The Red Dress

The red dress with the little blue flowers printed on it was a hand-me-down from Donna’s Aunt Bert to her and her sister, Dorothy. It was only the fourth store-bought dress that Donna, 15, and Dorothy, 18, had owned.

From the moment Donna put it on, she felt special. She smoothed the pleated skirt with her hands and cinched the narrow belt. She admired the little flower at the point of the vee in the neckline. She slipped her feet into a pair of flat-soled shoes, fluffed her wavy, ash blond hair one more time, took another look in the full-length mirror in the upstairs bedroom and left for school. It was a great day in the making—a lot different than when she and her family first moved to Oregon.

Four years prior, in 1937, killer dust storms and a depressive economy had forced Donna’s parents to relocate from their southeastern Colorado homestead, where they had toiled for 20 years, to Lebanon, Oregon. Donna, her parents, and her five siblings were subjected to name-calling like “rednecks” and “dust bowlers.” They were mocked because the material for most of their clothes came from flour socks and they seldom wore shoes. People said they “talked funny.” And then there were comments like, “so many children,” and a tsking of the tongue and a sideways shake of the head.

Her parents bought a house with the money they got from selling the homestead. Her dad took any day-to-day job he could get until he got hired on at the sawmill. He worked hard. A few years later, the business degree he had earned in Kansas as a young man paid off when he passed his insurance agent’s exam and bought a State Farm insurance agency from someone who was retiring.

And, during that six years, Donna and her sister had become the proud owners of their fourth store-bought dress.

Donna walked down the school hallway and relished in the attention she got from the boys and the jealous looks from the girls. Her friend, Nadine, commented on how great she looked. She scarcely remembered what was discussed in her first two classes but knew she would have to pay more attention in strict-laced Miss Schultz’s third period social studies class.

Miss Schultz was in her mid-30s and never married. She didn’t wear make-up nor stylish clothes and kept her hair cut short—almost like a man. She wore clunky looking tie shoes claiming that they were necessary ever since a taxicab had run over her toes in New York City. Rumor had it that her sailor beau had jilted her around the same time, which prompted her to move to Oregon. Her areas of expertise were mental illnesses and mental institutions.

In the classroom she was serious and brusque. Students had to be either taking notes or listening because she had zero tolerance for anything else. She graded on a curve. That met the lowest 10% of her students failed this required course for graduation, even if the lowest scores were Bs.

The bell rang, indicating anyone who came in afterward was counted as tardy. Miss Schultz sat at her desk and surveyed the students as they took their seats. She rose up abruptly, placed her hands on the edge of the desk, leaned forward and shouted, “Harlot!” The startled students looked around to see who she was referring to. A few more seconds passed before she stated forcefully, “Donna! Blondes who wear red are unacceptable in my classroom. You will leave immediately and don’t come back wearing red again.”

Donna mustered as much dignity as she could and walked out of the room with her head held high. She heard Miss Schultz snarling through clenched teeth, “charlatan,” as she exited through the door. It was embarrassing to be singled out so unexpectedly in front of her peers, but Donna also found the indignant arrogance of Miss Schultz comical. The next day, other blondes wore red dresses to school to show their solidarity—including her sister, Dorothy, who wore the same red dress.

Donna continued to wear the red dress, but not when she would be in Miss Schultz’s class. It symbolized her zest for life, independent spirit, and made her feel pretty. She wore the dress when she was pitching the sales of war bonds. She sold the most bonds and earned the title of War Bond Queen of the Quarter two years later.

Miss Schultz was right about one thing. A blonde who wears a red dress can do well with solicitations.

L-R: Donna, brother Dale, & Dorothy – November 16, 1941

Dorothy is wearing the red dress

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