After being in the workforce for five years after high school, I decided I wanted to improve my socioeconomic standing and head back to college. Before making the leap to a four year university, I decided it would be best to get my feet wet with a few courses at a technical college, while I warmed up my brain to fancy book learnin’ again, and decided what I wanted to focus my studies on. I enrolled in two night classes, English and Public Speaking at a small Central Wisconsin technical college. Technical college is like the Purgatory of secondary education. People of all ages, some 19 and fresh outta high school without a plan, some seemingly 90 years old and closer to death than a new job, come there to try to pay their dues, atone for their previous sins, all in hope of ascending to a higher plane.
Although I got a great a deal out my classes the same can’t be said for my colleagues. My classmates were a pretty homogeneous blend of people. Although the occasional senior citizen was sprinkled in, most of these people were 20-something rednecks that had no drive, no goal, and no hope for the future. At first I felt bad for them because a lifetime of changing oil or pipefitting was most likely in store for them, but after a couple weeks I began to hate them, like I do with most people I’ve spent more than 30 minutes with. Most of them were camouflage-wearing, tobacco spitting, pickup-driving rednecks. I shit you not, one kid wore a black hat to class that simply said “REDNECK TECH” on it. Obviously, we were a proud group.
There was also “secrets” guy. This guy took every chance he had to interject conspiracy theories into discussion about proper public speaking, a tall task unless you are absolutely bat shit crazy, which he was. Secrets, the name I dubbed him, would fill our discussions with talks about government cover-ups, UFOs, or diseases being spread purposefully as a form of population control. Secrets was also a closet racist, so from time to time he sprinkled in his thoughts about minorities’ plans to take over the country. This played well in class because it was, after all, Central Wisconsin. Not quite Jackson, Mississippi during the Jim Crow era, but you still see your share of confederate flags around town.
Like so many truly insane people I have met in my life, Secrets had no ability to pick up on cues in a social setting. Or maybe he did have the ability but he completely disregarded the rules of conversation. I had the pleasure of sitting directly behind him, and since no one would ever sit next to him, this put me in the closest of proximity to him, for more detailed accounts of Secrets’ secrets. On breaks or before class, no matter how busy I acted, no matter how curt I was in my responses, nothing would prevent Secrets from rattling off his noise to me, a privilege I won’t soon forget. At least one good thing came out of it, he knew my name and seemed to like me, so in my daydreams where he comes into class wielding a semi-automatic, I’m able to dash away and he gives me a big “thumbs up” while he pumps lead into my classmates.
Secrets was the exception though, most of these people didn’t really stick out. They all seemed to be passing time, waiting for life to happen to them, instead of making something happen. I wouldn’t describe any of them as good public speakers or even slightly creative, so the day our instructor came in to class and informed us that we would all be giving a descriptive impromptu speech that evening, the collective groan was to be expected. I am one of those people, one of those people who actually relish public speaking, so I was excited for the opportunity. My classmates, however, we’re not as enthused. We were given a list of topics which included a rainy day, a sunny day, a time you were scared, or a time you were happy. About 80 percent of the class chose the “rainy day” topic, which led to the same speech, given in monotone over and over by everyone. Together this is how I remember all of their speeches: “I’m sitting in my tree stand with my rifle….. I hear a buck… it steps on a branch…. the branch breaks… leaves are on the ground… I take in a deep breath… I feel a drop of rain… more drops of rain… it’s a rainy day…”
I wanted to add, “I place rifle in mouth… rifle tastes metallic… finger caresses trigger…. POW!” By the time it was my turn to speak, half the class was already asleep and a gunshot would be needed to gain their attention. I decided on the topic about a time I was scared, and recanted a story from a couple summers back.
It’s 4am on July 3rd, and I had been out celebrating America’s freedom down by the river at the town’s annual Fourth of July shindig. Although 3 or 4 hours had gone by since my last shot of whiskey, the booze was still coursing through my veins as I drove home. About two miles from my parents’ house, way out in the country, I made a left hand turn and as I did, I rounded the corner and crossed the center line. Not because I’m drunk, but because I do this every day driving to and from school, and because I drive like a dick head. As I round the corner four squad cars come into view in the parking lot of a tavern, and four officers stood outside the tavern writing up a report.
As I sped by the cops, I look back in my rearview mirror to see them all run to their cars. Without a moment’s hesitation I slammed my foot on the gas pedal. My heart was pounding in my chest and my mind raced. Up ahead, there was a T-shaped intersection. If I went straight there was a big hill, if I turned right, another series of large hills. “If I can just make it to those hills,” I thought to myself, “I’ll have a chance.”
Actually there was no thought process involved. As I buried the needle on the speedometer of the Buick Cutlass Ciera, a car that was handed down from me from my grandma, I flew through a residential zone at a whopping…. 85 miles per hour. As I approached that intersection that was my goal, the crux my master escape plan, I actually drove by my grandparents’ house. How proud they must have been, when they woke up to hear the news! I took one last look in my mirror and saw a stream of berries and cherries not exactly losing ground to me. I turned off my lights and without breaking much, whipped a wild right-hand turn onto the street on which I lived. My car dashed off the road, like a bounding jackrabbit, into the ditch and then back on to asphalt as I regained control. I headed down the first large hill, pleading for more speed to get over the next hill before the police saw my route, cloaked in the darkness of the night, still driving with my lights off. As I reached the top of the next hill, I looked back and my heart sank. The circus of red and blue lights following me had made the turn, and they were gaining on me. I was not as covert as I thought I was. There were no more hills, no more lightening quick genius ideas, no NOS to throw the old Buick into overdrive, so less than a half mile from my parents’ house, I pulled over to the side of the road and parked my car, waiting for my imminent demise.
When the cops caught up and arrived they barked some orders; I opened the door to see all four of them standing with guns drawn, pointed at me. And that was a time in my life when I was scared.
I look up at the class to see most of the students bug-eyed and my teacher’s jaw on the floor. “Is that a true story?” She asked me.
“Every word.” I replied.
“Let’s all give him a round of applause.”
I always found it funny that I was the only one whose speech we applauded. What was my instructor lauding? Was it my openness? Certainly it wasn’t my criminal behavior she was advocating. Probably, she thought I was another “Redneck Tech” reject, who was perhaps fresh out of prison or maybe even rehab so she wanted to recognize my efforts for coming forward with such a telling story. Regardless of her intention my speech earned a perfect score, but after that we went back to stories about rain drops and descriptions of deer in the forest.
The guns being drawn on me might not even be the scariest moment of the weekend. There was the fear I felt when I was placed in a holding cell with 12 other criminals and had to spend the Fourth of July weekend waiting for bond. If I survived that, there was the fear of the wrath of my parents waiting when I got out, since I was only 19 and still living at home. There was also the fear of what would happened in the ensuing months of pending litigation, when my freedom, the very thing I’d like to think I was out celebrating that night, was put in jeopardy for the next five months. I persevered through all the bullshit and came away a better person. I learned a lesson flying through the darkness that night: you can try to run from your problems but sooner or later they catch up to you. Sometimes you just gotta throw it in park and face your problems head on, even if the “problem” is four handguns fixated on your head.