Vulgar Dancing at the Virginia Military Institute

One’s imagination is stirred considerably by a fascinating clip from the “Out of the Past” section of the July 1, 2019 Winchester Star, which relates the story of the Virginia Military Institute’s final ball in 1919. It seems that on June 25 of that year, “some of the alumni and several unidentified girls” did the Shimmy, in spite of the fact that “the authorities of the institute had given warning earlier in the evening that the introduction of such dances would cause the immediate closing of the [dance] hall.” Apparently, “the ‘Shimmy’ and cheek dances,” had been “denounced as vulgar and impossible of being made fit for polite society by the International Association of Dancing Masters.”

Well, as one may imagine, any young man, be he an officer and a gentleman or not, is going to attempt to do something which his elders deem “impossible of being made fit for polite society,” especially when it can be done with “unidentified girls.” According to the Star, “when the ‘Shimmy’ dance was well under way Colonel Purdie, the commandant, ordered the orchestra to play ‘Home Sweet Home,’ during the rendition of which, the hall was cleared and the ball ended.”

The Shimmy was only two years old in 1919, and its popularity increased dramatically that same year with the publication of the song, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” a title which is such a delicious mixture of words; words almost as tasty as, “impossible of being made fit for polite society.” Anyway, the Shimmy became a favorite dance of Flappers in the 1920s, though still considered vulgar, and it was banned in many dance halls. What we now think of as “the Shimmy” or “shimmying” is just how they thought of it, too, or as Wikipedia describes it, “the body is held still, except for the shoulders, which are quickly alternated back and forth.” These words do not do the actual movement justice, of course, especially if performed by one who is blessed by nature with rhythm and with a physique most suitable for shimmying.

So, if you want to shimmy like your sister Kate, who “shimmies like a jelly on a plate,” I urge you to watch the instructional video by clicking here. It will show you that the dance began as something akin to a cheek-to-cheek seizure, but quickly evolved into what we think of today. And if I had a time machine, I would set it for Lexington, Virginia, the evening of June 25, 1919 in order to see something like the following:

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Dress Barn Sent Out to Pasture

I can’t believe that it took this long for Dress Barn to go out of business, a move that was announced the week of May 19th. I mean, was there a worse name in all of retail than Dress Barn?

Dress Emporium—fancy.

Dress Collection—solid.

Dress Store—boring, but accurate.

Dress Barn?

I would love to have been in the board room when Dress Barn was being named. What were they thinking? It must have been some man who said, “Our research department feels that a bovine reference will really moooove the ladies to graze—I mean shop—in our stores. Can anyone think of a name that will make women feel like heifers?”

“Stockyard of Dresses?”

“No . . .”

“Dress Pasture?”

“No . . .”

“How about Dress Barn?”


Whenever I walked by, I always expected a sales girl to be standing at the door with a cattle prod going, “Move it along, Bossy, the sales are in the back.”

“Lumber on back to our leisure wear, ladies!”

I wonder how they missed the tagline, It’ll behoove you to shop at Dress Barn? . . .

Anyway, it had to be a man who came up with the name, because women are word sensitive: Command the language and you command the ladies. Clearly, Victoria’s Secret, for example, was named by a woman, and not by whoever came up with Dress Barn; otherwise it would have been called Grandma’s Underwear Barn.

By the way, if anyone out there knows the guy—and it was a guy—who named a line of J. C. Penny’s clothing Sag Harbor, please pass along this post.

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The Bedford Boys Tribute Center

It is really Green’s Drug Store, and not Omaha Beach that is the epicenter of the Bedford Boys story. Green’s was not just the main hang-out in town, which meant that every one of the Bedford Boys had been there often. It also housed the little telegraph office from which, on July 17, 1944, the horrible news began to arrive in town. Telegraph after telegraph announcing that the sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers of Bedford were killed or missing in action. It clacked away on Monday and for the next several days and all began with the dreaded words, The Secretary of War desires that I tender his deep sympathy . . .

The story of the boys’ death on Omaha beach, and the deep wounding of the entire town is now being told at the Bedford Boys Tribute Center, in what used to be Green’s Drugstore on the corner of Bridge and Main Streets in Bedford. Ken and Linda Parker opened the center at the end of April, and it is replete with the mementos and belongings of the boys, donated mostly by surviving brothers and sisters who are only now able to open the boxes, and touch the items stored there so long ago. Their story is as poignant as the boys’ themselves, and Ken, who also leads the tours, is a master at telling these stories.

Along one wall are the photographs of all 20 Bedford Boys who died on the morning of

Elmere Wright played 3 seasons in the St. Louis Browns minor league system. The telegrams announcing first that he was MIA, then that he was killed, are at right.

June 6, 1944. There are bibles, baseballs, Purple Hearts, and wedding announcements displayed in the cases. At the end of one row sits the teletype. The teletype. The only message now is a sign on it that says, Please do not touch. Thank you. It seemed to look at me as surely as the photos on the wall did and–the Parkers will please forgive me–I lightly touched the keys. There was life in the old machine yet, and it tapped out a message: Feel that?

Yes, I do. You can feel it all over town, the grief that somehow became embedded in the bricks and the floorboards and the old teletype. It may be a sentimental fantasy, but if enough people pay their tribute, perhaps one day the grief will lift.

The Bedford Boys Tribute Center is located at 104 N. Bridge Street in Bedford. Call 540-425-5598 or email for more information. Make it a point to visit. You won’t be sorry that you did.

It’s quiet, now, but not silent.

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One Can Only Imagine

The National D-Day Memorial and the town of Bedford are places that force the imagination to engage. This was especially true on Thursday, during the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. The first plane to fly over was a German FW-190, fighter plane. It circled the crowd, slowly it seemed to me, and I wondered what it was like to be a British citizen seeing such a plane, wondering in turn if it was in its death spiral or if it was simply looking and would once more escort the Nazi bombers who were destroying London. To look up at the dogfights above, to wonder if the bombs had hit their targets—they surely hit something, and killed someone—must have been a helpless feeling indeed.

Later in the ceremony, which was punctuated by two brief and poignant speeches by Director of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, as well as Vice-President Mike Pence, a series of dignitaries read the words of 26 actual participants:

“The water was turning red from the blood.”

“Every man was a hero”

“I heard cries for help.”

“I was 19 years old, and I was afraid.”

I can only imagine.

A veteran and his proud family

Before the final flyover, approximately 100 veterans were introduced to the crowd as their names and contributions to the war were read. Some were quite spry and walked with a steady gait, while others hobbled along or were wheeled past by a current member of the same military branch in which they had served. All were proud, and all must have been thinking where they were 75 years ago. I can only imagine their feelings on this day.

We ventured into the town itself on Friday, to a newly established “Tribute Center” specifically honoring the Bedford Boys. (More on this site later in the week.) It is housed in what was once Green’s Drugstore, which, like most drugstores in most small towns at the time, was the social center of the community. The displays and the building also command one’s imagination. Co-owner and tour guide, Ken Parker understands this. “The footprints of the Bedford Boys are all over Green’s Drugstore,” he remarked at the beginning of the tour. Indeed.

And there on a wall are the framed photographs of the 20 young men from the town who were all killed on June 6, 1944. They seemed to actually look back at those who have in essence, come to pay their respects, and shrug as if to say, “It was worth it.” Of course, that could just be my imagination.


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D-Day Arrives in Marsh Point

Seventy-five years ago tomorrow morning, Americans up and down the East Coast awoke–or were awakened by–the news that the Allies had begun the invasion of Fortress Europe by landing troops on the beaches of Normandy. (Of course, folks on the West Coast received the initial, unconfirmed reports around 10:00 p.m. June 5th.)

The news brought a sense of satisfaction that the payoff for two years of rationing

Statuary at the National D-Day Memorial, Bedford, VA

and sacrifice was now at hand, but there was no sense of celebration, for this was merely the first step in what everyone knew would be a long and bloody fight before the Nazis were subdued.

Working from accounts in the Winchester Evening Star and other sources, I recreated in Chapter 19 of The Boys We Knew what it might have been like to receive the news:

Elizabeth was aroused by what seemed to be a familiar sound, but lying there in the dark, she couldn’t quite place it for a moment or two.

A church bell.

She picked up the clock and brought it close to her face to see that it was a few minutes before 5:00. As she replaced it on the night stand, another church bell began to ring. Then another. Moving quickly now, she rose and went to her open window wondering if she might see half the town on fire; but there had been no siren calling in the volunteer firemen.

Then, she knew.

Dashing into the hall, she almost ran into her father who was coming to wake her.

“It’s the invasion,” he said. “It’s started.”

“I know.”

Margaret, throwing on her robe, as she emerged from the bedroom, looked at her husband and daughter, and without a word, the Bittner family hurried downstairs and turned on the radio:

You’ve just heard Edward R. Murrow, reporting for the combined American Networks, read General Eisenhower’s Order of the Day. As we approach the top of the hour we repeat the official Army bulletin that reads “Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.” It’s I-Day, ladies and gentlemen; the invasion of Fortress Europe has begun, the first wave of troops landing on the beaches of Normandy, France some five hours ago.

Gerald leaned into the free-standing Zenith from his chair on one side, while Margaret sat on the edge of the couch on the other side. The ornate design and multi-grained woods used in the construction of this radio that Gerald bought new in 1938 made it resemble a miniature cathedral, and Elizabeth, on the floor before it and staring at the circular dial near its sweeping pinnacle looked like a worshipper at its feet.

“Stay safe, Jimmy,” whispered Elizabeth to the dial.

They listened as commentators discussed early casualty reports and what the Allies needed to do to secure the beachheads. They speculated about how long it would take to crush the German army and cautiously suggested that the war may well be over by Christmas.

“Maybe that war,” said Gerald, “but we’ll still have one to go.”

Tomorrow morning will find Martha and me at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, VA where many D-Day veterans have been assembled for what the Memorial is terming, “The Final Salute.” I will chronicle our experience next week.

To mark tomorrow’s occasion, The Boys We Knew e-book version is available for only $0.99, both Thursday and Friday.

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Bob Hope and D-Day

It is easy to imagine the excitement that Americans felt on the morning of June 6, 1944, rising as they did to news that the Allied Expeditionary Force had landed on the Normandy beaches. It was a quiet excitement, however; more satisfaction that the moment for which the entire country had prepared and sacrificed for two years had finally arrived. Even that satisfaction was mixed with anxiety, for there was no guarantee that the landings would be successful. Folks stayed tuned to their radios and exchanged what news they had over lunch counters and back yard fences.

By 10:00 p.m., Eastern War Time, Americans could breathe a cautious sigh of relief. The Allied troops had a toe-hold on the beaches, and they were moving inland.

Ten o’clock on Tuesday also meant, as it had since its debut in 1938, that it was time for the Pepsodent Show, hosted by Bob Hope. The writers had had to scramble to cut much of the comedy and rewrite the show to fit the mood of the day. And they did it perfectly. You can listen to Hope’s opening dialogue here. Please do so. It’s one of the most moving descriptions of not just D-Day, but what the effort and sacrifice was all about. And Hope managed to do so in just under three minutes.

“God bless those kids across the English Channel,” Hope concludes, and without further introduction, Frances Langford, a Hope regular, sang “Ave Maria.” Halfway through the 14 minute program, she sings “Goodnight, Wherever You Are.”

Bob Hope and Frances Langford, somewhere in the Pacific.


Bob Hope pronounced the benediction for the day.

The broadcasts of June 6, and Hope’s program have a startling immediacy for events that took place 75 years ago. The emotion of the time was so intense, it seems to have escaped the hearts of those who felt it then, and survives on the ether, waiting to enter the hearts of those who understand what the sacrifice was all about.

We will commemorate that sacrifice two weeks from today.

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D-Day: Remembered and Re-lived

The 75th Anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy–D-Day–will occur three weeks from today. D-Day was the turning point in the war in Europe; some have gone so far as to say that June 6, 1944 was the most crucial day of the 20th century. In any case, it is a day that we should remember or better yet, relive it.

We can relive it, at least as those back home lived it, glued to their radios, awaiting the next bit of news. The internet site,, has catalogued NBC radio’s programming from the first bulletin, broadcast around 3:30 a.m. on the East Coast, right through programs that night. The page features links to the music, interruptions, bulletins, comedies, and dramas that ran throughout the day.

You can access the entire page here. If you listen to the very first cut, you will hear an announcer interrupt music at about the 16 second mark to say that German radio had announced that “the Allied invasion had begun.” He begins to repeat himself, then pauses briefly, as if the significance of the moment has pierced his professional demeanor; then, he gathers himself and gives the message again.

Keep listening. You’ll hear talking in the background; the engineer and the program director cross-checking bulletins, perhaps. Soothing music returns, but it is doubtful that anyone was soothed that morning.

Entrance plaza to the National D-Day Memorial, Bedford, VA

Listen to cut #3 at the 17:20 mark, when a summary of what was known is interrupted. A crackling silence ensues. The broadcast is thrown to “Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force.” Another static-filled silence, and then, General Eisenhower is introduced. He tells the “people of Western Europe” and by extension the folks back home that “a landing was made this morning on the coast of France.”

Later in the day, listeners were given a vivid and colorful description of the scene, which you can hear in clip #7.

It is good to know the facts of history; it is even better to know the feelings of those who lived it as it happened. Listen, and imagine. It’s a Tuesday morning. The sun isn’t even up yet. You’ve endured two and a half years of rationing and sacrifice, and now, the day you and your neighbors and the entire country has been working toward has arrived. At this point, you don’t know whether by sunset, the troops, our troops, will have been successful, or thrown back into the sea. All you can do is gather in front of the radio, and wait.

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