Vietnam or Our Lunch Room: Wondering Which Was Worse?
Oh, how I wish that "this" had been our lunch room.
I have a severe case of mixed emotions with the writing of this piece. It’s not about love, Puppy or any other type of Love. Nor is it about some kid with big jowls who picks on the weak (like me) in 1962, 1964-1971—not in class, the school building, or parking lot, but in the Lunchroom Cafeteria, the Hot Spot of Student Activity. Do not sit there so smug and even act like you are going to dare say that you aren’t familiar with the School Cafeteria. I know better.
We called our menacing building the Lunch Room, a dainty, quaint little building on the outside, but when you entered (en masse) this service building that would serve as a good Machine Shop--the further you went inside this Student Eatery, the more confused, frustrated, and sometimes so angry that you were tempted to cut your next two classes and hit the Uptown area of Hamilton, Ala., Heck. Uptown Hamilton was a mere block’s walk, so at this age, we were young, and I acted healthy, so I fit in well. On a lighter side, the Lunch Room provided a great place for things being planned—conspiracies, beatings, and a few in-the-face encounters by older students who actually believed that they were to be served before any of us lower life forms could get in the Food Line. The more I talk about our Lunch Room—the more it sounds like “Bird Man From Alcatraz,” more about this classic film later.
We learned during the course of time, how to love our Lunch Room. And we quickly learned how to overlook the obvious indiscretions while getting our chow each day at lunch time. Things like the Lunch Ladies (with mustaches) who not only cooked the food, but helped to serve it to us as we passed by their stations just like those Classic Prison Movies such as “Bird Man of Alcatraz,” starring Burt Lancaster as Robert Stroud. On my first day of our then-Grammar School, I learned how to get in line and be guarded like a Prison Guard--our teacher most times, to escort us with precision marching to get us fed and then escorted back to class. But in my case, I was Lactose Intolerant and when our teacher or Prison Guard, no difference, made me drink the sweet milk provided by the School Board, I had to visit the Boy’s Rest Room to “unload” the contents of my stomach—thanks to me and sweet milk not agreeing with each other
You may laugh when you envision me sitting scared on a wooden seat made for four students to sit, and a teacher glaring right at me saying, you better get that milk down—NOW, no wonder that I was nauseated for most of my time in Second Grade.
But praise God, (no slang here), I got a reprieve when my parents moved to another home in another school zone and at this school, I did NOT have to force sweet milk down my gullet—or any liquid for that matter. Our teachers did not mind even if I drank tea, water, and even soft drinks. These rural teachers were so cool for their ages, but we loved them all the same.
Then my “House of Cards” fell at once when my dad took another job and there we went again to live at another place and I was soon back at the place that I hated: Hamilton Grammar School’s Lunch Room. I thought that I hadn’t been punished enough for some sin that I committed in 1962—that’s second grade! What possible sin could be that serious when you are in second grade? Would some of you higher-educated teachers and professors packing PhDs in Secondary Education, please elaborate on why I felt this way? I will make it worth your time.
Then there was that miserable day when Ignorance (me) met Anger (Lunch Ladies) and the outcome was sheer terror. I was sitting quietly trying my best to eat the cold horse meat shanks and tomato soup and that Devil’s Potion: Sweet Milk, glaring at me still untouched, when I witnessed “Jim Baggley,” a kid in my grade and he came equipped with rough edges, behavior and all. I watched him walk right up to the Lunch Items that were given for us to eat. He smiled at one of the Lunch Ladies and she gave him a slice of fresh bread. Boy, was he happy. And with Example being the Best Teacher, I stood right up like a normal kid in Alabama in 1962 . ..I was going to follow “Baggley’s” footprints and enjoy a slice of fresh bread for myself.
What an idiot. Me! The very second that I came close to the clear plastic shield that keeps the bacteria and mustache hair from the Lunch Ladies falling into our food, I heard one the ladies growl just like a brown grizzly that you can hear and see on National Geographic Wild. I was instantly scared for my life. Now all four of the Lunch Ladies had ceased what they were doing and waiting for me to speak.
“Need something?” growled the Leader of Mustache Majestic.
“Piece of bread, please,” I said humbly.
“You listen! We gave you ONE piece of bread not ten minutes ago—now you get back there at your table and do NOT let us see you up here again,” the Leader of Mustache Majestic said almost shouting. And what was so wrong and hypocritical about this one scary scene was during a new hole being drilled in my butt with this woman’s sharp words . . .five or six other students danced their way up to that same area and the Lunch Ladies smiled and one student got a piece of bread; one got a fresh dinner roll and the others just wanted more milk . . .idiots. I learned years later that these kids who asked for more sickening sweet milk were probably responsible for the State of Alabama’s low SAT Scores and High Unemployment Percentages.
When my shock subsided as the angry Lunch Dragon finished her rant, I said that I was sorry and slinked back to the seat where I had been sitting. Now it was my teacher’s turn. You are now familiar with my teacher who would pass for a Prison Guard?
“Just what was that all about?” shouted Mrs. Lochridge—a real teacher and was very short-tempered when she was awake. In our classroom, she had this bad habit of falling right to sleep. She was years past Retirement Age, so as long as she drew a hefty check, she slept for most of my school year.
I tried to explain to Mrs. Lochridge that all I wanted was a piece of fresh bread and she was quick to agree with the Lunch Ladies. This was not a surprise. I figured that this must be some form of Early Childhood Conspiracy aimed right at my classmates and myself. What else could it be? When angry Lunch Ladies join Teachers, there is nothing that this group couldn’t do. Even in 1962 in my second grade year . . .there were signs of people being Crazed with Power. It was awful how this group flaunted itself in plain view of the citizens of Hamilton, Ala., and the Marion Co. (Al.) School Board who never dreamed that kids like myself were being discriminated against simply for asking for an extra slice of fresh bread.
But I went on to survive. Lived to shove down the tripe (and Sweet Milk) down my gullet on another day. And with each grade that I passed, the worse that the conditions were in our Lunch Room and the longer the hair was in the Lunch Ladies’ mustaches.
What I am about to share with you will make you very uncomfortable, so you should ask yourself if it be wise for you to continue reading the conclusion of this commentary or not. Don’t worry if you have children who are reading this piece. There are NO mentions of sex, guns, or drugs in this commentary.
One summer day in 1969, I was in the Ninth Grade, only three grades to go before I was Pardoned. I took life as it came and did a heckuva job deceiving myself of things being okay and life was going to be better as time went by. Yeah. Sure thing. I’m still waiting.
Back to the summer day in 1969, Mr. M.F. Moore (his real name), taught Agriculture at Hamilton High School. Now I was being force-fed by that same vermin-infested tripe that the Lunch Ladies served to all of the Lower-Than-Middle-Class Students . ..my friends and I. Now comes that Conspiracy Theory about the Teachers and Lunch Ladies being the most powerful group to ever walk the ground at any school institution. Bar none!
Moore ordered my friends and I in one of his Ag Classes to help deliver a piano from a Hospitality Room at Hamilton Holiday Motel in uptown Hamilton—what the piano was doing there to begin with was strange to me. But Moore told us that we were to help him move that sorry piano to one of our teachers, Mrs. Gladys Jennings, once a passionate Literature and Latin teacher, but age and loss of memory had taken their toll on this old lady. Plus her age and memory loss issues had made her as mean as any Cotton Mouth living large in the Cajun Bayou of Louisiana.
My buddies and I loaded ourselves into the bed of Moore’s very-used Chevy pick-up truck. You truck enthusiasts will know that “bed” means in Truckology. Upon looking at the task of moving a piano down a high staircase and Mr. Moore screaming the same instructions over and over . . .we were all whispering about cutting school and going home . . .which was a common thing in high school in 1969.
One of the older Ag students, a “Frank Day,” who was nothing more than a punk and smart alec was sitting up near the cab of the truck and behind the piano. You truck enthusiasts will know what the term, “cab” means in Truckology. “Day,” loved to use vulgar phrases and words. But on this occasion, he just shared a very lethal rumor about the owner of the piano, this Gladys Jennings’ husband, “Harvey,” a WWII vet and humble American.
“You all know that Old Man Jennings?,” “Day” asked. “He had his “privates” shot-off in the war.” “Day” said with the shrewdness of any crooked riverboat gambler. And after he finished his tale, he just looked away and waited for the rumor to take root. For he knew that when a rumor is started, it can only grow bigger. Now that I mention it, I have never known of a rumor growing smaller as time goes by. But that wasn’t the point. “Day” knew also that the closer we came to the home of Gladys and Harvey Jennings, the more that we would have to hold in our laughter when we laid eyes on Harvey and his lack of “equipment.”
The piano was unloaded and even with Harvey offering to help us, we were more concerned about getting back to school so we could have time to cut and walk uptown so things went smoothly. But leave it to Mr. Moore. He told us that we had one more job to do: Unloading some food that is stored behind the Lunch Room and carried into the kitchen for cooking the next day.
Then our lives suddenly changed. And not for the best. Mr. Moore took us behind the Lunch Room to an old school bus that was used for a storage bin and get box after box of some type of meat, vegetables, and bread that was kept frozen to keep it from turning bad. But the thing that confirmed that what we had been eating for years in the Lunch Room was accidentally seeing a big puddle of hog grease that the hot sun had caused the container to burst. I almost fainted due to nausea. Some of my classmates simply ran away. And Mr. Moore kept his mouth shut.
I have never forgotten that grease puddle. Now I can only wish that Hollywood legend, Steve McQueen had been there.
This Cafeteria-Style lunch room is the norm of today's students in 2017.
© 2017 Kenneth Avery