I’m back home in California after a week in Pennsylvania for my 50th high school reunion. New Castle Senior High (NeCaHi). Class of ’66. The Red Hurricanes.
I’d always wondered why our teams were “Red” Hurricanes, and over the decades had asked around when I was back if anyone knew, but nobody I talked to had ever thought about it before. Even grandparents of friends who been in New Castle forever had no answer. Then along came Google, and I looked it up a couple times five or ten years ago, but no luck. The hurricane part I could understand, but “red?” I guessed it might be because New Castle once had a Socialist mayor in the early 1900’s, when it was known as “Little Pittsburgh,” home of the largest tin mill in the world and the fastest growing city in America. A friend once said that in those days New Castle had more millionaires per capita than any place in America. I don’t know how accurate that is, but the many huge mansions around town (now converted to apartments) attest to its former affluence.
Preparing for the reunion trip, I Googled up the Red Hurricane nickname again, and this time found a surprising answer. A Pittsburgh paper, the Tribune-Review, had a recent article on how some of the area’s high schools got their nicknames.
• New Castle Red Hurricanes. Some older schools got their nicknames by accident. When red-clad New Castle dominated WPIAL football in the 1930s, a radio announcer described an effective drive by saying, “New Castle is marching down the field like a red hurricane.” The name stuck.
NeCaHi has a new logo, with the letters NC interlaced at the eye of a red hurricane symbol like those used in weather maps. I’m not sure when it changed, but it is a distinct improvement. The logo I remember from the 1960s is much closer to the whirlwind logo on the t-shirt they gave out at our 30th reunion twenty years ago.
Most of the main characters in my novels come from the Western Pennsylvania area, either from Pittsburgh or the mythical Milltowne, the poster city for the Rust Belt. You write about what you know and all that. The characters are totally fictional, though some who know me might mistake one character for me. He takes his name from my elementary school, shares my birthday and draft number and certain characteristics (he too is a total klutz), but he played guitar and I did not, he went to Vietnam and I did not, and in college he had a gorgeous girlfriend, which I did not. Otherwise, he could have been me if I had been really cool, which I wasn’t.
What I was was a loudmouth, the kind of kid who was always in trouble for petty things like talking in class and being insolent and smoking in the bathrooms and being perpetually late. And I’m pretty sure I was the most swatted guy in my grade at George Washington Junior High. I have no doubt that if I were a kid in the system today they’d have diagnosed me with severe ADHD and drugged me into submission.
My only laurel during my high school years, whether academic, athletic, or social, was my home-room photo in my sophomore year. Soon after the year started, Miss Montgomery, the typing and secretarial teacher (all the desks had IBM Model C typewriters), had moved me to the front desk, right in front of her, to keep an eye on me. The day we went to the gym for the class photo I’d done something to tick her off and she pulled me out of the back row where I normally would have sat due to my height and made me sit close behind her so I’d keep out of trouble. When everybody was finally seated I found myself the only guy in a row of girls, with nobody in front of me.
In a spur-of-the-moment inspiration, I grinned and held my right had between my legs and gave the camera the two-fingered BS sign. For the next few weeks I was terrified what would happen when Miss Montgomery saw the photo, and I didn’t order my own yearbook that year because I knew my mom would kill me if she ever saw it. When the yearbook came out, my friends got a kick out of my stunt, but to my great surprise nobody in authority ever said anything about it. They probably didn’t want to give me the satisfaction of knowing that it bothered them. That’s me on the end in the third row:
The new novel is just out, but I didn’t want to make a big deal about it at the reunion, figuring to send this note to everybody later with instructions for downloads of free eBooks and Audiobooks to anyone who might be interested. If there is any group which would understand the era and the setting, it is the NeCaHi Class of ’66.
The novel begins in fifth grade, 1959, and follows a couple of guys from Milltowne and their girlfriends from junior high to the end of the Vietnam war. It seemed to me that rehashing anything about Vietnam would have been a total party-pooper at a 50 year reunion, so I didn’t mention it. Besides, I find very few guys my age actually read novels, and putting the finger on old friends saying “Hey, check out my novel,” elicits more groans than thanks, like a mandatory book report for Mrs. Kaulback. It’s just the way it is. I’m over it. Women are the serious readers, and I tried to get into the heads of the female characters so that the novel wasn’t a “guy” book. But asking females to read it is different, kind of like asking for a date, hoping you don’t get shot down. “It’s not really a war novel,” seems to help, whereas it’s the opposite with guys. I did bring a few copies to give to close friends, but only after the event was over.
We had a big class, over 650. I think the tally was that 130 people were signed up for the reunion dinner, and more than few came without a date, so there were probably 80 or so actual classmates, of which I “knew” perhaps half. Didn’t I sit next to you in English? Remember the time what’s-his-face blew up his science-project rocket in the parking lot? Dances at the Elks Club? I was thankful for the name tags, and disappointed that many that I wanted to see didn’t show up, but I had a great time.
Our class has a major bragging right in that we are honored to have a world-famous scientist as a fellow alumnus, Dr. Dennis Slaman, who developed the breast-cancer drug Herceptin, which has saved thousands of lives. I barely remember him, as he went to the other junior high, Ben Franklin, and I don’t think I ever had any classes with him (at the time NeCaHi was the tenth biggest high school in Pennsylvania). A friend who has known him since grade school told me that, unlike most of us, he always had a stack of books under his arm. If he had shown up he would have been treated like a rock star. Just now I Googled him to make sure I’m spelling the drug name correctly and to get the name of the TV movie they made about his discovery, Living Proof (2008), in which he is played by Harry Connick, Jr. But his Wikipedia entry says he’s the son of a West Virginia coal miner, and there is no mention of either New Castle or the movie. So much for the accuracy of Wikipedia. Hopefully one of my fellow ‘Canes will read this and know how to jump on Wikipedia’s case and fix it. Or ask one of the grandkids to help. They’ll know what to do.
The reunion came at a time when I am also going all-out to defeat Trump with the NoTrumpZone bumperstickers, buttons, mugs, t-shirts and “When Donnie Goes Trumping Home.” But I was asked not to bring up politics in any form by one of the organizers because “There’s a lot of Republicans here.” We were at the Country Club, after all.
Before we arrived last week the polls were showing Trump with a small lead in Pennsylvania, and there have been dozens of articles on his appeal to white guys my age all through the Rust Belt, particularly in Western Pennsylvania. When I was growing up the area was reliably Democratic, especially the heavily-unionized city itself. I was in the minority back then, as my dad was the town’s Buick dealer, so my family was solidly Republican. (Like one of the characters in my novel, in 1964 I actually went around town one night putting Goldwater bumperstickers over the top of Johnson bumperstickers.)
During college and the turmoil of the late Sixties and the lies of Richard Nixon I turned Independent (whatever that is), then in the Nineties the craziness of the wingnuts drove me to becoming a Democrat in self-defense. I’ve always been a news, politics, and current events junkie. One day in fifth grade the fierce Mrs. Stewart (you did not mess with Mrs. Stewart) ordered me to stay after class. When everyone else had gone she called me to her desk. I was scared, in trouble again for something, expecting to be ordered to hold out my hand so she could whack me across the palm with her ruler.
“Do you know what you’ve done,” she said.
“No, ma’am,” I answered as meekly as I could.
“You are the first person in the history of Arthur McGill School to get a perfect score on the history and geography section of the achievement test.”
It was to be the one and only academic honor I ever received.
The only subject in which I always got straight A’s was History; at Penn State I majored in Political Science, figuring to become a lawyer. My ambition was to maybe get a glamorous job in the State Department and travel everywhere. Or something like that. Just about everybody else at the reunion was retired or close to it. Me, I’m still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up.
Meanwhile, most of my generation in Pennsylvania seems to have gone the other direction, politically. Driving around town and in the surrounding countryside I saw a smattering of Trump signs, but not a single Clinton sign. Most of my close friends are smart enough not to buy into Trump’s BS even if they don’t follow current events as closely as I do. The few who do get involved are rabidly anti-Trump, but nobody was fiercely pro-Clinton. Some said they felt they didn’t have much of a choice.
I was reminded of the hundreds of arguments I’d had with my father, who died ten years ago. Boy, could we ever argue. He took his politics seriously. I was back one Christmas and we got into an argument over which nightly news to watch and he said, “Fox News, that’s good news!” I wonder what he would have made of Obama and Trump. We could have had some great fights!
Okay, time to wrap this up. Here’s a photo of me and some of the other streetlight poker players, Bob Feld, David Waldman, and Jim Fortuna. I’ve always thought that our obsession with poker kept us out of real trouble. Do kids today still play poker?
This is me and my wife, Padma.
And just for the heck of it, a photo I took one Christmas morning at everybody’s favorite spot on the Slippery Rock. I was back visiting in 1995 when I left a great Christmas Eve party just before dawn and was greeted with six inches of pristine, new-fallen snow. I raced home, grabbed my camera, roused my brother, and drove out to McConnell’s Mill to take this photo. Ours were the first tracks in the snow. Now that both my dad and mom have passed I may not be back during the holidays for a long time.
Okay, that’s far enough down memory lane for today. So, fellow ‘Canes, please follow the instructions below to get a free eBook or Audiobook. And somebody fix the Slaman entry on Wikipedia!
It looks like somebody has already corrected the Wikipedia page to mention New Castle and the movie, or else I was totally out to lunch when I looked at it the other day. Still, it says his father was a West Virginia coal miner, which would have been a long commute.
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