The Children from Bainbridge
By Addie Livingston
When a visitor enters the lobby at Bainbridge High School their eyes are naturally drawn to the right, where the ubiquitous trophy case is found. It's like the glint off the trophies act as a siren's wail and the visitor is subconsciously transported to the trophy case in search of something like specks of gold shimmering from the bottom of a creek bed. But the more astute visitor quickly learns the really interesting stories are found not in the trophy case, which is in every high school in the country, but rather from a silent photograph on the opposite wall away from the trophy case. And when the visitor notices this photograph on the wall, it becomes apparent the photograph doesn't glimmer like the trophies; there is no glint; there are no nets hanging from the corners of the photograph and there are no signed footballs in the photograph proclaiming victory over some long forgotten rival. But this is a sweet black-and-white photograph of children, smiling children, seven children in fact and one stern adult; it is apparent the stem adult was well aware of the environment in which she worked. The girls' white blouses and sweaters are neat and the two boys, who aren't smiling as much as the girls, are still quite dapper with their clothes nonetheless. But upon closer inspection, the visitor notes, some of the girls aren't wearing blouses; they're wearing robes. The visitor reads the plaque beside the aged photograph and, after a few questions are asked, a pall slowly falls over the visitor when it is realized; three of the girls were posing for their senior portraits in their graduation robes. But the visitor's eyes are still drawn to the smiling faces and it becomes apparent, these were indeed happy children.
And there is no doubt the young people in the photograph would argue as to whether they were children then, but they were teenagers nonetheless, and in reality, probably not much different from the teenagers now, but with much less distractions, or at least one would think. But like teenagers are, these teenagers cared about their friends and worried about their friends; that never changes even through the generations. The visitor learns these children died long ago; but they look so happy and that's the way they will always look to their friends. The pieces of the puzzle fall quickly into place for the visitor when it is learned this photograph is a montage from 1946 and these seven children perished, along with the stern teacher, while representing Bainbridge High School, in a fire in Atlanta while they stayed in an "absolutely fireproof hotel."
Time stopped for these children that morning in 1946 while representing Bainbridge High School.
But time didn't stop for their friends they left in Bainbridge on that Friday morning. The smiling children in the photograph have friends who now have grown old; their friends have been parents for a generation and most are grandparents now, but their friends' voices still crack and tears are still blinked away when their friends speak of the smiling teenagers and the stern teacher in the photograph.
This was to be Maxine Willis and Ruth Powell's senior year at Bainbridge High School and they decided not to waste a minute. The yearbook of Bainbridge High School in 1947, The Purango, even proclaimed their friendship. Being seniors, a special section was set aside in the yearbook stating what each senior would be known for: Maxine, or as she was called, "Mac," would state she was "always seen with her shadow, Ruth," and Ruth would state Mac was, indeed, "her best friend." Mac and Ruth, along with Sue Broome, would be assigned room 920 in the Winecoff Hotel on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. These girls, being seniors, would have a room to themselves, while Patsy Griffin and Mary Louise Murphy were only fourteen; they got to share room 926 with Miss Mary Davis, the stem teacher. And there is little doubt the two boys thought they had achieved the ultimate coup de grace: they were assigned room 924, right in the middle of all of the teenage girls. Although Earl Carr Gragg and Clarence Bates were only fourteen in 1946, boys haven't changed much over the years and there was probably more than a chuckle or two behind closed doors, when the conversation changed to the girls in the rooms on either side of them. There were some older boys from Bainbridge High in Atlanta that weekend, but a mix-up in the hotel reservations at the Winecoff sent these older boys to the Piedmont Hotel, just down the street. All of these children from Bainbridge would be joining teenagers from across Georgia, each representing their high schools at the annual Youth Assembly, sponsored by the Georgia YMCA. These students would participate in a mock legislature, where laws are debated at the state capitol and voted on, and signed or vetoed by a teenage "governor." Although the students would be kept busy with their work at the state capitol, the social aspects of a trip to Atlanta with friends were not going to be ignored. It should be remembered that in the early morning hours of December 7, a sharp rap on the door of room 920 sent two of these older boys scurrying under a bed while the three older girls received a scolding from Miss Davis for making too much noise. Surely it is apparent to any reader that it was not the girls making the noise. Maxine, Ruth, and Sue and two of the older boys from the Piedmont had enjoyed supper in Atlanta that night, and the older boys walked the girls back to the Winecoff, but the boys stayed a little too late, or much too late for Miss Davis, but fate sent the boys back to the Piedmont just before the fire started, or, more ominously, just as the fire started.
The Winecoff had been built in 1913 and was advertised as "absolutely fireproof." The hotel rises fifteen stories and was built with a brick exterior, but the interior was mostly wood, carpet and wallpaper. But it was 1946 and technology had not yet produced fire-resistant carpet and wallpaper; that would come much later, much too late for the children from Bainbridge. There were transoms over the doors of each room which, when opened, would have a "chimney effect" by pulling the flames and the smoke higher and higher. The brick exterior was, indeed, fireproof, but the interior would burn like a Roman candle. The Atlanta firefighters did all they could, but their ladder trucks could only reach the seventh floor. With the exception of four boys from Rome, Georgia, all of the students in Atlanta for the Youth Assembly were above the seventh floor; these four boys from Rome survived. However, four other boys from Rome who stayed above the seventh floor would not survive. The cause of the fire could never be determined. Through the years, there has been talk of arson due to hurt feelings after a poker game gone awry. But to the children from Bainbridge it wouldn't matter what caused the fire. It's thought the fire started on the third floor and the flames and the smoke quickly moved up the building consuming the wood encouraged by the toxic paint and carpet along the way.
The two young boys from Bainbridge were found in their beds wearing pajamas; they died in their sleep from smoke inhalation. The younger girls were found in the embrace of Miss Mary Davis, the stern teacher, who had taught the girls English and Latin. Two of the older girls would jump; Sue Broome's body was found alone in room 920. It wouldn't matter whether they were sixteen or sixty; the smoke and the flames surely turned the seconds into hours. Throughout this terror, it is amazing Maxine and Ruth had the presence of mind to print their names on pieces of paper and attach these notes to their coats. They wore coats that morning because it was cold in Atlanta. It was December. These two girls jumped into the dark Atlanta night from the ninth floor holding one another's hands and their hands were still together when their bodies were found after sunrise. Maxine and Ruth were among the first of the dead to be identified because of the notes they had attached to their coats. The gruesome task of identifying their classmates' bodies would fall upon the shoulders of the older boys who stayed at the Piedmont; these boys were just children too. School was cancelled the following week due to the funerals, irony would prevail and it would be only Maxine and Ruth's caskets that would remain open.
It has been told for years in Bainbridge that Maxine and Ruth were buried side by side in Oak City Cemetery, but a stroll through the cemetery tells an inquisitive visitor this is just a myth; the two best friends are, indeed, buried just a few steps from one another, but they are not buried side by side. The rest of the children are scattered throughout Oak City Cemetery with their families, and Miss Davis, the stem teacher, was returned to her home in Alabama. Posterity would hold that Miss Davis was not as stem as her photograph in the lobby would suggest.
But one has to beg, hadn't these children seen enough? These children grew up in a world of war. These children heard of the carnage of Pearl Harbor on that Sunday afternoon in 1941; these children remembered D-Day like it was yesterday and it was, to them. Even the Bataan Death March and The Battle of the Bulge would not be ancient history to these children.
My god, hadn't these children seen enough horror?
The years have slipped away now, but the memories of the smiling children in the photograph still remain with their friends who are in Bainbridge. The children who left Bainbridge High in 1946 are still smiling in the photograph, but their friends who remain in Bainbridge now are slow to move around and muscles and joints ache where they didn't. But as one speaks with their friends, it becomes apparent the smiling children in the photograph have never been far from the thoughts of their classmates they left in Bainbridge that weekend two generations ago. The smiling students in the photograph will forever be remembered as "The Children from Bainbridge."
This paper was written for an English assignment at Bainbridge College. Due to page limitations, I've included information here I couldn't include in the paper I turned in at the college, but all sources have been properly cited. I would like to thank my grandfather, Mayo Livingston, Jr., for an interview and for allowing me access to his personal journal; he was a classmate of Maxine, Ruth and Sue. I would also like to thank Ramsay Simmons, Jr. for an interview; he was "seeing" Maxine at the time and he was one of the older boys hiding under the bed as Miss Davis chastised the older girls. Mr. Simmons was in the class behind the older girls. I would also like to thank my instructor, Ms. Halada, for her guidance and Dr. Beers for her patience with me. For clarity, I've removed all citations; if anyone would like a copy of the paper with citations, please let me know. With the exception of the material I received from the interviews, all of the information can be found on the Internet and the information can be cited. I'm not selling this paper and I've already received a grade.