We began planning, as a class, what our float for homecoming would be. Nothing in my previous experience or wildest dreams could have prepared me for what Miller students expected out of their homecomings. Unlike the crepe-paper draped farm trailers that I was accustomed to in Waynesboro, these floats were worthy of a spot in the Rose Parade. Elaborate float designs were carried out in grand style using chicken wire stuffed with thousands of napkins or specially folded and twisted newspapers. All of this was put together by literally every member of the student body. Some kid in each class managed to convince their poor parents that we should build the float at their home because a) they had space to store and hide it from the other classes and b) we would clean up all of the resulting mess. None of the floats' secret locations were ever particularly well-kept, because most of them were usually within walking distance along Belleville Avenue. In fact, that year, my class built our float next door to where the seniors were concocting a huge tank out of fluffy white napkins – not the most intimidating sight, surely, but nonetheless, it did "float" as it wound its way down the parade route.
At one point during one of our float building sessions, I remember peeking through the hedges to see exactly what the competition was up to, then sneaking off to walk the whole length of Belleville with my new friend from the band, Susie. When we reached the courthouse, we perched upon the cannon and listened for the warning toots of one of several daily trains that split the town in half. The train tracks in Brewton bisect the business district squarely in the middle of the main thoroughfare; you had to be sure you were on the right side of the tracks if you were coming home near curfew hour. Otherwise, you might be forced to brave going under the train trestle. I didn't learn about this little trick until my junior year, when a boy from East Brewton took me home via this precarious route full of potholes and slippery bogs. Still, better to attempt a safe passage via this means than to face the wrath of Dad!
Susie and I watched the train clickety-clack past us, counting the cars and the minutes and hoping for one more long, mournful whistle. We loitered about a bit in the park next to the courthouse, pretending to be grand princesses in the gazebo, before walking back to the float house. There, the first cold snap of the year had prompted our generous host family to provide Styrofoam cups full of tasty hot chocolate. Our absence had been noted, so we lapped up the steamy sweet mixture as quickly as possible and got down to the business of helping our class leaders, who were working frantically to finish the float before heading out to the bonfire.
Ah, the bonfire! I'm so glad that I got to witness it as a sophomore so that I would know what was expected of me the next year. The juniors and seniors, in addition to worrying about hall decorations and float designs, also had another contest to worry about – the now infamous wood drag (infamous because, as I understand it, it's no longer allowed, which is really just too bad). In between working on the floats, groups went out in pickups to forage for wood – downed limbs, old logs, underbrush that could easily be snapped and dried in time for the big burn. Both classes hid their stashes of wood somewhere in utmost secrecy, lest the other class find it and burn it to the ground beforehand. One group apparently misunderstood this tradition and "accidentally" burned the freshman class float the day before the parade.
The day before Homecoming itself, a bright and beautiful October Thursday, two lines of trucks laden with wood approached the empty field across from the stadium from opposite directions. Each of the lines was headed by a big eighteen-wheeler on loan from T.R. Miller Mill, which shares its name with the high school itself. Those of us who were sophomores and freshmen watched from a safe distance as, on a signal, the two big trucks started the war by turning into the field and then idling their big motors while juniors unloaded on the right and seniors unloaded on the left. After that followed a progression of smaller trucks and pickups, each manned by three or four class members whose job was to add their bundles to their respective growing pyramids of timber in the field. We struggled to see through the dust storm that was kicked up by the spinning tires. When we at last could make out a figure climbing the shaky pile to hoist a flag at the very top of the right mountain, we cheered loudly as it appeared the juniors (whom we perceived as the underdog) were besting the seniors by a narrow margin. We had to wait for the official announcement later that night.
All of this activity thrilled me. In hindsight, I don't know how we finished it all. Classes were small, less than 100 members each, and everyone was involved in some activity which required hours of practice. Yet, we came together with a common sense of purpose and worked hard to complete each mission. I gave every spare hour I had to the float construction, but had to rush back up to the school in time for band practice – which I actually could do just by walking fast. Brewton is pretty compact, and all of the things that make up the life of a teenager are within a small area.
After running through our halftime show one last time, we marched straight off the field and across the street to play for the bonfire. Somehow, the two big individual piles of wood had been shoved together to make one enormous pile, which was already burning as we made our appearance to the thump of the bass drum. The cheerleaders were silhouetted against the flames which soon roared against the black night. The members of the homecoming court, their pretty faces bathed in an orange glow, were introduced; the crowd whistled and clapped in appreciation. The snaps and crackles of the dried kindling accented the chants of the cheerleaders and the staccato taps of the snare drummers. The football players looked eager to roll forward the hands of the clock to game time, ready to pound the opponent and please the crowd even more. We still had much of the most exciting 24-hour period of the school year in front of us, though, and we wanted to savor every moment. The magic had only just begun with the sparks of the bonfire.
Friday morning saw classes resume as normally as possible, but no one's mind was on geometry or biology. The teachers were wonderful, probably just as excited as we were, and didn't push us too hard to learn anything new that day. Instead, they allowed different groups of us to slip out the front door to make sure our float had made it from its "home" intact and, if not, to do some quick repairs with a can of spray paint or extra batch of crumpled newspaper. By lunch, everyone had somehow managed to finagle their way out to the front lawn where, nestled under a grove of pecan trees, all of the floats were finally revealed and we could properly size up the competition. Here, too, the members of the Student Council were frantically putting together the Queen's float, which was a thing of beauty indeed. A huge flatbed, again borrowed from the mill, was transformed into a vision in white with green fern accents on bold brass stands. White cast iron chairs were positioned amongst the greenery for each member of the court. Behind the Queen's throne, white latticework was interwoven with ivy, nabbed off the sides of a fine Brewton citizen's home just moments before in order to keep it fresh as long as possible.
By 1 p.m., all hope of a normal routine was relinquished and we entered the gym for the most feverish pep rally thus far in the season. Another mad dash to dress in band uniform and make it to the start of the parade route ensued. We marched at the head of the parade, just behind the cheerleaders, and were rewarded for our efforts with throngs of students, shopkeepers, and citizens lining the streets and the railroad tracks. We crossed over the tracks at one point, making a U-turn and heading in the opposite direction, and could then actually see the floats following along behind us, which is a rather unique experience in parading. To my left, Cindy seemed to be muttering under her breath that our Tiger seemed to be having a rough go of it, with parts of his stuffing appearing in unfortunate locations outside of his body. She was right; as it turned out, I believe the juniors' boat beat out the seniors' tank that year, and we may have been a distant third.
Following the class floats were the middle school band and cheerleaders and several entries from clubs at school. Next were groups of alumni from different years celebrating their reunions. Homecoming at Miller literally means "Come home!" and many, many alumni do just that. Since this was 1971, members of the classes of 1961, 1951, 1941, and 1931 rode in places of honor in the parade and later assembled as a group right under the press box for the game. Many years later, I rode in a parade like this again, but this time as an alumnus and sitting on a bale of hay on – you guessed it – a big truck donated by T.R. Miller Mill. Along with about 50 other members of my class, I sported a red t-shirt that proclaimed me to be a member of the class of '74. It pleased me greatly to see that nothing had changed.
The parade eventually made its way to the courthouse lawn; the cheerleaders, having arrived first, had already corralled the troops and were starting the third and final pep rally for this one, very important, game. We filled in the last side of the square and played the fight song with gusto, urged on by the court house secretaries looking out from the second floor windows on one side and the Homecoming Court, still regally ensconced on their float, on the other. The courthouse lawn pep rally was my first glimpse at the finished Queen's float as it looked when occupied by its honored guests. If I thought it was beautiful back at the high school, I literally gasped as I saw it now. Each court member, tucked into her spot amongst the greenery, was dressed in a long red velvet formal and held a white rose; the queen was regal in a billowy gown of white and held a lap full of red roses. Her crown sparkled as the rays of the sun caught it; she smiled and waved and looked exactly like a queen should look.
I couldn't help but reflect back to my Waynesboro Homecoming parade days; I struggled to remember where the court rode and what they wore, and could only come up with a dim recollection of some convertibles dusted off for the occasion and decorated with poster board and a bit of ribbon. I was positive that they did not wear formals and have a float worthy of the Queen of England. I couldn't take my eyes off these girls, who heretofore had just seemed like regular girls to me. Two, in fact, were in the band with me; one went to my church and was in my Sunday school class. Now, in my estimation, they had been elevated to a lofty status which I knew I would never be able to attain myself. It wasn't that I was jealous, really; it was more that I was in awe that a small town could be like this. I was happy.
I came to learn that there were three seasons for the boys at T.R. MillerHigh School: football, basketball, and baseball. There were only two for the girls: Homecoming and Prom. For a small student body, we were exceptionally successful in all five of these seasons. Runs for the state championship in each of the male sports were not uncommon; had there been a "Best in Show" for dance decorations awarded by the State of Alabama High School Social Scene Department, we surely would have been in the running. I wish the students I work with now had the same sorts of opportunities for these experiences, as I genuinely believe it would increase school attendance.
Today, high school students simply pay an exorbitant amount for tickets to school-related social events, most of which are orchestrated by teachers and professionally decorated by florists. The "theme" is usually just the name of a currently popular song. Back then, we planned and discussed for months what our theme would be and how we would best carry out that concept. One committee worked to secure a band (never a deejay!!) and another to plan the food. We created murals to cover the gym bleachers and serve as backdrops for the lead-out and pictures. We owned the event and cherished every minute of the nights working in an empty warehouse to paint the murals, hand-drawn by the one or two talented artists in our class, and build papier-mâché trees, rocks, flowers – whatever it took to illustrate the prom concept. The day of the prom, once again, supportive teachers allowed us to sneak out of class and finish the work in the gym; somehow, I don't believe our ACT scores really suffered.
The night of the prom was a thrilling night indeed. The boys lined up on one side behind a backdrop; the girls lined up on the other, each of us holding a nosegay of flowers that matched our dress exactly. Our names were called out, couple by couple, and we climbed the specially-built scaffolding to emerge arm in arm, to the wild applause and approval of our parents and siblings who packed the only section of bleachers not covered up by decorations. Thinking of one of my dresses, even today, makes me cringe – it was sky-blue, double-knit polyester, and my escort had a sky blue tuxedo to match. I didn't know it was ugly then, thank goodness, so my enjoyment of the evening was not marred in the least.
It all came and went far too quickly, and soon enough, it was my senior year – the best year of my life. It was also the first year I learned that Brewton had a little more to it than all apple pie and spice and everything nice.
To be continued…