Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Mr. Welker

On a recent trip back to Pennsylvania, I opened the county newspaper and was shocked to find that Mr. Welker, my old high-school chemistry teacher, had passed on in his 80s. I’m usually not big on obituary-reading, but this one was right in front of me. I now know there’s no such thing as “natural causes” when elderly people die – that something gets you in the end, as opposed to this romantic notion so many people have of quietly going to sleep one night and not waking up … while doves and angels in gowns lift you up to heaven. Most of us are guaranteed a gravel-filled wiffleball bat ass-beating on the way out.

Mr. Welker was one of those love him/hate him teachers. Actually, most kids hated him at the time, but later admitted they learned a lot under this tutelage. When I forwarded the obituary to Brother M, the best he could come up with was, “Not one of my favorite instructors, although I think his intentions were good.” The rest was remembering how he’d dropped out of Mr. Welker’s class and had received a stern lecture about his (surely lost) future. Well, M did have logistical issues with adult authority figures in his late teen years, and Mr. Welker had his short-term future pegged. But M surely got his shit together at some point, and proved Mr. Welker wrong. I suspect if he had confronted Mr. Welker publicly years after the fact, Mr. Welker probably would have slapped him on the back and said, “I’m glad I was wrong about you.”

I got along swimmingly with the guy, or about as swimmingly as a goofball teenager could with a strict adult disciplinarian. He was by no means a nasty teacher. Just hard … my way or the highway, learn this, or get the hell out of my class. He was physically imposing, too, a large, burly man, with a pronounced forehead, and most noticeable of all, a strange orange tint to his skin. Like Homer Simpson. He felt like a space alien to many of us, a more intelligent being we couldn’t quite understand, but he was sent here to educate us.

About the only really bad thing I remember about him was his habit of injecting his personal politics into his class, which was Chemistry, i.e., had nothing to do with politics. I know you’ll find plenty of left-leaning instructors doing this (particularly in college), but Mr. Welker leaned right and was convinced every generation that came of age after the Korean War era was doomed. (I’ve since come to agree with him, but not out of any sense of conservatism, just the recognition of how much dumber and LCD society keeps growing.)

This was actually pretty funny when he routinely attacked “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, whom he despised equally for her Vietnam-era antics and her starring role in the then hugely popular movie, The China Syndrome. One of Mr. Welker’s auxiliary jobs when he wasn’t teaching was to help out at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, as he also had a strong background in Nuclear Science. Not sure exactly what he did, but he apparently knew everyone and was well-liked there. As you may recall, there was a core meltdown at Three Mile Island in the spring of 1979 … the exact same predicament detailed in The China Syndrome, which actually came out just days before the real-life accident.

When he’d go off on his Hanoi Jane tangents, man, he’d be on fire. Telling us what a nuclear meltdown was really like and how the movie totally botched it/blew it out of proportion. The problem was, I never knew if I could trust him as a valid source. Sure, he knew infinitely more than I did about the topic – he actually worked there – but how much of his bile (which was usually apropos of nothing, just him going off) was because he: a. worked there and had a professional stake in nuclear power being presented as positively as possible; and b. really hated Jane Fonda.

“All I can say is, by the year 2000, go talk to Jane Fonda when your electric bill is hundreds of dollars of month, and most of that is quietly being provided by nuclear power,” he’d say. From the way Mom carries on about electric bills back in Pennsylvania, he probably wasn’t too far off the mark. I’ll never forget once, though, raising my hand and somberly stating, “I don’t know, Mr. Welker, what you’re saying sounds like baloney in a nutshell.”

I had employed a double-zinger on him – using his two favorite catch phrases, “baloney” and “in a nutshell.” And he knew it, breaking into that weird, hard laugh of his, like a dog choking up grass, and said, “Mr. Repsher, if you don’t start paying closer attention, your grade for this class is going to be baloney in a nutshell.”

I can also recall one more hippyish female student blurting out, “Mr. Welker, are you telling us that Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt are wrong about this?” Those were two of the many pop-music “No Nukes” spokespeople railing against the nuclear industry at the time. Mr. Welker’s reply: “So it goes from Glenn Miller disappearing in a plane while serving his country in World War II to self-serving hippies spouting off about topics they know nothing about.” He threw his hands up and walked away, knowing in his heart we were all doomed, listening to frilly, careless rock stars instead of a guy who actually knew what he was talking about.

On that same note, I’ll never forget his reaction the morning after John Lennon was murdered. That was a pretty shocking incident for all of society, whether you were a Beatles fan or not. Kids my age at the time (16 or so), most of them weren’t really big Beatles fans, but surely knew of them as they were omnipresent in our pop-music culture, much more so than today (and I recognize they’re pretty present today). If you were a teenage kid into music, at some point, you went through your Beatles phase and really “got” the band, despite being a toddler when they broke up. It was just one of those things. Besides which, they were still putting out music. I was a huge McCartney fan and Lennon had just put out Double Fantasy. (Thought most of his songs were solid and Yoko’s sucked, but that’s how they wanted to present the album. He had enough material to put out his own album and should have.)

Well, that morning, we pile into Chemistry class, some kids like me, stone-faced and out of it, still in shock, but honestly, most kids not feeling too affected one way or the other. And Mr. Welker blurts out, “OK, everybody, let’s get over this ‘John Lennon hoopla’ and move on, I don’t recall people getting this upset over Glenn Miller’s plane gone missing, it’s only music, and this is chemistry.”

Most kids just sat there open-mouthed. I’m sure I was one of them. Just made no sense to take a swipe at Lennon hours after his passing, but again, in retrospect and taking in Mr. Welker’s politics, I gathered he was getting a bellyful of John Lennon all morning on the news and from everyone around him, and he’d had enough. I hated him for a few days after that, but it wore off. Frankly, what he had said wasn’t much different from what our parents were saying. But I suspect Mr. Welker’s discomfort wasn’t provided by or aimed at students. Most of the teachers at our high school at the time were relatively young, in their 20s and early 30s, and thus were children of the 60s and surely Beatles fans. So I suspect he was sitting in those smoke-filled teacher lounges and getting an earful of other teachers carrying on about John Lennon, and was thus offended.

His class normally wasn’t that controversial. It was Chemistry. And he drilled it into us, having us memorize the periodic table, key formulas and calculations, the whole shebang. You either learned that stuff by rote, or you got the hell out. To get an A in his class was a monumental achievement and generally indicative of someone who was headed towards a science-based career. I was a pretty solid B student in his class and didn’t even like science. It was that sink-or-swim. If you were a smart kid, like I was, it was a gut check to see how much of this stuff you could inundate yourself with and how well you could process it in a test situation. I passed, nearly got an A too, but didn’t push myself that hard.

A typical Welkerian touch: he loved this particular Texas Instruments calculator that did logarithms, which was a big deal at the time, as he recalled doing this shit on an abacus and such back in the 40s. (I can even recall him having an abacus in the class room and teaching us how to use it!) The Texas Instruments calculator with logarithm function? Shit. For him, it was like the invention of the iPod. He demanded that we all go out and buy that same calculator, nothing else would do. First he would teach us how to do the calculations manually so we grasped the principle, but then we’d use the calculator to save time.

Calculators at that time, turn of the 1980s, were just coming into vogue. You could get a basic one (add/subtract/multiply/divide) very cheaply, under $10, but always battery-operated, as solar panels on small devices like this had yet to go mass market. The Texas Instruments one was special, and as I recall, cost upwards of $20, but probably not much more. I think I still have mine back in “my” drawer that my mother still keeps in the living-room desk. It sits there in its denim-blue carrying case, out-moded by smaller, faster, solar-panel calculators that came in its wake. I also recall the buttons clicked when you pressed them.

The thing with this calculator, though, was that blue, soft leather case came with a loop so you could attach it to your belt. “Now, I’m not going to tell you people how to dress,” Mr. Welker said that first day in class, “but if I were you, I would attach the Texas Instruments calculator to your belt, much like I have these pens and pencils in my pocket protector, and keep it there, because you’ll be using this calculator constantly.”

You could generally tell how much of Mr. Welker’s Kool-Aid a kid drank by whether or not he wore his calculator on his belt … like a gunslinger. Forget about pocket protectors -- a teenage male would get his ass kicked on principle for wearing one. I don’t recall one single female student doing this. I do recall a handful of guys, who were generally not the smartest kids in class, but we really taken in by Mr. Welker’s sales pitch. As with so many nerdy things in high school, you may as well have worn a white t-shirt with the word “DICK” emblazoned on the chest in gigantic ALL CAPS scarlet letters. A kid who did that would take endless shit. The usual gag was to temporarily strap your own Texas Instruments calculator to your belt and pretend to have a gunslinger showdown with the kid, both of you unzipping the case, drawing out your calculator, flicking it on and seeing who could find the square root of 586 first.

I had two legendary incidents in Mr. Welker’s class, along with all the hard work and studying. As noted, we got along pretty well. I had two brothers and a sister pass before me through his classes, so he got the impression he could trust me as a student. Brother M came off as an under-achieving charlatan, while Brother J and Sister K diligently B’d it through his class (the same way I would). I was a “good kid” … and I really was, which wasn’t necessarily a blessing as a teenager. I may have chafed at Mr. Welker’s politics and discipline, but I somehow saw through the BS and took to whatever he had to offer as an instructor.

The first incident was Dress Up Day, which the school would have once every semester, a chance for kids to dress like adults, for guys to put on ties and suit coats and girls to wear nice dresses and such to school. As opposed to our normal uniforms of concert t-shirts, flannel shirts, cruddy jeans and sneakers. (Does it say something about me now that I don’t even own a pair of jeans? I can’t stand denim as a fabric.) It was a big deal to put on the dog in high school, save for that small cache of students who always dressed well.

Well, Dress Up Day, Chemistry class, and Mr. Welker has scheduled some experimentation in the lab next to our desks in his classroom. We loved doing that stuff, because it could be dangerous and risky at times if you didn’t do things right, and shit was always happening, phosphorous burning too much, sulfur smells emanating from mixed liquids, etc. He drilled us on how to use bunsen burners, as you could imagine the danger of 20 or so teenagers lighting these up simultaneously without any training. We all had our hand-held flint devices. And our burners that we’d hook up to our individual gas pipes. Turn on the pipes, hear that telltale hiss, then flick the burner on with the flint.

I must have been groggy that day because I did something unforgiveable: hooked up my bunsen burner accidentally to the water pipe adjacent to the gas. I was dressed up that day. Everyone around me was. I turned on the pipe, didn’t hear the gas, picked up my bunsen to burner to see what was wrong, and when I did, pulled off the small hose leading to the pipe, spraying water over everyone within five feet of the pipe.

Of course, the class went nuts. Understand that kids had lighted their burners, and scattered when they got splashed, nearly burning themselves on the lit burners in the process. It was mayhem for a few seconds, but blew over quickly, although I surely pissed off those kids around me. To Mr. Welker’s credit, I don’t recall him punishing me, just giving me a stern warning. I’m surprised this didn’t happen more with the gas and water pipes right next to each other and not labeled accordingly.

The second incident was a test we had in the last semester of our senior year in Mr. Welker’s Nuclear Science class. That class was a mistake on my part as I hadn’t anticipated how lackadaisical I’d feel towards academics in that last few weeks of high school. (I felt the same way my last semester of senior-year college, too.) I was cruising towards the finish line, already accepted at Penn State, really felt I had nothing to lose. Inject into this mindset Mr. Welker, teaching a relatively new and very difficult class that he had a burning passion for, and it was an educational disaster.

Even the kids who were good at Math and Science were tanking the class. It was fucking hard! Unlike his earlier Hanoi Jane rants, this was actual Nuclear Science, the study of it, and most of us just weren’t cut out for this stuff. I recall two girls really taking to it, and sure enough, both did pursue Nuclear Science in college. But most of us were totally lost in this class, from the first week on, and since it was our last semester and all of us were already college bound, no one was sweating it, save those kids who kept desperate tabs on their Grade Point Average.

I wrote about this class earlier in a posting about The Kinks, that great field trip we took to a nearby power plant, and my discovering that two of the more popular jocks in school were closet Kinks fans. I don’t know why that field trip sticks in my head – sure, it was the Kinks connection, but there was something about the whole thing, being 17 or so, May of 1982, and it’s just one of those “young” memories I’ll always have, walking around that plant in a hardhat with all the other upper-echelon smart kids and having a blast away from the school.

The last week of school, we had our final exam, which was an all-essay extravaganza as opposed to the usual sections of Multiple Choice, True/False and such. Normally, I’d be over-joyed with this development, as I ate up essays and could write them in my sleep. Even if I didn’t know too much about a subject, I could generally feel my way into it as a writer and make it work. But I had two problems here: I was totally flummoxed by Nuclear Science, and my study habits were completely shot with freedom from high school so close we could smell it like blossom on the wind.

That was probably the last test I took in high school, and in uncharacteristic fashion got a C Minus on it … which was cause for great joy. Because I knew jackshit about the topics at hand and truly deserved an F. I can’t recall the exact questions, but each one I turned into a free-form exploration of the universe, gearing the first and last paragraphs towards the question at hand, but in between just rambling a cut-up style of writing much like William S. Burroughs used in his novels. I had just read Naked Lunch earlier in the year and was entering my Beat Writers phase with Kerouac, Ginsberg, etc. It didn’t take me long to realize writing like that wasn’t my forte, but you have to do these things first to realize you’re not good at them.

The one question that stood out was the last: Explain in detail the theory of Black Holes. We all know what black holes in space are, but I recalled we had a special class and film about the topic which went into great detail about their discovery, the differing theories about what they were, what it would be like to enter one, etc. Interesting stuff, but I was zoned out at the time and not paying attention at all. Not studying a lick either. Those few weeks, every night found me shooting pool at near-by Holiday Lanes with pal George, who was much better than I was because he had a pool table in his parents’ basement, so I had to practice really hard to beat him. I spent much more time shooting pool that last month of school than studying … a malady many of classmates suffered from their entire high-school career.

I somehow found a racial component to the Black Hole Theory, tying in the Civil Rights movement and the band Earth Wind & Fire into what happens when a burned-out star enters a black hole. I pictured the Black Hole as nightclub in Harlem, and the burned-out star being singer Tom Jones. And so it went … I think I had Tom and the members of Earth Wind and Fire beating up a gang of KKK rednecks from the 1930s who had slipped into a time-space continuum and ended up in their black hole. The essay ended with me clicking together the heels of my black Chuck E. Taylor Converse hightops and chanting “there’s no place like home” tying into my theory that Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz had actually been in a black hole, and that movie was what really went on in there as opposed to gaseous explosions and super novas.

It was a tour de force of “no longer give a fuck” babble from a kid woefully unprepared to handle that or any other essay question in a test. By all rights, I should have flunked. But Mr. Welker gave me a C Minus, on the test and in the class. Not just that – I had friends in that class who studied their asses off for that test and got C Minuses, too. I guess they simply had the wrong answers, as opposed to imaginatively wrong answers like mine that at least demonstrated some type of creative thinking.

Whatever the case, I’ll never forget how nice he was to cut me that slack on the way out. I tend to remember the good things more than the bad with Mr. Welker, or with anyone who passes on whom I haven’t seen in years. He once told us the story of how he and a few of his friends, back during the Depression, had swiped a shipment of potassium from the lab for the sole purpose of throwing it into a nearby creek to watch it explode. This had to be done carefully, constructing a slingshot, as just throwing it by hand into the water could result in an explosion they couldn’t escape. He detailed the whole thing, how they set up the slingshot between two trees, set up two large rocks they could hide behind, constructed informal mirror/cardboard periscopes (another thing we did in his class …) so they could watch, and communicated the joy they had in blowing the shit out of that creek, although none of them had anticipated the number of dead fish their depth charge would unveil. Again, that dog-choking laughter and twinkle in his eye as he told the story.

I couldn’t help but get along with somebody like that. A few people I know have told me he was like that out of school and after retiring – a fun-loving guy, always with the “devil in his eye” glint of someone looking to pull a fast one. It would have been nice to know him like that, but I can live with the memory I have.

1 comment:

Beatles Comment Guy said...

I like the Kinks story. When I was in high school, I mostly though of them as a British Invasion band. I had at that time a collection of their pre-66 A and B sides. It was a bit later when I discovered the true breadth of their catalog.

I had a nice sort-of field trip. A friend and I were "job shadowing". This was when a student or a small group of students got to spend a school day with someone or a company in the line of work they thought they might want to pursue. My friend and I were mischievously turned loose after a few hours, whereas the thing was supposed to last the whole of the school day. This meant that we could basically play hooky with impunity. We were several towns over and were in the clear.

It was probably my intro to adulthood. It was that early part of adult hood with freedom and no or little responsibility. We were fairly well behaved. We had my friends car and I had plenty of cash. I think we just drove around, got a bite to eat and visited a few shops, including a record store. I bought my first Hendrix album that day. Not much, but it was the idea that were doing what WE wanted that was appealing. It was the first time we ever felt really free.

I had experienced freedom before, but always during times designated as such. It's something different when you get to do what you want during a time when you're supposed to be doing something else.

Maybe your chem teacher was rewarding you guys for having the courage to take on challenging material. My physics teacher gave a least a C to anyone who showed up and made an honest effort because most students took easy math/science classes to pad out their GPAs.