BOZ: A Teenager, His Weird Friends and a Quest That Changed Their Lives
By Elizabeth Burton Mendenhall
This may be the strangest book you’ve ever read. The story is unique and may seem unbelievable, so I suggest you suspend doubt and just enjoy a great story. And because these events took place in ancient times – the early 1970’s – you may find their retelling a little like reading Shakespeare. If you have trouble understanding what’s going on, just find an old person and ask them. They’ll be glad to explain. Last of all, it’s written in an unusual style. You won’t read just one author’s version. Several that shared the adventure have come together, years later, to share the story with you. Let me explain how that happened.
In 2015, the Morgana School District tore down my alma matter, Empire High, to make way for a convention center. It was sad for those who loved that big old campus, so in the fall of 2014 alumni came together for a weekend-long, all-class reunion.
Each evening after the festivities wound down, the Underdogs – a gang that had caroused together in the mid-70’s – congregated at my house to catch up and reminisce. I’d inherited the family home and my husband and I have raised our family there. We remodeled twice, but took great care to preserve the look and feel of the original home. After all, it had been much more than just home to the Burtons, it had been home to the Underdogs too.
Talk inevitably turned to my brother and the impact he’d made on our lives. We laughed and we cried; we looked at pictures and home movies; we listened to oldies; and we told story after story after story – and it never got old.
On the last night, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. I asked everyone to go home, write down their version of my brother’s story and send it to me. I would compile them into an anthology and send everybody a copy. They all heartily agreed.
I couldn’t sleep that night, so I got up and wrote until dawn. Over the next few months, the story unfolded at my hand and I finished just before New Year’s.
After rereading it on New Year’s Day, I sent out a group email reminding the Underdogs to finish up their stories and send them to me. I waited impatiently for their versions. I waited and waited and waited. Weeks turned into months and months into years as my reminders seemed to fall on deaf ears. Not wanting to strain friendships, I stopped asking and tried to be content with what I had done. I got busy with life and forgot about the project altogether.
In 2020, a virus originating from China went pandemic. In March, to avoid contagion, businesses closed and people were asked to hunker down in their homes. It was as if the world had come to a weird standstill and just when I was about to go stir crazy a small miracle happened.
An email arrived from Mary. She apologized for taking so long to finish her version of the story, but said the shutdown had given her the time to get it done. I read her attachment with great anticipation and was not disappointed. She had done a wonderful job.
Within a month, two other stories showed up. One via e-mail and one by snail mail. Both included a note about the pandemic shutdown and completing what they had started almost five years earlier. Their versions were unique and heartfelt, sharing details I’d never known.
About a month later I clicked on a link in an email from Floyd Carson. It was four MP4 files archiving Floyd’s version of the story. What a treasure! Floyd storytelling – laughing, crying and gesturing – acting like he was 17 all over again. It was hilarious.
As soon as I finished Floyds videos, I went to my “get round to it” memento box. I was sure I’d put a printed copy of my version in there for safe-keeping. It wasn’t right on top where I anticipated, so I kept digging.
Deep in the box, was a thick manilla envelope I couldn’t remember ever seeing before. Afterwards, I though it must have been just dropped in there with everything else after my brother’s funeral. I really wanted to find my version and reread it in light of the others, but felt compelled to stop and find out what was in that envelope.
What I found floored me! In that envelope was a makeshift journal my brother had kept his senior year of high school. It wasn’t bound in any way, just about 100 pages of notebook paper held together by a now-rotten rubber band.
I broke the elastic and started thumbing through Boz Burton’s own version of the story we’d all been trying to reconstruct. It read almost like a novel, with Boz as narrator. He not only shared details and feelings that no one else knew; but dialogue (actually in quotation marks) recounting conversations he’d had; and his opinions about what others thought and felt. Slumped to the floor with my back to the wall, I read the whole thing over the next two hours. When I finished, I took it as a sign that Boz’s story need to be told, by Boz and his friends.
If you read on you will see my best effort at creating one readable version of a remarkable story condensed from six versions of a remarkable story. I gave Floyd, Mary, Boz and I voice and jumped between omniscient narrator (I now know what at least six of us were thinking and feeling) and first-hand accounts, trying to preserve their language and tone. (Writing Floyd was a blast).
If I lose you, I’m sorry. I really gave it my best shot.
I am not a professional author and did not ask for help. This is my brother’s story and I wanted it told by those closest to him.
It is my loving gift back to him for all he did for me and the way he changed my life. I hope you not only enjoy it but come to love it too.
Chapter 1: The Hero Returns (Liz)
“Good Morning Liz!”
My look had given me away, but I couldn’t help staring at the strange kid sitting at our breakfast table. He looked like my brother who was supposed to get home late the night before. And I did expect to see him that morning because it was the first day of school.
But this guy couldn’t be Boz! He didn’t have Boz’s beautiful, long hair. He was dressed and eating breakfast at 7. He’d greeted me civilly. And, most convincingly, this guy eating our Frosted Flakes was reading a book. Boz only read the Sunday comics.
“Where is your hair?”
He flashed that smile that could only belong to Boz. “You look almost as surprised as Dad when he picked me up from the bus last night,” he drawled before slurping the last of the sugary milk from his bowl (he knew I hated that) and wiping his milk mustache on the back of his hand.
I walked to him and reached for his head. He flinched, thinking I was going to smack him for the slurping, but I just ran my fingers through what was left of his hair. That Delilah had tempted him to clip his locks and I was afraid he’d lose his coolness like Sampson had lost his strength. I suddenly hated her.
Boz had written home about a girl named Linda. His next letter indicated that he was going to church with her. In his next letter he’d asked for permission to join her church.
Dad said, “Absolutely not!” Mom agreed! And so did I!
At that moment I agreed more than ever. I glanced over at the book he’d been reading – The Book of Mormon. He’d brought her book into the house and it made me mad. But before I could do anything about it, Boz started in on me.
“Man, you look beautiful. Are you going to school or man hunting?
I wasn’t going to let him get away with that. “You’re just jealous because I inherited all the beauty and the brains.”
“Are you calling my parents ugly and stupid?” Losing his hair hadn’t dulled his wit and before I could recover, he plopped his cereal bowl in my hand and sneered like an old pirate, “to work wench.”
He grabbed his book and bolted for the basement stairs. He glanced over his shoulder, to find me, arm cocked, ready to send the bowl flying after him. He ducked down the stairs leaving me fantasizing about the sound of smashing china.
What was I worried about? He will never change!
I grumbled and tossed his bowl into the sink. I really tried to be mad at him, but couldn’t. As big of a pain as he was, I was glad to have him home. I walked to the sink and rinsed out the bowl. I turned it over in my hands a couple of times before gripping it and practicing a pitch to the top of the stairs.
“Liz,” Mom caught me planning the assault, “what are you doing?”
“Just drying this bowl so that I can have some cereal.” Proud of that recovery, I reached for the cereal box to make it more believable.”
“Cereal? Oh, my goodness! Let me make you a good breakfast.”
“No Mom, really, this is great.” I was stuck with my lie and poured the cereal into the bowl, secretly wishing I was sitting down to some of Mom’s French toast.
“Suit yourself, but if it were my first day of high school. . .” Mom left the thought hanging in the air and turned to making lunches.
I really hated when she did that. To everyone that knew her, my mother was a saint; a soft-spoken, compassionate angel, that put up with a crazy family of loud jokesters. But I knew another side of her – the terrible hint-dropper; who talked down to me and could say some things that really hurt. And I was really getting tired of it.
Someday! I left the thought trailing off in my head, sounding just like her. But “someday” would not be today. I ignored her and focused on the picture of a balanced breakfast on the cereal box.
Just as I finished, Boz came slinking up the stairs. He crossed the room without a word, watching me carefully – expecting retaliation. I watched him just as carefully, but had moved past our sparing match. I was looking for clues that he was still my brother. I wanted to see him swagger and see his eyes sparkle.
Suddenly he stopped. He looked like a cat about to pounce on unsuspecting prey and the prey was Mom, who hummed cluelessly as she worked at the counter. Boz tiptoed up behind her, poked her in the ribs and shouted, “Good Morning, Mom!” She threw a piece of bologna into the air so hard that it stuck to the ceiling.
She whirled and scolded. “Your jokes will be the death of you one of these days Boz Burton!”
He moved toward her with open arms. She tried to defend herself with the mayonnaise-covered knife, but it was no use. She wanted to be wrapped in his arms and soon was. Then she pushed him away, straightened to her full five-foot-two inches and gave him a fiery look. “You behave yourself. . .” was all she got out before the forgotten lunch meat gave way to gravity, landed right on her forehead, resting on the bridge of her nose.
Boz’s contagious laugh shook the room and infected us both. Soon Mom was trying, through painful chuckles, to explain the whole thing to Dad who had walked into the kitchen just in time to see her pulling lunch meat from her face.
I watched Dad. He enjoyed seeing laughter in his home again, especially after a tense and lonely summer of worrying about his son. Our eyes met and we exchanged a quick look of understanding as I wiped away the tears.
“That’s enough playing around Mom,” Boz teased. He led her back to the counter and helped her with the lunches. I grabbed a bowl and spoon for Dad.
“What, cereal? I had my heart set on French toast this morning.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Mom snapped over her shoulder, “we have to get these kids off to school.”
I sighed and shook my head. Dad caught my gesture and smiled, thinking he understood. He settled down to his choice of cereal and to enjoy the momentary peace of reunion.
“Son, do you have everything you need for school?” I watched Boz tense. Dad’s question had apparently reminded him of some things he was trying not to think about.
“Yeah, for the most part.” He turned to face Dad, leaned back against the counter, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. “I have a few things I need to fix, but I think it will be a good year.”
Boz gave a look that I had never seen from him and started to tear up. “Dad, I’m really sorry. I’m going to make it all. . .”
No one spoke for almost a minute, all of us holding back tears. Normal people would have expected someone to say something comforting, but this family needed comic relief.
“Thank you for cheering us all up!” Mom punctuated her sarcastic save by plopping lunch sacks into Boz’s hands and pushing him toward the door.
Cradling his lunch like a football, Boz was, immediately, back to his usual self. He tossed me mine and suggested that we get to school early so that I could find a good perch to scout for boys. He gave Mom a kiss, teased Dad about his skinny tie, and sped toward the door like a fleeting tornado – sweeping me into his funnel and leaving a path of emotional mayhem behind.
I was excited! I had waited for the first day of high school all summer.
I loved school. Good grades came easy to me, I’d been popular in junior high, had all kinds of friends and just expected high school to be a party. And Boz was right, I expected the party to include boys. But as I stood in our driveway that morning, watching Boz heft the garage door, I felt a different excitement, something I just couldn’t pin down.
One thing was for sure – it wasn’t the ride to school that had me excited. Sitting there in the garage was Boz’s pride and joy, an old station wagon he called Big Bertha. He had big plans for Bertha, but the only one that he’d followed through on was to have her painted canary yellow.
“Oh, Bertha baby I have missed you!” He rushed to her and stroked her hood. He planted a big kiss on her windshield, leaving a slobbery set of lip prints for me to look through.
“I think you’re happier to see that car than you were to see me,” I whined, giving him my famous pout.
“Oh, Liz,” Boz looked as if he were going to cry. He paused, looked me in the eye and said softly, “you’re right.”
“You’re right! I am happier to see Bertha than I am to see you.” He tried not to smile, but couldn’t. His face burst into a grin.
“You are so funny,” was all I could manage. I started around the car to let myself in, but Boz beat me around and opened the door for me.
“Bawana-Liz go on big safari? Hunt down man! Make eyes flutter-flutter? Do smoochy-smoochy?” He was sounding like an African safari porter.
“Oh, stop it,” not really wanting him to.
Boz looked around in mock shock, “and where is Bawana -Julie? She not go on big hunt?” Julie was my best friend that lived just across the street
“She had to go early,” I said, pushing him aside as I got into the car.
Boz bowed, shut my door, then danced around to the driver’s side and bounded in. Bertha’s engine roared to life for the first time in months. Boz backed her skillfully out of the garage, down the long driveway and onto the street. We were on our way.
Driven by habit, Boz reached for the box of tapes on the seat beside him. I watched him flip through them and cringed each time he took his eyes off the road.
“Why don’t you use both hands.”
“Okay, but you’ll have to steer,” he shot back as he let go of the steering wheel and turned toward the box. I shrieked and grabbed for the wheel, but Boz beat me back to it.
I punched him hard in the arm. “You scared the crap out of me.”
“Ouch,” now I’m crippled and you’ll have to find it.”
“Find what?” I barked, relieved that he was now giving full attention to the road.
“Iron Butterfly. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
I found the tape and pushed it into the tape player.
“Tack 2,” he ordered. “We just have enough time for the drum solo.”
I hit the button and heard the 8-track clunk. Sound blared from the speakers and Boz turned up the volume. It wasn’t my kind of music, but Boz loved it. He smiled and began to rock out.
As I watched him enjoying his music, I suddenly realized why I was so excited to be going to school that morning. I was in that ugly car, listening to loud, crazy music and riding to school with my certifiably-nut-case brother – truly the coolest guy at Empire High.
Chapter 2: The Underdogs Are Born
Empire High could be a scary place. 2700 students crowding seemingly miles of hallway made it easy to get lost – in more ways than one.
Sophomores soon came to understand the trick to survival — join a clique and stick with them. Otherwise you were just another body. You ate lunch alone, went to the ball games alone and sat in class alone. A clique would make you or break you.
Each clique had a nickname they wore with pride – like Hippies, Jocks or Kickers – and homogeneity was the goal. Members dressed alike, talked alike and even thought alike. If you didn’t fit into a clique, you were a misfit, and had to band together with other misfits in small groups that were nothing. You couldn’t claim a table in the cafeteria, fill a car to go to the drive-in or even make enough noise to get in trouble with the librarian.
Nobody asked if it was fair! That’s just the way it was!
Early in his Sophomore year, Boz Burton determined to shake the foundation of cliquedom. It happened about a week into school as he sat in the lunchroom with the Preps.
The Preps were the “popular” clique. They were the good looking, the smart, the student officers and cheerleaders. Most were rich, but a middle-class kid could fit in if he was good looking and smart. Boz gravitated to the Preps and was accepted because he was handsome, dressed sharp and was a good student.
One fateful day, however, as he sat at the Prep table, Boz noticed a junior girl walking through the lunchroom with a full tray. She approached an empty seat at a Kicker table, but when she tried to put her tray down, one of the Kickers threw his arm across the back of the seat – almost knocking the tray from her hands. The boy hadn’t said a word, or even looked at her, but the message was clear. She turned away.
Boz had known this girl from junior high and she’d been feisty. He totally expected her to dump the tray down the Kickers back and whack him over the head with it, but it didn’t happen. She no longer had any fight in her. What had happened to her?
Before that moment, Boz had been feeling a bit uncomfortable with what he’d already joked was the clique caste system, cascading down from the Preps to misfits. He’d rationalized this feeling away because he really wanted to be a Prep, but he was suddenly back to uncomfortable.
He watched the girl scan the lunchroom. There were dozens of empty seats, but she knew she didn’t stand a chance of taking any of them. Her eyes met Boz’s and there was a spark of recognition. She smiled and started for him, but saw something over his shoulder and turned away.
“Loser!” Boz heard the voice of the Prep that had stared her down.
Boz turned to demand an explanation, but what he saw answered all his questions. The whole table was smirking with delight. Boz felt angry but then, realizing that he was trying to become part of that group, felt sick.
“Loser is right,” Boz didn’t need any time to think this through. He stood up, glared at the Preps and destroyed all chances of ever being part of them. “You are the biggest losers I know!”
Boz didn’t wait for a response. He picked up his lunch, whirled around and headed for the girl.
“Allison,” he was forcing himself to be cheerful. She turned apprehensively to see the first friendly face in a long time. “Can I eat with you? There’s a really bad smell over at that table.” Before she could answer, Boz turned her with a gentle nudge and took advantage of some Jocks vacating their table.
“Here’s a good spot,” he was feeling better now, “all to ourselves.” He pulled the chair out with his foot and almost pushed her into it. If she hadn’t been so grateful for the rescue, she might have been a little upset that so much of her soup was now spilled on her tray.
The rest of Boz’s day was not pleasant. He immediately become a target of ridicule at the hands of the Preps, but stubbornly refused to be intimidated.
As he sat in his bedroom that night, he realized that he had two choices. He could slink off and find another clique or become misfit. He wanted to belong, but kept reliving the experience in the lunchroom; remembering the faces of all the lonely misfits he’d noticed the rest of the day; and feeling the sting of Prep ridicule.
Suddenly it dawned on him. He had a third choice! And the more he thought about it the better he liked it. He could ignore the law of the pack and rescue the misfits. He lay awake until late concocting a plan.
That first rescue had been awkward, but Boz soon became expert at them. It became his daily quest to seek out the misfits and befriend them. He found them alone or in small groups at lunch or in the study hall. He started kicking around, after school, with kids nobody else noticed. His smile, quick wit and loving personality drew them to him and the misfit group begin to swell.
They had no identity but that they were Boz’s friends, but that was all they needed. They weren’t a clique and would have been angry if anyone had called them that. They considered themselves the anti-clique, accepting anybody who came along. Someone suggested that they were the champions of the underdog and the term stuck. After that everyone called them the Underdogs.
Soon after, something magical happened. One night, as they were gorging themselves on Coney dogs at Wally’s Drive-In, Tom Warner started complaining.
Tom came to the Underdogs because he was always shooting off his mouth. No one had tried harder to find a clique than Tom. He would have taken any of them, but they all found him annoying. They ignored him at first, but soon started to pick on him. By the time Boz found him he’d become both a verbal and physical target.
Boz and the Underdogs, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care. They found his constant babbling no more annoying than any of their quirks. And once in a while he accidently said something profound. So it was that night at Wally’s. Tom’s yakking about how much they hated cliques, especially the Preps, got their oddball minds working together.
“Well,” Boz finally drawled as a sinister smile crossed his face, “why don’t we do something about that?”
He had everyone’s attention and they soon decided they would do something about it. They declared war on the system and the war started that night as they conceived their first practical joke. It was perfect – simple, yet so frustrating for the victim. Now all they needed was the perfect victim.
Floyd Carson, silent up to that point, suddenly spoke. “Scott Seager,” was all he said, but it was enough. A murmur of acclamation rippled through the gang. Scott, rich, conceited and newly accepted member of the Preps, was the perfect victim.
Floyd had come to the Underdogs because he was the complete opposite of Scott Seager. Scott was rich: Floyd was poor! Scott got straight A’s: Floyd just hoped to graduate! Scott was a chameleon, changing his colors to fit the situation. Floyd was a total nonconformist – his hair, his music and his language were uniquely his own. The name Scott Seager spit from Floyd’s mouth like sour milk and was met with unanimous acclamation.
So, it was decided and the details were arranged. Annie worked in the office and could get Scott’s hall locker combination. Allison could get all the newspaper they needed from her brother’s Boy Scout recycling project. Marcus could get into Scott’s car – even if it was locked. Chuck had Scott in gym. And everyone, absolutely everyone, was on lookout.
Two mornings later, Scott opened his hall locker and found it jammed full of wadded up newspaper. Frustrated, he dug through it, trying to find his books, which had all been dropped into the lost and found. The vice-principal, Mr. Reynolds, came around the corner just as Scott was digging out the last of the paper and made sure Scott picked up every wad.
Scott had the same maddening experience twice before school was out, once with his gym locker when he came back from the showers and again when he came back to his hall locker after lunch. He complained loudly to Mr. Reynolds each time. And while Mr. Reynolds was sympathetic, he suggested that unless Scott could give him some idea of who was responsible, he couldn’t help.
It had been quite a day for Scott when he finally headed for his car late that afternoon. Besides the locker attacks, he’d spent an extra hour at school that day collecting his things from the lost and found, getting his locker combination changed and complaining to Mr. Reynolds.
His consolation was that he would soon be driving down the road in his prized possession – his new TR6 convertible. A little older than most of the kids in his class, he turned 16 the day before school started. His presents were his driver’s license and a brand-new sports car.
He’d sensed something was wrong before he was out of the building and had tried to brush it off, but with the first sight of his car, his heart sank. His car, his beautiful car, had newspaper glued over every window.
He threw down his books, ran to the car and tore through the sports section until he could peer inside. Though the top was up and the doors were locked, the car was packed tight with those black and white balls. He remembered the newsprint on his hands and knew it would be all over his upholstery.
For the first time in his life, Scott was feeling humiliation. He didn’t like it and wasn’t going to put up with it. He put his head down on the roof of his car and swore. He didn’t know who had done this, but he vowed he would find out. And when he found out they would pay. Oh, how they would pay!