Painfully Perfect, Wonderfully Uncomfortable and Terribly Frightening

For my friends and me, our Sophomore year looked like it was going be a smooth year for us.  We weren’t the lowest men on the totem pole anymore.  We were men… men among freshmen boys.  More importantly, we were men among freshmen girls.

Sometimes in high school  in the little town of Oak Harbor, Ohio there were days when you felt like there was nothing much worth getting out of bed for.  But then, you remembered you were going to see…her.  Your day was going to have all these moments that were full of possibility.  You just knew that would see her in the hall.  You hoped that you would catch a glimpse of her as she walked into the cafeteria.  Maybe as the both of you switched classes between science and math class, there would be a possibility of you catching her eye and give her a little smile.  Not too big….just enough to send the message that you approved.  All you could do was hope that she didn’t catch you starring.

Ahhh… fifteen… You’re too young to vote and too old not to be in love.   Or at least in what you thought was love.  You live in a house someone else owns.  Your dreams are already somewhere else.  You are already planning your escape from the tiny confines of that small Ohio town.  You face the future armed with nothing but the money you’ve earned from mowing lawns, a three-dollar corsage and a light blue leisure suit.  And you hope against all hope that that will be enough.

There are very few things in life as purely terrifying as calling a fourteen-year-old girl on the telephone.   Especially a really cute fourteen-year-old girl… I asked and she said yes.  Her parents would only allow her to go if they could drop her off and then pick her up after the dance.  I agreed and as much as that kinda stymied my expectations and definitely ruined most of my plans for the perfect date, I was still excited.    I would meet her at the school for the Homecoming Dance on Saturday night.  

Now, most people don’t know this but there are two kinds of logic. There’s logic-logic and then there’s 15 year-old in love logic.  I was sure that nothing bad could happen.  At least nothing that would leave a permanent mark.  Had I known then what I know now, I would have walked the other way.

So, that Saturday, I stood there in my light blue leisure suit with my new floral silk shirt.  We met in the middle of the hallway.  The same hallway that we passed each other everyday for months.  She walked into the hall with a beautiful red dress on.  She looked just as I pictured in my mind, she looked beautiful.  I gave her the three dollar-corsage and we entered the dance.  The measurement of success that night was more about the entrance to the dance than the actual dancing.  All eyes were fixed on the door for the next couple to come through the paper machete streamers. We made the grand entrance and for a brief moment the world was spinning and revolving around us as we made our way into the room.  We were the center of the universe.

It was painfully perfect.  It was wonderfully uncomfortable.  It was terribly frightening.

After the third song we finally made it out to the dance floor.  We slow danced to a song I cannot remember.  And then she was gone.  She had taken refuge in the safe confines of her freshmen girlfriends and I found myself standing with the other lonely sophomore boys.   And so it happened.  My poor, fifteen-year-old heart crumbled into a little pile of dust and blew away.  It was over.

I still had a little self-respect.  I was not going to stand there with all of my other friends and watch our dates giggle, laugh and dance together in their little group at the other end of the dance floor.  I walked down to where my date was standing and I was going to tell her it was ok, we didn’t have to dance.  She said that she wanted to be with her friends.  I told her that I understood but I knew that it was time to let it go.  Time to move on.  After all, who needed freshmen girls?

I managed to slip out the side door without being noticed.  I walked towards home.  I put my head down as my mind raced to make up a story as to why I would be home so early.   I knew I had a few blocks before I would have to face the music with my family.  As I walked past St. Boniface School on my way home, I suddenly heard voices.  I heard laughter.  I looked up in the darkness and saw a few of my friends.  They left the dance as well and they were now swinging on the swings.  They were climbing and playing on the monkey bars in the playground.   Something none of us had done since our elementary days.

Maybe we all realized that growing up doesn’t have to be so much a straight line  but maybe a series of advances and retreats.  Maybe we were learning that we were growing up too fast.  Maybe it was the fact that we missed something about our childhood.  I don’t know maybe we just felt like swinging.   But what ever it was, my friends and I made an unspoken pact that night to stay young for a little while longer.  Even if it was only for a few more hours.  There was no need to rush into life.  The responsibilities of growing up would come soon enough.

Eventually…I made my way home.  I walked slowly.  Walking past each one of those houses, called homes, I started to realize something.  I was beginning to understand that in each home, with its Ford parked out front and its white bread on the table and the TV set glowing blue in the falling night, there were people with stories, there were families bound together in the pain and the struggle to find love.  I was just starting out on my journey to find it…“LOVE”…I wasn’t even sure I knew what it was anymore…but I knew I had a lot to learn and my quest to finally find it was a long way off.

Walking up my driveway, I noticed what a beautiful night it was – lit by starlight.  The world smelled fresh and clean.  I turned the handle of the front door and opened it.  Like always, there was my mom sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper.  As I walked into the room, she put her paper down and stood up.  I could see in her eyes that she knew that I had a tough night at the dance.  She  gave me a big hug.  She never said a word and neither did I.  We didn’t have to…for in that moment I felt like a kid again.  Life and all of its responsibilities would have to wait.

Years passed and my quest to find love would be fulfilled along the way as I journeyed through life. 

It was everything I had hoped it would be and more…strange thing is… thirty five years after this “Homecoming Dance” I still find love to be…

Painfully Perfect, Wonderfully Uncomfortable and Terribly Frightening.

Only The Lights Remain The Same

There are not many things I love more than having a free evening and a blank sheet of paper in front of me.  I love it even more when I fill that sheet up with words.

What is exciting to me is that I never know where it is going to take me.  It is always an adventure as to where I will end up.  Each and every time I plan on writing about something specific I never do.  I am never able to plan it out like that.  I just let the story or subject just flow out of my memory.   I like the thrill of looking at a picture or listening to some music that bring back some memories and I just love to let it flow from there and see where it takes me.  It is probably why my writings are so disjointed sometimes.  Like I have always said… I love to write, I’ve never said I was good at it.

Tonight was no different from any other night.  I sat down without a plan and I started staring at the blank page in front of me.   I was wondering where it will take me tonight.  Just then a picture that is in a small frame sitting on my office desk caught my attention. In that frame is a small faded picture of me and Bryan Blakley.  That picture was taken just before we picked up our dates for the Homecoming Dance in 1976.  We were desperately trying to look cool in our leisure suits and long hair.  We failed.

For some reason I started to think about Bryan.  I had known him for over 45 years.  I do not really remember a time when he wasn’t part of my life.  From about the age of 6 to 17, I cannot think of one thing that I was a part of that he wasn’t involved with in some way.  He and I played together and fought together.  We did just about everything together…whether that was skipping school…going on a double date or just hanging out.

One of my favorite remembrances of him was a time that we walked home from the fair about the time we were 16.  We had just spent the last night of the fair walking around checking out the girls and just having a good time.  Nothing of real significance happened that evening at the fair.  As a matter of fact, I don’t really remember anything specific even happening.  Just the two of us acting stupid, (and again) trying to be cool.  We failed again.

The fair had closed for the night about 11:30 and Bryan and I decided to walk home that night.  The Ottawa County Fairgrounds is located about six miles outside of Oak Harbor, Ohio.  At 16, the premise of walking six miles to home on a hot summer night seemed to be perfectly logical.  I remember that it was pitch black that night.  It seemed you couldn’t see past your next step.  We took our time.  There was no need to hurry.  Didn’t seem like there was that much to go back to.

Maybe it was just the mood we were in or maybe it was because it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.  But I remember that Bryan and I talked about everything on that long walk home.    We talked about our childhood, our families.  We talked about music,  what we liked and disliked.  We talked about girls.  We talked about our future.   He told me what his plans were for his life. Bryan wanted to leave the tiny confines of Oak Harbor, Ohio.  He wanted to see the world and the sooner the better.  For me,  I wasn’t exactly panicked about my plans.  I don’t think up to that point in my life I had ever given a second thought about what I was going to do with my life.  Hey – I was sixteen years old.  To me, the future was for someone else to worry about.

We had walked almost all the way to town when suddenly Bryan and I stopped talking.  It seemed as if there was nothing left to say. I suddenly had the over whelming feeling that somehow that night I walked out of my childhood and into the next phase of my life.  I wanted to stay there, in that night… more than anything I wanted before.   But I knew I couldn’t.   I was sixteen.   I slept under a roof my father owned, in a bed my father bought.    Nothing was mine, except my fears.   And my growing knowledge that not every road was going to lead home anymore. Things were about to change.  Walking through that neighborhood I grew up in, I realized that there was a time I knew every family on the block.  Their kids, names of their dogs, but most of those families weOHre gone now.  Scattered.  The ones who stayed were not the same.  The world was moving on.  My world… their world… a place where only the lights remained the same.

So… we went home. 

As I reflect on that night, some 35 years later,  I think about a lot of things, like hometowns, like family – the shortcomings, the flaws and the arguments. Still, in a world of inconsistency and doubt… maybe home is what you make it. Like I  have said before, most small towns were all about the same.  Sure, some may have been a little bigger than Oak Harbor, and some may be have been a little greener… but there was only one real difference. Only one of them… was yours.

We didn’t really accomplish anything that night.  At least that is what I thought at the time.  Our remaining high school years that lay ahead would find us moving in different directions.  There would be other nights where we would hang out and try to be cool.  We always failed.  But the sad truth is there wasn’t ever another night just like that one.   That night and the long walk home will always be set apart in my memory and in my heart.

Over the next 30 years when our paths crossed and we would always talk and we knew that there would always be a special friendship between us, but it would never be the same as it was growing up on that alley between Walnut and Washington Streets.

A few years ago, I received a phone call.  I just couldn’t believe the news on the other end.  Bryan had passed away.  I was already reeling from the loss of my closest friend (Bob Emrich) in May of that year and now my childhood friend was gone as well.   I was shocked and in some ways I am still not over the loss of my two closest friends.  For whatever reason, God sometimes allows people to be taken very quickly from us.  Many times, so fast that we never get the chance to say the things we needed to say.

I will cherish that time.  The last conversation with him was no different from any conversation I would have had with him over 35 years ago when we walked home from the fairgrounds. Our lives indeed took different paths but we will always share the common bond we found in what we call family.

Growing up is never easy. You hold on to things that were. You wonder what’s to come. But that night, I think Bryan and I knew it was time to let go of what had been, and look ahead to what would be.  Other days.  New days.  Days to come… when only the lights remained the same.