During the Cold War there was a red phone on the desk of the President of the United States. A corresponding red phone sat on the desk of the leader of the Soviet Union. It was called the Hot Line and it was meant to prevent an accidental nuclear exchange between the two countries. During the eighth grade I learned the hard way that a similar Hot Line existed between the principal of my Catholic middle school, Sister John, and my grandmother.
I found about the existence of this Hot Line when I skipped an entire day of school to go surfing with two of my friends.
Chip, Tommy and I planned the whole thing for weeks, scheming like jewel thieves planning a heist. The plan was to rendezvous at Chip’s house that morning, go to the beach all day and then be back at our houses at precisely the right time to make it look like we had just gotten out of school. But we made one fatal mistake – we forgot to factor Sister John into our plans. You would think by that point in our Catholic school careers that we would have known better. How I ever thought that a student in the eighth grade of a private Catholic school could get away with something like skipping an entire day of school remains a mystery to me to this day.
Much of my courage came from Chip, who had attended Topsail Junior High the year before. He knew all about skipping class because he had done it frequently while at Topsail. But the principal at Topsail was not a nun, Topsail was not a private school where parents paid good money for tuition, and at Topsail no one cared whether or not a student went to class. Therefore no one ever called a student’s home or a parent’s place of work when that student was not in class. Sister John however, was on the Hot Line with my grandmother within ten minutes of learning that I was not in class that day. In her mind the Apocalypse was at hand.
We thought our plan was going to work. Instead of riding my bike to school that morning I rode to Chip’s house. Chip’s parents had already left for work so he was in the clear. Tommy met up with us at Chip’s house and we changed into our Quicksilver surfing baggies and headed for the beach. In an act of unparalleled planning, Tommy and I had both “accidentally” left our surfboards in Chip’s garage the previous weekend when we had all surfed together. This was an important part of our plan because each of us knew we could not very well ride off to school on a weekday with surfboards under our arms.
The waves were five-foot glassy green tubes rolling in over the outer sandbar. Chip quickly explained that the waves were always this good when school was in session. He said it was just a law or something, and that we would rarely see waves this good on a Saturday. We rode for hours until the tide finally changed and flattened out the surf.
After we left the beach we took the boards back to Chip’s house and then rode our bikes to a local sandwich shop where we each consumed a foot-long hoagie. We were just feral teenagers, wild and free, famished from hours of riding the waves. We ate our hoagies while high-fiving each other, secure in the notion that we had pulled off the greatest jailbreak in the history of Our Lady of the Ascension.
After we left the sandwich shop we rode our bikes on the beach for a while and then back to Chip’s house where I changed back into my school uniform. I hid my wet baggies in my book bag and bid farewell to my buddies. Then I took off for my house at precisely the right time to make it look like I had just gotten out of school. All was well, I reasoned.
I was sorely mistaken.
Little did I know at the time that Sister John had called my grandmother at work early that morning, telling her there was a truancy scheme afoot and that three kids were missing from class. After learning this, my grandmother left work early in order to get her hickory switch ready so that she could be waiting for me when I came home that afternoon.
My grandmother had delivered her share of championship ass whippings to me long before that day. She could work a hickory switch the way a pirate works a cutlass, but the switching she delivered to me that afternoon was above and beyond anything I had ever had before.
The next day at school, Sister John called me to her office.
“I assume your grandmother spoke to you about your absence yesterday?”
“Yes, Sister John.”
“Barring a documentable illness, a broken bone or the Second Coming of our Lord can I expect another unexcused absence from you this year?”
“No Sister John. I will never skip school again.”
Sister John then turned and looked at the yardstick propped in the corner of her office next to the door. My eyes followed hers and I swallowed hard when they settled on the three-foot long piece of wood. It was much thicker than normal yardsticks and I knew immediately that its intended purpose was not for measuring, and that the inch marks on it were just for show.
Sister John then leaned back in her chair and surveyed me with her steely-blue eyes in a manner that left no doubt in my mind that she was the sheriff at Our Lady of the Ascension and that my days as a class-skipping vagabond were over.
“Very well, then. I have your grandmother’s work phone number in case you suddenly decide otherwise. That will be all. You may return to class.”
“Yes, Sister John.”
I never skipped school again. In fact, I never even thought about skipping school again. I went surfing that Saturday and even though the waves weren’t quite as good as they were on the day we skipped class, I knew from that point on that weekday waves were certainly not something worth dying for.