This morning, i donned my jeans for working in the yard. Levis. 501s, metal buttons for the fly, NOT a zipper. Been wearing those since 1956, maybe earlier. i recognized i must give in to this aging thing. Already have in some things. Like wearing a belt with jeans. Didn’t do that until a couple of years ago when the midsection began to bulge. Insurance, you know. But now i was considering getting a new pair with a zipper of all things. Old fingers, fatter than they used to be and certainly not as flexible demanded i change. Felt sad i had to put aside another something i had done most of my life.
i began to put the belt through the loops. Every time i put a belt in my jeans, i think about the protest.
It didn’t make the news. i’m not even sure anyone outside of the eighth grade class ever knew about it. i’m not even sure my mother heard about it, and as the secretary to the superintendent, she knew everything that went on in those three buildings, especially when i was involved. It wasn’t the first protest. Brown versus Board of Education (Kansas) was ruled upon in 1954. The ruling began school integration leading to violent resistance. The protest i’m recalling was certainly the first and perhaps only protest in which i participated.
It was in a small, country town almost smack dab in the middle of Tennessee, the county seat. It was the third year after the small country town had separated the seventh and eighth grade from elementary school.
Perhaps we were feeling our oats, being noted as older, more mature than those “children” in elementary school. Perhaps because the building had formerly housed the high school, we believed we were of that ilk, not junior high students. Perhaps because we weren’t in our school building proper, we felt we had more power, more independence. Who knows. Perhaps it had something to do with puberty.
It was in the basement cafeteria in Highland Heights Elementary School. Lebanon Junior High where the protest was fomented was across the parking lot in front of the gym.
It all began innocently enough. i don’t remember if the guy involved in the initial incident even knew he was doing something outside of the regulations. But the principle knew the regulation. And enforced it.
The guy was R Townley Johnson (the R was just there, no name associated with it, just “R”). He was a bit different than most of us. A really good athlete who didn’t have a lot of interest in athletics. He was into music. Big time. i played with him a lot, stick ball in the parking lot behind his apartment building on West Main, between Pennsylvania and Castle Heights avenues, if i recall correctly. We played on the Nokes Sports Little League team together. Townley hit home runs. i hit doubles.
Along with Bill Cowan, the three of us practiced being a band trio together. Great plans. But the piano player, me, really wasn’t good enough to play in a band.
Townley and Bill scoffed me when i suggested we play Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” “Too old fashion,” they said. The next year, The Platters made the song into a Top 40 hit.
Townley went on to be the drum major of the University of Tennessee marching band. He played or led a number of bands. i lost track of him until Henry Harding told me Townley had showed up and scared the beejeezus out of Henry’s wife Brenda due to Townley’s attire, appearance, and behavior. There are lots of stories about how and why he went downhill. i don’t know because i had taken off to roam the seas, unaware of the bands and Townley during those days.
Sadly, Townley died a number of years ago.
But he did cause this infant protest. Noble cause? Well, not really. All of us guys wore blue jeans, preferably Levis except when we dressed up. Townley went to lunch that fateful day without a belt in his jeans. That was the regulation Mrs. Burton was adamant about enforcing. She did. Mrs. Burton was a sweetheart, one of the best teachers and administrators i experienced through all of my schooling. A wonderful woman.
i don’t remember exactly what the punishment was. Probably Townley had to stay after school or something.
But we didn’t think it was fair. i don’t think we were old enough to really understand “Freedom of Speech.” You know, that Constitution First Amendment thing, which is the cornerstone of the idea of freedom, equality, and all of that stuff. Nah. We just thought it wasn’t fair.
So all of the boys got together and discussed it. i suspect Henry Harding, as he was likely to do, especially with me, quietly was the instigator of the protest although it could have been Bill Cowan, Mike Gannaway, Jimmy Gamble, Buddy Phillips, Bobby Byrd, or several others who came up with the protest event. i’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.
But the next day at lunch, we all went to lunch in the cafeteria in our jeans sans belts.
My story must end there because i don’t remember what resulted in that protest. i’m guessing retribution was swift and made us recognize the errors in our ways, but that is just a guess.
Yet somehow i remember it every time i put my jeans on (with the belt). It makes me feel proud.