I have suddenly become aware of the phrase “Well, guess what…” Has this always been around or is it something relatively recent? It is very specific in its use: the speaker relates some expectation from a third party or from the universe and then introduces a rebuttal with this phrase. The rebuttal is usually considered withering in its logic or truth and the verb thereof is almost always emphasized – sort of italicized. For instance, “They want me to pay a hundred bucks for a telephone! Well guess what, I don’t even like telephones!” “She said I was with her boyfriend at McDonald’s. Well guess what, I don’t even go to McDonald’s!” I am particularly hearing this phrase in sitcoms, and now that I have noticed it, I kind of enjoy it. See, people think I don’t pay attention. Well, guess what, I never stop paying attention. Sooner or later, I get there.
We had, this past Saturday, our 50th Class Reunion. It was quite a lot of fun and quite a bit more elegant than I had expected. Doing my bit, I gave a few after dinner remarks – by request. I also (he said, tooting his own horn) went above and beyond by volunteering to pick up and return a woman, a former Charlotte Harvest Queen, who lives down in the Southern Tier, that extremely rural line of counties that borders Pennsylvania. She lives about an hour south of me in a village that I had never previously visited. Of course everyone was all “That was so generous!”, but it wasn’t, really. As I have said before, I really love the people in my graduating class. And hello, people, she was a HARVEST QUEEN!
Harvest queens were an institution here in my part of NY from roughly 1947 through the early ‘70s. Each town hereabouts would hold a pageant wherein a number of girls aged 16 or 17 would compete, gowned in prom-style dresses. In Reedville, my town, they’d be led onto the stage from a side door of the gym/theater that used to grace our Town Hall by a town volunteer fireman who would be grinning in embarrassment and flushing a bright scarlet. The ladies were escorted from the side door on a path that threaded through the audience of friends and fam. Then up onto the built-in stage where they arrayed themselves in a semicircle of chairs set up for the occasion. The contestants usually numbered between 7 and 10, garnered by local ladies who furiously worked to convince enough girls to compete to make a good showing. Reedville is a very small town; its official population in the road guides of my youth was 384, although the actual count was probably quite a bit larger, since the guides only counted those within the rough outlines of the village of Reedville, whereas a majority of the town’s people lived in the houses and on the farms in the 80 square miles of the town outside the village limits.
The contest consisted of each contestant coming to a microphone and giving a brief résumé. Most of these speeches began, “I am Contestant number X and I am a junior at Reedville-Charlotte High School…” After these little speeches, the master of ceremonies would ask each lady a brief series of questions. Upon completion of this process, the judges would retire and select a Queen and an Alternate. I had always thought that the title of Queen granted a girl two privileges: the right to compete for County Harvest Queen and from there (if successful again) to represent the county at the State Fair; and secondly, the Queen and Alternate got to ride in the Memorial Day parade next May in an open car, blushing and bowing to the masses. I thought the Alternate, meanwhile, had no other function than to keep an eye on the Queen, hoping for signs of a wasting disease, so that she could succeed to the higher honor.
The girl (they will always be young in my eyes) who did most of the hard work arranging this reunion happened also to be the Reedville Alternate back in the day, and she told me that there was a great deal more to it than that. Anne, for such is her name, told me that there was quite a program of activities for the winners and that, other than competing for the next highest level, the Alternates were included in all activities as equals of the Queens. They met local celebs such as members of the Rochester Triple A baseball teams. There were a number of dinners and events, and the ladies were treated to various opportunities to learn and grow in social awareness.
In general, the prettiest girls won, although occasionally we all were shocked by a decision that was unexpected. Sometimes a pre-contest favorite would freeze up during her speech or the questioning by the emcee. Nearly all the contestants in Reedville were attendees at Reedville-Charlotte, but there were a few exceptions to this. The very southwest portion of Reedville fell into the Stratford school district and an occasional contestant might hail therefrom. In addition, a few girls in town attended a Catholic school in the city, and although I don’t recall any of them competing in my time, they were certainly possible candidates. Of course one year when a girl from Stratford High School won, there was a lot of grumbling from most of us, not least because her father happened to be the town supervisor (our local version of mayor) and we all felt the fix was in. The crowd normally divided between guys rooting for the prettiest and girls wanting to see a popular girl taken down a peg or two.
I don’t want to get all political here, but it is easy to notice that merely being pretty gave a girl entrée to a series of events where she could develop connections, poise and some social awareness. This was never questioned in the 1950s. But the thread of looks counting that still shines through so many areas of achievement was clearly in play. I ask those who watch American Idol, when was the last time a contestant made the top levels who was not at least above average in attractiveness, particularly the females? There has been a heavy gal or two on Idol, but, really, when you see a plain girl prepare to sing in the early phases, you can take it as a given that she will be both dreadful and slightly psychotic. Even the majority of successful female political figures at the highest level of government seem above average in appearance. Is this because people generally vote more readily for the attractive, or is it because prior experiences have given attractive ladies an edge in savoir faire, connections and experience? Life, as we all should know by now, is not fair.
I loved attending the Harvest Queen pageants. There was so likely to be great food for humor. I recall one poor farm girl who, at the required age, still retained the lissome figure of a pre-adolescent boy. This was coupled in the unfortunate girl with a face that was, to be kind, very plain. I remember, as she swept out on the arm of her red-faced fireman, my brother’s best friend muttering, “Toothpick!” which sadly became her sobriquet among us forever after (although not to her face). Naturally we all were giggling through the remainder of the proceedings. My favorite misadventure at the proceedings was the time that a girl known as “Manface Millie” competed. Unbeknownst to me and my friend Howie, the girl’s best friend and the best friend’s mother who doted on Millie were right in front of us. Howie was the nicest guy in the world, a kid who had dropped out of a junior seminary, and who never wanted to offend anyone, but he spontaneously muttered to me, “She doesn’t have a chance!”. Thereupon the friend and her mother, as one, whirled angrily around to face us, the mother saying, “I think she looks very nice!” Howie, the poor fish, blushed fire red and attempting to palliate his offense, promptly added his second foot to his mouth by stammering, “I meant in comparison with the OTHER girls!”
Toward the end of the Harvest Queen era, the county contests began to be televised. I remember the first time this broadcast occurred - I happened to be back in the area for a visit. In order to buff up the proceedings into a show that would dazzle the viewers, some entertainment was added. A former Reedville Harvest Queen was asked to sing. (She was a semi-relative, having a great-aunt by blood who was an aunt of mine by marriage. I am related, one way or another, to nearly everyone whose family has lived in Reedvile for more than 20 years.) Well, this young lady launched herself into a version of Fly Me to the Moon which distinguished itself from every other version I have ever heard by being off-key in every note from start to finish. One of the perils of live broadcasting on local TV!
On a different note, my sister Lucy’s only daughter is to be married in November, in California. The invitation arrived yesterday with an insert informing me that a bloc of rooms has been reserved in a local hotel. Ah, the joys of being filthy rich, which Lucy and her husband are! I suppose these rooms are well-priced, but gee! Doesn’t anyone remember what it is to be semi-broke? Luke and his girl Carol plan to go to and from the wedding by rail and I may go out with them. I really cannot afford this trip and moreover, I HATE weddings which seem to me to be one dreary set-piece after another designed to remove any little pleasure that might derive from seeing a few folks I like in an uncomfortable setting. But I do really like Lucy’s daughter who is a very bright and lovely girl with a great sense of humor. And one does attend these events, I suppose. I may take the opportunity to extend my time in California for a few weeks in order to spend time with my best friend Emily (and possibly other old friends). I have cadged an invitation from Emily, and I have only to arrange the details. An awkward feature of the whole thing is that the wedding is just before Thanksgiving, and if I am to join Luke and Carol on the train going out, then in order to spend a decent amount of time with Emily, I will have to remain with her over Thanksgiving, a holiday which I spent with her last year. Emily has three kids and divers other relatives in her vicinity for whom she provides dinner and I’d really rather not appear to them in the light of the gift that keeps on taking. But I really love Emily and I guess I can withstand a little discomfort for the pleasure of her company. She is the only person in my life with whom I can be entirely open, and for whom no topic is verboten. She is a very bright lady – probably much smarter than me, if such a thing is possible. She is a voracious reader, generally reading books several cuts in sophistication above those which I read, and her knowledge of movies is encyclopedic.
Also, Papa, my former Indian roommate in Saudi, will arrive here next weekend. I look forward to this with mixed emotions. For one thing, I am to accompany him to Las Vegas for a week during which he will be attending an advanced computer class and I will have to try to think of something to do in the meantime. I dislike Las Vegas intensely (the only worse fate would be to be stuck in Orlando). I wonder if there is some non-gambling sort of hip neighborhood such as can be found in other nicer cities, a local Greenwich Village. I do not like the glitz or the gambling or the vulgarity of any part with which I am familiar in that benighted city. Worse, Papa is an indefatigable tourist and will want to do everything. I am going because it is free (he has two tickets on the flight and his wife couldn’t come) and because I feel it is not healthy for me to just sit home all the time, even though that is what I want to do on any given day. I like Papa, but the mad desire to see everything and to shop tirelessly, all the time talking of computer-related topics, which are SO over for me is pretty daunting. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth!
And that is the news from Reedville on this sunny Fall day