In 1958 Elmer's was the only high school in his county that had been integrated. Basketball was the big sport. People in the little town filled the gym every Tuesday and Friday. They roared when the home team scored and they booed when the visiting team fouled one of their players. But before and after every game the town was rife with racial tension.
Some folks were neutral about integration, figuring its time had come. Others were adamantly opposed. Hard to say, even in retrospect, if anyone, black or white, was in favor of it. If someone thought it was a good idea, no one said anything. But at every basketball game, people got along, whatever their color. Points mattered and wins mattered. And in 1958 this small school had a very good team. Some might say the team was good in part because of integration.
In fact, the school had its first team ever with a realistic hope of going to the state tournament. And when the team did, there was even more hoopla among the people of the town.
To this day many people believe that if their star player had not torn his knee in the first game, the team might have gone deep in the tournament.
The local newspaper said the team was good enough to win it, which helped, of course, to sell a lot of papers. Even though the team didn’t win the championship, the effort brought the town together. The racial talk largely subsided and hasn’t risen since except out of the mouths of a few who are upset about other things as well.
Change of any kind bothers people, some more than others.
But at every reunion of the class of 1958, that team dominates the conversation. And no one knows that better than Elmer.
It doesn't matter now that racial strife in 1958 kept Elmer and his classmates from taking a senior trip. They’re over that and the ones who are still alive simply enjoy getting together at the Elk’s Club Lodge and reminiscing about the good times while feasting on fine food. They talk about their lives, the classmates who have died and, of course, their team.
It doesn't matter either that every teacher they had back then passed away long ago, teachers they remember fondly and teachers they remember not so fondly. They know those teachers made a difference in their lives and they appreciate them now far more than they did back then.
It doesn't even matter that the building where they went to school no longer stands or that their school system long ago was absorbed by a larger system. But everyone in their town and surrounding towns remembers the name of their school because of its being the first to be integrated and because of its basketball team in 1958.
Because of that team, Elmer and his classmates, black and white, never lack for conversation at a reunion.
Just ask the black guy, the tallest one in the room, what might have happened if he had not hurt his knee in that game. Elmer will be happy to tell you he and all his classmates think their team would have won that championship, the only team in the tournament that year with a black kid playing, grabbing rebounds and just before he hurt his knee executing a monster dunk not often seen back then.
Elmer doesn’t have problems with his knee now. A surgeon in another town operated on him in 1958 and the town held three barbecues that summer to pay for the operation.
Elmer received a scholarship to a good university and starred on the team for three years. Then he went to dental school. And just a few years back he retired from his dental practice in his home town. He had more white patients than black because more white folks live there.
Now just about everybody in town gets along despite the big change in 1958. Sometimes people are better off in the long run whether they like change when it happens or not.
Elmer will be the first to tell you he’s not the only one who benefited from integration. His town, his school, his team and his patients for 40 years benefited as well. They were all part of an imperfect storm that ended in a rainbow.
Donal Mahoney says this piece of fiction is almost nonfiction with a twist, what literary journals call “creative nonfiction.” The bones of the piece came from a friend who lives in a small town in a southern state. A few things have been changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent. Mahoney showed the piece to his wife who grew up in another small town in a different state and was a senior in high school in the same era and she says the story, in its details, mirrors her town almost exactly. Mahoney grew up in Chicago around the same time and he remembers being called in with the rest of the students at his all-white Catholic high school one day early and being told at a meeting in the gym that three blacks would be entering the school the next day. The students were also told that if anyone bothered the newcomers they would be expelled. No one bothered them. Today the school looks upon its black graduates as proudly as its white graduates. One of the black students subsequently starred for years in the National Football League and underwrites scholarships at the school today. Change can be very good but sometimes it feels like a root canal while in progress.