When becoming a high schooler was all about who won the race

Published 12:12 pm Saturday, July 31, 2010

It was an early fall day back in 1958. It was the eighth grade. Not just any eighth grade.

We were the latest edition of the Hayden High School Wildcats. We were a large class, and would remain relatively so, right on through to graduation.

We would start our high school experience sort of outdoors — in a glorified shed referred to as the annex. The main building was only three or four years old and accommodated an eighth- through 11th- grade education. It stood, a bittersweet, 20 yards away.

Construction was followed almost immediately by the addition of a 12th grade. The shed, with its precocious outsiders, was the answer.

We were a mixed bag of town, country and deep woodsmen. This was seven or eight years before Hayden would be limited to just Franklin kids; five years after Camptown’s kids were redirected to Windsor’s Georgie Tyler; and just 20 years since the western Southampton County Training School (established in 1939) Eagles. Before the Eagles and since 1904, it was all Hayden, for those who could get there.

Travel could be prodigious.

Rufus Wilson, Mrs. Portia McClenny’s brother, walked a mile to Route 460 and then another two miles along 460 to his Crumpler Crossing bus. He would board the bus for a ride that was eight meandering miles farther than my own 1½-hour ride, some 20 years later.

Some were farther than that. The distance covered such issues as presentable clothing, cafeteria money (lunch pails?), the exigencies of farming, and town and country culture clashes.

The distance was further complicated by the extraordinary dress exhibited by about 15 upperclassmen. How about suits and ties, sport coats, dress shirts, spit shined Stacey Adams etc., every day. Yes, every day!

This crowd went away for the summer. The expenditure of one’s time and energy was more lucrative.

The Jersey Shore contingent was led by the amazingly charismatic Earl Francis. In his day, in schoolboy fashion, the King of Hayden (and was still the man at Elizabeth City State.)

Another group of dapper clotheshorses traveled via chartered buses to the Connecticut tobacco fields — a venture that included a large group of girls and boys from Hayden and at least a couple of other local high schools.

All things Hayden were under the stern watchful eye of the omnipresent S.P. “Moat’n,” a principal for the ages. Of countless aliases, including the formal Mr. Morton, were fancied the jaunty “Horse Power.”

Now, on that day back in 1958, the administration had organized a track and field day. There would be various competitions between the classes. The preliminaries were your basic summer camp frolics. A lot of humor and fellowship. But the sprints (of 50 or 60 yards) loomed in the final hour. How would we do? Would we be exposed — as little kids.

Rumors spread about this upperclassman named Peter Vaughn. It was said that he was nearly as fast as a former student called Biscuit. Such was Biscuit’s speed, the mesmerizing awe, that his contemporaries couldn’t keep up with his real name.

In my section of the six-room shed was a little known, soft-spoken, enigmatic Robert Winborne. He would be overlooked entirely except for his daily bouts of horseplay with his buddy David Godette.

Incredibly, within the last few days, Winborne began to talk trash. Not quite noisily, but unmistakable. At first, I took it as humor, but then he grew bolder, even suggesting that Peter Vaughn was scared to race him. It occurred to me that Mr. Vaughn, upon hearing that, would not only win, but would lap Winborne and the other sprinters.

So now, the day had come, the moment of truth. The unapologetic Winborne bided his time, cooling his heels.

I had noticed, with a sinking feeling, that he wore a type of tennis shoe (latter day sneakers) that could be bought from an ordinary grocery store. Could it be that Winborne had, yet, failed to grasp the gravity of the situation? I thought to myself that the whole hopeless thing was Winborne’s fault.

The girls had already raced. Our own Martha Albert had destroyed the upper class girls by an astonishing 10 yards. (Some of us were seeing for the first time what it meant to be an amazing athlete.) That should have settled matters, but chauvinism wouldn’t let it.

They approached the line. There they were, with Sammy Hanshaw, another noted speedster, and a few others.

The Converse All-Stars fired out in a blur. The A&Ps slipped once or twice and dug in. Winborne was for real! He was a step and a half back by midway, but within inches and closing at the end.

I remember, amid the wild jubilation, seeing Luke Harris leaping up and down and babbling.

Just like that — we were high schoolers!