It is early winter in the year 1942. The United States has just been attacked by a foreign power and the annihilation of our Pacific fleet is complete; the fence-sitting is over and the U.S. has officially entered the war. We will no longer simultaneously send humanitarian aid to the Chinese, and scrap metal and petroleum to Japan. Our country is shaken and enraged. And aroused. Our monumental defense production will soon pull us the rest of the way out of the Great Depression.
This was the background of my life at age 12. I had no brothers, my father began working for defense and was exempt from the draft, as was my stepfather, who was a World War I veteran. No one was missing from my life — I wasn’t scared. Soon to come would be rationing, air-raid warnings and blackouts. Our seventh grade class learned to knit and made afghans for the army. There were victory gardens in the cornfields surrounding us, and we bought war bonds a stamp at a time. glider pilots being trained at a nearby airfield practiced landing in a meadow half a mile away, where we watched the small elegant craft come down, gliding indeed, whispering to a stop almost in front of us kids, sitting on the fence watching.
Loss and horror and disaster were worldwide while I stood safe in the middle of my living room one Saturday night in 1942 amidst a circle of admiring relatives. My friend Jean stood beside me. We were wearing our first long dresses and ready to go to a formal dance at the little school we had been attending for several months, and my uncle Alex was filming us with his movie camera. My dress was pink taffeta, with little blue velvet bows going down the bodice front, puffed sleeves and a sweetheart neckline. I wore my mother’s pearls. I had on black patent leather pumps with a little heel and silk stockings, held up by a garter belt of fascinating complexity. Something had been done to my straight hair with a curling iron. I carried a tiny gold mesh bag with a hankie in it. Jean was dressed the same, except her dress and bows were pale green to set off her beautiful wavy red hair. Out mothers had made it all. (I was envious of her hair, and not wholly her friend, right on into adulthood and the present moment.)
These family times helped the adults probably, and gave an illusion of normality to a frightened, crazy world. Jobs continued, school continued, the war effort extended right down to the youngest children who saved tin foil and coat hangers for the metal, and had newspaper drives at school. Parties continued, with picnics and family celebrations. We were safe in our own country. I learned to play tennis, and dancing school began.
When a girl was 11 or 12 she was deemed ready for this adventure and was a willing participant because it usually meant dressing up. How boys were coerced into this scene I do not know. Remember Penrod? He turned quite savage and fled, as did a boy I remember as Charles, who walked out one evening never to return. We were not taught deportment, as our mothers and grandmothers would have been; this was not where we acquired our manners — we had already learned them at home sufficiently well in the first place to allow us to join this little masquerade of children copying adults. But it was a social scene and was something to be taken in its turn, like riding a bike and learning to swim.
I was sent to Miss Tommye Choate’s Dancing School. It was held in a big room over a movie theatre, being actually a studio for ballet classes and had one side entirely of mirrors. There were benches lined up on either side — no chandeliers, no gold painted chairs, but a pleasant room with nice lighting. Boys on one side, girls on the other. The music consisted of percussion, piano and some kind of horn, maybe a sax.
What did we learn to dance? The fox-trot — that is, ballroom dancing. And the music? Night and Day, Deep Purple, Stardust, Frenesi — what else? It was the big band era, and a few years later when we were teenagers we would need no lessons in dancing cheek to cheek to the music of Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey in the chandeliered ballrooms of the big hotels where the chairs were gold, and the bands were big.
So Miss Choate then requested (required) the boys to invite the girls to dance — what suspense! What horror. What if you were not asked? This is the classic moment all girls will remember as being one of the worst in their lives. (Worse ones came along when we were older, but then we could cope.) Since there were never as many boys as girls it was bound to happen to each of us sooner or later, and the remaining girls would partner each other. One night a boy named Louie (homely, but tall, which overrode everything), headed toward me where I stood beside my friend Jean. He picked Jean. Added to the beautiful hair was now the insult of not being picked first. How I hated her. (Why didn’t I hate Louie?) I cried when I got home that evening and said I would never go back. But I did.
When the evening of the formal dance arrived, there was an extra piece added to our little band and somehow a potted palm had gotten lugged up the stairs to sit beside the piano. We were definitely rising to the occasion! Along one side of the room under the tall windows stood a long table covered with a lace cloth on which was sitting a shining punch bowl with a big chunk of frozen pink sherbet floating in it (this is what one is really learning about at dancing school), and there were pretty plates filled with little cakes and cookies besides. There was a vase of flowers in the center. The girls left their coats in the ante room, but there was no hair combing and checking our lipstick. We didn’t wear any. (Tangee natural didn’t count.) And whatever had been done to my hair, it was there to stay, till the next morning when, thankfully, it had been mashed out of shape on my pillow. We began to dance, and not too badly; and what is more began to feel like we would really like to dance. (This would eventually mean dips and swirls with our partner, and — as Ginger Rogers was described — in heels and backwards.)
So there we stood in my long-ago living room. The high heels and chandeliers off in the future. Pink and green and young and pretty. No one thought of the war for a while; a moment of rest. We had our pictures taken, our bows adjusted again, and were given a kiss on the cheek as we were bundled into the car and driven off to dancing school. The grown-ups headed back into the house, and resumed their cares — sitting down to listen to the latest war news on the radio.
The dress is gone, the film has disappeared. I kept the little gold bag for years, now it’s gone too. But it’s okay; I like my sandals and my denim shirt — and I often wear my mother’s pearls.
Jeanne Hewett is a fabric artist and writer who lives in Vineyard Haven and contributes regularly to the Gazette.