(02/08/2021)
By Sidney Underwood 2014

It was late April 1959 and I was finishing my junior year at Calhoun County High School. Being naturally shy as some boys tend to be, I did not have a date for the upcoming school prom. After fretting over my situation for several days, I told my Mother that I would probably just stay home.

I remember that she looked at me and said that I could not be serious about staying home because attending a high school prom would be a memorable experience and should not be missed. She said that I should go because she was sure there would be girls there that would be willing to dance with me.

Not everyone, she said, would have a date and it would be silly for me to pass up this event. My Dad agreed with her by saying that he was to be one of the teachers {sponsors} assigned to oversee the event, and he did not relish the idea of explaining my absence to everyone.

On the day before the prom, dreading what was ahead, I polished my one pair of black dress shoes. They looked really bad from months of neglect. I worked for hours putting several coats of polish on them and buffing them with an old towel until I could see my reflection in the leather.

Next, under orders from my Mother, I reached way back in the closet and withdrew my old gray sport coat and removed the mothballs from the pockets.

Mother sniffed my coat and frowned and instructed me to hang it outside in the breeze to remove the smell of chemicals and long term storage. She then selected my best pair of dress pants that were navy blue and ironed them for me. Those pants had only been worn before to church and to funerals which were always somber occasions.

I remember thinking the prom would be a similar type event for me. Mother asked me to bring her my long sleeve white dress shirt which she ironed.

She told me not to wear it until I had eaten supper the evening of the prom. She said that she had worked hard to get it just right and did not want it to be stained. The next evening, after I had put everything on, my Dad looked me over and remarked that my navy blue tie didn't look quite right, it was lopsided and the knot was too big.

He redid it for me in a half-windsor knot, and when he was finished both tips just reached my belt buckle. I remember that he tried to cheer me up by remarking that I looked pretty good for a boy without a date.

As Dad and I traveled to the High School in the old Plymouth, I kept thinking of the Marty Robbins' song "A White Sport Coat And A Pink Carnation," which had been popular a few years before.

I knew exactly how he must have felt. I too, was all dressed up for the dance and had no girl to go with me.

Dad told me that he was sure that I would have a good time. He told me not to hesitate, when the music started, I should ask the first girl I saw to dance with me. He said it was simple, and I should not try to over think the situation.

His final words were that I would only be young once and I should make the most of it.

We parked near the fence across from the gym, I sat in the car and watched all the young happy couples walking up the steps and entering the gym.

The boys looked spiffy in their sport coats as they walked arm in arm with their dates who were wearing evening gowns with contrasting corsages.

The girls' high heels made them appear almost as tall as their escorts. It seemed that everyone, except me, was smiling and nodding and having a fine time.

Suddenly, I wished I was someplace else.

Making things even worse, Dad had deserted me by getting out of the car and was climbing the steps to the gym and talking with another teacher.

Hesitantly, I got out of the car and stood beside it. I felt very alone and suddenly realized that this was all a big mistake. What was I thinking by agreeing to come here?

After a few minutes had passed, I saw a group of boys who were walking together toward the gym and I started to feel better. They obviously didn't have dates either. I decided that maybe I might survive this event and so I fell in step beside them.

As we entered the gym we could see that the 1959 Calhoun High School Prom was going to be a special event. The place had been decorated with red and white crepe paper. Posters had been made up and suspended by strings from the rafters proclaiming prom night. There were ribbons and balloons everywhere.

The basketball backboard had been cranked up to the ceiling out of the way in front of the stage. Several canvas tarps had been placed on the gym floor and tables and chairs were strategically placed so that people could sit and watch the dancing.

The Audio-Visual Club had provided the sound system with amplifiers for the night's entertainment. Several club members were on the stage adjusting and connecting the electronic pieces.

I saw a record player with stacks of 45 rpm records on a nearby stand. I remember someone on the stage was adjusting a microphone and repeating the words, "testing, one two three, testing, one two three."

Evidently, there were gremlins in the sound system because we heard electronic screeching noises that persisted for a short time and were finally silenced. Someone near the back wall of the gym gave a thumbs up signal to the person at the microphone and the gym suddenly became almost quiet except for the low hum of the amplifiers.

I found a chair near the exit beside the folded bleachers so I could slip quickly unseen out of the building if necessary. I sat and watched as the gym filled with people. I talked with another boy who sat down beside me.

I found it odd that he was not concerned that he didn't have a date for this event. We watched as someone tapped the microphone and welcomed everyone to the prom. I don't remember much of what was said next except that refreshments were available in the cafeteria.

When the music started, I watched as the couples started dancing near the stage. It was sort of funny to see the single boys on my side of the gym and the single girls on the other side watching each other and seeing the couples dancing in the center of the floor.

After several songs had been played, I saw several brave boys make the long walk across the floor to ask girls to dance. I watched as they joined the others on the dance floor. I thought to myself, how hard can this be? If they can do that, I should be able to do the same thing.

I knew from all my preparations that I should look ok. I had shaved with Dad's razor and only cut myself once. I remembered to put on extra deodorant and I was fairly confident in my appearance because I had really worked on my combination flat top and duck tail style haircut.

But, I was hesitant to cross the floor. What if the girl refused to dance with me? I said to myself, it wouldn't be the end of the world, or would it? I knew there was only one way to find out.

When the Platters started singing "Only You" I knew that I really wanted to dance and hold some girl close just like the other boys were doing.

I sat there and listened to several songs and when the Danleers started singing "One Summer Night," I decided that I would take a deep breath and make the long walk across the floor and ask some girl to dance when the next song began.

About that time, I saw Betty Estep sitting at a table near the far side of the gym. All the boys considered her to be very pretty and very special and there she was tonight looking really good.

I always thought of her as the All-American Girl. She was bright, athletic looking and pretty and had a good personality. She was talking with several other girls and boys who were standing near her table.

It happened so suddenly and resulted from a combination of events. Without thinking of the possible consequences of my actions, I was on my feet and walking toward her table as The Five Satins started singing "In the Still of the Night."

It was a long walk to her table. With my heart pounding, I asked her to dance with me. Looking up at me and smiling without speaking she rose out of her chair and we started dancing. With her slender hand in mine we moved to the music of the moment. I remember gently pulling her to me with my right arm. With her head on my shoulder, her hair had a lovely aroma and it tickled my neck as we danced. I was so careful not to step on her toes.

You cannot imagine all the thoughts going through my 16 year old mind as I held her so close. I never wanted the music to end, but, all too soon, it did.

In a very subdued manner, I thanked her for the dance and started to retreat when she spoke and said that I could sit with her.

Somewhat flustered by this turn of events, I forced myself to breathe normally and groped behind my back for a chair and awkwardly sat down beside her.

We did not speak as we watched the others talking and laughing near us. It was just as well because I had no idea what to say to her. In that tenuous moment, I was saved by the music.

I always liked the Platters because their songs were great for slow dancing. When I heard the opening lines of their classic "The Great Pretender," I asked her again to dance.

And so we did dance again. Here in my arms was a very pretty girl who was willing to dance with me. She felt small, but not frail, and her slender body was surprisingly strong. She moved with me almost like a shadow anticipating my every move. Because of her, I was almost graceful in my movements.

During the evening, I danced with other girls when the person at the microphone called out a ladies choice dance and Betty danced with other boys when it was gentleman's choice. But I always returned to her and she to me.

When she danced with other boys, I watched her move across the floor with such ease. We sat for a while and started talking about what songs were best for slow dancing. She said something funny and soon we were both laughing, and I realized that my parents were right, I was having a good time. I told myself that I would always remember this night.

When the final song had been played and the program was ending, I asked Betty if I could take her home. She replied that she had made arrangements to spend the night at Judy Thomas' house on South Side above the Hope Gas complex. She said that she and several other girls had made arrangements to sleep over there.

I persisted and asked if I could drive her to the Thomas home. She said that would be fine with her.

I told her there was one little problem and I would work through it. I explained that I had to take Dad home first and then I would return for her. When she said she would wait there for me, I hurried around and had a really difficult time locating my Dad.

I finally found him in a corner talking with Holly Kirby, the janitor. I explained to him that I needed the car for Betty and me. He said that it would be no problem, we could all go together and drop her off at the Thomas house on our way home. Becoming rather excited, I explained again what I needed to do.

Suddenly, a light came on in Dad's eyes and he grinned at me and clapped a big hand on my shoulder. Even Holly Kirby slapped me on the back.

Dad quickly ended his conversation with Holly and we started out of the gym. I waved across the floor to Betty who waved back to me. Dad suggested that I drive since I would be returning to the gym after I let him out.

I remember that my mind was all abuzz and I was not thinking clearly as we traveled past Leaf Bank when suddenly Dad told me to slow down.

I didn't realize that I was running about 65 mph. Dad remarked that I was driving like our house was on fire. He said that Holly would not turn the lights out on Betty and there was no need for me to run the old Plymouth so hard.

We finally reached our driveway and I turned down toward the house. Before he got out of the car, Dad told me to be nice to Betty because she was a good girl. I agreed and said that he had nothing to worry about.

With him out of the car, I started backing toward the road when I again heard his voice. I thought to myself, darn, what is it now? He opened the passenger door and stuck his head in and told me not to wreck his car on my way back to Grantsville.

He also said that I should be home by midnight because, otherwise, my Mother would worry about me.

I agreed with everything he said, but I wanted desperately to get out of our driveway. I remember that he stood there in the semi darkness of the garage light and watched me drive away toward town.

I arrived back at the gym and felt uneasy because the inside lights were dim and it looked like everyone had gone home. I remember that I ran up the steps into the gym and with a sigh of relief saw Betty still sitting at the table.

I mumbled a feeble apology for being late. She smiled and said it was no big deal, I'm sure, just to make me feel better. As we left the building I saw Holly and Tap Kirby stacking chairs and starting the cleanup process.

Once outside, Betty held onto my arm as we approached the car because her high heels made it difficult to walk on the rough terrain, and in that moment, I felt so proud. I opened the passenger door for her and silently cursed myself for not cleaning the interior before the prom.

With her seated, I gently closed the door and hustled quickly to the other side and got into the car and we started for the Thomas home.

We arrived all too soon at the Thomas residence and the porch light was on. I noticed several parked cars there. We were greeted at the door by Judy Thomas and others.

I remember that there were several girls from our class already inside with their dates for the evening. That explained all the cars. We boys sat and talked while the girls disappeared to change into more comfortable clothing.

I remember Mrs. Thomas brought out hot cocoa and cookies for us while we waited for the girls to return. Mrs. Thomas made us all feel comfortable and retreated when the girls returned.

We spent the rest of the evening playing various board games until Judy's favorite show came on the TV. It was "77 Sunset Strip" staring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Edd "Kookie" Burns.

After that show ended, we sat and talked about the prom and some funny things we had seen such as tall boys dancing with really short girls and vice versa.

We noted that some really shy people can be very uninhibited on the dance floor. Along toward 11:30 pm, Mrs. Thomas appeared again and I knew it was time to leave.

We boys reluctantly shuffled toward the door with our coats in our hands and started saying our goodbyes. It was difficult for me to leave because I wanted to talk privately with Betty, but everybody was standing around in the yard and the stupid porch light was still on.

Since I could think of no other option, I reached for Betty's hands and held them in mine and told her that I had a wonderful time dancing with her. She smiled and said that she had enjoyed the evening, too.

On the way home in the old Plymouth, I drove slowly and tried to remember everything that had occurred that evening. I smiled when I sensed a wisp of Betty's perfume still lingering in the car.

I took a deep breath because I wanted to immerse myself in it. Arriving home, I parked the car in our garage and turned off the outside light. I quietly slipped into the kitchen and tossed the keys on the refrigerator and quietly walked down the hallway to my bed room. I undressed, turned off the light and got into bed and realized that I had experienced an amazing evening.

As I lay there in my bed, the house seemed so quiet. I heard the mantle clock in the front room strike 12 times. I was alone with my thoughts, my mind racing almost out of control. I hoped that I would dream of Betty when I fell asleep. Would I ever dance with her again? Would I ever hold her again? Did she like me, or was she just being nice to me? What would it feel like to kiss her? Would she want that? Dad had said that she was a good girl.

Good girls are always nice to people. That was it, she was being nice to me because I probably looked lost when she first saw me. If I was lost, she saved me. Well, if she was just being nice to me, I should just let it go at that.

Real life is not like in the movies, Buster.

I needed to get my head on straight. I was only 16 and what could I possibly know about the world? I knew I liked the way I felt when she was close to me. I had a good time tonight. Why was I so miserable now?

All this wanting and needing was so new to me.

My thoughts were interrupted by a gentle tapping at my door. My Mother stood silhouetted in the doorway by the night light in the hallway. She said that Dad had told her that I had a good time dancing with Betty at the prom. I replied that I had an amazing time. She said that none of it would have happened if she hadn't pushed me out the door.

I told her that I would always remember this night. She smiled and came over and kissed my forehead and told me to get a good night's sleep. She needn't have bothered. I don't think I slept a wink that night.

Post Script: In this true story, I tried to capture again what it was like to be 16 years old and all the emotions of that age. Apologies in advance to Betty Estep Kirby and her husband Dave who is a really nice guy. I have the utmost respect for both of them.

I talked with them at the recent all class reunion. I hope that Dave will not shoot me and Betty will not kill me when I see them again at next year's reunion.


Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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