AND THE OSCAR GOES TO…
She was ancient by chronological standards, thirty-one I believe, and her nose was as sharp and pointed as fate. Her hair was a dishwater blonde and tightly brought to a bundle on the back of her head. This caused the skin on her face to stretch so tightly that her eyes were but beads hidden behind a permanent squint, staring out through thick, black, horn-rimmed glasses. Adjectives such as evil, sadistic, vengeful, and downright mean and wicked were but a few of the words used to describe my fourth grade teacher, Ms. Ridenhour.
She hated children in general, but especially boys. And most especially, bright, talented and promising youngsters such as myself. I spent no small amount of groveling, standing on my tip-toes with my nose in a chalk-drawn circle at the blackboard, and innumerable hours of pretending to read while sitting out in the hall during class that terminally endless year of fourth grade at Misery Elementary School. I am certain I spent more time in detention that year than many convicted felons have behind bars, and that detention time was cruel and unusual punishment.
I was certain there was a God in heaven that summer of 1959 when I somehow escaped the fourth grade and was promoted to the fifth. I was less certain, however, when I arrived that first morning of school to begin the fifth grade only to discover my teacher had been promoted as well. To my horror, there stood Ms Ridenhour pointing to the desk directly in front of hers. Her satanic grin and trollish toe-tapping said it all, “You’re mine Tommy Firth. You’re all mine.”
Somehow I managed to wangle my way through most of the school year and into April with the aid of my grandma’s repeated trips to the school, two intervening letters on my behalf from the Governor of Utah, and a feigned kinship to Brigham Young. Another six weeks and I’d be released, free to fish, chase baseballs, catch chipmunks, or explore mine shafts, but first I had to get through the school play. It was Ms. Ridenhour’s grand finale in her voluminous book of tortures; waiting for a doctor’s decision regarding one’s terminal illness and how long they had to be with loved ones was slapdash compared to the suspense-filled wait to learn what part you got in her play.
It was paddling day at school and I was scheduled to receive another swat from Principal Oger. This was to be my punishment for a minor indiscretion a week earlier when Dennis Lemon’s cap was accidentally stuffed with snow and tossed over the wall and down the hill. Actually, the indiscretion was in the physical aid my friend Kenny and I issued in encouraging Dennis to retrieve that cap as we tossed him over the wall as well. I suppose if you want to get technical, the crux of the matter revolved around the fact that Misery Grammar School was perched high atop a snow-covered hill and the wall in question was at the top of that hill. Oh yes, and to aid in slowing Dennis’s descent, there was a wall at the bottom of the hill as well.
At any rate, I arrived at school fully prepared to receive my punishment like a man. I had cleverly disguised myself as something resembling the Pillsbury Dough Boy, donning several pairs of skivvies, two longjohns, a pair of Grannie’s bloomers, a half-a-dozen shop rags from Grandpa’s truck, and a broken, somewhat modified square-nose shovel stuffed down the rear of my pants. All this cleverly concealed beneath my snowsuit.
I was thankful that morning I had only a couple of hours to wait until Principal Oger would call me into his office to deliver sentence. Thankful because every blast furnace in the building was at peak BTUs and all room radiators were steaming hotter than a Chinese laundry.
I thought it strange as I waddled into class and wedged myself into my desk that Ms. Ridenhour mentioned nothing of my wardrobe. Normally this would be the subject of immediate scrutiny as standard orders were to hang jackets and hats in the cloakroom upon entering the classroom. I, however, was prepared for just such a challenge, having practiced my poor and pitiful flu symptom cough on the way to school. Should Ms. Ridenhour order me to hang my clothes in the cloakroom I would simply cough pathetically several times and inform her of my sudden onslaught of the flu.
Immediately following the Pledge Of Allegiance, Ms. Ridenhour stood before the class and announced that she had a pleasant change in store for us today. As I entertained visions of the rack, flogging, or possibly a jog through the lion pit, she interrupted to inform us just what parts in the school play we were to be awarded and we would each try on our costumes to be certain of their proper fit.
The theme of Ms. Ridenhour’s hour of agony was to be “Around The World.” In addition, each student would be given two or three lines to recite that would encapsulate the theme of the country they were to represent and, did I mention, we would also be required to wear some ridiculous attire that best fit that theme.
The first chosen was Katie Brusitchell, the most beautiful girl in school, who I someday hoped to marry if only I could get her to speak to me. “Katie, you will represent Holland and you will be dressed as a lovely tulip,” said Ms. Ridenhour.
Next was my friend crazy Kenny. “Kenneth, you will represent Russia and you will be dressed as a Cossack horseman,” she said. Hmmmm, I thought to myself. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as painful as I first thought. Cossacks are neat. Heck, I could be a Cossack.
Next Ms. Ridenhour looked directly at me and said, “And you Mr. Firth, I have something very special for your talents.” This was great I thought to myself, she was going to make me a knight, or a pirate, or maybe an Indian. Woohoo, I silently approved.
“You Mr. Firth are going to represent Cuba.” Cuba, I thought. What the heck is in Cuba? More importantly, where is Cuba? Sadly I was about to find out. “And Thomas, you will be dressed as a giant cigar!”
This was the story of my young life. I was to be a clown-sized cigar from a country no one had ever heard of. Had this event occurred just a couple of years later I might have been garbed as a bearded dictator. At least a dictator has some measure of respect. More than a tulip anyway. But a giant cigar?
Upon assigning everyone their respective part in the play, Ms. Ridenhour ushered each of us, one at a time, into the empty music room across the hall for a costume fit. When my turn arrived, she issued me a pair of brown leotards and ordered me into the cloakroom to change, whereupon I would emerge and be encased in a six-foot paper mache´ cigar with the word Cuba on the cigar band. Reluctantly I took the leotard and entered the changing room and began shedding my clothing. “Hurry up in there Thomas. We don’t have all day,” barked Ms. Ridenhour as I peeled layer upon layer of my protective swat-proof covering off.
Finally I managed to change out of my clothes and into the leotard. I emerged from the cloakroom where Ms. Ridenhour was waiting with the rest of my costume. As she slipped the six-foot cigar over my head she stood back to admire her handyiwork. “That’ll do just fine,” she cackled as she stood there with her hands on her hips and a look on her puss as if she were Picasso critiquing a newly created work of art.
Just then there was a knock on the door. “Come in please,” said Ms. Ridenhour.
“Oh hello Principle Oger. You must be here for your appointment with Thomas,” she said as the mere mention of his name suddenly grabbed my attention like a dentist’s drill boring at full speed.
As Ms. Ridenhour removed the cigar cocoon from atop me, Principal Oger gave me a look as if I were Richard Simmons arriving for Navy Seal training. “Ms. Ridenhour, this shouldn’t take long. I’ll need you for a witness in my office please,” said Principal Oger.
“I’ll be with you in a minute sir, I just need to change into something more comfortable,” I interrupted as I started toward the cloakroom in a hurry to change back into my impenetrable principal-proof uniform.
“What you’re wearing will do just fine, Thomas. Come with me,” said Principal Oger as he grappled me by the ear and steered me toward the door.
While it would be a couple of hours before complete hearing faculties would return due to the sonic boom created when Principal Oger’s oar-sized paddle met my skin-tight leotard-clad posterior, I am certain I could hear chuckling coming from his office as I gingerly tip-toed down the long, dark hall. Aided by the illumination provided from my glowing red fanny, I made my way back to the music room and changed into my clothes as the bell sounded for recess. I couldn’t wait to get outside and sit in the snow, as all the guys would gather around to hear my telling tale of torture and heroism at the hands of the evil educators.
The days preceding the school play raced by faster than grasshoppers in a chicken pen. Nothing short of a hand-written note from the United States Surgeon General diagnosing me with spinal meningitis would save me from my fateful meeting with destiny on Friday, the last day of school. Each day brought another rehearsal and each rehearsal brought me closer to show biz immortality, until finally the day of the play had arrived. The entire town would undoubtedly be present as this was one of the social festivities of the year. My grandma was especially excited and couldn’t wait to witness her wonderful grandson make his acting debut.
The play was to begin at 3:00 p.m. and we arrived two hours early for one last rehearsal. Everything went according to script and I actually was beginning to feel somewhat comfortable with my lines. The stirring words that would undoubtedly make me a household name on a par with Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott would come immediately following Skidmore Dimwhittee’s appearance as a kangaroo from Australia. My line was to be: “Located in the West Indies approximately ninety miles off the coast of Florida is the tiny country of Cuba. Cuba’s major exports are tobacco and sugar and the capital is Havana. Thank you.”
I peeked out from behind the side stage curtain in the auditorium to find my granny had managed a seat in the first row, dead center, next to Mae Gnoff. Mrs. Gnoff was our little town’s equivalent to Hedda Hopper, Dear Abby and Mr. Blackwell, all rolled into one rather large package. Nothing escaped her scrutiny, especially something as important as the school play.
The festivities began with the Pledge and then a lengthy speech by Principal Oger. After introducing Ms. Ridenhour and her long-winded dissertation about nothing of any importance, the play began. The appearance of countries followed no logical order to anyone except Ms. Ridenhour. My grand entrance was to be about a third of the way through. Finally, following Skidmore Dimwhittee’s concluding words of “Gaday Mates,” Ms. Ridenhour gave me a gentle shove and I waddled onto center stage. From this day forward, all Misery Grammar School student plays would be measured by the performance I would present this afternoon in May of 1960.
My first line went superbly as I made direct eye contact, peeking out from the hole carved out of my cigar cast. As I began my second and final line I looked directly at Mrs. Gnoff and suddenly suffered a complete and total brain cramp and forgot the rest of my line. “Cuba’s major exports are….are….uh..”
At this point I must explain that speaking from a hollowed-out six-foot paper mache` cigar, the sound of my voice resonated very much like it would if I were reciting from an aluminum trashcan with a megaphone. You must also understand that I was under a great deal of stress as there was no doubt any number of Hollywood producers scattered throughout the audience evaluating my performance.
I suppose it was simply nerves, but during a deafening lull of tomb-like silence in the auditorium, as the entire audience’s attention was focused on me, flatulence reared its ugly head. Emanating from the bowels of my paper mache` costume (no pun intended) escaped an embarrassingly clear and unmistakable burst of air that raised the eyebrows of every person in that auditorium, not to mention my grandma’s. If eyebrows could actually leave the body momentarily and rise above one’s head, that was the expression on Granny’s face.
At this point, all hope of recalling any of my rehearsed lines was absolutely out of the question so I did the only thing I could possibly think to do. I giggled. I remember quite clearly that this was the precise moment in time I was to learn a valuable life lesson. And that lesson was that a giggle was absolutely the worst possible thing one could do. My giggle simply encouraged another quick burst of air. WHOOOP!
I may as well have been doing a stand-up routine at the Comedy Improv, as the entire cast behind me began with the spastic giggles. Worse yet, the audience commenced snickering as well. Soon a chain reaction began as everyone in the auditorium was seized with the belly laughs except Ms. Ridenhour, and down in the first row under her chair, my grandma.
Certain I would go bowlegged and blind from embarrassment, Ms. Ridenhour quickly rushed in from the wings and unceremoniously scooted me off stage, thereby bringing to an end my brief acting career. As Ms. Ridenhour sat there in the chair backstage, sobbing uncontrollably, I was obviously a festering carbuncle in her wound of indignation. I thought it best to sneak out of my costume and beat feet for home before Granny got there. If I were lucky, I’d have ample time to put on my paddle-proof snowsuit.
I am certain the reason I was promoted to the sixth grade that year was because Ms. Ridenhour would be remaining with the fifth grade. Fortunately for me I didn’t have to face my arch nemesis ever again, as, encouraged by my granny, I moved back to California to live with my parents. But to this day I have never understood why one or two or twelve simple little fluffs got everyone so upset.