She’s Just Sixteen Years Old, Leave Her Alone, They Said

Richie’s Bridge

Both of my grandmothers met the men who would become my grandfathers when they were 15 years old. My grandfathers were both adult men in the military when they began dating my grandmothers. Both women were married when they were 16 and neither of them were in the family way. I guess that’s just how things were done back then. My family is from the panhandle of Florida and back in the forties Florida was not the place we know now. Prior to World War II Florida was a largely urban area with a population of subsistence farmers: people who were not at all wealthy, eking out a living in the pine forests and rivers. In the Interwar Years, the folks up in Washington realized that Florida was the perfect place from which to launch offensive capabilities and military bases were built all over the state. Young men from all over the country ended up there.

My grandma Elnora grew up in a little tiny town named Holt in Florida’s Panhandle. She was the second-oldest of four kids: Bill, Elnora, Carmel, and Betty Jo. They grew up gardening, fishing, hunting, and gathering for a living. Holt is situated between the Black Water and Yellow Rivers, and on warm weekend nights the young folks of the community would head down Log Lake Road, to where they’d built themselves a dance floor right next to the river. There, surrounded by torches, a Jug Band, and questionable hooch, they’d ‘go jukin’ –dancing, drinking, and talking in the fire light. 

Elnora was a beautiful girl with ash blonde curls, blue blue eyes, and a wide carefree smile. She loved to dance. The dance that was popular in the Holt community was shuffle dancing, like an Irish step or clog dance, but with a freer body and steps regulated only by what your spirit told you to do.  Shuffle dancing was usually done wearing hard soled shoes on a wooden floor because it’s important to get the sounds of the shoes hitting the ground. Elnora was a barefoot girl and she often danced barefoot since she felt shoes were just too hot and clumsy. (Shuffle dancing is still popular today, although now it’s done in tennis shoes, to techno music.)

A lot of the girls that ‘Nora went to school with went steady and many of them were already engaged to be married after they graduated but Elnora wasn’t really interested in boys; she was happy to spend time in her garden, with her family, and with her best best friend Nita.

Juanita’s family was from Harold, 10 miles away. The girls had been best friends since kindergarten, as Holt’s elementary school was the closest school for residents of Harold, which wasn’t really a town so much as a gathering of homes. Juanita was just as dark-haired and dark-eyed as Elnora was blonde. Nora was sunny and happy and practical while Nita was sarcastic and restless and boy-crazy. Nita didn’t care for small town life and dreamed of living in a big city and traveling the world. 

They told each other everything. They swore they’d be best friends forever and never leave each other’s side. But the year Nita turned 14, her mother Ruby Mae decided she’d had enough of being knocked around by her husband Pledger and divorced him. Unable to support herself and her kids in Harold, Ruby Mae found a job and a house in Pensacola. Now Nita and Nora were only able to see each other if they could get their older brothers to drive them the 35 miles between towns. They usually ended up arranging to spend the weekend to make the drive worthwhile.

When they stayed at Nora’s house in Holt, the girls would go swimming or rafting in one of the rivers, explore the woods, go juking in the evenings–live the country girl life. When they spent the weekend in Pensacola at Nita’s house, they would visit the shops, tan on the white sands of Pensacola Beach, and go water skiing in the Bay.

When Ruby Mae, Nita, and John Pledger junior relocated to Pensacola, they moved in next door to another divorced woman with teenagers at home: Bertha Pearl and her kids Henry (14) and Sara (12). Pearl had an older married daughter, Dapphine, and a son in the Navy, Jesse jr. Ruby Mae and Pearl became good friends and relied on each other for all sorts of things since they were two women on their own. The two families prepared and ate meals together, spent evenings on each others’ porches, and made sure someone was always around for the youngest, Sara. 

One day, Pearl’s older son Jesse came home on leave and Nita finally met the 21-year-old sailor. Later that evening she wrote to Nora in their nightly letter that she’d never seen anyone so handsome and she wondered how to get him to notice her. Nora told Nita she was being ridiculous; she should pay attention to boys their own age and not full-grown men. But Nita’s heart was set. She begged Ruby Mae to invite Jesse and his family over for a meal of Ruby Mae’s famous crab gravy. She even said she’d go down to the bay and catch the crabs herself.

The idea of her prissy daughter catching her own crabs tickled Ruby Mae so much, she agreed to the dinner. It wasn’t as if Nita didn’t know how to catch her own food; she just didn’t like all the bother and mess. But she really wanted to spend time with the debonair neighbor so she kept her word.  The dinner was a great success. Dapphine and her husband came, bringing their toddler son. After dinner the families went outside so the men could smoke. Nita was as taken with the toddler as she was with the sailor and she took the baby out in the yard to dance. To her surprise and delight, Jesse offered to teach Nita how to ‘really dance’. That’s how she ended up learning to jitterbug, barefoot in her mother’s backyard. 

Nita and Jesse spent every evening that week on one of their mother’s porches, talking and dancing and falling in love. The next time Jesse came ashore, Nita asked him to take her out to Holt so he could meet Nora and they could go dancing down at the river. Nora wasn’t the least bit offended at having her weekend with her best friend usurped by the latest crush. She knew Nita was boy crazy and fell in and out of love 2-3 times a month; she just hoped Jesse would teach her how to jitterbug before Nita was off to the next love of her life.

To Nora’s surprise, she actually ended up liking Jesse. After all, he was very handsome with his ginger hair and sharp, fine features. He seemed very tall and glamorous and he was very easy to talk to–for a grown up man. He agreed to teach her to jitterbug, too, but he was more interested in shuffle dancing with her and Nita. He said it’d been too long since he’d had a chance to let go and this way he could dance with two beautiful girls at once. So that’s what they were doing–dancing and whooping wildly–when Nora looked up in time to see three Army GIs crossing the Log Lake Bridge over the Yellow River. Sometimes the soldiers stationed over at Duke or Hurlburt Fields came across the river to party with the town kids. As long as they brought good booze with them and kept their eyes and hands off the town girls, there usually wasn’t any trouble.

Tonight the visitors were two young men she knew with a new person, a small compact man who moved with economic grace. He stepped off the end of the bridge and stopped, taking in the sights: the homemade dance floor surrounded by torches, the log benches draped in mosquito netting, the spanish moss hanging off the cypress and pine trees. Mostly he seemed hypnotized by the dancers. Nora learned later in the evening that his name was Richie, but she wasn’t interested in the GIs that walked over the river to drink so she just kept dancing.

Decades later, drinking with me in the pine woods, Richie told me that when he stepped off the dark bridge, he was momentarily blinded by the sudden blaze of light. The makeshift dance floor was filled with young people kicking up their heels in a wild shuffling, thumping dance. They stomped the wooden planks with their heels and the sides of their feet while flinging their legs in crazed directions. In the middle of the dance floor, head thrown back in exhilaration, was the most beautiful girl Richie had ever seen in his entire life. Her skin was glistening in the torchlight and she was moving so fast Richie didn’t know how she could breathe.  Her ash blond curls were held back with a thin blue ribbon that matched the calico dress that floated around her as she whirled.  

Their eyes met and he saw her dismiss him. That was ok; he wasn’t here to find a date; he just wanted to unwind, drink a little, and have some fun. Still, he couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. She was so beautiful, so lively, so graceful. He heard her dark-haired friend call to her, “Nora! Come sit down and have a drink!” But he went home that night having never said a word to the woman he would spend the rest of his life with.

Richie walked across the bridge the next weekend to find Nora there without her friend and the sailor they’d been with. She wasn’t alone, but she didn’t seem to be attached to anyone in particular. He finally screwed up his courage and asked her to dance. She laughed at him, bet he couldn’t keep up with her, and ran out onto the dance floor. She was right; Richie was from Indiana and had no clue how to shuffle dance. He gently took hold of her fingertips and began to jitterbug, a question in his eyes. Nora took a firmer hold on his hand and said, “teach me.”

Jesse jr.

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