Ysleta High School
Entering high school is a big thing in Texas. For boys, it means a certain amount of hazing, it’s like becoming a man. The first day of school you can expect to have your pants taken off and hidden some place across the interstate highway. School was ten miles away for me so the only way to survive was to cooperate; which I did very reluctantly. I was an underclassman amongst a new group of bullies. Now I was the smallest kid in a population of about 650.
I ambitiously set out to become a doctor or lawyer or such. That meant I had to have Latin. Taking Spanish was a cop out. Everyone talked Spanish, more or less, in El Paso; so you just got better at it and there was always someone to practice on. You could even use those words they didn’t teach you in school. You could take four years of Latin but the first two were the main structured classes, after that you could just read Cicero or Caesar or someone else in the Latin literature collection. I took Latin for three and a half years but I only passed one and a half years worth. It was my most difficult subject but the most valuable part of my education next to typing. Typing was my ticket to the world as you will see later. There were no other languages, just Spanish and Latin, unless you call Radio Speech a foreign language. I always joked that in my high school they taught English as a foreign language. Radio Speech was a way to teach us how the rest of the country spoke.
There were only 12 people in my Latin class the first year and nine the second year. So you could say everyone took Spanish except for me and a few others. The Latin Club was one of the most exclusive in the school. That and my good grades in Algebra put me in the geek category; which is good and bad.
My first easy elective was Library Science, in my sophomore year. My responsibility was to supervise the periodical room and bind all the magazines into larger volumes using a drill and bookbinders cord. With the exception of that, I avoided my easy electives until my junior year. In the last half of my senior year I had only one required subject and had three electives still to do so they suggested that I enroll only for a half a day. I said, “Fine, as long as you don’t kick me off campus.” What I had in mind was to work as a classroom assistant in the Art Department. I had made the National Art Honor Society the first year I took art and I was on a roll for designing stage sets and doing publicity posters. I loved art and wanted to continue to study art in college. With a half day to do what I loved best and all the free art supplies I needed, it was like dying and going to heaven.
I had tunnel consciousness when I was doing art work. I had to concentrate or my brush would dry out. I had to launch an action and complete it in one fell swoop. I coveted an air brush and then when I could afford it, I needed an air supply. I needed a real air supply, so I built it from a commercial refrigerator compressor and a hot water tank and mounted it right outside my bedroom window. My dad had mixed emotions about this and helped me find a pressure switch at my uncle’s refrigeration shop so I wouldn’t blow us all up. Even if I decided to shut down a project to do something else, it takes a little time to clean brushes and empty the paint cups of the air brush and that just saved me from being a part of a really bad accident. The guys in my group came by the house and honked, waited for what seemed to them to be adequate time and then sped off down the street, made two right turns and then plowed into a large tree at about 50 miles per hour. No one was killed but everyone in the car was badly injured. John Cain had his head wedged between the door post and the front seat and was unconscious for days and hospitalized for over a month. It took years to assess the brain damage. Bruce Kennedy broke many facial bones and had his jaw wired shut for months. Later he had bone infections that caused him to have reconstructive surgery on his face. I was lucky. I was cleaning my air brush and missed the trip.
I was not much of an athlete, but liked to play a form a handball against the stadium wall. I also did okay at gymnastics until I tried to push myself to the limit. I was still the smallest kid in school when I was a junior in high school, so when others were diving over the backs of four or five crouched kids, so was I. I could almost get the same distance as my larger classmates even for my size. Then we started going for height. Two people would hold the end of a tumble mat up and we were supposed to run up the edge and hop over in a dive on the other side. Lots of fun. At one time the mat was so high I could not see over. I could do that well, up to the point where I had expended all my energy getting up and over and did not have the momentum to complete the tuck and curl on the other side. My last dive was to come down hands and head first with no bend in my body. I came down like a pile driver and I felt a searing flash of heat in my neck and spine. I could not move. I thought I was done for. I was out for a while and they decided not to do the high dive after that.
Then they decided I should learn to play soccer. I lasted about five minutes in a game before I got tripped and went down on my shoulder, breaking my collar bone. It really hurt and I had to wear a steel ‘T’ splint for about six weeks. I didn’t like P.E. because that was when the testosterone-fueled bullies were unsupervised. I begin to have a fear of that concrete stadium.
I first became aware of my selective memory when I was at my 1983 high school reunion. Tom Garza could not believe that I did not remember being hung off the back of the stadium by my belt by a deranged sociopath. After I began to recall the details I realized that I had been so scared of falling face first into the concrete from a height of 60 feet that I had to expunge the experience completely to ever have a normal adrenaline level. I developed a healthy respect for battle stress. It might also be related to my belief in my late teen years that I would never reach the age of 25. I started to live an accelerated life.
My goal for longevity was to reach the age of 25. That was the age when a person became relatively immune from contracting polio. Polio had been killing people for two generations and was what President Roosevelt had that kept him in the wheelchair. It left people with withered limbs; which never recovered in a lifetime, and if it attacked your diaphragm and there was no iron lung available, you would die. The incidence of polio peaked in the late forties and swimming pools and ice cream trucks were thought to be involved. Nobody knew.
When I was about 12 and I had just got my scout uniform, a member of our troop died of bulbar polio, the kind that paralyzes your breathing. The troop went to the graveside ceremony in scout uniforms and saluted as the casket was lowered and an older scout played Taps on the bugle. He played it all except for the last note. Every time I hear a bugle playing taps I almost expect the last note to break.
In my senior year at Ysleta, one of the football players, Ray McCormick, was admitted to the hospital with symptoms of polio. Some members of the team visited him in the hospital and in a burst of emotion promised to bring him the game ball after we beat Plainview. The story was repeated in the pep rally at school and in a sudden burst of enthusiasm, I and my friends decided to travel to that game. Ysleta was pronounced the underdog by Ray Sanchez of the El Paso Herald Post and so religious fervor was heightened and a miracle was expected.
It was a Ronald Reagan, “Win one for the Gipper” experience. Plainview scored the first touchdown in the second quarter. Then, Henry Dutchover and Rodney Bunsen began to catch fire. ‘Dutch’ ran and passed all over the field and began to rack up points. Rodney Bunsen scored the second touchdown. Late in the game Dutch was hit hard and was pulled out of the game for a few minutes. He came back with white wrappings on his fingers. His fans went wild and he scored again and again. The final score was 25 to 7 and Dutch was out for most of the season with broken fingers.
We celebrated at the hotel and the coach could not keep us down. I took a bed sheet and painted the score on it and hung it out the 5th floor window. Once, when the coach made his rounds, some hid in closets and under beds and two went out the window and stood on the ledge five floors above the street. We were invincible and the game ball came home to Ray.
Henry Dutchover was considered the best, even though he did not play the full season and Ray Sanchez was instrumental in nominating him to the Herald Post All District Team. A couple of years later, I worked with Ray Sanchez in laying out the sports page when I was a printer and argued with him about the power of the Ysleta team.
I shouldn’t get through high school without mentioning there was a sex life, but not like it was later in the 60s and 70s. Sex was not what you did with a friend, since you could get someone pregnant and we didn’t know much about preventing that or negotiating safe practices. A guy would most likely have a chance to get VD from Mexico before he would risk involving a nice person. Pornography was also something not even imagined today. There were the usual pocket comics with Popeye or Dagwood doing it with their significant other and some comic license taken with body proportions and then there were the journals: spiral notebooks meticulously written by hand. I don’t know where they came from or under what circumstances they were created. You could not buy one, you could only borrow it on threat of life for not returning it promptly. That meant you had to read it quickly without getting caught. The ones I saw were written in a female handwriting and seemed to all be experiences from a woman’s perspective. The plots were simple and the action hot and wet. For young boys suffering from testosterone intoxication they were capable of creating a meltdown that could prevent him from getting out of the classroom when the bell rang. My head would be full of images for weeks afterwards. I’m sure I blushed when a girl would look at me afterwards. I felt so conspicuous. I hoped I could make it to 25, that might give me a chance to do some of those things.
Between my junior and senior years, I decided to take a real vacation. The family of a railroad worker was allowed to travel free wherever the train went. My mother and I traveled to Tucson in my younger years so I felt I knew what was going on for train travel. I asked if I could go to Los Angeles when I was 16 years old. My family stressed independence and 95 percent of all my travel around town was on my own means. My mom was not a soccer mom or a chauffeur, so it was deemed that I was ready to try my wings on rails. My buddy, Tom Tolson, wanted to go also; so we became a travel team. When we got on the train in El Paso there were already passengers in the car who had boarded in Dallas. Now, we had already formed some opinions about Okies and Hillbillies who sounded ignorant, but we were not prepared for what was to happen all the way to California. It was “Lookie them ca-ows and lookie that, ain’t thay cute.” in a constant wave of Dallas twang that drove us nuts. Tom and I decided to lose our accents as soon as we could. We did not want to be associated with the likes of those hicks while we were in California.
It was a 24 hour trip and we tried to sleep on the train but the Dallas folk started drinking and talking louder. We were very impressed with Union Depot in Los Angeles. We even heard the stationmaster call for the train to “Kuk-amonga” made famous by The Jack Benny Show on radio. We walked through Olvera Street; which looked like cleaned up Juarez; down to 6th street where we found the hotel that had special rates for railroad workers. I showed my railroad pass and got a good cheap rate. We stashed our bags and went out on the street. It was 10 AM and the sex movie houses were open for business. We were careful not to become customers, because, after all, we were minors here. This place is not like Juarez. Anything goes in Juarez.
That was the era before Roger Rabbit. The tire companies had not yet bought up all the rail transportation in the LA area. From where we were, by rail transportation we could get to Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, and all the way to Long Beach where there was a great amusement park. We swam in the ocean, ate fried prawns on a stick, and followed girls on the boardwalk, not knowing what to do if one tried to talk to us. The independence of being far away from El Paso on our own was absolutely intoxicating. We both knew in our hearts that we would not stay in El Paso much longer than we had to. We stayed our week and sadly started home. We lucked out, there were no Dallas people on the train back.
I joined the Photography Club even though no photography classes were given in Ysleta High School. They gave me a press camera with a supply of #25 flash bulbs and told me to cover the basketball game. I must have done alright because my pictures were published in the school paper. I couldn’t have afforded to own this type of equipment and what I learned was better than any class I could have taken.
Before I finished high school I was inducted into the National Thespian Society for my work in Annie Get Your Gun and This Way to Heaven. For a while, I almost got distracted by the theatre. I loved it. It played along with my magic hobby and gave me some stage time to get accustomed to an audience.
An old acquaintance of mine was to become an accidental movie actor. Ricardo Carasco, whom I had known at Crockett in my grade school days, was in a film being made in Korea. The film was Cinema Verite, actual battle with actual soldiers on the front lines. They would work on the film and then go back with their unit. Ricardo was a very funny, likable, and stereotypical Mexican GI. I couldn’t understand how he could have been in the Army in Korea and I was still in high school. Didn’t they really know how old he was? He was in the same grade as me at Crockett. Maybe he lied about his age. They were just finishing up the film and had to make a change. An extra had to play his part getting killed. You see, he really got killed and there was no camera rolling. The whole thing was covered in the paper and his mother was awarded his service medals. The movie premiered in El Paso at the Plaza Theatre, the same one that I took Mary Mahoney to when I knew Ricardo. The whole town was broke up. This war was not as much fun as WW2. Our kids were getting killed. Miss Clara Simer, our Civics teacher became very political and read off the names of her prior students who had to go to Korea. And then she cried. To this day, my brother Bill quotes Miss Simer on political issues. My brother Bill is two steps to the right of Attila the Hun on the political scale.
Clyde Wafer, the Principal of Ysleta High School, called me a Communist. I cried. He apologized and then offered to help me out. I had picketed his office and disturbed the peace and instigated students to join me in a protest. So Mr. Wafer practically pulled me into his office by my ear and proceeded to read me the riot act. Hence, the Communist accusation.
It seems that the previous year’s senior trip to Chihuahua, Mexico had produced some negative effects like drunkenness and a pregnancy; and the pressure was on to not repeat any more incidents like that one. The school was not going to sponsor any more senior trips; ever. I thought that was unfair and told him so. I wiped away my tears and then instituted Plan B. “Let me organize a local trip with parents acting as chaperones, one parent for each ten kids. The school would have no responsibilities. Parents would control the environment and we could have a trip.” The only thing I asked for was the mailing list of all the seniors’ parents. I walked out with a deal. I’ll never know whether it was the tears that did it.
When I came out of his office, the word went out and we signed up most of the kids for a trip to Ruidoso, New Mexico, a nice local mountain resort. I booked the hotels and a banquet and we had a ball. We had girls on one floor and boys on the other and we had a party on the stairwell. I was still collecting money at the end of the banquet but I broke even and paid all the bills. As far as I know there were no pregnancies. I don’t know what happened in later years.
My most embarrassing moment in high school is very difficult to tell, that’s why it is my most embarrassing moment. By some unfortunate misunderstanding and foolish bravado I found myself in possession of a disease of my private parts. It was something I could not ignore and it aggravated me and embarrassed me to the point of visiting a urologist in a clinic downtown. It was my worst nightmare, the shame of it and the maddeningly painful condition made me want to grab my crotch constantly. The doctor was very sympathetic and suggested a series of penicillin shots and a stern warning not to ever get in that condition again. Since I was still in school, it was going to be difficult to complete the series of shots during office hours without missing school. He suggested that his nurse could take the penicillin home and I could get the shots at her house near where I lived. I thought that was very considerate and considered myself fortunate to have such a caring doctor. The doctor gave me a piece of paper with an address on it and I folded it and put it away until it was time to go for my shot. I wondered whether the symptoms would be gone in time for the senior prom. I had a date with Bernice, a petite, attractive sophomore who had expressed an interest in me. Of course, she had to get permission from her mother who checked me out.
The time came for my shot and I took the paper out of my wallet and looked at the address. It looked familiar for some reason, but I brushed it off as one of those déjà vu things that never resolve themselves.
I was wrong.
As I stood in front of the house, I had the feeling again and then took out the paper again and looked at the nurse’s name. My blood ran cold. It was more than a passing prophetic feeling. It was the same last name as my prom date! I fumbled through my wallet for Bernice’s address. Oh, no! It couldn’t be. Of all the people that could have been the doctor’s nurse, not the mother of my prom date! I was panicked, but it was too late to back out now, I was on the doorstep. I knocked. A woman came to the door. “I’m here for my shot.”
I thought about priests and doctors, how they had to keep things confidential. Was it the same with nurses? Or with a nurse who was the mother of a girl you had a date with? She took me into a back room and told me to drop my pants. She turned the other way and prepared the syringe. I felt the cold alcohol swab, and then the sharp pain. “Okay, you can go now.”
I thanked her and looked for some sign, I don’t know what sign it would be. I left.
I checked with Bernice at school. “Is everything all right about the prom?”
“Sure, why do you ask?”
There was still one more confrontation. Would there be a scene when I picked her up?
I was a wreck. I tried to do everything right, be on time, have a corsage, look sharp, smile. Was I forgetting something?
She was beautiful. Her mother did not blink. Her father said, “Be careful.”
Bernice was wearing a red strapless gown and I was seeing more of her than I expected. After we got on the dance floor, I discovered that there was something in the top of that dress that felt like coconut shells and I still had pain from my disease. I was not very relaxed. I was very good to Bernice and got her home on time but never pursued that relationship any further, too much stress.