At last -- a hoedown in my town! We Make History heads for Tucson to capture the boot-shaking flavor of rural America, granting me the chance to pay tribute to my heartland homeland.
As recounted by Christopher "Huckleberry" Francis (with apologies and tribute to Mark Twain)
Photographic Assistance By Michael C.
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Memories of Missouri send me off into a dreamlike reminiscence: growing up in suburban Kansas City, finishing high school outside of St. Louis, and mentally toiling in Columbia for a journalism degree. Summer thunderstorms putting an Arizona monsoon to shame. Snow up to my knees -- or higher. Journeys back and forth on I-70 between old and new homes, with at least three hours to study the alternating green-and-amber hills of the countryside, plowed and lined with grain or dotted with cattle. Grain elevators. Lonely county roads dubbed "HH" and "Z." A humble town overlooked by a tall white water tower painted with an American Flag and the words "High Hill." Twice per trip the family car would cross the "Mighty Mo," and my eyes would fixate upon its gentle flow and tree-lined banks.
So when plans for a barn dance emerge in Tucson, I face a fundamental question: cowboy or country boy? I choose the latter.
* * *
I'm walkin' up to the hall in my best straw hat, overalls and kerchief. An' everybody's takin' me for a farmer. But I'm righ' thinkin' about a famous fictional Missourian.
"I'm thinking Huckleberry Finn," I say -- or Huckleberry Francis.
Now our host is thinkin' of a famous Kentuckian in that fine white linen suit an' hat. "Lord Scott just doesn't fit," he explains to us, saying "Colonel" seems more fittin' seein' as he hears this rumor that a relative is gonna open all these restaurants and such.
Everybody's samplin' the refreshments off to the side, standin' aroun' in their best duds -- string ties, ranch shirts, tailcoats, Stetsons and boots. Pretty fancy stuff, and all like that. But what I can' figure out is why everybody's so quiet. I know we gotta a lotta new faces, and maybe they're a bit shy, or maybe that's some doggone good punch. Anyway, no way are we gonna pull off one of these hoe-downs with everybody actin' like they're in church... oh that's right... they are in a church.
But Colonel Scott, he's still a little puzzled about everybody.
I try my best to offer some sorta explanation, real diplomat-like. "We are filled with anticipation of the joy yet to come."
Well, the Colonel thinks we oughta loosen our tongues and introduce ourselves, and he gets me to start off. Now dog my cats if I can remember more than a few names, but I can at least remember my own. So I start talkin' and it's kinda like when you see a wagon settin' off, the way it roll forward like and it gets faster. And then this kindly lady from Tucson and her family come in, and she starts talkin' and it's like this wind blowing across the fields, you know, how everybody starts smilin' and talkin' and such.
So we starts dancin', and the Colonel yells out "Give us air!" He and Lady Scott wave to part everybody in the crowd, beginning the promenade like we always do, and we got us some fine music from the Privytippers! I don't have to go very far to find my first partner. She's this young cowgirl who doesn't mind it if I gallop like a pony. So we go around and around and into a circle, in and out like that, with a hoot and a holler -- "Yee-haw!" Now this is how it's s'pposted to work. I figure them old Missourians shouted "yee-haw" if they were close enough to Kansas.
Next we do this mixer, and the kindly Miss Becky tells us, "Don't get to attached to that partner." And sure 'nuff, we mix everybody up. The Texas ranchers are over here next to the Arizona cowhands, and the prairie ladies are over there with the townsfolk. And I look real careful and I see this glint, like from a sheriff's star. I see there's this young deputy who must've moseyed up from Tombstone. And I'll be jiggered if it he, his sister and his mother ain't all packin' pistols. I get to thinkin' the Town Too Tough To Die is like the Town Too Quick To Draw. Oh golly gosh, what are they gonna do if I promenade a lady with the wrong arm in front?
You know my friend Huck Finn lived in a rain barrel, poor soul. So you gotta understand a few Missouri downpours likely soaked through his hat into the windmills of his mind. Well, I know what it feel like when your head don't work during the first line dance. I keep having to remember to swing my partner with my right hand -- my right hand.
I say, "I'll get it." I say, "I'll remember." He ain't here, but I keep hearing this Confederate Sergeant friend of mine, an' his voice keeps bouncin' around my skull: "YOUR OTHER RIGHT! JUST LIKE YOUR MAMA TAUGHT YOU!"
Doggone it, I keep using my right hand to keep my hat on. As soon as I put it back on my head, it wants off like a stubborn Missouri mule. But I'm real lucky 'cause my partner has more patience than any cowgirl I know.
"Whatever!" she laughs, and we keep on dancin'.
Now I gotta ask, is this a barn dance or a barn burner? You see, it got all hot after just two dances, and the ladies were fannin' themselves and the gents were wavin' their hats in front of their faces. So when we had the first break, that punch and water was flowin' like the rapids of the Niangua River. I could sure use that rain barrel right 'bout now.
So our host was able to get the air fixed, but it's gon' take awhile in such a big place. But he's makin' everybody happy: "The temperature has dropped three degrees!"
This one fine young lady, she teaches me a box step waltz. Now I'm thinkin' I already knows it, but she shows me I ain't been doin' it right all this time. It's a lot more fancy than what I figure to be a box step, and when I look at my feet on the floor, it don' look like no box at all. But that lady, she's such a good dancer. I'm so lucky she'd learn a boy like me to dance.
We all place ourselves for a quadrille, what them modern folk call a square dance. And now things are gettin' a mite bit complicated. Couple number one: joins up with couple number three, circle left and right, swing your opposite, swing your partner, promenade, and all like that. Now, go through it again with couple number two, and on and on.
That kindly lady I know from Tucson is chucklin' a little nervous. But 'ol Huck has seen worse.
"We can do this!" I tell her. "We'll be just fine!"
And she replies, "Your faith is boundless!"
So it all plays out like it should, more or less, with a few messed up swings and blown calls -- you gotta listen to the call now, y'hear? Not too shabby. How 'bout another? Second gent, swing the third lady. Oh dog my cats, that's the second lady. I just done messed up this square.
"Bird in a cage, fly right in!" Miss Becky calls as we join hands and circle 'round a lady in the center. She does this happy little jig, like.
"Bird flies out, crow flies in!"
Now it's my turn, and there's all these hands around me. So I only gets to jig for a few little moments. But you oughta see my smile, 'cos I just done conquered this horrible old memory.
You see, I remember the last time I stood in the middle of a circle during a square dance. It musta been sixth grade gym class. I was this odd fella out in a dance they called "Ninepin." Now they done taught it on a day I was either sick or playin' hooky or somethin'. So there's this one part, where there's nine boys and eight girls, and they tell you to swing, and you're suppost'a swing any girl you could find. Only I didn' know that, and so all the other boys got themselves a girl and I done got nothin'. I was smack dab in the middle'a that circle without a pretty girl, and they were all dancing around me and laughin' and teasin' me, and I'm just standin' there crying 'cause I don't know what to do. I think that there had to be one of the saddest days of my life.
But anyhow, I'm all happy now and everybody's laughing with me, even if it took all those years. Yeeeee-haw and Hallelujah!
We do all these set dances, and I get all these pretty ladies to dance with me. But I'm never gonna forget the smile on this lady from Sierra Vista. She got a smile as wide as the Missouri River. But I gotta be honest, I might never'a seen she was wantin' to dance had her friend not pointed to her from behind her back. That's kinda sneaky, ain't it? I betcha' ol Tom Sawyer never danced with as many fine belles. Of course, he was too busy worryin' about Miss Becky Thatcher.
Hey Tom! You ain't never done the cookie dance, have ya? So here we go, sittin' in three chairs and passin' them cookie tins to one lady and waltzin' off with the other. It's real easy if there's a boy on one side of you. Otherwise, you gotta do what you haveta. We're just gettin' warmed up when the band stops playin.'
Everybody's right confused. I shout, "Encore, Encore!" and everybody starts shoutin' too. And bless their hearts, th' Privytippers give us a whole mess more.
We're gettin' along really well, but I keep wonderin' about this one dance, because I asked Colonel Scott if we were gonna do a Virginia Reel. And I forget exactly what he said, but I know he's got somethin' cookin.
"Ladies and gentlemen, find your partners for the Arizona Reel!"
He calls it from the stage, and 'cos there's enough people who know it, he doesn't have to teach us anything. Now I heard 'bout this. The way it goes is first corners honor each other and then second corners, do the same. And these corners do all these turns, and do-si-dos. But dog my cats if the Colonel doesn't start mixin' them steps up. I guess that's the Arizona part.
"And in Arizona we mix it up," he says.
Yeah, you right I mix it up. I mix up the reeling part. You see there's these ladies in the line left of me, and these ladies to the right, too, 'cos all these ladies are dancin' together. I don' have no idea why there aren't gents where the ladies are, but anyhow, I start swingin' the wrong line. But somehow I gets through it, and I keep wishing the Privvytippers will keep on playin' so I can do it again right.
But that Colonel, he's got some sly ideas.
"Swing your partners!"
And we do... and suddenly...
"Every man for himself! Free for all!"
All the lines break up and everybody starts jiggin' and twirlin', swinging and spinnin' around and promenading each other across the entire floor. It's on now! It's a hoe-down! Yeeee-haw!
We only got time for one more mixer before that last waltz.
"I learned a box step," I say to my partner, "but I don't think I want to try it out."
But nobody ever gets all uptight when I keep it real simple like. And that's really something, 'cos I can see all the young frontier boys and girls trotting across the floor like they in a St. Louis ballroom.
I reckon' it's time I turn my attention back to the pretty one in front'a me, I think. Remember to smile real nice for the lady. Make sure your hat's on tight.
See more memories from this historic first in Tucson!
NEXT: Dance & Dance Ability