Kenai Central High School was not on the leading edge of popular culture in the 1970’s, but I had no idea how benighted we were until the Yearbook Issue of National Lampoon came out in the spring of 1971. It featured a parody of a 1950’s high school yearbook and as we leafed through the pages I was surprised to see that the Eisenhower-era fads, slang and dating customs Lampoon was mocking were the same ones we participated in. Even though television had been showing us how to look like other American teenagers of the time, our behavior was twenty years out of date.
College brought me a little more up-to-date, though attending the University in Fairbanks, Alaska still had me on side roads instead of the cultural freeway… My hair got longer. I dressed a bit differently and when I fell in love I did something I thought I would never do: I started wearing beads. Nothing over the top – a strand of multicolored seed beads that my Best Friend and I each made one of while sitting on the couch watching Night Gallery one evening. During the next week’s episode t we were both surprised to find we were both still wearing the beads so I decided to keep on wearing mine as token of my feelings – not the same thing as wearing a ring but perhaps a more accurate symbol of my commitment as the beads had me by the neck in grip as secure as the one my Best Friend held on my heart
I was still wearing those five years later as I was returning to college to resume work on my bachelor’s degree. I had taken a break in my studies for a two year bicycle penance in New England and now all I wanted to do was finish with school and get on with my life. I had a plan with a schedule and a checklist, all of which were designed to get me to my degree and a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army as quickly as possible
…none of which made any allowances for a life co-pilot. Just prior to that two year mission my Best Friend and I parted ways in what was one of the hardest trials of my life. I had hoped that losing myself in service in the New England States mission would help me move on, but I had little chance to forget. The first (and longest) area I was assigned to was Lynn, Massachusetts and the similarity of that place name to my (former) Best Friend’s name guaranteed that the matter was never out of my mind. Fulfilling much the same function as a white flag, the strand of beads remained in place around my neck and under a white shirt and tie for twenty-four months.
…but all that was past and I was now living in 1976. When I left school in 1974 the counterculture was in full swing and everyone wore long hair, love beads, and embroidered Levi 501 trousers and listened to Cat Stevens and Neil Young. Two years later things had changed a bit; the hair was still longish but now it was razor-cut, the denims were $50 designer label pants, the beads had been replaced with medallions and we were sailing mindlessly into the disco era serenaded by the falsetto tunes of the Bee Gees.
I jumped into school, my days taken up with design studies and ROTC while my nights were devoted to “quainting”; either getting reacquainted with old friends or going to “get-acquainted” dances after hours at the school, all the time making sure that I didn’t spend too much time with any one young lady. I had a plan with a schedule and a checklist to follow…but I also still had a string of beads that I wore around my neck. I told myself that at this point wearing them was an unconscious habit, that they were essentially the worry beads that figured so prominently in pop psychology at the time but deep down wearing them was less a matter of worry than it was a matter of just Not Letting Go.
As for school: If my class schedule were a tangible object it would have been made of cardboard, parts of broken appliances and duct tape. I was off-cycle with both my design classes and ROTC so my semester schedule included 200, 300 and 400 level classes, one of the 200 level design classes being Presentation I, an industrial design class teaching techniques for presenting concepts and stressing perspective drawing. It was an extremely testosterone-laden class populated primarily with industrial design students designing cars and tools; while my taste was more towards military or space vehicles I fit right in with the rest of the guys…except the class wasn’t made up of only guys.
The gentle cascade of light brown hair caught my eye first, but the water-color blue eyes with the slightly sad tilt and a hint of a Southern accent clinched the deal. I moved to her side of the room on the pretext of showing my portfolio to our teacher and was surprised when she moved over closer when I mentioned I had studied under Richard Bird in his ground-breaking graphic design program at Ricks College two years earlier. She’d also taken classes from him which got us to talking and by the end of class we were fairly well acquainted: her name was Lori Howell and she was from Huntsville Alabama, her father was an engineer with Boeing and the local stake president in the Church. As I walked along idly fiddling with my strand of beads two thoughts came to mind:
- I was definitely “interested”
- Based on what I had learned about Lori that day it was a sure thing that given my interests and background I was not part of her world and never would be.
What followed was a confusing whirl of dates-that-weren’t dates and statements that often echoed a parent’s feelings instead of our own. As the semester progressed I was becoming more confused and by the time Homecoming rolled around I felt it was time for an ultimatum. “I’m going to ask Lori to homecoming” I told my friend Oly “and if she turns me down I am going to drop her like a hot rock”
She said yes.
…and I was glad she did because the Homecoming Dance was a magical night, but as enjoyable as the dance was, it did little to dispel the anxiety that was developing right along with my feelings. I was happy with an idea of a low-key casual relationship, but when she presented me with an afghan comforter she’d knit for me it was all I could to avoid a full-scale panic attack. The afghan was just too similar to the red, white and black knit scarf that my Best Friend had made for me five years earlier. Suddenly the half-verbalized concern that had been lurking in the back of my mind became crystal clear: I didn’t want to get hurt again. More importantly I didn’t want to hurt anyone else again, but the way the relationship was developing we’d soon pass beyond the point of any possible emotional damage control.
It was with this anxiety that I climbed aboard a truck a week later and set out for a three day field exercise in southern Utah with thirty other ROTC cadets. As I gazed out over the tail gate on the trip south a buddy’s raspy voice startled me:” Hey Deitrick you hippie – what’s with the beads? ” Old habits die hard – I had forgotten I was wearing them and was toying with them as I watched the miles roll by from the back of the deuce-and-a-half. Moments later I forgot about the beads and the comment as we pulled off the road to our start point, where we jumped off the back of the truck and into a rugged adventure involving a midnight crossing of the Dirty Devil River and a shivering twenty kilometer hike to our objective.
I shuffled along under the stars wearing the same uniform as the others and armed with the same weapon, but I was also carrying a burden my buddies weren’t weighed down with: a strand of beads and a heavy heart. I was in love with Lori but I couldn’t see any sort of relationship ever happening. Our worlds were so far apart. At the same time I had to admit that hard as I had tried to get on with my life I was still damaged from the loss of my Best Friend. My feet started to feel heavy from the miles we’d walked and the mud that clung to our boots, but my heartfelt even heavier’ “Lord, what am I going to do? I can see no resolution to this issue that doesn’t entail someone going through the kind of misery that I swore would never happen again.”
I was so caught up with this internal debate that I was surprised when the sun started coming up again – we had spent the entire night hiking through the desert. We started to check weapons and prepare for the assault when were all unpleasantly surprised: a quick check of the map showed that even though we had been walking for over twenty shivering kilometers we were still more than twenty three kilometers away from our objective. It was an easy enough mistake – our cadet platoon leader had made an error with his compass when we set out the night before, a small error that had compounded as we walked the night before. There was not much of a forgiving mood at that point though – the rage was palpable and had there not been a Regular Army advisor in the group we would have thrown the guy over the edge of the closest ravine.
The major grinned and sardonically said” “It’s time to suck it up cadets. You know Duty, Honor County? Be the leaders you’re supposed to be and stop whining like little girls“…and with those words he turned and started to trot in the direction of our objective. While it took a moment or two for the platoon to collectively shake off the fatigue of the previous night’s trek and start after the Major I personally had no problem breaking into a run: I didn’t care about the miles. I didn’t care about the thirst. I finally had an answer.
The word had ripped through me like a bullet through jello. To the rest of the platoon it was a command to get moving, but for me it was the answer for the question that plagued me more than the mud, blisters, or cold. I loved Lori, but I was holding back because I was afraid of what might happen. I never wanted my heart broken again, and I certainly didn’t want Lori’s heartbroken either.
But then there was the “D” word. Duty. Sometimes Love wasn’t just about the romance or the hair, eyes and curves. It was about commitment.
….and sometimes duty is a higher emotion than love. I had been given a charge, a duty to love and live with and protect this daughter of God no matter what fears I may have or what problems we would encounter at that moment or in the future.
Past that epiphany I remember little else from that day. We crossed the desert floor in record time, completed the exercise then climbed into the back of the truck to bounce back to campus and the Welles ROTC building. I stopped at Lori’s apartment on the painful walk back to my place and made the usual dumb Ranger jokes but somehow being there with her seemed a little bit different. The edginess was no longer there.
It was the same way when I came back to see her later on that evening. We didn’t do much other than curl up together in a big white chair and listen to “Peaceful Easy feeling” on the eight-track player but somehow the whole universe had changed. My plan with the schedule and checklist would have to be adjusted accordingly
…and the beads were now sealed in an envelope stashed in the back of my sock drawer.