“In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” – Tom Bodett
Ping-pong balls sprayed the room like bullets as Mr. Wilson, a young, exuberant math enthusiast shot them from an air gun. The other kids thought it was fun and flapped their hands like canary’s wings to catch the balls. I ducked for cover.
“If you catch a ball, read the fraction written on it and then simplify it,” said Mr. Wilson. “Those of you with balls will be called on to give your answers out loud.”
I had no balls of any kind. I trembled under my desk, silently beseeching him not to call on me, but he knew where I was. Oh, the horror of fourth grade.
P.E. was worse. Time after time I stood in my stupid dress in a lineup of kids waiting to be picked for a kickball or soak’em team, my head down, thinking the captains would not see me if I avoided their eyes. With everyone picked for a team, and standing alone, I’d hear a team captain say, “Jeeze, do I gotta get Dana?”
This was all documented on my report card, which weighed 300 pounds as I handed it to Mom. She stood in the kitchen wearing her cat-eye glasses surrounded by a cloud of blue smoke. She opened the small manila envelope and read the following report: Language Arts, C; Math, F; Social Studies, C; Physical Education, D; Science, C. (These may not be the exact grades, but the F in math is accurate, and the rest represent my grade school intellect).
Mom said nothing, took the last, long drag from her Tareyton 100 – I heard the paper and tobacco sizzle as she did so – then smashed the stub in the ashtray and looked at me. I anticipated those tranquil brown eyes to solidify and pierce through me like steel blades, but she remained calm.
The following day she marched up to the school with me in tow and demanded to see the principal and this ping-pong-ball-shooting math teacher. We sat in the principal’s office together, and I listened to my savvy mom question the math teacher.
“If Dana was having so much difficulty with fractions, why didn’t you notify me? She clearly will not understand other math concepts if she doesn’t get fractions.”
“That’s what report cards are for, Mrs. Dewey,” replied Mr. Wilson.
“Well, in my opinion, you should have recognized that she was having difficulty so we could rectify the situation before the permanent report cards came out.” Go Ursula! Sometimes she really lived up to her name – Ursula in Latin is translated into “little bear” or “she bear.”
The principal apologized for the mix-up and then Mom walked me to my class.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were having trouble with fractions? I could have helped you,” she said. I had been too embarrassed to tell her.
I came to her every day after that with the same agonizing question: “How can one-half of one-and-a-half possibly be three-fourths?” She hired a tutor.
In fifth grade, Mr. Burkhalter, modeling a black suit that looked like it could use a good cleaning, stared at us from behind thick, black-rimmed glasses with his beady brown eyes. He was explaining an assignment that he had handed out to the students.
“Read the passage and determine which sentences refer to the pronoun ‘she’ and which sentences refer to the noun ‘she.’”
After I had stared out the window for several minutes wishing I were outside, Mr. Burkhalter whacked my desk with a ruler. What’s with the rulers at this school? I flew out of my seat and nearly pissed myself. I jumped back into my seat and started reading the passage. I didn’t get it. “There she blows” could have been the wind or that sexual thing, which I admit at the time I knew nothing about. Or what about “her starboard side,” which could have meant she had a ginormous ass? “She” appeared so much on that paper that my eyes blurred from strain.
I struggled to write something down. I wiped sweat from my forehead. There is no difference between “she” the woman and “she” the ship, dammit! I looked around at all the diligent students, crumpled up my paper and sat brooding. After a few minutes I unwrapped the assignment and guessed my way through it.
Thankfully, a distraction from my failing school work came to our house early one morning for breakfast. I have to back up to the night before. Dad was a member of the Washington Athletic Club where he bowled on the team. Every Monday night, he’d bowl and then have a drink or two. On this particular night he went over to the neighboring Hilton Hotel and sat at the bar drinking a martini. At the other end of the bar he saw a man sitting alone. Dad thought he recognized the gentleman and asked the bartender, “Hey, isn’t that . . . ” Dad decided that it was, and walked over to the man, bought him another drink, introduced himself, and invited the man to our house for an early breakfast the next morning. It had to be breakfast, and it had to be early, because this gentleman had to catch a flight out of Seattle at 0600.
When Dad woke up Mom at midnight she had a conniption fit. She flew out of bed and banged around in the kitchen doing whatever she did to the sourdough starter for her famous sourdough pancake batter. Then she flew through the house like a whirling dervish cleaning up for a prestigious guest, then woke up everyone starting with Denise.
“Get up, get up!” Mom hollered as she yanked off the blankets. Denise was in high school studying Contemporary Problems, so she thought our nation was in peril at three o’clock in the morning.
“What’s happened? Is it nuclear war?” asked Denise.
“No, no, nothing like that. Chet Huntley is coming for breakfast!”
“Yeah, right.” Denise pulled the covers back over her head.
“I’m serious! Your father picked him up at the Hilton bar last night and invited him to breakfast.”
Denise hauled her butt out of bed and Mom woke up Daylene, David, and me.
I knew who Chet Huntley was, NBC newscaster with David Brinkley, but I wondered, why would he agree to come to our house for breakfast? Mom tossed clothes at me and ordered me to get dressed, so I did. You didn’t argue with Mom about these things, especially when you were eleven.
So, on a morning in 1970, in the zero hours, Daylene, with her learners permit, drove Dad to the hotel and picked up Chet Huntley who came to our house for breakfast and enjoyed homemade sourdough pancakes. I would later learn that the Huntley-Brinkley Report’s audience was so large that by 1965, Huntley and Brinkley were more recognizable to American adults than Cary Grant, James Stewart, or the Beatles.
Chet Huntley was educated at the University of Washington and began his career in radio, with jobs in Seattle, Spokane, and Portland, which sort of made him a Northwest icon.
The Huntley-Brinkley Report’s ceremonial closing, “Good night, David,” “Good night, Chet” was last heard on July 31, 1970, but Brinkley altered his words to “Good-bye, Chet,” as he signed off. Huntley retired to his native Montana to develop the Big Sky resort, which he talked about at length over breakfast at our dining room table.
As our family said goodbye to Mr. Huntley at the front door, he turned to my brother and said, “Good night, David.” And my brother replied, “Good night, Chet.”
Mom would later tell Dad that Chet Huntley wasn’t her favorite newscaster. Really? I thought it was extraordinary to see him sitting in our dining room and not on the television. Dad later explained that he invited Mr. Huntley to breakfast for a simple reason; because Mr. Huntley sat alone at the bar with no family or friends and no one was talking to him. I imagine Dad would be hauled away in a straightjacket if he approached Anderson Cooper or Bill O’Reilly and invited them to his house for sourdough pancakes.
The lesson learned here is, if Dad hadn’t asked Chet Huntley to breakfast, he’d never have eaten sourdough pancakes at our dining room table and we would not have met him.
To Be Continued . . .