“Pissing My Pants” in Alabama

by Mickey Dunaway

NOTE TO READERS: Normally, this time of the month, I post the column that I write for Limitless Magazine, a publication aimed at the older crowd who live around Lake Norman, just north of Charlotte.  However, since that likely has little interest for you all, I decided to focus on convincing you how hot it really feels in Alabama in the summer compared to Cornelius, NC.

***

An Alabamian by birth, I grew up and worked in the Yellowhammer state until 1995.  During my half-century in Alabama, I experienced tornados, hurricanes, and snow about every 4-5 years.  For the first 20+ years, I neither lived nor learned in buildings with air-conditioning.  At home, we had window fans in the bedrooms.  If we were lucky, there would be two windows in the bedrooms opposite each other, with the window fan sucking in 80-degree humidity-laden, nighttime air across the bed.  That meant that each morning we awoke as if we had already had our morning shower.  I started at Auburn as a Freshman in the third week of September 1965 with no A/C in the dorms or classrooms.  I have been to Auburn football games in Jordan-Hare Stadium, where they sold cups of ice when they ran out of all the Cokes before halftime.  One September, I traveled from Charlotte to Auburn to see Auburn play Southern Cal.  A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  The game-time temp at 1:00 P.M. on that Alabama September Saturday was 100 degrees.  We got beat.  It was miserable.

See why I say, “Nothing can compare to the consistency of the hellishly hot and humid Alabama summers?

Alabama summers don’t begin in June; they start in May and extend long into September.  June through August in Alabama is like a sauna—there is no escaping its claustrophobia.  Cutting the humidity with a knife is a common and not-too-far-from-the-truth metaphor for summer in Alabama.  

But what is summer like in Cornelius, North Carolina, where we live today— just north of Charlotte?  In North Carolina, we get about as hot as Alabama.  But it is for a shorter period.  Indeed, we are affected by cold fronts into mid-June and starting again in early September.  Our springs and falls are longer than in Alabama, and our winters and summers are noticeably shorter.

Cornelius, NC, shares one climatological characteristic with Alabama.  It is the hyperexcitable-the-world-is-ending delivery of TV weather forecasters.  An afternoon summer thunderstorm brings out the newest technological weather tools and the worst of the behaviors of the meteorologists.

***

If I have not yet convinced you, let me tell you a mostly true story of my worst ever Alabama Summer experience.  It was the first game of the 1989 high school football season—Friday, August 26.  I had been principal of Benjamin Russell High for five years, so the season’s first games were acceptably stressful.  BRHS is the city high school in Alexander City, Alabama—a small milltown in east-central Alabama.  We were playing our first game this year at Prattville High School, which sits roughly halfway between Alex City and Montgomery—about 35 miles from us.  

For me, this particular game and this particular season—starting with this first game was to bring literal meaning to the phrase “political football” to me, Alexander City, Benjamin Russell High School, and the adult Sunday School class I taught at the First Methodist Church [more about the 1st UMC in Part II].

***

In January of that same year, the Eleventh Circuit Federal Court in Atlanta ruled that prayer before public football games violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution regarding governmental agencies—into which public schools fall—from sponsoring religious activities—into which prayer falls.

The Eleventh Circuit consisted of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, which meant the ruling applied to Benjamin Russell and Prattville High Schools and every other public school in Alabama.  While I have no actual numbers of schools that continued to turn the PA system over to local preachers for prayers before football games, in the fall of 1989, I was 46, and I had never been to a high school or college football game in Alabama where there was not a pregame prayer. 

As spring 1989 grew into summer, the issue of eliminating prayer before football games evolved quickly into an emotional religious fervor, community by Alabama community, including Alexander City.  We had a small daily newspaper in Alex City, and as football season and the prayer-before-games issue approached, the editor called me one day to ask me if we were going to continue to have a prayer before games in Alex City. I said, “No.  The Federal Court forbade it.” The decision and the letters to the editor about the decision sold a truckload of the Alexander City Outlook newspapers. 

In Alex City, cool heads prevailed.  I was fortunate to work for a superintendent who understood the law and a school board and City Council who left running the schools to the school leaders.

Even so, many Alabama cities had mayors like Emory Folmer, the Mayor of Montgomery.  Mayor Folmer seemed to take the Court’s ruling religiously and personally—although it was easy to see that his interest in politics was far greater than religion.  He intended to use the football season kickoff to bolster another mayoral run.  And no better way to do it than using the political football presented to him by the Eleventh Circuit Federal Court of Appeals.  Bless his heart—he declared to whoever would listen that no Federal Court would tell schools in his city that they could not invoke the blessings of the Almighty on the players and the fans at games.  

The first game came on Thursday, August 25, 1969, at Montgomery’s Crampton Bowl, between Montgomery’s Lee High School Generals—yes, that General Lee—and the Jess Lanier Tigers of Bessemer City, Alabama.  Bessemer City sits southwest of Birmingham on I-20.  The Purple Tigers had made an hour and a half drive to play one of Alabama’s best teams, the Lee Generals. 

On the other hand, Mayor Folmer had only driven a few miles from his office for his part in the evening’s festivities.  Folmer, with mike in hand, loudspeakers set to Thunderdome, and TV cameras rolling, meant to show the Feds who was boss in his town.  He straddled the 50-yard line at midfield of Montgomery’s Crampton Bowl and prayed what was likely the loudest and longest invocation in Alabama High School football history. 

As best as I could determine, his prayer did not affect the game as Lee won handily, 21-0.  Still, it made many hotheaded preachers and school boards happy across the state.  One of those places was Prattville, Alabama, where Benjamin Russell Wildcats would take on the Prattville Lions the next night.

***

Having written my dissertation at Auburn on school law, I knew a bit about what schools could and could not and should and should not do when a Federal Court came calling with a ruling.  I knew we would not have a prayer before our first home game the following Friday night when we played the Sylacauga Aggies.  Sylacauga was one of our big rivals from another textile milltown just up Highway US 280 toward Birmingham.

The Sylacauga community was firm in their support for having pregame prayers, which would put pressure on us to do the same through our local newspaper.

All of these conflicts were coming together in my head—one on top of another—this Friday night in Prattville.  It seemed they might have borrowed the PA equipment and most of the script of their prayer from Mayor Folmer.  As our Wildcats stood on the sidelines waiting for the game to begin, it was impossible to determine if Prattville was ready for the game.  It was clear that they were prepared for the southern tradition of football and prayer on Friday nights.

The prayer was appropriately long and loud as good Southern football prayers usually are.  The applause by the home fans at the prayer’s conclusion was also joined by applause from many of our fans.  The bit of intrigue generated by that unique manifestation would follow me the rest of the season.  Finally, the Prattville Band gave a fine recitation of the National Anthem.  After more applause, finally, the officials tossed the coin.  The players on both teams commenced trying to stomp the everlovin’ school spirit out of the opposition.

***

Lordallmighty it was hot that night.  It was the last Friday night in August in central Alabama, and Prattville High School’s concrete bleachers were almost black from 25 years of humidity-stimulated mold growth.  To make matters even worse, those bleachers had soaked up 12 hours of Central Alabama sunshine and must have registered 110 degrees.

It was so hot that fans were buying multiple copies of programs to put between those bleachers and their bottoms.  With the help of the Federal Court and this hottest day of the summer, the Prattville Band Boosters sold more programs that night than at any time in the band’s history.  I only bought two each for my wife and me.  However, those two, for me, were not enough.  Two were fine for my missus because she is a Southern Belle, after all, and does not perspire.  Not so for me.  The bottom and front of my pants were wet, and then came halftime. 

The BRHS Pride of Alexander City Marching Band took to the field first and began marching and playing toward the Lions’ home side—that’s how bands did it in Alabama. 

***

Normally I would walk over, exchange pleasantries with my fellow principal and watch my band play our halftime show they had been practicing since last spring.  But not this week.  Not with me looking like I had not been able to make it to the requisite Port-a-Potty placed behind our bleachers.  Principals accept that we are automatically fair game for our students at games away from home.  But on this August night, since I looked like I had pissed my pants, I decided my best course of action was to stay right where I was.  

I knew our band was doing a southern gospel music show because I had approved it when the band director brought the idea to me in the spring.  I approved it even after the court ruling—after all, I reasoned, musical notes are not inherently religious.  Even so, as I stood with sweat pouring down the front of my pants, I did contemplate what might happen at halftime at home the following week since there would be no pregame prayer.  Our band’s show that pleased the Prattville folks would be played at halftime for our overflow crowd.  I wondered, What in God’s name is likely to happen when my decision to remove the pregame prayer collides with my decision to approve the religious-themed halftime show?  [You will have to wait until Part II of this Southern gothic drama to find out!]

***

Between our marching band, the majorettes, the flag corps, the cheerleaders, and our football program, we involved over 30% of our entire student body.  Friday nights were big in Alex City in the fall.  And the following week’s home game was going to fill every seat.

Here at Prattville, even though I could hear little of actual notes the band was playing, I knew they were playing their hearts out because we were always that good.  

***

What I couldn’t hear, I could observe, and that was the material the flag corps girls were, with the help of their mothers, quickly slipping around their wrists and ankles as the final number, How Great Thou Art, was fast approaching. 

Perhaps you have seen what angel wings look like on dancing troops.  Each wing is made of about three yards of iridescent shiny cloth. One end of each wing is attached with elastic to the wrist and the other to the ankle just the same.  

When both arms and legs are equipped with an angel wing, and those wings are waved vigorously to the beat of the most beloved song in the Southern Christian Hymnal, well …it is a thing to behold and a thing I feared in seven days when those wings would come flying home.

***

On August 26, 1989, I knew my goose was likely cooked like a mixed-metaphor Thanksgiving turkey by those 110-degree concrete bleachers and my sweaty-wet khaki pants. 

***

It has been 33 years since that night, and I had to look up who won the game—it was not us—but I sure as hell remembered who lost the halftime.  And he and his wife were riding back home in the back seat of his boss’s car!

TO BE CONTINUED…

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