Leon said you couldn’t truly qualify to graduate unless you had passed the “initiation” test. “They can give you the paper but it won’t mean a thing unless you can prove you are ready,” is exactly how he put it. He was the oldest brother and naturally a lot more worldly than the rest of us.
I was powerful ready to get out of high school, shake the dust of our little town and move on to bigger and better things. That’s how we ended up at the ditch. And I’m not talking about that little gully down behind the Washburn house. Leon and Nicky Joe Stafford walked us across the field by B. P. Moore’s two-story mansion, through some woods way north and west of where Stonewall Street ended and led us out almost to the old city water treatment barn.
This ditch was cavernous! Leon and Nicky were both talking at once. “We all had to do it. Jackie, Larry, Paul David, Bobby C...” They rolled off names of their classmates that I had looked up to all my life. But it must’a been a full 30 feet across that chasm.
“Leon, are you sure Jackie jumped this thing?” Jackie Burns was the most level-headed of Leon’s friends. I wished he was there.
“Jack was the first one across. Bobby C. didn’t hardly take a running start. He almost did it flat-footed.”
“We just brought the best of your class out here,” Nicky Joe chimed in. “This initiation is not open to everyone. This is a sacred tradition that has been going on for years!”
I looked around at Larry “Squeaky” Ridinger, Buddy Wiggleton and John Ingram. Great classmates all and wonderful friends. And I mean no offense here, but didn’t none of us look like the cream of the crop. And at the moment I didn’t give a flying nickel about sacred traditions.
McKenzie High School graduation was only a couple of days away. We had already had one practice session on marching in, finding our seats and standing by rows to make our way across the stage. Miss Polly Rucker took her role as class sponsor seriously. It was late May, 1965.
It was an innocent time. Less complicated. Simpler. We were young. Eager. Full of ourselves. And pretty darn gullible.
“I’ll try it,” said Buddy, who was not the smartest guy in our group.
He backed up, took a running start and flew off the near bank. Folks, he didn’t make it halfway. He crashed with a thud into the 2 inches of water that trickled down the center of the gorge some 20 feet below. I thought he surely broke both legs. And when he didn’t move for a full minute I feared it could be worse.
“He left too early,” Leon said, and didn’t even glance down at Buddy. “You’ve got to take off right at the edge and jump up, not out.”
Squeaky was probably the lightest and he made it across the stream and crashed face first into the far wall. It reminded me of a Road Runner cartoon the way he slowly slid down the far bank.
John, who was the best athlete among us, almost got his hand to the far bank, but he missed and he, too, did the Wiley Coyote thing to the bottom of the ravine. He and Squeaky were helping Buddy up when Leon turned to me and asked, “Whose next?”
I was barely 18 years old. I couldn’t speak to peer pressure or the silliness of life or to the insanity of rituals (made up or real) or to the eternal quest of young men to prove themselves. I did know with unfailing certainty that if John Ingram couldn’t make it across that ditch, I didn’t have a chance. And yet, I still walked back 20 feet to get my running start. Was I catching a preemptive glimpse of life after high school?
My whole past didn’t flash before my eyes as I quickened my pace toward the edge. Mostly I thought I might not be ready for graduation if I was dumb enough to take off on a bad trip which I knew in advance was shrouded in failure from the start. This was more basic than math, science or language arts. Maybe I needed another year of schooling. Where was that course on using your head? Sensible activity? Being smarter than the average bear? And then I remembered something Mother said when I was lobbying to go to the dance up at the Skyway Grill. I pointed out most clearly that all of my friends were being allowed to go. “Son, if all your friends were jumping off of a cliff...”
I didn’t even make it to the little steam. I crash landed on the near bank. In retrospect, I think I jumped too far up.
Linda Quesenberry kept Buddy upright as we marched into the auditorium. He was limping pretty badly on one leg and couldn’t use the other. Squeak’s face looked like he’d lost a fight with a cornered raccoon. John’s right arm was in a sling. I hadn’t felt anything in my feet for two days. My sacroiliac had been displaced to somewhere just north of my pituitary gland. And my ears wouldn’t quit ringing. Charlotte Melton had her arms around my waist and was poised to drag me to our graduation.
Miss Polly was fit to be tied. “You boys have been up to the Skyway Grill. What kind of fight was it? You could have waited two days for goodness sake!”
Charlotte got me to my seat. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it up those six steps and across that stage. As Mr. W. O. Warren started into his commencement address I hoped and prayed I was graduating from some things, and toward some others…