It happened in a class four or five years ahead of me in school. The senior class had a gang of boys more interested in shenanigans than anything serious, like the impression they made on the community, or what their actions paid out in consequences. “The gang,” which is an insult to the term, was led by a thug who loved picking on weaker individuals. He was a bully in every sense of the word. Like all bullies, he hid behind a shield of bravado, fear covered by anger, and an overblown image of himself. His name was Bo Browning.
There was one poor soul in particular that Bo loved picking on, Henry Gurnia, whom he called Henry Hernia. Henry was from a very poor family, if you can call it a family. No one knew for sure. It was rumored that he lived with his stepfather (who beat him), in a one-room shack without running water, back in the thick woods that lined the Skunk River. I would see Henry standing at the end of a rutted, weed-lined dirt path, waiting for the school bus. He wore dirty clothes that were too large for him, a pair of man’s dress shoes that had a flapping sole, and a pair of borrowed, wire-rimmed glasses with a cracked lens. His hair was down over his shirt collar, his pants were held up by a belt that went nearly twice around his waist and, to put it mildly, he smelled. Girls stayed completely away from him, and the gang, led by Bo, knocked books out of his hands, pushed him down steps, and generally made Henry’s life miserable. “Hey, Hernia, got a date for the prom?” It’s a credit to Henry’s grit and determination that he even finished high school.
For speech class Henry described in detail how to skin a possum, and joked about his pap whipping him if he wasted a bullet. I don’t know why county social workers didn’t get involved, but in those days, 1962, I’m not sure there were county social workers.
When it came time to elect class officers, Bo, who thought he should be class president, devised a prank. To upset the usual slate of goodie-two-shoes, Bo spread the word amongst his gang to vote for Henry as a joke. Even some of the girls got into the vote rigging. When it came time to vote, Henry Hernia was elected senior class president.
The school administration was beside itself. But what could they do? Bo was called into the the principal’s office, but he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Looks like the senior class has spoken, sir.”
The really sad part is that Henry didn’t realize it was a joke. He thought he was elected because of popularity. “Pa will be so proud,” Henry said, wiping the toe of one shoe on the back of a pant leg.
Consequently, the year for that senior class was a shambles. Henry had no skills when it came to leading the senior class, nor would any of the other class officers have anything to do with him. The fund raiser for the senior class trip never got off the ground, the senior prom was ill attended, and when class pictures came out, there was Henry, at the top of the senior class picture, his greasy hair a mess and a wild look in his eye that bespoke a mixture of confusion and pride.
At graduation, the class president always speaks. When it was Henry’s turn, right after the school board president, and before the class valedictorian, Henry stumbled to the podium. The bright lights reflected off his cracked glasses. A hush fell over the auditorium. Henry shielded the glare with his hand, looked out over the crowd, and started to say, “I’m gonna join them marines and kill me some gooks…” when the superintendent stepped forward and ushered Henry off the stage.
Bo’s crowd jeered, hooted and brayed like donkeys. Parents and relatives in the auditorium were shocked, embarrassed and angered at such a mockery of a respected office.
But that’s the price you pay when a joke turns out to be president.
Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, email him at email@example.com or find him on Facebook. Curt’s stories are also read at 106.3 FM in Farmington.