About twenty years ago (I think it was spring of '85), a friend of mine accompanied his brother and a small band of mischievous honor students to the Rossville High School Sports Annex. There, under cover of—well I don’t suppose there was much cover really—they proceeded to paint the small, concrete block guard shack that sat next to the main gate.
Now, I'm not sure why there was a guard shack. There was never even a guard in there. The gates were always open. I'm still not sure why they even bothered with the fence in the first place, much less a guard shack. Maybe it was used for the parking lot attendants at basketball games but, if that was the case, I have no recollection of it.
One night very near the end of their senior year, these honor students (observed by but not assisted by my friend, a freshman) painted that extraneous structure using alternating horizontal bands of purple and pink. Of course, being honor students and future leaders of the free world, they did a damn fine job. There was no coloring outside the lines or sloppy brushwork. It looked really good and would have looked even better had the redecoration not been interrupted by the local police department. Apparently, someone who lived near the school (and it’d been a long, long time since that was a good neighborhood) called to report the vandalism. I picture it thusly:
A pair of beady, gray eyes beneath cheap mascara and thick blue eye shadow, peer out from behind faded floral print drapes. A mouth drops open, exposing yellowed, uneven teeth and a mossy tongue. A phone is grabbed and a call is frantically placed. 911, of course. There is no time for looking up the regular number. This is an emergency! Screw the people whose houses are burning or who are being beaten to hamburger by their drunk husbands! This is a real crisis! The guard shack is being painted by hooligans with absolutely no regard for the school's well-established blue and white color scheme! Something has to be done—and quickly!
So the cops arrived and all but one of the hooligans were rounded up and carted off to jail. Parents were called. School administrators were notified. And the first pungent whiffs of the inevitable shitstorm wafted into town on an otherwise pleasant spring breeze.
You must remember that this happened in the mid 1980s. It was a simpler time. A more backward, head-up-the-ass kind of time. A time when shit like this was still sort of a big deal—particularly when honor students were involved.
And these were real honor students. In an era when Rossville was graduating salutatorians who had never even read a full novel, these young men were actual geniuses. In a community overflowing with Pinkies, they were a band of Brains.
The hooligans' level of intellect made their crime all the worse. How could good students do a thing like that?! And using those colors! It was openly speculated that they were the first wave of a Gay Communist plot to destroy Middle America (which, thanks to the televised Oliver North trials, Rossvillians now knew was somehow different from Central America). If these thinkers could be corrupted by the Godless Left, how could the slow-witted football players resist the ever-growing anti-American temptation of freewill?
So they were punished. There was talk that they would not be allowed to graduate. This would have meant the first four or five seats at graduation would be empty and, aside from the guest speaker, not much would be said. Eventually, however, it was all resolved. The hooligans gave their speeches, graduated with the honors they so deserved and went off to fine colleges and fine careers and, in at least one case, a fine wife.
The student most punished was the one who was least involved. My friend, being a freshman at the time had a suspension that carried over into the next school year. He ended up in a great private college and eventually went on to a great career and a great wife, but this hurt his quest for the perfect GPA and is probably what kept him from being Valedictorian three years later.
The important thing is that these students, in spite of their “station in life”, were punished for desecrating school property. The community property had to be defended and preserved! For two or three more years anyway.
In 1989, Rossville Comprehensive High School saw its last 12th grade graduation. Beginning the following year, high school students in that part of Walker County attended the brand new Ridgeland High School, a few miles away. The old high school building became the new Rossville Middle School since the old Junior High had burned a few years earlier.
Although I continued to live in Rossville for several more years, I slowly lost touch with it. It became background scenery on the way to work and, eventually, that place across the ridge with the good burger joint (that would be the Dream Cream). I lived not more than five or ten miles away, but I completely lost touch with the city that had once been my home. I went to college, found a career, got stuck in a boring loop of that career, broke out of the dead end cycle, met Christie, got married and moved to Rossville.
I loved (and still love) Christie, but I hated moving back to Rossville. I resisted it with great surliness and much whining. Christie had a very nice home but, for the first several months, I was just not happy there. We live in what is, far and away, the best neighborhood in Rossville, but that didn’t matter. I lived among a type of people I can’t stand and, to top it all off, I was back in Rossville. I was nearly 35 and, in my mind, I should have been living in Atlanta, New York, Amsterdam, or a place with padded walls. I should have been anywhere but Rossville.
Eventually, being an at least marginally reasonable person, I came to love the home almost as much as I love Christie. It’s really a nice little neighborhood, it’s a pretty good location and, apart from some stupid taxation policies and a dangerously right-wing governor, Georgia is a fairly decent place to live.
The actual city of Rossville, however... Not so great.
When my parents were kids and teenagers, Rossville was really hoppin’. There were theatres and shops and restaurants and lots of things to bring people over the state line from Chattanooga. By the time I was in junior high, though, it was all going away. There were still some decent little mom and pop restaurants, some high-dollar dress shops, and a few other nice little stores. But it was fading fast.
I think it was around that time (this would have been the early ‘80s) that the Rossville Development Corporation (or R.D.C.) was formed. It was led by a group of Rossville bigwigs (mostly members of families who owned or had owned the many textile mills in town) and its mission was to restore Rossville to its former glory.
For a while, there were R.D.C. signs all over the place. Old, faded walls were painted bright white and emblazoned with the bright blue and red R.D.C. logo. It seemed to me to be sort of a promise of things to come. Either the factories would re-open or there would be urban renewal and we’d get snazzy new shops and restaurants and condos and artists and all the things that make for great little towns.
Of course, none of this ever happened. The reasons are many and complex so I won’t go into that now. While I was a few miles away, living my life, hope slowly evaporated and the town died. Shops closed, minds closed even tighter, and the town became a rotting shell of what it had once been. The lottery, which could have helped tremendously, only served to further eat away at the body and soul of the little city. By the time I moved back, the town was so far gone that I doubt it will ever recover.
But, as they say, hope springs eternal.
So, one day a few weekends ago, I went out wandering Rossville with my trusty Canon Rebel and a few rolls of black and white film. (Remember film? It’s cool stuff.) Anyone who’s ever seen my photography knows that I absolutely love decay and chaos. Entropy is my muse. I figured that Rossville would be a great place to indulge my thirst for old buildings, cobwebs and moss. It was. But it was more than that.
That day depressed the shit out of me.
I had noticed, of course, that the old R.D.C. stuff was fading but I’d never really realized just how far gone the city is. It was a water tower that—to use a bad pun—brought it all home for me. It stands next to one of the abandoned factories. For a long time, it was bright white and R.D.C. logo painted on it was vibrant and bold. Now the tower is rusted and scarred and the R.D.C. is barely readable. No new company has plastered promises on that tower or anywhere else in town. No one has graffitied hope. Rossville is that patient that’s been shoved to the side to die while the doctors operate on the ones that have a chance. And, two blocks over from the water tower that marks the site of Rossville’s demise, there’s the old Rossville High Annex. And its guard shack.
The little, gray building looks like it’s been hit by two tornadoes and a heavy truck. The concrete blocks are askew, the paint is long gone and it looks like a bug landing on it would knock it right over. This little building whose honor had been so vehemently defended during my high school days was now a mostly forgotten wreck.
I took a picture of it and, later, sent it to my friend who had been along for the ride but hadn’t actually participated in the “redecorating”. He didn’t even recognize it at first. He told me that, although they had to repaint the sides, no one ever bothered to look on the roof and, unless the years had weathered it away, there would still be the names of the guys who had desecrated the building so many years before.
These four future leaders, in a moment of tame rebellion, had put their mark on a part of their hometown, and it was covered up posthaste. But their signatures remain (I didn’t actually check to see if they’re still there. I just like to think that they are), out of sight and, very nearly, out of mind.
It made me wonder where my signature was on the town, on lives, on anything. Where have I secretly written my name? And who will ever know it was there?
Depressed beyond all reason, I put my camera away, went home and kissed my wife. That night, I decided to start this blog.