Remembering fondly those days when students brought guns to school
Here’s a story that’s hard to believe in these days of tragic school shootings and mass murders that break our hearts and defy our understanding:
Fifty-some years ago, Gainesville High School students carried shotguns to school and staged wild shoot-outs on the town square.
Photos in the 1965 GHS Bulldogger yearbook, shared recently by Jim Hambelton, one of the shooters, document the daring deeds – at least for the year when Jim was a senior. He remembers another shoot-out had occurred the year before. Others would occur in the next few years, according to those who participated.
It was one of those things that seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time – a way to entertain the Hootin an Hollarin crowd and, as Jim remembers it, put the spotlight on some of the teenage boys in a fun way to balance out the attention the girls received as they competed in the Hootin an Hollarin queen contest. In Jim’s 1965 yearbook, pictures of the 1964 Hootin an Hollarin queen contest and pictures of the shoot-out cast members, mostly boys, are on facing pages.
No one I spoke with could remember the story line for the shoot-outs, if there was one. “Basically, it was supposed to be like the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys,” said Louise Hambelton Patterson, one of three girls who participated with the boys in the 1964 shoot-out.
Jim Hambelton remembers that the make-believe confrontation occurred on the east side of the square in front of the Hootin an Hollarin stage. “One bunch of us came out from the corner where the bank is now –a couple of houses were there then. I was in the group that came from between the newspaper office and [what was then] the lumber yard,” he said. We walked toward each other and did some yelling, then we ran around and fired our guns.”
He remembers that the late Shorty Wallace, who owned a sports shop on the square, had opened up the live ammo the boys brought to him. “He dumped out the pellets and closed it back up to make blanks,” Jim said.
On the day of the shoot-out, all the boys – the 10 of them shown in the photo here and maybe others too – brought their shotguns to school, either carrying them on the bus or in the gun racks in their pickups. Patricia Hambelton Jarman remembers that they posed for this photo behind the high school; then they headed to town to shoot at each other. She had borrowed a long dress from her Aunt Violet Morrison for the performance.
Jim doesn’t remember any specific instructions from faculty members about safe gun-handling. “But all of us had grown up with guns. We knew not to point them at anyone’s head or anything like that,” he said.
Down on the square, a crowd gathered as the feuding characters, the girls in long dresses and the boys in bib overalls and old-timey hats, marched toward each other in mock anger, yelling insults and making threats. Then the running around and shooting commenced as the people watching covered their ears to dampen the shotguns’ loud blasts – and laughed and cheered at the make-believe violence.
The students’ Hootin an Hollarin shoot-outs only continued a few years, but Ozark County Collector Bill Hambelton, who graduated in 1970, remembers being in one of them. He also remembers the boys bringing shotguns to school in pickup gun racks. “And we all left the keys in the ignition back then,” he said, laughing.
Bill also insists that the year he was in the shoot-out, the feuding hillbillies used live ammo. “I just remember running around and yelling and shooting, and it was real ammo,” he said.
There’s probably some wise philosophical insight that could be expressed about the way things were in Ozark County in the 1960s and the way the world is now. I wish I were smart enough to articulate that insight, but it seems hard to put into words.
Looking at the photo of the teenagers laughing as they pointed their shotguns at each other in 1964 makes me long for the simple country wisdom that prevailed back then. It wasn’t that those 1960s kids didn’t know what guns could do. Most of them had killed game and varmints with their guns. And it wasn’t that they hadn’t seen violence. After all, that photo was taken in fall 1964, less than a year after America’s president was killed by an assassin with a high-powered rifle.
In a few years, some of the boys in the photo would be firing military weapons in the jungles of Vietnam. And in a few decades, they might be wishing the teachers at their grandchildren’s schools could be armed to protect the kids from crazed, gun-wielding villains – or worrying that arming teachers is a terrible mistake.
The then-and-now comparison is a head-spinning contrast. It’s one that makes me long for the kind of rock-solid trust that existed in those days when a bunch of Ozark County teenage boys could still bring shotguns to school in their pickup gun racks, leave those pickups unlocked in the school parking lot – with the keys in the ignition – and then pretend to shoot each other on the town square as a way to entertain an audience.
Looking back on that time, it seems a little crazy.
But it was a good crazy.