This essay is part of the Essays on a WV Childhood project. Like any writer, I know that most of the best work is developed through several rounds of drafts and editing and more drafts. Something about this subject matter, however, made me want to just write and not edit, to let the purity of an adolescent memory be uncontaminated by adult rules and regulations. I hope you enjoy this reflection on one of the most important parts of my growing up, State 4-H Camp at Jackson’s Mill. The pictures may be a little fuzzy, but the memories have a tight focus.
I’m in a dance hall just outside Jackson’s Mill in Weston, West Virginia. I remember just a few sights and sounds, but those recalled are so strong after all these years they appear in my mind as if they just walked in the door of my memory.
All of the tables and chairs are pushed against the walls or put away. The space is filled with the throbbing life of young people in their late teens. Boys and girls — or is it men and women? — vibrate with energy as they tap their feet and bounce up and down in anticipation of the most popular dance at camp.
What’s funny is I don’t remember the song, or the tune. I remember the Tyler boys, and Todd and Bryan and George. I remember Lionel. All but the younger Tyler boy had facial hair. They wore cowboy boots and every girl in camp wanted to dance with them.
I remember the older Tyler boy was five years older than me. I knew this because I first crushed on him when I was 15 years old, and he was…..twenty. I knew he could never be interested in a little kid like me, but I would run the numbers in one year increments over and over again until I could imagine he might think I was a woman. I figured I would have to be 19 and he would be 24 before there was even a prayer, but I had my “realistic” version too. I would definitely have to be 21, and he would be 26. That might work. Only 6 years to go……
The music started. How I wish I could remember the tune! The guys picked partners and the couples swirled and kicked around the hardwoods, cowboy boots hitting the floor with such power and conviction it made me shake inside. Our counselor chaperones just laughed and grinned as their wards thundered around the room. They’d had their years of dancing in that room; it was now clearly their job to let us have fun but also to keep us from tearing down the building with our adolescent enthusiasm.
There was an older girl dancing with my Tyler boy. I never knew how old she was. I was convinced she had failed at least one grade. She seemed very worn and tired, but she always chose very short skirts and purple high heeled shoes and tremendous amounts of pancake make up to cover the acne scars on her face. Only now do I realize that she was very worn and tired, at less than 20 years old. She and my older boy spent a lot of time together, but they never seemed close. I suspected they had done things I could graph scientifically but lacked the poetry to describe in their entirety.
The couples turned to all face the same way. Together in lines they lifted their feet and slammed the hard soles of their shoes into the floor…..ONE, TWO, ONE TWO THREE….kick! They flowed seamlessly in their lines towards those of us who were not dancing. They were like a wave you didn’t want to stop but weren’t sure what would happen when it reached your border. Mercifully, they all knew how to put on the brakes before they ran over the wallflowers.
I never did this dance at camp. It seemed like some kind of mysterious great rehearsal, and I desperately wanted to do it, but I knew I wasn’t ready. Ready for what, I had no idea, but it just felt in my gut like a big step. My mother describes me as a kid who never wanted to been seen learning anything – I wanted to practice things that were important to me in private before anyone saw me trying them and making mistakes. Obviously, this was a bit of a problem when it came to learning to dance with a partner.
There was a boy who crept increasingly closer to me over the week one summer. First it was just, “Hi.” Then, “Hi” followed by “What county are you from?” By Wednesday it was , “Hi, Kanawha County! Is this seat taken?” I liked him. He was handsome and nice and funny, but he made me nervous with his incremental growing closeness.
We were in the dance hall. It was Friday night, the last night of camp. The dance music started. I saw my guy, Harrison County, walking towards me. He reached out his hand. I shook my head and shrank away, but I made sure to maintain eye contact and that he saw me smiling.
He smiled back and just stood where I was. He didn’t ask another girl to dance, but sat that one out with me. Something about that gesture lodged inside me, and I thankfully never once in the rest of my life so much as looked at any guy who didn’t have the “sit it out together” method down pat.
Jim Morrison said, “There are things known, and things unknown, and in between them are the doors.”
STOMP! is the sound of the doors of my memories at Jackson’s Mill.
Photo credits: Elizabeth Gaucher