An Excerpt from Bowling with Aliens
Nixon was the oldest of Missoula’s three public high schools. Originally called Missoula County High when it opened in 1910, its name was changed to Rattlesnake High—referring to the valley in which it was located—when the city’s second high school, Daly-Hawthorne, was built in the late 1940s. The older school’s claim to fame was and remains today a visit by then vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon on September 24, 1952, the day after his infamous ‘Checkers Speech,’ in which, to save his political hide, the California senator vehemently denied receiving personal campaign gifts from supporters, save a cocker spaniel named Checkers, which he had no intention of returning.
Addressing an assembly, Candidate Nixon reportedly took great pains to persuade the Rattlesnake student body that American politics was a “righteous ship” and suggested that, if any of their number ever encountered evidence to the contrary, they should not hesitate to do whatever necessary to “swab the decks.”
This historical visit factored into the school’s eventual name change to Richard M. Nixon High School following an episode both tragic and bizarre. On Thanksgiving weekend 1994, only months after President Nixon’s death, Kyle Nussbaum, the sixteen year-old son of Missoula’s newly elected mayor, and three-sport letterman at Rattlesnake High, was fatally bitten by a startled prairie rattler while engaged in a weekly masturbatory ritual known as a “come one, come all” with two of his pals on the Mount Dumbo trail just outside of town. No doubt the prudent move would have been for Kyle to seek immediate medical attention at nearby St. Paul’s Hospital, but given the unseemly circumstances and sensitive anatomical location of the wound, Kyle instead offered his companions each fifty dollars cash to return to town without him and say not a word to anyone. Ultimately a victim of his own shame, Kyle spent his last few, no doubt painful, hours alone in the woods and was not found until the following day after one of his companions, stricken with guilt, offered Mayor Nussbaum a full account of what had transpired, along with two twenties and a ten.
Amidst the public mourning that followed this tragedy, a group of concerned citizens circulated a petition to change the name of Kyle’s school from Rattlesnake High to something less evocative of the prominent youngster’s premature demise. As luck would have it, the school board at that time was controlled by a cadre of staunch Republicans, who delighted in sticking it to the mostly liberal petitioners, not to mention Mayor Nussbaum, a dyed-in-the-wool anti-gun, pro-abortion, Democrat, by insisting that the only replacement name they would consider was that of the recently deceased thirty-seventh President of the United States.
Author’s note: Nixon High is loosely based on Missoula’s Hellgate High School where Senator Nixon did, in fact, address the student body and “deny that politics was a dirty game” on September 24, 1952, the day after the infamous Checkers Speech. If you think we’re pulling your leg you can check it out.
© 2017 Ron Dulaney