Friday, May 4, 2012

A tradition ... with tears

The scene at the monument in Woodlawn's
 quadrangle at this year's memorial service
 (photo courtesy of Cindy DeBusk
 McGowan on Facebook's Woodlawn Knights
 Alumni page)
        There is a tradition at Woodlawn High School in Shreveport that began in the late 1960s, and carries on.
        On a Friday morning this time each year, the school  honors its graduates who died in military service while serving in places such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
        This year's ceremony was last Friday. I'm sure it was as impressive as it's always been.
         Woodlawn is a much different school than it was in the late 1960s. The faculty turnover is complete and today's students have no ties to what happened then, except they're on the same school grounds. But this memorial service is much the same.
       It's a relatively short service, at sunrise, with music and  prayer, and the laying of a wreath of roses at the memorial monument near the flagpole. It ends with Taps.
      The setting is spectacular -- Woodlawn's quadrangle area. Anyone associated with the school remembers how beautiful it is.
      Used to be that the Woodlawn band, pep squad and cheerleaders were in uniform, and football team members wore their game jerseys. Because the school colors are scarlet (red) and royal blue -- with white trim -- it was an appropriate American setting.
       As far as I know, every year James Parker has been  there to play his bagpipe. When he was younger, he would come in from a distance on the school roof playing Amazing Grace. The tears would begin then.
       When Taps is played, as former Woodlawn coach A.L. Williams noted last week, he always thinks of Trey Prather.
        It is a moving ceremony, emotional, truly a time for reflection. The moments of silence, except for sobs, can be overwhelming.
      The tradition began in 1969, but could be traced to January 1968, to a half-mast ceremony in the quadrangle the morning that Henry Lee "Trey" Prather's body returned to Shreveport, days after he died in Vietnam. The next year the Student Council purchased a monument bearing the names of the four WHS graduates who had died in battle circumstances, and the first full service was held.
       I went to only one service, in 1984, when Jerry Byrd and I left work at the Shreveport Journal that morning to attend. What happened that day sticks in my memory.
       H. Lee Prather -- Trey's dad -- was there that day. I had not seen him since the day of Trey's funeral, 16 years earlier.
       Can't excuse that gap, other than to say the pain was too great; there was no way I could visit the Prathers without a total breakdown. Mrs. Prather (Marilyn) died just two years after Trey; her heart broken. I had heard that Mr. Prather had remarried and, after years of alcohol abuse, had overcome some of his demons.
       But I don't want to mislead you. Lee Prather was the biggest fan Oak Terrace and Woodlawn had in those years, omnipresent at practices and games. There were more than a couple of road games when it was just Mr. Prather -- and Mr. Van Thyn (Louis, my dad) -- rooting for the Knights in the stands.
       And Mr. Prather never -- never -- interfered with the coaches. His father, H.L. Prather, had been the longtime basketball coach (and then school president) at Northwestern State College; hence, Prather Coliseum on the campus.
     I had nothing but respect for Lee Prather; I'd been to the house so many times. Sure, alcohol was ever-present there, but the Prathers were beautiful people.
      That morning in 1984 -- as usual -- there was a reception in the Woodlawn faculty lounge just before the ceremony. Suddenly, I found myself face-to-face with Lee Prather.
      I hugged him tight, but when I tried to speak, I couldn't. I cannot tell this story, or write it, without tearing up ... ever. Anyone who knows me knows I am seldom speechless. But that day ...
      I had to leave the room and go outside. And during the ceremony, we sat two rows behind Mr. Prather, his wife and other members of the family. When they sobbed, I sobbed.
      Never did talk to Mr. Prather; just couldn't do it. And a year later, he was gone. I hope he knew how much I loved his family.
      During the ceremony, I tried to focus on my memories of Trey ... his dark, sharp features, the way he practiced and played so hard in every sport, how damn good he was at all of them, how he loved to throw a football and run it, how he wasn't afraid of contact on the football field or the basketball court, his broken arm that ended his sophomore football season, his two wild wrestling matches in basketball with North Caddo's very rugged Johnny Ray Alexander.
     His 8-for-8 game from the floor in basketball at Byrd when we almost upset the Yellow Jackets (the cutline under his photo in the Journal the next day started, "This Knight Was Right"), a home run he hit against Byrd, the day in Cotton Valley when he was catching and Butch Daniel -- a tough little guy who would go on to play safety at Louisiana Tech -- slammed into him, causing Trey to bite his tongue (he had to return to Shreveport for stitches).         
      His laugh, his sometimes X-rated, uproarious language, how popular he was with everyone and how friendly he was, how often he bummed money from me for snacks (he referenced that in signing my yearbook in our senior year), the rides he gave Ken Liberto and me, the hours and hours we spent watching football films at the Prather house, seeing him up at Woodlawn that last time the summer after our freshman year -- Trey home from LSU, Ken and me from Tech.
      I'm sorry I didn't make more of the memorial services at Woodlawn; I should have. It's tough to do now that we don't live in Shreveport. And, frankly, I have another memorial service at about the same time of year that I want to attend because it's more personal.
      The past two years I've been asked to be one of the 11 candle lighters at the Shreveport-Bossier Holocaust Remembrance Service. For years, my parents were among those lighters -- and my mother a speaker almost every year. They're gone, and I'm honored to replace them in that portion of the service which symbolizes the 11 million people who died in the Holocaust.
     A couple of weeks ago, I sat at that service and reflected on my parents, and the grandparents, aunt and uncles I never knew. Wish I had.
       But Trey Prather I knew. And I thank the people at Woodlawn for honoring Trey and the other WHS grads whose names are on that monument. We'll always be proud of them, and of our school.
      (NOTE: Also posting a 1990 story from The Shreveport Times about the ceremony, written by Evan Grant, who -- incidentally -- replaced me on The Times' sports staff and now covers the Texas Rangers for The Dallas Morning News.) 

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