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the website of johnny neel      www.neel505.com

Dubya-double-Oh-Dee-El-A-Dubya-In

 Woodlawn High - Birmingham, 1967 - 1971

I began my freshman year at Woodlawn High (WHS) in the fall of 1971.  I took college prep classes with every intent, at the time, to go, like Mom and Dad had encouraged, to attend college.  It was understood; I would go to college. I would be deferred from the draft that existed at the time. Vietnam was in full swing.  Jim had registered for the draft, had been selected with a pretty low lottery number, but was accepted at Birmingham Southern and was deferred as 4-F, for academic reasons.  4-F was the plan for us all.

Back then, I remember not knowing what I wanted to do, medicine maybe, or oceanic biology.  I had an aptitude for science, but not for math.  I loved History, but refused to learn to spell or write well.  The struggle over the next four years for grades good enough for college would be tough, made tougher, by basketball, sporting events, girls, cars, and laziness.

Each morning we assembled in Session Rooms for accountability, the pledge of allegiance, administrative requirements, and school-wide announcements. My first session Room was Room 109, remembered by us all as "Session Room 601" for the constant prank of unscrewing and flipping the number plate over the door.  I met my first and best friends in that session room.  I don't remember my sophomore or  junior session rooms, but I can name most everyone in the 601 group.

My teacher's faces come and go, but two stand out from that first year, Alma Bates and Joe Turner. 

Ms. Bates was my English teacher and began the year off by encouraging us to assume "adult" names...for me, Johnny wouldn't do.  She suggested John or John Lee.  I respectfully declined.  My family called me Johnny.  Johnny was just fine with me and my friends from this time still call me that.  Next she began challenging our Alabama accents...no, it's not Far, it's FIRE...it's not a Fanger, it is a Finger. Spell Their.  Now spell There.  Now spell They're.  Spell Pin.  Spell Pen.  Spell Pan.  Ms. Bates was my favorite teacher and if I write and speak well today, it is because of Ms. Bates.  Before Writing Intensive classes, Ms. Bates' class was just that.  We wrote all the time, usually in front of the entire class, on the chalk board.  Nothing like the jeers of your classmates to get something right. One thing I loved about her was that she accepted my desire to print rather than write in cursive.  I had changed from cursive when I learned to print well in Mechanical Drawing and I could be neat and fly across the page.  All my other teachers demanded cursive; I fought back.  "Why," I asked.  "Because I have to grade your penmanship."  "Why," I asked. Their struggle was real.

Joe Turner, was like a father to us all.  We called him Uncle Joe.  He was strict but kind.  He was the music teacher. Though short, he was a weight lifter and a barrel chested man with arms the size of an Atlas.  Woe be unto you if you acted up in his class; the pain of the paddle was swift and sure.  We met him in Study Hall where he sold us on trying out the music class that took place the same period.  My buddy Carey convinced me to go with him and doing so began the best of times in school.  I took chorus all four years, moving to the Cavaliers boys choir my sophomore year and trying out and making Warblers Club my Junior Year.  We were Good because Uncle Joe would accept nothing less from us.

Warblers was The Club to be in in High School.  Every guy wanted to be in it.  We had jocks, Top Hatters and East B hoodlums, bandsmen, ROTC cadets, honor students, and guys like me with no other social affiliation. You had to try out.  I sang Misty.  I made it.  Back then I sang First Tenor, eclipsed by guys like Jim Posey and Doug Vinson...guys who could really sing.  We sang minstrel songs, spirituals, Christian, patriotic, and popular music.  We put on seasonal shows and, always a Christmas show.  During my Junior year, we put on a farewell Hobo Show, a traditional minstrel show that had made the Warblers well known, but had become too politically unsavory.  Rightfully so, I think.  It was, however, a well received production, less Amos and Andy, and more patriotic, but it's time had come to an end.  I can still sing all the songs...well. the first tenor parts an octave lower.

Once accepted into the club, we Neophytes had to go though an initiation phase called Hell Week, a week-long series of sophomoric nonsense like carrying your Warbler Big Brother's girlfriend's books from class to class, proposing to the Senior Beauty or Head Cheerleader, or memorizing a Big Brother data sheet of mundane information, prepared to recite phone numbers, addresses, locker numbers, and such, on order, at the top of your lungs, usually in the Lunch Room. The week ended on Saturday with a High Court and "Machine" two secret parts of the initiation whose details no true Warbler will ever divulge.  I will say that, when I arrived back home after it was all over, my own mother would not let me in her house and made my brothers hose me off in the back yard.

The Girls Glee Club girls were our sisters.  GGC was a like club and The Club for girls across the school.  All my female friends were in it.  We competed with them, put on shows with them, and competed against them on Stunt Night.  We made beautiful music together.  No one has ever done a more beautiful Hallelujah Chorus than the GGC and the Warblers combined Woodlawn Chorus.  Our other sisters were our Accompanists.  Alice was an amazing piano player and played for me when I tried out for Warblers. Vicki was the sweetest girl and accompanied the club my senior year.  She took a lot of shit from Uncle Joe because she wasn't like Alice, but she was a great piano player in her own right.  A beautiful girl who I admired from the tenor section, but with whom I had no chance of dating, she and I are amazing friends now, as opposed to Alice, who I saw a few years after High School, who didn't remember me.

Sports were a huge part of our high school existence.  We all attended the games, football being King.  Before each football game, we had a pep rally, as much a social event as anything for the football team.  The cheerleaders led us in cheers, the band played, the team paraded, and the majorettes did a routine.  Once, my buddies and I were recruited to play the part of the cross town rival Banks Cheerleaders, our costumes being mop heads, borrowed skirts, t-shirts with a large B scrawled on the front, two balloons of varying sizes, knee socks, and our high-top Converse tennis shoes.  I still know, word for word, our cheer that we performed, Ah Beep Beep, which somehow got past Ms. Peoples, the school sensor.  Happily, there is no photo of that event.

I never played sports.  If I had a chance to qualify for a team, it would probably have been Baseball.  I was a good pitcher, second baseman, and played a mean third base. but, after seven years in the Peewee Leagues, I was bored with Baseball.  I picked up Basketball but it took a long time to get good.  I was even third string on the terrible church team.  By the time I was a senior, I was a pretty decent player.  Coach McNair approached me in Gym and told me to be at tryouts.  I made it to final cut and then caught Mononucleosis.  My last chance was gone.  As consolation, the Cheerleaders, all close friends, asked me to coach them in the gag Cheerleader vs. Majorette showdown basketball game.  My 5'3" team was completely trounced by Jim Stubbs' 6' majorette team. That year, I became the terror of my gym class pick-up games, so much so that the star football player always chose me as his teammate in 2 on 2.  This guy would go on to run two blocked punts back against Alabama, winning the game for Auburn 17 to 16.

It is a wonder I didn't die by Car in high school.  Everywhere I drove, I went as fast as the car would go.  We all did.  We drove big block Fords, Chevys and Dodges.  Gas was 46 cents a gallon.  The speed on Alabama highways then was "Assume Safe Speed." We watched and re-watched Bullitt and Vanishing Point. We picked up our girls and drove to Panama City Beach at 110 mile-per-hour for lunch at Captain Anderson's.

Our music was the best.  We didn't listen to the Beatles...they were for little girls.  We listened to Jimmie, Janice, Airplane, The Byrds, Cat Stevens, Motown, CS&N (not Nash...fuck him), Poco, Pure Prairie League, Clapton, Ronstadt, Souther, Hillman, Furay, The Runt, Jackson Brown, the Eagles, Sweet Baby James, Simon and Garfunkel.  Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar invaded our lives.  WSGN AM The Big 610 was on our radio, unless, at night, we could pick up the ionosphere skip of WGN out of Chicago.

Girls were a big part of my high school life. Call me prejudiced, but I think my school had a population of the most beautiful girls ever packed in such a small space.

My first girlfriend was Kathy.  I don't remember how we met, maybe at Willow Wood Park when Bill Prickett and I were collecting Coke Bottle Tops for the WSGM School Spirit Contest. I remember walking to her house over by the airport, but little else.  We broke up because she heard I was having a summer romance with Paula Damico, which never happened, sadly, but that didn't matter.  At least I didn't have to walk to her house any more.

My sophomore year, I fell head over heels in love with the pretty girl in Geometry.  It took me five long months to get up the nerve to ask her out.  Her answer was, "It took you long enough."  Lynne was the smartest girl in school, ultimately popular, extremely beautiful, with the most amazing green eyes I had ever seen or ever will see.  We dated all our Sophomore year and on and off throughout our high schooldays.  To this day, I do not remember why we broke up...but I'm sure I did something stupid.  White Shoulders is still my favorite perfume.  I still eat my onion rings with salt and ketchup.  She became a college professor and administrator, married a great guy who became the mayor of a prominent Alabama city, and they had a beautiful girl. She died of breast cancer far too young.  Her life was amazing.

The summer after my Sophomore year, I met a girl from Huffman High, Marie, who I was stupid crazy about.  We went out a few times, a movie, the Thursday Night Farewell Hobo Show, that's all I remember, but it just never seemed to work out.  I asked often, she always acted interested, but always had other plans.  I chose to not date anyone for a long while.  Then I met the little sister of a classmate, Cricket, a freshman and she pulled me out of that fog.  She made the rest of my Junior Year great and we had a super time together.  I'm not sure why we stopped dating either...again...probably me.  I was a social klutz.

The Summer after, while on church youth choir tour with 66st Baptist, I met a Banks High girl, Joy, blonde, pretty, with the most amazing singing voice I have ever heard.  We started dating.  I met her friends and they were nice.  She met my friends and they all adored her.  They liked HER better than they liked me.  She went everywhere with me and I with her.  She was the perfect girlfriend.  Then, during the preparation for one of the biggest nights of my high school life, a night of mini skits by clubs, called Stunt night, I met a girl called Cathy.  She and a couple of her friends stopped to watch Jim Posey, Rick Dunsmore, and me painting the set for the Warblers' skit.  She was flirting with me, I flirted back, but thought nothing more of it.  On stunt night, Joy came down with  the measles or the chickenpox. The die was cast.  After The Warblers'  skit, the lads and I went to the balcony to watch the rest of the clubs.  One of Kathy's friends approached me to tell me that Kathy wanted to see me.  I went out the side exit down to Session Room 45...she was crying.  Seems she had just broken up with her boyfriend because she wanted to date me...and...more high school shit like that.  I wasn't buying her story, but who am I to argue with someone so gorgeous who wants to make out in a back corner of the school? My friends were pissed OFF!  Later, being the honest boy I was (read: Guilt Ridden), I told Joy, and my ring was thrown at me from across the room and there was crying and her dad told me I better leave and I left and that was the end of that.  She ended up marring one of my friends, of course, and gave him two beautiful children.

Kathy and I dated a few months but she moved on, I think, because I was no fun.

My Best Friends and Inner Circle throughout my four years were Janice Martin, Carey Martin, Courtney Kelly, Bill Prickett, John Manning, Ricky Dunsmore, Jim Posey, Bob Parker, JM Waits, Roy Ledbetter, John Manning, and Shelley Boyer.  They were there for every success and every failure, every game, every concert, and every movie. They cheered for me, I cheered for them.  I dried their tears and they stuck with me even when I was an ass.  We had the best times, Huddling-up in Main Hall before and between classes, lunching together, cheering our hearts out for the home team, converging on Shoney's, racing in the streets ...and so much more.

These were the best times of all of our lives.  It was hard to say goodbye.