Laceyville, Pennsylvania, is a tired, depressing little town in northeast Pennsylvania. The Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachians, are on one side of it and the Appalachian Trail used by many hikers each year goes right through the area nowadays, but not back then in the 50’s. The Susquehanna River goes right by and floods most years and takes the lives of unsuspecting swimmers every year, at least it seemed to. Not much to do in Laceyville in the 50’s. I didn’t realize how little there was to do there until I left after high school and then came back to visit over the years. “What the Hell did I do while living in that town?”
THE FLAG INCIDENT:
While I was living in Laceyville I was not depressed (at least I didn’t think so) but living life to the fullest with the resources I had available. Not much in material goods but a whole lot of opportunity to be bored and to create things to do. In recalling my time in Laceyville, I will start out with the zaniest experience of my early life. It’s the flag incident. It came out of being bored.
There it was on the wall of the gym, that giant Russian flag, as bright red as anything I had ever seen, with the sickle and hammer in yellow, menacingly dominating the whole place. And, it was closer to the ceiling than the American flag at the other end of the room. Kids streamed in through the doors, as did the teachers from the First Grade through the Twelfth of Laceyville school. Laceyville, Pennsylvania, that is. In the tail end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My sister, Pat, was the first in the school to see it and rushed back out the door to tell her friends and soon the gym was filled with kids and teachers. Gasps were heard together with laughter as people milled around, seemingly mesmerized by the sight. Finally, Prof Forscht (pronounced forest),as he was called by everyone, who was the Principal, came in and his eyes seemed to bug out of his head and his faced turned about as red as the flag but he couldn’t seem to say anything.
My friend, Ed Whipple, and I stood there without saying a word when we joined the excitement — watching the reactions. It seemed pretty entertaining until we heard some girl start to cry –and then one of the teachers said to Prof that “We better get these kids out of here!!”. Maybe she was thinking of Joe McCarthy. After all, this was 1952 and the “Commie Scare” was running high. Turning angry, Prof Forscht started pushing us out the door of the gym and the teachers hurried us into our rooms.
It was a great school day, of course, because nothing talked about by the teachers was even heard unless it had to do with “the flag”. Every time we got a chance, Ed and I would start a discussion about it. Who do you think did it? And why would they do something like that? Is there a band of “Commies” around here?
The town cop, county sheriff, the head of the local American Legion, the County School Superintendent, and lots of townspeople came and stood around looking at the flag with varying degrees of amazement and anger. None of them laughed when we heard them talking about it. This was turning serious. My stomach was churning, as was Ed’s. My friend, Ed, and our girl friends at the time, Elanor Evans and Francie Davis, hung around together, as we usually did any way, since we were kind of a “mixed clique” of “The kids with the high grades – teacher’s pets, kind of ”. On this day, and those following, however, it was for moral support. The fact is, we were the culprits!!! The “little Bastards”, as we would be referred to by many townspeople once the truth got out.
Well, how did any one find out? Maybe we could have kept our mouths shut. Except for one thing, it was hard to fool Prof. Ed and I had tried to talk up the possibility of “outsiders” having come in to whip up local feelings. But, even that backfired on us when some locals actually began to suspect a new family with foreign accents of maybe being responsible and they even called a special meeting of the American Legion to talk about just that. Prof knew from the beginning that it was students. He gathered the school together and announced that “He knew who it was and when he got the lowdown they would be kicked out of school for good.” The thing is, he suspected the wrong people. He never would have thought it was me or Ed or our girl friends. He thought it was my brother, Bill, and a couple of his friends, who were “always getting into trouble”. Ed and I were Juniors and Bill and his friends were Freshmen but they had been hell-raisers quite a while. At first we weren’t concerned since there couldn’t be any proof since they hadn’t done it. With Prof, though, he usually pronounced judgment and then claimed he had the evidence – and that’s what he did in this case.
The whole town was talking, newspaper reporters were coming, and after a few days this thing was getting out of hand. Ed and I decided we would “come clean” and we would take the rap ourselves since the girls were Seniors and Elanor’s brother was the one we had gotten the flag from. He was a sailor working in D.C. and had been given a bunch of these “Russian” flags which had been confiscated and told to burn them. He had kept a couple and showed them to us one Sunday night when we were sitting around bored (Why not in Laceyville , Pa., population 600 without even a movie theatre). The upshot was that we decided to hang this sucker in the school gym as a joke – it would be easy enough to break in, having done it before. And what an exhilarating experience it was to do this!! Knowing how funny it was going to be to everyone – what a great prank!! It was a real high!! The night was perfect for it and no one could see us anyway. Hearts pounding, laughing to ourselves. We never figured on getting into real trouble for this.
AND THEN THERE WAS the CROSS INCIDENT:
What we thought we would get into trouble for was burning the cross the very same night on the front lawn of our favorite teachers, the Bennetts, and their 4 kids who were also our friends, Bob, Sue, Jack and Jim, 3 of whom were our age and the youngest, my sister Pat’s age. You see, the flag hanging took only part of the evening and, it was such great fun that we just had to do some other great thing. I don’t know whose idea it was but we all soon owned it. We built this cross about 10 feet high and wrapped it in cloth. Then we took a can of gas from Ed’s garage which his dad kept for his boat and drove 10 miles to the country home. Parking about a half mile away, we sneaked up to the house and, even with the dogs barking, managed to get this cross to stand up after we had soaked it in gas — and just when the house doors were opening we lit it and ran like Hell. About a quarter mile away we stopped behind some bushes and watched it burn. It caught a tree on fire in the front yard and we could hear Mr. Bennett hollering to the kids to “get the hose and get my gun”. It scared the Hell out of us as did the sight of the cross burning. It was still exhilarating as we raced to the car and sped back to town with lumps in our throats even as we bragged to each other about our great acts of Hell-Raising. When we got back to town we then all went home immediately with admonitions to each other to “act normal”.
CONFESSION and RETRIBUTION:
As I said, we had decided to ‘fess up, Ed and me that is, to keep my brother’s ass out of trouble as well as Eleanor’s brother. We figured my older brother, John, being a long way away in the Marines would not suffer any consequences. We first went to Ed’s parents and told the whole thing. They were pretty sophisticated about a lot of stuff, had a lot of money, with his Dad being one of the “brothers” in Whipple Brothers Lumber Co., which my Dad had worked for most of his life and only recently making a break away from it for halfway decent pay.. On top of that, Ed’s mother was on the school board. We took quite a tongue-lashing but I knew it was nothing compared to what I would get when I faced things at my house. But before I went to confession there we decided to go see Prof Forscht who was dumfounded it turned out to be us, class leaders, straight “A” students, all that jazz. The upshot was that Prof didn’t want to kick us out of school and said he wasn’t going to and would have to think of something else for us. Maybe if Ed hadn’t been in on it things would have been different, so it turned out good for me to have a friend well connected.
When I went home and told my mother it was received far less graciously than at the Whipples and the only thing worse would have been if my Dad had not been working out of town. There was a lot of screaming, swearing, and being pissed off that they were going to blame Bill just because he was easy to blame. My mother also didn’t like it that we had covered for the brother in the Navy and the girls. If that counted for something how about the fact that my brother was now in the Marine Corps. Boy, I didn’t have an answer for that one, especially when she didn’t care that it was Elanor’s brother who had given us the flag and would really get his “ass in a sling” if the Navy ever found out. She screamed that he should “get his ass in a sling” for it. My younger brothers and sisters were freaking out as was my sister-in-law, Ann, who was staying with us while John was on tour with the Marines. My mother’s reactions to crisis got us into a “stew” every time as she seemed to hyperventilate and teetered on the verge of collapse. Needless to say, it was a traumatic night at the Jayne place, which happened to be, that year, in an apartment on Main Street above Sheldon’s Furniture Store/ Funeral Parlor. My Dad wasn’t called but I was told “YOU just wait until your father gets home”.
A couple of days after confession, a black car drives into the school parking lot and a guy with a suit about as dark as the car gets out. Any strangers always got our full attention at school. When he got out all eyes turned on us – Ed and me, the only confessed culprits. The reason being that Prof had let it be known not only to us but the whole world the day before that he had been contacted by the F.B. I. who would be coming to investigate. My God, we had hoped he was just trying to put the fear of God in us – and it worked, especially now that we could see THE MAN in the flesh. This guy in the black suit sure as Hell looked like an image of J. Edgar Hoover.
About a long, really long, half hour later, Prof came to the classroom door and motioned the two of us out. Instead of red I believe we were white with fear and I sure needed to go to the John. I don’t remember much about that meeting except for seeing the guy sitting on the edge of Prof’s desk in the tiny office and motioning the two of us to sit in the only two chairs in front of him. I only remember his first question, “Why the Hell did you do it fella’s?” Who knows what we said . It must have been stupid, so much so that he had to have figured right off that we were mostly a danger to ourselves. I do remember something about how it could have gotten some innocent people killed since there was a real fear of “Communists, who are out to destroy our country”, as he put it. Then he tried to find out where we got the flag and we told him the story about finding it down by the train depot as if it had been thrown off a train in a bag. After a while he seemed to buy this. We were close to tears several times. By the time we got back to class everybody else was gone and they didn’t get to witness our whipped look. What a relief because we were no longer thinking this had been such a hot idea and our smug looks from Monday were completely gone.
But, maybe we were going to get past this fairly unscathed. Or so we thought. Ed and I showed up at school on Thursday — and everyone is really pissed to see us. The teachers knew and the kids had all found out that we weren’t getting the boot even though that’s what Prof had promised. Special privilege, that’s what we were getting and everybody knew it. The telephone lines had been burning up with all the talk about it. The school was abuzz with angry conversations and us being given dirty looks and shunned. Before noon every student had left the building and those with cars had started driving up and down the street in front and all around town shouting that we should be kicked out of school. Adults made no effort to stop them and many even called the school and told Prof they agreed with the kids. We got sent home for the day and when I got to my place the street was clogged with angry kids and cars honking their horns and general bedlam, which may have been o.k. as no one was throwing anything (this wasn’t yet the Sixties). However, upstairs in our apartment my mother was, by now, completely hysterical and about to have another “breakdown” as were all the other kids in the house, except Bill, who seemed to enjoy the fact that someone was causing more misery than he for a change. My mother apparently thought the apartment was going to be stormed. And my Father had been called (during the work week) to come home from 125 miles away!!! That’s what scared the Hell out of me!!! Finally the cars and kids left when it got to be time when school would ordinarily let out anyway. Some of them had to catch school buses to their homes in the country.
I was on pins and needles, as if waiting for the executioner until I could hear my father come in the door. I guess I don’t need to go into a lot of detail about my father/son encounter. There was never any discussion with my Dad. His mind was always made up about evidence, justice and judgment in the discipline of the family. But this time I did not get any corporal punishment. Just the possibility of it was enough to turn my stomach upside down. My father was a great negative role model for all seven of his kids on this relational stuff, especially the 4 boys. My later parental practices were obviously based on my childhood experiences. No excuse, just fact. Anyway, what I got, in addition to a one-sided shouting conversation, and another dose of esteem-busting, was grounding for at least a couple of months — only it wasn’t called “grounding”in those days, just,”You’re not going to leave this house for a god-damned thing for the rest of the school year as far as I’m concerned”. School and work and that’s it. “And those damned friends of yours, I don’t want to see you anywhere around them, do you hear me?” Of course, what made it worse for me was that Ed Whipple didn’t get any punishment. Seems like his parents figured that going through the last few days was punishment enough. My folks didn’t think that way. As I think back, I believe they thought it was all about them and how I was trying to make their lives miserable. Yep, sure as Hell, I remember thinking the same way when I was parenting, at times. Like father, like son, I guess. No breaks from the home front but another from the school! That same night, as my father finished with me and went to the local bar to assure his drinking buddies that he had straightened me out, Ed and I were called to Prof Forscht’s home and he told us he did not want to suspend us but that he was telling us to stay home the next day, Friday, and all of the next two weeks. We could make up all our work and it would not go on our record or affect our grades. He didn’t want us to spread this around, however. As far as the town was concerned we were suspended.
Well, when word got out about the suspension school went back to routine, minus the president of the Junior class, me, and it’s local “rich kid”, Ed Whipple. The town started to simmer down after a few days even though the talk continued about the whole thing and how people were so disappointed in me and Ed and “What’s the younger generation coming to anyway?” I heard all the talk because I worked at the local A&P Store and also cleaned up at George’s Restaurant. I got a lot of hours in, actually, and it meant less time to be stuck at home and more money for me as I got no allowance (who did, except my friend Ed?) and, in fact, bought all my own clothes and anything else that I needed or wanted , outside of the food on the table.
You might wonder what happened as a consequence of the cross burning which we had assumed to be the worst of the two things we had done. Well, on the weekend when we were suspended Ed and I came clean to the Bennett family about that by going to their house and apologizing to the teachers and their kids. By that time all the stuff had come down on us for the “flag incident” and they must have figured we had had enough. Besides, they knew us well enough to realize that pushing the KKK agenda was not part of our motivation – we were just bored, temporarily stupid, high school kids. It’s not to say it was easy going to their house and confessing and apologizing but I guess we were getting good at it by this time in the ordeal. And nothing was as bad as the fear-ridden reception and anticipation at my house which I had faced alone since bringing along my fellow conspirator would not have helped my case at all, only increased the wrath once he left.
But, I did live through this whole thing. A couple of weeks later we were back in school and by the end of the school year I didn’t notice any difference with classmates. In fact, they elected me class president for the next year ( all 25 members of the class voted for me, including myself).
I don’t know why I started out with this story except that it was the most exciting incident of my school years. It got reported in the Tunknannock and Wilkes-Barre newspapers. I used it as a basis for papers in my college years. It nearly cost my friend, Ed, a security clearance when he went in the service and needed it for some job. I have often wondered what would have happened if this had been the sixties. By then maybe we kids would have really started to give a damn about the implications of McCarthyism and the Ku Klux Klan. The 50’s seemed to be “in between realities”. It was between the Korean War and Viet Nam War. And it was between the white man’s successful years of Post WW II and the Civil Rights Movement when blacks got sick of riding in the back of the bus and taking the leftovers.
The flag and cross incidents and the ensuing series of responses and consequences represented my first brush with the law. I could actually have been sent to juvenile court, and probably would have, if today’s Hellbent “lock ‘em up” attitude had been prevalent.