Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Castle Heights Collection of Autumn Memories

SAN DIEGO – “The Democrat” I received last week had one of my Castle Heights heroes on the front page.

John Sweatt, the son of Major Sweatt of biology fame in the basement of the old gym, stood on the left of the photograph. John was a member of the 1959 class of Tigers, and he took me under his wing when he was a post-graduate and I was a tiny sophomore blimp on the radar of Stroud Gwynn’s 1959 Tiger football team.

The other photos in the paper and on the “Spotted” section of the paper’s website showed old folks frolicking with their classmates of fifty years ago. To me, John does not look older than he did in August of 1959 when we moved to the second-floor barracks of Smith Chapel for our two-a-days pre-season practice.

I had not yet accepted I was not going to be the six foot, 180-pound second coming of Doak Walker, the SMU Heisman Trophy winner, and NFL star for the Detroit Lions. I was 5-6 and 128 pounds of not real bright. The 128 has morphed into something more substantial. The 5-6 has become permanent.

Johnson’s Dairy Orange Drink

I have previously mentioned after morning practices – where I would lose ten pounds of water weight – John gathered the town boys and headed to Johnson’s Dairy where we each bought a half-gallon of orange drink and gulped down before returning to the barracks.

Through that season, John took care of me. He, Earl Majors, and I all ended up with Naval careers, but I will never forget him watching out for the tiny sophomore.

The photo also evoked the memories Castle Heights autumn.

The sounds came first. On Sundays, the band’s march songs for the afternoon parade wafted down Castle Heights Avenue to our yard where I played in Middle Tennessee foliage at its finest.

Later, there was my daily walk through the arched gate up the narrow drive through the overhanging trees in their brilliant browns, yellows oranges, and reds.
Somewhere in my piles of photographs, there is one of Sharry Baird Hagar, who was on the homecoming court, and my date for the weekend. They are near the field with aster bouquets pinned on their jackets. Young women seemed to be prettier in the fall.

Maroon, Old Gold, and Souza

Pleasant memories: Castle Heights football in the splendor of fall, maroon and old gold football uniforms blending with the harvest colors, military march music matching the mood. John Phillips Souza would have loved autumn Saturdays at Castle Heights.

The gate is gone along with those glorious trees. The road is a thoroughfare, not an entrance to a way of life, also long gone. The gridiron is now Stroud Gwynn field, but more of a track for exercisers, youth soccer, and festivals.

Those autums were an amalgamation of folks. The Heights football team consisted of town-boy cadets Jim Gamble, Mike Gannaway, Earl Major, Jimmy Hatcher, Bill King, and me; resident cadets Jimmy Nunn, Day Johnston, Ronnie Ewton, Buzzy Friar, Dan Pritchett, Desmond Coffee, Day Johnston, Ronnie Naar, Hugh McCoy, and Tommy Higgs; returning graduate John Sweatt, and local post-graduates such as Ed Lasater, Larry Bucy, Gordon Skeen, Jimmy Byrd, and Kenny Berry. And the “PGs” from out of town such as Snookie Hughes, Happy Harper, Joe Chambers, Rusty Hodges, Delton Truitt, Bate Hobbs, Jim Pfeiffer, Glenn Hickey, Kirk Mills, John Taylor, Doug McAfee, and Glenn Hickey.

Great Coaches

The assistant coaches, Jimmy Allen, Frank North, and David Robinson, were all one could hope for as a high school player.

But it is a Brigadoon, a place I cannot go again unless I wake up in the middle of a hundred year sleep.

As I looked at the front-page photo, I wondered if John had the sense of returning to Valhalla. He has gone on to success as an important cog with Cisco. He married one of Lebanon’s true beauties and an intellect to boot in Suzanne Mitchell Sweatt.

I suspect Castle Heights autumn is even more poignant for him. He was steeped in it.

When I saw that photograph, I remembered those halcyon days, which don’t seem to exist with their innocence anymore in today’s commercialized, homogenized world, and how John made them so much better for me a half century ago.

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