My sister Shelley was going to her first high school prom and she had to ask a boy to go with her. It was one of the drawbacks of going to a girls’ school in the 1950s. We didn’t know many boys and those we grew up with in the neighborhood were out of the question because they would never behave. After some thought, she decided to ask Harvey Heiges whose parents were friends of our parents and went to the same church. He was a nice boy, polite and earnest, and she liked him as much as she liked any boy.
Getting up the courage to call him was hard with the embarrassing awkwardness of asking and the possibility of rejection. I was two years older and more experienced, and I felt for her; not much was as intimidating at that age. It always took several attempts to complete dialing the number on our parents’ bedroom telephone, with the door closed, pacing around the bed, and revising the script — it was a difficult rite of passage.
When she finally dialed the number, Harvey answered, and he accepted the invitation right away and hung up. Then he immediately called back to ask the color of her dress for the corsage. Her relief was palatable but short-lived — what dress? And what about her hair? Or even worse, what if she had pimples? But worst of all, what would they talk about between dances? Our mother heard her distress and took her to Best & Co. where they bought a beautiful blue taffeta dress with a scoop neckline and a circular skirt. The dress had to be blue because that’s what she told Harvey. And Shelley looked fabulous in it.
The big day came, and Harvey brought her a perfect wrist corsage of white gardenias. He was too young to drive, and the usual arrangement was that one set of parents took us and the other brought us back. Dr. and Mrs. Heiges drove Shelley home. Dr. Heiges was a physicist and Mrs. Heiges, a watercolor artist. They had emigrated from Germany after the war, about a dozen years before, and they spoke with German accents. He was short and thin with a pencil mustache and rimless glasses; a serious and intense man. Mrs. Heiges was short and stout and she always wore small hats with wonderfully long feathers. She was a sweet woman who laughed easily and made everyone comfortable.
It was wintertime, close to the holidays, and a new snow covered the ground. When Dr. Heiges pulled his car into our driveway, my father had been waiting for their arrival to help him safely back his car out onto the icy road. He rushed out of the house wearing his red thermal long full-bodied johns and approached the driver’s window and knocked. Dr. Heiges rolled it down and startled when he saw my father and immediately rolled it back up. “Oh, my god, what was that?” he exclaimed to his wife. My father walked around the car and knocked on the passenger window and Mrs. Heiges rolled it down. Equally alarmed, she burst out, “Ooh, ooh, there’s another one!” Shelley tried smothering her giggles in the back seat with Harvey but couldn’t. Giggling and snorting helplessly, and embarrassed, she bolted from the car and ran into the house.
Later, we gathered around the fireplace and Shelley recounted the Heigeses’ reaction to our father, holding her sides hurting from laughing so much. We laughed even harder when we speculated that Heigeses might be doing the same as we were and how they’d describe my father’s outfit.
Over the years, the story has been told and retold, even in French in which the phrase for “red long johns” is “caleçon long rouge.” It was probably retold in German as well as, which is even better, “rote langer Schlafanzug.”