Homecoming Queen – A Look Back

It’s autumn, homecoming season for schools and universities. I published my first novel twenty years ago, based on my own experience as homecoming queen at Central Michigan University in 1970. It wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds. In fact, it wasn’t glamorous at all.

Nowadays I seldom think about it but when I do, I’m pleased with how my book reveals all that I learned in the time between the actual event and the writing of the fictional story that tells a lot of truths.

Things that made me feel beaten up as it was happening eventually made me laugh – at the very least smile – and still do today. I learned a lot of hard but valuable lessons. Consequently, the memories now conjure up a wellspring of warm appreciation.

It occurs to me that if I were to run into a young person today who was disappointed in their homecoming like I was, be it because they were a football player who lost the game or a girl without a date, and if I tried to tell them it would be okay because that one event wouldn’t hold sway over their future, I know they wouldn’t believe me. More likely, they wouldn’t care what I had to say. Living is quite immediate when we’re young.

In my case, inexperience and innocence kept me from fully appreciating the positive side of that event, which initially left me feeling deflated and isolated. Interestingly, I now see that I was anything but isolated and, consequently, there was no reason to feel deflated.

It started when I decided, after four years of college (I was on a 5-year-plan) and three years of working in a restaurant (I had to work a lot; I was financially independent), that I wanted to spend a summer working in a resort town where I’d make more money. Luckily, I found a job at a “supper club.”

As required, I reported to work a day before my first shift to be fitted for a “uniform.” To my surprise, that turned out to be a teeny-tiny costume. I swear, even after that, I had no clue. I was working my first shift before I realized it was a house of burlesque. A classy one, true, with a fabulous blusey band, good food, lots of booze, opulent decor, and – yes – strippers. But these were dancers of the old-fashioned order who truly put on a performance.

That story is a book unto itself, but suffice it to say I learned a lot that summer. I also came away with one of my best life-long friends, Lottie the Body.

Lottie loved pulling shy, self-conscious people up on stage and encouraging them to loosen up. That included me. She’d pull me up there and have me follow her dance moves. (There was no stripping, of course, during this part of her show.) For her, it was all about dancing and fun and life. She was pure joy.

Fast forward to a college dance club that fall. After work one night, I went out with my roommates. A man approached me and said he loved the way I danced. (Thank you, Lottie.) In that era, the band played a lot of Louie Louie, Proud Mary, and Rolling on a River. I loved the music. The man asked if their Veteran’s Club – they were Vietnam War veterans – could sponsor me for homecoming queen. Shocked and delighted, I said sure. I didn’t mention that I was sure I couldn’t possibly win. Beautiful sorority girls were always homecoming queen.

There was one other problem I had to tell them about. The spring before, I’d joined a college group that traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest the war. These guys had fought in that war. My group was entirely peaceful and totally respected returning soldiers. We didn’t want them to die in battle. They listened to me explain all that and were fine with it. They didn’t much like that war, either.

Between school and work I didn’t have a lot of time to campaign. When I did, I wore jeans and a sweater. The other candidates who were sponsored by sororities and fraternities wore gowns and stoles. I didn’t own a gown or a stole. They put up full-color posters; our zero budget only allowed for small fliers we could print off on school printers. The others were beautiful young women. I’ve always been more “sturdy.”

A young man I did not know showed up at my crumby apartment the day prior to the election. He annnouced that he was chairman of the homecoming committee and wanted to inform me that I needed to drop out. It seemed I wasn’t the “kind of girl” they wanted to represent their college. Not my college, mind you. His. I’d been a war protester. I’d worked at a strip club. (How he knew that, I had no idea.) I wasn’t in a sorority.

I refused. He got mad. We verbally sparred. He stormed out red-faced and fuming.

The next day I won the election by a landslide.

The committee insisted the Vets must have cheated. They invalidated the election and held another one. I won by even more. The committee asked the college president to rescind my eligibility. He refused.

Of course, I realized students weren’t voting for me – they didn’t even know me – as much as they were voting against the establishment. But that was okay. I was supremely honored. I conjured up a fantasy that now my life would magically change for the better. Doors would open. Men would line up to ask me out. A fabulous job offer would fall my way.

Homecoming turned out to be a beautiful autumn day. There was a parade and the game. It was the ball in the evening when things fell apart. My date showed up drunk. At first we had a good time at the dance but didn’t stay long because he was about to pass out. I drove him to his place in his car, left him in a sound sleep, and walked home across a muddy field in my long white outfit, red velvet robe, and (once) white satin pumps. I yanked off my crown and carried it – no reason to wear it anymore.

By eleven o’clock I was in a pizza parlor with my roommate chowing down to drown my sorrows. I’d combed out my ginormous helmet hairdo and put in pigtails and thrown on jeans. I sported a blotchy, puffy face from crying. My date and I were supposed to have gone to a party the Vet’s held after the ball. I couldn’t contact anyone there (no cell phones back then) and had no transportation. So pizza next door to my apartment with my roommate was the only option I saw for “celebrating.”

We couldn’t help overhearing two guys arguing at the table next to ours. “That’s our homecoming queen,” one said. The other took a gander. “No it isn’t. Our homecoming queen would be a lot cuter than that.” My roommate reached out to console me, but I was beyond being insulted or consoled. We finished our pizza and went home. Big whoop.

The next day, that rude chairmen of the homecoming committee showed up at my apartment again, this time demanding that I give back the crown. Again, he insisted I didn’t deserve it. I told him to get lost. But wouldn’t you know, the moment I was trying to shove him out the door, he spied the crown sitting on my roommate’s skull candle on a shelf. He grabbed the little sparkly tiara and was out of there before I could say boo.

Clearly, my big event was over. No fabulous job offers. No gorgeous men. I went back to work the next day, the reality hitting that I was not Cinderella. The prince was not coming with my shoe. I didn’t even have my cheap rhinestone crown.

But when I look back on that now, I see a marvelous life-changing event:

  1. The Vietnam Veterans, and the Booster Club that joined in, were incredibly kind to nominate me in the first place. I was and to this day am still profoundly honored.
  2. All those students, thousands of them, voted for me. I never had a chance to properly thank them. But I did get to experience that kind of bountiful support.
  3. I also now know, after many years of living, that one event seldom changes everything. That day was all too typical of highly anticipated events. (How many weddings have you seen go wrong? Lots. Or worse, how many fabulous weddings have you seen where the couple gets divorced shortly thereafter? You get my point.) One day doesn’t change a life. It’s all the days put together that matter.
  4. I had to stand up to a bully. I may not have done that very well, but it showed me I’d be running into arrogant brutes like that all my life. Now I handle them with aplumb.
  5. I still stand up for what I believe, like I did in protesting war. In fact, after all these years, I find that I’m still protesting war.
  6. I’m now adept at considering options to solve a problem. When I had no transportation to the Vet’s party, which I desperately wanted to attend to show my appreciation, I saw only one option: don’t go. Yet, that pizza parlor was full of students, some who I knew and many who had driven there. And there was a phone there I could have used to call women I worked with, many who were married and had cars. I even could have walked back to the ball and asked around. Somebody would have given me a ride. I let embarassment and self-pity keep me from being pro-active.
  7. Asking for help has taken conscious effort throughtout my adult life, but I now do it very well. That old belief that I had to do everything myself is long gone. I suspect it stemmed from feeling inadequate if I couldn’t figure something out myself. Nah uh. No more.
  8. I learned there is no quick, easy ticket to success. As disappointing as that was at the time, that awareness has served me well throughout my life.
  9. Dancing may not solve all our problems, but I’m convinced that if people would relax and listen to the music and dance more often, our world would be a better place.

There are more perks to that disastrous event. Now I laugh at the pizza parlor scene. I spent years adoring Lottie’s friendship and would never have given that up because some entitled brat thought I shouldn’t have known her. The irony of the crown on the skull candle slays me. I couldn’t make this stuff up. As a writer, this kind of stuff feeds my stories.

Harkening back to the beginning of this article, would young adults believe what I’ve said here? That things going wrong aren’t always wrong? That making things right is an option that’s always there for us? No, they most likely would not listen. I wouldn’t have.

But I’m not worried. I know they’ll be okay as long as they don’t give up. So my best advice that they might heed? Take a breath, absorb the music, and dance. Always enjoy the dance.

For more, here’s my novel, fiction based on real events:

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