential angst while lying there in the hospital bed, there’s still one thing you don’t quite have a handle on.”
A look of surprise flashed across the man’s face. “I’ve got to admit. You nailed that one.”
“So rather than ponder that question at the end of my life, I consider it now. Shall I live to work or will I work to live? Will I strive to achieve what I want or what people expect of me? Which of my dreams will I strive to fulfill and which ones will I abandon?”
“That’s asking what you want to be when you grow up. It isn’t until the end that you can ask if you lived the right kind of life.”
“You’re right, but suppose...”
Benny looked up at the older man. Of course, that was the kind of lead that a person couldn’t ignore. The old man asked, “What?”
“Suppose you wake up tomorrow at fourteen years of age, in the world you knew at that time, remembering your whole life up to the day before now. Do your questions become ‘what do I want to be when I grow up’ or ‘did I live the right kind of life’? What do you think?”
“That’s science fiction.”
“I’d put it more in the category of fantasy.”
The old man said, “Call it whatever you want. A kid your age ... It’s wrong that you think thoughts like that. You’re too young to be thinking about mortality.”
Benny shrugged his shoulders while looking up at the older man. He frowned when it looked like the older man sagged in on himself.
“I’m suddenly feeling tired. I’m going back in the house to rest. It’s been interesting chatting with you.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m just tired.”
“If you feel bad, call 911.”
Benny wanted to hit himself on the forehead.
“Sorry, I was reading the newspaper a while ago that after the latest failure to pass national 911 legislation in Congress that Nixon mandated that states implement 911 services locally. The telephone number 911 is supposed to become an emergency reporting number nationally. It’s going to be a quick way to dial police, fire, and ambulance without having to look up the local number if you’re in a strange city.”
The older man stared at Benny for a moment and then rubbed his left shoulder. “Now that you mention it, I do remember reading about it. I’m going to rest now.”
“Call an ambulance.”
Benny could hear him mutter, “Damned kids. They think they know it all.”
Benny looked back at the creek and realized that the mood necessary for quiet contemplation had evaporated. He headed back along the path towards the bridge, paused to watch the old man enter the house. The guy was still rubbing his left shoulder. He wondered if the conversation with the older man had accomplished more than an hour of quiet introspection would have achieved.
He walked to the house next door and knocked on the back door. A middle aged woman with her hair in curlers opened the main door while keeping the screen door closed. The little metal mesh probably made her feel safer, but wouldn’t slow down someone with ill intent.
“What do you want?”
“Could you call an ambulance? I think the man who lives in the house next door is having another heart attack.”
“Oh my God,” she screamed while waving her hands around before heading off to make the call. She got a few steps away, turned around and then slammed the door shut.
“I don’t believe it. An honest to God hysterical woman. I thought they were extinct. I hope she keeps it together long enough to make the call.”
Benny went around to the front of the older man’s house and sat on the curb. He had just about given up waiting when an ambulance pulled around the corner. He stood up to flag it down. It was followed by a police car.
When the ambulance came to a stop, Benny went to the driver side door. While the driver was exiting the vehicle, he said, “I was talking to the old man who lives here. He suddenly sagged down, said he was tired, and started rubbing his left shoulder and arm. Based on his previous medical history, I would guess that it’s acute coronary syndrome, probably a blood clot in a coronary artery. I suggested that he call for ambulance, but he dismissed my suggestion.”
“Acute Coronary Syndrome? Who do you think you are? Marcus Welby?”
“Just go take care of the old man.”
Disgusted with the whole affair, Benny turned away and headed towards home. He ignored the activity behind him.
That day, the news reported that a conference of ‘less developed’ countries called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied Arab lands.
Edited By TeNderLoin