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‘On the Beach’ ... and off my rocker

December 12, 2008
By Bob Seidenstein,

Like everything else I did in high school, my academic performance was, at best, mediocre. I graduated 51st in a class of 100, and if that's not mediocre, I don't know what is.

Repeatedly, I was told I was an "underachiever." In reality, I was a lazy slob.

But even if I was a poor student, I wasn't a troublesome one. For sure, I didn't add much to the classes, but I didn't detract from them either. Instead, I was pretty much the equivalent of a bump on a log. So even if I never impressed my teachers, at least I got along with them, with one noticeable exception - a teacher I'll refer to as X.

It was the oddest thing. Right from the get-go, X pegged me as a miscreant and was always on my case. Whenever I committed some minor infraction, I was immediately bawled out.

On the other hand, he had his favorites, and they always escaped his anger. So if I came into class a minute late, I got called on it. If one of his fair-haired boys came in two minutes after that, nothing was said.

At the time, the whole thing confused me and I had no idea why he was like that. Now, with an additional 45 years of living and 35 years of teaching, I understand it perfectly: He was just plain weird. So it's only appropriate that one of my weirdest school experiences involved him.

Lost in the printed word

Toward the end of my senior year, I became obsessed with reading. I'd always enjoyed it and had done it a fair bit, but suddenly, for reasons I never discovered, I became a fanatic.

I read almost literally from morning to night, devouring everything in print - novels, short stories, biographies, history, magazines - everything except my homework, of course. I never went anywhere without at least two paperbacks, just in case I finished one early and was stuck without anything to read.

One afternoon I was in study hall reading "On the Beach." It was a novel with a common theme for those times - life after the nuclear holocaust. Today, when every minor power, except perhaps Vermontville, has a nuclear weapon, we envision nuclear wars as regional conflicts. But back in my youth, when the only nuclear powers were the Big Dogs, us and the Soviet Union, a nuclear war was The End. The end of what, you ask? In a word - everything.

Of course, this was reflected in the media. While today's movies are often about terrorism, back then nuclear armageddon was a popular theme. We didn't have DVDs at the time, of course, but if we had, I'm sure every fallout shelter would've been fully stocked with flicks entitled "The Day After They Dropped The Big One," or some such name.

As flip as I'm being about it now, it wasn't really like that then. In fact, I'd bet most people who lived through those years fully expected to see a mushroom cloud or two, up front and personal.

This led to the strangest forms of denial. For example, what with My Home Town a mere 50 miles away from the Plattsburgh Strategic Air Command base, we felt secure, figuring the mountains'd spare us from the bombing. Of course, that's as far as we thought; no one ever mentioned what it'd be like to try to survive afterwards in a place surrounded by nothing but chaos and ruin - a place Native Americans couldn't live in in the good times.

The kindest cut of all

Anyhow, there I was in the study hall reading "On the Beach," and I was really into it. At that point in the story, the world's only survivors were in Australia, and now they were getting barraged by fallout.

Also in the story was an American submarine crew. They'd been in port when everything hit the fan and were debating whether to stay there or go back to the U.S. One way or the other, they had to make a quick decision, since if they waited any longer, they'd be too sick to man the ship.

The more I read, the more I became absorbed with the story, so absorbed I thought it was real and I was part of it. So when the bell rang to end the period, I looked at the clock, saw I had X's class next and said to hell with it - and him.

I figured if the world was about to end, I had better things to do than spend time with that putz.

Another hour went by with me in Australia, torn with ambivalence: The submarine captain had decided to go back to America, leaving behind people he and the crew had befriended, the only people left on Earth. I thought it was a noble gesture - and a stupid one. I mean, really, what kind of patriotic duty is it to return to a country that no longer exists?

Then I thought about how lonely the crew would be, leaving their tawny Aussie sweethearts, their cold pints of Foster's and suddenly the bell rang. I got jolted out of Australia and my post-WWIII fantasy, and was left blinking and bewildered, just having cut X's class.

I've no idea how school systems deal with class cuts these days, but when I was in school, it was considered a violation that was somewhere between a cardinal sin and a capital crime. Get caught cutting class, and your goose was cooked. In addition to getting royally reamed by the appropriate fascist, you got a bunch of detention time, with maybe some solitary confinement and hard labor thrown in for good measure. It all hinged on if the teacher reported you or not.

So in my case, everything depended on getting a break from X, someone who hadn't given me Break One the entire year.

I saw no sense in either trying to con him or beg for mercy. Instead, I just gave him the straight skinny.

He heard me out, nodding from time to time. When I got done, he nodded once more, shrugged and said, "OK," and that was it. He neither reprimanded nor reported me, nor did he ever mention it again.

I never figured out why, after he'd busted my hump so much over all the petty stuff, he let such a "big deal" go. Maybe he was impressed with my honesty. Maybe he had his own nuclear nightmares. Or maybe it was due to his weirdness, which that time worked to my advantage. I don't know.

I only know that when I read my next book, I kept strict track of time. I knew if I missed another of X's classes and tried to explain how I got lost in that story, not only would he not excuse it - he wouldn't even understand it.

That's because the next book was "Lady Chatterley's Lover."



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