RAMBLINGS • Birthday Party For A Non-Party Animal

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No one has called me a party animal–ever. I might have attended one birthday party when I was 11 or 12, when a daughter of a friend of my mother's became a teenager and her mom invited a few neighboring kids to their house. I knew Mary Louise only because we went to the same small country church and rode the same bus to school, but I went to the party only to please my mom.

The only "party" I attended in college was comical, at least as I recall it now 55 years or so later. I went to smaller schools partially because I prefer small settings to larger institutions by nature. Perhaps I would have been better served academically at a Penn State or a similar university, but I wasn't considering going at all until Judy, long before we dated, said she thought I ought to go somewhere beyond high school. Then, when Pop Hampe, a traveling recruiter from a small Presbyterian sponsored junior college in North Carolina, spoke to our church's youth group, he talked about his school where one could pay room and board by working on campus, I saw college as a possibility, especially when Judy began talking about going there.

After the obligatory two years, I transferred to Berea, another work school in Kentucky designed to serve poor folk from Appalachia. The National Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church paid for most of my tuition at both places; Judy also applied but wasn't accepted because her father's income was above the poverty level. She went to Blackburn instead.

Warren Wilson, Berea, and Blackburn had at least two things in common: one had to work for partial payment of costs, and no fraternities or sororities existed on campus. I didn't know much about Greek organizations, but as a country boy with country ways, I was generally opposed to them. To me, at least as they were characterized in movies of the day, they were dens for weird initiations, wild parties, and rich kids who felt entitled. An Ivy League school certainly wouldn't have been a good fit for me.

My one college social gathering didn't go well. Berea was a bigger school than WWC, perhaps because it was a senior college. Every fall five to ten WWC students would enroll either at Berea or Blackburn to work on their bachelor's degree, and in the fall of '64, those of us who attended Berea grouped together occasionally because of past shared experiences.

I lived in a dorm, and late in October the dorm sponsored a hayride. Dorm life suited me; in that era, the food the cafeteria fixed for us was plentiful and tasty, and laundry service was provided. I'd work half a day on the college farm (Berea grew tobacco at that time as a cash crop; I learned to hang tobacco in the drying barn) and go to class the other half. Soccer practice took a couple hours in the afternoons, and the dorms had intramural touch football games and intramural basketball–usually there was more contact on the basketball court than on the football field. For a late-adolescent male who was not yet indoctrinated into the mysteries of sex, it was a cool existence. (Before you snicker, realize that the mid-60s was a relatively naive time, at least in the social circles I preferred. The sexual revolution was only a rumor, or so I thought. I might have known who Hugh Hefner was when I was 19, but I'm sure neither of my parents nor any of their friends did.)

My Berea roommate, a freshman from Chattanooga, thought I should take a date on the hayride. A fellow WWC refugee, Jeannie, had asked if I'd play tennis with her on a couple warm Sunday afternoons; she'd had a steady (that's an old school term) boyfriend at WWC, but he wasn't at Berea; and I'd written to Judy a few times over the seven or eight weeks I'd been in Kentucky, but it was nice to be with someone occasionally who wore perfume even if I wasn't sure why. We went to see Cleopatra, the Liz Taylor film when it was shown in town; she seemed a safe date to me, as I assumed I did to her–nothing serious, ever, but a friend for the moment when circumstances dictated.

Little did I know a college hayride wasn't the same as a chaperoned youth group hayride back home–until maybe 10 minutes after it started and the other couples were rather involved with each other. I don't remember much about the experience, except Jeannie and I sat and talked quietly–I have no idea about what. I suspect she was almost as embarrassed as I by the sounds we heard around us, but the shy person I've always been couldn't launch myself in her direction, nor could I talk about it with her.

If she was disappointed (I know she was more wise in the ways of the world than I–so was everyone else), she was too ladylike to say so. Had she made the first move, I'd probably have jumped off the wagon. Now when I think about it, which isn't often, I'd like to know if she thought I was a gentleman (my interpretation) or a dork, but we didn't talk about it. Few opportunities to discuss the situation occured as shortly afterwards I returned to Pennsylvania because Dad's lung cancer had spread to his brain. Not only was my presence needed at home, but I needed to be there.

Neither what didn't happen on the hayride nor the lack of party experiences as a youngster completely explains my aversion to social gatherings in these, my well-after 70 years, but both are part and parcel of me. I have had a few good party experiences, though.

In the fall of 1970, after I'd taught two years and decided that was my calling, Dave Ball asked if I'd be the statistics person for the football team. Since I'd just been hired to cover football for The Journal, I knew I'd need accurate stats; and I'd be at the games to take notes anyway, so it was an easy yes. (Since then, I've missed one football game when kidney stones meant a hospital stay on a Saturday when HHS played Mater Dei at home.) The first couple years Larry Hewitt helped; later Houston Satterlee became my spotter, followed by Ralph Ward. The last 20 years or so I've been on my own (I only keep offensive stats for both teams; the defensive stats are kept by an assistant coach on the field, which is why I trek across the field to collect that sheet after the games).

Among the perks are free admission to the games and a seat in the press box, though I haven't always used that. Too, for the first several seasons (those coached by Mr. Ball and Rich Stewart) the coaches' wives would gather at someone's house for food and, at least for the men, chatter about the contest. Judy and I enjoyed going to (and hosting once a season) those gatherings.

Judy liked to entertain, so on Old Settlers we'd host a dinner gathering for friends on parade Thursdays. Our front yard featured a view of the parade passing by–from the sheriff and local police cars in the beginning to the horses and pooper scoopers at the end, so people liked to congregate there. I enjoyed those gatherings. (Since Judy passed in 1991, the dinners ceased–no one, including myself, thought my grilling talents would match the fish sandwiches and corn dogs available uptown.)

The high school faculty gathered in the cafeteria occasionally for evening Christmas parties. Because I enjoyed the company of those fellow sufferers, I enjoyed the gatherings, even when Janet Carlyle, the office boss no matter what the principal thought, tried to embarrass 12 of the least vocally talented males by assigning us a part of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." If one hasn't heard Mr. Ball bellow "Five golden rings," ask him to perform it for you; I have yet to forget that. Once, in a later decade, I was encouraged to play Santa Claus at a faculty party at the Church Street Pub; that was fun because it was so out of character for me.

Generally, though it's not personal to the inviters, I turn down invitations to parties. I'm still basically a shy person; living alone with sporadic outings to a daughter or a grandchild's house is a comfortable normal for me. I can function in a group, but it isn't my favorite thing. I suspect not having a partner is a contributing factor, but I'm consistent. Even when I dated Judy and later a few post-Judy times when one or the other daughter would say, "Dad, you need someone," I've been more comfortable at home wearing slippers than out wearing dancing boots (I own none of those).

The girls have tricked me twice–once on my 50th birthday, when they had a close circle of friends come to my house for a surprise gathering, and last Nov. 17, the Sunday before my 76th birthday, when they planned and executed a surprise party at the Challacombe House. The word went out via facebook because the girls knew I couldn't access social media if my life depended on it.

I don't have room to thank everyone who came–I've rambled myself out of space again–but know I appreciated your attendance. One young man said he's now teaching and coaching because of the way I treated him when he was in high school; that means more to me than he'll ever know, though I suspect he'll be angry with me when parents call to question his methods–it happens to all of us.

Two players from one of my freshman teams showed up together to thank me; in terms of wins and losses, we didn't have a great season that year, but they worked hard and evidently had a good time. Later a source told me they had tried to bring the whole team to the party, but most are scattered across the country.

One young man and his wife came bearing a plaque saying I'd changed his life when I coached him. (He was part of a group self entitled "The Flamin' Caucasians" when I first met him). Not only had I coached him, I coached his son on an elementary team years afterward. I didn't open the present (presents weren't expected that afternoon) until after I was home; that's good because reading it made me misty-eyed.

Former Preface staffers showed up with copies of their old high school paper in hand; they sat together at a table and cackled so loudly I was tempted to ask them to tone it down. I'm glad I didn't–it was a lyrical sound, and most likely they wouldn't have listened to me anyway. They seldom did back in the day when at least theoretically I had a modicum of authority over them.

When the girls were becoming old enough to not want to share a bedroom, Judy and I added two rooms over the kitchen of our East Tremont home. Architecturally they are an eyesore from the outside, but that wasn't a concern 40 years ago. One of the features of the rooms that I liked were wall-height cork bulletin boards installed just inside the doors; since the girls moved out, those bulletin boards have been blank.

No more. I'll take time this winter to pin cards, the written messages of remembrance, and the emailed thoughts (once Dawn has time to print them off for me) onto the cork. Then, when the blues hit me, as they visit all thinking people, I can retreat upstairs to read all the affirmations that will be displayed there. They prove I was true to my calling. 

I need to know that occasionally.

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