Speed Sticks And Pushers

Speed Sticks and Pushers


Health class (n), 1. A compulsory educational tollbooth through which every middle school child must travel.  2. A valuable roadmap for pre and post pubescents to assist navigation along the highways of life.  3. A learning curriculum designed to reverse all disinformation learned from one’s older siblings


In the days of Nixon, Watergate and presidential pardons, health class was segregated between girls and boys. There was the domesticus curriculae, better known as Home Economics, for girls; and “Health” class for boys hosted by our mustached, dolphin shorted PE teacher Mr. Stebbins who my father sarcastically remarked looked like an adult film star.


While the girls were railroaded into baking, maintaining proper Redbook posture and ultimately hypnotized into believing that Prince Charming did actually exist and was out there waiting wearing clean underwear, boys were taught the proper techniques for donning a jock strap, avoiding women with venereal diseases and abstaining from drugs with names like ” bennies”, ” uppers”, ” downers”, “Horse” and “Mary Jane”.


We were subjected to anti-drug propaganda to scare us straight.  In the annals of anti-drug films, the 1967 classic, “Pit of Despair” stood as a classic – converting the most impressionable among us into paranoid purists who would rather die of influenza than take medication. After viewing  “Pit Of Despair”, I was afraid to take so much as a Bayer aspirin for fear of waking up running naked down the Santa Monica freeway shrieking, ” the moon is following me…and he has a gun!”


Every anti-drug flick offered a similar plot featuring a normal suburban kid relenting to peer pressure, and agreeing to attend a wild “tea” party with lava lamps, 30 watt bulbs, throw pillows, sitar music, bell bottomed girls and drug dealers known as “pushers”. In a lost weekend of drug and alcohol abuse, the protagonist ends up with more holes in his arm than a cribbage board, screaming as he looks at his party mates who are no longer people but grotesque demons with narrow pink beaks.  Instead of fleeing the den of iniquity, he takes a more direct route to the street, leaping out an open window shouting, “Look at me! I can fly!”.  Meanwhile, his emotionally dead friends look on in sociopathic indifference as a rag doll dummy floats horrifyingly with flailing arms down to the cement sidewalk below.


Some were quick to dismiss the exaggerated melodrama of “Pit of Despair”, but we were all on the look out for pushers. I was convinced anyone with long hair or a beard was a drug dealer.  Even Sammy Davis Jr. played a heroin dealer, Sportin’ Life, in the move, “Porgy and Bess”. He later sang a song in 1972 whose lyrics, I was convinced, were clearly code for encouraging drug use.  The innocent ditty, “The Candy Man Can”, was played on countless conservative AM radio stations and hummed by clueless suburban housewives as they picked out their Webber Bread in the grocery store.


Drug use obviously was rampant and if you sniffed, puffed or popped, you were likely to immediately grow long hair, quit taking baths and barely manage a two-syllable response to any question.  You pretty much just walked around all day saying, “solid, man.” These wild haired, drug crazed gutter trash were called “hippies” and they existed like body snatchers to co-opt you into a life of drugs, promiscuous sex and crime – the trifecta of worthlessness according to my father. John Lennon memorialized the quintessential hippie in the song, “Come Together.”  The Beatles were notorious for putting symbols and subliminal drug messages in songs like “Hey Jude”, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and even the “Yellow Submarine” extolling the virtues of expanding one’s mind with opiates and hard narcotics. 


The insidious creep of drugs had to be stopped.  According to my Dad, the “French Connection” from Marseilles to New York would need to be choked off in its tracks or America would become a giant opium den – succumbing to Communism because we could not see or hear the Reds coming through the haze of our smoke and loud music.


While girls blindly emerged from Home Economics as SWITs (Stepford Wives in Training) with new appreciation for the wonders of baking soda as a panacea for odors, heartburn and insect bites, boys suddenly saw powdered sugar and flour as sinister accessories for pushers to further corrupt the poison as they unleashed it on Main Street.


The officer who briefed us on drugs and the warning signs of addiction was a

Detective with a thick Brooklyn accent, which only seemed to underscore the gravity of our drug problem. After all, what’s a NY cop doing in Southern California unless the “connection” was somewhere lurking in the shadow of our ivory tower.  He told us about cartels and drug lords.  He told us to watch for pushers hanging around the playground and baseball fields.


As we jogged in gym class, we pondered the identity of the alpha pusher running our town’s local drug ring.  Who was “Mr. Big?”  The big kahuna was often depicted in movies as a benign law abiding citizen by day and a ruthless distributor of narcotics, prostitution and murder by night.  Perhaps he could be our middle school principal, Mr. White. If he was the man, he could not be working alone. His VP of students, Mr. Gilligan, must be the strong arm of the operation – dealing not only drugs but also detentions.  These clever punishments delayed kids after school and forced them to walk home alone where his network of pushers might more easily trap them. 


I confided my entire theory to my brother and was immediately ratted out to my father.  My Dad was furious, “You will get our butts sued.  Michael. What were you thinking?”  Weighing the cost/benefit of investigating a major drug ring but having to weed the backyard until the year 2015, I gave up on Mr. White.  However, I never stopped scanning the playground for dealers.  Sportin’ Life could be anywhere waiting to snare us into a life of addiction.


I am now told that today’s health classes are more politically correct but remain true to the major building blocks of adolescent development – drug and alcohol prevention, body change, sexual responsibility and hygiene.  We can always tell when Health class is in session as one of our boys comes home smelling like a Mennen Speed Stick.  For the next week, the boy is a walking Glade Room freshener as he lathers his entire body with deodorant hoping to attract someone or something.  Usually, he attracts a few flies and the cat. At dinner, he informs us about hygiene as if we were immigrants just off the boat on Ellis Island.  My wife nods with a sardonic smile indicating that perhaps her husband could use a refresher course. 


Health class seems not to have lost its punch.  It may carry a different scent and rely less on fear than information but it has come of age. It has kept pace with the 21st century and has finally understood that health is in the end, a coed experience.  Kids do not seem too concerned about pushers and are clearly more informed about the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles.  Yet the Achilles heel of each generation is the fact that they believe they know more than their elders.  Alas, they are still kids. The rote facts they learn are only words and not always understood.  We only hope these seeds of health and wellness germinate at the right times.


And judging from the fact that my son has not bathed in three days, not everyone is practicing what is being preached.  I have to go find that Speed Stick and leave it under his pillow.




Kiss Me You Fool

Cover of "A Place in the Sun"
Cover of A Place in the Sun

“And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb ‘to love.’ A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee’s brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover’s lip: ‘Forever.'” – Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act 3

It was a first kiss much like many other first things – awkward and tinged with an electric guilt that always accompanied the first taste from a forbidden apple.  Everyone was making out – – at least this was the scouting report from the locker room, a pubescent hot stove network of chronic adolescent liars. If I was to believe my friends wrapped in their microscopic dish rag gym towels, shivering in the cold morning air that coursed through the frosted gymnasium windows, everyone had gotten to first base – Everyone with the exception of me.

Seventh grade was a treacherous strait of hormone infested waters set against a skyline of uneven boys and girls of every imaginable height.  Each kid was a building under construction – – from awkward skyscrapers to stunted single story apartments.  Your body was in the first act of some Kafkaesque transformation and your mind was becoming ready and cautiously willing to explore the perfumed corners of a universe that suddenly seemed more complex than just one year before.  In retrospect, middle school girls were much more predatory than their more slowly evolving opposites. Girls matured faster than boys and had a greater curiosity for the strange hieroglyphics of love.  These budding drama queens were hardly advanced in the sending and receiving of the signals of attraction.  It was more that they had become in love with the idea of being in love and required a supporting actor to experiment with life’s passion play.  Boys became willing and fumbling accomplices but were ill equipped to navigate the contradictions of romance.  Inevitably, their inability to comprehend the opposite sex fated most nascent relationships to life spans measured in hours and days. At first, I lied like all the rest of them, boasting of a torrid affair with a thirty year old school teacher in Arizona while on vacation with my family at the Grand Canyon.  Upon rigorous interrogation from a cerebral cynic named David Schuck, my story shifted and became even more colorful.    Several boys “oohed” and “aahed” but David remained tortured and unconvinced, leering at me with the squinting eyes of a conflicted moral inquisitor.

My preoccupation with kissing was in fact, more deeply rooted in an early childhood spent watching classic movies with my mother who could never convince my father to watch any film that did not end with someone being shot with a 44 magnum.  We would hoist a large basket of laundry into the den and fold clothes while Bogie clutched Bacall and Gable fell for Lombard.  There was the frozen fated kiss of Lara and Zhivago and the lushly, seductive lips of Rita Hayworth corrupting a naïve Tyrone Power in “Blood and Sand”.  Yet, the best kiss – the greatest kiss of all time, was between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in The Sun”.  That lip lock was a union of two magnificent forces of nature, the fated kiss of two young immortals – irresistibly drawn to one another in a timeless American tragedy that would conspire to keep them apart. Their chemistry was extraordinary and palpable enough that even a kid could understand how passion could penetrate the soul.  While most boys my age hid their eyes at such a union with a muffled groan, I tilted my head while my mouth slowly moved mimicking the kiss.  I was transfixed. All I knew is I needed to be ready when my Elizabeth Taylor came along.

I practiced on the full-length mirror in my bedroom until my little brother walked in on me and accused me of being a Homo Sapien.  I was highly offended by the allegation and punched him in the stomach.  My burst of masculinity seemed to dissuade him from casting furthering aspersions on my manhood.  But I needed to practice – resorting to kissing my arm until my mother asked me why I had so many strange bruises along my forearm.  “They almost look like… hickies” I heard her tell my father.

Yet the more I analyzed the actual art of kissing, the more disgusting it seemed. It involved opening your mouth very wide, like a basking shark and then attaching yourself to her mouth which was also open wide.  One of you would have a strained neck by the end of the process but it was necessary to attach your mouths and hold your breath for as long as possible until one of you swooned, passed out or just pulled away saying, “ no, this is all wrong”.  There were even more disturbing rumors of Kissing 2.0 which involved wandering tongues. For someone like me with a sensitive gag reflex, an unwelcome tongue could precipitate an apocalyptic disaster.  It was all so complicated and troubling. Yet, with each gym class, my biological clock was ticking louder than an aging debutante. I was convinced that everyone had “ made out”.  Even Jim Emmett, the lowest form of amoeba on the seventh grade social food chain and master of the habitual lie, purported some type of liaison with the check out girl at the Market Basket grocery store.

It was Valentine’s Day, a day I had come to loathe.  On this day, Valentines with candied Necco hearts were delivered from secret admirers and romantic interests.   To raise money, service clubs would sell the Valentines with messages like “ Be Mine” or “Love You”.  A “popular” person could receive scores of Valentines or perhaps like Charlie Brown some might be left with a single Valentine from their math tutor Mrs. Hearn.

My secret valentine arrived after fifth period social studies.  All it said was, “ Kiss Me”.   I looked around the room, hoping that by some miracle it had been sent to me by the statuesque Scandanavian goddess, Kerry Kostlan.  Our eyes met but her gaze was filled with only her normal contempt.  Brad Wetmore leaned over and whispered, “I know who sent you that Valentine.  Meet me after school.” Instead of excitement, panic immediately set in.  I glanced at the clock and it was already 2:00pm.  I had left my emergency osculation kit at home – Spearmint Binaca and English Leather cologne. At 3PM, I would most likely meet “her” and perhaps she would want her kiss.  This was not going according to plan.  Perhaps, my rite of passage could wait a tad longer.

As the bell sounded, I raced to my locker and on toward the bike racks where I would flee home on my ten speed.  As I turned the corner, I saw Bradley.  He motioned for me to come over to where he was half hidden in a shadowed passageway between the gymnasium and woodshop.  Behind him was his girlfriend, Kolynn and a shy girl with long tangled blond hair.  It was Tracy, Kolynn’s best friend. Minutes later, we were playing truth or dare and Kolynn dared me to kiss her best friend.  The moment was at hand.  It was not Elizabeth Taylor on the balcony of a Newport Rhode Island mansion.  It was a kind-eyed, chestnut-maned girl with a mouthful of steel and a horse-faced overbite. I moved toward her and she smiled the nervous half grin of a willing neophyte.  I tilted my head and squinted my eyes opening my mouth – wide, very wide.  Through the haze of my eye slits I could discern total amusement as her eyes laughed with compassion.  She moved over and grabbed my chin, closing my mouth awith the pinch of her thumb and forefinger, and pressed her lips onto mine.  My chest filled with tiger-tailed butterflies while my knees yielded to the electricity. Her mouth was warm and soft like dough frosted with cherry lip-gloss.  I held my breath and waited.  I was about to pass out as I no one had informed me that a man was allowed to breathe out of his nose while making out. She thankfully moved away, floating off and smiling.  “See you later” she giggled and whispered something to Kolynn, who laughed.

Later as Bradley and I rode our bikes home, I was triumphant.  I tried to be cool but I could not contain my enthusiasm.  I just wanted to talk.  In fact, I was talking so much, I did not notice that Bradley was no longer behind me, and had turned off a block before to go home.  “So what did she say,“ I said, as I turned around to an empty street. I did not see Bradley nor the parked car but I do remember very distinctly the metallic crash and a flash of excruciating pain in my hand.  I looked down and my finger was bent back to my hand – obviously dislocated.  There was a brutal shock of electricity up my arm as I shook my hand and suddenly felt the joint pop back into its socket.

The hand was already swelling and my bike was a mess.  As these were the days before helicopter parents and cell phones, I walked the ruined bike home, cupping my hand to my chest.  But all I could think about was that kiss.  I had finally made it to first base and joined Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable and Bogart.

In fact, I was pretty sure not even Bogie had ever held his breath as long as I held mine with Tracy.  Must be all that exercise in gym class.