I have begun a new series telling the stories of our family history. I hope to include tales from both sides of my family as well as the Nordbak side. Have you asked about or researched your own family history? I’d love to hear how other families differed or shared similar experiences, especially when I start getting into some of the wartime stories.
This is the story of how my grandparents fell in love–a story which centers around dancing. I will be calling them Betty and Bill instead of Nanny and Dan-Dan. Imagine…they had their own identities before they were our grandparents!
Our tale begins in 1950 in Whitburn, Scotland. The war had ended, but its impacts were still being felt around the world. People worked hard to rebuild their lives and support their families, but come Friday night, young people would let loose and go to the dance hall.
Dancing then looked a little different from what we think of now. When my generation goes dancing, it is generally to a dark and crowded club where the music is too loud for a conversation, so we gyrate and grind on one another. Behavior that would get you arrested in any other public place (approaching a woman you’ve never met before and rubbing your genitals on her by way of greeting) is considered acceptable on the dance floor. Back then, dancing was a more civilized affair. There were steps you had to learn and commit to. It was a social interaction, a partnership which required trust in one another. I giggle picturing what Nanny’s face would have looked like if a young man had tried to “dance” with her the way they do now.
Betty started going to dances on Friday nights when she was 16. She would walk to the local hall where it was held. It cost about 10 cents to get in when it started at 8, but the last hour was half price, so they often only went for the end. The dance ended at 10:30, so she always had to make sure she was home by 11. I expected her to have had a much earlier curfew as a teenage girl, but it was a small village and apparently that was deemed acceptable on a Friday night when all of the teens would be out at the dance.
They mostly danced waltzes or the foxtrot, which they would have learned at school and practiced growing up. The boys all sat on one side of the room and the girls lined the other. It seems that adolescent awkwardness is timeless.
Betty was tall for a girl at 5′ 10″, something she was extremely self conscious about. After a few embarassing incidents in which a shorter boy asked her to dance while she was sitting, only to discover that she dwarfed him upon standing, she chose to always stand so they could see exactly what they were getting before asking her.
Betty and her dad, Dick, both worked in the local post office. Betty was 17 when a young man named Bill was sent to work with them after being discharged from the army at the age of 20. She was off the day he started work, so she asked her father what he was like over dinner that evening. Dick was an army man through and through, so he felt that decorum should be observed. He was alarmed when Bill had walked straight up to the Postmaster and said, “Right, Jimmy, what do you want me to do?” (For those of you who aren’t from Scotland, Jimmy is a generic colloquialism to casually address another man. I suppose it would be a little like “hey, bud” or “hey, man”. Dick explained to Betty that he had been surprised by the young man’s casual nature, but Bill would eventually win him over. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and never met a stranger.
Bill was known as a wonderful dancer, and had been selected as the emcee for the Annual Post Office Dance in 1951. As emcee, he needed a partner and found himself without one. Someone suggested that he ask “that wee girl from the post office”, but he could hardly take Betty as his date without first making sure she didn’t have two left feet. The week before the Post Office Dance, he asked Betty to accompany him to a dance in the neighboring town where he lived, Bathgate. She must have passed his test because he asked her to be his date the following weekend as well.
Betty had recently been a bridesmaid in her cousin, Peggy’s wedding, so she wore her Bridesmaid’s dress to the Post Office Dance. Bill came and picked her up in a taxi to take her to Bathgate. Like a proper gentleman, he came to the door and brought her a corsage. He already knew her parents since he worked with Betty’s dad. I wonder if Dick made him nervous that night and what Dick thought of the overly casual young man taking his daughter out. I suspect that by then they liked one another.
Since Bill was the emcee, they had to lead off every dance before the rest of the room could join them on the floor. Betty was understandably nervous, but Bill was such a good dancer that she had nothing to worry about. The evening passed in a swirl of colors and steps, and a young love was sparked. Bill took her home again in the taxi, walked her to the door, and was rewarded with a peck on the cheek.
For their second official date, they took the bus to Edinburgh where they spent the day wandering the shops and gardens, and they climbed the Scott Monument. Betty was smitten, and at the end of the date gave Bill a photograph of her that she had taken in a portrait studio.
Bill was equally besotted, so a few days later he told his friend, Johnny, all about the wonderful girl he had fallen for. He pulled the picture out to show it to Johnny. Johnny smiled and reached into his wallet. He laid the exact same picture on top of Bill’s and said, “Snap!” with a laugh. Bill was confused and disappointed. Johnny had a terrible reputation, so he didn’t understand why Betty would have been associating with him. He questioned whether he had misjudged his new love, and their romance nearly fizzled before it could even properly begin. It’s a good thing that he gave her a chance to explain herself or I wouldn’t be here to write this today!
As it turned out, Betty had only been out with the scoundrel, Johnny, once. They went to a movie, but she refused to go out with him ever again because he “had too many hands” for the respectable Betty’s taste. She had given him a picture at the beginning of the ill fated date because she had just had them taken and was perhaps overly excited about them.
Bill took her at her word, and they became sweethearts who attended the dances together every Friday night. Here is a picture of them at a Highland Ball in 1952.
In addition to being self conscious about her height, Betty was insecure about her glasses, and thus refused to wear them around Bill. She simply pretended her vision was fine. This meant that she couldn’t always find him across the room in time for the Ladies’ Choice dance of the evening. Bill was upset when she didn’t seek him out, but she couldn’t explain that it was just because she couldn’t see him without giving away her secret. She was found out when they went to the movies together, and she innocently made a remark about one of the women on screen. Bill turned to her with a strange look and said, “But that’s a man.” She was forced to admit to her need for spectacles, but it was probably for the best since it meant she could actually see the movies they went to after that.
At age 19, Betty was allowed to start staying out at the late dances until 1 am. With this milestone of maturity, she reevaulated the direction her life was going, and wasn’t sure she liked what she saw. Bill was an ancient 22 by then, and had begun to talk earnestly about their future together. She panicked, feeling she was too young to be tied down, and told Bill that they needed to take a break so that she could think. He was heartbroken.
That Friday, Betty went to the dance in Bathgate with a friend, ready to stretch her wings and be young and unemcumbered. There were two dance halls in Bathgate at the time, the Palais (where she always went with Bill) and the Norbury. Feeling adventurous, she decided to explore the Norbury that night. Bill went looking for her at the Palais. When he couldn’t find her and was sure he was going to lose his love forever, he decided to drown his sorrows. It was the last (and only the second) time he ever got drunk. (The first was drinking peach schnapps when he was in Germany with the army! He drunkenly rode off on the sergeant’s bike and stole a tray of cakes from the mess to share with his buddies–an offense for which he received 7 days painting the white stones in the barrack square.) It makes me so sad to picture him drunk and miserable, unable to find his love.
Betty only tortured him for 2 weeks. She missed him terribly, and they got back together, confident that they were a match.
The following year, they were engaged to be married. The closest that Bill came to a proper proposal was asking in casual conversation when they were out for a walk, “Do you like Alsatians (German Shepherds)?” Betty replied that she did. “Oh, good. We’ll get one when we’re married then.”
Here is a photo of the happy couple shortly after their engagement, dressed up to go dancing. Betty was wearing dark green lace, a diamante necklace (that Sarah now has), and her new engagement ring. Bill looks so proud to have his wife-to-be on his arm.
They were married on June 25, 1955, and they danced the night away at their wedding. In the years that followed, they stopped going to quite as many dances, but still attended the Post Office Dance every year and found time for Highland Balls.
The last time Bill spun his Betty around the dance floor was in 1980 while they were on a Sound of Music holiday tour. They danced a waltz in Vienna at an open air dance hall. The orchestra played the Blue Danube while
peacocks flew overhead.
Even when they were on holiday, Bill’s health had begun to fail. I was barely a toddler when he died in 1988, but I would like to think he must have danced around with me in his arms when I was a baby. Dancing brought him such joy and left Betty with beautiful memories to cherish in the years ahead.
For the next in this series, we’ll be jumping back in time to 1940…
If you enjoyed reading, please consider liking our new Facebook page!