"I think I have been shot!” I said to Keith, my voice raising up brittle and shocky over the dying music, “Why would somebody want to shoot me?”
Why me? I am just a nobody, I thought.
Then things went all trippy. The disco lights softened into dangling multi-colored cotton balls, the music began to echo and fade, and the room irised in as I felt myself collapse into his arms.
The Sadie Hawkins Dance was an annual affair that was intended to shake things up a little bit between the male and female denizens of Cardinal McStibbens Catholic High School. For one shining moment in time, the girls were permitted to ask, no, demand that the guy of their choice escort them to the event. Inspired by Al Capp’s hilarious, and now undoubtedly non-politically correct comic strip L’il Abner, it was strictly ladies night.
This boiled down, like corn likker in Pappy Yokum’s still, into this scenario at my high school: If the hot stuff star of the football team was asked by the bookish bespectacled allergically sinus-infected girl president of the Math/Chess club to the dance, he could not turn her down. It was a date.
We spent weeks before the dance watching the big men on campus bob, weave and serpentine if they had the slightest inkling some uncool mad crushing chick was going to corner them, poke their glasses up on the bridge of their noses, and commit them to a night a sheer embarrassment.
Me? Oh, yes. I had a dream date for Sadie Hawkins all thought out but shelved it. He was the very established boyfriend of Haley, the Cheerleader, and untouchable upon penalty of potentially intense mean girl scrutiny.
I was not a cheerleader. I was queen of the drama club.
You know the type.
But, as karma would have it, I got to spend a magical amount of unrequited time with my biggest high school crush ever. Keith and I co-edited the school newspaper together. The nun in charge of the paper, Sister Janet, had a twinkle in her eye when she paired us up for the task and I learned at that malleable age to keep my hormones to myself in a “working” situation. It was post-adolescent torture.
Tall and strong with a competitive swimmer’s physique and deep ocean green eyes, Keith had perfect teeth and smiled constantly, even when pissed off, rendering me, all tied up in braces and Janice Ian angst at 17, weak kneed.
But I couldn’t show it.
His passion was photography and he gently taught me about f-stops and depths of field. I turned down invitations to water ski with him and his brothers because I was too shy to be seen in a bathing suit, much less photographed. The horror!
We spent many a Sunday afternoon at my house writing articles together, but mostly laughing ourselves silly about shenanigans at school. Or satirizing each other.
Keith was just plain kind to me but wouldn’t let me bail out on anything. I was proud when I could show him my spine in a situation requiring a stand. He made me strong.
One day we were up in the Journalism lab laying out the galleys together.
“Well, are you going to Sadie Hawkins?”
“No. Good God no.”
“It’s stupid and I don’t want to humiliate myself.” I remember I bit off the words like they were crispy.
“Oh that was dramatic. You get an Oscar. Now, cut it out.” he said chuckling under his breath. He had a good chuckle.
He knew my hot buttons by then so he fiddled around with the waxed copy sheets for a while, pulling them up and rolling them down on the galleys with a T-rule waiting for me to chill.
“So…” I jumped like a startled cat, his voice seemed loud. “I guess I’m not going either.”
“What about the great and wonderful Haley? Didn’t she already get dibs?”
“Nope. She’s got other plans or something.”
Exponentially awkward pause.
My eyes swung around in my head to catch him looking directly into them.
And suddenly I did not give two damns about being the subject of the cheerleader’s popular tyrannies. They could all go stuff their pom-poms right up…
“Keith. I am asking you right now to accompany me to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. You got no choice. You’re going with me like it or not!”
“Alright!” he said with a huge grin. “Cool!”
Kevin, Keith, My brother Chris crashing the party, me, and Voni
The big night arrived and I made a hillbilly bar-b- que dinner with cornbread, greens and homemade apple pie for him and a few friends at my house. We actually had a scandalous glass of wine. I pinned a pink carnation corsage to the denim overalls he wore in keeping with the Dogpatch theme of the night. I was costumed in a short denim skirt and a little poufy shirt with cap sleeves and actually went barefoot to the dance, just like Sadie would’ve.
I felt like I could’ve been popular that night. I felt beautiful and witty and daring.
We all piled into Keith’s car and went to the Sadie Hawkins Dance.
Kind of looked like this...
The school gym was decked out in hay bales, scarecrows and yellow, orange and red crepe paper dangling down like Spanish moss. Life-sized cut outs of L’il Abner, Daisy Mae and even Sadie herself were propped up for photo opportunities. The art classes outdid themselves.
It went so fast, two hours just flew.
The band didn’t stink, as it turned out, and we danced to Smoke on the Water, Layla, Free Bird, Walk This Way and Stairway to Heaven. It was a good time for great music in those days.
Unlike many of the mismatched couples that night, Keith bravely slow danced with me when the music prompted, close enough so that Sister Janet had to come by and make sure she could see space between us. Close enough to send the cheerleaders into a tizzy. Close enough I was floating. Close enough he was whispering in my ear.
“Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow?
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?”
It was the last strains of Stairway I heard when the band was winding down, and in Keith’s arms, we were just standing still. I could hear the nuns chirping “good night!”
“And she’s buying a stairway…to heaven.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Anthony Dugan swinging like a primate on the crepe paper decorations, tearing them down as the mercury lights came up in the gym. What an ass he was. Chose to ignore.
Something hit my arm, hard.
The force of it spun me around, out of Keith’s embrace and a searing pain welled up.
“I think I’ve been shot! Why would somebody want to shoot me?”
Keith stared white-faced at my arm and said: “Don’t look at it.”
But I did.
A six inch long carpenter’s nail had pierced my upper arm and had emerged out the other side. My poufy shirt sleeve was pinned to my arm like a poster stuck on a bulletin board. A delicious touch of additional horror, the nail in my arm was still attached to the monofilament sixty pound test fishing line formerly used to hold up the decorations.
My arm was flailing wildly like a possessed marionette every time Anthony across the gym tore down another swath of decorations!
Seems the decorating committee hammered nails into the cement block walls of the gym, tied off fishing line to them, and draped crepe paper on the line. The force of Anthony’s efforts made one of those nails launch out of the wall with the velocity of a bullet and it found my arm.
Keith caught me and sat me down on the floor. He grabbed the fishing line and as a function of pure adrenalin, broke it so my arm would quit dancing.
Next I knew I was being carried to the locker room in strong arms. I smelled flowers and I could hear his voice saying, “I like the carnation you gave me, Linda. Keep your nose right there in that flower. Smells so good. It’s going to be all right.”
My dad, the doctor, was called and came roaring up to the gym in his convertible Oldsmobile, jumped out and retrieved Keith and I from the locker room.
Back home, dad sat me on the kitchen table, had mom stand by with towels as he felt around the nail to see if it was in something important, like an artery. Satisfying himself, he called Keith over to observe.
“I don’t think it’s serious. Ok, Lois on my count with the towels just in case she spurts a little. Ready?”
I squeezed my eyes shut and braced.
“One – Two - Hey, Keith, my daughter has a big crush on you.”
And he whipped that nail out like lightning. Didn’t feel a thing.
Keith declined the offer from my dad to learn how to give a tetanus shot that night, even though it included the opportunity to see my exposed rear.
That’s why I had such a crush on him.
Rest in Peace Keith.
Your stairway came a little sooner I guess. I’ll never forget you.
Every time I see a pink carnation...
photos: Personal Collection
Some names have been changed in this essay to protect privacy.