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My junior high P.E. teacher didn't just behave like an ex-Marine, he actually was one

May 5, 2020 By Randy Tucker

Someone who didn't like physical education in junior high and high school told me last week "my P.E. teacher was like an ex-Marine."

It brought back memories from seventh and eighth grade at Mitchell Junior High School in Rancho Cordova, California, when one of my P.E. teachers actuall was an ex-Marine.

We had big classes at Mitchell. The school had a combined 2,200 kids in seventh, eighth and ninth grades.

We lived at Mather Air Force Base, where my dad was stationed, and most of the students were from the base. A fleet of buses drove us about 10 miles to and from school each day.

Our P.E. class had 60 boys in it, and two teachers. Mr. Demmerer was the classic P.E. teacher. He was tall, looked like an aging basketball or tennis player, and was the quieter of the two.

Mr. Stevens was short, had a flat-topped haircut, a couple of noticeable scar, and a definite Marine Corps attitude.

Stevens terrified a lot of kids. I didn't love the guy, but I didn't mind him that much.

Junior high P.E. was always the same routine: Sprint from your last class to the gym, and get ready as fast as you could.

Sometimes this was a workout in itself, because Mitchell was spread out almost half a mile from end to end.

Once we hit the gym we dressed out as quickly as possible. Everyone wore the same shorts, the same reversible Marauder P.E. shirt. We ad just five minutes to assemble outside after the tardy bell rang.

We lined up in six even rows, alphabetically, 10 across. It made taking roll that much easier for the teachers. As they took roll a couple of ninth grade gorillas conducted the daily "jock check."

They walked behind us and snapped everybody's "athletic supporter." This was considered a prestige job.

Woe be it to the kid who forgot his jock and was wearing regular underwear. The victim or victims were verbally abused by Stevens and sent off for "extra work" with those two freshmen goons.

It wasn't a pretty prospect. I managed to avoid it.

After roll call it was calisthenics. Pushups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, and those fun toe raisers from flat on your back.

We did 30 of each exercise.

The pushups were all clapping style. Originally we started on our stomachs, pushed up quickly, clapped our hands, and returned for the next set as the teachers called cadence.

Eventually, Mr. Stevens thought we were getting off too easy, so he changed the pushups to an up-position start. Arms extended, we dropped, clapped hands, returned to an extended position, and did the next one.

After calisthenics, it was four laps on the nearby cinder track, a mile run.

We had a two-minute break after the mile, then it was on to the obstacle course. (I told you he was a former Marine)

I liked the obstacle course best. You started with even parallel bars, walking on your hands about 12 feet.

Then it was on to the next set of parallel bars that raised and lowered about six feet over a 30-foot stretch.

We swung through a set of overhead bars, then another set with rings, and finally dropped to the ground.

After that nice little warmup, it was game time.

We played rugby, a game Demmerer invented called speedball. and Steven's favorite called "war ball."

In today's sensitive vernacular you could never call a game in PE as they did. To translate to modern, politically correct terminology, they might refer to "war ball" as "smear the alternative lifestyle person."

I wasn't interested in athletics much until I hit seventh grade. Those P.E. classes made the difference. In retrospect, they were borderline Nazis in their approach.

One semester they decided to use the Presidential Physical Fitness Test as a way of separating us into five different groups based on our athletic ability. I'm sure many people remember just what I'm talking about.

The top 20 percent in each class wore one color jersey, the next 20 percent another, and so on until the least athletic kids were also identified by their unique color.

This was junior high, remember. Those color codes were an open invitation for abuse to the kids in the lower groups.

At the same time I was taking advanced classes in English, science and taking Algebra II as an eighth-grader. The teachers and administration where adamant that we never tell the other kids we were in an advanced class. They didn't want us to make the other students feel bad.

But those same administrators saw nothing wrong with the color-coded P.E. shirt idea. Yes, it was a strange time in America.

One of my friends, a kid from American Samoa named Sammy, was the best athlete in our class, maybe among the entire 2,200 kids at school.

We ran a 440-yard dash one day in class for time. I ran it in 68 seconds, in the upper part of the class.

I felt pretty good about it until Sammy cranked out a 58-second lap.

Sammy played running back, wrestled and was a star on the track team, but he was just another guy outside sports.

One day we were high jumping. It was before the Fosbury flop became the standard technique. We were all doing the western roll.

Our equipment would be considered not only primitive today, but criminal by some parents. We jumped over a triangular metal bar into about 10 inches of sawdust mixed with dirt.

It wasn't a problem until I cleared 4-2, hit the pit, and had the wind knocked out of me. Not many guys tried heights much higher than that.

The level of competition was so high I never even considered going out for any sport at Mitchell. These were the kids of airmen, sergeants and officers from across America.

I'm sure some of the guys who were so fast and agile in seventh and eighth grades at that school moved on to collegiate sports careers in football, basketball, baseball or track later in life.

You never found out about that on an air base. Your best friend could move next week when his dad received orders, and you might never see him again.

Suffice it to say, P.E. classes like the ones Mr. Stevens ran would never fly today.

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2020-05-28

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