How much of my youth is real and how much is a fantasy? The memory plays tricks.
|Two Guys I Knew In High School (Long Ago and Far Away)
by Marilyn Mackenzie
First there was John
He stood there on the small oaken bridge leading to the deserted wooden cabin, where he would light the fire and start setting up tables for breakfast before anyone else woke up. He just stood there on the bridge, his blond hair blowing in the wind, his ruddy face squinting in his "hurt" expression and the trace of a salty tear rushing down his cheek, and he didn’t reach to whisk it away.
His pale blue eyes mirrored the fun he had just yesterday. He and Marilyn had gotten up first, long before the other thirty kids at camp. They went outside in the brisk air, the morning dew chilling their feet, sat on a nearby fallen tree, and read from the Bible.
Afterwards, they ran over the bridge where John now stood alone, and set up tables and started the fire in the cabin where everyone ate. They were known as the organizers by the adults, as crazy by their peers.
John half smiled as he thought these things, then stiffened remembering he wasn’t happy today. After ten minutes, he shook his head violently back and forth to shake loose the memories. He ran the rest of the way over the bridge, unlocked the cabin door, lit the fire and started the day just as he had for the past two weeks, except that Marilyn wasn’t beside him. She had gone home the night before.
John was always like that, more sensible than emotional. Though Marilyn had chosen to leave the camp, wanting to rush home to see another boy, John still had two weeks to go at Camp Living Waters, and he was sensible enough to put on a fake smile and tread on.
The way the sun had bleached his hair and tanned his body, one could tell that John spent much time outside. Most of his summers were spent mowing lawns for people unable to do it themselves. He often weeded their yards, planted their gardens, and even painted their houses and never charged them any money.
During the school term, John always managed to hold two jobs. He still helped people and often did most of the work at his own home. But even so, he managed to stay at the top of his class. Many a time he had finally toppled into bed after a day spent at school, at work, cleaning the garage, babysitting, and then studying, when his alarm clock would ring telling him of the start of a new and equally busy day.
John’s tall, healthy build and out-doorsy look tended to betray him. Actually, he was a rather mild-mannered, shy fellow, unwilling to compete in many sports because it reminded him too much of war and violence.
During the Viet Nam war, John, though doing well enough in his studies to become a scientist, had to interrupt his college education because of a lack of funds. Not long afterwards, he received his draft notice. It really grieved John that he, the boy who refused to play football because it was too violent, was called upon to go to war, that he’d be required to use a gun to defend himself and his country.
With the help of his friends, he was able to convince the draft board of his sincerity in objection to war and violence. To serve out his term as a conscientious objector, his draft board sent him to Appalachia.
His letters back to Pittsburgh about the children he taught always made his work seem like a vacation with reaping rewards. He wrote of the hesitant smiles of one little girl that grew into grins when she read sentences correctly. He wrote about a boy who had never seen a book other than the Bible that the traveling preacher carried, before John arrived on the scene to teach. And always, his letters were happy and exciting, telling how rewarding it was to be doing something truly useful for his country.
After three and a half years in Appalachia and his term over, John decided to reside permanently in the mountains and help to teach those underprivileged people how other Americans lived.
When I wrote to him once to tell him that I was doing a character sketch on him for a college class, John replied via air mail special, "Send a copy to the draft board, so they know what a good boy I was."
Then There Was Rick
A car door slammed and Rick shouted, "You loafing again?" Rick ran up our front steps, spun me around, dropped a bunch of daisies in my lap, kissed me, and disappeared into the house. I followed him, but with much less energy, and went into the kitchen to put the daisies into some water.
When I returned, Rick was seated in the living room watching stock car races with my dad, holding my little sister on his lap, and petting the dog. As I grabbed my coat and prepared to leave with or without "Sir Richard", he jumped up and called to my mom, "I’ll have her home by eleven!"
"Why did you do that?"
"Tell my mom I’d be back by eleven!"
"Well," he said meekly, "I have to make sure they like me."
As we sped away in Rick’s GTO, I asked, "Well, Sir Richard, where are you taking me?"
"Sir Richard, yes that’s a good name for me. You’re lucky to know me, you know. Oh. Where are we going? Well, there’s a party at Lynn’s house tonight."
Rick drove on silently for about ten minutes and the mask he sometimes wore began to disappear. The drive to Lynn’s house was a long one, probably an hour long. "Ugh," I thought. "How do I get myself into these messes."
For some stupid reason, I had to talk. I rambled on and on about the terrible incident at Kent State and about Nixon’s foreign policy. Imagine. Rick just smiled and let me ramble on.
We pulled up in front of Lynn’s house and three girls came running to meet us, or rather to meet Rick. "Rick," they said. "We’ve been waiting for you. Are you going to teach us to dance?"
"Oh great," I thought. "He’s an expert dancer too!"
We went into Lynn’s house and suddenly Rick was surrounded by girls. Even though he was often lost in the midst of loud music and stomping teenagers, I always knew that Rick was wedged among a group of girls teaching them how to dance or talking with a group of guys about cars.
At 9:30, Rick brought my coat and said, "Come on, doll. We’re going."
"Going?" I asked. "Why so soon? Aren’t you having fun?"
"Oh sure," he answered. "But I want to get in good with your folks."
The ride home was uneventful. Each of us had had a good time, Rick because he was the center of attraction, and I because I hadn't been.
Without asking if I was hungry, Rick pulled into a drive-in restaurant. He jumped out and moments later brought back hamburgers, fries and sodas for both of us.
At 10:57, we were standing on my front porch. Rick had a quick game of checkers with my little brother, watched a few minutes of news with my dad, kissed me on the cheek and left.
"Boy, he’s almost perfect," my mom said.
"Yeah," I answered as I climbed the stairs to my room. "That’s the problem."
These two boys would now be 50 and 51 year old. Sometimes I wonder what happened to them, how their lives played out. One was quite handsome as a youth, the other was ordinary looking, but his wealth was so evident that it didn't matter to the girls who surrounded him. Girls were influenced by his fat wallet, his expensive clothes and fast cars.
By now, though, they could both be fat and balding. I'm left to wonder, and part of my wondering is whether or not they've ever thought about me.
If they've retold the stories of our youth, have their memories have been as imaginative as my own? Is this the way life really was back then, or is just the way I remember it? I suppose I may never really know. And I ponder whether it really matters.