The band is playing loudly in Bart Nelson’s backyard. Caught up in the bizarre giddiness of my 50th high school reunion, I find myself getting up to dance, swirling wildly and erratically with fellow classmates from 1965 and earlier. I am transported back to one of the very first times I attempted to dance socially with anyone.
From an old brown file folder long stashed away I recently exhumed a crudely mimeographed “survey” sheet from my eighth grade days at Covington Junior High School. I can no longer remember the purpose or reason behind the simple missive that queried me about my “favorite subject” and “favorite teacher”, but the odd question that caught my eye simply said “Favorite Dance Partner” followed by a short purple line on which I had written in pencil “Sally Reynolds”.
Covington was one of many shoebox-architecture schools that dotted the San Francisco peninsula in the mid-50s. It was stylish back then to build these low slung, flat-topped, pastel painted institutions to accommodate a burgeoning baby boomer populace. Covington was located in the semi-bucolic and affluent community of Los Altos on a quiet, pepper tree lined street with no sidewalks. And it had the added cachet of having a swimming pool and a huge playground and cafeteria.
Several times a year the cafeteria became a dance floor where we awkwardly shuffled in our stocking feet to songs like “You Were Mine” by the Fireflies and Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head On My Shoulder”. I remember that last song in particular because I danced to it with Sally Reynolds. Sally lived just a few blocks away from me and we rode the same bus to school every day. I wouldn’t say we were friends because at the time I was so socially retarded I couldn’t possibly talk comfortably with a girl my own age, especially one as cute as Sally. Oh yes, she had dark eyes, dishwater blonde hair cut pageboy style, and a perpetual California tan. And almost always, a dazzling smile.
These attributes alone were enough to endear her to nearly everyone, and to include her in that intimidating echelon of seemingly unattainable cheerleader/pom pom girl types that kept boys like me at bay. But Sally was always friendly and had an easy charm about her that made her accessible even to a bumbling thirteen year old like myself. It didn’t matter much at the time anyway because the boys hung out with the boys and the girls hung out with the girls, and the genders mixed only on rare occasions…like the infrequent dances in the Covington cafeteria.
These dance events were almost always held in the late afternoon. There were no thematic decorations or frills. Just a phonograph and PA system. With boys on one side of the room and girls on the other. I believe these affairs were probably held as an attempt to socialize all of us and make us feel more comfortable with members of the opposite sex. But for me, they were uncomfortable at best and usually did nothing more than magnify my inadequacies and anxieties.
I am speaking mostly for myself here as there were always the boys who had no trouble at all asking a girl to dance, and unashamedly sliding out on the shiny floor. But I wasn’t one of them. For me, the walk from one side of the cafeteria to the other was a painful one, and there were very few girls I could muster up the courage to ask for a dance. But Sally was one of them. She willingly endured my inept attempts at the fox trot. She was soft and sweet and never said a word. So perhaps that is why she made the list as my “favorite dance partner”.
Once we got into high school the lines were more clearly drawn and I only saw Sally in the hallway or sharing an occasional class. Which was all well and good because I never had that intense and painful longing for her that I would feel with other women. She was the neighbor girl with the dark tan and the winning smile. And beauty that would never go to her head.
At the ten-year reunion for the Los Altos High School Class of ’65 Sally was sadly absent. Apparently, just a few years before, she had died in a car that was hit by a railroad train. And after my initial shock, I wouldn’t have given it much more thought but for the fact that I remembered those quiet little moments we shared on the dance floor at Covington Junior High. Such a small and ephemeral thing that seems to take on more meaning as I grow older.
It is over fifty years later and I am still awkwardly moving to the music that punctuates this summer night. But I can still remember dancing with Sally Reynolds in that sunny, innocent time during JFKs Camelot, before the wars in southeast Asia erupted, before the dot.coms overwhelmed the valley and turned it from Santa Clara into Silicon. Paul Anka is singing from a 45rpm record and I have my hand around Sally’s waist The late spring sun is streaming into the cafeteria and I am experiencing for the very first time those little pangs of romance that will soon take me places I have never been before.