Thirty-two years ago this May, Laura and Dennis were married. After the wedding, we had the reception at a restaurant in St. Johnsbury, and there was a DJ. He played dance music for all tastes. One song was a Jitterbug.
I don’t remember the tune. My nephew, Sidney McLam, asked me for a dance. He’s a very good dancer. Fortunately, I remembered the steps. When the music stopped, my daughters, who had watched with amazement, said, “Mom, when did you learn to jitterbug?”
The short answer was during my freshman year at Peacham Academy. The facts were more complicated. I started high school in the fall of 1942. Deedee was a senior that year. We were familiar with jitterbugging. Our cousin, Walter Pope, visited the farm that fall. He was about our age, but because he was deaf, he didn’t go to regular schools. He’d been taught at a special school for the deaf. He wore hearing aids that were connected to large batteries suspended around his neck. Once or twice, he drove Deedee and I to St. Johnsbury to the movies and ice cream sodas afterward. At least one of the movies showed a couple of professional dancers jitterbugging, the guy tossing the girl around. So Deedee and I knew how it was done.
That year, Agnes Payette went to the Academy, too. Agnes lived in Green Bay. Her brother William was in my freshman class. Agnes was musical, as were most of the Payettes. Once Agnes heard a song on the radio, she could sit down and play it by ear. She not only knew the tune, which she played with her right hand, but she could keep the beat going with her left. At noon, we girls gobbled our sandwiches and raced up to the auditorium. There was an upright piano there. Some of the girls could pick out a tune. Agnes outshone the others. They might have been more accurate, but none had her ability to catch melody and rhythm. When she heard a jitterbug song on the radio, she could play that, too. We practiced all the steps we remembered. There was no question of our tossing each other between our legs!
All this time we kept an ear out for a certain noise. One side of the auditorium opened to the new addition, and a set of stairs led up to a small hall. About halfway, one stair creaked. When we heard the principal, Rosemary Miller, step on that one, we knew she was coming to check on us. By the time she reached the top, we would be clustered around the piano, singing.
Rosemary Miller was a good math teacher. Dick and I remember how well she taught geometry and algebra. She lacked the administrative talents that a principal needed. But World War II had called the men away, the Academy trustees needed someone, anyone, to fill the position. So there was Rosemary, coming up the stairs to make sure we were not dancing.
I don’t know Rosemary’s own feelings about dancing. They didn’t matter. Moses Martin was one of the trustees, and he thought dancing was sinful. Moses was known to have money, and, as my sister Patty says, the trustees of the Academy sucked up to him. He belonged to the Congregational Church and had his fingers in other pies as well. He lived with his mother on a large farm in the Corner, the last one just outside the village. Mrs. Hall, the midwife who took care of Maw when Deedee “came to town,” had many stories about Moses and his mother when she, Mrs. Hall, took care of Moses’s mother. Mrs. Hall, a frugal Scotswoman herself, did not approve of their penny-pinching ways, their scanty diet. Maw used to regale us with the stories Mrs. Hall told.
Moses thought promenading was permissible. People walked decorously arm in arm, in step with each other, around the floor. Dancing, on the other hand, meant a man had his arm around his partner, with a hand on her back. And you know what that led to!
When I went to Lyndon Institute for my junior year, there were no stag lines at dances. Even if there had been, I was a rugged farm girl, five feet, seven inches tall and weighed around one hundred and thirty-five pounds. Who would want to jitterbug with me? I was lucky to manage a foxtrot or two at my senior prom.