Big-time crushes, boring classes: Stephen Bloom’s junior high was just like any other. Oh, except for the raving mad, chainsaw-wielding Shop teacher.
When I was in junior high, Lynn Sloan was my fantasy. She had everything—tawny tresses that cascaded to honey-hued shoulders; pendulous, melon-sized breasts; mile-long legs. Lynn was a 12 before 10 became the national standard.
Lynn was so outrageously gorgeous that she stopped traffic. Whenever there was a Lynn Sloan sighting, everyone—boys and girls alike—froze. Boys wanted her; girls wanted to be her. In the cafeteria, Lynn sat at the Table of Beautiful Girls, a select group of pulchritude, although none of these Lynn Sloan wannabes came even close. Lynn was a goddess.
Of course, I had as much chance with Lynn Sloan as I had with Ann Margaret. Did Lynn Sloan even know who I was? Fat chance.
Until the day I became a hero. Until the day I changed the world.
That was the day Lynn Sloan spoke to me.
Boys in my junior high school were required to take Shop class, just as the girls had to enroll in Home Economics. Home Ec was taught by Miss Hughes, a perky woman in her mid-30s with a Patti Page flip and a Gleem smile. The girls were lucky.
Shop was taught by either Mr. Whittlebrush, a six-foot, six-inch, 280-pound Fritz Von Erich lookalike with bratwurst fingers and a neck the size of a tree truck in the Black Forest, or by Mr. Walter, a nerdy guy with thick glasses who used to fix toasters and radios. As luck would have it, I drew the short straw. Whittlebrush.
The requirements for Whittlebrush’s class were threefold: pass a test on how to fix a toilet; curl and solder metal sheets to a Maxwell House Coffee tin to make a watering can that didn’t leak; and saw, plane, and stain scraps of pine to build a napkin holder.
No one gave a shit about Shop. For some reason, all the boys I knew were after the glamour profession—law—although no one quite knew what exactly a lawyer did. Medicine was messy. It involved blood, and my friends fainted at the sight of borscht. Law was vaguely about prestige, facing the jury, doing something right for people who had money to pay you—and for those who didn’t, like E.G. Marshall’s clients in “The Defenders.” Law was about being an adult: wearing a suit, being married to a woman in capris, cruising around town in a convertible.
Shop was a dead-end. It prepared you to be a carpenter or a plumber (was I ever behind the curve on that one). The goal was to become, if not a lawyer, at least a white-collar professional, someone who shuffles papers all day long, not the grunt who snakes sewer lines.
One March afternoon, Whittlebrush let us out early. I walked across the hall to peer into Walter’s class to see what my buddy Jeff Denburg was doing. Just as I was balancing on the tips of my Weejuns to look through the window in the class door, Whittlebrush spotted me out of the corner of his eye.
Whittlebrush rush over to me, grabbed me by the collar and picked me up a full six inches off the floor, before flinging me mercilessly against the puke-green wall outside Walter’s class.
What had gotten into him? Decaffeinated coffee?
Whittlebrush had a reputation for a fiendish temper, but this was a new low. Sitting crumpled against the wall, I gasped for breath, as much out of shock as out of fear.
Whittlebrush stared me down like a Kodiak bear eying a chipmunk. “You’re not to look in another teacher’s classroom!” Whittlebrush bellowed at the top of his lungs. The school roof must have lifted a foot.
Whittlebrush licked his lips. Fire flared from his nostrils, smoke leapt out of his ears. At least, that’s how it seemed to me, sprawled on the floor, looking up at the Incredible Hulk. If my mother hadn’t insisted that I made a bowel movement every morning, I surely would have shit my pants.
With Whittlebrush’s strapping body swathed in 3X Ben Davis overalls, he came toward me, his New York–steak mitts outstretched, ready to bat me around like splattered roadkill.
“Don’t ever get in my way!” Whittlebrush barked. “You understand me?”
What had I done to squeeze his gonads?
Maybe Whittlebrush’s wife had talked back to him that morning. Maybe he was unloading on our parents, who dissed Whittlebrush by never showing up for parent-teacher conferences. Maybe Whittlebrush was pissed because he wasn’t making $13.50 an hour installing Sears dishwashers.
No matter. Whittlebrush had intimidated a generation of boys with his mean Shop machismo. He was one sick fuck. No wonder Shop had such a lousy reputation. Today Whittlebrush would be on a daily double dose of Lithium with an Effexor chaser. He’d be in Greystone Hospital, or perhaps Rahway State Prison.
In the nanosecond while I was pondering all these incalculables, I heard something far off in the distance. The faint crescendo of a drum roll, then the gathering flourish of trumpets. The music surely came from Mr. Miller’s band room, but today I choose to believe it originated inside my head. The fanfare was unmistakable: a direct and personal call to action.
There comes a time in each of us when we no longer can accept the accumulation of crimes against humanity. For the sake of the thousands of boys who’d gone before me, I could no longer lay crumpled and wounded, pathetic prey at the paws of Whittlebrush. My time to be a man had arrived.
While still withering on the floor, Whittlebrush came closer, surely to administer punishment. I rose to my feet. My backbone stiffened. My chest puffed.
“Stay away, Whittlebrush!” I said with steely nerves.
Whittlebrush could hardly believe his ears. Neither could I.
For decades, boys had been taking Whittlebrush’s shit, and no one had the balls to tell the motherfucker off.
Whittlebrush’s bottom lip turned into a demonic U. His muskrat brows arched into upside-down Vs. His blue eyes narrowed into slits. If Whittlebrush at that moment had been hooked up to an electrical generator, he would have been able to power the cities of Passaic and Nutley.
Then Whittlebrush let out a blood-curdling howl, which came from the pit of his stomach.
And then he came for me.
“Why, you miserable sonofabitch!” Whittlebrush roared. “I’ll teach you a lesson to talk to me that way!”
No matter how outmatched I was, I was ready to meet my maker.
“Stay away,” I said.
Where all this came from, I have no idea.
By now, 40 or so classmates had formed a tight circle around Whittlebrush and me. They were mesmerized, primed for bloodied knuckles, busted jaws, the clean snap of a broken nose. Someone could have taken bets and made a fortune.
The idiots rooted for Whittlebrush to pulverize me. They were the greasers, the less fortunate, the boys who’d grow up to become meth dealers, Walmart stockers, and mattress movers.
They were the minority, though. Most everyone was rooting for me. I was Crusader Rabbit, Sherman, David beating the shit out of Goliath, all wrapped into one.
Whittlebrush’s eyes were bulging out of their sockets. His face was as red as a Whoopee Cushion.
“I know what you need, you miserable little sonofabitch!” he snarled.
Whittlebrush ran back into Shop, and when he returned, his eyes had an even greater maniacal look. I saw in his right hand he was holding something metal and something large.
At first, I couldn’t make it out. I wouldn’t have put it past Whittlebrush to come back with a red-hot soldering iron. Or maybe the Iron Claw, a torture device he kept in a glass box on his desk. But—
HOLY MOTHER OF GOD!
Whittlebrush had returned with a chainsaw.
Talk about upping the ante.
“You think you’re such a man, now, do you?” Whittlebrush shouted as he pulled the cord to start the saw’s rotary blade, which sputtered and revved until it was spinning at 2,000 RPM.
The tight circle of boys got larger. More and more joined in to witness the spectacle of Whittlebrush going nuts.
Whittlebrush came closer and closer to me, menacing me with the chainsaw. “You want me to use this on you?” Whittlebrush taunted, staccato-thrusting the chainsaw with his right hand toward my face, as the blade spun and buzzed.
Whittlebrush had turned into a madman.
I have no explanation for Whittlebrush’s descent into the Seventh Circle of Psychotic Hell. (All this happened, by the way, years before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Maybe it was Whittlebrush who would eventually inspire the movie.)
Bravery was one thing. Turning into a stump at the hands of a sociopath was another. I scrambled to my feet, broke through the ring of boys, and made a break for the stairs, careening down corridors, running as fast as I could, until I got to Principal Baxter’s office.
“Whittlebrush is after me!” I said out of breath to Miss Merrill, a petite woman with silver hair. “He’s got a chainsaw!”
Principal Baxter ran out of his inner sanctum. “Call the Phys. Ed Department!” he shouted to Mrs. Merrill, sounding the fire alarm.
“Come with me!” Baxter yelled as he ran down the hallway.
The school’s gym teachers, Mr. Frampton, Mr. Lambakin, and Mr. Fletcher, had by then converged at the Shop classroom, hunched like Sumo wrestlers, surrounding Whittlebrush, who was still seething. He held out the whirring chainsaw like it was a torch, taunting anyone who came near him.
“I’ll chop you to bits and pieces!” Whittlebrush shouted, thrusting forth the chainsaw close to anyone who made a move. “Stay away! I tell you, stay away—or you’ll be sorry!”
“Put the chainsaw down, George,” Principal Baxter said in a high-pitched and nervous voice. “You’re gonna hurt someone.”
Whittlebrush looked up Baxter, then at Frampton, Lambakin and Fletcher, who were ready to charge Whittlebrush.
Whittlebrush must have known by then the jig was up. His whole demeanor changed. He looked down, slowly turned off the chainsaw, and placed it on the floor. The deafening roar of the rotary blade took 10 seconds to stop, and presently there was a deafening silence. A standoff of sorts apparently had been reached.
Not the kinds of men to walk away from beating the shit out of another human being, the three gym teachers grunted. They were still crouched, backs arched, as they surrounded Whittlebrush, hoping for a takedown.
Suddenly, Whittlebrush came back to life. Whittlebrush looked up, eyes blazing, then he charged Lambakin. Whittlebrush had turned himself into a human cannonball.
As Whittlebrush and Lambakin were beating the shit out of each other, Frampton and Fletcher had climbed atop Whittlebrush’s back as though they were riding Mighty Joe Young. Whittlebrush bucked them both off with ease.
Principal Baxter started up again with his squeaky voice. “George, it’s over. Calm yourself.”
When were the animal-control officers going to throw a net over Whittlebrush and shoot him with a tranquilizer gun?
But that proved not to be necessary. Baxter walked slowly towards Whittlebrush, who by then had wiped up the floor with Lambakin. Baxter put his arms around Whittlebrush, hugging him tightly. Baxter had become a human straitjacket.
It was only then when Whittlebrush broke down and began sobbing, his big chest heaving. He crumpled to the floor and couldn’t stop crying.
Baxter had come through. The Kennedy Administration should have hired him to negotiate an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Baxter and Whittlebrush walked methodically, one labored foot in front of the other. Fifty or so boys followed the pair, talking in an animated fashion. What a show! Tommy Paglia, a guy who used to extort money from freshmen, put his arm around me.
Whittlebrush never showed up for work again. Word spread far and wide that he had cracked. No one ever found out what happened to him. I imagined the little men in the white coats drove him to a sanatorium, where he was put in a padded cell, mumbling nonstop about sawdust and rotary saws.
With Whittlebrush gone, I had become a hero. Forget Andy Warhol. My fame lasted months, at least till the end of the school year. When I walked down the hall, hundreds of students who heretofore hadn’t known I existed would yell, “Way to go!” Other kids would point to me and whisper in reverential tones. Some just stared in awe.
And then it happened.
Lynn Sloan shot me a smile. We were in the cafeteria, in line for meatloaf and soggy beans. She came over to me, smiled again, and purred two words:
When I opened my mouth to reply, Lynn Sloan had already disappeared to join the Table of the Beautiful Girls.
But that was all right. I was walking on air.
As for Shop class, Principal Baxter couldn’t find a substitute teacher for Whittlebrush. Mr. Walter didn’t take over the class (must have been the backlog of broken radios and toasters), so I got another high five that year: Shop was turned into a study hall, and everyone in Whittlebrush’s class got an A.
To this day, I can’t hammer a nail straight, but it doesn’t bother me. I owe that and the dawning of my manhood to George Whittlebrush.