Kenai Central High School had a long tradition of supplying a pep bus for major athletic events when I was a student there years ago. The bus trips were rarely if ever overnight excursions – when I was a freshman stories were still floating around about the totally out-of-control sex and alcohol that had caused such extended trips to be banned. We were a much quieter bunch than our predecessors – a competition to amass the largest chewing gum wad was the limit to our debauchery but nevertheless all our jaunts to Anchorage were Cinderella affairs and we were always back home by midnight.
The stated mission of each pep bus was to supply supportive voices to cheer on our teams, but the fact that we also got to miss a day of school with the district’s blessing helped to build student participation as well. I personally was glad any time I got to Anchorage, if nothing else but to see how the city had changed since we moved away in 1964. On this occasion our mission was to cheer for our wrestlers competing in the state tournament – and while we hoped to provide as much moral support as possible I was much more interested in the young lady sitting next to me on the bus than I was cheering for someone in red leotards getting his face rubbed off out on the mat.
She was a freshman named Cindy, and besides being very pretty she stood two very shapely inches taller than I did. To this day I still cannot remember how we first became friends, but I do remember that we laughed a lot, which helped to compensate a bit for the platonic flavor our relationship had taken on, and which I hoped would change on this bus trip. We sat snuggled up on the miniscule seat, sometimes with my arm around her, other times with her head on my shoulder as she slept – but always under the watchful eye of Mr. Lombard.
Mr. Lombard taught classes at both the high school and at church …and just happened to be good friends with my parents. He was one of the chaperones on this pep bus and took notice of my presence and proximity to Cindy from the moment the trip started. That might not seem much of a problem, but you must remember the medieval rules for dating that my mom had imposed on all her children – I had no doubt that any untoward activity with Cindy would have been promptly ratted out to my parents when we got home.
As it was there was very little observing going on once we got to Anchorage as all the adults left the area as soon as the bus was unloaded. As the only former Anchorage resident in the group I became very popular with other students who wanted to visit malls, stores and landmarks that they’d only seen on the television, so I immediately left for a series of short trips to the Mall at Sears, J.C. Penny’s downtown on Fifth Avenue and the Bun Drive-in further east on Northern Lights Boulevard. It was fun – and kind of an ego-boost but after my third such side trip I was tuckered out and went back to the tournament for a rest, which turned out to be very brief. After cheering through exactly three matches Mr. Lombard bellowed “Everyone back on board!” and the chaperones started herding us back to the bus for the long trip home.
…which was a little different than the trip up. When Cindy and I continued our slightly snuggly but platonic arrangement during that return trip I noticed something different about Mr. Lombard – his stern disapproving glare was replaced by a dark, confused almost vulnerable expression and he would quickly break eye contact whenever I happened to glance back. That unexpected change in demeanor did wonders for scaling down my own anxiety level, so Cindy and I were able to curl up comfortably on the seat together and sleep away all but the last half-hour of the trip home. I was still trying to figure out how I was going to avoid any sort of parent/Lombard drama upon arrival back at the school, but fortunately I was dropped off on the highway, my home less than a quarter-mile down Scout Lake Loop. I put on my best disappointed-look for Cindy and grumbled about leaving early but getting dropped off “on the way” guaranteed there would be no chance for interaction between Lombard and my folks.
Other than a few odd looks during church I got through the weekend in good shape, though given the high-strung nature of my family it took real effort to refrain from suspecting the worst. No indiscretion was too petty to escape retribution and for to be a week following the trip I’d jump every time my mom so much as cleared her throat… but as far as I know the real story of Snugglegate was never leaked to my parents.
It wasn’t until a rather dramatic revelation at church months later that I learned the real reason for Lombard’s furtive looks. He had been carrying on an affair with the school’s choir director and the wrestling tournament pep bus had given them a perfect cover for some “afternoon delight”. The dark looks directed at me weren’t because of my behavior – he was worried that I would be ratting him out instead.
The book closed on the Cindy-story a few weeks later as well. I had decided to ask her to the junior prom but was interrupted by my friend Larry who was facing a particularly nerve-wracking task. He decided he needed me for moral support – what they now call a “wing-man” but it was only when we got to his personal ground-zero that I realized fate had dealt me another loaded hand:
I was there to back him up as he asked Cindy to the prom.