I have to suppose that I’ll weather the challenge to what’s left of my virtue.
Back in the 1960s, right about the time my little then-nearly-completely rural county was desegregating its schools (the last graduating class of the “colored” high school was 1964, I think), they built a new high school in the largest of the county’s five incorporated towns. Back then the county had three high schools in different areas of the county, and each high school was very much an integral part of the social peculiarity of the part of the county it served. My home county isn’t all that big — the only interstate highway through it has exits that happen almost exactly to coincide with its opposite borders, and those exit numbers are 19 miles apart — but for generations each part of the county was, if you were so inclined, a world unto itself. People tended to marry within the geography; they went to church near where they lived; for decades the county was dotted with tiny one-room school houses (some of which still exist, forlornly out in the weeds); they worked in “their” part of the county, and that’s where you’ll find them buried. There are nearly 300 family cemeteries in my tiny little county.
In the early 1970s they consolidated all of the high schools into one rather large facility located in the largest town, and the three former high schools became junior high schools, running 7th through 9th grades. When I came through that high school in the very early 1980s there was still quite a bit of the initial culture — I don’t know if it’s the right word, really — shock aspect when each year’s 10th graders got to the county high school and suddenly there you were in class with a bunch of strangers, people whose frames of reference were to places and activities you were largely unfamiliar with.
You have to understand that back then children around these parts were, while largely “free range” within their own part of the county (in the summer time I’d vanish into the woods or wherever after breakfast and I’d be back for supper), also largely immobile in terms of other parts of the county. If you lived up in the “north end,” there were certain creeks where you went swimming or fishing; you went on hay rides with certain families; you rode your horse on certain lands; you went hunting in specific woods and fields. If you had a paying job, it would have been on someone’s land or in someone’s business you could ride your bike to, or bum a ride with an older sibling or neighbor (usually in the back of a pick-up truck). Ditto in the south end, the middle, or over towards “the river.” So in addition to never having been in school before with all these strange people, you had had very little interaction with any of them outside school. By the time I came along the acculturation process went pretty rapidly and by the end of the second or third week of school we were all one seething mass of pimples and hormones.
All three of the former high school buildings are still school board property, and two of them in use as middle schools. The third houses what my generation knew as the “jail school” for disciplinary hard cases, the ones a thoughtfully administered three of the best out in the hallway couldn’t adequately tune up. The parents hated it when you got sent there because the school bus didn’t stop at that school. The parents had to carry you there, and if your parent worked in the next large city, 45 miles in the opposite direction, that was a pain in the butt. And so it goes.
The former high school, then junior high, now middle school in the central, largest town is typically hideous late-1950s/early-1960s institutional architecture. Looking at it you take some convincing that at one point this joint was considered sleek. In that next city over, there are numerous much older school buildings still in use and almost without exception they exude a character that the architecture of that period just seems to lack. It is architecture that looks like it was made — predestined from the deepest recesses of all time — to be painted institutional green. My mother taught in that school for 142 years, and it must have been soul-crushing.
Back when it was new, however, back when boyfriends carried their girlfriends’ books, when those girlfriends would get their butt sent home if they showed up at school with a skirt above their knees and the boyfriend likewise if he showed up in a t-shirt, someone built a tiny little burger joint right across the street from it. It was called The Frosty Jug, or simply “The Jug.” [Aside: Perhaps someone will as an exercise in dredging up useless trivia calculate how many hundred thousand burger-and-coke joints there are out there with that name.] They had curb service, still, even when I was in what was by then the junior high school. It was where those kids who didn’t have after-school jobs or chores back on the farm could congregate, poke their noses under each other’s hoods to admire the new Holly four-barrel or the breather cover, gossip, and do what teenagers back then did. I imagine it must have looked more than a little like something from a story-board from a Happy Days script.
When they consolidated the high schools The Jug entered a decline from which it’s never really salvaged itself. Junior high school kids seldom had jobs and therefore spending money, and so the market for The Jug dried up. You could still go and get a greasy burger, ditto fries, a flat coke, buy a can of “dip” (i.e. “smokeless” tobacco such as Copenhagen (“Cope”) or Skoal), or play pinball on one of their beat-up machines.
By the time I was in junior high The Jug had acquired a further function, as the venue (behind the building, where you weren’t so visible from the street) for the kinds of vicious fights that would get all participants and most of the spectators thrown out of school, had they been staged on school property. I still remember one day seeing this thug named Mike G. walking back towards the school building, his face an absolute mass of blood. He’d been over at The Jug, where he had fought another thug, John F., and at some point John had applied his belt buckle (this was the heyday of the redneck belt buckle as big as a small hubcap) with energy and dexterity to Mike’s face. John F. later went on to distinguish himself by getting sent to one of those teenager Gulag facilities where the parents have to sign over legal custody of the child to the jailers. While there ol’ John made a name for himself as one of their hardest cases, ever; last I heard Mike G. was in prison somewhere. Right, in other words, where the rest of us need him to be.
The Jug closed completely shortly after I left high school. It was vacant for a good period, then it was any number of equally forgettable things, most recently a barber shop.
Within the past year or so someone bought the building and has re-opened it as a burger-and-coke operation. Much smaller scale than it was, because middle schoolers have even less disposable money than junior high kids, and besides, nowadays as soon as school’s out the remorseless grind of “activity” starts, with grim-faced parents and hapless children dragooned to a never-ending series of practices, recitals, games, tournaments, exercises, and so forth.
Today, for the first time since about 1978 I think, I had a hamburger and fries at The Frosty Jug. It was pretty good, I have to say; I’ll be back.
I must confess that before I left I crept behind the building to check. I’m pleased to report that the ghost of John F. does not haunt The Jug.