TOWARD THE END OF THIS MONTH, I plan to go to Chattanooga, Tennessee and the McCallie School for Boys for the 50th Reunion of my class, the class of 1956. I plan to stay in a hotel, The Chattanoogan, and to attend various functions with my classmates. These functions will include a dinner, several parties and a football game. I will not be participating in the "Stud Run" nor will I play tennis or golf. And I will do my best to avoid the "Hospitality Suite" at the hotel, where alcoholic beverages will be served.
I will not, however, be successful in avoiding the "Hospitality Suite" at the hotel and my liver and other essential organs will further deteriorate as a result.
Why am I going? I am baffled. What could I be thinking? I haven't been back in fifty years. Why have I decided to fly east from Los Angeles, my home, to a city near Chattanooga where I will rent a car? Why will I get on and off two airplanes and submit to airport security—being strip-searched and interrogated, being beaten, suffering near-drowning, being mocked by women who are not of my faith and enduring the black hood—so that I can attend my 50th Reunion at McCallie?
I don't understand; it's absurd. I made the decision last Sunday and haven't slept well since. I now have a fever blister the size of Mount Rushmore on my upper lip and each night since making the decision and booking the hotel and the flight I have been considering the violation of my rule of only ten ounces of wine daily. I'm very nervous, jumpy. I can't load the dishwasher because the plates make too much noise.
Going back to McCallie. What could I be thinking? Why is it important that I go? I'll try to remember things about McCallie; maybe that will help.
McCallie School is on Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga, Tennessee and has been there for over one-hundred years. I remember that.
The school song:
McCallie, dear McCallie School
That's all I remember. I've decided not to consult the current literature or the school history for reminders of anything about McCallie; I just want to see what I remember. In that way perhaps I will remember why I decided to return.
Life at McCallie.
Today McCallie is a prep school, but when I attended it was a military school. We all wore uniforms and marched up and down and back and forth. I remember that.
There were no girls. There was a girls' school across town, Girls' Preparatory School, but we never saw any of the girls who were students there except when they visited our campus for what was called a tea dance twice a year. What the hell is a "tea dance"?
Maybe there was a formal dance once a year; I can't remember. But I do remember that there were no girls on campus on a daily basis and that when the girls did come to campus they were there under escort and the escorts carried rifles. I could be wrong about that; perhaps they only carried clubs.
The girls would get off the bus at the front door of the gym, where the tea dances were held (what the hell is a "tea dance"?), and walk through a phalanx of off-duty Chattanooga police officers who were facing away from the young women, popping billy clubs into the palms of their hands, staring us down, those of us who had gathered outside the gym to watch the girls get off the bus. Some boys had met the bus at the front gate of the school and had run alongside, chanting, "Girls, girls, girls. Hip-hip, hooray."
That's what I remember; it was fifty years ago. I remember that there were no girls on campus, but we did have marching. I remember the marching. Today it is a prep school, but when I attended, McCallie was a military school, and we marched.
The boys who were officers of the corps of cadets (I was not an officer of the corps of cadets) all had swords that they carried on the parade ground; the rest of us carried rifles, and we knew how to handle them. Not shoot them, just handle them. "Right shoulder, arms!" "Left shoulder, arms!" "Order, arms."
With those commands a cadet would move his (no girls) rifle to the right shoulder or left shoulder or to the ground from a position that was not the right shoulder or left shoulder or the ground. There was also the command, "Present, arms," which was enunciated thusly, "Pre-sent, arms!" And with that command the rifle was moved to the front of the body and held there vertically until it was either dropped or another command, like "Order, arms!" was issued.
I also remember that each morning we would gather (fall in) to raise the flag and that each evening we would gather (fall in) to lower the flag. There might have been a bugler, but I can't remember. There was certainly the sound of a bugle, but I believe it came from a recording and a loudspeaker. I could be wrong.
Four or five times a week we gathered on the parade ground so that we could practice marching. We boys were all lined up as squads, platoons, companies, and battalions, composing one big regiment of boys, boy non-officers and boy officers, McCallie School for Boys (there were no girls). And at some point, the regimental commander (a boy officer) would turn to the two battalion commanders (also boy officers) and scream "Report." At which time the two battalion commanders would turn to the six company commanders and scream "Report." And the company commanders would turn to the platoon leaders and scream "report" and the platoon leaders would turn to the squad leaders and scream "report" (I was a squad leader). And the squad leaders would report. To the platoon leaders, and they to the company commanders and the company commanders to the battalion commanders and the battalion commanders to the regimental commander.
At each level of this military school parade ground hierarchy the same phrase was heard, "Particular entity all present or accounted for," where "particular entity" was "First squad" or "A Company" or "B Company" or "Second Battalion." Everybody was always present or accounted for. One never truly gave or heard a detailed report. Like, "five cadets missing, probably went over the wall; three cadets in the infirmary with tummy aches and twenty-three cadets miss their moms and won't get out of bed."
Anyway, I seem to remember that after all the reporting, no matter how incomplete, the boy regimental commander reported to somebody on the permanent staff of the school, an adult, who was also standing on the parade ground. I think his name was Dunlap, Colonel Dunlap; and he was called the commandant. So our regimental commander turned around smartly (executed an "about face") toward Colonel Dunlap and reported to him, but they were so far away from where I was standing that I never could hear their exchange. But it was probably something like, "Regiment all present or accounted for, sir." He probably added "sir." I can't remember that we boys called each other sir even when the boy officers were wearing impressive dress uniforms with several hundred chevrons on their sleeves.
It was fifty years ago, but I don't remember Colonel Dunlap reporting to anybody on the parade ground. I don't think that we saw him turn and report to an academic, like the headmaster, for example. There was no one standing behind Colonel Dunlap, no man carrying an umbrella, wearing a mortarboard, representing the faculty. But maybe after we were all dismissed Colonel Dunlap would trudge up the hill from the parade ground to the headmaster's office and give his report.
So after all of that reporting, we would march. We would execute something called close-order drill, where we marched up and down and back and forth. We non-officer boys would carry our rifles on our shoulder and execute certain moves as other boys carrying swords would march beside us and scream at us. "To the rear, march. Right flank, march. Left flank, march. Column right, march. Left, right, left, right, left. Hut, hut. Company, halt. Left, face. Order, arms!" Usually at that point, after forty minutes or more of marching, one could hear several rifles hitting the dirt and appropriate screaming from boys carrying swords.
There were no girls; I remember that. We marched and we studied; we studied very hard. We studied in class and we studied in our rooms. And if our grades were not good enough we studied in a study hall, which was a large girl-less room where boys would study for three hours each night under the supervision of a teacher, while other students were studying in their rooms.
I studied in study hall for a total of two weeks during three years at McCallie. Study hall was not a good place to be. In fact, it was what one could call gothic and frightening. There were no curtains on the windows, and it stank. That's what I remember. The volume of methane produced in that study hall each night would rival the amount produced in any animal feed lot with, say, a thousand head of cattle. I remember that much McCallie-boy humor derived from the documentation and appreciation of flatulence.
But I am distracted. My fever blister is bothering me, and I didn't sleep well last night. I am suffering from a deficiency of cheap red wine, having cut back to ten ounces per day. And this lack of wine has affected my memory, already spotty.
What else about McCallie? Why am I returning?
I'll try to remember.
I remember studying hard. I remember being in my room each night except for those nights during my first two weeks at McCallie when I was required to study in the study hall. Did I study just to stay out of study hall? No, I seem to remember that I enjoyed math, and I seem to remember that I enjoyed an honors English class with Dr. Bob McCallie.
What else? The Honor Code. I remember the Honor Code. You didn't lie or cheat at McCallie. If you did you were out. I like that; we need more of that today—in government, for example. I believe in it, and I've tried to live that way.
What else? I've been thinking about McCallie for days now trying to remember my time there and to understand why I plan to go back, why I booked the room and the flight, why I am risking summary execution by firing squad if say the wrong thing at some airport in the wild west, Vegas or Phoenix, while traversing our great land. Why am I returning?
And just last night, in the middle of the night (this is the truth, the Honor Code, remember?) I understood. Sleepless, fever blister hurting, it came to me. I remembered a very simple thing about my time at McCallie. Very simple; I understood. I got up and went to my computer. I found a pad of stickies and made a note. Stuck it on the computer, went back to bed and got some sleep.
This morning I looked at the note; it read, "friends."
I am sixty-eight years old and I have never had such friends as I had at McCallie. I'm old. The army, showbiz, the social circuit of wherever the hell I live now. I have never had such good friends. McCallie. Make your best guess as to why. All that marching? The lack of girls? A camaraderie of the absurd? I have no idea. What the hell, it's all absurd, the whole thing. But I have never had such good friends.
I'm going back to look at my old friends. To put my old mug in front of their old mugs, show them how I am. Tell them that I've missed them. For fifty years. ###
1 September 2006