My first crush happened when I was in the sixth grade. I had been envious of my older brother Brad, who was comfortable with girls and always seemed to be the confident boyfriend of one pretty girl after another. I would wish that Barbara was my girlfriend, or Claudia, or Roselynn (whom we called ‘Rosie’), but there was never any chance that something so far-fetched would ever happen. Brad was five years older than me and his girlfriends, naturally, were very nearly that much older than me too. I could drool. I could fantasize. But never was I foolish enough to actually hope.
Heidi changed all of that. Heidi was a new kid in our school, and in a school with maybe one hundred students in the sixth grade it was hard to stay anonymous. It would have been hard for Heidi to remain anonymous in a class of one thousand. Just as pretty as, well, you can provide whatever metaphor for pretty that suits you best. For me, she was just as pretty as a golden dawn, or a field of flowers, or a foggy morning at the beach, with a storm approaching and the waves crashing, and; well, I guess you get the point. I thought she was the definition of beauty itself, but I’ll allow myself to be content to say that Heidi was pretty.
We sat across the table from each other in Mrs. Parrish’s class. Heidi was quiet and reserved, and didn’t seek the spotlight in the classroom or on the playground, but she was really smart and had a good heart, and after a couple of months in the sixth grade when was friends with all of the girls and admired by all of the boys. The popular boys, Don Lewis, Frank Mathers and Lefty Wilson, all made a play for Heidi. She was kind and never rebuffed them in a public or haughty way, but she never did indicate any sort of preference for their presence or attention. With me however, it was a different story.
I was always curious about my world. I wanted to know how we humans came to be what we are. I read about dinosaurs and cave men. I read the Bible
and even in the sixth grade, the archaeologists who dug up the history of humans in Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley and elsewhere. People were fascinating to me, and I wanted to know about them.
I also wanted to learn German. My father fought in Germany in World War II and stayed there, off and on, for ten years after war was over. I was born in 1948 and was in Germany for two two-year periods. Father loved Germany; loved the food, the beer, and the people and culture once they stopped shooting at him. Mother was entirely different though. Her father had died in the trenches of World War I when she was an infant, and two of her brothers from another father had died in the latest war, one on the beach in Normandy and another in the water off of the Philippines. Mother hated the Germans and, I think, hated father for taking her there, and did all that she could to keep me from learning German or anything good about Germany
I told Heidi about this one day when we were seated next to each other at Linda Swann’s birthday party. To my surprise, Heidi was friendly to me and spoke about herself. Her mother was German and her father a mix of German, Irish and a bunch of other stuff. Heidi’s mother spoke German as a first language and Heidi was fluent in that language as well although she only spoke it at home. I think that Heidi was only that open with me because I was too shy to try to make her my girl friend. I just knew that things like that didn’t happen to me.
With Heidi thought it did. I went to her house where she only let me speak German, but Heidi and her mother were lenient taskmasters. They let me fudge a lot, and it took longer than it should have for me to become anything like fluent. That worked for me however. My lessons stretched on for months, and during that time I would help Heidi and her mother in the kitchen, and would pick vegetables in the garden with Heidi and walk with her to the neighborhood store to buy flour or salt or any little thing that Heidi’s mother needed.
After a while I became aware that Heidi’s mother did not always need two more apples and a pound of butter; that it was just an excuse for us to walk together to the store, eventually holding hands after we got a block away from Heidi’s home. The neighbors, or course, knew all about the budding relationship, and word certainly got around. Heidi didn’t live in my neighborhood though, so it didn’t get to my mother who would not have approved.
My first kiss was on one of those walks. We decided to take a short cut through a canyon, and as we walked down the trail through tall brush I hatched my plan. My heart was pounding as we reached the bottom of the canyon and turned onto another path which led gradually upward and out of the far end of the canyon.
I stopped walking, and after Heidi became aware of that she stopped too, turned and faced me. I had practiced a lot of lines that I saw Cary Grand and Humphrey Bogart deliver in movies; lines that had always melted the girls’ hearts, but all of them seemed silly now and stuck to the roof of my mouth like a handful of peanut butter. I just stood in front of Heidi and looked confused and lost and in the worse possible condition of puppy love.
Heidi took pity on me and asked if I would like to kiss her. I nodded, like a kid who was just asked if he wanted to go to Disneyland, and then stepped forward and pressed my lips against hers.
The act had less actual passion than a handshake, but we used it as a base and learned over the next several months how to get more out of the effort. At he house, in the canyon, and anywhere else that we could get five minutes of privacy we would embrace and practice the art of kissing until we felt like we were becoming accomplished at it.
During this time I almost never saw Heidi’s father. He worked the night shift at a refinery thirty miles from their home and was usually sleeping during the day.
At least, that’s what they told me. In fact Heidi’s father drank a lot and was either drinking, asleep or passed out when i was there. He managed to do his job well enough, so he was never laid off, and his manager was also a veteran of the recent war, so he had pity on him.
It turned out that Heidi’s father came home from the war with more than a wife. People said he was different when he returned; he spooked easily, would jump at the slightest noise and seemed to look around with suspicion at his surroundings. Sometimes he was the life of the party, but other times he was withdrawn and seemed afraid to step out of his house, or even his bedroom. A lot of men came home from the war changed,m physically and emotionally or both, but we didn’t know what to make of that, so we ignored it as much as we could and hoped that things would eventually go back to normal.
Things didn’t. Heidi and I were close for almost a year and a half but one day in the middle of the seventh grade she didn’t show up at school. I called her as soon as I got home to see if she was sick but there was no answer. The first tingling of fear began to play around the base of my brain and I went to my mother to tell her that I was going to ride my bike to Heidi’s house to see how she was.
Mom had allowed herself to soften towards Heidi. “The only decent German I ever met” she would say. The look on Mom’s face cast a new and more dark shadow across my heart. She told me to sit down; that she had something to tell me. What followed was the news that Heidi’s father had gotten drunk, heard his wife speaking German, and then taken down a shotgun from a rack on the wall. He then blew his wife almost in two. After looking at the carnage that he had just created from a wife that he did, at some level, love, he reloaded the shotgun, placed it in his mouth and blew his head off. And Heidi watched the whole thing.
The only family that Heidi had in her town was her aunt Vivian. Vivian had lived a difficult life herself. She had beaten an abusive husband to death with a claw hammer and got off on all charges only because the large hunting knife found in the cold, dead hand of her newly deceased husband when the police arrived on the scene. Leroy, that was her husband’s name, was a pain in everybody’s ass anyway, so the law gave Vivian the benefit of the doubt.
Vivian never trusted men again though, and the event at Heidi’s house only confirmed her in her assessment of the masculine gender. She took in Heidi and set out to protect her from any repeat of the heartache that both of them had already endured. Heidi’s beautiful long hair, with that little flip curl on the ends that I loved to see as she walked toward me, didn’t last the first day at Aunt Vivian’s house. Any effort by me to make contact with Heidi met with a stone wall. Heidi called me once but I wasn’t at home. My mother told me about it; said that the call was cut short, and it never happened again.
Heidi changed schools, attending instead a school at Lebanon, some twenty five miles away from our town. I never saw her in our town again and nobody else claimed to have seen her either. Vivian lived near the edge of town and they must have shopped and done any other business in the surrounding towns or in Lewisburg, the city 80 miles away. It was as if Heidi had fallen off of the map.
I finally did get to see Heidi again. It was one week after I graduated from the twelfth grade and I had already enlisted in the Army. I was to leave in a week to take the long bus ride to my basic training center, and several of my friends and I were sitting on the picnic benches at the town park smoking and talking and spinning dreams. I wanted pictures of my friends to take with me, and had used almost a whole role of 110 black and white film.
I wanted another soda and a bag of sunflower seeds so I walked across the park to the little store that still stood and did battle with the big supermarket that
had come to Sommerville, only six miles away. As I approached the store I saw two women walking out of the front door and a switch went on inside my head. It was Heidi and Vivian, but I could only barely recognize Heidi. The face was neither masculine nor feminine. If I had to pick any description at all I would have to go with bitter, although empty would place as a close second.
“Guten tag” I said, and she stopped and slowly turned. Vivian turned to, and eyed me the way that one would eye something dead along side of the road.
“Guten tag” she replied. “Wie geht es ihnen?”
Good. Good I replied. I tried to talk to her but I could quickly see that such a project had little chance of success. I told Heidi that I would leave soon for the Army and then probably would be sent to Vietnam, and that I was taking pictures of friends. On an impulse I asked her if I could take her picture.
To my surprise she agreed. Aunt Vivian would not move from her side though, and in fact entwined her arm in Heidi’s in such a way that it looked like Heidi was holding onto her. Vivian was looking at me and I got the impression that she was wondering why it was taking me so long to get to Vietnam and get my ass shot off. Heidi didn’t look much happier, although I allowed that she was probably out of practice. I snapped the picture and they turned and left without another word.
I was left without words as well, and stood speechless as I watched them disappear around a corner. To this date, that was the last time that I saw Heidi.
I do not intend to let things stand that way however. I’m lying on a bunk at the replacement battalion now, waiting for my name to be called so that I can board a plane and return home, free from Vietnam and free from the Army. I’ve kept Heidi’s picture and probably looked at it every day that I wasn’t in the field trying t stay alive. I asked my father to inquire about Heidi’s status and location, and he told me that she is now a clerk in some position at the train station in Merrifield, about twenty miles from home. Dad said that she was dressed nicely: “like a
proper young woman”, and no longer resembled the person that he saw in my picture. “That would scare children and sour milk” he had said. Dad also said that there was no ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. I’m going to look into that when I get home.