by R.W. Haynes
Fifty years later, the writer reflected that it might not have been such a good idea to drop acid before the high school graduation rehearsal, but, by then, there was nothing more he could do than remember and regret, if regret is the right word, because there was some curious pleasure in recalling the consequences of that decision, if decision is the right word.
He remembered the ceremony itself, with Billy Bonstead*, who had also missed the rehearsal, marching a few students ahead in line with an air of having marched toward academic excellence many times before. And he remembered how the principal growled fiercely, his glassy eyes bulging with vindictive vindication, standing there with that pathetic diploma case as though it held all happiness, all futurity, all the silly bullshit that academic (if that’s the right word) bureaucrats pretend they have a death grip on.
As the writer told his students long afterward, he had replied with two words, the second of which was “you,” but the first of which was not “Thank,” even if it ended with the same letter. It happened that there fell one of those unexpected moments of total silence just as he reached the principal, so his words sounded like a war cry on the ancient steppes of Russia and were followed by a horrific gasp from the audience. He had taken the half-extended diploma case from the furious principal and walked on off the platform, noting with embattled pleasure the smile on the face of John Quincy, the student walking just ahead of him in that glorious parade.
John was one of the first black students to graduate from Suwanoochee High School, and he had had a fair amount of hell from the rednecks and the administrative stuffed shirts. There had been a kind of lifting of shadows at that moment, possibly for many present, but as surely for John as for himself. As the closing invocation began, John lifted up his resonant voice in a powerful farewell to the school and his persecutors (more gasps), and it was easy to tell he had much sympathy among his fellow students as he announced at some length he was signing off.
What was most memorable about the night which had produced the outrageous non-attendance at the rehearsal was that on the radio was played again and again a strange song which seemed to reach to and from an unanticipated world. “The Israelites,” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces was the first Jamaican song extensively aired in the region, and it appeared to have hypnotized one or more of the late-night disc jockeys on local radio stations. Perhaps chemically-stimulated susceptibility lent it a mystical profundity that made the antics of school administrators loom even smaller than those of ants (or ticks) and inspired defiance of petty tyrants in stoned brains.
Outside the football stadium where graduation was held, the writer had parked his father’s Ford station wagon, his parents having come in the family’s other car, and he headed briskly for it, meeting Billy on the way. It had been reported that the head football coach had encouraged some of his players to give graduation haircuts to some of the more visible hippies, and Billy was evidently mindful of the need for all deliberate speed as he extended his hand in congratulation. Billy also had Desmond Dekker stuck in his mind as well, as he danced a step and sang “We don’t wanna end up like Bonnie and Clyde….”
“Watch your back,” said the writer, and Billy replied “Always.” The writer went on to the station wagon and got behind the wheel. He reached down and took up the double-barreled 16-gauge, opened the glove compartment and took out four #4 shells, loading one into each barrel and putting the others on the seat beside him. He waited about twenty minutes before he realized that no one was coming. “Good thing nobody did,” he said to himself, fifty years later.
*All names have been changed in this story.
About the author
R. W. Haynes is a professor at a South Texas university, where he teaches Shakespeare and Early British literature.
Note: “Israelites,” written by Desmond Dekker and Leslie Kong. Recorded by Desmond Dekker and the Aces. Trojan Records, 1968.