Unconscious of my own incompetence like many young bucks joining the herd, I cut my eyes to a vision that did not go away. Taking a closer look at markings and what appeared to be a fence caused me to back away for awhile, but only a short distance, and a short while.
If there was a wall around her, it was short enough for her to peek over. Something got her attention. Her eyes followed what she considered the high spirited step of a sure-footed prancer.
To her, he seemed to be in a corral of sorts. With some degree of disappointment, she inspected the corral to see if it could easily be torn down, and its keeper run off. All of this, and maybe even thoughts of a battle were probably brief, perhaps less than a second: most likely barely above sub-conscious. Some time passed.
We met later as part of a larger gathering rather than directly one on one. It was A Sunday evening in mid-July. Chemistry was busy with signals I cannot describe fully now any more than I could fully understand them then.
Having never seen lightning, a dawg will not deal rationally with being struck by it. Neither did I.
The fence or wall that I thought I’d seen earlier was gone. She’d taken it down herself perhaps as an escape rather than any desire to be captured again by some other. I couldn’t be sure. But I noticed she had removed a large ring that I’d presumed represented the fence, and left it off. This perhaps would not have been likely had the fencing been under better watch and care. At the time, I understood none of this.
Evidently, the fence around her had been poorly maintained, and was in bad repair. Maybe what seemed to be a fence was only remnants of old paint that the slightest breeze could take away.
It was a bigger wind than a breeze. It was a gust of storm proportions that would take all of the older construction materials away, and allow someone new to lay down the foundations of what would later become a stronger wall; eventually a castle wall–a fortress.
A look and a smile across the gathering encouraged me to try another approach. We spoke, exchanged names and let out signals of status. It was during this conversation that she discovered that what she’d thought might be a corral around me was an illusion: the young lady she’d seen me walking with, and showing affection to, was only one of my sisters.
Both of my sisters are very pretty things. They are strong willed little women whose confidence and assertiveness shows non-verbally by the very way they carry themselves. It is right to recognize instantly that these are young ladies who are quite capable of getting what they want. Well, my imaginary corral was gone, not ever having been real in the first place. So we could, and did, stand a little closer.
With the appearances of old fences erased, the girl and I separated slightly from the herd and sat down beside each other. Eyes had already talked. I touched her hand, and she let me.
Eyes that would talk a great deal later were kept averted: any eye contact right then seemed unnecessary, if not impossible altogether. Just sitting there beside her for the moment was enough. Right then, both my eyes and my mouth would’ve been clumsy with any attempt to communicate.
Our knees touched slightly. I had purposely caused it. Still, I dared not look or say a word. I thought she might have understood my purpose, because she did not move away.
The Sunday evening church service ended, and I asked her bravely (or stupidly: at the time I couldn’t tell the difference) if I could offer her a ride home. The brief moment that past before she answered slowed the clock in my head so that mere seconds seemed like hours.
It was incredibly difficult at that moment to avoid blurting out some additional attempt to clarify my suggestion, but every thought in my head sounded stupid even to me. To this very day, it was one of the few times I’ve ever listened to any reasonable thought that came to mind so as to avoid shattering silence with idiocy. I kept silent. My bait was cast. Strike or no strike, I’d wait it out.
What I did not know then, was that she too was having a stampede of thoughts. She knew she had a strike, but struggled momentarily with how to reel it in. She knew she had to keep the proper angle. Impulsiveness can lose your catch, and once off the hook it may be gone forever.
When she finally spoke, her answer told me I was either off the hook, or else she was just as nervous as I was. She thanked me for my kind offer. She told me she was with her parents, and assured me they would see that she got home. Implying that she didn’t need a ride did not mean she didn’t want one. Neither of us could really differentiate between the needs and wants of each other all that clearly right then, but I was going for broke on the assumption that she was just nervous, and not just throwing me away.
I had to think fast, or lose her forever. I did not then have, nor have I acquired any reputation since then for thinking fast on my feet: it wasn’t my strong suit. I was much better known for blurting out something inappropriate that could never trump a deuce. I will never forget what I said. It was the best speech I’d ever made up to that point in my life: it was my one and only “A”.
“It’s not that I thought you would be stranded here in need of a ride. I just thought you might want me to take you home. Maybe we could stop on the way for a coke, and talk awhile.”
Caught off guard by my directness, she showed a little nervousness which was contagious. I worked so hard to not show any symptoms. Casting myself in the role of the confident one, I performed convincingly keeping my knees apart so they wouldn’t knock.
I think she said: “Oh.” Maybe it was just her eyes talking. Then, after a quick look around the sanctuary, she said she would speak with her folks, and asked that I please wait. Several thoughts rushed by: was she just needing an excuse to say no without appearing impolite? Was it more of: “Stand your ground, boy! I’m not ready to introduce you to Mom and Dad just yet!” Or, as I was hoping it would be, just a little innocent nervousness.
At any rate, she was off through the crowd like a salmon going upstream if you can comprehend the power of a stream of Baptists leaving a summer evening service in the age of television. Joshua would’ve seen a quicker fall of the walls of Jericho if he’d had such an army.
Now upstream, she surfaced beside two people. From where I stood, I couldn’t hear them, but I knew what was being said. I tried to maintain proper posture, but not wanting appear over confident, and hoping to look a little less to them than some demon from Hell. I dug in my pockets nervously, fiddling with keys and loose change.
Loose change! Oh dear! I had so little of it! Then I remembered my billfold contained pathetically more than enough to by gasoline in the morning so I could get to work. I had money in the bank, I just didn’t have much with me. What if she says yes? Experience told me I’d need to spend more than what I could afford, as it had always been expected of me in the past.
Thoughts heavily mixed with expletives flooded around in my head. I’d just asked the most lovely thing I’d ever seen to go an a date..with a pauper! What was I thinking! Just moments earlier, I’d had a brief encounter with brilliance and had thought on my feet. It had been my best thinking ever! And now, with little time to prepare, I was going to have to beat my best. I almost ran away.
Across the room, they were still staring at me. The crowd was dwindling down, reducing the barriers between us, thus leaving me precious little to hide behind. I either had to duck behind a pew, run for the door, or go on up there and meet them. My feet were too heavy to run, so I began the walk towards them, stumbling as I went. I’ve never felt so awkward and ungainly in my life.
I wondered if my zipper was properly adjusted but I dared not check it. Instead, I straightened my tie and felt certain that whatever I did to it probably made it worse. I came very close to putting my hands in my back pockets to keep them out of trouble, but thank goodness I didn’t. What a dandy figure I would’ve been parading up there like that!
When I got to where they were standing (or holding court), her mother smiled, which gave me some hope. Her father was not smiling. He glared at me. I was hoping that the implied presence of God would keep him from grabbing me and strangling me to death. In the process of introducing myself, I think I said something like:
“Ugh…ugh, ah, my ugh name is umm…(burp), my name is ah, ah, ugh… ahem!”
Later, Brenda told me I had actually been elegant, and had made a good first impression. Well, if that being true, it was certainly a night of firsts for me!
Somewhere in the process, I think I shook hands with her father. My palms were so sweaty he must’ve thought I’d just washed ’em and forgot to dry off.
I think Brenda giggled slightly, and told them I was taking her home; that we would probably stop by the Sno-Cap and have a coke, and that we wouldn’t be late. After her dad memorized my face so he could make me out in a line-up later if necessary, we were excused by being told to behave, be careful, and have a nice time.
Years later my own children would look at me in a confused and frustrated way when told to have a good time at the risk of nothing whatsoever. It’s kinda like being told that knowing the roller coaster was there was enough: you didn’t have to actually ride it.
As we were walking out, I thought it would be good to go ahead and let it out that I didn’t have much cash on me. After all, she was going to find out one way or another, so I might as well go ahead and deal with it. So, I told her:
“Brenda, when I came here tonight I had not made plans for a date, so I didn’t bring much money with me. As it has turned out, I’m delighted, but when we stop for a coke, it’ll have to be a small coke. French fries and burgers will have to be for another time.”
There, I’d said it. I told the truth, perhaps for the first time in my twenty years. In a way, it was kind of a relief. Telling the truth didn’t feel so bad: I thought I might just do it again sometime.
She said she appreciated the heads up on that, and said later that she thought it was rather adult of me to announce the terms. In the past, other dates had not bridged that awkward situation, so she was grateful I was so forthcoming. She said such honesty was refreshing. Years later we would both fondly remember that night when I had my first (and only) truth telling experience.
We talked and laughed, and had what was up ’til then, the best “date” of my entire life, and I told her so. We also had a Coca-Cola, and that’s all. I took her home as promised, and she told me I could call again. I felt better than hot-buttered cornbread made with fresh buttermilk; felt better than home-made ice cream, and even better than new clothes.
In the next few weeks, we saw movies and went to dinner often. We spoke on the phone daily. I had a good job that summer, and I was spending money: mostly on me, but some on her. Normally, I’d be saving every nickel I could to return to college, but things had changed.
Just a few short days before meeting her that summer, my immediate destiny had been sealed; I had just joined the Navy on a delayed entry program. I wouldn’t become an active duty Seabee until the fall, which would be about the time she would be returning to her college. It was an intensely wonderful summers end, but I knew I faced a most inflexible schedule, yet filled with uncertainties.
We tested each other as people do when dating. Early on, she saw me a bit cocky, self-centered and conceited, which are all true but I worked hard to convince her otherwise. I was surprised to realize she had no idea how absolutely beautiful she was, for which I am eternally grateful. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have given me the time of day. I also had to learn how to deal with her directness. I am still working on that part.
Decisions were not as clearly defined due to ambiguities, and the pressing unknowns associated with military service where there was no question that I would soon be in Vietnam. So, the fences that went up during those few wonderful weeks were hurriedly done, and not yet permanent. Permanence needed a little more time, but just momentarily, time ran out.
We were apart for some time with not so much as a letter. I was concerned I’d made a terrible mistake by not being more assertive , and by not being more assuring, but I really didn’t see back then how I could maintain a fence from so far away, and I was yet not prepared to build a wall. Maturity is more than time spent, but time is a factor. It is intensified if there is a war going on around you. Back home the country faced turmoils not unrelated to the war, and returning home would be a mixed bag.
Before I ever got home, we were back in touch, and I knew I would see her again. Knowing that brought a glimmer of sanity back to me at a time when very little of anything else seemed sane. She was courageous, and made a pathway possible to get back together. It didn’t take long to re-define terms, and begin building fences that would hold up to more than just weather: we built walls–around us together and not between us.
Years later, when asked why she married such a character as me, she would sometimes let on about that incident of my telling the truth (which always surprises people). But my favorite response from her is when she answers:
“He was the very first man to take me to the movies, and buy me my very own box of popcorn.”
Little had I known what a display of extravagance like that would mean to a girl who, prior to me, always had to share…and probably out of the small boxes as well! As soon as this story breaks, I’ll bet futures on popcorn become an issue on the commodities market.
This is not all of the story, and certainly not the end of the story. But it is enough of the story for this letter. Our pathway has been interesting and certainly a very good one for the most part. We know where we’ve been, but what is up ahead is the horizon. We can’t see over it since it prefaces tomorrow, but we know we’ll go on up the trail, and face whatever is there together.