The Cell

by Donna Schoenkopf

I moved to Oklahoma the first time when I was 15 years old.

It was a circuitous route. My beginnings were in Hawaii with an Ozzie and Harriet family. Then came the death of my handsome and brilliant father when I was nine and he was 38. Next, the move to Montana for a summer with my aunt and cousins under the truly Big Sky, then dropping down to California where Mom bought a little ranch house in Pomona, and then the fateful marriage of Mom and Adolph.

We won’t go into the trials and tribulations of that marriage or the way it helped to form my character.

Then on to Oklahoma, new family and all. Fifteen years old. Hawaiian/California Girl. To Shawnee. Oklahoma. A town of about 25,000 then.

I was in the 9th grade. The cliques at school were intense. Bobby sox (of which I had none) were in, full skirts with petticoats underneath. Boy, was I out of style. Some days I came home crying about the loneliness. Once my mother took me on her lap and rocked me in her rocking chair, my legs hanging over the arms of the chair, me sobbing into her neck about how ugly I was. She told me I WAS pretty. She took me to a mirror and combed my hair (in a ridiculously old fashioned style) and put lipstick on me (a shade I never would have worn) and said, “Now look how pretty you are!” I laughed and cried at the same time and hugged her and loved her with every molecule of my being.

Life was hard with our new stepfather. That’s all I’ll say. Well, I’ll say one more thing about it. The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve felt compassion for him. My friend, Carole, said that she always felt compassion for people who lashed out. She says they are battered souls. And now I feel compassion for them, too.

But at the time it was really, really scary. I was scared all the time. I was scared down deep into the marrow of my bones.

So I went to school for a year. With no friends and a scary stepfather at home.

And school was a relief from the fear-gripped home I lived in, even though I was alone.

There was a little glimmer of hope, though, in Mr. Milstead’s class.

Mr. Milstead taught 9th grade science. He was a great teacher. He was dry. And funny and smart and REALLY knew how to teach. I loved that class, and little did I know, The Cell was in that class.

The Cell

You were wondering when I was going to get to The Cell, weren’t you. Well, the preamble is important.


They saved my life.


They saved my life by making life worth living and being my bulwark against all enemies, foreign and domestic. By the beginning of the 10th grade I couldn’t wait to get to school to see them.

They were/are a bunch of guys. They have known each other since childhood. They have connections with each other that are deep and wide. Stories and ideas and families all intertwined.

Have you ever heard of a karass? No? Well, it’s a term invented by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle that means a group of people who have been brought together by crazy fateful events. They are a group which will never come apart.

That’s The Cell.

They were the smart guys in high school. Brilliant, is more like it. No. Seriously. Brilliant.

They weren’t the jocks. They were the comedians. They were the end of The Beats and the beginning of The Hippies. They had a savoir-faire and hilarity that I have never experienced before or since.

They were about breaking out of the Old and advancing into the New. They were about twisting the existing into a pretzel of comedy. They were about FREEDOM.

First, their name ... The Cell.

Remember, this was in the late fifties, and McCarthyism was still a-bubblin’ and a-boilin’. The TV show, I Led Three Lives, warned of robotic Communist cells, ready to take over our country, like aliens from another planet.

So what does that merry band of crazies call themselves? The Cell.

And after the first year of my living in Shawnee, and being in Mr. Milstead’s science class, and watching these guys from afar, I fell in love with them. All of them.

They had a million jokes, a million gimmicks, they made everyone laugh, all teachers loved them (they were very smart), the students loved them (they were very funny), the principal loved them (they were the spirit of the school).

backstage at All My Sons

And they chose me, ME, to be a kind of mascot to their group. No that’s not right. I was the girl. Sort of like Lois Lane. Not as powerful, but certainly not a dope. Spunky. They were teenage boys after all, and a girl is a GOOD thing. There were other girls, in and out and here and there. But I was The Girl.

Because I got it. I was the same animal as they. I was one of them.

So hilarity ensued, and I was their most ardent fan.

A memory ...

It is late at night. We are walking down the deserted airport runway. The sky is full of stars. Freedom and exhilaration are stretching out through the Universe. We are happy and in love with life.

Another memory ...

It is late at night. We are at the Wide Awake Café. We are listening to “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by Dave Brubeck. Over and over and over and over again. It has filled every nook and cranny of the place with its crazy rhythm and totally whacked melody. It is OUR song. This time and this place is OURS.

And then Graduation Night. We had some drinks of some sort, in glasses, and Mike said, “Let’s meet again in 30 years.” And we all agreed and threw our glasses into the fireplace, just like Zorba the Greek or Englishmen at a funeral.

The Cell - then

And we went our separate ways.

For thirty years.

The Cell - thirty years later

Then, thirty years later, my phone rang.

“Hello,” I said.

And a voice said, in a low and mysterious voice, “It’s thirty years.”

And I knew INSTANTLY that it was The Cell calling.

After a lot of “Wow! What’s new? How’s by you?” we decided we’d have our reunion in Victoria, Canada. (Always the iconoclasts!)

Donna and two Cellmates

Need I tell you how wonderful it was?

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Insert pictures here.

And now I’m back in Oklahoma.

The Cell

We see each other more often now. And EVERY SINGLE TIME we are together ...

(All together now!)


The Cell
Donna Schoenkopf recently retired from teaching at 61st Street School in South Central Los Angeles, and has moved back to Oklahoma, where she spent her teens.


Karass, huh?  Sounds like we are the perfect definition.  By the way, for a while I had “Blue Rondo a la Turk” as a cell phone ringtone ...

2009-04-1 by Don Walker

Hey, Donna, would you identify these guys?  Maybe I went to school with their older brothers or sisters.

2009-04-2 by Betsy

And just think what cool big brothers they were—and still are!

2009-04-4 by Nelda Walker Ward

I seem to recall a group of snot-nosed young twerps.  Actually, I was glad to be the older brother & get to know this wild bunch.  And I loved Mr. Milstead’s class, too.  Enjoyed the article.

2009-04-4 by Virgil (Bud)

for sure, the mass of brainpower these guys brought together could have toppled governments and ushered in a new world order!  How COOL is that?

2011-09-23 by sharon smith

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