The Mushroom Cloud
As soon as I entered the school system it had become painfully obvious I had nothing in common with my fellow classmates in that wretched slab of lakefront real estate, Port Washington. Due to an eccentric personality at even a young age and overprotective, heavily religious parents, here were my interests as a young man: The Marx Bros., Abbott and Costello, Godzilla, The Muppets, Doctor Who, Robert Louis Stevenson, Batman, classic horror and sci-fi movies,“Weird Al” Yankovic, and The Three Investigators, a series of mystery books for juveniles.
I dressed in a style that might be popular with hipsters today but at the time was just plain nerdy: striped polo shirts, corduroys, t-shirts with the California Raisins on them.
One of the funniest attempts to blend-in was my Freshmen year.
“This is it,” I thought. “I can change. No one will know I’m the same person.”
Over the summer before the school year started, I asked my mom to help me with some money to buy some new clothes. The Chicago Bulls were popular that year, according to my research, so I got some tough looking Chicago Bulls jerseys and a baseball cap. I got a San Jose Sharks t-shirt, which was sort of a compromise because I liked sharks, but not hockey. I got some Nikes, the freshest style. I went to a haircutting chain and found a mugshot of someone who looked like one of the assholes who walked the halls of my high school in their display. I pointed at it.
“Make me look like this,” I begged them.
But it was a vain attempt. The sports gear, the haircut, the Nike super- duper pumps could not hide the volatile nerd underneath. This was made even more clear to me when I joined the basketball team at the start of the school year. I had been encouraged by a coach to join simply because I was tall and Port Washington is a city full of Napoleon complex. I thought it would be fun and that maybe I would make new friends and that coveted word—belong– to something. Of course every single person on that team was a rotten motherfucker to me and I never fit in and quit because of emotional distress halfway through the season.
Later my freshmen year I began to get into “alternative music,” especially what several trendsetters had dubbed “grunge.” It was Nirvana in particular that changed the direction of my life. The anger and pain and anxiety in Nirvana’s music really appealed to me in that moment. I started to grow my hair long. I sold my Chicago Bulls gear at a rummage sale and started buying Nirvana and Pearl Jam t-shirts. I suddenly took an interest in my dad’s old flannel shirts. I ripped holes in my jeans and pissed my mom off by staining the bathtub purple while trying to dye my hair.
The music and attitude gave me something to help me make it through High School, which was constantly getting worse for me. But now let’s talk about a good moment, an important moment in my life.
One noon hour I had arrived in the school cafeteria early for lunch. I was waiting for a couple friends to arrive so we could get a table together.
As I stood there holding my books, I noticed a student walking quickly into the lunchroom with a determined look on her face. She was carrying a stack of papers in her arms and her head darted around with a serious look of caution. She had a hemp string hairnet and a handmade hemp necklace, hoop earrings, and a sundress with a fuzzy green sweater over it. She walked up to a lunch table and placed a stack of papers on it, then walked to the next table and placed a stack on it, carrying on through the lunchroom. I was the only one watching her.
Intrigued, I walked over and picked up a paper. It was a newsletter-style photocopied publication titled Mind Rape. It was about six pages long and contained some essays about existentialism, moody poetry and artwork. I placed my copy in my folder.
A minute later, the assistant principal walked into the lunchroom. I forget his real name, but the student body had nicknamed him “Rat Man,” due to physical features that made him appear rodent-like. He was famous for antics almost bordering on 80s comedy subplots. He would angrily chase truant students around town and then hand down excessive punishments for their unruly behavior, all to a Kenny Loggins soundtrack .
As “Rat Man” entered the lunchroom, he spotted a stack of Mind Rape papers on a lunchroom table. He walked over and ripped them all up thoroughly, throwing a pile of paper confetti into a wastebasket closest to him. Then he walked to the next lunchroom table, again hand shredding the publication. His face was flushing red with anger and the strenuous ripping activity. I watched him rampaging from table to table ripping the newsletters apart and I felt my copy of the newsletter through my folder.
“This must be pretty good.” I thought.
I can’t tell you if it was or wasn’t, I don’t remember too much of the specific contents. What had inspired me more than the publication’s writing was the fact they had done it themselves. I had already had a brief attempt at working on the school newspaper, but my interest there had been short lived. Port Washington (at that time anyway) had a strict, heavily Catholic parent-teacher board.
The student newspaper had to send proofs of the paper to the board, who would scrutinize it, red markers anxiously waiting in their itchy hands. This had all started when the paper had published a candid essay debating pro-life and pro-choice positions on abortion. The op-ed piece had caused an uproar throughout the sleepy town, several people were disciplined for daring to speak on such a topic, and new guidelines were handed down. There was to be no more reports on abortion, birth control, AIDS, homosexuality, anything to do with the birds and the bees.
“What a bunch of bullshit,” I told one of my colleagues, after hearing the policy. I was getting my first burn out with the biz at the tender age of 15.
I could see why Rat Man was going nuts over Mind Rape, then. No one had approved it or the words it contained inside, like “fuck,” “shitbird,” and “prophylactic.”
Reading Mind Rape was an exciting moment. I could create my own publication! What fun! I now had something to do. I was ahead of my own time at this point, because this was before I had any idea what a “zine” was and had only the vaguest idea that underground newspapers other than Mind Rape had existed. My influences for my own newsletter were two publications: The Onion, which was fairly new (about 4 years old) and which I had seen just a couple issues of, and my favorite newspaper at the time, the Weekly World News. In addition to stories about Bat Boy and the world’s fattest cat, I had been particularly amused by the Weekly World News coverage of the 1992 presidential election. They featured a series of cover stories with doctored photos of candidates Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Ross Perot shaking hands with extra-terrestrials. I thought this was comedy gold.
I chose the name for my new publication after flipping through the school libray’s encyclopedia set during study hall. My page flipping fell across what I thought would be an appropriate chaotic title: the Mushroom Cloud. For the cover of the first issue, I decided to emulate the Weekly World News with a story about our school principal, Miss Krueger, meeting with a space alien. I stole a picture of her shaking hands with an outgoing principal from the yearbook photo archive and grabbed a copy of the Weekly World News. After a lot of trial- and- error by enlarging and shrinking the two photos on a photocopier, cutting with a pen- knife and rubber cementing (the olden days before Photoshop) I matched the two images up. It was crude, but it passed. The headline screamed:
KRUEGER MEETS ALIEN ADVISOR!
I filled a few more pages with equally ridiculous, bogus news items relating to the High School. I made about 50 copies of the newsletter on an old photocopier my granddad had in his home office and distributed them, Mind Rape-style in the lunchroom, library, hallways, any spot that looked inviting. This was during the last month of my Froshmen year.
I thought that reception to the first issue of the Mushroom Cloud went well. I’m not sure what criteria I based that on, other than seeing some people reading it and laughing in the hallway. That is all any troublemaker needs for motivation: an audience.
Over the summer break I spent a lot of time sitting at the desk in my room, thinking of a supply of new zingers to fill the fall issues. I came up with some standard, sub-par jokes, some High School humor 101, jokes about the cafeteria food, the boring math classes. When the beginning of the sophomore year rolled around, the Mushroom Cloud was back and it was a hit. I soon had students approaching me asking if they could contribute funny articles or artwork. One student wrote a cover story on how the History teacher bore an uncanny resemblance to Sam the Eagle from The Muppets.
The History teacher found a copy of this issue in his class, it was reported to me, and began ranting and raving about respecting your elders. It was good publicity. The issues came out steadily every month. One of our contributors, Mike, had a mom that worked for the school district. Glad to see her nerdy son participating in something, Mike’s mom offered to make copies of the Mushroom Cloud for free after hours on the school district’s photocopies. Our circulation increased.
Like any group of hot dogs, we started to get comfortable in our roles. We got cocky. The Mushroom Cloud began to print stories that dropped the F-bomb, described “shitty” school policies and printed satire that was admittedly vicious in tone. It was too bold for Port Washington.
All of the contributors had chosen bogus pen names and so speculation grew among the students and teachers on who was involved. One day after class me and my “assistant editor,” Andy, were working on the library computers, typing up Mushroom Cloud copy when we overheard teachers talking at a meeting by some library conference tables nearby. It droned on in the background, but then we heard the principal telling the teachers this:
“Now, as far as the Mushroom Cloud…” He paused to some polite laughter from the teachers. “Don’t worry, we’ve spoken to the people involved and they’ve assured us that they will tone it down.”
Me and Andy looked at each other in shock. We closed out what we were working on and stepped into the hall.
“Did you talk to someone about this?” He asked me.
“No!” I said. “They are totally bullshitting!” We both laughed. It was good to be infamous.
After about 7 monthly issues (plus the one from my Freshmen year) the Mushroom Cloud ended in an explosion worthy of the title. I still remember that day very well. I was taking a siesta during second hour Spanish class when a messenger delivered a notice to my teacher. He nudged me and placed the piece of paper on my desk. It read “come to the principal’s office IMMEDIATELY.” The text of the message was circled with a red marker. I stuffed the note into my pocket and headed to the office. I knew something bad was awaiting me there.
Here’s what had happened: that nerdy kid I mentioned, Mike, who had a mom that let us photocopy the Mushroom Cloud at her workplace had been busted. He had decided to assemble and staple some extra copies of the newsletter in the school library during study hour. An eagle-eyed librarian spotted him at work and called the principal. The principal hauled him into the office and decided to go bad cop all the way. He told this kid he must confess to who was in charge of the offending publication, or he would have a mark on his permanent record. The kid talked.
When I entered the office, I saw Andy sitting across the desk from the principal. He was crying. The principal’s face was beet red. I had never seen anyone with a face that was actually the color red from anger before. I sat down. He looked at us.
“Fuck you, Ratman?” He shouted at us. “FUCK YOU, RATMAN?! You think we’re going to allow that?!”
It became clear now. A student had written an op-ed piece for the Mushroom Cloud about the assistant principal with the not-so-eloquent title “Fuck you, Ratman.” It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The principal angrily outlined our downfall: a student brought a copy of the Mushroom Cloud home where her poor mom was “horrified” to read words like “fuck you” and “hump me, baby” and got on the phone to call another mom. Then that mom called a mom, and another mom, and so on. Soon the principal had two phone receivers to his ears at once with calls about the “filthy, obscene” literature being distributed to the young minds at Port High.
“And here we are,” he said. I tried in vain to say something along the lines of, “well, like, we have, like, first amendment rights, you know.”
“Not in High School, you don’t!” the principal shouted at us. I tried explaining that I didn’t understand why we were being punished for a creative venture that encouraged students to write and– albeit crudely–voice their opinion. The principal angrily told us we should have joined the staff of the official school newspaper. When I mentioned how boring the paper was and the parent-teacher board of Catholic moms armed with red markers, the principal shrugged angrily.
“Wake up! That’s life!” He hurled out. Me and my colleague were given a three day, out of school suspension, the most severe punishment. We were told that if we participated in any extra- curricular activity that wasn’t school approved, we would be recommended for expulsion.
We were sent home. Several Mushroom Cloud staff members went to the principal the next day to tell him that his verdict was unfair and that they would protest outside of the school. The principal shot down that plan by telling them that doing so would give each of them a three day out of school suspension. The school sent my parents a copy of the Mushroom Cloud with every offensive word highlighted brightly. Although my parents admired my creative output, the profanity offended them and they grounded me for a lengthy period of time. With the expulsion threat and a pair of angry parents I decided my career in the underground press needed to go on hiatus for awhile.
When I returned to school in the fall of my Junior year, though, I found a surprise in the hallway—a photocopy of a newsletter called Mushroom Cloud. “We’re back from the dead, and under new management,” it said on the cover, which had clipped the logo from an old issue of the newsletter. To this day, I have no idea who was responsible. Inside this mysterious new publication was Mushroom Cloud– style satire, which I thought was not as clever or well laid out as the original, as I pointed out to the principal when I found myself back in his office with a demand to explain it.
Still, I suppose, imitation is the best form of flattery.