Mr. Batsakis was on a roll.
He had us feeding right out of his hand. He was holding court at the head of the the classroom, feet on his desk, leaning back just a little too far in his chair, animatedly telling us a story. The room of 5th graders leaned forward in rapt attention, laughing and listening.
He had been a fighter pilot in World War II, or so he told us. By my rough account, Mr. Batsakis was single-handedly responsible for shooting down more planes than had actually flown in the German air force throughout the war. But he was never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and we had no intention of stopping him. When Mr. Batsakis was telling stories, which was most of the time, we weren’t studying math or social studies, or possessive pronouns. “No, keep going,” we’d urge when he’d look at his watch and suggested that we get back to class work, “finish the story!” That’s all it took.
This particular story was about a tremendous dog fight in the air. His arms would flail wildly as he described enemy fighters coming at him from all directions. With his imaginary controls he would pull up swiftly from a power dive: “ratta-tat-tat-tat-tat” he’d holler as he squeezed off a burst from his machine gun. “Ka-pow!” he’d echo as he knocked the crazy Kraut out of the air. “But look out!”, his whole body would shift left as he avoided incoming shots. “Nazis at two o’clock! …errrannnggggaaa… kapow kapow… ratta-tat-tat… Kaboooom!”
It was exhausting just watching the man. Even for a fifth grader.
But here’s the best part of the story, the reason I wrote it in the first place. As he sat there in his swivel chair, feet on his desk, he described a great evasive maneuver. He grabbed the joy stick of the fighter and leaned forward in a great diving maneuver, “kapow kapow kapow!” And when he reached the bottom off his dive, when he’d attained as many G’s as any Ace could withstand, he quickly pulled up on the plane, throwing himself wildly back into his chair.
Feet came up off the desk, the chair rocked backwards, his head slammed against the blackboard and Mr. Batsakis rolled over backwards like a diver in a back flip. There was a huge clattering crash as teacher, chair, head and blackboard merged in confusion.
There was momentary silence. In our mind’s eye, we envisioned them carrying poor, dead Mr. Batsakis away in an ambulance, only to be replaced by some no-fun, no-nonsense proxy. Party’s over. It was fun while it lasted…
But if the entire German army couldn’t kill him, no swivel chair and linoleum floor was going to do it! “So, I yanked the ejection seat cord,” we heard him holler as a hand came up from behind the desk, “and KER-POW, I was hurled from the plane.” Not missing a beat, he straightened his chair and clambered back into it ‘ “and there I was floating through the air beneath a billowing parachute, enemy gunfire was everywhere and I was falling into the German forest with only a small knife and two days worth of food….”
Truthfully I can’t say that I ever learned anything in the 5th grade curricula from Mr. Batsakis, but I must have. Actually, I may have learned a lot. I just never knew it. (Like sneaking the dog’s worm pills in with a spoonful of peanut butter.)
Mr. Batsakis taught me the art of the story well-told, and that you can be a knucklehead and be damn proud of it.
I heard that he crashed his little Cessna into the woods near home about 20 years ago.