Our 50th high school reunion, Aug. 9-10, combines Central and Centennial’s high school classes of 1969. I was in Centennial’s first graduating class.
One month post-graduation, the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
Two months post-graduation, the music festival, Woodstock, happened in New York.
Mandatory military service and the draft’s looming presence arrived by mail as boys turned 18. My status soon became 2-S: college-student deferred.
In elementary school, my friends and I had been at Bottenfield, where teachers had us hiding under desks, heads between our knees, to survive nuclear attack.
In between elementary school and Central/Centennial, we were jammed into the sausage-making factory of junior high, where black and white kids from different neighborhoods first met.
Edison began at seventh grade. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had won the Cuban Missile Crisis, and America entered the second Age of Camelot.
Something was off, though, because — don’t laugh — boys swam naked in P.E. I don’t know when this practice began or ended, but from seventh through ninth grade, dodging the coaches’ hard, wet volleyballs was, perhaps, the first thing that made no sense.
A few years ago, I breached the topic of Edison’s naked swimming while hanging out with some fellow junior high alums. Laughter erupted, so I posted questions on Facebook’s “Champaign-Urbana History” and “Champaign Class of 1969.”
The consensus? Coaches today could not do what they did then.
I discovered the frequency of naked-boy swimming at YMCAs around the country, although not the Champaign Y. Some schools with pools, like Edison, adopted the practice.
The raggedy cliché remains true. It was a different era. Once acceptable behaviors could not survive.
My Facebook posts struck a nerve, though. Even after all these years, naked swimming was clearly remembered. Some classmates explained how “Physical education prepared boys for war.” As the Cold War penetrated Vietnam, coaches ruled Edison’s pool like sergeants.
The coaches played games more than teaching us swimming. Water basketball had hoops on opposite sides of the pool, and if the ball got held, any of us could hold our opponent’s head under water until he let go.
The coaches loved dodgeball most. Only they could throw. We weren’t allowed to throw back or at each other. Hitting a naked boy square with a fully inflated, wet volleyball got rewarded with a welt.
Even if we weren’t in the water, just lined up against the wall, they would throw at us. Dodging, pushing off from each other, often falling, then sliding across the wet tile, was always dangerous.
One respondent vividly recalled coaches throwing at the black kids clinging to the poolside. “The coaches threw down at their heads and hands,” he wrote, “so they would let go.”
I imagine these coaches saw themselves as trainers needing to rev us up so we could overcome fear and survive this rite of passage. We were Edison’s males, white and black, 12 to 14 years old. They were coaches who didn’t explain themselves.
Even if they had explained, it might not have helped. For example: “Boys had more bacteria,” was how one woman recalled the explanation why girls got to wear suits, not boys.
“We were in varying stages of development,” a male classmate wrote. “Some boys hadn’t hit puberty, while others were fully developed. For me, it wasn’t a big deal. I certainly don’t feel I was harmed by it. Sure couldn’t happen today, could it?”
It doesn’t have to — and likely won’t — make sense.
In eighth grade, on Nov. 22, 1963, in Mr. Kenneth McCLelland’s basement art class at Edison Junior High School, the crackling intercom spit out: “President Kennedy” and “assassinated.” Mr. McCLelland began to cry. The intercom voice told us we were going home early.
Two days later, on live television, Jack Ruby murdered Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin, leaving another mark on all of us.
JFK’s assassination didn’t cause our coaches to pummel us with volleyballs. The year after Edison, we entered Central or Centennial high school feeling our experiences and memories splintering into thousands of directions.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience released its first album, “Are You Experienced,” in 1967, but no quotation will be as accurate as the Grateful Dead’s prescient verse, recorded in 1970, and likely written in — when else — 1969: “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been.”
Stay creative and full of hope, man. Women, too.