Monday, November 3, 2008

L'Affaire de Moofla by Stephen Rodrick

The Moofla, who lived so fast and died so young, prepares for an outing at Mt. Holly.

This is the story of two lost boys, a stuffed animal, and a hanging. There is a happy ending.

In 1980, I moved to Michigan after the death of my father, a Navy pilot. Gone were the idyllic evergreens of Oak Harbor, Washington, a military town on Whidbey Island reachable only by ferry or the Deception Pass Bridge that spans the Strait of Juan De Fuca. My mother re-located us to Flint — or, more perfectly to my sullen teenage mind, Flushing. This was so we could be closer to her family. The only bridge I now crossed was a four-lane overpass above the Flint River.

I arrived at the end of eighth grade and spent the last month of the school year at Flushing Junior High. I now attended class with lanky-haired classmates in REO Speedwagon t-shirts known by the previously unheard sobriquet of "burn-outs." They smoked marijuana cigarettes before gym. Back in Oak Harbor, it was hard to buy candy cigarettes. And in Flushing there was a mandatory home economics class. Sewing was required. I was in way over my head.
That summer, I determined there was no way I would get out of Flushing High School alive. I begged my mom to shield me from the criminal element by sending me to Powers Catholic. This was a bit counterintuitive, as Powers was located in a sketchy neighborhood just outside the Great Lake Region’s murder capital. But then again, mom had just moved us to a city with 25% unemployment; faulty logic was the family ideology. She reluctantly agreed to let me transfer perhaps as a nod to my father, who had attended Mass daily.

Powers was not the sanctuary I imagined. Most of the kids had attended one of the county's K-through-8 Catholic schools. Many had friends dating back to first communion. I didn't know anyone. For someone with my Navy-brat background, this wasn't new. Serving as a 104-pound fifth-string defensive back on the freshman football team led to some cartilage-crushing introductions, but nothing lasting.

It was in Mr. Winchester's honors history class that I found my people, so to speak. One of them was Gordie, the fair-haired boy of our class. (He looked surprisingly similar to the gentleman who runs this site). In a strange bit of synchronicity, we shared some heritage: his dad was also a Navy pilot, if a distant one, living in Washington, D.C. We never really spoke about it, but any accredited child psychologist or sitcom writer could have predicted what would happen next. Together, we embarked on an unintentional competition to see who could have the most spectacularly underachieving high school career.
Gordon was a worthy opponent. He was blond and an adept soccer player, Flint’s rough equivalent of an Ibiza playboy. But he never took the sport that seriously, quite content to have a photo of himself deftly cutting between two defenders on the front page of The Flint Journal sports page stand as his crowning athletic achievement. He seemed a shoo-in for senior class president, but was shunted to vice president in a coup very possibly orchestrated by the faculty junta after he received a grade-deficiency notice in choir class. Still, Gordie had the last laugh. The 1984 yearbook features a picture of Gordie reclining across the backs of the all-female student council. They are on their hands and knees.

My decline was just as sharp, if not as public. I tested into various honors classes, but managed a series of Cs and B-minuses that reverted me to regular classes by junior year. On many days, I would not arrive until third period, clutching a poorly forged note claiming extensive dental work. No one seemed to notice I never wore braces. I wasn't getting stoned in the parking lot; I was at the Flint Public Library, reading back issues of Rolling Stone and Melody Maker.

I'm certain I would have been drummed out of Powers if I had not been a junior member of the school's state champion Quiz Bowl team. Quiz Bowl was less about being an intellectual than having a quick thumb on the buzzer. By the time the host had uttered "It is held every April in Augusta…" I was ringing in "The Masters." This is not really a marketable skill, but it did bring our school glory. The state tournament was held at Alma College and the team's victory earned Powers $8,000 in scholarship money that, inexplicably, wound up completely in the hands of a tobacco-chewing quarterback who tortured me in trigonometry. This seemed like a grave injustice. Still, Quiz Bowl gave me a whiff of indispensability.

I would need it. In our junior year, Gordie and I found ourselves in the English class of Mrs. Sealten.* English was a particularly dangerous place for us. We fancied ourselves young men of a literary bent, largely based on our consumption of back issues of Harpers stolen from the library. In European History class, our knowledge of the Black Prince would never match that of Mr. Richardson, our pot-smoking faculty hero, so he had our respect. (Mr. Rich repaid us when he chaperoned our Model UN team on a four-day trip to the Kalamazoo Hilton. He split after the first day, leaving us alone with our policy papers, three girls, and Mohawk Vodka smuggled in a Head & Shoulders bottle). But this was not the case with Mrs. Sealten. We already believed ourselves more learned.
She quickly sensed our condescension, but did not concede the premise. Possibly born in plaid slacks, Mrs. Sealten had jet-black Spock bangs and reading glasses that swung back and forth across a rotating background of unisex turtlenecks. She was on to our game early and placed us at opposite ends of the classroom. She also made regular sly remarks about the crummy colleges we would be attending, if we managed to avoid Jackson state prison.

She was an odd duck. In addition to her classes, Sealten was advisor to The Powerline, the school's newspaper. We didn't write for the paper — that would have been too constructive — we just made a series of cracks about its suckiness. The school's colors were blue and orange and Mrs. Sealten had a small, shaggy-headed stuffed animal perched on a shelf above her desk. For reasons lost to history, it was named the Moofla. Moofla was the paper's mascot and Mrs. Sealten's closest confidant. During class, she would address her fuzzy friend with asides like "The Moofla doesn't like dangling prepositions." As the semester wore on, the conversations became more frequent. Once, when a hapless student suggested an unsuitable essay topic, Mrs. Sealten turned to the creature and asked, "What do you think Moofla?" She paused, apparently considering his reply, and then declared, "We don't think that will work."

This was disturbing.

Most of our teachers tuned out our bratty prattle and counted the days until we were out of their domain. Mrs. Sealten engaged us in a long-running low-intensity conflict. She reveled in mocking Gordon's writing in front of the young lasses he was trying to woo. One day, I turned in an essay extolling the virtues of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. It was quite late. This I blamed on a confluence of mononucleosis and an implausible automobile accident. Mrs. Sealten went into investigative reporter mode. She ferreted out my lies and called my mother. "Your son is the most manipulative student I have had in all my years of teaching," Sealten told her. Mom immediately placed me under house arrest. I didn't have the heart to remind her I was already grounded.
Gordie and I were pissed, but powerless. Then Mrs. Sealten made a crucial mistake: she called in sick. On an early winter afternoon, her class descended into anarchy. A substitute sat at Sealten's desk with her face in her hands. Crime and Punishment paperbacks and fundraiser M&M's whizzed through the air. Gordon went on an extended walkabout with a bathroom pass. I plotted how I could interest the impossibly tall Sarah Torri in any of my romantic scenarios. This depressed me so thoroughly that I put my head on my desk and began to doze.

Then Gordon returned. I awoke to see him frantically snapping his fingers in the doorway. He mouthed one word.

"Moofla."

I immediately understood. Casually, I rose from my seat and made my way to the shelf holding our raggedy nemesis. A couple of hockey players wrestling on the floor in a homoerotic way provided a diversion. I grabbed the Moofla from behind the near-tears sub and pivoted toward the door. I then tossed the blue-orange furball sidearm to Gordon. A cheerleader shrieked at the maneuver but then stifled a conspiratorial giggle. Gordon tucked the creature under his sweater and stashed him in the safe house of his locker. That night, the Moofla was smuggled to Gordon's Bassett Park home in an L.L. Bean bookbag.

The next day, Mrs. Sealten returned. She eyed us coldly as we smirked into her classroom. She had an announcement.

"The stealing of a teacher's property is grounds for expulsion. Those of you who know what I am talking about should act accordingly before it's too late."
We chose a different path. Gordon had an unhealthy interest in the Red Brigade's 1978 kidnapping of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. He had an idea: ransom the Moofla back in exchange for a public apology from Mrs. Sealten for not acknowledging our literary greatness. Like most radical kidnappings, this was bound to fail. Moro had more chance of returning from the grave than we had of Sealten cracking.

Still, we hatched a plan: We would photograph the Moofla at various Flint locations and mail the Polaroids to Sealten, whose address was unwisely published in the White Pages.

It was now mid-December. We set upon our mission with a zeal perhaps better utilized conjugating the verb etre. Our Gallic alter egos, Andre and Etienne, were in danger of failing Sister Grace’s French II class despite a creative skit about a drug deal gone bad in the Bois Du Bologne. On a succession of Fridays, Gordie and I bought a bottle of Riunite, put The English Beat on the boom box, and set out in the most unsubtle of vehicles: Gordie's mom's 1963 Buick LeSabre. We logged many miles. There was Moofla on a chairlift at Mt. Holly. There was Moofla being ravaged by other stuffed vixens on Gordon's bed. There was Moofla reading Playboy. There was Moofla holding a current edition of the National Enquirer to prove he was still alive. And our favorite: Moofla spooning the Baby Jesus in St. Paul Lutheran's nativity scene.

Like Patty Hearst, the Moofla embraced the devil-may-care lifestyle of his captors — the booze, the pills, the girls. Some say it was a classic example of Stockholm Syndrome. Others admit he clearly rejoiced in his new-found freedom from Mrs. Sealten.

We mailed the photos.

Soon after, Mrs. Sealten began a class with another announcement.

"It is a federal offense to send threatening items through the mail. These are serious crimes."

This seemed particularly unwise in a place like Flint; the FBI was going to pursue the kidnapping of a Muppetesque animal while the entire city was a Beirut-style war zone and drunk driving was considered a civic right? Not bloody likely.

Still, things were getting too "hot," as they say on Starsky and Hutch. It was time to unload the Moofla. We would return him to his mama — with one significant alteration.

The Moofla would be hairless.

Why? Who can say? It seemed right at the time. One snowy evening, Gordon brought the Moofla into his living room, lovingly placed him on a towel, and broke out his brother's electric razor. Then he proceeded to mow off his synthetic blue-and-orange hair with the sideburn trimmer. Gordie's mom walked by, prepared to speak, gave a sigh, and went upstairs to bed. His older brother then made a cameo. Matt asked if that was his electric razor. Gordon said yes. His brother shook his head and whispered, "You'll be sorry, chump." These were more words than I had heard Matt utter in three years.
Our original idea was to stick the shorn Moofla in Ms. Sealten's mailbox. But then Heineken intervened. As we became increasingly intoxicated, a chain of events that can change lives was set in motion. We stopped at a hardware store. We bought some rope. We drove over to Mrs. Sealten's apartment complex. We drank more beer. We stepped out of the car into the cold, hard Michigan night. Then began some high-octane adolescent brinksmanship. I put the rope around Moofla's neck and tied a sailor knot I almost learned in Webelos. Gordon finally put his athleticism to proper use. He lassoed the excess rope like a rodeo cowboy. He then skillfully hurled the Moofla high onto an upper branch of an oak tree by the building's doorway. Moofla swayed gracefully back and forth under the starlit sky. He didn't look like he was in pain.

"I kinda grew to love that little fella," Gordie said, a hint of regret in his voice.

"He knew too much," I answered.

For a moment, Gordie and I stared wide-eyed at each other. A faraway siren sounded, and then seemed to draw closer. There was a moment of conscience mixed with fear. Should we take it down? "Nah," we cackled simultaneously. We jumped back into Gordie's car and peeled off into the darkness.

Why did we turn it up a notch? I can’t say for sure. Why do little boys set fire to ants? Why do grown men start wars over barren pieces of land? Men do things that are not explainable. Was it the absence of our Top Gun dads to kick us back into line? Possibly. All I know is that I felt truer to myself that night than on any other during my Flint years.

The following Monday, Mrs. Sealten didn't mentioned the shaved Moofla, or the hanging. Actually, she never mentioned the Moofla again. This earned our grudging respect, if not our remorse. The next year, both Gordie and I managed to graduate. The vice principal told my mother we were two of the students with the most potential who did the least with it. We both continued our studies at Catholic colleges — second-tier ones as Mrs. Sealten predicted. Somehow, we both became writers. Gordon is now — wait for it — the well-respected faculty advisor to a college newspaper. He has no mascot.

For years, I thought that if my father had been alive to learn of L'Affaire de Moofla he would have grabbed me by the ear and marched me right back to Mrs. Sealten's apartment complex to make my apologies. Then there would have been a one-way ticket to the military school my mother always threatened to send me to but never did because she is far too sweet.

But then in my thirties I came across a diary from my dad's high school days. It included teenage tales of hot-rodding in cars that did not belong to him. More recently, I found a notice of severe reprimand from the Superintendent of the Naval Academy. It chastised Midshipman Rodrick for a hare-brained, illegal shoeshine-selling scheme. I pull this piece of paper out on occasion and it always makes me smile. Dad had not always been an officer and a gentleman.

Maybe the story of the Moofla’s short life and hard death would have just made him laugh.

Stephen Rodrick graduated from Flint Powers Catholic in 1984 and is a contributing editor at New York Magazine. He also writes for The New York Times Magazine. He previously detailed his late-night exploits with conservative icon William F. Buckley for Flint Expatriates.


*Mrs. Sealten is not her real name. We still fear her.

11 comments:

  1. if you still play dashing soccer we got a team needing talent that goes Tuesday night at Silver Terrace. Near the cottage if I'm not mistaken.

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  2. Sorry, I had to repost the Moofla piece to fix some editing problems, and I lost all the comments.

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  3. gee, what a shame. hate that when it happens. good story...

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  4. Too bad, Miss Sealten's threatening post was rather entertaining. I'm tellin you guys, she's out there, she never forgot, and she knows where to find you - both of you... Maybe you can use some old Navy connections to get yourselves outta this. And you better PRAY Sr. Ros is not on her side...

    So Rodrick strikes again with a FANTASTIC post including a great story and even more dirt on Gordie!!!

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  5. Ah ha ha! That was such a great blog!!!! I was seriously laughing outloud! I may have to break out the "Gordie and the GI Joe" Story. Hmmmmm

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  6. If only the old Buick Le Sabre could talk.We only had one car and in order for the kids to have a car at night they had to drop me off at 3pm for my second shift job at McLaren Hospital. The wrath of the Great Pubah as they affectionally called me exploded if they were not waiting when I emerged at 11. Sometimes I grew quite mello after a few blocks as the left over scent of some exotic herb seemed to soothe me. I remember the Moofla hanging around our house but am impressed at the good time the boys showed him. You will be happy to know Gordon is still keeping secrets about adventures at Powers Catholic. Lets hear more. Gordon's mom.

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  7. Geewhy, your mom is dishin' on you and we want to hear MORE!

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  8. Carole Hopkins-FargasonNovember 4, 2008 at 5:42 AM

    Hey Steve, I still have a Powerline paper I found that has a letter from Mrs.Sealten to her Moof as she called it. The letter of course is really written to you and Gordie,at the end of her letter she wrote that what teachers do is sometimes for your own growth.Love,Mrs.Sealten- Did Gordie ever tell you the story of the giant snow penis we made in John Sabty's yard? Loved your story,Carole Hopkins-Fargason

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  9. Too funny. Reminds me of my mom, who once in jest "strung up" one of my sister's Pierrot dolls (or incited my dad to do it)... in our family, she was the rogue ... and the teacher.

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  10. Stephen...I was your neighbor in Pleasanton and I've lost track of that sweet mom of yours. Would love to hear from her....mrsrmaxlew@comcast,net

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  11. How little I knew what you and Gordie were up to. I could always tell something was up when you disappeared to your room and the music was loud and you were getting ready to go out. You need to write a book I know it would be a best seller!Remember when you came into the subdivision the wrong way...The stories continue....Mom

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