GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One) — Chapter 17 (Part 2: The Great Pole Climb Debacle) — 20 September 1964

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Old man Yardley was a muscle-bound loudmouth who ruled by intimidation.

He might well have set a few hearts aflutter back on Muscle Beach in the late 1940s, but now, he looked like the by-product of a wild, weird and wacky one-night stand between a Woowoo Amazon and Donald Duck — his quarter-inch hair on the back and sides looking  like little more than dark blonde stubble, the inch-long hair on top alternately bombarded with hairspray and ratted until it looked like feathers – and a face with such a perpetual countenance of looming rage that his scowling mouth looked more like a bill or rather large beak.

He considered smog alerts strictly for wimps, Nancy boys and sissies – not “real men.”

Thus. smog alert or no, the entire second period seventh grade boys’ phys-ed class would be required to shinny, one by one, up one of the twenty-foot metal poles, which rose improbably from the midst of a sawdust pit running alongside the handball courts, connected at the top by yet another metal pole.

With my asthma, I’d have been well within my rights to refuse to climb. I considered refusing – even if it meant my being slammed up against the wall, in the course of one of Mr. Yardley’s versuvian outbursts.

And he would have too: he’d already called Angles and me “a couple o’fruits” on several occasions,  due to our long hair, and I knew my mere existence gave him a Mohawk. It wouldn’t take much for me to set him off now.

 

But it would also invariably mean my incurring the disdain of Glen Gunderson, poster child in chief for the Master Race.

 

He was part of a self–styled elite horde of blonde, brainless conceited, “all American” numbskull jocks who thought that they ruled the school

 

They didn’t — at least not yet — but they did have the power to make my life a living hell in ways old man Yardley could only dream about.

 

 

 

Even worse, I’d risk losing face in front of the whole second period seventh grade girls gym class, just 25 meters away, Connie among them, seemingly spellbound by what we, the boys, were up to.

She periodically glanced over at me – her face no longer fuming, as I’d have expected an hour ago, but uneasy, fretful, worried – even afraid.

I was damned if I was going to look like some kind of chicken guts in front of her.

So, in the end, what were fragile forces like common sense and intelligence in the face of all-out collective pressure from Connie, Glen and old man Yardley?

There was no way out of it – asthmatic or not, up that pole I would have to go. So I stood in line, awaiting my turn at the climb with the rest of my fellow victims.

Glen shinnied up one of the poles in 2.5 seconds and proceeded to perform an array of gymnastics on the connecting bar – barely missing a climbing pole on either side of him, culminating with a German Giant and dismount-like return to the pole he initially climbed, sliding down with all grace of a circus performer.

He was impressive – even I had to give him that – and I considered it excessive when old man Yardley suspended him from gym class for the next six weeks.

On the other hand, Mr. Yardley had refused to allow anyone else to climb during the time this “show-oaf” was flying his kite. By the time Glenn had finished, the whole sorry mess had taken so long my breathing was at about the same level it’d been behind the balcony curtain at the Fox.

Once again, I’d gone through an entire allotment of hits for the day, plus a couple more – and was still wheezing.

It could’ve been worse. At least I made it up the pole, even if I wheezed all the way – something almost 1 in 4 of my classmates didn’t, Yardley’s incessant haranguing, successively calling them “little girls” and “old ladies” notwithstanding But as I climbed, I took in larger and larger gulps of the thick, toxic air; by the time I reached the top, I could barely inhale at all, no matter how hard I tried.

My head grew light. I looked down; I saw Charlie, an infinite distance below. He really looked worried. I tried to smile down reassuringly. From the corner of my eyes, I saw Connie moving in closer – no more than fifteen meters away. She looked more scared than ever, and she had her crucifix out again. I tried to smile at her, too, but her attention had been diverted. Her lips curled and she said a word, but I couldn’t make out what it was.

I looked in the direction she was looking, and for just a fraction of a second, I thought I saw Gilbertine standing there … holding a sketch pad … in street clothes … was that a dirndl dress? … no, not quite … but, not a gym kit either. Major … violation … of … school rules … that.…

The grass, concrete and sawdust far below me spun and spun …, turning into an enormous chocolate mint ice cream shake … topped with cinnamon sprinkles … as my eyes closed.

I thought I might have heard Connie’s voice at the far end of a tunnel, screaming, “No!

… as I felt myself fall away from the pole …

and drift lazily into space.…

 

 

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