In one sense, it was an epic teenage prank. The kind of thing you’d still be talking about thirty-some years later. In another sense, it epitomized – you’ll pardon the expression – the monumental dickishness of my generation, the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate we-don’t-give-a-crap generation that came of age in the 1970s.
Wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. Try to picture this: The football stadium at Oak Park and River Forest High School runs from east to west on the north side of Lake Street between East Avenue and Linden Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois, which borders the city of Chicago immediately to the west. The football field itself has been resurfaced in the meantime, but when I was in high school it was cheap artificial turf encircled by a four-lane quarter-mile track. Or at least I think it was a quarter mile track; it’s been a long time since I was in high school. Anyway, you entered the stadium’s grandstands from Lake Street, along the south edge of the football field and track; on the opposite side of the field there were bleachers and the visiting team’s bench. In the northeast corner of the filed, just outside the oval track, there was a small concession stand.
So, anyway, it was late May 1979 and I was a junior at Oak Park-River Forest. My sister Joan was a senior. We were coming up on the annual Memorial Day assembly where the students were trotted out to the football stadium to sit in the grandstands to watch an ancient color guard slow-march the American flag and the flags of each of the service branches out onto the field while someone from the marching band played “Taps”; followed by patriotic speeches and an overly emotive reading of “In Flanders Fields”; and then we’d trundle back into the school to continue marking time until the school year ended.
But in 1979, one of Joan’s classmates – in the interest of discretion, we’ll call him Jeff P. – came up with what must’ve seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. And he almost pulled it off.
It went like this, and I swear to god I’m not making any of this up. On the morning of the annual Memorial Day assembly, one of Jeff’s friends was hiding behind a parked car across Linden Avenue to the west of the stadium, armed with a bow and arrow. He – the friend, I presume – had attached maybe three or four firecrackers to the tip-end of the arrow. Shortly after the student body (minus Jeff P. and his friend with the bow and arrow) were seated in the grandstands waiting for the color-bearing octogenarians and so forth, Jeff’s friend lit the fuses of the firecrackers and shot the arrow into the northwest corner of the football field, at which point the firecrackers promptly went off, distracting everyone’s attention to that corner of the field. And again, I am not making this up.
Anyway, at the moment the firecrackers went off in the northwest corner of the field, Jeff P. burst out of the concession stand at the northeast corner of the field, buck-freaking-naked, except for a ski mask and a pair of sneakers, and streaked from east to west down the track at the northern edge of the field, leaping a four-to-five foot wrought iron fence at the west end of the stadium, dashing across Linden Avenue, and disappearing between houses on the opposite side of the street. The student body went positively mad with cheering and laughter. Teachers and administrators fumed. An assistant football coach took off after Jeff P., also leaping the fence and disappearing across the street. The ancient men of the color guard were motionless, stunned, not quite sure if they could believe their own eyes. Eventually, the program went on with the presentation of colors, the speeches, the reading of “In Flanders Fields,” but none of that really mattered.
What mattered was Jeff P.’s pale white rear-end stealing down the track, telling everyone involved exactly what we thought of their old fashioned flag-waving, completely out-of-touch Memorial Day nonsense.
By way of epilogue, I should point out that Jeff P. got caught immediately afterward. The reason being, he lost one of his gym shoes vaulting the fence making his getaway … and his name was written inside it. Yeah, he chose to wear gym shoes with his name written inside of them when he pulled off what seemed to be the most epic prank in his or any of our high school careers. As a punishment, he was not allowed to go to prom or to attend graduation; and, to add insult to injury, he made what turned out to be a huge mistake – a mistake which was almost as epic as the prank itself: He thought he could redress the wrongs visited upon him by writing to legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko, who did indeed write a column about the incident the following week. But, as you can imagine, Royko, a former Air Force man, was (ahem) less than sympathetic to Jeff’s plight. Heh.
But here’s the thing. Being an idiotic seventeen year old, I managed to convince myself that this dickish prank was, in fact, some sort of grandiose political statement; that it wasn’t just the act of an upper middle-class suburban jerk but was instead a way of raising our collective middle fingers at the military-industrial complex, or some such nonsense. Because nuance and complexity tend to evade seventeen year olds who think they’re smarter than everybody else (or, at least, they evaded me at that age), I couldn’t appreciate Memorial Day for what it was. I couldn’t appreciate that showing respect for men and women who died in uniform was something altogether different from supporting war itself; that you could have grave reservations about, say, Vietnam, but still feel immense sadness, and even appreciation, for the men and women who died in Vietnam, or Korea, or anywhere else politicians sent them to die.
It’s odd. As I’ve often remarked – and remarked with intense pride – my father was a World War II combat veteran. So you’d think even at seventeen I’d’ve had some sense of respect for military dead. But my father was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War, which was still an open wound in 1979; and, more than that, my dad, like most people who actually saw action during wartime, was never one to romanticize it. In fact, he hated war like only a combat veteran can hate war. And I guess at age seventeen I couldn’t distinguish between war and the people who were forced to fight wars; so being opposed to one meant you had to be opposed to the other.
I know my dad never felt that way, but I was stupid and I thought I knew everything.
Over the years I’ve come to look at that Memorial Day assembly in 1979 as one of the low points in my life. Not that I personally had anything to do with the prank itself, but it still bothers me that I thought it was great at the time. I often wish I could go back to and talk to my seventeen year old self. If I could, I think I’d say something like this: Don’t ever blame the people who serve for bad decisions made by politicians, or for unthinking people who cheer on war like it’s football. As long as we need a military, and I have little doubt we do need a military, we need people who are willing to sign up and take that oath – the one to protect and defend the Constitution – and those people are and always will be our collective responsibility.
Taking the time to honor people who’ve died in wars, even (or perhaps especially) wars started by arrogant, foolish politicians for crass reasons, is the very least we can do for them.
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.