As John Welch’s arm exploded through the safety glass just above the brass push bar he realized the race had been won and the battle lost. Our third and fourth grade classes routinely made the sixty yard sprint across the playground from the north wing to the south wing of Limestone School rewarding the win, place and show runners with the spoils of being first in line for lunch. We had no grand illusions of gourmet meals. Our goals were attuned to completing lunch quickly and excusing ourselves to the asphalt playground to maximize our time playing workup-style kickball, foursquare or tether ball. With a corndog, wacky cake and lime green jello (we thought of it as our vegetable) washed down with a half pint of chocolate milk, we sloshed to the playground fueled for action. John would be ok, he was tough, and the scratches and shallow cuts that bloodied his arm would soon heal. It wasn’t a fluke that John hit that door first. He was a great athlete and would go on to play golf for an Oklahoma high school state championship team at College High School in 1976. John played quarterback on his sixth grade Limestone football team. The team practiced in the backyard of our coach and principal, Mr. George Tyner. George Tyner lived about a block southwest of our school and we geared up in the boys bathroom near the cafeteria, sneakers and jeans along with a jersey over shoulder pads and a helmet purchased at Curtis Sporting Goods. The store smelled of glove leather, tackily fresh basketballs and ode of liniment le’ tube sock. Cotton and polyester numbered jerseys hanging from round chrome racks created an athletic apparel browsing maze, a short forest of dreamy sports wonder to a kid who loved sports. This was a dreamland of sports stuff. The old dusty wooden floor and balls fascinated me…boxes of Whiffle balls with holes on one side, Wilson footballs, Rawlings baseballs, Spaulding basketballs, Acushnet golf balls and Penn tennis balls. I wanted to buy one of each and stock my closet. Curtis Sporting Goods was the only place to buy certain things we didn’t talk about. A lad would walk in with his Mom and say, “Yea, ummm…I need one of those, ummm,” and a curmudgeonly, crusty gentleman I knew as Mr. Curtis (although I had no idea what his name was) the proprietor I assumed, who seemed woven into the fabric of the store would say, “Ya need a cup?” And the kid would nod rapidly as if quick acknowledgement would make the awkward moment go away.
And so armed with flimsy equipment, certain unmentionable protective devices and a boiled-in-water malleable mouthpiece, we walked double file across the stone and thorn laden playground west on Lincoln road to Mr. Tyner’s soft Bermuda backyard. We practiced there and played every football game away because we had no tackle-worthy field, ours being infested with goathead thorns and unforgiving spiked limestone.
We traveled to Highland Park, Lincoln (Boy’s Club field), Wayside, Ranch Heights and Wilson, every game as visitors, competing without a playbook. Mr. Tyner called each play in the huddle, schemes barely more complex than the finger drawn plays we famously drew in the dirt of our backyards. “Let’s go halfback dive to the right with L.L.” or “Davey, fake a sweep right and go flanker reverse handoff to Brent…on hut two boys, hut two now, remember the count.” The Wayside game was a one mile hike through the oil pumpjack fields strewn with namesake limestone and now occupied by the Park Place neighborhood and Jefferson as the main arterial road which translates roughly to the path we walked to play the game against Wayside. I vividly remember the Wayside game as a fiercely contested game against many of my buddies who lived nearby in the Wayside district. Mr. Tyner called my number on a flanker reverse and I took the handoff from Davey Davis and veered along the line looking for daylight. My next thought involved oxygen as in ‘get me some’ and the Wayside boys coming over and whacking a kid by the name of Pickles on the butt, congratulating him for cleaning my clock.
The day I graduated 6th grade at Limestone School we had an assembly in the gym and I received a certificate telling me of my accomplishment. Despite the handicap of losing that graduation reminder, I have no trouble remembering my days at Limestone School. Those days were filled with good memories. Coke and Cake walks as we transformed the school into a Fall Carnival roaming from class to class, places of learning now festivals of fun staffed by our teachers and parents. My first crush on a girl and holding her hand made my heart race and my world stop. Mrs. Whitney’s flyback paddle with the red rubber ball removed as a means of deterrence applied to our derriere. Sitting on towels in Mrs. Brock’s kindergarten class in the little schoolhouse and easing into uni-desk/chairs listening to Mrs. Maurer, Mrs. Haines, Mrs. Solomon, Mrs. Karbosky, Mrs. Mayberry, Mr. Rapp and Mr. Tyner teaching me more than just book learning…they taught me about fair play and discipline and service and sportsmanship…about how to live. I was lucky to have them as my first collection of teachers.
After the final bell graduation day, I wandered to the pick up zone for the bus kids to say goodbye not sure if we would still be friends again in that uncertain moment of graduation finality. Yellow buses were boarded and my friends were talking and laughing, unmoved by this watershed moment. Summer was here and it was time to move on to summer camp, pool parties and puppy love romance. A new school year awaited on the other side of summer and I would board a bus in late August with the other kids in my neighborhood. Our bus ride downtown to Central Junior High began a new era of lockers, specialized teachers, shifting classrooms, geometry, wood shop and American History. I watched the buses roll onto highway 75 and walked around the south side of the gym to the playground, then down the sidewalk and steps to the crosswalk on Nowata road. Crossing the highway at Mission Drive I walked north to my home without looking back. The final scene in the movie Stand By Me features Richard Dreyfuss tapping this line into a typewriter, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.” I was unaware of that latent thought deep within my mind as I made that last walk home, a lingering solitary waltz, eyes down, scanning the pebbled salt and pepper asphalt. With apologies to Stephen King, I never had any friends and teachers later on like the ones I had when I was at Limestone School. I know what I was struggling to understand on that last walk home, looking back over my shoulder, finally, forty-two years later.