Bright School is having its annual picnic this Friday at Cross Creek Farms in Ringgold, where the gathering has been held since 2008.
The Bright School picnic is actually one of the oldest Chattanooga scholastic traditions, as it has been around for decades. The nearly 100-year-old school first held the fun springtime gatherings early in its history at Jackson Park, which later became part of National Cemetery, before moving them to Warner Park sometime during the World War II era.
They would remain at Warner Park through 2007, and that is where I attended them every May from 1965 to 1972 as a Bright student. Although the picnics took place at an early period in my life, or maybe because of that fact, I still have very rich and sentimental memories of them.
But when they were held, I experienced other emotions, from nervous anticipation to pure childhood enjoyment over having fun.
The nervousness was related to the fact that the picnics always began with races in the morning. They would include dashes of about 25 or 50 yards depending on one’s grade, and would end with such less serious, two-person contests as the wheelbarrow and three-legged races, as well as the individual cart-wheeling and jump-roping competitions.
If memory serves me correctly from that early age, I did not do very well in the dash race that first year in kindergarten. But better days lay ahead, I would soon learn.
Because I had a September birthday and was considered young for my age and had struggled somewhat that first year in schoolwork – and apparently athletics – my parents, Wayne and Velma Shearer, and perhaps Bright thought it might be better if I repeated kindergarten.
So I guess you could say I was redshirted! It ended up apparently helping my performance in the Bright School dash race, as I managed to win it among my class members every year from kindergarten through sixth grade. It was certainly a thrill, but I remember always feeling a little pressure before the race each year.
But afterward, I felt a lot of relief and pleasure at the accomplishment. I also did not realize at the time how difficult and elusive finishing first in anything is for anybody just one time and certainly would be for me for the next 40 years of my life in a variety of endeavors.
After the dashes, I would then enter the less serious races and would not care in the least how I did. I remember entering the wheelbarrow race one time with Herndon Elliott – I believe – and I think we may have messed up and fallen way short of the finish line. But we managed to have a good laugh about it.
The races were held in the area where the Frost softball stadium sits today, I think, and then we would enjoy lunch on the adjacent field on the eastern side. Lunch included chicken and sandwiches, including cream cheese and olive, as well as cake desserts, some of which were made by the parents.
But the children often gravitated toward the ice cream and Popsicle-like desserts, if for no other reason than that we were infatuated with the dry ice school officials would use to keep the treats frozen for a few hours without electricity. Needless to say, we all had to touch the dry ice and feel the temporary frost-burn sensation.
I am sure we ate as quickly as we could so that we could enjoy the other pleasures that Warner Park had at that time – from amusement park rides to arcade halls. I am not sure if these offerings were there because of the then-popular Interstate Fair that took place every year in the fall, or if the city simply wanted to offer adequate recreation for its citizens, but we totally enjoyed it.
I think the park had only about three or four rides in the direction of the Warner Park Fieldhouse, but I found adequate pleasure in the swing ride, which went around in circles while the rider was latched into what looked like a flexible playground swing. I remember always wanting to ride the swings three or four times at the picnic.
A small train also existed, and for several years a big topic of conversation at the school before the picnic was that the students were not to jump off of the slow-moving passenger cars while they were in motion.
Well, guess what? The first action the students would usually take once the train started moving was to jump off it, run alongside it for a few feet and then jump back on board. Fortunately, the train was not moving fast enough to create any danger – or at least that was the perspective we as students had.
We would also wander into one or two of the arcade buildings on the east side of the pool. I believe prizes or perhaps gifts, including gag ones, could be bought. Invariably, some unsuspecting younger child would become excited about being given a piece of gum by another student, only to realize it was the trick gum that tasted like pepper.
The day would end with a baseball game between the fifth- and sixth-grade boys. When I was only in about the first or second grades, I much preferred riding the rides and not really watching a whole lot of the game.
But by the time I was in fifth and sixth grades and was playing in the game, it became as important as the World Series. Occasionally, the fifth-graders would win, but not very often. I think during my two years, the older grade won each time.
Now I understand that the school has a softball game the day before the picnic.
The picnic was always held on Friday – usually in early May, I think – so on each following Monday in the school auditorium, the winners of the races would get called up to the stage to receive simple blue ribbons that would be pinned on shirts or dresses, while the runners-up would receive red ones.
I graduated from Bright in 1972 and hardly ventured over to Warner Park after that. I did learn years later that the Warner Park amusement rides were removed not long afterward by city officials in what was considered a controversial cost-cutting move.
My nephew, Logan Julian, later went to Bright in the 1990s, and I was fortunate to be able to attend some of the picnics when he was there.
Warner Park had changed somewhat by then. The picnic had changed oh-so-slightly as well, including in the fact that the boys’ baseball game had changed with the times into a coed softball game, and not everyone entered the dash races anymore. Also, that generation did not have a small amusement park to enjoy.
But much about the picnic still seemed so similar that it brought back a flood of great memories.
Those rich memories remain after all these years and always seem to come to the forefront this time of year or whenever I visit Warner Park.