A Night of Itchy Suits and Stiff Shoes

I'M embarrassed to say that, when spring and early summer roll around, my imagination isn't very original. When the daffodils open in Boston's Public Garden, and the trees turn a rich green, my memories take me back to thoughts of - well - young love. But I don't just think about the usual things, like the girl I loved when we were 17, who ran off after we graduated and married somebody named Rob - or was it Carl? Or the moonlight walk I took one May in college with a woman three entire years older than I.

Oh, I do think about these things, but I also find myself thinking about the miserable times I spent with girls who other people thought would enjoy my company.

Like the time in high school back in Minnesota when a friend told me she was certain that poor Suzy Slayton would absolutely love it if I would ask her to the Senior Prom. Unfortunately, my sense of service and friendship eclipsed a nagging intuition that this was a bad idea.

My rented suit was a size too tight, and Suzy Slayton - a very nice girl, who came up to the second button of my shirt - just didn't really seem to want to talk to me. As hard as I tried to be gentlemanly and witty, and to not step on her feet as we danced amid the cardboard columns and crepe paper that proclaimed the school basketball court to be a pagan temple in ancient Greece, I felt as if she'd rather have been home cleaning the kitchen.

After the dance, we went with friends to an expensive restaurant for late dinner. We were assigned a table way in the back - you know, where they keep the old piano and stack the extra furniture - so we wouldn't bother the real customers. And we were given a special typewritten ``teen menu'' with a choice of two entrees - chicken or steak.

Sometime between her chicken and her chocolate pudding, Suzy Slayton fell asleep at the table, and remained so, more or less, until we got her home.

At her parents' door, I was tempted to ask her what she could possibly have said to my friend that led to the belief this would be an enchanted evening. I didn't ask her, but I was curious. Surely there must have been some mistake.

EVEN this experience paled somewhat in comparison with another I'd had a year or two earlier. One day my mother received a phone call from the mother of a girl I'd taken to the big homecoming game and dance the previous fall. It had been a ``blind date,'' a social event in which two people who don't know each other are brought together primarily for the enjoyment of someone else.

Don't get me wrong. Homecoming with Frannie Glugg had not been unpleasant. It hadn't been very memorable, either, except perhaps for the mildly fascinating scent of White Shoulders perfume on the red velvet bow from her hair, which I found mysteriously in my pocket when I got home.

But her mother, whom I had not actually met, had somehow formed a good impression of me. She had, in fact, decided I was the only boy nice enough to take her daughter to the Junior League dance coming up at a fancy hotel in the city.

Before Mrs. Glugg called my mother, I'd never heard of the Junior League, and didn't know it was a social club that sponsored dressy events so young ladies could ask young men to take them. Some of these young men were used to formal affairs, but the rest of us would rather do almost anything but stand around a hotel ballroom for hours in an itchy suit with feet aching in stiff shoes.

I don't know if all the young ladies' mothers personally researched and booked their dates for these affairs, but this one did. Hearing only one end of the phone conversation, I took a few moments to realize what was happening and tried with wild gesticulations to prevent my mother from committing me to anything. But it was too late.

I can't recall another time in my career as a son when I so vehemently protested a direct order.

``But Mom, I HATE these formal things!'' I whined. ``I can't really be the ONLY nice boy Frannie knows.''

The injustice of it all was like a bad taste in my mouth.

``You don't want her not to be able to go, do you?'' she said.

My honest answer wouldn't have helped my case. I knew I was beaten.

Left alone with the telephone and the Gluggs' number on the back of an envelope, I dialed as slowly as I could. Frannie answered and I heard myself say how great it would be to go to the dance, and the plan was set.

Flowers for the girl were essential, of course. My family ordered a small bouquet, bound at the base, called a ``nosegay.'' This, they explained, was to be held demurely in the hands, and was lovelier and more original than an ordinary corsage.

Upon our arrival at the Palm Tree Room, I presented Frannie with the box from the florist as we stood in the coatroom. I felt this might be one of a small number of potentially enjoyable moments in the evening.

She opened it and wrinkled her face.

``What's that?'' she asked.

``A nosegay,'' I said.

``How do I fasten it on? It's heavy,'' she said.

``You don't,'' I said, trying to see how to pin it on her shoulder. ``It's a bouquet, not a corsage.''

``How am I supposed to dance? I think it ties on my wrist with these little ribbons.''

With her free hand, she struggled to show me. The nosegay flopped over, upside down, the stubby carnations and greens pointing at the floor.

``That can't be right,'' I said.

``It must be,'' she persisted. ``How else could it go?''

``You could put it behind your ear, if you want,'' I said.

She ignored the remark and asked me to assist in tying the flowers on more tightly, which I did, with pleasure.

THE band was one of those brassy groups in powder-blue Edwardian jackets, playing dance hits from the '40s and '50s, sanitized rock-and-roll, favorite movie themes, and selected requests. The male vocalist crooned soulfully as he swayed with his microphone stand like a dance partner.

Couples the same age as Frannie and I did the cha-cha, the tango, and the foxtrot with great flamboyant leaps, turns, and flourishes. They clearly had taken dancing lessons more advanced than those I'd gotten from my high school gym teacher, Wayne Yocum, who was also the football and track coach.

Late in the evening, the band stopped for a rest, and it was announced there would be a Special Entertainment.

The crowd waited for something to happen on the stage, but soon heard sounds coming from the other end of the room, near the entrance. Rhythmic, muffled, thumping sounds. Then the double doors burst open and in marched rank after rank of grim-faced young military cadets, hundreds of them, in uniform, rifles in position, heavy boots pounding the tile floor in a roar that made the ceiling seem just inches above us. This was, it seemed, the St. Thomas Academy Drill Team, come to make our evening complete.

I looked to Frannie for some explanation, some sign that this was perhaps the sort of amusement preferred by young rich people tired of music and dancing. Instead, she appeared stunned as the squad, oblivious to spectators, fanned out into various elaborate formations, the commander shouting orders.

Almost-grown men cried out and fled with their partners from the soldier's path, taking refuge behind punch bowls and artificial palm trees. The troops punctuated each movement with the synchronized stomping of feet - setting up the kind of vibrations that scientists say can send great bridges crashing into the sea or reduce tall buildings - hotels, for instance - to piles of smoldering rubble.

We caught our breath as the regiment broke into yet another new pattern, a perfect five-pointed star, and then came to a dramatic halt.

``READY! AIM!'' the commander bellowed, as the cadets at the points of the star swung down their rifles and dropped into firing position, aiming directly into huddled masses of innocent adolescents.

``Isn't that cute,'' Frannie said nervously. ``They're making us think they're going to shoot their guns.''

``FIRE!!'' came the command, followed by possibly the loudest indoor explosion I'd ever experienced. An acrid yellowish cloud filled the room, and vague, satiny forms groped for each other gasping for oxygen who just minutes earlier been dancing dreamily to the strains of ``Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.''

I don't remember much about the evening after that point. Somehow the dance ended, my brother picked us up and we took Frannie to her house and then went home to ours, and I got out of the suit and the shoes and fell asleep. And I never saw her again.

If I ever feel a terrifically strong urge to help two other people have a good time together, I pray that I'll have the kindness just to lie down until the urge goes away.

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