Friday, October 31, 2008

Elnora's Prom Night, 1961

Today is October 31. It’s hard to believe the first “Halloween” movie was released to theaters thirty years ago this week in 1978. Many film fans haven’t been the same since. Although scary movies in one form or another had been around for decades, “Halloween” and its successors, “Friday the 13th” and “Prom Night,” brought on-screen gore to a graphic level generally never before witnessed by previous cinema attendees.

Luckily, Elnora High School’s Prom Night in 1961 was nowhere nearly as horrific as the 1980 film of the same name; however, for Nina Melsheimer and me, it certainly had its scary moments. Nina was a cute, bubbly freshman who was the little sister of my classmate, Melvin Melsheimer. She had also been my date for the junior prom the previous year. Before you think I was robbing the cradle, you have to remember that I was only sixteen years old when I was a senior, making Nina just two years younger than me. She was a majorette and a cheerleader, so when her friend Alice Bechtel confided that Nina wanted to again be my date for the upcoming prom, like the previous year, I thought I had died and gone to Heaven.

Our junior prom in 1960 had been held in the school’s crepe paper decorated gymnasium as was the custom during that era. However, in 1961, the current junior class decided to break with that tradition and have their prom at the famous French Lick Sheraton Hotel as it was known in those days. Of course, the seniors were invited to join the juniors for the school year’s most anticipated social event.

Friday, April 28, 1961 dawned pretty much like any other school day. However, in just a few hours the juniors and seniors would be partying the night away “Under the Magnolias” to commemorate the Civil War Centennial. Those of us attending would caravan the nearly fifty miles to French Lick by car, accompanied by several members of the school’s administration, including Principal, Paul R. Earles.

Morning classes went as usual, but in the afternoon, the upperclassmen were subjected to a grainy black & white movie shown in the study hall depicting the outcomes of terrible vehicle accidents. It was complete with graphic depictions of the carnage that is possible in such crashes, presumably to scare the drivers into exercising the utmost care behind the wheel that night. Some of the girls, including Nina, who would be attending the prom had been excused for all or part of the afternoon to do those girly things necessary to get themselves primped, preened, and prettied up for the evening’s festivities.

The appointed hour for meeting at the High School to begin the trek to French Lick finally came. Since I didn’t have a car or access to one with the necessary hand controls for me to drive, Nina and I rode with my classmate and good friend, David Dove, and his date, Linda Long. Like elephants in a circus parade, our cars were lined up from nose to tail snaking south out of Elnora on Highway 58. Since French Lick is southeast of Elnora, we had to make the left turn toward Odon at the Skeeter Bend stop sign two miles down the road.

As we neared the intersection, we slowed to a crawl, but the car behind us didn’t. Bam! We were hit from behind. It wasn’t a major jolt, but there was a bit of damage to both vehicles and, since this was the pre-seatbelt era, Nina had hit her head on the upper molding around the rear window giving her quite a headache. Although both cars were drivable, Mr. Earles said the two drivers needed to wait with him to file an accident report. Cell phones were nonexistent, so someone ran across the road to Paul Nugent’s house to telephone the police and presumably the parents of the students involved. Mr. Earles stayed with them while the rest of the caravan went on to French Lick.

Rather than waiting with the damaged cars, Nina and I rode with another couple to the prom, tucked into the back half of the now-split convoy. For the five miles from Skeeter Bend to Odon, Nina never said a word. Between Odon and the old Farlen Store, she reached up, touched her hair, and asked, “Why is my hair so short?” She had it trimmed that afternoon. As we drove further down the road, she began asking questions like, “Why am I dressed up?” She also asked “Where are we going?” and the real put-down, “Why am I with you?” She couldn’t remember the accident and kept posing those same strange questions and similar others all the way to our destination.

Because of the accident, we arrived at French Lick at least a half hour later than the group of cars ahead of the accident site. As we entered the hotel, it was nearly time for dinner so we proceeded to the dining hall. Nina was very quiet, and shortly after the main course was served, she looked down at the chicken she had just taken a bite of and asked. “Who’s been eating my chicken?” Mr. Earles and the others had arrived during the meal so, following dessert, I reported Nina’s erratic behavior to him. He thought it would be best to take her to nearby Paoli and have her examined at the local hospital emergency room. I asked to go along, but he suggested I stay at the hotel.

For the next few hours, I was relegated to spending the prom at the glorious and romantic French Lick Sheraton Hotel with the guys who came stag, not exactly what I had planned when the night began. Time passed, and, as I remember, Nina returned about a half hour before our group was scheduled to start the trip back to Elnora. This gave us just enough time to walk through the famous outdoor gardens like so many movie stars and former presidents before us, hold hands on one of the benches, and “enjoy” the overpowering aroma of the mineral waters that made the location famous. It was a perfect night, Nina was the perfect date, but she couldn’t remember a darned thing.

On the quiet ride home, she fell asleep with her head on my shoulder. When we arrived at the Melsheimer farm, we were met at the car by Nina’s parents, Arnold and Beth, who had been informed of the accident. We said our goodbyes, and that was it. Other than the next few days at school before I graduated, I don’t think I ever saw Nina again. That fall, I was heading to Purdue and she had three years of high school remaining.

I often think of Nina and I’ve told this story dozens of times, always finishing it the same way: “That’s a night I’ll never forget and she’ll never remember.” I wonder if she ever did.

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