Saturday, October 27, 2012

Junior High Blues

I’ve been reminiscing a lot because a Facebook friend has recently been posting pictures from our days in junior high—except I didn’t go to her junior high (but I wish I had). Because of a quirk in how our county’s attendance districts were set up in the early ‘70s, I was part of a small group of students who were sent to Hamilton for 7th through 9th grades rather than staying with my 6th grade cohorts who went on to attend Washington Junior High.

I had attended Murphytown Elementary, located on a dirt road along Stillwell Creek in the rural eastern part of the county. It was a 1950s era single-story concrete block building painted battleship gray. It didn’t have a gymnasium—just an “all-purpose room” that served as the cafeteria when the tables were folded down. The library was simply the bookshelves lining the hallway walls. Every student arrived on one of the yellow school buses. It was an ideal setting for youngsters, with a huge playground surrounded by woods with no other houses in view. I loved that place!

However, Murphytown only went up to 5th grade. For our 6th grade year, we were bused to Park School, along a busy thoroughfare in the city. As I recall, there was no grass on the playground—just gravel and dirt. It was a big change for those of us from the country!

I can remember that the first time an ambulance or fire engine went by with its siren blaring, those of us from Murphytown jerked our heads and rose up from our desks to gawk out the second-story windows. We had never experienced an emergency vehicle passing by our school, so this was a major event! However, the more sophisticated city students acted like we were crazy, and the teacher admonished us to turn around in our seats and pay attention. It took many more sirens going by over the months before I could avoid the “sirens’ song” and resist the temptation to see what emergency might be happening outside.

Park School didn’t have just one classroom for each grade as Murphytown did—there were three different classrooms full of 6th graders. There was a big library in the center of the top floor. Unlike Murphytown’s all-purpose room, Park had a gymnasium where one could actually play basketball indoors! That same year, I also enjoyed playing football with many of the Park School boys, and earned a starting position for the City Park Falcons. Although it was a big adjustment, I thoroughly enjoyed my year at Park School, and made many new friends. All was going well for me.

My transition to 7th grade did not go as smoothly. Football preseason practice began before school started, and in junior high at that time, the 7th and 8th grades were combined into one team. I was the only City Park Falcon on a team made up of mostly former Hamilton Green Dragons. It seemed like all the other kids knew each other before I got there. I felt out of place from the very start, and had a hard time getting used to it. Plus, I never earned a starting position during my three years of junior high football (leading me to join the crew team in high school, which turned out pretty well for me). Junior high is a difficult time for most adolescents, and it certainly was for me. High school wasn’t all that much better. Actually, I didn’t really find my “place” until I went away to college.

When things don’t always go as we had hoped, we frequently dream about what might have been. I often thought that my life might have been so different if I had only gone to Washington Junior High School. I could have built on the personal friendships I had established at Park School. I might have had a more successful football career with my former Falcon teammates, which surely would have led to a higher rung on the student societal ladder. I also would have been exposed to more “diversity” which I have found to be a good thing in life.

Most people would rate Hamilton over Washington as the more desirable school during that time period. The general socio-economic status of Washington’s student body was lower than Hamilton’s, so the test scores were likely lower overall as well. However, in my mind, Washington would have been a better option for me. I tried to make the best of my situation at Hamilton, even if I never felt totally comfortable there. None of this is meant to belittle any of my fellow Hamilton Wildcat alums—it is indeed a decent school where one could get a good education.

That is probably still true today in its current rendition as Hamilton Middle School (9th graders now attend the high schools). Unfortunately, Washington Junior High no longer exists as a junior high or middle school. Just before my election to the county school board in 1992, Washington was closed and then remodeled as Jefferson Elementary Center. A connecting corridor was built to the adjacent Jefferson School, and this new larger elementary center became the consolidated home for a few former small rural elementary schools which were closed (including my dear Murphytown Elementary) as well as a couple of urban elementary schools (including Park School, which was quickly leveled and whose prime location on a busy street is now the site of a Wendy’s restaurant and a CVS drugstore). Since the number of students in the county had diminished since the baby-boom era, it simply wasn’t possible to efficiently keep all these schools operating.

One never really knows how an alternate reality might actually have turned out. Who knows how I might have fared as a Washington Panther? For all I know, it could have turned out far worse than it did at Hamilton. Thus, in subsequent years, I hadn’t thought much about it—until these Facebook pictures my friend posted recently made me think back to my junior high blues, and what might have been.

More importantly, looking at this friend’s periodic postings of her early ‘70s photographs of life at Washington Junior High makes me yearn for my calf-length striped tube socks and other fashion necessities from that era. They make this gray haired guy want to be young again!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A game to forget

Earlier this month, I put up a blog posting entitled "A game to remember." Well, this past Saturday was a different situation.

I’ve been a Mountaineer fan all my life, and thus I have been through many disappointments. I always start off a season with the slimmest of hopes that we might actually go undefeated and win the national championship. This season was no different, but the hopes got higher with every victory and with all the media attention we seemed to be getting. Wow—maybe we can run the table! Alas, it was not to be!

However, the loss at Lubbock is not the end of the world. True Mountaineer fans know that these things happen, and that rather than jumping off the bandwagon, you cheer on the team that represents you through thick or thin. The flying WV represents our state. Montani Semper Liberi!

I can remember my final fall semester as a WVU student in 1984, we were having a great year, First, we beat Pitt—which by itself made for a good year. Then, we beat Boston College with their Heisman winning quarterback and media darling Doug Flutie for the fourth straight year (I love it that in a recent interview he said his biggest regret was never beating WVU). Best of all, we beat our long-time nemesis Penn State one week later (albeit at a great cost as our injury problems mounted). All this good news came to an end as our walking wounded players lost to Rutgers, Temple, and Virginia to finish the season. A victory over TCU in the Astrodome bowl game (after injured players had time to heal) helped to assuage the pain of this lofty fall from grace.

In 1988, Major Harris led us through a dream-come-true undefeated regular season, only to see him injured in the first series of what would have been the National Championship Game (I think of that Fiesta Bowl whenever I see Lou Holtz). In 1993, Jake (the Snake) Kelchner and Darren Studstill led a two-headed offense through another undefeated regular season, and on to play the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl. After a quick march down the field for the first score, a freak series of plays where Studstill was hit hard and his helmet damaged led to an interception for a touchdown and then the game was over.

Finally, in 2007 an early loss at USF was quickly forgotten as everyone else had at least one loss as well, and WVU had climbed to #2 in the polls. All we had to do was beat a mediocre Pitt team at home to head to the National Championship game, only to find out that “Fraudriguez” had his mind on his new Michigan contract money instead of his mind on the game.

Someday it might happen, but going undefeated never happens very often—even for the best of teams. Look at the list of national champions and there are many who have since suffered mediocre seasons (e.g., Texas, Auburn, Miami). I’m just glad we aren’t Penn State, Ohio State, USC, or others who have faced NCAA sanctions for serious improprieties. It is all a game, and just like real life, there are ups and downs along the way. Rarely is everything wonderful all the time. The negative moments, such as the aftermath of the Texas Tech game, help to make the positive moments better. Coming out the other side from disappointment breeds character. Hang in there Mountaineers!

Here is a nice picture from the "game to remember."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Historical Hilltop

Old cemeteries have a strong appeal to me. There is something about the ultimate finality of tombstones that I find fascinating. I especially like the older ones with interesting epitaphs where departed ancestors attempt to speak to future generations.

I went to college in Charleston and have spent a lot of time there for various other reasons over the years. I don’t claim to be a native Charlestonian but I feel like I know our capital city pretty well. However, I had never ventured up to the Spring Hill cemetery. It is partially visible from the Interstate because it sits on a hill overlooking the town, but that was all I knew about it. When Anna and I found ourselves with some time to kill on Sunday morning during the UC Homecoming weekend, we thought we’d finally check out that cemetery on the hill.

It turns out that what one can see from the highway is just a small fraction of this huge cemetery (at about 175 acres, it is the largest in West Virginia). The topography of the area is quite hilly, resulting in the narrow roadways (obviously designed for the horse and wagon era of the 1800s) twisting and circling around in asymmetrical patterns—Spring Hill has no easy-to-follow grid designs like in some large cemeteries on flatter ground. The land is so hilly that many of the grave areas are surrounded by concrete or stone walls, probably in an effort to stabilize the hillsides against sliding down (and possibly exposing the caskets). In fact, upon my return home that night, I went to Google Maps to see overhead shots of the property. All those retaining walls around hillside family plots make a network of small squares throughout the cemetery.

The views from various high points in the cemetery are beautiful, whether one is looking towards the golden Capitol Dome, or the downtown area, or even at the quarry on the backside. The mausoleum has a Moorish architectural style that is rare in West Virginia—at first we thought perhaps it was a mosque. There are lots of interesting tombstones and monuments, engraved with a variety of typefaces. Apparently there was a monument maker in Charleston who was gifted at representing trees—some are horizontal logs on top of tombstones, but others are vertical as stumps or even as taller trunks. There are special areas within the cemetery complex, including a Jewish section and a Confederate soldier section. I recognized some of the family names as being influential in the Charleston area.

Because of the challenging terrain, as well as all the retaining walls, it must require a lot of labor to keep the cemetery in shape. It isn’t conducive to a riding lawn mower—it must demand a lot of hand trimming. I was surprised to learn that the cemetery belongs to the City of Charleston, so tax dollars apparently help cover the high cost of maintenance. I think the people of my hometown need to be glad that our city doesn’t have this expense to contend with!

It is a very beautiful and very reverential place. Although in some spots you overlook the tall buildings of the downtown, there are other spots where the woods and the wildlife make you feel like you must be far out in the country. If you’ve ever been curious about the cemetery on the hill that you may have noticed while whizzing by Charleston, I recommend that you take some time to go up and explore this National Historic District. I hope to get back there someday and explore it further. It is an impressive final resting place.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A game to remember

Saturday, September 29, was a special day that will long be treasured by Mountaineer fans. Indeed, it needs to be added to my list of the "Dozen Best" WVU games ( It started as a beautiful morning in Morgantown, with just a bit of chill in the autumn air. In addition to being our very first Big XII football game, it was Homecoming weekend. As such, we had the opportunity to enjoy some free tailgating at two separate receptions before the game—one at the Law School and the other in “tent city” courtesy of the WVU Foundation.

After enjoying our free food with old friends, we entered the stadium to the amazing sight of the clearly articulated gold and blue sections of the stands. It was immediately apparent that the fanbase had understood the importance of “striping the stadium” and it looked much better than many had predicted it would.

We arrived just in time to see the WVU marching band’s traditional pre-game performance. This pre-game ritual has seen few changes over the years, and gets everyone in the mood for Mountaineer football. It gives true fans a thrill to see the “Pride of West Virginia” all condensing into a small group in the center of the field to the tune of “Simple Gifts,” and then turning around and marching outward in concentric expanding circles.

As another sign that this was not just any old game, a guest performer sang the National Anthem. Just like Landau Eugene Murphy did last year for the LSU game, country music star Trace Adkins (thanks in part to his manager, a West Virginia native) belted out an a capella version of the Star-Spangled Banner prior to kickoff. Plus, the Big XII Commissioner was on hand to perform the coin toss and to welcome us into the conference.

What an incredible game it was! Much has been written already about the offensive fireworks both teams produced—it was tied at 35 at halftime before finishing with a 70-63 WVU victory. Quarterback Geno Smith was masterful in his passing all day, but the Baylor quarterback was very good in his own right. Even when WVU moved out to a 21 point lead in the second half, we knew we couldn’t relax or feel good just yet—there was too much time left and Baylor had demonstrated that they could score quickly, too. It was a wild and memorable game!

Of all the fantastic plays—and there were many on this day—the one that I would deem the best was the one-handed grab by wide receiver J.D. Woods which kept our final drive alive and let us run out the clock. It was one of the only bad throws Geno made on this day, but J.D. was able to reach back and catch it with just one hand. Had he not, it likely would have been intercepted and the outcome could have been much different—and not nearly as glorious.

Because the game was such a barn-burner, the vast majority of the crowd stayed until the very end. We always stay after each game and sing along with John Denver’s “Country Roads” but sometimes those fans with long distances to travel have already left. This game was different, as there were virtually no empty seats to be seen. Instead, the Mountaineer Nation stood as one, arm in arm, swaying back in forth to our state anthem, while the jumbo screen showed live shots of the crowd and the players, interspersed with pictures of various state landmarks. It was a great day to be a Mountaineer!

Indeed, it’s been a great week, as we have continued to see the attention and accolades given to our undefeated team and Heisman-leading quarterback. Let’s savor how this feels, and hope to continue the dream with a victory against Texas on national TV in prime time. Let’s go, Mountaineers!!!

I'm sitting in a gold section mid-way across the upper deck.