Copyright © by Don MacLaren
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Author's note: The following story, "The Jocks, the Jets, the Grubbies and the Ghosts of the Past," has been altered from the original published version. All edits made since publication are completely my responsibility.
The Jocks, the Jets, the Grubbies and the Ghosts of the Past
(Based on a story published in The Write Place At the Write Time literary journal, summer 2009)
By Don MacLaren
When I was a sophomore at East Grand Rapids High School there was a very beautiful, young woman who taught the English class I took. A friend of mine told me she had been Miss Ohio; she was often the object of my 15-year-old sexual fantasies. Her class came right after a 75-minute lunch break we had. One day in February, before Miss Ohio's class, three friends and I went to some woods nearby and passed around a fifth of whiskey, drinking it straight between about five or six bowls of marijuana as a snowstorm began to rage. We finished the bottle of whiskey just in time to get back to school, chewing gum and managing to drop Visine in our eyes on the way - despite the snow falling in our faces. One of the guys that had been partying with us felt sick in the class, and Miss Ohio led him to the bathroom whereupon he puked, then went home for the day.
At East Grand Rapids High School there were three cliques: the "jocks" - those who were into sports, the "jets" - those who were into looking good, getting good grades, following the status quo and acting rich, and the "grubbies" - who were into drugs, crime and revolution (or so we thought). The grubbies had a reputation for - among other things - not bathing regularly, hence our name, probably something like hippies in the '60s or grunge rockers in the '90s. I alternated between something like a jock or a jet during my freshman year of high school, but by spring of my sophomore year I was 100 percent grubby.
The grubbies congregated around a bench in the first floor hall, across from the cafeteria, where we would exchange information about where to get drugs, where to buy or sell stolen property, etc. There was also an area outside, a cement "porch" with a cement roof supported by cement pillars we would congregate at, sitting on the edge of the porch with our feet dangling over it, smoking cigarettes until one of the teachers came by, whereupon we would cup our cigarettes in our hands, hiding them until the teacher left. Some of the jets I used to hang around with when I was a freshman would make comments about me as they walked past one of the grubby zones. "MacLaren's a grubby," they'd say, which was in the eyes of most jets something like saying "MacLaren's a rabid dog." Nevertheless I was proud to be a grubby.
At that time the Elton John song, "Benny and the Jets" was very popular, and I remember seeing part of the lyrics to the song on one of the bathroom stall doors in the school, as if the lyrics to one of the most popular songs at the time were written specifically to attack the jets at East Grand Rapids High School. The jets were what the grubbies thought of as the establishment, the status quo, the wealthy, materialistic, capitalistic criminals too concerned with their superficial wants to see the damage their evil was doing. Most of the jets had plans to go to college, and though many of the grubbies would go too, most of us could have cared less whether we went or not. Colleges were part of the system we wanted no part of that gave us Vietnam, ghettoes, pollution and The Partridge Family.
There was one guy who got just about every award possible for scholastic achievement at the school in his senior year (my sophomore year). The whole school had assembled in the gym and he came up to the podium again and again to receive different awards. He was a very pimply, long-haired guy in blue jeans who walked with his shoulders hunched over - probably from hunching over books for so long. He was also a grubby. I thought that was interesting given that most grubbies like me didn't care about grades, though some of us read a lot on our own.
After my sophomore year was over, a bunch of us went to some woods out in the country to drink and get stoned, and the grubby genius was there. He was going to India, he said, not to college. He wanted to drop out of plastic American society and save humanity. Most of the grubbies though, were really no more socially conscious than anyone else at the high school. I thought of myself as kind of a Robin Hood when I stole something, sucked on a joint or dropped acid - taking energy away from the system and putting it into the revolution, where it was needed. Of course, I was full of crap, but I thought there were so few choices if you didn't toe the line and conform.
When I was 15 or 16 I made my first feeble attempts to write, and articulate my version of grubby philosophy. The song that happened to be the catalyst was Billy Joel's "Summer, Highland Falls." One of the lines is "and as we stand upon the ledges of our lives, it's either sadness or euphoria." Like many adolescents, I was probably borderline manic-depressive, so the lines seemed fitting and the song moved me.
Gerald Ford was president at that time; the man Nixon picked to replace vice-president Agnew after Agnew was forced from office for cheating on his taxes. Though Ford was basically a clean politician, he lacked the dynamism necessary to get the country out of its malaise in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate. He pardoned Nixon and presided over the country during the oil crisis. Gerald Ford also fell down a lot. Gerald Ford was from Grand Rapids. (When I tell people I grew up in Grand Rapids, even today, they still say, "Yeah, Gerald Ford's hometown.")
I became a grubby just as Nixon resigned and the man who had his residence in East Grand Rapids became president. Though Gerald Ford wasn't tainted by any scandals, he pardoned the man who presided over one of the biggest in US history. I think it fitting that just as I chose to spiritually drop out of American society, a man from Grand Rapids took the position as its leader. Ronald Reagan once said that the Soviet Union was the center of evil in the world, but for me Grand Rapids was the center of evil. It was the Hades I was destined to visit and do my time in, but the place I knew I would leave ever since the day I had entered its gates.
After high school I didn't go to India, or to college either. I went to work in a factory. Not long after that I broke up with a girlfriend, quit drugs and moved out of my parents' house into my own apartment - where I slept between ten-hour graveyard shifts operating a press at the factory.
The day after my neighbors downstairs were robbed at gunpoint, I went to a Navy recruiter's office and signed enlistment papers that put me on a train to boot camp outside Chicago, an aircraft carrier in San Francisco Bay, and on patrol off the coast of Iran.
After leaving the waters of the Arabian Sea, I did go to college, graduating as valedictorian at City College of San Francisco, then to UC Berkeley, where I was a member of the Honor Students' Society.
After Berkeley, I moved to Japan, where I learned enough Japanese to work as a translator writing business letters, and where I got enough practice writing business letters to publish one in Business Week.
Once, in the middle of a business trip I stopped in Grand Rapids, where I took a walk alone into that field where we'd drunk whiskey and smoked pot. I stepped on something that I thought was a stone, but bending down I saw it was a pot pipe. An empty fifth of whiskey lay as its companion nearby. I picked them up, intending to throw them away, but then I thought better of it and buried them instead. When I was finished I paused and said a prayer to the ghosts of my past as a strong wind whipped my face and the first snowflakes of the season began to fall. Then I made my way back to the road I had taken to get there, and set off in a new direction