Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…
The first line from one of my favorite books—Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Oddly appropriate: a book that starts with a young, confused woman who flees everything she knows—and ends with a grand old building in flames.
My previous entry about this will eventually scroll. For when that happens, here are three pictures:
Fire destroys Bauxite High School
Attempts to save Bauxite High School building
Bauxite High School building in flames
Let me tell you what it was like to grow up in this place: Bauxite, currently population ~400. So named for the bauxite ore that was available in the area. It became a boom town in World War II. Bauxite, you may remember, is the ore from which aluminum is made—aluminum that was made into lightweight planes that helped win that war.
Miners were brought in and the economy swelled. Bauxite became a city that rivaled neighboring Benton—it had a movie theatre, a hospital, an enormous community center, and shops and businesses.
After World War II, the demand for aluminum continued. By this time, both Alcoa and Reynolds were firmly entrenched, scraping the bauxite ore out of the ground as fast as they could find it. Reynolds provided company housing to employees—simple, square white houses with a particular distinctive look that can still be identified today.
Then, in the 1960s, the ore began to run out. This was not an instantaneous process, but a slow death. First, the high-quality ore became scarce and then unavailable. Then the companies moved to refining lower-quality ore, until there was basically nothing left to mine. The yellow, porous heart of the town was gone, and operations shifted toward the refining of ore brought in from other places.
Bauxite then began its eeriest period—it melted back into the forest it had come from. The hospital that my mother was born in was torn down. As was the movie theatre. As was virtually everything else except the high school, the post office, and the community center.
The trees crept quietly back over what had been a bustling town. Many of the thousands of people who lived there began to move away. Those who stayed took it for granted that in the middle of the woods, you would sometimes encounter sidewalks that ran from nowhere to nowhere.
Reynolds shut down operations at the plant, and Alcoa began to lay off employees. As Little Rock and Benton continued to grow, the jobless were absorbed.
The ones who stayed with Bauxite were the ones with family and historical ties. As evidenced by the attendance at any football game, they were proud of this history—proud to have attended the same high school as their parents and grandparents, and they fully intended for their children and grandchildren to attend there as well.
Attendance at Bauxite High School was, for many of those kids with a sense of history, an introduction to their past. Because of the small class sizes, some unusual things were possible. Most unusual were the sidewalks. Since 1951 (I believe) every graduating class has built a sidewalk and stamped the name of every graduate into it.
It was a ritual, walking the sidewalks and finding your family.
- My mother: class of 1961, the length of a coin toss from the exit on what is (to you) the right-hand side of the burning building.
- My sister: class of 1986, on the diagonal sidewalk out front of the main building, on the right-hand side.
- My mother's siblings: all on the long unbroken sidewalk leading to the old gymnasium.
Me, I'm on the sidewalk near the science building, leading down to the football stadium.
The high school's team mascot was, of course, the Miner. The Bauxite Miners—symbolized by a growling, round-faced fellow with a shovel and a wicked-sharp pickaxe. In a town with no industry, few people, and much history, you cling to the symbols that remind you of greatness.
The Miners officially wore black and grey. But it could be black and white, or black and silver (which I think most people favored). The football stadium, which had been dug into a hill, was affectionately known as "The Pit." It, and the team it held, inspired fierce pride in a community that really didn't have much left to be proud about—for in the last twenty years of the 20th century, the Miners were a team that thoroughly dominated in football.
For many of those years, conference championships were assumed. The question was always if this year was going to finally be the year that the Miners got the state championship that had eluded them for so long. They did finally win one—in 1997 or 1998. I am ashamed to admit that I do not remember which. Shortly afterwards, I moved away; I do not know how well they've done in the past two years.
After the demise of the aluminum industry, football became the community touchstone. People returned for games; it was a family and social event to attend. You went to watch everyone who was there just as much as you attended to see the score of the game. The ex-players, many now fathers and grandfathers of sons playing on the team, would walk back and forth along the fence closest to the field—better to see the action that way. They would chew tobacco and swap stories about when they were the young invincible ones out on the field, battling the same familiar foes their sons faced now.
It was history.
It was continuity—
—and every bit of it was done in the shadow of that pale-brick, 1930s-style building that was, frankly, ugly as hell. But you grew up there. It had your memories and your heart. It was a place you took for granted, as you took for granted the history that it had swathed itself with. Love it or hate it—and I certainly did plenty of both—it was the focal point of a community that had chosen, instead of vanishing, to stick together.
Some things cannot be truly replaced. This is, I suspect, one of them. We are seeing, for one community, the end of an era.