The Voice of God
Three girls were clustered in the hallway of my high school. It was early April of 1958, on an Air Force base in Puerto Rico, between classes. I was walking toward them, in a way that could take me right up to them – or right past them. I’d decide which depending on what they were talking about. Which turned out to be this:
Peggy: “Hey, Sue I hear you’ll be at the Spring Formal after all.”
Sue (with a nervous shrug): “Yeah, I’m going with Bob Gilliam.” She wasn’t looking right at Peggy.
Peggy (unconvincingly): “Oh, that’s cool. Is your mom gonna drive you?”
Sue: “Yeah – do you and Teddy need a ride?”
By this time, my decision was made – a slight shift of stride took me past them, my ears burning and my gaze fixed on the ever-fascinating rows of lockers, as if I had never noticed them before.
So who was I kidding? The Sophomore Spring Formal was four days away, and I didn’t have a date. Actually, at almost fifteen and a half, I’d never had a date before at all. And I was too scared to ask any girl in the class.
Sue had been my fallback; the one I told myself I’d ask if all else failed. She was nice enough, and seemed to like talking to me. But she was – well, she just wasn’t pretty.
There, I said it. I might have been shy, but I still had fantasies about showing up with a beauty queen on my arm. So shoot me. I had been telling myself there were other girls I would ask first; but of course, I hadn’t done it. And now she’d gone and asked Bob Gilliam. Bob, who was skinny, with glasses and big teeth.
I was sure Sue must have asked him, not the other way around. If anything Bob was even more bashful with girls than me. Mostly he liked to talk about going to college to study engineering, of all things. I’d never yet heard a girl go oooh and aaah over engineering.
And there was one other thing I knew about Bob, a secret which I have never told another living soul, but which I’ll tell you now:
Bob didn’t know how to dance the bop.
Speaking of the bop, where did that stupid dance come from? I had no clue, but it was what they were doing at every teen party and prom that year. I had seen a record album cover which had what were called directions for how to do it (along with a picture of a four-footed Siamese, which was called a “cool cat). I recognized the cat, but couldn’t make head or tail out of the instructions. So Bob’s ignominious secret was mine too.
I haven’t always been a flop at dancing. A few years later I learned to do the Twist pretty well; girls liked that. But that future achievement was no help in 1958. Even today, the bop remains a total mystery to me; I can’t even fake it decently.
In fact, I sometimes imagine facing a solemn-faced judge, looking down from the bench, banging his gavel and declaring, “The defendant, Mr. Fager, having been found guilty, has a choice for his sentence: he must do the bop, right here and now, or face the firing squad.”
And in that nightmare scenario, I’d have to reply, “Your honor, may I have a last cigarette and that blindfold?” (And I hate smoking. But at least I know how.)
Anyway, trudging on down the hall past Sue, I saw other sophomores chatting, and figured they were all jabbering on about the Spring Formal too.
I said there were three girls in that cluster I had veered past. The third, who stood silently as Peggy and Sue rattled on, was Carmelita. Carmelita was Puerto Rican; her father was a contractor for the Air Force who lived on the base. Her family was trying to assimilate into our 1950s Anglo culture, and I’m sure it wasn’t easy. In fact, one thing I liked about Sue was that she had befriended Carmelita, and was quietly helping her find her way. Carmelita’s English was good, with an accent, but she often seemed a little confused about how things worked socially here.
I could dig it, as we said then. My assimilation into that Anglo teen culture was not going so well either.
Did I mention that Carmelita was also lovely, with smooth olive skin, aquiline features, and long black hair? But her beauty seemed almost otherworldly amid our motley mainland crew, and she wasn’t really on my list of pretty girls among my classmates; she was several cuts above that. I’m not sure I had ever even spoken to her.
Anyway, she had just stood there, looking a bit uncomfortable as Peggy and Sue went on about their ball gowns; and by then I was out of earshot.
Would Carmelita end up being among those of us who didn’t go to the Spring Formal at all? It was hard to imagine. For me, though, it was excruciatingly easy to foresee the shame and humiliation of being in that rump group. I’ve forgotten what we would have been called back then; but it would be the 1958 equivalent of “pathetic losers.” Our class wasn’t large; everyone would know. Either you had been there, or not.
So there I was, caught between a rock and a hard place: scared to ask any girl to go, and equally scared of not going. I didn’t know what to do.
If this was a story of the 1990s or today, I might have been thinking about ending it all – but 1958 was a gentler time, I guess. I didn’t really want to stop living. But being kidnaped by Russian spies for a week would be okay; or maybe falling into an unexplained coma; or how about getting temporarily lost in the rain forest at the other end of Puerto Rico?
As it turned out, I got something better, something I would now call “divine assistance.” It happened the very next morning.
Which was just in time too: with only three days to go, I was on the verge of panic. But then, as I was in home room, picking up my textbooks for English class, I heard what must have been God speaking. This time, God spoke in that famous still small voice, but with a lilt, and a distinct Spanish accent.
“So you’re going!” It was Sue, cooing somewhere behind me. (Hers was not, by the way, that still small voice.)
“Yes,” It was Carmelita who answered.
“Who with?” Sue persisted.
“I’m going with Chuck Fager,” she said softly.
My textbooks dropped to the floor, and I stumbled trying to pick them up. Then I acted as if I’d known all along, and rushed out into the hallway.
But in fact I was thunderstruck. What had happened? How?
The back story came out at home that evening. My father sat me down and explained that he had met Carmelita’s dad at the officer’s club on the base, and they had discussed the Spring Formal. Finding that Carmelita and I were un-spoken for with time running out, they arranged the date for us. Such things, I was told, frequently happened in her Spanish culture. It seemed like a miracle in mine.
Yet I didn’t dare to speak aloud the other question that still hung over me, which was: does she know that I can’t dance the bop? I doubt my father knew what the bop was; so I figured I’d just count my blessings and take my chances with that.
When the big night came, mother adjusted my clip-on necktie, helped me put on the jacket that didn’t really go with the pants, and made sure my scuffy shoes were as shiny as they were going to get. I was not exactly a fashion plate, but it was as dressed up as I’d ever been except for a couple of times in church.
I fidgeted in the back seat as she drove our big maroon Lincoln to Camelita’s house, which was only a few blocks away; they lived in the same housing area we did. Then I was knocking at the door, and out she came.
Carmelita was stunning. She wore a strapless white satin dress that flared into a flowing skirt. A delicate tiara twinkled in her dark hair. She looked and carried herself like a princess. I could hardly speak; I felt like a total hick, which was not far off the mark.
Nevertheless, at the NCO Club all the heads turned when she came in beside me. It was no contest: she was the belle of the ball. Sue was among the first to arrive, oohing and aahing over the dress and the look; but a line soon formed behind her. Next to Carmelita, their pastel chiffons and taffetas looked just plain ordinary, like a patch of dandelions around a single long-stemmed dark-red rose.
Orbiting nearby, like one of Saturn’s moons, I could feel the eyes of the other boys seeking me out, going back and forth between us. “How in the hell,” I could hear them thinking, “did HE end up here with HER–?”
A good question, to be sure. Hah, I said to myself, she’s here with ME because YOU didn’t ask her. (Of course, I hadn’t asked her either; but they didn’t have to know that. ) I just tried to look haughty and self-assured; or at least cool.
A further grace was that, while Carmelita held court, a few of the bolder guys ventured over and asked her to dance. I let them take her for the bop numbers, and danced with her myself during the slow ones, where my clumsiness was not, I hoped, so obvious. We more or less glided around, and I only stepped on her foot once or twice.
And then in a blink, it was time to go home. I was still in something of a daze, and hardly spoke to her on the way back. But Carmelita was gracious to the last, thanking me with a small curtsey at her door.
By the next morning, of course, I had developed a total, full-blown, besotted crush on her. Not that she ever let on that she noticed me mooning around when we were back in school. She only smiled, spoke politely, and kept moving.
Soon enough, school was out, and I did not see her again. My crush faded, and the next fall, I was in a different school, and that’s another story.
I sometimes wonder what has become of Carmelita in the fifty-plus years since that golden night. I assume she eventually had a spectacular wedding, perhaps in that same dress; it would be hard to top. Maybe she traveled; I could see her as a real princess in Spain, or the first lady of Puerto Rico. (For that matter, maybe the governor herself; it happened there a few years ago.)
I could also see her as the spouse of the biggest rum magnate on the island, running the business empire from behind the scenes.
In any event, surely her half-century was nothing like my checkered past, going from a military upbringing to being a peace activist and falling in among Quakers and such like. Not that I’m complaining. I’ll take divine assistance for the gift that it is when it’s offered, and not ask for more.
Well, not much more. I mean, doggone it, if God could get me through the ordeal of the Spring Formal, couldn’t he(or she) have gone just that little tiny extra step, and helped me learn how to do the bop?
After all, you never know when I might run into that solemn-faced, gavel-banging judge.
Copyright 2009 by Chuck Fager.