The Prom Date Adventure

In high school, I had the perfect job. I was a bench technician for Petaluma based, Ross-Holm Company. My job was to repair milk pumps and meters from an automated dairy system the company manufactured.  Apart from the occasional pump that had blown seals and filled its innards with smelly rotten milk, it was the dream job of any kid who thrived on taking things apart, fixing them and putting them back together.  My management loved my work except for days when I missed and opened a pump full of rancid milk only to fill the whole office with toxic lactic acid fumes.   On lactic acid days, I was regaled with details of different methods of slow death I deserved.

mercury switchOn this job,  I was constantly in violation of what would become future EPA regulations because they let me work with actual silver mercury switches – I mean the kind that used small glass tubes with a couple of electrodes and about a quarter teaspoon of actual molten mercury.  When the switch was tilted back and forth, it would make or break the connection by gravity rolling the bead of mercury into or away from the contacts.  When these switches went bad, I was instructed to chuck them into the garbage – and no one thought anything of it.  And, just to make sure I was in violation of future OHSA regulations, I didn’t throw them into the garbage, but collected them until I had about 30 and then I carefully snapped off the top of each glass bubble and poured the mercury into one of those cute little shot-size vodka bottles.  Thus, I built my own small collection of molten mercury to play with.

mercury in handWhenever I got bored, I would pour the mercury into my cupped hand and just play with it.  It was cool – because, you know, who else had their own mercury collection?  I liked how heavy it was and how cold it felt even though it was really dense melted metal that could suck the heat from you like an ice cube.  I would also pour it out into a rimmed lid and float small metal parts on the heavy fluid to see what would float and what would sink. Almost nothing sinks in mercury.  Those special effects in the Terminator 2 movie brought back lots of fun memories of playing with my mercury collection.

I kept that old bottle of mercury for years until I read somewhere that it is, uh-oh, poison.  Really?  Nuts!  Into the garbage it went.  Just an update: I’m still alive and able to hold a pen steady enough to write so most of my neurology appears to be intact.  I since learned that only mercury fumes are toxic, not the in-my-hand room temperature stuff I played with.  Oh well.

Back on topic, working at the same company was the lead service engineer and he became a close friend. He installed and serviced full dairy systems and I was fortunate enough to go with him on many calls to dairies around Sonoma County.  I used to love going out on these calls. He taught me how to build up electrical panels and basic hydraulics and all kinds of fun things related to the equipment.  When he and I were done, one person could clean, feed, milk and eject 6 cows at one time. Automated milking of cows – yea – I never would have guessed it either, but I was there, and it was true. A sight to behold for those who have never seen how this first step of moving moo-juice from cow towards our cartons.

The protagonist of my story is my friend. His name was Claude Grey, and if you know him we share a couple of insights.

He was brilliant with tools and equipment.

He had a huge sense of humor and made every job a fun one.

When it came to people, he could make some amazing errors that – um – well, I can best explain by example, so here goes.

Guys, you have to put yourself back in the mind frame of your junior year in high school when you thought you knew so much but looking back, now you know so much better. But at that age, we were all secretly delicate of ego, anxious to succeed socially and accidents looking for a place to happen.

Gals, I won’t have to tell you what frame of mind you need to assume – that will be obvious soon enough and just keep calm because I’m still alive proving that the disaster was averted.

Many of you who grew up near Petaluma and Rohnert Park, California would recognize his daughter, Donna, who gave me permission to share this story, so here goes.

One day, Claude came to my bench and sat down with a grave expression on his face so right from the start he had my full attention, because I’d never seen him look like this.  Being serious just did not come naturally to him.  He preferred laughing his way through the day, so something was definitely troubling him.

“Gary, I have a favor to ask you.”

Now, I would have done almost anything for Claude.  He was that kind of friend.  He had invested lots of time into training me and I trusted him.  He would never ask me to do anything illegal, immoral or (so I thought at the time) dangerous.

“Sure,” I answered.  “What can I do?  Need to borrow some mercury?”

Just kidding.  I didn’t really offer him my mercury.  Even great friendships have limits.

Claude sighed deeply; struggling to get his request out but mustered a smile to relieve some tension and asked me one of the most stunning questions I’d ever received.  “Gary, if I paid for your tux and other expenses, would you take my daughter to her prom?  I really hate the guy she wants to go with, and I trust you.”

His question threw my mind into a battle of conflicting thoughts. I knew his daughter slightly and frankly would have paid him for the privilege of taking her to the prom.  Guys, I think you can relate to what exploded in my brain.

  • She goes to a different school and
  • I don’t have a girlfriend,
  • I know a little about her and what I know is that she . . .
  • SHE – is – knockout cute.  Way above my pay grade.
  • There is very little chance that I’d ever get a date with her any other way.
  • Taking her to the prom would be like winning a lottery that I didn’t even have a ticket for.
  • Her own father wants it to happen and . . .
  • She’s gorgeous . . .
  • Her dad wants to pay for it! Unbelievable!
  • Bummer for the guy she thinks she’s going with, but all’s fair in, umm, whatever this is – it’s fair.

So – heck yes!  Let’s do this!

I am so glad I did not say any of that out loud because it was quickly followed by an annoying thread of logic in my decision-making side of my brain.

Guys – I know you’re already thinking of how you would make this work. Some of you already have your tux picked out but forget it – you’d look silly in that thing.

Gals, I know you’re already trying to wave me off. Some you are screaming ‘Noooo!  Don’t do it!”

It took me a few seconds to get there but my next thoughts were about how Donna would receive this change of plans. You know as well as I did that it would go something like this:

  • “Dad wants Gary Wilson to take me to the prom?
  • “No way that’s going to happen!  I am going with [never heard his name] regardless of whatever either of them wants – and . . .
  • “Who the heck is this Gary Wilson?
  • I’d rather pillory both Dad and this presumptuous Mr. Wilson, but only after sound beatings that leave them scarred for life!”

Gals, I know you agree that both Claude and I would still be licking our wounds some 50 some odd years later.

So, this amazing, once in very few lifetimes, opportunity was unraveling without ever getting off the ground.

  • And what if she finds out about the whole paying my expenses idea?
  • Ugh!  She would be horribly hurt and angry.
  • Maybe, if I paid my own expenses . . .

I was not any kind of expert on teenage girl psychology, but I had two sisters at home and just knew Donna would never be happy with any version of this plan.  My thinking continued,

  • There is no way that she would be willing to dump her preferred date for me and,
  • if her dad forced the issue via parental fiat – it would get ugly.
  • very ugly.
  • Claude would have an epic melt-down argument with his daughter . . .
  • who would already have a reward offered for my head on a stick.
  • At best, neither of us would see any part of that prom and both Claude and I would still walk with a limp.

The undeniable conclusion has to be; if I ever want to have even her friendship – I couldn’t agree to this idea.

  • unless I can get rid of the other guy and pay my own way . . .  hummm.

Okay – I did not seriously consider that last point, but it did run through my mind by way of due diligence.  After a few desperate moments of trying to assemble a solution that would make this work, I gave up.  “Claude – you know she’d kill us both – right?”

We talked about it a bit, but there really was no unifying solution to the multiple systemic problems with the idea.

Claude was desperate to send his daughter to her prom with a young man he trusted.  I really – really wanted this to work but the risks to mind and body were too big, so the idea never got out of my shop area.  Claude left despondent and I felt horrible.  I felt sick all the way down to my soul and told no one about this for years.

I doubted it would go well with us if even the idea ever got back to her.

I actually did get one date with Donna later by more traditional means, and still didn’t tell her about this grand plan that died back on my shop floor. But beyond friendship, we just did not click. Nice girl, nice guy, no real chemistry. Now we know so no foul. Life goes on.

However, this whole event became a pivot point for me.  Claude had given me a glimpse of something that took me years to really figure out.  It was all wrapped up in his statement about wanting his daughter to, “go with someone he trusted.”

Really? He trusted me . . . ?  With his daughter?”

I have to tell you – I thought long and hard about whether I even deserved his trust.

Recall that I did not know Donna well.  I certainly wanted to know her well  but at the time, I knew her only by her (very nice) looks and could not have told you what was in her heart and mind.  Not exactly the resume of my character that would win her affection.

Claude only knew me from work.  He knew I was a good employee, a quick study with needle nose pliers and mercury switches.  We had worked and laughed together, but somehow this was enough for him to trust me?

He could have no idea how I related to girls, and trust me – mercury switches made much more sense than girls, except, but they’re also a lot less fun. Claude must have weighed his limited knowledge of me with the degree of distrust of that other guy and decided that his daughter was safer with me than that other guy.

Regardless, it was a huge compliment!

But still – what a huge tragedy that I couldn’t find a way to make it work and live to tell the story.

Anyway, from this event I decided that I wanted to deserve that kind of trust.  Claude forced me to recognize that the parents of any girl I went out with, if they loved her at all, were judging whether I could be trusted with her so I tried to get to know them and be a guy worth trusting. Thus, Claude made me a better man and I remain deeply in his debt. Even with his help, I more than met my quota of allowed-screw-ups.

I shiver to think how I would have turned out if I’d not been trying to be trust-worthy.

Many years later, I came across Donna again via Facebook and asked, “Are you Claude Grey’s daughter?


“Did he ever, um, tell you what almost happened with your prom?”

“Say what?  My prom? Nooo. Do tell.”

So – she got a private retelling – and she confirmed that I had been right.  She told me she would have been devastated.  It would have been a disaster on many levels – lots of injuries, really bad memories and still-smoking craters scattered about the emotional landscape. Think of a huge circle around your home where plants would never grow – yea – that kind of hurt.

Her words back to me were priceless, “You’re a wise man Gary.  I would have been crushed to find out he had PAID someone to take me out, and he was an equally wise man not to have told me that he couldn’t even PAY you to take me out.”

I asked for Donna’s permission to write this up and she graciously granted it.  She even reviewed it before I was willing to share.

So, today I remain thankful for the man who forced me to think this whole trust issue through. I posit that young men need more mature men like Claude who loved his daughter enough to think up a wild idea like this.  Okay, he also gave me one of the wildest near-emotional-death memories that I could have ever imagined but left me much more trust-worthy than he found me.

You just can’t make up stuff like this.  Except for the whole mercury sub-plot. I think I could have made that up – but I didn’t, and yes – I do wish I had kept that bottle of mercury.  It didn’t rise to the level of being a meaningful consolation prize, but it was very cool to show off.

On the other hand, I still needed a prom date.

GW bio card 4

19 thoughts on “The Prom Date Adventure

  1. I think you made the right decision – she definitely would not have been friendly towards you when she found out (and she would have found out). Seems like the conversation, though, did help turn you into the man you became.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gary was very very wise indeed! As cute as both he and my father were, separately or together…they both would have met a storm of my fury had I discovered the plot afoot. Most likely it would have been made even worse by the fact that I had actually had a crush on Gary in Junior High ( he was very bright, I liked bright). Now it turns out he had a stash of mercury! We had something in common!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great story, Gary.
    One thing though: after reading this story, I can’t help but wonder……..did my father pay you to take me out to dinner for my 16th birthday? Hmmmmmm…….😳🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately, that deal was prefaced with a non-disclosure agreement, so I can’t comment. I can say that it was so successful that a small “Trusted Prom Date” cottage business resulted that kept me busy for the next 5 years.


  4. Love this story. I have to admit when I got to the words, “smelly rotten milk” I almost shut it down but I am glad that I didn’t. Great read, and you are a wise man for sure! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha – see other references about the God of young boys. I think I needed to be inspired that day because the gal told me just a few years ago that her father’s idea, if attempted, would have been a nightmare for everyone in screaming range.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Subcomment to the subplot… Just after Marie Curie’s brilliant work with radium and polonium and the world discovering that goes glow in the dark… and what larks it would be to put radium into well everything from watch dials to cosmetics even toothpaste.. then they discovered that the luminous stuff also had some dark properties…. anyhoo after your adventures with the mercury good thing you still alive and fully functional neurologically and lucky thing you didn’t try to drink liquid mercury so sounds like you had a good head on your shoulders as you went on to make the wise decision to not agree to the prom date.. there is no way that story would not have ended well


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sigh – all true, but I still miss my little bottle of mercury. Liquid metal – seriously – how cool is that?
      Also correct about the chances this prom date idea had for success. When I talked with her about whether her dad ever told her about what he tried to do – she said “No, what did he do?” Both in our 60s by then, I told her and she agreed that it would have crushed her twice, once to think that her day would try to to pay someone to take her to the prom and a second time when she realized that he could not even pay someone to take her. . .
      She also left a comment to the story that shocked me. Turns out she had a crush on me around the same time that I never knew about.
      History can mess with your mind. . .


  6. Well folks..I was the real winner, as Gary and I did attend our high school prom together. It was a night to remember. I don’t think he was paid off. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha – Thanks Sherry. On the contrary I was the clear winner and the only payoff I recall was me enjoying the envy of several. It was a night to recall indeed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s