by Linda Stewart, 23 July 2019
On November 14, 1963, the rivalry between R. L. Paschal High School and Arlington Heights High turned not-so-friendly. Dozens of students were arrested in a day-long struggle that involved a large bonfire, flaming mattresses lashed to an old car, an airplane loaded with toilet-paper bombs, and alligators kidnapped from the Fort Worth Zoo and set loose at school.
“High School Youths Clash in Near Riot,” read the lead headline in the Star-Telegram the next day. The melee included an estimated 500 students, 40 lawmen and four fire trucks with water cannons. Police arrested 46 students and seized shotguns, knives, baseball bats, ax handles, clubs, chains fashioned into whips, and Molotov cocktails. Those arrested were released to their parents, according to news reports.
It made headlines across the country. The toilet paper bombing run, in particular, made an impression at the White House. Speaking in Fort Worth just hours before his assassination, President Kennedy was reported as having asked someone if they were from the “school with its own air force.”
Cliff Barnhart, now a psychiatrist, said the longtime rivalry between Paschal and Arlington Heights often turned weird as their homecoming football game neared, but in 1963, it got really wild. Some Paschal students kidnapped an alligator from the zoo and set it loose at Heights. The story goes that students at Heights responded by snatching another gator and setting it free in the atrium at Paschal.
The bonfire, however, was where everything broke loose. The students at Heights traditionally built a bonfire on the shores of Lake Benbrook as part of their homecoming celebration, and the students at Paschal traditionally tried to burn it down early. “We were always looking for new and novel ways to sneak over and burn down the bonfire,” Barnhart said.
Two Paschal students who had pilots’ licenses buzzed the bonfire and bombed it with purple and white toilet paper. Some say the toilet paper was burning when it was dropped, although it failed to set anything on fire. Barnhart said that left destruction of the bonfire to a 350-pound student or former student who had a grand scheme to ram it with a car covered with flaming mattresses. Barnhart said the guy — John Hall, location unknown — bought an old 1948 sedan clunker at a used-car lot on Jacksboro Highway with money donated by fellow students. Some put the car’s sticker price at $35. To the front of the car, students lashed several old mattresses doused with gasoline and set ablaze. “John, all 350 pounds of him, was to leap out before crashing into the bonfire,” Barnhart said.
Authorities, however, got wind of the plan and were out in force. A fire unit headed off the ramming attempt, and the car with flaming mattresses was sidetracked and got stuck in mud. Reports at the time said hordes of Paschal students on foot tried repeatedly to storm the bonfire. “They looked like the bunch of Indians you see coming over the hill in practically every Western movie,” Tarrant County Fire Marshal Mason Lankford had said. The students were dispersed after about two hours, and Heights touched off the bonfire on schedule.
The following day, Paschal Principal Charles M. Berry told the Star-Telegram that some of those arrested were just “driving around.” He told students over the public-address system: “This does not help us win the sportsmanship award.”
Extra police were called in the next night for the big game at Farrington Field, but there was no hint of trouble in the crowd of 11,000-plus. Paschal stomped Heights, 20-0.
John Tucker said that even with reports of guns and other weapons, it was never as violent as the reports suggested. “It was just crazy, fun times,” said Tucker, who was arrested but released without being charged. “It is a wonder that no one was hurt, but, boy, what a great time and story.” Only one injury, when wrecker driver Junior Slayton, 33, was grazed by buckshot while towing away a student’s car. Charles Davidson wrote on the Paschal reunion Web site. “It has to be one of the great folklore’s of Fort Worth.”
In 2013, a year of 50th anniversaries, Paschal’s band will commemorate one of Texas’ most notorious school pranks on Saturday when it marches to South Hulen Street to meet the Heights band and play together for a special neighborhood concert on the morning of their 91-year-old football-rivalry game. Paschal band boosters decided to remember the prank-gone-wild and Kennedy’s good-natured joke. They are selling “Air Force” T-shirts with the message “Paschal Soars.”
“The students are amazed at how times have changed and what was considered fun back then,” said band director Bryan Wright, son of a graduate from that class. “It’s funny to retell, and it’s part of a tradition, but the students today wouldn’t want to do anything like that.” It’s also something of a mystery. Nobody involved has ever given an interview.
By that Sunday, the Star-Telegram devoted two page-length columns to editorial commentary and letters about “The Heights-Paschal Affair.” In November 1963, it was the talk of Fort Worth.
Sources: http://www.paschalclassof70.com/HeightsBitesPaschalSoars.html,(excerpted from Star-Telegram story by Paul Bourgeois)
https://www.star-telegram.com/news/special-reports/jfk/article3835890.html, “50 years ago, Paschal flew into history, with a high school prank gone wild” – by Bud Kennedy – Sept. 5, 2013