Riverside High School (formerly Robert E. Lee), Part 5: Coda — The Prehistory of Friday Night Drums

by Tim Gilmore, 11/24/2022

cont’d from Riverside High School (Formerly Robert E. Lee), Part Four: Becoming Riverside High School

Before Riverside High School, cattle lowed in their pastures. In the 1850s, Elias Jaudon called all this land, from about where St. Vincent’s Hospital stands now down to Fishweir Creek, Magnolia Plantation. He’d soon expand its original 550 acres to a thousand. His slaves produced cotton and corn, sugar cane and sweet potato. His plantation house still stands in the center of what’s now historic Riverside Avondale on Lydia Street.

Before selling the plantation off as smaller separate farms after the Confederacy lost the Civil War, Jaudon gave his daughter Sarah just less than 100 acres along Willow Branch Creek. She and her husband John McKinlay expanded their dairy farm from the river past what’s now Sydney Street to present-day Randall Street.

I think of that prehistory when I hear the drums from Friday night football games 15 streets from my house. I think of Dianne Henry and Mary Milstead, their fists in the air in 1950, their long blue-and-gray striped and pleated cheerleader skirts and saddle shoes. In cool seemingly sentient winds the drumming modulates in Doppler Shifts and comes to me in late-night waves.

Truth-and-Reconciliation inoculates the shameful elements of our history, weaponizes the illness against itself. There’s no such thing as seeing, speaking or hearing no evil. I can’t identify these three girls from the yearbook, though I know those houses, those chimneys and dormer windows, dim through the pines behind them.

And then I think of Patty Wade, Bobbie Woodman, Joanne Stringer and Kitty Dittmar standing like steps on those tiered diving boards in modest one-piece swimsuits in the spring of ’51. Haven’t I seen them, again and again? Haven’t they recurred to me? Bobbie looks at me, distracted, while the other girls look ahead to their futures.

Then I think of Nancy Gilmer, 1951, those finally warm spring months, having thrown herself soaring in a swan dive, there suspended, flying forever, freely and fearlessly launched in the infinite. Where I’d join her. Gilmer / Gilmore. If she’d let me. Though I suspect I’ve submitted my request too late. All the past pulled into the future. That’s what the investigator of ghosts is really after. Assuming her possibility all-inclusive. Open to everyone. “To Be.” Infinitive. Surely there’s hope.