Two score and five years ago, in the twilight of a Saturday in September, my father turned off of Rhinehart Road and drove us into Oakland Park. My friend Craig was in the back seat making wisecracks, something he was famous for at school. Even my father was laughing, and that was no small accomplishment, because he usually had no patience for silly boys. As we followed the winding road beneath oak trees and tall, straight pines, the barely audible melody of a Beatles song floated from the car radio. The low volume was my father’s non-negotiable condition for letting us play the rock-and-roll station whenever he drove us somewhere.
Our car crunched to a stop on the gravel parking lot in front of Oakland Tavern, and Craig and I emerged, falling in line with other smartly dressed boys and girls who had come to the first dance of the new school year, sponsored by the Junior Cotillion of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I wore a blue blazer, double-breasted, and gray slacks. My hair was neatly parted on the left, my double cowlicks subdued by a generous application of Brylcreme. My tie hung in a loose knot below my unbuttoned collar, a small act of rebellion against the dress code I would be forced to endure for the next two hours.
Oakland Tavern was a social events center, for lack of a better description, a tree-shaded building of white brick and lumber, situated on the shore of a small lake. It had a large great room, where the dances were held. The only other features of note were soot-darkened fireplaces at either end of the big room, and hardwood floors worn smooth by the shoes of the generations that had come before us. The building could be rented for receptions and parties and dances and such. It had been the centerpiece of the park since the 1930’s.
We were just inside the front door when someone shouted Craig’s name and he went off in their direction. I sauntered over by one of the fireplaces, looking for familiar faces. I spied the Owen twins across the room, looking uncertain about what they were supposed to do, so I made my way over to where they stood. Both of them were my classmates. They smelled like English Leather cologne.
I didn’t go willingly to the Junior Cotillion dances at first, but after a while I came to like them well enough. Our parents hoped the experience would teach us some manners and social skills that would serve us later on in life. If that was the point, it was completely lost on most of us. We may have been the uncultured youth of Pine Bluff, but we were generally well-behaved and respectful children already. To act otherwise in front of the ladies who chaperoned us would have put us in great peril with our parents, and we knew it. All of us said “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” reflexively, the result of lessons that had begun on the day we uttered our first words and continued relentlessly throughout the years.
I stood with the Owen twins for a while and we watched the band set up their instruments. There were five boys in the group, all seniors in high school, and to us they were the very essence of cool. They could play most of the current hits – 96 Tears, In the Midnight Hour, Gimme Some Lovin. A large highway sign seemed to float in midair behind the drum set. The band took their name from the bold, black letters on the sign – LOOSE GRAVEL. It was speculated among my friends that the sign may have been stolen. This only added to the bands’ mystique, and it made them seem even cooler.
According to custom, every Junior Cotillion dance started with a social experiment called the Grand March. A chaperone choreographed us from the stage, directing girls to line up on one side of the room, boys on the other. While the band played a bouncy tune, each line marched to the center of the dance floor, and whoever we met in the middle was our partner for the first dance. We offered our arms to the girls like we had been taught, and they were accepted with varying degrees of eagerness or disinterest. Then we waited, usually nervous and uncomfortable, for the music to begin.
The other boys and I went to great lengths to position ourselves in the Grand March line so we might be paired with a girl we fancied, usually unbeknownst to her. Most of the time we miscalculated badly. Sometimes, if the lines were uneven and there were more boys than girls, someone would have to dance with one of the chaperones. Few things could happen to a seventh grade boy that were more painful than that.
Once the dance began it was noisy and hectic and often nerve-wracking, at least for some of us. I was shy about asking girls to dance, so I spent a good part of the evening on the sidelines with other wallflowers, standing in the pine-scented breezes that blew in through the open windows of the old building. I argued endlessly with myself, debating the merits of approaching this girl or that girl, weighing the risks of rejection, which I feared more than almost anything. Eventually I worked up the nerve, and most of the time I was not rejected, and most of the time my dancing did not embarrass me, and I was able to go home at the end of the night with at least a small sense of satisfaction.
For the better part of two hours we tried various renditions of the Swim, the Frug and the Boogaloo, and by that I mean we hopped from foot to foot and flailed our arms like we were fending off a swarm of bees. And then, precisely at ten o’clock, the dance came to an end. Craig and I shuffled outside with the other boys and girls to catch our ride home. We waited only a minute or two before my father pulled up beside us in the car.
He drove back onto Rhinehart Rd., and we rode through town on streets that were dark and mostly empty. This time there were no melodies coming from the radio. My father considered the hours after ten o’clock to be the quiet hours, and their sanctity was not to be violated by “that noise” from the rock and roll station. It was another one of his conditions, and like all the others, it was non-negotiable.