I had no interest in Ballroom Dancing, but I was very interested in the dance instructor’s daughter. Cindy, who I knew from King Low Heywood School, had the classic dancer’s body, long flowing black hair, and piercing dark eyes. She was also very nice, and not at all stuck up despite her looks. She was very easy to talk to and hinted that she was also interested in me . All of which was why I signed up for lessons at her father’s dance studio, where Cindy and and father were the two instructors. Despite his age, Cindy’s father was in great shape. Tall and thin, he seemed to glide around the floor making even the worst partner look good.
Three different groups came to the school. There were old retired couples, who always got very dressed up since this was their main social event of the week. Then there were the kids who did not want to be there. These were the days of heavy metal bands, and that is what kids wanted to listen to. It was pure torture for them when their parents sent them to the Starlight Dance Studio.
Then there was the group I really hated. These were the other young men who took lessons just to flirt with Cindy. Of course I was there for the same reason, but at least Cindy was interested in me. The other guys were crude and a little too “touchy” when they would dance with her. I wanted to intervene, but Cindy told me not to.
She actually did not need my help fending off unwanted advances. Years on the dance floor in revealing dresses had taught her how to take care of herself. She she was able to avoid a man’s hands with a quick spin or a slide backwards. Some guys would try to grab her during a dance, only to discover that her body had moved away long before his hand reached its intended destination. It actually became funny to watch.
At the end of the night, when everyone else had gone home, I would stay and help Cindy and her father clean up the studio. Then Cindy’s father would pour a glass of wine for each of us and we would sit and listen to one of his war stories.
It was hard to reconcile the old man dance instructor with the young man he described in his stories. You see; he had been part of a B-17 crew in World War II and his stories were always about that.
He has been one of the waist gunners. They were stationed in England and flew the long and dangerous bombing missions to Germany. But he never spoke about the danger or the combat. Like a lot of men who had been in the war, he spoke about everything but the actual war.
He liked to tell Cindy and I about the funny parts of his war experience. Like the fact that there was a guy in his outfit they all called “Frenchie”. Every night “Frenchie” would talk in his sleep. It was always in perfectly fluent French. In the morning they would tell Frenchie about it and he would swear that he had no idea how to speak French.
He also told us about how the Army Air Corps encouraged them to drink. Many of the men were so young they had never even tasted alcohol before the war. After a bombing mission, the returning crews were all marched into the Mess Hall. Lined up on the tables were shot glasses full of whiskey. The young men were ordered, that’s right ordered to drink at least one shot each. The senior officers somehow believed that this was the best way for the men to reduce the tension after a mission.
His longest story was about the time his own plane was hit by flak. The flak was the anti-aircraft shells the Germans fired at the planes. In the front of each B-17 is a glass bubble where the Bombardier sits. The Bombardier was a happy and talkative guy named Mike.
After dropping the payload on its target, the plane was hit by flak, right in the position where Mike was. The shell did not blow up since flak shells are designed to explode at a certain altitude, not when they impact with an object. The shell whet right through the glass bubble and continued up another two hundred feet until it explored.
The pilot got on the intercom to call Mike but got no reply. The rest of the crew could not check on him since the hatch to his compartment was jammed shut. The rest of the trip back to the base in England the crew was silent, not wanting to see what Mike’s mangled body would look like when they got back.
When they landed, the ground mechanics swarmed the plane and pulled Mike out. They could not believe their eyes. He was uninjured. The flak shell has passed through the plane inches from where Mike sat and had not touched him.
The rest of the crew surrounded Mike to ask him about it but he wouldn’t talk. He would not speak at all. They went into the mess hall and Mike had two shots of whiskey, but did not say a word. Then they all had chow. He ate, but still did not say a thing.
The crew took Mike to see the base doctor. The doctor advised them to see if they could get Mike to sleep, and if he did not then they should stay up with him to watch him.
It was a very long night. Mike sat on the edge of his bunk just staring off into nothing. No one could get through to him. Hours and hours went by and he did not say a word. Then as the light was beginning to break on a new day, Mike suddenly looked up and said, “That was close.” Then Mike was back to his old laughing self and his crew cheered.
Cindy and I laughed and she told her father to stop telling silly stories and help lock up for the night.
I often wondered if the war stories were true. Then one evening while couples were dancing I happened to notice Cindy’s father sitting off to the side by himself. He did not look at all the way he looked when he knew people were watching him.
He looked like someone who had the weight of the world on his shoulders and had seen things no person should ever have to see. I realized he had never told us the other war stories. The ones about the guys who never made it back to have a drink of whiskey. The ones about the planes where the flak hit and did explode.
Then the music stopped and he got up with a big smile clapped. He told everyone how well they danced and how beautiful they all looked tonight. Then he put on more music, and Cindy and I went out to the dance floor, while her father smiled.