It was 1956. I was in my sophomore year at a large high school that purportedly had over three thousand students. You weren't sure there were that many students because a lot of them wouldn't show up all the time. But you figured the number was probably about right if a day ever came when they did all show up.
It was my lunch period. You could bring your lunch or buy it in the cafeteria. It seemed that most kids bought their lunch. You could get a hot lunch for fifty cents. It would include meat, potatoes, a vegetable, bread or roll and milk. Or you could get a sandwich and milk for even less. On Fridays they took care of the Roman Catholics by offering breaded filet of flounder accompanied by mashed potatoes and gravy, cole slaw, a roll and milk. That meal was actually one of my favorites.
You had about an hour for lunch. But it only took half that time to actually consume it. So you had another half hour to kill before your next class. In nice weather you could go outside. There, you could play boxball, visit the drugstore across the street or just hang out and shoot the breeze with your friends. But when the weather was cold, rainy or just lousy, your main option was to hang out in the gym.
Now remember, this was 1956. Our school was about seventy-five percent white and twenty-five percent black. Of course nobody used the term "black" back then. They were "colored people". But most of the kids seemed to get along just fine. I mean this wasn't some Southern school where we read there were all kinds of trouble. This was the North! We weren't prejudiced. At least most of us didn't think we were. All classes contained kids of both races, as did all the clubs and sports teams. Hell, my class would elect a "colored" Class President and Vice-President the following year.
But there was one odd thing about how things were back then. It concerned those lunch periods when you went to the gym after downing your fifty cent blue plate special. It was a large gym with a balcony that wound around three sides of the gym. For some reason all the "colored" kids would be in the balcony and the white kids would be down on the gym floor or on some bleacher seats on the gym floor. When I first arrived as a freshman I asked some kid why that was. I was told that it "just always had been that way".
After I finished lunch that day back in 1956, I headed down the stairs from the third floor cafeteria, trying to decide whether to go to the gym or head outside. Suddenly I heard, "Fight - Fight!". Well, in those days you didn't want to miss seeing a fight. You usually didn't want to be in one. But seeing one could be interesting.
I took two steps at a time until I reached the basement and went out through the back door. There, about ten feet away, two "colored" guys were really having at it! I mean they weren't dancing around and feinting and jabbing. No, they were slugging each other as hard as they could!
Thud! Thud! Thud! Those were hard punches! In the chest. In the head. Wherever they could. People were cheering for one guy or the other. I didn't know either of them --- so I just watched. They must've been juniors or seniors. But I noticed one thing early on. One guy was bigger and darker. The other guy was smaller with a lighter complexion. And the bigger guy was slowly beating the hell out of the smaller guy. I mean the smaller guy was starting to get beat up pretty good. But he wouldn't stop! There was blood on his face. But he kept swinging!
Finally, some other guys tried to break the fight up to protect the smaller guy. But he would have none of it. Pushing the other guys away, the smaller fighter said to them, "Don't stop me, man --- some things jus' gotta be done!".
So the fight continued. I recall that I didn't get to see the end of the fight but I can't remember why that was the case. The bell for my next class probably rang and I must've headed back inside. The outcome of the fight, however, was never in doubt. The smaller guy was really getting beat up --- but he wouldn't quit. Even when his friends tried to stop it to protect him from further injury, he wouldn't quit.
It's now forty-five years later. That old high school has been torn down. I understand that the new high school has no such tradition of blacks in the balcony and whites on the main gym floor. I have no idea about what a hot lunch cost there now. But I will always remember that "some things jus' gotta be done!".