The Old Hand
Seeing all the kids in their prom outfits always remind me of my first fancy dress dance, and how I had to prepare for it.
First, I needed a suit. The only suit I ever had before, was for my First Communion. Since my folks were paying for it, Mom went along. I wanted a charcoal grey suit so I could wear a pink shirt with it – the cool combo back in those days.
The clerk said they had charcoal grey pants, but no suits. He showed us several other choices of suits. None which pleased both Mom and myself. Then he suggested a sport coat instead of a suit. When he pointed out I’d get more use out of a sport coat because it would go with practically anything, Mom was all for it. After all we didn’t get much use out of my First Communion suit. I wore it once and each of my two brothers wore it once. And since the sport coat would go with practically anything, and the anything could mean a pink shirt and charcoal grey pants, so was I.
Next on my to-do list was ordering a corsage, so I went to my friend Jack, whose father was the town florist. He asked me a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer, like the color of her gown, the color of her eyes, the color of her hair. I explained it was a blind date thing. She went to an all girls school. I never met her, just talked to her once, over the phone.
‘If it would help,’ I offered, ‘Her name is Mary Margaret.’ It didn’t help.
‘Well,’ Jack said, ‘Why don’t I just make up a nice corsage that will go with practically anything.’
‘Sounds good. I’ll pick it up Saturday.’
‘Wait,’ he said, ‘How about I give you a boutonnière? On the house.’
‘A boot in the ear! How about I give you a cuff in the mouth? On the house.’
Jack laughed and laughed. He thought I was making a joke. Finally he stopped laughing and I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about. He explained that a boutonnière a small corsage a man wore in his lapel. Sounded okay to me.
‘Now just a few questions. What color ……?’
‘Whoa, whoa, Jack. Tell you what. I got a sports coat that will go with practically anything. I just bought a corsage that will go with practically anything. How about you just make up a boutonnière that will go with practically anything.’
Jack did and my date loved her corsage and my boutonnière. We had a couple of dates afterwards, but then we drifted apart. I forgot about her, but Jack never forgot about me ordering her flowers. Several years later when I was ordering the wedding corsage for my bride-to-be, Jack told me what he thought would look the best with the color of her gown, the color of her eyes, and the color of her hair. Something specific for my lovely lady, and not just something that would go with practically anything.
Then he asked me, ‘And what would you like? A boutonnière – or maybe a cuff in the mouth? On the house, of course.”
Published St. Paul Dispatch BB 5/30/14
While that was the end of my article in the Bulletin Board, it wasn’t the end of the story.
The evening of the dance, I got all spiffed up, had Mom pin my boutonnière on my go-with-anything sport coat and set out. Drove the mile to the Mendota Bridge, drove the almost – mile over the bridge, then over the very short Fort Snelling Bridge, turned left on the River Road for a half mile, pulled into the long driveway of the very nice house which would have had a nice view of the river if it wasn’t for the large trees on the river bluff. It was five minutes to the appointed time when I rang the doorbell. The younger brother answered the door, turned and yelled to his sister that her date was here.
‘Oops!’ I said. ‘Ah, tell your sister, I’ll be right back.’ Went back to the car, got in, backed out of the driveway, drove down River Road, crossed the two bridges, and drove into our driveway. Ran in the house and, sure enough, the box with my date’s corsage was just where I left it, on the kitchen table. Reversed the route and made it back to the big house on the River Road about a half hour after I had left.
This time her father answered the door. In reality, he was about six inches shorter than me; but standing in the doorway, staring at me, he seemed ten feet tall with a look on his face that could curdle milk. He didn’t say a word. Instead, he just let me talk my way out of the embarrassing situation that I found myself in. Finally he turned to his wife, who was standing behind him, and told her to tell Mary Margaret to finish dressing. He let me in the house and pointed to the couch.
‘I was told it was to be a double date,’ he said in a rough voice. ‘I don’t see anybody out in your car.’
I explained that we had to pick up my friend and his date next. He shook his head okay. His daughter came down the stairs. I stood up, the corsage box in my hands. While I was saying hello and offering the explanation for my weird behavior, he jerked the box from my hands. ‘Here,’ he said, handing the box to his wife. ‘You pin this on her.’ The last thing he wanted to see was a strange, very strange, boy fumbling around his daughter’s bodice. Actually, he did me a big favor. My hands were trembling so much, I might have stuck her with the pin and gotten a boot in the ear from her father.
I apologized again, walking to the car, and again as soon as I started to back out the driveway, and again as we headed out. She kept telling me not to worry about it. Those things happen. She did confess that she had set a time limit to how long she was going to wait until she undressed and wrote me off. We made small talk and laughed about it. My hands were still trembling.
We had gone several blocks when I noticed she made a small Sign of the Cross. I tried to pretend I didn’t notice it, but a little later, she made another Sign of the Cross. This time I looked at her. She smiled and continued to talk. We were just a few blocks from picking up my buddy when she made yet another Sign of the Cross.
‘Okay!’ I said, pulling the car to the curb, ‘I didn’t think I was driving bad; but if I’m scaring you, you can drive.’ I pulled the key out of the ignition and tried to hand it to her.
She had no idea what I was talking about. I told her. ‘You keep praying, making the Sign of the Cross. If you’re so scared to ride with me…..’
She smiled hesitantly, and gave a quick laugh. She explained that it was something all the girls in her school did. Every time they drove past a church, they made a small Sign of the Cross. It was just a ritual and had nothing to do with my driving.
Oops! I wondered if my sport coat that went-with-almost-anything went with my red face. The rest of the evening went off without any more disasters, unless you count a couple times I stepped on her toes while we were dancing.
Pink shirts and charcoal grey pants were definitely the uniform of the day. Some of the guys had charcoal grey suits. Some wore just a pink shirt and charcoal grey pants without a jacket or tie. Some, like me, had a sport coat to finish off the look; but unlike me, their jackets didn’t quite have a go – with – almost – anything look. And nobody had a boutonnière to equal mine.
P.S. My wife, after reading the newspaper article, asked me if I remembered what kind of flowers made up her bridal corsage; and then quickly told me, they were gardenias that had to ordered special. As if I didn’t know the answer!