The Prom Dance

It was a pretty sleepless night over at the Satterfield house last Friday. Prom was less than twenty-four hours away. Karen Satterfield was a graduating senior, and this Prom would be her last.

guitar-on-brick-wall But she wasn’t the one who couldn’t sleep. It was her dad, Barry.

It all started on Tuesday morning. That’s when Carl Suggs, the guidance counselor over at the Watervalley High School got the phone call telling him that the band who had been booked for the Prom dance couldn’t make it. The group was out of Nashville and went by the name of Jamtight. The lead singer had received his third DUI and was now jam tight in jail. Needless to say, this put Carl in a tight jam.

Watervalley offered Carl few other options. The Sheriff, Warren Thurman had a part time band called “Warren and the Bluelights.” But half of them were on duty Saturday, so that didn’t work. There was also a local group called “The Dog Creek Howlers.” But they played mostly bluegrass, not exactly the right fit for a bunch of high schoolers who were wanting to rock out. Besides, the Howlers were already booked at the Alibi Roadhouse.

That’s when Barry got the call from Carl.

You see, Barry had been in a rock band for years. But that was a long, long, time ago. Barry and four of his Watervalley High classmates had formed the group in 1971, during their senior year. They played for a number of parties and even for a couple of dances down at the bandstand on Watervalley Lake. But the band pretty much wasn’t going anywhere. They felt like they hadn’t lived life yet and had nothing to write about. They became bored and restless, trying to figure out any means of getting away from Watervalley.

So late on a hot July night, over a few beers down at the rock quarry, they all agreed to sign up for the military. It was a ticket out. Their draft cards were in the high two hundreds. But if they joined, they figured they could pick their assignments. That next week, they all drove to Nashville. Barry joined the Navy, Willis Caldwell and Sam Lawford joined the Air Force, and Gene Allen and Clifford Hardison joined the Army.

Watervalley gave them a huge send off, showing great pride for the patriotism of her native sons. They all agreed to regroup in two years, reform the band, and write songs about their experiences. It was going to be a great adventure.

But it didn’t turn out so great. Clifford and Gene ended up going to Vietnam, despite promises of different assignments. Clifford was killed in the battle of An Loc. Gene received a shrapnel hit to his forehead and spent five weeks in an Army hospital. He got a metal plate placed in his head and more/less fully recovered. But mentally he was never completely the same.

After the war they reformed the band, this time calling it the Joint Chiefs. Everyone thought it was because they had served in different branches of the military, but it really had more to do with a smoking habit of a particular substance. They thought they would all come back feeling worldly and wise. But in truth, they were disillusioned and angry. Still, they started playing music, and they got really good.

The Joint Chiefs ended up getting an agent and going on tour. Mostly doing small clubs and venues and county fairs. They even did a short tour of Europe in 1981. The money wasn’t great but they loved the crowds and the partying and the occasional easy companionship.

They kept thinking they were on the verge of a record deal and really hitting it big. But then in December of 1982 they were playing a gig in Baltimore and on a whim they decided to hop in the van and go see the newly built Vietnam Memorial. They were all in a pretty jovial mood when they parked the van and proceeded to the monument. But as they walked down the ramp to the wall the quiet and hush began to wash over them. The appearance of so many people; moms and dads, sisters, wives, all standing in tight huddles, silently, tearfully, staring at the wall –it seized all of them in a crushing moment of regret and reflection.

Barry found Clifford’s name and could do little more than stare at it. Finally, he slowly reached out and softly ran his fingers over the engraved letters. Then he wept. He wept uncontrollably in great heaving sobs. He held his hand over his face in an effort to shield his embarrassment, but it did little good. He wept for the loss of all the years, for all the things that Clifford had missed –family, friends, and the simple joys of quietly living out his life within the familiar hills of Watervalley. He felt wild with shame for his own life. He had been on the road and on the run for seven years. He thought he was running toward something but he had simply been running away, away from the loss, away from his memories, away from Watervalley. It was time to go home.

He made a rubbing of the name to give to Clifford’s mom. The Hardison’s were poor people and he doubted she hardly ever got out of the county, much less all the way to DC. When he gave it to her, she wept and hugged him. She framed it and hung it in Clifford’s old room.

Barry got a job with the power company, settled down, got married, became active in the church, and had three daughters. Karen was his youngest. The other guys eventually moved back to Watervalley also. Willis and Sam got jobs at the cabinet factory and Gene worked at the radio station and farmed a little on the old family place. Every few years they got together and played for fun, but anymore, it was a rare event.

At first Barry said no when Carl called. The Prom was in four days and the group had little time to practice, much less try to learn some of the music the kids were listening to nowadays. But Carl pleaded, so Barry agreed, as long as all the old band members said yes as well. After a few phone calls, they all did. Barry felt trapped.

The band had practiced each evening since Tuesday and the better part of the day and night on Friday. It had been fun, but they weren’t good. Not at the new stuff anyway; not Coldplay, and The Black Keys, and Mumford and Son.

And that’s what had Barry up half the night. Why did he ever agree to do this? What was he thinking? Although he was still trim he would turn sixty in another year. Sixty! They weren’t ready and they would look pathetic, a bunch of old geezers trying to look like generation Y or Z rockers. They weren’t a Y or Z generation band. They were way back up the alphabet, somewhere about generation O, for “Old.” All he would succeed in doing was embarrass himself and ruin Prom for his daughter. It had been a big mistake, but it was too late to change. They would just have to muddle through it.

They set up early in the gym and did a sound check. Barry wore jeans and a tee shirt. Sam had gone retro and wore his old black leather pants. They were a little tight, but he still got into them. Thank heavens he played drums. Gene thought it would be hot so he had worn shorts. Willis had put on weight so he had worn overalls. He said he wanted to be comfortable. It just kept getting better and better.

Finally the moment of truth came and they were announced. They walked up on the makeshift stage made up of nailed together pallets from the Co-Op. There was a weak round of applause. Everyone got into position and plugged up. Barry turned to the guys and counted down, and then, the music began. It was song by the Black Keys. They struggled. Willis sang lead on this one and he had a hard time remembering the words. A few couples stepped out to dance, but it was mostly pairs or threesomes of girls who just wanted to dance and didn’t care.

The song ended with a few polite claps. But most of the kids were now huddled in groups in the darker corners of the gym, either talking loudly or ignoring the band altogether. Many simply sat on the first row of the bleachers that bordered the gym -wallflowers glancing cautiously around the room, watching the actions of everyone else.

They did a second song. This one was by Coldplay. It sounded even worse. They grinded through it. The whole while Barry was looking around the room, trying to see if he could find Karen. He had seen her earlier, but had lost her. He noticed that more than a few of the students were escaping out the far double doors. Maybe she had been one of them. He wouldn’t have blamed her.

They finished the second song with only a few girl couples foolishly giggling in some kind of outlandish dancing maneuver on the dance floor. They were seemingly oblivious to the band and consumed in their own private celebration. This time there was virtually no applause. More kids were easing out the double doors, leaving the gym. For Barry, that was it.

He turned to the guys and motioned them into a tight huddle. He spoke clearly and firmly. They all nodded in agreement. Then he went back to the microphone, turned the volume all the way up on his electric guitar, and made a short announcement.

“Okay, everybody. We’re going to try something a little different.”

With that, he cranked out the opening licks to “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones. His pick hand hit the strings in a succession of crushing, blaring notes. It was an explosion of sound. That’s when something extraordinary happened. It seemed that instantly kids were leaving the bleachers and hitting the dance floor. As well, they were pouring in from the hallway, almost running to catch an open space. Even the Chaperones left their post and joined in.

Barry sang out the words, “I -can’t -get -no, sa-tis-fac-tion.” And by the time he got to the words “steady action” he noticed that many of the teenagers on the dance floor had joined in, singing the song to each other. He was astonished. How did they know this music? But by the time he sang “Hey, hey, hey. That’s what I say” he didn’t care anymore. The party was getting started.

The rest of the night was filled with Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Deep Purple, Electric Light Orchestra, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Doobie Brothers, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, the Clash, the Who, and the Guess Who and many others. And for those few hours, they danced. They danced euphorically, joyously, wondrously celebrating the moment, unhindered by any cares of the challenging and uncertain world beyond high school.

And as the night progressed, Barry saw Karen dancing and laughing, having the time of her life, and he became thankful. He became thankful for his life, for his family, for Watervalley, for the guys in the band, and perhaps, most of all, for the one who wasn’t there.

Barry and the band were swept up by the energy of the room. They played until almost midnight. The kids wanted them to continue. But Barry’s voice was giving out and he knew it was well past the guys’ bedtime. They did one last song.

The room was dead silent. But when he started the open guitar riff to “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd, the crowd exploded in a deafening roar of cheers. The entire room sang in chorus “We don’t need no education.”  It was a declaration done in a spontaneous moment of whimsy and laughter; a mirthful signaling that high school was over. Even the teachers present riotously joined in.

Barry had wanted to be a rock star. But he realized that this moment, this evening, surrounded by lifelong friends, by family, and by the laughter and love of his daughter, was the best rock star moment of all.

As he sang the lines “All in all you’re just another brick in the wall,” his mind was far away to a different place, to a somber, lonely wall, and to a name that was engraved there. But it wasn’t just another name in the wall. It was a name wrapped in all the dreams and hopes of youth. It was a name calling out to celebrate the moment, to laugh and to dance. It was a name who’s life had made all the difference.

Barry was thankful. Monday was Memorial Day, and he decided he would go and pay a visit to Clifford’s mom. It had been too long.

I’m J. High, and for now in Watervalley, that’s pretty much the high point. 

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