At Garretson (and many small schools, I imagine), Prom was not restricted to seniors and juniors only. It was PRIMARILY for the upper grades, but the banquet held before the dance was for juniors and seniors and their dates and the waiters and waitresses were selected sophomores (I assume selected by the seniors, but somebody may have to refresh my memory of the system in place for that selection if otherwise). After the banquet, once the dance was started, the waiters and waitresses could bring a date to the dance. This was in the days before a Grand March (that whole concept was foreign to me until I went to a Prom in another town when I was a senior. Yeah, it was weird for me to parade in front of a town that didn't really know me). This will not be about my senior date with Susan Brown, or my junior date with Sonya Darland.... or even about when my date didn't show up when I was a waiter and Nikki Jones had to run at Howard Wood and then was going to come to Garretson and maybe stay with the Schetnans (a HUGE storm came in that night and they went home to Viborg). No, this will be about the time I went to prom as one of the rare freshman as a date with a sophomore waitress.
That sophomore was Sonja Johnson. We weren't dating or anything but had been friends for a long time. Since childhood really... Our parents were friends and we only lived a few blocks apart. We'd often play together in the summer. Sonja had a cat that was continually having kittens and we'd often play with those kittens until they were given away. I don't know where those kittens all went, but I bet they were the primary supplier of kittens in Garretson for a few years there. If I remember correctly that cat of her's lived to be about 18 years old or so.
Sonja and I WERE always seeming to be with somebody else. I know for a while in 7th grade, I liked her, but she didn't like me. Then she liked me and I was "into" somebody else. This happened, I think, back and forth about six times all by the time I was a freshman. I liked her, but as we put it back then: I didn't LIKE her like her. I was tired of the back and forth and by the time I was a freshman, I had been exposed to girls from other towns.
When the time was approaching for people to lock in their prom dates (probably the start of track season or so... Prom was always the same day as the Howard Wood Dakota Relays (second weekend in May)), I don't know WHO my interest was in, but it wasn't Sonja. I didn't have any ambitions to go to Prom and wasn't thinking of it in the slightest when I received a phone call. It was from Amie Johnson. Sonja's best friend.
"HEeeeyyy JT...." was Amie's singsong greeting. She continued, "....are YOU going to Prom with anybody?"
I wasn't sure how to answer. 'No', I thought, 'who would I go to Prom with?'. I knew who she was calling for... those two were two peas in a pod. I'd heard some scuttle about maybe asking me to Prom, but I hadn't given it much weight as moods change, minds change and I knew my history with Sonja the last couple years hadn't been steady, so I didn't even WANT to consider that I might be asked to go with her. Thinking back, I feel like maybe I was in crush mode with Susan Hammer. I know it was track season that she and I kind of liked each other, but we never went steady or anything... the main problem being that she was a few years younger than me and also I was best friends with her older brother, Eric. Any romance that started to blossom seem to get quickly squished by something or other.
So I was on the phone with Amie.... trying to NOT answer 'Nobody', but also trying to be honest. I replied with a tentative, "Why do you ask?"
"Well, IF you don't have any plans and were looking for something to do, I'M thinking that you should go with Sonja. She really wants you to go with her."
I rolled my eyes and before I could finish the eye-roll, Amie interjected quickly,"ONLY AS FRIENDS! It won't be as a boyfriend/girlfriend... only as friends".
My silence was brutal. I stared at the blue shag carpet in mom and dad's room where the second phone was. I didn't know how to answer. It wouldn't kill me to go, but I didn't want to send the wrong message to Sonja that this was going to be "us" as a "thing" now. I waited a few more seconds before giving in with even a response.
"Mmmm.... I, don't know Amie.... I don't really want to go through this again with Sonja."
"No, it won't be like that... this is just as friends, I swear. PLEEEASE JT... she just needs a date for Prom. Please?"
More silence. Then a little more....
"[sigh] ... fine.... I'll go."
I had put up my best fight, but I finally gave in. I think in my head, I was holding on to some hope that maybe there'd be a way out. Maybe Prom would be cancelled. Maybe Sonja would get mono or perhaps I'd break a leg running the mile in track (You know, that high-risk extreme sporting event known as the mile run, lol).
The logistics were worked out, details were set and the day finally came. I didn't need to get a tuxedo or anything crazy like that. Sonja said a suit would be fine... she even said that I didn't need to provide the corsage, she'd take care of it.
The Prom banquet was at 6 on Saturday. I would need to be over to the Johnson's at 7:30. It was a gorgeous day outside. Very unusual for a day that notoriously had rain (Howard Wood Dakota Relays is associated with rain). Late in the afternoon, I was still trying to finish up my chores. I distinctly remember that around 6 o'clock, I was still riding our red riding lawn mower (the Snapper) on the empty lot just north of the Rekstad place (now the Markell Gnadt place) which eventually was the site of the house that Bob Arends had Al Bower build for him. I was riding back and forth looking down the street past Hammers and where the hill dropped down where Marty Eitreim used to live and I remember thinking about how Prom was started and here I am on a lawn mower cutting this long green grass. I also remember having my cassette walkman on my side and I had Queen's A Night at the Opera blasting loud enough to hear over the Brigg's and Stratton popping away behind me. I loved that album and was mesmerized by the song Bohemian Rhapsody. This was before the movie Wayne's World and before that song was so overplayed that everybody was sick of it. This was when the song was cool and dark. ---We even convinced Helen Mogen that we should perform that song at the Spring Program. She was awesome enough to agree to it. We had auditions for the different solo parts and I landed my first solo ever, the first part of the song: "Momma, just killed a man. Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he's dead." ... as I said: dark. --- So I used my time on the mower to run through that song again and again and again.
I eventually finished up the mowing and put the mower away in the back of our old garage. I ran in and got showered up. Put on my tan suit and sprayed on some Drakkar Noir or maybe some Polo. Since it was nice, I walked down to the Johnson's as soon as Sonja called that she was there. Matthew, who was a senior, was taking Susie Hokenstad, who was a waitress too, and we planned on all meeting at the Johnson's and then riding up to our house for pictures before the dance.
It was still a beautiful evening and my walk to the Johnson's was full of anticipation. I wasn't sure what was going to happen with Sonja and I that night or after that night, but as I walked past my Grandma Gert's house and across from Hammer's, I remember thinking how I wondered if Susan Hammer saw me heading to Prom. I continued down the sidewalk to the Sylliaasen corner and then turned and went south down the hill. A quick knock on their familiar front door and a ring of their doorbell and as the door opened, there was smiling Sonja. I was glad to see her as I could hear a lot of voices up in the kitchen of their house. Sonja assured me that she was almost ready and said she'd be right back. Gloria, her mom, said to "Come in, come in...." from the top of the stairs. I followed her voice up and there was Gloria and Jim, Susan and Matthew and Amie. I don't remember if Sonja's older sister was there or the older brothers. I don't think that they were, but I think that maybe some of Gloria's friends were there. The Davis' or maybe the Schreurs' were there, I think... I just remember thinking, 'let's get these flowers on and take a picture so we can leave'.
Sonja popped back into the room and went to the fridge and grabbed the corsage and the boutonniere and we went about the little dance of trying to attach them without too much awkwardness. I'm sure we failed at that miserably but really, it was my first attempt at that. We had our picture taken in their living room as a couple and then as a group. The whole while, Gloria is beaming, Amie is beaming and then there's me... wondering what's going on. IS this JUST as friends? ... as soon as we're done there, we all pile into Matthew's car (which, for the sake of this story and my lack of memory, almost HAD to be the navy blue Monte Carlo.) and drove up to OUR house to take pictures there before heading to the dance.
At our house, we set up for pictures in front of the fireplace. We complete our couple's pictures standing there and then we all plop onto the white loveseat for a group shot. There's not nearly the excitement that existed at the Johnson house, and by now I'm just ready to get to the dance. The plan is to go to the dance for a while and then we're going to end up back at our house and maybe watch a movie.
I wish I could remember more from the dance. I do remember slow dancing with Sonja with sweaty palms and I do remember having a crush on Sonja, even that night... but it just never worked out. We did get to Prom together, but the dance just never sparked anything between us. I guess it just isn't always meant to be. The sweet memories I have do hold value to me as they fill me with times that were good and of people that made me happy. Even if they involved silly flowers and clumsy dances. At least we made a memory.
The cool November air continued it's decline as the light transitioned from a golden yellow into a sort of darker pinkish gray. I was standing alone at the freshly set gravestone of my father, Robert E. Nelson in the Lutheran cemetery of my hometown, Garretson, SD. The grass was slowly giving up the battle to stay green, although the remarkably warmer autumn has been so unusual for the area that flowers were blooming again in many gardens and some people that had put away their lawn mowers and brought out their snowblowers were frustrated when, after a warm spell and some gentle rain, they had to dig their mowers out again and give the lawn another bit of their attention.
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.