by Dean Tidwell

It was a warm early summer night, in 1952, with no wind and only the light from a quarter moon. It was the kind of night teenagers like to prowl around in and do those intelligent things they do, like going window-peeking, or siphoning gasoline from the car of the parents of a girlfriend, or make an unending number of trips to the Park 'N Eat on south Atkinson. If you were looking for someone from school and you knew they weren't in church, you went to the Park 'N Eat and, wonder of wonders, there they would be!

In those bygone times we never heard of people getting arrested on drug charges, or gang fights, or school kids using guns. In fact, if anyone was using drugs, they probably lived in California. If there was a gang fight, it surely was a function of two groups in a prison somewhere. And drive by shootings had not yet been invented. Of course, all of these things became very common place when America and its youth became better educated and grew more "sophisticated!"

Pity the youngsters of today; they don't have teachers like Richard Olsen, our speech teacher, head of the Masque and Gavel club, and director of school plays, whose patience and concern was a fun and gentle way to motivate us.

They don't have Marion Dennis, who gave us English that was really English, yet she never caught on to our setting the alarm on the clock on her desk so it would sound off during the reading period of her class. And when it did, it would send her flying from her chair to land, out of breath, casting a stern laser beam stare at the classroom. It seemed to linger on those she knew were entirely capable of doing such a dastardly, idiotic thing.

They don't have George Caruthers, whose chemistry classes were highly educational, and sometimes highly dangerous when certain chemicals were given to the likes of me and a project partner, who had a habit of biting his forearm. Mr. Caruthers was the only teacher who spent many an hour trying to catch evil doers among the student body.

His legion of young scientists produced our yearbook that was a "best seller' every year.

The list of those gallant and courageous teachers who gave so much to shape our future lives goes on and on. And too many of us now, belatedly, are able to appreciate them; they have left us to attend a greater graduation ceremony.

But enough of this drivel; let's have at that night, the one that was warm, with no wind and only the dim light of a quarter moon.

Well, I wasn't the team leader of our group, but I wasn't a silent voice, either. With respect for those individuals with me on that giddy night, I'll forego using their names, and I may use initials at some point, but anyone who was ever enrolled at Roswell High School for more than two weeks during the period of '51-'53 would recognize these individuals, even now. We were all very, very, very popular, but certainly not nearly as popular as we liked to think we were. I doubt if we were very popular with the student body, but 'ole Slick Nelson, our lean bean principal, knew us well!

Anyway, on that night we had grown bored of driving endless circles around the Park 'N Eat, and going by particular girls' houses and holding the horn button down for a block on either side of their address. Then, someone in the car said, "1 know! Let's go paint the cannon at the Institute."

Boy! That was the best and brightest idea our group had come up with in a long, long time. There just wasn't anything we could have thought of that would be as daringly fun or as dangerously exciting as painting that ominous cannon.

It had always looked as if it were loaded and ready to fire. It sat there at the corner of the Institute grounds, aimed in a southeasterly direction over the intersection of North Main Street and College Boulevard. That sentinel of NMMI, that symbol of rigidity and discipline, that ugly, solid iron Sphinx that utterly dared anyone to come near it, was, however, coldly beckoning us!

That night, it would be given the attention we felt it deserved, and it would suffer a shameful form of
recognition that would shake the townspeople to the depths of their collective souls when they awakened in the morning.

We would paint it red and white, the beautiful colors of Roswell High School! Not to detract from the admirable efforts of others in previous years, but we intended to paint it like it had never been painted before.

We just knew the local newspaper, The Roswell Daily Record, and radio stations, KSWS, KGFL, and KBIM would talk about this smite for days. Why, it may even hit the national news, or so we figured.

That monstrous, five inch barrel would look magnificent with a beautiful new coat of Roswell High Red and White, wouldn't it Mr. Military? And tomorrow morning when the Commandant stood on the second floor balcony of his living quarters with a cup of coffee in hand he would gaze out over his campus at the strong, sturdy buildings with their fortress-like ramparts, and the lush trees and healthy flowers that shaded and decorated the school grounds, and he would be pleased and he would say, "This is good!" And when his admiring gaze would slowly swing to the southeast, he would probably catch a glimpse of something out there that was somehow out of place.

There, there it was! He could see it faintly now through the trees. His focus would get adjusted by a slight squinting of the eyes, and as the vision of that cannon, that metal Corinthian saint, began to fit into the focus, his heart would undoubtedly increase its rhythm. His throat would tighten up and that mouthful of coffee would be spewed to the grounds below. He would realize the fortress walls had been breached during an unguarded moment on the night watch!

We just knew it would be that way, that everything would happen just as we were willing it to happen. Victory was ours for the taking on that night.

We went to R.C's. house where a storage shed contained all colors and quantities of paint. We gathered red paint and white paint, paint thinner, rags and gloves.

Yes, we must have gloves because a single drop, just one drop, of red or white paint on our persons would serve as a neon sign pointing to what we had been up to.

R.C. was to carry the paint and be sure the painters were amply supplied during the deed itself. T.P and I were to be the painters so wa each carried a brush. B.M. was in charge of the thinner and the rags. D.D. drove the car so he was not to even get close to the paint for fear it would get onto the steering wheel. We never thought that paint may get on the upholstery, the seats or the flooring of the car.

J.F. was the lookout for the cops, particularly for Brocius, the NMMI policeman who seemed to be always lurking in the bushes and watching everything. He could be counted on to show up for sure so we wanted to stay ahead of him.

At that time, College Boulevard was almost the northern border of town, so there wasn't too much traffic, especially around
1 a.m. We drove by the intersection three or four times before we struck. On the fifth pass, we stopped about a hundred yards west of the intersection, near the Institute's reflecting pool, where R.C., the painters, the ragman and the lookout ran to the bushes that surrounded the pool. D.D. continued to drive around but staying close enough to swoop in and pick us up at the first sign of a problem.

We were careful not to disturb the alligator that was rumored to have been living in the pool for the past several months. We had heard that it stayed alive by catching an occasional dog or cat that would come to the pool for a drink. Several cadets were reported to have seen the gator on numerous occasions and usually in the early evening around mealtime.

I had the white paint, T.P. had the red. We had our brushes and the rag man followed. Our lookout man, J.F., circled a little into the trees to stay out of any light that may shine on us from the street. We weren't too worried about a car's lights hitting us because we felt if it weren't the police, no one else would care. If they did, and they stopped, we could run into the trees, back to the Pool, and jump into the car without getting caught. The most vulnerable time would be when we shinnied out to the end of that long barrel. There was nothing to hold onto and only one of us could be up there but the other had to hold the paint cans and keep dipping the brushes. We planned to paint as we slid back down the barrel.

Since I was the shorter of the two painters, I did the shinnying and T.P. did the brush dipping. Just as I reached the end of the barrel, a car came up the hill and signaled a left turn, which meant that its headlights would shine across the gun as it turned, and on anybody standing there holding a can of paint and a paint brush. T.P. ran to hide behind the cannon while I stretched out along the barrel and did my best to get real thin. It must have worked because the car never even slowed down.

Somehow, we managed to get the barber pole effect on that barrel without further incident. Not a car came by the whole time we were there painting. We drew large red and white RHS initials on both protective shields that straddled the gun. We painted them into the sidewalk. And we put one of the paint cans over the end of the barrel.

We could hardly contain ourselves as we piled into our getaway car and fled down Lea Street, south to our hideout.

We had to get rid of the brushes, the gloves and all the other items we had taken with us. And we had to clean up. We figured there would be a big investigation at RHS the following Monday so we made sure our fingernails were clean and every speck of paint was cleaned away. The rest of the guys felt it was stupid to do all this cleaning up because nobody was going to check for paint on everyone in town. But we cleaned up anyway.

We drove out to Bottomless Lakes and, after wiping down real good with paint thinner, we bathed in the cool waters of Ink Well Lake, then we went home.

I didn't sleep a single wink during what little was left of that night. And I couldn't wait for tomorrow. Monday was also going to be a big day.

Well, Sunday's paper had a front page story of how vandals had struck the New Mexico Military Institute. The story described the cannon's new paint job and how badly this reflected on the community, and how Police Chief Tommy Thompson was going to get the person or persons responsible and prosecute them.

Up to that time, I had never thought of our night of fun as being the act of vandals. Hey, it was just rivalry between the "flat-heads" and the town boys. I never thought about how it reflected on the town. It scared me when I read what Chief Thompson had to say. I contacted the rest of the guys and we all agreed that we should never tell anyone because we felt we could go to jail for a long time if we were identified as the vandals.

On Monday a couple of us drove by the cannon. It was clean and looked just as it had before we painted it.

We went to school that morning a little dejected. We were in the third period when Slick and some military guy from the Institute and a city detective came into the school and did spot checks on about half of the student body. They were looking for red or white paint on the students' clothes, their skin and under fingernails. I was so glad I had been so smart about cleaning up!

As luck would have it, all of us were spot checked and we all passed, so the story ends here. Well, not exactly.

As I recall, the cannon was later donated to Chaves County and in its place, the Institute landscaped the area and constructed a large brick edifice with the school name proudly attached.

As for the cannon, it was anchored in concrete at the northwest corner of the court house grounds and that long old barrel is now aimed skyward, pointed to the northwest.

For the longest time we tried to figure out a way to hook up to it and haul it away and maybe hide it among the salt cedars along the Pecos River where it would soon become covered by the shifting sands at water's edge.

I don't believe it has ever been painted since that infamous night, but I sometimes wonder why we have that gun sitting there on the court house lawn. What does it symbolize now? Surely Roswell can find a more appropriate way to honor our heroes, our heroines, and our freedom.

I grew out of my vandalism stage the day after that idiotic act that warm night in 1952.

Our deed was the talk of the town for several days, yet we could not step forward to take credit, such as it was. As much fun as it was, It was actually a shallow victory, but we and the citizens of Roswell managed to survive and rise above the rubble caused by the event.

I doubt if anyone now remembers the painted cannon prank, and if they do, I know they do not know who the participants were, or at least, not until now. I only hope the statute of limitations has run out.

If I had it to do all over again, would I? Well... yeh, I think so! Probably would. I wouldn't do it now, but if I were a kid again I would do again what kids used to do when they got bored driving endless circles around the Park 'N Eat, and driving by girls' houses and honking the horn.

That's the way it was for some of us in Roswell fifty years ago.

Of course, they don't make teachers like they used to, and there's no Park'N Eat to patrol now, however, it just may be that today's kids would benefit if, on some boring summer night, they had a cannon to paint.