Thursday, January 27, 2022

Dirty Laundry (Don Henley)

It was a dark and stormy night. Dad was working late. Wendell studied for AP Biology in the Florida room, Skipper did her spelling in the dining room and I glued stickers onto a geography poster with my mom paying bills feet away. Then the doorbell rang. Mom said, “April, could you get that?”

Knowing I was chosen because I was closes to the door, I got up to get it. The doorbell rang about ten more times. Either they were selling something and there was a prize involved or this was a lunatic. Standing on the front porch, soaking wet was the prized lunatic herself, Mrs. Tolanco, the most obnoxious of all the Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawk Football Booster mothers. A former Whiskey Rebellionette twirler, her senior class voted her ‘Most Divine.’ These days, she resembled the late drag queen Divine.

Opening the door I said, “Hi Mrs. Tolanco.”

Barreling past me and knocking me over like her son Frankie did an opponent on the offensive line, she said, “Wendelin, Gracie, I need a lawyer!”

As I got up, she still ignored the fact she knocked me over. Mom came running out ruing the day she asked me to answer the door, “Judy, I understand you are upset, but Wendelin isn’t home right now.”

Mrs. Tolanco said, “Grace, no can do. We need to sue in big court!” She held up a copy of The Hawk Wing, The Whiskey Rebellion High School newspaper. The headline read, “Blackhawks, Lady Hawks and Rebellionettes Get A Failing Grade by Sandra Angelina.”

Under the article was a picture of a girl who looked like Emily Dickinson The Belle of Amherst joined Sonic Youth with a by-line read, “Sandra Angelina wants to snuff out the patriarchy and write the great American novel.”

Mom said, “Okay Judy, I know you are extremely upset but I need you to calm down and take a few deep breaths. She’s an angry teenager. You know how tough it is to be that age.”

Mrs. Tolanco said, “Well wait until you read what she wrote. The Whiskey Rebellion Women’s Club asked me if it was true. It was about a boy shoving a baseball bat up another boys…”

Mom held up her hand, “Judy, please calm down.”

Mrs. Tolano said, “My Frankie plays football, works part time at the plant store and volunteers with our church to help the shut in at the end of our block with her grocery shopping and yard work. We have a few Rebellionettes and Lady Hawks who are a part of the youth group too. These are good kids and I won’t have them slandered!”

Wendell came running out, “Mrs. Tolanco, you okay?”

Letting it spray like Tammy Faye she said, “NO! Do you know this rotten Sandra Angelina?!”

Wendell said, “Yeah, she’s a weird chick who wears all black and writes death poetry.”

Mrs. Tolanco said, “A ha! The motive here is bitterness and revenge. She couldn’t make The Lady Hawks or the Rebellionettes. Maybe one of the guys wouldn’t date her. Or better yet, she’s a LESBIAN!” The way she said lesbian was louder, angrier and more punctuated than anything else.

Skipper poked her head out of the dining room, “Mrs. Tolanco, I don’t mean to be rude but I am trying to study.”


Mom walked over to the door and opened it, “Judy, I think you need to go home, get some sleep and if you still have legal questions call Wendelin in the morning.”

Mrs. Tolanco threw The Hawk Wing on the ground and made a dramatic exit out the door. When she was gone we let out a collective laugh. I said, “Wow, Dad’s gonna love that.” Dad hated Mrs. Tolanco.

Wendell said, “Oh I’ll bet. Frankie’s a nice guy, too bad his mom’s a freakshow.”

Mom said, “How do the guys feel?”

Wendell shrugged, “I’m ignoring it and the more level headed ones are too. But some of the others are pretty pissed. Anyway, I got to get back to studying.”

Later that night, I read the poison pen piece. Despite the hype it was a badly structured angry skree. Sandra Angelina alleged The Blackhawks and The Lady Hawks and Rebellionettes by extension were bullies who engineered a cheating ring and subjected underclassmen to violent hazing. She was correct. The previous year there had been a cheating ring involving some football players and a few Rebellionettes and Lady Hawks serving as inside people. And bullying had been an epidemic on the football team too. The violent hazing incident where the baseball bat was shoved up the butt happened as well. The only problem, it was last year. The players, cheerleaders, and Rebellionettes involved had graduated, and the coaches were fired so aside from a fact checking issue, there was nothing to be done. Matthias, while far from perfect, was zero tolerance for bullshit on the field or off.

Sandra did have some points I agreed with. Yes, the women’s sports and smaller teams fell to the wayside with little to no publicity for their events, but Whiskey Rebellion was in Steeler County so football was king. The glossy program sold at the home games raised enough money for a new weight room. Sandra claimed the football team kept other athletic teams out. Under the previous coach, the football players intimidated smaller, weaker students out of using the weight room. As far as I knew, Matthias’s squad didn’t behave this way, but Wendell and his teammates were the ones who primarily used it.

When I was finished, I handed Skipper the article. As she read it Skipper said, “Two words: spell check.”

Skipper, despite being grade levels ahead in math, was a terrible speller. I said, “That means a lot coming from you.”

Skipper shrugged, “Only someone of limited intellect would get mad at this like Mrs. Tolanco.” We both burst out laughing.

For the next week, Mrs. Tolanco blew up Dad’s phone demanding the boosters take The Hawk Wing to court. When Dad told her she had no suit, Mrs. Tolanco started a petition demanding The Hawk Wing be shut down. Gaining traction, she began to put pressure on Coach Matthias to approach the administration about disbanding The Hawk Wing.

Coach Matthias, who didn’t like Mrs. Tolanco but wanted to do damage control, approached Mrs. Callahan, The Hawk Wing sponsor, to clear the air. Smooth as sandpaper on a bed of nails Coach Matthias said, “I have no problem with the rest of weird kids that write. But that filly that wears black ain’t no good.”

Mrs. Callahan was indignant, “She has a name and it’s Sandra Angelina. Remember it.”

The two began to shout at each other. Hawk Wing staffers jumped to Mrs. Callahan’s defense. Blackhawks that were in the vicinity saw a Blackhawk down and aided their embattled coach. As the air filled with insults, threats and profanity, the school security guard tried to break up the shouting match gone wrong but failed. The long suffering vice principal Mr. Johns had to assist. When he was ignored, Bo the Janitor, a Vietnam vet with PTSD, jumped in.

As they were being separated, Coach Matthias vowed, “This is a day that will live in infamy! Blackhawk Nation has declared war!”

Mrs. Callahan replied, “Good! Because we not yet begun to write!”

That was the start of what would go down in history as The War of Words. The day after the first shots were fired, Mrs. Tolanco arrived at Principal Cicero’s office with her petition. What she didn’t count on was that Mrs. Angelina, angry her daughter’s locker had been vandalized with the word “CUNT” written in red nail polish, was also waiting to talk to Principal Cicero. The mothers got into a screaming match. When they tried to punch each other, school security had to separate them, escort them out and ban them from school property. Meanwhile, The Hawk Wing, previously ignored, was now flying off the shelves as sympathy for Sandra Angelina and her cause grew.

In what became known as The Battle of Dodge Ball, some Lady Hawk cheerleaders had informed Sandra that she cease and desist, “or else your time at Whiskey Rebellion High School will be hell.” Sandra refused. These same cheerleaders, who were in her gym class, this was Aztec Ball Court where it would be a fight to the death. Dodge balls became deadly weapons. However, what the cheerleaders didn’t count on was members of the women’s volleyball team, who were glad Sandra spoke up for them, would jump to the unathletic girl’s defense. Spikes were fired, resulting in several bloody noses. Volleyball players and cheerleaders were taken to the office, and in all six people were suspended.

Next was The Battle of the Band Room. What started it is not known, but a Rebellionette twirler and a flutist fought over the truth of the Sandra Angelina article. The baton gave the Rebellionette an advantage, but wielding a flute proved to be far more dangerous. The band director, aghast, separated the girls who continued to fight even as the principal suspended them both.

The penultimatum was The Battle of the Stairwell. Several Blackhawk football players had taunted Sandra in the hall with the usual round of insults that included, “Bitch,” “Rug Muncher” and “Tampon Eater.” The hockey team, which Sandra’s cousin Rudy belonged to, were lying in wait in the stairwell ready to pounce to defend her honor. When the time came they jumped three guys in Blackhawk letter jackets. The only problem was, these weren’t the three Blackhawks who had been taunting Sandra but three different guys who were not only at the wrong place at the wrong time, but were actually trying to stay out of The War on Words entirely. Seeing their fellow Blackhawks in trouble, others close by jumped in. Size wise, football guys had the advantage, but the hockey guys lived to get bruised, bloodied up and would not go down. In a match that was a draw, twenty students were suspended.

The War on Words soon spilled down into Constitution Middle School. It made clique divisions more divided and poured salt in wounds that were fresh, especially since several of my classmates had siblings who were suspended because of their participation in the conflict. Like Wendell, I was trying to stay as far out of this as possible, but it was becoming harder and harder as everyone demanded you pick a side. Trying to dodge the draft, I was on my way to lunch when Coach Douglass, my reading teacher and Coach Matthias’s second in command, poked his head out of his classroom, “RL Stine, do you got a minute?” That was his nickname for me because I was always writing something.

I said, “Sure Coach, wassup?”

Coach Douglass, who towered over me said in his thick West Virginia accent, “I don’t know about you, but this War on Words has gotten out of hand. Coach Matthias doesn’t want to call a truce which I think is a mistake. Where do you stand?”

I said, “I stand by the side that wants to stay out of it. No offense.”

Coach Douglass said, “But this is why I need your help. You’re kind of one of us because of Wendell but you are one of them because you are a weird girl who writes. Any ideas?”

I was being backhanded but I was being called to service, “Coach, you got to meet them at their level. Get a player to write a respectful rebuttal.”

Coach Douglass said, “How about Wendell? People like him and he’s smart.”

I said, “Ask him.”

Coach Douglass said, “Matthias is pretty adamant on this war. RL Stine, make him think it was your idea. Remember, Blackhawk Nation is counting on you.” I was charged with saving a country that didn’t exist. To quote the great Nancy Kerrigan, “WHY ME?!?”

That night, as Dad was working late again and Mom was running errands I pitched the idea to Wendell. He said, “Absolutely not! In the War of Words I am a conscientious objector.”

It was a reach but desperate times called for desperate measures, “Wendell, Blackhawk Nation is counting on you.” Then I told him about my conversation with Coach Douglass.

Wendell said, “I was afraid he would do something like that. A lot of the guys are getting into trouble. It sucks because some of them are really nice but people are just so angry that they are starting stuff or getting sucked in by other people starting stuff. It’s not fair. Yeah, some of us were jerks but a lot of us study, make the honor roll and just want to mind our business.”

I said, “Then put that in your editorial.”

Wendell said, “Eh, you know I hate writing.”

Skipper, who was feet away suggested, “Wendell, you like to draw, do a cartoon.” Wendell was a great artist and doodled frequently when he was bored.

A smile crossed his face, “Great idea, Squirt. I’ll do it in study hall tomorrow.” Then we both gave her a fist bump.

Wendell created a cartoon entitled "Don’t Box Me In." On one side it had the stereotype of a Blackhawk football player bullying kids, cutting class, cheating and partying until the wee hours with his friends. On the other side it had the same Blackhawk football player and his teammates helping special needs students, studying hard and having both his coach and mother remind him about work/sports/life balance.

"Don’t Box Me In" was a hit with everyone. Impressed, Mrs. Callahan offered Wendell the gig as Hawk Wing cartoonist which he glady accepted. He also got an unlikely new fan, Sandra Angelina. Away from the front lines she confided in Wendell that she was sick of The War on Words but some of the more overzealous Hawk Wingers were pressuring her to keep fighting, even though at this point it was a giant shitshow.

The two decided to negotiate an armistice. Wendell approached Mr. Napier, his guidance counselor who moonlighted as the football announcer about plugging the women’s sports and the smaller teams during the home games. Mr. Napier not only thought it was a great idea, but was embarrassed he hadn’t thought of it himself. The women’s volleyball team especially enjoyed the new publicity, and during their championship season found the stands packed. Smaller sports also took out ads in the glossy football book to show their appreciation, but also to let the town know that football players weren’t the only Blackhawks.

In return, Sandra talked Mrs. Callahan into apologizing to Coach Matthias. As an olive branch, Coach Matthias offered to do an exclusive sit down interview with Sandra where he consented to being recorded and didn’t dodge the hardball questions. Coach Matthias didn’t deny the cheating and hazing incidents happened, but they were under the former coaching staff. He explained because the former players had been so out of control, the team had gotten a deservedly terrible reputation that he was working to change. Coach Matthias explained that unlike the coach who came before him, he stressed that both athletics and academics were equally as important. And while the previous football teams had excluded people from the weight room this wasn’t going to be the case when he was around. Yes, the football team had raised the money to build the new weight room but all students, regardless of what sport they played, and even those that did not play a sport, were both welcome and encouraged to come work out.

Several Lady Hawks and Rebellionettes wrote editorials apologizing for their roles in The War on Words, but felt dragged in because they resented being stereotyped, but also the boogeyman of peer pressure played an active role. Hawk Wing staffers and people who were on the other side respectfully rebutted, saying they too were sorry, but they resented being ostracized and treated like a second class citizen in their own school. Together, the different voices had an honest conversation about bullying, peer pressure and labels. The Hawk Wing issue, entitled Cliques, won state wide Quill and Scroll prize.

Sandra Angelina went on to attend Sarah Lawrence. After she graduated she freelanced with Mother Jones reporting on crisis pregnancy centers and the conditions of women’s prisons ruffling even more feathers before she opened a socialist bookstore. She recently self-published her opus, “Toppling The Patriarchy.” While not quite the great American novel, it is a hit with the social justice crowd. I’m glad she’s finding her muse. I just hope she uses spellcheck.

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