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Paul Turner: Heading back to school? Take it from me, it could always be worse

So here’s my back-to-school story.

I offer it as a solemn reminder that things could always be worse. Feel free to share it with any shy children in your life who might be anxious about the new school year.

At the end of summer 1970, my father was about to retire from the Air Force. We lived at a bombers/fighters base near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

My parents had decided to move to Vermont, so my dad could be near his aging mother and I could keep playing hockey. But he would not officially be out of the service until after the school year had started. So my mom and I went ahead to Vermont, to find a place to live and enroll me as a sophomore in high school.

We found a house, but it wasn’t going to be ready right away. So we wound up spending a few weeks in a rustic rental cabin on Lake Champlain.

My mother didn’t trust the lake water piped in. She assumed it was untreated. So we purchased multiple jugs of drinking water at the grocery store. I seem to recall it came from Maine.

We were still living in the cabin when school started.

It’s always tough being a new kid. But as students from a couple of different local junior highs wound up at this high school, it wasn’t as if everyone in the 10th grade knew each other. So I had that going for me.

But you see, there was a little problem.

You know that store-bought water I mentioned? Well, we would not know it for several days, when we read about a recall in the Burlington Free Press. But it was contaminated with some sort of coliform bacteria. Or something.

This hadn’t troubled my mother because her water consumption consisted of drinking coffee. The bad stuff in the water was neutralized in the process of being heated on the stove.

For me, it was an altogether different story. I drank a lot of orange juice, made from cans of frozen concentrate and lots of water.

All that vitamin C must have made the bacteria especially robust.

This would prove to be a nightmare at school. At the one time in my life when I was most interested in being accepted and looking cool, I was urgently distracted by the thought that my guts were going to explode.

And I had no idea why I was feeling that way.

Imagine sitting in a classroom with fresh-faced strangers in their new school clothes and trying to seem fashionably nonchalant while your intestines rumbled and a dire countdown proceeded in your head.

“10…9…8…7…We have ignition…we have liftoff of the boy from Michigan who will live on as an unfortunate legend in the annals of Burlington High School!”

Let me tell you something. It’s hard to make a winning first impression when you are grimacing and thinking you might be seconds from an unspeakable fecal disaster.

In my experience, 16-year-old girls are not drawn to perspiring young men whose expressions all but shout panic and terror.

“Paul, what was that sound? Did you hear thunder?”

I’ll spare you the graphic details, except to say I miraculously averted catastrophe by repeatedly bolting out of class and finding a restroom, which was usually about a quarter of a mile away. Or so it seemed.

If a teacher tried to stop me by saying I needed a hall pass, I just held my hand up as if to say “Later.” Then I scurried on by, in search of sweet, volcanic relief.

Not knowing what was causing this unhappy cramping situation, I could only conclude that high school must not agree with me.

It wasn’t the sort of thing you could talk about with classmates you had just met.

“Did you get the homework assignment in biology? I was down the hall being a human booster rocket, firing all thrusters, and missed the end of class.”

Eventually my mom saw the newspaper article about the water recall. We started using the lake water, boiling it to be safe. (When my older brother came for a visit and heard about my misadventure, it became one of his all-time favorite stories. I can still hear him laughing.)

I don’t recommend what happened to me as a way to start one’s high school career. But I can tell you this. After you have experienced living on the brink the way I did for a few days, things that typically make a 10th grade boy nervous – talking to girls, reciting in French class, etc. – don’t really seem so scary.

End note

Have you been around Spokane long enough to remember when at least a few people used to get worked up about the name Pig Out in the Park?

Perhaps some still do. But sometimes it’s a good idea to stick with the devil you know, as they say.

Seeing that the annual food festival at Riverfront Park is almost upon us again, I was reminded of something that happened in the early 1980s when I lived in Arizona.

There was this annual event called Tucson Meet Yourself. As I recall, it was a celebration of food, crafts, music and what-have-you. I think the idea was to recognize and salute the city’s sun-baked diversity.

Anyway, one year the festival was marred by some unpleasantness involving firearms. And one of my colleagues at the morning paper there suggested in print that the event be renamed. His idea? “Tucson Shoot Yourself.”

Readers understood that he was being facetious. Nevertheless, a few people started referring to the annual fete by that name. Maybe they still do.

My point? Pig Out in the Park isn’t the worst name in the world.

Columnist Paul Turner can be reached at

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