The Chair/Desk Escapade — Chapter 8 (Admission, “Punishment,” and Immediate Aftermath)
It was a bluff; they were trying to “scare” confession and apology from us. We know now that if they had any evidence against us, they would have brought it up at our “line-up;” we should have asked for their evidence, but their haste in getting us to “confess” would not allow any cross-examination from us; they were deliberately not giving us any time to think clearly. The “college” thing was pure scare tactics; with the rights of students today, they could not have come close to preventing us from graduating and going to college; we never looked into the rights of students back in 1964, but, as discriminatory as they were against students back then, had we had any legal “savvy,” we nonetheless could have received some legal counsel to assure our matriculation to college, if we chose not to “cooperate.”
The title of this chapter says “Admission,” not “Confession.” The difference was the basis of all that was whirring through my head when I was asked to respond first at the end of our “line-up” in Mr. Midkiff’s principal’s office. I was still sure they had no proof we had done it. But, to have confessed would be commensurate with our thinking the deed was somehow criminal, I thought. So adamant was I the deed had been “innocent” and guided by the spirit of fun, the spirit of our friendships, I saw no shame or guilt in admitting I had been a part of it — I was genuinely proud of what we had done and only sorry for the hurt we had caused our mothers. I knew that if the school could derail our plans for college, risking those plans was far more serious than risking anything the administration could do to us in high school. The moment we went to sleep after that successful night of chair/desk work, we, in my opinion, had reaped our reward; nothing coming our way, including King Lobo and Junior-Senior Banquet could equal what we had already received through our own efforts. We had clearly changed the whole school year forever, as we hoped, and the looks we were getting in the office in the “line-up” were but confirmations of how successful had been the change we wrought . And nothing they could do would diminish those rewards we were savoring, but to treat us like criminals and deny us our college education was ludicrous. Whatever we lost in our admission would be a pittance compared to the loss of our futures.
How I replied as first responder under the duress of the line-up has been as unknown or misunderstood as much as why we chose to do the deed before, not after, the Coronation (Chapter 3). We ourselves are partly responsible for this, as the line-up was our first set-back, and to “come clean” with what happened is a blow to our pride; but the truth more than makes up for any loss of pride. My three “compadres” have joked with me that I “confessed” and got us all in trouble, but they know what actually happened as well as I. In truth, I decided to admit my own involvement without implicating anyone else, using such words as “speaking only for myself.” I did not think it through, for it immediately implicated Cole, due to our association that night, a fact Cole has never let me forget! Adling and Berry, however, were free to deny, using their Hamilton basketball game alibi, which, thanks to the silence of people like Anthony and the cooperation of people like Bobby and Larry, was holding up.
(Here was a moment pregnant with possibility, a moment for which we had not prepared, for if we had prepared, we might have opted for one of several different scenarios, any one of which would have made this school year even more fun than it actually became after February 11, 1964: 1) Cole would also admit his collaboration with me, but Adling and Berry would deny their involvement. Then the school would have to continue their investigation, for who would believe only two people did all that work? Cole and I would be heroes to the students and martyrs to almost everyone else. The burden of proof would be on the school to “finger” more than the two of us, and I don’t think they could have done it — probably they would have had to bring back the police for help, much to their embarrassment. 2) Cole would be surprised, saying something like “That’s what you were doing when you slipped out of my house that night?” In other words, with Adling and Berry in denial, I would be the only one who did the deed! That nobody would buy, and would heap upon the school major embarrassment; the rest of my school year would have been hell, as everything would be denied me until I “squealed” on others, but the more that went on, the more heroic I would appear and the more villainous the school would appear. I think I could have held out, for they could not have denied me graduation, since I had admitted I had done it. 3) Anticipating the possibility of being found out, work with the student body without revealing ourselves as the perpetrators, and say that if they find any who said they did it, then we all (or at least a majority of the student body) would say they also did it. What would they do — “punish” half the school? Students, parents, and a lot of the community would be outraged. 4) I (or Cole and I) would be the only ones who confessed, and then hint there were lots and lots who helped me (us), but not Adling, Berry, or Cole (or not Adling and Berry). This would create a similar dilemma for the school as would 3). Perhaps the reader could come up with his/her own scenario. One thing is sure in all this fun speculation about scenarios: had we had the experience and “savvy” of the way things worked in the world during this line-up that we were to gain over the next year or so, then one scenario similar to those described above would not have been so speculative.)
But back to reality. As the “floor” passed to the other three from me, the strength of the bond that had been forged among the four of us in the planning and execution of one prank became apparent. As Berry said, “We couldn’t let you take the blame for what we all committed to.” Whatever was going to happen to one was going to happen to all four — sort of a “Three Musketeers” thing. We were four individuals, but we were loyal and dedicated to each other — to a fault; nothing that could happen to one or all of us could “crack” or weaken the friendships this prank had conjured. Though forged because of the high school, our friendships had transcended the high school.
Each of the other three, down the line (I don’t remember the particular order, except Berry was the last one.), admitted to the deed much as I had done. Each of us implicated only himself. Immediately they acted as if they did not “have everyone,” and asked who else had been involved. This indicated they were in many ways “lucky” to have called in the correct quartet; they merely called in the four most talked about around campus and in the community. We were certainly not going to say anything to hint about Bobby’s and Larry’s prior knowledge of “something” happening (a mode we strictly followed for over three years thereafter, until both of them were graduated), but we did at that moment have the opportunity to “set them off on a wild goose chase” looking for our helpers who never existed. Instead, our pride of being so few to do so much in so little time took over all of us, and we proudly stated that only we had done it all that night. The physical achievement of the prank still remains after fifty years a source of astonishment to many reading or hearing of the deed.
The two administrators, after our admissions and their fruitless “fishing” for accomplices, gave us time to say something else. We supposed they wanted apologies and queries for forgiveness, as if we recognized we had committed something heinous, harmful, shameful, and criminal. To us, there was nothing to apologize for; nothing we had done, as far as we were concerned, needed forgiving (except for the matter with our mothers, which was an issue that was none of the school’s business).
We were dismissed with the announcement there would be a faculty meeting that afternoon after school to decide our “fate,” and we were not to attend. We left the office and went back to class in relief of not having to be so guarded any more; we left in a mental posture that was to mark us for the rest of our “career” as a sneaky quartet — unapologetic, unrepentant, proud, confident, without remorse, and without regret. Not that we were not concerned about what might be our “fate;” but we knew that whatever was going to happen to us, our conscious was “clean;” our “moral ground” was “high and dry.”
Word of our line-up spread like wildfire throughout the school. The rest of the school day we were treated like heroes, kings if you please. Our classmates wanted to know details, how we did it, how we planned it out, and how we got away with it without being caught. The greatest surprise to those who inquired seemed to be how simple the modus operandi was; no one seemed to think of the simple lifting site near the main entrance. We had to demonstrate to them how it worked in between classes before many of them believed it. During sixth period at the community gym Adling, Berry, and I continued to be surrounded by congratulations and questions. Danny Clack made his way through the group around us, reached out, and shook my hand vigorously.
“I said I would shake the hands of those who did it!” he said, as he shook Adling’s and Berry’s also. I like to think we reminded him that if he had not done so, he should not forget to shake Cole’s as well.
To use a term from the 1960’s, we were on a day-long “high” of being school-wide “heroes.” It portended the fact that we were “in” with our peers for the rest of the school year, at least “in” with a majority of them. Our fate was being determined at the secretive faculty meeting after school that afternoon, and we were as clueless as our questioners as to what was going to happen to us. Needless to say, our peers, for the most part, agreed with us that we had to be “punished,” but, surely, the “punishment’ should fit the deed — note I did not say “crime.”
There emerged, after the fact, conflicting reports about what actually happened that afternoon at the “faculty meeting.” The only thing we know for certain is that the prank divided the faculty, the administration, and, later, the community, just as surely as the school bond issue had divided the community back in 1963 (Chapter 1). It was a division over what should be done to us. One report we got was that the first inclination of much of the faculty, including Mrs. Bailey, Mrs. Lee, and Mrs. (Page) was that the whole thing should be forgotten and forgiven, taking into consideration there had been no harm and we had freely admitted we had done it. That position became one way of saying the “punishment” fitted the spirit in which the prank was done. But there was a position strongly opposite that one, one that treated the prank as if it was malicious and criminal — a position fueled by the fear that a light “slap on the wrist” might encourage “copy cats” and would outrage parents and community members who felt no out-of-the-box behavior should go unpunished as a lesson to all present and future students; they needed to make an “example” of us. This “throw the book” attitude was pushed upon the faculty by the school board responding to certain parents and community leaders, we surmised; we heard that for their part Mr. Midkiff and Supt. Roach were sympathetic toward us, reporting the details of our admission to the faculty. Yet faculty members like Mr. Hathaway, Coach Bates, and Mrs. Odom (Clark’s mother), we were told, led the “throw the book at ‘em” faction among the faculty. Not as certain in our information is the “gag order” that was apparently placed upon the faculty by the school board and the administration; teachers seemed “scared shitless” for their jobs when, later on, we pressed some of them for details, so it appeared that to break that order would put, in their minds, their jobs in jeopardy. Compounding all this was the rumor there never was a faculty meeting or a vote, that the faculty was merely told what had already been decided and that they should keep their mouths shut.
With this alleged “gag order,” how did we know so many rumors? One of our sources was Coach Jack Cromartie, who had “fallen in grace” with Coach Bates and knew he had no job in Cisco the following year; a gag order meant nothing to him; he also was sympathetic to the four us, having us all in his fourth period civics class. However, he was so “disgusted with the situation,” seemingly bent upon “hanging” us, he did not even attend the faculty meeting, so his breaking of the “gag rule” was based upon second-hand information told to him by fellow and brave faculty members who also were disgusted. We’ve always wished he had attended, for we know we would have gotten first-hand information from him instead of rumors from other sources.
Regardless (I always like to use the archaic “irregardless” in irritating honor of all my English teachers over the years.) of who was sympathetic to us and who was not, it now seems clear that the “throw the book at ‘em” faction was commensurate with the “take names, sit down, and shut up” posture the new administration and new coaching staff was foisting upon the school district, all backed by what seemed to be a hard-line school board at the time.
Moreover, it appeared, our “punishment” was a “cave-in” to the pressure of the “throw the book” faction subgroup consisting of parents of students whose children had been punished in the past for vandalous acts against the school and of students and community members who thought something like “They won’t punish them!”
To get the “dark side” of this punishment phase out-of-the-way before covering the “fun side,” a true crime, an actual vandalous act was committed in the wake of the prank, for which we, because of the way the four of us were treated, were blamed: several administrators’ tires were slashed while cars were parked in driveways one evening; that means, for the criminally-challenged, knife blades were thrust into the soft sides of the tires to form one long slit, which, of course, deflated the tire and ruined it. Curiously, Lee’s tires were treated the same way, and he was the only student victim. As Keith Starr (Senior classmate who unfortunately did not get to graduate with us) said to me recently, “There was also a lot of bad stuff going on at that time!” There was never any serious consideration we had done it, to the credit of the more rational in the community (We had lots of witnesses of our whereabouts and actions that night.), but what it did for us was to contrast deeds; even our detractors saw how stupid it was to treat what we did as similar to the tire slashing. The tire slashing was never solved, either by the police or by the school. As I’ve said elsewhere, the school administration could catch harmless pranksters; they could not catch actual criminals. The whole terrible incident vindicated in our four minds that we wanted no part of “adult” leadership in our lives, if “adult leadership” means childishly treating playful pranks as malicious acts. As Adling summed it up, “…the administrators showed less character in their action than we did in ours. They sold out to unwarranted pressure.”
Our punishment was to be announced on Tuesday, one week after the prank, the day after the faculty meeting. Mrs. Bailey’s room was vacant the first period, so that was the site where we were gathered, Adling, Berry, and I plucked from Mr. Bint’s class and Cole “fished” from band. Now it turned out (I can’t make this stuff up!) Berry had a radio devotional on the county radio station that morning to deliver, and when we told Mrs. Bailey about that, she had to “fish out” Mr. Roach to get our meeting going (We suspect Mr. Roach was deliberately making us “sweat” and wait.). Mr. Roach, now knowing about Berry’s appointment, hurried up and “pronounced sentence,” to which we listened very calmly throughout. But he “blew it” with us with the way he ended, after he went over what was to happen to us. Perhaps because we were not showing remorse, and, therefore, were walking affronts (at this moment, sitting affronts) to the authority of the school, he tried to bully us once more. Among our “punishments” he told us earlier was three days’ expulsion — which immediately became a 3-day vacation in our minds — and Adling was told in a high-handed, intimidating tone he could not come back until he cut his hair so it did not touch his ears. (How’s that for dating all this crap?)
As I said, we were expelled for three days; Adling, Berry, and I were prohibited from participating in the Coronation — the ballots making us King Lobo candidates would be discarded and a new election would be held to find our replacements (In addition to our already choosing our accessories, our names were already printed on the Coronation programs.); for each day we were expelled, 3 points would be taken off our six-weeks average, for a total of 9 (A few years after 1964 a similar case wherein a school tried to take away points for a prank was taken to court. The court ruled taking away points could not be done, as part of students’ rights. Pity they couldn’t make that ruling retroactive! As it was, those 9 points off my grades in the end caused me not to be the valedictorian at graduation about three months later, allowing Kay (Wallace) Morris to be valedictorian and Clark Odom to be salutatorian. I’ve never let them forget that! I know all this because Mr. Midkiff, just before graduation, allowed me to see my grades and calculate my overall grade average without the 9 points off and compare it with the averages of my fellow honor graduates. So strong academically was our class (Chapter 2), the 9 points off dropped me to fourth.); we could not participate in the Junior-Senior Banquet; we were to serve a month’s “probation,” during which we were prohibited from participating in any extracurricular activity, like the Student Council, on which Berry, Cole, and I served.
We were more concerned about getting Berry off in time than we were about reacting to Mr. Roach’s pronouncement and tongue-lashing of Adling. As I’ve tried to argue, anything they could do to us could not “crack” us; the reward we had already gotten had far exceeded anything they could take away from us. We just wished our parents (read “mothers”) could have seen it that way. After we were “released” and after Berry finished his devotional on the radio, we knew we had to go report to our parents. Making sure we gave no satisfaction to Mr. Roach, by listening to him “stone-faced,” as soon as he was finished and gone, we went to our classrooms to get our books for our “3-day vacation.” which was to begin immediately. Walking into Mr. Bint’s class to get our school stuff, it was like four “dead men walking” to our peers; the class was stone silent, probably for the first moment of the whole school year! We ushered Berry off to the radio station, and, before we left the school grounds, Adling, Cole, and I began making plans to go camping during our “vacation,” as part of our “shaking off” what we had just heard; probably at this moment we would have admitted to being “a bit stunned” hearing our “sentence,” yet we were far from down-hearted. By this time we were prepared for the worst, and we felt we got it; the classlessness that had been thrust upon us was by now morphing into vindication of our conviction that for more adults than we thought, the joy of youth had dried up within them and blown away; it was sad, but it was hard for us to feel sorry for them.
There was no way we were going to tell our mothers as anything less than as a quartet. So, we had to wait for Berry to finish his devotional before we began probably the hardest part of the whole escapade — a lot harder than actually doing the physically demanding prank — telling the very people who loved us, but, who could never, ever, understand why we did it. Adling, Cole, and I gathered at my house (Both my parents were on the job.) to listen to Berry’s devotional on my transistor radio (Great clue for dating all this!). He did a great job. We waited for Berry to join us at my house (a plan “in the works” before Berry left the school before the rest of us), and then collectively we set out to do the “hard part.” We decided to go to Berry’s house first.
Mrs. Bonnie Berry had already received a couple of phone calls complimenting her son on his devotional by the time the four of us arrived, much to her surprise and puzzlement. In fact, we had to wait for her to finish one such call after we walked into the kitchen, where she was using the wall-mounted kitchen phone. As she hung up, she proudly told Berry it was another congratulatory call to him; then, she realized we were all there during school hours, so she asked the obvious. It is hard to imagine the mixed emotions she must have experienced at our answer, with Berry doing most of the talking to her and with visions of devotionals and expulsions in her head! We stayed to allow her to get over her shock and consternation. Then we left for the next “leg” of our “tour.”
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