Copyright © 2004 by Jessica Wineteer. All rights reserved.
The summer between my fifth and sixth grade year my father was appropriated by the military and relocated to NORAD. The North American Air Defense Command Post, located in the heart of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was the life pulse of the defense system for the United States and Canada. My father’s acumen in mathematics and spatial engineering made him sought after in the aerospace industry. He was one of those brainiacs, or as I would later overhear a four-star general refer to him, “that whiz-kid Jew-boy with the degrees.”
In the late 1960’s in Southern California, the aerospace industry boomed, bringing in wealth and the space age, and it was every bit as alluring and sexy as the entertainment industry. These industries lived side by side, rubbing shoulders at cocktail parties, waving to each other on the beach, and meeting for lunches in the valley. So when we moved, there was more than altitude to adjust to in the change from the private enclaves of aerospace and entertainment power in Southern California to the rural ranches of Colorado.
When we relocated to Colorado from Malibu, California, we left a house on the beach to come to a tiny ranching hamlet, a good twenty miles over bad roads off the freeway. My father decided we needed to experience the rural life, which really meant he wanted us to be as far away from ground zero as was within a reasonable commute for him; NORAD was a primary target during the cold war.
In preparation for my entry into an entirely new group of kids, I anguished over what to wear on my first day of school. I wanted to give myself confidence, to feel assured in the way only a really good outfit can make you feel, and I wanted the kids to like me, and not think I was some kind of dweeb, all truly important concerns for a girl of eleven. So I turned to my grandmother, to whom I was close. My grandmother was the buyer for the very upscale family department store in Chicago. She was always the epitome of elegant and well-dressed style. Her eye was infallible and her prescience of trends uncanny. All summer long, via correspondence, in which we sent pictures back and forth, we discussed in great depth and detail the pivotal issue of what I would wear on my first day to my new school in Colorado.
My grandmother wanted me to make a good impression on the faculty and staff because, as she put it, “You are representing my son and our family at the largest institution in town, and you need to be well-dressed, not garish like your mother.” My mother was the shiksa who had put a hole through her heart by marrying my dad.
I said, “I am not dressing like an old lady.”
She corrected me. “Toned down does not mean not having flair or style. Stylish is one thing darling.” Her sibilant voice tickled my ear over the phone. “Tacky is another.”
With her help, I put together an outfit so mod, so fab, that Twiggy herself would have worn it. It was a kelly-green and white striped sleeveless top — small stripes, not too flashy — with a mock turtleneck, and matching kelly-green short culottes, with a fold wrapped over front and back, so that it looked like a mini-skirt. The culottes had lots of white top stitching, giving it structure and a tailored feel. Wrapped around my waist was a wide matching green belt with a large white plastic buckle. To complete the ensemble I had on knee-high white vinyl go-go boots. As the coup de grace, I had gotten the gamin cut, contributed by my mother, who, not wanting to be outdone by her mother-in-law with her own daughter, interjected her style into my appearance.
My mother was a beauty. She had long shapely legs, a small waist, a large chest, aquiline nose, cornflower blue eyes, golden skin, and blonde hair that she dyed blonder. My mother was a trophy-wife and she relished the role. When we shopped at the Mayfair in Malibu, people would whisper about her, certain she was a movie star. In Trancas Market men with famous faces would lie in wait for her, hoping to get a chance to speak with her alone. Her fashion sense was very Hollywood, and she made the attempt to transfer this over to me by convincing me to get the gamin cut. Not the gamin with the heavy fringed bangs that Twiggy wore, but the clean cut on Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Boy short hair.
When I saw myself in the mirror with my tightly cropped do, I knew immediately that she was right. This was a very cool look. When we finally left Malibu, all the boys were wearing their hair long, à la Sonny Bono, and the girls were wearing their hair short. I was dark from swimming all summer, so my mom let me wear her white lipstick. Now even my lips matched my outfit. I was truly groovy, and perfectly prepared for my first day at my new school.
The three-story, red-brick school building which housed grades K through 12 were once the offices of the Cattle Exchange on the Goodnight Trail, the spot where the cattle were weighed and counted before being floated up the Arkansas River to Kansas City. Once the railroad was established, that route was abandoned to follow the train tracks and the building became the schoolhouse. Excited and nervous, I walked up the stone ramp through wooden doors wide enough to drive cattle through two abreast. I followed a flock of children, some of whom appeared to be my age, up the large zigzagging staircase. The children my age dispersed down the 2nd floor hallway to the 6th, 7th and 8th grade classrooms and I followed. The older kids went on up to the high school on the third floor. The elementary school was on the first floor.
I found my classroom; the door had a gold glass window with my teacher’s name lettered on it: Mrs. Schofield. Just inside the door, a woman in a tan skirt — Mrs. Schofield I assumed — was greeting the children. I smiled and, just as I had practiced, stuck my hand out and said, “Hello, my name is Jessica and I am new.”
Her eyes flew open; her hand fluttered up to the neck of her blouse, where a fall of lace spilled down her front. She looked over my head. I felt a tap on my shoulder, turned around, and found a woman’s face just inches from mine, weathered, leathered, wrinkled — a rancher’s face. With a sharp inhalation, I mimicked my teacher as my hand flew up to my mock turtleneck in startlement. Gently, this wrinkled face pulled me out of the doorway and guided me by the shoulder back down the hallway, past the other kids who were going to their classrooms. It was a gauntlet of kids, staring. When we got to the stairwell, we ducked into the small area created by the turning in the stairs. She appraised me with friendly eyes.
“Is your name Jessica?” she asked.
“And you’re new to our school this year?”
Yes, yes, I nodded, mute with chagrin. She was concerned, but not angry, and despite the effects of wind and weather, her face was very kind. She placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder, smiled down at me, and said, “Kneel, please.”
I looked up at her blankly.
She repeated herself. “Kneel, please.”
The request didn’t make any sense. The closest I could get to it was ‘heel,’ which meant walk closely behind her. My father trained golden retrievers as a hobby, so I understood the command, but since she wasn’t moving away, I couldn’t follow her even though I was willing to do so.
“Young lady, kneel.”
As long as she didn’t move, I could not fulfill her command. I nodded at her to indicate I understood that she wanted me to follow her.
I nodded again, harder, and waited for her to walk.
“Kneel, down.” She pointed to the floor.
It was then that I comprehended that she really, truly wanted me to kneel. The request was too bizarre to process. I continued staring at her blankly, only now my mouth was open. As strange as her request was to me, apparently my response to her was equally as puzzling. We examined each other for a moment in bewilderment, and then I knelt down.
Attempting to ease my confusion, she knelt with me. We looked like Catholics in church. My grandmother would have been horrified. She explained herself, which helped not at all.
“We’re going to measure your skirt, dear.”
I sat back on my heels and really stared hard at her. I wasn’t even wearing a skirt. They were culottes.
With great patience she explained, “There are regulations on the permissible length of a skirt, dear. And no naked arms.”
“Naked arms?” I said. I wondered for a moment if she spoke English. I knew some Spanish from California, but this didn’t sound like Spanish.
She pointed at her sleeves. Her tailored suit was navy blue, and cut of a very good, heavy wool gabardine. I reached out and felt the cloth between my fingers, appreciating the weave. I finally noticed her hair. Her bangs were rolled up in a single, tightly curled, horizontal spiral high up on her forehead, and her hair was long, almost to her shoulders, but tightly curled under at the bottom in the same uniform horizontal curl. I had never seen anyone wear her hair that way before. She smiled at me through clear plastic glasses that were browning with age. The chain that held them around her shoulders drooped from the earpiece. Her lips were a smeared a dull red that was beginning to bleed up the creases around her mouth. She pointed again to her skirt and said, “We’re going to measure your hem. Skirts are not allowed to be more than six inches above the knee.”
Finally comprehending, I grabbed the sides of my culottes and pulled them straight out to separate the two halves to illustrate that I wasn’t wearing a skirt.
“Look! Look! ” I said. Since it was skirts that weren’t allowed to be shorter than six inches from the knee, I was clearly fine. “Look, it’s not a skirt, they’re shorts!”
As I waited in the office for my mother to come, I watched the cows eat in the field through the window. I knew the moment she arrived because the women in the office started whispering and pointing out the window overlooking the parking lot. In the three days since we had relocated, I had seen this reaction to her several times before.
Nobody ever expected my mother to walk as fast as she did. When she suddenly materialized in the doorway, her blonde hair winking off the fluorescent lighting, the secretaries were startled. I scooted down in my seat. The secretary who had her hair teased up into an elaborate, upswept bouffant stared openly at my mother’s loose, white- blonde, asymmetrical bob. My mother’s small hot pink bag swung from the abrupt cessation of motion off of one arm. The small spangles splattered across her hot pink bolero top swayed, glinting rhythmically even though she had stopped, because she wasn’t wearing a bra. And I noticed the women noticing. The top stopped short just below the breast and had a fringe around the bottom that shimmied as she moved. At the end of the fringe were large, flat, disc-shaped spangles. Her three-quarter sleeves also had fringe and spangles hanging off the ends, so that when she walked there was a stripe of kinetic motion horizontally across her body which showed off her figure. She was securely zipped into the matching skin-tight, hot-pink, silk Capri pants, without underwear lines to break the smooth contours of the fabric. The clear pink plastic high-heeled mules set off the frosted pink of her toenails. Only her red cats-eye glasses with the rhinestones didn’t quite match.
With her free arm, she removed her glasses and let them drip from the end of her frosted fingertips. Her eyes were lined heavily with black — the doe-eye it was called — which she complemented with very pale, shiny, pink frosted lipstick. It contrasted well with her dark tanned skin. I recognized the outfit as the old one she threw on to go to the grocery store in Malibu; the one she put on when she was in a hurry.
She held her arms akimbo to express annoyance. She looked at the women who had not yet spoken to her and asked, “Is my daughter ill?”
Somehow managing to convey “no,” they began, in contrapuntal voices, to explain why she had been called.
“It’s a dress code …”
“We should have ..”
“There was one in the packet…”
My mother interrupted, “Has my daughter injured another child?”
Once again, they managed to convey the meaning of “no,” while still attempting an explanation.
“It’s established by the school board.”
“It’s not ladylike.”
“Bad for morale.”
Without waiting for them to finish, she gave them instructions. “Tell the principal I’ll see him now.”
“Oh,” they chimed in unison.
“He’s not expecting you…”
She lowered her face so that her black rimmed eyes were level with the bouffant hair. She did that when she was mad at us and didn’t want anybody to know she was yelling at us under her breath. Through her perfectly even, white smiling teeth she said, “He called me, so, he is expecting me.”
Both women went to fetch him.
He came out of his office trailing the two women behind him. Even I could see he was impressed by her. He held out his hand, which she did not take. Instead, she gave him directions. “You will not remove my daughter from her academics for a puritanical dress code.”
He muttered some kind of protesting noises, and the women dove for cover behind their desks.
She turned to me. “Jessica, go back to class.” She turned to the women. “Does she need a note?”
One of them scribbled something quickly on a sheet of green paper and pressed it into my hand. As I left I heard her begin again.
“If she has committed a dress code violation, we will see to it that she does not do it again. Now, is that it? You brought me down here for that? A note wouldn’t have sufficed?” Unlike the principal, I knew what that tone of voice meant and got out of there as fast as I could. As I ran up the stairs, I could still hear her. “You are aware that my husband works for NORAD?”
When I opened the door to my classroom at last, every head jerked up, freezing me on the spot in the doorway. I have never seen so many dress shirts and bolo ties in all my life. The boys, who all sat on one side of the room, the side closest to the door, had neatly combed short hair. Just like mine. My stomach fell. Not like the Beatles. Not like Herman’s Hermits. Not like Sonny Bono. Not like Malibu. Every one of the girls wore their hair in varying degrees of long and styled it with hair ornaments, headbands, ribbons, yarn, and ponytail holders. And every girl had on a dress — checked, flowered, plain with lace; some had petticoats which I could see underneath their desks as floes of white. Their socks were either white knee-highs or white with lace neatly turned down over buckled black shoes.
I turned around and raced back down the hall, back down the stairs to my mother who had already left the building. I caught her at the red mustang convertible and begged her to take me home with her.
“I can’t go back. Please, Mom! My clothes are wrong. Mommy, please! I can’t go back; I have to change my clothes.”
But she had already made her point with the principal and wasn’t about to back down. Instead she marched me upstairs to class. As we got closer, my begging became more desperate. I pleaded with her, “Please, please, please at least don’t let the kids see you!”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous.” And she burst into the classroom, introducing herself and me to the teacher.
That was the first time I learned I could turn red. I could feel it. My face swelled and became extra hot. The children were whispering; some were pointing. Boys’ eyebrows were pasted to their hairlines, and girls were openly staring, some giggling. Thankfully the teacher sat me in the back row.
At recess I went to find my brother to tell him what had happened to me and to enlist his aid. Instead — traitor! turncoat! — he was collaborating, hanging over the fence to the pasture with two new friends who were cousins to each other. Later, I discovered most people around there were related somehow. My brother was reveling in their knowledge of the animal world. They were discussing the finer points of cow tipping and lamenting that they were too little to tip the beasts over themselves, unlike their older brothers.
I had just turned away from my brother, bereft, hopeless, alone, and embarrassed to the point of despair, when a girl from my class came over to me. Her rust-colored hair hung down in ringlets, and her dress was blue with a ruffle at the hem. She had freckles and big uneven teeth. Smiling shyly at me, she asked, “Were you sick? Did you have lice or something? Was that why they cut off all your hair off?”
And she touched my head. For the next six months, until my hair grew long enough, an endless string of people, children and adults alike, touched my head to feel short hair on a girl.
Today that area is the home base for the organization Focus on the Family.
At the end of my sixth grade year, my mother forced my father to move us into Colorado Springs. She made him buy a home directly on Cheyenne Mountain, at ground zero.