Three high school teachers in Kansas hope to kidnap an aide to George W. Bush, interrogate him, and post video to the internet.
At the time our escapade was deemed notorious. But it almost seems quaint now. It had a moral. It took a long time to put itself together because we did not start out our lives as…well, you can fill in the blank when you get to the end. The story is always more complicated than it first appears. The wrong we fought against was, in retrospect, merely a river of stupid as opposed to an ocean of ignorance in which we now swim. But that river was the headwaters of this ocean.
This is how it happened and I could almost swear you it’s true.
There is a time in every young man’s life when he drinks too much beer and the summer of 1974 was one such time for me. There was a bar called Kirby’s conveniently located right off the Wichita State campus and not more than two blocks from where I lived. That Jack and I would meet there on that particular night was ironic, or perhaps merely fitting.
Watergate and the impeachment of Nixon were in the news every day that summer. After work I would race home from my part time job to be in front of the television when Walter Cronkite came on the air. There were no twenty-four-seven news channels in those days, which increased the civility and tone of events. The airwaves were not yet infested with spin merchants, programmed into blandly handsome men with too much botox in their forehead or women with too much bouffant blond for brains and cleavage for personality.
Wing Nut Radio had not yet happened either. To this day those nattering knobs of bluster still insist Nixon was railroaded by a liberal press. They are, as they are so often, full of shit. They are convinced, now more than ever to borrow a phrase, if they repeat something long enough, loud enough and with enough righteous indignation, black will be white, lies will be truth and Nixon was innocent. He wasn’t.
Watergate was one of the great public dramas ever. It had a first, second and third act played out in stately fashion, full of wonderful characters, intrigue, back story, side plots, all overlaid with history and wrapped in an enormous civics lesson. It was mesmerizing. Then on a hot night in August the final curtain came down on the great show. Nixon gave his resignation speech and would leave Washington the next day.
After the speech the usual crowd drifted into Kirby’s. The mood at first was surprisingly somber. Everyone was quiet, the way an audience can be hushed after seeing a great play. The emotion and meaning were too great to even speak of for a while, and for however briefly, had to be digested and contemplated.
Then everyone began to drink. Not as they usually did with a casual ease, but with a vengeance and true thirst. It became a celebration. Not surprising for it was a room full of long haired hippies. What was surprising and what has always stuck in my mind over the years was the solemn appreciation which preceded the usual drunkenness. That was the special part, the contemplation of the common citizens, reflecting upon the fall of the king.
At a table in the corner, crammed in elbow to elbow with a pile of people, pitchers of beer disappearing as fast as they could be poured, I found myself next to a guy I had seen around campus but had never met. His face was easy to remember for he had unusual white boy hair that frizzed out into a natural Afro.
“It makes you proud to be an American,” he told me above the din. “It makes you proud the system really worked.” It was Jack Meade and this was the first thing he ever said to me.
After a while there were two girls across the table from us. They had long, straight hair, parted in the middle and wore denim work shirts embroidered with flowers. It is hard to recall the conversation. We talked, they talked. We smiled, they smiled. Pretty soon one of them said, “Would you like to go outside and smoke a number?”
We wound up at their house on Vassar Street and Jack wound up with the better looking of the two. It was something I resented and remember thinking, “Man, he’s fast.” He and his girl disappeared down a hall. I and my girl were soon on the couch getting better acquainted. It’s not that I was so good looking or a lady’s man. Such fast and easy couplings were common at the time. To be young and horny in the 1970’s was to be the beneficiary of good timing.
Soon enough we were at the point where the guy mumbles a few words, finds his clothes and the front door. But Jack and his girl came back into the room. She put on a record, they rolled another joint, and we sat around one of those wooden spools everyone used to use as a coffee table.
That’s when Jack and I had our first chance to really talk, one of those intense and earnest conversations college students have, ranging over history, politics, and philosophy, each of us dropping in names of famous books and authors we knew just enough to quote from. Being so intent on how intelligent we both sounded we ignored the girls, until one told us, “Really, it’s time for you guys to go.”
We did. We went to walk circle after circle in Fairmont Park and continue our discussion of the great issues of the day. We spoke of the sweeping currents of history and how the subject is poorly taught. History was a great river which poured into, forming and informing, the present moment. History was passionate and only the dolts who teach it made it dull. We wondered if religion qualified as philosophy, if Spinoza was greater than Voltaire, why baseball is a better game than football.
Then the issue arose whether Jewish girls were good lovers or if their reputation as cold and un-giving was a lie. Jack had dated three Jewish girls and I had gone out with at least two myself. Based on our own experience we were puzzled by their reputation, for our field work had shown nothing cold about them, no siree. Jack insisted the wildest lover he ever knew was a vixen named Rosenbloom, whose passion was so out of control he could not, out of common decency, tell me everything.
We decided Jewish girls had an undeserved reputation and were victims of calumny, perpetuated by comedians and writers, mostly male and from their own tribe. Then the thought occurred maybe Jewish girls gained this reputation after marriage, when their sexual behavior might change. Or maybe they were different with goys. We decided our sampling was too small to be scientifically accurate and more investigative field work was in order.
The sky had begun to lighten in the east when we parted, each of us happy to find a new friend. The odd thing was Jack and I would not see each other for fourteen years. In a few days he was off to hitchhike around Europe and we did not connect again before he left. We would meet much later when we both had short hair. Well, one of us had almost no hair, and we both would be card carrying members of the middle class. Then we stepped off that path in a grand fashion. But we will come to that.
One last note: when Gerald Ford walked Richard Nixon out to the helicopter on the White House lawn, where Nixon gave one last wave, climbed in and then lifted off, that was the precise instant the 1960’s ended. When Ford walked back inside and took the oath of office the 1970’s began. The calendar may have it different, but facts and truth are not always the same thing. There are times when facts miss the truth.
Fourteen years later I was married, had a mortgage and was thinking of voting Republican in the fall. For six years I had been teaching history at Ark Valley High School, my life arranged into a dull though reasonably happy routine. Then my marriage went to hell.
Asking around for a good divorce attorney a friend gave me a name. At the appointed hour I was in a law office in downtown Wichita. There was nothing familiar about the man when he came down the hall to introduce himself. Once behind his desk he started taking down the necessary information. Married five years, no kids, I was a teacher. She worked as a secretary for a group of architects, though that ended when she went back to Virginia.
“Virginia is her home?”
“That’s where I met her,” I said. Then I added, no doubt fishing for approval as my confidence had been rocked in the past months with a marriage falling apart, “I was doing research on the Civil War.”
“Really,” he said, for the first time sounding interested instead of merely professional. “You writing a book?”
When I said I was, he was impressed. This was a reaction I was always getting from people and for a few years this response gratified me, an ego stroking people would freely give. It was a great ice breaker at parties when someone might introduce me as “Teddy Thompson, he’s writing a book on the Civil War.”
“Ohh,” the ladies would say.
“Ahh,” the men would say, many of them invariably remarking, “I always wanted to write.”
“Well,” I would say modestly, smiling at my shoes, before lifting my chin resolutely and remarking, “it’s a lot of hard work.”
This was always followed by the same questions for which I never developed good answers. “Is it published?” or “When can I read it?” But the man across the desk did not ask the obvious questions, but asked two intelligent ones instead. “Are you doing original research? Did you go to source material?”
“I spent six years doing research,” I told him. “Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, the Smithsonian, the New York Public Library. I went to every major battle field.”
“Really,” he said.
“Worked for a summer as a guide at Gettysburg.”
“I wasn’t with the National Park Service. I was a private guide. It was a great summer. Kind of dull at night, I mean there’s only one little college in Gettysburg.”
“Six years you did this?”
“Happiest years of my life,” I admitted. “Met my wife, well, now going to be my ex-wife, at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. She was a librarian there.”
This was an exaggeration. She had just started and was a page or intern. It was true she would bring me boxes of old letters to look through and for a week, without permission, brought me a file they had on Jefferson Davis. This made her feel like a secret agent and was a form of delicious rebellion. Later I came to see rebellion played a part in our entire love life. It should be mentioned she was beautiful, blonde, and named Jenny.
“Those were the good days,” I told him.
“Then what happened?” he asked.
There wasn’t a quick answer to this. There were a lot of smart ass replies I could have given. Life happened. The great bitch reality bit me on the ass, bit me down to the bone and held on, kicking me with hunger and desolation until I had to pay attention.
The modest inheritance I had from my grandfather finally ran out. Despite my best attempts at penury I could no longer sustain myself in cheap hotels and cafeterias as I roamed the country in an old VW bug, gleaning odd bits of first hand history in unlikely spots. The small jobs I took here and there helped. I was a flag man on a highway crew outside Fredericksburg, a night clerk at a hotel in Chattanooga, as well as a guide in Gettysburg. All this so I could haunt battlefields, libraries, historical societies and meet weird old widows who had a cache of ancient family letters written by Civil War soldiers. My notes would grow to fill twenty-six boxes, which I would pack up and ship home to my parents.
By all rights I never should have had a chance with Jenny. Her father was a retired Marine colonel who had done combat tours in three wars. He would not approve of anyone dating his daughter, his only child, unless that man was a Marine. Or grudgingly, if she was ever going to date “one of those Army pussies” he had graduated from West Point, preferably at the head of his class. It bears mentioning I had shaved my beard and cut my hair before meeting the Colonel, though even at that early date I was losing hands full of hair with every shower.
That a Yankee from Kansas, and a civilian at that, had become interested in his girl might have occasioned red faced rage and real threats of physical violence. But it was a tactful bit of lying that won me his good graces. He had written a book on the Civil War himself. It had been self-published, which is more correctly characterized as vanity publishing. There were about a thousand copies of Lee’s Eternal Glory moldering in card board boxes out in his garage. Jenny had given me a copy. It was three hundred pages of hero worship. Robert E. Lee was next only to Jesus, though maybe a bit better, as he had most of the savior’s virtues, plus he was a soldier.
So when I met the man the first words out of my mouth were about what an outstanding piece of work Lee’s Eternal Glory was, citing points of erudition and insight never before seen by lesser mortals. Within minutes I had compared him favorably to Tacitus and Thucydides. That it was undisguised flattery never seemed to have occurred to him. If you are starved for flattery, honeyed words are merely long disguised truth now thankfully revealed.
That first night we traded Civil War trivia for hours. Impressed with the depth of my knowledge and mission he began to like me, to even look forward to my visits. After a month he compared me to the great English historian John Keegan, who also had a bum set of legs. It was the greatest compliment I have ever been paid.
On a memorable afternoon he took me to his VFW Club, introducing me as a “scholar writing an important book about the Civil War.” This impressed almost no one and within minutes the question was floated, as I knew it would be, if I had served in Vietnam. At that point I stood up and marched around the table, pointing at my feet.
“Gentlemen, the Marines wouldn’t take me with these feet, or the Army, or the Navy, or even the stinking Merchant Marines. All I can say is goddamn all the doctors.”
The men looked at my feet with pity and at me with what I hoped was forgiveness. I was born with my two big toes fused together. The doctors cut them apart of course, but I grew up the most pigeon toed man in all of America. This kept me out of the service. This was a relief yes, but also a disappointment. What historian doesn’t have a fascination with the military?
Part of me regretted not being born earlier and thus denied the chance to fight in the “good war” that was World War II, when they would have taken me bad feet and all. That Vietnam was not a good war was a small sorrow for me but a colossal one for the country.
Unlike legions of Republican hypocrites however, I never became a chicken hawk in my later years, bloodthirsty from the safety of an arm chair while escaping military service in my youth. There is a decent argument to be made the Iraq war happened because a whole flock of chicken hawks had to compensate.
The Colonel was from the true warrior class. He had been in places like Peleliu and the Frozen Chosin. That I knew of these battles, obscure in history though not in Marine lore, scored major points with him. One day I said to him, “Everyone thinks opera singers are divas. But some of the biggest divas in the history of the world were generals.” He liked that and added a few more names to my list.
The Colonel could tell wonderful stories but could not write them down. His words turned stiffly formal on the page, probably the result of too many after action reports written in cover your ass bureaucratic speak. There was talk of me ghost writing his memoirs.
You might ask where the Colonel’s wife and Jenny’s mother was during all this time. She was in the living room, smoking carton after carton of Kent cigarettes, watching television. If you discounted the number of times she acknowledged my presence by saying “Hello Ted,” she said exactly six words to me over the years. Even around the dinner table she didn’t speak but simply smoked, the television blabbering away in another room. Hers was a passive aggressive assault against her marriage. Once I saw her tap cigarette ash into a gravy boat she was about to serve her husband. Catching my eye she glared at me, daring me to say something. I didn’t.
My time in Virginia came to an end. With money gone and beautiful girlfriend waiting I came home to commit to paper my great treasure trove of research. It turned out I was a decent scholar but like the Colonel a lousy writer, a point I was not then ready to concede. My parents began to ask pointed questions about me making a living. As completed pages were not rolling out of my typewriter, my dad would actually stand outside my bedroom door and listen for such activity, my youthful spree was over. It was time to get serious about joining the middle class. I would be a history teacher.
For a while I thought about a doctorate. Then I chanced upon a professor at a party who after about nine gin and tonics told me, “Son, you have a better chance of getting the clap from the Czarina of Russia than you do of ever getting a job with a PhD in history.” So I decided to be a high school teacher.
I took education courses at Wichita State and told myself I was not giving up on my best hopes. Summers would be free to pursue the great unfinished business of a book. Being a teacher would give me something I needed, a job, and something I wanted, Jenny as a wife.
When I married the girl from Virginia, the Colonel, now on a respirator from the lung cancer that was going to kill him within six months, managed to walk her down the aisle without the aid of an oxygen tank. At the reception her mother spoke those six words, the only sentence she ever really said to me. “Now you’ve gone and done it,” she announced. She would outlive her husband by three years, finally dying from the same thing that killed him, cigarettes. Tobacco is the Indians’ revenge.
When I brought my new bride to Kansas she immediately did not like the place. It was too flat, too windy, had no trees and too many Yankees. “This Kansas,” she would say, pissy as hell, a side of her I had never before witnessed. “If you have seen one tree then you have seen them both.”
It was not long before she learned to enjoy liquor too much. When she wasn’t drinking she was sweet, or at least mild. When she was drinking she was poisonous. It later occurred to me I had brought her all the way out to the Midwest where everything was foreign to her. Far too late I realized we should have left it at love letters and longing. Still, for a few years, we tried.
That day in the lawyer’s office I told him some of this, and though I sensed a connection with the man across the desk, I didn’t tell him about the party my wife and I had been to a few months before. Upon being introduced as a writer she had, under the influence of too much Scotch, announced quite loudly, “He’s never going to write that goddamn book.” This led to a screaming fight when we got home and could be correctly marked as our final break.
“How much you make a year?” he asked.
When I named a figure I thought I saw a small shake of his head, which I took to be pity, which made me defensive, a posture I often felt when comparing salaries. So it surprised me when he leaned back and said, “I always thought I would be happier teaching high school than I would be practicing law.”
“You must be crazy,” I told him.
“I’ve been told that more than once,” he remarked. Then he studied my face again, something I noticed he had been doing for a few minutes, and squinted up his eyes. “I’m going to ask you a very odd question. Where were you the night Nixon resigned?”
Now I looked closer, saw the wiry hair, not out in a full Afro but cropped closer now, and in that moment we both realized who the other was. He got to his feet with his hand out, a big smile on his face. “I remember your name was Ted. But I never knew your last name.”
An hour later we were at the Lancers Club, a bar in downtown Wichita just below street level near a fountain. It was happy hour and the place was filling up with men in suits and women in blouses somber in cut and color. After a few drinks it seemed the top button or two on those blouses would come undone. The atmosphere had the delicious expectation of chance seduction. As we talked each of us was checking out the room.
“You really want to be a teacher instead of a lawyer?” I asked.
“I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I hate the law.”
“A fine time to find this out,” I said, only half joking.
“I’ll handle your divorce,” Jack said. “You have no kids. She left the state. All that helps. You’ll have to divide up what little you’ve got. But you’re young. You’ll start over.”
“So why do you hate the law?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Right off the bat, it’s dull.” He took a sip of bourbon and shook his head with what I took to be self-disgust. “First week in law school I knew this. Knew I hated it, hated the way it makes you think. But I pushed myself. If you think Gettysburg is dull at night, you should go to law school at Washburn and know the magic night life of Topeka.”
“I can’t say I hate the people,” he said and took another sip of bourbon. “I can’t go that far. But for the most part I don’t like lawyers. They have no imagination. If you go to college and then right into law school you never have time to develop a personality. And if you’re going to be good at the law you need to be at it twenty-four seven.”
He shook his head again. “What surprises me is how fast I conformed. That’s what stings. All of us hippies were going to be different. Ha. We’re just grubbing around for money like everybody else.” He let out a long breath, paused, and said almost wistfully, “I really think I would rather be a teacher.”
As the waitress brought us another round two women, a blonde and a brunette, came into the bar. Every eye in the room followed them and most were following the blonde. She had long legs, a great figure, and a gentle face. Her friend was not bad looking either, but your eye just naturally went to the blonde. When they sat at the table next to ours our conversation was forgotten. Before their purses were off their shoulders Jack said, “Excuse me, my friend has bet me he’s seen you before.”
“Really?” asked the blonde. “Where?”
Jack turned to me. Dumbfounded, but only for a moment I said, “Didn’t we take the bar together? Weren’t you in law school at KU?”
“Not me,” she said. “I tried law school but it bored me.”
Before I had another word out of my mouth Jack was out of his chair and sitting down at her table. In the dim light I could see that his face was lit up. “I’m Jack,” he began, and started talking and didn’t stop for an hour.
In a moment I came over to the table too and tried to make contact with the other woman. But she was put out. She wanted to be with her friend, not hit on by some guy. She didn’t like me. In fact I came to believe she was a lesbian in love with the blonde, whose name was Mindy, because she kept staring at Jack as if willing him to evaporate.
But Jack and Mindy were locked in on each other. The other woman and I might as well have been baggage on a tarmac. Jack was turning on all his charm and she seemed exactly that, charmed, smiling and laughing. Every once in a while she touched his arm. He was a burst dam, spilling over with words, jokes and energy, a whirlwind.
This went on for three rounds of drinks, till the brunette and I were at least making small talk on our side of the table. Finally, I noticed a silence and caught Mindy looking down at her vodka, thinking. Then she stared into Jack’s eyes in an earnest, searching way. She rose and with a mere nod of her head she and her friend went to the ladies room. When they were gone Jack leaned across the table and, I swear this is true, there was a gleam in his eye, an absolute sparkle.
“Man, that’s her. That’s the woman I’m going to marry.”
Now more than once I had fallen in love with a woman in a bar, usually after a few drinks in a dimly lit place. At a certain time in my life this was a regular occurrence. It didn’t have to be in a bar either. A grocery store or sidewalk did just fine. It could be the woman cleaning my teeth or the one taking my ticket at the movies. “Fallen in love” is the wrong way to state the event. Smacked with infatuation is closer to the truth. No. Seized with lust would be the exact truth. This happened approximately five thousand six hundred seventy-two times before I was thirty. It still happens. A mere glimpse of a pretty woman and within seconds we were married, endlessly happy, and having great sex. Not in that order. All this is to say, having done this dance a few times myself, I didn’t believe a word of what Jack had just told me.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“No man. I’m telling you the truth.”
For the record I will again state there was a light shining in his eyes, a phenomenon on rare occasions I have witnessed. His high beams were turned on. In a couple of minutes the two women came back to the table and Jack was on his feet, asking a one word question.
Mindy nodded. A smile ripped across Jack’s face as if he had just won the lottery. Then he smacked his forehead with his palm and said, “Oh my God, I almost forgot. This is Ted. Ted, Mindy.”
When I got to my feet she took my extended hand and said, “I’m sorry to have ignored you all this time,” and here she leaned in to whisper in my ear, “but your friend is so nice.” Her voice was soft and breathy. It made the little hairs inside my ear stand up and tickle. The moment was erotic. Her voice and touch would stay a vivid memory. She wrinkled up her nose at me in a conspiratorial wink, let go of my hand and turned to speak to her friend, which gave Jack the chance to grab my arm and pull me aside.
“You must be my good luck charm,” he said. “Every time I’m with you I get a girl.” He patted my shoulder. “Call me and we’ll go over the divorce stuff.”
Then I heard her friend say, “Be careful,” and Jack and Mindy were walking toward the door, which he opened, and they disappeared. Within seconds the brunette said, “It’s time for me to go, too.”
“I’ll walk you to your car.”
“That’s all right,” she told me flatly, “I’ll manage.”
A few minutes later I was alone on the dark sidewalks of downtown Wichita. “Lawyers get all the women,” I thought. It was the second time I had been with Jack and both times he walked away with the prettier girl. On this score he was not a man to be trusted.
Jack was to marry Mindy, marry her within six weeks of meeting her, and I never saw any man more in love with his wife. He practiced law for another two years and then “bored out of my mind, disgusted with myself beyond all measure” gave up being an attorney. Instead of becoming a teacher right away he and Mindy joined the Peace Corp and went to a small village in Indonesia. But that didn’t last long. He told me how it had happened.
“One day I’m out in the jungle, a hundred and ten degrees, trying to prime this water pump which I knew nothing about, dodging mosquitoes the size of dogs, and I realized I was all the way on the other side of the world trying to cure ignorance. Then it hit me. There was plenty of ignorance back where I came from. That’s when I knew the Doo-Dah Suck had got me, man.”
Local legend had it there was a geo-magnetic field around Wichita. No matter how far you traveled, the “Doo-Dah Suck” would always pull you back to Kansas, there being no place like, well, you know. People were good here and life was easy. Out here the razor’s edge is a yard wide and you can lie down on it and take a nap.
It was my feeling the school was lucky to have a teacher with Jack’s unusual background. For a few years the school felt the same. He was wildly popular with the kids, idealistic and energetic, starting out as an English teacher, later made coach of the debate squad. They offered him the chance to teach a class in business law but he turned them down flat. He wanted nothing to do with the law ever again. Over time the pride in having a teacher like Jack faded. The administration came to see him, as they did any of us who couldn’t stay between the lines, as a pain in the ass.
As for me I married a second time, to a woman named Lynne. She ran the billing department for a hospital and brought two children, a girl and a boy, eight and seven at the time, both starved for the attention of a dad, into the marriage. It would be wrong to drag them into the mess that has become my life, so I will not mention them by name. But I will say I adored them both, still do, and consider it one the best acts of my life to have been their father, adopted or otherwise. For the record, Jack and Mindy had a beautiful daughter. For the same reason my children should not be brought into this spectacle, I won’t give her name either.
This was how Jack and I came to be teachers in a town just north of Wichita, Kansas. Each of us had a dab of color in our background, but our lives had turned as bland as a suburban lawn. The years ticked by in an orderly fashion and might have done so all the way to the end.
But Wing Nuts got hold of the country. This would change us from being boringly middle class into something else entirely. It would make us outlaws. The slide into this dementia happened as these things usually do. First slow then fast.
The day I heard the first glimmer of the idea Jack walked into the lounge and stopped at a table where three teachers sat. He tapped a finger on a color photo on the front page of the Wichita Eagle which lay open in front of them.
“That is one hell of a p.r. stunt,” he said.
Two of the teachers grinned at him, one with condescension and one with smirking pity. The third took the bait and got a narrow look in her eyes. She looked up at Jack and announced primly, “The trouble with you liberals is that you only know defeat. You’re only happy with defeat. You wouldn’t know victory if it slapped you in the face.”
“The trouble with you Republicans,” said Jack, falsely sweet, “is that you believe a photo op is reality.” A three part chorus of hooting laughter followed him as he crossed the room to the coffee machine.
“Oh, we know reality,” said the prim one, an English teacher. “We live in reality.”
“You are the one out of touch with reality,” added the second, a gym teacher, menopausal and fat, famous for her mustache.
“Biggest victory this country has known in years,” chimed in the third, a teacher of geometry, who always wore a white shirt and black pants, “and all you want to do is denigrate.”
“Biggest victory?” asked Jack, putting down the coffee pot. “We just kicked one hell of an ant hill and you don’t have a clue.”
“Humph,” sniffed the teacher of math, a form based completely in fact. “The man has got nuclear bombs pointed at us and you don’t want to do anything?”
“He doesn’t have nuclear bombs,” said Jack, saying this as much to the ceiling as to them.
“Oh, he’s got them all right,” insisted the gym lady.
“Then let me ask you a simple question,” said Jack, and stepped back to their table and lowered his face till it was even with the three teachers. “If he’s got them, why didn’t he use them?”
This shut them up into an immediate and stunned perplexity. Their faces, which had been smug in certainty only a moment before, now turned unsure and sour. It seemed a trick question, an unwanted pop quiz, an intrusion into their security.
“Saddam Hussein,” continued Jack, “Mister Evil, as we have been so well informed lately, gets invaded by the most powerful country in the world, and yet he didn’t use his WMDs. Now why do you suppose that is?”
He circled their table now as if he had them corralled, sipping his coffee. An uneasy pause drew out. The three teachers glanced at each other from the corner of their eyes hoping one of them might have a good answer. But none of them did.
“Because he didn’t have any,” said Jack, disgusted.
“Oh, they’re going to find them,” insisted the English teacher.
“That’s right,” added Mister Math, going on to explain, “He just didn’t have time to get them ready.”
“Didn’t have time? You’re a teacher and you’re this deficient in logic?” There was nasty sarcasm in his voice as he added, “What a sad day for education in America.” Now he was circling them again, restless and energized, like a cat with three mice in a box. This was the Jack people had gotten tired of and tried not to provoke. This was the Jack who had been called before the school board and told to pipe down on his opinions. Parents had complained. Certain teachers were reluctant to stay in the same room with him.
“Everyone has known for months we were going. Then we were there. American armies. In Iraq. Driving toward Baghdad. And Saddam Hussein didn’t use his WMDs?” He let the question hang there for a moment, like the good teacher he was, before asking, “What was he waiting for? Until he found himself in a tight spot?”
The three let out a collective and exasperated sigh, as if asked something so stupid it didn’t merit a reply. The geometry man turned to his companions and announced, “A defeatist. What can you do with such a defeatist?”
“Shoot him,” muttered the gym teacher.
They wanted to laugh but were from Kansas and knew good manners so settled for small grins. They also knew Jack and were afraid, very much afraid it seemed to me as I sat across the room watching, that such a wise crack might set off a volcanic response.
There was a famous incident last year in this very room between Jack and the football coach. They had nearly come to blows and would have if I and a few others had not gotten between them, pushing Jack into the hall. Both nearly lost their jobs and Jack, not being a winning coach, came closer to losing his. It was serious enough that lawyers were involved for a couple of weeks. The people here knew and remembered this, so the moment hung there, electric.
But Jack just sighed. His point now made his anger had passed and he seemed resigned, as if he had just explained an obvious point to a slow student for the umpteenth time. He raised his arms, palms up, as if asking heaven, ‘What else can I do?’
“Shoot me?” he asked quietly. Then he spread his arms out like Jesus on the cross. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” he said. This drew quizzical stares from the three at the table. “I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me what it means and another dollar if you can tell me who said it.” His voice was calm as he took another sip of coffee.
“I know its Latin,” said the English teacher. “But you’re just a damn show off and who cares what it means.”
“Here we are in a place of learning and you praise ignorance?” asked Jack, feigning amazement and expressing contempt.
“I bet you’re the only one in the room who knows the translation,” said the gym teacher. “But I bet you looked it up two days ago.”
“I’m willing to bet my friend over there would know,” said Jack, and pointed at me.
“I’ll put a dollar on that,” said the gym teacher.
“Wait a minute, Harriett,” said the math man, “that’s Teddy. You know how he is.”
All eyes came to me. Maybe if the math teacher hadn’t thrown in that “you know how he is” I would have shrugged it off and let the spat cool down. It wasn’t my intention to get drawn into a personal power struggle, which could infect teachers every bit as much as students in any high school. It often seemed the whole world never grew beyond the juvenile condition which could be summed up in four little words, I’m better than you, a belief that has started uncounted wars.
This was also the teachers’ lounge. Except when Jack stirred it up it was usually a place to rest and regroup, a sanctuary where one could bitch and moan in congenial commiseration. But these three were not my favorites. It was also amazing how they had played right into Jack’s hands. I had quoted this phrase to him only a few days before. He had liked it so much he had written it down, even taking the trouble to learn the Latin.
“Sweet it is to die for one’s country,” I said. I could have let it rest there, but I was not a teacher for nothing. “Horace wrote it. He was trying to kiss up the Emperor Augustus at the time. When he was a young man Horace was in a battle, the civil war between Augustus and Mark Antony, and he hated being a soldier. But when he got old he got sentimental.”
“He was just kissing the Emperor’s ass so he could get a new villa,” said Jack, waving a hand, sounding cheerful for the first time.
“Oh God, you two,” said the English teacher.
“This is high school, not college,” sniffed the gym teacher with the hairy lip, who rose and dug in her purse.
“Go on Jeopardy if you want to show off,” said Mister Math.
“It’s tragic you’re so in love with your own ignorance,” said Jack. “But maybe in your case it just explains a great deal about you.”
The gym teacher shoved a dollar into his hand and Jack said, “It’s all right, I believe in free education,” and with a slightly formal bow placed the dollar back into the woman’s hand. She huffed her way out the door. The other two teachers scraped their chairs back from the table and left the room with air of much displeasure. With a satisfied smile Jack came over to my table.
But his smile disappeared when he saw the same copy of that day’s Wichita Eagle on my table as well. Jack twisted an index finger into the President’s face, hard enough to make the front page of the newspaper spin. “Someday, someone is going to make that man pay attention.”
In the picture George W. Bush was on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by cheering sailors. Over his shoulder a banner announced “Mission Accomplished.” It was May, 2003. At that moment sixty-five American soldiers had died in Iraq.
The man who had stage managed this photo op, who would go on record as saying it was “the proudest day I ever knew as an American,” was named Kenneth Brian Kammerer. He was better known by a nickname George W. Bush had given him: Kenny Boy.