When I started this back on about June 8th it was only going to be a picture and a paragraph or two but as time passed and I was writing, memories started coming back like echoes off a canyon wall. So, now, here we are………, almost 3 weeks later and still writing.
There was only one June 10th that held any importance for me. It started on Saturday afternoon, June 9th a long time ago…
I had finished the squadron duties early, reported to the first sergeant, and was loitering in the orderly room shooting pool when the thought struck me… Tomorrow was Gayle’s birthday but we had promised Pops that we’d have dinner with him in Gulfport. Well, that left tonight and I intended for it to be special. When the phone was free I grabbed it and dialed a number that was almost a habit by now.
“Hello, this is the Latimer residence. May I ask who’s callin’?
“It’s the king of the Wild Blue Yonder! Busy this afternoon? ”
“Nope, just have to help Pops finish the books for the month. We’ll be done in about a half hour. Whatcha have in mind? ”
“It’s a bit warm, so why don’t you wear something cool and pretty. I was thinking of maybe an early dinner and dancing. ” I didn’t mention that this would be in New Orleans.
“Ok, see y’all in an hour. Bye. ”
I showered, dressed in my best “casual/formal” (casual slacks and a nice button down shirt) and was off first to get gas in the car and then stop at the bank for some extra cash. I’d washed and waxed the car earlier in the day. All considered, I was ready for the evening. It was about 4:30 when I started down the lane to the farm. Gayle met me on the veranda when I pulled up. She was nothing short of the vision of an angel, wearing a white cotton dress that was trimmed in lace.
“Beautiful…, absolutely beautiful, darlin’. You just are simply breathtaking’ ”
I got out and walked around the car to open her door and was greeted by the scent of jasmine and a peck on the cheek as she slid into the car seat. I closed her door and went back to my seat, thinking to myself that I just HAD to be the luckiest guy in the whole world.
“You look rather dashing tonight, sweetness. Are we goin’ anyplace special or is it a secret?”
“Yup.., and it’s a secret.”
“Have we been there before?”
“Nope, don’t think so.”
“Ok, stop playin’ Gary Cooper with me and tell me something!”
“Ok, we’ve never been there; it’s not in Biloxi; it’s not in Gulfport; it’s not in the Pass; and I’m not goin’ to tell you anythin’ more ’cause it’s supposed to be a surprise, ok?”
We’d just pulled out onto US90 and when she started to reply a gust of wind caught her dress, blowing it up into her face, exposing her beautiful long legs and she broke out laughing.
“Alright we’ve had the show. The entertainment’s over. Now let’s get some dinner. I’m hungry. Wait a minute, you turned west. Isn’t any nice place out here to eat that I know about.” and then she fell silent for a while and we listened to music on the radio. All the while I could hear the wheels turning in her mind, trying to figure out what I had planned.
About the time we started approaching the Lake Ponchartrain Bridge Gayle turned to me with a smile, laughing and shaking her head.
“Well, darlin’ girl, I think you’re startin’ to figure it out. There’s only one thing at the end of this bridge and that is…….”
“New Orleans !!! Oh, Paul, honey, this is the greatest surprise! I haven’t been there since I was a little girl with Mother and Daddy. You make me so happy…, did you know that? Now where have you decided that we’d be dining and dancing?”
I’d noticed that she had referred to her father as “daddy” instead of “Pops, and she’d mentioned her mother which she rarely did these days”. The thought of New Orleans must have triggered some happy memories. I was glad for that.
“I figured we’d do our dining and dancing at the same place. There’s this little “hole-in-the-wall place that some of the guys seem to think is pretty great so I thought we’d try it out”
As we left the bridge I fished in my pocket for the map one of the guys had drawn for me. As I got it out and opened it, Gayle playfully snapped it out of my hand.
“Hmmm, French Quarter, this sounds interesting. Ok, you drive; I’ll read the map, be the navigator and get us there. By the way, how will I know when we get there?”
“Don’t you worry your pretty head about that. I’ll know when we’re there. You’ll know when we walk up to the door.”
Turn left here. Turn right there. Go down five blocks and turn right. Find a parking place and you’re there. The directions were perfect as they landed us right in the middle of the French Quarter.
We had about an hour to kill before our reservations so we started a casual reconnoiter of the area, peeking into this little club and that when the music sounded good. Gayle was excited, and happy which pleased me no end. The idea had been a real case of serendipity. When I called her earlier I had no clue of a plan for the evening. The dinner and dancing thing was just …., well, I really didn’t know what it was going to be…, until I saw the travel brochure for New Orleans on the First Sargent’s desk. I read enough to see that they had fine dining and dancing at Pete Fountain’s Place and, with that I decided that would be the place tonight. We held hands as we strolled along, taking it all in and enjoying our little adventure. I saw that we were close to the club and checked my watch; 10 minutes to go. I took Gayle across the street and down the block til we were right across from the club.
“Paul, I hate to seem redundant, but I’m hungry…, and now thirsty. Are we going to eat soon?”
“Yep, we should be at our table in about five minutes.”
“Where are we going?”
“Oh, just across the street.”
“That little place?”
“Yep, the one with the fancy door right on the corner.”
“That says Pete Fountain’s Place ! It’s a night club….”
“…and with a fine restaurant, and dancing, and great atmosphere, and one of the best clarinet players in the country”.
“…and we’re just going to walk in and they’ll find us a table? They look jammed!”
“Yep, we’re just gonna walk right in and go to our table. I have reservations, my love”
“I should have known. You just never leave anything to chance, do you?”
“Nope, not when it involves your birthday celebration, sweetheart. I have already ordered dinner for us, and requested a couple of tunes for us to dance to.
When we entered the club I spoke with the hostess and she directed us to a table along the dance floor just right of center stage. Before you get the idea of a grand ballroom, it was not! The dance floor was almost smaller than the stage. The club itself wasn’t large as a lot of the nightclubs were, but it was intimate and was dripping with class. It was all I’d hoped for, and it was perfect. .
After a few minutes our server came to the table and, in fine Cajun French asked something, after which he was rewarded with our best blank stares.
He made a quick recovery and followed with:
“Ok, I’ll drop the act, would y’all like to eat now or a bit later when the performance starts?”
I looked at Gayle and gave her a mischievous smile and then turned to the server…
“Why don’t y’all bring us a soda right now, and then start serving the dinner courses in about ten minutes, ok?”
“Paul, is it ok if I ask what I might be eating for dinner?”
“Sure, we’re gonna have some of the finest Jambalaya in the city of New Orleans, right after our chef’s salad. It’s supposed to be special too.”
“How do you know if I’d like Jambalaya, anyway?”
“Simple, I just asked Molly. You’d be surprised what Molly tells me about you”.
“No doubt I would, you devious, clever man. How long have you been planning this?”
“Oh, since about 2:30 this afternoon, just before I called you.”
She started to say something but just stopped, shook her head and smiled. About that time the salad was served and the meal began. The main course arrived at the table about 15 minutes later and we were both amazed at how absolutely delicious it was. Along with the Jambalaya came golden corncakes and slices of home churned butter…, the real thing, not margarine and, for each of us, a pilsner of beer (don’t remember the brand), but that drew a look of surprise from Gayle.
“How could you get beer served to us?”
“Easy, darlin’, legal age in Louisiana is 18.”
She smiled, pointed her finger at me and said, “But we’re not 18 just yet”.
“But you will be at the stroke of midnight”.
We quietly finished our meal, relishing every morsel of it. And then came desert…, a slice of pecan pie swimming in rum sauce and topped with a dipper of ice cream. No words this time, but the look she gave me spoke volumes.
As we finished our dessert, the lights on the stage came up, the band came out and started to tune their instruments and warm up. Applause started from the back of the room and the main event was about to begin as Pete Fountain took the stage. He opened with “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In, followed by “Dixie”. He told a few jokes and socialized with the audience a bit…, and then he came over to our table.
“Hey everybody, looks like we got us some new folks here tonight…, an’ one of them’s a Yankee! And that Yankee is squiring one of our beautiful southern belles. And guess what else, folks? Tomorrow’s her birthday!”
And with that he lifted his clarinet and started playing “Happy Birthday” at which the audience sang along. Gayle raised her hands and covered her mouth in embarrassment, her face turning bright pink. She glared at me for only a moment and then started a smile that blossomed into happy laughter.
“I will get even with you, I will, I will, I will !!!”
“Folks, this nice young couple requested a couple of songs and I don’t know one of them except they wanted a rumba, so I think this one will sound ok and fill the bill.” (we found out later that the name of the song was “Te Quero). He pointed to the dance floor, “Gayle, Paul, would you honor us with the first dance tonight”?
I stood, took her hand, led her onto the floor and as the music began to play we became lost in our own private world. The song was a very nice slow rumba and it was easy to make her look completely graceful and elegant in our turns, spins, and promenades. I think Pete played several more bars than were actually in the song. As for the two of us, we hardly noticed when the music stopped playing. I think our first clue was the applause from the audience. We assumed that the applause was for Pete.
“Folks, just let me say this before we go on with tonight’s show… That was probably the most beautiful dance I’ve seen done in this club. If I didn’t know better, I’d think these two were in love with each other. It sure looked that way from where I was standing. I think they stole that number from me. You may have heard me, but you were all watching them. Let’s give them a hand.
We walked slowly back to our table and sat down. Pete rolled into the evening with some smooth jazz and Dixieland. I turned to Gayle. It was obvious that she was happily enjoying the evening. A bit later Pete looked over to us and smiled.
“This one’s for you. It’s a number called “I’ll Bring You Flowers”, and he began to softly play a sweet, slow waltz. There were others on the dance floor but as I led Gayle there they gave us some space of our own. The waltz is our favorite step and, once again, we lost ourselves in the music and let our hearts lead our feet into the dance. I looked into her eyes and there were tears.
“I can’t help it, Paul. I’m just so happy! You… just… make me so… very happy. I love you, Yankee farm boy.”
I held her close as we circled the floor, letting the music flow over us and into the night. “I love you, sweet southern belle. You are the stuff of my dreams.”
When the waltz had finished, we stopped at the stage and said our thanks to Pete, paid our tab, and walked out into the soft night. Gayle sat on a bench in a small park we were passing and I stepped behind her, reached over her head and fastened the clasp on a necklace pendant that I’d kept secreted in my pocket. I had checked my watch to make sure it was after midnight.
“Happy Birthday, Sweetness. Tonight was so special, not because of New Orleans, or the music, or the dancing…, but because of you. I love you.”
No other words were spoken. Our hearts were speaking for us and they didn’t need words.