students, in fear or in protest, hadn't gone in, a third of the student body
missing at that morning's hastily called assembly. Fifty-seven hours before the
Tigers' showdown, their auditorium was hushed, their stage empty.
deepened as Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker and his swagger stick came down the aisle
and mounted the stage. "You have nothing to fear from my soldiers, and no
one will interfere with your coming, going or your peaceful pursuit of your
studies," he vowed. "However, I would be less than honest if I failed
to tell you that I intend to use all means necessary to prevent any
interference with the execution of your school board's plan."
meant business. Outside the school a segregationist who refused to disperse got
his head bloodied by a Screaming Eagle's rifle butt. Moments after the assembly
the Little Rock 9, sheathed by 20 paratroopers, did just what Quadel would
reenact dozens of times a half century later, picturing white people screaming
at him: walk up those steps and integrate Central forever.
When the phone
call came to Central just before lunch, saying that the school would be blown
up at noon and flushing the entire student body into the yard, nobody giggled
or horseplayed the way they had when the National Guard was there. It was a
whole new ball game now, Buddy would tell the kids, and it was only beginning.
Because soon his school would go from a battlefield to an empty building, its
football team all that would remain of it, and then the team, too, would begin
Over nine black
kids, he'd keep muttering, in a school of two thousand. Hell, no, he wasn't for
integration any more than most of his team was, but for God's sake, if the
adults had just stayed out of it, the kids would've accommodated the change. No
one consulted them, even though it was they who would pay the price.
And no, Buddy
knew, that price couldn't be stacked up against the one paid by those nine
black kids, or their parents and grandparents, but if healing was everyone's
goal, neither price should be forgotten.
Quadel would get
his moment in that auditorium, the one he hungered for all those years when the
kids called him Fatty. He'd be summoned to the microphone at a pep rally last
fall, introduced as "the big man on campus" to a roof-raising roar and
asked to make a speech.
would. His eyes would blink hard as they took one last sweep of that
auditorium. Then he'd drop his head and rub away his tears.
Now the kids
would begin to unravel a mystery. Why do they hear so much from coach Bernie
Cox about Tiger Pride--the two words that symbolize their glorious tradition,
the two words they bark when they break their huddles, and the title of the
book written by Bernie's son, Brian--but rarely see that tradition in the
flesh? Now they'd begin to understand why so few of the old-timers return to
reap and resow it.
It won't be easy
for the old men to explain their absence. Most could drive to campus in the
time it takes to get a haircut. They'd hesitate, fumble for words, until
someone at last would say it: "It's just not the same school." Running
the risk that that might be taken as racism, when yes, it may be, at least in
part, but no, it's not what they mean. Running the risk that these kids are too
young to understand that a man carries a snapshot in his head all his life of
his school days, and what it's like to walk through a doorway and have that
snapshot shredded. To suddenly confront a new one in the same setting, full of
people who look and dress and talk so differently from him, a snapshot that
only makes it harder for him to be sure that the one in his head, fast fading
with age--who he was--ever even existed....