Friday, January 13, 2017

The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown

The following piece originally appeared in this space almost seven years ago, on Friday, February 13, 2009. Thinking about the incident that is featured prominently in it, almost forty years after it happened, never fails to make me laugh.  We were, for one evening, the "Irish Family Kenny".  To our rescue sailed the unsinkable Helen Brown, ably aided by her husband, Arthur, and their daughter, Roxanne. 

I suspect (or perhaps, it is simply a hope) that these days, Mrs. Brown, spends a portion of her time these days talking American History with her old friend, colleague, and boss, WPK, Sr.  Helen Brown died slightly less than two years ago, on January 28, 2015.   


Triskadekaphobia or Treat?

Today is Friday the 13th and as luck would have it - this being a year in which we look but do not leap - we will have the opportunity to enjoy another one this time, next month. (Do not get giddy in look ahead to April hoping against hope for a trifecta. It gets even scarier then - the 13th is a Monday.)

Friday the 13th evokes memories for me of certain events from my youth Beginning in the 5th grade, I went to school where my father was a teacher and an administrator. Either when I was a fifth grader, or perhaps when I was in Grade Six, Dad and the the school Booster Club organized a basketball game to raise money for the Club, which helped fund our school's Athletic Department.

The game was between the faculty and a team of Major League baseball players. (It was the pre-steroid era so none of us feared "roid rage"). The hook to the touring band of players was Jeff Torborg. Mr. Torborg was a Westfield native, a star player at Rutgers and had - in fact - for one season while he was between big league managerial and/or coaching gigs served as our school's Athletic Director and Varsity baseball coach. On what turned out to be a miserably cold and rainy winter's night, he brought his gang of ball players with him to Inman Avenue to "throw down" against the W-H faculty.

I still smile thinking of the event because it was an unqualified success. The players were not stars, although their roster included one future star - Willie Wilson of the Kansas City Royals - who might just be the greatest high school athlete we have ever produced here in Levelland, but they were all great sports. All posed for pictures for a long time after the game and signed autographs for whoever wanted one. Somewhere Rob has my autographed baseball that Mr. Torborg signed along with Willie Wilson, Glenn Borgmann, Johnny Briggs and the rest of their team.

The weather was a non-factor of course as the game was played at W-H's gym. Post-game however it became an enormous factor. On our drive home - with Dad behind the wheel, Mom riding shotgun and Kara, Jill and I across the back seat of the station wagon - we went thru a lake-like puddle and Dad's car died. We could not get restarted. We were but 5 minutes from school, which meant we were about 40 minutes from home. It was late. It was the pre-cell phone era. We were screwed.

Dad (if I remember correctly) found a nearby pay phone and had the audacity to call one of the teachers who worked for him and who had the misfortune of living nearby. And because she was the absolute salt of the earth, on a night not fit for man nor beast, in response to the call from her boss Helen Brown - my History teacher - and her husband, Art, came out to where we were to rescue us. And by "rescue" I mean not only get us out of our stranded car but put us up in their home for the night.

Mrs. Brown was a bit of a character. She was an incredibly good history teacher but she was generally considered to be a bit odd by most of her students.  In our defense, she was the only teacher I ever had who wrapped the pieces of chalk she used in Scotch tape, the efficacy of which I understand as an adult but which eluded me completely as a child. She had a Code of Conduct by which her life was lived that I could not get a whiff of on my best day. It was more than a bit mortifying to a "trying so hard to be so cool" 12 or 13 year-old to spend the night at a teacher's home and I was prepared to take to my grave the fact that I had been there. Unfortunately I failed to adequately communicate that fact to Mrs. Brown.

In History class on Monday, which as I recall was an afternoon affair, Mrs. Brown spilled the beans. She began innocuously enough by asking who among us had been at school Friday night for the basketball game and about autographs we had been able to collect and then - without warning - she gave up the fact that our family had spent the night at her family's home. Having kept that potentially embarrassing piece of information to myself all day up to that point, it was hard for me to pretend as if I had forgotten about it when, as soon as the bell rang signaling the end of the period, my friends descended upon me like fat guys looking to carve up the last hot dog.

In my pre-teen mind, I was incensed that she had "humiliated" me in front of my friends - especially when between my still-oversized head, daily dosages of medicine to combat my epilepsy and the fact that my old man ran the joint I needed neither her help nor anyone else's to accomplish that goal.

In relatively short order - and I do not know why or when specifically it happened - I realized that she had not sought to embarrass me. And more importantly, I realized just what an extraordinary gesture she had made on that cold, rainy Friday the 13th. She and her family had opened up their home to take in not one or even two stranded travelers but five of us.

A lucky day indeed on the unlikeliest of days.

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