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Food For Thought

Brisk Friday nights and high school football games take me right back to the early ‘50s when I often wore Mother’s sealskin coat to watch the Knoxville Panthers play.
Our stadium was a product of the Works Progress Administration in 1938. It has stone steps and seats built into an oval excavation which puts the stadium below ground level, protecting it from winds. It was adjacent to the municipal swimming pool and the bathhouse which also served as dressing rooms for athletic teams. Used for track meets and soccer (which existed only as a sport taught in physical education classes during my time in school), the stadium endured and remains in use today. In 2005, the school board proposed replacing the deteriorating seats with metal bleachers, an idea which raised strong objections from the public. The Knoxville Alumni Association mobilized and lobbied the school board to replace the seating while maintaining its original look. The Save Our Stadium (SOS) effort eventually convinced the school board to repair and preserve the integrity of this unique structure, although the swimming pool had already been removed.
Mother’s black fur coat was heavy as well as warm. By the time we had walked clear across town on those autumn evenings, whichever one of us girls who had prevailed in the battle of whose turn it was to wear the coat, would be overly warm and wondering if it was worth the burden. By the end of the first quarter, the chill of inactivity and the cold stone seating would have again rendered the sealskin a welcome source of warmth. Having been new in the 1930s, the coat was definitely unstylish, but none of us seemed to care about that. Being warm throughout those autumn evenings spent sitting out of doors was more important than style. I had a long neck scarf and mittens in a dull, deep yellow color we called Old Gold, which I imagined made my outfit admirably appropriate, as it flaunted our school colors of black and gold. We always sang the Knoxville Fight Song at sometime during half-time at those games. Not very original, it copied the University of Wisconsin fight song with only a slight change in wording. Instead of “On, Wisconsin!” it began “Onward, Knoxville!”
Homecoming week was celebrated by students, townspeople, merchants and residents of neighboring towns. Alumni scheduled class reunions during that weekend. We were not the only town around that adopted Al Capp’s comic strip “Li’l Abner” as a theme for homecoming, but we were probably the most extravagant at sticking to the theme. For weeks in advance, merchants had been having special sales and displays with football and Dogpatch themes. I was hired to paint many a Daisy Mae, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, and Li’l Abner on store windows– even the gourd-like Smoos that were part of the comic strip at that time.
We built floats for the homecoming parade, stuffing paper napkins into chicken wire to surround the sides of some farmer’s hay rack. It seems I was always in charge of making some special props that would be part of the theme of the float. One year, I constructed a life-size black panther of papier-mâché and brown packing tape. Live Dogpatch characters usually rode on the floats as part of tableaux. This was almost required, and certainly expected, as every one came to school dressed as Dogpatch comic strip characters in celebration of Sadie Hawkins Day. The parade was held during the afternoon of the Friday of the game itself. Students from all grades of the town’s two elementary schools were shepherded downtown to watch the parade as it progressed down Main Street and circled the courthouse square. Aside from the floats, all the high school students and teachers who were in costume marched in the parade, and some floats designed and built by businesses were also included. Merchants had special sales, and contests with significant prizes for the winners before and after the parade. There was a Queen’s float provided for the Homecoming Queen candidates to ride in the parade. At half-time that evening, the queen would be announced and she and her court would circle the football field perched on the back of the rear seats of convertibles. Before the second half could begin, there would be one last bow to Dogpatch, as costumed girls raced down the field in an effort to catch one of the costumed boys in the Sadie Hawkins Race. Mock weddings followed, “uniting in wedlock” the lucky girls who had each managed to capture the eligible bachelor of their choice. Following the game, those who were not otherwise celebrating or commiserating, could attend a Homecoming Dance at the Memorial Hall, open to students and alumni and anyone else who cared to attend.