Cline column: Visiting nation's capital

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 5, 2012

By Mike Cline
For the Salisbury Post
This is the second of two parts.
May 9, 1962, had been a long day.
Consider 38 sixth-grade School Safety Patrol Boys and five chaperones (including the mayor and chief of police) on a non-air conditioned bus bound for Washington, D.C.
Think about the 11 hours in transit before making our initial D.C. destination, the cafeteria where we would enjoy all of our meals for the next three days.
Our meals had been pre-planned, so we all took our places at four-chaired tables and waited for our delicious grilled ham steak and pineapple ring.
What we weren’t expecting was the little surprise that the sole female chaperone had ordered for all of us. A glass of prune juice.
For whatever reason, she thought all of us should have this delicacy as a little “nightcap.” And it wasn’t an option. She went to every table and stood in front of us while we were “asked” to drink this wonderful nectar.
Now, what was she thinking? Thirty-eight kids sharing eight motel bathrooms. Plus a full day of sightseeing beginning in the morning. Maybe she wasn’t really thinking at all.
Without getting any more specific about the aftermath of the surprise, Day One began back at the cafeteria for breakfast, this time with orange juice.
Then it was off to the U.S. Capitol to meet with Rep. Hugh Q. Alexander of the 9th Congressional District. He was our elected representative, and I remembered the name from his television commercials during the past election. Yes, we had those wonderful political ads back then just like today.
We were escorted into Alexander’s inner office and were told to form a semi-circle around his desk. As he spoke to our group, an unexpected rumble occurred, and safety patrolman (I’ll call him Randy Hocklefinger) lost his breakfast on Rep. Alexander’s ornate Oriental rug.
Attack of the prune juice, perhaps?
Our elected official made a quick exit with us all and gave us a tour of the U.S. Capitol Building, leaving behind the Hocklefinger deposit for a non-elected official to handle.
The rest of the day was spent boarding and touring a U.S. Navy submarine and visiting the Washington Monument (we rode up and walked down), the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and a ride back across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
During the changing of the guard, my buddy said, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” And another guy said, “You want to be a dead soldier?” A brilliant sixth-grader’s observation.
Back on the bus and straight to the cafeteria for roast turkey with dressing, then to the motel for the evening.
The next day, it was back to the Capitol to meet with Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. Fortunately, no Hocklefinger incidents this time (maybe Randy waited outside).
Then, in what may have been a first, according to Percy Meekins, the administrative assistant to House Speaker John W. McCormack, we were given an audience with the speaker. Meekins said that in his 20 years in Washington, this had never happened.
A tour of the FBI followed (we didn’t see either J. Edgar Hoover or Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). After lunch, we toured the White House (JFK and Jackie weren’t home). Then we were off to the Washington Zoo for the rest of the day.
Most of what spending money we all had been given by our parents was blown here. I remember getting a tacky red hat embellished with my first name in glitter across the front, capped off with a 2-foot-long ostrich feather sticking out the top. A fashion guru, I wasn’t.
Savory swiss steak with mashed potatoes was the dinner bill of fare. Then, to the motel to turn in.
This may be difficult to believe, but our behavior at the motel wasn’t always what it was expected to be. As best I can remember, we did nothing seriously wrong, but mandatory sleep wasn’t something we all welcomed. The 10 p.m. curfew was never obeyed.
As long as we were quiet, we got away with it. However, one room of guys crossed the line one night. Around 2 a.m., chaperone Lt. Serino (married to the prune juice lady), hearing commotion, opened the door of one now-quiet room and spoke into the darkness, “Are you boys asleep?”
Patrolman Tony, perhaps not the brightest bulb in the marquee, answered, “Yes, sir!”
Patrolman Henderson, another occupant of the room, recently reminded me of this.
Our final day in the city found us touring the Smithsonian Institute for most of the morning. Once inside, we were told we could be on our own, as long as we met back at a specific time at the front entrance. Imagine that happening today. But this was before the ‘60s got rowdy.
That afternoon, we participated in the Annual National Safety Patrol Boys parade, 40,000 strong, one of the key reasons we made the trip. As the proud squad from Statesville, N.C., we marched for 2 miles right down Pennsylvania Avenue.
I remember wishing, as we passed the White House, that the president would see us.
Our final evening meal was Southern fried chicken, or as Southern as Washington cooks could get it. After packing to leave the motel, I went to Lt. Serino and requested that our curfew be extended until 11 p.m. because “NBC Saturday Night at the Movies” was presenting the feature “Titanic” (with Barbara Stanwyck, not DiCaprio).
After assuring him the movie was very educational, he agreed to the extra hour.
Word got out, and our room was packed with sixth-grade bodies watching Stanwyck and Clifton Webb taking that memorable cruise. NBC’s ratings probably jumped a couple of points that night.
I have to admit that the return trip home the next day is mostly a blank for me. Fatigue probably consumed me, and it’s possible I slept much of the way. Our trip info states we were to arrive home around 6 p.m.
The following morning, the fun and games were over, and it was back to patrol duty at 8. Only a few weeks remained of our elementary school careers before heading into that “dark hole” of junior high school in the fall.
But what an incredible way to bring down the curtain on our first six years in public school.
Except for the prune juice.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents every movie played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1979.