Saying goodbye to ‘the’ gym


Word came from back home this week that the old high school gym in my hometown was being torn down to make room for a new junior high basketball and wrestling facility.

Although “only” 65 years old, the gym has had some minor structural issues over the years and more importantly, it has never been fully ADA compliant. The cost to make it so would have been astronomical.

Fortunately for the local school district, Google opened a multimillion dollar data facility just outside of town in 2011 and in the years since, the tech giant has invested more than $3 billion (with a ‘B’) into the facility to create one of the largest ‘server farms’ in the entire world.

While other rural Oklahoma school districts have struggled to keep the lights on, Pryor Schools has been flush with cash – so much that when educators in the Sooner State went on strike a couple of years ago to protest low teacher salaries, Pryor’s superintendent allowed his teachers to go march at the state capitol out of respect for their struggling peers.

Needless to say, with a pocketful of Google money, the school district has been on a steady schedule of new construction.

The gym, located near the community’s downtown and adjacent to the middle school, was originally built as the high school gym, but when the school suspiciously burned to the ground in 1969, a new high school was built south of town and a junior high was built in its place. The gym remained and the high school teams continued to play there until 2002 when a shiny new gym was built south of town by the ‘new’ high school.

Without a real auditorium to speak of, the old gym was not only home to countless high school, junior high, and elementary basketball games, but it also served as the town’s quasi performing arts center.

My oldest sister, Donna, graduated from high school there when rain cancelled the traditional outdoor ceremony always held at the football field.

When I was in grade school, the gym was home to the district’s annual ‘Spring Festival,’ a choral review of sorts where students from the town’s four elementary schools would come together to sing and dance to choreographed songs like “Oh Susanna” and “Camptown Races. ”

One year, I wore red, white, and blue and danced a patriotic-themed square dance performed to George M. Cohan’s classic tune, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

Throughout junior high, the gym was home to every one of my winter band concerts  and every one of my spring concerts – each and every one of which ended with an all-band performance of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

I played basketball there in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades.  Most of my friends took their P.E. classes in that gym, although I never did because basketball counted as my P.E. credit.

By the time I was a sophomore, I realized I had no business playing organized basketball so instead, my pals and I dressed in black and painted our faces blue and gold as the self-proclaimed “Riot Squad.”

It was from my vantage point in the stands nearly 30 years ago that I watched 7-foot-one-inch tall Bryant “Big Country” Reeves roll into town with his team from Gans.

Years later, Reeves would recall that trip to Pryor as one of the toughest games of his entire career, thanks to the opposing team – and its fans - beating him up the entire game.

Unfortunately, not all of the memories were quite as golden.

When I was in high school, my first job was working as a janitor for the school district and in addition to having to sweep up mountains of spilled popcorn and mop sticky puddles of soda after home basketball games, we were given the task once or twice a year to “de-gum” the gym.

That’s right. Armed with a paint scraper and a five-gallon bucket, we were dispatched row-by-row to scrape off the hardened gum from underneath the seats.

A rite of passage for new members of the student janitorial crew was to crawl - Army style – along the floor underneath the press box where seemingly everyone threw their half-eaten suckers onto the floor. The poor kids would come out the other side with three-dozen, suckers stuck to their clothes and looked like they had just done a tour in the trenches at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

After I was married – but before I had children of my own – I served as a volunteer coach for the local Optimist basketball league and spent most Saturday mornings in the fall trying to coach young men on the finer points of losing gracefully.

During the course of the first 25 or so years of my life, I spent more time in that gymnasium than just about anywhere, except for maybe the local Methodist church. My mother made sure I was there an awful lot, too.

Now that I think about it, I probably spent about as much time praying in the old gym as I did at church.

I prayed for my sister’s graduation to be over so I could go play with my Star War toys.

I prayed not to trip while skipping into the Spring Festival while singing “Oh Susanna.”

I prayed I would make that free throw shot.

I prayed for those Pryor Tigers to pull off another victory and then I prayed for the post-game trash to be minimal.

And most of all, I prayed those young boys I coached would grow up to understand that winning truly isn’t everything.

I don’t recall the last time I was in that old gymnasium but it has to have been at least 20 years or more.

But despite all that time – and miles – separating our last encounter, my memories remain as fresh as my favorite pair of Chuck Taylors.

Memories are like that sometimes.

And for that, I’m grateful.

Gustafson is the not-so-mild-mannered editor and publisher of The Pine Belt NEWS.