First – I am not really going to try and make a point with this particular Blog post. This is simply me describing a formative, not necessarily sequential, series of events that were, and remain, meaningful to me.
Second – just so you know, even though it’s possible, albeit highly unlikely, that you might not care, I seriously considered calling this particular post: that Man Dan.
So… As most of my readers know I grew up in a military family. Dad was one of the highest decorated Air Force officers of his era, and retired as a full Colonel just as I left home for college. He gave up his first star (General) because Mom was spiraling away in the grips of cancer, and he decided his place was by her side. I talk about Mom and Dad on this Blog from time-to-time. Probably not nearly enough. But, it’s no secret that their examples, and events around them set my stage (I suppose that is to be expected in-and-amongst the child/ parent dynamic, but I always assume I am special).
Being the eldest son of a senior-ranking Air Force officer with a direct line to the Secretary of Defense in the 1970’s often meant living the life of a young Prince. Much of our existence centered around events at the Officers Club and being around real and true military heroes with great stories and a keen desire to support one another.
As a side note, I should take this time to point out that (and really, only other military kids can appreciate this) being raised in the military has some true advantages in terms of being “socialized”. We make friends fast, can generally talk to anybody, and recognize friend or foe quicker than most. We had free reign over entire Air Force bases. We could jump on air (transport) planes with the flash of our military ID’s and travel almost anywhere in the world on standby. We could order meals at the Officers Club, we could leave school and ride our bikes to air strips, play grounds, vast tracks of preserved land begging for investigation and fishing expeditions. I never thought twice about visiting friends whose Dad’s might be “enlisted people” without calling Mom to let her know where I was. We always felt safe. It was such a great life – even magical.
However, this story is about me and a janitor at my elementary school (we moved about every two years during most of my schooling. So, I probably attended seven schools – including three high schools in four years) named Dan. And, this is also about a time in my life when I had not yet realized I was a young Prince; that there was a real caste system in place both in military life – as well as real life; and, not everyone was my friend.
So… It was around 1967, and I was in the First grade at Lone Tree Elementary School on Beale Air Force Base in Northern, California. My First grade teacher was Mrs. Craig. She was stern, gaunt (hawkish actually) and awful. Mrs. Craig hit us with her shoes, and stuck us in the broom closet when we were naughty. So, naturally I was in that broom closet a lot. And, there is a great story involving, Mrs. Craig, one of those shoes, and my Mom that will be told another time. I think Dad had just made Major (below the zone as always). Curtis Burton the Third was my best friend, and Riding Park (kind of like the 100 Acre Woods) was where we spent most of our free time exploring.
You could see the school from our back yard. And, I walked to and from there every day. There was a large open field between the house and the school. Looking back, I would estimate it was about 200 meters. I would more often than not stop on the way home and pick Mom a handful of weeds (they were colorful and flowers as far as I was concerned) for Mom (they were flowers as far as she was concerned as well). Most days I even walked home for lunch. I would watch Sesame Street or Days of our Lives – some times even Dark Shadows (that was such an awesome show!) with Mom and discuss the day so far. I know those times were really important to her. I would swing out the large front entrance double doors at school and could always see her waiting on the back porch. We would wave back and forth to one another the entire trek home.
But, as I got “bigger” and grew bolder, I wanted to try my luck in the cafeteria. This was very intriguing to me. We got to discuss the menu at home before hand. Fish sticks, pizza and hamburgers were a compelling and tempting respite from Mom’s culinary works of art (Mom did everything perfect – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were cut into four neat squares or two triangles). And, I liked the responsibility associated with carrying money with me and bringing home the correct change tendered by the ladies with hair nets.
It was also fun to carry a sack lunch with me (Mom preferred “bag” lunch).
And, this is when I realized my first real taste (if you will, of true free-will and independence). And, when Mom discovered the remnants of a baloney sandwich in my bag.
My sack lunch rarely deviated from the standard fare of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (except just after Thanksgiving when there was some turkey left over), an orange or grapes, and a hostess ding dong or twinkie – all carefully packed with a paper napkin inside of a fresh clean brown paper bag with my name AND complete address carefully printed (by Mom, not me) on the outside. That bag had to be returned each day at the end of school for careful inspection to determine that all it’s contents had been consumed. Some times there was a pudding cup (in lie of the ding dong or twinkie (and, that was always tapioca). Mom sorted out quickly that I was inclined to trade my ding dong or twinkie for chips. But, I could never trade away my tapioca because other kids thought it was gross (and, I love tapioca pudding). So, over time I started getting more pudding because Mom failed to see the merit in an uncontrolled (hers) barter system. “We don’t know exactly where it comes from honey” was her careful explanation as to why swapping wrapped junk food for chips in baggies might be fraught with peril.
I ate lunch with Curtis Burton the Third (his Dad was a dentist, and an officer as well) almost every day. Some times Brian Overbee joined us. It should be noted that Brian was my next door neighbor and was the first kid on our block to successfully ride a two wheeler, and then navigate one with no hands. It might also be noted that I never actually witnessed Curtis Burton the Third (just so you know, I always called him that – mostly because that is what Mrs. Burton called him) ride a two wheeler (other than on my handle bars). And, to this very day, I am skeptical he has been successful. But, this is also another story.
There came a day when I realized Brian and Curtis Burton the Third were not at school. I ended up walking home for lunch with a note pinned to my lunch sack apparently with the unsettling news that the dreaded chicken pox had breached our borders and invaded our community. Kids were dropping like flies, and the school nurse was alerting Mom’s in terms of medical protocol. I don’t think I caught chicken pox until a few years later. But, for the next two weeks the halls at Lone Tree Elementary School were not crowded, the pace had clearly slowed, and I had more time to actually look around the cafeteria (which, by the way, also served as our gymnasium – so, it always smelled like shoes, sweat, lysol and potatoes) and observe the goings on. It was typically a busy place with lots of loud talking, chair squeaking, trey slamming and curt admonitions from proctors (I think these were Moms).
One day, amidst all this, Alita Newberry threw up.
This of course, brought pretty much everything to a sudden and shocked halt. It took a minute or so for one of the proctor Moms to sort out the source of the horrified groans and panicked efforts to move hastily away from the forlorn Ms. Newberry. But, I also observed a swarthy fellow in a grey uniform swing into motion with a pale of sand and a broom. He had a name tag above his left breast pocket very much like that found on service fatigues with “Dan” stitched upon it. This was, in of itself unusual, because military protocol would call for his last name, and fatigues were always green (outdoors) or blue (indoors). I just assumed Dan was his first name. And, I was correct. I had seen this man before moving quietly about the school sweeping halls, changing light bulbs, repairing a sink in the boys bathroom on the second floor once. He never spoke to anyone. Or, more accurately, no one EVER spoke to him. I can’t recall how tall he was. He was a man, so he was just big. I don’t think he was skinny or fat. In the 1960’s fat people were the exception and not the rule. And, in the military everyone is generally fit (I guess). He had no facial hair. In fact, I don’t think I knew anyone with facial hair at that time (Hey… Remind me to tell the story of my Dad, our first trip to San Francisco, the plan to go “Hippie Hunting”, my discussing this at school, and the dressing down Dad got from his commanding officer).
I heard a proctor Mom say: “move children. Let the janitor clean up this mess (it now included some spilled milk, some fish sticks, and a shoe)”. It immediately struck me that he was referred to as “the janitor” as opposed to “airman” or “Mr. so-and-so”. I had never heard the term janitor before. So, it occurred to me this man must be important. He had a unique uniform, there was no cap, he had a special name tag, and clearly a special designation. He was also very quick and efficient. While not making eye contact with anybody, he poured sand over the entire reeking mess (it was actually difficult to separate the rancid smell from that of the usual cafeteria odors), and had it swept up in a half dozen brisk strokes. He straightened himself up, nodded to no one in particular, and began to stride purposefully away. On an impulse, and likely due to formalized training, I blurted out: “Thanks Dan!”.
I swear to God you would have thought I had cut loose with a chest clearing belch in public.
Everyone, including Dan, froze.
The proctor Mom seemed a bit stunned (even though I would not understand what that word might mean until I was in the fourth grade when I called Curtis Burton the third a Homo Sexual in front of the whole class – I had meant to say Homo Sapien – but, that is, of course, yet another story). I don’t remember what anyone else did, or was doing. I just recall Dan turning slightly in my direction and offering me a careful wink. I thought that was pretty cool. So, I gave him the a-o-k sign (fore finger touching tip of thumb with rooster tails). I got a thumbs up back (that is what pilots and navigators did with air crew!) And, we bonded.
That was a Wednesday. The next day I made it a point of saying hello to Dan in the halls. Curtis Burton the Third was back at school by then, and he was really impressed. And, I felt a bit older and experienced – seasoned. Friday I opened a door for Dan so he could move a mop bucket through, and he gave me a grunted and barely audible: “thanks buddy”.
I had observed that Dan always disappeared down the same hallway and a short row of steps through a door that had a cool breeze puff behind as it closed. Upon investigation I saw a plate on the door that said “Janitors Work Room”. Curtis Burton the Third and I sounded it out and agreed that is exactly what it said. So, now I had discovered, actually decided, that this important fellow also had his own “Bat Cave”.
NOTE: One day, not sure how or why, but I noted Dan often had a brown bag in his hand. However, I cleverly deduced that this was a lunch sack.
I think the following Monday was a holiday. Maybe Columbus Day because we had to write a report or something (that meant three scrawled sentences, between the lines, mostly, and a picture of a ship and a man with a hat drawn with crayons). Tuesday I made sure I had a sack lunch. At the bell, Curtis Burton the Third and Brian Overbee were waiting for me by the boys bathroom (you could never wait by the girls bathroom because something might happen). They were in a different First grade class than me (I am certain to this day that was intentional). Brian was absently picking at a red flake above his right eye (a potential scar and grim reminder no doubt of his battle with chicken pox). As it turns out the mystical Janitorial closet was only a few steps away from the cafeteria/ gymnasium. I explained, to my wide-eyed pals, my plan of venturing down into that cave to spy on Dan. I only did this for dramatic effect (just like when I told Curtis Burton the Third that there was a secret doorway at the bottom of the lake at Riding Park that only pirates, and guys whose Grandads were pirates, could find). They both actually just shrugged. Tuesday was pizza day, and they were far more interested in getting in line in front of Martin Osbourne.
I was not even nervous, that I can recall. It did not register with me that no one tried to stop me from pulling open the door (I needed both hands and significant effort). In fact, I doubt anyone noticed. I slid past the door noticing the air was cooler at first and then suddenly became stale and there was a booming and clanking sound coming from down a hallway. I never found out what that sound was for certain, but the heaters, air conditioning and generators were all lined up along the walls. There was also a work bench with a stool. And, there was Dan, in uniform, holding his brown sack, looking right at me. I did not feel the least bit endangered. We stood still for a few heart beats before Dan stated that: “This is a dangerous place. Students can’t be here. It’s supper time.”
“I know that”, I said. I looked at his bag and added: “Does you Mom make you peanut butter and jelly?”
The awful truth was that I despised peanut butter and jelly. Well, mostly if the jelly was actually marmalade.
He laughed. Nodded his head. He did not answer me. But, he did step forward, put his hand on my shoulder, spun me around gently and escorted me along the hall, up those short steps, and out the door. We kept going until we were in front of the cafeteria/ gymnasium. I had the odd feeling I might cry. I was pretty stiff. I am not sure if I was embarrassed (probably not) or mad because my barely thought through plan might be foiled. In truth I had no plan. I just wanted to see if there was a Bat Cave. Or, if maybe Dan was a spy. Possibly a pirate. But, he did the darndest thing… He handed me his lunch sack and said: “it’s cheese and potato chips. Tomorrow is baloney. Do you like baloney”.
I don’t believe I had ever tasted baloney.
And, I probably paused. This allowed him to demonstrate some insightfulness. “It’s like really soft bacon”.
I liked bacon (and, cheese as well).
Without giving it any thought, I handed him my own neatly prepared brown bag with the inevitable peanut butter and jelly sandwich, apple slices (not grapes or oranges) ding dong (or twinkie), and napkin. Then with a smidgen of delight I realized he had just said potato chips.
We were standing right next to another set of steps that led up to a stage framed with musty and dusty purple hued drapes. As if it was the most natural thing in the world we simply sat down, opened our respective bags and quietly munched our sandwiches. As it turned out, that cheese sandwich was American cheese, but it also had had cream cheese. The chips had ridges. And, there was a folded piece of paper (a note as it turns out) in the bag as well – not a napkin.
Dan took the note from my hand and smiled. “My wife writes me little notes for my supper every day” he mumbled through a mouth full of peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He then withdrew, from my original bag, what turned out to be a twinkie, and offered it to me. I surmised this might mean having to surrender the chips, so I just shook my head. To my disbelief he tossed it unceremoniously back into the sack and chucked it into a nearby trash can. He then settled down and quickly read the note, from his wife, with a very big and toothy grin.
It was about then I realized that there were a bunch of eye balls on me – and, the brown bag was in the trash (the three or five second rule does not apply even to wrapped twinkies in situations like this).
I ended up going over to Brian Overbee’s house after school that day to play “Sword Fights”. Curtis Burton the Third did not like that game, so he just went home. He did not say a word about lunch.
The next day found me and Dan sitting on the steps again. And, as promised, he offered up a baloney sandwich.
I might as well admit that I did not like the sandwich. And, besides, it had mustard on it. But, I did eat most of it. And, he dutifully ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I ate the ding dong. There were no chips. He had the orange. And, he read another note. So, he then told me a little story about his dog (apparently the primary topic of the note). He clearly loved that dog. And, I decided Dan was a really good guy.
But this time I was careful to keep the brown sack.
I ended up over at Brian Overbee’s house again. A few hours before dinner time Dad walked from our car port through the Overbee’s car port, and knocked on the door. That was a bit unusual. He was home early. Mrs. Overbee called me and Brian in from the room he shared with Steve, his little brother. Dad was standing in the kitchen with that “look” on his deeply tanned face (peace is my profession; I save the world for a living; I am on a mission; I navigate warcraft that can unload hell on nations; look there is my boy; I love him with all my heart; I never get to see him). Like most days at that stage of his career he was wearing a flight suit. He was always so imposing. But, he also smelled good. I ran over to him and jumped up. A small smile was playing around his eyes, but he grimly stated: “Lets get home, your Mother needs a word with you”.
That message, in those words, was never good. Especially when Dad was the Harbinger.
When we walked through the kitchen door (from the car port), Mom was waiting over by the sink. Mom always seemed to be near the sink. She also had a “look”. But, this one I was not sure of.
She got right to the point with: “Who is Dan and why is there BALONEY in your lunch sack?”
My first thought was: “How does she do that?” But, I was actually linking this uncanny power to her ability to see through walls like Superman – as in, “Brian and Curtis get out of that cabinet, you will make a mess!” when she was in some other part of the house. Then it also struck me she had used the word “sack” and not “bag”. It’s funny how odd things pop into your head when faced with pressure or extreme danger. However, with a flash of brilliance, with which I remain quite impressed, to this very day, I blurted: “Why don’t you write me notes for my bag lunches?”
I still don’t really understand why… However, I will just assume any Mom reading this story will immediately comprehend all of the pieces, and what was occurring here… But, Mom burst into tears. Dad froze – then decided to mow the grass. Mom gathered herself and called some body (probably Aunt Clare).
I got tapioca pudding for desert.
I will wrap up this story now.
Over dinner (meat loaf, mashed potatoes out of the box, pears, cottage cheese, wonder bread and butter), Mom explained to me about strangers. She also told me that Dan was “enlisted” and worked at the school for extra pay. Some how I got the sense this was supposed to be meaningful. But, he wore a uniform, and had his own special work room.
The next day Mom presented me with a lunch box. It was a Batman lunch box. I did not realize it at the moment of presentation, but that was really bad-ass. Curtis Burton the Third was deeply impressed. Actually everyone was impressed. My stock was very high about that time (there was the Mrs. Craig and the shoe incident to be considered, I had befriended the janitor, and now I had a Bat Man lunch box). Clearly, I was already becoming the trend-setting contrarian (I understand that is a contradiction) I remain today.
But, in that lunch box was a note. I remember what it said. It still makes me smile (perhaps just like Dan) when I think about it. And, I got a note in every lunch Mom put together for me for the rest of her life (this included summer jobs when home from college, and care packages while at school).
What did that first note say?
“You are my big boy. I am very proud of you. Never mind Mrs. Craig. Remember the song we practiced when you try and spell B-A-N-A-N-A for the spelling bee. Eat lunch with Curtis. Mom”.
I can never see a banana, to this day, without spelling it out in my head.
The next few weeks Mom had me come home for lunch. That was cool. A few times Brian Overbee walked home with me. I did have lunch with Dan a couple of times a week. We talked about a lot of things that I found interesting like sports. He was a big Giants fan. He told me stories about his own Dad and going to the ball park and playing baseball with his brothers. He said he coached baseball as well for the recreation center. It also turns out he was a runner. That was not common in 1967. But, somehow that must have inspired me because by the time I was ten I was winning national championships. He also liked cars and I think he wanted to own a body shop and build a custom car. I turned eight in October of that year and had decided I was going to play little league. Maybe Dan could be my coach?
However, when we got back to school after Thanksgiving Dan was not to be seen at Lone Tree Elementary. I seriously doubt our lunches had any thing to do with that. But, one day I saw him at the commissary bagging groceries. I walked up to him and gave him the A-O-K. He brightened and gave me a thumbs up. He then asked me if I had tried any baloney lately. I was a bit uncertain about that. But, it was kind of good to see him. I was aware that some of the other baggers were watching us, and then Mom had her hand on my shoulder and we made our way out to the car.
That’s it. A simple, but not always easy story that sent views and actions into motion.
Peace be to my Brothers and Sisters.
Brian Patrick Cork