Play Rehearsal Night, With a Side of Greased Flagpole
For so many years, decades even, one of the things that defined a graduate of Cisco High School (CHS) was the Senior Play, regardless whether the graduate was actually in the play. In a book by Ed Jackson, entitled No Other Time Like This, about the CHS graduating class of 1947, it is clear the Senior Play was always memorable to all, whether members of the class participated directly in the play or not. I remember in the late 1950’s being invited by my older cousins Faye and Joyce (Redwine) to see the Senior Play in that classic auditorium in the old 3-story building between west 6th and 7th streets, between avenues K and L.
But by the time my class became seniors — class of 1964 — the Senior Play had been taken out of the picture, part of the many things our class was denied. We were even denied a high school building — the 3-story classic was condemned! We had to attend our Senior year in high school in the Junior High building we had been in for grades 6 through 8. (See The M-4….And the “M” Stands for… [May, 2012]) I am not seeking sympathy, empathy, or pity here; I believe our class adjusted to circumstances beyond our control to rise phoenix-like above the mediocrity to which many thought us doomed; we emerged as one of the most unusual graduating classes ever, academic-wise and activity-wise. The strong bonds of friendship Cisco schools made possible definitely combined with our teenaged angst struggling with adult pressures created by our unusual circumstances to create unusual results, like the birth of the M-4.
Nonetheless, it is inaccurate to say we did not have a play our Senior year, even though it was not “the” Senior Play. And it was done in a very unorthodox way, commensurate with the very unorthodox CHS Seniors 1964. Moreover, an unexpected, unintended “M-4″ moment flashed along the way.
In the summer of 1963, before the school year started — a school year we knew was literally going to be topsy-turvy with make-shift campuses all over town and students shuttled among all of them — several of us, including Adling, Berry, Cole, and me (those who would become the M-4) approached Mrs. Mulliner, sophomore English and speech teacher, wife of Rev. Mulliner of the First Presbyterian Church in Cisco, about offering a speech class; our thoughts were that we did not have to have a bare-bones schedule just because we had bare-bones facilities (e.g. Our science labs were held at CJC on the hill.). Also, such a class, in our thinking, would help sooth the “wound” of no Senior Play, in a round-about way.
To her credit, Mrs. Mulliner agreed to teach it and got administrative approval. I’m really speculating now long after the fact, but this agreement seems like a compromise looking back so far. For many of us Mrs. Mulliner had lost credibility with us as our teacher back when we were sophomores, not so much due to her fault, but because she had been miss-assigned, in our opinion — she was better suited for lower grades, and we felt she had been treating us as pre-high schoolers; the fact we had been prepared for high school so well by such master teachers as Mrs. Hart and Mrs. Schaefer in Cisco Jr. High made us expect more than we got from Mrs. Mulliner. Not that we were deserving of being treated as mature, for our behavior toward her in Sophomore English was indeed sophomoric in level and below that! Perhaps there were a few of us who felt guilty of how we had treated her, and perhaps she felt she had a second chance to treat us differently than she had previously. So, my speculation goes, there was a two-way opportunity to make amends for all involved in the creation of an originally unplanned class — speech.
In order to justify the creation of the course, for not enough had responded to the invitation to join the four of us who had approached Mrs. Mulliner, several people were “persuaded” to add speech to their schedule, a situation the “persuaded” did not appreciate. So, joining the four of us and Mark Kurklin, Joe Woodard, Earl Carson, Carolyn (Hamilton), Jamie (Rawson), and Hope (Harrington), were Billy Pence, Mike Joyner, Keith Starr, Charlie Stephenson, and Buford Green. Conflicts were inevitable because of the “drafted” enrollment, and Mrs. Mulliner’s authority was challenged right away; I felt partly responsible for getting her into this mess, so I tried to keep my “shenanigans” to a minimum (VERY difficult for me personally); Cole was known to date Mrs. Mulliner’s daughter, Margaret, so he was compelled to be as “good” as he could be in speech (VERY difficult for him, also); “natural” troublemakers in the class, notably Macon, Keith, and Charlie, kept the class disruptive, and it rubbed off on Adling, himself already a “natural.” He walked out of the class despite her warnings not to do so, which led to him to drop the class in the middle of the school year; Berry had sided with Adling on all the conflicts of the first semester, and he also dropped the class. Half of the M-4-to-be (half of the “proto-M-4″) thus spent the time as teacher aides for Mrs. Edward Lee for the second semester. I can’t remember how many did drop, but the class was definitely smaller the second half of the year.
Partly to make up for the losses in enrollment, and partly because we reminded Mrs. Mulliner of why we had wanted the class in the first place, the speech class decided to form a Drama Club and invite any Juniors or Seniors not in speech class to join, all under the idea that we would put on some kind of play — in spite of our unusual, Spartan facilities and circumstances.
By the time I had gotten over my chicken pox from the Christmas holidays (See That Damn Dam Painting! [April, 2013]) I had written two short plays, plays written in the spirit of my short stories from the previous year — stories designed to shock and startle, like those of Edgar Allan Poe (I called them Stories to Ponder.). One play was Analysis In Black, a story of five trapped miners who all die from poisonous gas in the end, and the other was The Paper Switch, a twisted play on pardoning a death-row prisoner about to be executed. (Those who know me well and have read some of my stuff from back in those days know that I was motivated by writing the last thing my fellow students and my teachers would expect a high-schooler to write.)
After the month’s laughable “probation” for the M-4 (meaning about mid-March or so) (for more on this “probation,” see The M-4…And the ‘M’ Stands for…. [May, 2012], as well as That Damn Dam Painting! [April, 2013]) I, as President of the Drama Club, began pushing putting on one of my plays, reading for the speech class and the club Analysis In Black. Of the two plays it would require the simpler set, an important factor, given the play had to be presented in the middle of the gymnasium floor — the stage on one side of the gym had been converted into a classroom. Despite the fact there were no female roles and because of the fact the school was divided in sympathy for the M-4, interest began to grow. Because Mrs. Mulliner was sympathetic toward our unnecessarily harsh “punishment,” I now speculate, she was easily supportive.
As the author of the play, I was the director, and Cole volunteered to be chief stage manager and sound effects man. I got to choose five guys from the Drama Club for the cast from a series of try-outs; I chose Macon Strother, Billy Wilson, Joe Woodard, Mark Kurklin, and Jr. David Waters (barely over Earl Carson — don’t know if Earl ever forgave me for that!).
Such was the background of one particular week night of play rehearsal of Analysis In Black about midway in our rehearsal schedule over at my house. Ever the award-winning parents for patience, my parents had allowed us to clear a large area in the middle of the living room as our “rehearsal stage.” It was a rehearsal Mrs. Mulliner could not attend, which did not bother her, for she was confident from our previous rehearsals we could do the play without making fools of ourselves, or, at least, that was the impression she had given me.
That night Adling perhaps was having a bit of regret dropping speech, as he called to find out what was going on. I suppose Berry was on a date that night (He was the chief “ladies’ man” of the M-4.) or, perhaps, Berry was serving an extended “grounded” period of probation placed upon him by his parents in the wake of the birth of the M-4. Anyway, Adling came over to the house, as that was the “happening” place that night. I scheduled with the cast to pull a prank on Adling by having him read the line that queued Macon to attack the speaker of the line. (All in step with the stuff Adling and I have done to each other over the years — see Ode to William L. (Bill) Adling, [May, 2012].) We were still laughing over that when who should show up but Cole, a surprise, as the stage manager did not have to be present for this rehearsal. Three of the M-4 were now present.
Cole was not pleased with the news he bore. He shared with us that the sophomore class had run up a class flag close to the top of the flagpole near the front entrance of the faux high school where the M-4 had put all the school desk-chairs atop the flat roof back in February. Cole could not rip the flag down by himself, as they had greased the bottom half of the pole generously with axle grease. Hardly any discussion was necessary; we had to stop everything we were doing and go take that flag down! Junior David Waters, the only non-Senior there was as enthusiastic as the rest of us — the sophomores (class of 1966) were not his class (class of 1965)! For the just-off-probation three, it felt flattering that the chaos we had started for the school year was being continued, but the fact it was not our class (class of 1964) doing it trumped that feeling. We had our upperclassman pride to uphold!
We decided to all go attend to the matter in Wilson’s dad’s pick-up, which, handily, had a ladder in the back, and in Cole’s car. I think I told my parents we were all going to Woody’s (“the” hamburger, jukebox joint of Cisco) for a break from rehearsal, and soon we were on our way, driving slowly and quietly as we approached the building. The “very experienced three” reminded everyone that we had during the chair escapade to deal with the threat of Mr. Mitchell, Senior Robert Mitchell’s dad and school custodian, living across the street from the school, so stealth was important.
Stealth seemed “thrown to the winds” as Wilson ground the gears and gunned the engine while backing the pick-up bed up against the greased pole to give the climber, whoever that would be, a “stepping stool” start-up the pole. Neither Mr. Mitchell or even a passer-by motorist appeared. Cole stepped up and volunteered to climb the pole, as he felt responsible for getting us in position to be caught, which was true enough. Wiping as much of the grease off as he could with proto-rags from the vehicles, we assisted Cole up the pole. He shimmied up the pole admirably, grabbed the home-made flag, and ripped it off the pole.
As Cole hurled the flag down into the pick-up bed and started back down, car lights approached! Who should these lights belong to but the principal, Mr. Midkiff, who just happened to drive by at that moment! It was a moment pregnant with decision, but all eight of us sensed we should make a break for it. Cole jumped down into the pick-up bed and arm-vaulted over the side of Wilson’s pick-up. How the non-drivers scattered was all chance; Cole headed for his car; Strother, Kurklin, and I just happened to follow Cole; Woodard, Waters, and Adling stayed with Wilson, who had the pick-up started and on its way. The “Cole four” hid in the shadows of the building’s entrance near the spot where the M-4 lifted the chairs and watched the “Wilson four” roar southward down the side street (Avenue H). It looked like Mr. Midkiff was giving good chase and that he was about to catch up to the pick-up, but we in the shadows did not hang around to make sure. Fairly certain we did see the vehicles down the road stopping as we peeked over our fleeing shoulders, we made quick time to Cole’s car and spun gravel to head for Woody’s and/or my house.
Imagine what was going through Adling’s head as Mr. Midkiff, having stopped the pick-up, came up to the cab to see who had tried to elude him. There Adling was, just over a month from being expelled for the chair/desk escapade, caught red-handed with warnings of “keeping his nose clean or he would not graduate” erupting in his head. Adling was quoted in my memoirs at this moment as saying to himself, “This is it! It’s all over now!” He immediately thought he would be the one M-4 not allowed to graduate, while the other three received their diplomas, two of which were lucky enough to be in the “Cole four” right now instead of with “Hard-Luck” Adling as part of the “Wilson four.” Mr. Midkiff fixed his gaze on Adling and said something like “You just can’t seem to stay out of trouble, can you?”
An explanation of what was going on, corroborated by a greasy ripped flag in the back of the pick-up, was quickly communicated to the principal. After a pause, he let them go and told them he would speak to them later in school. When Wilson’s pick-up returned to my house with its four, much to the relief of we four already at the house who had got off that night “Scot-free,” the two groups compared stories of what just happened, forgetting about play rehearsal. Five cast members and three-fourths of the M-4 — Adling, Cole, Wilson, Woodard, Strother, Kurklin, Waters, and I, had a school night to remember, and a certain four, containing a very nervous M-4 Adling, were a little more apprehensive about attending school than usual the next few days.
Nothing ever came of Mr. Midkiff ever talking to anyone, including to Adling, about the flag and its greasy flagpole. Now, about 50 years later, I am going to guess why, as, given all that was still to come in the school year (That Damn Dam Painting [April, 2013]), we never risked asking why back then. Mr. Midkiff, throughout all the M-4 did, never seemed antagonistic toward the four of us; he was just the mouth piece of the powers that tried to squelch us; he just might have been on the side of the community who thought we did not deserve the punishment we got; whenever he could, he tended, in my opinion, to give us some slack. But, mainly, I think that the undoing of a prank the night of play rehearsal we pulled off with only half of us caught was seen for what it was — we did the administration’s work, the clean-up, for them, something they did not have to do the next morning.
Besides, when Mr. Mitchell, who had heard all the commotion at his house from across the road that night and had started to walk across when he recognized Mr. Midkiff’s car, found out the details of the greased flagpole, he said he would have been happy to help us get the flag down, allowing us to use a taller school ladder from inside, had he gotten over before Mr. Midkiff showed up.
Needless to say, Adling was the most relieved of all, when it came to visited play rehearsals and greased flagpoles.
Amidst trying to pull off an unlikely play for class pride, we had unexpectedly saved our class pride in a quicker, slightly different way. And the reputation of the M-4 received a boost to boot!
P.S. Analysis In Black was presented in the middle of the gym floor on a tarpaulin in front of black-painted stage flats and black-painted real rocks, all prepared by Cole and me. It was supposed to be a play of Poe-like shock and awe, but, predictably, the play was remembered by serious moments misinterpreted as comical. There was laughter at my poorly written line “Don’t take it so hard…” rendered by “older uncle” miner Billy Wilson to his “younger nephew” Mark Kurklin when it was clear they were all going to die. And when the lantern was blown out signaling the play’s end, when no one was supposed to have much breath left as they were all dying, “young nephew” Kurklin blew it out with a mighty breath! Mrs. Gena Cotton, freshman English teacher and choir director, one of the best, sweetest teachers ever, afterwards scolded her classes for laughing inappropriately, I heard later, reminding them of the effort the production of a play like this took under such severely handicapped theatrical conditions. Thanks to Mrs. Cotton!
Personally, I appreciated the efforts and dedication of the cast; they did not have to do what they did. Among my fond memories from our “substitute” Senior Play, besides the greased flagpole, the sophomore flag, and being in the right group of four on that one rehearsal night, are a.) Adling and Berry crashing another rehearsal at the gym by crawling up into the roof above the area where Mrs. Mulliner was sitting, b.) the entire cast asked to remain “dead” after the play until everyone had exited the gym, and c.) the sudden, renewed interest following the play in my short stories.