Talk of the Town - Prom with a view May 20 2004

Rime of the ancient Pontiac

Past 40, I'm at peace with the fact that go-getter peers are running multinational corporations while I'm still scratching for fish heads. Now, though, I'm being one-upped by teenagers.

Blundering by a big hotel recently, I watched as triple-axle limousines disgorged a host of adolescents. I'm not sure when prom night turned into Oscar night, but these elegant soirees are far more sophisticated than my 1970s junior prom.

Particularly in regard to the sleepover, unheard of in my day. I heard of one recent after-prom party in which the boys and girls actually stayed the night (on gender-separate floors) in the same house.

The adult relaying this added some folderol about chaperones and a scotch tape early warning system on doorframes; but if you think a houseful of recent post-pubescents isn't going to use every wile, up to and including the Vulcan mind meld, to engage in coeducational hijinks, then you've never been 17.

Girls of the Ford administration wore long, lace-trimmed promwear suitable to a Jane Austin melodrama. Today's teen queen is apt to be wearing a backless, sequined, violently tailored tres chic ensemble. If my date had worn something this alluring, they would have had to use a defibrillator on me.

Your youthful correspondent rented a sky-blue tux jacket with lapels the size and shape of manta rays, set off by 50 yards of black piping that could have been used to offload Alaskan crude from a supertanker. Today's young man eschews such doofuswear for designer labels.

But costume evolution pales beside the upgrade in prom transportation. Contemporary teen galas can include 500-plus bucks for a few hours of limousine rental. That was the book value of the first car I drove.

In my old suburban neighborhood, there was no such thing as limo service, unless you were dead and on the way to the cemetery. And speaking of death, the bacio della morte on prom night was the mortal shame of having your father drive. The solution: finding a friend who was 18 and could motor with impunity after dark.

Salvation appeared in the rumpled form of Tommy Formaggio. A high-school legend, first in our class to grow mutton-chop sideburns, he purportedly had driven himself home from the maternity hospital. In eighth grade, the parking lot of our middle school consisted of 47 yellow buses and Tommy's '66 Pontiac Tempest.

All that spring, everyone was after Tommy for the coveted Tempest backseat on prom night. He and I finally struck a deal, which involved my writing his English term paper.

(A note about cheating. Now that I am no longer in school, I deplore such dishonesty. But at the time, I was furious at the interdisciplinary unfairness. When I cheated on a math test, I copied someone else's answers. This involved no extra work on the part of the kid supplying them. But when the guy I borrowed from wanted payback in, say, social studies, I had to write him an entirely new term paper. This was grossly unfair, and points to the need for a Cheating Code of Ethics.)

Anyhow ... on The Big Night, Tommy pulled up in front of my date's house with his girlfriend in the bucket seat beside him. But another couple was already in back. Behind the blinding reflective glare of his Coca-Cola bottle eyewear, I recognized Gilbert Fontaine, the Amazing Kreskin of our history class. Not only could Gilbert tell you what date and year Washington crossed the Delaware, he could also recite the barometric pressure that night. Tommy wouldn't be writing a history paper, either.

Once the six of us made it to the banquet hall — four of us requiring the Jaws of Life to emerge from the back — my date and I were shunted to a table of strangers, one of whom was a full-dress Marine. First time I ever wear a tux, and this arrival from the Halls of Montezuma makes me look like a 4-F fop.

The sense of civilianhood increased when our crepe paper decorations were set ablaze by dripping candle wax. The Marine quickly doused the fire with a pitcher of ice water. Clearly, he wasn't going to quit until he received a Congressional Medal of Honor.

About 11 that night, my group was supposed to drive someplace romantic. What six people were going to do wedged into a Pontiac Tempest would depend largely on how many of us were double-jointed. The social implications were postponed when the car, sensing another chassis overload, refused to start. And that's when the Tommy Formaggio myth evaporated.

He had to call his father.

Despite this shipwreck of an evening, I had to fulfill my end of the bargain. The English paper written for my classmate concerned Shakespeare's last great play, about a group of eccentrics stranded on an island. It was, of course, The Tempest.

I don't know if Tommy grasped the irony.


Glen Slattery doth dwell in Alpharetta.