With my son Rodney’s thirty-sixth birthday fast approaching, his thoughts have turned to his first date. He has his eye on a certain young coquette of the village, and quite charming she is, flouncing her locks and batting her lustrous eyelashes and so on. I believe she is a milkmaid by profession. There’s just one catch: Rodney has not as of yet worked up the courage to speak two words to her. I must admit to being almost as nervous as he is.
I suppose it’s that rushing sound in my ears—the din of the fleeting decades—that causes my old mind to wander back to the courtship rituals of my own youth. I’d like nothing better than to offer Rodney some sound advice, but things are so different than they used to be. Or has nothing changed but the particulars? I like to think that maybe, just maybe, the mysteries of the human heart have remained as steadfast and inviolate as the very stars on which the captains of mighty vessels rely for guidance.
In my day, initial wooing took place under the unforgiving gaze of a maiden aunt, in a small but cozy room called a “parlor,” containing a medicine cabinet, a toilet, a bathtub, a sink, and usually a storage space of one kind or another for washcloths and towels.
Proper attire was of the essence. Girls wore high-button shoes and modest frocks. The fashionable young “gentleman caller” would not dream of appearing without a camellia bud in his lapel. Men and women alike sported leather aviator hats with goggles attached, glittering eye shadow after the manner of Little Richard, whose hits were burning up the airwaves, and glow-in-the-dark plastic Dracula fangs. The aunt usually sat in the tub, sniffing at everyone most imperiously and casting grave glances through her pince-nez, a mountain of foamy bubbles ensuring her womanly modesty. Most homes were equipped with “flying harnesses” such as are still used in community-theater productions of Peter Pan, and many an evening ended with the father of the girl in question challenging the unfortunate young suitor to an aerial battle.
The harnesses were uncomfortable and— given the lack of federal oversight—frequently lethal. Peter Pan–related fatalities were third only to gangrene and distillery explosions as official causes of death. But the lucky boy who endured the humiliation, pain, and danger with equanimity was vouchsafed another chance to call on his wouldbe ladylove. With propriety established after two or three visits, the eager young couple was allowed to retire sans chaperone to the safer and more private environs of the old-fashioned front porch swing for lemonade and sexual intercourse.
Dates were more leisurely than they are today, amid the hustle and bustle of our so-called modern times. A typical outing might consist of a stroll around the historic town square, taking turns pushing a perambulator containing an angry cat in a baby bonnet. Dressing up in a two-person bull costume and chasing unsuspecting trespassers through a field provided hours of innocent amusement. But the fun didn’t stop there. Moving pictures were all the rage, and every single one was about a lonely little boy who imagines a pet dragon and everybody laughs at him but then the dragon turns out to be real after all. We didn’t need other plots to make us happy, nor any actors other than the legendary Mickey Rooney, who always played every role, donning a fright wig as the spinster who ran the orphanage, for example, or, as the dragon, a spool of damp green crepe paper that left little to the imagination. Oh, how we chuckled, again and again, at the climactic comeuppance of the cranky, sputtering schoolmaster from our vantage point in the projectionist’s booth, where we were having sexual intercourse with the projectionist— or, if it happened to be a premiere, with Mickey Rooney himself.
I suppose you could say they were simpler times. Yet has there ever been anything truly simple about our interactions with the opposite sex? I’m just going to have to sit Rodney down and give him that age-old talk about how I have already impregnated the woman he likes.