When Johnny turns sixteen, he and grandpa go car shopping. They are searching for a used one, but it is exciting nonetheless. Johnny sees a set of hot wheels out of grandpa’s price range. He falls in love and pleads to make up the difference by working longer hours at the garage.
Grandpa gives in, and Johnny says goodbye to the garage the next day – he is too busy cruising around in his new wheels. Grandpa fumes.
Mildred takes all this in stride. A simple shrug and an, “I am not responsible. I am not the one raising him.”
Grandpa confides in grandma. How could he have fallen for his only grandson’s low-down tricky ways?
The car adds new dimensions to Johnny’s existence. Speeding along the streets of Granite City, friends riding fenders waving to other friends, fun and freedom the likes of which he never had before. A slow coast alongside sidewalks and conversing with pretty girls walking from school fills his free time. Life is good, and Johnny is in demand to fix his friends’ autos as well. His apprenticeship at grandpa’s garage comes in handy with his buddies. Now he can drive cute girls to the soda fountain with a few extra coins in his pocket. One such beauty is Rita Faye Cox. Heaven on Earth!
Johnny drives to Grandma Camille’s place to show off his new wheels. It’s close to dinner time, and she invites him to stay for dinner, which happens to be pork chops. Ah, pork chops! Johnny mentally notes the weekday and vows to visit her more often.
Uncle Billy is also there. And who is Uncle Billy, one may ask? He is Camille’s son and, relatively speaking, Johnny’s uncle. Being close in age, they tend to run around in the same crowd. Billy is also known as Camille’s only child, and there is every reason for it. After two husbands and four daughters, Billy comes along, bringing indescribable joy to Camille.
A little peek into Uncle Billy’s future. He and Margo get married, so Johnny’s friend Margo converts to Aunt Margo to the entire family. Even though they divorce, Aunt Margo stays close to all the relatives, a lively fixture at every event, while Billy becomes a shadowy silent presence at these get-togethers.
When Johnny comes knocking at Camille’s door, she guesses it is Johnny Boy. An easy guess since it is close to dinner time, and pork chops are in the oven. Even though the door is open, Johnny grins and waits for her admonishing call before entering. Her voice rings through the house from the kitchen to the front door, “Don’t be tracking mud all over my clean floors.”
As Mildred mentions a few times, Camille is vain and house-proud. In steel-town Granite City, white muslin curtains flutter their frills at her open windows as breezes waft in the fresh air on warm days. A picture-perfect facade!
Johnny gets into several accidents that drive his grandparents and Millie crazy. Some of Johnny’s wild shenanigans make him ponder in later years. How did he survive these serious accidents, not counting the many minor scrapes?
Back to high school, Johnny’s studies slide, and he barely makes it through. There is one flash in the pan. A teacher derides him for his ultra-poor math grade in front of the entire class. Johnny seethes and simmers at the perceived insult. The stunned students gasp at her brutality in calling him stupid. In pin-drop silence, Johnny’s peers await his reaction. Disappointment is writ on their faces as Johnny cannot bring himself to look around at them.
To receive a failing grade in math is the ultimate insult to his intelligence. He may not get good grades, but that does not mean he is stupid. It is mortifying to humiliate him like this because of a minor slip in his superior skills with numbers. Who does she think she is? More so, who does she think he is? A dullard? Johnny resolves to show her. To get a poor grade is one thing, but to fail him defies understanding! He can run numbers and add them up in his head. A determined Johnny is out to prove her wrong.
Johnny cuts back cruising in his beloved car and forgoes a few dates, especially with the heartbroken Rita Faye. He works extra hard the following term and comes out on top. Johnny is so proud of himself. In his redemption, he sniggers and struts around the class as his teacher hands out grades. Her reaction puzzles Johnny to the point of bewilderment. She is smiling instead of apologizing for her earlier rude behavior. Johnny wonders what she has done to be so pleased. He is the real victor, the brilliant math-genie Johnny Boy. Me, me, me!
It takes Johnny a few years to fathom and appreciate the serene satisfaction of his teacher. She had called him “stupid,” which touched a nerve, and what a positive outcome it achieves. It was beyond his comprehension then. It requires time to understand the teacher’s quiet enjoyment of her success. The outcome of her risky ploy turns the tide for his wayward inclinations. Johnny’s gratitude to her now is boundless.
Johnny graduates from high school. He had hoped to have another class with the math teacher because he wanted one more chance to brag and vaunt in front of her, but that did not happen. Mildred, Gene, grandpa, and grandma are proud to be at the graduation ceremony. Ray is too far gone with booze. He can hardly move. Mildred sees the principal, makes small talk, and then asks about future possibilities for Johnny. The principal shakes his head, and someone interrupts and distracts him. Mildred defers the discussion of employment prospects for perhaps another time.
The ceremonies begin, and students walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. Mildred observes the principal clapping his hands in slow motion as Johnny walks across the dais to the podium. Spotting his family among the seated guests, he grins and waves to them. Mildred makes a quick mental note. One, to have a serious discussion with her boy, and two, to avoid conversation with the principal.
After graduation rituals, Johnny and his buddies head to the local bar. High on flowing beer and incessant toasting, drunken discussions on their future prevail. Befuddled and tipsy, in a burst of intoxicated enthusiasm, they decide to join the Navy. Why delay? They decide to meet up at the recruiter’s office the next morning. More toasting follows their brilliant conclusion even as they stumble out of the bar.
The next day only three of these flag-waving stalwarts show up at the recruiting station and enlist. Johnny preempts Mildred’s plan to talk with him by announcing his enlistment in the Navy. Grandpa and grandma have their fears and misgivings but know they must let go. Being immigrants, they are proud of and grateful to Johnny. He is proof of this immigrant family’s loyalties in service to their country.
Inevitably, the call to boot camp comes quickly, and a few neighbors come out to see Johnny off. Rita Faye promises to wait for him. He warns her it may be a couple of years’ wait. He is expecting orders to report for duty directly after training is complete. Tearfully, Rita nods.
Johnny enjoys the rigor and camaraderie as he trains at the Great Lakes Naval Station. As expected, he is off on his first commission as a seaman as soon as training is over. It is also a proud moment in US Naval history. Johnny is on the maiden voyage of the much-anticipated super-carrier, the USS Forrestal, the first in its class.
Boot camp and the demanding routine on board the super-carrier are exciting and an eye-opener for Johnny. All his fussing over food disappears when he realizes the alternative is to go hungry. No grandma is around to coddle him into eating. He develops a love for tomatoes which he has scorned all his life. The physical exercise and extreme exertion are exciting. Johnny loves delving into the details of weaponry and the operations of aircraft carriers. It is a grueling daily schedule, but he realizes discipline and obedience are a must. Johnny yells, “Yes, Sir,” with enthusiasm, loud and clear. However, he also gets into minor scrapes. How can he not? He also knows disciplinary action soon follows.
One memory he never tires of retelling is his time in the brig. A recruit is exhausted and tired of the unending brutal routine. He wants to call in sick for a few days. Easier said than done. The young man figures if he is wounded, he can rest in the sick bay for a few days. He asks his two buddies, Johnny, and another friend, to jump on his legs to injure him. They oblige and leap on his outstretched legs from the upper berth. Hurt seriously, he ends up in the sick bay. An inquiry ensues on how this happened. Needless to say, all three end up in the brig for a few weeks.
It’s been almost two and a half years since the USS Forrestal departed Norfolk on its maiden voyage. Johnny and his crew were zigzagging their way through the Mediterranean, and all the Cold War adversary hot spots but are finally heading home.
The trained seamen, their sea legs stronger and sturdier than ever, look forward to their next assignments. They have to take an Aptitude/IQ test. Johnny scores high. He finds out he can pursue any job the Navy offers at his level. A huge chart shows a cross-section of the carrier. The opportunities available at various points on the ship are marked in bold.
Johnny reviews the cross-section and eliminates all positions below the waterline. A smart choice because he has seen A Night to Remember. It is harder to escape from below if the ship is going down. He looks at the top deck and sees the Bridge. Nah. Too high. Below the Bridge, he sees a room with lots of equipment and monitors, with the words “Electronics Engineer” printed across it. Wow. That sounds sexy, and he opts for it.
After completing his tour, Johnny receives an honorable discharge. There is more positive news on the results of his Aptitude Test. He can return to school to study Electronics Engineering on the GI Bill.
However, before Johnny can go to college, he is back in Granite City. Anxious grandparents and Millie are awaiting his return. Before Johnny reaches home, he receives word that grandpa has died. Ray is too far gone with drinking, hallucinating horribly, and unaware of all that is happening around him. Johnny consoles his blind grandma and takes care of funeral arrangements. Gene is unwell, and Millie is caring for him and the nightclub. A nervous, apprehensive Rita Faye is also waiting, wedding bells ringing in her ears.
After grandpa’s funeral, Johnny starts a job hunt and receives an offer from one of the Missile Sites in North Dakota. Rita and John marry. It is a small but lovely wedding, then they pack up their car and start driving north to their new life together.