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COLUMN SIX: The morning after, 50 years ago

BY RICHARD PALKOWSKI
Special to the VOICE

The “Man In Society” class at Pelham High School couldn’t have been taught by a better person than Mr. J. S. Curtis. As simply a history teacher, he was nonetheless an intellectual in his field that also covered at least philosophy, politics, and ethics.

Being an accomplished musician, he brought his harpsichord to class on several occasions to try to enlighten our “pop/rock” music brains. He was quite an interesting individual. An exceedingly strong proponent of human rights, especially of what was taking place in the U.S. at that time in the 1960s, he certainly demonstrated his values and ethics most strongly in class. In this sense, this thin almost fragile man became an unwavering giant.

Yet in 1968 a female in the class looked out the window one morning and gave one of those loud but quick laughs. Startled, everyone looked out the window to see a “Red Cap” flag flying on the flagpole at the front of the school. Note that Red Cap was a popular beer at the time.

I immediately knew what it was about.

Let’s call them Jim and Randy. Their developing teenage brains told them that flying the Red Cap flag on April Fool’s Day was indeed too funny for words. No politics or social implications involved, just hee-haw funny.

The last I heard was that Jim was trying to get his sisters to sew said flag. The first problem was they missed the April 1st deadline by three days, but that wasn’t going to stop a good prank. So on the night of April 4, Jim and Randy went out and ran the flag up the pole, but there was still a problem. The flag was too small and nobody would see it way up there. And as you may have surmised, the solution was to lower it quite a bit so it would be visible to everyone.

Back in class, Mr. Curtis became so perturbed and red in the face, he was certainly about to explode. He loudly and most forcefully said something like, “If someone laughs I’ll throw them through that window.”

He referred to the very small window in the classroom door as he rushed out to deal with the Red Cap flag flying at half-mast.

What few of us knew on the morning of April 5, living in our own teenage world—but what Mr. Curtis certainly knew—was that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated the night before. You can imagine what he thought.

From humor to tragedy. If it weren’t for King’s tragic death, odds are I wouldn’t have remembered the Red Cap flag incident for longer than a few months, let alone for 50 years.

RIP, MLK.

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