In 1955, in response to a growing (booming!) student population, Yakima’s Hoover Elementary added a shiny new classroom addition, separate from the main building. There was no longer enough room to hold all of us tykes. Because work on the new addition hadn’t been completed, we beginning first graders, who were destined to occupy the new rooms, spent our first week attending class in the Hoover auditorium. (I imagine there was a lot of adult hand-wringing going on, which we were unaware of. – Wonder what the holdup was?)
Regardless, since we students were all assigned to the big, multi-purpose room, we became pretty well-acquainted. Attending school was very new to us, and rather daunting. But, at least we were in it together. — One big group. (Hardly anyone went to kindergarten back then. In fact, my friends and I felt sorry for anyone who did.)
At the start of our second week of school, we moved into the new addition, where we were divided into four classes. One was taught by Mrs. Jordan, an extremely kind, patient woman. Another was taught by Mrs. McCracken, whom I knew a little, because she and her husband, who also taught at Hoover, attended the church where my Daddy, Al Bowles, Jr. preached: Lower Naches Congregational Church, currently known as Lower Naches Memorial Bible Church. The third teacher was Miss Carter; and the fourth? It’s been so long, I can’t recall his or her name.
I remember this: Billy Burrell and David Utzler were the smallest boys in the first grade; and yet they were the leaders of our first grade gangs. Billy and I were in Mrs. Jordan’s class; David Utzler was in Mrs. McCracken’s class. And I was in Billy Burrell’s gang!
Having been plopped down in different classrooms, we boys just naturally became at odds with each other. That can happen. We’d meet on the Hoover playfield and mainly, voice threats at each other. I think we played games, like kicking a piece of wood around on the grass, a la soccer, rather than hitting each other with sticks, which to be honest, is what some of us wanted to do. The games were a substitute for true violence.
Billy Burrell was very charismatic — cut out to lead our gang. He rolled up the cuffs of his Levis, just like the teenaged hoodlums in those gang movies did. He had a James Dean hairstyle by time he hit third grade. Heck, in fourth grade, when we were nine years old, I remember being in the bathroom with Billy and some other boys on February 3, 1959, when Billy informed us that, one day earlier, Buddy Holly’s plane had gone down in Iowa, with the Big Bopper and Richie Valens on board (yes: “the day the music died”). Billy was very upset. See, he was already a hard core rocker. Most of us fourth graders didn’t even know who those early rockers were. We were still listening to Patty Page and Burl Ives, who recorded “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” and “Little White Duck”. But Billy was way ahead of us. He knew exactly who the three were. And he was blown away. — Although no one called it that, then. Yep, he was blown away.
But back to our first grade gang: I imagine our “gang warfare” lasted only a couple of weeks or so. And, I don’t recall if anything violent actually took place – I don’t remember if any boy got, say, a cut lip, or a scratch. Or if someone vocalized a threat that was taken just a little too seriously. Perhaps our principal, Mrs. Caula Whitley, heard a couple of six year olds talking smack during recess. But I remember what happened next….
One early-fall morning, after calling the class into session, Mrs. Jordan made an announcement. She said, “I hear there has been some gang activity taking place out on the playground”. Several kids looked surprised; some did not. Next, Mrs. Jordan gave this command: “Everyone who is in Billy Burrell’s gang, come up to the front of the room”. Some of the tougher boys got up from their desks and swaggered up to the front of the room, where they stood with their thumbs in their belt loops, or with their hands in their back pockets, looking out the window, up at the ceiling — chewing gum.
Well, I, the Preacher’s Kid, rose from my desk, and I joined them. Several children, both boys and girls, but mainly girls, gasped and spoke up, saying, “Randy, you aren’t in Billy’s gang!” And I had to say, “Yes I am”, as I hung my head in shame. I felt the glare of the overhead lights. The room seemed to be getting warmer, real fast. I felt the palms of my little six-year-old hands getting sweaty. I wondered what was next. What kind of punishment would Mrs. Jordan have for us? Was she going to cut a switch from a tree, like my Mom, who was raised in Tennessee did? Or would she use the belt, like my Daddy would do when he got really mad?
Well, Mrs. Jordan, being the wise, kind lady she was, basically just told us to knock it off. Stop it, now. She said, “Just because we’re in separate rooms now does not mean we aren’t one big first grade class. This is not the way we act around here. So quit. Now, you boys take your seats”.
And that was it. We took our seats and proceeded with the day’s lessons. When the bell rang, we went outside for recess. It was immediately apparent that Mrs. McCracken had done her part; she had rebuked the David Utzler Gang. Because his boys weren’t hurling their usual insults at us. It seemed strange. There was a kind of awkward silence…. It was finally broken when one of my pals said, “Hey, everyone, I brought a football. Wanna throw it around?”
After that, the worst infraction any kid was guilty of was “running on the breezeway”. For that was every teacher’s mantra: “No running on the breezeway!”
When we advanced to the second grade, classroom assignments were handed out, and several of us former Billy Burrell Gang members found ourselves cast in the new role of classmates with former members of David Utzler’s gang. So that would have broken up the gangs, anyway. The second grade photo, below, featuring our teacher, the lovely Miss Young (who could really play the autoharp), shows Billy Burrell and David Utzler, sitting quite peacefully, with only one boy, “Mike”, separating them. The truce had lasted.
The only thing I remember about David Utzler, besides his diminutive height, was his sister’s name: Georgie. But then, I always did have an eye for the girls.
It is rumored that Billy Idol took his persona, and first name, from Billy Burrell. – OK, I made that up.
Here is a great song for listening to while reading this story:
My thanks to Randy Nelson, alumnus of Mrs. McCracken’s first grade class, and a former member of the David Utzler Gang. He remembered David Utzler’s name for me, plus another detail or two. The truce has lasted.