Coming of Age
"Welcome to the first edition of Total Godhead. We at T.G. Headquarters open our arms and hearts to all of you who wish to read our wonderful paper."
-- Terry Gimpell, editor.
Dave Bettencourt was pale when he came into the senior quad that September afternoon. He spoke solemnly, which was not like him at all.
"Chief knows it's us," he told Brian Ross. "Chief" was Steve Mitchell, their principal.
"How'd he find out?" Brian said.
"He called the cops."
Burrillville High had never seen an underground newspaper before. In the two days since theirs had materialized in lockers throughout the school, Dave and his staff had kept to the shadows. No one could figure out who was behind this publication with the bizarre name, Total Godhead. Maybe it was Satanists, as one girl speculated. Maybe it was a teacher who'd gone over the edge. Maybe troublemakers from out of town or, more likely, some loser kid on drugs.
Even a careful reading didn't provide an answer. Each of Total Godhead's 13 articles was bylined -- with names like Toilet Duck, A. Nonymous and Sum Yung Gi. The only clue that looked legitimate was a local post office box, through which Godhead hoped to solicit fan mail, subscription orders, and gifts. Among the suggested gifts were Elvis stamps and condoms, "unused, of course."
"What did the cops do?" Brian asked Dave.
"Went to the post office. They traced it to my dad."
"They can do that?"
"They did it."
"I don't know."
There was funny stuff in Godhead -- you'd have to be a dweeb not to get it. Like the story about meatball stomping, or the one about the human bludgeoned by baby seals. But some of Godhead was irredemably tasteless. One article was an ode to obscenity -- a gratuitous listing of such items as rectal thermometers, nasal fluids, roadkill, and hairy gnome scrotums, whatever they were. One article was inspired by "Cop Killer," the controversial song by black gangsta rapper Ice-T. One reprinted the lyrics from "Rape Me," a song by Nirvana, Kurt Cobain's band.
No one could figure out who was behind this publication with the bizarre name, Total Godhead. Maybe it was
Satanists, as one girl speculated. Maybe it was a teacher who'd gone over the edge.
Maybe troublemakers from out of town or, more likely, some loser kid on drugs.
Another piece slammed classmates -- by name and with exacting physical descriptions, lest there be any doubt of who was being savaged. "I'm sick of the way you dress," is how one boy was ridiculed. "What the heck is it with the little beard thing?" went the attack on another kid. The sharpest words were directed at the class president, Justin Michaelman, who'd been elected in a stunning upset over Matt Stone, a clean-cut, three-letter athlete who'd held the office junior year. "How the heck did he become president?" Godhead said of Michaelman. "What a moron."
Dave and Brian withdrew to a corner of the quad, where they might have privacy while figuring out what to do next. The quad was nothing like what its Ivy League-sounding name suggested -- only a rectangle of lawn with scraggly shrubs, a single tree, and a manhole cover that boys (never girls) periodically and with great ceremony pried off, as if something rare and wonderful lurked in the darkness below. The quad's sole furnishings were a trash barrel, a rusted barbecue grille and two picnic benches decorated with obscenities and declarations of undying love. But permission to hang out there was a senior privilege, and even on inclement days seniors flocked to it, if only to flaunt their status to underclassmen.
Another senior privilege was hosting this Friday's get-acquainted dance, an annual hazing. Since lunch, the mood in the quad had been giddy as seniors made their plans. Could they get away with hosing down the freshmen? Coating them with Crisco oil, catsup, or WD-40? Freshmen were clueless -- you could do make them kiss your naked butt if you wanted to. The challenge was determining the precise location of the line that Chief and his assistant principal wouldn't let you cross.
Dave and Brian's privacy didn't last. It was just too obvious: something was going down, something with a better buzz than a dance.
"What's going on?" said Joel Waterman, Dave's best friend.
"We got caught."
"You're shitting me."
"Uh-uh," Dave said. "Chief called the cops."
"What do we do now?"
"I don't know. Maybe just forget about it."
"We can't do that."
"Did he say what he was going to do?" Joel said.
That wasn't a good sign.
"I think we have to talk to him," said Jason Ferguson.
And Ferg was right: if Godhead was to go forward, they really had no choice. Off they went: seven boys led by Dave, out of the quad and into the administrative wing of Burrillville High, home of the Broncos, a public school with 825 kids in a town of almost 17,000.
Chief did not look amused when the boys got to his office. He looked bigger than he was -- and he already was very big, a six-three, broad-shouldered, dark-haired man who sometimes wore a full feathered headdress when teaching students about his people, the Penobscot Indians of Maine.
"We're the staff of Total Godhead," Dave said.
"Come in," Chief said.
He closed the door.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The coffee was always fresh in the principal's office, the jellybean jar always full. Chief had decorated with pictures: of his wife, his stepdaughter, his faculty, a black-and-white shot of his grandfather in full ceremonial garb greeting John F. Kennedy when he visited Maine as a presidential candidate in 1960. The biggest display, most of a wall, was of kids -- this one a state policeman now, that one a Hollywood actor, this other one still in college. There were pictures of this year's juniors and seniors, of cheerleaders and athletes, and kids in their prom finest. You had to search to find one without a smile.
But Chief's office had multiple personalities, and now, as he went eye-to-eye with each of the boys, it seemed stuffy and small, a place they gladly would have escaped.
They weren't members of the In Crowd, these boys, weren't losers or jocks -- didn't fit neatly into a clique, which Chief suspected was a point of pride. Joel Waterman, a slender boy with a sharp tongue who was the school's most computer-literate student. Brian Ross, who owned seven guitars, knew more than 300 rock and roll songs, and bore a passing resemblance to Kramer on Seinfeld. Ferg, a contemplative kid who wore an earring, shaved the bottom half of his head, and who had a bent for industrial design. Jason Cote, an artist and a lover of science fiction whose red 1989 Pontiac Firebird was the most coveted car at Burrillville High. Bruce Walls, who had a future in engineering but currently was into cigarettes and girls. Michaelman, an actor and artist, who was never truly satisfied with any way he wore his hair.
And David Paul Bettencourt, who wrote for Godhead as Terry Gimpell, a pseudonym he'd plucked from the air.
Dave was skinny and tall, a boy with short dark hair, brown eyes, and the first traces of a mustache and beard. His attire was characteristic of his generation: baggy pants, T-shirt, Reeboks, cap worn backward (before entering the principal's office, he'd put it in his back pocket). Chief knew Dave was an honors student, that his family was neither rich nor poor, that both parents lived at home and that he was not an only child. He knew Dave was not known to need any rehabilitation or counseling -- not a head case. He knew Dave was 17 and wanted to go to college. He knew... well, Chief didn't really know much more than that. Half the kids at Burrillville High were like Dave, moving through the mainstream with barely a splash.
"You're so queer," a girl at a nearby table said.
"Like you make a difference in my life, space ghost woman," Dave
replied, to a dirty look.
Except now that he reflected, Chief realized how superficial his perception had been. He remembered the junior prom, when Dave, walking arm-in-arm with another boy -- a boy! -- had smiled and blown kisses to the crowd during the Grand March, still hallowed after all these years. He remembered last spring's underclassmen awards night when Dave, to the mortification of many, especially his old English teacher, a staid sort, had done jumping jacks across the stage. He remembered the final day of school, when Dave had conspired with some of these same boys to create a fake murder scene -- stage blood, body outline, police tape and all -- very realistic -- in one of the busiest corridors of the school.
And maybe that was just the warmup. Not three weeks ago, Chief had gone into the cafeteria and found Dave presiding over a picnic. He and the gang had spread a blanket on the floor, sat down and started in on their sandwiches.
It was the second day of school.
"You're so queer," a girl at a nearby table said.
"Like you make a difference in my life, space ghost woman," Dave replied, to a dirty look. "Look -- it rained out. What can I do? I don't control the weather."
Chief had decided to let it pass, even though he could have nailed the picnickers on a technicality -- surely there was some rule somewhere about proper conduct at lunch. "This is unique," is all he said. "Just don't block the door."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Chief held the silence for one moment more.
That's interesting, he thought. Michaelman, Ferguson, Cote, Walls and Ross -- they were the ones who'd been slammed in Godhead. So it had been a dupe! They'd slammed themselves.
Chief explained to the boys why he'd taken the extraordinary measure of going to the police after he'd been unable to determine, through the regular channels, who was behind Godhead. "The thing I really take umbrage with is when you do a tune on an individual," he said. "Everyone is a human being. Everyone is a valuable person. I don't want anyone to be abused by anyone else. I want people to be tolerant of other lifestyles."
His background and profession had also given Chief antipathy for violence. He'd been concerned when he'd read Assassin's Corner, a Godhead column that opened with the declaration: "I don't want to kill everyone. Just the people I don't like."
Chief understood tolerance in a way these kids, all middle-class suburban white boys, did not. Son of a Pasamaquoddy woman and a Penobscot man, Mitchell had come of age in an era when white punks went to school dances specifically for the chance to jump redskins. He knew what it was like to be assigned to the lowest track in school because of the color of his skin. Growing up one of 14 children in a three-bedroom house on a reservation, he knew what it took to get along. At a minimum, it took respect.
His background and profession had also given Chief antipathy for violence. He'd been concerned when he'd read Assassin's Corner, a Godhead column that opened with the declaration: "I don't want to kill everyone. Just the people I don't like. That's the attitude one must take in order to become a true cold blooded killer." Was it a put-on? Probably. But these were not the days to take chances. Just last year, bad blood between the hockey team and a group of kids who called themselves MSP, Minority Street Posse, had nearly escalated to a brawl. Rumors of guns and knives and gang warfare had swept Burrillville High, and one of MSP's founders, Jeff Fague, Dave's basketball teammate, had wound up in court after bloodying a kid in a fistfight at school. And while everything had fizzled after Chief had intervened, the trouble with MSP had been a reminder that this wasn't just a small town in northwest Rhode Island. This was America at the close of the twentieth century.
"First we had the posse. Now we've got the assassins," Chief said. "I thought it was time I got out my war club!"
The boys laughed. Chief was cool! This was turning out OK, after all.
Taste also was an issue with Mitchell, and he told the Godheaders some of their material had gone too far. The lyrics from "Rape Me," for example. All those descriptions of the male reproductive organ.
"I said: `Is this some male bonding, some male ritual?' "
Overall, Chief applauded the energy and imagination behind Godhead. "It's absolutely creative," he said. "I'd like to tap that creativity into something very positive."
Fair enough. But would he blow their cover? Part of the fun of Godhead was writing any damn thing you pleased, but part was the skullduggery. Playing mind games with the whole school was awesome.
"We'll keep it on the QT," Chief said. He was going out on a limb. He knew he was obligated to mention Total Godhead to his superintendent, who would inform the School Committee, which answered to a taxypaying populace that was not unanimous in its vision of what public education should be. His superiors would not like his decision, Chief knew. Condoms and hairy gnome scrotums did not win battles in the public-relations war.
"Thanks, Chief," Dave said.
"Yeah, thanks,'' the others said.
Mitchell had only three requests: no school equipment was to be used for Godhead; future issues of the zine were to be submitted to him before distribution; and nothing was to be in bad taste. And if Mitchell really believed that's how it would go down, he was kidding himself.
-- Use of this excerpt from Coming of Age by G. Wayne Miller may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 1995 by G. Wayne Miller.