Thursday, January 8, 2009


Billy Ray Barnwell here, another teacher I remember from back in Not Grapevine is Mr. Steelman who taught us Chemistry, his first name was Noble or Norris or something equally weird, I don’t remember much about the Chemistry class itself except that in the lab my precipitate never would do what it was supposed to, what I do remember is Mr. Steelman got upset at someone one spring afternoon for having made the mistake of chewing gum in his class, he didn’t rant and rave the way Mrs. Lillard did in the eighth grade one time when Melvin Lovinggood sassed her and she came up the aisle to where he was sitting and screamed in his face and grabbed Melvin by the hair of his head and bounced him up and down two or three times right there in the seat where he was sitting and we all learned that when a red-headed woman gets angry she is a force to be reckoned with, no, Mr. Steelman just said in his very calm way that it wasn’t the chewing of the gum that bothered him so much, it was the smell, the gum was Juicy Fruit and Juicy Fruit made him sick to his stomach, it smelled just like a pair of old ripe socks he said, we all sniffed the air and you know what, he was right, well many years have passed since then and I have never been able to put a piece of Juicy Fruit chewing gum in my mouth since that day, it’s crazy what you remember, you would think I might remember something from the periodic table of elements, but no. I will also never forget an important lesson I learned at the feet of Mr. Ben Barber, the vocational agriculture teacher, he was one of the finest gentlemen I have ever had the privilege to know, he spoke with a slow Southern drawl, a very slow Southern drawl, it’s unbelievable how slow his Southern drawl was, and one day in class he said Boys, as you go through life you will be faced with many decisions, some are more important than others, and if you need help deciding whether you should or shouldn’t do something, or if you ever are wondering how important your decision could turn out to be in the overall scheme of things, Boys, just think of a plate full of ham and eggs, well we just looked at each other like Mr. Barber had finally gone off his rocker, but he just smiled and kept on talking, very slowly, and I have never forgotten what he said next, he said Boys, never forget when you are thinking about that plate full of ham and eggs, that on the part of the hen it may represent a commitment but for the pig it is a real sacrifice. Mr. Barber also was not a big fan of pasteurization of milk, because it didn’t remove the impurities, he said, it just neutralized their effect. Well that’s not exactly correct, what he actually said while we all sat there silently praying Dear God, please can’t you make Mr. Barber talk a little faster was Boys, if I had a big old ugly oozing boil on my arm and squeezed it into a pail of milk fresh from the cow, or if I blew snot from my nose into that pail, would you want to drink that milk? and we said no sir, we sure wouldn’t, and he said, well, if I took that pail of milk with that boil and that snot in it and instead of pouring it out I heated it up to a high enough temperature to where all the harmful bacteria in the boil and the snot are killed and can’t hurt anybody and then let the milk cool back down to where you could drink it without burning your mouth and put it in bottles and put the bottles in the refrigerated dairy case at the grocery store, now remember boys it still has the boil in it, it still has the snot in it, would you boys drink it then? and we said eeewww, no way Mr. Barber, no sir, we wouldn’t drink that milk and he said well boys, that is how pasteurization works, it doesn’t remove any of the impurities from the milk, it leaves them all in there, all it does is neutralize their effect, and we found out he really wasn’t against pasteurization, he just thought a good cheesecloth strainer could also prove useful, and you are prolly beginning to understand why all the boys who ever passed through his class and who are grandfathers by now can still remember what Mr. Ben Barber said, he really had a way with words. But he and the assistant vocational agricultural teacher, Mr. Troy Smith, could also be really hard taskmasters when the occasion demanded, for example if someone was caught in a major infraction of the rules, such as swearing loud enough to be heard by the teacher or getting caught smoking in the boys’ restroom, Mr. Barber and Mr. Smith both would say Boys, wear your widest belts tomorrow because so-and-so is going to be running the belt line and we all did because truth be told we kind of enjoyed inflicting a little pain upon a fellow student’s behind, it was invigorating in a sadistic sort of way and also very therapeutic for the rulebreaker, and sure enough the next day the class would be dismissed five minutes early and we would all file out and gather behind the gymnasium and form two lines, kind of like one of Mrs. Lillard’s spelling bees only closer together, and then we would take off our belts and Mr. Barber or Mr. Smith one would say, now Boys hold the buckle end in your hand, there’ll be no whipping with buckles, and then the offender would run as fast as he could almost the entire length of the gym between the two lines of eager boys and we really got in some good licks now and then, it made a person realize he didn’t want to break the rules too often, well not get caught anyways, and then we would all put our belts back on and come out from behind the gym with beatific looks on our faces like nothing had happened and go to our next class where one of us would take his seat a little more gingerly than the others and try to look as angelic as possible, and by the end of the day his reputation among all the students, boys and girls alike, would have grown mightily and he would have no trouble getting a date for the football game on Friday night, well the world has changed a lot since then, good is bad nowadays and bad is good, right is wrong and wrong has become right, Mr. Barber and Mr. Smith would prolly be put in jail for all the trouble they went to trying to make us into good citizens, the television reporters would definitely show up with their cameras to interview the boy’s indignant parents, we would prolly all see Mr. Barber and Mr. Smith being led away in handcuffs on the evening news, and the boy’s date for the football game on Friday night might even be one of the guys from the belt line, but we did have some good times in those days back in Not Grapevine, the lessons we learned were not always in books, and this is Billy Ray Barnwell signing off.

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