Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 24, 2017

War brought my high school class together

No, not THAT war...

Last year, I barely batted an eye when I blew off my high school class’s 40th anniversary.

 In fact, my casual indifference toward the City High Class of ’75 matched the indifference I showed for the tenth and 20th (or was it 25th?) class reunions.  I had no pangs of guilt, no desire to pick up a phone, lose weight, buy a new suit, get a haircut or any of the million things people want to do to impress old classmates they either had all but forgotten about or hate outright.

But this was just me being consistent. You’re talking about a social leper who did not attend his prom, any Homecoming dance and had exactly two dates with members of his own class the entire time he was in school. I had several close friends, to be sure, but they all were part of the following year’s graduating class for whatever reason.

Don’t get me wrong; I thought Chattanooga High School (or, “City High”) was an awesome place to attend high school in the mid 70s. I mean, come on, our mascot was a three-ton Dynamo that still has a permanent place on that hillside. No one else had that nickname! In addition to that, I realized early on that the circumstances of this class, my senior class, were one-in-a-million. And my time walking those halls, and occasionally paying attention in class, laid the groundwork for my lifetime of writing, my love of Chattanooga and early declaration of independence that has found me still contentedly single 40-plus years later.

But being in high school as a senior, was no different from my dash through the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to earn my degree. It was a means to an end. If I had a chance to do it all again, I would have taken the G.E.D. to avoid the nuisance that chasing an impossible scholarship wound up making much of my senior year a downer. Getting accepted to Vanderbilt is a mixed blessing when you’re not a rich kid.

My time in high school – tenth through twelfth grades at the time – was divided into two halves because of the biggest seismic event of my life.  That was when I was hired to work weekends at the late, great Chattanooga News-Free Press.

It was an epiphany; it was me finding my calling, my life’s work. So what if I had just finished my junior year? I would have loved to have won the Grantland Rice Journalism Scholarship to Vandy, but the practical experience I earned while working my way through UTC was a hundred times more useful than a classroom.

My rejection letter told me that a first-generation American from Detroit won the scholarship, that his contributed work showed he was writing at a “near-professional level.” Those words still burn me up all these years later because I had already gotten accolades for my work at the daily.

But that first summer had me working weekends, answering phones and writing IDs (called “cutlines”) for photos on Friday nights and Saturdays. Before that, I was, I thought, a pretty normal high school student. I kept stats for the football and basketball teams, I was second board on the chess team, I had an adorable girlfriend after-two-plus years of a rolling rejection by my first high school crush – a majorette with hair down to there and a bust out to here who lived in the next neighborhood over.

But the weekend after Valentine’s Day of my junior year, I found the Right Girl.  It was a promising relationship; I was thrown out (in a manner of speaking) trying to steal second base, but I was comfortably set on first base for a time.

She was smart, affectionate, a good kisser for a sophomore(!) and seemingly devoted to making things work.  But she came up against a career choice, and I had only been working at the paper for a month that summer when I broke up with her. I told her, honestly, that my weekends were no longer mine to give and that it would only get worse. It broke my heart, hers too, but by September she was dating a member of the boys tennis team who looked like Bjorn Borg while I become the no-fun workaholic on the school paper.

But I’m sure this sounds like just about any high school story you’ve ever heard of in those days gone by; Happy Days in plaid pants. So I need to make it crystal clear why the City High Class of ’75 was a beacon, a shining light far ahead of its time. First of all, we were a true 50-50 white-black demographic, unlike any other school in Chattanooga then and still an anomaly in this town.

It started at the top. Dr. Charles Kendrick, only recently installed as principal, was also the father of one of my class’ brightest students. His vice-principal, Dr. Edward Bates, was a scholarly African-American whose daughter was student body president.

In other words, our senior class could do no wrong. We had the run of the joint.

And in 1975, that meant something. With today’s rules, precautions and far-flung guidelines and dress codes, you might have trouble wrapping it around your head what it meant to be part of the Class of ’75 at City High.  For starters, since at the time it was still legal for 18 year olds to purchase cigarettes, we had a smoking patio, a garden space in the middle of the main building.  Never a smoker, I still appreciated that it never intruded on my day-to-day. Having tobacco banned outright was not even a remote consideration.

Those of us who had cars came and went freely. All we had to do was sign out and sign back in. As one of the editors of the school paper (The Maroon and White, if you’re curious) I was able to get a pass just about at any time to do anything related to the school paper. And as someone who was already contributing by-lined articles in the News-Free Press, it was a freedom I employed for legit reasons as much as just flaunting it. The best was walking through our lunchroom one day with a large Shakey’s pizza we’d ordered, just because we could.

In 1975, City High had a fearsome football team, a horse bleep basketball team and almost no girls athletics teams to speak of. Girls basketball returned during my time there, and it would only be a decade or so before the Dynahs earned a TSSAA state title that I was present to report. But in ’75, it was all about football under the leadership of the late, great head coach Bobby Davis. Our team was fast, it was relentless and it notched wins against every opposing program in Hamilton County that it faced during my time.

One of the co-captains that year was Steve Owens, a no-nonsense linebacker who would outwork anybody. One of his more talented teammates was junior Ernie Casley, a personable, outgoing athlete who truly was more of a leader than a true football player. And Ernie, an African-American, was dating the younger sister of Steve, a Caucasian. She was cute, a cheerleader and only a sophomore. But you know? It was cool. Steve and Ernie were, by all visible accounts, friends before and during the time he was dating her.

Being 100 percent none of my business, I never asked about or learned the fascinating details in what made that relationship work in 1974-75. I only knew it was one more thing that made our class unique.

But the biggest deal about our class that year was that we all got along. There were rivalries, there were temporary flare-ups, but they almost never seemed to be about race. And to this day, I believe a large part of that was that we found common ground in our music.

Looking at my yearbook, I appreciate that 1975 was a long time ago. The clothes say so; the haircuts say so; the mirror says so. But as I write this column, playing on my computer, clear and crisp and timeless, is a band that called itself War. Or WAR; it’s usually written in all caps.

The band had nothing to do with Vietnam, which was rapidly becoming yesterday’s news in 1974. The band was formed in the late 60s, but its members were guys who changed with the times. In the years following my graduation, the band even dabbled with the fascination with outer space. Not exactly down and dirty.

 War was, and is, a large ensemble of jazz musicians who were, oddly, formed to black up a British blues singer named Eric Burdon. Their records together were an odd mix, as you’d assume, but around 1971 War broke apart from Burdon and started doing their own thing. And what a glorious thing it was.

They had a social consciousness, but beat no one in the head with it. Their first hit was called “All Day Music,” as non-controversial as a song could possibly be. But their biggest hit, one that was played every night before a City High basketball game, was “Cisco Kid,” about, yeah, a legendary gunfighter. 

Most of the songs that War charted tended to be about cars, relaxing and getting high – all things a high school kid could relate to in the 70s.  Even their more pointed songs, like the hit “The World is a Ghetto,” was more of a consideration that anywhere, or everywhere, could be that kind of trap. The song was more about breaking away, something more hopeful – and then there was the six minute sax solo on the LP.

There were other artists, and songs, which were in everyone’s heads in this brief window in time – the one where disco was peeking over the transom, ready to dominate the latter half of the decade.

But I was in college by then, working my way through school. The magic of high school was long gone. So, too, is City High, renamed and retooled as a performing arts school a couple of decades ago. Damn shame.

Thank goodness the music remains.