The Great Fire of 1963
“Did you really set fire to the band room in high school?” my dear mother Zella asked me the year before she lost her senses and often thought I was my father Franklin.
Not only did the question take me back forty years. It was asked in front of my wife.
“That’s one I hadn’t heard before,” was Pam’s comment at the time.
Whenever it now comes up that I was in a band in high school but left it, my wife says, “He set the band room on fire and was kicked out of the band.”
This was recently said a few months ago to new friends down the street, who now likely suspect me, one of their neighborhood writers, always oddballs anyway, of being a firebug.
By now I have heard so often how I burned the band room down and got ejected from the band that I almost think it is true.
Things get out of proportion quickly, and unfortunately my exaggerated bad behavior between 15 and 17 is legendary to two of the bands that came after mine. In a way, I wish I could claim it all was true the way they think it is, but it is not.
As an example of how things get misconstrued, I am reminded of the Easter when I was 31 and my girlfriend Jan and I decided to visit my parents unannounced. We wanted to surprise my parents for Easter and make them happy. We bought some flowers and packed a couple of coolers.
She asked along her friend Veronica, who was alone on Easter. We wanted to do something nice for Ronnie too, and our intentions were good and honorable, but we know what paved road you get on when you have good intentions.
We arrived in Belleair to find that my parents had gone camping. So much for surprising my folks, but the house was ours.
No wanting to waste the trip, I suggested taking a swim in my folks’ pool.
While I was unloading flowers, the car’s two coolers of foods and drinks, and some paper bags with chips and such, I heard splashing in my parent’s pool, and imagined Jan and Ronnie had changed into bathing suits. Maybe they had. If so, Jan at least had changed out of her suit very quickly and was twirling it over her head.
“I heard from the neighbors that you had a wild party while we were gone,” my father said upon his return.
“It was just Jan and I and one of her friends,” I told my Dad. My Dad liked Jan.
“Heard from the neighbors that everyone was naked.”
“Not me, Dad,” I said. I have trouble undressing in front of a mirror. “And everyone was Jan,” and maybe Ronnie, both of whom quickly dressed when I asked.
It was for the rest of my father’s life his truth that a wild party had taken place, perhaps an orgy poolside, rather than that my unpredictable girlfriend Jan and her buddy spontaneously skinny-dipping without thinking about me or that they were in one of the most staid of Florida neighborhoods, where just playing my classical music loud had brought the neighborhood complaints when I was a kid.
So it is with the story of my alleged pyromania, which I have decided to set right once and for all.
Perceived guilt or innocence is often separated by a wide expanse of truth.
The Persistence of a Legend
When I left the U.S. Army in 1975, I found myself pursued every five years or so by people who wanted me to attend my high school reunions.
I instructed my parents to tell all calling me about any reunion that I had died in Vietnam in 1967-68. I believed this strategy would have repelled the reunion organizers, but my parents wouldn’t do it.
It wasn’t a lie exactly, I told my parents. I was neither the half-formed young man who went to war nor the off-balance person who came back. I was someone else reborn (not in the Christian sense).
The reunion organizers couldn’t find me until a few years ago when I accidentally met an old friend from Clearwater, Mike Sanders, with whom I am now working on a book that will apparently take a decade to get published.
Before I could say “Clearwater High School,” I was barraged with emails, phone calls, and correspondence inviting me to my fortieth then forty-fifth reunion, to neither of which would I willingly go.
Over time, I was besieged on Facebook by friend requests from former classmates I had not seen in four decades or more and did not remember. Children of these friends and grandchildren of friends attempted to befriend me.
It was requested that I write a biography and put a current picture of myself, my wife, my children, their children, my pets, my pet rocks, my lava lamp, and anything else that my former classmates might be interested in on a class web page.
I am always curious, so at first I joyously responded, but there was a problem. Instead of writing, exercising, and taking care of business, I found myself answering emails from people whom I could not remember about subjects that were diverting me from my true path. And could I send them animals for Farmville?
It overwhelmed me, and one day I closed my Facebook account, but there before I did was the same old question. It came from a girl whom I had not seen for forty or so years who had grown into a grandmother I had never seen at all.
“Did you really set fire to the band room?”
There are people for whom high school is the happiest time of their lives. I tend to think they didn’t have a very good life after high school.
They recall high school fondly. They’d like to do it all over again. Not me. I couldn’t wait to get out of high school and wouldn’t go back.
I would like to recall my high school fondly, but I don’t. If you say this is my fault, I’ll probably agree with you.
To everyone who wrote me or “friended” me on Facebook or was a classmate, I wish you and the world well, all living things well, but the past is dead for me, and I have put a lot of dirt over it. In my case, this is fitting.
High school began for me as a terrorized sophomore on the bus. I am amazed at modern responses regarding bullying. Sure could have used such administrative help in 1961-62.
Bullying then wasn’t just bullying, it was a way of life and of making us wimps young Spartans. And you didn’t report it. That wasn’t manly. You fought back and endured.
I am certainly against bullying. But if people think its bad now, they should have been the smaller half of the younger male children riding the bus back and forth from the high school to Belleair with me.
Various people dealt with being beaten daily differently.
One of my neighbors left for another high school.
My lifelong friend Winston Williams sought out books on self-defense and talked his mother into transporting him back and forth to school as often as she would.
My father never asked me about the black eye. He probably thought I was in a schoolyard fight, a manly thing for a boy to do, in his opinion. He never asked me about the constant bruises; boys will be boys. Nor did he ever ask me about the week of limping caused by a breathtaking blow to the testicles.
One of the kids may have asked the assistant principle to ride the bus.
Or maybe the frightened bus driver, a woman who weighed about 80 pounds and looked close to 100 years old, asked Bill Justice to ride along.
It was a safe day to ride the bus, but Bill only rode the bus once.
One day I walked out of school and looked at the yellow bus that I was supposed to take with hatred and loathing. Leering out of the windows was one of the smallest-brained and ugly of the tormentors. He was after me every day, older because he had been held back, I believe. I feel sorry for him now. I bet his home life was hell.
That day I looked at the bus and said, “I am never getting on that (adjectives deleted) bus again.” I was really good with adjectives; still am.
Instead for the rest of my first year in high school, unless I couldn’t avoid it or it rained, I hiked the seven miles to home or walked to the library and talked my mother into picking me up.
At the start of my junior year, I met a girl. Thing were looking up.
She smoked, I smoked, and everyone smoked. It is necessary in this day and age to add we smoked cigarettes.
We blew smoke into each other’s mouths during kisses and inhaled it. Talk about second-hand smoke. She smoked Winston’s; I had a preference for menthol.
No one wanted us to smoke - certainly not the school or our parents. It was forbidden. That’s why we did it.
It was the same thing with necking. No one wanted us to have anything approaching sex, not with ourselves or another person - a sin, go look in the Bible. So of course, we did the opposite of what they wanted.
She was only 15 or 16, like me. We will call her Chloe, because I have never dated a woman named Chloe.
She was adopted, and I think insecure about it. I imagine she didn’t get much affection at home. Neither did I.
To avoid the bus as much as possible in my junior year, I had talked my father into a motorbike. It lasted until a Sears truck ran me over in 1963. But the motorbike got me over to Chloe’s house every afternoon.
She was often alone, a latchkey kid before the term was invented. We had the run of the house and the rage of hormones. I would describe how attractive she was, but I really don’t want to identify her. Long ago and far away we knew each other, in a different age, and a much more different America.
Of the many passionate afternoons spent with Chloe, there is a big blur. They were all different. They were all the same. They were more exciting because they were forbidden.
It came to me while spending all the free time possible embracing her, that no one had embraced me. My family was not a touchy-feely kind of family.
When I learned in 2001 that I was adopted, I wondered if my family was not so affectionate toward me because I wasn’t their natural child. Perhaps. But I have another theory.
My father came from a strict household run by his German Vater. Fritz’s wife, das Mutter, was second-in-command. My grandmother was also apparently in charge of daughter-in-laws, although they resisted fiercely. The lack of affection probably was just because the family was stern and German, and while they loved each other, they were not expressive, except about what you were not supposed to do.
My mother, on the hand, came from a family broken by a then rare event called divorce. She had lacked a father figure present a good part of her life. She and her mother had stood against the world alone.
With Chloe, I finally was obtaining the affection I had never known, and things were going great in my life until one afternoon I puttered up to my house on my motorbike to see that my father was home early. This usually meant someone had died.
“I don’t want you to see that Chloe again,” my father told me. He added that she was a tramp and would do that sort of thing with any boy.
Bad call, Dad.
Of course, I disobeyed him, what else would I do, but later that school year, I think after the Christmas break, Chloe went off to a private school.
Whether she wanted to go to a private school or not has never been clear to me.
I was what people nowadays popularly call “pissed.” People had better watch out when a teenager has been double-crossed. Who knows what he might do? Set the band room on fire?
Our Band Goes to Ocala
In the retrospect of time, I can clearly see that my parents were afraid that I, also an orphan, might father a child with another orphan. In those days, people still thought of the concept of “bad blood,” and my father likely knew that my birthmother was 15 when I was conceived, since they both went to the same church and lived in the same small community.
Chloe and I were the affection deprived of the world, and we had been trying to make up for this deficit with our caresses and smoky kisses. It didn’t seem a crime to me then or ill advised; it doesn’t now.
I know now that I spent the first six months of my life a pretty ignored orphan. How long Chloe was an orphan and unloved, I have no idea.
And, we were also rock-and-roll kids. We had it in us to rebel and give the finger.
I had never wanted to be in the band. I wanted to read books and play music only on my stereo. My father wanted a camping, knot-tying Eagle Scout, but he got me, with this bent for what people call the arts. I still have it; a day without writing or music is like a day without sunshine or chocolate.
No matter what I wanted, one day the music man examined me and said I should play the trombone. I said I already played the piano and wanted to go into orchestra, if I had to be in anything.
The next day my parents bought a trombone from the music man. I was in the band.
Then my parents bought sheet music from the music man and told me to practice. I never practiced or took lessons. I could play just about anything in those days without practicing or lessons.
Our high school band instructor was a very kind and good man named Stephen Yanetovich (maybe there’s another n in there, maybe an o instead of an e). He treated the world with tender mercy, although the world did not always treat him back the same way. He died recently, I am sorry to say. I am not religious, but I said a prayer for his soul. He belonged to the same Methodist Church my parents did. He loved music, and he loved kids. If there is a Heaven, he is there. He was better than us, his music students, only we didn’t know it.
Unfortunately, despite being good at heart, he was ineffective at controlling the band when I was in it. I heard later the administration brought in an ex-Marine the next year to keep in the kids in line; don’t know if this is true; one year too late, though.
Kids called the band director “Rocky.” When he wasn’t looking at them, youngish male musicians would call out, “Rocky sucks.” Some boys played practical jokes on him. Sometimes they played the music wrong on purpose. They destroyed his scores and hid his batons. Paperclips and paper aircraft sailed over the band room whenever Rocky wasn’t looking, and pennies were aimed right for the openings of tubas and rattled down the wide-open mouth into brass innards.
We had a stairwell adjacent to the band room into which we disappeared at will to smoke cigarettes. It was possible, before it was chained shut, to sneak out the backdoor of the stairwell and leave school early. It was also possible to climb up the stairwell and watch the cheerleaders change clothes in sixth period. Needless to say, it was hard to keep the young boys in their seats on the bandstand until someone wisely put a towel on the doorknob covering the hole drilled into the door through which we peered into the girl’s changing room.
There was also a lot of making up for lost sleep in band. Snoring and loud noises were usual. If Rocky had a visiting teacher or momentarily disappeared, the band made an elephant-like ruckus that would wake the dreamers among us.
When there were football games out of town, the misbehaving boys in the band liked to ride on the back of the “bandwagon” with the instruments. This was because they could smoke and drink and cuss and lie about young women and not be overheard. On the trip to Ocala in 1962, we on the bandwagon got drunk, even single one of us, and also most of the kids in the yellow school bus, thanks to one senior stealing and bringing along a case of whiskey.
It was a sight to see. The drum major lost his baton. People lost mouthpieces. None of the formations we attempted came out right. The beat of the drums played a different tempo from the rest of the band. Some kids were sick during the halftime while we were “marching” on the field. Brass players lost mouthpieces. Marchers lost shoes. In the bus on the way back, there was more illness. It was ugly, but the boys in the bandwagon were thrilled.
We got away with it, because we got back late on Friday night and ran for it, but I was largely and incorrectly suspected for providing the whiskey, although I certainly drank my share.
One you get blamed for things, they just keep on blaming you.
Burning Down the Band Room
Band members were sent out to collect money for the band because it always needed it for new uniforms or trips to Washington, D.C. to the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Paired up with a young lady because a couple was considering a better fund raising tool, I drove around town in my family’s Impala, bought in 1961 only after what seemed to me a death battle over what my father would pay and what Larry Dimmitt, Junior, would take.
During the Battle of the Impala, I was so embarrassed that I sought refuge in the family Ford. When my father returned to the Ford muttering and swearing under his breath, I think I told him the Impala was a really cool car.
My father coughed up the remaining amount. It was a battle so traumatic my father never bought another Chevy. He bought eight Oldsmobiles straight, leaving it to me to buy another Chevy in 1983.
Driving around in the Impala, Zoe and I collected a lot of money and “borrowed” a small necessary amount for two six-packs of beer. Zoe (because I have never dated a girl named Zoe), another girl, and I headed instead to the sand dunes instead of back to school. I planned on asking my father for the five or ten dollars to put back in the collection jar come morning, but he had gone to work early before I woke up. So I turned in our collection without replacing the funds. I should have written an I.O.U.
Unfortunately, other students were greedier.
The entire amount turned into Rocky was stolen. My recollection is that was more than six hundred dollars.
Someone said it was me who took that money. I never did it. Have no clue about the identity of the culprit. Don’t know if he or she was ever caught.
One day a policeman showed up, a detective. He wanted me to take a lie-detector test. I was either 16 or 17. Talk about the rights of kids. He never called my parents for permission. He never hinted that I had a choice in the matter. He did say, “You’ll want to cooperate, won’t you, and prove your innocence?”
Grilled for hours, I admitted to taking the five or ten dollars then necessary for the beer that Zoe drank with me in the dunes. They also took away my altered fishing license that showed me to be twenty-two.
I had to spend another two bucks to get a new fishing license to alter.
But let me tell there is a problem about lie-detector tests. You have to answer “yes” or “no,” but even if you don’t answer, they get an answer by your reaction.
For example, they could name off each girl in the band until they discovered by the swinging little needle on the paper that it was Zoe drinking the beer with me.
Thus as they asked if I brought the whiskey for the Ocala trip, I could say honestly I didn’t, but when they asked if so and so did, and I said he didn’t, they knew that I was lying and who the guilty party was after reading off about a dozen names.
Never take a lie-detector test, even if innocent would be my advice.
If they asked if I took the six hundred odd dollars, I could say honestly I didn’t, but when they asked if so and so might have done it, it was easy to see who I thought might be the thief.
They grilled me over things I didn’t even know about and hadn’t even heard of. Don’t know what they made of those needle fluctuations.
Returned to school, I went directly to Bill Justice and said I’d had it. I asked to be taken out of the band that I had never wanted to be in. It is my recollection that I asked this before The Great Fire of 1963, that startling conflagration. I don’t recall what Bill said, but I could not get out of the band until the end of the term.
(Did I mention my father was President of the Band Boosters? My life at home was not fun at that time. Chloe had vanished. Kids had beaten me up. The cops had grilled me. I stood accused of things I never did. Why wouldn’t I want a reunion?)
I no longer participated in the band. I took a book to band and read instead, and my trombone went into first one attic and then another, where I extracted it in 2004 when my mother had to be moved into assisted living. I gave the trombone to the Salvation Army. Hear they have a heck of a band.
The day the band room caught fire, I was smoking with other kids in one of the practice rooms upstairs. My recollection is that there were at least six of us; maybe there were eight.
When we finished smoking, we stubbed out the smoldering butts against a stud by removing a sound-absorbing tile from the wall. We dropped the butts down behind the tiles so no one could find them. Then we put the tiles back on the wall.
Sometimes kids just dropped the smoldering butts between the walls without putting them out. This had never caused a fire. I was trying to impress a girl named Sharon, who wisely never went out with me. Perhaps I didn’t stub the smoke out fully. Maybe someone else smoking didn’t put their cigarette out. Maybe the fire had nothing to do with our smoking. No one told us.
Leaving school at the end of the day, I looked back over my shoulder.
Boiling black smoke fumed out an open window of the practice room.
“Would you look at that?” I heard someone say.
We waited on the fire truck with the siren coming up Gulf to Bay. We watched the firemen extinguish the flames with their hoses. We didn’t know if we were guilty or innocent of causing the fire. We weren’t sure if we were happy the fire was out, or if we wanted it to consume the entire building or the entire school. We weren’t sure about much.
We were just young.