David A. Schwinghammer
· Soldier's Gap
· Fisher of Men, Chapter 8
· Honest Thief, Tender Murderer, Chapter Eight
· Mengele's Double, Chapter Eight
· Bereavement Blues
· Fisher of Men, Chapter 7
· Speed Dating With 'Janeane Garofalo'
· The Cynic
· Honest Thief, Tender Murderer - Chapter Seven
· Mengele's Double, Chapter 7
· Mengele's Double, Chapter Six
· The Nuclear Option
· Empty Mansions, book review
· Pilgrim's Wilderness, book review
· WWII Cartoonist, book review
· Write Yourself Into a Corner, book review
· Roanoke Island, book review
· Billboard Theology
· Baghdad Without a Map, book review
· Into the Wild, book review
· The Zookeeper's Wife (review)
· Alumni Game
· Girls Who Wear Glasses
· The Do Drop Inn
· Ode to Neve Campbell
· Jacks or Better 101
· Never My Love
· 3 O'Clock
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A young Wisconsin boy experiences the trials and tribulations of being stuck with an egghead name.
Before I was born, my older brothers Tommy and Vince, ages seven and eight, fought valiantly to give me a more virile first name than the one I was ultimately stuck with. They were particularly high on the names Richard and Peter.
My mom wasn’t fond of the name Peter because it was my father’s favorite name for his sexual appendage, and the diminutive for Richard was even worse.
We lived in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, where my father was an insurance agent and my mother taught English at a community college. My brothers were the Hell’s Angels of our fifties era neighborhood. They built their own tree house without any help from my father or any other adult. It was a ramshackle affair, the floor of which threatened to collapse at any minute. But it lasted through all of the Indian attacks and medieval sieges we boys dreamed up. It’s amazing none of us were killed. We used sharpened sticks as arrows and rocks as artillery. My older siblings even invented a crude form of the catapult or trebuchet, which could hurl two hundred pound boulders and any dead animals the boys found on the road outside town. Getting hit in the face by deer guts is not fun, let me tell you.
They’d read someplace about the earliest form of bioterrorism. Somehow my mother and father or the neighbors never found out about this stuff. Of course, we were all accomplished liars, Tommy and Vince especially.
Anyway, my mother went and named me Bentley, despite Tommy and Vince’s vociferous objections. “But he’s gonna get beat up on the playground,” they argued.
“I’m sure you boys will protect him,” she said. “Besides everybody will call him Ben.”
Nobody ever called me Ben. It was always Bentley or something worse. I tried to tell my first grade teacher I wanted to be called Ben, but she turned a deaf ear to my constant pleas. I was always pretty good at sports until I started school, but when the other kids found out my name was Bentley, I was chosen last, behind even the kid in the wheelchair.
When I got a little older, the name became more appropriate, since I was the smartest boy in my class, and Ben Revere seemed inappropriate for a scholar of my caliber, someone who would eventually solve Fermat’s Last Theorem.
But I wasn’t the smartest kid in class. Her name was Yvonne, and she looked like one, with cat eye glasses and a bedhead hairdo. She was a new kid from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and she never wore a dress. Our teacher, Ms. Livingston, threatened to keep her after school for a month if she didn’t show up for school in more appropriate female attire, but that was like telling Einstein he had to fill the chalkboard with formulas. It didn’t matter where she was; she always had her nose in a book, probably planning her first political campaign. Yvonne would grow up to be one of the first female senators from the state of Wisconsin.
Yvonne and I battled for supremacy in every academic pursuit. You got a king-sized Baby Ruth if you won the spelldowns, and I wanted one of those badly. My mother was anti-candy. The most we could expect from her was home-made fudge. Alas, I never beat Yvonne; she must’ve had a photographic memory. Once I missed the word, oven. Spelled it “o-f-e-n.” Perfectly reasonable, don’t you think? But English is such a bastard language.
Actually, it was worse than that. I never once beat Yvonne at anything. We stayed in at recess to play Monopoly. She plucked me clean. It was like the Baltimore Orioles playing the New York Yankees. You threw the ball out there and the Yanks won. How could I, a budding Einstein, not annihilate a unisexual girl? She even beat me at arm wrestling. It was humiliating.
Worse yet, she called me “Bent.” For the life of me, I could not think of an appropriate retort without stuttering. What the heck rhymes with Yvonne? But I was the only one who would associate with her, so I’m pretty sure she really liked me. She even gave me a card on Valentine’s Day. Not too surprising since Teacher made us give everyone one, including the kids who had leprosy, mange, and wandering eye. But you could buy about a hundred and fifty little valentines for like a buck and a half. Most kids got those. Or I should say their moms got them for them. The one Yvonne gave me must have cost her at least that much all on its own. It had all kinds of frills and filigrees around the edges and it had little cutouts of angels that you could push so’s it would stand up on the desk. When the rest of the class saw Yvonne’s Tiffany version of a valentine, I knew I’d be teased mercilessly for the rest of my life. There was nothing for it. I would have to beat Yvonne up, or at least trip her in front of the crowd. The two weeks detention would be worth it. Who knew she knew jujitsu.
I was now the class pariah. The only thing that saved me was when Yvonne and her family moved to Green Bay. In years to come someone would occasionally remind me of the time I got beat up by a girl. I would always say, “Yvonne wasn’t a girl; she was from the planet Krypton.”
Summers came and summers went and before I knew it I was in seventh grade and Yvonne was a distant memory and I was campaign director for John F. Kennedy (Sister Constantine promised we could have our own little election on November 4th). Of course in White Fish Bay everyone and his brother was a Republican. I could not buy a vote for my fair-haired boy. I went from kid to kid on the playground, promising marbles, baseball cards, and jawbreakers, but votes were rarer than hen‘s teeth. Finally Melvin Dobler, a forerunner of Karl Rove, grabbed my tally sheet and tore it into tiny little pieces. I wanted to tell Sister, but Melvin was the unforgiving sort who would set fire to our ranch house and laugh while it burned to the ground. I had to make another tally sheet and beg every one of those kids again to vote for my guy. Kennedy lost 145 to 32. I was crushed until the real election night when I was allowed to watch the returns with my Republican friends Henry Morgan and Joe McCarthy (No relation to the communist bater). Ex-friends I should say. They were pretty sore losers.
Back to the name. Enough kids had heard Yvonne call me Bent that the name stuck. How do you explain to the new blonde chick who’s moved into the neighborhood why everyone calls you Bent? “I’m a bit of an eccentric,” I said.
“How eccentric?” she said, getting ready to run.
“Oh, I’m into UFOs and the occult. Nobody else around here cares for that sort of thing.”
“I do,” she said. “I think what happened in Roswell, New Mexico, is fascinating.”
She knew about Roswell! I was in love.
“Have you heard of Area 51?” I said. “That’s where they keep the UFOs and the bodies of little green men in freezers.”
“Yeah, my dad said if they told, everyone would start jumping out of buildings and setting their hair on fire.”
“There’s certainly evidence people wouldn’t be able to handle an alien landing. You’ve heard of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre broadcast of War of the Worlds?”
“Yeah, my Grandfather told me. He’s a Uf, too.”
Her name was Mary Quentin and she was from Appleton, near the Minnesota border. Her father was an electrician and her mother, one of the few mothers who worked, was an accountant for H&R Block.
“Sooo, what grade are you in?” I queried, hoping to God in Heaven she wasn’t in high school yet. If she was, I would be persona non grata around her. The senior and junior boys claimed the freshmen girls as soon as they got in the door.
“Eight grade. How about you?”
“Me, too. It’s going to be a gas. We’ll be kings of the hill.”
“What’s Sister Gervaise like?”
“A lot better than Sister Constantine. She doesn’t demean your family if you miss a diagram on the blackboard.”
“You’re so funny,” she said. She had a musical laugh. Somehow I had to let her find out on her own that I had a 4.0 grade point average and had been voted most likely to succeed three classes in a row.
“I’m not kidding,” I said.
Meanwhile my brothers had joined the marines, and I got a weekly letter describing the hell they put you through at Paris Island. There was something called “Pushing the piece,” which was doing exercises with your rifle if you had too many demerits. They made you do one-handed push-ups while holding your rifle out with the other hand, which everybody knows is impossible. Except for the Drill Instructor that is. They didn’t seem like such tough guys now, asking for chocolate chip cookies from Mom in most every letter. But in their day they were the terrors of Eugenio Pacelli High School. They ran a bicycle up the flag pole every single Monday they were in high school and nobody ever saw them do it. They would crawl out onto our roof and slide down the rain spout at three in the morning and nobody was up at that hour. The cop who was supposed to be on duty was asleep in his patrol car; the janitor had gone home and was not willing to work overtime even at the threat of losing his job. None of the busybodies in the neighborhood were dedicated enough to stay up that late. Those two boys should have gone into politics. They were not afraid of Principal Barnstubble. They had once put his car up on blocks. The whole automotive repair class got blamed for that one, and it was discontinued for the rest of the semester, putting the shop teacher out of work. They kind of felt bad about that, for a couple of minutes. Barnstubble dreaded Halloween. He usually hired security to insure Tommy, Vince, and their pals didn’t burn down the school. But if you’re watching the right hand too closely, the left one will kill you. They targeted his home place, egging his windows, and putting a skunk down his chimney. There must be a better way to make a living.
Tommy and Vince were assigned to permanent detention after school, but they embraced the pain, torturing the non-tenured teachers assigned to the task of overseeing detention. Tommy had false front teeth, a result of being hit by a baseball bat. He’d miscounted the number of strikes and was about to take his turn at bat when the pitcher threw the ball and the batter swung. Unfortunately the rookie teachers were never told, and Vince would get into a faux argument with Tommy and knock his teeth out every time a new fish showed up to supervise. You’ve never heard such screaming. They could bleed on cue as well. Barnstubble was so clueless he didn’t realize that detention was a lot like the boys’ reformatory. As old pros Tommy and Vince taught the Abraham brothers, Rick and Timmy, the tricks of the trade, and they taught it to the next group of troublemakers, and the principal was stuck with the bicycle trick ad infinitum until he finally retired at the age of seventy, his hair as white as a mound of dandruff.
I dreaded the day my sibs would come home on leave. When Mary Quentin got a load of them, I would pale in comparison.
Meanwhile I had read everything I could read about Robert Goddard and rocket engineering. Why be smart if you can’t pull off a Robert Goddard once in a while. This was when the Russians were beating the crap out of us in the moon race and the Vanguard rockets were always crashing into the ground after looking good for a hundred feet or so.
When Mary found out I was doing a rocket launch, I swear there was a whole new respect in her eyes. I studied harder so as not to embarrass myself.
There were at least a hundred kids there when I set that puppy off. It went straight up, like Superman climbing one of those tall buildings until it disappeared into the clouds, not to be heard from again until a couple of days later when I read about a rocket crashing through the windows of a department store building in Racine. I was a nervous wreck for weeks, thinking I’d hear a knock on the door and Joe Friday yelling, “Come out with your hands over your head,” but for some reason they never found out about me, odd considering there were a hundred blabbermouths there when I set the thing off.
Tommy and Vince didn’t come home on leave that year. They’d headed for the nearest bar when they got off the base, got into the fight over a pinball game and spent the two weeks in the brig. When they got out, they were assigned duty on The USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN, an aircraft carrier with a bunch of “Squids.” Squids are sailors in marine jargon. Squids called them “jarheads.” I never told this to Tommy and Vince, but if I was going to join the service, I wanted to be a Squid, if only to avoid those drill sergeants.
Tommy and Vince left behind a whole library of dirty magazines under a floorboard in the closet of their bedroom, which I inherited. So I was pretty horny by the time Mary Quentin came along, and I didn’t have to go through the pain of buying my first prophylactics at the local drug store since Tommy and Vince had already put in a lifetime supply. They couldn’t smuggle them into Marine Corps basics. I always had a couple in my wallet just in case I struck it lucky.
Alas, Mary Quentin and I were more buddies than lovers. We had the deepest conservations about religion, philosophy, and politics. She was already an agnostic, claiming that those who said the earth was only six thousand years old were delusional. I told her that was probably because of the “begat” stuff in the Bible. Adam begat Abel and Abel begat Mortimer and Mortimer begat Joseph McCarthy. That sort of thing. Anyway, there were only four dozen or so begats which would make it around six thousand years since the Garden of Eden. “Everybody knows they made that stuff up,” she said. “Not everybody,” I said. She was also an early women’s libber and was adamantly certain she’d never get married.
When I finally made my move, she just laughed and put my arm in a hammerlock. It was Yvonne all over again. I told her all about “blue balls” and how it could be poison to a guy’s system. “If you won’t help me, find me someone who will.” She was reluctant to sell out one of her sisters, but she knew plenty of girls who were “experienced”.
Plenty of them were willing if only to get a gold star for taking a kid’s virginity, but I only had eyes for Mary Quentin. I couldn’t even get it up around other girls. She was drop dead gorgeous with a hairdo like Veronica Lake, the forties actress, and a figure like Jane Russell’s. But she was no prissy female. She played tackle football with the guys, was the fastest runner in the eighth grade, and could hit a golf ball like Babe Didrikson.
And so I was broken hearted when one of those vultures from the high school infiltrated the eighth grade, invited by Sister Gervais to tell us the do’s and don’ts when it came to the freshman year of high school. He was Vance Albers, the quarterback for the Crusaders, and he looked like Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame. He noticed Mary Quentin right away, and he almost forgot what he’d come to tell us, but he had the script down pretty pat. Sister Gervais had probably written it for him. Study hard, never talk back to the teachers, respect your peers. He didn’t even warn us about initiation. We had heard all of the horror stories about wise acres being hung out of the window of the third floor bathroom or having a cigarette butt put out on their faces. Personally, I didn’t plan on being there very long. With my academic credentials it was an outrage that I was still in the eighth grade. It wasn’t bad enough that good old Mom had named me Bentley, she also refused to allow me to skip a grade, worrying that it might warp my social development. I had news for her: IT COULDN’T GET ANY MORE WARPED!! I swore, when she died, I wasn’t going to her funeral.
Anyway, it was considered déclassé for the quarterback of the football team to date an eighth grader, but he was sniffing around her like a purebred stud around a bitch and he was over at her house more than her own father was.
I decided to eliminate him. But I had to make it look like an accident. I couldn’t run him over with a car since my lovely mother wouldn’t let me start to learn to drive until I turned fifteen. No one I knew owned a gun so that was out. I didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t hire a hit man. I just know Vince and Tommy would have done it for me if they’d been around, but, alas, they were in the brig again for fighting with the lifer Boatswain Mates on board ship over a game of pool. I settled on poison. All I needed was the opportunity, and the church bazaar was coming up. I knew where the strychnine was we used to kill the gophers who tried to turn our yard into a golf course.
But when church bazaar time came around, I couldn’t do it. It must have been all of those times in the confessional where I practically coughed up my lungs repenting all the horrible sins I’d committed. Lately it was all about impure thoughts and self stimulation. Father told me if I kept on doing that I’d go blind. I decided to chance it.
Then I remembered the Abraham brothers. Tommy and Vince had taught them everything they knew about driving Barnstubble crazy, and the Abrahams had already been to reform school once. Those two were the dumbest kids in school, but not quite dumb enough to actually quit school. They’d fallen for Sister Gervais’s warning that you needed to graduate in order to get a job. I’d tutor the two dolts in return for a rub out.
The Abrahams weren’t as warped as I was, though. They knew Igor Wisnowski, the defensive tackle for the Racine Panthers football team. They were playing the Crusaders Friday night, and Wisnowski had agreed he would “stick Vance’s face mask up his backside,” or break his leg, which ever came first. In the process Wisnowski would warn Vance to stay the hell away from Mary Quentin. Wisnowski never came close to Twinkle Toes Albers, who made Michael Vick look like a plowhorse, if only for one night. The Crusaders won 45-0 with Vance running for 175 yards and throwing four touchdown passes. Wisnowski was pissed and he blamed it all on the Abrahams who weren’t quite as quick-footed as Vance Albers.
I had to stay close to home for a couple of weeks until the Abrahams healed somewhat. Then I lucked out. They were arrested for breaking and entering at the local pawnshop and would spend the next several years in the reformatory. By the time they got out, I would be at Princeton, which might as well have been Mars as far as the Abrahams were concerned. Besides, they had a really short attention span.
Physical violence had never been my forte. I decided to spread a malicious rumor. Vance Albers now had the clap, and in order to get it out onto the grapevine, I told my two former Republican friends, Henry Morgan and Joe McCarthy, who believed everything I told them and could not keep anything to themselves, even though I swore them to secrecy to insure that word would get out. Everybody knows that if people hear you have the clap, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You might as well be Typhoid Mary. And you ain’t gettin’ no sex.
Alas, Mary Quentin didn’t even know what the clap was. Maybe I should have said “sexually transmitted disease.” Vance, on the other hand, did and when confronted about the origin of the rumor, Henry and Joe Mac put the finger on me. I’d done quite a bit of shadow boxing alone in my bedroom. I’d always fancied myself the next Sugar Ray Robinson as far as footwork is concerned. Unfortunately Vance Albers was no shadow. He hit me twice before I got off a punch, which resulted in a shiner and a broken tooth. Plus, I had to tell Mary I’d lied about the clap.
Wonder of wonders, she was madder at Vance for hitting “a little kid” than she was at me for spreading a nasty rumor. Besides, they’d already broken up when she’d tried to have a serious discussion with Vance about UFOs, and he’d laughed at her. And he’d been condescending. Telling her all those sightings were weather balloons or a figment of people’s imaginations.
He might as well have told her she was ugly.
It was only a matter of time, though. Two weeks later she was going with Howard Wainwright, the president of the Student Council who wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up and a fellow UFO fanatic. I tried to tell her what a character in Shakespeare had said about shysters. “First let’s kill all the lawyers.” Shakespeare was the smartest man of the last millennium, and if he hated them, we should all take his word for it.
But Howard was a senior and “much more in control of his emotions” according to Mary. “It was really stupid of you to confront a high school senior with fifty pounds on you, a boy in much better shape, who faced brutal confrontation every day.”
“I thought my bolo punch would slow him down,” I said. For the uninitiated the bolo was that sort of wind-up punch Muhammad Ali stole from Sugar Ray.
I decided to give up on women permanently and I pretty much did until my senior year when I suddenly became popular. I would take my ACT test, ace the thing, and be off to Princeton, the same college where Einstein had taught. Actually, he was more of a scientist in residence. Princeton used him as a sort of trophy to attract elite students. Having dodged Nazi Germany, Einstein used Princeton as a safe place to think. He never really accomplished much there, being obsessed with trying to find a formula that would unite the theory of gravity and quantum physics. Princeton was also where F. Scott Fitzgerald was BMOC. If I couldn’t make it in theoretical physics, I had a back-up plan as a literary genius.
I aced the ACT and came close to writing a perfect test on the PSAT, which was enough for a National Merit Scholarship.
But first I would go on national television and wow the pants off of Mary Quentin with my dazzling array of intellectual wizardry. I wrote a personal letter to Mr. Art Fleming, host of the smartest quiz show to ever grace the boob tube, “Jeopardy.” I got a letter back from one of Art’s assistants informing me that Jeopardy reps would be in Milwaukee the next month. I would have to take a written test and if I passed that, I would get a trial run against others to see how well I stood up under fire and how adept I was at using the buzzer. Lots of guys and gals are pretty smart, but they jump the gun before Art is finished asking the question.
Written tests do not scare ‘The Kid,’ and if I lived through a childhood with Vince and Tommy hurling guts at my face, no trial run would scare me.
The test was multiple choice. The proctor couldn’t understand what all the snickering was about. I finished the hundred question test in ten minutes. No one had ever completed the thing that fast and no one had ever answered all the questions correctly. I also waxed all the other contestants during the buzzer sessions. I was the first high school kid ever allowed to compete against adults.
My uncle Bob and I took the train to New York City where the show was broadcast. Uncle Bob spent the time in the club car where he got extremely shit-faced (a term I learned from Tommy and Vince). My parents hadn’t trusted me to go alone, and Bob had been sent along to babysit. But I was the one who had to drag Bob to our hotel and sober him up with several barrels of coffee. I went on the show with a dude who looked like Teddy Roosevelt. I think he actually thought he was Teddy Roosevelt because he kept on using the expression “bully.” The other contestant was a librarian from New Jersey named Ernestine. I froze. I went into the Double Jeopardy with exactly no money, but thank my lucky stars two of the categories were State Capitols and Sports, and I got my mojo back. I knew Abraham Lincoln was buried in Springfield, the capital of Illinois, and that gave me the right to choose the next question, which just happened to be the Daily Double. I bet it all. What state capital was once known as “Pig’s Eye”? We Wisconsinites never let Minnesotans forget that St. Paul was once stuck with that name. I just about ran the table from there. Teddy had eight thousand, Ernestine had ten, and I had nine thousand five hundred. The final category was American presidents. Of course I bet it all. I used to own a set of presidential playing cards. I knew every bit of trivia about those guys a researcher could possibly devise, except apparently the first president to refer to the White House as the White House. I was outraged. What a bunch of trivial horse pucky. I had no idea, but I guessed William McKinley. Close but no cigar. It was his vice president, Teddy Roosevelt. My competitor, the Roosevelt doppelganger, got it right and won the competition. I was a very sore loser, refusing to shake his hand. Ernestine, who thought the whole thing was rigged, kicked him in the shins.
We took the train home, stopping in Chicago to see the sights, and for a while there, I lost track of Uncle Bob completely. I was just about to call the police when he finally showed up at our hotel sporting a new tattoo. He’d been down to State Street where all the sailors go to get stewed, screwed, and tattooed. Uncle Bob, a former sailor, had had a battleship stitched onto his back. The tattoo artist had failed to warn him about the scabs that develop afterwards. On the train ride back to White Fish Bay, Bob looked more like a senior citizen than a middle-aged man, all hunched over and walking with a cane.
I’d expected to go through a period of extreme ridicule when I got home, but I was an apparent celebrity. Little kids asked for my autograph, and Mary Quentin said that I looked handsome on television. She commiserated with me about that last question. “Nobody would know something so trivial unless they were obsessed with the subject as the Theodore Roosevelt look-a-like obviously was.”
Meanwhile Tommy and Vince had volunteered for Vietnam. They had had their fill of the Boatswains mates aboard the USS Lake Champlain and wanted to see some action. They were involved in Operation Starlight, south of Chu Lai, the first confrontation between the marines and a large North Vietnamese force. Both were wounded in action and sent to Tokyo for R&R. They spent two years in Vietnam and came home with purple hearts and souvenirs, mainly a pair of ears, Tommy claimed to have cut off a North Vietnamese soldier. They looked like plastic to me. They immediately found jobs working as bouncers at a nightclub in Madison, one of the biggest party colleges in the country, especially during football season. Eventually both went on to study criminal justice and spent twenty years as flatfeet; Vince making lieutenant, Tommy, who kept getting busted for cowboy-like behavior, never making it above patrol. It was a bone of contention. They still don’t speak and they were like Siamese twins.
I lasted at Princeton for two years before the stress got to me and I quit to write my novel. I presently work as a free lance copy editor. There’s a lot of money in them there Print and Demand novels. I’ve written six full-length novels, but I’ve wall-papered my den with rejection slips. Mary Quentin ditched her lawyer-to be-boyfriend when it became clear he was never going to make a pass at her and that he liked other lawyers, the male kind, more than her. That was never my problem and she increasingly began to realize that boys and girls who start out being friends make better lovers. We still live in White Fish Bay, where she’s a combo social studies teacher and volleyball coach. We make a nice living, and we’ve got two kids, a girl named Shanna and a boy named Bentley, Jr., whom everybody calls Ben.
Dave Schwinghammer's full-length novel, SOLDIER'S GAP, is available at Amazon.com.
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