1974, Missoula Montana, Paxton Elementary School. Louie had joined our class mid-year, having moved to town from who-knows-where. He immediately fell in with a small group of so-called tough kids and he subsequently worked on presenting himself as a bully. The reality was that he was actually an OK kid, not nearly as big of a jerk as those he was associating with. But he willingly chose to hang out with Terry, Tracy, and George (collectively known as “the hoods”), so he too became a hood. Fortunately, back then the bad kids usually just acted bad (and maybe stole a bike or two); weapons and drugs hadn’t really been invented yet.
When school started up in the fall of 1975, Louie wasn’t there. It certainly wasn’t uncommon for kids to disappear over the summer, but it was a bit odd with Louie since he had just joined us late in the previous year. We didn’t exactly sit around and have eighth-grade discussions about Louie’s whereabouts, but it was certainly noticed that he was missing.
But not missing for too long. About a month after school started, Louie reappeared, but holy smokes, what happened to him? He had lost most of his hair and what was left was long and wispy and really served no useful purpose. His facial features where much more pronounced than before, and overall he looked frail.
Now obviously, here’s where the caring, compassionate teachers should have had a little talk with the class about cancer and chemotherapy and the toll it can take on one’s body. But they didn’t. Nothing was ever said about Louie’s condition, and none of us world-wise eighth graders had a clue as to what Louie was dealing with or had been through. And since no one bothered to ask Louie directly, we had to formulate our own theories. The most widely accepted one was that he had simply pulled all his hair out strand by strand. Made sense at the time.
Warning: Here’s the part where I have to be terribly un-PC, but we haven’t had that training video yet so I’ll just plead ignorance. Besides, the following bit of information is important to the rest of the story: To a room full of 13 year-olds, Louie’s condition made him look kind of funny. He already had awkward kid features like the rest of us, but his gaunt expression and small tuft of hair really set him apart.
But here’s where Louie the Opportunist was revealed. He apparently knew that given the situation, his bully persona would no longer be of any help, so he reinvented himself. Gone was Louie the bully, now we had Louie the class clown. If someone laughed at him, he found it much better to laugh along and get everyone else to join in. Maybe this was just his way of dealing with his ordeal, or maybe it was just his last line of defense against a cruel world. Either way, Louie now liked to make people laugh, and that was much better than threatening to beat them up at recess.
Everything I’ve told you about so far is just background information to set the stage for Louie’s big day.
I don’t know how it worked in your town, but the Missoula school district apparently only had one or two music teachers and traveled from school-to-school to do one class every week or so. Our traveling teacher was a later-day hippie who could get wildly freaked out at the slightest sign of trouble… not exactly the best temperament for someone in her position. But here she was, in front of us once again, and today was Harmonica Day!
First of all, let me just say that anyone who gives harmonicas to a room full of grade school kids and expects any measure of a coordinated musical effort is probably an idiot. Or at least is being paid to act like one. So I’ll give PsychoHippie the benefit of the doubt and assume she was just a pawn in a bureaucratic farce.
When you’re dispensing harmonicas to young children, hygiene is of the utmost importance. Knowing this, PsychoHippie was taking positively forever to get class started because each harmonica had to be dipped in a mystery liquid, shaken clean, and dried off before it was sufficiently sanitized to meet some eighth grade lips. In retrospect, I have to wonder if that mystery liquid presented more of a danger than the dried spit of some kid from her previous class.
So anyway, PsychoHippie is busy dipping, shaking, and drying and the class is getting restless and noisier as each harmonica is handed out. Each kid is practicing their generic harmonica chord — the one you get if you blow through as many holes as possible — and a wonderfully chaotic din is building in the room.
But it soon becomes apparent that something is happening on the other side of the class. There’s a group of kids focused on a single event, and they are practically screaming with laughter. The focus tightens as more and more kids get closer to see what’s going on, and not being one to miss out on things, I head on over to check it out.
It doesn’t take long to see that everyone is directing their laughter at Louie, but he has his back to me so I can’t tell just what is so amazingly funny. But then he slowly turns my way and like everyone else, I absolutely lose it. Louie Pelky had fit the entire harmonica sideways inside his mouth, and as much as I hate to say it, the only thing I can compare it to is that he looked like a pink Grinch. To top it off, Louie’s own laughter was feeding through the harmonica reeds, creating his own musical score with each gasping inhale and exhale. Tears were streaming down his face as he shared in this magical moment he created.
It didn’t take long for PsychoHippie to discover what was going on and promptly flip out. I think her first instinct was to reach for the harmonica, but her sense of finger-preservation must have overridden that instinct because all she could do is stand over Louie and scream for him to spit it out. And after he did, I think she gave that harmonica an extra long soaking in the mystery fluid.
I have no idea whatever happened to Louie; I can’t even remember whether or not he finished that school year with us. But now, 25 years later, that still ranks as one of the funniest moments of my life. I wonder if anyone else in class that day remembers it.