Sitting Pretty: The Benches of GRJC
"A time it was, what a time it was" goes the song...and it was all of that. It was the spring of 1969. I was 19 years old and I was finishing my sophomore year at Grand Rapids Junior College.
Most of my classes were in the West Building (now Kendall School of Art and Design), a flat, gray concrete box that featured a cafeteria, counseling offices, classrooms, and the English department. There was a main entrance with double doors, but we always used the south entrance, a single door flanked by a pair of benches.
For most of that spring those benches defined us, a small group of nearly clueless boys who sat on them. In a year, we had gone from buzz cuts, khakis, and loafers to long hair, jeans, and boots. We knew little about the world around us, a fact that did not prevent us from proffering opinions. The Vietnam war was escalating by the day. We started seeing stories about guys we knew who weren't coming home. We wondered how long each of us had. Books alone weren't enough to take our minds off it.
So we started a game.
The door was maybe 40 inches across. The benches were about 30 inches or so high. One of us got the idea that the space made a perfect hockey goal. All we needed was a puck. We got one: a Joppe's chocolate milk carton. The games were on.
There was just a handful of us—me, Big Mike who came from a small town south of Grand Rapids, Dale the photo guy who came from an equally small town and whose mother, Vi, less than five feet tall, made the best fried chicken ever, Riley, who looked like a mini-me of Grizzly Adams and who always carried an inhaler to combat his asthma—although he still had a laugh that sounded like a vintage car trying to start on a cold day. There were a couple of others but they seldom showed. And then there was Larry the Poet.
Larry was lean and wiry, probably around 5-10 and weighing in at no more than 150 pounds. He had a perfect mustache. He usually dressed well, seldom in jeans, so much so that we once attended a writer's conference in Muskegon where the poet Chad Walsh was supposed to show. Walsh never did but Larry was wearing a cool vest and tweed blazer, topped off with a sporty fedora. So we told people Larry was Chad Walsh and they bought it.
Larry was soft spoken, shy, but he wanted to play goalie, which he did with an animal-like fervor. He'd position himself in front of the door, arms extended so he could grab hold and balance on the benches. Imagine a well-dressed crane.
The rules of our games were vague and I don't recall how we chose sides. When we did it was no more than two on two. Larry played goalie for both teams. His defense was near impenetrable. We'd send long shots and he kicked them back at us and out of reach. He broke up passes with one hand. If we tried to push the carton between his legs, he'd drop to the ground and smother it. Even high shots we hoped would fall behind him were swatted harmlessly away.
The games got more intense, although fair play reigned. No one got bloody shins, except maybe Larry. No punches were thrown. Most of the abuse was directed toward the Joppe's carton, but replacements were readily available from the nearby cafeteria.
After a few hard-fought contests, the stakes were raised. Someone found an empty industrial size Vlasic pickle jar outside the cafeteria kitchen. We had a trophy...the Vlasic Cup. Soon there were team names—Waytown South was the Cup favorite—and game stories. Players with goofy names—Kip Farkas and Morrell Fizell. We did postgame interviews on the benches and sometimes talked about where we wanted to be in 1970 and beyond.
And then summer came.
The Vlasic Cup disappeared. The games stopped. Big Mike and I went to MSU and finished school there. Dale got a job working for a wire service and we lost touch. Riley laughed and wheezed his way to a future far from us. And Larry...well, Larry. I saw him once that summer. He had a guitar. We went to the beach in hopes of finding girl he liked. We didn't find her. When we go back to the city, Larry and I waved so long. I never saw him again. And he never came back for his guitar.
Years later, I went downtown and walked past the old West Building. It hadn't yet been christened as Kendall but the benches were gone.
What a time it was.
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