Thursday, Dec. 18, 1986
The Thursday before Christmas vacation was always the culinary highlight of the school year.
Fresh turkeys donated by Gizzard Acres. Lumpy mashed potatoes covered with silky smooth gravy. Buttered peas and carrots. Homemade cranberry sauce made right in the cafeteria kitchen. Gingerbread cake with Cool Whip topping.
It was hard to fathom how that delicious meal was created in the same area that produced such bland food the rest of the year.
And on this day each year, parents, siblings, and grandparents could eat with us as long as they signed up ahead of time. Which was even more special to me because Dad would take extra time off from the farm to join me and Mom.
Today we’d managed to get one of the round tables for me, my parents, Nashville, and Heather.
“Isn’t this somethin’? I can’t imagine them feeding us like this when we were kids,” Dad said with a wink. “Can you, Jewel?”
Mom shrugged, chewing on a chunk of turkey.
“I don’t know, Bruce. It wasn’t that bad.”
“You attended school together?” Heather asked. “That’s very romantic.”
I glared at Heather, silently suggesting she not get my parents started. Mom was, in fact, a romantic, and Dad took any chance he could to be goofy and outrageous. Any more poking and prodding from Heather and they’d be smooching it up in front of everyone.
Heather had taken to sitting with me at lunch since we started working on the Christmas concert a couple weeks ago. And standing next to me at rehearsals. And hanging out with me at recess. And on and on. Not that I minded. She was nice enough, and I enjoyed her company. Kim and Dave didn’t mind having her around, either.
“I was over in Waterville,” Dad said. “Born and grew up there. Tiny little place. Folks moved here my senior year so my Pop could be closer to the mill. But they fed us all the same garbage regardless of what school it was.”
“Well I grew up here in Comfort Rock, Heather,” Mom said. “And I remember liking the food just fine.”
“Hmmm … I don’t know. I think Lauren’s dad is right on,” Nashville said. “I recall some pretty rotten stuff being served here back when we was kids. Julie, you tellin’ me you don’t remember the rocks they used to try and pass off as biscuits? I do gotta say food’s a lot better for kids these days.”
“Fine,” Mom said, smiling. “Guess I’m outvoted by the local food critics.”
Everyone settled in and ate quietly for a couple of minutes. Then Nashville broke free of the trance the gravy put him in.
“Hey! You girls ready for the big rehearsal after recess?”
“Yeah. It’s –” Heather and I said at the same time.
“Sorry, Heather. You go.”
“It’s so exciting!” she said. “I get to observe you and the band performing with the whole school. I might be perceived as the coolest kid in school today.”
Nashville wrapped an arm around Heather and pulled her close.
“Kid, you’re the coolest kid in school every day,” he said, and then looked at me. “No offense, Lauren.”
“I think La La knows what you mean,” Mom said.
I hated it when she called me by my nickname in public. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the name, but it felt like a special, private thing for me and her.
“Sorry, sweetie,” she whispered in my ear.
I leaned into her a bit, letting her know it was ok.
“You and the band ready?” I asked Nashville.
He finished off his cranberry sauce and nodded.
“Yup. Think we’re all set. The hardest part’s always getting Lenny to behave himself. Long as he stays behind the drums and away from the mothers in the crowd, he’ll be fine.”
Mom and Dad laughed with him while Heather and I looked at each other, not really sure what was so funny about the drummer bothering our friends’ moms.
“Anyway, it’ll be cool, I think,” he continued. “You guys’re all rehearsed on everything else, right?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, scooping the Cool Whip off my cake to save for last. “And then some. Each grade practiced their songs in class for almost two weeks. And we’ve had three rehearsals in the gym. Even practicing ‘Run Rudolph Run’ so we’re ready for you and The Comfort Rockers. There’s just this afternoon with you guys and then the big whole-concert rehearsal tomorrow morning. And tomorrow night, it’s showtime!”
Dad popped his last bite of cake in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
“All we need now,” he said, “is snow. Never seen it so bare all of December.”
“Stuart Hall says we’ll have some,” Mom said. “Last night’s news, he said we’ll get three or four inches starting this afternoon.”
I squealed. It was a week away from Christmas, and I still hadn’t gone sledding yet. Fresh snow meant maybe having a few friends over for nighttime sledding after the concert.
“We’re getting the nice end of it,” Nashville said. “Down around Rutland they’re supposed to get nearly a foot. Maybe more.”
“I’ll take three or four inches,” Dad said. “Less to clean up at the barn.”
“And less to shovel here at school,” Nashville said. “I’m all in favor of that. Gotta get down to set up now. Bruce. Julie. We’ll see you folks tomorrow night at the big show. Girls, I’ll see ya in the gym in about 45 minutes.”
He leaned down and gave Heather a peck on the head and left for the gym.
The next time we saw Nashville, nearly every kid in kindergarten through third grade was flipping out about him. Many of them had never seen an electric guitar in real life, let alone strapped over the shoulder of the school janitor. As students entered the gym for rehearsal, he was working out details with the rest of The Comfort Rockers, making sure all the instruments were ready.
The kids were beside themselves as they watched.
“Mr. Nash is a rock star.”
“I ain’t ever seen a band that wasn’t on TV.”
“Oh my god! Nashville looks like Bryan Adams!”
Nashville did not, in fact, look anything like Bryan Adams. If anything, he resembled a middle-aged Willie Nelson, right down to the long hair, shaggy beard, and bandana wrapped around his head.
It was a lot to take in, and everyone was giddy and overwhelmed.
“SAME SPOTS AS YESTERDAY, BOYS AND GIRLS!” Ms. Van Fleet yelled, scurrying back and forth, trying to place unwieldy students where they belong. “SAME SPOTS AS YESTERDAY!”
In a few years, I’d learn the technical term for what the music teacher was trying to do. It’s called herding cats, and she was not good at it. As usual, she fell back on threats to do the heavy lifting.
“EVERYONE GET IN PLACE AND LISTEN OR I SEND THESE NICE MEN HOME!”
Silence rippled across the crowd, and roughly 150 kids scrambled into place like a platoon being called to attention. Within 30 seconds, everyone was where they belonged. Kindergarten through fourth grade stood on risers on the stage, and fifth through eight took their own risers on the floor below. The Comfort Rockers were set up off to the left on the portable stage they used for gigs.
“Thank you,” she said. “Now, this is the last piece of our concert puzzle. Before we begin, I want to take a moment and have us all say thank you to the people responsible for making this possible. They did most of the hard work, and we wouldn’t be doing this without them.”
Who in the world was she talking about?
“Let’s all give Heather Nash and Lauren Comstock a thank you and a big round of applause.”
Heather and I looked at each other, wide-eyed and stunned. We never expected something like this. As all the kids and teachers thanked us and clapped, Heather’s eyes welled up. Without thinking, I reached out and gave her a big hug.
“Thank you, Lauren,” I heard her whisper. “I’m glad you’re my friend.”
“Me too,” I whispered back.
The clapping faded, and the music teacher brought everyone to order again, this time without any threats, and she explained the plan for rehearsal.
Enraptured by their presence, the entire student body stood perfectly still and listened as The Comfort Rockers performed the music for “Run Rudolph Run” a couple times, then another time with Nashville singing. It sounded so good, I was worried we’d ruin it with all of us singing along.
“Alright, gang,” Nashville said into his microphone. “You ready to rock with us?”
Everyone nodded, and Nashville and the rest of the band burst out laughing.
“Oh come on now,” he said with a chuckle. “That ain’t how we rock. Heather darlin’, show your friends what it sounds like when we’re ready to rock.”
Before our eyes, Heather transformed from the prize pupil of the school into an absolute maniac. Jumping, yelling, whooping, waving her hands in the air. And as quick as she turned into a lunatic, she switched right back to demure little Heather.
“There ya go,” Nashville said. “Just like that. Bet you all didn’t know she could do that, huh?”
We all laughed, and I patted her on the back.
“That was crazy,” I said.
“Now then,” Nashville said, “are you ready to rock with us?
The entire student body simultaneously lost its collective mind. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they heard us at the general store, and I was glad Mr. Wodrick was at a meeting somewhere else today.
“That’s it,” he said. “I think we’re good to go. Remember, we’re playin’ louder than you’re probably used to, so you need to sing louder than normal. Don’t scream or holler none, but sing nice and loud. Ms. Van Fleet?”
She smiled and nodded, and he nodded back at her, proud as anything.
“Here we go, gang, on four. And a one, a two, a one, two, three, four …”
I glanced out the gym lobby window and noticed big, fluffy flurries starting to drift through the air.
This was going to be perfect.
To be continued …
THE COMFORT ROCK CHRONICLES IS AN ONGOING SERIES OF SHORT STORIES ABOUT A FICTITIOUS VERMONT TOWN, AN AMALGAM OF ALL NORTHWEST VERMONT HAS TO OFFER. COMFORT ROCK HAS BEEN GROWING IN MY HEAD FOR WELL OVER 20 YEARS. I REALLY LIKE THE FOLKS WHO CALL COMFORT ROCK HOME, AND I HOPE YOU DO TOO.