The spring of 1961 became a high-water mark for me. I was notified by my high school principal, Mr. C. R. Avery, that I had been selected by the teachers to represent Montgomery Central High School at Boys’ State, a leadership program sponsored by the American Legion. Did this mean that my teachers actually liked me? Somehow that didn’t seem plausible after all the antics I had been involved in at every grade level.
Classmate Peggy McCurdy was selected to go to Girls’ State. Peggy was vivacious, popular, and beautiful, and I had a secret crush on her. So by being Peggy’s counterpart among the boys in my class raised my stock in my own eyes, a pleasant surprise that maybe I was becoming more polished like my older brother Nolen Robert. Maybe my years as a Problem Child had been compensated for by making good grades in school, by being funny, by becoming more of a young gentleman. But I get ahead of myself.
The week-long program for boys from across Tennessee was held at a former military academy in Lebanon, a town about thirty miles east of Nashville. That week was the longest period I had ever spent away from home.
Lebanon, Tennessee (Image credit)
The program involved public speaking, patriotism, sports, learning about local and state government, and running for office. Early in the week it became clear that we were all expected to participate and run for office of some kind. Right off the bat the race for Governor shaped up, with all of us participating in the nominating process. Soon three or four boys were nominated and the campaigns began with speeches, posters, rallies, and jockeying. It was rumored that the mother of one of the gubernatorial candidates drove up in a Cadillac and slipped her son an envelope containing $600 to use for his campaign expenses. Whether true or not, this confirmed for me who I would campaign against. I didn’t like him anyway because he seemed puffed-up and arrogant.
My true Problem Child colors emerged again. One night after dinner, during some free time for us to “politic” among our peers, I went to my room or barracks, I don’t remember which, got my tube of toothpaste and put it in my pocket. Diving back into the crowd with a glob of toothpaste in the palm of my right hand, I would reach out to shake hands with whomever I could make eye contact with and urge them to support the candidate for governor that I detested. Then I would rush off into the crowd, while watching to see how long it would take the victim to discover the toothpaste in his hand. I did this several times, grew tired of it–maybe out of fear that one of those boys would exact a just revenge, and moved on to other things such as thinking about what office I would run for later in the week.
We were organized into groups that represented various levels of government. State offices were determined first, then county, then city. Through a lively exercise in politicking, I ran unsuccessfully for a number of noteworthy offices and came up short each time. I wondered of my toothpaste-in-hand tricks earlier in the week had come back to haunt me. In the end, I was elected Assistant City Fire Chief, really something to write home about. What would Peggy McCurdy think? What would Mr. Avery think? What would Nolen Robert and Mother and Daddy think? No offense to any assistant city fire chiefs out there; this was just the thinking of a seventeen year old dreamer who still hoped to pitch for the New York Yankees.
With all this going on, I was also watching a historic drama shape up in the baseball world. My idol, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris of the New York Yankees were in a headlong race to see if they could surpass Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record of sixty—the most sacred of sports records in the U. S. Mantle was injured late in the season and fell short, but Maris kept his flawless swing going and broke the record with sixty-one home runs by season’s end.
In the early fall of my senior year, Peggy McCurdy and I were invited to speak to the PTA about our experiences at Girls State and Boys State. Our reporting to the group went pretty well, even though I don’t recall a thing I said there—along with everyone else. It’s a fair bet that I did not mention my toothpaste-in-the-hand trick. But a highlight for me was after the program when our gifted English teacher, Ms. Peggy Ferrell, walked up to Peggy McCurdy and me afterwards, smiling at us with sparkling eyes. She said,
“You two are the first in all the years I have heard these reports from Boys and Girls State attendees who did not make a single grammatical error in your presentations!”
I took that as a very high compliment, most especially from a teacher that I virtually worshipped. Her English classes were the best. If she had only known the whole story, I wonder what she would have thought.