Lawrence – My Hometown
By Richard E. Noble
Jimmy Rowland had a 1953 Mercury. He lived on Spruce St. and I lived one block over on Chelmsford. I met Jimmy in my early Walter’s Variety Store period. I think I may have been guilty of teaching him how to smoke cigarettes.
I can still remember the afternoon when Dickey Bolton taught me how to inhale. Very shortly thereafter, I was puffing out smoke rings and filtering smoke out through my nose. If only physics or algebra gave me the same thrill.
Jimmy got his faded blue ’53 Merc just in time for our junior year at Central Catholic High School. He had a plan for the interior but only got so far as to remove the bolts that secured the front seat to the floor.
Jimmy was always late. I was always late too, but Jimmy was often even later. I would sit out on my front porch waiting as long as I dared for his Merc to turn the corner. By two or three minutes after eight I had to start hoofing it, Jimmy or no Jimmy.
Most often by the time I hit Arlington St. or DeSantas’s Variety on Spruce St., Jimmy would race up beside me and honk. I would jump in the front passenger side, voicing my relief and discontent. Jimmy would apologize for being late. He would put his cigarette between his lips and grab onto the steering wheel with both hands, then laugh and hit the gas. Without fail the front seat would flop backwards, and I would go ass over tea kettle into the back seat.
Every damn morning, it was the same thing. I still can’t believe that I could never realize what was going to happen and brace myself accordingly. I was always so worried about being late and getting 11 years in room 22 from Vice Principal, Brother Herman Georing or whatever his name was. He had replaced Brother Richard who was great. This new guy and his pal, Principal Huge (Adolf) Ephram or whatever, Brother George’s replacement, were, in my opinion, responsible for the pussifying of Central Catholic High School.
They were trying to turn it from a rough and tumble Lawrence neighborhood school into some kind of fancy conservatory or Ivy League prep school. I was totally opposed to the reconstruction.
The orchestrated cheering practices with the cheers actually spelled out on a piece of paper were too much for me – Rah, rah, rah, sis boom bah. I couldn’t believe it. Today they even have “girls” attending Central Catholic. My God! Total pussification!
I don’t know where Jimmy got his wardrobe but he had some wild ties and shirts – and he wore them to school every day.
He had a variety of Hawaiian, multi-colored pastel shirts – sky blue, turquoise, pink, sunset yellow, pacific green and several other bright “pretty” colors splashed randomly over the fabric. He would top this type shirt off with a wide flaring tie – usually sporting a girl in a bikini or a guy on a surfboard. He had some ties where one could turn the tie this way or that way and the girl would change bikinis or the wave would crash on the surfboarding guy. I don’t remember if he had any ties that glowed in the dark or lit up in psychedelic colors – but he may have.
The brothers always took note of Jimmy’s choice in attire but no one said anything. Hawaii was a state, you know. I suppose it could have been considered unpatriotic to criticize. Jimmy’s dad could have been an admiral stationed at Pearl Harbor or something – you never know.
Brother Joe, the freshmen football coach, caught us coming down the second floor gym corridor “almost” late one morning. Brother Joe noticed Jimmy’s shirt and tie and seemed to be displeased. He stopped Jimmy but to my surprise only asked that Jimmy tuck the shirt into his pants. He made no comment on the hula girl tie or the blazing sunset shirt. Jimmy sighed deeply, tucked in the front of his shirt but not the sides or the back and hurried off.
Brother Joe was not entirely satisfied with that response. He grabbed Jimmy by the back of the shirt and slammed him up against the cold, cement block wall. With his nose nearly touching Jimmy’s nose he said in a quiet determined anger, “What do you think you are a smart guy?” Brother Joe sounded very much like Edward G. Robinson in one of those gangster movies or Clint Eastwood in a “make my day” sort of way.
“No Brudder. You said to tuck my shirt in. So I did.”
“You did huh. Is that how you always tuck in your shirt to attend classes here at Central Catholic High?”
“No Brudder, but I was in a rush. We’re a little late today.”
“Tuck in the shirt properly,” Brother Joe threatened while releasing his stranglehold on Jimmy throat.
Jimmy followed instructions and was released but the warning bell sounded. By the “rule” everybody had to be in their homeroom by the sounding of the warning bell. If not, a possible 11 years in room 22, standing at attention and staring at the back wall, if caught by the Gestapo.
I had scurried into our homeroom. I was safe. Jimmy was late and suddenly there stood Brother Herman Georing at our homeroom door. Jimmy was done for – but not quite. He snuck up behind the Brother and waited. With a little luck maybe he could sneak passed.
The Brother had his arm stretched across the doorway. When the Brother turned his head to the left, Jimmy swayed to his right. When the Brother turned his head to the right, Jimmy swayed to the left. Everyone in the class was aware of the situation – even our homeroom brother, Simian, the school bus driver. The class began to laugh and mumble and everyone was looking toward Brother Herman Georing standing in the doorway with his shadow, Charlie Chaplin, bobbing and weaving behind him. The assistant principal finally got the message and he turned slowly to the left to see what might be going on behind him. As he did Jimmy slipped into the room via his right. Brother Georing did a complete pirouette but discovered nothing unusual. The classroom was in an uproar, even Brother Simian was laughing. Jimmy was safe and already fumbling with the combination lock on his locker.
Jimmy was also a lady’s man. I can still remember the time he had one steady girlfriend at the front door of one of our beach cottages while entertaining another semi-steady girl in the kitchen. On that occasion he escaped via the bathroom window. The two steady girls passed one another at the door both looking for Jimmy but never met or spoke – and were none the wiser.
Now I’m telling you all this in preparation for graduation night. I could have simply said that Jimmy was a funny fellow or a clown of sorts but that wouldn’t have painted the proper picture. You should have Jimmy in your sights by now. So let us now return to that fateful evening in the Central High gymnasium.
We had practiced for this event a hundred times. There really was no reason for a problem. We knew who would be first and who would be last in each row. There should have been nothing to it. We had lined up on the gym floor. We all knew who was to be on our right and our left. We knew what direction each row would take on their path to get up and onto the stage where we would receive our diplomas. We even practiced taking our diploma in our LEFT hand and shaking hands with our right. We had gone through all of this, time after time. It should have been a piece of cake. And it was a piece of cake for the entire graduating class … except for one individual.
There was only one thing that we hadn’t practiced. We did not practice with the actual folding chairs lined up on the gym floor. It was considered superfluous, I imagine.
Jimmy was supposed to be in the end seat on my row. But for some reason one clown in our row didn’t scooch up to the guy next to him. When Jimmy attempted to assume his position in the last seat on the aisle in my row there was no space. Jimmy tried to push the kid who was standing in front of his folding chair in a bit but the guy wouldn’t budge. Jimmy had to think and move quickly. The audience of parents and admirers was seated up above on the floor that looked down onto the gym. Everybody – all the parents and relatives – could see everything. They had an elevated bird’s eye view of the gym floor.
Since the guy in front of Jimmy’s seat wouldn’t budge, Jimmy had to push his way into the line entering the row behind us.
I felt someone tapping on my shoulder. Jimmy was now sitting off to the right behind me.
“That F’in butt hole wouldn’t push in,” he whispered, terror struck.”
“Yes, I noticed that,” I whispered looking straight ahead.”
“I’m going to kill that son-of a b—ch after this is over. What do I do now?”
“I have no idea.”
“Everybody is going to get the wrong diplomas. Jez -zus F’in H. Christ! Can you believe this sh–t?”
I turned my head slightly to look at Jimmy’s face. I had never before in our career together as friends seen Jimmy with such a distressed look. For reasons beyond my control a tiny sputter of laughter began to well up inside of my stomach. It felt kinda like a burp or gas or something. I tried to hold it down. But slowly it began gurgling out. I began sputtering in my seat. I kept my mouth closed but then my cheeks would puff up with suppressed chuckle and uncontrollable little noises began erupting from me. I couldn’t stop them from coming out. I tried burying my face in my hands. I kept thinking that this could only happen to Jimmy Rowland.
The guys on both sides of me started elbowing me. “Come on man! Our parents are here watching this. This is important you screw off.”
I looked over to my left. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my buddy Peter. He was scrunched up onto one little folding chair with some other, big fat guy. He peeked down his row and saw Jimmy sitting there in the wrong place, then he looked over at me. When he saw my face, my condition spread to him. His cheeks began to bubble up and then we were both sputtering and backfiring as we shook and rattled in our folding chairs.
I could feel Jimmy glaring at the back of my head. I turned and peeked ever so cautiously. Jimmy’s face was extremely red. He tried to maintain his frowning temperament but looking at me it became difficult.
“This is not funny,” he whispered with a slight giggle and a half grin that vanished almost before it started.
“I know, I’m sorry but I just can’t help it,” I whispered in return.
I realized that I couldn’t look at Jimmy. I kept looking straight ahead and concentrating on the ceremony.
Next, I heard a small commotion behind me. I peeked over my shoulder for a second time and Jimmy was gone. I turned to my left and there was Jimmy crawling along the floor in the row behind me. All the guys in my row were now seated in their proper chair. Jimmy’s end-of-the-row seat was miraculously vacant. Jimmy decided to get to his seat commando style. But he had a long crawl ahead of him. He had to go to the end of Peter’s row and sneak around the corner into our row and then crawl all along the entire row of about twenty or thirty folding chairs, over everybody’s spit-shined shoes, until he reached his proper seat at the other end.
As I watched him crawling down the aisle towards me on two knees and one hand – the other hand holding his graduation cap onto his head, I nearly went into a convulsion. I was sure everybody in the entire building could hear me gulping and puffing. I tried pretending that I was coughing but it was a strange sound.
When Jimmy finally arrived at my chair, he stopped and looked up at me – on his knees, one hand bracing the floor and the other holding his graduation cap to his head. The golden tassel dangled down between his eyes and over his nose. He tried to puff it out of his line of vision. It didn’t budge. I thought I was going to die. I exploded. I turned my explosion into a rather strange sounding sneeze followed by some severe coughing and hiccupping. Students from all over were turning to look at me but it was beyond my control.
When Jimmy finally slid up onto his rightful seat at the end of our row with two dirty knee spots on his graduation gown, his face and neck traffic-light red, and glanced down in my direction, it was all over for me. The remainder of my graduation was a blur of tears, deep breaths, and failed attempts to control the “giggles” and the sputters. I remember nothing else from that afternoon. I don’t even remember going up to the stage to get my diploma. I don’t know who gave it to me. My whole graduation is Jimmy Rowland.
I never again saw Jimmy with as frightened and frustrated a face as he exhibited on that graduation day. Even at his wedding, he was less flustered. The only image that remains with me today of that entire graduation event, so important to everyone’s life, is that of Jimmy Rowland crawling past me on the gymnasium floor and stopping to look up at me in utter desperation. If I only had one of our modern digital cameras, I could have captured the “look” of a lifetime. That one look made up for a thousand early morning tumbles into the back seat of that darn ’53 Merc. Oh brother, I’ll never forget my high school graduation! Thanks for the memory, my friend.