A Full Heart In The Basement

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Adolescent follies, antics and dreams during freshman year of high school.

Submitted: February 07, 2014

A A A | A A A

Submitted: February 07, 2014




A Compilation of Stories, Journal Extracts, and Letters From My Fairly Ordinary But Minutely Observed Life

 “I swear to God, it’s all true.”

1962: Age 13

A Full Heart In The Basement

9th Grade, Lincoln High, Mr. Linden


A Philadelphia late afternoon, December 1962. AbrahamLincolnHigh School, Rowland and Ryan Avenues. The Cuban missle crisis, that so recent peek over the edge into oblivion just this past October, is already a faint memory.  The rapidly weakening sunlight slants through the courtyard windows of a first floor classroom. Dust particles sparkle as they float serenely through the rays. The class nods, then, as one, shifts in their seats. The creaking and rustling stop and again there is only the silence of the dust. Yes, the dust, and something else… a droning, an endless uttering from the front of the room. 

Stirring from a most pleasant reverie about the  girl in the second row, I come back to the room thinking what the hell is that annyoing sound… oh, right. Mr. Linden. He’s still lecturing. Yes. Welcome to that place where time stands still. Welcome to Mr. Linden’s 10th period freshman history class.
Sitting in this class. Me. Wondering what went wrong. High school was supposed to be fun. Guys and gals flirting, hanging on corners, dances, hot rods and love in the back seat. Instead, I find myself in college block with a bunch of geeks who wear plaid shirts buttoned to the top and pocket protectors full of pens and pencils. White socks, ill fitting pants and Hush Puppies. One of them has a green leather cased slide ruler hanging from his belt as if a fast draw and quick computation could somehow save your life.
I am thinking that my friend Russell Lucke is probably home by now, hanging out at the playground, flirting with Marlene Poppa and Sharon Meyers. Since seventh grade Lucke and I have enjoyed a most fun but self destructive synergy. His insouciant disregard for rules and authority fascinates me and I think he is about the funniest guy in the world. His IQ is one sixty. Alas, teachers can never pronounce his name:
“Uh, Russell Luck? Lucky? Is there a Mr. Lucky here?”
“Yeah, right, Mr. Lucky, that’s me,” he says, lazily raising his hand.
Titters of laughter from the class, the teacher looking up from the roll sheet.
“I beg your pardon? Did someone say something?”
“It’s Loo?kee. You know, like, noo?kee?”
Guffaws from the back rows.
“Um, yes, all right then, is Russell “Looky” here?”
“Oh, Jesus.”
A month or so ago, Lucke and I got into trouble cutting classes and then entire days. We blamed it on the stress of the Cuban missile crisis. Sneaking around fourth, fifth and sixth period lunches, ducking Mr. Klein, that fascist midget hall monitor who reputedly knew judo and karate (“No shit, man, he had to register his hands as deadly weapons!”) and who one afternoon pulled me out of Mr. Sammits math class, shoved me into the boys room and smacked me around for ducking detention. Spending the afternoons in the department stores around Cottman and Bustleton. Living in dread of cut slips and the next days homeroom when one would be told to report to the library if any had been turned in. Oh, the thrill of it! For a time it was exciting as hell, me and Lucke running free on the streets, the school our playground, until we got caught and became known. On the carpet before Mr. Barfoot, disciplinarian and head of the Physical Education Department. Him squinting up at me and saying in his old gravelly voice, “You want to go to Boone, son?” Boone was a reform school.
But I digress.
Gustav August Linden, tall, robust, sort of Henry Kissinger like in bearing, right down to his black heavy framed eyeglasses and thick wavey receding hairline. Renowned for his violent temper. Head of the college block program. Who, until my little impromptu vacations came to light, had assumed it unnecessary to take roll among his distinguished pupils.
Heh, heh.
But then, uh oh.
Ok, so I cut his stupid class. But, much worse than that, I’ve disrespected him.


Let me here go back to an afternoon in November, my first return to Linden’s class after my unauthorized absenses were discovered. Apparently, the entire class has learned of my escapades and seems to be holding its breath awaiting Linden’s appearance. Even I’m a bit nervous given his reputaton, violence against my person not out of the question.
Finally, he makes his entrance. Striding across the front of the room. Setting his brief case on the desk. Now he stands looking around the room at no one in particular, just the briefest glance at me. He seems upset. This is not good. Bowing his head, hands folded with spired index fingers pressed to his lips, he appears to be either praying or considering his shoes, but I doubt he’s doing either.
Coming to some decision, he looks up over our heads and pointing to the ceiling with staunch conviction declares:
“I must take a pill.”
His crepe soled oxfords resolutely squish-squish-squish out the door. Murmurs arise from the class. Predictions of wrathful carnage are widespread. Some of my classmates are looking at me and shaking their heads, some with admonishment, some with pity. A few are grinning with glee at the prospect of a righteous beheading. The guy with the slide ruler has it out and is intently sliding his C scale past his D scale, back and forth, back and forth. Jesus, what a group of weirdos. I return their stares with a mock expression of apprehension, biting my nails, always the clown. Above us to the right, the hands on the clock impassively state it’s 3:21.
Slowly pass the minutes. Tic. Toc. Tic. Toc… Tic… Toc…… Tic……..
For  Christ’s sake, how long does it take to swallow a pill? Holy shit, he’s back.
Mr. Linden reappears, apparently less agitated, but not what I would call cheerful. Now locking eyes with me. Here it comes, men. Batten down the hatches and belay the yardarm. Lash yourselves to the mast. And pray to whatever gods you have.
In a deep formal voice he says, “Mr. Del Riego, would you step outside, please?”
Yes, of course. I rise from my seat trying not to dump my books on the floor. Despite my clowning I am nervous. I feel all eyes upon me as I cross the front of the room and go out the door with Mr. Linden squishing right behind me. My butt feels small, exposed; what the hell is that all about? In the hallway, I stand against the wall feeling diminutive opposed to his bulk. He looms over me, eyes boring into me, saying things and asking questions I don’t remember. Apparently, he’s not going to kill me. Thank God for modern pharmaceuticals. Oddly, I begin thinking about my desert boots. Are they the wrong color? Finally, he wants to know if this is ever going to happen again. I may be a foolish adolescent but I’m not a complete moron. I say no.
“Then let us return and begin again,” he says.
We return to the classroom and he begins his lecture. The class is stiff, distracted, as if they expect him to suddenly come to his senses, rip me out of my seat and beat the living crap out of me. Near the end of the period they seem to exhale. I sense a disappointment, as if some cherished notion of how it’s supposed to be has been dashed. I myself wonder what I have to do to really get in trouble.
There is one other normal person in the class, Barbara Eitelyerg, who has noted his casual attitude toward the roll book and has also cut his class occasionally. You know, like, every Friday.
“Great,” she says after class. “Because of you I can’t cut this idiot class anymore.”
And thus, it seems, appeared the first crack in the moral rectitude of the class of ‘66.


We return now to that December afternoon whence began my story, Mr. Linden and Ted Bloch – Lincoln Log editor, student council president and owner of the thickest lips I’ve ever seen on a white guy – have begun a stimulating teacher?student interaction wherein clever theories and profound insights are put forth about the historical significance of some guy back when doing whatever.
Inexplicably, my attention wanders. I find myself looking up at the clock. It stoically returns my gaze and seems to say that’s right, pal, it’s 3:35, no more, no less, and yep, Lucke’s at the playground and Marlene is looking fine. It then confirms my estimate that at this rate of flow it will be about three days until four o’clock. Good lord.
I suddenly realize Linden is addressing me.
“Mr. Del Riego, are you more interested in the clock or in the proceedings of this class?”
Shit shit shit. Unable to think of anything prudent that will sound remotely truthful, I say nothing.
“Never mind,” he says gravely. “I think I know the answer.”


A few days later. Dropped from the college block, I have been placed in the standard academic curriculum where the kids look and act like high school students are supposed to. You know, wrap around skirts, Peter Pan blouses, penny loafers and sweaters on the girls; herringbone slacks or kackies, button down shirts, v?neck sweaters and wingtips on the guys. And all of this fine apparel gracing our young, mostly slender, mostly unpolluted bodies.
Times are good.
In the Whitehouse, JFK is alive and well and Jackie is delightful in her pill box hats. Lending contrast, Nikita “We will bury you!” Kruschev and his tractor-like wife are in the Kremlin. The sordid events which will redefine us, shake us to the core of our being in the coming years lie beyond our horizon, unseen, unimaginable. So, too, the Beatles and the gathering British invasion. Motown and our space program are ascendant. The Crystals are singing He’s a Rebel and the Four Seasons are piping Big Girls Don’t Cry. And, my personal favorite, Marcie Blaine is singing I Want To Be Bobby’s Girl. Ha ha, not really,  I thought that song sucked. 409 Chevys rule street and strip, but Mopar 413?s are a threat.Viet Nam is some obscure place, of interest to no one. Black panthers are feline quadrupeds roaming the still pristine rain forests of South America, not angry, militant “afro-americans” with delusions of reestablishing some mythical proud “black” culture. The premise that we are all, with the exception of white males, “victims” of something or someone has not yet been advanced and legislated into law.
In our innocence we dream and aspire, still have heroes. We see our country and fellow citizens as basically trustworthy and good. Our need to rebel is satisfied with harmless transgressions: four letter words, an occasional fist fight, a pack of cigarettes stuffed in one’s underwear, the usual adolescent fabrications and maneuvers to score with the opposite sex. Youth bestows an attractiveness on even some of the less comely of our population. Others are in the awkward stage, their time to bloom still in the future.
The Christmas holidays are almost upon us and there is an expectant tension in the air. In the late afternoons the stores around Frankford and Cottman Avenues begin to glow, alight with Christmas decorations bright in the clear cold of these winter twilights. Ten years ago these lights radiated their love and magic upon the three year old toddler me. Only five years ago I was the fourth grade child, full of infatuations and day dreams, still loved and secure, and the lights still knew me. Now, same lights, but who am I? The filaments burn bright, but their light is now cold, impersonal. They’re just goddamned light bulbs. Probably not even the same ones I knew. Five years may as well be fifty. Ten years? A hundred.
And yet, as I pass through this busy intersection on the Y bus, my mind runs amok with fantasies of togetherness and good cheer, visions of love and romance. Later, at night in my Princeton Avenue basement, I sit in front of the Philco, its tubes softly glowing. Clyde McFatter and the Drifters sing White Christmas and The Ronnettes sing Sleigh Ride on Jerry Blavitt’s program over WCAM, 1310,Camden. The sound of the Ronnettes singing about sleigh rides in the snow with our cheeks all rosy and us comfy cozy merges with images of a certain classmate, a girl I see everyday, desired but unapproached, of friends, of others I see and want to know, and my heart swells to bursting with love for all of them, for all of you.

And the world
Turns around us
Because we are
 So beautiful


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