The Dance And Picnic

July 1913

Johnny approached the table. Enchanted at first sight by the dark brown Gibson girl hair style put up in a French roll. Fair white skin of a lady and haunting blue eyes met his as he stood waiting for an introduction. She wore a long silky green dress that complimented everything about her. A small yellow flower in her hair captivated him.

Johnny was nineteen last January. He arrived in town that afternoon on the train from Pittsburg along with his buddy, Jimmy O’Malley. They worked at the new Crucible Steel plant in Midland, near the Ohio border. The plant was on a two-week shutdown, so Johnny seized the opportunity to come home to Steelton and visit his family. Jimmy tagged along to see someplace new.

The Catholic Club of Harrisburg prided itself in the decorations for their annual Independence Day Dance and Card Party that transformed Cathedral Hall into a summer garden. Wicker chairs and loveseats interspersed with small potted trees adorned the lobby. An archway wrapped in English ivy stood at the entrance to the hall. Red, white, and blue lights hung overhead from the ceiling. The stage appeared to be a portico lined with potted chrysanthemums.

Dressed in their best jacket and tie, Johnny and Jimmy walked through the ivy-covered archway. The summer dance was the most attended function of the year, and over four hundred people filled the hall. Tables lined the orchestra circle for Euchre and 500, popular social card games. Snacks and bowls of punch covered the long tables along the side wall. A cash bar could be found in the two rear corners. At nine o’clock the card tables were removed and the Sara Lemer orchestra began the music and entertainment for the evening dance.

     Jimmy struck up a conversation with a girl at the bar. Lucy was twenty-four but looked much younger. She seemed friendly enough. Jimmy was only eighteen and taken in by her forthright manner. She invited him and Johnny to join her and a friend.

            “I brought us some company,” Lucy said as she stood by her chair.

“I see,” her friend replied.

           “This is Jimmy and.” She looked at Johnny.

           “John,” he said.

           “This is Jimmy and John. Jimmy and John, this is Irene.”

           “A pleasure to meet you.” Irene stood and offered her hand to John.

She was taller than he thought and much prettier up close. There was a definite hint of an Irish accent.

After a few minutes of awkward conversation, John asked her if she would like to dance. The early dances were old standards; foxtrots, one-steps, and waltzes. It was an easy one-step, John was relieved. The next was a foxtrot, and he balked for a moment, but Irene held his hand and said they must stay out for one more. She was very comfortable to be with and pleasant to hold. He couldn’t quite discern her age. He guessed she was older but knew it was not polite to ask. She would have lied anyway. Girls either added years when they were young or subtracted what they thought they could get away with when they were older.

The evening had turned out to be more fun than anticipated. After a few more drinks, Irene had him on the dance floor more than off. The orchestra struck up ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ by Irving Berlin. Johnny headed towards the table, but Irene turned him around. The floor was packed as everyone got into the music and two-stepped or skipped around the floor. John feigned trying to catch his breath when the song ended. Irene laughed at him. “This is nothing. Back home, we dance to the jigs and reels all night long. They be much faster than this music.”

Jimmy had fresh drinks waiting at the table. “And where is back home?” Johnny asked.

“County Port Lairge. Or Waterford, you might know it as. Have ye heard of it now?”

“I have. My mother’s family came over from Ireland back in the sixties. They were from Waterford and Cork, I believe.”

“Oh heavens, I hope we’re not related.” She smiled at him.

He returned the smile. Young Johnny was smitten.

Lucy looked from Irene to John. “I think we should dance.” She pulled Jimmy by his tie.

Irene and Lucy worked as house servants for a wealthy cigar manufacturer. They shared a small room in the attic of his family residence on Front Street. It was a large house facing the river in the nicer part of town. John didn’t want the evening to end, so he offered to see the girls home after the dance. He was genuinely pleased when they accepted. The electric trolley line ran along 3rd street, five blocks north of the river. The walk from the trolley stop was over too fast. They lingered at the front gate. It was a rule that no guests were allowed after dark, and no boys were allowed at all.

           Lucy was a free spirit. She wanted to give Irene and John some privacy, so she took Jimmy around to a secluded garden on the side of the house. Irene could cut loose now and then, as she did at the dance, but she was not as extroverted as her roommate. John held her hand during the walk from the trolley. He was hoping for a good night kiss and a promise that he could call on her again. They leaned with their backs against the wrought iron fence that separated the walk from the lawn.

It was just past midnight, and the neighborhood was quiet except for the sound of the river flowing but a hundred feet away. The Susquehanna was almost a mile wide here. Up and down the river, small islands appeared as black splotches on the shimmering moonlit water.

           “Have you ever been out on the river?” John asked.

           “Sometimes we go over to City Island. It’s a nice place for summer picnics.”

           “Well then, maybe we could go for a picnic. I have some time until I am due to return to Midland.”

           “I would like that. Sunday is the next day I have off.”

           “Sunday it is.”

           “You should call on me then at my uncle’s house. He lives just a few blocks over on Green Street. Not before eleven unless you wish to attend Mass with us. Then be there at half eight.”

           “Should we invite Lucy and Jimmy?”

           “Lucy will have to work that day. We never have the same day off. But I don’t mind if your friend comes along. I could invite my cousins. I am sure one or two of them would love to accompany us.”

           “Alright then, what’s your uncle’s address?”

           “2011 Green.”

Johnny smiled, “it’s a date then.”

“It’s a date,” she replied. “I really should be getting in. Morning comes early. We must be up before the family rises.” She disappeared into the garden.

A moment later, Jimmy appeared with a grin from ear to ear.

“Boy, she’s a good kisser. How about you, bud? Did you get a little smooch?” He poked Johnny in the ribs.

“No, but I made a date for next Sunday. A picnic out on the island.”

——

The early July afternoon was warm. A brilliant blue sky above and not a cloud in sight made a perfect day for a picnic. The river flowing around the island, and a slight breeze cooled the air enough to make it comfortable. The day promised to be a grand affair. Johnny brought his younger brothers along for the day; Charles, 12, and Ted, 9. Irene invited her cousins; Marie, 17, Josephine, 13, and their brother Francis, 15. They all jumped at the chance to go out to the island and meet Irene’s new suitor. The island was a popular place to beat the heat of town. A small ferry charged a penny a head to transport groups across the swiftly flowing river.

Johnny sent Jimmy ahead when they landed to scout out a suitable place to set up camp. Most of the island had been cleared from continuous use, and the crowds generally set out blankets in the field near the ferry landing. Francis said he knew a good spot and went off with Jimmy. A small grove of trees on the north end provided shade from the summer sun, and it had easy access to shallow water. The site was perfect.

 Marie and Josephine had become like sisters to Irene since she came to live with them. And she was thought of as a big sister by them. Jimmy had hit it off well with Johnny’s younger brothers, and he took them down to the river to skip rocks. Johnny brought a couple of baseball mitts and a ball. He and Francis tossed the ball back and forth while the girls spread the blankets and arranged the food.

           “He’s cute,” Marie said. “Don’t you think he might be a bit young for you?”

           “Why, are ye getting notions for yourself, cousin?” Irene smiled at her.

           “Oh no, I would not dream of stealing him away, cousin.” She grinned. “But if I was to bat my eyes and pretend to be bashful, and he were to shift his attention, who could blame a girl?”

Irene gave her the evil eye, and Marie laughed.

“What about his friend? He looks to be about my age?”

           “Best stay clear of that one. He’s a fast mover. Kissing Lucy in the garden the first time they met. Then he tried to put his hands where they ought not to be.”

“Oh my! Do you think Lucy will mind if I have a go at him?” Her eyes twinkled as she cast her gaze over towards the river.

“You’ll be going to hell thinking them wicked thoughts. Josephine, don’t you be paying any attention to your sister now.”

Just then, there was a scream from the river. Johnny dropped his mitt and raced over to the shoreline.

Charles screamed, “I don’t see him.”

 Jimmy was out in the river up over his waist.

 “What happened?” Johnny called out.

“It’s Ted he fell in.” Charles was crying.

A head popped up above the surface and then a flailing set of hands. He was about 20 yards downstream. John took off running down the shoreline until he passed the spot he last saw him and dove into the water, swimming out as fast as he could. Ted was trying his best to stay above water. The swift current had him in a panic. John reached out and grabbed his brother by the shirt. Ted wildly flung his arms and tried to climb on top of Johnny taking them both under. The water was cold and deep. John pushed him off. He kicked for the surface. He gasped for air as he searched for signs of his brother. Ted broke the surface again. Johnny reached under him from behind and hollered, “I’ve got you. Be still. I’ve got you.”

The current carried them fast. John saw they were almost near the lower end of the island. People lined up, watching and pointing as the two brothers floated by. He was too far out to fight the current. He told Ted again, “I’ve got you, your safe,” as much to assure himself as his kid brother. A small rock outcropping was coming up on his left. He tried to angle towards it.

 “Kick your feet,” he said. “Kick hard.”

 He bumped into a rock below the surface and kicked off towards the bigger rocks. They crawled onto the wet, slick boulders. Ted coughed up a belly full of water. Johnny lay on his back, trying to catch his breath.

Irene raced along the shoreline at a frantic pace struggling to keep up with the boys. When she finally caught up, Jimmy, Charles, and Francis were on the ferry dock waving their arms and pointing across the water. When Irene saw the brothers on the rocks, her body shuttered with a wave of relief.

Charles had tears streaming down his cheeks. She held him close and told him they would be alright. They were safe on the rocks.

 “It’s my fault,” he said to her. “We wanted to see how far out we could wade. I was holding his hand. It was wet and slippery. I let go, and he went under. It’s all my fault.”

She held him tighter. “It’s gonna be okay now. Look”

The ferry was on its way back over. Jimmy was waving to it and pointing. Johnny was now standing on the rock and waving to the ferry. The ferry slowed and turned towards the stranded boys. A half-hour later, Johnny and Ted stepped off the boat and onto the dock for the second time that day.

The small party spent the rest of the afternoon close to the blankets. Everyone had an appetite after all of the excitement. Marie played coy with Jimmy. She had concerns with his responsibility, seeing as Ted was on his watch when he went under.

 Irene watched as Johnny taught his brothers and Francis how to throw a curve. Even Josephine tried to learn how to pitch. While the thought of possible tragedy sat in the back of her mind, Irene couldn’t take her eyes off of him.

Blond hair, blue eyes, and a handsome boyish face attracted her the first night they met. He was a gentleman when he walked her home, and he was a good dancer, though reluctant at times. He had hung his shirt on a branch to dry. His stomach was flat, and his arms were muscular. He was lean and fit from years in the steel mill. Something stirred inside her. She knew what she would do tonight in the confines of her bed. Tonight, she would have a face and body to dream about.

 Johnny turned and caught her watching him. He felt a little self-conscious. Thinking the shirt should be dry by now he pulled it from the branch and sat next to her.

“Don’t put it on yet,” she said as he slipped one arm in the sleeve. She reached out and touched his chest. His heart began to race as she held her hand in place. He looked into her eyes. They were lost somewhere in thought- thinking of tonight. She came back to reality and quickly pulled her hand away. He reached out and moved a lock of hair from her face. She blushed and closed her eyes. He leaned close and met her lips with his. He smiled at her and pulled on the other sleeve. He left it unbuttoned.

—–

John’s younger sister Margaret was home from her trip to Hershey Park with her friends. She was cleaning the supper dishes when the boys got home from the picnic. The commotion startled their baby sister, Kat, who let out a loud wail from her crib. Margaret chastised the boys and picked up her sister to calm her down.

She kissed the baby on the nose and handed her over to her mother, who came in to greet her sons.

           “Ma kept supper warm for ye if anyone’s hungry,” Margaret called from the kitchen.

John had hoped not to have to tell the story of the mishap from that afternoon. Ted wasn’t about to offer it up, but Katie knew something was amiss as soon as she took one look at Charles. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and he would not look her in the eye.

They all sat as Margaret put the food on the table.

“Would you take your sister to her room, please?” Katie handed little Kat back to Margaret then asked if anyone would care for a cup of tea. Charles gobbled down his food and went to leave. “I think ye best stay put for a minute young man.” Tears welled up in his eyes when he looked at her. “Is there something anyone wants to tell me?” She switched her gaze from Charles to John.

 John started to say something when Ted burst out. “It’s alright, Ma. Johnny saved me. I didn’t drown.”

Katie lost all color in her face. “Tell me what happened now.”

Charles wept. “It was my fault, but Irene said it wasn’t.” John stood up and put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder. He told his version of the story. His attempt to make it sound less frightening than it was didn’t work.

 Katie held on to Ted and cried. Then she scolded him. “I’ve told ye boys not to go in that river. Now ye know why. It will swallow you in a heartbeat.” Charles and Ted both wrapped their arms around their mother.

——

Johnny planned to leave on Friday to return to Midland. For the next four nights, he waited outside the big house by the river for Irene to finish work. She entertained him at her uncle’s house, and they walked hand in hand back down the hill at midnight. He cherished each goodnight kiss in the garden, anticipating his return.

Culled from blog.reedsy.com by John Staley

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