The phone must have rung five or six times before I realized that it was not part of a dream. It was July 18, 1975, a lazy summer night and I was in deep slumber. I turned on the light and looked at the clock. Calls at 3 AM are never for the purpose of conveying good news. I picked it up and offered an apprehensive, "hello?".
"The old school is on fire!" my brother Johnny exclaimed on the other end. A knot formed in the pit of my stomach.
"I'm on my way," I told him as I hung up the phone and hurriedly got dressed. Johnny was a volunteer fireman and I was a member of the Toombs County Civil Defense team. I often assisted with these firefighting efforts. They normally brought on an adrenalin rush and were very exciting, but this was different. This had hit home. This was not going to be fun. I grew up a little as I realized the true tragedy of fire when you are one of its victims. Everyone who had attended LHS would be victims if the school burned. I was out the door in a matter of seconds with a determined purpose.
When I arrived, there already were three fire trucks and volunteers scrambling to put more water on the blazing building. The fire had just made it to the Auditorium and pressure was building inside the old scene of so many of my high school days. Johnny and several other firemen were headed up the steps when someone yelled, "It's gonna blow!"
The explosion was almost immediate. The pressure from the trapped hot gases inside the large Auditorium had exceeded the capacity of the windows to hold it. Glass flew all out over the parking lot covering Johnny and the others holding the hose. Yellow flames licked out of the great front doors and ominous black smoke poured out of the opening. Involuntarily I uttered, "Oh my God!" and I begin to cry as I brought my hose to bear on the rolling flames coming from the great doors through which I had so many times passed.
Virginia Yarbrough, who lived on Washington Avenue, would later tell her son Billy that it looked as if the sky was on fire. It was. Our past was burning before our eyes.
I knew the old beloved building was lost. We could do little more than contain the flames and keep them from spreading to the Methodist Church nearby. The battle to save LHS from total destruction was lost before the firemen had arrived on the scene, but their efforts were valiant nonetheless. It was their school .... they had to try with all that was in them.
I was in a daze, as was everyone else when the fire was controlled. The firemen, policemen and spectators stood staring at the disaster in disbelief. Most had gone to school in what was now nothing but smoking ruins before them. Memories came flowing unchecked of the good times spent there. The breezeway where students gathered at recess amazingly stood virtually unharmed, as if still awaiting the rush of students hurrying to their next class. The entrance to the canteen where we had spent almost every nickel of our allowance on cokes and crackers was now obscured by fallen bricks and debris. The open area where students mingled with each other, complained about schoolwork and gossiped about who was seeing who, where cheerleaders had pumped everyone into a frenzy before an important ball game, where so many friends were made, now was littered with charred wood, fallen chimneys as in the aftermath of an aerial bombardment.
It was beyond belief. How could this happen? To our school?
As if symbolic of the spirit of the many graduates that had warmed themselves from its fires while learning those skills necessary to achieve success in a tough world, a chimney stood gallantly amidst the ruins. The spectators struggled to find some meaning to this tragedy. Johnny and I walked among the ruins looking at the remains of desks, filing cabinets, papers, books, chalkboards and other tools of learning. It was such a waste.
Gail Myers, Class of '69, had been teaching at the school for two years. She was nearby when the fire broke out. It was then known as Lyons Junior High School. She took these photos of the still smoldering ruins.
"A tragic view of the old auditorium that held so many pep rallies, recitals, graduations, community events ...", she wrote when sending me these photographs. In the smoke above you can see the erect reinforcements of the south wall of the auditorium, still standing proudly after the inferno's wrath had subsided. How many wonderful things those walls had witnessed. What a terrible scene lay crumbled before them now.
It is sad when a building that has meant so much to so many is destroyed, leaving only our memories of it. "Love glorifies the object of its desire," said Edgar Rice Burroughs. LHS was not particularly majestic or distinguished in its architecture. It was not unlike thousands of schools all across this nation, but it was glorious to those of us who attended school there and loved it.
My thanks to Gail for supplying these pictures. They evoke so much. They sadden me to this day. All that is now left of dear old LHS is contained in all of our hearts, there to remain till the end of our days......
Larry Griggers, Class of '66