Dangerous Heat 1974
It was a steamy day in early May, 1974, and on top of that the air-conditioning on the second floor of the small Maryland high school had quit again, not surprising, and no one especially cared except it was sweaty and uncomfortable. Most of us didn’t have air-conditioning at home, either, or maybe one small window-unit in the living room or kitchen. Southern High School, also known as “South County,” sat amid fields and small horse farms, rolling land lined with rows of tobacco or corn; summer jobs awaited us working in the fields. The “North County” kids got jobs at McDonalds and Hardees (we envied them), but for us it was about the farms.
On this day, the local radio station had issued a “Dangerous Heat Warning,” which we laughed about as we wandered down to lunch. To us, no amount of “dangerous heat” could be reached while sitting indoors, immobile, listening to teachers ramble about equilateral triangles. “Dangerous heat” might be achieved in August while swinging a machete, cutting tobacco, stringing it onto the sticks, and hauling it toward the waiting mules or tractors. Sometimes people fainted, though mainly that came from scaring up a snake—and mostly, we just kept on swinging, girls and guys alike, black and white alike. The problems they were having in “North County,” with racial tension and graffiti and a lawsuit against a teacher who refused to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t have anything to do with us.
The cafeteria was dank, heavy with the smells of pasta sauce and cheese. Even though it was on the first floor, the height of it and the attached kitchen killed all the cool air. The static from various transistor radios mingled the sounds of Cher, The Temptations, and Bob Dylan. I stood in line with my friends for Twinkies and soda, all of us country girls in blue jeans and vests (and leather peace-sign necklaces, mostly to antagonize our parents). I wore my Led Zeppelin T-shirt in homage of the fact that two years ago the band hadn’t been allowed off of the plane for their concert in Singapore because of their long hair. We took it in stride that we’d raise two fingers in a peace sign and also give a “thumbs-up” a la Fonzie the greaser from Happy Days. We didn’t feel confused about it: we just went on.
Everyone seemed a little giddy, laughing too loudly and pushing each other, calling out for their friends to join them. Through the windows, I could see a crowd of kids in the Student Smoking Area, a place with a couple of wooden benches, provided so we wouldn’t smoke in the bathrooms. Occasionally, out there, a teacher would come by and join us (we considered them the ‘cool ones’): it was casual and no one feared imminent death from cigarettes. On this day the bright hot seemed to reflect the haze from the smoke.
Then it happened: someone in the cafeteria flung a meatball. The boy who’d been hit responded in turn, bending back the plastic spork and launching one. End over end it flew while everyone waited. Of course, it landed with an orange-brown splatter on some girl’s elbow, not the intended target—and before long, a great tumult of shouting, giggling, and flying meatballs ensued. In some ways, it was the perfect answer to the smouldering heat and the approaching end of the school year, a goofy and rebellious release of tension. In a food fight, neither friends nor cliques nor class standing mattered—all that mattered was getting a clear shot while avoiding getting hit.
I didn’t even have ammunition, so I slunk down beside the ice cream cooler to protect the Zeppelin shirt, ducking as a meatball soared over my head. The teachers were frantic, because they were supposed to be, and Mr. Brown the principal intoned something over the loudspeaker that none of us could hear, though we intuited the gist of it. Right behind me, one cafeteria lady said to the other one, “Judy, close the doors! We’re having a riot!” The word shocked me with its images from television news of police in masks and people jumping on cars. This was not a riot, I wanted to inform these poor misguided middle-aged ladies—this was a “food fight.”
Just about that time, the girls at the table closest to me, cheerleaders, held up their radios and screamed, “This is a race riot! We’re on the radio! Southern is on the radio about having a race riot!” The words went from table to table, Race Riot!, Race Riot!… and people began to pause in the hurling of meatballs to look one another over. From my place beside the ice cream cooler, I watched as students began to segregate themselves, first the cheerleaders and then everyone else, as if to say, “Oh! Okay! If Race Riot is what we’re doing…!” It was as if a dodge-ball game had been announced, blacks versus whites.
The black students hurried to the right side of the cafeteria while the whites rushed to the left. Most were still laughing, even teasing a few people who’d ended up on the ‘wrong side’ and had to hurry to be with their color. However, when the food began flying again, the atmosphere became nastier, as though the separation of sides or even the words themselves had created a new code, a different type of adrenaline. Someone from the white side threw a banana and someone from the black side retaliated with a half-pint carton of milk. People cursed. What had been playful became vicious; outside, I could see the Smoking Area group running. Within minutes, we heard the sound of sirens. This intensified the sense of war: game on!
The cafeteria lady opened the door to get another look and I took the opportunity to slip past her. In the silence of the stainless steel kitchen, I moved swiftly by the pots of meatballs and noodles, the bags of shredded salad, to an Exit sign. I pushed through the heavy door (hoping the alarm wouldn’t go off—it didn’t) and found myself at the back of the little school, an idyllic little field of wild daisies separating me from rows of tobacco.
I could hear the chaos from the front parking lots, sirens now and bullhorns and car horns, and yelling. I pictured it beside the big sign, Southern High School: Home of the Bulldogs. The television news would be there, hauling their cameras down from North County to say that “even here, even here in the cornfields of South County, the racial problems are inescapable!” I watched a horn worm inch his way along a broad leaf of tobacco which glimmered in the sun.
Sandy Hiortdahl lives with her best friend Kismo Blue, an Australian Cattle Dog, in East Tennessee. She’s a recipient of the Sophie Kerr Prize and has an M.F.A. from George Mason and a Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. She teaches at Northeast State Community College. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming this year in THEMA, Punchnel’s and Barely South Review, among others. More may be found on her website: www.sandyhiortdahl.com She’s on Twitter: @hiortdahl