When I was in Stengel High it was GREAT to be one of the cool kids. You dressed slick. You walked through the halls with swagger. You got picked first for basketball. And when the girls flirted with you, you knew just what to say . . . like Marlon Brando: “Hey, whadda ya want from me?”
Yes, it was great to be one of the cool kids.
I was not one of the cool kids. In fact, I was lucky to be included in a group that other kids referred to as “The Losers.” My friend Bruce Waters and I stumbled home carrying our book bags full of homework while the cool kids rode by in their cars honking at us. I was the “steady catcher” in baseball, because neither team wanted me.
Now the leader of the Cool Kids, the natural aristocracy of Stengel High, was Tommy Martin, the Coolest of the Cool. He was blessed with good looks and a great smile, three letters on his school athletic jacket, and the ability to get away with anything. He smoked and ran track, thereby proving our parents were blatant liars when they claimed “Cigarettes will cut your wind.” He and his buddies would go “Chevy surfing,” riding down Route 1 standing on the roof of a Bel Air.
Even the teachers respected his cockiness. One time my French professor Mr. Upshaw was using some particularly nasty-smelling paste to put up pictures of Paris. It was so bad that if the Germans could have used the stuff in the trenches, they would have won the First World War. The girls in the class started gagging. Suddenly we heard Tommy’s voice from the back of the room. “Hey, Mr. Upshaw,” he yelled, “your deodorant is failing you!”
Now most kids would have been sent to the office for a crack like that. But Tommy wasn’t most kids. He had what Mr. Upshaw called, “Je ne sais quoi,” which means: “I don’t know what –– but it works!” We students fantasized it was some hot chick named “Jenny Sequoia.”
Napoleon once said he wanted his generals to be lucky rather than smart. Maybe my loser friends and I were a little smarter … well, we got better grades … but I would have given all my As and Bs just to get a smile from Class President Ceil Bernhardt or to lock longing eyes –– just once –– with Prom Queen Kathy Tomko. I was that horny and, yes, that desperate.
While Tommy was lucky, I, on the other hand, would always get caught. If a spitball went whizzing through the air, the teacher would turn around just as my hand was raised to go to the bathroom. If the fat kid behind me burped or passed gas, the other students would look at me –– and snicker.
Finally it was February of my suffering senior year, time for the annual trip to Washington. Given their reputation for pranks, the arch-conservative tight-ass principal (but aren’t they all?) wanted to leave Tommy and the Cool Kids twiddling their thumbs for three days in detention. But Mr. Upshaw and the other teachers argued that a visit to our country’s capital would help these impressionable young adults. The Angels of Democracy would light upon their shoulders and make them better citizens.
Tommy and the Cool Kids saw it another way. This was their chance to perform in front of a national audience. Tommy got 40 kids to make the bus sway by rocking back and forth on the way down. Once in Washington, you never knew where the Cool Kids would show up –– or what they would avoid. They ducked the chaperones’ tally by switching jackets with friends and jumping on and off the bus where the 65-year-old myopic Miss Lowsell was trying to keep count.
They missed the trip to the Supreme Court (courts were not big on their agenda), but we knew they showed up at the White House, because one of the velvet ropes separating the visitors from Lady Bird’s study was missing after they left. I also knew they were at the Capitol when we took our class picture because I heard Tommy’s voice shout: “Hey, Ed!” I turned to look, the photographer snapped his shot, and while you will see many suits and smiling faces in that class portrait, many Jackie Kennedy bouffants and Texas beehives, the only thing you will see of me … is my right ear.
Tommy and the gang held late-night card games after lights out, and those fortunate enough to be “invited” were relieved of their hard-earned spending money on the bed sheets of that seedy old hotel where we stayed. They had to go home without even a souvenir flag or a stamped penny to remember the trip.
After they had cleaned out the suckers, the Cool Kids would do a 3 a.m. mayhem run through the hotel. I remember waking up thinking I had wet the bed. No, Tommy –– or one of his buddies –– had popped me with a water balloon while I slept.
But the coolest place the Cool Kids found was the roof of that 18-story hotel. From there they could look down on the whole city of Washington, dangling their feet over the edge and throwing cigarette butts down on those below. Sure, the roof door was locked, but Tommy had borrowed one of Ceil’s hairpins. The overweight hotel detective chased them, but they could outrun him on the stairs, and when he took the elevator, Tommy hit the emergency button and jammed him between floors until the bellboy came to rescue him.
After three days of hearing –– and suffering from –– the exploits of the Cool Kids, we Losers had had enough. Bruce –– who was less of a loser than the rest of us –– decided. “Co’mon,” he said. “We’re going up to that roof.”
Those words electrified our little group. It was as if Frodo had said, “I will go to Mordor.” So everyone went … everyone but me. As I said, I KNEW I was unlucky. If I went up there, I would get caught. For guys like Tommy, audacity always worked. For me, cowardice carried the day. As it turned out, I was right. By the time Bruce and the Losers made it there, a chair had either fallen or been thrown off that roof. It went crashing down and ricocheted off a windshield. An army of Metro cops, followed by the huffing hotel detective, hit the roof, missing the real culprit, but just in time to collar my friends.
This was the era before students’ rights. All events were canceled. The hotel went into lockdown. My friends were dragged into the laundry room and sweated until they confessed, probably by threatening to call their parents, which the cops did anyway. Money presumably changed hands before we were allowed to ride the buses home. Bruce stared out the window into the darkness the whole way, never saying a word. He knew what he faced when he got back.
At school the angry principal called an assembly and –– pointing to the alleged miscreants –– told everyone that because of “those boys responsible” there would be no more trips for the rest of the year, and no more Washington trips as long as he was principal. Teachers who had been on the trip had sheepish faces, and we went down as “The Bad Class” in our school’s history.
But it was even worse for Bruce and my friends. They walked through the halls with their shoulders slumped. They had taken the bruising meant for the Cool Kids, but they got no mercy or sympathy. Tommy would sing “Up on the Roof” as they shuffled by. For the Cool Kids, getting caught was the real crime.
To the best of my knowledge, our class has never had a reunion. There was a feeble attempt recently, but supposedly they couldn’t find a local restaurant interested in having its silverware lifted. So, for a long time, I never knew what had happened to Tommy Martin.
But of course, I wondered. Had life finally gripped him in its inevitable vice? Had he suffered from social diseases or multiple divorces? Did he end up in a drug-addled stupor, embittered and embarrassed by missed chances and failed ventures, with children who hated him, wives seeking alimony, bill collectors on his tail? Had he made a cameo on “Cops” (Bad Boys, Bad Boys, Whatcha Gonna Do?) in a torn t-shirt as five of Trenton’s finest wrestled him down?
Or had he gone on living the way he had in high school, riding the wild surf down Route 1 on the back of that Bel Air, perhaps as a Goldman Sachs investment banker selling subprime mortgage instruments and then moving to Florida just before the crash?
In other words, I asked the eternal question: Is there any justice in this world?
And my answer is unequivocal. Yes, there is … and no, there isn’t. Last month my old friend Bruce called me. Bruce had gone to Rutgers night school for 10 years to win an engineering degree and finally found a job in Princeton. Then Life downsized him. Now he lives in rural Virginia and drives a school bus. “Ed,” he complains, “I’m Ralph Kramden to a bunch of kids.”
Recently he took those kids on a trip to Washington. For Bruce the trip was bittersweet; the seedy old hotel had been demolished, but every white marble monument reminded him of his high school disgrace: the cops, the vengeful principal, the jeers of his classmates, the moment when he first realized that he would NEVER be one of the Cool Kids.
But when he got to the Lincoln Memorial, he saw students wearing the green and white Stengel emblem get off another bus. They were an honors history class, polite, respectful, in awe of the huge statue, walking in single file, talking only in whispers. They were like, and yet so unlike, the Wild Ones who had invaded the town with him. The old longing, the desire to relive those days came back. Bruce walked over to the principal who was watching those kids with steely-eyed vigilance, and told him he was from Stengel High too.
The principal turned, offered his hand, and flashed an all-too-familiar smile. “Hey, Bruce, don’t you remember me? I’m Tommy Martin.”
Ed Leefeldt, a Hamilton Township resident, graduated from high school in 1964 and holds a Master’s Degree in Teaching.