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John Boston: Three books for four boys

How Beige Was My Valley

Posted: January 29, 2009 10:35 p.m.
Updated: January 30, 2009 4:55 a.m.
John Boston John Boston
John Boston

When I think of unique gifts for myself, they usually run into the realm of quantum physics and time travel.

I was wondering what it would be like to meet myself at 17, to sit back and smile and have a conversation with that skinny, cocky kid nearly half my current weight.

How tempted I would be to my own personal father, to give unasked-for advice, or smile and shake my head ruefully.

Wouldn’t that be a kick? To physically sit opposite yourself at different periods of your life, to ask and answer questions?

In 1967, a perfect storm of slapstick paralyzed the Santa Clarita Valley. Well. It discombobulated Mr. Dundon’s 11th grade Kemmustwee class.

“Kemmustwee” is how Roy Dundon pronounced the word “chemistry.”

The valley was a different place. Where housing projects without number now sprawl, the valley was defined by open fields, outlaw bikers and the one solitary William S. Hart High School.

In a counseling error of planet-ending proportions, Phil Lanier, Steve Fleming, Tim Behan and I all sat next to one another in the same afternoon academic offering of ions, periodic tables and Bunsen burners.

Imagine four of us, all at 17 years of age, all sitting in a tight formation in the front of Mr. Dundon’s chemistry class. There was enough evil IQ and mischief assembled to topple the Soviet Union.

We were the Four Musketeers. With élan, with nods and secret gestures, we ran Two-Gun Bill Hart High from the inside not so much like a well-oiled prison gang, but rather like the Marx Brothers.

Or so we fiercely thought.

This was before computers, so no red light and nuclear bomb siren went off at district headquarters to forewarn our poor addled professor that hell was coming and it was walking his way in four pairs of scuffed tennis shoes.

We were all pretty much top students, but nothing said “geek” clearer than carrying a stack of books from class to class.

One of our lesser scams was to manipulate the administration into strategically placing our lockers at the four corners of the campus. That way, we could each just place our textbooks close to each class and wander around cool like bookless James Deans.

That worked out just ducky until one fateful day when one of us — probably me — forgot to bring our ‘kemmustwee wuwkbuk’ (chemistry workbook) to Mr. Dundon’s lecture.

Had Roy Dundon been 4 feet tall, round and bald instead of his Einsteinian hair, he would have been a dead-ringer for Elmer Fudd.

You know.

Bugs Bunny’s nemesis?

Roy floated somewhere at that indefinable middle age, somewhere between 37 and 65, easily duped and the poster boy for mad scientists.

I had heard the horror stories from the older kids. When I first heard him say: “Hew-whoa, cwass. Wee ah now going to dew owuh fuwst ekwayshuns.” (“Hello, class. We are now going to do our first equations.”) it began a love/hate semester that felt like it lasted an ice age.

As a teenager, it was funny at first to hear a grown and educated man slaughter the English language so.

But unlike Phil and Tim, who were natural science whizzes, I was terrible at math and science.

Making it worse, I studied and I was still a deplorable student. Steve Fleming? Steve lived under the delusion that he was the living incarnation of Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors.

Steve attributed his effortless “B” in the class to the cosmic fact: “I AM chemistry. Chemistry is me.”

Roy Dundon — or, “Woi” as we called him behind his back — went through life with a flustered, wide-eyed expression, like a gnome about to be chased by a Tyrannosaurus rex. But before he could flee, he had to find his glasses.

And his notebook.

And his Thermos.

And his wallet.

And 10,000 other things.

Having the four of us in class probably shortened his life by a decade. (When I see you in Heaven, I will surely apologize, Mr. Dundon.)

We learned early that you could kill the entire hour by asking Mr. Dundon a complicated question. He’d turn from the class and take the entire class time filling up miles of chalkboard with symbols that to this day remain a mystery to me.

He’d mumble to himself the entire time, sometimes erasing five pounds of chalk with his hands. Then, encased in thought, he’d rub the chalk all over his suit, head and face.

The bell would ring. Exhausted and well-chalked after proving the existence of black holes or The God Particle, he would shake himself into the fleeting present and yell out tomorrow’s assignment to an empty room.

One day Phil, Steve, Behan and I were diligently following his lecture. Four boys. Three books. Mr. Dundon paced up and down the aisles until he came to our quadrant.

Philly and me, Steve and Tim, sat in this foursquare pattern. Tim and Steve were reading the same book and Mr. Dundon asked the leaning Steve: “Wayooz u buk?”

For those who don’t speak Dundonian, it means: “Where is your book?”

Steve pointed to Tim and said: “Tim has it.”

“Wayooz u buk?” Roy asked Tim.

Tim pointed to Phil and said: “Phil has it.”

Our eminent science prof took a step over and asked Phil:


“He has it,” Phil said, pointing to me.

I completed the circle and pointed to Steve. “Steve has it,” I said.

I am not embellishing. Arms folded and taking baby steps to each of us, Mr. Dundon went around the same loop three complete times in this unintended Abbott and Costello routine before it dawned on him he was flirting with infinity.

I ended up getting a D-minus in that class. What a report card. All A’s and one D-minus.

Some 35 years later, I kidded Hart Superintendent Bob Lee that I was going to sue him because the low grade forced me into a harrowing life of journalism, a major that requires no math or science.

I’m not kidding — Bob showed up one night with a camera crew and some addendum suits and presented me with a certificate amending my grade to an A-minus.

I used to think fondly of Roy. But I’m still not sure if Mr. Dundon was being kind by not flunking me or that he let me pass because he never wanted to see me again.

I used to get that a lot as a teenager.

What would the wiser 58-year-old self say to the brash and rebellious 17-year-old self with the D-minus?

“Try not to be so ... you?”

Or perhaps: “What were you thinking? Never mind. I know.”

“Mr. SCV” John Boston is a Santa Clarita Valley resident.


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