TBT: “The Day Joe Kidd Ran My Pants Up The Flagpole”

[Editor’s Note: The writer, in 1988 a school trustee in Virginia, was the second of five in his family to attend St. Luke’s School. This essay appeared in the Alumni Bulletin of that year.]

Does anyone today use the term “Puckish tendencies”? Or has Puck, the impish troublemaker of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” gone the way of the St. Luke’s DeSoto?

Those of us from the DeSoto era, when the school’s transportation needs were met by a fleet of lumbering Chrysler Corporation limos now long extinct, remember a school where boys were boys and girls were a subject of abstract, foreign study, like Tibet.

SLS as it stood in late 1940s and early '50s, when Mr. Plotnick was a student.

SLS as it stood in late 1940s and early ’50s, when Mr. Plotnick was a student.

In the DeSoto days we could speak of “boyish pranks” around SLS without concern over gender for there was no other gender to commit them. Some of us felt that a tragic omission. It caused us to depart St. Luke’ s prematurely. But like graduates, we left with fond memories.

One of mine includes the day a report card arrived expressing concern over my “Puckish tendencies.” A little research discovered who Puck was but no research was needed to know what caused that comment. It was born the day my pants flew over St. Luke’s.

Perhaps it’s time to tell that story.

There are two approaches to pranks, an amusing one and the usual one. Everyone prefers a fun prankster but few have the charm to carry off pranks gracefully. That distinction is lost on a young twit.

Being a flagrant prankster I was linked to every caper that might be attributed to a St. Luke’s middle-schooler. A devotee of the principles of founder and headmaster Dr. Joseph Robinson Kidd, I was quick to confess my pranks and quick to deny credit when it wasn’t due. No matter. If I wasn’t the perpetrator, Dr. Kidd knew I was the instigator or at least someone’s misbegotten role model. Everyone, after all, has admirers. Even the good Doctor admitted I added something to the school, though he wished I added a little less.

But that was not on his mind one breezy Friday in Spring when the school was enjoying lunch al fresco. Friday was always sandwich day and on nice Fridays, the sandwiches were served from tables moved out-of-doors for the purpose. This particular Friday Dr. Kidd carried his egg salad on white to the bottom step of the fire escape where, surrounded by upper school boys, he sat and chatted, resting his head against the railing. I sat on the landing a flight above and behind him, munching and wondering what girls were.

Lost in thought, I tapped my knee against the metal railing that stretched unbroken between my perch and where the head of the master rested. The language of physics can explain why the twanging vibrations increased as they traveled down that railing from my knee to his head but it isn’t necessary. Rely on it that my gentle tap bounced his head with vigor. He politely suggested I cease.

Awakened, I saw the chance to indulge “Puckish tendencies.” Dr. Kidd recognized this when, after a few seconds repose, his head was twanged again. He turned and stared. “Stop that,” he said “Now!”

I paused. “But this is funny,” I thought, “Why stop?” With the smugness of a born twit I awaited the return of his head to the railing. I was not disappointed, nor was Dr. Kidd. Twang!

This time everyone around Dr. Kidd glared along with him. In the quiet his command carried real force. “De-pants him!” A second call was not needed, curiously.

A group of boys all dismayingly large began a leap up the steps. I rushed for the fire door which had no handle on the outside. In a flash I was separated from my sturdy corduroys and left to defend my skivvies against those who would seek too much of a good thing. Dr. Kidd, fortunately, was not among them. He called a diverting powwow to ponder what to do with the unoccupied trousers.

For a man who never wore his patriotism on his sleeve he surprised us all with the suggestion, “Run them up the flagpole.”

It was probably inspiring to see these kids dash off to obey their headmaster, but a schoolboy embarrassed is not a reliable judge of that. There may be some among you who long to see your pants aloft but be assured, one must be properly draped to appreciate the vista. I slipped into the dining room in search of cover and emerged on the front porch wrapped in a curtain.

After 35 years I still see this clearly. Off the edge of the porch was our flag pole, now bent in a graceful arc. At the top, stiff in the wind, a pair of brown corduroys pointed the way to Weston. And the size of the gathered crowd was awesome for nearly all of St. Luke’s was there. I withered, shriveled, looked around for a hiding place. There was none. “Hey, get the curtain,” someone shouted.

No one did. Perhaps a trembling boy elicits compassion. Perhaps “Lord of the Flies” couldn’t happen at St. Luke’s. Whatever, the curtain stayed.

We all remained there at parade rest for at least a week. Then, in a robotic deus ex machina, the bell rang ending lunch. “Take ’em down,” the founder said. A hand took the halyard and began to haul.

“Snap.” It’s a sound I won’t forget. Like the crack you hear the first time your nose breaks or the rumble of your first earthquake, some sounds echo forever. The cotton rope had parted below the pants and what should have been an endless loop was now a dangling clothesline, one end flapping in the wind and the other jammed in the pulley atop the pole. What went up could no longer come down.

On a boat when a halyard parts the crew acts quickly. And so it was here. A boy from Darien with a pompadour volunteered to shinny up that slim, bent and straining pole. Suddenly we all knew what it was like to be a headmaster with a dilemma. Do you let Bobby Capen go and risk a broken pole and a broken neck? Or do you stop him and face–perhaps for months–brown corduroys showing the way to Weston? Capen didn’t wait.

Lithe and strong, he climbed. Hand over hand he held us all spellbound. When he reached the point where his weight added to the bend, no one breathed. Dr. Kidd probably prayed. The pole swayed, bent a bit more, and held.

At last at the top Capen grasped the trousers and yanked. The rope slid through the pulley and brown corduroys sailed down into the itchy evergreens, taking the halyard with it since no one remembered to hold the loose end.

Someone untied the pants and threw them up to the porch. Capen, entranced by the view of a nearby dam, had to be reminded to come down by a relieved Dr. Kidd. And I was told to hang the curtain back in the dining room.

At my daughter’s school where I’m a trustee we don’t have a flagpole. High time we did. Damn few of these Virginians know the way to Weston.

— Barry Plotnick ’55, Contributing Writer

Posted by on October 11, 2013. Filed under School News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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