Sunday, October 4, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
It was one of those extraordinary summer days; the kind that only comes along when you're 17 and in love. I had money in my pocket, gas in my tank and a date with the prettiest girl in town. The sky wasn't tall enough to contain my ambition. The smell of freshly cut lawns and the sounds of kids playing in the pool added a piquant sense of excitement to my adventurous plans. Switching on the ignition of my '58 Chevy, I took ridiculous satisfaction in the rumble of the engine; ridiculous because the growl was produced by a carefully engineered hole in my muffler.
As I pulled out of the condominium complex, I flipped on the radio. Percy Sledge was wailing out, When A Man Loves A Woman. The air was thick with his keening lament to love and I roared away secure in my youth and my callow grasp of his lyrics. Sheila Cooper was waiting and I had ideas.
Sheila was one of those girls whose personality was irrelevant to the boys who desired her. Even dressed in a burlap sack, her shapely figure couldn't be concealed. Fortunately, Sheila's taste in clothing was never likely to validate that test. She favored the classic sweater and skirt ensemble in a perfect 2; too short and too tight.
Arriving at her home in Huntington Harbor, Sheila met me at the door. She was a vision drawn straight from my adolescent fantasies. Her hair was long. Her boots were tall and her miniskirt couldn't have been any shorter without becoming a belt. True to form, her angora sweater hugged her as snugly as the skin of the rabbit who'd yielded his wool for the pleasure of my wandering hands.
We had a rendezvous with two movies worth of groping at the Warner Drive-in and I had the perfect car for the date. Bucket seats and a floor shift console had to have been engineered by a neutered recluse. But bench seats and a gear shift mounted on the steering column owed their design to a true romantic. Unrestrained by any seatbelt laws, Sheila cuddled up to me as I sat tall and proud behind the wheel of my two-tone, two door, Bel Air Chevy.
As a paean to teenage independence, the car was the perfect instrument and the Drive-in was a kind of rodeo orchestra. Revving the engine and burning the tires was the equivalent of a bull snorting and carving its hooves into the earth. It was an expression of pure testosterone and it trumpeted my arrival at the threshold of freedom.
Pulling into the open air theatre before dusk meant that I had the choice of stalls. A spot midway back and near the center offered the ideal viewing angle of the screen. It also afforded easy access to the concessions. Visiting the refreshment shack was more than an opportunity to buy popcorn, hotdogs and sodas. This building, in the middle of all the metal beasts, was a kind of reviewing stand; a congregating point allowing each participant in this juvenile ritual the chance to see and to be seen.
Intermission, with its cartoon candies and animated fountain drinks dancing across the screen, was the clarion call to commence the promenade. Coming immediately after the main feature, the crowds of girls and boys would descend on the watering hole in sauntering couples. The females would go to the restroom to preen and gossip and the males would strut and joust for position in the ordering line.
There were two main classes of competitors in this male contest of accomplishment: those who possessed their own cars and those who rode as passengers in the back seat. Owners assumed the lead and, like knights of old, took pride in both their steeds and their ladies. Amongst their pink slip comrades, owners were expected to brag about their achievements, both mechanical and sexual. Boasting the addition of dual four barrel carburators or headers to their ride was roughly equal to successfully executing a feel up or a hump with their girlfriend. Backseaters, like squires or knights-in-training, were free to make exaggerated claims about their sexual conquests. But, confined to borrowing space in the rear of someone else's car, no one really paid too much attention to them. Their challenge was to someday acquire their own wheels.
During intermission, roving groups of friends would tour the concrete acreage inspecting one another's cars and dates. Generally, the boys and girls would offer approving observations about both while occasionally making suggestions for mechanical and cosmetic improvements. The more trenchant criticism was reserved for the vehicles and students of rival high schools.
The second feature was, as a matter of convention, a thoroughly ignorable film. The function of the second movie was to furnish couples an hour and a half or so of make out time. Typically, only the most confident front seaters would accommodate a backseat couple. It took brave souls to welcome witnesses to a possible erotic fiasco.
Other than occupying the same car together, Sheila and I had about as much in common as fuzzy dice and motor oil. I loved books. Sheila hadn't yet encountered one. Sheila enjoyed a lot of popularity. I'd yet to encounter much of that. I didn't have much experience with sex. Fortunately, Sheila had a whole lot of that. Differences aside, she was willing and I was eager. And that was an adequate combination to fog the glass.
Removing the speaker from the side window and placing it back on its pole was a signal that matters were getting steamy and the film's audio was unnecessary to the car's occupants. Clouding the glass was a sure sign of advanced petting and would earn a couple bonus points from interested onlookers. Sheila had ample lungs in every sense. There wasn't an inch of glass on my Chevy that we didn't obscure.
The truth is that I was not in love with Sheila Cooper and I doubt she even remembered my name when she fogged the windows of some other fellow's Ford two weeks later. But she did help me to complete a critical rite of passage and, for that, I shall always be grateful to her.
I WAS in love that summer of my 17th year. I was in love with life. Now, many decades later, I AM in love.
To the woman who has restored my youth....