My hometown’s population was about 1,400 and the high school had around 140 students. Most of the kids rode school buses to school.
It was during WWII, so many activities were curtailed. There was no town library and the school library would fit in our current clothes closet. Soon after graduation, all of the boys would be in military service.
Nevertheless, we had pride and were happy kids. We had time for fun since we had little homework.
There was an opportunity for a semester of college between graduation and being drafted into the army. Like all universities, The University of Oklahoma had students from schools of all sizes. I felt terribly inferior to the students who were from larger schools.
Later I realized that there were some advantages of attending a small high school. We were conscripted into activities for which kids in larger schools had to compete. They were probably more talented but few of them got to participate.
I was told by the director of our junior class play that I was to be in this three act farce. I was to be the black comedian, Alabama Birmingham Brown, the husband of Honey Bee. For our parts, Dorothy Mae Wright and I were dressed in outrageous colorful costumes. Any part of our body not covered including our hair was painted a deep black that was almost blue. Our lips were painted bright red and were made to look much larger. We looked like we had just escaped from a minstrel show.
Honey Bee and I thought the show was a huge success and that we were the stars. Between the afternoon and evening performances we decided to promenade the three blocks to a downtown drug store where a soda fountain was located. On our way, we passed through two groups of genuinely black people. Needless to say, we received a lot of stares. Some of them laughed and some did not. One old man spoke up and yelled “I ain’t never seen anything like them that come from Africa”. We had no shame. Can you imagine walking down a street in black make-up in 2012.
The next year, I was instructed that I was to play the part of the goateed grandpa, Hiran Skaggs in the senior play, “Mr. Beane from Lima”. Evalu Van Cleave was my wife, Elvira. Our hair was dabbed with white powder and deep lines were drawn on our faces. I also had a gray goatee stuck on my chin. We brought many laughs as the smart aleck stumbling old couple. We thought we were ready for Broadway.
One week during my sophomore year, the high school teachers were assigned the task of enrolling the community for ration stamps. These stamps were necessary in order to purchase the allotted amounts of meat, canned goods, sugar and shoes. The crowd got large and a few students were conscripted to help in the procedure. I only helped for a couple of days but I remember signing up one lady and her five children. I was shocked when she revealed that each of the children had different last names. I never had heard of such a thing and I certainly didn’t inquire as to any details. I don’t remember that I ever discussed this with anyone but my imagination went wild.
I was elected class vice-president for the last three years of school. This was of no particular honor and no duties were involved. I think that my elections were the result of no one else wanting the office and that I kept my mouth shut. My, how times have changed.
And there was the boy’s quartet. The music teacher called four of us boys into her office and told us that there would be a boy’s quartet and that we were to be it. I was told that I would sing the baritone part. We performed a few times and no ripe tomatoes were ever thrown at us. The only song I remember in our repertoire is “Old Man Mose”.
During some of the war years, our band director was a lady who had been in my mother’s high school class. Out of the blue one afternoon, she told me that the bass drummer was terribly ill and could not play in the concert that night. Then she asked me to replace the drummer for that performance. I should have refused and left the office immediately.
In those days, our band did not wear uniforms so all I had to do was show up on time and hit the big drum with a stick. The first time I attempted to hit the drum, the padded ball on the end of the drumstick flew into the air, landed on the floor and rolled to the edge of the stage. What was I to do but run over and pick it up and return to my chair and put it back on the dang stick. I was perspiring and my face must have been blood red but I accomplished my objective.
The rest of the band did not miss a beat during my unexpected performance. Thereafter, I pounded the drum very softly so I would not have to run across the stage again.
I don’t remember receiving any comments about my role as a drummer. Guess that everyone was too embarrassed for me to say anything. Mother did say that at least that night, the drum did not drown out the rest of the band.
The valedictorian of our senior class was known before we enrolled in high school. It was Virginia Elkouri who was brilliant but very, very shy. The rest of the class must have been tied for salutatorian. Someone had to be it. I think that all of our names were put into a hat and my name was drawn.
Virginia and I read our prepared speeches and those good years were over.
If I had been in a larger school, I would not have had the talent or the ability to compete to be a part of these activities.