Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Summer of '59

Grandma and Grandpa had a beautiful backyard garden with narrow grassy pathways and about enough “lawn” for a couple of chairs and the rotary drier.  Grandma took care most of the flowers – black-eyed susans, peonies, lily of the valley, forget-me-nots, bleeding hearts, day lilies, iris, glads, snapdragons, trumpet vines, hens and chickens, jack-in-the-pulpit, lamb’s ears and ferns.  More flowers than I can remember – the garden bloomed all summer long!  Grandpa tended three things:  his roses, his tomatoes and his compost heap.  There was a wild brambly red raspberry bush which yielded a small handful of treats each season.  Strawberries too, in sweet juicy abundance.

It was a delightful English garden, Grandpa puttering around and Grandma and I sitting in the sun reading (she read about flowers, I read about horses) and painting (she painted flowers, I painted horses).  My entire childhood revolved around these special weekends and summers in this garden.

Once each summer came a wondrous event.  The fire hall was about four doors away, and the firemen put on a carnival for a day or two, located on the other side of the unkempt hedges and tall old trees ringing the garden.  It was magical – strings of lights, cotton candy, games of chance and skill, small rides, and wall-to-wall people!  People came from miles around – kids, teenagers, moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas.  Of course, some people parked on Grandma’s flowers and drove over the bushes and bumped into the trees, which always made Grandpa angry, but, heck – it was only two days a year.

My grandmother and I were strolling through the carnival one evening when I saw him – and I thought for a moment it was James Dean.  Skinny blue jeans, white tee shirt, ducktail haircut.  He was the very image of wild rebellious youth and my heart skipped a beat.   It was love at first sight.  I was 13 years old.
I had seen Rebel Without a Cause when I was 9, Elvis was my favorite singer, and Edd “Kookie” Burns was my TV heartthrob on 77 Sunset Strip.  And here he was, practically in my grandma’s back yard!  I followed him through the carnival as best I could with Grandma in tow, and caught tantalizing glimpses.  Later I saw him drive away in his convertible, top down in the sultry summer night.  I wrote down his license plate number.

Thus began my little adventure.  I wrote to the license bureau, told them my girlfriend had a crush on this guy with this license plate on his car but she was too shy to do anything about it so I was doing her a favor and could they please send his name and address?  Astonishingly enough, they did.

After much pondering, I sat down and wrote him a letter.  I told him that my girlfriend, Linda Russell (I made up both the name and the girlfriend), had seen him at the carnival and thought he looked really nice and she wondered if he would be willing to meet her.  I told him the location (the firemen’s road next to my Grandma’s back yard) and picked a date and time when I knew I could be there.

The days passed in alternating paroxysms of sheer terror and wild excitement.  I could hardly wait to get to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  By the time the weekend arrived I was beside myself.   As the appointed hour approached I was crouched in the high back bathroom window which had the best view of the laneway.  When I saw his car drive up, I nearly jumped out of my skin and I clattered down the narrow crooked stairway and bolted through the kitchen and out the back door into the garden; then I attempted to emerge unruffled and serene on the other side of the tangled shrubbery to meet my dreamboat face to face.

He had left his engine on and his muffler was roaring like a jet engine.  He was leaning up against the car and he looked puzzled when he saw me.  Dirty words had been painted all over his car in crude black lettering, and I was mortified to see him up close in the glaring sunlight.  His hair was too greasy, his face was lined, and some of his teeth were missing, his clothing was soiled.  He was ugly!  He was old!  (Probably at least 25!)

I calmly told him Linda had been unable to meet him that day because she was sick, and she had sent me to tell him.  He apologized to me about the graffiti on his car, told me his friends had pulled a prank on him.  With these apologies exchanged, he got back in his car and rumbled away.

When I reemerged into the now-quiet sanctity of the garden, Grandma was coming down the back steps.  “Who was that, dear?” she asked innocently.  “He just wanted some directions, Grandma.”  “Oh, alright, dear.”

I never told a soul about this incident – if my mother had found out she would have had kittens and I would have been grounded for life. If Grandpa had ever found out he would have had a coronary.   It is only in retrospect that I realize how lucky I had been, coming away unscathed from my first attempted “walk on the wild side.”  The guy was probably just a grease monkey but he could just as easily have been an axe murderer.  I returned to drawing horses for several more years before I again ventured forth into the wild uncharted world of boys.