Wake Up Little Susie
IT WAS A TIME OF D.A. HAIRCUTS, T-SHIRTS, LEVIS, BIG-BUCKLE BELTS, AND STEEL-TOE WORKSHOES... WHEN THIS WRITER LEARNED THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT...
Preface: This post contains language that is not today considered politically correct. I do not use these epithets and have not done so since I entered adulthood. They were, however, in common use where and when I grew up in inner-city Chicago, and their use is necessary here in order to convey a sense of the times and the background of this story. If you will be offended by their use in this context, please feel free to turn the page, and read no further.
Chicago is less than 100 miles from Milwaukee, and high school life in the Chicago inner-city was pretty much as depicted in the TV series Happy Days, except... where I went to school, everybody was a scruffy version of the Fonz, and clean-cut kids were seen only in television sitcoms.
My first three years of high school were spent at Chicago Vocational School, where there were 6,000 students housed at a "campus" so large, you couldn't possibly get between classes in the time allotted if the two classrooms involved were at opposite ends of the facility.
The facility had actually for several years during WWII been an aircraft manufacturing plant. And when the war ended, the plant (which had originally been built to be a school) including millions of dollars in manufacturing machinery, was turned over to the Chicago School Board.
CVS, as it was known, was one of two "wide-area" high schools in Chicago, the other being Tilden Technical High School . CVS accepted students from anywhere in the city south of Madison street, while Tilden Tech accepted students who lived north of Madison.
Both high schools focused on technical and vocational training, with CVS heavily emphasizing the vocational end of things, auto repair, machining, welding, electrical, plumbing,and carpentry shops, with additional serious training in both architectural and machine drafting.
I had ended up there on the recommendation of a well-meaning, but ultimately far less-than-competent guidance counselor at the primary school I attended. For I wanted to be an automotive engineer, and she, not knowing any better, had advised me to go CVS, in preference to the college-bound district high school I was originally headed for. More on that story at a later date.
In some ways, those were good years. I saw Bill Haley and the Comets live on stage at the Chicago Theater, as Rock and Roll really started to take off.The Everly Brothers had just hit it big with their first #1 single, "Wake Up Little Susie" --- which I could sing in my sleep since it played endlessly on the jukebox in the small diner across 87th street from CVS, where we sat when cutting classes and gobbling up french fries doused in brown gravy.
Do idyllic images pop to mind? Especially when coupled with those TV images of "Happy Days"? Not on your life.
Chicago Vocational High School was a genuinely tough place. Not quite like a prison, but not too far off.
I remember clearly that during the first-week orientation, my freshman class of about 1,500 was sitting on bleachers in the gymnasium, whilst the assistant principal laid out for us the school rules of conduct. About half way through his talk, there was a small pop sound, and one of the students in the bleachers to my right fell over forward, accidentally shot in the back by a fellow student who had been fooling around with a zip gun --- a small 0.22 caliber homemade gun that was essentially a piece of pipe with a nail for a firing pin.
Luckily the victim wasn't critically wounded. But besides being arrested, the shooter was socially ostracized. Not so much because he had wounded another student, but because his zip gun was so crude. At CVS, with its legion of South Bend machine lathes, milling machines, and boring tools, it was considered particularly gauche to build such a crude zip gun.
As I said, CVS had just about 6,000 students. The student body was composed in the main of ethnic Italians, Irishmen, Poles, Puerto Ricans, and a small population (about 15%) of African Americans. Or as they were known respectively, albeit not respectfully, in those days, Dagos, Micks, Polaks, Spics, and Spades.
Then there were three Jews: me, one other boy, and one girl. Three total out of 6,000 students.
I didn't really know them because when I was a freshman, they were sophomores. And we weren't from the same neighborhood. But no matter. Three in a pool of 6,000 did not amount to spit.
Almost every day of my freshman year, some tough guy or other would decide to pick on the "Jewboy." Because not only did my ethnic background make me a target for anti-Semites, my relatively small size and light weight in those days made me an obviously easy target for would-be bullies. And had it not been for a couple of genuinely tough guys with whom I became friends early on, I probably would not have lasted the year at school, perhaps even not lasted at all.
I remember quite clearly one time when I was trapped in one of the Boys bathrooms by three simian miscreants intent on showing me how to wash my head in a toilet. Things were touch and go, until a truly big and really tough Polak, Keith K., who had appointed himself my personal bodyguard, came in.
Keith introduced the group leader's gonads to Keith's steel-toed shoe and the nose of one of the henchmen to Keith's forearm. Following which the group decided that maybe it wasn't such a good idea, after all, to turn me into a toilet scrub brush.
After that, when Keith or one of my other self-appointed guardians was around, I was more often than not let alone. Although not entirely, ever --- and rarely when I was alone.
However, a real breakthrough came in machine shop class one day not too long before the end of that first high school year.
In Machine Shop, one of my classmates was a Mick who, for whatever reason, had taken it as his personal mission to make the life of the "Christ-killer" particularly difficult every day that school was in session. So he messed with the lunch I brought with me. Or hid my books. Or took my tools. Or sometimes just threatened me --- endlessly. Always with a smile, as though he were only innocently "joshing" with me. But also always with a menacing undertone and whispered "Kike bastard" that let me know he was serious.
I tried for months to just ignore the harassment. I tried laughing it off. I tried sharing my lunch with the guy. I tried talking to him about getting along. All to absolutely no avail. The bullying continued relentlessly.
Finally, I had enough of trying to go along in order to get along. One morning, in the midst of him bothering me in some particularly irksome way, I picked up a tailstock wrench --- which weighs about four pounds --- from the Southbend lathe I was running at the time, and with a shout flung it hard at his head. It missed him by about a foot, but he nevertheless started to retreat.
I suppose I could have stopped. However, by then, I was pumped so full of adrenaline, I wasn't stopping. No way.
I grabbed the tailstock wrench from the lathe next to my station and began chasing him, yelling like a madman --- or mad-kid --- that I was going to smash his fucking Mick skull like a watermelon.
It turned out he was more bully than genuine tough, and he decided it was safer to run than fight. I continued to scream wildly and chase him around the shop for what seemed at the time to be forever but really was only three or four minutes, until the shop teacher broke it up.
Still, that was long enough for my tormentor and the exuberant crowd of onlookers to conclude that I was seriously out of control. And, moreover, long enough to spread the word it was safer to leave "that fucking crazy Jewboy" alone.
If there is a moral to this story, I am not sure I know what it is. Perhaps, that sometimes bullies just won't stop until you chase them with a hard, heavy implement in your hand. --- Phil Friedman
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About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation.
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