THE GRADUATION EXERCISES for George Washington High School were to be held on Wednesday, June 11, 1969. The day before, we did a dry run. One of the faculty marshals – I think it was the JV football coach – singled me out, saying something like "Gaddy, don't do anything stupid." This was the kind of profiling I faced throughout my school years – guilty until proven innocent, even though they rarely caught me at anything.
Truxton Fulton, one of my best friends, by a happy accident of the alphabet, was next to me in the graduation line. By an unhappy accident for those marshalling such affairs, Truxton had a mind a lot like mine. While sitting on the bleachers in the sun waiting to be instructed how to walk across a stage, Truxton and I came up with a plan: a two-man peace demonstration.
We didn't announce what we were going to do – but we may not have been quiet enough about it.
Word of our plans must have filtered out because news of another pronouncement filtered in to us: Nelson Moore, all-state offensive tackle on our state championship football team, said, reportedly and approximately, if we did "anything to mess up his graduation, he would kill us." I had not thought of Nelson as a violent person – except on the football field – but I was also certain that he could kill us simultaneously – with his bare hands.
If Truxton and I were going to chicken out on our plan before that moment, we weren't now.
Following the instructions of a school official meticulously, for perhaps the first time in my educational career, I stood at the bottom of the steps as Truxton took his diploma from Principal J.T. Christopher, a sober, even dour, man. As Truxton proceeded across the stage, I came up the steps. When he got to the end of the platform he stopped and I stopped. We turned, and with a smile, both gave the peace sign.
At that moment I looked into the bleachers at the sitting graduates and soon-to-be graduates to see if Nelson was going to choose to fulfill his promise by killing us then and there – actually messing up his graduation – as I figured an arrest for homicide would do. Happily, for the three of us, he wasn't coming.
I then realized what I should have considered before. While Truxton was heading off the stage, I was going to have to walk right up to Mr. Christopher. I wondered if he would even give me my diploma. But with orderliness being above all, if he had done anything out of the ordinary, it would have just been more disorder, so he just scowled at me with the most scowling scowl he had ever given me and stuck the diploma in my hand with a little extra snap. I smiled.
After the graduation exercise ended, I had an eerie feeling that my life might soon be coming to an end – but it didn't.
Flash forward to this year's recent 40th high school class reunion.
In the buffet line, there he was: Nelson Moore. As he looked at my name tag, I said, "Nelson, did you really say you would kill me on graduation day?" He said he didn't think he said he would kill me. But he did remember why he might have.
Sadly, for the entertainment value of this column, Nelson didn't kill me at that moment either.
Later in the evening, Nelson made a point of finding me to tell me that if he knew then what he knew now, he probably would have demonstrated with us. It's a funny thing, life. On the ride back to Orange County from Danville, Truxton and I talked about what Nelson had said to me. We agreed that if we knew then what we knew now, we probably wouldn't have demonstrated with him.
Gary D. Gaddy graduated from high school and has a diploma to prove it.
A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday October 30, 2009.
Copyright 2009 Gary D. Gaddy