Carmon Pritchett: From Shanghai to Jackson’s Ballroom Floor

Carmon Pritchett: From Shanghai to Jackson’s Ballroom Floor – by Nelda Rachels, Palmersville, Tennessee

Carmon Pritchett sitting in the Genealogy Room
Carmon Pritchett sitting in the Genealogy Room at library.

The Carmon Pritchett adventure began 88 years ago in the Dresden house where he was born to farmers Otis and Clara Pritchett. It was in the military, however, where he picked up most of his adventures. Those include seeing the world, ballroom dancing, and finding his wife Laurie in Iceland. The latter led to three children—Andrew, Richard, and John—and several grandchildren.

Pritchett graduated from Dresden High School in May 1945. The very next day, the 17-year-old hitch-hiked to Birmingham, Alabama, to join the U.S. Merchant Marine. A permission letter from his parents got him in as a seaman in his first war—World War II. After training in St. Petersburg, Florida, and advanced deck training in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York, Carmon was ready to tie knots strong enough to keep him “swinging in the rigging 50 feet above deck” without falling suddenly to his death—even in stormy seas.

Carmon’s first action—just after World War II—was in the feeding of a war-torn and starving Europe, a preliminary to the Marshall Plan, which would rebuild Europe and assure the United States of allies in the coming Cold War. In November 1945, at Providence, Rhode Island, Carmon boarded a carrier loaded with 300 boxcars of Idaho potatoes, slated for Antwerp, Belgium.

After picking up 10 soldiers, the ship headed back to the U.S. where, in February 1946, the Merchant Marine picked up a cargo of potatoes and onions, bound for Bremerhaven, Germany. This was a shock to the Germans who didn’t think the Americans were going to feed them, a former enemy. They were sure the food would instead be shipped by rail to Holland. They were wrong.

The next port of call from New York was Manila. After arriving 30 days later, Carmon remembers that every building was gutted except for the Manila Hotel. Leaving the cooling July sea breezes of Manila six weeks later, the seamen spent miserable times in a ship with no air conditioning headed for Shanghai, China. Once they arrived, Carmon usually spent his evenings in one of the seven air-conditioned bars in the White Russian sector of Shanghai.

Pritchett loves history and explains that World War I had led to a German-encouraged revolution between the White and Red Russians. To escape executions by the Reds, the wealthier White Russians sought refuge in Shanghai. This sector of Shanghai still existed three decades later, and it’s where Carmon would slowly nurse a single glass of Russian beer until time to go back to his ship. As he sipped, he sat and listened to an orchestra and watched the beautiful rich young women and handsome rich young men, descendants of the White Russians, dance to lovely Viennese waltzes.

It was then that Carmon developed a passion for ballroom dancing. Money for lessons or for college was a problem, however. After World War II, the average seaman earned just $200 a month. In January 15, 1947, Pritchett joined the U.S. Marine Corps, which offered the G.I. Bill. Marine training facilities in Quantico, Virginia, offered another opportunity: dance lessons at Arthur Murray Dance Studio in nearby Washington, D.C.

Lessons cost $8 an hour. Every Saturday Carmon hitch-hiked from base to the studio. Inevitably, a “rich” officer with a car would give him a lift into D.C. A dance studio instructor told Carmon to wear civilian clothes, and after his two o’clock lesson to go to the Shoreham Hotel where there was a big wedding reception every Saturday afternoon. He was told to walk boldly through the door as if  he had been invited.

At the reception he could always count on about 20 waiters, finger food, free drinks, an orchestra, and about 100 girls with no dance partners. For the next two years and four months, Carmon crashed all the Saturday wedding receptions in Washington, D. C. Carmon still dances today. He has joined the Jackson Ballroom Dance Club. At a gala ball a few years ago, he was told to wear a costume. Stumped at first, he realized he could wear his uniform from the Merchant Marine.

Carmon says he would love to teach ballroom dancing to a few ladies at the Civic Center in Dresden. Once they learn, the nearby cities of Jackson and Paducah offer gala balls and opportunities to further their skills.

A book could be written about the adventures of Carmon Pritchett: His further military career until 1993, including the 1950’s transport of subdued soldiers to Yokahama, Japan—all bound to Korea and uncertainty; his experiences as a Spanish and business major at four different colleges and universities on two continents; meeting his Icelandic wife Laurie while on tour through the Scandinavian regions (she too knows a thing or two about ballroom dance); settling down in the house of his birth to farm; his current research of the newspaper archives at the McWherter Library to write a history of Weakley County. All punctuated, of course, by ballroom dancing!

Authors’ note: While some of this article was written based on my interview with Carmon Pritchett, much of it comes from his own handwritten memories.

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