Mr. Salls
Home Up Little Mexico

   

Book One:
A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS


PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL

CHAPTER TEN:
MR. SALLS

Written by Rick Archer

 © 2015, Richard Archer

 


SUBCHAPTER 42
- MR. SALLS

 

E.K. "Charlie" Salls was my German teacher.  He was also a man who had a profound effect on my life... yet I never had the slightest idea during the time I was a student. 

Mr. Salls was without a doubt the most intense teacher I have ever known.  He had a style completely of his own.  

Mr. Salls was a distant man.  Although Mr. Salls was approachable and encouraging, there was always a wall. Unlike Mr. Curran who developed a close rapport with his students, Mr. Salls was all business.   It was always strictly student-teacher.

Mr. Salls taught what should have been a boring subject and yet he found a way to keep me totally engaged.  I was never bored in his class.  He impressed me with his ability to keep me interested in a subject I had absolutely no use for. 

His success was a mystery to me.  How did he do it?   After all, Mr. Salls did not use humor.  Mr. Salls did not tell stories.  Mr. Salls did not seek to establish rapport. What he did do was teach a rapid pace and insist we pay attention... "or else".

Later in life when I became a dance teacher, I patterned myself more after Mr. Curran.  I preferred to use "fun" as a teaching tool, I liked teasing my students and I enjoyed getting to know them on a personal basis. 

Yet at the same time, I found myself constantly drawing on memories of Mr. Salls.  Whenever I wondered about ways I could better hold my students' attention, I would find myself analyzing the techniques of Mr. Salls. 

He had an amazing way of challenging us to keep up with him.  Each class was a battle of wits.  A master of pace, Mr. Salls matched his questions to our ability.  We answered just enough to feel proud of ourselves, but never enough to feel cocky.

Mr. Salls was the Assistant Headmaster behind Mr. Chidsey. 

Mr. Salls was the details guy who handled the day to day nuts and bolts of running of the school. 

However, his main passion was teaching German.  He loved to teach German and he was very good at it.  Mr. Salls was my German teacher for Grades 9, 10, 11.  He was forced to step down in Grade 12 when he assumed the role of Headmaster following Mr. Chidsey's retirement.

Foreign languages were important at St. John's.  Despite my initial disdain, I would discover I was pretty good at learning languages.  I would go on to add two years of Latin and two years of French to my four years of German. 

Taking a language at SJS was mandatory.  Science was mandatory as well.  I didn't want to take either one so imagine my thrill when I discovered I could put off Science till my senior year.  However, no such luck with the mandatory language requirement starting in the 9th grade.  I hated being made to take a course I had no interest in.  However, following the 8th grade, St. John's had just granted me a full scholarship that would run throughout high school.  Therefore I was feeling a bit more cooperative than usual.

If the school expected me to learn a foreign language, then so be it.

I selected German on a whim.  I didn't know a thing about German other than it wasn't Spanish.  My mother's escapades with the Mexican men had created antipathy towards all things Spanish.  That made it a coin flip between French and German.  It really didn't matter to me.  I wasn't interested in either language. 

I wasn't the most worldly kid.  Unlike my wealthy classmates who actually visited places like Paris, Barcelona, and Berlin on their extensive European vacations, my mind wasn't able to conceive of any possible reason to learn a foreign language other than Spanish... but we already know that particular language was out of the question. 

Finally I picked German simply because I liked World War II movies.  Now isn't that a mature reason?  Maybe I could finally understand what the Nazis were saying.

"Achtung, ja gawohl, Herr Kommandant!  Siegheil." 

When I first met Mr. Salls in my freshman year at Saint John's, he scared me to death.  I cannot remember another man who ever made a more striking first impression.  In a way quite similar to Mr. MacKeith, my highly respected Chemistry teacher, Mr. Salls immediately grabbed my attention with his take no prisoners approach. 

The first thing I noticed was my teacher's stern, weathered face.  Then I noticed how dark his complexion was.  This was apparently a carryover from a lifetime spent in the sun plus natural dark skin tones courtesy of distant Mohican Indian bloodlines.

Mr. Salls had the gruffest voice.  He spoke in a low guttural rasp.  Since German isn't the prettiest language to begin with, even his voice had me intimidated.

Finally there was his erect stance.  Mr. Salls looked tough.  He seemed so forbidding that I wondered if Mr. Salls had ever been in the military.  It turned out to be a good guess.  Mr. Salls was in special forces during the war, a tidbit I learned long after my time at SJS. 

I was very intimidated by Mr. Salls.  I quickly learned he was a disciplinarian.  I had heard a legend about Mr. Salls.  One time there was damage to school property, perhaps graffiti.  No one had any idea who had done it, but Mr. Salls was infuriated by the senseless damage.  He immediately got on the school's public address system and barked in that harsh voice, "I want whoever is responsible for the recent damage to report to my office within the hour."

The student showed up five minutes later. 

I do not know if the student was scalped or beheaded, but I wouldn't put either punishment past Mr. Salls.  I was completely terrified of the man. 

And yet I was also drawn to him.  Mr. Salls was a source of endless fascination to me.  Perhaps it was because he was so mysterious. 

Mr. Salls could smile on occasion.  For example, every year around Christmas time, he would trot out his beloved mandolin and we would all sing Christmas carols in German.  "O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum". 

That was probably the only time Mr. Salls ever let down his guard.  The rest of the time he was all business. 

Mr. Salls was a no-nonsense guy.  He made it clear that he was passionate about his subject and that he wanted us to be passionate as well.   We are here to learn something, so let's get to work. .... "whether you like it or not" was the underlying current.

We did not fool around in his class.  Mr. Salls demanded we pay attention.  I remember him as the most alert person I have ever met.  He missed nothing.  Students who whispered to a friend or those whose minds were drifting did so at their own risk.   I promise you I paid attention.  Let me amend that... I never took my eye off the man for fear of my life!  

In the second week of German class, some student was gazing out the window with the classic daydream expression on his face.  Mr. Salls noticed the boy was lost to us.  He called on the boy to answer a question, but he didn't respond.  So Mr. Salls picked up an eraser and threw it at the kid's desk.  He didn't lob it either.  Mr. Salls chunked that eraser in there with steam!  The eraser missed the boy, but it hit the front edge of the desk and bounced straight in the air. 

Suddenly it was snowing!  White chalk dust went flying everywhere.  Startled, the poor boy screamed bloody murder.  I am sure he could be heard across campus.

Covered in chalk dust, all color drained from his face and he wrapped both arms around his chest in fear.  Indeed, I think the kid nearly had a heart attack.  Now that I think of it, I almost had one too.  From the hush in the room, I think we all did. 

From that point on, I was petrified of the man.  I never wanted to make Mr. Salls mad at me!  Oddly enough, at this moment I briefly thought of Mrs. Ballantyne.  Now there were two people I was terrified of.

One thing I liked about Mr. Salls is that he chunked those erasers at the girls too.  Even better, he threw at the girls just as hard. The girls would get all that nasty chalk dust on their pretty red jumpers and be so embarrassed.  Some of them turned on the wet works.  Mr. Salls didn't care.  Let them cry.  Amidst the crocodile tears, Mr. Salls would just say 'let's pay better attention next time'. 

I loved it.  No sex discrimination in this class!

Eraser politics aside, Mr. Salls did seem to be more gentle with the girls than the boys.  I did actually see him smile at the young ladies on occasion. 

Katina Ballantyne was in my class.  I did not know it at the time, but her family was close to the Salls family.  Apparently they had a Galveston beach house nearby, so I imagine Katina knew Mr. Salls better than the rest of us.  That probably explained why she was the only one who did not cower when someone was struck by the eraser.  Instead I would see her smile. 

What did Katina know that the rest of us didn't?  From that point on, whenever Mr. Salls threw the eraser, I would turn to Katina to catch her reaction.  While the rest of us were terrified, Katina always seemed amused.

Well, Katina's invulnerability aside, seeing that no one was immune from the man's wrath, I paid absolute attention.  Whatever I did, it worked.  Mr. Salls fussed at a lot of people to keep up, but he never once rebuked me in the three years I was his student.

Who would have guessed German would become my favorite subject?  It certainly didn't start that way.

In my Freshman year, I wasn't very happy when I showed up for Mr. Salls' first class.  Who cares about German?  This is Houston, Texas.  I was a poor kid who thought Galveston was a far off place.  What am I doing learning German?  Weren't the Germans the bad guys in the war?  What an enormous waste of time.  How exactly do I intend to use my German skills?  Instead, why not offer something useful like an auto mechanics course or typing?

Let's face it, I took German for one reason - they made us take a language. 

Fortunately, Mr. Salls turned out to be a brilliant teacher.  I was mesmerized by the man.  I began to love German because I respected Mr. Salls so much.  I took to his training like a duck takes to water.  I willingly worked hard in his class because I wanted his approval.

Did I become the teacher's pet?  Oh, heavens no.  Far from it.  Mr. Salls wasn't like that.  He kept everyone at arm's length, Katina included.  If Mr. Salls had any favorites, he never let on.  I will say one thing.  Although Mr. Salls was very formal with me, he did give me a lot of compliments on my effort.  He could tell how hard I was working and rewarded me.  I really came to like him.  I lived for those compliments. 

If someone wonders if Mr. Salls was a father figure to me, well, sort of, but not really.  I didn't think of him in that way, probably because he was so aloof.  He never interacted with me on a personal level like Mr. Curran did.  Mr. Salls
never once said a personal word to me in the four years I knew him.  I think 'role model' would be a better description.  I was always so impressed by him.  I enjoyed watching his tremendous bearing and self-control and how he carried himself with so much dignity.  He certainly had my respect. 

 


SUBCHAPTER 43
- ABOUT MR. SALLS

 

Because I was so fascinated with Mr. Salls, I longed to know more about him.  What made this guy tick?  Where did that amazing vigilance come from?  

I remember many mornings where I would forget about German for a moment and simply watch Mr. Salls in action.  He was so animated when he taught that I could see he clearly loved to teach.  As a future teacher myself, I could not have picked a better example to study.  However, there was something about him that infuriated me... Mr. Salls rarely let his guard down. 

I wanted to know what he was really thinking!!  But I got absolutely nowhere.

Considering Mr. Salls had the most formidable exterior of any man I had ever met, when I think back about my teacher, the word 'hawk' comes to mind.  With his stern demeanor, penetrating stare and furrowed eyebrows, 'hawk-like' is an accurate description.  Mr. Salls never let his guard down and he never missed a thing.  Mr. Salls was inscrutable. I never had the slightest clue what he thought about me or any of the other students. 

Later in life, thanks to conversations with Kim Salls, Jr, his oldest son, I finally learned things that would shed some light on this mysterious man.

Mr. Salls was born in 1911 on Vinalhaven, a small island twelve miles off the coast of Maine. His parents were frugal, hard-working people who struggled to make ends meet.

There were two tragedies in his childhood.  Mr. Salls became an only child after the sudden death of a younger brother.  Then when Mr. Salls was 15, tragedy hit again when his father died.

Without a father, money was a real problem.  The only two industries on Vinalhaven were granite quarries and fishing.  From what I gather, Mr. Salls worked a series of jobs to help with the family finances.  No doubt at some point Mr. Salls came to dislike cod as much as I disliked strawberries.

There is a great mystery about Mr. Salls' childhood.  After he finished high school, he continued his education for one year at the prestigious Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  Exeter has long been considered the best college prep school in America.  Over the years, the school has educated some of the most powerful people in history, including presidents, senators, governors, business leaders and Nobel Prize winners.

I would imagine Exeter was a miracle to Mr. Salls as St. John's was a miracle to me.  The mystery is that no one in his family knows a thing about how Salls was able to pay for the place or how he gained admittance.  Mr. Salls was just as secretive with his own children as he was with students like me.

How on earth did Mr. Salls get the kind of education on that remote island to allow him to qualify for Exeter? 

I find it very unlikely that Mr. Salls received a top-flight education on Vinalhaven.  This was a tiny island that measured out to five miles by ten miles with a small population.  Given the limited enrollment in his high school years (1925-1929), I can envision some sort of country school along the lines of Little House on the Prairie where the third graders are mixed with eighth graders.  I cannot imagine Mr. Salls graduating with more than two or three other students his own age.

Furthermore, what kind of teachers could he expect to find in this remote outpost on the edge of civilization?  No disrespect intended, but I doubt they matched the talent of the teachers I had at St. John's.  One can assume that Mr. Salls was a good student, but surely the quality of his education did not lend itself to the highest levels of academia. 

Furthermore, where did the money come from?  I noticed that Exeter had a tuition twice as large as St. John's.  Mr. Salls' father had died when he was 15.  That tragedy left Mr. Salls, a teenager working odd jobs, and his mother, a woman who grew vegetables in her yard to sell, scrambling to eke out a living.  In other words, they were poor.  Something doesn't add up here.

I have no choice but to believe Mr. Salls got a scholarship to Exeter.  What other explanation short of robbing a bank or a rich uncle's donation could there be?  I imagine the circumstances of his scholarship would make for an interesting story, but try as I might, I don't have a factual answer.  My best guess is that Mr. Salls took a test at the school and placed high on it.  Then Mr. Salls threw himself on the mercy of the administrators and explained the circumstances of his hardscrabble existence.

But how did he ever ace that Exeter test?  I already know that Mr. Salls was brilliant.  Perhaps as a boy, he was self-taught.  Perhaps he read every book in sight in his spare time.  What other explanation could there be?

I would imagine the Exeter scholarship was the break of a lifetime for Mr. Salls, no doubt the great miracle of his life.  Hmm.  Now where have we heard that expression before? 

The parallels between what I know of his childhood and my own are unmistakable.  Mr. Salls was an only child with only one parent, he worked odd jobs after school to help with finances, and received an improbable scholarship that became his ticket out of a lonely existence on a remote island at the edge of civilization.  As for me, my bio runs stride for stride.

Given my uncanny fixation with Mr. Salls, it was very unsettling to discover that Mr. Salls and I shared such a similar background.  What an odd coincidence.  Of course I knew none of this during my years at St. John's.  I had heard that Salls attended Exeter and Harvard, but I had always assumed he had risen from a life of affluence similar to the boys and girls around me at St. John's. 

On the contrary... Mr. Salls grew up poor just like I did. 

Considering how I felt about my own scholarship to Saint John's and how drawn I was to this mysterious man, is it possible I sensed a kindred spirit?   Was there some part of me that guessed Mr. Salls had once struggled just as much as I did? 

All I know is that I was strongly drawn to this man in the same manner that I was drawn to Mrs. Ballantyne without any conscious idea why.  Without a doubt, he and I shared an inherent drive to succeed against the odds.

I wonder if it was possible that Mr. Salls recognized some of himself in me.  If so, he certainly never let on.   

After Exeter, Mr. Salls went to Harvard, most likely on a scholarship as well.  I read an article that said he wrestled, played baseball, and football.  To my surprise, I ran across a caption that said he even organized school dances as well. 

"A list of ushers for the Lowell House Midseason Dance to be held Friday evening, March 9, has been announced by
 Elwood K. Salls '34, chairman of the dance committee."

Wonders never cease.

Somehow Mr. Salls also found the time to attend to his language studies.

His decision to study languages, German in particular, was a fateful decision indeed.  As "Dance" would one day define my life, "German" would define his. 

Mr. Salls' love of German not only created his career, it also led him to the love of his life.

After graduation from Harvard, Mr. Salls spent the next year abroad in Germany as an exchange student at the University of Munich.  Considering Germany was in the midst of the Nazi takeover, 1934-1935 must have been an unusual time indeed.  Indeed, he viewed several military parades with Hitler in attendance.  In a box on a shelf at home, Mr. Salls had a collection of pictures he took of Der Führer during the rallies held in Munich.   

When Salls returned to the USA, he sent his resume to several prep schools in the Boston area.  He was hired as a language instructor at the Brooks School in Andover, Massachusetts, a prestigious prep school in its own right.  Mr. Salls would spend six years there. 

In the summer of 1937, Mr. Salls decided to return to Germany on vacation.  Alternating between a bicycle and a rented car, he rode all over the German countryside and put his German skills to good use.  In addition he visited neighboring countries such as Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia as well.  While in Germany, Mr. Salls was surely alarmed by the increasing possibilities of war.  One has to wonder what tales he could tell about Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II.  Indeed, in early 1939, Nazi tanks would make Czechoslovakia disappear from the world map with other countries such as Austria and Poland soon to follow.

Meanwhile, there was another American visiting Europe that same summer.

Her name was Catherine Morgan.  Catherine was a beautiful blonde debutante from Paris, Texas.  Catherine had sailed to Europe with three high school girlfriends and a chaperone in July 1937.  This trip to Europe was her high school graduation present from Hockaday, an exclusive private girls school in Dallas. 

Departing by ocean liner from New York to Cherbourg, France, these four young ladies planned to visit the great cities of Europe by train.  Their trip had quite an itinerary - Paris and Brussels, then on to Venice, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Heidelberg, Cologne, and Amsterdam.  Following Amsterdam, they would cross the English Channel and finish the trip with a week stay in London.  One can imagine this two-month trip was quite an adventure for a seventeen year old girl. 

On July 21, their train arrived in Munich from Vienna.  This was an important day in Catherine's life.  Miss Morgan would write two important letters this day.   She began the day by writing a serious letter to her boyfriend Bill back home in Texas.  She had decided to break up with him.  As her diary reveals, she felt miserable about hurting this young man as she placed the letter in the hotel's outgoing mail box.  Catherine spent the rest of the day despondent. 

To cheer her up, that evening her girlfriends suggested they visit the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer hall made famous years earlier by Hitler during his notorious Munich Beer Hall Putsch.  Apparently this beer hall was very popular with the American college crowd.

One must assume Catherine's spirits had been restored because she would later write about her delight at the visit of one man after another.  Apparently her beauty was ample.  Miss Morgan commented on her fortune to be picked out in the teeming crowd by a succession of suitors.  As she would write, Miss Morgan was first approached by a nephew of JP Morgan, the world-famous financier.  Discovering they had the same last name, they had a flirtatious talk about whether they might be related and what a scandal it would be if they dated.  Next came several young men from Williams College.  Miss Morgan was quite taken with the Williams boys until suddenly someone new caught her attention.  A young man eight years older sat down at the table across from her without being invited. 

I will let Catherine tell the rest in her own words.  She would finish her memorable day by writing this tale in her travel diary:

"There were a bunch of Williams boys there and I was quite interested in them until the most astounding thing happened!   A boy came up to me and sat down on the opposite side of the table.   He said 'hello'. 

I didn't think much of him one way or the other at first but it finally came out that he had gone to Exeter.  The next thing I knew, he had known my stepbrother Gregory well.  Then I realized this was the same boy Jane and Mary Jo had made such a fuss over in Budapest.   He caught me by the hand and I thought he would hold it forever.   I blushed when I realized I didn't mind.

His name was Charlie Salls.  He asked me to go riding with him. 

Ben, our escort, consented and before I knew it, I was off in a whirlwind with Charlie in his gray convertible.  We went to Benz, a place he guaranteed there would be no Americans. 

We had a simply wonderful time.  Over champagne, we learned that he was indeed the same boy I had admired in the elevator in Budapest days earlier and I was the same girl he had thought was lovely in the blue bathing suit in the hall.

What a small world!

We talked and talked.  He told me all about his life.  Very interesting!  He is 25 and teaches German at Brooks. 

We decided that Fate had brought us together.

Something special happened tonight.  I have never known a person as well in such a short time.  He is the first boy with any object in view that I have been interested in.  He is swell and we have a date tomorrow at 2."


As one can gather, Miss Morgan was very taken with this young man.  The eight year age difference hardly mattered.  As Catherine said, Charlie Salls was by far the most dynamic man she had met on this trip.  Although they parted the next day, they planned to meet again in London a couple weeks later.  Her travel diary spoke a great deal of the time they shared in London that August.  They would then resume their romance back in the States.

Unlike Mr. Salls who emerged from humble circumstances, Ms. Morgan grew up to affluence.  In 1937, Ms. Morgan graduated from Hockaday, a prestigious women's boarding school in Dallas, Texas.  She then attended the Holton Arms school for girls in Bethesda, Maryland, as a post graduate in 1937-38.  This of course was the same Holton Arms that a certain Jackie Bouvier attended from 1942 to 1944. 

Upon graduation from Holton Arms, Catherine moved to New York City to attend Finch in 1937-1939.  Finch was a junior college finishing school on the upper east side in New York.  Better still, it was just a 200 mile train ride from the Brooks School where Mr. Salls taught language.  The two made good use of the phone during the week and the train on the weekends to see each other. 

I have no doubt Mr. Salls kept close track of the train schedule.  As a society debutante who was both highly educated and quite beautiful, Catherine Morgan was no doubt quite a catch.

And then came the war.  Following Pearl Harbor, Mr. Salls enlisted in the Navy.  Surely that was a heartbreak moment for both.  Like many young lovers of that era, it had to be terrifying for Catherine to see her sweetheart go off to war and leave her behind. 

Fortunately things worked out thanks to an amusing drama that expedited their marriage.

Mr. Salls was first assigned to an aircraft carrier as a lowly mechanic.  In short order, his commanding officer learned that Salls was not a particularly gifted mechanic.  As a young man, Salls had spent his entire life studying books, not tinkering in workshops.

One day Salls hurt himself when his socket wrench slipped and somehow caught him flush on the chin.  Salls immediately began cursing... in German.  Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at him in horror and suspicion.  The engine room went dead silent.

Oops.  Looks like Charlie Salls had some 'splainin' to do.

A sheepish look came over his face.  Salls told his buddies he had learned to swear in German because it was more polite than swearing in English.  Now the commanding officer appeared.  This was not a coincidence... one of the men had gone to fetch him.

"So, Seaman Apprentice Salls, is it correct that you were heard swearing in German?" 

"Yes, sir, that would be correct." 

"Well, isn't that interesting?  You and I should take a walk back to my office.  I think the captain wants to speak to you."  Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that conversation!

Mr. Salls was exonerated swiftly enough.  The moment the captain discovered that Salls spoke fluent German and that the young man was familiar with the German countryside, he wired his superiors.  Mr. Salls was immediately reassigned to Naval Intelligence where he could be far more useful to the war effort than tightening lug nuts. 

As luck would have it, Mr. Salls was now stationed in New York City.  This fortuitous development allowed him to to marry his sweetheart Catherine in 1942.  They were both deeply in love.  This marriage was a perfect match for both. 

Soon Catherine made a discovery... she was pregnant. 

Catherine bore Kim Salls, Jr, in 1943.  After the war, there would be three more children... Cal, Randy, and Elissa.  All four children would attend St. Johns. 

For the remainder of the war, Mr. Salls rotated between NYC and Washington, DC.  He was fortunate to be able to bring his wife and son with him wherever he was stationed.

Since his work was classified, little is known about his years in military intelligence other than Mr. Salls attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander, a rank just below Commander and Captain.  That said, I was given one very tantalizing hint as to his importance. 

His son told me that Salls was in training with an elite special forces team at the end of the war.  The plan was to parachute into Berlin and take out Hitler in a commando raid.  Due to his fluent German, Salls was a key member of the team.  Salls was to pose as an SS Officer and do most of the speaking if necessary.  After all, Mr. Salls certainly looked the part and he definitely talked the part.  His German accent would be quite convincing if necessary.

Fortunately Hitler took his own life before the mission launched, so no action was necessary.  Knowing Mr. Salls, there is absolutely nothing about that story that surprises me in the least.  As we say about that generation, they were the greatest.

After the war ended, Charlie Salls, Catherine, and their 3 year old son Kim moved to Texas.  During the latter stages of the war, Catherine had heard an interesting rumor.  She knew people in Dallas who knew people in Houston who knew that a new college preparatory school named Saint John's was being built. 

Catherine learned that some very wealthy people in Houston had obtained a large piece of property on the edge of River Oaks.  The property was large enough not only to build Saint John's Episcopal Church, but also St. John's Preparatory School.  Although St. John's School was loosely affiliated with the church next door, the school had no religious ties.

Catherine quickly passed on the tip to Mr. Salls who wasted no time applying for a teaching position even though he was still in the service.

Considering his impressive credentials... Exeter, Harvard, six years teaching experience, five years distinguished war service, I imagine Mr. Salls was what one would refer to as a slam dunk shoo-in.  On the spot, Mr. Chidsey hired him as second in command at the new school.

As for Mr. Salls, he was meant for a role like this.  He was able to participate from the ground floor in the growth of this new school.  I believe St. John's was very fortunate to have a man of Salls' caliber in place right from the start.  If ever there was a man who exuded integrity and responsibility, that would be Mr. Salls.

In 1946, St. John's took its place as Houston's second college prep school.  St. John's quickly established a mostly friendly rivalry with Kinkaid, its prep school counterpart founded earlier back in 1906. 

Upon his hire in 1946, Mr. Salls moved his family to an apartment on the SJS premises.  He would serve as second in command to Alan Chidsey for twenty years, then later become headmaster for ten years on his own. 

From what I gather, Mr. Chidsey and Mr. Salls worked very well together.  Mr. Chidsey became the face of the school.  A gregarious man who enjoyed socializing and schmoozing with the River Oaks elite, Mr. Chidsey relied on Mr. Salls to handle many of the day to day details in running the school. 

Unlike his outgoing friend Mr. Chidsey, Mr. Salls eschewed fanfare.  Mr. Salls preferred to operate behind the scenes.   It was during this period of rapid growth at St. John's that Mr. Salls fine-tuned his stealth-based modus operandi.

Whenever the school needed something, Mr. Salls would make a quiet phone call to any of several patrons who loved the new school as much as Salls did.  The following day a generous check would appear anonymously.  Mr. Salls was very effective at these sort of clandestine maneuvers, a habit he surely picked up during his years in the spy service. As one can gather, his idea of running the school was to operate under the radar as much as possible.  No pomp and circumstance for him.

Mr. Chidsey and Mr. Salls were obviously quite a team because St. John's grew by leaps and bounds.


Back in the early days, the area west of St. John's was mostly cow pasture and forest.  Westheimer was only paved to the edge of St. John's at the corner of Buffalo Speedway.  Out west past the school Westheimer was still just another country dirt road.   So Mr. Salls bought Gene Autry's jeep if for no other reason than to negotiate the often muddy road. 

After his jeep was stolen in 1957, it was found badly damaged in thick brush where Houston's posh Galleria now stands.  At this point, Mr. Salls would buy his shiny red jeep, a vehicle which he clearly loved from the bottom of his heart. 

Parked daily in a sea of expensive automobiles at St. John's, the red jeep was considered to be something of an eyesore by discerning eyes.  Although I personally was very amused whenever I saw Mr. Salls joyriding in his open air jeep with that huge grin on his face, I can see how people with refinement might say the jalopy stuck out like a sore thumb. 

Perhaps this jeep was how Mr. Salls reminded himself of where he had come from and who he really was amidst so much affluence. 

 


SUBCHAPTER 44
- THE SOFTER SIDE OF MR. SALLS

 

Military Intelligence?   Yes, indeed.   Why is it so easy for me to accept without question that Mr. Salls was a spy during World War II?  Honestly, I have never met a more formidable man than the taciturn Mr. Salls. 

Stories abounded at St. John's from both students and teachers alike about Mr. Salls and his intensity.  I clearly wasn't the only person who was terrified of the man.

I once told Mr. Curran how stern Mr. Salls was in his German classroom.  Mr. Curran laughed and shared a funny anecdote about Mr. Jackson, a new teacher at the school. 

During his first year, Mr. Jackson had gone to Mr. Curran to clear the air.  He was afraid Mr. Salls didn't like him.  Apparently the new algebra teacher passed Mr. Salls in the hallway nearly every day.  Each time Mr. Jackson would smile and say hello, but Mr. Salls never responded.  Salls never said a word, not even once.  Mr. Jackson concluded that Mr. Salls must be upset with him, so he asked Mr. Curran what to do about his worries.  

Mr. Curran suggested Mr. Jackson make an appointment and tell Salls what was bothering him.  So the algebra instructor did just that.  He went to the receptionist who said Mr. Salls wasn't particularly busy.  Why not knock on the door and ask to speak? 

So Mr. Jackson did just that and got permission to enter.  Jackson said, "Mr. Salls, I'm sorry to bother you, sir, but could you give me an idea if I am doing the kind of job you expect from me?"

Mr. Salls looked at Mr. Jackson in the eye for a couple seconds.  Then with that bemused smile of his, Mr. Salls replied, "Mr. Jackson, if you were not doing a good job, I would tell you so.  You may assume I am satisfied."

At this point, Mr. Salls realized that his new instructor needed reassurance, so he asked Jackson what was bothering him.

Mr. Jackson replied, "Well, Mr. Salls, since you never speak to me in the hallway, I got the feeling you regret that you hired me."

"Mr. Jackson, rest your fears.  I speak to you every Monday morning and that should be more than sufficient for the week."

Not only was the staff intimidated, my fellow students were terrified as well.  Truly, my German teacher had eyes in the back of his head.  One day, Mr. Salls was doing his vocabulary drill.  This was a lightning round.  He would say an English word and we had to reply with the German word equivalent as fast as possible.  As he spoke, Mr. Salls had his back to us as he wrote something on the blackboard. 

We all raced to see who could say the correct word first.  Then we would laugh if someone gave the wrong response and hear Mr. Salls rebuke the student without even looking at him.  The effect was like being chewed out by the Voice of God.

I noticed two boys had begun to poke each other in the side with pencils.  Why not?  Mr. Salls had his back to them.

Suddenly Mr. Salls whirled around and launched an eraser at a boy in the back of the room.  The eraser sailed at bullet speed right over the boy's head and hit the window with a giant thud.  Then a piece of chalk hit the second boy square on his shoulder.  Both boys turned white as a ghost.  I instantly thought of Zeus and his lightning bolts.  That was how electric the effect was.  I watched in rapt horror as Mr. Salls glowered with annoyance at the boys who visibly shrunk before his foreboding stare.   Mind you, these young men were ordinarily cool, confident teenagers, but right now they displayed as much courage as some kid in Kindergarten. 

One boy's lip quivered.  'Oh no, please don't cry', I thought.  He would never live this down.  Then I looked at Katina.  She was looking down at her textbook to disguise her face, but I could see she was laughing.

Why so afraid?  Because it was supernatural, that's why.  Mr. Salls had his back to these boys the entire time.  I was incredulous.  How did he ever see those boys?? 

And get this... Mr. Salls never said a word to them.  Not a single word!  Nor did he stare at them to reinforce his message.  Instead he simply turned his back again and continued his vocabulary drill as if nothing had happened.  The two boys visibly trembled for the remainder of class.  When the bell rang, Mr. Salls barked, "Herr Bates and Herr Johnson, you will report to Penalty Hall this afternoon at 3:45.  Please be prompt." 

Both boys were so nervous they flinched at the words.  I looked at the two boys... they were too scared to even look up at Mr. Salls lest they evaporate in smoke upon gazing at him.  They kept their eyes down and nodded that they got the message.

At that, Mr. Salls picked up his briefcase, said "Guten Tag" (good day) to the class and briskly strode out the door.  None of us dared moved an inch until we were completely sure he had left.  Then for the first time in twenty minutes we all began to breathe again. 

Yes, indeed, Mr. Salls made quite an impression on me.  He was an amazing teacher.  In fact, I would call him a master of his craft.  I have never seen anyone take control of a class like Mr. Salls did. 

In the beginning, I paid attention out of fear.  However, it wasn't fear that made me continue to behave.  Mr. Salls kept my attention because he made his subject fascinating.  He moved so fast it was a real challenge to stay up with him.  It felt like a game to me.  I wanted to see if I could answer those questions quickly enough.  I took real pride in showing Mr. Salls I could match his pace.  I still can't totally understand how he kept me so interested in what should have been a boring subject, but he did. 

Mr. Curran, my favorite English teacher, had it easy.  Not only was Ed Curran a friendly, outgoing man who made me laugh with his jokes and his good-natured teasing in class, I enjoyed the material he covered.  I was laughing one minute at something funny that Mr. Curran said, intrigued by William Shakespeare's webs of deceit the next.  It was a snap for me to pay attention in English class. 

Not so with German and Chemistry.  Yawn.  Since I had no use for either subject later in life, I was prepared to be bored out of my mind.  I was convinced of that.  But that boredom never took place.  Even though German and Chemistry were subjects I had no interest in, I found myself paying attention anyway due to the unusual competence of their instruction.  Mr. Salls and Mr. MacKeith, his no-nonsense Chemistry counterpart, never ceased to surprise me with their teaching ability.

Despite the stern demeanor of Mr. Salls, I always suspected it was an act. 

Perhaps it was Katina Ballantyne's ease around him that gave him away.  She would often go up to his desk at the end of class and talk to him.  That was something I didn't dare do, but I made sure to linger and watch. I couldn't help but notice Mr. Salls would often smile at her.  I was fit to be tied.  Where did Katina get her courage?   What were they talking about? 

For that matter, Mr. Salls was downright friendly with Katina's mother as well.  Several times I saw Mr. Salls laughing in the hallway with Mrs. Ballantyne, the sharp-tongued matriarch. 

They would be walking down a corridor side by side and talking up a storm.  My secret candidate for Best Mother clearly had a great relationship with my eagle-eyed German teacher. 

Watching Mr. Salls chat with ease around Mrs. Ballantyne and Katina, I began to suspect when no one was looking, Mr. Salls was a really nice guy.  I speculated it was his role as Assistant Headmaster that forced him to maintain his imperious visage.

Mr. Salls gave other hints as well.  I would see Mr. Salls beam from time to time when class was going well or one of his lagging students suddenly 'got it' after a long struggle. 

Oh my gosh, Mr. Salls just smiled!  Is it possible the man is human after all??

 

In my Junior year, I heard a story that offered further proof Mr. Salls might actually be a normal person if someone dug deep enough.   As I mentioned earlier, I was the statistician for the football team.  That meant I rode with the football team on the bus to each of our out-of-town football games. 

On one of our trips, a senior on the team told a group of us a wild story about a practical joke Mr. Lee and Mr. Osborn, our football coaches, had played on Mr. Salls.  Due to the sensitive nature of the tale, this was a hush-hush tale if there ever was one.  The boy said his Dad had told him the story, then ordered him never to repeat it.  The senior said if we swore we would keep the secret and never reveal where we heard it, he would tell us.

Barely able to contain our excitement, immediately we made our pledge.

Not long ago, the two football coaches had gone hunting in South Texas. One of the men had shot a coyote and cut off the tail as a souvenir.  On the way home, over a few beers meant to enhance the drive, the two coaches cooked up a devilish plot.  Why not have a little fun with that coyote tail?

When they got home, they modified a wire animal trap to suit their purposes.  They put a latch spring inside the cage that could be released by pulling a secret string. 

To the latch spring they attached the coyote tail.  Then Mr. Lee put out the word that they had captured a live mongoose on their hunting trip and that they were keeping the exotic animal in their office as a pet.  To sell the story, Mr. Lee said that the ranchers were using these mongooses to control the snake population and that their particular mongoose had put up a furious fight before its capture.  The mongoose should be considered very dangerous.

It didn't take long.  Hearing a knock on the door, Mr. Lee said, "Come in." 

The door opened.  Mr. Lee did a double take.  Uh oh.  It was none other than Mr. Salls, Assistant Headmaster at the time.  Sure enough, Mr. Salls of all people was the first person to stop by the coaches' office to inspect this dangerous mongoose.  Mr. Lee gave Mr. Osborn a worried look.  Should we do this?  Mr. Osborn shrugged and grinned.  Why not?  What did they have to lose besides their jobs?

Mr. Salls as always was unusually formal.  "Gentlemen, good day to you.  May I come in?"

Hiding his concern, Mr. Lee cooly replied, "Yes, of course, Mr. Salls, please join us.  How can I help you, sir?"

"May I see your mongoose?"

"Well, maybe.  There's a little problem.  The mongoose has just eaten and I don't have the leash on him to bring him out of his cage.  It might be easier if you just had a look at the cage.  Be careful, he might snap at you."

The coaches had deliberately kept their office dark to conceal their ploy.  Mr. Salls noticed the cage with the bushy tail in it, but had no idea what he was looking at.  Mr. Salls was immediately curious.  As he walked over to the cage, Mr. Osborn readied the secret string.

Just as Mr. Salls leaned down to get a better look at the animal in the dark, Mr. Osborn pulled the string.  The coyote tail shot out of the cage like a guided missile, hitting Mr. Salls right in the chest.

Mr. Salls shrieked bloody murder in a high-pitched voice.  Instinctively, he assumed a fighting stance with both hands raised to protect himself from further attack by the fierce snake killer.

Screaming horrible oaths in guttural German, Mr. Salls turned his head in every direction.  He was certain the mongoose was somewhere in the room preparing to rip his face to shreds.  But then he looked down at the floor and spotted the lifeless coyote tail.  His eyes grew wide.  Why wasn't the mongoose moving?  Once he realized what had happened, Mr. Salls slowly looked up at the two coaches who were trying as hard as they could not to explode with laughter. 

Without a word and with as much dignity as he could possibly muster, Mr. Salls turned on his heels and marched out.  The men could hear him swearing more choice words in German as he closed the door.  The two coaches did not need to understand German to know that Salls was furious at falling for their trick. 

The two men could no longer contain their mirth.  They slapped each other's hands and roared with laughter.  Then Mr. Osborn stopped.  "Do you think Salls kept on going or is he just outside the door listening?"  With that, Mr. Lee had a look of panic.  What have they done?

Now Mr. Lee and Mr. Osborn were worried.  This was the Assistant Headmaster!  Why of all people did it have to be him?  Mr. Salls did not seem at all pleased with their little prank.  Not at all.  As the men put the coyote tail back in the animal trap, they could not help but wonder how much trouble they were in.  

They need not have worried.  Just a short ten minutes later, there was another knock.  Both men stopped breathing.  That knocked sounded exactly the same as the knock before.  Sure enough, as the door opened, it was Mr. Salls again.  However, he seemed to be smiling.  Furthermore, he had someone else along with him. 

Standing erect in the doorway, Mr. Salls politely said, "Gentlemen, have you met our first-year Algebra teacher Mr. Jackson?  Mr. Jackson has just explained to me that he is very interested in seeing your captured mongoose.  Do you think the animal is through eating yet?"

Mr. Lee calmly replied, "I'm not sure, Mr. Salls.  Perhaps Mr. Jackson should come over here for a closer look..."

 


SUBCHAPTER 45
- THE MAP OF GERMANY

 

Mr. Salls never dropped his instructor mask in my presence... except once. 

I vividly remember the one time that Mr. Salls genuinely smiled at me.  I really love this story. 

Our class assignment was to trace out a giant map of Germany on poster board.  One day we all turned in our maps.  My eyes bulged when I compared my own pitiful job to the map of Elsa, one of the girls in the class.  Elsa's map was a tour de force.

What bugged me was that I had taken this assignment seriously.  I had spent days on this project and believed I had done a great job.  Wrong.  There was no comparison between Elsa's map and mine.  The moment I saw Elsa's map, I gasped in disbelief. 

How could anyone draw something so beautiful?

My own map consisted of two colors: black and white.  Not this girl.  Elsa's map was a veritable rainbow!  Germany itself was lush green.  My gosh, the girl had drawn out the forests of Bavaria and had colored the North Sea dark blue.  She had artistically drawn the major rivers in light blue complete with tiny blonde Lorelei mermaids singing along the banks of the Rhine.

Elsa had shaded all the German borders in black and red trim, the colors of Germany.  She had drawn in the great foothills of the Alps in southern Germany complete with the famous Neuschwanstein Castle.  Elsa had used a Gothic stencil to label the regions. The German flag was in one corner, the German coat of arms in another.  Meanwhile a German opera singer and a miniature Oktoberfest drawing occupied the other two corners. 

Her map was so pretty!  It wasn't just a map, it was a work of art. I stared at that map like it was the Mona Lisa.  Seriously, a professional could not have done a better job. This girl had considerable talent. I could not stop shaking my head in awe.

Mr. Salls and I were alone in the room.  He looked up and saw me staring at that beautiful map with my befuddled "I am not worthy" stare.  Mr. Salls involuntarily laughed out loud.  He knew exactly what I was looking at.  Hearing him laugh, I looked up.

His words... "Girls.  Aren't they amazing?

And then he flashed me the biggest grin!

Fortunately, Mr. Salls was kind enough to overlook my mediocre map-making skills.  I made straight A's in German all four years.

I was indeed a good student, but my personal problems led to serious discipline problems at St. John's.  I will explain shortly why I believe I was one of the most complicated students to ever attend this school. 

Discipline issues aside, when it came to the classroom, I valued my education with a passion.  German class was the perfect example.  I worked very hard in German.  I always paid attention, I turned in my homework promptly and I wouldn't dream of giving Mr. Salls anything but my complete cooperation.  I answered every question he asked of me without hesitation.  I was always prepared.  If Mr. Salls was a master teacher, then I responded in kind by giving my best effort. 

Not once did I have an eraser thrown at me for the simple reason that I was determined to be just as alert as my instructor.   Mr. Salls gave his best effort day in and day out to explain German to us.  I was determined to give my best effort in return.  That was my way of showing Mr. Salls the respect that he deserved.  To me, it was an honor to receive high marks from the finest teacher I would ever know.

 


SUBCHAPTER 46
- MR. SALLS MAKES A SUGGESTION

 

In 1967, it was Mr. Salls' turn to become headmaster.  After twenty years at the helm, Mr. Chidsey, my benefactor who had given me my high school scholarship, had finally decided to retire.  Mr. Chidsey turned over the reins to Mr. Salls, the Assistant Headmaster. 

From what his son told me, taking the job was not an easy decision for Mr. Salls.  He preferred not to accept the promotion, but the Board of Directors appealed to his sense of duty.  After they told Salls how much the school needed him, what choice did he have? 

Now that he was the new Headmaster, Mr. Salls reluctantly gave up teaching his beloved German class.  His loyalty to the continued progress of St. John's was too strong to permit him to follow his heartfelt desire to continue teaching.  One has to respect him for the sacrifice he made.

I was very upset to discover that Mr. Salls would not return as my German teacher for my Senior year.  Although I liked Mrs. Anderson, my new German teacher, a great deal, I really missed Mr. Salls.  Perhaps if he had returned for my Senior year, things would have turned out differently, but as we will see, his loss would lead to great hardship.

Besides teaching German, another one of Mr. Salls' favorite duties was helping students apply for college.  He was the person the seniors went to see for advice on which university to attend.  Fortunately, Mr. Salls decided to continue his role as the school's college counselor for one more year until a replacement could be trained.  There were qualified German instructors to take his place, but no one he trusted could replace him in the college counselor role.

In early September of my Senior year, I received notice that it was my turn to meet with Mr. Salls to discuss my college options. 

As I entered his office, I was greeted with "Guten morgen!  Wie geht es ihnen, Herr Archer?"  (good morning, how are you?)

As always, I responded, "Ich bin sehr gut, Herr Salls, danke."  (I am very well, thank you)

I grinned.  It was good to hear his harsh, rasping voice again.  This was the first time I had spoken to Mr. Salls in my Senior year.  I was thrilled to be reunited with this man I admired so much.  

I expected at least a couple more pleasantries, but that was it.  Typical Mr. Salls, all business.  I was disappointed that there was no further recognition of the unspoken student-teacher bond that we had shared for the past three years.  However, if you knew Mr. Salls, then you knew this was his way.  Mr. Salls was not a man to chat.  With a shrug, I hid my disappointment and settled into my chair.  I had just realized how much I missed him. 

I handed Mr. Salls my worksheet.  I had listed the schools I was interested in and the various majors I was considering.  I was expected to write down a few notes on the kind of college experience I wanted... small school, large school, certain major, possible career ambitions, whatever. 

I was tempted to write "GIRLS", but thought the better of it.  Instead I put down "East Coast, West Coast, doesn't matter, but nowhere near here."

As I hoped, Mr. Salls smiled when he read that.  I was tickled to see he appreciated my sarcasm.  I wondered if he had the slightest idea how crazy my life was.

While Mr. Salls studied my worksheet, I noticed his face was nearly as rugged as mine.  Of course I had noticed his craggy, weather-beaten face before, but now I found myself staring at his face intently. 

I realized I had never given his uneven face a second thought.  I had always considered Mr. Salls to be a handsome man.  It occurred to me it was his bearing and his sharp eyes that impressed me so much.  Who cared about his craggy face?  If anything, it gave him character.  Then I hesitated.  No, what gave him 'character' was his brilliance.

I wondered about that for a moment.  Perhaps someday people would see my own acne-scarred face and care less about my rugged features just I like did with Mr. Salls. 

It was the person within that mattered most.  I took that realization to heart.


Now Mr. Salls looked up from my worksheet and I sprang to attention. 

To be honest, I wasn't expecting much.  I already had my mind made up where I wanted to go. The only reason I had looked forward to today's meeting was simply to see Mr. Salls again. 

Mr. Salls' basic advice was to apply to at least three schools - your fondest dream, your best match, and a school you were certain to get into.  A practical man, yes?

I had a different strategy.  Although my heart tugged at me to go to beautiful Rice University here in Houston, a place where my dog Terry and I had happily visited many times during my youthful bicycle adventures, I was determined to get out of town and escape my mother.

Since my strategy was to go as far west or as far east as possible, I had chosen Pomona in California and Georgetown in Washington, DC. 

Pomona was just an afterthought.  I had my heart set on Georgetown.  Georgetown was an impressive school built on bluffs overlooking the Potomac River.  Uncle Dick and Aunt Lynn and their four children lived in McLean, Virginia, just five miles away.  I wanted so much to be near them.  The chance to become part of their family was absolutely irresistible. 

To me, today's meeting was just a formality.  My SAT scores had me placed in the upper 4% of college-bound students. I was determined to go to Georgetown and I had the grades to do it. 

In fact, I had been daydreaming about Georgetown when Mr. Salls interrupted my reverie.

Mr. Salls began by asking if he could make a suggestion.  Why not consider Johns Hopkins?

Johns Hopkins? 

Surely he was kidding.  I had never heard of the school.  I didn't even know where it was.

Mr. Salls handed me a Hopkins brochure.

I took one look at the picture on the brochure Mr. Salls handed me.  Ho hum.  I was not impressed.  Forget it.

Mr. Salls said that Hopkins was on par academically with Rice University.  He added that Hopkins was just one notch below the Ivy Schools.  In his opinion, this school matched my academic performance perfectly.  He added that Johns Hopkins was a perfect fit for my talents.  Those were his exact words.

I was baffled.  Why was he pushing this school?  What was wrong with Georgetown?

Mr. Salls was legendary for his role as the college admissions counselor.  I was told Mr. Salls was very good at this.  Since I knew Mr. Salls so well from German class, I certainly believed the rumor.  Mr. Salls was probably excellent at anything he did.

But this time he had me stumped.  Why would he care about this place?  Or better yet, why did he think I would care??  This place meant nothing to me. 

However, it was in my interest to play the game, so I lamely asked Mr. Salls where the school was located.

Baltimore, Maryland.

I estimated Baltimore was about an hour, maybe an hour and a half from Northern Virginia.  That was close enough to Lynn and Dick to at least consider the place, but why bother?  No way.  Who wants to go to school in Baltimore?  I asked a couple more questions and then came the killer. 

When Mr. Salls mentioned this was a men's school, my mind screamed in protest.  Oh, for heavens sakes, c'mon now, Mr. Salls.  You've got to be kidding.  A  men's school!?!   No f...g way! 

Due to my monastic existence at St. John's, a men's school was out of the question.  Considering I had never had a single date in my life thanks to my ravaged face, when I hit college, I had a lot of catching up to do with the fair sex.  I couldn't imagine how this Hopkins school would be the right place to help me chase women.

I stared at him for a moment.  He stared right back.  It took all my will power not to simply shake my head 'no' and be done with it.  So far, not one thing Mr. Salls had said made me even remotely interested in this school.  I couldn't care less if Hopkins was a good match.  Georgetown had an excellent academic reputation the equivalent of Hopkins.  And it had girls.

Mr. Salls broke the silence.  "I highly recommend you apply to this school as well as the other two."

I was very taken aback.  Mr. Salls had just personally asked me to apply to this "Hopkins" place.  Mr. Salls was a man I respected tremendously.   If Mr. Salls asked me to apply there, then I would do so simply because he asked me to. 

"Yes, sir, I will be sure to apply to Johns Hopkins as well."

"Excellent". 

And that was the end of the meeting.  I had been in there all of ten minutes.

As I left his office, inwardly I groaned.  Not another college application fee!  Damn it! 

I had paid the Pomona and Georgetown application fees out of my own pocket.  One was $50 and the other was $75.  With tips and salary, I made $2.50 an hour at Weingarten's grocery store.  If this Hopkins application fee was $75 like the last one, it would take me another thirty hours of work to pay for it.  I groaned.  Thirty hours! 

Since I worked twenty hours a week, Mr. Salls had just made me kiss away nearly two weeks of work to apply to a school I had no intention of going to.  What a complete waste of money.

However, I had given Mr. Salls my word.  I would apply to Hopkins.


CHAPTER ELEVEN: LITTLE MEXICO

 

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