Acting, Michelle & The Hop

One of the guys I dated when RW was at boot camp & later in military prison was a friend of my gifted girlfriend Michelle. Michelle & I met in art class at NOVA, a community college in Northern Virginia. I spent a lot of time with Michelle & her free-wheeling family. Her parents let her paint on the walls of her bedroom. She’d white-wash over the murals, then start over again. Her parents sat & listening as I read my poetry. They applauded Michelle, me & little Shau the adopted daughter who was born in Vietnam during the war.

We’d take Michelle’s Sunfish sailboat out on Lake Anne in Reston. Relax & let the wind take us wherever it might go. We’d dive into the water & swim for hours.  One day, 3 boys shouted from the lake’s banks: “Michelle!”

She guided the boat over. The college men jumped onboard.

Lordie, it’s going to tump over,” I said, using the old Southern accent.

Who are you,” asked a gorgeous young man with black curly hair.

I’m Dixie. Michelle & I go to NOVA.”

We’re at The Hop,” he grinned. Perfect, white teeth. Dark brown eyes. Strong jaw. I loved strong jaws. 5 o’clock shadow. Big hands.

“The Hop? What do you mean, you’re hop heads?”

The guys laughed. “No, Johns Hopkins U.”

Michelle set sail toward the center of Lake Anne. We lay on the boat’s wooden deck, catching rays & then dove in the water to cool off.

Cheese, bread & wine from the picnic basket Michelle & I had stocked fed us all. Everyone called the handsome guy Rizzo. He didn’t look anything like Ratso Rizzo from “Midnight Cowboy.” But according to his pals, he once hit the hood of a car that nearly ran into them–like Rizzo in the movie. The name stuck. He explained that they were all premed students at The Hop.

A doctor! My brain sped through five years all at once. Mom & Dad would never let me see RW again after he was in prison. Not after my 3 days in jail & a gigantic nervous breakdown. Maybe this dreamboat would sweep me off my feet.

The Hop boys rented a house in Baltimore. My Aunt Bernice, Uncle Tony, cousins Mike & the Amazing Suzanne lived in B’more. My relatives lived in an Italian neighborhood where Tony’s siblings & their parents had sturdy brick homes. Rizzo’s family lived in Reston but he rented a room in a giant old Victorian home in The Block.

He invited Michelle & me up for a visit. I didn’t think Dad would let me go. Not for a weekend! But Mom called Aunt Bernice. She said my college girlfriend & I wanted to come visit some premed pals. I’m sure she envisioned me in white chiffon, raised up on a chair as my new beau’s family danced around, singing “Sunrise, Sunset!”

Mom & Aunt Bernice arranged for Michelle & me to take a bus from McLean to Baltimore. Michelle told me she’d stay with Rizzo & his many room-mates. I’d sleep over at my aunt & uncle’s home. I was nervous, excited, 90% crazy as the day approached. Michelle told me to calm down.

They’re just people, Dixie. Nothing special.”

Michelle was special. Her art was displayed in Georgetown cafes. People paid hundreds of dollars for her paintings! She was going to the Sorbonne after finishing up at NOVA.

I was recovering from a horrible breakdown, barely able to focus on school due to heavy meds a shrink had put me on. But Rizzo had invited me! Despite my being fat. I’d gone from 118 lbs. To 155 on the medications. Slow as molasses!

Golly! Maybe I could marry him. My mind raced. I drew pictures of him & me in my diary. He was so intelligent & I was a space cadet artist/poet. Would we work as a couple?

drawing Rizzo me

We young folks got together at the Victorian House on Saturday. Michelle told them all that I was an actress. I’d been taking theater classes at NOVA after friends (Donny & Regina) dragged me to audition for Acting 101.

That night with all those brainy Johns Hopkins students, the strange bravada that overtook me in tense situations kicked in. I jumped up the stairs & stomped back down, boot heels clacking.

I’d memorized the speech George C. Scott gave as Patton in the film. I’d written a term paper for History class on General George S. Patton. I copied down the Real speech & memorized it.

The J-Hop Heads screamed & applauded as I transformed into George S. Patton. They were Jews whose parents & grandparents suffered hideous atrocities under the Nazi regime. Patton was a real hero to them.

I stamped my feet, using the gruffest voice possible: “Nobody ever won a war by dying for his country! We won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for His country!”

The Hoppers stood up & shouted “Patton! Patton!”

For that entire year (1972/73) I visited Rizzo & his pals twice a month. I perfected the Patton speech. A neighbor in Great Falls gave me a full Army outfit, complete with helmet, riding crop & medals.

My theater teacher awarded me an A for Acting 101 based on that speech. My friend Donny was thrown out into the hallway for laughing as I performed it during my final exam.

The professor snapped, “Dixie is being serious. She’s found the Center of her character. Out!”

Donny ran into the hall, shrieking with gales of laughter. It wasn’t easy but I kept from guffawing along with him. I marched around the classroom, hitting desks with the riding crop as I shouted out Patton’s lines. My rehearsals at Rizzo’s served me well.

In Baltimore Saturday nights would start with me banging down the stairs into the living room, rasping Patton’s words in full regalia. Laughter & applause. Next, we’d stroll down cobblestone streets, past clusters of hookers (yelling “Looooking good, Patton!”), to a Chinese restaurant where we’d eat & discuss religion, politics, war, and acting.

My woman is a Star,” Riz’ told everyone. His woman! Oh my Lord!

Dixie Patton
Dixie as Patton (photo by brother Bob)

That year, my creative writing teacher offered to pay my bus fare to New York City to seek my fortune on Broadway. He & his wife came to see me as Miss Furnival in NOVA’s production of “A Black Comedy.” During one performance of that show, the back scrim fell. A fake, open window whomped right over me as I recited Miss Furnival’s speech:
“Buggies in th’ Supermarket!”

When the backdrop crashed down, I missed nary a beat. Just looked around at the disaster & shouted, Southern accent perfect, “Oh, Daddy! It’s Awful!”

The crowd roared. My mother came backstage after the show & told us actors:
“I didn’t realize that was all planned. It scared me to death.”

Donny & the other actors burst out laughing, Mrs. Elder, it Wasn’t planned! It just happened & Dixie never broke character.”

Ah, dreams of youth. Instead of going to the Sorbonne with Michelle—her parents offered to pay my ship passage; or to seek my fortune in The Big Apple, I transferred to Madison College in the Fall of 1973.

Dixie first day Madison

First day at Madison College. Heading to class after 6-8 a.m. shift in Dining Hall
(snap by Robert S.) My father’s favorite photo of me

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