The thin yellow line

Napa satellite view
This is the city. Napa, California. 1978. It’s 18.1 square miles of manicured lawns and dusty strip malls, tucked inside some of the most valuable vineyards anywhere. The schools are for learning, the parks are for playing and the streets are for getting hard-working folks to and from their places of labor and commerce.

That’s the way it’s designed and that’s the way it works. When it doesn’t? That’s when I go to work.

I wear a sash.

My name’s Skoog. Greg Skoog. Sixth grade. I’m a sergeant – a sworn officer of the Northwood Elementary School Patrol. Where innocent kids meet the street? That’s my beat.

Keeping kids safe is what it’s all about. Because little Johnny’s got to make it home with the macrame owl he just made in arts & crafts and somewhere out there is a crazy beatnik, hepped up on goofballs and enough PCP to tranquilize a walrus. Right now he’s stoned enough to think he owns the road. But when Johnny steps into that crosswalk, he’s got my helmet, sash, sweater and semaphore watching over him. Oh yes, Mr. and Mrs. Everyman, you can rest well. Your little Johnny will make it home safely this afternoon. I’ll see to that.

But school patrol is more than that.

The rookies

Toward the end of fifth grade, we were selected. The best of the best. The bright. The responsible. The willing. We were like lumps of clay for the molding. (Hold on, wait a minute. I just said all those good things at the beginning of this paragraph, but “lumps of clay” doesn’t sound very flattering…so…um..) We were like lumps of clay with little flecks of gold in it. And we were ready to be molded.

Each of us was assigned to shadow a member of the 1977-78 squad for a few weeks. We were the rookies. The recruits. We learned drill and ceremony on the playground blacktop. We marched. (“Double-to-the-rear-with-a-slight-hesitation… March!”). We trained. (“Simon says Left Face. About Face.”) And we had semaphore drill beaten into our heads through constant repetition – learning to flawlessly execute each of the four drill routines that would start with a patrolman at his or her resting position on the side of the street and end with an alert crossing guard in the lane, semaphore extended, fearlessly blocking traffic.

Lead from the front

By the end of of that fifth-grade school year, the cream rose to the top. Blond-haired, Rod Wieldraayer, with his friendly smile and easy-going version of popularity was selected our Captain. His Lieutenant is the bright, likable Cathy Wigington.

Those two chart the course, and any of us would take a Buick for either one of them. But they couldn’t get the job done without a handful of sergeants to help shoulder the load. And that’s where I come in. There’s a certain swagger that comes with a sergeant’s sweater.

In my case, it happens to be a hesitant, pigeon-toed swagger. But it’s a swagger, nonetheless.They don’t just hand these sweaters out, you know. There’s a precise and exact science to it…

[Flashback sequence to uniform handout day. A tiny, scrawny Greg stands at the end of the line. Step. Wait. Step. Wait. Step. Wait. Finally:
Greg: “Size small, please.”
Mr. Callison (turning to rack and flip, flip, flipping through the remaining couple of sweaters): “Um… Here you go.”
Greg: “But that’s a sergeant’s sweater, sir.”
Mr. Callison: “Good eye. Congratulations, Sergeant.”]

Being a sergeant on the Northwood School Patrol means a couple of different things. First and foremost it means that, on the intersections that require more than one patrolman, you call the shots. (That means Berks Street, Oxford Street and Briarwood Street.) You march your troops out to position. And, when the time comes, it’s your whistle that tells the patrolmen when to move and in what pattern – so they not only get out into the street to stop traffic for the kids – but they look damned sharp doing it. Northwood satellite view But it also means you’re in the rotation for the corner of Trower and Oxford.

The trauma of Trower

Oxford and Trower is the most remote intersection we cover. It’s not used by many students, so we only send one officer out there each day. We staff it because Trower is a suicide gauntlet of gasoline-fueled assassins. It’s a fast, busy street, and that’s what I love about it. There’s a vibrant energy to Trower that lets a man know he’s alive.

But Trower’s a cruel mistress. Lose your focus for a second and your mom will spend the next week scrubbing splattered second-grader off your sweater. Those are the harsh realities. And they’re heavy burdens that we carry. I don’t want to make excuses for anyone, but with pressures like that, is it really any wonder you see a few patrolmen hitting the 7/11 after their shifts? A large cherry Slurpee is cold comfort and, even though I know it’s impossible to freeze those images out of your brain, I know the temptations that lead a wayward patrolman to try.

Speed trap

Anyway, Trower’s lonely duty. So you’d think that the day I got some unexpected company would have been the most relaxing day of my tour. You’d be wrong.

As a member of the Northwood Elementary School Patrol there are certain protocols to be followed. They’re the veggies and side dishes of honor and respect that go along with the meat and potatoes of child safety. One example is respect for the flag. Every morning, we raise it. Every afternoon, we lower it. And every day we watch the skies out our classroom windows. On those rare days when it rains in California, we’re there to take it down and wait for fair weather. Another little-known school patrol protocol is respect for the grown-up men and women in blue. When a patrolman is in uniform and in the presence of a uniformed police officer, the patrolman should remain at the position of attention until such time as the police officer offers the command, “at ease.”

I knew about that protocol. Looking back on it, I’m not sure that the NPD motorcycle officer who decided that Oxford and Trower looked like a good spot for a speed trap that day did. I didn’t care. I stayed there, silently, at attention, for my 45-minute shift – breaking position only occasionally to help a few students cross the busy road. He probably thought I was a weird kid. And he was right.

Guess it comes with the uniform. No, that is NOT me in the plaid pants. I'm not sure where I am in this photo. But that's Captain Rod directly behind Mr. Callison, and Lieutenant Cathy to his immediate left.

Epilogue: The story you have just read is more or less true. No names were changed to protect the innocent. I’m not sure about all the street intersections – I’m making those up from memory and that Google maps satellite image. You get the idea though.

But here’s the truly awesome part about this post. I can offer legitimate third-party validation. And it’s seriously legit. Because 1978-79 Northwood Elementary School Patrol Lieutenant Cathy Wigington is now Northwood Elementary School 5th grade teacher Catherine Wigington. (For real. How awesome is that?) Her daughter just started kindergarten at Northwood. (My little sister was a kindergartner at Northwood during our school patrol year.)

Anyway, here’s what a noble, honorable elementary school teacher with an unquestionable reputation has to say about school patrol back in the day: “Yes, school patrol WAS INDEED cool.  You were considered cool if you were on patrol and everyone wanted to be on patrol.  It was definitely a position of prestige.  You do have my permission to quote me or use me as a reference.

Take that, haters.

PS: This post also falls outside the realm of my current Corinne challenge, so don’t bother searching for a less-than-obvious topic in this one. This is just one I had to do to defend the honor and reputation of school crossing guards everywhere.

Kids, steer clear of alcohol

Oh, demon alcohol. Surely, I love some of your yummy flavors. And I do enjoy my happy buzz. (I’m pretty sure I’m my best, funniest, most social, smartest and most coordinated self when I’ve got a little bit of an edge on.)

But oh, the dangers and consequences.

Beware, my children. For the pitfalls of the devil’s nectar are many and hidden. Heed my words of caution, young ones, and let my woeful tale be your guiding light.

I spent Saturday evening with friends I trust. It was a small group, but a good-hearted group… Until we opened the invitation to wicked Dionysus.

Alcohol-related accidents sometimes involve horrific car crashes. Sometimes awkward falls. Sometimes an alcohol-related accident can involve choking on vomit – preferably ones own. Thankfully, I suffered none of these.

Instead, Saturday night, merry Bacchus pranced in and diverted my common sense for a moment.

[Flash to Sunday morning drive. Sun is shining. Leaves are just beginning to turn. Birds still sing cheerfully. Awkward-looking, middle-aged jogger shuffles down the sidewalk. Billowy curtains of memory in my brain blow gently apart…]

Greg: Shit, Corinne! I signed up to run a half-marathon last night, didn’t I?

Training day one? My calves hurt.

Queasy rider

I need to decide on a name for my new biker gang. We’re totally legit and more hardcore than you’re ready for. And when we roll on some unsuspecting watering hole, it’s OUR turf until WE decide to leave. (Or until someone’s sitter calls.)

I’m kinda thinking…
Knights of the Bike Lane, or
The Throbbing Helmets, but right now my favorite is
Satan’s Aromatherapists.
(The evening took a gentle swerve toward Tantric Realization when somebody busted out the Peace & Calming oil at MC’s Dugout.)

Last night (as I assume you’ve already assumed), nine of us took off from Gina and Eric’s place (in the St. Cloud Hospital neighborhood) on a truly awesome bicycle pub crawl. We started by heading over the river and up the hill in Sauk Rapids to JP’s. (Nice hill. Way to find a way to make something as excellent as bicycle pub crawling just a little bit sucky, Rachel.)

After that, where we went depends on who you believe. According to Facebook check ins, we wandered from Daniel Funeral Home to Pure Pleasure to AAA Bail Bonds to the Upstairs Girls’ Bathroom at McRudy’s. More accurate is probably JP’s to Jimmy’s Pour House to Beaudreau’s (with a slight pause to drop off Gina’s 20lb box ‘o meat in Isaac/Rachel’s fridge) to MC’s Dugout to the White Horse. (At least that’s how I recall it. Things got a little fuzzy after that Hairy Buffalo kicked me in the face.)

The point is, I love that Corinne and I have friends that we can go have mildly crazy, mostly harmless, fairly legal fun with comfortably. Good friends are the people you can be yourself with (even if you’ve never quite figured out who “yourself” is). I love that we have people who make us laugh and make us look forward to figuring out what comes next. Life’s too long to let it get boring.

I’m not talking about soulmates, confidants or confessors – nothing deep like that. I just mean good, encouraging, supportive people that make you happy. Happy’s good.

So here’s to good friends!

Welcome. I guess.

Corinne: You need a website.

Me: I’ve already got a website.

Corinne: No, you’ve got a blog.

Me: What’s the difference?

Corinne: Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Do you understand?

Me: Yeah, kinda.

: Good. Cuz I got you a website. Here’s your login and this is your password… Did you just roll your eyes at me?

Me: No, my eyes just rolled back in my head. There’s a difference.

Corinne: This is going to be awesome for the promotional tour when you write your book.

Me: Now I just rolled my eyes. Did you see the difference?

Corinne: Dork.

So here it is. My new website. It’s completely bitchin’ and I love it even if I don’t have any idea how to update or maintain anything on here. (It’ll be even more bitchin’ when I get Corinne to make it NOT white text reversed out on gray. But whatever. One step at a time. And I think this is a pretty awesome step!) Putting together this website (and pulling over all the existing stuff from my blog) is yet another of the multitude of amazing things my wife can do. (Not quite as amazing as that one thing with the towel bar and the bungee cords, but you haven’t seen that one. [Although I DO have a website now…])

You’re welcome to hang out for a while as long as you don’t break anything. I don’t even mind if you invite friends over as long as they’re not complete jackwads or members of Coldplay and as long as everyone uses coasters and doesn’t get the dogs riled up.

PS: This is an extraneous bonus post, outside of my current Corinne challenge. So don’t bother looking for a hidden topic in here. This is just me saying hi and you’re welcome here. So… you’re welcome.

Rising to the challenge

A man with no goal is a rudderless ship, subject to the whims of fickle Neptune's fathomless fancies…

No, wait, that's not right. (Well, it is right, but it's not going to get me to the point I want to make. Lemme start over.)

A man with no goal is a ship safe at port. He hath access to all he might need, but knoweth not how strong the stuff of his sails may be.

Stand by for actual example intended to double as allegory in 3… 2… 1:

Years ago almost everything I ate was bland. There was no garlic in my life. No curries. No peppers. It was, in part, a result of the company I kept but, in truth, I didn't even really aspire to spicy.

I had dabbled before and felt the heady rush of the flavorful fire. But mostly I played it safe. Nothing ventured, nothing lost, and I wasn't willing to risk the cost.

I won't go into what made my tastes change, but they did. And suddenly spicy sounded pretty damned good. Some peppers here, some salsa there. Shake a little Tabasco on that, wouldja? I bounced around, trying this and that, but eventually I had to admit I was getting nowhere. I decided I needed to test myself – to stretch my boundaries. I needed a plan. I needed a goal.

Now, let's be honest, spicy food goals are limited in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Thankfully, there is BW3. I set my sights on the Blazin' Challenge.

Blazin Challenge

This was a worthy goal. It scared me (though I certainly wasn't going to let anyone know). There was going to be nothing comfortable about this zone.

Here's the thing you need to know about the Blazin' Challenge: The spiciness of the Blazin' sauce is no higher than third on your list of worries.

Problem number one is the temperature of the wings. See, the waitress brings your wings straight out from the kitchen, accompanied by a Wing Nazi. The Wing Nazi is equipped with a stopwatch. And when she hits that button, your six minutes start. Those wings are hot. That's problem number one.

Problem number two is more of a timed-release problem that I won't go into in this venue.

And yes, the Blazin' sauce is problem number three. It's pretty darned hot. And they slather a whole lot more of it onto your Blazin' Challenge order than they do when you place a regular ol' lunchtime order for a dozen Blazin' wings.

It made me sweat. It made me drool. It cut loose viscous strands of runny snot that issued forth from my nostrils in just about the least attractive way possible. But I did it. I did it in about four and a half minutes. I set the highest goal I could imagine and did what I needed to do to reach that goal.

That's what we should do more of, don't you think? I'm not very good at challenging myself, but I do pretty well at facing up to challenges when they're put before me. Corinne's awesome like that. She has a bold-but-delicate way of challenging me to try new things. To reach farther. To do something bigger and better. (No, she hasn't gotten me to write a book yet. But she'll never stop trying. Guess it's a goal of hers!)

I am one-eighth bohemian. Not nearly enough to be interesting.

These aren't real Bohemians. This is, of course, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians. Which made me laugh. I don't know if I'll ever be quirky. I just know what I know.

My mother is half German, one quarter Swiss and one quarter Bohemian. And aside from a rampant, swarthy eyebrow, those crazy gypsy roots have given me… (sigh) Just about nothing.

For the most part, I'm okay with that. But every once in awhile, I really wish I had a little more of a bohemian edge to me. Just every once in awhile I'd like to be able to sit in a darkly lit coffee shop, sipping organic espresso, wearing something that looks truly ridiculous but is still cool (because it was hand-woven by the grandmother of an Ecuadoran freedom fighter who was executed by a death squad of jack-booted thugs and died in my arms, breathing out his last wish – that I take this poncho back to America so that some part of his grandmother could at least touch freedom), and opining in detached, world-weary tones about the collective works of Franz Kafka or David Sedaris or whoever it is that's really cool and not a phony.

But that will never be me. First off, I don't even like coffee. But it's more than that. I'll never be tragically hip because I'm too conservative in my politics, too aesthetically unaware in my fashion sense and too slothful in my reading habits.

I have a degree in government, and the closest I ever came to "politically active" in college was driving into town when Bob Dole came to the St. Cloud Holiday Inn. (Actually, I'm not even sure I drove. I think my car was broken down at the time.)

The only time I was ever "fashion-forward" was my senior year in high school. Moving from a big school to a small one, I was at the vanguard of the boxer rebellion. And I was the first to wear indoor soccer shoes to class.

I think the biggest part of my problem is plain old apathy. It takes work to be quirky. And I just don't have enough want-to in me. There are just these passing whims. That's not, however, to say that I am and will always be a blind conformist. (That takes work too. Keeping up with all the trends I'm supposed to follow? Come on. That's not me either.)

I guess I'll just be who I am. I'll embrace the eighth of myself that actually IS bohemian. And I'll sleep well in the knowledge that, while my percentage isn't high enough to get me free tickets to the poetry slam, it IS high enough to get me a cut if they ever open up a casino in Greenwich Village.

Listen up, everyone. Listen to Greg.

Sixth grade should have been a radical year for me.

  • 1978-79 was an awesome time to be in Napa, California.

  • Sixth grade was one of a very few years where I wasn't starting out in a new school. (I went to 10 different schools, K-12.)

  • Northwood Elementary was a K-6 school, so I was regally perched atop the food chain.

  • I was not only a member of the elite, paramilitary Northwood Elementary School Patrol – I was a sergeant.*

That year should have been a stone groove. But there was one snag. Ms. Lenzi.

From an educational standpoint, Ms. Lenzi was probably one of the best teachers I ever had. I learned a lot and I learned some lessons about knuckling down and actually working hard. So the 44-year-old version of me can call her a straightforward, no-nonsense educator. The 11-year-old version of me still calls her a bitch (or whatever variation on that term 11-year-old Greg might have employed in 1978).

It was because of Ms. Lenzi that I had to learn the phrase "personality conflict" before I was old enough to have to learn the phrase "nocturnal emission."

In Ms. Lenzi's defense, I was a pretty insufferably pretentious kid at the beginning of sixth grade. I was just coming down from the high of fifth grade with Miss Hunter – who loved me almost as much as she loved Prince Charles. She was an angel. And I was a teacher's pet.

So in my mind, teachers and I were simpatico. We were on the same side – fighting against the ignorance of the rabble. My mission was to offer an encouraging glimmer of brilliance in order to bolster my teacher and give her confidence that, yes, the youth of today can be taught.

Evidently no one clued Ms. Lenzi in to that script.

So there we were in our first week together. Ms. Lenzi, staring out at 29 new potential troublemakers. Me, staring back at what I could only assume was the next adult to be smitten by my precocious charms.

"Pretest" I heard her say. I was old enough to know that these were checks on what we'd already been taught and, therefore, easy. Geography? Okay, I've got this one. Hurry up and pass them out. Hurry. Hurry!

Finally, there it was. But wait. Name the four oceans? Name the seven continents? Name the capital of California? This was no good – it was too easy. She was never going to be able to tell from this pathetic half-sheet of paper just how much better I was about to make her life.

And then it hit me. It was simple. It was subtle. And it was Bogart-smooth. Casually, my hand rose into the air. "Yes?" she asked, grudgingly.

"Missus Lenzi," I began earnestly, "for Europe and Asia, is it okay if we just put 'Eurasia'?"

I put down my hand and smiled expectantly. See, the beauty of this plan was that it was not only going to demonstrate that I was an exceptionally knowledgeable and well-read student. It was also going to demonstrate my visionary potential. Check this out, I just increased efficiency by 14 percent! Serenely, I waited for that familiar look of surprise and respect to wash over her.

That's when she hit me with one of the most traumatic lines of my youth. "Did everyone catch that? Listen up, everyone. Listen to Greg. Congratulations Greg, you've just given away two of the continents. Do you have any other answers you want to give away?"


I melted into my desk, suddenly sweating much more than even an un-air conditioned classroom in California deserved. Eventually I got a grip on myself and learned to co-exist with Ms. Lenzi. But not that day. That day I biked home crying like a little bitch.


*I've gotta remember to do a post on that someday soon.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Don't forget to Play and Win Valuable Prizes.