I Didn’t Mean to Set Her Hair on Fire


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The Man Himself

Hal Heffelfinger taught History at James Lick High School for 39 years, retired, and taught for another 17 years at Evergreen Valley College, six miles down the very same road as his former workplace, before retiring for good to take care of his ailing wife. That’s a total of 56 years teaching.

If you attended James Lick any time from its opening in 1950 until the end of the 20th Century, you went through his US History class, or at minimum, knew him. To give you an idea of the size of James Lick, it was the second smallest high school in the district when I attended. My graduating class was less than 100. Of course, being San Jose, there was a pretty big chasm between the number of attending seniors and graduating seniors.

I was already a History Nerd before The Heff got his hooks into me as the penultimate class of juniors of his high school teaching career, but the effect he had on me was profound. He added the human element to names, dates, and places. I don’t know if he ever had a particular message, but he always had a point. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t a particular stickler on dates. Hal thought it more important to put events into historical context than on the calendar.

Understanding the motivations and goings-on that influenced historical characters was where Hal Heffelfinger shined. Not only did he personalize history, he told us the anecdotes to cement them into our memory. Naturally, being a bunch of smart-ass kids (something he casually and matter-of-factly used to describe anyone under 25 years old), we all joked that he knew the stories so well because he had witnessed them first hand. Had any of us been brave enough to kid him like that to his face, I think he would have appreciated the humor. He enjoyed ribbing us, and always enjoyed when a student would rib him back.

Whether he intended to or not, Hal was preparing us snot-nosed punks (another term of endearment he flung at us boys) for life as men.

Hal was a child of the depression. His father worked in the Alameda shipyard, so the Heffelfinger family rode out the thirties with a steady job, but times were still difficult; much as the economic trouble we have suffered the last decade. He began working odd jobs at a young age to supplement the family income and as he grew older, worked in the orchards picking fruit and performing other farm work.images (8)

During the Second World War, he enlisted in the Army Air Corp and flew as co-pilot on a B-25 Liberator. After the war, with the help of the GI Bill, he attended college and worked in a fruit canning plant at night until landing a job teaching history at James Lick.

I give you this background to establish the bona fides of his work ethic and to dispel any thought he was an effete, ivory tower educator. Hal Heffelfinger knew his way around a construction site. He also knew his way around an orchestra; he played three different instruments from what I recall. He loved music as much as he loved history.

Back to the part of preparing us to be men. All the students pushed through his History (and long prior to my High School career, Math and English Lit) classes were between sixteen and eighteen, the upper end being the lunkheads (his term) for those who failed History the first time around. Or as he would sometimes say, “The ones who enjoyed History so much the first time that they came back for a second helping.”

Heffelfinger may have joked around, but he didn’t screw around. Each of us took our turn under the spotlight of the old man’s heckling spotlight.

images (9)“Cunha!” he would growl from the podium. “You’re Benedict Arnold, General in the Colonial Army, Hero of Saratoga, and close friend of George Washington. Peggy Shippen, your beautiful and flirty wife, spends like a drunken sailor and has you up to your neck in hock. Do you take the money the British are offering you to turn over West Point?”

Whispers shot at me from all directions. The words buzzed by creating a crossfire of advice.

“Your money problems would be over,” Heff cooed, as he swept his hand toward the prettiest girl in the front row. “And you get the keep your lovely bride in style.”

“Uh, uh, uh,” I stammered.

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Peggy Shippen Arnold

“But you’d have to live the rest of your life with being a traitor,” he said, making the same face as had he drunk lemonade sans sweetener.

That’s what I mean by bringing humanity into history and preparing us for manhood. He would let us squirm under the weight of difficult decisions the people of the time had to make. He understood each of us would have similarly difficult situations to face sooner or later. The questions might not carry the same historical significance, but they would bear down on our shoulders just as heavily.

Hal also loved nicknames. I don’t know where it came from, but hardly anyone escaped the school year with their given name intact. One day, I wore a Lucky Strike cigarette t-shirt to school (something that would land me in hot water today). Heffelfinger strolled down the hall toward me as he lobbed hyperbolic compliments to the girls and flung stinging barbs at the boys. He snapped his head around toward me as the logo on my shirt caught his attention from the corner of his eye.

download (1)“Aaaaaaand Lucky Strike went to war!” Hal roared, flashing me a grin. “Have you ever heard that one, son?”

“It’s the slogan they used during World War II,” I replied. “They also took the green off the packaging so the military could use the Chromium.”

“That’s right,” Hal said, his eyes sparkling and grin widening into a full smile. “Isn’t goofy stuff like that the neat part of history?”

He called me “Lucky” for the rest of my high school career.

And old Hal was right. Little tidbits and arcana have always been my favorite part of history. The little nuggets hidden away in the depths of primary sources, the Gold Standard for any historian, are what keep us flipping moldy pages of dusty books in gloomy libraries late into the night. One type of primary source that makes a historian as giddy as a three-year-old on a merry-go-round is a living witness. Even with the concerns of personal bias and faulty memory, living witnesses are highly prized because they can do something no other form of primary source can do; answer questions.

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Marion Davies

And speaking of slogans, Heffelfinger had some good ones.  William Randolph Hearst pops up several times over the course of American history, and Heff hated the guy with a white hot passion the young minds before him could only begin to fathom.  Maybe it was Hearst’s pioneering of Yellow Journalism, support of William Jennings Bryant and bimetallism, Jingoistic meddling in politics that arguably caused the Spanish American War, or that he was banging Marion Davies, a reasonably popular actress who after about 1920 became more famous for her affair with Hearst and her Hollywood social life.

Which has pretty much been the career path of Jerry O’Connell; from the fat kid in Stand by Me to marrying Rebecca Romijn.

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Fat Boy Gets Hot Chick, so Bite Me

In addition to growling and barking at students who fell asleep in class, Hal encouraged participation and interaction with his audience, as any good presenter does.  He would shout out, “Two, four, six, eight; Who does Heffelfinger hate?”  And the entire class would chant back in unison, “William! Randolph! Hearst!”  That was our clue that W.R.H. would be making an appearance.  Those were the only times Hal ever had any real venom in his voice.  You would have thought that Hearst killed the guy’s dog.

The old man loved memorable chants and slogans.  When covering the 1840 presidential election of William Henry Harrison (Hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe) and Vice-President John Tyler against Martin Van Buren, he led the class like an orchestra leader in multiple rounds of belting out, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” with the boys in our best baritone for “Tippecanoe” and the girls letting loose in screaming falsetto, “and Tyler, too!”  And he kept making us do it until we were in surprisingly respectable unison.

Some of us thought it was a silly, useless exercise to repeatedly chant an election slogan from 150 years ago. We didn’t understand, but the cagey old man with the weathered face and silver hair down to his collar knew exactly what he was doing.

Hal explained it one day the way he explained best; with a story.

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Lest You Thought The Heff Lied

“When I joined the Air Corp, they had us marching all over the place singing songs until we were out of breath.  Songs!  Can you believe?  And some of the songs were pretty dumb.  The dirty ones were kind of fun, being young and away from home for the first time, but mostly, we thought it was a stupid waste of time.

“I signed up to kill Germans, damn it. Not to march around in circles singing songs.

“But as time went on, we got better and better. We got to the point where you wouldn’t know we weren’t a choir, if you didn’t see the uniforms.  Then it began to dawn on us.  It didn’t matter what songs we sang.  Hell, it didn’t really matter that we were singing at all.  The point was to teach us to work together as a team because that was what we were going to have to do on the plane.”

That was the brilliance of Hal Heffelfinger.  He took a complaint from a whiny kid and turned it into a lesson that at least one in the audience remembers twenty years later.  I know for a fact that Hal dressed in a wig, shawl, and clutching a baby doll while reenacting Eliza crossing the ice from Uncle Tom’s Cabin lives on in literally hundreds of students’ memories and gets told to generations too young for high school and unaware of the historical context of the novel.

He was also memorable for things that would probably get him fired, if not arrested, in the current millennium:

  • In a casual and somehow not offensive way, he regularly referred to his students as spoiled brats; the boys as lunkheads, nimrods, knuckleheads, and snot-nosed smart-asses.  He issued the girls pet names that bordered on sexual harassment by today’s standards.  Oddly enough, we lapped up every barb he hurled at us.  We loved them, and loved him for doing it.images (11)
  • During the lesson on the Quasi War, the Barbary Pirates, and the War of 1812, Hal brought a cutlass to class to demonstrate how to lead a boarding party onto an enemy ship.  He selected two sides of half a dozen to be attackers and defenders.  Of course, Petty Officer Heffelfinger led the attack across the width of the classroom spinning the cutlass above his head and shouting, “Don’t hurt the scurvy dogs too bad, me boys!”
  • 220px-Springfield_Model_1861_Rifled_MusketHe brought an 1861 Springfield rifled musket to class during the week of instruction he spent on the War of Northern Aggression (Hal called it the Civil War).  I’m fairly certain it was a reproduction, but I knew enough about firearms at the tender age of sixteen to recognize that it was fully capable of being loaded and fired.  After demonstrating how to load a cap lock rifle and passing it around the room for everyone to look at, he lined the boys up at the front of the class room in ranks and had the girls hurl balls of notebook paper at us while we held formation to give us a small taste of what it took to be an infantry soldier of the time.  None of us dared break ranks.  Not for any fear of The Heff, but nobody wanted to be “that guy” who flinched and left his buddies to suffer.  Yet, another masterful lesson in manhood from Hal Heffelfinger.
  • For a student’s demonstration of a traditional Filipino dance called “Pandanggo sa Ilaw,” he nearly burned all the hair of the poor girl as he tried to help her steady a burning candle on top of her head.  I did not personally see this event, but it was part of the Heffelfinger Lore, and he freely admitted to it occurring.7f3e4748769da3658d50493d8df4_grande

I had a chance to see a side of Hal that I believe is unique, or at least, unique for one of his students.  It requires some explanation.

Hal began his teaching career using cutting edge technology; an overhead projector and acetate film sheets.  For those with no educational experience prior to the jet age, think of an overhead projector as a very primitive form of a PowerPoint presentation.  The instructor prepared what amounted to slides on sheets of plastic and laid them on a lighted glass bed.  Through the use of a couple of mirrors housed in a head above the glass bed, the image was projected onto a screen.  Every day, Hal would walk into class with a green hanging folder full of acetate sheets in cardboard frames that constituted the particular module we were studying.

I’m pretty sure these were printed on a non-flammable product called Safety Sheets, but some looked to be as old as Heffelfinger’s teaching career, so they may have been in danger of spontaneously combusting on a hot day.  Most of them were yellowed by the oxidation of aging and many sported various stains from being handled and carried around since before the earth began to cool.

I distinctly remember these “Safety Sheets” begin to smoke and curl at the edges on more than one occasion when he left the sheet on the bed too long because he was sidetracked or giving a long portion of a lecture.

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Hal’s Cutting Edge Technology

When asked why he did not embrace modern technology, his response was, “I’ve been doing it this way forever.  It works.  I know it backward and forward.  Besides, I don’t have enough years left teaching to make it worthwhile to learn a completely foreign technology and have it screw up the way I have everything laid out.  I’ll leave the newfangled way to the younger teachers.”

This was the year before he retired from James Lick only to go on to teach another 17 years at the two-year college down the road.

Fast forward to about 1995 or so.  I was attending Evergreen Valley College after…how can I put this?…a less than stellar academic career at both San Jose State University and Evergreen Valley College immediately after high school.  Not everyone is cut out for college.  Sometimes, it is simply a matter of the wrong timing.  It turns out that college can and will fire you just like an employer.  I had figured that paying tuition meant they were stuck with me.  I figured wrongly.

After being asked to leave two (count ’em, two) institutions of higher learning due to a lack of forward progress in credits earned, I spent a few years discovering that despite being fairly smart, hardworking, and able to learn new tasks rapidly, nobody was going to believe it without gold-embossed certificates. The re-entry counselor must have seen something that wasn’t in my transcripts.

Looking at my transcripts from San Jose State, he commented, “I guess you didn’t like it very much over at State.”  Then, looking at my transcripts from the very same school that employed, he said, “Looks like you didn’t care for it much over here, either.”  And this is where a turning point in my life occurred. This man, who I would not have blamed for throwing me out of his office, must have seen something in my eyes or my demeanor. Maybe it was that I was a little older than most of the prospective students. Perhaps it was because I had been gainfully and steadily employed since before graduating high school and up to that point.  I don’t know what it was, but he laid down the sheaf of papers, leaned forward looking me in the eyes, and said, “Are you done fuckin’ around, yet? ‘Cause I don’t want you making me look like an asshole.”

Hot dog! I was back in the game.

I came across a familiar name while pursuing he course catalog for classes. For any younger readers, we used to have an actual printed book with a schedule of classes to pick from. If your college was high speed, you could call to select your classes on an automated system. Mine wasn’t. I had to wait in line at the Registrar’s office, Course Selection Form (complete with alternate choices) in hand.

Using my keep deductive abilities, I reasoned someone named “Heffelfinger” teaching US History could very well be Hal.

Law enforcement types call these things “Clues.”

I promptly signed up for the class and anxiously awaited reuniting with one of my favorite teachers and what would possibly be, if not an easy “A,” an easier one. The first day of class, in strode Hal, collar length silver hair combed back, mischievous eyes scanning the room for his first target, and clasping a green hanging file folder stuffed with acetate overlays.  He no sooner took his place at the podium when he spotted me.

“Lucky! Holy smokes, you’re a man,” Hal exclaimed. “Well, I know who I’ll have to keep an eye on, now.”

“You know those overlays are a fire hazard, don’t you, Hal?” I shot back.

“Then don’t smoke around them,” he replied. “I’m too old to have to recreate them.”

The class, ninety percent of whom were neither old enough to buy a beer nor accustomed to teachers and students relating to one another as peers, sat oddly silent. Hal selected one especially confused looking girl in the front row and said directly to her, “Former student. Somebody must have sent him back because I made a mistake calculating grades.”

Without allowing the wisecrack to sink in, Hal launched into the exact same lecture as I sat through the first day of Cosbymy Junior year US History class. I recognized most of the overheads and smiled when he put up some of the ones that had stuck with me through the years. It was like watching a rerun of a favorite episode of The Cosby Show; you know what’s coming, but still get enjoyment out of watching it.

The old man was as sharp as ever.  You simply can’t do something every day for fifty years and not be good at it.

I bit my lip as Hal set up the jokes I already knew and purposely did not participate, so as to not steal his thunder. That would have been impolite, unprofessional, and simply not something men do to each other. Besides, a good joke is always funny.  Even when someone tells me a joke I know, I let them finish it because I enjoy storytelling and want to hear the way that particular person tells the story.

In the last ten minutes of the hour and a half long class, Hal put up a slide I clearly recall from the first time through. It was a woodcut of a small frontier family gathered around a tiny coffin containing a newborn (or pretty close to newborn) infant. Despite the scarcity of facial detail owing to the nature of engraving an image into a block of wood, the arrangement of the subjects and the positioning of their bodies conveyed the enormity of grief and pain that weighed on them. Hal launched into the portion of the lecture where he explained that life in the newly settled colonies was not all exploration of the wilderness and finding fountains of youth and getting the desert to bloom. There was a price to be paid, and no one was exempt.

I had heard this portion before when Hal delivered it in an appropriately somber tone to get a roomful of know-it-all, jackass kids to realize that for every wild injun killed, battlefield casualty, and natural disaster, there were people left behind who had to carry on with a hole in their hearts that would never be filled. This time around was different. Hal was hesitant. His voice hitched and paused. His eyes moistened.  Then he paused. It was too long for dramatic effect, and not something from the Heffelfinger Bag of Tricks.

When he dismissed class early, I knew something was rotten in the state of Denver.

I waited in my seat as a perplexed class filed out of the lecture hall, joyous in the unexpected extra quarter hour of free time. I approached Hal as he had his back to me needlessly organizing and tidying the overlays in the file folder laid out on a table. Even at advanced age, he could hear a mouse fart. Hal turned around to meet me.

“What’s wrong, old man?”

“I’ll be fine, Lucky.”

“I know you will.  What’s eating at you?”

I will omit the remainder of the conversation as there are surviving next of kin of the people we talked about and a couple of the people discussed are still alive, as well.  I assume these things were told to me in confidence.

It’s unnatural for a child to precede its parents in death.  Children expect to bury their parents, not the other way around. It just feels like the natural order of things. Especially so in the developed world within sight of the 21st Century. Hal’s daughter had died of cancer since I had seen him last three or four years prior. The best I had in way of comparable experience was my grandmother dying of cancer. At its core, the disease is the same, but the experience, by virtue of the patient, does not compare. I immediately felt the fool for even offering it up, but it was the best I had to give my friend.

What in the world did I have to offer him in the way of advice? Hal was my age then when my father was born. He was literally old enough to be my grandfather. Whether I was there in a moment of need and the only option he had or I was someone who knew him fairly well that wasn’t related or a co-worker, we had a very intimate conversation that morning.

Hal Heffelfinger demonstrated to me the meaning and profundity of a 17th Century woodcut. He, like the parents depicted, would have a hole in his heart the rest of his life.

I will quote one thing he told me in that conversation that has stuck with me:

“Rangers used to sing ‘Gory, gory, what a hell’ava way to die,’ Bushido Japanese talked about an honorable death, and people talk all the time about good ways and bad ways to die. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a ‘good’ way to die.”

Hal died on December 11, 2013. His obituary mentions another daughter I did not know about and his wife also preceding him in death. The cause was not mentioned, but in a quip The Heff would appreciate, I suspect he died of “old.”

The obituary also noted that he was telling jokes, singing, and teasing his loved ones all the way to the end. That is about what I would expect out of Hal. He was right that there is no “good” way to die, but this one strikes me as “no so bad.” Another zinger Hal would appreciate.

Post-script: I found out about Hal’s passing February 17, 2015. It has taken me a full ten days to write this post. In many respects, it is similar to when I killed off my first character. Only it is more keenly felt.

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20 thoughts on “I Didn’t Mean to Set Her Hair on Fire

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