The Night the Band Played the Tennessee Waltz
Hey, out there,
I was flipping through some old journals of mine. It has caused me much grief that I’ve never been completely seduced by the craft of journal keeping. A laziness of soul takes over, and I abandon most of them over the course of a summer. But I sometimes find that I’ve forgotten something that I’ve been lucky to forget.
On January 11, 2000, an event occurred in the Beaufort Presbyterian Church that took me by surprise. Once a year, I accompany Mrs. Julia Randel to church, and she always gets the superb choir to sing “Blessed Assurance,” a hymn I fell in love with when her son, Derril, died at age 34. Tragically, Mrs. Randel has lost two sons, Derril and Randy. She is my mother figure in Beaufort, bequeathed to me when her 15-year-old son died in front of me on a baseball field – a transfiguring scene in my boyhood.
After the services ended that day, a stranger tapped me on the shoulder and asked me how I knew Janet Tetu.
I turned around and said, “I had a crush on Janet Tetu when I was in eighth grade.”
“She’s my lawyer in Columbia, a great one.”
I called Janet Tetu Butcher that night. Janet Tetu. They were, at one time, the most magical four syllables in the language to me. I fell in love with Janet in the eighth grade class terrorized by the fiercest nun of my childhood, the dreaded Sister Mary Petra. There was one sweet kid who sat directly in front of me, and he had an intestinal condition. This poor creature would send out thunderous farts a couple of times a day which brought Petra’s wrath out of its cave. She would clench her fist and knock – yes, I still remember his name – this poor boy out of his chair. During a test in November, this boy let out a fart that could be heard at the White House. Petra looked ready to kill as she jumped out of her chair and made her way to exterminate the gaseous one. To my utter shock, the kid turned and pointed to me, “It was Conroy, Sister. I swear it was Conroy.”
Before I could utter a word in my own defense, Sister Petra had put me on the floor with a fierce right cross that made my ear numb for the rest of the day. Enraged by the injustice, I returned to my seat and my test, and prayed that the trembling kid in front of me would hold his fire for the rest of the afternoon. He turned around to deliver anguished apologies for his action when Petra left the room. I’d forgiven him long before the bell rang.
Later that year, the trollish nun spotted the pretty Janet Tetu passing a note in class. Petra acted like Janet had spit on the Christ child and made her kneel on her knees for an hour praying for her immortal soul. As we talked on the phone, Janet talked about the traumatizing effect that punishment had on her and that she refused to apply to a Catholic high school after that painful humiliation in front of her peers. I told her I wished she’d passed a note every day during the school year because I had spent a pleasurable and voyeurish hour simply starring at her oval-faced beauty.
Janet admitted she did not remember me at all. Nor could she come up with a single name of her female classmates. The only name she could conjure up was the darkly handsome David Keaney who remains for me to this day the exemplar by which I measure all male beauty. She also remembered liking a boy named Steve.
“That was Steve Lickweg,” I said, “He was a great guy.”
“How do you remember that,” Janet asked.
“I was lonelier than you?”
But Janet had given me some correlation of how I saw myself as a boy – that I was invisible to the world around me. I asked her if she remembered a boy named Paul Kennedy, and she did not. His parents gave him a graduation party at the Officer’s Club at Fort Myers and I was thrilled to be seated next to her.
“I don’t remember this at all,” she said, “Why were you thrilled?”
“Because I had a crush on you.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Of course you didn’t,” I told her. “I couldn’t even speak to a girl at that time in my life.”
“I didn’t know that,” Janet said. “Pat, I don’t remember anything you are talking about.”
“Of course, you didn’t, Janet. But I can give you a glimpse of yourself that you didn’t know about. I was afraid you wouldn’t talk to me that night. But you were perfectly lovely – charming and friendly and dazzling – everything I hoped you’d be and more. You wore a white dress. You seemed to like me. That meant everything to me. I’ve pressed the memory of that night to my heart a dozen times and it happened over forty years ago, Janet Tetu.”
“You put my name in Beach Music. That’s how I found you.”
“I’ve tried to thank everyone who was nice to me in my childhood – the list is not large.”
“There’s something you don’t know about me, Pat.”
“I stood in line to get Beach Music signed in Columbia.”
“Why didn’t you tell me who you were?” I asked.
“Because I didn’t know who you were,” Janet said. “I didn’t know I had a part in your life. I was reading Beach Music while my husband was driving down to the beach when I came across my name, I let out a yell. “Tetu—it means head-strong in French.”
“Margaret Evans worked for me as a research assistant for Beach Music.” I said, “She calls these things my little salutes. Your salute finally arrived, and this phone call is my pay off.”
“There are other amazing things, Pat. My husband is a ’63 Citadel grad named Jim Butcher. You signed his personal copy of The Lords of Discipline. My son is a Citadel grad, class of ’95. He became an English major at the Citadel because he loved your work.”
“My mother knew all about you, Janet. She studied you on the playground when she took her turn monitoring at recess. She gave you a high approval rating and thought you had class. From then on, whenever I liked a new girl, my mom would say, “She’s nice, Pat, but she is no Janet Tetu. Before you, it was a girl in my kindergarten, and my mom would say, she’s nice, Pat. Bur she’s no Muffett Adams.”
“You ever find Muffett?” Janet asked.
“I signed a copy of The Prince of Tides for her in Atlanta. I told Muffett that because of her I know that a boy can fall in love with a girl at the age of five.”
“I saw you give a speech at the Thomas Cooper society and wrote you a long letter once.”
“I’m sorry we didn’t connect, Janet. I also associate you with olives.”
“Olives?” she said.
“At that same graduation, I saw you take something from a small dish and put it in your mouth.”
“You didn’t know what an olive was?”
“No, and I had asparagus that night for the first time. Mom didn’t run an adventurous kitchen. So I walked on the wild side and popped that olive in my mouth. I bit down hard on it and almost broke a tooth on the pit. The pit was a complete surprise. Because I was sitting by the woman I loved, I suffered a real dilemma. The olive pit felt as large as a golf ball in my mouth. I know I could not just spit the mangled, saliva-stained mess on to my plate. Nor did I have a clue about what the etiquette of removing such a thing from my mouth. So speechless, I sat there contemplating my next move. Finally, I mumbled my excuses and made a dash to the men’s room where I spat the disfigured olive into my hand. I slide the meat of the olive from the pit and tasted it. That’s the first night I knew I loved olives. When I returned I asked you to dance. You were the first girl I ever danced with. The band played the Tennessee Waltz, one of my Mom and Dad’s favorite songs. That was the night of the comely and adored Janet Tetu when she walked out of my life in a white dress, and stepped very prettily into her own.”
We’ll be friends for the rest of our lives.
Great Love, Pat Conroy