East Tennessee gets snow. I don’t mean “gets” the way characters in Semlia, Sense of Snow get snow as an entity with seventeen names just describing the nuances of how it drifts up against the side of a doublewide. I mean quantity, knee deep and hiding all sorts of matter under foot. Might not be for long, couple weeks at the most most years. Certainly not the sort of snow that hides cars in Alberta or buries businesses in Newfoundland. Just enough to give meaning to songs that also mention roasting nuts and nose nipping.
Enough for bus drivers to call in sick and schools to close and sleds to come out from metal sheds or from behind wood piles. Just enough for seasons to have meaning, for scarves and corduroy pants over ill fitting hand me down long johns. Just enough to make snow midgets and try to pee your name on the back sides of them when no one had an eye on you.
East Tennessee got enough snow to leave my Mom and I stranded inside an Oregon green Ford pick ‘em up truck at the elbow bend valley between one ice slicked hill and another, sitting there as other cars came sliding down from one way or another, some of them bouncing off us, others slipping past into another stranded vehicle as though the gods were playing shuffle board.
East Tennessee got enough snow the founders of Washington College Academy, back when the institution had in mind to serve as a preparatory school for young women of means, saw fit to have an annual holiday season fund raising event called, ever so aptly, the Christmas Dinners. A full week that felt like a fortnight of frolicking frocked maidens and fine frilly gentlemen singing, dancing, and all the while serving the hundred or so place & plate purchasing patrons.
Each year the event roped every student into a role, older students taking on coveted roles as entertainers, MCs, or head maitre d', while younger students were left to menial tasks like taking coats, delivering food, and bussing tables before subsequent courses. Anyone else worked in the kitchen, the set up crew, or the cleanup crew.
I served two tours through the WCA Christmas Dinners event. Perhaps because my parents ran the kitchen, or because only one costume fit me, I ended up as a step ‘n fetch food delivery and plate clearing boy wonder. Each table had up to eight people at it, not unlike a wedding arrangement really, and mule packing food to those tables meant two to three kids multi-plating to a table at the same time, or clearing with client permission but of course for each course without crashing into one another or dropping anything. Child labor at it’s finest.
The plates entres were served on were custom made each year, the school’s emblem, ensignia, and details about the event year were printed and glazed over on each plate. After the dinner course the plates were rushed to the dishwashing room for clean up, towel dried, and wrapped up to give each attendee a keepsake other that their prospective gluttonous indigestion and heartburn.
Drop a plate, or chip one during process, and there were spares. At least, on the first couple nights. Good thing we got better at our roles, because by the last night, we were struggling to even have enough plates to serve everyone, let along give them something to go home with. Strange thing, one year there had been an excess of plates, currogated cardboard boxes and boxes of them, perhaps interest had been low that particular year, maybe not enough snow frame the mood, or perhaps someone had overestimated breakages. Good thing, regardless, because worst to worst, some folks took ten year old plates home for keepsakes. Never heard that anyone had ever complained, yet still you’d think someone in charge would’ve realized not dating the plates might be a good idea regardless. Oh wait, the guy in charge ended up going to jail for embezzling enough to leave the school bankrupt. Nevermind.
I served food to folks, then hid away until summoned to clear. I cleared and delivered the next round, then hid away again upstairs until summoned to repeat my duties. The expansive dining room where the guests were fed normally served as the school dining room for all the students that lived on campus in one of the two dorms and weren’t bussed in on the short brown bus from Johnson City and surrounding areas, or that drove in themselves. On the far end of campus sat the newer red brick boys dorm, newer meaning 50’s as was evidenced by the bomb shelter full of non-perishable government tins of saltines under the back stairs a kid named Jeff and I found one day while trying to work off our indentured education dues. Amazing how crisp and salty those vacuum sealed saltines were after all those years, and the hiss the coppery tin canister made when we opened it with a screwdriver and the prongs on the back of a hammer.
The dining room and industrial kitchen my parents ran those two years sat at the bottom of the far older red brick girl’s dorm. That dorm at the other end of campus, slightly downslope from the administration building with the haunted gymnasium. Behind the dorm and kitchen, across a small delivery lot accessible by a winding single lane road sat a diminutive two story house that came with the job of running that kitchen. A house with a single, windowless, yellow tiled bathroom fit for construction workers, no bath, tiled shower, perpetually moist like a failed meat locker, and with luminescent mushrooms growing from the grout.
My parents shared the job of running the kitchen, and there generally wasn’t a lot of overlap where both were present in the place. During the Christmas Dinners, though, both were on hand from dawn to the wee hours of the night trying to ensure everything elapsed as should. I wonder if running a set menu that expansive with children for staff for a week were more difficult than all the work they did running Parson’s Table back in Jonesboro. I suspect with the exception of the night ZZ Top rent our Parson’s Table, WCA’s event easily eclipsed the difficulties they’d previously encountered. Imagine that Food Network show about the Meal Impossible. Now magnify that across a week of daily events. Amazing to me no one died, on either end of the edible experience.
Worst that happened other than 2nd degree burns and a few cuts would have to be the girl among the throng of juniors and seniors handing out coats and wishing everyone safe travels at the end of the evening who would laugh uncontrollably at the mention or very thought of the word “toenails” like some warped merger of Manchurian Candidate and Pontypool. So of course one of the boys began mentioning toenails repeatedly as he handed out coats and helped elderly women put them on, “My your nails look great, ma’am, bet your toenails must be wonderful to see!” And while the flattered ladies blushed behind their Tennessee Dixie rouge as best as their thin blood would allow, the girl clenched her fist and tried to keep her composure while her Pavlovian reflexes tickled her fancy like a rapid onset of rabies. She wavered, rippled, smiled like a bear trap, and she held coats handed to her to disperse like a robot. She didn’t laugh, however a puddle began to grow around her feet, hidden from the general public by the frilly hem of her voluptuous layered gown.
East Tennessee gets snow.