Dancing with the Troops

Identity, Life

In honor of Memorial Day, I’m sharing a piece my grandmother wrote onset World War II, when national pride was strong and blind in idealism. It was at one of these dances she met my grandfather and for the next twenty years she lived the life as an army wife. Although her life didn’t evolve quite as romantically as she imagined at 18, it took her on a journey all her own. Among others things she was a beauty queen, a high school counselor, an artist, and a writer. At the ripe age of 91, she still manages to have a swing in her hip and skip in her step. It’s that light outlook that’s kept her young all these years. 

BarbaraHenry_lightct2

“1942. I was in my first year at St. Petersburg Junior College, and dancing could just as well have been part of the curriculum, it was that important. My friends and I danced at least once a week, and sometimes more. We learned to waltz, fox trot and do basic tango at a dance studio named “The Tango Club” in St. Petersburg, but swing, the latest and fastest dance, was our favorite. Music came mainly from record players or jook boxes.

In 1941 the United States had entered World War II. Overnight, it seemed, there were hundreds of uniformed men marching up and down the streets of our sleepy little tourist town. They were billeted in some of the nicer hotels in the area – the Vinoy, the Don Cesar, the Detroit.

Across the bay, in Tampa, two Army Air Fields, Drew and MacDill, exploded with men and planes. We would hear a roar, look up and see the sky covered with large groups of planes flying in tight formation and looking much like a flock of giant geese in their v-patterns. We could feel the vibrations as they passed over, and it seemed as though the overhead sky was a huge loudspeaker. I remember being somehow proud to be a part of it all, even though I was just watching.

Patriotism was at an all-time high and my friends and I were ready to do our part, however small. Guys rushed to enlist, but what could girls do?

Then it happened: The president of St. Petersburg Junior College made an announcement that must have read something like this:

The United States Army Air Force will be having monthly dances at Drew Field. The USO respectfully requests the help of local schools in supplying dance partners for our servicemen.” Wow! My dancing friends and I immediately and enthusiastically volunteered. Our only question was, “How soon will we go? We’re ready!”

Didn’t take long. One evening soon after we all got on a bus and rode across the bay to do our patriotic duty. Dressed in full skirts and penny loafers – laughing and ready for fun, we pulled up to the Drew Field clubhouse. An orchestra was playing, and we walked into a large room filled with uniformed men lining the walls. waiting for us. Soon I was dancing, and it was one partner after another as the men tagged. The ratio being what it was, there were no wallflowers. We danced and danced and danced. I was too exhilarated and excited to stop, even for a soft drink.

Planes overhead, soldiers or airmen in the streets, it finally felt like we were part of a large, righteous undertaking. What could be better? Too young, too naïve to even wonder what was really going on, what was happening over there while we were dancing over here.

We were very young.”

Barbara Sartor

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