SOME fond memories of childhood never leave you.
In sixth grade, my last year at Warthog Elementary, I sat next to Paul Fisher in “P.E.” (Physical Education). All the students sat on their assigned spots in a grid formation on the heavily scuffed floor of the typically ratty, Texas public school gymnasium. We spent most of the class chattering loudly while the sadistic burnout who ran the class walked around on the stage or talked with other teachers in his nearby office.
Paul and I learned to make funny sound effects in a mostly futile attempt to annoy the coach. One of our best was the “air raid siren.” We would simultaneously make a long, climbing-then-falling tone with our voices. When we did it at the same time, and our pitches were slightly out-of-sync, it sounded hauntingly real. I think maybe one time the coach used his P.A. system to say, boredly, “OK, enough with the air raid sirens” — but mostly he pretended not to hear it.
Another sound effect Paul and I did (not in unison) was to make a shrill, very loud, ultra-high-pitched tone with our voices. It sounded something like a long shriek, but with no scratchiness at all — just a pure note: “eeeeeeeeeeeee.” We learned to do this with our lips slightly parted, while appearing to be engaged in normal conversation, or just looking around. The idea was that if the coach tried to figure out who was doing it, he wouldn’t be able to tell. But it never did get a rise out of the coach, and none of the other students paid any attention to it either, though no doubt everyone could hear it. They just didn’t care; they were busy with their own conversations.
A year or two went by, and the late 1970s found me attending Merriam Middle School. I saw Paul rarely, and our sound effects games of elementary P.E. were forgotten. But my voice still hadn’t changed yet.
For lack of a better choice (no computer classes existed at that school then) I had chosen band for my elective. I wound up playing the baritone (“bary”) sax, and was close friends with an oboe player named Taylor Jones. We had a similar sense of humor, and a matched dislike of Mr. Butt-head, the crabby, bearded, bald, band director. Mr. Butt-head always seemed to be in a dark mood, never smiled with any genuine warmth, and was prone to explosive fits of temper. On several occasions I personally witnessed him hurl his plastic directing baton, or a piece of chalk, at high velocity in the direction of a band member who was screwing up. It usually hit the back of their crappy, numbered sheet-metal music stand with an impressive crack that got everyone’s attention.
Frequently, Mr. Butt-head would leave the class hanging so he could converse with Mr. Beavis, the percussion director, who often came into the band hall expressly for that purpose. Other than that, I never saw Mr. Beavis say or do much of anything. He had a very serious, studious, reserved, and controlled look about him. He seemed outwardly mild-mannered, but I heard rumors that his temper was actually much worse than Mr. Butt-head’s.
One night, the whole class boarded a bus to attend one of the many joint performances at some other school in another part of the mammoth, greater Houston area. Going anywhere in Houston is a long ride, so we had plenty of time to yak with each other while cruising down the freeway. Band class is atypically rowdy, and the most boisterous members congregated at the back of the bus. It was a warm night, so all the bus windows were open, and the wind noise made everyone talk louder to be heard. The only adult present was a middle-aged woman driving the bus, and everyone quickly realized that she didn’t care how noisy we were. In no time, the whole bus was an intensely loud mass of yakking, screaming, pre-teens. I was about a third of the way from the front of the bus, sitting with my friend Taylor to my left, and the bus window to my right. Toward the back of the bus, all manner of horseplay, paper-wad fights, and the like were going on. The bus driver, her face easily visible to me in her big, rearview mirror, seemed oblivious.
The level of mayhem amused me greatly, and at some point, perhaps wishing I had sat closer to the back and could have found a way to actively participate, I decided to let out one of those P.E. shrieks. Parting my lips slightly, and making sure to look utterly normal like I wasn’t doing anything, I let one rip. To my delight, I found I could still do it with ease, and it was louder and shriller than I remembered. Maybe all that sax-blowing had strengthened my lungs. Nobody seemed to notice, so I did it again. And then again. Careful glances at the bus driver, to see if she was reacting, revealed that she wasn’t. I would talk with Taylor and then casually look out the window and let another one out “eeeeeeeeeeee.” I kept expecting Taylor to suddenly say, “Hey, Darel, is that you making that noise?” But he didn’t. At first I was disappointed that no one noticed or cared, but then I thought, hey, if nobody cares, then I can do this with impunity! I can add a big spike to the level of mayhem and nobody will stop me. So on it went. Every few minutes I’d do another one or two of them.
Eventually the bus got off the freeway and onto a slower road. The whole mayhem level subsided considerably in response, and I of course stopped with the shrieks. By the time we got to the high school where we were scheduled to perform, I had pretty much forgotten all about it. When the bus driver got off the bus, she was immediately met by Mr. Butt-head and Mr. Beavis, and they talked with her outside the bus for a long time. We band members sat on the bus chatting casually, and wondering why we were all still sitting on the bus when we could clearly see other buses unloading students and instruments. None of us, including me, had any idea what was going on.
Finally, the three of them came onto the bus. Mr. Beavis was in the lead, and he stood at the front of the aisle. Mr. Butt-head stood behind him, at the top of the little stairwell, and the bus driver stood in the stairwell behind him. Slowly, over course of a minute or so, all the students became silent, as it gradually dawned on them that Mr. Beavis was very angry. I had seen cartoon characters’ faces turn funny colors when they were enraged, but I didn’t think that happened in real life. Apparently, it did — behind his scholarly glasses, Mr. Beavis’s face was weird shades of red and yellow, and veins on his forehead stood out. After all the kids on the bus had been completely quiet for at least thirty seconds, Mr. Beavis, slowly and deliberately, began to speak.
“Someone on this bus was emitting blood curdling screams. All the way down the freeway. Mr. Butt-head and I could hear it, in Mr. Butt-head’s car up in front of the bus. Someone was emitting ear piercing, blood-curdling screams, and I want to know who it was, RIGHT NOW!!”
Oh shit, I thought, he’s talking about me. But just as quickly, another voice popped into my head: I am the only person on Earth who has any idea what he’s talking about. As long as I keep my mouth shut, nothing can go wrong. And so I did. As Mr. Beavis ranted on, I glanced about and did my best to imitate the stunned, uncomprehending faces around me. A paranoid feeling made me think that any second, he was going to look right at me and realize I was the one. But he didn’t; he just kept raving: “Someone was emitting blood-curdling screams — we thought somebody was dying in here!!” After a while, he must have realized that he wasn’t getting anywhere, so he started making threats: “If you give yourself up now, the punishment will be lenient, but if I have to work to find out who it is, the punishment will be most severe. And I will find out who it is! I WILL find out who it is!!”
After he ran out of talk, Mr. Beavis stood there and glared at us, fuming. Then he turned to the bus driver, and said “Was it coming from the back of the bus?” Immediately came her one-word response: “Yes.” That lady doesn’t know diddly, I instantly realized, they told her to say that. Everyone from the middle of the bus forward was allowed off, and the grilling continued with the back half of the bus. I was significantly relieved to be out of the fire, but at the same time felt a twinge of disappointment that I didn’t get to see the rest of it unfold. Days later, I heard through the grapevine that a scapegoat or two got detention for yelling or horseplay, but neither of the band directors ever spoke of the incident to the class, so it was obvious they knew they didn’t get the culprit.
It seemed scary when it happened, but weeks later, out from under the cloud of authority, I was able to realize that the whole thing was side-splittingly hilarious. To me (and everyone else on the bus), those “screams” just seemed like part of the crazy, chaotic noise. But what if all the yelling and talking diffused into the road noise outside the bus, and the only thing that carried to Mr. Butt-head’s car was my screams? I can picture them leading the bus down the freeway, and hearing the first scream, clear as a bell to them. “What the hell was that!?” Mr. Butt-head probably said. “Did that come from the bus?” As it happened again and again, they surely wondered, “Why doesn’t the bus driver pull over? Is she being threatened? Should we pull over? What the hell is happening back there!!” Their fright and rage grew to a boiling point, while I, completely unaware of their distress — or even that they were anywhere near the bus — screamed away with mad glee. When they got to the school and met the bus driver calmly getting off the bus, they realized that no one was hurt, and after talking to her, they realized that she didn’t have the foggiest idea what they were talking about, but was willing to cooperate with whatever plan they came up with the catch the culprit.
Years later in high school, Taylor mentioned the “blood-curdling screams” with a smile. I asked him, “You know who that was, don’t you?”
“No, who?” His interest piqued.
“Me!” I said with a big grin. He stared at me, a little skeptically. I never knew if he believed me.
2007.04.30, 2007.05.20 — cosmetic touch-ups