Summers of Swans and Mermaids

Aiming for the Daughters of the American Revolution Very-Best-Junior-High-History-Student-Ever honors, I shot for the stars in 1960; although I had “aced” every test, I suffered and watched as somebody else strutted down the aisle and climbed onto the stage, at our Walnut Street (formerly West Ward-Columbia City High School combination) gym-a-torium, to receive that prestigious award. I remain content with a Lee Daniels 2nd place scholarship pin, presently nestling within my jewelry box, denoting second place in general academics but persist in regret at missing out on the D.A.R. medal of honor.

Thus, retention and recital of historical data slipped in my estimation beginning that fateful “awards convocation” day…I continue to deal with impressions of the past rather than certifiable, somewhat stale and frequently skewed, dates, facts, and figures. Besides, even after grueling attempts to “nail” reliable information, arguments still arise. Thus, having vowed never to consult microfiche for verification, I shall simply rely on, as well as relay, a Fish Story while I still remember the high points.

I confess that I needed to be pushed out the front door to attend every day of public school, from Mrs. Olive Sheehan’s morning kindergarten class through my senior year of high school. Actor Marlon Brando’s sister Jocelyn tied a rope around his waist and marched ahead of her reluctant little brother pulling him along behind her all the way from home toward their Omaha , Nebraska school-house. Marlon was a Photoplay heart-throb in the 1950s, and I only recently realized that we shared this common rebellious trait, a “fact” of which I am most proud. Had home-schooling been available, I would have pleaded with my intelligent mother to allow my brain to develop (or not) via her mastery of nearly everything academic.

In those days, though, staying at home fell into the category of “truancy”, and a truant officer lady would haul a kid’s fanny into the school building faster than one could utter, “Jack Robinson”. So off I trudged, day after day, week after week, year after year. My older sister dutifully reported on my elementary status, anti-social (lack of) progress after she relentlessly spied upon me from the high school band building window, “At recess, Susie leans against the trunk of the huge oak tree on the playground and sucks on her fingers while the other kids teeter-totter, swing, and climb all over the monkey bars.”

One fine summer, though, I entered into some peer-group fun? North Webster ‘s Mermaid Festival committee annually staged not only a queen contest for high school girls, but also a cutie queen version as well; my dad filled out the proper forms, and I found myself walking up and down a runway, the tallest, gangliest kid in the bunch with the lucky number 13 affixed to my sun-suit. I approached that Mardi Gras-tinged-hullabaloo in my same inimitable style…totally disenchanted, even though I managed to garner “first runner-up” status long about midnight …and I was only 6. My life on the playground, though, never improved…queen (whether beauty or cutie) contests deter popularity with other kids! Tricky start to the following looooooong 12 years.

However, the Mermaid Festival surfaced once again a hand-ful of summers later. This time a beautiful, poised, willowy, and talented senior girl named Pat Puckett, suggested by my sister to my father to be Rotary’s entrant in the Miss Columbia City pageant, won the Mermaid Festival title, representing our town. (Miss Puckett previously had glided effortlessly away with the Miss Columbia City banner, roses and crown; the race surged forward.)

She achieved perfection in the most gorgeous pink gown this 10 year old had ever seen; only Cinderella’s ball attire may have been comparable. My dad, at this point as creative as Walt Disney as far as I was concerned, moved heaven and earth to assure that Pat would make our community proud. Her float consisted of a white convertible totally covered with pink crepe paper, the coup de grace the most magnificent hood ornament ever–an elegant, gigantic papier mache’ head of a swan complete with jutting beak. Miss Puckett would smile, wave, and nod throughout nearly the duration of the festival’s parade route as on-lookers “oooooooooooh-ed” and “aaaaaaaaaah-ed” and pointed at the picture-perfect princess perched upon the back-side of a floating, long-necked swan which happened to color-coordinate with her strapless formal!

Dick Baker, an employee of downtown Ft. Wayne’s Patterson & Fletcher, designed and created THE swan, and the entire imagery might have worked had not a “cats ‘n dogs” downpour–an utter deluge– occurred mid-flight. Sporty cars slathered in drenched, sopping globs of tissue paper tug at the heart-strings. Yet, momentary gloom failed to dampen spirits. Miss Puckett won countless hearts as she emerged with the Queen of the Lakes Scepter in hand, a First Place Talent Trophy as part of choir director Hazel Munns’ High School Girls’ Trio, and probably more than one little girl’s undying devotion and admiration.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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