In 1954 I was 13 – and in love the first time. The first time is always the worst. Remember?
Yet still that was a good year! Every year was good back then. Those were the years of great music: The Hilltoppers and Kay Starr. Johnny Ray and Frankie Lane. We were flooded with good music – music that was good for learning about love.
Our church received a new pastor that Summer of ’54 – and this man of the cloth had three daughters! The eldest girl was Joy. And she was a joy. You’ve heard the expression, ‘bedroom eyes.’ Well this fair lass was ‘bedroom’ from the eyes down! She simply reeked of sensuality. She didn’t mean to. She didn’t want to. She just did. The middle child was Gaye, the perfect example of the ‘girl next door’ that every mother wants for her son. Personality plus. Grace. Poise. Charm. Intelligence. Looks. Even humility. She made her daddy proud. My older first cousin dated Gaye.
And then there was Nell. Sweet Nell. The youngest girl. She too was 13 that wonderful year. Nell was lovely in her own right – but Nell had one thing her older 2 sisters lacked. She had a firm grasp on my young heart!
The new pastor’s family moved in at the beginning of summer, and my childhood friend Buddy and I became a two man welcome wagon. That summer we spent endless hours on Nell’s screened-in porch playing Monopoly and Rook, watching cars drive by, and sharing our hopes and dreams. Nell’s favorite song was ‘Love Is A Many Splendid Thing.’ I fell in love. And yes, love can be splendid indeed!
We had only one real date. We rode the city bus downtown to a movie. I wanted to hold her hand and kiss her good night – but was too afraid to try. I wanted us to be sweethearts, but she was content to just be friends. That first hurt is the worst hurt of all. Nerve endings are fresh and at their tenderest. They have yet to be seared and scarred. They have no tough hide to ease the pain. Years later, while going through a particularly traumatic time, I penned these words which are a reflection back onto 1954:
First loves seldom last. For in loving, you learn, In learning, you harm, And in harming… You fail to love. If I’m your first love, Be kind. I called that time my Rod McKuen period.
Toward the end of that memorable summer, Nell herself found love. Love came to her in the form of a older, Neanderthal high school football player from another school. He could drive. He had his own car! All hope and my young heart were dashed. I just had to see this fellow for myself, and put a face on the enemy! (I know what you’re probably thinking about now: a thirteen year old dating a boy of at least 15. Yes, she did. But then, my own mother married my Dad at 16. Oh well.)
Now remember that: (1) I was 13 at the time and 13 year olds are not responsible for their actions. And (2) I was in love, and lovers are not responsible for their actions. Buddy and I planned a little scouting expedition, a simple little drone flight into enemy territory. The church was next door to the parsonage, and an upstairs Sunday School room looked out onto the driveway and onto Nell’s screened in porch. We had heard rumors that HE would be visiting her Saturday afternoon. – and we were there! It was hot in the church. During the week that section of the church was not kept cool. To better spy on the young couple, we entered the building from the opposite side and stealthily crept up the stairs to our lofty perch, a stifling Sunday School room. His car was in the driveway. Occasional laughter and muted voices would drift up to us. We took quick glances over the window sill, fearing discovery (as if anyone would be expecting two sweaty faces in that window). We could not hear what they were saying. And the light was all wrong. We could not see a thing on the porch. I still had to get a look at this character for myself!
Desperate times call for desperate measures! One of Nell’s friends told me that the following Friday night she had a date with Nick, Dick, Blick, or whatever he called himself. I would be there! My Alma Mater, George Elementary School, was right across the street from the parsonage. From a round-about direction, Buddy and I rode out bicycles onto the school yard and hid in the shrubbery, right across the street from her house. But I was still not close enough to see. Fools may rush in where angels fear to tread, but more foolish fools will rush past even those fools. Suddenly I did something quite foolish, something quite un-Bill-like! I sprinted across the street and into the neighbors yard. Then crouching low, made my way, James Bond style, across both yards and into the shrubbery right beside Nell’s front door. I was less than 4 feet from her doorbell! I don’t remember what went through my mind as I waited there. Fear I am sure. As I said, I’d never before done anything quite so daring. My heart was almost pounding out of my chest.
His Chevy drove up. He walked up the steps. I saw the face. He rang the doorbell. She opened to the door. “Bye Mom.” They walked hand in hand to his car and slowly pulled away.
I dashed across the street to my bike and Buddy and I took off in hot pursuit. Lovers drive slowly, for they have all of eternity. We had no trouble keeping them in sight – even on our bikes! A few turns, then that last turn into the Varia Drive-In Theater of all places! I’d seen enough.
We really did have good music back then. Really good. Kay Starr’s big hit that year was, “If You Love Me”… If the sun should tumble from the sky. If the sea should suddenly run dry. If you love me, Really love me, Let it happen, Darling, I won’t care! That was my song to Nell. My hopeless, unsung love serenade to Nell – even though she (obviously) didn’t love me. They say that time heals all. That may be true. But healing does not mean forgetting. I can still remember that adolescent pain.
There was one place in my home where I could truly be alone. The shower. There I shut myself in and let the sound of the spray drowned out my sobs, while it washed away the pieces of my broken heart. That summer of long ago when I was learning about love, and when my first love ‘done me wrong,’ I also learned the hard way to appreciate Country Music.