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Wed., Aug. 29, 2012, 1:35 p.m.

The Wednesday Slice

My back-to-school wish for Spokane area students is that none of them start the year the way I did in 10th grade.

You see, it's hard to make a good impression at a new school when you keep worrying that you might explode.

Here's the story.

My family had just moved to a new town. But our house was not going to be ready for us before the start of school. So my mother and I spent the end of August and early September in a rustic rental cabin on Lake Champlain in Vermont. (My dad was wrapping things up back where we used to live, and my older brother and sister had already flown the coop.)

My mother had doubts about the purity of the lake water coming from the cabin's faucets. So we boiled it.

Eventually that got to be unmanageable. So we started buying jugs of water from the grocery.

We didn't know, of course, that the store-bought water was contaminated. We wouldn't realize that until we saw a brief story in the newspaper about a product recall. I can't remember if the problem was one of the lesser strains of E. coli or what. But I can recall with vivid clarity how it made me feel during my first few days of high school.

As you may know, diarrhea occurs in varying degrees of intensity.

There's bad, really bad and surreal.

I experienced that last version. For several days, I staggered through the halls of Burlington High School with a NASA-like countdown ominously droning in my head.


I don't want to go into too much detail here. So let's just say that I damn near achieved liftoff a time or two.

But it could have been so much worse. I might have become a legend, and I don't mean in a good way.

As it happens, I always made it to a restroom in time. I had to get up and walk stiff-legged out of class on several occasions -- waving away the objections of teachers who failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. But I always made it to the facilities before anything truly unfortunate took place.

Some 42 years later, I still gave thanks for that.

My mother did not experience the same symptoms because the water she consumed got cooked, whether in coffee or whatever.

On the other hand, I was tossing back tall glasses of made-from-concentrate orange juice as if I was under the citrusy spell of Anita Bryant.

"High in Vitamin C and loaded with unfriendly bacteria! Enjoy some today!"

"A day without contaminated water is like a day without panic sweat!"

Some time later, when my brother heard about my gastro-intestinal misadventures, I thought he was the one who was going to bust a gut.

I will say the whole experience made being a high school sophomore a bit easier. I mean, once you have contemplated going off like Krakatoa right in the middle of third-period biology, garden variety teenage anxieties can seem pretty tame.

Saying something dumb to a girl I liked or forgetting my locker combination wasn't all that horrible compared to the very real possibility that I could have become known as the jet-propelled underclassman, Volcano Boy, Erupto, or the Human Effluent Incident.

I could just imagine my parents reacting to my announcement that we had to move.

"What? We just got here. How bad could it have been?"

"They had to close that floor and send in a Hazmat team."

Alas, I got lucky. I'm sure I startled and perhaps damaged the hearing of some other boys in the restrooms. But let's say no more about it.

Here's hoping every kid going back to school in a few days has the luxury of focusing on just the usual stuff and not whether his or her digestive rumblings will prompt classmates to sprint for the homeroom door, yelling "He's gonna blow!"

If you attend or work at a school and happen in the coming days to see some tormented Edvard Munchian soul stumbling toward a restroom, try not to judge that person harshly. Just step aside.

Sure, it's unlikely that you are witnessing a repeat of the cruel fate that befell me in 1970.

But why take a chance?

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