May of 1966 started out with such promise. I had just graduated with honors from Junior High school and was chosen to give the commencement address. Springtime in Southern Illinois, in my memory has the smell of freshly mown lawns and a hint of impending rain. Toward the end of May and through the month of June, the days conjure up sweet dreams of life just this side of heaven. After those fleeting days, during mid-summer the humidity and smell of oil refineries sent those dreams a lot closer to hell.
At age thirteen I was infatuated with a seventeen-year-old boy named Donnie. As best as I can remember, he looked like a young James Dean. He had blonde hair, with a slight upturned wave in it and a natural tan that gave him his rakish good looks. His physical movements were slow and deliberate, portraying a self-confidence that captivated me.
The East Alton Community Recreation Center had become the nucleus around which my social life had revolved for the past two years. This cinder block building consisted of a large dance hall, a billiards room (with 3 regulation sized tables), an arts and crafts room and lastly, the administrative offices which housed all the activity equipment. In each of these chambers there were doors from which exited to the outside into a fenced area where were placed tetherball stations, four-square sites and basketball courts. The configuration was an ideal setup for following the target of my unrequited affection. I might have been considered a stalker by today’s standards.
My best friend Dell and I would follow Donnie from room to room, pausing just long enough for him to escape our vision. Then depending on his activity, we would either walk past him and out the door like we were on a mission or linger back and sneak peeks of him from around the corner. If he did not immediately recognize these subversive movements, one of his friends would elbow him and nod our way.
A week into my not so inconspicuous subterfuge, Dell and I were waiting out front for my mom to pick us up after a Friday night dance. Donnie walk right up to me and asked me for my phone number. I was so excited I could hardly remember my name let alone my number, as I mumbled “Sure” and rattled it off to him. He handed me a pen and asked me to write it on his arm. I could scarcely contain myself while I was holding his hand in mine. I slowly, with trembling fingers, wrote my seven digits on his muscular forearm. Within seconds it seemed, my mom began blaring the horn of our 1963 Ford Falcon, announcing her arrival and impatience. I felt like a princess as Dell and I ran, giggling towards my awaiting carriage. I just barely heard my Prince Charming’s voice saying, “I will call you at eleven tomorrow!” My heart was aflutter.
Dell spent the night at our house, and we laughed and chattered gleefully into the wee hours of the morning. Dare I believe my good fortune? The Romeo of the Recreation Center was going to call me! The brief exchange we had in giving him my phone number were the only words he and I had ever spoken. I wondered what we could possibly talk about. My dreams were indeed sweet that night.
In those days, there were no cell phones and we only had one phone in the house. A Call Waiting feature was not available yet. Therefore, around 10:30 AM, I began standing guard over the phone mounted on the wall above our kitchen counter. No one was allowed to answer this phone or make outgoing calls, until I had received the most important call of my entire life – all thirteen years of it!
With fervent anticipation, eleven o’clock came and went. By 11:30, I was getting sick to my stomach and by 12:30 I had finally stopped crying. There were no words that could console me and my wretchedness was converted to fury. Was this a joke being played on me? Were he and his friends having a good laugh at my expense? To quote William Congreve, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” I was wounded to my core and shrieked aloud, “I will never speak to him again!”
Dell and I walked the mile from my house down to the community pool. Hanging out at the third largest pool in the world, located in Wood River, Illinois was what most locals did on hot summer days. When kids reached their teenage years it was no longer “cool” to get into the pool. The hip thing to do was just walk around and around for hours on end. I now desperately needed to walk off my dastardly disappointment.
We had not finished one lap around the pool when we came upon a group of older kids gathered around a bench. We knew some of them as friends of my older sister Mary and approached to see what was going on. A girl named Patty was crying and the others seemed to be comforting her. I asked someone who was standing at a distance away why she was crying. She said, “Her brother and their cousin were with a group of boys this morning shooting guns down by the levee. Her brother tripped as they were leaving and his gun discharged, killing their cousin.” Although I did not know her well, I naturally felt sorry for her and her family.
As we were walking away, I saw Patty with her head in her hands, weeping and heard her tell the girl sitting next to her,” Donnie told my aunt he would be home by eleven o’clock and when he wasn’t, she knew something really bad had happened, because he always kept his word.”
My words came back to forever haunt me, “I will never speak to him again!”
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