Bell prank causes confusion at Charles L. Coon

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Last week we moved away from talking about Carolina Laundry and went down Kenan Street to Charles L. Coon High School, from which I graduated in 1951.

Resource officers in the school were totally unheard of. Any outsider could walk freely into and through the building, although few did. Did any students carry pocketknives back then? I’m sure there wasn’t a rule against it.

If they did carry one, it certainly was not for doing any serious cutting, maybe just for enhancing the point on the wooden pencil we’d sharpened in the mechanical Boston pencil sharpener that each classroom had. And yes, it was a No. 2 yellow pencil, even back then. During that period, ballpoint pens were a long way from being common. Our schoolwork depended on the trusty No. 2.

For students to skip school was unusual. What was bad behavior in the classroom? Chewing gum, whispering to one another, passing notes, those were the bad things that kids did back in those days. The worst thing that I ever did in school occurred on a Friday afternoon during my senior year at exactly 3:15.

Our three-storied high school had a long central corridor on each floor which ran nearly the length of the building. There were bells — like loud doorbells — mounted near the top of the wall at each end of each hallway. They were connected to a timer in the principal’s office and rang to indicate the beginning and end of each class period. For some reason, the last 20 feet of the ceiling at each end of the third-floor hall had been dropped down to a bit under 8 feet high, meaning that both bells could be reached by a tall person.

I was a tall person.

A few minutes before the end of school, I got a corridor pass, allowing me to leave my speech and dramatics class, then in progress. A buddy of mine took up his position at the bell at the west end of the hall; I manned the bell on the east end. Thanks to the sweep second hands on our watches, previously synchronized with the school’s bell system, we knew exactly when to expect the bells to ring signaling the end of the school day. And a few seconds before they were due to go off, we tightly grasped the contact arms so they couldn’t strike the bells.

Three-fifteen. The bells rang as scheduled on the first and second floors, and first and second-floor classes left their classrooms.

Third-floor classes sat tight, as thoroughly trained to respond to (or to lack of) bells as any of Pavlov’s dogs. They rejected the evidence of their own watches (there were no clocks in the classrooms in those days), letting the silence of the bells keep them in place until finally seeing other students pouring out of the school gave them courage to leave their third-floor classrooms.

We are far afield from the laundry topic, but I’ll get back to it. First, let me mention a person who was heavily involved in high school activities but who was not enrolled there: Tommy Watson. In fact, I doubt if he ever went to school at all. Tall, gaunt, high cheek-boned, Tommy lived with his mother in a little house between high school and Tarboro Street.

I’m not sure what today’s correct PC term to describe Tommy is but in those days he would have been called either simple or retarded. His age was indeterminate; maybe he was in his 20s, maybe in his 40s. His mother, whom I saw occasionally as I passed their house on my way to and from school, appeared to be in her 50s or 60s.

Tommy was well thought of at the high school, especially in the athletic department, where he hung out with a lot of the athletic teams for afternoon practices. He was sort of the equipment manager for the football team and bat boy for the baseball team. And in the summers he was the bat boy for the Wilson Tobs, Wilson’s entry in the Class D Coastal Plains professional baseball league, where he proudly wore a real Tobs uniform. (“Tobs” was short for “Tobacconists,” further evidence of Wilson’s pride in being the major bright leaf tobacco market.

Maybe an unusual name for a sports team, but no more unusual that the Scottsdale Community College’s Artichokes or the University of California, Santa Cruz Banana Slugs.

Next week: Back on the subject of laundry.

Henry Croom is an 83-year-old former Wilsonian. He graduated from Charles L. Coon High School in 1951 and N. C. State in 1955. He lives in Scottsdale, Arizona and occasionally writes of his boyhood recollections of growing up in Wilson. This is the third installment of a seven-column series on “laundry,” although he does wander away from that subject in a few places. Reach him at hcroom@msn.com.