Fifty-two years ago, I enrolled as a freshman at Montana State University. This was 1969, so to put it in perspective for you, this was roughly somewhere between the demise of the dinosaurs and the rise of the sabertooth tigers.
This was the weekend before classes, and the campus was abuzz with orientation. Most of my Saturday was spent just trying to register for classes, the succesful navigation of which should qualify anyone to graduate. If you were able to track down all the requisite advisors and professors, chop through the metric ton of red tape, and get all the signatures you needed, you should just be rewarded by a big fat diploma at the end. Something tells me that today, even with all the computers and other things that are supposed to make it easier, it's somehow just as difficult, if not more so.
All of this was pretty scary and discomfiting for a dumb country boy like me. The only thing that made any of it any more palatable was the distant possibility that I might meet some co-eds in the process.
Just assuming that most of the kids just starting out at college would be interested in meeting some of the other freshmen, I decided to go to the orientation dance. I found it well-attended, with many couples already on the dance floor, gyrating along with Scott Joplin, or whatever passed for popular music all those many years ago.
The dance floor was dimly lit, and the music was deafeningly loud, like most rock bands were in 1969. I reflected, in my redneck way, that it was way more people than attended the Lewistown High School's dances. Those were comparatively prim affairs in which the buttoned-up sons and daughters of the community's fairly buttoned-up adults did the ole two-step awkwardly while teachers made sure that there was at least the length of a Buick between every dancing pair. This looked more like some sort of Roman bacchanal; I watched in disbelief as various youths wiggled their butts suggestively.
I put my cool on and started mixing with the crowd only to find that boys outnumbered the girls about 26 to 1.
What did I expect from what was, especially at that time, a cow college? Today the sexes are far more evenly represented in all fields, but back then MSU was dominated by the sons of farmers. Of course, now there are now more female Doctors by far than males, and today the only occupation where men still outnumber women is the Chippendales, and I suppose at some point, the fairer sex will make headway even into that traditionally male profession.
Now in my mind, I was thinking that I didn't (necessarily) want to get married, just dance with a girl. So I figured I would find a wallflower, and ask her to dance. It seemed to me to be as easy as that, but as I learned over the ensuing half-century, life is not that easy for me.
I noticed that someone was facing away from me, talking with friends in the corner of the ballroom, who seemed to fit the bill, which is to say that they possessed a distinct hourglass shape: wide at the hips, and narrow at the shoulders, and with long hair cascading nearly to the waist.
"Alright, Gary," I thought. "You can do this. Just walk up to her and ask her if she wants this dance."
I reckoned there were only a few possibilities as to how it would turn out: she turns around and is revealed to be Ann-Margaret herself. She takes one look at me and realizes that, despite the fact that I am but a lowly redneck, she is in love with me. At first sight. We skip the dance and go straight to Vegas, where we are married. Then she calls her manager, or agent, or whatever, and tells him that she's out of the movie business forever, and that's she's going to travel the world by yacht with her new beau. That's one of the possibilities.
All the other possibilities were some variations of this one: she turns around, takes a look at the scrawny, cringing boy before her, sniggers, and says, "um, no thanks."
What my careful calculations did not take into account, however, was that there were yet other possibilities I hadn't taken into account.
"Excuse me, but would you like to dance?" I asked with a tremulous voice.
I think the Broadway musical "Hair," came out about 1967. The theme song by the "Cowsills," was all about hair, long beautiful hair - "Gimme a head, with hair, long, beautiful hair, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen, give me down to there, hair, shoulder length or longer, hair. Grow it, show it, long beautiful hair. Let it fly in the breeze, get it caught in the trees, give a home for the fleas. There ain't no words for the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my hair."
I am embarrassed to relate the rest of the story, and before I do I feel I have to perform some preliminaries: firstly, that I'm not the type to tell anyone who to dance with. I don't care who dances with who, and I'm not crazy about those who try to control those things - I reckon it's a free country, and they oughta dance with whoever they want to. That having been said, the fact remains that I wanted to dance with a woman.
So I was surprised, and disappointed too, when this person, with their delicate features and curvy, hourglass shape, turned around. He had a full beard, maybe not quite as long as the boys from ZZ Top, but headed that direction.
"Thanks but no thanks, dude," he said in a surprisingly deep voice.
The incident ruined my whole night, and in the few dances I attended thereafter, I made it a habit to do a complete circle around a potential partner before committing to asking them to boogie. Actually, in the spirit of full disclosure and maximum accuracy, I more or less stopped asking people to dance altogether.
But while it wasn't a great night for, there is one person for whom the misunderstanding was a source of a whole lot of joy and mirth; the girl the long-haired dude was talking to when I walked up laughed for about three whole minutes and had trouble catching her breath afterward for even longer.
I escaped from the ballroom and retired to my dorm room, thinking that Bozeman was a long way from Lewistown, culturally if not geographically.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.