Random Thoughts

When cheerleading meant leading cheers

... how times do change

by Ann Robbins Talbot

In 1943 I went to my first Melrose High football game when I was in fourth grade. My parents took me to watch my brother play on the team. The game was interesting. I learned enough of the rules to understand the general idea. Our team, the Red Raiders, was supposed to carry the ball down the field and over the other team's goal line. The other team was supposed to stop our team and carry the ball over our goal line. That seemed simple enough.

The details of the game didn't bother me. The whistle kept blowing and the game stopped and started for apparently no reason. I did not know what the referees' signals meant. It had been rainy, so the clean white shirts soon became caked with mud and the grass became slippery, in some cases disappearing totally. The game itself did not keep my attention unless my brother was on the field.  

But I discovered the cheerleaders. Dressed in red and white, the girls lined up in front of the stands. With megaphones, they announced to the fans what the cheer would be. Then all working in precise formation, they led the people like a speaking chorus. Sometimes they spelled out "Melrose". Sometimes they spelled out "Fight". Sometimes they said some kind of poem all together. People downtown must have heard each word quite clearly. I thought to myself I want to be a cheerleader. If I watched the girls, I would learn all the words, all the arm movements and all the jumps. So began my annual project of Cheerleader Watching.

Fast forward six years. In the spring of my sophomore year, I signed up for cheerleading auditions. For two months sophomore and junior girls went to class after school to learn the techniques. Of course, I knew them already. During the first class I looked around the gym. There were dozens of girls who also knew the words and the movements. I had not been the only Cheerleader Watcher in the stands. But I was determined. Seven juniors would be chosen to replace the graduating seniors. Only three sophomores would be picked for a two-year term. I was excited and proud the day I was chosen.

On the first day of school we met with our coach, George McPheters. What a wonderful man, school spirit personified. We received our uniforms a heavy white shaker sweater with the letter "M" on the chest and a pleated red woolen skirt long enough to hit the back of our knees. I had to provide the rest a pair of sneakers, white sox, red underpants and a red dickey. This was a light vest with a collar, constructed so that I looked like I was wearing a shirt under my sweater.  Dickeys only came in white, so we each dyed our own to match our skirt. All dressed up we looked like a team. Being short, I was positioned at one end of the line of seven girls, the tallest being in the center. The three senior co-captains stood in front with megaphones. We rehearsed in the gym to prepare for the first football game.

Nothing that Mac or the veterans said could have prepared me for that first game. We did our cheers on the track in front of the huge crowd of classmates, students and lots and lots of grownups. The co-caps announced  "Melrose Locomotive" and we got ready. One-two-three. Turn right and crouch. Raise right arm across chest. "M" roared the crowd. It was so loud I almost fell over backward. "E" even louder as more people got into it. "L" a shout so loud and guttural that it was shocking. "R-O-S-E". This was really fun. Now a clever maneuver all together so that we were facing the opposite way.  "M-E-L-R-O-S-E".  A little faster tempo this time. Now a quarter turn so we were facing the stands. I don't know what was happening on the field. The whole crowd was watching us so they would get the right beat, sounding vaguely like a train starting up. The cheer ended with "Melrose, Melrose, Yeah......." and the stands erupted in applause. What a turn on! What power! It was all I could have wished for. I was a cheerleader actually leading a cheer.

I recall learning two other things that day. If you put your knee down on the track, you come up with scrapes, dirt and pieces of embedded gravel. I needed a new balancing act that I hadn't needed on the gym floor or the grassy practice field. The other piece of knowledge was: always follow the directions on the package when using dye. We were out there on a day much more usual for the middle of summer vacation than the autumn of the year. Sweat just poured down my back being soaked up by the pounds of wool I was wearing. The dickey did not bleed through the white yarn but held its red color, due to the fact that I had rinsed it until the "water ran clear".  

At MHS the cheerleaders also led the crowd at basketball games. The gym was small, badly ventilated and sweaty. We only led a cheer in the regular way at halftime when the teams were off the floor. Otherwise we just used our voices from the odd little balcony connected to the third floor corridor. We had some competition from a group of boys who formed a cheering section of their own: "One, two three; kick'em in the knee; We got class; kick'em in the other knee!" We would join in as the crowd would dissolve into gales of laughter.

The old GBI league played its hockey games in the Boston Garden on Saturday afternoons. Each of the eight teams would sit together and have a friendly rivalry. One day we brought the entire MHS band in full uniform, and we cheerleaders led the crowd from the horizontal aisles. The ride home on the B&M train was really fun, trying to squash the whole student body into one or two railroad cars. When the Ice Capades or Follies took over the Garden, we had the adventure of getting to the Boston Arena. We walked through streets ordinarily off limits to our age group. I always looked forward to passing a certain nightclub because my favorite, Sarah Vaughn, was advertised on the billboards. I just hoped to see her and tell her how much I enjoyed her singing. She was probably asleep at a downtown hotel when we walked by.

After February vacation our cheerleading season was over except for the series of classes and auditions to determine next year's team. We learned another lesson here. Friendship had nothing to do with who was chosen. Technique, spirit, determination were the priorities. I was fortunate to have a two-year term, but the second year we really had to put forth amazing effort. Our football team was winless and our hockey team won only twice. But we cheered for them as if they were national champions.

And we loved every minute of it. No pyramids, tumbling or stunts on artificial turf. No mini skirts swaying to the latest tunes. No hair ribbons, tights or fancy sweatsuits. No glittering pompoms under the lights. Just a team of girls in red and white wool leading a crowd of enthusiastic fans in a speaking chorus of "F-I-G-H-T" and "M-E-L-R-O-S-E".

October 5, 2007

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