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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Nearly 700 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.
The silence 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."
General Walker 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 falling apart....
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.
Buddy never 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....