Beyond Good and Evil

Dr. Ronnie J. Hastings

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.


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