There’s no hidden moral to this story, no big kicker or punchline waiting at the end. This is just a thing that happened when I was in college. I’m telling this story now because I finally found pictures of these paintings online. And because this all happened exactly 30 years ago, tonight.
(I now have college stories that are 30 years old. Yikes.)
This is about the time I missed the Valentine’s dance.
I missed most dances when I was in college because I worked for the campus radio station of my evangelical school and we were in charge of the music. That meant I spent most of every dance either deejaying or running around checking on the equipment — setting it up, taking it down, trying to figure out why our borrowed or rented or too-old speakers weren’t working. But this was the Valentine’s dance, and so I had promised my girlfriend that I wasn’t going to be working at all. I would be there, with her, the whole time, uninterrupted. I was going to be off-duty.
I meant it, too. Just as soon as I took care of a few last-minute details that afternoon, including a quick run to the mall to grab a few records at Sam Goody’s. See, the girlfriend was really into The Cure, so I needed to get the 12-inch of “Just Like Heaven” because watching her dance to that would have me spinning on a dizzy edge. And I’d promised one of the kids deejaying that night that I would get them the extended mix of “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” or, if they didn’t have that, “It’s a Sin.”
Plus, not for the dance but for the radio station, I had to get the new Tonio K. record because Sam Goody’s would have the un-sanitized real version instead of the CCM-friendly version we’d been sent from the “Christian” branded branch of his weird hybrid record label.
So my roommate and radio-partner Lou and I, and Josh, and Dave, (and Bill, maybe?) piled into Lou’s hoopdi and headed off to the world’s largest shopping mall late that Saturday afternoon. In theory we had plenty of time to get there, get back, and then get dressed before accompanying our respective dates to the big dance.
It was raining as we drove to the mall, but the temperature dropped while we were in there shopping and by the time we came back out the stuff falling from the sky was a nasty mix of rain, sleet, and danger. This was very much exactly the kind of road conditions you did not want to have if you were trying to navigate the curves and hills of King of Prussia Road in a car with iffy brakes and bald tires.
We made it most of the way back to campus, more than half-way, at least. All the way to that last big hill. We crested the top and then started turning a slow pirouette as we slid down the other side. It seemed to be one giant sheet of ice. “No point steering now,” Lou said, because he loved that movie. But he managed to coax us into the gentlest available crash-landing, spinning around twice before sliding to a stop tail-end first in the gully next to the road.
Ours wasn’t the only car in that ditch. Two others were there before us, left at haphazard angles suggesting they’d arrived the same way we had.
This was 1988. No cell phones. We needed to call someone to come and get us or at least to get word to our dates that we might be a little bit late getting to the dance.
Across the street there was a big house with lights shining in every window. Maybe they’d let us use their phone?
We heard voices and music as the door opened. A white-haired older woman looked at us, smiling, then turned and shouted over her shoulder, “We’re going to need more cocoa! And check on that pie!”
This was Mrs. Weber. This was her house and she already had company that day before the rest of us showed up. Those other cars? The people who’d been in them were here too. They had also knocked on the door to ask about borrowing the phone, then been invited in, offered cocoa and tea and a variety of pies to choose from.
Then we got the guided tour. The house was like an art gallery, and the tour began with the biggest painting, “Tea With Grandpa,” by C. Gager Phillips Sr. Next to the enormous original was a smaller frame bearing a copy of the February, 1933 Saturday Evening Post cover on which it had been published almost exactly 55 years earlier. The painting was by her father, Mrs. Weber explained. The grandfather in the picture was her grandfather, while the little girl was her.
She had gone into the family business herself, and she showed us some of her own beautiful paintings and illustrations. Plus a few by her older brother, who was also a professional illustrator.
“Quite the family of artists,” I said.
She shrunk a bit and grew quiet. “Let me show you something.” And she drew us to a separate room. “My younger brother was the best of us. He was a true artist.”
And then she showed us another painting — a sad, haunting watercolor of a handsome young man. It was, she said, a self-portrait by her younger brother, who enlisted after Pearl Harbor and served as a pilot in World War II. He was shot down and killed in Germany in 1945.
A local magazine ran a story on her younger brother a few years ago. It includes Mrs. Weber telling what seemed to be her favorite story about her younger brother — about the time he won first prize in a Brandywine Valley arts exhibition. Second prize in that contest went to N.C. Wyeth.
Telling us that story back on that Valentine’s eve in 1988 brightened her back up and she returned us to the main room with its bright lights and fireplace and cheerful “Grandpa” presiding above it all.
We were having an impromptu, old fashioned tea party of our own, Mrs. Weber, her friends, a handful of stranded motorists and a bunch of college kids who were missing the dance. It was a delightful evening, one that eventually found this oddball group of strangers sitting around a baby grand and singing songs from back when Mrs. Weber and her friends were our age. She enlisted me to awkwardly plunk out the oom-pah-pah lower half of a piano duet as she gracefully played the top half and we all sang along to “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true …”
It turned out the other stranded motorists could both really sing. One was a single man, probably 30-something. The other was a single woman, around the same age. They exchanged phone numbers. I wish I’d learned the rest of that story.
As for the rest of our story, someone eventually was able to come get us and we managed to get safely back to campus. It was, by then, long past midnight and now officially Valentine’s Day. The dance had ended and the gymnasium was empty apart from the freshman kid from the radio station who’d stayed to make sure nobody stole the equipment.
It was just us. And our girlfriends. We’d promised them a dance, after all, and a promise is a promise.
The deejays had taken all the music when they left, but the turntables and speakers were still hooked up. And we still had that bag from Sam Goody’s — just enough music for a brief after-dance dance. We danced to the Cure and the Pet Shop Boys, then slowed things down for one final song.
Tonio K’s “Stay” is not an ideal choice for a romantic slow song on Valentine’s Day, but it was the closest thing we had. And that night it seemed perfect.