Fifty years after one of the most infamous events in Fort Worth history, its darkest secrets remain untold.
That would be the Great Bonfire Incident of 1963, when police arrested 46 Paschal High School boys and alumni after a Hollywood-worthy land-and-air assault on an Arlington Heights High School spirit rally at Benbrook Lake.
One week later, a visiting President John F. Kennedy smiled and asked at the mention of Paschal: “Isn’t that the school with its own air force?”
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.
To Paschal alumni of the day, it involved a harmless attempt to disrupt Heights’ spirit bonfire the night before a game that drew more than 11,000 fans to Farrington Field.
According to county deputies, Benbrook police and firefighters quoted in news accounts, it involved:• Carloads of Paschal boys and exes descending on a crowd of 500 Heights students with an armory of weapons including baseball bats, lead pipes, whips and Molotov cocktails.
• A private-plane flyover by a 20-year-old pilot, a 1962 Paschal graduate, dropping rolls of school-color purple-and-white toilet paper that fluttered down onto the Heights crowd.
• A 1948 sedan covered in gasoline-soaked mattresses, set afire by a burly graduate and left rolling toward the woodpile.
• A ground assault by boys with bows and arrows, storming over the spillway and sailing arrows in a scene a county deputy compared to a frontier American Indian attack.
• Only one injury, when wrecker driver Junior Slayton, 33, was grazed by buckshot while towing away a student’s car.
In the 1960s era of urban race riots, the Star-Telegram and The Dallas Morning News both carefully labeled the all-white melee a “near-riot.”
Fifteen county and city patrol units and five fire companies eventually arrived, dousing the flames and rounding up many but not all of those involved.
Those arrested were released to their parents, according to news accounts.
Federal aviation officials investigated but eventually said no rule prohibits dropping toilet paper. Benbrook officials found one violation — against a Heights student for not having a bonfire permit.
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.”
In a year of 50th anniversaries, 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.
Until the next week.