The Fire Marshal was very helpful. He asked if I had a location and I said Anderson Park and he nodded approvingly. He explained since it was city property, he could approve it himself subject to concurrence by the Parks and Recreation Department. He asked if I knew Mr. Knight, the long-time parks supervisor who had to sign off. I told him we all knew Mr. Knight since all kids growing up in Newport News saw him routinely at school athletic fields and any thing related to youth sports. He provided the necessary form, told me to get it signed off by Mr. Knight and when returned, he’d get things in motion. He would explain all the details at that time. Mr. Knight was great, he remembered me from summer time sports activities at Wilson School and said if there were any concerns or problems to let him know. His last word was to keep the permit available on the night of the fire and to call the police and let them know of our plans as they normally kept a roving patrol nearby just in case someone got out of line.
When the approval was granted by the Fire Marshal, he gave me a do’s and don’ts handout with instructions to follow it carefully. It explained what types of material could be used and how to start the fire in detail. The night of the fire, he would meet me no later than six in the evening at the park with the fire scheduled to be lit at seven. He also said to contact him on the day of the fire between noon and two in the afternoon so that if weather was not going to be favorable, we could cancel it at school. Light misty rain was okay, but wind could not be higher than eight miles per hour, so we would keep our fingers crossed over the next two weeks. Fortunately, after lots of rain the first week, there was no more rain up until bonfire day. It looked like it would be a go.
During the ensuing period, we were busy acquiring wood and, fortunately, it was provided at no charge. And older man who owned a tree removal service was a graduate of the school and offered lots of limbs and such as a contribution. My next-door neighbor, Mr. Fowler, owner of Waterfront Lumber Company in Newport News, provide a truck load of untreated, but unneeded old lumber sections, delivered right to the site on the afternoon of the event. And the weather was good, almost still and cool and sunny, perfect for the event. We were excused from school to get the wood set and in place so that it would be ready to light that evening. I remember going home for an early dinner and then returning before six, a Deputy Fire Marshal dropped by right at six on the nose and approved of the way we were set up and said we were ready to go. Engineering tape was placed around the fire, attached to long wooden stakes marking the closest for anyone to come to the fire. He said it was okay to keep things going up to eleven and that the fire needed a full hour thereafter to burn down to smoldering cinders. At midnight a pumper truck would come by to finish extinguishing any fire left. As he left, Mr. Knight came by and dropped off two large trash barrels, telling me to make sure all trash was placed in them. He said the department would pick them up in the morning. I can tell you that the way these city employees treated us back then would be a real treat in today’s world. They were all superlative. Just like clockwork, the pumper truck came by and dowsed the smoldering embers and group of us finished policing the area which was minimal since everyone in attendance self-policed themselves and by half past twelve we were on our way home, tired but happy. The event was a good one and well attended, but that was to be expected, for our school’s opponents were the Hampton High School Crabbers, our arch rival from the neighboring city and the Turkey Day Classic had been going on for generations. My father even played against the Crabbers back in the early 1920’s and that game was a big deal then just like it was in 1964.
I had one nagging problem which I finally dealt with when I got home. In the process of building the bonfire I had gotten a splinter in my left thumb under the fingernail and couldn’t get it out. I was tired, however, and so I just went to bed. In the morning it wasn’t bothering me, so I went about the Thanksgiving Day as usual, attending church in the morning, having a light lunch and then I was off to the big game. It was a defensive struggle, probably rather boring for someone who wasn’t involved with the rivalry and as the final quarter started, there was still no score. In that final quarter, however, the Crabbers scored and missed the extra point. Our boys gave it their all but to no avail, and we went home losers in a six to nothing game. It was then, upon arrival home, that I began to feel pain in that left thumb and I noticed it was slightly swollen so I asked Mom, a former nurse who still kept her nursing bag stocked to look at it. She thought that soaking it in Epsom salts might soften things up so she could get to the splinter but, no, it didn’t work. By midnight it was starting to throb and swell with redness and we went to the emergency room. Most of the long-standing attending physicians were, of course, off duty and only available for call back, so I was seen by an intern. He told me he could get the splinter out but it would hurt, but I was at this point ready to try anything, so I told him to go. I guess he was trying to relieve the pressure from the swelling as he inserted a needle under the cuticle and all I remember was excruciating pain before I blacked. Mom thanked the intern and said she would get me to the doctor in the morning and we left.
Our home was only four blocks from Mary Immaculate Hospital where we had been seen and across the street was the office of doctor she knew, Dr. Greenspan. She called him at nine the next morning, Friday, and he told her to bring me to his office in an hour and he’d take care of things. He was right on time and Mom apologized for calling him on a holiday weekend but he looked at me and said he would have done the same thing. His nurse came in to help if needed and he checked out the situation and asked her to give me a local anesthetic. Five minutes later, he used surgical scissors to cut down into the nail and despite the anesthesia I yelled out in pain, using a couple of strong words that made him laugh but Mom, well, let’s just say she forgave me for she knew I was in pain. The infection literally exploded and the sever throbbing pain stopped almost immediately. The nurse dressed it, gave me instructions and asked if I needed a tetanus shot. Luckily, I had one only a year earlier so we were good to go home.
I remember when eating a leftover turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce that afternoon, Mom asked me a simple question. Simply put, she asked why I didn’t wear work gloves to handle the wood. I told her I guessed I was still just a dumb teenager and she just nodded yes and smiled. But she did make me pay her back for the medical treatment with a number of significant extra outdoor yard jobs that she wanted done. I learned a good lesson that weekend and I handled all those chores, just happy to be free of pain. And guess what else? To this day I still have an indentation in the tip of that thumb that will always remind me of that large wooden splinter from hell.