A little something different for me, but I had to share.
The mind can do funny things when you have a bit of idle time on your hands.
My job duties changed somewhat in the past couple of months, requiring me to do a lot of driving, often for an hour or two at a time, through backroads in rural parts of two states.
During these long drives I began to more and more notice all the empty old houses along the way. Abandoned, falling down, roofs caving in, windows broken or missing, doorways gaping open, yards overgrown, vine-covered walls, to name a few of the signs of years or decades of neglect. Having nothing to do but watch the road ahead and pay attention to my surroundings, I began to wonder what the lives of those who had lived in those old buildings had been like.
“What were the best and worst memories of those who had lived there, those events which make a house a home?” I began to ask myself, knowing as I did so they are most likely long dead and I will never receive an answer to that question.
In contemplating the possibilities, especially the lives of the children who had grown up in those places, I started to revisit long-forgotten memories of my own youth. After doing so, I decided to see if I could recall one remembrance in particular which stands out above all other.
I can’t say I had a happy childhood. Happy moments, sure, but my early years are not exactly a time of my life I’d wish to revisit.
I guess I turned out okay, although admittedly a bit odd, so it wasn’t all bad. But after this voyage of self-discover, I was able to come up with three contenders for the title of “happiest memory.”
Second runner-up involves baseball, a sport I used to love to play and watch. Like so many young boys, especially in that one-stoplight-town in which I came of age, the first stirrings of spring were the days we looked forward to the most. That was also when the youth league season started. We would wait around in eager anticipation to learn to which team we would be assigned, a hometown version of the MLB draft. Normally, if you’d played for a team the previous year, you were a shoe-in to rejoin that same team the following. Assuming you were still of the right age, of course. But with kids moving away and moving into town, with some having “graduated” to the next level, we never knew for certain for whom and with whom we would play until the big day when the rosters were posted.
It was a really big event for the town, believe it or not. The biggest event of the year as far as those of us who played were concerned. Most of the boys, and many of the girls, played baseball and softball in the late spring and early summer. This was mostly because there really wasn’t much else for children who lived there to do in the spring and summer months.
T-ball League, Peanut League, Little League, and Pony League for the boys, similar age-defined divisions for the girls. Some girls even decided to play baseball with the boys instead of softball with other girls. Male and female alike, we marked our passage through time by which league and which teams we played in and for.
I remember distinctly one late afternoon Peanut League game. I was on the Mets, and we were in hot contention for second place. I know it was my last season with that team, so I’d have been ten years old.
The coach of the Mets also coached a Little League team, and for this particular game, since his second team had a game scheduled immediately after ours, he brought to the dugout the equipment used by the older kids alongside our own. A couple of us he let use the bats the bigger kids used, knowing we’d be using them or bats just like them the next season, giving us the treat of learning in advance what moving up to the next level would be like.
Nobody objected, neither parents nor the opposing coach, because, after all, this was the last game of the year.
I was one of those he allowed to play with the big kids’ equipment. I was a good hitter, usually managing to get on base, although not a “power hitter” by any stretch of the imagination. For my last visit to the plate, I picked up one of the big kid bats, took a few practice swings from on-deck, then headed over to face the pitcher.
The sun was getting low, the field light had been turned on. My foe, the kid on the mound, was someone I’d known since my first day in town. He was my age, of course, and we lived in the same neighborhood. We were friendly but not friends, competitors for the most part, especially when it came to sports.
It was one of those moments kids who love and live for baseball dream of. Bases loaded, one out, down by one run. I remember the pitcher was having trouble finding the strike zone, the count was three balls, no strikes, and here came the fourth pitch. It was low, I knew it would also be a ball, but I didn’t want my last at-bat to end in a walk.
I did the one thing I’d been instructed to never do in such a situation. I swung away.
Anyone who loves baseball as I once did can tell, without ever being able to describe it to those who are not fans, the sound of a homerun. With their ears alone, an aficionado can usually determine when a hit ball will result in the batter circling the bases to score.
Those who have played will try to describe for the uninitiated, usually unsuccessfully, the special feel of the bat in their hands when they make contact, a sensation which lets them know in that instant that they’ve “knocked it out of the park.”
Kind of hard to do in the youth sports complex in that little town, as it was three fields in one, three different diamonds in a large rectangle made up of several hundred yards of chainlink fence. The opposite end of the portion of the field where this game took place, straightway centerfield, was longer in distance than major league stadiums. Literally knocking one “out of the park”, especially up the middle, was pretty much impossible, even for grown men.
This was especially true for a kid who hadn’t yet started puberty.
I nailed that pitch, swinging down and up, almost like golfing, as the ball crossed the plate at a height somewhere between my knees and ankles. The sound of a great hit reverberated through the complex, my hands tingled in that special way which told me I’d gotten all of it.
The ball exploded off the bat, the pitcher had to duck to keep from having it bounce off his skull, and the horsehide missile I’d just launched kept climbing and climbing. As I headed for first I could see the centerfielder turn around and start running the opposite way as fast as his legs could churn. On my way to second, I looked over to see the ball was already well past him and just beginning to drop back toward Earth. Heading for third, I could see he was in the area of second base in the field at the far end of the compound, still chasing that ball, which had come to a rest against the backstop fence. There was no way he’d get to it, much less be able to throw the ball back, before I made it to home.
I knew, even before I rounded third, what I’d done.
I wish this memory had a storybook ending, the type which would make it onto film as a feel-good movie about growing up. I wish I could recount how I was carried off the field on the shoulders of my teammates, to the applause and cheers of the crowd, the young hero reveling in his moment of glory.
The kid who had been on first base when I came up to bat was older, taller, and faster than the kid who had been standing on second. The kid who had been on first, in his exuberance to score, ran past the much slower kid as they were both heading for home. The kid who had been on first crossed home plate before the kid who had been on second did.
This meant, per the rules of the game, they were both out.
Which meant only one run, from the kid who had been on third, counted.
Three outs, tied score, bottom of the last inning.
The game and season were over before I finished my run around the bases to stomp triumphantly with both feet on home plate, and I didn’t even know it.
That game ended in a tie instead of the three-run victory it should have been. What was only my second homerun since I’d started playing three years prior didn’t officially count.
But, still, that at-bat was logged by the league as the only grand slam for the entire season, and everyone let me know about it, coaches and parents alike heaping praise for what I’d done.
I’d hit a homer not even the bigger kids could have managed! I had almost literally knocked one out of the park. Even after learning the truth, the thrill of personal victory and accomplishment was only slightly diminished. That was when I fell in love with playing the game.
Looking back on that day now, I’m struck by the notion that, had I not decided I didn’t want my last at bat to be a walk, the game would have been tied with that fourth pitch. The next kid up could have won it for us, could have had his chance to be the hero by putting us in second place with a walk or base hit.
Or grand slam homerun.
Had that kid already on first not run faster than the kid in front of him, I’d have been able to forever carry around with me the memory of the day I was the champion, hitting a game-winning shot, the kind of moment most kids and adults can only ever imagine. That is the dream of countless millions, as has been depicted in novels and movies, fictional and memoire alike. Most often it’s of a kid standing alone in the back yard or empty sandlot, pitching a ball in the air and swinging at it with his bat, vocalizing his internal vision of being the greatest hitter in the world, who is about to win the game, win the world series, with a spectacular, eternally memorable, towering moonshot of a grand slam homerun.
Out of the countless boys and young men who have shared this dream, only a rare few have or will ever get the opportunity to be faced with it in real life. Of those lucky few, only a bare handful of them will manage to fulfill it and be the hero.
It is a feat which millions have envisioned, have longed for, have dreamed up, but few have ever seen come to reality.
A dream which I, at the age of ten, and although not officially, managed to live out. It was several more years before the import and rarity of that night truly sunk in. I guess I figured I’d have another chance some day. And that time, everything would go perfectly.
It never did. I never again found myself in a position to repeat that feat.
But, still, I had that one chance. I had the chance to do something so rare and spectacular.
I had that chance.
And I didn’t fail.
The first runner-up favorite memory is one most would probably consider to be their most cherished.
I was seventeen and a senior. She was sixteen and a sophomore. She was a friend and classmate of my younger sister. I’d seen the two of them hanging around a bit, but never paid her much attention. We were also in the school choir together, although I didn’t pay any attention to her there either. She was pretty, certainly, but we had nothing in common and were nothing alike.
And, naturally, I figured someone like her wouldn’t even know I existed, much less care to change that.
I was a tall, skinny, awkward, bespectacled, nerdy, freckle-faced redhead. Poindexter without the violin. In fact, some of my tormentors had taken to calling me by that very name. It was just my luck that Revenge of The Nerds had hit theaters during my sophomore year.
I had shot up nearly a foot between the end of my junior and middle of my senior terms. From five-foot-four to six-foot-two in about eight month, without putting on an ounce of fat or muscle.
Scrawny doesn’t begin to describe how I looked those days.
She was about five-six, five eight, long black hair, dark eyes, a Puerto Rican by way of Chicago, her family having moved to central Kentucky just a couple years prior. She was on the track-and-field team, played basketball, participated in the Junior ROTC program, more than just a bit of a tomboy. I was no longer an athlete, sang in the school choir instead of playing baseball, football, or basketball. I had the basic skills to have done so, but I had neither the time nor the money necessary to participate in any high school level athletic programs. In spite of my childhood love for baseball, having dreamed of becoming a famous major league player, I’d given up sports pretty much altogether for a whole host of reasons. Part or this, the major reason, really, was due to the host of familial issues which made my childhood less than a happy one.
Specifically, when I left junior high and became a sophomore, announced my intentions to join the school team come spring, I was told by my parents, in no uncertain terms, that they could not afford and would not be able to provide either the uniform/equipment fees or the time to drive me to or pick me up from games and practices. I could try out for the team if I wanted, but I’d have to do everything myself with no help or assistance from them.
Strangely enough, they had no problems providing both for my older sister when she played softball for the school, nor my younger brothers, one of whom was only three years my junior.
I gave up on my dreams, withdrawing into myself entirely. I quickly turned into a bookworm, introverted, trying my best to avoid interacting with anyone as, small for my age, I’d become a favorite target of the bullies. I spent most of my free time, what little there was of it, reading of adventures in deep space, on alien planets, and in fantasy lands. Star Trek, Comic Books, and Middle Earth were the worlds to which I would retreat.
I was odd, the other kids knew it, the perfect target. They certainly started backing off once I shot up in height, and especially after I got fed up one afternoon and broke the nose of one of my tormentors with a single punch. Little did they know that, a few years earlier, I’d taken up boxing, and although I no longer went to the gym, I still remembered how.
But these overt physical changes didn’t alter the person I had become inside.
I hated high school, especially that last year. Mostly alone, with very few I could call a friend, none of them a fellow senior. I didn’t have a car, not even a drivers’ license. Nearly all my classmates had one or both, and at the very least could borrow a parent or older sibling’s car for dates and after-school events.
My clothes were all hand-me-downs and thrift store finds. Except for my shoes, which I purchased myself using money I earned mowing lawns, raking leaves, and shoveling snow. Something I’d been doing since the age of eight or nine. Anything nice I could call my own I’d bought with my own money, like my walkman-style radio/cassette player and my twelve-speed bike. Everything else, especially what I wore, was a decade or two old and out of style.
If not something my father or grandfather might have worn. And in some cases, had.
Looking back now, I can sort of understand it. My parents never had much in the way of money, dad having to work two, sometimes three jobs to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies.
We were poor, initially dirt poor. My earliest memories are of a small four-room shack, the only indoor plumbing being a kitchen sink, the drain going to a cistern, the water fed from a well in the back yard. A well which pumped out muddy water, undrinkable for days, if it rained very hard.
We didn’t have a bathroom. We had an outhouse at the far end of the yard for use when the weather was tolerable. Only when the weather was bad or it was extra cold were we allowed to venture into the small area, surrounded by curtains for privacy, containing a chamber pot with a seat, in the corner of the room where I, my two sisters, and my younger brother slept.
An ancient, propane-fired heater and a small window unit air conditioner, both in the living room, provided the only climate control. In the spring and fall, before it got too hot or too cold, the house was made tolerable by open windows and screen doors. During the worst of winter weather, we kept warm by huddling together under blankets, the six of us sleeping on the couch and/or on the floor in the living room, the little heater barely able to fight off the chill.
My earliest memories of Christmases and birthdays are of unwrapping toys even a child of three to six could tell were used. Hand-me-downs from older cousins who had outgrown such things, or bargain-basement shopping.
And government cheese. Lots and lots of it. Which is why, to this day, I can’t stand Pasteurized Process American Cheese Food.
But my dad hadn’t been idle or a slacker. He’d saved up as much money as he could during those years of deprivation, had received a couple of promotions with concurring raises in pay, and close to the end of my first-grade year, moved us from that tiny little shack in the middle of farm country to a three-bedroom brick ranch, one which he’d commissioned and had built for us, in the tiny little town in which he’d grown up.
There was nothing really special about that house, especially by today’s standards. But it had carpeted floors, central heat, a basement, half an acre of yard, and most miraculously, flushing toilets and indoor tubs with shower heads. By the early part of my teenage years, he’d even added central air conditioning. Luxuries I’d only previously experienced during brief visits to my grandparents at the other end of the county. Basic necessities we all take for granted these days. But to a boy of six who had been taking baths in a galvanized tub sitting in the kitchen floor, filled with tepid water already sudsy from his older sister getting to bathe first, that simple little house was a veritable palace.
We were still poor, although I guess, material-wise, we had technically become lower-middle class. Which is why today I can understand the hand-me-down/thrift-shop clothes, as I can’t imagine the expense of having to change a growing boy’s entire wardrobe every month as he shot up nearly a foot in less than a year.
But that didn’t make the bellbottom jeans and nylon, butterfly-collar shirts straight from the Brady Bunch any easier to wear. Especially not during the mid-eighties, when hair metal and techno-pop were all the rage. Shirts and sweaters with the Izod Alligator over the left breast was the mandatory uniform for the preppies. Black Sabbath and AC/DC shirts and leather jackets the required garb for the head-bangers.
I had none of that. The closest I could come to looking like everyone else was a worn and faded denim jacket festooned with dozens of cutesy buttons, which was something nearly everyone in my age group wore.
I was an outcast and a loner in every way. I didn’t attend the prom as I didn’t want to have to ride my bike and probably, almost certainly, have it stolen or vandalized. Or, if I somehow got extraordinarily lucky, be driven to and fro by a parent. Imagine a high school senior still having to get rides, even to his prom, from his parents.
Either way, I knew I would spend just about the entire time standing against the wall, alone, watching all those other couples dance and make out. We had to reserve our tickets by the end of March, and knowing it would be a waste of my time, I refused to do so.
I only went on the Senior Trip because otherwise I’d have been forced to go to school that day. In that case, being one of the few seniors there, I wouldn’t have had any classes, and would have spent the entire day sitting on the gym bleachers. I didn’t even want to go to my graduation, but it was mandatory. A student would be denied his diploma if he didn’t attend.
I even refused to have a senior picture taken or otherwise participate in yearbook activities, including purchasing one. I wanted no remembrances of those years to follow me after my sentence was complete and I’d finally be freed from Hell.
By the time I became a senior, the only thing I wanted out of school was out of school.
But things began to turn around for me when April of my last term rolled around.
It started on a day she came over to spend some time with my younger sister, only to learn she was away, probably at a softball practice or game. But instead of heading back to her home, she stayed around, the two of us sat for a time on the front porch, and we began talking.
Perhaps visiting with my sister was an excuse she’d used to come over. We were in the school choir together after all, and she later confessed that she loved listening to me sing. Said my solos gave her chills and goosebumps all over.
I sure wished she’d told me that months earlier!
Once it got too hot for comfort, the late afternoon sun beating down upon us, we moved inside, took seats across from each other in the basement, and continued our conversation.
I have no idea exactly what all we talked about, or how we managed to fill three or four hours simply conversing. I think from seeing the inside of our home for the first time, she started to get the idea that we weren’t all that different, materially speaking, from her family. My mom was and is a hoarder. Nothing was ever thrown out, for one never knew when one might need that fifty-year-old coat or the baby clothes from her own childhood which hadn’t been out of a box in decades.
Yes, we had three cars in the drive. A seven-year-old Ford van, a two-year-old Mercury Lynx, my older sister’s ten-year-old VW Rabbit (which she’d bought with money saved from working her senior year at the local McDonalds so she’d have transportation to and from college), and my dad’s by then non-functional motorcycle.
Her family had just one automobile, a much older van, which her dad needed to get to his various part-time jobs. I soon learned they were poorer, much poorer, than were we, and I think, at first, she figured her classmates, myself included, would look down on her if any of us ever learned where and how she lived. But sitting there in that basement surrounded by old junk, listening to part of my own life story, I think she began to get the idea that I too knew and understood what it was like to live in poverty. Something I doubt her friend, my younger sister, would have ever mentioned even if she’d remembered. After all, she’d just turned four when we moved from the shack to the “palace”.
This girl, I soon learned, was tough, driven, and proud. As I mentioned, she participated in track, basketball, and the JROTC program. After a practice, game, meet, or drill, she would usually walk home, by herself, because she rarely had access to parental transportation, didn’t know how to ride a bike, and was too proud to ask for a lift. Or maybe too ashamed to let her classmates see where she lived. She’d walk and/or jog home with her school books in a pack on her back, sometimes through cold and rain, alone and in the dark, for ten-plus miles. That’s over two hours on foot in all kinds of conditions, along narrow, busy roads and through ditches, just so she could continue her extra-curricular activities.
She did this because she’d come to the conclusion that it was her only way to escape from poverty. An ROTC scholarship would be her only path to a college education, the only way she could see herself becoming something other than a clone of her mom, someone whose only marketable skills were those of a maid.
Driven to succeed to the point of braving the dangers of walking for hours after dark, alone, when bad things could so easily have happened to her, because it was that or give up on the future she wanted for herself.
I only learned about this one night when, after returning with my dad from somewhere, we stopped at the corner store just down the road from our house and I spotted her walking by. I stopped her, eventually convinced her to let my dad drive her the rest of the way home as it had started raining, and that was when I first learned where she lived.
And why she hadn’t wanted any of us to know about it. If it hadn’t been for the fact that we’d started talking just the week prior, had seen how I lived and what my family had (and didn’t), I think she’d have refused even as the skies opened up.
Somehow, we became friends. I started riding my bike over to see her on Friday nights, as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons, just to talk. What with it being quicker and easier for me to ride there than her to walk across town, this gave us more time together. It was still a couple of weeks before she invited me inside, but again, our living conditions and impoverished childhoods not being all that dissimilar, she wasn’t as embarrassed to have me see the interior as would have been the case for any of her other classmates or friends.
I rarely interacted with her Father since he was almost never home when I was over, almost always working one of his odd jobs. But I know, shortly after meeting her mother, said mother not only approved of me being friends with her oldest child and daughter, but started getting ideas in her head. Her English was a bit rough, heavily accented, but I do remember one moment when, while the girl was out of the room, she winked at me and mentioned something about looking forward to redheaded grandbabies.
We weren’t even dating! We were just friends who hung out together for a few hours once I’d finished my own weekend jobs and chores.
One Saturday as I was visiting, I followed her into a fairly large closet where most of the castoff clothes and such were kept. She was looking for the dress she’d worn for her Confirmation which her younger sister needed to wear that night, and asked for my help. Together we went through numerous unmarked boxes until we found it, and when she turned around, she stopped dead in her tracks, looking at me with the oddest expression on her face. I had no idea what it was about, but that look in her eyes sent shivers down my spine all the way to my toes. I asked her what she was thinking, she looked away, and I backed out of the room so she could complete her task.
A little bit later we ventured into the kitchen where I assisted her with beginning the task of preparing Saturday night supper for her family. That was one of her chores as the only work her mom could get was Saturday afternoons and evenings as part of the cleaning crew preparing the church for weekend services. I asked her again what that strange look had been about, she stood silent and unmoving for a time, then mumbled something about having wondered what kissing me would be like.
An eternity later, hearts pounding, out of breath, our hands having boldly gone where no hands had gone before, we stepped apart. I again saw that same look in her eyes, again felt that thrill run down my spine. But this time I knew exactly what it meant.
We were a couple, boyfriend and girlfriend, from that day forward. I couldn’t have been happier. Especially considering how miserable I’d been every day for the previous three years.
Was it love? True love? Maybe. Almost certainly as, at our ages, love and lust are inextricably intertwined and interchangeable. I was the first boy she’d ever kissed, the first she’d ever wanted to kiss for that matter. And she was my first as well.
Especially that kind of kissing!
Yes, I think we fell in love with each other.
First kiss, first love. And not just any girl, but a very beautiful one. Exotic even. There were very few minorities in our school, even fewer in that town. Which might seem strange considering that the “city” in which our high school was located was and is largely a bedroom community for Fort Knox. But this is easily explained by two facts. One, as an armor center at the time, and since the largest concentration of tank divisions outside the US was in Germany, most of the “foreign brides” brought to the area by G.I.s were Germans. And most of the African American soldiers lived on base and their children attended school there. That, or they lived in one of the other towns in other counties, closer to Louisville, which were far less monochromatic. There were only a few African American fellow students in my high school, fewer still who were of oriental extraction, and to the best of my knowledge, one Hispanic.
Rare, exotic, mysterious, with a delightful accent when she spoke. I know a lot of boys had been “hitting” on her. I’d seen that with my own two eyes. She could have had her pick of dozens of more popular, more well-off students.
She chose me.
We kept the change of status in our relationship from our classmates for reasons I can’t explain even today. Maybe because it was private, special, something we wanted to keep just between us. Maybe we feared being out in the open would ruin that. I don’t know. Maybe we feared that others would try to sabotage what we’d found if they learned the truth. Especially those other boys who had been chasing after her all year.
Whatever the reasons, without talking about it, without mentioning it, we mutually decided to not be seen so much as holding hands, to say nothing of otherwise engaging in public displays of affection.
But when we had a few minutes alone, our conversations used far few words.
We didn’t go all the way, of course. Not only would it have been difficult in the extreme for us to find that kind of privacy, we were both good Catholic kids who accepted that sex was a sacrament reserved for the marriage bed. That didn’t stop us from exploring strange and exciting new frontiers, but our clothes stayed on. We did talk about it, I know we both wanted to take things to that next level, but decided the time and circumstances weren’t right. But we did begin talking about the future, our future, and all that entails.
My life improved measurably in almost every way that spring. I had someone in my life I loved who loved me too.
The bullies quit picking on me and even began to show me a great deal of respect. This was thanks in no small part to having finally not only stood up to one of them, but forcing him to wear two black eyes and a swollen nose for a couple of weeks.
I earned a coveted spot on the All-State Choir, one of only two student from our school to make the cut. My parents shocked me greatly by not only giving me permission to attend that four-day event out of town, but also providing me with a little extra spending money so I could better enjoy my stay.
I was notified that I’d been awarded a small academic scholarship, qualified for grants and a student loan, which would enable me to start college that fall.
My parents even decided it was time to allow me to get my learner’s permit.
Finally, after years of misery, failure, and loneliness, life was good and I was looking forward to the future.
The girl and I still kept our relationship a secret, something only we two knew, though I think a handful of people began to suspect, right up until graduation day.
School had let out for the year the day before. I got up just after sunrise, rode my bike over to see her as soon as breakfast was done, and we spent the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon finding little moments of privacy where we could appropriately express our feelings. I went home to get dressed for the ceremony that evening, I know I shocked my parents greatly by having them divert to her house to pick her up so she too could attend, and she sat in the bleachers of the football stadium with them while I participated in that more-than-symbolic act of leaving childhood behind and joining the ranks of adults.
After the final speech, after the handing out of diplomas, after we’d turned our tassels and collected our tossed hats, I headed straight for the bleachers, my eyes seeing only her as she descended the steps toward the field.
That was the first time anyone at our school, myself included, had seen her in a dress, makeup on her face, her long and flowing hair gleaming in the late-day sun instead of bound up in her customary pigtail braids. Anyone who knew her and had paid attention should have known as soon as she arrived that there was something special in that afternoon for her. Especially since she wasn’t a graduate, and participating in the choir’s portion of the ceremonies hadn’t been mandatory for anyone not a senior. She’d volunteered, which was the excuse I gave my parents for having them give her a ride to the school.
But if nobody had noticed the differences or wondered what her real purpose for being there was, it soon became obvious.
We met there on the track in front of the stands, and for the first time, before God, my family, our friends, our schoolmates, and the whole world, we showed everyone just how we felt about each other.
For a very, very long time.
Not incidentally, this put to bed for all time the rumors that we were both gay and our friendship was a mutual support society of two.
Afterward, at the little graduation party my parents threw for me, the two of us snuck out to the back yard. There under the stars, and with tears filling our eyes, we kissed and held each other until it was time for her to go home.
Why the tears?
Because of something neither of us dared discuss throughout the entire day and night, but couldn’t help but bring us both sorrow.
A month prior, her father had lost his best-paying job, and the only thing he could find to continue to put food on the table was in another state. There they would live with relatives until he could get back on his feet. The family had remained long enough for the kids to finish the school year, but come the next morning, they would all load into their van and head out.
Our love affair was over before it had really even started. That night, we both knew, could very likely be our last one together. Yet even then, as passionate and sorrowful as we were, all clothes, though thoroughly mussed, stayed on. We lusted after each other, loved each other, but had promised we’d wait until we got married.
I think I cried myself to sleep. Correction: I know I did. What is to so many one of the happiest days of their life, a moment they had been looking forward to for at least twelve years, graduating from high school, was both one of my best and worst days ever. I had gotten what I wanted out of school. More, I’d finally, in those last couple of months, started enjoying school, and life. I’d fallen in love for the first time with someone who loved me back, and had finally felt free and confident enough to announce that fact to the whole world.
Both of these things came to an end on the same day.
I know we’d lied to each other in the weeks since learning the news of her father being laid off, pretending we believed his assurances that the move would be temporary, that the whole family would return by the end of summer. Before Christmas at the latest. Three to six months apart wouldn’t be all that long, we agreed. Trying, and failing, to convince ourselves and each other that we believed the lie.
She managed to talk her parents into driving out to where I lived on their way out of town the next morning. We exchanged proper goodbyes, her parents learning for the first time that we were much more than just friends. We tearfully promised to write every week, then I watched from that same porch where we’d first gotten to know each other as she rode away, out of my life.
Instead of a summer together, the summer we’d hoped for, planned for, doing all the things we’d get to do as a couple, we had to go our separate ways.
We exchanged quite a few letters, of course, but they became fewer and further between. And after that Christmas, after the time her father promised her she could return had come and gone, we quit trying.
Too painful, I suppose. Or maybe we were both too busy with our new lives. I was still getting acclimated to college life, she was still trying to find her place at her new school. In the package she sent me for Christmas, the last piece of mail I received from her, there was a lovingly affectionate card. And the cheap little ring I’d bought for her, holding onto it in secret until I put it on her finger on graduation day.
It was over.
There is a little postscript I must add.
About a year and a half after they left, her parents and younger siblings returned to Vine Grove. Their father had gotten a job offer from a former employer he couldn’t turn down, but she stayed behind in Missouri, living with an aunt and uncle, so she could finish high school and graduate with her friends and classmates.
She returned to Kentucky after graduation, but only to visit for a couple of months. She’d enlisted in the Army and would be heading off to Georgia for Basic Training at the end of June. My second year of college had just concluded, but I too was getting ready to ship out for the summer, to Parris Island, having joined the Marine Reserve.
We got together her first day in town, of course, both thinking and hoping maybe we could pick up where we’d left off. We soon realized that wasn’t possible. We had grown and changed so much during those two years apart. We had both lost our virginity to others after promising to wait for each other. We had developed differing ideas about our futures, what we wanted out of life, and where and how we intended to pursue those ambitions. We did discuss finally taking things to the next level, maybe as a means of completing what we’d started, and certainly in the hope it might rekindle that which had faded.
But we didn’t. The fires which had once burned white-hot were just dying embers. And I think, in no small part, we didn’t want to ruin the memory of what we’d once had. There was still an undeniable physical attraction between us, but that was all. The differences which had drawn us together had become a chasm we couldn’t bridge. If we’d had the summer together, maybe things would have turned out differently. But we had made commitments which, as adults, we would not, could not break.
Within a couple of weeks of our reunion we’d again said our farewells, parting as we’d begun, strangers with nothing in common.
Nothing, that is, save for the shared memory of those magical months in the Spring of 1986.
I never saw or heard from her again. I have no idea what became of her, how her life turned out, where she ended up. I hope her planned career in the Army was a good one, that she found love, started her own family, and her kids never knew the poverty and deprivation which had been all she’d known throughout her childhood.
I hope she found happiness and love. I hope she had the kids she wanted, maybe even has grandkids by now. I imagine she probably retired from the service after thirty years, a nice pension waiting for her while she double-dips as a civil servant.
I pray she didn’t have a string of broken marriages, an unhappy life, a return to poverty and squalor, all the things she’d wanted and worked so hard to obtain never coming to pass.
Either way, I do not know, and I don’t want to know. I’ve never tried to look her up, never tried to find out what happened to her. I’ve never made an effort to contact any of her sibling to inquire about her even though I know some of them are still in that small town in which I grew up, and in which my parents still live.
I sometimes wonder if she remembers our time together fondly, occasionally reminiscing about our months together, wistfully pondering, without remorse or regret, on what might have been. Or maybe she’s completely moved on and doesn’t remember me, my name, or that brief period of time when we were so happy together.
Again, I do not know and do not want to know.
I only know one thing, which is why I have never and will never try to find out what happened in the thirty plus years since we last laid eyes upon each other.
So long as I don’t know what became of her, she will always be my sweet-sixteen, my one and only high school sweetheart. She will forever be that beautiful, passionate, warm, loving girl on the cusp of becoming a woman who, in ways no mere words can ever convey, showed an awkward, geeky, extremely self-conscious boy on the verge of becoming a man that he didn’t have to wear a face which was the envy of men and the dreams of women. He didn’t need the body of a Greek god. He didn’t have to be the star quarterback or the basketball captain. He didn’t need to wear the latest fashions or drive a nice car.
I learned I could be liked, could be loved, just for who I was. And, in doing so, my life was changed completely and for the better.
For that I will be eternally grateful. She will always occupy a special place in my thoughts, the memories of our time together, especially that first kiss, among my most cherished.
Thank you, Natalia, from the bottom of my heart. I am not still in love with you, or the memory of you, and haven’t been for a very, very long time. But please know, wherever you are, I do continue to carry a little piece of you in my soul.
I would imagine some readers might find it difficult to believe that someone could have a childhood memory more important and profound than of a moment of sports triumph the likes of which few will ever know. To say nothing of that first kiss, the beginning of a wonderful affair of the heart, which ended far too soon through no fault of our own, with no angry words or hurt feelings between us. Only bittersweet remembrances.
But there is one memory from my childhood days which continues to shine brighter than all the others.
I am not sure exactly how old I was. Probably eleven or twelve, although I could have been a year older or younger.
It was a hot summer Saturday, late July or early August most likely. Heat like standing before the open gates of hell. So humid one almost needed gills to breathe. The cloudless sky so hazy one could stare at the sun as it approached the Western horizon without hurting your eyes.
Brutal, stifling, oppressive heat.
I loved that kind of weather.
I can’t be certain what the rest of the day had been like, although I can make an educated guess. Most summer Saturdays were the same. Get up in the morning, mow yards for the neighbors until mid-afternoon, ride my bike around town until it got close to supper time. I used to love riding a bicycle more than just about anything else. I doubt there was more than a couple of roads in the entire town I wouldn’t traverse at least once during the weekend. The two biggest purchases I made with the money earned from odd jobs were two bicycles. The first was a ten-speed from Sears which I rode until it fell apart, repainted and rebuilt, then rode again until the wheels fell off. The second one, which I bought my Junior year in high school, was an extravagant Peugeot twelve-speed, a racing bike, which I only rode for a couple of years before, having bought my first car, I no longer had any need of it.
But I digress. On this day, I’d parked my yellow ten-speed in the driveway at home, gone through the basement door to fetch me a coke, and gone back outside to sit on the kitchen stoop.
That was how I ended the day, a ritual I’d established for myself before I really knew what having a ritual was.
As mentioned previously, my parents were and are packrats. Not the extreme sort which have sometimes been featured in television shows. The living quarters were always neat and relatively clutter-free. But the basement and other storage areas...?
During the time about which I am writing there was an old refrigerator in the basement, one which had been moved from that four-room shack in the country to the home in town, still plugged in even though it didn’t work right. It was ancient, I know that. And it would freeze anything put inside of it. Not a hard freeze like the chest freezer sitting next to it, but any fruits or vegetables or meats placed inside would become semi-frozen within a couple of days.
Which turned out to be perfect for my needs.
This was back when sodas could only be purchased in one of three ways: from the fountain, in twelve-ounce aluminum (sometimes steel) cans, and recyclable bottles. These were the long, tall, sixteen-ounce, heavy glass bottles, the type you returned to the store so you could get your per-bottle deposit back — or credited toward the next purchase of same.
Once I started mowing neighborhood lawns for pay, I would take a small part of those earnings, ride my bike to the store a few blocks away, with empty bottles in the army surplus pack upon my back so I could purchase a fresh eight-pack of Coca Cola in the bottle. Upon my return, these bottles would go into the malfunctioning refrigerator, the one which tried to freeze everything. Everyone in the house knew those were my cokes, not to be touched by anyone without my permission. Which was rarely asked and which I rarely gave.
What was special about these bottles in that fridge was that, after a couple of days, they would be chilled to perfection. By perfection I mean, take the bottle opener to it, pop off the top, and the contents in the neck and about a quarter of the way down would turn into slush. The soda inside had been super-chilled, a process I didn’t know about back then but which I understand now. This is something which likely is impossible inside a standard metal or plastic container. An aluminum can, I learned, will tend to burst open once the contents reach the freezing point and start to expand, the thin metal unable to contain the pressure and prevent the liquid from freezing. I would imagine a plastic bottle would fail in a similar fashion. But those thick glass bottles, with the heat-sealed and crimped top, retained their shape and kept the contents under constant pressure. This allowed the soda within to drop below the freezing point without turning into ice. Pop the top, release the pressure, and part of that cola would instantly freeze.
I had accidentally developed my own Coca Cola slushy. There was nothing more pleasurable during that part of my life than drinking a partially frozen coke at the end of a long, hard, hot day.
On the day in question, the day which created my favorite childhood memory of all, after parking the bike in the driveway, after retrieving and opening my bottle of semi-frozen ambrosia, I sat down on the kitchen stoop and watched the sun as it drew nearer to the horizon.
The only sounds were those of the window unit air conditioner off to my right and a few insects and birds in the nearby woods. No dogs barking, no neighborhood kids playing, no lawnmowers running, no cars driving up and down the road, no planes flying overhead, no cannons going off at Fort Knox a couple of dozen miles away. I know my brothers and sisters were inside, trying to stay cool, soaking in the AC which was only effective at cooling the living room and kitchen. I’m pretty certain my dad was at one of his other jobs, mom was in the kitchen fixing dinner, and the neighbors were inside trying to beat the heat.
It was just me, the buzzing AC, a little bit of wildlife, and my condensation-dripping bottle of coke.
It felt like I had the world all to myself, that everyone else had melted away, and I was completely, totally alone in the universe.
I loved it!
No more of the ongoing, perpetual familial strife. No more school bullies. No more of the hundreds of other annoyances, great and small, which combined to make my childhood so unhappy, often miserable.
I had the world, the whole world, to myself.
Never before had I felt such a sense of calm contentment, of purely peaceful tranquility. Sitting there slowly sipping my half-frozen cola, listening to the sounds of nature and the AC buzz, watching the sun go down, I was in a world of blissful solitude. My mind was awash with thoughts, sensations, impressions, experiences, and emotions I couldn’t comprehend or put into words. But there was nothing scary about that. Just an inexplicable sense of utter contentment.
I don’t know how long I sat there, or what broke the spell. The magic might have been shattered by my dad pulling into the driveway, or maybe mom yelling that supper was ready. Whatever it was, I was suddenly and rudely yanked from my personal paradise and back into the real world. But for a time, I was in a state of happiness and peace the likes of which I had never before dreamed possible.
It’s been forty or more years since that day. I’ve lived in several states since then, called many different places home. I’ve changed careers, gotten married, and finally found the time, and my voice, which enables me to indulge in my passion for writing.
One thing hasn’t changed. I still love mowing the lawn. I know I probably shouldn’t. It had been a mandatory, unpaid chore at home, something I had to do all summer for various neighbors so I could have some spending money. I was forced to work while most everyone else my age was able to wile away their summer days in play. Including all seven of my siblings.
But I love yard work. I love the roar of a Briggs and Stratton as it chugs along, the smell of fresh-cut grass. I love cleaning up the landscaping, pulling the weeds, deadheading the rose bushes and other flowering plants. I have been forced to make some concessions due to age, now needing a riding mower instead of one I push so I can get the job done in less than four hours.
And there is one more thing I love about this task, which is why the above ranks as my favorite memory.
Sometimes, not often but sometimes, after a long, hard, hot day of yard work, I am able to put away the tools and toys, pour a bottle of coke into a glass filled with crushed ice, rivulets of condensation dripping down and cooling my hand, the stink of sweat and aroma of fresh-cut grass upon me, and sit out on the front porch, watching the sun start to go down.
It will be stifling, brutally hot. Like standing before the open gates of Hell. The air will be so humid one nearly needs gills to be able to breathe. Haze so thick in the cloudless sky I can stare right at the setting sun without it hurting my eyes. Not even the hint of a breeze, no sounds save for the AC unit from the back yard and the birds and insects braving the heat. No dogs barking, no kids playing, no aircraft or helicopters flying overhead, no cars driving through the neighborhood.
That period of rest rarely lasts very long, sometimes a few minutes, often only a few seconds. The spell might be broken by a loud motorcycle or truck speeding down the highway on the other side of the river which runs in front of my home. Sometimes it’s a neighbor firing up their car for a night on the town. It might be my wife texting me, making sure I’m okay, or reminding me the dogs need be fed.
But for that brief period, my heartbeat slows, my blood pressure drops, and I feel a sense of calm, utter contentment.
But unlike on the day my favorite memory took place, I know why this is.
During those few seconds or minutes, I am mentally and physically transported back in time to that universe which I alone inhabit, sharing it with my younger and older selves, to live yet again within that one perfect moment.