A Coach's Psychology and the Snowman

A Coach's Psychology and the Snowman
I was no angel growing up. And that was probably the best preparation I had when I became a teacher in the public school system. No college course work could compare with the “been there, done that” experiences I remember from back in the day. As I warned many-a-student, “don’t try to pull anything on me – I’ve done it all before.”
And if I didn’t get implicated in an unscrupulous, mischievously designed scheme, I knew someone who did. At least that’s what I always told my own kids. I have to confess though – I was usually directly involved in those devilish gags.

One time in the library, my friends and I were looking through the periodicals, wasting time, instead of doing our research. Our composition teacher, Mr. David Knepper (still lives locally – and yes, I’m embarrassed every time our paths cross) had assigned a paper to our class of twelve boys. Computer scheduling hadn’t been invented yet, so that class was placed together as a direct result of human error. I don’t know whose error, but someone goofed up, big-time!

While perusing the magazines I noticed many mail-in offerings available to the readers. Most of these were postage free, and if you didn’t like what you ordered, you could send it back within a certain number of days with no questions asked. So, I got the ingenious idea to sign up the unfortunate Mr. Knepper for anything my friends and I could find in a forty-minute period. We found offerings for telescopes, magazine subscriptions, U.S. Army and National Guard enlistment cards, gas coupons, encyclopedia editions, gardening books and too many other post cards to mention. They totaled over 50, all forged with Mr. Knepper’s name and address and ready to mail. We also had an oil company call on him to clean his furnace, when in fact, we didn’t even know if he had an oil furnace.

This plan fell through when I got home that afternoon with my fifty, forged cards. I never got them to the post office. My Aunt Millie, while working in the school’s business office, got wind of our scheme somehow and let my parents know about it.

As I watched those cards burn in the trash, I realized what a total waste of time that scheme was, so we tried another.

Our school did not have a track at the time and our early season track and field practices consisted mostly of jogging around the school in the late winter to get in shape for the upcoming meets. With snow still in abundance on the school property, it was only a matter of time until we started making snowballs and throwing them at each other. On one trip around the school, an idea hit me out of no-where, like an unexpected snowball in the face.

The next day as the bell sounded to end Mr. Knepper’s composition class, I reached over to unlatch the ground-floor window to his room. I allowed the window to remain open a little, but nowhere near enough for it to be noticed. (As a teacher for 31 years, I can’t tell you how many times I checked my windows before leaving the room for the day – always worried about retribution.)

Later, during track practice that day, my cronies and I rolled three large balls of snow in the front lawn of the Forest Hills High School. Using a large, green arborvitae as a screen, we then climbed into that classroom through the strategically opened pane, and assembled a three-tier snowman on Mr. Knepper’s front desk. Not unexpectedly, it melted.

I realize that scenario would never make a NORMAN ROCKWELL print, but what I wouldn’t give to see the look on the custodian’s face the following morning when he found the water. And let’s not forget the evidence, which consisted of a soggy hat, saturated scarf and wet stones used as buttons. That picture, in my mind, still brings a smile to my face today.

I never knew how much damage that little scheme caused. I did suspect that, by the next morning, everything on and in that desk was soaked. I also knew that our track coach, Mr. Pete Gdula, was ticked off and in a headhunting mood.

When he sat us down, as a team, the following afternoon before practice, I noticed he was pacing back and forth like an expectant father. The look on his face was a mixture of disappointment and anger, but at the same time – he didn’t look real surprised. Had he been a schemer from back in his day too? Did he find some humor in what we did? Or had he known all along that he had some real bozos on his track squad?

“I know who piled the snow on Mr. Knepper’s desk,” he announced. (So much for the humor question) “The culprits have until the end of today’s practice to admit who they are and what they did, or they’ll be thrown off the team.” And then he walked out of the locker room and left us there in a state of bewilderment.

Did he really know? Was it a trick? Were we being tested? Who would have squealed on us? What would happen if we confessed? What would happen if we didn’t? We liked track – and we were good athletes - would he really throw us off the team? And the $20,000 question - Would our parents find out?

We thought it over for about ten seconds and then confessed immediately. And my parents already knew about the snowman – Aunt Millie again! Before I got home that day, they would also know who built it.

Years later, I learned that Coach Gdula’s psychology worked to perfection, because he never knew who the perpetrators were until we made our confession. I became aware of his admission during a family discussion one day. Yes, a FAMILY discussion – as Pete is now my FATHER-IN-LAW!

To make matters worse, Aunt Millie’s former co-worker in the business office is now my MOTHER-IN-LAW. No wonder I was terrified and somewhat embarrassed to ask to have their daughter’s hand in marriage. So, I never did.

To this day, that still bothers me. I should have acted properly and asked them for permission to marry their daughter. But then I’ll run into Mr. Knepper or another former teacher, and humiliation takes over guilt on my emotion priority list.

One of these days, I will work up the nerve and ask them. My God! What if they say, “NO?”

Editor's Note: Pete Gdula, and Aunt Millie (Mitchell) have since passed away.

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA