Sunday, October 4, 2009


Love does not come with conditions. It is given freely and accepted gratefully. Among all virtues, love is sublime. In the cause of love, we assume any burden and dare any challenge. Love is a divine gift. It blesses giver and receiver equally. Love nourishes the spirit and ennobles our character. It is the finest part of humanity and the truest proof of God. 

At something less than two pounds, Ember Squirrel’s influence far exceeded her size. Whether it was her large, soulful eyes, her bushy tail with its smoldering colors or her exuberant personality, Ember could entice a smile from even the grimmest of visitors. World-weary travelers, hardbitten executives, solemn proselytizers, serious professionals, indifferent tradesmen, casual guests...they all succumbed to Ember’s irresistible charm. Children, especially, were fascinated by her athletic antics and sheer energy. 

My mother, Mary Luella, suffered from a lifelong fear of rodents. Just the thought of an innocuous mouse in the vicinity would propel my mom to the top of the nearest table. But she, too, was seduced by the magic of my little squirrel. Pictures of Ember dancing about my shoulders and head adorned my mother’s hospital room wall. My mother believed in miracles. And her affection for Ember was nothing short of miraculous. 

Ember arrived in my life in 1998. One of several orphaned babies, Ember and her siblings were rescued by the kindness of three Animal Control Officers who put compassion ahead of policy and saved the helpless infants. Delivered from the tender mercy of euthanasia, Ember’s fate was placed into the dubious care of my hands. It was obvious that bottle-feeding an unweaned tree squirrel was a talent conspicuously missing from my skill set. But inspired by Ember’s enthusiastic appetite, I did my best and Ember somehow managed to survive my ineptitude as a suckling mother. 

As the years passed, Ember’s place in the family was fortified by a universal respect, not only for her walnut-cracking teeth, but for her generous spirit. If the cats could move at supersonic speed, Ember could achieve Faster-Than-Light velocity at the twitch of a whisker. Yet despite the occasional feline provocation, Ember never harmed anyone; not so much as a bite. To paraphrase a Leatherneck creed that defines the relationship between a Marine and his rifle, Ember might have said, “this is my human. There are many like him. But this one is mine.” The sentiment went both ways. 

Ember died last year. It was a brief illness that, by degrees, stole my little squirrel’s vitality and finally her life; but never her sweet spirit. Near the end, having lost the gifts of her youth, Ember would crawl close to me, resting her head next to mine. Many would describe this affection as a fluke or chance. I know better. We shared my tears. As much as I ever did for Ember, my little squirrelfriend gave me so much more. I buried Ember under the shade of a young tree in the front yard...Ember’s tree. This was her home. It will remain so always. 

I love you, little girl...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Robert Volkman was a surpassing dolt, even within a family rich in clods and oafs. Held back in school from somewhere in the Pleistocene Epoch, Bobo bore most of the brutish features of his comtemporaries, the neanderthals, except for their noble character and emotional sensitivity. To say that Bobo was subhuman was an insult to cavemen everywhere.

He'd earned his nickname because of his resemblance to Bobo the Gorilla, an ape of some popularity at the time. Unlike the zoo attraction though, our Bobo drew no audience and had no fans. If he had one trick, it was his ability to clear a schoolyard of all children just by lumbering onto the playground.

Kids slow enough to come within Bobo's reach would be mugged and brutalized, stripped of lunch money and dignity with feral efficiency. Fifth Grade at Woodrow Wilson School was the ideal hunting ground for a sociopathic predator like Bobo. And we, his prey, would scuttle about, diving for cover behind trash cans and seeking temporary sanctuary within the proximity of any available teacher.

Free of even the slenderest appetite for education, Bobo would prowl the halls during classes in search of victims. His usual quarry were those unlucky pupils whose misbehavior warranted deportation to the hallways and the peril of Bobo. My penchant for offering unsolicited observations and remarks in the middle of a lesson provoked laughter amongst my classmates, but just seemed to provoke my teacher, Miss Wright. Thus, I routinely spent large portions of every school day exiled to a desk just outside my classroom.

For the most part, this was fine with me. Liberated from droning lectures and tedious drills, I was free to chart my own course of study. Typically, I read; exploring all manner of intriguing mysteries contained within books conspicuously not on the approved reading list. Unfortunately, this academic independence afforded little refuge from Bobo, whose foraging circuit led right past my exposed and vulnerable position in the hall.

Usually a dime was sufficient tribute to persuade Bobo to go hulking away in quest of other students who'd rather pay a bribe than take a beating; but not always. Sometimes the sadistic Bobo preferred to indulge his malevolent nature by punishing his hapless victims. Bobo's repertoire of humiliating exercises was uninspired, but effective. More than a few kids, pushed to their limits, would surrender pride and break down in tears. This, of course, only encouraged the thick lout.

Still, bad as he was, Bobo couldn't be everywhere and school days were filled with lots of distractions; Sadie McCall, for one. She was a tall, inscrutable, black girl. At recess, playing games of tag and dodgeball, no one was better than Sadie. In sprints, Steve Higueret and I were the fastest runners in school...among the boys. But in an open race, Sadie would regularly blow past us with a kind of effortless grace. No one doubted but that we would someday watch her blur across the finish line and win an Olympic Gold Medal. In our small region of the world, Sadie's speed was renowned.

What made Sadie mysterious was her perpetual silence. Even in class, teachers could not pry so much as a, "PRESENT," out of her during roll call. She'd nod to register her attendance and shake her head when called upon to read. Occasionally, teachers would threaten Sadie with discipline so as to elicit some utterance from the girl. In reply, Sadie would smile and accept her penalty with quiet aplomb. Eventually teachers and students alike learned to yield to her taciturn disposition.

I officially met Sadie on a cold February afternoon. The wind outside was howling and threatening to burst through the school's metal doors. With the latches rattling in counterpoint to the banchee roar of frigid air blowing past the imperfect seals, I was at my usual station near locker 107 in the hallway. Already wearing a cardigan sweater over a flannel shirt, I was considering a plan to sneak into the cloakroom and retrieve my jacket. The prospect of inciting Miss Wright to further aggravation with me seemed a small risk when measured against nature's freezing fury. The problem was that the school's furnace fed the classrooms, but not the halls.

It was while plotting this covert mission that my concentration was sidetracked by a remarkable discovery. A desk, identical to my own, had materialized just two classrooms away, and occupying that desk was Sadie McCall. Now it was not surprising for me to entertain shared company along the corridor. At some point in time, almost every young scholar was banished to a seat on the polished floors outside class. But we had a collection of characters who customarily populated this drafty wing of the school. Joe Luhan, Teddy Shaddux and Billy Myers were some of the regulars. Joe had a unique talent. Endowed with an enormous nose and relatively small hands, Joe could bury his index finger up his nasal passage well past his second knuckle. This was a feat of astonishing proportions. His downfall, though, was his habit of forming the recovered booger into a ball and flicking it across the classroom. Even Joe's admirers objected to becoming a target of his mucus.

Bubble gum was Teddy's delinquency of choice. A connoisseur of the sweet and chewy confection, Teddy maintained that Bazooka was demonstrably superior to Dubble Bubble in forming large and sustainable bubbles. And Teddy would know. Inserting two packs of the hard gum into his mouth, Teddy would commence a thorough chomping of the chewy mass before attempting his first small air pocket. Gradually softening the sugary resin, Teddy would go on to create progressively larger trial balloons. After much snapping and blowing, he could produce a giant, pink bubble rivaling the size of his head. The real knack, however, was in neatly deflating the bubble without its exploding into a gooey mess all over his nose and face. At this, Teddy was a master. The irony was that Teddy would rarely be apprehended during his moment of effervescent triumph. Instead, his teacher would be alerted to Teddy's violation by the students' cheers of approval following his consummate performance. I suspect that the evidence of Teddy's singular accomplishment may still be found today; hardened memorials permanently attached to the bottom of his seat attesting forever to Teddy's virtuosity.

Billy's passport to the hallway was authorized on entirely different grounds. Billy liked girls. Fifth Grade culture, though, did not permit romantic liaisons. So Billy was compelled to manifest his interest in the opposite sex via complex and perverse schemes. Trudy Callis, for instance, might have recognized Billy's devotion to her charms when he smeared arts and crafts glue over her desk chair in anticipation of her arrival. Likewise, Stephanie Foster could have discerned Billy's affection for her when he poured half a bottle of India ink into her ponytail. Despite the sincerity of these affectionate overtures, Billy was invariably remanded to the hallway and Bobo's unofficial custody.

My voluble propensities did not stop at the classroom door. So, when I spotted Sadie sitting in the hall, I strode over to welcome her. In true form, Sadie smiled, but said nothing in response and turned back to a math text she was evidently studying. I greeted this as an open invitation to chat. Commenting on the blizzard-like conditions in the hallway, I suggested that we scoot our desks closer together; the better to talk and to draw warmth from one another. For her part, Sadie remained mute, staring intently at her book. Not at all discouraged, I prattled on, offering opinions and thoughts on a whole range of topics. Eventually, Sadie looked up from her studies and fixed me with a deliberate gaze. I must have said something of consequence because, as I looked at her, a tiny tear began to form at the corner of her right eye. Imagining that I had somehow offended her, I began apologizing profusely. In a completely uncharacteristic gesture, I even offered to resume my seat fifty feet away and to remain quiet for the duration of our shared sentence.

It is said that the world waits upon no one. But, God might just have made the smallest exception in this instance. Following a timeless hesitation, Sadie spoke... softly at first. There was a tremulous quality to her voice. I couldn't quite make out her first words, but fearing that she might abandon the effort if I asked her to repeat herself, I exercised all the patience I could muster and waited. A few seconds later, I was rewarded. She said, "Hi. My name is Sadie McCall." Momentarily dumbstruck myself, the best I could manage in reply was to stick out my hand. Sadie clasped it firmly. I had a new friend.

After that, we spoke often. Sadie had a slight stutter and she explained that she'd been teased mercilessly about it; to the point that she'd just ceased speaking altogether. I assured her that I had enough words for both of us. For some reason, Sadie found that amusing. Like friends everywhere, our conversations were a mixture of matters, trivial and serious. Exchanging confidences, I learned that Sadie had trouble reading. It seemed that her mind raced ahead of her ability to process the words on a page. So we practiced. I'd read out loud to her as she followed the printed text. Gradually, Sadie began reading along with me. Little by little, she gained confidence. I'd pause in my reading, briefly at first, then for longer periods of time, allowing Sadie to carry on by herself. In due course, she could deliver whole pages of material without any assistance. We discovered that Sadie had a lovely, velvet voice.

I took pride in introducing my new friend to the rest of the hallway regulars; Teddy, Joe and Billy. Naturally, Billy took a special interest in Sadie. And it was left to me to restrain Billy who, I suspected, would otherwise convey his fondness for Sadie in his inimitable fashion. I happened to know, where Sadie was concerned, that ink and glue were not aphrodisiacs. All in all, this was a happy time. But, as the saying goes, nothing lasts forever. With the same inevitability that insures ants will arrive to ruin a picnic, one morning the hall door opened and Bobo's bulk came trundling toward us.

By any fair reckoning, Bobo was a behemoth. The fact that he was also a thug and a bully was not lost on anyone. Even so, there was not much that I or any of my classmates could do about him. Bobo was just an ugly fact of life. I started digging around in my pockets for the requisite bribe. But all I could fish out of my pants was a comb, a note from my mother reminding me to clean my room before supper, a bent baseball card, a small piece of thread that I'd yanked from my belt loop and a half-sucked lifesaver. As he approached, I prepared myself for imminent injury.

Bobo was as predictable as fog in the Bay Area. He grabbed me roughly by my shirt collar and began reciting his usual litany of threats: he'd pound my face into mush, tear my throat out and feed it back to me, stick his foot so far up my alimentary canal that I'd choke on it, etc., etc.

Joe, bless his heart, offered to loan me a dime. But Bobo was in one of his particularly malicious moods. He was not inclined to accept a pay least not for just a dime; a quarter maybe. Lacking a quarter, I silently petitioned God for deliverance and steeled myself for pain.

While I was calculating the odds of my going home with a fat lip, a black eye, a bloody nose or all three, God answered. He sent an angel. In a voice that contained not a single stutter or quaver, Sadie directed Bobo, in no uncertain terms, to take his dirty hands off me! I think Bobo was more stunned by that uncompromising command than if he'd been hit in the head with an original thought. Probably out of shock, Bobo released his grip on my shirt and turned to glower at Sadie. She promptly took advantage of Bobo's confusion and, stepping forward, placed her hand on my shoulder, easing me out of the big goon's reach. All the while Sadie kept her unflinching eyes locked on Bobo whose befuddlement was so profound one might almost have felt sorry for him...almost.

No one, absolutely no one ever challenged Bobo; certainly not a girl! And yet, there she was, staring him down. It must have been utterly beyond Bobo's simpleminded ability to grasp. Thoroughly nonplussed and with spittle shooting out of his mouth, an enraged Bobo began to advance on Sadie....

What happened next is captured forever in the minds of the hallway regulars. I have replayed the images a hundred thousand times in slow-motion...

Sputtering something incomprehensible, Bobo hauled back his fist preparatory to landing a pulverizing punch on Sadie's face. But before the big ox could even cock his arm, Sadie drove a smashing blow right into his kisser. In front of four transfixed witnesses, Bobo flew backwards against the lockers, collapsing in a heap.

I'd seen a few schoolyard fights; mostly pushing and shoving; a few desultory swipes at the air. But, outside of the professional boxing ring, I'd never seen anything like this. I think it was Teddy who recovered first. And it was he who spoke for everyone when he exclaimed: "HOLY SHIT!"

The explosion of tortured metal as Bobo collided with the lockers must have resounded throughout the entire wing because, within seconds, students and teachers began pouring out of the classrooms and spilling into the hall. The shocked crowd encircled the supine Bobo. For the briefest of moments there was total silence. Then the shouts went up, rapidly evolving into a collective cheer! The ogre was down and by all appearances...out.

It was ecstasy....

The pandemonium broke out when the onlookers realized that it was Sadie who had put an end to Bobo's reign of terror. The fact that she had done so with a single, mighty wallop was the stuff of myth and legend. Tales of her dragon slaying exploit grew only more extravagant during Bobo's subsequent absence. And when the humbled Troll did return, Sadie's fame was not diminished. Bobo's jaw, having been dislocated, was wired shut. It was beyond poetic. It was celestial justice and the newly emboldened student body took full advantage of Bobo's palpable disgrace. Taunted by second graders, the once intimidating and now helpless Bobo inspired only derision and laughter. A few weeks later, Bobo left forever.

Homes in that era were often outfitted with a backyard incinerator. The smell of burning refuse was not uncommon on a weekend afternoon. It seems that Bobo was playing with paint thinner near a burning incinerator. The resulting explosion generated a subsequent request for flowers to be sent to his family. Only two students from Woodrow Wilson attended Bobo's funeral service...Sadie McCall and me.

It's been nearly fifty years since Bobo's demise and I still reflect on the momentous events of that long ago time. Sadie's dad, it turns out, had been a light heavyweight contender. He'd also been a man ahead of his time. Believing that his daughter should be able to defend herself, he'd taught her how to throw a punch. In turn, Sadie taught me the basics of a hook, jab, uppercut and cross. I lost touch with Sadie in the years that followed. But I never forgot her quiet strength of character. A.J. Liebling, one of the great reporters of all time, described boxing as "The Sweet Science." He must have had Sadie McCall in mind.



In the 6th Grade, life abruptly changed for me. Until then, school was nothing more than a perplexing exercise in alternating boredom and punishment. Most of my days were comprised of two main activities: 1) trying mightily not to offer unsolicited observations in class, and 2) suffering various forms of discipline for failing Number 1.

The usual penalty for contributing an uninvited remark during a lecture was consignment to a corner of the classroom. Forced to stand mere inches from the wall, I was free to examine defects in the plasterboard and to read the occasional scrawled remarks of previous detainees. Apart from the discovery of a termite infestation or the opportunity to view a procession of ants migrating from one tiny hole to another, there was very little to occupy my attention. Consequently, my endless hours in the corner provoked stimulating flights of imagination. In this manner, I could transport myself from the narrow confines of my physical punishment to a fantasy world of infinite dimension and possibility.

A devoted fan of Captain Zoom, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and other space and time travelers, I would communicate with my extraterrestrial allies by invisible transmitter. Anticipating my imminent rescue, I waited patiently in my corner. Unfortunately, conversation with my alien companions would, at odd intervals, become unintentionally audible. For some reason, this seemed to infuriate my teachers. Evidently, the objective of such discipline was to restrain my penchant for spontaneous speech. The idea that my punitive sentence would actually promote new interruptions of academic silence was intolerable and would usually lead to an unscheduled appointment with the principal.

In due course, I became a familiar presence in the principal's office; so much so that I was assigned regular duties there. As I found satisfying this opportunity to apply my talents to some useful purpose, I would commence loud dialogue with my overdue spacefaring colleagues almost immediately upon assuming my punishment position in the corner of the classroom. This tactic hastened my escape from the corner and my availability for administrative tasks in the front office. By the 6th Grade, it was clear to me that the real aim of schooling was to nurture the development of such skills as survival, evasion, resistance and manipulation. At this, I excelled.

One girl, however, changed everything. Accustomed as I was to the company of children, I was not at all prepared for the appearance of Madelyn Martinelli. A 6th Grader according to her class placement, Madelyn was a full-fledged woman in every anatomical sense. She was a Ferrari in a parking lot otherwise filled with bicycles. I was instantly enthralled and found myself uncharacteristically speechless. Madelyn's precocious figure had a similarly profound and immediate effect on every student in the class. Indeed, even Mr. Rush, our teacher, seemed to fall under her influence. Considering Madelyn's physical maturity, it did not seem at all surprising. Without uttering a word, Madelyn took possession of a unique status as distinct and remote from her fellow pupils as the faculty and staff of the school.

But, even this shock to my routine eventually attenuated and I gradually recovered my ungovernable powers of speech. Now, however, I was confronted by a genuine dilemma. If I continued my usual practice, which resulted in my deportation to the principal's office, I would be compelled to relinquish my enviable position in orbit about that celestial body which was Madelyn. My only alternative was to remain unnaturally mute. Emperor Ming, himself, could not have devised a more diabolical choice. It did not take long for me to learn a critical lesson in life: biology almost always trumps thoughtful deliberation. In fact, so powerful is biology, that it is capable of bending intellect to its instinctive purpose. Thus, I found myself bound to silence in order to maintain proximity to the object of my absolute fascination.

Attentive to the slightest change in expression, I studied Madelyn's face everyday for the smallest sign of acknowledgment; anything that might suggest that she was even remotely aware of my existence. My own obsession was mirrored on the face of every other boy in class and, for reasons of their own, most of the girls'. And so it remained for days and then weeks; a tableau in adolescent fixation. And it might very well have continued indefinitely but for the timely intervention of Christmas and the Annual Winter Talent Show. Every year the three 6th Grade classes would collaborate to produce an afternoon's entertainment. Typically, this staged production would showcase the dubious talents of a dozen or so members of the graduating class. Invariably, parents would attend the performance if only to rationalize the further investment of money in their offspring's music and dance lessons. Considering that my only obvious talent was the ability to extricate myself from class and that I had retired that skill in the interest of biological determinism, I resolved to take my place among the soon-to-be snickering members of the audience.

Fate, or the contrivance of a higher power, perhaps issuing from the vicinity of the principal's office, decreed otherwise. It seemed that a talent show could not be properly inflicted on an audience without the participation of an MC, or Master of Ceremonies. My wide reputation for unwelcome utterances was cited as justification for my selection as MC. The fact that, for once, I would have preferred to remain quiet was irrelevant to some and deliciously ironic to others. My announcing responsibilities, themselves, were fairly straightforward. I was to greet visitors to the school in descending order of importance, introduce the performers, encourage polite applause when it was probably not deserved and, finally, thank the audience for not throwing fruit and vegetables at the "talent." It was also my obligation to retrieve the tabulated votes and to declare the winner of the talent show.

It was while contemplating this unfortunate turn of events that a miracle occurred. In addition to the usual cast of incompetent jugglers, tone deaf singers, uncoordinated baton twirlers and clumsy magicians, one Madelyn Martinelli was scheduled to offer her rendition of 'Singing In The Rain' in tap. I could not have been more awestruck had Charlton Heston appeared in front of me with two stone tablets in hand. There was no mathematical formula long enough to calculate the miniscule odds of anyone but Madelyn Martinelli winning the talent show. And it was to be my singular honor to present the absurdly inadequate Blue Ribbon to her in front of the entire school.

As news of my extraordinary good fortune circulated through the halls, my personal stock rose with the speed of a Saturn Rocket. My ascent through the many layers of elementary school social structure was no less gravity defying than one of my imaginary associate's flying saucers. Now the significance of my newfound celebrity could not truly be appreciated without an understanding of grade school reality. One of the great paradoxes of basic education in democratic America is the fact that a grade school class is anything but classless. In every K-12 school in the United States, strict social distinctions were and are observed and enforced. At the very bottom of 6th Grade society were the poindexters. These were the intelligent, but socially inept forerunners to the modern day nerds. Existing just barely north of the poindexters were the philosophical children of the Beatnik Generation. These detached and often poetic souls were destined to go to college and become hippies and blooming flower children. Within our student flow chart of authority and prestige, these classes neither sought, nor exercised any significant power or influence. Floating near the top of the food chain were the Athletes and the Soshes. These two classes functioned almost as one. From their ranks would emerge football heroes, head cheerleaders, class presidents and graduation kings and queens. They constituted the ruling force within student life. They were, in a word, popular. And at the very pinnacle of our student social order stood Madelyn Martinelli, in a class by herself.

With stunning suddenness, I had been propelled upward from the very bottom rung of the social ladder to a position very near the top. And the basis for my unprecedented rise from obscurity to conspicuous recognition was my propinquity to Madelyn Martinelli. Considering that I had yet to utter so much as one word to this Avatar of Female Perfection, I was not at all confident that my newly acquired rank would survive beyond the day of my unparalleled opportunity. Still, I was resolved to make the most of it. During recess, I would stroll about the playground from the tetherball courts to the dodge ball arena, interrupting hopscotch matches and games of tag; inspecting all elements of the student body in the manner of a duke or earl surveying his serfs and properties. At lunch, I was attended by scores of students from every rank and class, eager to share their drinks and desserts with me. Like lieutenants, representatives from all levels of the social strata would provide reports on the doings of their respective communities. Teachers, too, seemed to sense my promotion to nobility. No more were my personal preferences for restroom breaks brushed aside in favor of regulated periods where herds of pupils with full bladders would mob the boys' lavatory. Gone were the days when my idle remarks provoked grimaces and subsequent trips to the principal's office. I had achieved the ultimate goal of all students everywhere. I WAS POPULAR!.

All in all, it was a magnificent experience and one that I was increasingly unwilling to surrender. Little by little, I found myself seduced by the intangible sway of adulation and privilege. It was heady stuff. But I was keenly aware of just how insubstantial was the foundation of my social standing. Everything, in fact, was contingent upon the goodwill of one person. And, as yet, not one word had passed between us. During the long days leading up to the great event, Madelyn's much scrutinized face betrayed not one flicker of recognition, though my status as a BMOC (Big Man On Campus) was balanced precariously on our supposed association. So when I discovered that we were to participate in a dress rehearsal on the day before the talent show, I vowed to break through the barrier separating me from the source of all my recent good fortune. I decided to introduce myself to Madelyn Martinelli.

It is likely that I would have dreamt of this meeting all through the night prior to the rehearsal had I been able to sleep at all. But my anxiety was such that I spent that night fitfully twisting and turning in bed imagining all manner of horrible outcomes. At the top of the list was laughter. This is what I feared the most. The idea that she would have such disdain for my ambition of forming an acquaintanceship that she might laugh in my face, terrified me. Thus, when I arrived at school on the day of the dress rehearsal, I was physically and mentally exhausted. Were it not for the paralyzing fear coursing through my body, I might very well have collapsed in an unconscious heap. Throughout the interminable morning, I ruminated on the approaching moment of dread. By lunchtime, I was so stricken with apprehension, that I remained indoors. I seriously considered throwing myself on the mercy of the school nurse. With one quick call to my mother, I could be sent home sick and my misery would be over. With little effort at all, I could stretch my "illness" out for an additional day and avoid the talent show altogether. As my appointment with destiny drew near, I found myself longing for those simple, relaxed days when I would talk out of turn, stand in the corner, consult with my outer space companions and visit my friend, the principal. How had I gotten myself into this fix?

Inevitably, the earth, indifferent to my turmoil, continued its rotation and the appointed time of the dress rehearsal arrived. I remember mustering all my courage, stepping on stage, walking up to the microphone......and, thereafter, I have no clear recollection of what happened next. Apparently, it was not good. A poindexter pal told me afterwards that I had mumbled something incomprehensible into the microphone, made a few choking noises followed by an uncomfortably long silence and, then, had ended my sad performance by walking off stage whispering to some unseen companion. There was a dispute among the other witnesses to this public humiliation as to whether I had subsequently vomited or not. I do recall with vivid clarity sitting on the floor in the cloakroom fighting back tears of frustration and embarrassment while the dress rehearsal continued in the multi-purpose room/auditorium. As the singing and dancing, juggling and magical acts persisted, I remained alone, closeted in my shame.

Sometime later I noticed that the sounds of music and voices had subsided. The rehearsal, I assumed, was over. But I continued to sit in the dark. I had deliberately not turned on the light, preferring to allow the gloom from the pounding rainstorm outside to seep into the room. The weather, I thought, was appropriately sympathetic to my dark and defeated mood. Shortly thereafter, when I heard footfalls approaching the cloakroom, I retreated into the janitor's closet. For several minutes I listened to students jabbering away as they collected their coats, umbrellas and rain slickers. When it grew silent, I emerged from my concealment. But I was not alone. There, mere steps away, stood Madelyn Martinelli.

Unconscious of my presence, Madelyn was casting about apparently searching for the light switch. My eyes, having previously adjusted to the lack of illumination, revealed her clearly. So as not to startle her, I coughed. She turned and looked directly at me. Without preface, she declared that someone had, evidently, walked off with her raincoat, umbrella and galoshes. It seemed odd that this girl who represented a universal ideal of female perfection should suffer from so ordinary a problem. Nonetheless, it was the kind of problem that I could solve. As we conducted a thorough search for the missing rain gear, Madelyn explained that she had only her tap shoes with which to walk home and that she was afraid that the rain would destroy them. Having scheduled the rehearsal for the last period of the day, I knew that the chances of catching the culprit who had made off with Madelyn's rain clothing were vanishingly small. The solution was obvious. I would loan her my own rain boots, coat and umbrella. It did not occur to me for an instant that I was sacrificing anything important. The prospect that Madelyn Martinelli would not be able to perform was, of course, unthinkable. Besides, I had heard through the walls of the cloakroom that my own participation in the talent show had been scrubbed after my dismal showing.

I was touched by her initial reluctance to borrow my gear. But, after reminding Madelyn of her talent show obligations, she accepted the apparel. Donning the boots and jacket, I noted that the clothing had never looked so good on me. Before embarking on her trip home, Madelyn offered to send her mother back to retrieve me. Now while the possibility of insinuating myself even further into her life held more than a little excitement, I thought it better to quit while I was ahead. I assured her that my own mother would be by shortly to collect me. This was a lie. But it was a lie in the service of a greater good. I had a lot of thinking to do and a long walk home in the rain seemed like an excellent opportunity to undertake those deliberations. As I waved to Madelyn and watched her trudge off toward her home, I was proud of myself. And it was not the kind of false pride that I had so recently been indulging. Flattery, while momentarily fun, was empty. It was a hard lesson, but one I resolved never to forget.

These deep thoughts notwithstanding, I arrived home soaking wet. After seeing the sodden condition of my school shoes, my mother seemed somewhat less content with the price of my lesson in character. Her perspective was different, of course. She had paid for the shoes. Emptying them of the excess water, we popped the shoes into the oven. Overnight, the warmth of the heating appliance did its job. The shoes were completely dry. They were also, however, unwearably stiff. The mistreated leather had the texture of thick cardboard and an appearance that was equally unacceptable. The only recourse was to pull out my Saturday Catechism shoes. Having moved to Daly City from San Francisco the year before, my mother had not yet succeeded in enrolling me in the local Catholic school. Consequently, my weekend mornings began with a nun asking questions like, "Who is God?" and me reciting memorized answers like, "God is the Supreme Being Who Made All Things."

One thing that I do not believe God had a hand in making was Corfam shoes. Constructed of a synthetic material, Corfam shoes boasted one undeniable quality, they maintained a permanent shine. Other than that, they were ugly. Unfortunately, they were considered de rigueur by the nuns. To public school kids, the sight of Corfam shoes was a source of enormous amusement. Few pieces of attire attracted as much ridicule as Corfam shoes and while they were instrumental in performing one particularly ungodly function, they were fashion suicide at Jefferson Elementary School where I was attending. Still, I had no alternative. It was Corfam shoes or socks alone. Having already endured the prior day's mortification, the prospect of absorbing some generic insults over my footwear held no terror for me.

I reported to class with a kind of 'nothing-left-to-lose' resignation. Surprisingly, I encountered very little harassment. It seems that the general anticipation of seeing Madelyn Martinelli perform her tap routine in a mini skirt was so preoccupying that there was little surplus energy with which to attack me. I made a mental note to again thank The Maker of All Things for having created Madelyn Martinelli. Mr. Rush officially notified me that due to circumstances beyond anyone's control (but mine), I had been replaced as MC of the talent show. While I would have been devastated by this news only two days before, it frankly came as a welcome relief on this morning.

Thus, the day began. English gave way to Math which, in turn, evolved into History and, in time, the lunch hour arrived. While Madelyn's imminent performance still deflected any concentrated attention on my recent disgrace, it was patently obvious to even the random seagull flying overhead that my personal stock had plummeted. There were no proffered snacks, no briefings, no flattery and no special deference. In short, things were back to normal.

Shortly after lunch, the eagerly anticipated announcement came over the speaker system in all of the classrooms. We were to proceed to the multi-purpose room to attend the Annual Winter Talent Show. Upon arriving, we found that hundreds of chairs had been arranged in neat rows awaiting our arrival. Naturally, as the graduating 6th Grade Class, we took seats in the very front, at the foot of the portable stage. The fact that this same stage had been the scene of my fall from grace just the day before was almost unimportant. We needed only to endure an hour or so of incompetent acts and Madelyn Martinelli would take that stage.

After waiting what seemed an unusually long time, the audience began to register its dissatisfaction over the continuing delay. Still, nothing happened. The piano was there. The reel-to-reel tape recorder was in place. That cursed microphone was standing at attention in the middle of the stage. Everything seemed poised to commence and yet ... nothing. Then, from the back of the large room, a commotion began. As the noise of the impatient crowd rose in volume, I looked back over my shoulder to see my friend, the principal striding down the center aisle toward the apron of the stage. I caught his eye and with a mounting sense of drama, I realized that he was making his way directly toward me. A second or two later, he was leaning over and whispering in my ear that my replacement MC had, himself, succumbed to nerves and that the duty of introducing the performers was once again mine.

With a calm sense of purpose that I shall never be able to fully explain, I promptly mounted the stage, approached the microphone and greeted the audience, welcoming them to our Annual Winter Talent Show. With a practiced skill that materialized from God-knows-where, I introduced each act in turn, thanking them at the conclusion of their respective performances. This went on smoothly for more than an hour. Finally, it was time for Madelyn Martinelli to deliver her tap tribute to that Gene Kelly classic, "Singing In The Rain." From a side door just adjacent to the back of the stage, she emerged. With an effortless leap, Madelyn took the stage. I removed the microphone. The piano began the opening notes of the song and I resumed my seat in the first row directly in front of Madelyn Martinelli.

Oddly enough, I remember very little about her actual performance. But, at the conclusion of her routine, the audience erupted in a deafening and sustained applause the like of which I doubt has ever been matched in that multi-purpose room. In retrospect, I would guess that had she merely stood and looked into the crowd for the duration of the song, her performance would have been a rousing success. As it was, there was no question as to the winner of the talent show. But, then, there had never really been any doubt.

Once again, I climbed onto the stage, bringing the microphone with me. Not that it was necessary, but the judges went through the motions of voting and the written result was handed to me. I called upon all of the performers to join me on the stage and to take a bow. Then, after delaying only long enough to heighten anticipation, I announced the expected result. Madelyn Martinelli was the winner of Jefferson Elementary's Annual Winter Talent Show. As I handed Madelyn the inadequate Blue Ribbon, she looked me right in the eye, reached out, pulled me in close and planted a full-face kiss on my lips, right there on stage in front of the entire school. There are certain words that apply precisely to the action described. "Swoon" is one such word. Had Madelyn not been there to lean on, I have no doubt but that I would have fainted dead away.

I know, because it was confirmed later, that Madelyn took the microphone and proceeded to describe in detail the circumstances of the borrowed rain gear the day before. What she whispered to me as we walked off stage together, I shall keep to myself. It is our secret. I can say that had I known, on the day of the dress rehearsal, how this talent show was going to play out, I would have danced my way home singing in the rain.



My dad was 63 years old on the day of my birth. He owned and ran a card parlor on the corner of Gambling and Payoffs in San Diego. My mom was 25 years his junior. It was 1949 and I became a card-carrying member of the baby boom generation. My paternal grandfather fought in the Civil War. My great uncle, on my pop's side, was P.T. Barnum. My mom's family were 100 proof Irish; Hanrahans and Fitzgeralds.
I began life as a San Diegan. But, as a wee toddler, my family moved to Los Angeles. A few years, one Catholic grammar school and two public schools later, we relocated to San Francisco. My dad died. Another few years, one more public school and another Catholic grammar school later,  we found ourselves in Daly City (356 Citrus Avenue). Thus I began, in earnest, my peripatetic campaign to attend a new school with the advancement of each passing year. In retrospect, this was probably just the natural consequence of the collision between our frequent relocations and my mom's determination to see that I got a proper Catholic education.

Two more public schools plus graduation from Our Lady of Perpetual Help and I was ready for High School. That same year, the Beatles landed in America. I promptly bought a guitar, formed a band and began to twist and shout. With a total of three songs in our repertoire, we entered and won our first band battle. Before the dust could settle on our trophies, the group broke up. The truth is that we had run out of excuses for declining offers for gigs. Three songs and a lot of stage gymnastics make for winning band battle performances. But, we realized that our meager playlist would have made for painfully repetitive music at dances.

My family migrated to Huntington Beach in 1965 after I was invited not to return for my Junior year to that bastion of Marianist training, Riordan Boys Catholic High. I never did bump into Surfer Joe, but I did take up a liftetime passion for scuba diving.

In due course, I finished my High School career at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana. A Catholic High School, true. But at least it was coed. I continued to play and teach guitar until I met Jose Feliciano. At that precise moment I realized that my treatment of that poor, defenseless, stringed instrument could only be described as cruel and unusual punishment. I ceased torturing both the guitar and the audience.

I spent my first year after High School refining my pinochle game. Then I avoided the draft by joining the Navy. Four years in the Service rehabilitated my appreciation for education so I headed back to school.

College was terrific. I enrolled at San Diego State, grew my hair fashionably long, bought a motorcycle and set my sites on Phi Beta Kappa. Three years later, I found myself sitting in a sea of mortar boards trying to remember in which direction to flip my tassle. I was desolate. Then I discovered why God created grad school.

A total immersion course in Russian at Indiana University convinced me of three things: 1) Bobby Knight was the greatest and most volatile basketball coach I was ever likely to see in action (I audited a class he taught in Military History), 2) Midwest college campuses dwarf West Coast schools in both structure and space, and 3) my "pronounced" accent would forever cripple any hope of passing for a native Russian.

I decided to move on. Being oh so Irish-Catholic and already in Indiana, the writing seemed to be on the wall. I took a bus to South Bend and announced my intention to study at Notre Dame. It was probably my audacity. They assigned me a seat in the Graduate School of Government and International Studies. Thanks to a Ph.D student's last minute defection, I inherited her scholarship. My carefully husbanded GI benefits and a loan secured my spot in the M.A. class of 1978.

Winter in the midwest is a thing to behold...briefly. Unfortunately, it persists for an eternity. Clutching my masters degree, I skipped Jimmy Carter's Commencement Address and beat a path back to sunny Southern California.

A job as Head Resident of Touton Hall on the campus of USC kept me off the unemployment rolls. As a foot soldier in the Army of Tommy Trojan I learned three things: 1) it is best, while at USC, not to advertise one's previous affiliation with the Fighting Irish, 2) in an average year, the University of Southern California fields more Catholic football players than does Notre Dame, and 3) SC's School of International Relations breeds more political dissension amongst its faculty than any collection of governments one might study.

My employment compensation included a tuition remission. So I took a course in Defense and Strategic Policy Analysis from a Professor Bill Van Cleave or, as he was affectionately known by students and faculty alike, Dr. Strangelove. I wrote what I thought was a tongue-in-cheek paper on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). Van Cleave liked it and offered me a fellowship. Thus, I began my career as a Hawk. Calculating the circular error probability (CEP) of an incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), assessing the deterrent value of the mutually assured destruction (MAD) policy, measuring the lethality index of a nuclear ground burst versus an air burst detonation and evaluating the cost benefit of placing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (mirv's) on submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM's) became the objects of my ever-narrowing attention.

I might eventually have vanished into the obscurity of the RAND Corporation, SRI International or some other defense-related think tank had I not encountered one intractable, academic reality: faculty feuds. A doctoral committee requires a minimum of three professors. In USC's School of International Relations, I could not find three members of the faculty who could sit together at the same table without the risk of violence. Consequently, I elected to add a fourth field to my studies and spent the next year exploring the dubious value of Psycho-Politics and Conflict Research. (Yes, you read that correctly)

To supplement my slender financial resources, I took advantage of an actors' strike by accepting a series of marginal and uncredited roles in a variety of television programs and theatrical films. The high point of my brief dramatic career lasted less than ten minutes and involved my enthusiastic portrayal of Loni Anderson's masseur in "The Jayne Mansfield Story."

In due course, having exhausted my hiatus, I returned to the internecine conflicts of my department, but not for long. Dr. Van Cleave had been a significant presence on Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. However, Reagan's election did not produce the desired appointment for Van Cleave as Secretary of Defense. The new President owed enormous "debts" to the Bechtel Corporation. Dr. Strangelove was, instead, offered chairmanship of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Since it was Reagan's intention at that time to dismantle the Agency and not U.S. nuclear arms, Van Cleave was not appeased. Coincident with the head of my doctoral committee's loss of stature, the Department doves moved in on Van Cleave with Hawk-like ferocity.

Consoling myself with the realization that I need no longer punctuate my speech with constant reference to acronyms, I bid farewell to USC and to academia. I went scuba (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) diving (okay, so there was still the occasional acronym). After about six months, I surfaced for air. It was at this juncture that I was compelled to acknowledge three things: 1) I was 32 years old, 2) my student loans were shortly going to come due, and 3) I was utterly broke. The realization that my net value was composed of some sheepskins, an honorable discharge and a diving certificate propelled me into action. I went to work. Worse yet, I went to work for the Government.

Suffice it to say that the housing costs in and around Langley, Virginia are steep for someone on a government salary. So, I started my own firm. For the next several years I undertook appalling assignments for exorbitant fees. But, eventually, youthful exuberance gave way to lower back pain and I did what any self-respecting, over-educated character with few practical skills would do; I went to law school. Later on, I returned to Southern California where, in 1993, I was afflicted with an acute attack of "Mid-Life Crisis."

I got married to a gal about half my age. Common ground was a bit of a problem. We both bought CD's. Mine stored money. Her's stored music. Two years later we dissolved our civil marriage civilly. Lisa and I shook hands and became good friends. In hindsight, buying a convertible would have been a more prudent treatment for my mid-life crisis.

These days, I live in Norco, California. Norco is a particularly ugly contraction for North Corona. It is located about 15 miles East of Disneyland. It features miles and miles of horse trails, storefront hitching posts and watering holes (both for equine and human). As a bachelor, I did not have so much as a gold fish. As a divorced fellow, I have four dogs, three cats, one horse and a tree squirrel. Life is odd isn't it? I think it was J.B.S. Haldane who said that life is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we CAN imagine.



When I was a little kid, my family lived in Los Angeles just across the street from Queen of the Angels Hospital, where my mom worked as a Registered Nurse. My best friend was a mexican gal named, Carla. Most days, after school, Carla and I would pal around the neighborhood exploring the avenue for amusement and adventure. To one side of my home and catty-cornered to the hospital’s main entrance was an open field with mounds of earth and lots of intriguing tunnels. A parking lot was destined to occupy that space. But well before any construction or paving, my friend and I would play Cowboys and Indians there. “Zorro” was Carla’s favorite program. But I usually convinced her that Bernardo was the real hero of that legendary story. Of course, I graciously agreed to allow Carla to assume the character of the star. A good sport, I would play the part of the less important, Zorro.

Anyway, like most children, Carla and I populated our adventures with secondary characters, background cast and when other friends and relatives would visit, guest stars. Naturally, we also had the obligatory villain. Wesley, who lived a few houses away from my apartment building in the opposite direction of the field, always claimed the part of the villain. He had a natural flair for the role. Since Wesley, or “Beastly” as we usually referred to him, was a few years older, several inches taller and quite a few pounds heavier than Carla, who was my big buddy, we never disputed Wesley’s casting choice.

Forturnately, Beastly was often unavailable to contribute his authentic characterization to our afternoon dramas. So, Carla and I were compelled to invent less realistic villains for our pieces. Like all good directors, we were resourceful in the use of our surroundings. But one day in particular, Carla and I were hard put to devise a suitably menacing antagonist. Carla, as Bernardo, was flinging her arms about in what could only be described as gifted mute gestures. I was frankly so impressed by how well Carla had captured Bernardo’s essence that I didn’t notice the increasingly frantic intensity to her hand waving. It really wasn’t until Carla broke character, grabbed me, yelling something unintelligible, and began hustling me off in the direction of my home that I realized Carla was no longer Bernardo.

As we bounded over the uneven dirt, I couldn’t resist stealing a glance at our pursuer. Anticipating Beastly’s unwelcome appearance, I was startled to discover something else altogether; Jasper. Around 75 pounds of matted fur, glinting teeth and an imposing head the size of a Buick, Jasper looked like Central Casting’s choice for The Hound of the Baskervilles. Zorro, I can tell you, was well motivated to spring onto the back of his trusty servant, Bernardo, and escape Jasper’s enormous jaws.

It took only a few steps to realize that our fate would be upon us well before we could reach the outskirts of safety. Taking our direction from Zorro himself, Carla and I ducked into our own secret hideaway; actually, a hole in the ground with a small dug out tunnel that we dubbed, “The Cave.” Unfortunately, life was not imitating art that day. Jasper leaped right in after us. Between Jasper’s foul breath and Carla’s unmistakable smell of fear, I don’t believe I immediately noticed my own liquid contribution to the odor in our hideaway.

Not quite resigned to meet the face of our monstrous adversary, Carla and I sought further refuge in the even more limited recesses of our etched out “cave.” As secret hideaways go, ours was something of a disappointment. It became quickly and abundantly evident that it was neither secret, nor safe. Trembling there in our hole, contemplating the cruel contrast between film and reality, I gradually began to notice something. Our villain’s tail was wagging. A devoted fan of adventure stories replete with richly drawn heroes and villains, I recognized tail-wagging as a serious flaw in Jasper’s otherwise baleful character.

As the moments dragged on, I had the opportunity to more carefully inspect our foe. Amongst all those decidedly long, sharp teeth was an enormous wet, pink tongue. Moreover, as my shaking subsided, I realized that there was a secondary source of moisture on my body. Jasper was licking my leg with obvious relish. Now while this might have been a tenderizing process preparatory to sinking his teeth into my flesh, I did not get that impression. In fact, as time went on, I suspected that our drama would not end in tragedy after all. Inspired by a growing confidence, I encouraged Carla to open her tightly shut eyes and to suspend her recitation of “Hail Mary’s.”

In my very best simulation of hero-like courage, I reached out and patted our “villain” on his formidable brow. Emboldened by the creature’s willingness to accept my offer of friendship, I moved my hand around his head until I found the back of his ear, which I scratched with a satisfying feeling of safety. I don’t remember how long the three of us crouched there in our secret hideaway. Whether it was the approaching dusk or the distinctly unpleasant evidence of my no longer pressing bladder, we eventually crawled out onto the surface of the field. It was at approximately that moment that I noticed Jasper’s initial fascination with my leg had matured into a concentrated affection.

Wrapping his outsized paws around my knee, Jasper initiated what appeared to be a kind of rhythmic clutching movement against my shin. Carla, whom I came to appreciate as a woman of exceptional worldliness and experience, instantly identified Jasper’s energetic rocking as something that needed to cease.

Fortunately for me, before Jasper could achieve further sensation, I was able to free my limb from his excited embrace. Despite our newfound companionship, I thought it best to cut short farewells and beat a hasty retreat to the safety of home, a bath and supper. Before slipping into the house, I turned around to see Carla. She was on a dead run halfway to her own home, again swinging her arms about wildly. She WAS Bernardo. Jasper was a step or two behind.

I had many adventures after that with Carla and Jasper. But I learned a valuable lesson that day. It may be true that any leg will do. But a friend redeems our dreams.


15 And In Love

Summer school is an unintentional punishment that single parents are sometimes forced to inflict on their young. In July of 1964, I was bundled off to my uncle who was stationed in Spain. It was in this exotic locale that I attended classes and it was here that I fell in love........

At five feet, nine inches tall, Cynthia was nearly three inches closer to the heavens than me. I was 15 and still growing. Cynthia was 16 and fully mature. With her silky hair cascading over her shoulders in saffron blonde showers, she moved with the confidence and grace of an athlete. Her fluid motion a study in poise.

Ignoring the second bell that warned students of the imminent resumption of classes, I remain fixed in place admiring Cynthia through the metal fence surrounding the tennis court. Her golden brown, summer-drenched skin glistened as I watched in the heat of the Barcelona sun.

When she finished her practice set, Cynthia walked slowly, but purposefully toward the exit gate, her racket and towel in hand. On an impulse, I ran to intercept her as she opened the latched door. Having responded to a biological instinct that required no thought, I found myself blocking Cynthia's way to the girls' locker room. Petrified, I stood there, groping for something to say, with a blank mind and an expression to match.

Exhibiting a kindness that cannot be feigned, Cynthia smiled and introduced herself, adroitly banishing the evidence of my awkward inexperience. If I had been smitten before, I was in love then. With a wisdom and sweetness that belied her own youth, Cynthia chatted with me as we walked along the concrete path toward the gymnasium.

I do not recall the details of our conversation. But I shall never forget those private moments that I shared with her. Naturally, Cynthia had a boyfriend; a senior, I think. He was tall and manly and skillful with women in ways that were beyond my reach at 15.

I returned to my home in California a few weeks later. I never saw Cynthia again. Of course, I recognize that only by the most generous of definitions could those fleeting moments with this Marine colonel's daughter be called a relationship. Still, if young love has any enduring value, it is in the truths that we learn. I learned that women can be magical.



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....