1971: “…then Dave turned sixteen and discovered girls.”

It was Brother Lombard’s favorite quip:

 “Yeah – it was all Batman and Star Trek until Dave turned sixteen and discovered girls

It may have been funny to some members of our congregation upon first telling, but after being retold several hundred times over the next two years it lost whatever wit it once had. I do have to admit that he did get one thing right with the pop culture reference – life as a teenager in   Alaska wasn’t just The Wonder Years with snow and moose; battling isolation and a hostile environment six months out of each year left a kid with a lot of time to kill and it was easy to murder the hours and minutes sitting in front of the tube.

Truth be told, I was very aware of girls all along and at an age younger than most of my peers. It was proficiency in “hustling” that I lacked:  introducing myself to young ladies, chatting them up, securing phone numbers and making dates –  basically becoming Tarzan in a letterman’s jacket. My approach was much more low-key in that I was polite to parents, well-mannered out in public and witty enough to keep a smile on the face of any young lady I kept company with. Maybe it was because I was one of those kids born “middle-aged” and for the previous 17 ½ years I had been the only adult in a bi-polar family of seven, acting as the peacemaker and keeping long-term consequences in sight when everyone else was angry.

You’d think that sense of propriety would go a long way towards building a measure of trust with my parents but unfortunately that didn’t happen. From the very beginning Mom had Puritanical-verging-on-medieval standards when it came to dating and when my older sister left home under clouded circumstances the rules tightened up even more.   While Mom wasn’t as strict with me as she was with my younger sisters it had less to do with any increased trust than the fact that I couldn’t get pregnant – if there’d been a chastity jock strap she would have had me fitted for one on my sixteenth birthday.

 Getting out of the house on a date was like living out an episode of Hogan’s Heroes with me as a prisoner of war and my mom playing the part of Colonel Klink. While there weren’t any tunnels running underneath the homestead I did make a secret passage from my closet to the garage rafters but rarely had to resort to its use –  my escapes hinged on more on quick-thinking than escape & evasion.

The camp house rules for dating or activities with the opposite sex were as follows:

  • Mom had to personally approve each activity in detail at least a week in advance.
  • We were not to date any one person more than two times in a row.
  • A single date had to be followed by two double dates before another single.
  • We weren’t allowed any sort of personal diary.

No debate was allowed on the subject and the penalties for noncompliance were dire, so like any kids I found ways to work around those draconian regulations – I never lied to my parents but I did become quite adept at “editing” what I told them. For example, I’d tell them I was going to a wrestling match while conveniently omitting the fact that A) I was taking my girlfriend and B) the wresting match was in Ninilchik.

Colonel Hogan couldn’t have done it better.

I had a social life – but I paid for it. Subterfuge did not come to me naturally and my technical honesty compounded the “normal” stress any eighteen-year-old encountered while jumping through the hoops that were supposed to be preparing me for a future that could entail either college classes or rice paddies. Instead of becoming part of the path to normal socialization process, dating became a pitfall and an additional source of stress which meant that I didn’t always make good choices. Instead of The Dating Game I was stranded in The Gong Show and the contestants weren’t always a good match.

  • Bachelorette #1 should have had a staple in her navel. She could put any Playboy Playmate to shame: Beautiful, petite and as curvy as a Coke bottle and blessed with long luxurious brown hair cascading down to the small of her back – the kind of girl that you expect to have “Mattel” embossed on her tush.  Sadly, there was no real connection in terms of personality and after three dates of one-way conversations we went our separate ways.
  • Bachelorette #2 was also a knock-out with the added advantage of having been a good friend before we became romantically involved. Unfortunately, she lived fifty miles away and taking her out entailed cover stories that were harder to support when things went wrong. In the end logistics won out over love and we reluctantly reverted to “good friends” status.
  • Bachelorette #3 was a recent move-in and younger-than-usual, both of which aggravated her innate teen-age angst for which she would compensate in unexpected ways. For example, for one big date she wore an oversized wig then spent the evening constantly adjusting it to the exclusion of everything else.  Unwilling to find out what other unconventional grooming changes were in the works I hastily withdrew from the relationship

At that point I was close to giving up.

Not that I had much faith in long-term relationships to begin with as it seemed like people all around me were getting divorced. The idea of a permanent commitment to another person seemed bankrupt and became little more than a point of contention with my locker-neighbor Carey, who was counting down the days to her own nuptials soon after our graduation in May.

It was during one such bicker-fest that I met her locker-mate Debbie, a junior and recent transfer from Oregon. Dark haired and leggy with a Jane Leeves vibe (before there was a Jane Leeves) Debbie had already turned the smart-kid’s mafia a** over teakettle with a razor-sharp intellect and a GPA to match. My interest was piqued but she showed no interest at all – for that matter she wouldn’t even talk to me and Carey refused any aid in the matter at all: “She’s a nice girl Dave and she wants to have a family someday. You don’t ever want to get married so all you’d do is break her heart.”

BAM! Usually it was at least ten minutes before the inevitable shut-down but this time I was shot out of the saddle right away. I slunk off to class, but when I went to my locker the next morning Carey and Debbie were already there taking much longer than usual to stow their lunches and retrieve books. I nodded hello as I started rooting around in my own space, but something clicked when Carey managed to loudly mention the up-coming Valentine’s dance three times during their morning conversation – so I wasn’t totally surprised the next morning when Debbie was at the locker by herself. I immediately looked around for the neon sign flashing “SET-UP/SET-UP/SET-UP”, but no man ever went to his doom happier than I was. After some small talk I politely asked if she would go to the dance with me to which she smiled for the first time and simply said “Yes”.

I couldn’t tell you whether the Valentine’s dance was a success that year – all I know is that we walked in, I turned to ask her to dance and the whole universe changed.  By the end of the evening we were an item, but within days it was apparent that we were the only people pleased by the arrangement.  Her mom didn’t want Debbie in an exclusive relationship with me, the smart kid mafia was incensed that I had poached one of their own and one of my own close friends took a totally random dislike to her – none of which changed the fact that I was totally smitten with this wonderful young lady who inexplicably liked me.

On my part the attraction could have been due to any number of things – she was drop-dead gorgeous, she was extremely (but not insufferably) intelligent, her singing would bring tears to my eyes – and she “got” me.

  • She understood why I drew.
  • She understood why I wrote.
  • She understood why I preferred the Moody Blues over Creedence Clearwater Revival.
  • She understood why I thought Robert Klein was much funnier than Flip Wilson.
  • …and she got all my terrible puns.

It was the first time I could completely drop my guard, be myself and be happy in what should have been a lengthy rewarding relationship. Unfortunately, when you grow up in a bipolar household “happy” doesn’t feel normal. Even though by this point in time my mom’s dating rules minefield had been defused it had been replaced with the objections of family and friends and it seemed like the relationship was doomed. There was no big blow-up but by the time I graduated we were no longer an item and at some warped level I thought that I was happy for getting out cleanly…

It was only later that I discovered how wrong I had been. All my spare time had been taken up with navigating through high school graduation and starting my summer construction job, so it was early June before I got a chance to sit down and look through my yearbook. It was then that I found out that my exit had been far from clean –  between the stereotypical “remember cutting up in (fill in the blank) class” and “don’t ever change” dedications I found a short note written in a perfect cursive:

Dave:

To a real nice guy. I’ll never forget you, ‘cuz ya see, I’m in love with you.

Good luck attorney

Love, Debbie

I can still feel everything about the exact moment I read that inscription:

  • The ache in my back where I was leaning against the side of my bunk
  • The sharp acrid smell that came with wooden walls warmed up by a summer sun
  • David Crosby’s rich tenor woven that of Nash and Young in “Music is Love”
  • The total shock that came with her declaration

It was the first I’d heard the word “love” directed at me since we’d moved to Sterling seven years earlier.

I wish I could say that I immediately ran out, found her and reconciled on the spot but that didn’t happen. It was more like a Harry Chapin song; we did briefly date again later that summer, but I was off to college before any rekindling was possible.  Any subsequent chance of a do-over was obliterated a year later by a prank on the part of a buddy that went bad with craptacular results and finally in the spring of 1974 I learned that she was married.

Why is this an issue with me over forty years later? Part of the interest is fueled by nostalgia. Part of it is just one of the on-going hazards of being blessed/cursed with this laser-sharp, steel trap memory…but part of it is gratitude. Lori laughs when I tell her that she wouldn’t have liked me much had we met when I was eighteen instead of five years later but it’s true. Like my parents I wasn’t so much raised as dragged up and I am not joking when I say that I had a thin exterior layer of “thug” when I was eighteen.

But at the same time….

Call it good luck, a blessing from God or the planets being properly aligned – starting with Debbie and every intervening girlfriend between her and Lori I was completely outclassed by each young lady in question – and I knew it. No matter how cool a pose I may have been putting on inside there was always a nerd-boy spazzing out as in “Hummana-hummana – I CAN’T FREAKING BELIEVE SHE LIKES ME!” so and I would try as best as I could to refine my manners, curtail the fart jokes and generally try to be someone worthy of the girl I was matched up with.

What this means is Debbie was the homeroom teacher in husband school …and for that I will always have a soft spot in my heart for her. I have no idea where she is now though I occasionally check face book and do a Google search. I did get a scare about ten years ago when I found an obituary notice with a similar name but the dates didn’t match up.

I just hope she’s happy and doing well.

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