Turning of the Tassel After the ceremony, HRV graduates follow a 20-year tradition with one last hurrah

June 8

It’s a little after 11 p.m., too soon for a late entrance. But the line is already draping the Elks Lodge steps and snaking another 20 or so feet along the sidewalk toward the Columbia River.

It is comprised of eager and giddy teenagers, who graduated from high school 90 minutes earlier. They are gathering here on the corner of Third Street and Cascade for one last get-together before ambition and wanderlust lure them into different crowds of friends, classmates and colleagues.

It is, perhaps, the most elaborate party in town, despite the absence of one common influence: booze.

These eager and giddy graduates won’t be seeing Budweiser or Jack Daniel’s in the three ice coolers on the dining hall floor.

For the last 20-some years, distracting graduated seniors from the seduction of booze has been the party’s primary goal. Two decades ago, the celebration consisted of a record player in a corner and some, certainly not most, of the graduates.

This year, a panel of graduating seniors’ parents has spent the last 10 months organizing this five-hour party, two months of organization for every hour of partying.

It shows.

Inside, the Elks Lodge, the parents have constructed a house-sized Las Vegas that begins with a memory wall of childhood photos.

Each room on this night hosts a different activity: disco lights, dancing and food are in the main bar.

Remote control trucks and mini-golf are near the swimming pool. Karaoke is in a room next to the kitchen.

Poker, Blackjack and Rummy dealers – usually just parents – are waiting to deal at any one of a dozen card tables in the room upstairs of the dance floor.

If the partier doesn’t play cards or doesn’t care to, however, the parents have given them a couple of reasons to try. The parents slipped each of the graduates some fake money as they entered, which the graduates could transform into some real televisions, microwaves, DVD players or mini-refrigerators, if they play their cards right and if the raffle tickets they win out of all of it are the lucky ones.

Hungry? The parents ask. They can have as much Andrew’s Pizza, sub sandwiches and chips and salsa they want.

Now they must be thirsty. How about Red Bull, bottled water or some soda? But remember, no booze and no punchbowl.

No one here seems to care about the lack of alcohol or sleep that comes so intertwined with this party. Cory O’Rourke has never been to a high school party and he doesn’t really care to go to one now. But he’s here, playing foosball, air hockey or sitting in a chair, watching others do the same. He says a lot of his classmates do go to parties with alcohol. But almost all of them are here, 204 of them, just 54 students shy of the 258 who graduated.

“We were hoping for 200,” says Peggy Woodruff, a third-year volunteer. “So this is good.”

This is Woodruff’s last graduation party.

“Tradition,” she explains. “This is the last kid going out. This is the third time I’ve done it.”

Woodruff is one of 125 parents and volunteers who will chaperone throughout the night. The organizers have divided the five hours into three shifts. About half of the total parents – 63 – are going to stick it out for the entire five-hour shift.

The scholarly glow that veiled the graduates 90 minutes ago when they accepted their independence with a handshake and a diploma dims a bit as they squeeze through the door jam. They are still hugging each other, but the gowns and scholars’ hats are gone. In their place is an eclectic collection of mini-skirts, hip-huggers, basketball shorts, slacks, jeans, button-up and tee-shirts.

Everyone, however, is wearing a couple shiny objects that still bind them to the Hood River Valley Class of 2004. The graduates collected a green and a yellow beaded necklace when they entered the lodge, along with several raffle tickets, one of which they hope will transform into a 93 Hyundai Excel, a 93 Toyota Tercel or an 89 Volkswagen Fox by 4 a.m.

But they have to make it that far into the early morning first. And still, the party has just begun.

Minutes after 11 p.m., each of the rooms is full, buzzing so loud with chatter, the poker dealer in the gambling room has to shout the how-tos of poker to Japanese exchange student Kazutoshi Nara sitting next to him. He’s never played poker before, but, as he says in his accent, “I am catching on.”

At 11:30, the karaoke room is still the only room with music. And it isn’t exactly music to the ears of its dozen or so listeners, who are slouching against some bar chairs or leaning against the wall. But that’s the way they seem to like it. Here, Cameron Emerson and Patrick Murphy – who perform as a duet – deliver Metallica’s “Neverland” with enough exaggerated emotion to make Guns ‘n’ Roses’ performances look like a chorus of chanting monks.

As soon as the music and the crowd’s laughter fades, Andy Rust, 6-foot-4 and blond, wearing an orange OSU tee-shirt and shorts tramples toward the microphone.

“You guys have been hogging the mic,” he smiles.

The Metallica duet smiles and passes him the microphone. Now they are in the audience.

In reality, Rust has been trading the mic with Emerson and Murphy throughout the entire night. He has already sung a couple rap songs, and a couple rock songs, including, “Superman,” which received mediocre reviews. But that genre isn’t his forte. Country music is Rust’s genre of choice and he’s saving his best, Toby Keith’s “How Do You Like Me Now,” for later, perhaps when the crowd is a little bigger. He performed that same song in the Mr. HRV contest.

He instead opens with “Cowboy Love,” a lulling choice for his heavy-eyed crowd. And as the music crescendos, Rust closes his eyes and releases the country twang in his voice to consume the background music. The mic squeaks when he presses his lips too close to the microphone and the crowd reacts with a unified ‘oohh.’

“Yeah Andy!” screams Nikki Diaz, one of Rust’s classmates.

The mic shrieks again, triggering another ooh from the crowd.

“I think he was better last night,” she says.

Rust’s eyes remain closed until the song fades into the chatter of his dwindling audience.

“It’s (karaoke) more for me,” he says after his song. “It’s not a joke to me. They (Murphy and Emerson) like to be funny. And they are funny. But to me, it’s not like that. I love to sing.”

Just as he finishes speaking, the prelude to Garth Brooks, “Friends in low places” blares out of the speakers.

“Oh man,” Rust says, as if he is missing out on his sister’s wedding. “I love this song.” And then he sings along with his head bouncing to the rhythm.

At midnight, dance music beckon would-be dancers to the dance floor. Four girls, somewhat shy, somewhat proud, pull each other into the pulsing red, yellow and purple disco lights. They face each other while their bodies interpret the music. Mostly, however, they are laughing.

By 12:30, the dance floor is throbbing like a busy anthill with dancers, still mostly girls.

At 1 a.m., the dance floor drains into the poolroom, where Rust is clawing the bottom of the swimming pool in search of silver dollars.

At the end of the allotted 15 minutes, he’s collected three.

“Chris Adams got $44,” he huffs. “Michael Kauffman got $60. But I think most of the people got about 3. I should have brought my goggles.”

Rust and Emerson return to the karaoke room at 1:45 after the pool event, where Emerson’s parody of Shania Twain’s “That Don't Impress Me Much” coaxes less enthusiastic laughs out of his sleepy audience. Rust decides on Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.”

“The slower songs remind us of all the memories we’ve experienced together,” Emerson said. “That’s why we sing them.”

Emerson laughs as he says this. But he’s serious too.

Epilogue:

Lauren Emmerson was the first to win a car with her single raffle ticket. She won the 1989 Volkswagen Fox, Bethany Hoikka won the 1993 Hyundai Excel. Miguel Munoz won the 1993 Toyota Tercel. Hood River school district employees and Hood RiverFord Mercury donated each of these cars, at the request of Terri Martz, who didn’t even attend her own 1979 graduation party but co-chaired this one.

Ring Kings refurbished the cars.

The party panel paid for the raffle awards with fundraiser dollars, giving $500 to $1000 to parent-shoppers and sending them on their ways.

“We just went shopping,” Martz said.

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