Honorable mention in the 1983 Reader Writing Contest
It was that last magical year, the one that was sandwiched between the Great Depression and the Second World War. In the heart of San Diego County and all over the globe, things were as they had never been, nor would ever be again.
I was fourteen, soon to be fifteen, existing entirely in my world of fantasy. It was the year of Tyrone Power. Have any of you experienced such a year? For my best friend, Kaye, it was the year of Gary Cooper. Kaye was determined to marry a Montana rancher, and Gary would do for her. But for me, Tyrone Power was “the one.’’ Those burning dark eyes, those heavy black brows, that incredible speaking voice — all caused that shivering sensation in my as yet innocent body. Why did I become ill when I saw him on the screen in Sonja Henies’s embrace? Why couldn’t I be Linda Darnell? She didn’t appreciate Tyrone. Oh well, I could always climb into my dream. I would lie on my back in the green meadow behind our house, seeing Tyrone in the white clouds overhead or feeling his tender touch as the soft breeze ruffled my hair. It was delicious, this private world of Tyrone and me.
I bought the sheet music from his movies and struggled to play our ancient piano, singing the words as my fingers stretched for the chords. “I Poured My Heart into a Song”, was my favorite, and it was haled by every other member of my family. “Why don’t you play that Mozart minuet that Mrs. Harmon is trying to teach you?’’ my mother would ask. “We are paying your father’s hard-earned money for your lessons, but you really aren’t working on Mrs. Harmon’s assignments.’’
I would feel guilty for a half hour or so and begin to play the Minuet in G half-heartedly, until my mother would grant me permission to go over to Kaye’s to ride horseback, just to get rid of me for a while.
Kaye lived with her mom and dad and her awful older brother Jake. Jake tried to make out with each and every one of Kaye’s friends; talk about taking advantage of your own sister! Jake owned a Model A Ford, rumble seat included, and he thought this alone should turn him into every girl’s Prince Charming. What a dud! He had often pushed his pimply cheek against mine while we were dancing to the music of Mr. Mackey’s small band. Kaye’s folks brought in a little extra income giving dancing lessons to us novices, all in a genteel setting. Kaye’s mother would teach us the proper form for the waltz and fox trot and, now and then, a square dance would be thrown in. Her dad played piano, trumpet, and trombone. He could also play a mean fiddle and the accordion for the square dances and polkas. He filled in wherever he was needed, as local talent was hard to find in Ramona and the outlying countryside. Mr. Mackey, Kaye’s dad, was the music teacher at our 125-student, one-horse high school. The Mackeys offered us a little culture, even though it was transmitted through the strains of “The Beer Barrel Polka,’’ played by Mr. Mackey on the accordion during a wiener roast at Etcheverry Creek.
On this day that my mom sent me over to Kaye’s so her ears could rest, I minced along, pretending I was Annabella, playing opposite Tyrone in Suez. Now there was a movie! Those white-hot sands, those moonlit desert nights suited Tyrone’s dark and handsome visage. I, Annabella, stirred in Tyrone’s arms, and murmured my eternal love. Yes, I would marry him when the canal project was completed. We would be married in Paris in April and I would wear clouds of white lace. I must have been talking to myself in an audible voice, for as I strolled up Kaye’s weed-infested front walk, a juicy kiss was planted on my neck from behind. Oh, God, why did Jake have to interrupt my fantasy? Fortunately, I had escaped this time, for it was only Bozo, Kaye’s eternally affectionate collie, who had lunged at me.
Kaye and I saddled her two nags and rode up the Old Julian Highway to “Boojie’s’’ dam. This was our hideaway. We could lie under the oak trees by the water and confide our latest hopes and dreams while the horses grazed nearby. My folks could never afford to feed a horse, let alone two. My family was not poor, but we were terribly proper. Our money was spent on necessary items, like music lessons and dentists. Kaye’s folks didn’t worry about mundane things. Their house hadn’t been painted since the early part of the century and their furniture looked as if it had been through the Civil War. Their yard wasn’t a yard at all but just a patch of ground surrounding their house. Nevertheless, Kaye was the most popular girl in the sophomore class, with her snow-white teeth that had never been seen by a dentist, and her freshly pressed clothing which had come from J.C. Penney’s. Oh well, I was privileged to be counted as her best friend, even though my teeth were not too straight and I was far from the most popular girl in the class. The only honors I had garnered were academic. I was consistently on the honor roll in every subject but math, and this status merely served to alienate me from every male in school. Once in a while Charley Comstock, one of the least desirable sophomores, asked me for a date. When I accepted, I found it hard to equate Charley with Tyrone, hard as I tried. When Charley’s perspiring hand would reach for mine during a movie, I tried to give an answering squeeze, but it always caused such severe nausea that I would flee to the ladies room, only to return to my seat feeling ashamed of myself. After all, my mother and her church-circle friends were always telling me, “What a nice boy Charley was!” and, “He came from such a fine, upstanding Ramona family!”
Today Kaye had something important to tell me. As we opened our orange sodas and bit into our tuna sandwiches, she said seriously, “Rachel, I’m giving up Gary Cooper. He’ll always be special, but I’m in love with Rob!”
“Kaye, for heaven’s sake! Rob is just my plain old cousin! What on earth do you see in him? Does he know? He never dates. Oh, how can you possibly be interested in him?’’ I was overwhelmed by Kaye’s revelation.
“No, he doesn’t know, and you aren’t going to tell him, either. We’re going to plan a campaign to make him notice me,’’ Kaye informed me.
What a tough proposition we had to tackle! Rob was a senior, his only interest was basketball, he’d rarely shown any curiosity about the opposite sex, as far as I knew, and I was on pretty close terms with him. Besides, Kaye was deserting me for a real live male! How disgusting! I supposed we wouldn’t be able to communicate on the Tyrone-Gary level anymore. I felt ready to weep.
Rob was one of the rare boys who owned a car. In those days, ninety-nine percent of us Ramona kids walked or rode bikes, but Rob had a job at Fansher’s Soda Fountain and had saved his money. The car wasn’t much, but it put Rob in a rarefied atmosphere. Kaye had this plan that we would attach notes under his windshield wipers from time to time. Who had to compose these little ditties? Me, of course.
We were interrupted in the middle of our campaign by the arrival of Gone with the Wind. We had read every available review of this romantic epic and were awaiting its showing with sharp anticipation. Movies were shown at the Town Hall and seating was limited, so Kaye and I were in line three hours before show time, armed with sack lunches and our ticket money. It looked as if half the high school student body had had the same idea, but we were well toward the front of the line and knew that we would gain admittance.
“Rachel! Don’t turn around, but there’s Rob. He’s with Gloria Hillyer! I can’t believe it! Maybe she’s just standing in line next to him!’’ Kaye was clearly agitated.
I waited a moment, then turned casually and looked in Rob’s direction. He saw me and waved, then turned his attention to Gloria. She really did seem to be with him.
“Kaye, I think glorious Gloria has been chasing him, and you’d better speed up your pursuit or forget Rob. He’s an innocent when it comes to women, and Gloria will haul in the big fish before he knows what’s happened,’’ I informed her.
We had pinned a note on his windshield the night before. His car was parked near the gym while he was at basketball practice. My creative effort reminded Rob that:
When you wish upon a star;
It matters not who you are.
If only you can get your wish;
Life will always be de-lish!
— Guess Who?
The big goof probably thought Gloria had put it there. Well, now was not the time to think about it. The line was moving fast and Kaye and I paid our money and got good seats on the center aisle. We settled in. We were ready for the movie event of the decade.
For the next four hours we were mesmerized by the unfolding tale of Scarlett and Rhett. The film was in wonderful new Technicolor and there was a twenty-minute intermission, an unheard-of occurrence during an ordinary movie.
Kaye was fascinated by Leslie Howard. Personally, I thought the character he played, that of Ashley Wilkes, was pale and insipid. How could Scarlett be in love with a shadow when she could have Rhett Butler? Now, there was a man for me, and Clark Gable came close to making me forget Tyrone. How dashing he was, what a commanding presence he had, what woman could resist that swaggering arrogance?
When we emerged from the Town Hall it was dark. Both of us were caught up in a romantic dream, each playing her role as Scarlett. We would try to walk and talk like Vivien Leigh for months.
Kaye spied Rob and Gloria getting into Rob’s car. She wanted to follow them but I convinced her that our feet weren’t wings. So we proceeded to Fansher’s, hoping to encounter the couple there. Sure enough, there they were, glorious Gloria delicately sipping a strawberry confection and Rob making short work of a chocolate malted. Kaye wouldn’t even glance in Rob’s direction, but skulked in the rear of the store, dawdling over some penny candy. I couldn’t remotely imagine what pleasure she found in torturing herself. Rob and Gloria finished their drinks and left. Were they playing Scarlett and Rhett, too?
“That Gloria is about as suited to Rob as I am to a flagpole,” Kaye remarked as we loitered down Main Street. “She doesn’t even know how to bounce a basketball. What ever does Rob see in her?’’
I knew what Rob saw in Gloria, but prudently I kept my mouth shut. I needed to compose a new poetic gem before the night was through, so we walked to Kaye’s house, where I was going to stay over. I hoped Jake wouldn’t be home. Any encounter with his leering grin practically unnerved me. Mercifully, his Model A was absent from the driveway and I followed Kaye into the house without fear.
Mr. Mackey was playing the accordion, ending each song with fancy trills and glissandos. He loved to embellish all music, from Bach to Gershwin. He nodded and continued with “Santa Lucia.” Kaye’s mom asked about the movie, then returned to her magazine. We were free to raid the kitchen and retreat to Kaye’s room.
Pictures of Gary Cooper, cut from movie magazines, literally covered the walls. I had a few pictures of Tyrone, but they were arranged discreetly in my room at home. Of course, I was able to dream my pictures, but Kaye was a woman of action and needed to see the photographs of Gary.
“Let’s refer to Scarlett and Rhett in the note,” Kaye said as she sprawled on her wrinkled bedcovers.
“How’s this for a start? ‘I Rhett, You Scarlett; I’m sure that we Have met!’ ” I jested.
Kaye threw a pillow at my innocent face, missed, and I bit into an oatmeal cookie, munched, and sought poetic inspiration. Finally, it came:
My home is not TARA;
I don’t live in the SOUTH;
But for you I really CARA,
And I’d like to kiss your MOUTH!
— Guess Who?
Kaye gagged, then giggled. We went into spasms, choking and gasping until her mom knocked on the door and asked if we were okay. Then we decided to sneak out of the house and find Rob’s car.
We walked down Eighth Street to Main and turned left. We searched the entire four blocks of Main; no sign of Rob’s wheels. Our next effort was put into circling the high school grounds; no Rob there, either. As a last resort we crept stealthily up Blueberry Hill, our local lovers’ try sting place. Old Mr. Finley, our math teacher, lived near the top of the hill, and the kids loved to squeal tires and yell at him from the safety of the shrubs that blocked off his house from the road. Tonight, though, we passed Finley’s place on silent cat feet and emerged on lovers’ lane. Through the gloom we could see a few couples; most were in their parents’ cars, borrowed for the evening. A few, like Rob and Jake, were the stars of the parade, owners of their own vehicles.
I peered into the darkness and there, in all its glory, was Jake’s Model A. What lucky lass was held captive tonight by Kaye’s repulsive brother? Upon closer scrutiny, I thought I could see Rosemary Martin huddled against the passenger door. Well, Rosie, if you were stupid enough to get yourself into Jake’s car, you can surely find a way out, I thought. We left them to their fates, for we were on a highly secret mission and didn’t want to be discovered.
We crept along the dirt lane, pressing back into the shrubbery. We had almost given up, when, praise heaven, we spotted Rob’s car! What a challenge! To place the missive on the window was impossible. Where to tape it? Yes, that’s it! I would snake my way along the ground and tape it to the driver’s door. All my athletic prowess was forced into play as I inched myself closer to the door. Please, God, don’t let me sneeze, I prayed. There was no sound from within the car; odd, I thought. Rob and Gloria must be bored with each other. Just then, Rob started the engine. Help! Quickly I taped the poem to the door and beat a hasty retreat into the shadows. Kaye was biting her nails furiously.
‘”What did you see? What did you hear? Speak! Speak!” she gasped.
‘‘Let’s get out of here. I’ll tell you later,” I answered as we ran down the hill.
Rob’s car passed us about halfway down and I thought I could see Gloria, seated closer to the driver than was necessary. I hoped that Kaye was unable to see the cozy scene. I told her that I had not seen or heard anything when I had taped the note to the car. She didn’t believe me, but I couldn’t help that.
The next few weeks flew by. Basketball season was in full swing and Kaye was busy with cheerleading. She was sophomore cheerleader, of course. Our class was permitted one representative and, naturally, she was it. Rob played on the varsity squad, but never seemed to notice Kaye’s acrobatics. It was clear by this time that Gloria Hillyer was through with Rob. She was in vigorous pursuit of Hack Wilford, the star of our school. Hack was incredibly handsome, possessed a brilliant mind, and was athletic star of the century. Gloria would eventually snare him for a short time.
I was so busy with school, house chores, church activities, and writing poems for Kaye that I rarely found time for Tyrone and myself. I felt as if I’d deserted his memory. Besides, I had been assigned to a seat in study hall right behind Lars Ludwig. Lars was a senior but I’d rarely paid any attention to him, one way or another. Gradually, however, I found myself with the oddest compulsion. I had this terribly strong inclination to pull my fingers through Lars’s red-gold curls! Too, Lars often wore a soft suede jacket that smelled so tantalizing to me! He was a serious student and rarely attended night functions at school because he lived up the Old Julian Highway, ten or twelve miles out of Ramona. Lars’s mother was a widow and he was needed for many home chores. The junior-senior prom was fast approaching and I wondered if Lars would go, as it would be the last big event before graduation. I should be so lucky, anyway!
Kaye was growing bolder about Rob and she actually received a grin from him now and then. She managed to be in his vicinity at every opportunity, and it looked as if she just might stand a chance with the big oaf. It was necessary to have your date secured at least a month in advance of the prom or you would end up with a Jake or a Charley Comstock, or worse, with no one at all.
Kaye and I stepped up our campaign. I was writing poems like a madwoman. The latest went like this:
Are you going to the prom?
If so, I’ll go with you;
I’ve even asked your mom;
And I’ve got her okay, too!
— Guess Who?
I think Rob had begun to suspect that I was a part of the conspiracy, for I was almost sure that he had seen me as I ran away from his car after the last note had been clipped to his windshield. He didn’t let on, but he started talking to Kaye and even gave her a ride home one day.
When a new Tyrone Power movie came to town, I persuaded Kaye to go with me. Oh, Ty, you really are beautiful, I thought, as I sat enraptured. But I wondered if I had started to outgrow him. He was so unattainable anyway! Lars was flesh and blood and I really tingled when he was near me. I finally confided in Kaye and told her how I felt about Lars. She agreed to help me in return for all my literary efforts.
At the end of lunch hour on Tuesday Kaye flew into my arms and swooned. “Rachel, we did it! He asked me! I’m going to the prom with Rob! ” She was clearly in heaven.
“That’s wonderful, Kaye,” I said, but my heart sank to my knees. Would I be lucky enough to go the prom? I even began to hope that Charley Comstock would ask me.
The next week, on a rainy April day, we had to eat lunch in the gym. I was munching on an egg salad sandwich when Lars walked up and sat down next to me. I wiped egg from my face and smiled.
“Rachel, if you don’t have a date already, would you like to go to the prom with me? I’d like to go this year and I’ve noticed you around school a lot. I can’t dance, but if you don’t mind going with a clod, I’d be honored if you’d go with me,” Lars said shyly.
My heart turned somersaults, my face felt fiery red, and I thought I would lose consciousness. Lars asked if I were ill and I shook my head weakly. “Lars, I’d love to go to the prom with you,” I managed to reply. “It doesn’t matter about the dancing. I’m not really much of a dancer anyway.”
The tardy bell rang and we scurried to our classes. I could hardly stand the wait until I could tell Kaye. When I rushed up to her after school with my news, she had a secretive smile on her face. I wondered just how she’d been involved in my date, for I was sure she had had a hand in it.
What a shopping spree we had! We made a rare trip to Marston’s department store in San Diego. It was the most elegant and wonderful store in the city and was a bit awesome for us backcountry girls. Kaye ended up with a blue, off-the-shoulder, Scarlett-type gown, all ruffles and sweeping skirts. I found a soft, rose-colored dress with a high, lace-trimmed neckline and bodice. Oh, we were happy! Our very first formals!
The great night finally arrived. Rob and Lars had decided to double date. We swept into Rob’s car and were borne to the Kenilworth Inn, Ramona’s landmark, for the junior-senior banquet. After dinner we drove to the high school, where the gym had been turned into a fairyland for one night. There was even a fish pond in one comer and crepe paper stars hung overhead.
I persuaded Lars to try a simple waltz step. He wasn’t bad at all, and as we glided by I gave a superior smile to Rosemary, who had ended up with Jake. We waved at Rob and Kaye, who were having a fine time together. O, what heaven! I was a social success and the boy I was with did not nauseate me!
On the way home Lars held my hand. How delicious it was to feel the warmth of him. He told me he’d like to take me skating sometime soon. Oh, bliss!
In Ramona, and all over the country, the school year came to a close. Rob and Lars graduated. Both would be caught up in the Great War. Kaye and I would return to school as juniors and find new males to pursue but we’d never forget that starry night in May, the night of our first prom. I felt guilty about deserting Tyrone, but after all, all things come to an end. The year of Tyrone Power was definitely; over.
Other writing contest winners: Winner | Noteworthy | Also noteworthy