Another May Day has come and gone without dancing around a Maypole. But there was a day. Oh yes, there was a day. . . .
It was May 1st, 1971, and I was in 3rd grade at Burnt Chimney Elementary School in Wirtz, Virginia, site of many an early childhood
nightmare memory. We were all gussied up in our spring best for the school’s annual May Day celebration. My teacher Mrs. English, a dour schoolmarm with wrinkled skin who believed that Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk was an elaborate NASA hoax, paced and frowned from the sideline.
All our parents were there, too, not just the stay-at-home moms, but also the dads who somehow got the day off from their jobs even though it was the middle of the week and were now standing there with their space-age Bell & Howell 8mm home movie cameras ready to capture the moment.
The big kids in 7th grade had their May Court and the crowning of the May Queen. But nobody cared much about that. It came at the end and was slow and totally devoid of drama. “Anticlimactic” doesn’t do it justice.
What people came to see was the wrapping of the Maypole. That was 3rd grader turf. We were the stars of the show.
It was a sight to see. One moment, the two poles just stood there, tall and erect, their stark naked wood toasting under the warm May sun, and before you could say “Pagan Fertility Rite!”, they were wrapped in colorful, festive array, much to the relief of Mrs. English, who unlike most people there, had read the Encyclopedia Britannica entry and knew the truth.
Or else there was a train wreck. The previous year, a boy had stepped on his partner’s toe during a pass-through and started a chain-reaction collision which ended with a knot of streamers and kids so tight that several teachers had to run back to their classrooms and fetch their blunt-edge scissors to extract them.
Now 4th graders, that class had been assigned the ignominious task of standing in one place–no movement whatsoever except for some gentle swaying designed to simulate the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze–and singing “God Bless America.” It was up to my class to restore order and honor to the occasion.
We guys were decked in dark J.C. Penny dress slacks and short sleeve dress shirts of blue, yellow, green and pink. There was a girl paired with each us who wore a matching cotton chiffon dress which flared out at the bottom, like a bright, inverted tulip in full bloom.
We didn’t care what the Encylopedia Brittanica said about May Day, not that we bothered to look it up anyway, and would remain oblivious to the roots of the rite–at least for a while longer. We had practiced hard, and the only thing on our minds was pleasing our parents and teachers and not screwing up and totally embarrassing ourselves.
Lenora Bailey was my partner. She was quiet and sweet, had short blond hair, blue eyes and dimples. By the standards of the time, she was certainly cute, but not the biggest catch in the class. But then again, I was no David Cassidy.
We were about the same height, but not the same weight, this being months before I finally said “No!” to peanut butter tablespoons and Bugles at bedtime and got “Phys. Ed. religion.” My mother bought my clothes in the “Husky” section at Sears, but Lenora had the fine, delicate bone structure of a small bird.
Despite toting a few extra pounds, I was still light on my feet as my father’s home movie plainly shows. Lenora and I, dressed in matching Irish green, dance-skipped to our assigned stations, picked up our streamers, and stood facing each other, careful not to look into each other’s eyes because that would have been just plain gross. The crowd was hushed in the moments before the music began, and even the mockingbirds ceased their sassy chatter.
(Ah yes, the music. “The Maypole Dance” by the RCA Victor Folk Dance Orchestra. If you haven’t heard that little ditty in awhile, do yourself a favor and click this link. Go ahead. I won’t tell. If you have to, shut the door, but click the link, hold your arms out like you’re grasping a colorful crepe-paper ribbon, and dance-skip in a circle. It’s good for what ails ya.)
The accordion sounded, and we were off. We over-ed and under-ed, round and round, just like we’d practiced. We 3rd graders were a twirling kaleidoscope, pleasing to human eyes, as well as to the agriculture gods who were especially honored in Franklin County, Virginia judging by the pungent aroma of organic incense that wafted in from the cornfield next door and all the John Deeres parked in people’s driveways. We spun with such determination that we were either going to induce the fickle deities to bestow a bumper crop on Franklin County farmers or else drill straight through to China.
We had worked our way halfway down the pole when the mid-air collision occurred. The 8mm film footage, which I can’t seem to locate at the moment (sorry!), plainly shows that Lenora dipsied when she should have doodled. Once again, it was the woman.
I had raised my streamer for her to pass beneath, but she stayed high and we crashed together, mid-skip. With my weight advantage, I knocked Lenora back a step, and then we stopped, shocked, and stared at each other while our classmates continued to dance.
In that brief moment, time stood still. Jaws dropped, cameras clicked and whirred, and the 4th graders rubbernecked, hoping that their 12-kid pile-up from the previous year would be forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of Burnt Chimney Elementary School history.
For the first time all day, Lenora and I looked into each other’s eyes, and we didn’t like what we saw: deer-in-the-headlights panic.
But then, a May Day Miracle happened–we improvised and worked it out. I don’t know whether it was some kind of primeval telepathy that kicks in during emergencies like that or one of the agriculture gods reaching down and giving us a benevolent nudge or just dumb luck, but I went one way and she went another and somehow we were back in sync with the whirling flow. When we finished wrapping the pole, there was a slight gap in the overlapping streamers with a sliver of wood showing through, the only trace of our momentary misstep.
Well, besides the 8mm home movie which is now digitized for eternity.
Despite being paired like Katniss and Peeta in a pagan fertility rite, Lenora and I did not marry. I married Eyegal. It’s now May 2012, and she has Living Social dance lesson coupons which expire at the end of the month, and she’s waving them in my face.
She checked the May schedule–the only dance available is the tango. No waltz, no swing, and regrettably, no Maypole.
I reckon once again we’re just going to have to improvise and work it out.