“The bonus word is paraphernalia,” Mrs. McCarthy said.
“Para..what,” someone yelled back.
“Par a fen al ia” Mrs. McCarthy stood her ground. All five feet 11inches of her Irish school teacher self. Her mother of the brood, warm, stern, no nonsense self. We loved her 7th grade English class and especially the bonus word on spelling tests. If you got the bonus word right, it counted in place of a missed word somewhere else on the test. The bonus word came with all the anticipation of a mystery. Even a word like paraphernalia was fair game. The trick, of course was that it was para …pher…nalia, not para… fa… nalia. We knew this because paraphernalia had been the bonus word a few times already.
So, most of us at Sun Valley Junior High could spell paraphernalia, but we never used the word. It wouldn’t come into heavy usage until the word drug preceded it a decade or two later and we were not in the habit of discussing our “camping paraphernalia,” just our shit.
In that select group of 7th graders who not only knew the spelling, but the definition of paraphernalia, were students who no doubt would become very familiar with the concept as they navigated the passage from youth to adulthood. Many, not the ones we’d expect.
First choice would have been Mickey F. His uncle was supposedly “Pretty Boy Floyd,” the gangster. Mickey was a quiet kid with the short sleeves of his white Tee shirt rolled up all the way and the traces of a cigarette pack in the wrinkles. He had the wavy hair and receding hairline of a 40-year-old man. Nobody knew exactly who Pretty Boy Floyd was, except that he was a gangster that rode around in cars with running boards and “plugged” people with a Tommy gun. It would be 20 years before any of us learned of his Robin Hood reputation and how he’d anonymously beg a meal with a poor Oklahoma family and leave a hundred dollar bill underneath his plate so they could “save their little home,” as Woody Guthrie sang.
Arthur H. would come to know paraphernalia well. His life was sucked up, spun dry and then shoved down the drain of the Vietnam War. There must have been others in that group of Mrs. McCarthy’s but Arthur is one of the only one’s I heard about. College wasn’t for him right out of high school and he’d hooked up with his fast lane girlfriend faster than a GTO. The army offered mechanical training but they soon took the auto shop tools away and planted an M-14 in his hands. By the time he had a weekend of leave in Hawaii, he’d been dumped by his “wife” and was back in Vietnam the following Monday. He soon acquired paraphernalia. Many of those boomer kids in uniform carried the same trappings of their brothers and sisters in Haight Ashbury. Arthur’s collection, eased his pain, but stole his soul.