By Fred A. Reed
One of an occasional series of Scenes from a Southern California Boyhood.
The William McKinley Junior High-school marching band only marched
when the home team was playing. In wavering ranks it took the field before the game, and then once more at halftime to boost the morale of players and student body. The only music it played was (of course) the U.S. National Anthem and ‘On McKinley’, the fight song that should have inspired our team but most often failed to do so.
This I know because I played clarinet in that band. One of the trumpet players was my pal Eddie Acebo. Eddie was a lovable guy who had the unique ability to extinguish a lighted match by blowing through his eyes. This he proved during a recess from confirmation classes at Saint-Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church. What he could do was far more amazing to us than the miracles we were summoned to learn by the Church.
Our bass drummer was a senior whom we knew simply as Bobby. As everybody knows, or should know, the bass drum is a marching band’s backbone. Without its steady booming, upping the cadence during the roll out that told us to bring our instruments to our mouths and begin blasting and squawking away, there would be no discipline, no marching, no band in fact.
McKinley was a racially integrated school, and reflected the rough neighbourhood where it was located. Whites—some of them barely above the poverty line—Chicanos like my friend Eddie, and Blacks (“Negros” as we called them then). There was also a scattering of sensitive pseudo-intellectuals and upwardly mobile would-be professionals from the Western all-white suburbs on the other side of the Arroyo Seco. Just over the western hills lay the suburb of Glendale, whose claim to fame was its ‘sundown law’ signifying to Black people that they should not be found within the city limits after sunset.
Our family lived in an island of middle class aspiration, far from the Black families that had come north during the Great Migration of the 1940s. Our bass drummer would have been the son of one of those families.
Early that season, something happened that radically and forever changed my perception of him. And, looking back, would alter my perception of life in mysterious ways.
I still remember the day.
It was very hot, as Southern California could be in the fall; perfect running weather. At the head of the straightaway crouched a sprinter. One hundred yards down the track I was standing beside the coach, who was holding a stopwatch in one hand, a starting pistol in the other. What I was doing there, then, now escapes me.
Came the crack of the pistol and the runner burst from the starting blocks. I see him as clearly now as I did then, sixty-five years ago. Erect posture, leaning slightly back, with high knee action. Down the track he came, bare-chested, wearing only his maroon coloured gym shorts and his spikes.
I recognized him. It was Bobby, our band’s bass drummer.
Before I could fully process my thoughts, the runner crossed the finish line as the coach clicked his watch and glanced down at it. Wiping his brow, he took a second, longer look.
“What is it, coach?” I asked him.
“There’s nothing I can teach this kid,” he said, shaking his head.
“So, what was his time?”
The current world record for 100 yards was then 9.3 seconds. A junior high-school athlete in Pasadena, who would have been sixteen at the time, had just come within whispering distance of that record. Now, the coach’s thumb may have been quick to stop the watch. Those were the days before sprints were timed in hundredths of a second.
I looked again. Yep, it was Bobby. Soon I learned that his last name was Poynter.
Robert Poynter: the great Robert Poynter, I hasten to add in awe-filled recollection.
Bobby graduated from McKinley that year but from that moment on I followed his career with keenest devotion. When in my life as a slow and clumsy non-athlete, a white-boy non-entity, was I ever likely again to encounter someone of his class, his natural ability, and his grace?
I never did.
But I followed his career devotedly, and went out of my way to see him run. Next year he ran for Pasadena High School. His specialty was the anchor leg on the four times 220-yard relay as well as the sprints.
The occasion was a multi-team meet, and not at his home track. The Pasadena relay team was behind—far behind—at the final exchange. Poynter took the baton, transferred it from left to right hand and, in that unique stride of his set out to overtake the leaders.
Effortlessly he caught them after 100 yards. They were running three abreast, blocking the track. Was it on purpose? Not a doubt; they knew he was coming. Defeat had overtaken them. The best they could have done would be to slow him down.
Instead of going around them, which he could easily have done, Poynter broke through their ephemeral wall. They stumbled and scattered, and without missing a stride he surged on to win. The crowd gasped then erupted in wild cheering.
It was the greatest run I ever witnessed. Of course he was disqualified. But somehow none of that mattered. His boldness and his brashness would not soon be equalled.
Southern California was an incubator of athletic talent. Fast men came and went. Bobby was different. He went on to become a member of the United States national team, touring, competing against fierce competition, losing occasionally, winning often.
He had the unique ability of bringing out the best in whoever ran with him. You wanted him to run anchor on your relay team. Whatever kind of relay it might have been.
That was the era before sprinter-weight lifters and fast and furious frauds like Ben Johnson, who “won” for Canada at Seoul and when it was discovered that he was on dope, was demoted to “Jamaican.”
Bobby Poynter gave back to sport not a reputation tarnished by moral equivocation, but more than he gained: an aura of dignity. Sprinters he coached and trained went on to victory, record times, and—I’d like to think and I don’t think I’m wrong—a sense of the integrity that he radiated.