The Riley Creek Blues [Repost July 2010]

A few thousand words about my not-so-unique experience in junior high school.



It’s another “Wait around for other people to do their work so I can do my work” kind of day. I have time to kill, so I thought I’d start collecting my thoughts on Riley Creek School, in Gold Beach, back in 1980-1982. Junior High School isn’t easy for anyone, I know this; and I don’t want to sound like I’m whining about how bad I had it.I’ll be naming names. I want you folks to know ahead of time (and some of the people I’ll be naming are on Facebook) that I bear no ill will to anyone. It was too long ago to hold grudges about this stuff. And I love all you guys now and beg that you don’t take offense. But hey, it also makes a colorful story, and I bet a lot of people will either say “I didn’t know that!” or “I remember that!” or “Wow! He’s still an asshole!” Regardless; here it is: a bunch of random thoughts and anecdotes and stuff, from my perspective (which is, of course, the only perspective I can tell it from).

I was from Pistol River, which, for people not from Curry County, well, let’s just say that it makes Ophir look like a great metropolis, and we all know how big Ophir is. I was promoted to 7th grade with Brett Hull, the only other 6th Grader in Pistol River at the time. There was another kid (big Mike Woudstra) who would have joined us but he ended up going to Upper Chetco halfway through our 6th grade year, the traitor. I knew a couple other people at Riley Creek School: children of my dad’s friends mostly (Kyle Hensley, Michele Adams, Renee Thomas) and and church kids (Mindy Deets and Doris Ann Kelly), but unless we made our weekly excursions into Church or took the occasional family Jeep ride, I didn’t socialize much with anyone. Entering 7th Grade, I may as well have been moving into New York City, going from a class of 2 to 70ish.

I remember the 7th grade shopping trip to Coos Bay. Amongst all the school supplies, we also had to buy (gasp!) a jock strap. I didn’t really perceive what help this thing would be; It seemed to me that if I was going to get hit in the nads, the jock strap would do nothing to cushion the inevitable blow. I supposed that, thanks to the jock, the doctor would have the added benefit of seeing my bare ass when he examined my crushed testicles. Not that I ever wanted to test my theories on the matter. Our PE teacher, Mr. Sharp, told us we could get in trouble for not wearing one to PE, and I was not exactly fond of getting in trouble.

In 7th grade, we were assigned a home-room–mine was Mr. Thelin’s class. He was a burly mustachioed guy with a temper. They would probably call them “anger management issues” these days, and he would probably be fired for his outbursts when some lawsuit-happy parent went after him for calling their precious son a brat, but in those days, shouting at kids was the least of our worries. Doing burpees in the hall was way worse, and more than a few of us got stuck out there during recess, draining off excess energy on our way to burpee heaven. I’ve never really thought about that particular exercise since Junior High, and decided to look it up on the Internet just to see if anyone even remembers what the exercise is. I don’t know that my sons have ever done a burpee in their life. Maybe I should start making them. Anyway…

You may think from the last few sentences that we got in trouble as a class a lot, and nothing could be closer to the truth. Mr. Thelin would go beet red and tell us we were the worst class he’d ever had, and before we even had the chance to smart off to him, the whole lot of us would end up sitting against the wall between the gym and the cafeteria immediately before and after lunch. No Recess was hell of a way to punish a kid back then, and we managed it as a class several times. Individually though, Mr. Thelin went to Gold Beach High with my father, so there was a weak family connection there. He always treated me well individually, although I always wondered why I was saddled with the rest of you losers (just kidding!)

Things started off badly, of course. Kids had already established friendships, many had been in Gold Beach since kindergarten and I wasn’t very good at maneuvering through those waters. Within the first week, I managed to start a fight with Tammi Paul because of an Eraser Mate pen she had found on the floor near her desk, that I was was certain had come from my own personal stash. Those suckers had to cost, what, $1.59? And I could have easily just let it drop. But I stood my ground and caused a scene, and immediately felt the displeasure of 3 or 4 of the girls in the classroom. Shari Hatch called me a “snatch” – I wasn’t sure what that meant but I was pretty sure it had something to do stealing pens. I hunkered down and kept my mouth shut.

Mr. Sharp’s 7th Grade class was across the hall. He was tall, angular, balding man with hairy arms and an aquiline nose, who taught English classes while he was also the football coach and the boys’ Physical Education instructor. He had a permanent sardonic smile fixed to his face, and all the kids seemed to love him. As seems to be the way with PE instructors nationwide, he called every kid by his/her last name. He called us Hanyaks, and when we got to noisy, he’d tell us “ding-dings” to “quit dingin’ around.” I remember, during long tedious assignments that some of us were quick to finish, Rusty Casper and other some other boys would play “the dot game”, where, using a paper grid, they tried to box one another in and capture squares. I remember we had to diagram sentences, which I found tedious, not because I didn’t understand it, but because we had been diagramming since 4th Grade at Pistol River school. I spent a lot of time waiting for other people to finish their work.

I was never very physically adept at anything – I was huge and gawky. Years later, Mr. Sosky, the High School wrestling coach, used to call me The Albatross because, around the time of the 1984 Olympics, there was a German Swimmer with the same Nickname who was winning a lot of medals. I also probably squacked like one when I got pinned–who knows. Anyway, One of only physical activities I was truly adept, was kicking (nobody but Scott Coogan ever knew this) – I could put a ball up between the goalposts from 40 yards out, just about every single time. I tried out for Football in 8th grade, but really didn’t understand what I was doing out there, or why I was doing it, so I survived for exactly 1 game – a scrimmage against Myrtle Point, before telling Mr. Sharp that I was quitting. “Dammit, Carpenter!” he said, “And after all the trouble we’d gone through to suit you up!” I wasn’t exactly pleased to find out that I was worth less to the team than the trouble to suit me up, but he was probably right. I never regretted quitting. So, the only indication anybody ever had of my kicking during those days was the time when Brian Davis was being obnoxious for some reason on the basketball court, and I had decided I’d had enough. I punted the kid’s rear end as hard as I could and sent him sprawling several feet away. The playground monitor made us both run after that. I felt a smug sense satisfaction, and took the punishment. I bet for a couple weeks afterward, Brian wore a Carpenter-shaped footprint on his ass.

I could also crank out a mess of sit-ups. I was second only to Larry Greene in the school, for the Presidential fitness “sit-up” test. I was very flexible. I could throw both my legs behind my head and walk on both hands. I remember doing this on a whim, in the gym one day, and receive a standing ovation by a bunch of girls standing around. I was elated at the positive attention until I realized that the aforementioned jock strap was innefective when you’re trying to be as flexible as I was, and my entire package was dangling out of my shorts. So either way, I guess I deserved a standing O.

And to cap my unfortunate career as one of the least physically fit kids in the school, I took a liking to the one sport that I was least physically equipped to do: wrestling. It’s awkward being 11 years old. And shy, And 6’1″ tall, and weighing in at 117 lbs. I was very bad at it, and and to complete my insecurity trifecta, we had several great athletes on the wrestling squad, including John Brent, Brett Hull, Richard Venable, and Gary Curl. I was a fish. One of my first matches, I was fortunate enough to wrestle against someone less-good than I was, and rather than use a cradle, or a half-nelson, or some other appropriate move to pin him, I stiffened my arms, and pushed straight down–hard–on both his shoulders. That match, and maybe three others, were the only matches I ever won in 3 1/2 years of wrestling, when I broke a collarbone. Maybe I should have kicked more of them.

I am not very good with faces. One day, I said hello to Kevin Jones in P.E. “My name’s not Jones,” said Roy Lanham scathingly, because, after all, he wasn’t Kevin. I didn’t speak with him again, other than the occasional “Hello, Roy,” (usually I said it just to prove I knew his name…) until we caught up with one another on Facebook, 25 years later.

Mr. Mead was another 7th grade teacher across the hall, as well. He was a large man, but as a class we had few dealings with him since he, like Mr. Thelin, taught core curriculum. His son Mike was one of my first friends at Riley creek. He invited me to his birthday party; we went bowling down in Brookings and found out we shared a common interest in fantasy literature. Mike would draw elaborate mazes, and we would play a “sort-of-but-not-really” style of Dungeons and Dragons, which I knew that if God, or my mother, discovered, would condemn my mortal soul to hell. One day I asked him why he wasn’t in his dad’s classroom. He gave me a look that said, without using words, why would he ever want to do something like that? I wasn’t sure why.

The final 7th Grade teacher was Mr. McBeth. We visited his class regularly because he taught the science classes at Riley Creek. We made our own lead-and-epsom-salts batteries and attached them to little cars, which we would tether to a string, or tie to pulleys, to learn about force. If there were any other experiments we did in 7th grade science, I have long forgotten them. I liked Mr. McBeth. He was quiet and unassuming, but had a sly sense of humor. He sent Charles Hashberger around the school looking for a “left-handed sky hook” just to get him out of his hair for the duration of a period. Science was “do it at your own pace” and I have always been very bad at this kind of thing; without firm deadlines I just kind of floated through the class. He had an enormous wooden cabinet filled with chemicals that we never once got to use, to blow stuff up.

Missy Greene would sometimes pass me notes to tease me. “Hey Brian, you are really cute. Let’s make out after school,” the notes would say, or something to that effect. I would find them in my textbooks, or in my desk, or sometimes she would have someone hand me a note. I would turn beet red and she and a group of her friends–all girls, of course–would giggle. I supposed she thought I was the lamest kid in 7th grade and I chose to ignore what I perceived as taunts. Still, during those awkward years I never knew if she was serious, deep down, and I was missing out on something glorious. Still, I was too shy to even smile at a girl, much less pursue a relationship. I had a crush on Heidi Hull back then, who was as tiny and compact as I was tall and thin. *Those* would have been some excellent prom pictures, if she hadn’t moved, and if I’d ever had the nerve to actually speak to girls back then.

My grades were good, but I never shared the fact with anyone else. they wouldn’t have known it eaither: I don’t think our teachers handed back assignments in best-to-worst order. So I kept my head down, tried to make my very tall frame as invisible as possible.

I spent a lot of time in the library, which was run by Mr. Egdahl back then. I considered him a hothead and didn’t want to cross him. I had enough trouble with . It’s odd I am a librarian now – I remember having to take those “alphabetize these words” or “put these call numbers in order” tests, and failing at them miserably. Now I file cards in my sleep. Anyway, I guess the place was a solace to me because it wasn’t outdoors where somebody could crush me into a shape resembling potted meat, or remind me that I couldn’t defend myself had they wanted to.

Mr. Egdahl did 2 things for me in life, both of which I’m quite grateful for. One day, he yelled at me for sleeping in the library. I wasn’t sleeping there, of course; I was reading. My eyes had to be 2 or 3 inches from the page if I wanted to read comfortably. When he realized this, he set me up to visit Mrs. Faudskar, who had equipment in her 6th grade classroom to administer an eye exam (never understood why she of all people in the school had that machine). Yeah. I needed glasses.

The other happened after Scott Coogan punched me in the stomach. This was early in 8th Grade–Mr. Hajduk’s class. By this time, I had achieved near-ninja status, and was the top of my class at not being noticed. However, one day, as I was walking out of the classroom, I noticed a book had fallen in the trash–I reached in to pick it up. From across the room, Scott came running and punched me in the stomach for “trying to throw away his stuff.” To him, apparently, it looked like I was tossing things out, and the book belonged to him. I stood there for a second, too stunned to say a word, and without doing much of anything else, I made my exit and walked to the library.

Mr. Egdahl asked me what was wrong, and it’s as if the last two years of Junior High tension unwound all at once, and I could no longer hold in the emotion and I burst into tears. I told him what had happened. I begged him not to do this: I didn’t need to be hit in the stomach twice in the same day, and this was a sure thing, after Scott found out I had ratted him out to an adult. Of course, he summoned Scott to the library immediately and confronted him. Scott delivered the most heartfelt apology I have ever received in my life. After making sure I was okay, he threw his arm around me and we started talking.

From that time on, we were pretty much inseparable until I lived in france in 1985. He was like the brother my sister never was, to me. He was loud and gregarious, where I was quiet. I would make a joke, and he’d shout it out to everyone, and get a room full of laughs. We’d sit in together in a living room, and listen to old George Carlin and Bill Cosby records until we had every word memorized. It was about that time when I gaines at least a bit of confidence. I used him as a crutch because it was helpful to not develop a personality of my own; with Scott I didn’t need to. He didn’t care that I was as bland as a mayo-on-white-bread sandwich. Because of Scott, I joined swing choir. Because of swing choir, I began to come out of my shell. And because of that, I had the confidence to earn my BA in Music Education, with every intention of replacing Mr. Fleshman as choir director in Gold Beach Unified School District. It never happened. Things have a way of turning out different, just when you think you have your life all planned out. My life was altered because of a punch in the gut. I guess, looking back, I could have had worse things happen to me in Junior High.


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