1963 – The Beginning of the End of Innocence
1963 sucked. Plain and simple. I was a Cub Scout and a back-bench altar boy – trying hard to do what was “right”. The altar boy thing busted first. I enjoyed learning Latin, but I had an annoying habit of asking the priests “why?”.
They would set forth the dogma and I would ask “why?”. They would answer “because God said so” and I would respond “Why did God say so?”. They responded “because he did” and I replied “because … why?” They washed me out and I wasn’t an altar-boy anymore, but I treasure the fact that I learned some Latin in the process.
I was still a Cub Scout, even if I wasn’t an altar-boy anymore. The scoutmasters taught us to be patriotic young men – supportive of our government and social institutions. We had a brilliant president named John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and the weirdness of McCarthyism was essentially over (so we thought) due in great part to the efforts of Edward R. Murrow.
On November 21 of 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy flew into Houston Hobby airport for a series of speaking engagements in Texas. My Cub Scout pack was selected as part of the receiving line / honor guard that lined the walkway from the tarmac into the terminal. I stood at strict attention and salute in my itchy starched uniform as the President walked past us. I was proud to be a footnote in that momentary brush with history .
President Kennedy delivered a speech in Houston and flew the next day to Dallas. The Houston Chamber of Commerce gave the president a snazzy Stetson cowboy hat that he didn’t know what to do with. Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson looked quite natural in his cowboy hat. We sat glued to the TV watching the historic events unfold. I don’t need to go into detail about what happened on November 22, 1963. Those details are well-known. But I watched as the President was assassinated in Dallas. I watched as his assassin was assassinated. I watched and wondered why I had stood patriotically at salute in itchy trousers for a couple of hours only to witness a seditious murder as the outcome.
November 24, 1963, was my eleventh birthday. We had planned a backyard cookout and party – but people started cancelling wholesale. It did not seem to be appropriate to party as the President of the United States was lying in state. We cancelled the birthday party.
On November 25, 1963, I celebrated the first day of my eleventh year by watching the funeral of the President of the United States. Suddenly being a patriotic Cub Scout didn’t matter anymore. Why do what’s right if murder is the answer?
1963 was also the beginning of what I call “The Butch Wax Wars”. As noted before, rheumatic fever had left scar craters on my scalp where hair did not grow. Short-cropped butch haircuts made the craters stand out and kids at school seemed to enjoy pointing them out. I was weary of being ridiculed and wanted my hair long enough to cover the craters. Dad took me to the barber shop for a butch-chop and I said “no.” It was an ugly scene (the first of many). I stomped my 11-year-old white ass out of the barber shop and started making my way along Bissonett Boulevard toward somewhere (anywhere) else. Cops were called, Kirby was subdued and captured – but the haircut didn’t happen.
It sounds like a silly thing, but it would become a big deal. Unsupported Independence. A patriotic Cub Scout seeking some support for his own independence. My dark brown hair grew out to a “reasonable length” and the scar craters covered over, but damage was done. I wasn’t a “good kid” anymore. I was a rebellious longhair who played drums and typed on the typewriter.
About the best thing that happened in 1963 was that my folks got me a transistor radio. I could self-exile into my room and listen to the world. Late at night I could listen to Russ Knight, the “Weird Beard”, on KILT-AM until midnight when Wolfman Jack and “The X” came blasting out of Mexico and blew every other AM station off the air. Chuck Dunaway moved onto our block that year. He was cool – a Disk Jockey at KILT and his son John and I became fast friends. Chuck Dunaway was SO cool that he eventually wrote the liner notes for the first LP that some musician friends of mine recorded. You can read those liner notes if you find a copy of the first album by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.
Mom started ragging on me that I should go outside and play instead of holing up in my room listening to the radio and banging on my drums or sitting at the card table tapping on the typewriter. I didn’t quite get that. I was perfectly content listening to the radio, playing my drums and tapping on the typewriter. I finally figured out that if I went out to play and got into trouble I would be punished by being banished to my room where I could listen to the radio and play my drums. Maybe by some small acts of grace and forgiveness, Mom would let out to the living room where I could tap on the typewriter. So I got into trouble a lot. Worked for me.
The Beatles started hitting big in 1963 – as did another British band called the Rolling Stones. I was more a fan of the Stones, but the Beatles were o.k. I really preferred Jerry Lee Lewis and a lot of the older American jazz players, but the Beatles and the Stones were what was on the radio. I would listen to the radio and incorporate jazz licks on my drums into the rock ‘n roll. It was fun.
I don’t remember much of 1964 – 1966 except that I attended one semester of Junior High School at Albert Sidney Johnston before Fondren Junior High was finished and opened. I was in band at Fondren and somehow got positioned as Captain of the Band until one fateful day. The band teacher (I don’t recall her name) had to go to the school office for some reason and left me in chare of the class. Kids being kids (even if they were band geeks) the class got a bit rowdy in the absence of the teacher. I stood at the conductor’s podium and tried to keep some order, but my efforts were to no avail. People were doing terrible things. The clarinets were playing jazz and even rock ‘n roll and the drum section was rocketing pencils into the air and sticking them in the acoustic-tile ceiling – that sort of stuff. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the situation cooled down before the teacher came back to class. She stormed back into the classroom and the clarinet section immediately did their best “we’re little angels – we play clarinet” impressions. The trumpets quit doing Doc Severinson riffs. Not much could be done to hide the plethora of pencils hanging like yellow number-two stalactites from the ceiling above the percussion section.
Teacher was ticked off bigtime. She upbraided me in front of the whole class. “How can you be so stupid as to let things get so out of hand?” she bellowed.
I tried to explain that I had tried to keep a lid on things and didn’t rightly appreciate being called stupid in front of the entire class. Teacher kept on with her tirade right out in front of God and everybody. I finally told the band teacher then and there “I quit!”, stomped off the conductor’s stand and marched out the door. I didn’t quit marching until I got home – which was a rather long march.
For some reason, Dad was home when I arrived unexpectedly. I explained the situation to him and he was visibly peeved. Understand, my Dad was usually pretty cool-headed. He didn’t usually get visibly peeved. He was sort of angry at me because things had gotten out of control in the band room, but he was actively pissed at Mrs. What’s-Her-Name for calling me “stupid” in front of the whole class. Maybe I was a lot of things, but with a tested and certified IQ of 160, “stupid” was not among them.
The next day, I had to show up for band class and I did. I took my seat in the percussion section with yellow swords of Damacles still hanging from the ceiling. Class started and suddenly my Dad strode through the door. He walked up to the conductor’s stand like some intellectual John Wayne, faced Mrs. What’s-Her-Name and intoned in a presentable baritone clearly audible to the entire class; “Madame, you have got to be one of the stupidest teachers I have ever met.” (This from a man who was finishing his PhD in Education Administration at the University of Houston). “You have no right to publicly demean any child in front of an entire class. Come on, son. We’re leaving.”
Dad and I walked out of the band room straight to the principal’s office. Some big meeting (to which I was not privy) ensued between Dad and the principal. Mrs. What’s-Her-Name was called out of class to attend said emergency meeting. Net result when it was over was that I wasn’t in band anymore. I still played music. Jazz with Jack Dudney – and we started a kid-combo that practiced in our garage. One of the “angelic clarinetists” even joined the combo and wailed some pretty presentable swing.
The next year, Fondren Junior High School had a different band teacher.
I had another adversary or two at Fondren Junior High. Coach Wilson was one and Willy Bain was another. Coach Wilson was a coach (obviously) and Willy Bain was a bully. They were somewhat similar.
Coach Wilson was convinced that I should play basketball. I was a tall lanky kid with big hands and an excellent sense of co-ordination from playing drums. But I didn’t want to play basketball. I didn’t care for sports at all (still don’t) and thought Phys Ed was a waste of time in general (except for swimming and diving and running miles or 440s). I referred to the organized “stick and ball sports” as “compulsory recess”. Coach Wilson stayed on my ass all through Junior High School – trying to get me to play basketball and ragging me mercilessly because I didn’t want to. I was thrilled my last year of Junior High because I knew the next year I would be happily away from Coach Wilson at Westbury High School – until I learned that intervening summer that Coach Wilson had also been “promoted” and assigned to Westbury High School.
Willy Bain was a different story. He was a “big ole boy” – a couple years older and sort of “slow” — and I never understood why he took a disliking to me. He would catch me in the hallways and slap me around for no apparent reason. It all came to a head one day when Willy was particularly peckish. He caught me in the hallway and literally mopped the floor with me. I didn’t do much to defend myself. Nothing much I could do. Willy was taller and older and outweighed me, so I just took my lumps. When Willy got tired of pounding on me, I stood up, dusted off and looked him square in the eyes.
“Well, Willy Bain,” I said to him. “You’re a big man, aren’t you? You just pounded shit out of a guy who didn’t even defend himself. That make you feel important?” Willy looked perplexed and stomped off while I dabbed blood off my lip (with the help of several girls).
The next day, Willy caught me in the hall again. He grabbed me up and pushed me up against some lockers. He glared into my eyes and said “I’m sorry, man. Sometimes I don’t know what my deal is.”
I stared straight back into his eyes and said “Don’t worry about it, Willy. Sometimes I don’t know what my deal is either”. Willy and I became friends after that. Whenever I had a “situation” with the jocks that needed “dealt with”, I just told Willy “I have something that I need taken care of” and the situations got taken care of. I never sicced Willy on Coach Wilson, but sometimes wish I had. By the end of High School, Willy was in prison for aggravated assault — but he always treated me right for the last few years I knew him.