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.