“attending the wrong dance”

Scan 3This column has a particular resonance for me beyond just my thinking it came out pretty well: It ultimately set the stage for my getting remarried, to a wonderful woman. My now-wife, Lisa, never having talked to me prior to the day the piece was published, sent me a spur-of-the-moment note immediately upon finishing it: “Loved the column. Do you still dance? Are you still single?” 

Her note, also alluding to an earlier-published reflection on my then-pending divorce, was simply too lighthearted and fun not to respond to. And then one response obviously led to another – though Lisa has since confessed to immediately regretting sending the initial email, wondering if she’d just introduced herself to a psychotic. I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to her feelings on that subject at this point. 

This column ran in conjunction with a reverential article by another Daily Reflector writer on my hometown’s cotillion dance tradition. As features editor, I had concluded that story might be nicely complimented by a little counterpoint in tone, and it was then my turn to write a column, and since I’d certainly had my own very vivid cotillion experience … 

Originally published March 20, 2006 in The Daily Reflector| (c) Cox Newspapers, Inc.

Attending the wrong dance

Not all learning curves graph that neatly. In fact, some are just a mess. So let me tell you about my cotillion experience.

I was never cut out for pageantry and well-mannered coquetry, that ballroom stuff. Instead, jeans, cowboy boots, rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts and a flair for doing other than what I was told.

Of course, that’s revisionist history. At the time I started cotillion, I was one more acne-faced man-child wallflower, painfully self-conscious and struck wide-eyed dumb in the presence of that mystical creature, the girl.

Open mouth. Insert foot. Now, try to dance.

Yet when I think of cotillion, it’s about the year after my own stint ended, when I was inexplicably, I felt, invited back to serve as a marshal, a kind of chaperone.

I don’t recall now what was involved in this marshal business, except that we could get away with wearing jeans to dances.

Also, the girls liked hanging with the older boys. And now that I was one of the older boys, what had the year before seemed a rotten system was suddenly very clearly perfect.

I was then 14, customarily regarded as a particularly bad age for downing a half a pint of liquor. And if that doesn’t tell you that things are about to go wildly downhill here, and that I’m going to come out of this looking pretty bad …

A friend and I, a fellow marshal in Levi’s, had somehow procured rum. Once at the Moose Lodge, where dances were held, we snuck off and went right past getting lit to becoming about as dim as possible.

We didn’t know for drinking, though we sure didn’t think that. Female friends were soon having to hold us upright on the dance floor. Yeah, you might want to lead, or else I’m going to just fall down.

Somewhere in there, we got the Einstein notion of buying beer from a neighboring store, which joined the stupidity by selling it to us. The police weren’t impressed with this, either.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

With help, we made it through the dance without making a scene. That would also come later, when we met the same friends at the long-gone Darryl’s restaurant, and they wanted nothing more to do with us. We were loud, clumsy, reeling.

So we staggered out, drink-indignant, for my house a few miles away, where an older sister was staying while my parents were off not enjoying a cold, rainy weekend getaway.

Unfortunately, my friend and I also stumbled upon the idea of knocking over a mailbox belonging to someone we knew. Vandalism. Federal property. The magistrate later explained this very clearly.

An older gent across the street heard our racket and mistakenly thought some college kids had once again targeted his own mailbox. He came out of his house, bathrobed and furious, chasing us up the street.

Several successive staggering lapses in judgment next elevated the evening from mere fiasco into full-blown three-ring circus.

Suffice it to say that the city of Greenville was nice enough to send a car to meet us. Before it was all over, there were five police cruisers, lights igniting the whole street in strobing blue, just perfect for dancing.

One thing: When you’re 14, handcuffed and alcohol-stinking, do not inform your new uniformed escort that you know your rights, by God. Because you will then be told, in the sweetest language, that you actually know very little at all.

I narrowly avoided a night in jail. But what faced me was worse: The next day, I got to tell my dad about this funny thing that had happened in his absence. Oddly enough, he wasn’t amused. For months.

Here’s a shovel and a bucket, kid. Go move some dirt.

Please don’t mistake my flip retelling here for any kind of pride. For years, recalling my belabored run of teenage butt-headed behavior – I mean, who gets kicked out of Boy Scouts? – put me right off wanting kids of my own.

Understand, too, that I just thought the world of the Van Nortwick women who organized cotillion, despite my rebel pretensions.

Not long ago, I saw Kay Wilkerson (formerly Van Nortwick) and her husband at StarLight Café. She’s a jewel, Kay is.

The expected subject came up, as it will with Kay. She mentioned to the friend who was with me that I had once cotillioned.

“Yeah,” I said. “But I’m not exactly a poster boy for the program’s success.”

“Oh,” she said. “I don’t know about that.”

And she did, in fact, know the whole story I just told you. News to me, and I wasn’t too thrilled to learn it. It’s a little late for apologies, though I certainly made one then.

Kay just laughed. “I always knew you’d turn out OK,” she said.

Now, I am rarely ever struck speechless …

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