In the Mood

By Hillary Tiefer

“Maybe it’s not wise to relive the past,” Elna says, holding her breath so that Anita, her darling CNA, can lift the zipper of her dress. She insisted on wearing a dress because it’s proper attire for attending a performance by an orchestra. She purchased this polyester dress with lavender paisley print about eight or nine years earlier and it was about that many years since she wore it. Anita also helped her on with her support hose, which have snags but fortunately are hidden by the hem of the dress.

Anita’s eyes float over her. “You look terrific, gal,” she says.

Elna laughs at the absurd compliment. She is a bulky woman whose narrow waist disappeared years ago. Her white hair is cut short, too mannish, but the hairstylist at Oak Manor Senior Community does only the one style. Once her hair was honey-blond, soft and in rolls that fell over her shoulders. Gordon ran his fingers through her hair and said, “Beautiful.” That was sixty-eight years earlier.

“So what kind of music is it, sweetie?” Anita asks. “That fellow, Beethoven’s or Mozart’s?”

Elna shakes her head. “Not classical at all. Every hear of Benny Goodman? He had a big band and was known as the King of Swing. He sure knew how to play the clarinet. There were others, too, like Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and Count Basie.”

Anita flattens her palm on her chin and shakes her head. “No, I confess I haven’t heard of any of them.”

“They played what was called Swing music. It was lively and couples danced. Sometimes they got themselves into a dancing frenzy. You’re way too young to know about Swing.”

“And don’t forget I grew up in the Philippines. I did hear of a crazy dance called Tinikling, where the dancers use bamboo poles, and I like the singer, Sarah Geronimo, from Manila. Here in this country I’ve always been a fan of Madonna.”

“Most folks these days don’t know about Swing. The musicians in tonight’s orchestra probably weren’t even alive when those band leaders were popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s.”

“The music will bring back memories for you.”

“That’s why it may not be wise for me to go,” Elna says more to herself than to Anita. “I may dwell too much on the past.”

“Nonsense—you’ll have a great time. And you’re all dressed up for the occasion. But you still need your pearls.” Anita removes them from a satin jewelry box on the dresser.

Walt gave them to Elna on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. “Yes, please do clasp them on for me.”

While Anita places the pearls around her wrinkled neck she looks into the mirror above the dresser and frowns. Women at her age shouldn’t have mirrors.

“Now that you’re dolled up you need lipstick.” Anita proceeds to scrummage in the dresser’s top drawer.

“Don’t bother—they’re out of date,” Elna says. “I should’ve thrown them away years ago.”

“Nonsense. One of them is sure to work.” She removes a plastic lid and shows Elna the lipstick, half used. “It says the color is ‘Pretty Woman’—perfect for you.”

“It looks plush pink to me.”

“That’s one and the same, hon. Now purse your lips.”

Anita then spritzes her with Estee Lauder perfume that her daughter, Charlotte, and son-in-law, Rick, gave her as a Christmas present.

“You’re ready to go!” Anita says. Just as she hands Elna her white cotton sweater Charlotte and Rick enter the room.

“Wow, Mom, you look great,” Charlotte says and kisses Elna on the cheek. “I got a good whiff of your perfume.”

Charlotte wears a blazing red jersey top over snug black pants and Rick, a blue T-shirt that advertises Deschutes Beer over jeans. Elna disapproves of their clothes for this occasion but submerges her opinion. After all, they were nice to invite her and purchase her a ticket.

Anita hugs her. “I can’t wait to hear all about it. Have fun, kids!”

Rick hands Elna her cane and they leave her room, walk slowly, for her sake, down a long corridor lined with guardrails, and enter the main lobby that resembles a living room. She nods to friends and acquaintances, mostly lonely women residents, some sitting in stuffed armchairs and others crouched in wheelchairs. Then Rick opens the heavy front door for her and Charlotte, and they step out into the fresh air and sunshine.

They drive twenty minutes to downtown Portland. Fortunately, Rick finds a spot in the parking lot across the street from the four-story redbrick building of the Northwest Historical Society, which is sponsoring the event.

They take an elevator to the rooftop of the building. The orchestra will perform here, outside in front of rows of folding chairs. They are lucky that this is a warm July evening without a cloud in the sky. To the right of the musicians is enough space for a dance floor but Elna can’t imagine anyone attempting to dance the Jitterbug, Foxtrot or Lindy Hop. She notes that many in the audience are dressed in ridiculously casual clothes for the occasion. Times have changed. At least the members of the City of Roses Orchestra wear black suits, white shirts, and black bowties. They are gray-haired, in their fifties and sixties, and probably never experienced a real Swing era dance—as she did.

They are only six and can’t possibly produce music like those big bands with as many as fifteen musicians. The piano and guitar are electric, relying on amplifiers on both sides of their little stage. She braces herself for being disappointed. The musician holding the clarinet starts counting out beats then they begin. They’re not bad. The sound of Benny Goodman’s “Goody, Goody” makes her heart leap, and she finds herself tapping her cane in beat against the wooden rooftop floor. She sings along with an imaginary Helen Ward,

So you met someone who set you back on your heels.

Goody, goody!

Elna’s caught in time travel.

Then the orchestra plays “Stomping at the Savoy” and couples get up to dance—mostly with gray hair but still too young to know about Swing. They rigidly and clumsily attempt box and Cha-Cha-Cha steps and some contort their bodies in ways Elna cannot comprehend. The women move with as little grace as the men. The song is followed by “In the Mood,” making her heart twist.

Elna was a shy eighteen-year-old back in August of ’43, wearing a peach-colored organza dress, and standing on the crowded gymnasium floor of the Chemeketa Street YMCA in Salem, Oregon. She was at her first USO dance and mesmerized by the dancers. Her trance was broken when a handsome soldier approached her. “How about you and me dancing?” he asked.

“I’ll be happy to,” she answered demurely, “but you should know this will be my first time.”

He led her to the dance floor as the band began playing, “In the Mood.” She did her best to follow him through the foxtrot as her older sister, June, had shown her: moving her feet slow, slow, quick quick, swinging her hips, swaying her shoulders. He twirled her around then brought her close again.

“You did swell for a first-timer,” he said and smiled at her. He then extended his hand to shake hers. “I’m Gordon Baker.”

“Elna Nicholls.”

“Nice to meet you, Elna.”

“Nice meeting you.”

They acknowledged they were thirsty and went to a table where a USO hostess was serving nonalcoholic punch. She handed them each a glass. He sipped his punch while his blue eyes remained focused on her.

“Mom, want a Coke? Rick is getting drinks.” Her daughter’s voice intrudes on Elna’s reverie.

“Water will do for me, thanks.” She realizes that the music has stopped.

When the orchestra resumes playing, now the zappy “Sing, Sing, Sing,” she is dismayed that Charlotte and Rick have join the dancers. They’ll make fools of themselves—like the others. Sure enough her daughter and son-in-law twist and contort their bodies as if their writhing in pain.

Then she sees a young couple, a lovely, slender woman and a handsome, well-built man, entering the dance floor. The woman has wavy brown hair down to her shoulders and is wearing a sundress, the skirt flaring out, exposing her pale calves. He has sandy-colored hair, neatly trimmed, and wears a button-down shirt tucked into slacks. They sway and shimmy gracefully if not quite with the verve of true Swing dancers. Nevertheless, they come the closest—the older ones here have no idea. Her eyes remain riveted on them.

Elna felt the thrill of liberation from all inhibitions as her body swayed, jittered, and twirled through the fast moving “Sing, Sing, Sing.” She danced every dance with Gordon in the Chemeketa YMCA. She especially enjoyed the slow songs, when his hand was firmly on her waist, and she felt the thrill of this new intimacy as they moved across the gymnasium floor.

He was stationed at Camp Adair, not too far away from Salem where she lived, so it was easy for them to meet again. The next Saturday evening he took her to dinner at Trudy’s Café. They sat in a red vinyl booth and ate Chicken a la King with Au Gratin Potatoes. He told her he was from Santa Rosa, California. His father was an accountant. He had an older sister, who was twenty-four, and a math teacher. His brother was sixteen and, fortunately, too young to fight. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I know how important it is to fight and Doug is damn mad he can’t enlist. So tell me all about yourself, Elna.”

She told him she had an older married sister, and her brother-in-law was a Marine, who had been wounded at Guadalcanal. She graduated high school in June and joined the Army Cadet Nurse Corps and in September would start her nursing education at Eastern Oregon College in La Grande. “I hope the war ends before I’m finished with my program,” she said, “but if it isn’t, I aim to go overseas with the troops.”

He stroked her hand. “You amaze me. I truly admire you.”

She was delighted that her new vocation impressed him. She then remembered her mother’s prodding that she invite him to dinner. “How would you like to come to my house for dinner? Can you get away on Sunday? My mom is a great cook and I’m not so bad, either.”

He stared at her with his soft blue eyes. She saw hesitancy in them. She had been too bold inviting him to be with her family. After all, they hardly knew one another. She blamed her mother, who had insisted he’d appreciate the offer to have a home-cooked meal. Her heart throbbed awaiting his answer. “That sounds swell,” he finally answered and smiled at her. She could breathe again.

Gordon made a great impression from the time she opened the door, early Sunday evening. He handed her a bouquet of red roses and her mother, who stood next to her, a pound box of chocolates. Her father remained discreetly in the foyer, a pipe in his mouth. The sight of him in his khaki uniform and garrison cap stirred feelings in her she thought she’d better suppress.

Throughout the meal her mother’s face was sanguine and Elna never saw her smile so constantly. While they ate lamb casserole—rationing food—her mother stared at him and Elna knew questions would soon flow from her mouth.

“Have you any plans, Gordon, for when this darn war is over?” she asked, as predicted. As much as Elna didn’t like her mother probing him she was curious about his answer.

He swallowed his food, sipped his beer, and wiped his lips with his napkin. “I sure do, Ma’am. I don’t want to work indoors all the time like my dad does. He’s an accountant. I hope to have a vineyard. I want to grow grapes for Cabernet Sauvignon wine where I live in Sonoma County. First I’ll have to take classes in viticulture and oenology—which is the science of wine making. Believe me it’s very much a science. I’ve heard that the government will help pay for us GIs to go to school when the war’s over.”

“Why isn’t that wonderful!” Her mother’s grin spread across her face.

Elna was glad they’d be alone on their next date. On the following Sunday at around noon she and Gordon sat on grass under a weeping willow for a picnic lunch in the park along the Willamette River. She had brought the basket of ham sandwiches, potato salad, and a pitcher of homemade lemonade. It was a warm day late in August but the shade helped. Gordon was quieter than usual. Then he took her hand and said, “Tomorrow my division is moving out. We’re heading for Camp Abbot in Bend for maneuvers—not too far away.”

Her heart sunk but at least he wasn’t being shipped out to the war—not yet. “No not too far,” she said and forced a smile.

He leaned toward her and kissed her lips which caused her entire body to tingle.

“Wow, my heart is racing,” Charlotte says. “I’m not as young as I used to be.” She plops down next to Elna. Charlotte lifts her can of Coke from the floor near her chair and gulps. “Well, what do you think, Mom? Did Rick and I capture Swing dancing?”

The sinking sun is level with Elna’s eyes so she narrows them. “Not really. Hardly any of you know how to dance the jitterbug or the foxtrot.” She glances at the attractive young couple still on the dance floor although the music has stopped. They are sipping from beer cans. “You women should at least wear a dress or skirt.”

Soon the musicians start playing again, this time, “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and as Elna watches the dancers she can’t help but sing,

It Don’t Mean a Thing

If It Ain’t Got That Swing.

None have that swing, including her daughter and son-in-law, who were not discouraged by her criticism and are again gyrating on the dance floor. Only the young couple seems rightfully there, in rhythm with the music.

Elna danced to “It Don’t Mean a Thing” in Camp Abbot’s Field House in early September of “43 before Gordon’s grueling maneuvers in the wilderness would begin. Soon after that she had to begin her program as a Nurse Cadet and it was too difficult to get away.

When he was sent to Camp Carson in Colorado in March of ’44 she wrote to him that she’d find a way to visit him there. He wrote back, “Dearest, I fear that such a trip will be difficult and I realize how hard it is for you to leave nursing school.”

Nevertheless, she was determined to be with him. More and more his letters hinted that he’d soon be shipped out. She told her roommate, Fran, how desperate she was to see him but doubted she could get away. Fran removed her engagement ring and placed it on Elna’s finger. “Head Nurse Gleason sympathizes with fiancées and wives who want to say good-by to their fellows,” Fran said. “It worked for me. It’ll work for you.”

“But I would be lying—we’re not even engaged.”

“The way you feel for Gordon is just the same.”

She left for the head nurse’s office, with Fran’s ring loose on her finger. She gained permission to take a week off from school but she’d have to make up clinic hours when she returned. She wrote Gordon immediately that she was coming.

Before she left she called home and told her mother about her planned trip.

“It’s a long journey for you, honey,” her mother said. “Did Gordon want you to come all that way?”

Elna wanted to be honest and open with her mother but her instincts forced her to be evasive if not misleading. “Yes, of course, he wants me to come.”

“Surely then he is serious about you and knows you feel the same. Don’t be surprised if he presents you with an engagement ring.”

This statement riled Elna. As much as they loved each other, Gordon never hinted at marriage. “It’s a time of war—it’s hard to make commitments,” she told her mother. “But I’m certain Gordon cares for me as much as I do him.”

The next day she hopped on a train packed with servicemen and began her journey toward Camp Carson near the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Gordon arranged for her to stay at a post guesthouse.

He took her to dinner in the restaurant of the magnificent Antlers Hotel, downtown Colorado Springs, at the foot of snow-capped Pikes Peak. They had just finished eating at a table covered in white linen and lit by candles, when he suddenly cupped his hand over hers and looked intently at her. “Darling, I have to say this to you. I love you, Elna, but I refuse to make you a war widow.” He showed her a sad smile. “We shouldn’t marry ‘til this damn war is over.”

Tears filled her eyes. “I … I love you, too.” She wanted to suggest a compromise—an engagement—but stopped herself: besides being an old-fashioned girl she also knew that Gordon, a soldier soon to go into battle, should make that decision, not her.

He paid the waiter then stood and took her hand. “We’re not going back to the base quite yet,” he said. He led her into the elegant Rose Ballroom of the Antlers Hotel. The orchestra was playing “Moonlight Serenade.” She savored the feel of his hand on her waist as they danced to that song. His cheek was so close she saw the slight shadow where he had shaved. She wished she saw the diamond of an engagement ring glinting on her finger.

Gordon left for Europe in September of ‘44. She exchanged V-mail letters with him, receiving them at her college dormitory, and sending his to a New York address even though he was dangerously far from that city. He wrote about his ship experience crossing the Atlantic: he was seasick much of the time, played lots of gin rummy and poker, and enjoyed watching porpoises leaping from the water. In his next letter he wrote he was in Normandy, France, where it was cold, rainy, and muddy—obviously not a comfortable vacation spot. In later letters he mentioned the heartbreaking results of war but never was specific, conscious of censors. He wrote that his division entered Belgium and that the people of Brussels were overjoyed to see them and appreciated GI gifts of gum and cigarettes. In his last letter he indicated he was on the move and would try to write again soon. She knew he was moving toward Holland and combat. She never heard from him again.

Her parents came to visit her in La Grande. As soon as she saw their ashen faces she knew. Her father was the one to tell her while her mother dabbed her eyes with a hanky. Gordon had given her home address to his parents for such a possibility and they had sent a letter addressed to Elna that her mother had opened. He died in the Battle of the Dykes.

The sun is sinking below the horizon and the sky is a dark denim blue. A cool breeze chills Elna so she wraps her cardigan around her shoulders. Soon it is dark. Nevertheless, the orchestra plays, “Blue Skies.” Only the young couple remains on the dance floor. Apparently, the rest are too exhausted. The only light comes from the lanterns on the rooftop, the lit rooms in a near-by glass and steel skyscraper, and the bright sparkle of a planet—maybe Saturn or Jupiter. The man grasps the woman’s hand of her outstretched arm and twirls her and then they promenade in foxtrot style across the wooden dance floor. Elna sings softly,

Never saw the sun shining so bright

Never saw things going so right

Noticing the days hurrying by

When you’re in love, my how they fly.

When the song ends Charlotte taps Elna on the shoulder. “It’s late—past nine. We should take you home.”

Elna sniffs hard so her daughter won’t notice she’s been crying. But Charlotte’s head is cocked to one side and she’s frowning. “Mom, are you all right?”

Elna forces a smile. “Yes, perfectly fine.” With the help of her cane she stands.

Charlotte hooks her arm with hers. “Did this evening bring back memories of you and Dad?”

Elna stares at her for a moment disoriented by the question then nods her head. “Yes, it does bring back memories of me … and your Dad when we were young.”


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