Beyond Good and Evil

Dr. Ronnie J. Hastings

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

The Flag Escapade — Phase II

Hey, man! Guess what we did with a couple of flags while Burzenski was still here!” This is probably a fair paraphrase of what Cole (Ode to Robert W. Cole [May, 2012) and I told Adling (Ode to William L. (Bill) Adling [May, 2012]) as soon as we knew that both flags had definitely disappeared (The Flag Escapade — Phase I [August, 2013]). We may have even added “Chalk up another one for the M-4!” or something like that, though technically it was “pulled off” by three war gamers — two of the M-4 and one “wanna be” M-4 member with whom Adling could not get along.

As a M-4 member, Adling, who had drifted away from the war game tables in our early years of high school, was duly impressed and congratulatory, but I feel strongly that before he went on talking about what we had done, he made sure Burzenski was actually gone. Assured of this fact, the three of us (Berry (Ode to Bob B. Berry [May, 2012]) was still on “perpetual summer family vacation.”) put two general facts together: With or without the public’s knowledge of Phase I and any connections the two politically incorrect flags had with the M-4, the fame of our quartet was to us far outweighing our infamy in the wake of our graduation the previous May, especially since we had not become bitter about our “punishment phase” over the chair/desk escapade and we had clearly never been “brought down” by any disciplinary procedure against us, as shown by our being the big reason the dam got painted for our graduating class and by the “M-4 commercial” I gave in my speech at graduation (That Damn Dam Painting! [April, 2013]).

The second fact was that we had begun, emboldened by the support we recently had been receiving from both our peers and many adults in the community, making tangible our legacy as a group (Adling’s design of a M-4 symbol transferred to four “calling cards” he made for our billfolds, Adling and I writing up a summary of the chair/desk escapade and submitting it for publication in Reader’s Digest, and our retrieving, before we graduated, an “artifact” of Adling’s supper Berry had brought to him beneath the gym floor the night of February 11, 1964 — a paper cup that remained in a dresser drawer in my room at my house for years after I had left for college).

Coupling these two facts together amidst our three-way conversations and laugh-fests, lubricated with plenty of Dad’s root beer, it seemed only “natural” to think that if we put up more flags, this time M-4 flags brandishing Adling’s design, that they would also mysteriously come down with nothing being said as had the flags of Phase I. It was beneath our “dignity” to not only put up the very same flags, but also to display them in the very same places, so two other sites were thought of for our new flags. When the M-4 was “clicking” in the planning stage, we were wont to sew perplexity and confusion, given our record of successes and the reactions to those successes. Predictably, our eighteen-year-old brains spent little time contemplating what we might reap! The new sites decided upon were 1) the relatively short and unused flagpole atop Cisco’s City Hall, right above the roof-high facade with “City Hall” and “1915” on it, and 2) the flagpole in front of the administration building of CJC (Cisco College).

Thus began the planning of Phase II. The three of us, sometimes two at a time, experienced the fun and euphoria of planning that reminded us of our planning sessions of the chair/desk escapade back in late 1963 and early 1964. Early on, we knew how we could get to the roof of the City Hall from street level. We set the date for Phase II on the “5-month anniversary” of the chair/desk escapade, July 11, 1964. It seemed only “appropriate.” Much of the details stemmed from the success of Phase I, like meeting in the darkness of the condemned high school building; Cole would be out after midnight anyway, so we would use his car; both Adling and I were within easy walking distance of the condemned building, so we would sneak out of our houses and arrive on foot to rendezvous with Cole. A slight difference with Phase I would be doing Phase II after midnight, when all our parents would be fast asleep.

As execution day approached, old white half-sheets and black enamel paint were used to paint on the same site behind my garage in the alley where we had painted the two, more colorful Phase I flags, two M-4 flags with only Adling’s stylistic symbol, using one of the “calling cards” as a guide. This was the work of Adling, his younger brother John, and me. Of course, once they were dry, they were stored in Cole’s car trunk, and I got rid of signs of paint on grass blades in the alley.

But, as in Phase I, we needed some baling wire to attach the flag on the City Hall flagpole (The wire used in Phase I from Cole’s dad’s ranch had all been used.), a fact that did not occur to us until the night of the 10th. To go out to my dad’s farms and ranches or to Cole’s dad’s ranch was a waste of gas for a little bit of wire, so we decided to raid the pile of discarded baling wire alongside Thornton’s Feed Mill in the back along Avenue E. Though he was to deny it years later, Lee (Ode to Dr. Bill R. Lee [April, 2012]) was riding around with Adling and me on this wire raid, and, we invited him, having no problems telling Lee everything, as he had never “squealed” on us, to join us the next night, to become an “honorary” M-4 member, as Burzenski had become in Phase I. Not surprisingly, Lee declined because he thought he could not get out of his house like Adling and I could and because he could not morally bring himself to participate. (This led us later to joke that Lee was the “conscience” of the M-4; we always checked with him before we did anything, but we never followed his cautionary advice! It just made us feel better that we had checked with him.)

Nonetheless, the four of us “cased” the block on which Thornton’s is located, and, with a “cleared” casing, I slipped from the back seat of Adling’s slow-moving car onto the street running, much as Berry had done from Cole’s car during the chair/desk escapade, with car interior lighting squelched. In the time Adling “made the block again” I ran and grabbed a couple of strands of wire from the pile and was in place to slip back into the back door of the car when Adling stopped for the intersection at the corner of Avenue E and W 13th St. All this time our “conscience” in the car was telling us how wrong this was!

By the time the evening of the 11th rolled around, the wire was added to the trunk of Cole’s car and there was no fourth in the M-4 that night, neither Berry nor Lee. It is somewhat embarrassing to say, even fifty years later, but I had the art of sneaking out of my house, despite dogs inside the house and despite large coon hounds in the backyard, after my parents had fallen asleep, pretty much perfected. The route was out my bedroom window under a raised screen and onto the driveway on the “west” (SW) side of the house. I could do it without stirring a single bark or growl. I could return the reverse route back to my bed equally well.

In the dark shadow of the tall condemned auditorium less than a block from my escape window and just about a block or so from Adling’s escape spot from his house, two pedestrians met at Cole’s blue and white Chevy, which had goods-in-trunk. We were ready; it seemed like Phase I all over again to Cole and me. The three of us had not felt this exhilarated since the night we painted the dam back in late May! Endorphins and adrenaline of pranking surged through us as we decided I would be the driver, Adling, Cole, the flags, and the wire would all be in the back seat, and the first flag to be put up would be the one at City Hall.

So, with me driving Cole’s car, we did a couple of “casing” loops around the City Hall located at the corner of W 7th St. and Avenue E. The downtown area seemed deserted; we saw no other moving cars, not even police cars. Similar to the slow-down-and-slide-out-technique used in procuring the wire, Adling and Cole slid out an opened back door with one of the flags and the wire as I crept along the dark section of Avenue E between W 6th and W 7th Streets. I circled around in the downtown area to the obscure parking lot on E 7th St, a little less than two blocks away from the City Hall, across from Jake Morgan’s Feed Store and next to Mr. Donovan’s (Butch Donovan’s dad’s) garage. After parking with no lights on, I got out of the car to peek around the corner of the brick garage in a westerly direction along 7th St across Avenue D (now Conrad Hilton), and got a perfect view of the flagpole area atop City Hall, illuminated by street lights.

Meanwhile, Adling and Cole made their way to the shadows of the side of the building away from Ave. E. They negotiated and made their way up the old fire escape structure on that side of the building, as planned. They had to be extra careful not to make any significant noise, as across the alley at the back of the building was the city’s fire station, where, of course, someone was on duty. On top of the roof finally, they quickly determined the only way to get the flag at a decent height on the pole was to have Adling stand upon Cole’s shoulders. (I think to this day Adling, Berry, and I agree that Cole was clearly the stoutest [not in a “fat” way] of our quartet; he probably did more grueling ranch work than even I.)

From my vantage point about a block and a half away I could make out the surreal sight of two figures atop the front of the City Hall (We were so audacious and confident — some would say careless — that we all generally wore white tee-shirts, even for our “night work.”). Two figures all right, one standing atop the other! Adling climbed upon Cole’s shoulders with flag and part of the wire in hand. Cole held the rest of the wire, the pole for balance, and Adling’s ankles; he needed at least three hands! All this perilously close to the edge of the roof of the extra-tall storied (two of them) brick building! Adling made sure the flag was right-side-up, wired the top of the flag near the top of the pole with a few twists, reached down to get the rest of the wire from Cole, and then wired the bottom of the flag to the pole. As the flag unfurled, I could from my distance make out the whiteness of the flag-that-used-to-be-a-sheet in addition to the whiteness of two tee-shirts.

That sight was my cue to return for the pick-up of my compadres. I wanted to try to be as “on time” as Cole was for we other three at the end of the dam painting (That Damn Dam Painting! [April, 2013]). I was pleased with my effort, as when I pulled up slowly with opened back door to the place where they had slid out, the successful duo, with some spare remaining wire, had just reached the shadows of the pick-up site from off the fire escape, and in the back seat they both slid to join the remaining flag. Somehow, as I was driving away as inconspicuously as possible, we all managed to do the traditional M-4 handshake of success — this time a 3-way shake, two hands at a time.

Still no moving cars could be seen, so, feeling so good about what had just transpired, we circled back for a drive-by down 7th St in front of the City Hall to take a look at our handiwork. It was a most gratifying site, and that is an understatement!

I drove on out to the top of the hill at CJC, a summer campus as deserted as downtown Cisco that night, and in but a couple of minutes, it seemed, using the remaining wire and the flagpole chain, we had the second M-4 flag flying from atop the administration flagpole — our second, understated “gratifying” site!

Cole resumed his proper place as driver, we drove back to the shadows of the condemned high school auditorium and I got out of the car to return back to my bedroom less than a block away. Cole drove Adling to a similar distance from his house, and Adling soon was back in his bed successfully. Finally, Cole, as usual, returned home in the very wee hours of the morning. The deed was done; the M-4 had “struck” again!

As expected, the M-4 flag at CJC was gone the next morning, gone forever just like the two flags of Phase I. But, curiously, the flag atop the City Hall was still in place even after several days. All three of us had summer jobs in town (Cole at the Premier station on W 8th St. and at his dad’s ranch, Adling at Westfall’s service station across the intersection of Avenue N from Cole’s work site, also on W 8th St., and I at Austin’s Furniture and on my dad’s farms and ranches), and it seemed all three of us individually drove by City Hall each day after work to see if the flag was gone; it wasn’t.

More than a week passed; as in the case of the chair/desk escapade, we scrutinized our options when we gathered together at night. Nothing was being said, as Lee and John Adling were the only ones besides ourselves who knew how the flag got there, and in this long period of nothing being said we had told Berry about our latest “M-4 coup” as soon as he got back into town from vacation. More and more people noted the flag, many of whom recognized our symbol and knew exactly who had to be responsible, but few, if any, approached us because, as time went on, they were fearful their just talking to us about it would get us into trouble. We thought maybe the city was waiting for someone to try to take it down, for we were pondering the possibility of taking it down (We knew how exactly to do that!) to force the flag to “disappear” as planned, but wondered if that was what the city was anticipating. That thought was giving the city officials, as it turned out, too much credit.

The number of students and adults who figured out who had done it increased as the flag remained in place, and more inquiries started coming our way; we “played dumb” about the whole matter, just as we had done during the week after the night of the chair/desk escapade and the day of our “confession” back in February — neither confirming or denying our involvement, a sort-of M-4 version of taking the 5th Amendment.

Then, right after my parents and I returned from a family vacation, the following appeared as a caption under a front-page picture of two men holding the M-4 flag from atop City Hall stretched out between them in the July 21, 1964 (10 days after the “flag raising”) edition of The Cisco Press:

“MYSTERY FLAG — Justice of the Peace W.L. Lewis, left, and Fire Marshall C.R. Hightower are shown above holding a white flag that was taken down Monday night after flying several days on the pole atop City Hall. The strange looking insignia was painted on a bed sheet in black ink. City officials were at a loss to explain the flag or its markings or how it got on the flag pole. Mayor John H. Webb said ‘we would like to have any information that anyone might have about the mystery flag.'”

In the same edition, in the editor’s column, appeared:

“The Mystery of the City Hall Flag was being pondered at City Hall this week. A white flag made its appearance on the City Hall flag pole several days ago. Inquiries around the City Hall failed to find anyone with any information.

So Monday night, city police went up on top of the building and brought down the flag. It is a bed sheet with strange markings on it. Black muslins (sic), maybe, suggested Police Chief S.E. Parkinson.

We’ll be glad to hear from anybody who has information about the unusual flag.”

We could hardly believe our eyes! By now half the town could give the city all the information it wanted, and it was a tribute to M-4 sympathy that after 10 days the city admitted it was clueless. But clueless in more ways than one, for to call the Black Muslims “muslins” suggested embarrassing myopia and possibly racism (Apparently, they had figured out the “M” but not the “4” in Adling’s design.). Little wonder teenagers had cruelly and disrespectfully nicknamed Chief Parkinson “Porky.” (Recall, at this time nationwide the Civil Rights Movement had gotten underway, and we were on our way to years of demonstrations, marches, and riots before arriving at long-needed civil rights legislation.)

Adling’s mom, Lois “Mable” Adling (Mrs. Lois Adling, Mrs. Edward Lee, and the Big Afternoon [June 2012]) was now an employee of the City of Cisco, working at City Hall! She had seen the flag from its unfurling, and at that moment had the sinking feeling of thinking of her son, saying to herself “Surely not!!” Purposely, she did not ask Adling about it, so that when she was asked by the mayor if she knew anything about, she could truthfully answer she did not and not jeopardize her job. But, of course, deep down, she knew us and she knew the origin of the flag.

Hopes that things might “cool down” and “fade away” were dashed by another report in the local newspaper, dated July 26, 1964:

“There’s no late news on the unusual flag that was found atop City Hall the other day except that there were two of them. The second was found on the flag pole at Cisco Junior College.

Mayor John Webb reports that no acceptable explanation has come to him. Police Chief S.E. Parkinson said that an FBI agent looked at the flag and promised to see what he could make of the ensignia (sic). And we heard rumors that ‘They’ — the black muslums (sic) — planned to stage a demonstration in Cisco July 27th.

And some think the flags were the work of pranksters.”

This was getting out-of-hand! Had logical police work been at work here, we might have been forced to “fess up” at that point, but, now a whole new spin was emerging. Not only were the city officials overlooking the obvious, despite every reason to think it was the work of pranksters, they were fancifully and paranoically piling more and more “egg on their faces.” Whatever the outcome, it was looking more and more like the city was going to be more embarrassed than we. This was going far beyond our expectations, and if we ignored such words as “FBI,” our M-4 delight soared (How funny was it to think people might actually believe the Black Muslims would demonstrate in Cisco, Texas?); but it was a delight with a price — what was going to happen if we were “fingered?” Yet, the silliness of the town’s paranoia was apparently spreading as far as The Cisco Press could take it!

Accordingly, Cole and I both spent more and more time out on the farms and ranches, as much as our jobs in town would allow; poor Adling was stuck full-time in town working at Westfall’s. Adling had made it clear to Cole and me that it was imperative we deny everything now, for, given the public embarrassment the city stood to experience over their “coverage,” revenge would be saught against us, and the whole thing would treated as vandalous and criminal, despite the evidence to the contrary. It was deja vu for us; as in the chair/desk escapade, the spirit of the prank was probably not going to be taken into consideration (Would we ever learn that lesson?).

One hot afternoon two Cisco policemen pulled up at Westfall’s and asked to speak to Adling. Mr. Westfall, Billy Westfall’s dad, who probably had a good idea what was going on with the flag business and who had done what, refused, as Adling’s employer, to let them take up his work time. After the police had left, Adling dodged Mr. Westfall’s questions. About the same time attempts were made to talk to Cole and me, but we were out in our rural “hideaways” laboring. But not for long. One morning the police in the form of Chief Parkinson alone caught me at home alone after my parents had gone to work. I invited him in, and his nervousness helped to calm mine. He assured me he thought there was no criminality, but that he needed me to confess, stating there was reason to suspect me and some of “my friends” in regard to the “mystery flags.” Reminding me of the “confession scene” in the chair/desk escapade, I eschewed lying and told him I knew that it was a prank and that all the surmising about Black Muslims and demonstrations was both amazing and absurd. He asked me more than once for names and I told him I could not incriminate anyone. He left probably thinking they had “nailed” the perpetrators; the city had finally seen the “obvious.” Cole and Adling were similarly interviewed at their homes, both not giving out any names. We were separately told that we would have to appear before city court to sort out what should be done about this matter.

After the three separate interviews, the three of us “huddled” quite quickly. The investigation and impending court appearance now was publicly discussed. We three had to inform our parents, and they all experienced deja vu too, as it looked like the chair/desk escapade all over again. My girlfriend Sylvia, was, understandably none-too-pleased; I thought once more I was going to lose her. Mrs. Berry expressed a qualified relief she was glad Berry had been out-of-town at the time, as she knew he would have been there right with us. Our close social relationships with our loved ones was again at an all-time low. Those in town who would talk about it were torn between how absurd the city had looked in the whole affair and how we had this time “gone too far” with the “M-4 thing.”

On July 28, 1964, the Press reported:

“SOLUTION REPORTED TO ‘FLAG INCIDENT’ — The ‘flag incident’ in Cisco last week (!) was the work of three teenaged youths who raised the flags at City Hall and College Hill as a prank, Police Chief S.E. Parkinson reported today.

The chief indicated that the trio would be taken before Mayor John H. Webb in city court for a review of the case.”

And on Sunday, August 2, 1964:

“The Local Youths who put up the flags must appear before Mayor John Webb in city court on August 11th.”

On the evening of our city court appearance in the mayor’s office, my dad was with me at the insistence of my mother, and Adling and Cole appeared “without counsel” (My dad was not happy he was going, but he was, as were all the M-4 dads, not as “put out” with us as our mothers were; reaction to the actions of the M-4 was always gender-specific. Also, Mrs. Adling had to remain far away from this meeting, as, remember, she worked for the city.). Representing the city commission were three officials: Mayor Webb, City Secretary Hal Lavery, and Chief Parkinson. The strategy of the court had apparently been decided before the meeting and was two-fold: 1) make us “sweat it out” and consider our case as the last item of business, forcing us to sit through all their “official” proceedings, and 2) scare, threaten, embarrass, and corner us into some kind of emotional apology in order to minimize the embarrassment they had brought upon themselves in the matter.

1) was a very bad strategy, as it backfired on them, exposing under our gaze a general incompetency that accounted in our minds for how silly they had been in jumping to conclusions with no evidence, thereby rousing unnecessary fears and concerns in the citizens of Cisco. My dad, who had our backyard full of coon hounds, got to contribute his input as a dog owner — apparently the only serious dog owner in the room — on the growing problem of dog poisoning in the city limits. Adling, Cole, and I did all we could to keep from bursting out laughing at Chief Parkinson when he asked a question that had previously been answered, for anyone listening, concerning the incompetency of an elderly doctor having to draw patients’ blood in town.

By the time we came up on the agenda, therefore, it was hard for us to be respectful, but, under the circumstances, I thought we did a pretty good job listening; acting was a side skill if you were in the M-4. 2) was equally ineffective. They tried to scare us with references to the FBI and with a “whitecapping law,” which defined as a felony the public display of an insignia or symbol accompanied by a threat. Apparently lawyers had pointed out that since there was no threat involved, the law could not be cited in our case (Incidentally, the M-4 never, ever threatened anyone.). Instead of being scared, we thought it was “cool” our names had been turned over to the FBI, and, since we knew there was never a threat in anything we did, we thought all this talk about “whitecapping” was a waste of everyone’s time (We could never express these thoughts to our parents, only to each other and our peers.).

My favorite time of the city court session came when Secretary Lavery asked what the symbol stood for. I spoke up for the group and instead of saying something like “Where have you been the last few months?” I calmly related to him about how the M-4 came about from the chair/desk escapade. He then expressed his consternation that we should be so proud of such a legacy, a legacy he thought “scandalous and vandalous.” I wanted to state how indeed proud we were of our group, and then go into my diatribe that we definitely were not vandalous and that scandal on the part of the M-4 is merely a matter of opinion. I later thought how odd it was to be accused of scandal from someone compliant with the spread of stupid rumors about Black Muslims coming to Cisco; I think the City of Cisco in the summer of 1964 acted scandalously, not we.

In the end, we were dismissed with warnings not to do such things again. We left with handshakes, thanks, and relief. We had our “day in court” and emerged not charged, not scared, and non-repentant. Truly, the two phases of the flag escapade in the summer of 1964 were probably the most controversial of the M-4’s escapades, but something emerged unplanned and unintended; if we were guilty of anything, it was too much hubris. It took a long time for our relations with our loved ones to heal, true, but without Phase I and Phase II, the incompetent provincialism and myopic lack of information, insight, and rational judgement of Cisco city officials back then would not have been exposed; it had not been worth all we put our love ones through, but, with the passing of time, unintended results eventually made it well worth it. If the reader would allow some brief unnecessary hyperbole, I like to think the small-scale expose of the City of Cisco in the summer of 1964 was the precursor of the larger-scale student protests, demonstrations, and take-overs on college campuses during the late 1960’s, which were, in a way, exposes of the social hypocrisies and foibles commensurate with the anti-war, civil rights, and women’s movements that made up the social revolutions of the 60’s, the collective “brainchildren” of we “baby-boomers.”

I can say without hyperbole Adling and I looked forward to escaping the “heat” from Phase II hopefully dissipating in Cisco as we left for college in the fall of 1964 to Lubbock and College Station, respectively. Poor Cole, he had to stay near the “heat” as he entered CJC that fall. No one should be surprised when I say confidently that any “heat” sent his way never bothered him — all part of being an M-4 member.


The Flag Escapade — Phase I

Emotions run the breadth and depth of human possibilities when eighteen-year-olds graduate from high school — from elation of finally being “free” (before reality sets in) to tear-filled farewells to classmates never again to be seen (again, before reality sets in). Because things were “a little different” for a certain few of us in the Cisco High School graduating class of 1964, our emotions were also “a little different.” The M-4 had played their “prank cards” and had emerged, over a few months’ time pretty unscathed and undeterred. Overriding any regrets that our fun-filled days of high school were over or any apprehensions about the unknowns facing us in our college plans, was the feeling we were leading pretty “charmed” lives.

The injustice we had taken on in the wake of the chair/desk escapade (which defined the “birth” of the M-4), which was garnered in the minds of most of our peers and in not a few adult minds in the community, served to keep us emboldened and committed to the spirit of unfettered youth “pushing the envelope” of possibilities; our friendships had been strengthened beyond our wildest expectations; we were “perfect” in our record of never being en masse “caught in the act” (Play Rehearsal Night, With a Side of Greased Flagpole [May, 2013]; the unique characteristics spawned by the emergence of the M-4 had come in handy in our graduating class “holding par” in meeting CHS traditions such as painting the dam at Lake Cisco (That Damn Dam Painting! [April, 2013]); we had left the chair/desk escapade as a defining moment, a signature event, of our graduating class, and, from all the responses of our classmates after February 11, 1964, and before graduation, that was just fine with the majority of the class that did not make up the M-4.

In short, as the summer of 1964 came on, the first of three consecutive summers at Cisco that testified that little or nothing changed with the M-4 with graduation from high school, we were “on top of the world” in ways way beyond the typical successful high school graduate.

We only felt this; we did not think about it. In addition to the excitement of my summer registration and testing at Texas A&M, where I was enrolling as a physics major (an excitement shared by Berry, who was registering and testing at the same time at Aggieland) (Ode to Bob B. Berry [May, 2012]), was the excitement that visiting Cisco for at least a couple of weeks in the summer was Mike Burzenski, who was to play an integral role in Phase I.

Mike Burzenski, one of the “Cub Scout” group of early Cisco Schools (Ode to Dr. Bill R. Lee [April, 2012]) had moved away to Florida at the end of our sophomore year at CHS. Before this move, he and I had developed an unusual friendship around the playing of war games (games which are like “Risk on steroids” or games involving hundreds of times more decisions than that demanded by playing chess). This story is not about these Avalon Hill games of strategy and tactics, but because of these games I was one of the persons Mike was sure to visit in his return to Cisco.

Burzenski and I never stopped corresponding with each other over the last two years of high school, even though we were separated by half of North America, because of the war games. Similar to the way Adling and I used imagination as the “glue” of our friendship (Ode to William L. (Bill) Adling [May, 2012]), Burzenski and I conjured a whole world in which we were military dictators waging perpetual war on our “enemies,” our “adventures” and “struggles” parodies of the experiences we had had playing each other or others atop the war game card tables back in the “good old days” of the first two years of high school. Berry never got interested in war games, as didn’t Clark Odom, and as Burzenski and I became more “fanatical” with the games, both Lee and Adling lost interest in being war-gamers.

But drifting off from war gaming was not just a function of success in playing, as long as Mike Burzenski still was in Cisco. Mike was cold, aloof, aristocratic in attitude, and not well-liked by most, none of which “put me off” of him, because I got a lot of fun out of “bursting his bubble” as much as I could. Our imaginary personas reflected our differences and explained why people such as Adling could not stand Burzenski: he was the “blue-blood” Der Baron and I was the “commoner” Herr General. (It was not all fantasy, as we both had plans to enter R.O.T.C. programs in college for the upcoming autumn, he in the Naval R.O.T.C. program somewhere in Florida and I in the Army R.O.T.C. program in the upcoming final year of compulsory participation in Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets.) Of all my war game opponents, he was the most fun to defeat, but he was no push-over; to be defeated by him was very “painful” to me. Ours was by far a most unusual friendship, which was what endeared the friendship to each of us, in my opinion. If one thing he and I shared, it was the love of being different from everyone else.

But had Mike not moved to Florida, our weirdness together would not have doomed the war game fanatics to a membership of just two, for in the one year in which Burzenski was in his last year at CHS and Cole was in his first (our sophomore year 1961-1962) (Ode to Robert W. Cole [May, 2012]), Cole became one who was not totally “put off” by Mike either. Not only was Cole a growing force as a war gamer in his years at Cisco, he and Mike attended The First Presbyterian Church in Cisco, and were well acquainted there with Rev. and Mrs. Mulliner, she being one of our high school teachers (Play Rehearsal Night, With a Side of Greased Flagpole [May, 2013]). And, both Cole and Burzenski were interested in Margaret Mulliner, their daughter.

All of this background is to say this: the seeds of Phase I of The Flag Escapade were planted in early summer 1964 in Cisco around the war game tables with Florida visitor Mike Burzenski and half the M-4, Cole and myself, gathered around. What mischief could possibly come from this mix?

With Berry out-of-town on summer-long traveling and Adling not wanting to get near Burzenski, it was up to Cole and me to regale Mike about the exploits of the M-4 in personal detail. I don’t remember what I expected, but, in retrospect, I’m not surprised that Burzenski swallowed his pride and was “duly impressed;” there was nothing in his Florida high school experience to compare with the senior year just past at CHS. Maybe for the first time in his life Burzenski was jealous and envious of someone else, of the M-4. He declared his certainty that had he not moved, he would have been one of us. Cole and I let him believe that but we, along with the other two as we later discussed the matter, agreed among ourselves that there was no way Mike had the qualifications to be let in as part of the M-4 — we joked he probably would have taken all the credit for the chair/desk escapade and would have “spilled the beans” and told everyone we did it in the process.

With Cole temporarily out-of-town working on his dad’s ranch, Burzenski, bursting with the need to prove himself “one of us” challenged me to pull off an “M-4″ prank and let him help. (He also wanted to move on from the grand war game contest we had planned for two years; to his horror, he had won only 2 of 16 “clashes” on the boards of strategy and tactics.) I took it as a bluff (The irony here is that 37 years after 1964 I learned Adling had told me about the idea of the chair/desk prank at least partially as a bluff.) and engaged him to help me come up with an idea. The idea was staring at us on the war game board spread before us — display “unusual” flags, like the Confederate battle flag (“Stars and Bars”) and the Nazi flag (black-swastika-on-white-circle-on-red-background), and display them in unexpected public places.

In no time we had red, blue, and black enamel paint, and Burzenski purchased a white sheet, which we tore into two 4 ft by 7 ft pieces. At the back of my parents’ garage, out on the side of the alley behind my house, we fashioned the battle flag and the Nazi flag in relative obscurity. Mike had a new video camera (a cumbersome thing by today’s standards, but “state of the art” back in 1964) and we took the newly painted flags, using the trunk of my car Liberty, out to a deserted rocky shore line of Lake Cisco to film each other in front of the spread-out flags on huge rock faces. In front of the camera we acted out our fanaticism as Der Baron and Herr General, complete with flag backdrop; this footage still exists, as far as I know; I hope, actually, it does not — having been long-lost in obscurity in Florida.

(There is no excuse for our choice of flags. Repercussions of our choice would be much higher today than back then, but, again, that is no excuse. Our choice of flags made us myopic, selfish, and inconsiderate. We were eighteen-year-olds with no sense of political correctness, even though “political correctness” was not part of the lexicon back in 1964. We were indifferent and insensitive to the racial overtones unfairly placed upon the Confederate battle flag and to the overt anti-Semitism properly associated with the Nazi swastika. We simply were not aware, or, we refused to become aware, of the insults directed toward members of the Civil Rights Movement and toward countless victims of the European Holocaust our choice of flags suggested in the minds of the credulous who did not know us. We only sought the shock value that our choice would entail; neither we nor Cole held any positive or serious regard toward slavery or Nazism. To this day I take comfort in the fact, that, thanks to the war game “thing” (and a couple of times I masqueraded as Adolf Hitler in high school  (Mrs. Lois Adling, Mrs. Edward Lee, and the Big Afternoon [June, 2012] being one them and a masquerade ball in our junior year the other)), and thanks to Cole, none of my peers took my Nazi antics seriously, even though every swastika drawn in Cisco High School book covers and elsewhere at the time was probably blamed on me! Coupling this with my long history of fascination with the Confederacy and the infamous “Confederate Club” of elementary school days (Ode to Dr. Bill R. Lee [May, 2012]), I was confident that even if we were caught “red-handed” clutching these flags, once I was seen with them, nothing sinister would be thought. “It’s only Hastings!”)

Cole showed up from his dad’s ranch, and Mike and I were eager to show him our “flaggy” handiwork. Cole, as a true M-4 member, was not “put off” by the political incorrectness exuded by the flags, and was basking, as was I, in the glow of Burzenski’s admiration and praise of the exploits of the M-4. He immediately joined into the conversation of exactly how to display them.

Talk focused on the condemned and abandoned 3-story high school building sandwiched between W 6th and W 7th Streets, and between Avenues K and L, less than a block away from my house (where Burzenski had gone his first two years of high school, Cole had gone his sophomore and junior years, and I had gone my first three years; recall the Seniors 1964 had spent their senior year in the old junior high building, the same one Seniors 1964 were in for grades 6 through 8 — a fact figuring heavily in the birth of the M-4). It was scheduled to be demolished. One of the flags could be displayed on the third story just outside our old typing class taught by Mrs. Page, and the other could be run up and tied to the schoolyard flagpole near the corner of 7th and Ave. K.

We knew the doors had long been locked since it was abandoned. How to get into the old classrooms? Just before it turned cold the winter of 1963-1964, Adling, Berry, Lee, and I had taken a break from a study session at my house to see if we could get into the abandoned high school to procure old aluminum kettles that were originally used in the lunchroom kitchen and later stored in the school’s basement. We were planning on using the kettles as snow sleds. Earlier, I had seen them when I, as a Student Council member, guided visitors to the school to view the shear cracks in the foundation columns of the building’s basement to see for themselves why the building had been condemned before the beginning of our junior year. The night of the “study session” Adling, Berry, and I had “cased” the perimeter of the building to find an entrance into the basement at the “band hall corner” of the building (roughly NW corner) in the form of an old concrete coal bin chute with an iron “manhole” cover that had not been used in decades. Adling almost got stuck down in the bin, Berry barely pulled him up and out with his fingertips (We nicknamed Berry “Fingers” for a while.) , and I got in trouble with my parents. But, as a result, I knew we could get in through that manhole cover.

So it was in the summer of 1964, that the flags were stored in Cole’s car trunk, and on the appointed night Cole and I met in the darkness of the night shadow of the auditorium on the W 6th side. He parked his car in that shadow, and I only had to walk the short distance from my house. Soon we were joined by Burzenski and Margaret, who had been on a date. She drove off in their car to drive around town, checking back periodically to see if we were finished.

Proceeding to the coal chute with the Nazi flag, we had no trouble lifting up the heavy cover, and, with the help of a flashlight, making our way down the slope of the entrance to the bottom of the bin on the basement level. A door locked from the other side with a padlock and hasp prevented us from getting from the basement to the first floor level. Burzenski ranted against our rotten luck, asked about other possible entrances, and waited for me to try to think of another way in; we should not have lost focus on Cole. Without saying a word to us, he proceeded to solve our problem by promptly kicking the door open, with a mighty kick, busting the hasp off the door, leaving lock and hasp dangling from the door facing as the door swung open! I’m no lawyer, but, in retrospect, this event makes it impossible for the M-4 to deny they ever had a case of breaking-and-entering on their hands, it seems to me. (Months later, the building was completely demolished.)

We scrambled up the dusty stairs to the dusty third floor and Mrs. Page’s dusty old room without pausing to think legal thoughts. Through the windows of this room we placed the unfurled flag horizontally across the ornate top of the main entrance on the W 7th side, closing windows on its upper edge to hold it in place. We hastily retraced our steps down to the newly-moved door and closed it behind us as best we could. The three of us leapfrogged each other up the slope of the chute, making it out through the manhole — a much easier task for three than it was for only Berry and Adling back in the winter.

Using baling wire that Cole had brought from the ranch, we went to the opposite corner of the block with the Stars and Bars to tie it to the now-unused schoolyard flagpole. But we found that even the standing-on-shoulders routine would not place the flag high enough up the pole to be out of reach of a reasonable attempt to rip it down (Recall Play Rehearsal Night, With a Side of Greased Flagpole [May, 2013]). We decided to abandon the second flag for the night until better placed later, and our disappointment was soothed by the sight of the Nazi flag spread above the school entrance, clearly visible by street light. Quickly, Cole returned the second flag to his car trunk and drove off in his usual stealthy manner, Margaret showed up to pick up Mike, and I made the short return trek home. All in all, it was a good evening’s work.

Burzenski had plans to videotape the flag across the school front the next morning, but when he arrived “bright and early” the flag was gone, and it was never seen or heard of again! I speculate that Mrs. Edward Lee  (Mrs. Lois Adling, Mrs. Edward Lee, and the Big Afternoon [June, 2012]) saw the flag, knew I was responsible, and called custodian Mr. Mitchell (our classmate’s dad), another M-4 sympathizer, and had the flag disposed of immediately; this is only speculation, as Cole and I never inquired into the fate of the Nazi flag. Cole, Burzenski, and I owe a grand round of thanks to whoever was or were responsible for its removal.

Mike was on the verge of having to return home to Florida, his visit already lengthened by a stomach virus attack preceding his “pranking” with half the M-4, so the next night, when Cole and I were determined to fly the Confederate Flag somewhere, Burzenski was probably on a farewell date with Margaret. I actually met Cole after my date with Sylvia at the mesquite tree path across from the Oakwood City Cemetery (The 1963 Cisco High School Homecoming Bonfire — No Sleep and Almost Torched Into Martyrdom [August, 2013]) — a path that played a role in the chair/desk escapade — and he and I in his car with flag-in-trunk drove to the Lake Cisco City Park area (That Dam Damn Painting! [April, 2013]) to a little used flagpole complete with a chain rope that used to mark the entrance to the old Cisco zoo decades ago. It was located close to the road on which we dam painters parked cars the night we painted “our masterpiece” just before our graduation, so we had to dodge the car lights of late-night drivers in the park, and we thought we had been spotted by a late-night pedestrian, but nothing came of either the lights or the walker. With the wire twisted onto the chain rope, we soon had the huge banner waving in the cool night breeze. The next day, a Sunday, we both drove out to see if the flag was still there, and it too was gone, gone forever.

Our motives had centered around the surprised and shocked reactions of those seeing these flags, and our trio got to see none of these, even if they occurred to but a handful of people. We had to settle for the satisfaction of posting them without getting caught in the act. We came to realize we were glad there were not the reactions we had anticipated, and to find in our successes those two nights sufficiency.

Cole and I related the story of Phase I only to Adling and Berry. Burzenski returned to Florida with undoubtedly a selfish relief, just in case things got “hot” for Cole and me in his absence over Phase I. Disappearing flags pretty much took care of any “heat.” I’ve come to realize Mike Burzenski must have felt like Mick Taylor trying to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones when during his brief visit to Cisco he tried to replace Berry or Adling. Years later Mike described the experience by “It was fun! Fun indeed!!” But that was all he ever said about it, perhaps for legal reasons. But perhaps, like Mick found it hard to “keep up” with the Stones, Mike found it hard to “keep up” with the M-4. If he was bluffing us to see if we were “real” that summer, I think we called his bluff. I like to think he found us real all right — perhaps too real.


The 1963 Cisco High School Homecoming Bonfire — No Sleep and Almost Torched into Martyrdom

All the horrific images from the Vietnam War (the last war they allowed what was actually going on to be photographed and published) stick with us “baby boomers” born just after WWII in varying degrees, but one image, wherein a Buddhist monk sitting in the middle of a public thoroughfare (probably in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh) was soaked in gasoline and set afire — the ultimate anti-war protest — martyrdom via suicide, always takes me back further than the war. I think of a personal moment associated with another of Cisco High School’s traditions (this one pretty “normal” compared with, say, the Junior-Senior Fight (That Damn Dam Painting! [April, 2013] and Play Rehearsal Night, With a Side of Greased Flagpole [May, 2012]) — the annual Homecoming bonfire on the Thursday night before the Friday night Homecoming football game at Chesley Field. During the 60’s the bonfire was burned on the block “catty-corner” across from the stadium, completely vacant except for the Community Gym (now a practice facility for the Cisco Loboes) on the corner closest to the field. (The block corner furthest from the field is the intersection of 2nd St. and Ave. K.) The fire would light up that whole end of town, not only casting ghostly imagery on the white walls of the gym, but also illuminating the rock wall and beyond of the Oakwood City Cemetery across the street.

My particular moment came with the 1963 Homecoming Bonfire, the year when we Seniors 1964 were “in charge.” In that moment, I came within a failed ignition of being like the martyred monk years later in Vietnam.

As President of the Student Council, the sponsoring group of the 4-class wood-hauling contest, which assured an impressive pile of dead firewood each year, I was “up to my neck in firewood.” All the wood was donated by land owners in the surrounding area, usually family or friends of the wood-gathering students. The wood (dead post oak, blackjack oak, mesquite, live oak, etc. limbs, branches and small trunks) was hauled to the site usually in pick-up trucks, though cattle trailers and flat-bed trailers were used in addition. All four classes would “cheat” and stockpile wood somewhere in some pasture well before the Wednesday official “gathering time.” Pressure was always upon the Senior class to win the contest, points being awarded for each load of wood through a system set up by the Council. Since it would be a “conflict of interest” for me to award points to the loads coming in, the Council sponsor, Mr. Roy Hathaway (Crashing The Cisco Beauty Pageant — Night of the Long Knife [June, 2013]) awarded them to all loads. As the midnight deadline for scoring wood and adding to the pile approached, class loyalties began shifting along similar lines as those of the Junior-Senior Fight, only this time the freshman class, foregoing winning the contest, started bringing in wood for the Juniors, attempting to overcome the slim lead we Seniors had over the hard-charging, wood-hauling Juniors. Seeing this, the Sophomores capitulated and some started having their wood loads count for us Seniors, while other Sophs had theirs count for the Junior “coup” attempt. We Seniors won by a slim margin, in no small part due not only to the sweat of our own brows and the working “the hound” out of our trucks, but also due to the unexpected and appreciated help of such Sophomores as Bobby Rains.

As midnight Wednesday passed, the early hours of Thursday morning began, and the darkness barely revealed a circular, cone-like stack of dead tree parts about fifty feet in diameter and ten feet tall at the center, which lay about a hundred feet diagonally from the corner of the gym. Everyone still hanging around agreed it was the largest bonfire stack for CHS yet. Since we Seniors had won the wood-hauling contest, we took both possession of the stack and responsibility to make sure it was not burned prematurely by arsonists before the “official” time Thursday night.

Who would possibly want to prematurely burn the CHS bonfire? In past times, it might have been rival high schools like the Eastland Mavericks or Ranger Bulldogs, but in the 60’s the “traditional arsonists” were male students from Cisco Junior College (CJC) (Now Cisco College), from “Harvard on the Hill.” Rumors of expected attempts had filled the night since sunset. (I guess they figured, “What else is there for college students to do in their spare time in Cisco?”)

Utilizing the “management team” partnership Berry (Ode to Bob B. Berry [May, 2012]) and I had developed as the senior football team managers/trainers, we began to organize the vigil at the stack (He was President of the Senior class in addition to my Council Presidency); the admirers of the stack were by now a dwindling crowd; most could not stay up all the weeknight as guards; only some Senior males with their own transportation seemed left. And the parents of those left yielded to our class pride to prevent anyone committing arson on “our” bonfire, for the most part. For, it was clear we would have to guard the stack all night. Had our parents tried to keep us home, we probably would have “snuck out” anyway.

As my memoirs logged, the Seniors who vowed to stay with Berry and me were Cole (Ode to Robert W. Cole [May, 2012), Ronnie Rider, Jerry Broom, Buford Green, Lee (Ode to Dr. Bill R. Lee [April, 2012]) and Joe Woodard. Others, including Joe Torres and Billy Pence, would come and go, even if they could not stay the duration. Adling (Ode to William L. (Bill) Adling [May, 2012]) was a football player for the Loboes, so he had to prep for the game and make curfew; he could not be with us. Some of the all-nighters stayed at the site in shifts, but Berry, Cole, Lee, and I vowed to stay up all night. We built small sentry fires around the perimeter of the stack, around which we scattered to keep a sharp eye on any and all vehicles that approached.

(This bizarre sentry scenario was blasted across my memory about a year later when, as a “fish” in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, I was hugging sentry fires at the Fighting Texas Aggie Bonfire before the big game with the University of Texas at Austin in November 1964. It was so cold at College Station (unlike back at the Cisco bonfire, where it was but late-fall cool) I hugged the fire too close and caught the pants leg of my fatigues ablaze! In college, instead of CJC arsonists to worry about, we had night-flying “tea-sips” dropping Molotov cocktails on the stack from low-flying planes with which to contend!)

We did not have long to wait as Wednesday turned to Thursday. (What time we had was spent studying by flashlight and firelight for a six weeks English literature test we were to take Thursday morning in Mrs. Evelyn Bailey’s class.) Starting to appear about 1:00 AM and circling the block of the wood stack were a couple of pick-ups crammed with college guys (altogether totaling about fifteen), many standing in the bed of the slow-moving vehicles with what looked like lighted torches (Shall I call them lighted faggots?) that were set ablaze as they appeared on the edge of the block. They obviously had some flammable fuel in the pick-up beds. We guessed gasoline. When several drive-bys showed them we were there for the duration of the night, and when attempts to draw all of us to one side of the stack by part of their group, so that their other part could sneak up on the other side to light the stack, failed, things began to get testy and words between the two groups began to be exchanged.

It became a confrontation of two determined traditions. The throwing of their lighted torches was getting bolder and more concentrated. We were handling the situation all right, but their desperation spawned desperation of our own. We thought we had to resort to scare tactics to run them off, if they became too bold. Cole had brought a couple of his dad’s rifles, I had a 22-caliber pistol of my dad’s, and someone had brought a loaded 12-gauge shotgun. (I can’t remember if the 22 pistol was loaded with shorts, longs, long rifles, or hollow points of any of these. Remember, this was before the days of gun registration and licences to shoot recreation-ally.) Berry and I reminded the group that we wanted no one to be hurt and that the weapons would be fired, if at all, only harmlessly for effect; we were certain that any firing would draw the police to our aid, a certainty we hoped our antagonistic would-be-arsonists would also see.

(If there are any misgivings the reader might have about the casual and cavalier mentioning of loaded guns in this scenario, see Guns, ‘Gun Control,’ and School Massacres (Part The First) [March, 2013]. If the use of guns becomes the diversionary issue for the reader instead of a particular high school bonfire, then go on to the same topic (Part The Second) [March, 2013], (Part The Third) [April, 2013], (Part The Fourth) [May, 2013], and (Part The Fifth) [June, 2013].)

Words were beginning to be exchanged between the two parties, words that only raised the tension of mutual antagonism. The long stand-off was punctuated when a lone stranger hailed us between drive-bys and asked to join us as a friend. He introduced himself as Joel Baker, who many of us recognized as a Cisco schools drop-out with whom we had gone to school in West Ward Elementary; we had not seen him in years. Joel explained he was in Cisco on leave from the Air Force and had soon learned “where the action was” this night in town. He ingratiated himself with us by confessing his original intention was as the college students’ — to prematurely burn the stack as an act of defiance toward his past frustrations with the Cisco schools. But his clandestine observation of the situation made him change his mind and throw his lot in with the outnumbered “underdogs.” He pledged himself to help us guard the fire from the arsonists. What better way was there for him to spend his leave?

Joel’s appearance coincided with the most brazen drive-bys of all in these wee hours of the morning. The pick-ups would roar onto the stack site by crossing the ditches or appearing from alongside the gym and as they skirted the cone-shaped stack, members of the “raiding party” would toss lighted torches onto the stack, torches for which we had to madly scramble on the stack to extinguish them before any wood ignited. Not even our brandishing our guns seemed to deter them from this tactic; they were betting we would not fire them. The pressure and distress we were beginning to feel from these “up close and personal” raids was relieved when Joel exemplified how we should counter these new drive-bys: simply throwing the blazing torches right back at them, trying to land them in the beds of the speeding pick-ups. Their anxiety toward this counterattack, their haste of avoiding danger, and the curses they directed our way showed they had fears of an explosion in their midst — indeed, they did have large containers of fuel by which they were igniting their torches in the pick-up beds (They looked like open five-gallon buckets of sloshing fuel.). We noted the torches were remaining lit longer than at the beginning of their drive-bys due to longer soaking. But smelling the extinguished torches we were beginning to collect in larger numbers, we could tell the fuel was not gasoline; it was naphtha.

For those readers not familiar with naphtha, think of a clearer, less oily kerosene. If also unfamiliar with kerosene, think “gasoline light.” More volatile than gasoline, naphtha was used primarily as a paint and varnish solvent, as it left less residue when so used than other petroleum-based solvents. This night, the arsonists were banking on it behaving much like gasoline; if they could toss enough torches lit with long-burning naphtha, they could start a fire Molotov-cocktail-like which would soon burn beyond our ability to control it.

The closest they came to lighting the stack using the tactic of close-up torch-throwing drive-bys was when they returned with the buckets of naphtha lidded in some manner; we were beginning to doubt we could handle all the hurled and flaming missiles. Joel asked if he could use the 12-gauge shotgun, explaining he would not get into trouble with the school using it, as he was not a student. After convincing ourselves that Joel understood we could not afford anyone hurt, nor could we afford any property damage, points Berry and I emphasized to him, the expediency of the moment made the Joel-with-shotgun plan seem sensible! Besides, if any gun was fired, common sense said the police would arrive on the scene like the “cavalry” to the rescue.

When the next pick-up laden with torch throwers passed by, Joel ran after it, this time not to “return” a torch or two, but to fire two shotgun blasts in close succession up the air at their retreat. “Goddamn”‘s and “Shitass”‘s, among other chosen expressions, added to the blasts in the night. How it was those two shots did not wake the neighboring residences to call the police, I’ll never know; the police never showed. But the gunfire put the “fear of God” into the arsonists; it appeared they were not going to return anytime soon. But we felt, correctly as it turned out, that this was not over. The arsonists were changing tactics.

We were being given an interlude, and some of us tried to get some sleep in our car seats, I, for one, only fitfully getting some “shut-eye.” Sentry duty was now a perpetual parade by at least one guard around and around the perimeter of the stack.

In the hours just before dawn the arsonists decided to perform a frontal assault. In one car about ten of them drove up on the Ave. K side of the block and piled out to approach the stack with a bucket full of naphtha in the trunk. They had decided the torches would not ignite the wood quickly enough; only wood soaked in the naphtha would ignite quickly beyond our ability to control the resulting fire. Eschewing the guns, we (outnumbered by the ten) each grabbed from the bonfire pile a piece of wood that would serve as a club. The menacing group with bucket-in-hand and firing torches at the ready had hardly begun their approach when Joel, having chosen a particularly strong club from the stack, sallied forth and was upon the car before the college group could block him. He swung his club at the door of the vehicle, out of which the last of their group was climbing. The club caught the radio antenna protruding from the back of the right front fender, snapping it cleanly off near its base, and caught the right lower corner of the vehicle’s windshield, shattering the corner into a spiderweb pattern.

All thoughts of burning the bonfire temporarily were halted as the owner of the car started shouting at Joel about paying for what he had done, and we had to restrain the now club-less Joel from bodily attacking the owner, and as it was conveyed to the college students that Joel was not a student at all, and any approach to the school or our parents about damages was futile. As more “Goddamn”‘s and “Shitass”‘s were exchanged, we had learned anything could be a diversion and we would not be caught off-guard again; we retreated back to the stack to renew our sentry-based vigil. Finally, with threats to Joel, which he gave back in turn, the group piled back into the car and drove off rebuffed. We could not help but watch the car disappear into the darkness with a feeling of triumph.

The rest of the night passed without incident, and with the glowing of dawn in the east, a confidence and hope it was over among us bonfire guards also began to glow. With the light of the soon-to-appear sun illuminating everything, there was a feeling our vigil was no longer necessary, and we could at long-last relax. Joel felt his “services” were no longer needed, and he bade us good-bye as the hero of the night, taking with him our sincere thanks. Lee decided he would go home, clean up, and get ready for school and Mrs. Bailey’s test. Since it would be a while before “relief forces” would come with the beginning of school, somebody had to stay, so, as a matter of pride and class solidarity, five of us, Berry, Cole, Ronnie Rider, Buford Green, and I, stayed, realizing in all likelihood we would have to go to school without cleaning up, all smelly, grimy, and riddled with campfire smoke. Most of the remaining quintet turned our thoughts to the upcoming test. It was the coolest part of the day, and I had donned an old work jacket I had brought well before it turned light.

Then, on the 2nd Street side, next to the cemetery, the car of ten with naphtha-in-trunk returned in “broad dawn-light!” We were outnumbered now two-to-one. There was nothing we could do to keep them from driving almost to the pile from the north. Eight of them got out of the car and the naphtha bucket was manned; one whose voice we recognized from the night was their “leader” or “commander of the mission.” The five of us positioned ourselves between the eight and the stack; we had to delay them as long as we could; they had only a tiny window to act before we would receive “reinforcements.” We tried talking to them, but they were having none of it, as they backed us up to the edge of the stack. We were told to step aside, and we said we could not do that. There was no negotiation and no compromise on either side.

They picked up the bucket to swing its contents toward the wood stack, and I shifted to position myself between the wood and the bucket. They warned me they would toss it if I stayed put. The other four guards moved to the side believing they would do just that; I stayed put, thinking they would not dare soak me in so dangerous a liquid. Led by Berry, the other four spoke warnings to me that it was not worth it; I kept defiantly telling the eight they could not burn the pile, ignoring my classmates. Without warning, two of them swung the bucket and emptied most of the naphtha on my jacket and my jeans, with some reaching the wood I was now backed up against. I reeled and recoiled back into the pile of wood grabbing my eyes, pretending I was hurt or partially blinded by the splash (I only felt wet.). I crumpled on the wood that received the naphtha, and feigned pain; Berry, Cole, and Buford started to come see about me when the “leader” said, “You better get out of there — I’m striking a match!” My three rescuers reached down to pull me up, but I continued my act and shook loose; no fire was lit yet!. (I could not fathom the “leader” throwing a lighted match my way, risking possible homicide.)

To my life-long surprise, he flung the lighted match into the soaked wood and ground at my feet! I remember closing my eyes, just in case, and coiling my legs to spring to one side. Call it a miracle, Divine Providence, sheer, dumb luck, or the very damp, dew-soaked wood and ground of my position, the match went out without flame bursting forth; the same happened with a second and a third lighted match! And all despite the overwhelming presence of naphtha, which began to fill my senses to gagging and coughing. I shed my jacket and Berry and Cole helped me to my feet. The arsonists began retreating back to the car with empty bucket, as if they had succeeded. Then we realized by their triumphant whoops that some of them had slipped around to the other (south) side of the stack and started fires on the stacks with small charges of spare naphtha — all while the drama of my possibly becoming a funeral pyre was playing out!

The arsonists “burned rubber” east on 2nd Street, back toward “Harvard on the Hill,” all the while yelling victoriously. The five of us attacked the isolated small fires on the south side of the pile, without any time to check to see if I was all right. Berry or I told someone to call the fire department at one of the nearby neighborhood houses (Remember, no mobile phones.), and someone obviously did, for Cisco fire trucks rushed to the scene. But they were not necessary; we used shovels, jackets (not my naphtha-soaked one!), and water-soaked “toe” (actually “tote”) sacks prepared for such an emergency, to put out all the fires set by the arsonists. We pulled away from the stack any logs or branches that were irrevocably burned, and, thankfully, there were few of these. By the time the fire trucks appeared, we had the arson fires completely under control. Only an area that totaled about four or five feet in diameter had been blackened, which we soon covered up with new wood from other areas of the stack.

We had saved the bonfire from the college arsonists; their considerable attempts to burn the largest CHS bonfire to date prematurely had failed; soon students began to pour into the site to begin an all-day vigil, backed up by promises from the fire department and the police department. Berry, Cole, and I still did not want to take any chances; we vowed to stay until we had to leave the bonfire to go to school and take our test; we would not be going by our houses to clean up. That day the three of us took our English literature six weeks test smelling of sweat, grime, and smoke; my jeans added an extra shot of naphtha in the air. (As usual, Mrs. Bailey was tolerant, understanding, and supportive.)

Berry and I returned to the site as soon as we could get away from campus, without going home to clean up, to supervise the traditional Thursday readjustment of the wood in the stack into a taller “cone” of wood. Most of the wood adjustment was done by underclassmen. Berry and I did not go home to clean up until late afternoon. By that time word was spreading about how close the bonfire came to being burned down the night before.

Under the watchful eye of the Cisco Fire Department that Thursday night, the 1963 CHS bonfire was “properly” burned. The cheerleaders lead the cheers, the football team, in jerseys and jeans, was honored, and, of course, that whole end of town was illuminated, penetrating deep into the cemetery, and ghostly, shadowed images of jumping cheerleaders, yelling students, stoic football players, and playing band members danced across the white east and north walls of the gym to the rhythms of the flames.

In between events of the festivities of the bonfire burning, I swear I caught from my person, despite a good dip in the bathtub that previous afternoon, whiffs of naphtha as my mind momentarily wandered.


P.S. The five of us who saved the bonfire that year were never recognized formally for such. But we knew what we had done, and that knowledge was and is, I suppose, its own reward. (Any illumination upon the facts of what happened back in the 1960’s that night would have shown aspects with which many might not have been comfortable: flirting with being burned alive, flying faggots in the night, guns brandished — one actually shot, a car clubbed, and the hero of the night someone unofficial, not in school, and unencumbered by civil decorum.) Now, as I write about the five saviors from our class almost half a century after the fact — two Ronnies, a Bob, a Robert, and a Buford — I realize I must dedicate this story in memory of our classmate who is no longer with us: Buford Green.

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