GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Forty years ago this coming week, on Saturday, Dec. 3, 1977, the Glen Ridge High School football team won the Section 2 Group 1 state championship by defeating Kenilworth High School, 18-12. Histories of the event have recorded that GRHS students who witnessed a thrilling comeback to cap the victory cheered themselves hoarse.
The day after the game, Sunday, at around 10:30 p.m., the shell of a 1961 turquoise Volkswagen Beetle was concealed in a small freight truck and driven to the back of the high school. It was there that the ground level elevated, making the roof accessible. The VW body was taken from the truck, lifted to the roof and placed on cinder blocks. Tires and wheels were placed against the fenders and, for all the world could tell, it looked like a car parked on a roof. On its driver’s door, painted in red, were the symbols: “GR#1.”
Placing the car on the roof was no small accomplishment in itself. In clear view of a main thoroughfare, Ridgewood Avenue, it took teamwork, a plan and stealth; and could now well be seen as a marker to a lost era.
When school opened that Monday, Dec. 5, 1977, the sight of the Beetle was a puzzlement.
Bob Wittpenn, class president for the Class of 1978 was there.
“I’ll never forget it,” Wittpenn said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “I was in the front of the school with Principal Jim Buckley and football coach Wayne Schraeger. They were speechless. I think they even admired it. It was harmless good fun.”
Later in the day, speaking over the PA system, Buckley asked the owner of a Volkswagen, license plate “GR#1” to move their car since it was in a no-parking zone and would be towed away.
The high-jinx was pulled off by senior Jeff Linson and a group of his friends who called themselves the Lost Cause Commandos. Thinking he might be in hot water, Linson was relieved when he heard the principal’s announcement.
Linson is now an engineer and project manager professional living in North Carolina. He is also on the reunion committee for the GRHS Class of 1978. For the upcoming 40th reunion, he is preparing a short history of the caper and two other unusual appearances made by the VW during his senior year.
The Beetle belonged to Linson. A good mechanic and handy around cars, he had pretty much driven the car into the ground the year he had it. But he did not want to put any money into fixing it.
According to Linson’s history, a friend named Keith Kessock dropped by his Windsor Place home. Keith asked him what he planned to do with the car. Linson had no plans.
“I remember Keith stating very matter-of-factly, ‘I think you should put it on the high school roof,’” Linson said. “I don’t remember ever discussing this again with Keith but that idea stuck with me and I played with it in my mind for months.”
Linson had 10 friends to help put the car on the roof — the Lost Cause Commandos. Linson, through those unavoidable mutations that create a nickname until it sticks, was Father Leaman.
In planning, Linson said he applied a Boy Scouts lesson and determined who, what, where, and when. “When” was perhaps the most crucial question.
“When to do it was obviously in the dark of night when no one was expecting it,” Linson wrote in his history. “However, to make the joke go over well and possibly avoid getting into trouble, we knew the timing needed to be tied to some other significant and popular event.”
The football victory was the popular event. It lit the fuse.
On the night the car went up, Linson was at a Christmas pageant rehearsal at the First Presbyterian Church, in Orange. He was eager to leave; his pastor later found out why. Ironically, Linson’s father had purchased the Beetle from the pastor.
Once he got home, Linson and his commandos put the car shell into the truck. His father had purchased the truck from a Newark goodwill mission. “Jesus Saves” was above the cab. The commandos headed for the school and the VW body was carried onto the roof at its low point. Next up went the trunk lid, doors, tires, wheels and cinder blocks. The car was reassembled. Mission accomplished.
Getting the car down presented new obstacles. Linson said he did not want to just leave it for someone else to take down. But the Glen Ridge Police Department would now be a problem: Linson contacted Bill Cinotti to help retrieve the Beetle. Cinotti was a year younger and lived two doors away. They remain lifelong friends.
“Getting it down was the fun time,” Cinotti said in a recent telephone interview. “The police were good to tolerate it. But these kids were good kids at the top of their class. The cops were embarrassed that it got up there and were looking to see who brought it down. Jeff was a very clever guy. There were so many blind spots on the roof.”
From Linson’s history, once he and Cinotti were on the roof, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 1977, under the cover of darkness: “Waiting until the coast was clear but wasting no time we started. We pulled off the hood, trunk lid, doors, tires and wheels and laid everything down flat on the roof. The two of us then quickly picked up the car body and carried it to the center of the roof where it could not be seen.”
Linson and Cinotti then carried the car parts to the center of the roof and departed.
“As far as anyone could tell from the ground or the school, the car was gone!”
When he and Cinotti headed for home, they drove by the front of the school and could not believe what they saw. There was a group of GR police in front of the school shining a light where the car had just been.
“What a riot!” Linson recalled.
Because he figured the authorities thought the car was gone, Linson and his commandos struck the very next night, loaded up the “Jesus Saves” truck with the VW shell and parts, and drove safely away. Looking back, Cinotti said the students involved in the prank were not doing anything wrong.
“They were kids involved with the community,” he said. “They just took it to the next level. That was what high school was about, pushing the limits. Not today. It was a wonderful time.”
Another Windsor Place friend of Linson and Cinotti was Craig Wood who graduated in 1979. He was not a commando.
“I knew all about the plan,” he said earlier this week in a telephone interview. “I sat on Jeff’s back steps when he disassembled the car. Jeff didn’t know how people would react but it was well-received. That’s the whole tragedy of time going by. People were more relaxed then and could take a joke. It was good for the whole school. The administration was impressed. It took a bit of work and nobody got caught. It was a magical time back then.”