I watched The Music Man on television the other day, and while I did not grow up in Iowa, and certainly not during the time-period in the movie, it made me reflect on my own experiences decades ago, the 1950s, in the mill town of Clairton, Pennsylvania.
Clairton’s mill was referred to as “Coke Works,” as it made coke, not the drinking kind nor the narcotic, but rather the coke essential in the steelmaking process. And since the U S Steel offices were built within city’s limits, City taxes paid by the giant corporation allowed for a prosperous community of some 20,000 souls to enjoy benefits such as a thriving business district, four movie theaters, over a dozen auto dealerships of virtually every make and model of American carmakers, more than twenty houses of worship, and one of the finest high schools in the area, complete with an award-winning band, self-contained bakery and cafeteria, two gymnasiums, and an indoor swimming pool.
At the intersection of the two mains streets proudly stood a “Roll of Honor” displaying the name of every local man that served in World War II.
The city also boasted one of the few area city parks with a large pool, kiddie pool, tennis courts, playgrounds, baseball fields, shelters and a lodge for picnicking and special events, a fish pond, and a section designated as a Veteran’s Memorial.
Life was great but not perfect. Most African Americans were relegated to living quarters in designated parts of town and their job opportunities were limited. Issues such as discrimination, alcoholism, spousal and child abuse were neither discussed nor recognized. But overall things were good. First and second generation Americans, children of Italian and East European immigrants were beginning to blend into the town fabric. Names such as DeSue, Vitori, and Medvidovich joined Anglo names among City leadership positions.
Plenty of work available meant an easy transition from high school to the mill, or to one of the many area institutions of higher education. But high school was the time to bond and make friendships that last a lifetime. The curriculum included Mechanical Drawing, Wood Shop, Electric Shop and Automotive Shop for vocational track students. College Prep courses ranged from Pre-calculus to Problems of Democracy to Guidance.
Many of the courses from half a century ago are long gone. Ditto many terms common to conversation So sit back, relax, and enjoy reading about a class that no longer exists and a term you’ve likely not heard.
Today’s lesson boys and girls, includes “terms that have been removed from our lexicon,” particularly the expression is “pull a boner,” which means “to make a silly mistake.” The expression evolved from the old American minstrel shows where a man called Mr. Bones used two small sticks of bone as an instrument. When asked a question by another actor, Mr. Bones gave stupid but funny answers that made the audience laugh. In time, “pull a boner” came to mean making a bad blunder or a mistake that was costly.
Of course, the term “boner” had a different meaning to junior high school boys reaching puberty, and who sometimes became embarrassed by involuntarily voice changes, or more embarrassing, involuntary erections.
With these two definitions in mind, I hearken back to an incident during an eighth-grade Guidance class some sixty-plus years ago when classes such as Civics, Deportment, and Guidance taught young people about government, proper behavior, and etiquette. The teacher, Miss Straka, was a 21-year old from a local family in her first year of teaching. She had been given the challenge of teaching a Guidance course to a class, made up of nearly all eighth-grade boys.
The class was especially rambunctious that day, especially class funnyman Armand Martin, a lad who would grow up to become a constable and pillar of the community. But on this day in this class, Armand made funny noises and cracked jokes that elicited snorts and giggles from classmates.
The exasperated teacher finally called him to task. “Armand,” she said, “One more disruption and I’m going to send you to the office to see Mr. Bracken.”
Mr. Bracken, the vice principal, terrorized miscreants of every sort. A large man, he enforced discipline on Clairton Junior and Senior High School scoundrels often just by giving “the look,” and using his stentorian voice. Example: The school that year was overcrowded while awaiting Thomas Jefferson High School to complete construction. Class size issues at Clairton were addressed by having one period per day designated as “study hall” in the school auditorium. Wooden floors slanting forward toward the stage were perfect for mischievous boys to create a racket by rolling marbles from the back row toward the stage, causing noise and making students giggle.
When noise became too loud, the teacher in charge of study hall sent for Mr. Bracken who came lumbering onto the stage and growled, “Shut up. Those that give trouble are gonna’ get trouble.”
Marble rolling would cease, and the students become quiet. Nobody wanted to challenge Mr. Bracken. So when Miss Straka threatened Armand with being sent to the office, he looked up with the eyes of a cherub and asked, “What was I doing?”
“You know what. You’ve been pulling boners all morning.”
The class of junior high school boys became as quiet as new fallen snow, not believing what they’d just heard from the pretty, young female teacher.
Armand ventured, “What???”
“You heard me. You’ve been pulling boners all morning. Once more and
I’ll send you to see Mr. Bracken and see if you’ll pull your boners with him.”
The calm before the storm lasted only seconds. Once the unintended double entendre sunk in the entire class became riotous for what seemed like hours. The guffaws and hilarity flooded the hallways all the way to the office and in short order Mr. Bracken came racing down the hall and into the room with boisterous group. Even his authoritative presence had difficulty quieting the rowdiness.
I don’t remember the outcome, but I think Armand was removed from the class for the day and taken to the office. Miss Straka learned about expressions with double meanings and somehow, we all got through the Guidance class. But the day of pulling boners will forever be emblazoned in my mind.