It was a grand pilgrimage. We came into Spartanburg to meet up with other baby-boomers back at the trunk of a tree whose branches had reached out far beyond the scope of its sapling years. The trunk was now thick and the bark scarred. But a change was in the wind that would not be kind to that tree. Word was that the old facility would no longer function as it had since 1954: Park Hills Elementary School was to be no more.
The parking lot filled up, and the parade began. Many of the folks were still quite attractive, but you could hear bones creaking as some of us old people filed towards the school house. We moved at a pace that would not in any way be mistaken for a track and field event, and no doubt it would’ve made a herd of turtles laugh.
I’m sure most of these geezers were full of anticipation, as well as wheezes, coughs, grunts, groans, and God knows how much prescription (and perhaps non-prescription) medication. Wheel chairs, oxygen tanks, canes, and crutches were all over the place.
I saw one toupee, but tried not to stare. To do so would have been rude, and us graduates of Park Hills are far beyond such a capability. I felt no covetousness for the rug, as such a thing as that on me would look like a squirrel trying to have its way with a bowling ball.
But the commonplace handicap noticed once they began to speak was–mind-slippance.
Questions like: “Am I supposed to know you?” and “Now, who did you used to be?” were interjected between remarks such as: “I thought you wuz dead!” But beyond all that, there were many magnificent smiles and very warm embraces from old friends. The trip was well worth the time.
A hundred songs come to mind, but the lyrics are likely to take on esoteric meanings for each individual and certainly for each generation that would hear them. But for the memory of Toy, Tommy and Timmy Caldwell who walked those halls with us back in the day, I’m sure any tune by The Marshall Tucker Band would be appropriate.
A scholarship fund has been started in the honor of our old principal who was famous for saying: “Remember that a principal is a prince of a pal.” He was also noted as often saying: “Hey! Hey, hey, hey, hey! Get your fist out of his nose, and don’t run in the hall!”
Well, the old tree had produced many leaves. We were the leaves that had gathered the nurturing light from the sun a half century ago. As leaves, some of us had blown away; others raked into compost heaps and still others had been pressed into the pages of memory books.
It was into those pages we would now look, but also at the memory pages of the enormous root structure that had worked so well to keep the tree alive for so long: Park Hills Elementary School enjoyed having a fine staff and faculty. Several of their names came up in conversations as we toured the building and grounds: Ms. Hertzog, Ms. DePass, Ms. Stroud, Ms. Scott, Ms. Gray, Ms. Zula Lee Wood, and so many others. And of course our guest of honor that weekend: our physical ed teacher and coach of the most formidable football team to ever take the field– Coach Radford.
We were a tough squad–had to be back then! Besides helmets and shoulder pads, memory serves that (I think) we were allowed to carry at least a knife and brass knuckles with us into the game. One time Johnny Hauser threw the ball and I caught it. The crowd on both sides stood up and cheered as I ran towards the goal posts. That they were the wrong goal posts didn’t matter: folks were excited to see us carry the ball in any direction: possession being nine tenths of the law. It’s much like politics and business are today.
A quiet and devout lady commented outside the lunchroom that perhaps a few (and only a small few) of our old teachers didn’t quite fit the bill as kind and venerable mentors to our eager young minds, but in quiet vespers she had more than once prayed for them to be let out of Purgatory. I told her she was magnanimous, but assured her that what goes up must come down: in a sense of proper balance, I’d always pray ’em back in.
Back then, we were a part of a huge experiment carried out from expectations of a new hope for the world beyond the dark times of a long economic depression and then World War Two. But it was more than that.
An armistice in Korea had been signed the year before, and there was no imagination in our heads for what was to come in Vietnam. Now America was to teach their children how to find their place in a world forever changed from what it had been before and with hope, never to be that way again.
A new plan was needed to prepare them (us) for a different kind of systemic linkage than the one that held together the previous generation. Suburbia was spreading, and pulling with it new industry and business, and newer technology–some of it slowly developing, and some of it abrupt.
Telephones and television were commonplace in our homes, whereas most of our parents had grown up with neither. But it was still even more than that: social change brought about with our generation would prove to be more than the world had ever known before–far more than our parents and even the new age teachers we had could dream of at the time.
A new generation of teachers had emerged more open to innovation than the traditional roles that for so many years defended a status quo that was forever gone. They would be the roots of the tree tapped into deeper springs full of various and sundry minerals that would help form the shape, size and color of the new leaves emerging for each season–hopefully brighter and better developed for facing so many new challenges certain to come from our rapidly changing world.
A curriculum of disciplines was intense and diverse: what we were expected to be exposed to and accomplish in a half dozen years amounted to a level somewhat afar from what was expected out of eight years barely a generation before. We would go on to become hippies, yippies, yuppies, neo-cons, cons, ex-cons, elec-trons, protagonons, neurons, and morons mirroring the tapestry of our generation all across America.
After a tour of the school, we all gathered at The Beacon Drive-In to get our oil changed. They still pile on the mountain of (delicious-but-greasy) fried onion rings on top of the sea of French fries on top of the Ham-A-Plenty; Steak-A-Plenty, Slice-A-Plenty(BBQ), or whatever you ordered (key word here being “Plenty”). There was, and still is, enough iced tea available on the premises to float a battleship or two, and everything is served now in a clean environment where “no smoking is allowed”.
Back in the day, we stood on sawdust-covered floors at counters right up where they were cooking, and I’m pretty sure smoking was required. Much has changed except they still take orders from thousands of people and never write anything down. I love that place!
Most of us met that evening at the pavilion in Cleveland Park. It was a grand social. I thought the appropriate band to perform for such a crowd would’ve been: “Geriatric and the Pacemakers”, but I think they were booked at a retirement center down in Florida somewhere that weekend.
But the DJ was sufficient and fun. He opened with a “Marshall Tucker Band” piece that helped set the mood among the eclectic memories saturating the room. Later, there were a number of speeches–quite well done and quite funny, too! We were reminded of the pragmatically regimented way were taught so many skills by coach Radford, and others.
One particular memory was pointed out that faced universal recognition: With each new skill, Coach would tell us how it was done and then he would demonstrate. I always got a kick out of how his face would turn beet-red after showing us how to do a double forward roll on the tumbling mat. But with that, and with the systematic procedures of all the sports, he would end with the emphatic expression of:
“…and THAT is the manner in which it is done!”
Well, it was, and it is. I saw so many faces of men and women who had been such fine children full of energy, enthusiasm and wit. I noticed that they are still full of the same although the energy knob has been turned down a notch. Some that I would have loved to see were not there, but isn’t that the way of school reunions? I remember so many, and often wonder if they would remember me at all.
The whole event was wonderful, and for days, the opiate of nostalgia sent me to many locations searching for old pictures, and of course the inevitable stream of memories always associated with such a journey. I thought about how we had been, and what I would do differently if I could (God forbid) go back and start it all over again.
Most of it I wouldn’t change for anything: I’ve had a good life. But if I could change just one thing, I believe it would be to simply have been much nicer than I was to so many of you. Bob Hope sang: “Thanks for the Memories”. Well, I say it bigger.
Those yesterdays were what they were, and we cannot change them now except as for how we think about them. While it is good to be able to remember (a skill that diminishes with time), it really isn’t healthy to live in the past. So I live today, and should tomorrow come, it will have become the “today” in which I will live. I kinda hope you’ll be there, and wish you well. In the meantime, “…it’s a good time for me to head on down the line.” If that sounds a bit sappy, forgive me. Maybe, just maybe… I “heard it in a love song”.*
* “Heard it in a Love Song”
Written by Toy Caldwell
Performed by The Marshall Tucker Band
copyright-Spirit One Music