A continuation of "Rootin' Tootin' Brewton" - parts I and II
Unlike some members of my class, I recognized that life as a senior at T.R. Miller was something to cherish every single day. I rued the passing of each event, realizing that it was the last time for each one. This viewpoint was probably established on September 30, 1973. On that day, Mrs. Page, our Government teacher, rapped firmly on the front of her desk with a yardstick to gain our undivided attention. When she had it, she used center stage to point out that we (seniors) would never be in a public school in September again. Gasp! I don't know if anyone else was affected by that statement the way I was, but I could not stop thinking about it. I slipped into a personal reverie of my life, particularly those years since I had come to Brewton.
The ebb and flow of life in Brewton made my final three years of public education, and the summers separating them into three distinct entities, memorable. Summers then seemed significantly longer than they are today (maybe because they were). No video game boxes, Internet, or even widespread cable existed to keep us indoors, so we filled our days with other important activities. We went swimming either in the creek at O'Bannon Park on Burnt Corn Creek, at the city pool, or, for some among us, in the Olympic-sized Country Club pool. We floated on overblown inner tubes down meandering cool streams, piling out on sandbars to tan and talk.
Traveling youth choirs made frequent visits to area churches, performing renditions of Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell, and we all would go to whichever church was featuring the group to have a chance to check out kids from other parts of the South. In general, we would find the girls looked much like us. Most flicked their hair back over their shoulders frequently, Cher-style. The aforementioned hair would be straight, parted down the middle, and very, very long. Sometimes, it was even longer than the very short mini-skirt hiding behind the wall of hair. The boys would have unruly locks covering their ears and collars; the collars would be attached to skin-tight long sleeve polyester shirts in vivid prints. Both genders favored bell bottoms featuring enough material to sail a small boat. The flare would begin at the knees and reach full bell status below the feet; we managed to avoid stumbling over the wads of material by wearing five-inch platform shoes, clopping along like groups of Dutchmen. The only way to distinguish the girls' pants from the ones the boys wore was that the girls' would ride low on the hips. The boys of those days would have never dreamed of allowing their pants to ride below their waist, and most certainly they would not have been caught dead allowing their underwear to be a prominent element of their ensemble the way today's teens sometimes do.
As the opening of a new school year approached, we piled in cars to go to whichever practice our chosen activity required. Before and after those practices, we circled the newly-built Dairy Queen to see and be seen, then drove across Murder Creek to repeat the process at East Brewton's fast-food place next door to the skating rink. Brewton and East Brewton, while side by side and separated only by appropriately-named Murder Creek, are separate cities, each with its own city government and, more importantly, high school. The rivalry between these two schools, my Miller and their Neal, is intense and storied. Either football team could lose all nine games leading up to the season finale against the cross-town rival, yet still salvage the whole season by beating the enemy.
No matter how hard I tried to stop it, time marched on at breakneck speed. Our successful football season lasted twelve weeks but took only fifteen minutes to complete. The basketball season was just one quick lay-up and a couple of free throws. When spring arrived, I wasn't even excited about the prom because I knew it was the last hurrah before The End.
As seniors, we had no part to play in prom preparations, as it is the junior class who gives the event to the seniors. Lacking this outlet for our creative endeavors, tired of the Dairy Queen merry-go-round, we began exploring regions outside of Brewton. A short drive across the state line to Florida found many of us able to walk right into Pensacola bars without so much as a perfunctory glance at our fake I.D.'s from the burly fellow at the door. Our daddy's money was good enough for him.
We young Brewtonians amassed a body of knowledge about spots in Florida that would entertain us for an evening and passed it from person to person like confidential CIA papers. A wild, uproarious time could be had at Rosie O'Grady's in Seville Quarter, Pensacola's nod to New Orleans. The Dixieland band, free-flowing liquor, and clanging bell accompanying ladies walking up the stairs to the restroom provided great fun. There was a bar and dance joint in Jay that, while somewhat seedy, provided some pretty good dance music from local bands and a laissez-faire attitude towards minimum age requirements.
For a quick pick-me-up, Uncle Charlie's in Century was the preferred spot. The simple frame structure sat just across the tracks from Flomaton, fourteen miles south of Brewton. Anyone at all could cross the railroad tracks and drive up to the window as if you were going to get a hamburger at McDonald's. The amazing part, even back then, was that you could order as many drinks as you wanted and be handed them out the window for the mere sum of $1.25 each. Even though this was generally before sue-happy America swept through the landscape, I recognized there was something a little askew with folks being handed booze at their steering wheel and being sent off into the dark night.
The spiciness of knowing we shouldn't have been doing all of these things made us heady with power. For me, it was fun as long as it was removed from the protective dome of Brewton proper. I was glad we had to leave town to find this sort of amusement. I would be just fine so long as no one disturbed the tranquility of my adoptive home by providing "opportunities" such as these.
But then, they did.
It was the night of the Junior-Senior prom. While we had been off on questionable expeditions, the juniors had been working fervently to pull together their "Roaring 20's" offering to us, the 50th graduating class of T.R. Miller High. It was to be the first of many send-offs Miller provides yearly to its honored seniors.
We were dressed and waiting in the stuffy, smelly locker room, feeling all grown-up and experienced since this was, at the very least, our second prom. The boys got a better draw, lining up outside where a bit of air stirred their hair and their spirits. Both genders, however, were eager to get moving, to eat, drink, dance, and be merry. The line, however, wasn't moving, not even slowly, so we continued to wait.
And then we waited some more.
At long last, word reached us that the band had gotten stuck in Mobile on the causeway, that narrow band of land across MobileBay that floods with regularity. Someone's parents had gone home to get a stereo for us to have accompaniment for our escape out of the locker room.
And just like that, it was over. We walked out, got our pictures made, and then had nothing to do. Parents milled about a little bit longer than usual, firing off snapshot after snapshot, unsure of what to do with us and for us. There were breakfasts planned for each class at 1 a.m., but that was still hours away and the food would not be ready yet, nor would we be in the mood for it.
Pockets of pals made plans in a hurry, fearful that the parents would come up with a great idea like "Ya'll can all come watch Hee Haw at our house!" As it happened, someone knew that the brand new Ramada Inn was opening that very evening for the first time. We convoyed there and were admitted without delay, even though some among us were as young as fourteen.
It was a disturbing evening, all around. While most of us worldly seniors had been in bars by this point, we had never been in one standing shoulder to shoulder with adults we knew. By slipping over to Florida, we had unwittingly ensured that it would be unlikely to bump into Mom or Dad or the next-door neighbor. Most of us couldn't get out of there fast enough, our visions of Kingdom Brewton changed forever. We didn't want to see these people, our protectors, dance without rhythm, smoke like chimneys when we'd never seen so much as a puff, and, worst of all, stagger and swagger like preening peacocks who'd eaten rotten fruit.
The next stop was someone's lake house. I couldn't tell you today where it was or how we got there, but the stories that emerged about past transgressions that had occurred there horrify me even today. Murders, beatings, racial and social injustices, all carried out by those who considered themselves above the law – or maybe even the law - were the themes of the evening, quite un-prom like. How could we be sitting there, basically ready for an evening in Wonderland, destroying it for ourselves? Or rather, how could those lifetime Brewtonians who had known about these awful acts all along destroy it for me?
Sunny, greening April gave way to flowery May, our last hurrah and one I now strangely welcomed. I went through class each day, my mind always trying to adjust to this new, multi-layered Brewton. I attended two or three parties every single day that month, each one designed to honor one or more fellow graduates. They ranged from all-girl gossip fests… er, teas… to formal banquets, co-ed pool parties and barbecues featuring horseback riding along a private lake. It was a virtual smorgasbord of entertainment, with something for everyone.
We focused our last efforts as a class not on graduation, which the teachers organized, but to Class Day, which was ours to design and deploy in any manner we chose – so long as we chose to remain within the confines of the 50-year-old Class Day traditions, of course. The girls who were most headstrong in the class quickly became the frontrunners for the design team. The rest of us and all of the boys meekly agreed with the many phases of their grand plan, carefully calculated to impress the underclassmen with how great a class we really were and how they could never possibly fill our shoes.
The big day finally arrived. Again, we girls lined up in the airless locker room, happy that there would be no chance the band would fail to show since none was engaged. Indeed, we ourselves were going to be in the musical limelight and were tittering with the excitement of it. We were arranged by height, not by alphabet. Somehow, that made me dead last, although I felt sure I wasn't the tallest. When I finally emerged into the bright glare of the gym, paired with the tallest boy, the spectacle of all my classmates standing in front of neatly arranged chairs hit me full force.
This time three years ago, I thought, I had never heard of any of these people. Now, some of my nearest and dearest friends were among this group. We were joined together for eternity by the simple act of having been born at approximately the same time, attending the same school, and graduating the same year. I looked over the girls, all seated on the right side of the four rows. How nice they all looked in their white dresses! Like me, they each held a red carnation bound with a gold ribbon – an unusual choice, but made in honor of the golden anniversary of the school. I felt a tad sorry for the boys in their sports coats and ties, standing up as straight and tall as I'd ever seen them on the left side. The gym, packed with all of the teachers and underclassmen, was already sweltering in the 2 p.m. heat and we hadn't even started to sing yet. The boys might look handsome now, but after we all stood and belted out our class song – appropriately and sadly, Seals and Crofts' We May Never Pass this Way Again – I feared some of them might pass right out.
We got through it all without casualties. Class officers read our Senior Class Will to the amusement or chagrin of the underclassmen who received bequeaths. We had giftorians who bestowed some silly little gift on each of us. I got a child's toy baton, in honor of my two years as a Miller majorette. Another group had crafted a document which listed predictions for our future lives. I'm sorry if I disappointed my classmates – I did not become a Rockette performing at RadioCityMusic Hall in New York City. My group of girls sang Carly Simon's Anticipation with somewhat altered lyrics. Our principal presented departmental awards as chosen by the faculty and read the list of scholarship recipients, having each senior stand to be recognized. The myriad of emotions I had felt all year had finally resolved themselves into eagerness to leave. I'm not sure how much of that was because of my new viewpoints and – yes, I'll say it – fears, or if I was merely exceptionally hot and wanted to get in a vehicle with some screaming air conditioning.
We piled out of the gym as quickly as humanly possible without creating a stampede. In the shade of a pecan tree, I hugged Mrs. Fouts, our revered English teacher, who congratulated me and wished me luck. That was the last moment I felt a twinge of sadness.
Six of us girls, still in our white dresses and brandishing our flowers like swords or putting them between our teeth as if we were flamenco dancers, headed directly south on Highway 31 as quickly as possible. A quick run through Uncle Charlie's put a dozen Tom Collins' in our hands, two per girl. Actually, I had to hold one between my legs for Barbara, my best friend and driver of the vehicle, so she could drive. She wound up with only half of it; the rest sloshed on my white dress as she bounced the packed Jeep over the railroad tracks. I wanted to yell at the old geezer in the window something along the lines of "Can you not see we are all high school seniors? Don't you think you should refrain from serving us this nasty stuff that may rot our guts out before we cross the tracks back into Alabama?" I decided against it – wouldn't want to spoil it for next year's class.
Instead, I resolved to revel in the moments while they lasted. I hoisted one drink in the air, turned to face the girls in the back seat, and began an encore rendition of our song. "Anticipa-a-tion… is making me wait… is keeping me wa-ay-ay-ay-ay-ting." By the time we reached the chorus, not one right note was hit as we belted it out with all our might: "These are the good ol' days… these are the good ol' days."