By Ernie McCray
Looking at an autumn scene, with trees changing colors, overlooking a lake of cold water, signifying the last season of a year, I thought of how I’m in the autumn of my years.
And from that I couldn’t help but think about the Class of ’56 of Tucson High, people whom I hold dear, old “Badgers” celebrating a time when we were classmates 60 years ago.
Our hair, like the leaves in the picture of the trees, has thinned and its color has changed as has a host of other things.
But that can’t alter the memories I have of our times. Those classmates of mine have contributed mightily to my very evolvement as a human being, up to this day.
Let me say it this way: I showed up at Tucson High, bright-eyed (open to most anything) and gawky (from growing three inches a second, it seemed), with one thing on my mind, and that was to have a good time. Our beloved school and those beautiful people made that happen for me in a big way.
I definitely got the 3 R’s I needed, in many a way. I learned to type which, for a writer, is a necessity. One of our English teachers inspired me to let my imagination fly in my essays and short stories, not to mention I had a crush on her that weakened my knees. Algebra caught me off guard but I figured it out eventually. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about frogs in biology. One look at one of our history teachers and I’d start copping Z’s as if a hypnotist had put a spell on me.
I brought to the table an active mind, one that was centered on how to navigate our times where people like me were looked down on simply because of the color of our skin.
Such a state of affairs was hard to tolerate, considering all an adolescent has to endure: trying to not be seen as a fool by trying to look cool which makes you look like a fool; trying to hide pimples underneath goop that makes your face look like an active volcano; anxieties galore, about most anything.
Well, add that stuff to second class citizenship and you’ve got the makings of something that’s not going to turn out pretty or you’ve got a budding story of someone who is bound to overcome being treated indecently.
These peers of mine set me strongly on a course regarding the latter because they validated a philosophy I brought with me to Tucson High, that, basically, if you treat people from a place of love, with the respect all human beings deserve, you will, for the most part, be treated in kind. Put simply, I loved them and they loved me in return. We had a good time.
Oh, we were of our times so I’m not talking here about a peaches and cream kind of situation but if we were characters in a dream, it was way more of a good dream than a bad dream.
I mean I never once heard the “N” word but I’m sure it was uttered by someone. My “Hey, what’s happening?” in the halls was always returned with a smile by mostly everyone.
No one ever asked for another seat when I sat next to them in class. Some one of them once said I had a nice ass and that same person said how they loved the way I moved it when I walked and when I danced. You think that didn’t make me prance?
My jokes and my role as Nogi in “Desert Song” got a bunch of laughs.
All of that is essentially all I wanted and needed.
And the way my style of play was appreciated on the basketball court is one of my sweetest memories because it let me know what I needed to know, that I was making a positive contribution to my school and to my community at large. The support catapulted me into a category I had never dreamed of: badass basketball player.
All I had dreamed of was just making the team, wearing that big red “T.” Thinking back to that time I remember how, in an instant it seemed, in a game near the end of my junior year, I grew out of a kind of awkward ugly duckling stage of athleticism (the result of the aforementioned ridiculous growth spurt) that had been plaguing me as a player.
One moment my arms were going one way and my legs were going another way and my body was trying to figure which to follow and in the next moment I was moving on the court with ease, smooth, knowing at a new level what to do, where to be, like so many of my Badger heroes who played before me…
I can still feel it, the pulse of the games: I grab a pass from Bohardt at the top of the key, fake a pass to both Hassey and Ray Hopkins as they criss-cross in front of me, and slip a no-look bounce pass underneath the basket to Ira Lee. Another two points.
Another victory. The cheerleaders and student body went wild roaring and stomping their feet to the beat of “Tucson Badgers! Fight! Fight! Fight!” We played the game with all our might.
And the next thing I knew my name was written right after a lot of terms beginning with “All.” All-City, All-Star, All-State. It was All-Great.
No words can ever express what that did for my self-esteem. I was acting out of love and the reactions I received were rendered in a spirit of love and I left Tucson High ready for the world, buoyed by a time when people who are now septuagenarians were but boys and girls.
What precious times, times I appreciate more each day. I surely thought they would never end. But it went by like winds in a hurricane just like the years that have gone by since then.
From it all, however, I got what I needed to seriously begin the mostly pleasant journey of becoming who I am today: a man in the autumn of his years, still full of love for life itself, thinking of people whom he holds dear.
I am so thankful for the memories I have of those days.
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