Charles Plymell on Charles Plymell (part 1)
I liked readin’ writin’ n’ arithmetic, but I never liked school and its silly rules. I never wanted to be around shitty-assed, snot nosed, dirty finks and bullies all day. I was never a joiner nor a team player. I was spared “kindergarten” invented by some German guy to make teachers the gardeners of the state and give their parents more time for industry. I was a loner, forever suspect to society and industry.
We were living in Yucaipa, California and luckily kindergarten was not the law yet, so I spent that year in “Paradise.” In the late 30’s up to WWII, Southern California was indeed a paradise, ruined only by population. Earthquakes and forest fires were negligible by comparison. I’d spend all day in my aunt’s orange groves with the smell of orange blossoms and huge navels ripening (Photo by Gerad Malanga ) until they fell from the trees. My education was developing in a brook in back of the house where pure sparkling water bubbled down the hill over beautifully colored pebbles, creating a vibrant reality, impressionistic like a mescal high. There was no smog from the basin then, only a gentle breeze of the cool mountain air that invaded the pores of the body. I explored the brook, watched the insects, frogs and snakes all day. The sun made everything glisten in suspense. My sisters, all in school, set up a “Yucaipa Valley Basement” school at which they taught me ABC’s, and tried to scare me by saying there were bodies in the bags hanging in the basement next door they made me to peek into. We argued over kid-things like whether it was Bob Crosby, Bing’s brother, who stopped along the road in a Buick convertible. We used illogical deductive reasoning that it couldn’t have been because he had on the wrong socks. My mother sang and played traditional songs like “We’ll Never Grow Old” when she wasn’t driving the load of oranges in the field in a truck with no doors that I could watch the shiny blacktop roll by and drag a stick along the pavement to annoy her.
My attitude toward school must have been formulated in those early years of empiricism, experience, and curiosity. When we moved back to the farm in Kansas, I and my sisters went to a one room school house three miles from our house. We got to school however we could, riding in our wheat truck (the family car), hitching a ride with farmers, ‘riding old paint’ or running through the green wheat fields. One time my sister chased me with a carcass of a small animal saying it died of rabies and I would get it if it touched me. The teacher, Mrs. Reynolds, also cooked lunch, which was usually baked beans. She was in the Temperance Movement, so we had to sing every morning: “What’s the matter with wine sir? Alcohol. (Repeat) Alcohol is a drug you see/ leaving a trail of misery. So what’s the matter….” I don’t know if that affected me, but I was never much of a drinker. I now sit in our over-taxed New York village watching the kids’ heads bouncing in the bus, having awakened at six a.m., sitting numbed staring out the window of $100,000 bus, fully equipped vehicle of the “transportation industry” of the local school education complex. Fattened by their fructose, everything stops for them to get off and on. One can’t be too safe, but I often wonder if their own awareness of what’s around them is numbed as well.
My parents had divorced and my father was traveling around North and South America looking for a perfect ranch like the one he grew up one but never found. For his headquarters, he bought a beautiful brick ranch house in Wichita that had a backyard on the river bank of the Little Arkansas where my sisters took care of me. He paid ten thousand cash for the house. I used that figure later as a teacher to show students how one could add a zero on to all items from those years to show current prices. Except for wages. Many of my lectures were made from scratch, relating to my own experiences. I completed the 5th grade within walking distance of our house. On the playground was a metal pole with rope and metal rings for kids to swing around, a maypole of sorts. I sat in agonizing boredom in my classroom trying not to fall asleep while the far-away peal of the rings hitting the pole as the breeze blew became my yearning tool.
My Jr. High school was firmly fashioned in the fateful Horace Mann tradition dividing and subdividing subjects into shorter periods punctuated by the anxiety alarm or bell or buzzer. Kids fidgeted away the approaching minutes in Pavlovian response, any self-motivation or thought interrupted. Most of the Jr. High schools carried the proud names of the Prussian system’s mold: Horace Mann, John Marshall, John Dewey to whom self-reliant people, defined by their individual accomplishments, did not have the correct social associations for good order of the specialists in education. Unknowingly, I was counter productive to the collective society of future orders and couldn’t wait until after school to fight some kid who was a born-again tattletale to the system. Dewey did away with phonetics that helped me memorize poetry when I had to stand in the corner in the one-room school house for misbehaving.
I never thought I’d grow up to teach in the digitized whole-word world of etymology challenged lead -head – bus exhaust- fumed attention distracted students. If I had gone to school with Dewey, I’d have to fight him after school too. The reasons were never known in after school fights. We just hated each other. Dewey didn’t want the likes of me, who could read and write cursive in the country school before the kids in town. He would know I was dangerous because I read too early. I might know too much, and what I didn’t know I’d find out without consulting the experts. I was a threat to his system. I wanted to define myself by my own accomplishments, likes and hopes, visions and dreams not by my associations with to other conformists, Even if I failed, we’d have to fight after school. He’s the reason New York State would have more administrators and superintendents than anywhere else. He’s the reason that our village ran the superintendent out of town, and I chased the principal down the hall. There was one tenured teacher we were unable to get rid of, despite the well known anecdotes of him diddling students. The authority of the system was stronger and the specialists’ rights superseded a few ruined minds. Yeah, we’d have to fight one of those kid fights of unknown provocations.
I had had my first encounter with race when I got a summer job peddling ice cream bars on a three wheeled bicycle. When loading up with dry ice and ice cream, other kids started picking on the black kid and didn’t want him to have the job, I guess. I told them it was foolish because he probably went to neighborhoods we didn’t anyway, and to leave him alone. It was a stupid job that netted a little over a dollar a day, so I quit. But I liked Jr. High School and showed off to my Syrian girlfriend by performing “Ragmop,” the hit of the day, with pre-Elvis gyrations and shaking my head when the teacher wasn’t looking. The neighborhood was very peaceful and tree-lined along the river. Other hit parade songs accompanied students in assembly: “The Old Lamplighter” and “Oh Mien Papa”. I was busy feeling up girls when the lights went down or going to the balcony filling rubbers with water until they stretched down to someone’s head below and bounced back up.
Before my last year in Jr. High, the principal asked me if I had mowed lawns all summer, etc. No, I told him I was driving a Caterpillar D8 on my father’s land in Dakota. He gave me a Prussian frown. He didn’t like me because he couldn’t grasp what I was talking about. I learned how flax grew and how to fly a Piper Cub and helped drive my dad’s REO truck back to Wichita. He didn’t like me, but I never caused problems not learning much. The teacher admonished me to pay attention or I’d be digging ditches the rest of my life. That didn’t sound too bad, since I could operate a backhoe.
I hated baseball. I didn’t want some idiot throwing a ball at me. I was not a team player and it bored me. But I excelled in track and was I was made captain of the team. A kid by the name of Richard cried because he had almost as many points as I did and wanted to be captain. I handed all the records and materials to him and told the coach I didn’t want to be the captain and he wanted it really bad. The coach thought that was queer. I wasn’t competitive, a trait that would later cost me dearly in a competitive, greedy society. I had my dad’s car to run around in, so I hung out with some of the mature kids. One would take his father’s pickup and we’d go see Emily, stop somewhere and play the pinball machines. He was a letterman, so he had the girls. Another friend had a knuckle-headed Harley with left hand shift he rode to school from the outskirts of town. We’d go riding on that. Socially we got along well and behaved for the system and the girls. I made a nice end table in shop that I still have.
I completed one year of high school in a military academy. I took Spanish because the school was located in San Antonio. We read Lorca and Coleridge and studied the classics. Our teachers were retired officers who had served as submariners, infantrymen, pilots, etc. in theaters of World War II, so there was no lack of experiences that fueled interesting discussions in everything from ethics to geography to little things like a lesson in etiquette that has stayed with me at the best of dining. When items are passed to me on a tray or plate, I politely help hold the dish with one hand while taking an item with the other. If one didn’t do that at mess hall dining with officer at the head of table, the server would drop the plate. We had compulsory study hall three hours every night. If we looked up from our studies, the Officer of The Day would thump our heads with his class ring he wore on his thumb for that purpose. There was little need for discipline in the classrooms. Bad behavior was unthought of . At night, I saw a blow job given to disciplinarian officer by those who weren’t as straight and starched, or by a foreign student in a new situation conforming to a universal event in all the services, asking or telling, aside.
I liked military school, but my father bought me a new 1951 Chevrolet to drive back home to Kansas, and I tried public education the next year and quickly thought it a waste of time, and for the most part, another failed system, so I dropped out in the first weeks of my sophomore year at North High school in Wichita and drove my Chevy to the Levy, so to speak. I liked the social aspect of high school, and that particular one had beautiful buildings on the Arkansas River. It and the Bridge had a Plains Indians motif, and they had a wonderful river festival. The gymnasium was almost Olympian. None of this could exist today in our devalued culture.