My senior year of high school I was a hotshot journalist on the school newspaper at Bishop Ready on the West Side of Columbus, Ohio. (The newspaper was called Excalibur, no less; our sports teams were dubbed the Bishop Ready Silver Knights. It WAS a Catholic school in the 1960’s, after all.) The faculty adviser for the paper was Sister Ann Mary. (She was affectionately known to us on the paper as SAM, as she will hereafter be referred to in this story.) SAM was great. She and another nun named Sister Paula Clare (my junior year English teacher) essentially made me the writer I am today. Thanksgiving weekend of 1969 - in the middle of a high school journalism convention field-trip to Chicago - SAM got me into a Jimi Hendrix show at the Chicago Armory by telling the ticket office people that I was an orphan in her Catholic foundling home and inquiring if they could possibly see their way clear to let me into the show for free? I looked at her and whispered, "I have parents, you know." She fixed me with a steely glare on that cold Chicago sidewalk and snapped, "Do you wanna see Hendrix or not?"
The other great thing I got out of journalism class was Linda Timmermin (name changed to protect the innocent, and Linda was SO very, very innocent). My senior year SAM forced me to become the feature editor on Excalibur. As such, I was supposed to copy-edit, nurture and tutor the freshman and sophomore writers on the paper. What it amounted to was babysitting and having to plow through bad teenage boy science-fiction stories and adolescent schoolgirl poetry to fill out shortages in column inches. When SAM found out I was just rewriting everything that came across my desk instead of mentoring the underclassmen and instructing them on how to do their own rewrites, she made me sit down with the individual writers.
As I was red-lining Linda’s first submission to the paper that actually showed some promise her glasses repeatedly fell off her face onto the copy desk. She blushed red the first two times this happened, making her bespectacled but pretty face somehow even prettier, and stammered out embarrassed apologies. I was not the most patient of editors and the third time it happened I picked her glasses up, jammed them back on her face, tucked them behind her ears and said, "Could you please ask your parents for new glasses, I don’t have time for this." (You’ve gotta kinda picture a teenage Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory here. I was THAT kind of geek.) How we got from that testy exchange to dating I have not one clue, but I do think that some part of me fell in love with Linda the exact moment I pushed those glasses onto her face and looked past them into her lovely, warm brown eyes.
Linda was the only girl I ever dated who lived close enough to school that I could walk her home. Walking a girl home from school held a powerful attraction for me because so many of the rock & roll songs I had been listening to and loving since I was five years old in 1957 glorified that American tradition. I always carried her books. I was a nice boy.
I don’t remember how many times I had walked Linda home, how many nights we had talked on the phone, I’m pretty sure we had never actually been on a date, but one afternoon we were playing around in her kitchen and I was tickling her with her back up against the refrigerator. We were both laughing and out of breath and I leaned in to kiss Linda for the first time. It was a really romantic moment. Or at least it would have been a really romantic moment if Linda had realized I was going to kiss her. Instead I just kinda bumped my mouth against hers, totally humiliating both of us. I sighed and took a couple of steps back as Linda - wide-eyed behind her glasses - said, "Oh, you were going to kiss me." "That was the general idea, yeah." I replied. "Okay, okay, I get it now, let’s kiss." she said a little breathlessly. "I think we kinda missed the moment there." I said, just as her mom got home from work and walked into the kitchen with groceries. We both looked so guilty and embarrassed I can only wonder what her mom thought was going on that afternoon, in that kitchen, against that refrigerator.
Oddly I don’t remember our actual first kiss, but I vividly remember that miss.
Linda’s and my time together was almost entirely in the winter of 1970, from sometime after Christmas 1969 to sometime in early April. My dad was still alive; I was in a band; I had a girlfriend. It was one of the five best times of my life. Linda and I would make out in her warm living room, listening to side one of Linda’s favorite album, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel. I hated Simon & Garfunkel. My previous girlfriend - a pretty, perky, popular blonde majorette and compulsive liar who shall remain nameless - had dropped me like a live grenade for a pseudo-hippie piano player who could play "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" perfectly all the way through and harmonize in dulcet tones with his Folk Club friends. I - as a rock & roll kid - truly disdained Folk Club. Linda liked Paul & Art though, so there you go. I don’t think we ever listened to side two of that record because neither of us wanted to stop kissing long enough to get up and turn the record over. Was that why CD’s were invented decades later?
A rule that was established pretty early on by Linda’s parents was that we weren’t allowed to be alone in Linda’s house unsupervised. (It seems like this came up fairly quickly after the mom-comes-home-with-groceries-refrigerator-incident, so that seems fair.) The odd thing was that Linda’s younger sister, who couldn’t have been more than nine or ten years old at the time, counted as supervision. Some days Linda and I would settle in the family room when little sis got home from school. We would make out like fiends three feet away from that little girl and she never batted an eye. Part of this was due to what I term "The Sesame Street Effect." That show had just debuted in 1970 and Linda’s sister was absolutely riveted by it. Man, that show was hypnotic to kids. There were days even Linda and I got hooked. Linda’s mom would get home from work and all three of us would be sitting together in the family room, staring at the TV screen in rapt attention at whatever Big Bird and Ernie were teaching us that day. I think Linda’s mom was enormously comforted by that.
Simultaneously, I would sometimes leave the warm, loving environs of Linda’s house when her family was getting ready for dinner and go directly on jaunts with my American History teacher to score heroin for his 19 year old cousin. (Bishop Ready had hired student teachers from the education department at Ohio State University that year to help cut costs. The student teachers were great, but they were only four or five years older than us - basically SDS college anti-establishment types - and they entirely radicalized those of us already prone to radicalization.) Matt’s cousin Jeannie (not their real names, although I'm certain some statute of limitations on buying heroin has expired by this time) was a beautifully frail, pale, strawberry-blonde coed at a private school in Columbus. She couldn’t possibly have been further from what I imagined a heroin addict would look like. I read Life magazine. I watched after-school specials about marijuana being a gateway to heavy drugs. I knew about jazz musicians and Vietnam vets. I did have some notion of The Velvet Underground by 1970 (though I didn’t worship them yet, as I would come to later) so I had a vivid mental picture of junkies. Junkies looked like Lou Reed fans, or like Lou Reed, or both.
Matt and I would cruise the dirty grey snow-ridden streets of the near East Side in his V.W. bug, searching for a connection Matt thought he could trust. (It sometimes seemed like it snowed every day of that long, stupidly cold winter.) Whenever we couldn’t find a trusted dealer, Matt would settle for whoever was on a street corner who looked like we had a 50/50 chance of not getting shot in the face by. His cousin NEEDED that shot. We’d idle past hookers trolling in the snow; girls not much older than me. I remember thinking, in all my Catholic high school naïveté, "These girls are just NOT dressed for this weather." Those Parsons Avenue and Mount Vernon Avenue streets couldn’t possibly have been further from Linda’s Stephens Drive address, and I’m not talking geographically. I think I might have learned more riding around in that Volkswagen that winter than all the rest of senior year put together.
Never in my life, from then to now, have I experienced a bigger juxtaposition of utter warmth to bitter cold; of simple joy to total degradation; of innocence to experience, as I did that winter. Sometimes I look back and wonder why I went along on those freezing, smack-scoring trips with Matt. And then I realize: It’s because I thought I was hotshot teenage journalist and that I had to learn about the ways of the world, no matter what it took. Oh yeah, and because I was stupid.
By late April I had senselessly broken Linda’s heart, my father had died of a heart attack, and my world had essentially crumbled. Much of April and all of May 1970 are gone from my memory. I think I may have had a little nervous breakdown somewhere along in there.
But to this day, when it’s been snowing every day for a week, when there’s a foot of snow on the ground and I’m shoveling, shoveling, shoveling, and I need a shot of warmth, I’m back in Linda’s living room, Sesame Street is on in the family room, Simon & Garfunkel are playing softly somewhere, and everything is all right.
© 2012 Ricki C.