John McLaughlin decided to ask his father for his stories during their car rides to medical appointments. He was doing some preliminary research before hiring me to come interview his father for an audio memoir. After a couple of weeks and a good number of stories, his father became extremely ill and passed away before we could ever start our project. (You can read more about that story here).
I asked John if he would share one of his father’s stories with my readers. He was honored. Here is a story he sent me about Bob’s teenage dance hall days” and the exotic young lady from “Peru.”
My father got bored with high school at age 16, started playing hooky and dropped out because, in his words, he thought he was "too cool for school.” Then, beginning in 1950 he became a kind of early James Dean prototype, a young man about town. He would drive a red 1950 Chevy to weekly dances at all the area Grange halls in a five or six town radius. He told of the house swing bands, lots of teens whirling and twirling on sawdust covered floors, the young ladies fanning themselves and giggling in clusters between dances while the guys would all be trying to look worldly and tough.
He told me of this one dance he went to in Mt. Vernon, Maine where there was this pretty and exotic-looking girl (to his eyes) that he just had to dance with. So he swoops in and introduces himself and then asks her, “And where are you from?” She answers “Peru.” My dad says “Well you've certainly traveled far to get here! Would you like to dance?” She offers her hand and they hit the dance floor. He then tells me that at that point in his life he was pretty full of himself and he thought he knew everything, and the whole evening he spent with her he actually believed she was from the Latin America country of Peru, and then a friend of his, at the end of the evening, filled him in on the fact that she was actually from the little town in Peru, Maine.
He told me how between songs the more streetwise and worldly kids would head out and stand at the trunks of their cars and drink bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer before heading into dance some more. I explained that PBR has made a comeback of late because today’s hipster crowd has embraced the brand as an inexpensive “go to” option. He seemed quite amused by that. He also explained how there would be a fistfight in the parking lot of the dance hall from time to time and how he was always careful to keep out of that mix, even as he was careful to build his rep for being tough and cool. He would, however, get involved in racing other car owners who attended these dances. They’d peel out onto the road from the dance hall and then race a several-mile loop of quiet countryside roads that brought the racers back to the dance hall parking lot.
I share this example with you because it's filled with vivid descriptors and because it's a side of my dad that is full of life, full of youthful teen energy and playfulness, and it was a facet of his past he had never really shared before.
After a couple of years on the dance circuit he “felt like old news” so he visited the armed forces recruiting offices in Augusta and he joined the Navy. He chose the Navy because he was convinced it was his best option to truly become worldly. And he did. He visited 14 countries while in the Navy, and when his term was up he had received training for a professional trade (plumber/boiler engineer). Soon after he left the Navy he met my mom. He asked her out on a date at their very first meeting and she said yes. Sparks flew and the rest, as they say, is history...