I sometimes these days sit on my sofa in the dusk of dawn or at day’s end and let my mind float back to events from long ago that I still recall with a vividness that astonishes me.
Many, many years ago this past June I went to the end-of-year 1951 dance for the ninth grade at La Jolla High (just north of San Diego). It was on a balmy evening and began outside, and as the night wore on everybody moved inside to the school gymnasium. Kids had brought forty-fives along (remember those technological marvels of the day?) and they were being played through a couple of loudspeakers set on a stage.
Some parents and a few teachers kindly served as background chaperones. There was no alcohol. And there certainly weren’t metal detectors or armed police on hand to check for weapons.
Indeed, in my six years of junior and high school I never even heard of anybody bringing a knife — much less a gun — to school or any school function. I do recall that once some sadistic moron brought a pin stuck through an eraser to school, and during class breaks he would hold this clever little weapon in his fist with about an eighth of an inch of pinhead sticking out from between his fingers and roam the school pricking kids at random.
The vice-principal got wind of the assaults right away and was on this lowlife like lint on a laundered lapel. He grabbed the punk by the collar of his Hawaiian shirt, physically hauled him into his office and closed the door, and then – speaking euphemistically – read him the riot act in such a way that after that the kid was afraid to bring anything sharper than his elbow to school. This was High Noon in the hallways and there was only one sheriff in this town.
Even at the time (and even more today) I, and everybody else I knew, thought the vice-principal was a really righteous cat. That was then. Today I suppose that if some vice-principal had the balls and good sense to mete out that kind of swift and very real punishment on a school thug he would end up copping a dirty nickel at Folsom or even a hard jolt at the Big Q for child endangerment. And although their ‘child’ was a dangerous psychopath, once the parents’ swarms of lawyers had put the sheriff through the wringer, his salary and what was left of his pension would go to the ‘grievously injured’ child — and the parents. That’s American school discipline new millennium style.
But I digress needlessly.
The most popular girl (in those benighted days womyn didn’t turn into pretzels of outrage at this oppressively hegemonic and sexist terminology — and if you can’t handle that, shrug your shoulder and smolder in the corner) in the class was called Gloria. Cute as a button, and of course she was ‘going with’ the captain of the frosh football team. She was also a dream dancer, and I can still see her clearly in my mind’s eye wind-milling her great legs doing the jitterbug to that era’s fabulous pop hit, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon.” At one point later in the evening there was a “girl’s dance,” which meant the guys stood against the wall and waited to be asked up (see, times weren’t totally neanderthal!). Gloria was in my elementary Latin class, and all year I had most happily helped her off and on with homework (yes, there was homework even in public school!) assignments during lunch hour. I still couldn’t believe it when she came up to me and asked me to dance with her. I actually and truly did look to the left and right of me to see who the lucky guy was she was asking to dance with her. But she was talking to moi!
It turned out to be a slow dance, and the lights were turned low. I still couldn’t believe it as she came close to me and molded herself against me, the top of her head at my eye level. And — great good heaven above! — she smelled soooo very nice. Dusky-voiced Nat King Cole was crooning away about “Walking My Baby Back Home” as we moved languorously across the crowded floor, an extra push up tight here, another soft crush there.
It was rapturous.
It couldn’t last.
Of course not, because here comes the end of the fantasy dream in the shape of a very real nightmare, the second (after Gloria’s steady) most popular guy in the class, Sid, a jock with enough muscle to squash me like the insect I thought I was, and, as a kind of compensatory justice, with nature’s perfect vacuum for a brain. He pokes my shoulder, much harder than he needs to, and declares, “I’m breakin’ in on this dance.”
I start to pull away from Gloria.
And then Gloria does the most glorious thing any girl up to that time in my life had ever done for me. With her head still resting on my shoulder and tucking me back close to her, she purrs to Sid, “I don’t want to dance with you, Sid. Can’t you see who I’m dancing with? And I want to keep on dancing with him. Not with you!” And pointedly not looking at him she makes an imperiously dismissive wave of her hand right in front of Sid’s stupidly mouth-gaping face. “Shoo, Sid! Shoo!”
Is it any wonder I have never forgotten that ninth-grade dance – or Gloria?