Dancing with Lou Babe
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by Frank Shortt
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Thursday rolled around all too soon! This was the day of the week when all clubs met at
Garden High School in Buchanan County, Virginia. This was also the day when folk dancing was required in the gymnasium. I was a pipsqueak
and did not fit in with the other sophomores due to my runty size and skinniness. I barely came up to the shoulders of some of the
This was 1958, a time when Buchanan County was beginning to pull out of the doldrums.
New coal fields had been discovered in the county and large coal companies were beginning to hire men for more wages than they had
ever dreamed of. Poor and rich alike were thrown together at Garden High School. There was the Island Creek Keen Mountain Coal Camp,
the Page Coal Company Camp, the Roseann Coal Camp, etc. These all produced kids from all over the south as men raced to get these
Early on this particular Thursday, at the first recess, I ran headlong
out to ‘Smoker’s Glory’ the area designated for those who smoked. Four-H Club had just ended. There were students and teachers alike
running out there and, due to my lack of funds, I usually had to take seconds on the cigarette of someone. In those days we called
them ‘ducks’. It would have been better for me if the other smokers would have refused me their mostly-smoked ducks. I remained a
smoker until I was about twenty-seven years old.
Andy Muir was out there for some reason which
I was not privy to. He did not even smoke. He was on the second lineup of the basketball team and somewhat of a nerd. We had exchanged
some words the day before during P.E. and had not really come to an understanding. The P.E. coach, Jan Frett, who also smoked, favored
all his jocks and would sometimes allow things to be settled with fisticuffs if he figured his protege’ would come out on top.
“I understand there was a little run-in yesterday between Andy and Frank that needs settling! This is as good a time as any.” Frett
There was a mud puddle from a recent rainstorm so Frett placed each of us on opposite
sides. Andy was a head taller, appeared to be much stronger, and felt that he had the advantage. What he did not know was that someone
had taught me Native American wrestling. I knew that most of the other students, as well as the adult smokers, favored Andy.
We began circling the mud hole, watching for a chance to make a grab. Andy slashed out at me with his fists striking me on my shoulders
and arms but did not upset me. Suddenly, without warning, I grabbed him by the hand, placed my right foot to the side of him and pulled
him sideways, sprawling him headlong into the mud puddle. He actually screamed with embarrassment, and ran into the locker room adjacent
to the smoking area. He wore an old football uniform the rest of the day. I had completely caught him off guard. Andy and I had no
more run-ins after that. In fact, we became pretty good friends.
Next thing on the agenda was
choir. I had joined because every other Shortt that attended Garden Hi was considered to be a ready-made singer. We were taught how
to sing at the Grassy Creek Church. Mrs. Wooldridge, the choir director, knew that if there was a Shortt in the choir, things would
go along pretty smooth. She was not wrong in her judgment concerning me as I loved to sing and could whistle like a bird. In fact,
she often used me for just that in her operettas whenever outside scenery was used, I would be behind the curtains doing my bird calls.
The audiences never knew who did those sounds.
The last activity on the agenda on Thursday was
folk dancing. It would not matter if we ran a little overtime as this was the day that all the teachers met in the library to be lectured
by Mr. B.T. Quillen. Mrs. Wooldridge was probably secretly glad to be late to the meeting as she would probably be asked to take on
yet another responsibility.
Off to the gymnasium to do the Virginia Reel, Western Square
dances, the Mexican hat dance, and a host of others that we mountain kids could not even pronounce. Mrs. Wooldridge tried her best
to make cultural beings out of these clodhopping hillbillies. Every person had already chosen beforehand who their partner would be.
I was not in the ‘popular’ group, so I never knew who I would end up with. Nine times out of ten, I would end up with ‘Lou Babe Pritt”
“Aw rite, choose your partners” would boom out over the portable p.a. system.
Who else was left except the shortest boy there and the tallest girl there? Frank Shortt and Lou Babe Pritt! She was really a pretty
young lady. It was just that I grew up with her up around Shortt Gap and thought of her as more like a sister. Aside from the fact
that she was a head taller than me, she was probably one of the best dancers there.
At this stage of my life I was experiencing identity
issues, so this was somewhat of a setback for me. I could hear the snickers of all the other boys, although some of them had to dance
with, what they considered, homely girls. It is just that having to slow-dance with a girl a foot taller and with our arms extended
straight out was somewhat embarrassing.
On a side note, one of the ‘homeliest young ladies
in this class was a girl named Meda Bell. It seemed that she could never take away the greenish sheen from her teeth. She had curly,
long hair, she was very tall and slender, but those teeth! When I saw her at our fortieth class reunion, she was the one who stood
out as one of the classiest ladies I had ever seen. She had become an executive secretary for some U.S. Senator. Talk about pre-judging!
By the time folk-dancing was over, everyone had had their chuckle, and the record machine
put away, I could not wait to rush out of that gymnasium to my only safe haven, “Smoker’s Glory”. By the next week I had regained
the courage to face all the folk dancers once again.
I actually grew a few more inches
after joining the USAF and getting into their regimen.