Guts by Mark Sullivan

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three-punching-bags along an old wallI hustled to fourth period medical biology class, a blur of flared jeans, flannel and mutton-chop sideburns. This was my favorite class while a junior at Frankfurt American High School in 1974. I’d be the first to arrive, beating our disheveled teacher, Mr. Rishor, by fifteen minutes. The class started after lunch, and I’d hurry though my white bread sandwich at the loner table to get to class and check on the mice.

We had been working with lab rats all fall, timing them through mazes and presenting them with various problems to solve. Now we were finished with them, and they lived neglected lives in their 30-gallon aquarium.

I’d stand at the smelly tank and see some drama underway. Like a terrarium, it was set up with soil, plants and a pond created from a wide lab beaker buried in a mound of dirt. A nice home at first, but soon the plants were eaten and the soil eroded – a small-scale ecological disaster. On top of that the mouse population had exploded.

It was chaos. Mice frantically burrowed in the corners for a way out; their tiny claws worn raw. They climbed up the bottle water, launched to the screen top and scurried upside-down, back and forth,trying anything to escape.

On more than one occasion, I found a mouse in the beaker of water. It’d be paddling in circles, unable to escape because the sides were too steep. They’d be near death, barely keeping their head above water, when I’d appear and scoop them up. I’d set them on a brown paper towel, and they’d shiver and pant, looking like a dirty wet gym sock.

Other times I’d get there to break up a gang rape or assault. I knew that if a mouse became injured, it would be tormented and killed by the alpha mice. I became the guardian of the weak and vulnerable.

Mr. Rishor told us that our mouse stock was selectively bred for consistency from one batch or generation to another, to provide scientifically uniform results when using them as lab specimens. I knew that couldn’t be true – I saw runts and bullies and everything in between.

One day we were studying blood cells, taking turns viewing a slide under a microscope and taking notes. My lab partner, Debbie, held up a shiny pendant and said, “Look what Jimmy got me yesterday.” Debbie was a sweet, pretty sophomore, with fresh curves blooming daily.

“He’s the best,” she said, gloating.

I’d earlier learned that Jimmy was a local base GI, so I fought the image of a uniformed dirt bag trading pendants for young Debbie’s affections.

Then there was a commotion and I looked over to see some students and Mr. Rishor standing next to the mouse tank. They reached their hands in the tank, grabbed handfuls of squirming white bodies, and tossed them in a large lab beaker, quickly sealing the lid tight.

Immediately the mice began to jump and dance, and then twist and shake, and then collapse and spasm, and then wretch and die. I was stunned. After watching over them for months, they were now being discarded like the bin of crumpled papers by Mr. Rishor’s desk. I bolted to the killing jar and stood in amazement as the process was repeated several times. It was an assembly line. Periodically, chloroform-laced cotton balls at the bottom of the beaker were refreshed from a small bottle before a new batch of mice was tossed in. What surprised me was their panic; an instant recognition that they were going to die. They did not go quietly in the night.

Shocked as I was, I didn’t protest or question what was happening. As far as I knew this was standard practice in biology class. By the end of class we had a bucket of dead mice. The aquarium would eventually be cleaned and serve as a prison for some other poor creatures.

After school and the bus ride home, I’d hit the gym. I’d walk the street that bordered the large American military housing complex where we lived at the urban north edge of Frankfurt, in what was then called West Germany. To my right the city stopped and there were miles of lush green fields rising gently to become the Taunus Mountains. I’d continue a few blocks and enter a non-descript alley that was the back entrance to the Drake Kaserne. This was a garrison of the Army’s 3rd Armored Division, nicknamed the “Spearhead.” An old Sherman tank sat on display near this entrance by the parade grounds, a relic of the war thirty years earlier. A hundred kilometers to the east, across the Fulda Gap, there were thousands of Soviet T-64 tanks pointed our way, waiting for orders during the height of the Cold War. But there was no security at the entrance to the base where I entered. The front gate was manned for show, but the Army bases were basically open to the public.

A large old box of a building, the gym sat at the edge of the base and was open to soldiers and military dependents like me. It had a basketball court, simple free weights and a heavy and a speed bag. I spent most of my free time there, which was a lot since I had no friends. I took to weight training with strict schedules, supplementing my diet with protein shakes fortified with raw eggs. Just the year before back home I’d been regularly thrown in the bushes by bullies. Now I was out of that school and in another country, trying to be invisible while building myself into something less vulnerable.

Only a few other guys used the weights. Manny and Dave were among the regulars. Most of the GIs were rowdy young dopes, but Manny and Dave were cool – in their thirties and with sergeant’s stripes. We usually worked out at the same time and we’d share the space like guys do, nodding at each other occasionally as we worked through our sets.

I’d leave the gym in the twilight, my body vibrating after sets of squats and bench presses. The Taunus Mountains could be glowing in amber light, but I wouldn’t see it – my head deep in planning the next day’s workout.

Soon after the biology class mice were exterminated, a box the size and shape of a large pizza box was delivered to Mr. Rishor. Markings on the side read “Fragile” and “This Side Up.” Our shipment of live bullfrogs had arrived for use in the next part of our curriculum.

We opened the box and found 15 olive and green bullfrogs inside, nestled among some dank seaweed placed in for padding and moisture. They were cold and half-dead as they breathed their first fresh air in days.

They slowly began to revive. But the frogs needed no special home or food. They wouldn’t be around that long.

The next day we started our first lab work with the frogs. The Affect of Chemical Irritants on Frog Microcirculation could have been the lab title. Each lab team shared a frog and a wooden board, about one foot long, with a three-quarter inch hole drilled through it near the bottom. We wrestled our frogs into a cocoon of wet paper towels held in place with rubber bands. The wrapped frog was placed on the board, and like Gulliver, tied down with crisscrossing lines of string secured with push pins. We spread two toes of the exposed webbed foot across the hole in the board by pinning them through the skin. The frog kicked in protest, but we were left with a nearly transparent sheet of live flesh to manipulate and observe through the microscope.

We fed the frog into the microscope, focused the lens down and saw the frog’s skin come alive through the lens. Capillaries were pulsing rivers, dark against translucent skin. Cells replicated when instructed, each one specialized – a miracle.

We recorded the baseline circulatory pattern, and then delivered a few drops of a powerful vasodilator, Ethyl Alcohol. The frog did a little jump, then we saw the capillaries open and relax, the blood easily coursing through wide pipes.

After a quick water rinse we hit the web with drops of pure nicotine. It squeaked a pathetic note and tore its webbing with a kick. The microscope splashed the image of an active volcano. Blood squirted rapid-fire through the clamped capillaries. .

Other compounds followed, and the frog bravely took it, its squeaks and squirms eventually weakening. At the end of the period we released the frogs from that hellish bondage and placed them back in their stinky box.

The next day we finished the frogs off with the classic biology class experience – dissection of a paralyzed frog. Mr. Rishor impaled each frog with a pin at the base of the brain, a procedure called pithing. They went limp, but still had a beating heart and primitive reflexes. We pinned the frog down and splayed it open with a scalpel, securing skin flaps as we went. Our instructions were to identify the organs and use the electric probe to stimulate different muscles and observe the results. We went in eagerly with the probe, hoping to make the frog dance.

Inside, the little pink organs were laid out just like in our workbook diagrams. It was like the guts I’d scrapped from reservoir perch back home, but the frog was still sort of alive. We could get different parts of the frog to twitch, but there was no dancing. We collected tissue samples for use in a future experiment, and we left the frogs on their boards for Mr. Rishor to clean up.

A few days later we had tissue samples from our frogs under the microscope. At the end of class I lifted my head from the eyepiece and groped for my glasses by my elbow. They were metal rimmed, with aviator style lenses, and now they were gone from the table. They weren’t on the next table, or the next. Kids were packing up and leaving class. Debbie was already out the door. I froze in and confusion and fear.

“Have you seen my glasses?” I finally pleaded to the backs of the final kids walking out.

“Mr. Rishor, my glasses are gone,” I eventually whimpered.

He was no help at all.

I wandered to my next class, the world blurry and hateful, and buried my face in a textbook. Mr. LaMaire took a good look at me. He was my favorite teacher, a nurturing, younger guy, who was also a reserve army captain with a bad-ass side. At least once I saw him slam some trouble-maker against the wall.

“What happened to you?” he asked, watching me staring blankly at a textbook page, my eyes red and swollen. I told him what happened.

“The people around here are idiots,” was all he could say to comfort me.

The next day my dad took the morning off from his duties running the Cold War to take me to the division ophthalmologist. This was downtown by the main commissary in Frankfurt. We had breakfast at the nearby Ambassador Arms hotel. I had ham and eggs.

“Use your knife,” dad instructed when I attacked the ham clumsily with my fork.

Later, after sitting in the eye doctor’s big chair and having various lens presented while reading the chart, the doctor said, “We normally recommend that two pair of glasses are issued. You should always have a backup.”

But this was an army eye doctor and I was only in high school.

They gave me the ugliest glasses imaginable, with heavy black plastic frames and thick oval lenses. There was no choice in frames. I got whatever they were issuing in 1974.

That afternoon I walked to the gym to find Manny and Dave about to start their workout. After I warmed up with some incline-board sit-ups, Dave approached me and said, “Do you want to join us in our arm routine?”

I said, “Yah, sure.”

I followed Dave and Manny through their workout and got my money’s worth. We moved quickly, doing different curls and extensions with no rest. I struggled to finish with the guys, my arms burning and swollen. That night at home I had an extra protein shake and wrote down a new workout routine in my binder.

The next morning I was standing by the sports field parking lot waiting for the school bus. There was wet snow on the ground and I was shivering by myself when I heard some kid in the distance say, “Johnny called me up last night and told me that he took some kid’s glasses. Then we tried to figure out what to do with them.”

He trailed off in a lower tone I couldn’t hear. I looked the kid over, his back turned to me now. Tall and skinny with long blond hair, he was the worst kind of Army brat, a wanna-be tough guy. His name was Bill. The toughest thing I ever saw him do was help tear the elastic waistband off some little 9th grader’s tighty-whiteys. This was during a gang wedgie, where the kid was lifted half a foot off the ground by Bill and two others, and shaken until the waistband tore away. Not too impressive. He only acted tough in a group.

I stood rigid, my ears glowing with hot blood, like a meth-laden frog ready to explode. Johnny took my glasses and Bill gave him up–so much information from one stupid slip. I made two fists at my thighs, looked over at Bill, and thought about Johnny. He was a tall, thin dude with a big nose and something like a limp afro parted on the side. I’d never said one word to that kid before. Maybe Mr. LaMaire was right. Maybe these people were idiots. He didn’t even wear glasses.

At school that day I found Johnny at the far side of class. Through my new glasses his features were sharp and ugly. He never looked to my side of the classroom. An accomplished thief, he revealed nothing. I despised everything about him, but mostly for forcing me to face my fear of confrontation.

Days passed and his fat nose was still there in class, and there was still no confrontation. During my workouts I worked through different scenarios, like calling him out for an after school showdown, or sending a letter to the principle. But Johnny had a gang of punks on his side, and I had just myself.

One day two young soldiers were in the gym on a large padded mat sometimes used by guys for boxing practice. They were sparing each other with boxing gloves, stripped down to tee shirts, but still in their fatigue trousers. I was nearby doing some shoulder presses when the bigger of the two, a tall corn-fed farm boy, kept looking over at me with unwelcomed interest. He was easily handling his buddy with sloppy wild punches. When I finished my exercise set and was walking to the next station, blond Jethro intercepted me with a pair of boxing gloves.

“Let’s go a few rounds,” he said matter-of-factly. I looked up at him and his friend wondering about some kind of set up, but a look at his doofus face made me realize he was too slow for that.

“Sure,” I said, wondering why it had to be the big guy.

I put the gloves on with the smaller guy helping me tie the laces. We touched gloves and he walked straight in for me, winding up overhand rights that mostly glanced off as I weaved. With no idea how to handle him, I found a good distance and swayed around him, poking him in the ribs with quick jabs. But Jethro had a huge reach advantage and he stung me hard on the side of the head a few times. I hung in and surprised him with an uppercut that landed on the chin. He wrapped me up in a clinch while catching his breath, but I slipped a right hand free and slapped him around the ears. He kept a wary distance after that and slowed down. After dancing around each other with no more connections, he abruptly announced that we were done, and it was a draw.

Doofus and his buddy hung around the gym playing grab ass and I headed for home. My arms and shoulders were on fire and I was shaking. But this was something I understood and I knew that something important had happened.

Some days later while waiting for the bus home from school, two boys surrounded me and said, “Why don’t you ever talk?”

I looked at them, mirror images of each other, curly blond hair and glasses; Identical twins.

“I don’t know,” I said lamely.

But soon Rick and Russ became my friends. I introduced them to the gym, and without much coaxing they became my enthusiastic training partners. We explored the green fields north of town, finding interesting piles of rusted farm machinery and a winding, willow-banked canal. I no longer sat at the loner table at lunch.

One day in Biology class near the end of the semester I was watching some kid trying to cut open his dead pet rabbit for extra credit. I looked behind me to where Johnny sat and there was no Johnny. After thinking about it I realized that I hadn’t seen him for some time. While I was busy training and sparring Jethro and hanging with my new friends, Johnny had gone back stateside, been transferred to reform school, or who knew what. He was gone and I’d just noticed.

“Hey, Debbie,” I said while staring at the stiff white rabbit resisting the scalpel stabbing its belly. “There’s no blood.”

mark-sullivanMark Sullivan lives in suburban Philadelphia and works by day as a computer engineer. In his free time, he enjoys creating art in a variety of forms including music, mosaics and stories.  He’s studied and worked on creative writing projects for over 15 years, and particularly loves the memoir genre.  Mark’s father and uncle both wrote reams of wonderful, personal stories in near obscurity, so Mark is happy that his own work may be seen by others.  This is his first published story, based on memories from high school that have bounced around in his head for years.


IMAGE CREDIT: Karen Pilling/Flickr Creative Commons

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