Chasing The Phantom Screamer

By Dan Conaway

LOUD MEMORIES REMAIN. Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy emailed the other day and reminded me of the Phantom Screamer.

The Screamer never caught the game-winning touchdown pass. He didn’t hit a walk-off home run or a fade-away jumper at the buzzer, or go on to do something that might, literally, save the world like his remarkably seedy classmate, Dr. Cary Fowler.

He did, however, receive the only lick that Dorothy McGinnis would ever give in her long career as guidance counselor for White Station High School.

He could connect perfect smoke rings to form a chain. He could bring a Zippo to life in a 40-mile-an-hour windstorm on a golf course. He could make a two-rail bank shot. But others could do those things.

He was the only miscreant to be paddled on the auditorium stage in front of the entire fourth period study hall by five faculty members who gladly stood in line to do it. Since such recognition is no longer awarded, the record will stand.

He was brought to that defining moment by virtue of a random thought while passing the auditorium backstage door, he at lunch, the fourth period study hall assembled in front of the closed curtains.

He stepped into the dark space, turned over a large ladder, and let loose the loudest, most maniacal laugh he could muster. The study hall was impressed. Coach Collins – master of the assembly – was not. He sprinted through the curtains in a burst of speed not seen since his days as a Mississippi State scat back. Only the echo and a fallen ladder remained. The Screamer was gone.

The next day he did it again.

Over the next few weeks, he would do it over and over, randomly striking in no discernable pattern. If someone was posted backstage, he would do it from the lobby. If both were covered, he would roll a trashcan through a side door.

On this day, the day, he saw no one in the lobby. The backstage door window revealed nothing, no one. He stepped in, picked up a metal chair, held it high above his head – and stared directly into the badass eyes of Kin Floyd. football coach. Author of Jo-Jo’s nickname. Executioner. “You all mine, hot rocks,” Floyd said.

The Screamer dropped the chair, turned and walked directly to the smoking tree for his last cigarette. A Floyd lackey appeared and invited him to join the coach, and a host of others, in the auditorium for a command performance.

Waiting were the five, the five who had spent weeks trying to catch the Screamer, and the curtains opened on a different kind of chorus line. One lick each from Mrs. McGinnis (ladies first), the principal, the assistant principal, Floyd and Collins.

You might say I was a big hit.

Our class has its 45th reunion next week, and Jo-Jo – now a highly respected Houston attorney complete with distinguished graying temples – and I will be there.

I’m a Memphian, and some things leave a lasting impression.

Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at dan@wakesomebodyup.com.