Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"50! Smoking out back..."

As a high school freshman at James I. O’Neill in the latter days of the fall of 1978, I remember hearing his big booming voice for the first time as I ran up the hall late to his class. A voice that suited the man’s physical stature to a tee. A voice that I would become very familiar with for the next four years. I had just been given my “revised” schedule after flagging EVERY class the first quarter trying to keep up with my more academically inclined friends in "Regents" classes(?). My folks and guidance counselor thought a ‘redo’ was in order. As young and dumb as I was back then I couldn’t have cared less either way, it was off to second period wood shop or so said the wrinkled piece of paper in my hand. As I got to the door of his class with the smoke from the last drag of my cigarette dissipating out of my nostrils, I heard, “Phillips!!! Paterick Phillips?!!” just as the door closed and locked (for what ever reason he couldn’t say Patrick, it was always Paterick). Rule one: Don’t be late to AY’s shop classes (I’m sure his first name was Andrew or Arthur or something proper, but I never knew it, or don’t remember it. Not Mr. Yagel, just AY to all of us).

In the days that followed, I learned all of AY’s rules and through the years many of his idiosyncrasies. The rules were simple: Listen to his ten minute lesson, have your homework ready to hold up when your name was called (MANY of us scrawled nursery rhymes out in numbered paragraphs on his colored paper to hold up. I’d say this worked 50% of the time), take his tests, and do your projects. At the end of each class he “rendered” you a grade on a chart posted on the wall. He’d go around the room after clean up, mention what you had done, and pencil in a grade which he shouted out; “Stumbo, nice work on your lathe project today, let’s get it sanded and into finishing by the end of this week, 90”. Yannitelli, smoking out back, I ought to render you a 50, but you got a coat of lacquer on that table of yours so you slide with a 65”, and so on. Being rendered a “50” was what us shop guys did our marginal best to avoid. Later I would learn that AY rendered 50’s to any student he felt didn’t meet the grade whether he or she was in his class or not.

Shop classes back then were pretty much the embodiment of the old school stereotype. The rough around the edges kids, trouble makers, and academically challenged made up most of the roll call, no offense to those who were actually otherwise. It took a special kind of guy (NEVER women) to take on these classrooms and AY was perfectly suited to the task. He was a strong man with big authoritive hands and no neck. He wore a 1950’s style square and tight barber haircut with a set of reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. He rarely smiled. No, that would show us degenerates that he might have a weak side or a soft spot. That’s not to say he lacked a sense of humor.

I guess I followed a typical path upon joining his class which was essentially to blow off everything and make pot smoking devices for the first couple of weeks, “50! Paterick Phillips, pot pipes”, was what he’d call out loudly so the whole class could hear as he’d walk over to the chart on the wall and note the grade. Like many others before and after, I finally got in line and began doing the work and projects as assigned. While AY never smiled, you knew when your worked pleased him and it didn’t have to be great work to accomplish this. It just had to be work that you yourself gave a shit about. I guess that was his first step in dealing with punks like me. I imagine that once he got a kid to care, the rest would come easy. As far as I’m concerned, the man couldn’t have been more right.

AY gave you a break when you deserved a break, and rendered 50’s when they were warranted. Sometimes he’d render a 50 with great stoicism and dry wit to amazing comic effect. As some may recall, I wore my hair pretty long in those days. Sometime during my senior year I happened to have been working on a project that required me to drill a pilot hole in a piece of wood by hoisting the drill up around ear level. I lined up the hole, press the drill’s trigger, and quickly began to pick up the odor of burning hair. Others around the shop table took notice too just as I heard the drill suddenly grind to a halt and at the same time felt a tug on the side of my head. Yes, my hair had gotten caught in the electric motor of the drill. As my classmates began to chuckle, I heard AY pushing through the loud shop bellowing, “What’s burning in my shop?!!!” It took him about two seconds after arriving at our work bench to suss it all out. He unplugged the cord, inspected the power tool which was now stuck to my head, and in his typical manner barked, “Paterick Phillips, 50, improper safety, hair caught in drill!” As he walked over to note my grade on the chart, he informed me that 50’s for the week would follow if I didn’t get my hair out of his drill by the end of the day. I took the power tool to study hall and pulled every last piece of hair out until it worked good as new.

I stayed in the West Point/Highland Falls area for a few years after graduating high school and would often hear other guys much older than I render one another a 50. You might be picking something up at the IGA and overhear a conversation and out of the blue one party would say, “Yeah, I’d have to give’em his 50 for that…”, or hear some dad quip to a kid inside the house, “50, leaving toys in yard…” as you walked by.

Sadly, today a good friend informed me that AY passed away yesterday after a short illness. Naturally, my first thought was to render providence a 50 for taking a guy who had such a remarkable positive impact on so many young men at an age when we needed it the most. There will certainly be no shortage of eulogies delivered in memory of Mr. Yagel, and from my home here in Atlanta Georgia I can picture in my head all the cars lined up on 9W by Hogan’s Funeral Home belonging to the hundreds who will turn up to pay their respects. There will surely be sadness and many tears, but I guarantee there will also be men, some completely gray and others with just a speck showing, holding back chuckles as they retell their own favorite AY vignette to each other. The memories will eventually breach restraint and give way to outright laughter. Nobody will mind this small decorum violation as everyone who knew him will understand. I can’t think of a better way to be remembered than that really.

Rest in peace AY…


At 5:27 PM, May 19, 2009, Blogger Nancy2 said...

AY: "Sporbert, N. 50: Too much makeup."

It was freshman year and I was in the cafeteria and didn't even have a class with AY...but he knew my brothers and my sister and didn't have any problem giving me his opinion.

I got to know AY better in these last few years, as I'd pass his house on my morning walk and chat with him as he put out the flag, or through the kitchen window as he made coffee for Mrs. AY. A giant of a man, who always made me want to do my best. Can there be a better legacy?

Rest in Peace, AY.

At 10:02 PM, May 19, 2009, Anonymous Sue Vaughan said...

It's amazing what we thought back then and what we think now, and the impact a teacher had on us without us realizing it until our later years. Life goes on, God Bless AY

At 10:10 PM, May 19, 2009, Anonymous Katie's Fairy Godmother said...

Beautifully said, Paterick. AY was a great man and will be missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him. I am please to say that Carly and Lindsay have been rendered a 50 many times over the years. The legacy lives on!

Much love to you and the gals and I can't wait to see all of you soon.

At 7:56 AM, May 20, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sporbert,M, "Where is your brothers Christian and Sporbert,Michael, out late last night were they-50.

I was one of AY's girls. One of the few girls who took shop. I never got a 50 from AY. He said girls don't get 50"s. He was a wonderful man and teacher. I loved being a student of his and after graduation a friend. He never called me Martha or Marty, it was always Sporbert M.

At 8:38 AM, May 20, 2009, Blogger William said...

BLACKMON! 50! Improper use of bellows!
Yup, AY wasn’t too happy with me when I thought it was a good idea to pack the bellows nozzle with sawdust and blow it in a friend’s face. I think I redeemed myself with him over the course of time and the funny thing about it, is that I wanted to redeem myself to him. There was something about him that made you want to do better. He left an indelible mark on me that has been passed on to my daughters, their friends, my friends and co-workers and anyone else who has listened to me tell “AY stories” over the years.
The woodshop in heaven better make room for the best.

At 12:02 PM, May 20, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done, good and faithful son.

At 9:29 PM, May 24, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done, "Paterick"! I was home to HF this weekend and happened to be at a gathering of friends that included some old shop boys and someone was passing around an e-mail message with your posting on it for all to read. It's a poignant onpoint tribute to a fine man, and we all thanked you for contibuting such a fine piece to the written legacy of a great man. I could almost smell the wood, dust and shellac from the downstairs woodshop room on Mountain Ave that I once frequented. Jim Donnery HFHS'68

At 12:39 AM, September 05, 2009, Blogger disa said...



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