“We Shall Not Cease” formerly “Which One?”-Part 1) (Complete text of story)

“We Shall Not Cease…”

Formerly “Which One?”

Revised 12-3-10

Part one

The day that magazine came in the mail I had been alone—lived alone—for a little over 5 years after my wife of 21 years, chose to give her allegiance and devotion to another man. (I’ll explain about the magazine in a minute.) When she ended the marriage she said it was something she was doing for herself—not something she was doing against me. I chose to believe her. That was 11 years ago—and I’ve not had any reason since then not to believe her.

I’m not one of those people who think because I love and am devoted to someone, they owe me something (at least not when I’m in a calm frame of mind). She owed me nothing. Still it’s hard to watch someone so beautiful walk away. After about 3 years I was finally able to let go of her in my heart.

And about that same time I started climbing up out of my depression. I took a certain left-handed pride in surviving those three years. My kids helped a lot—giving me something to hang on to until I could let go. I was glad to be alone those first three years. But then I realized I wanted someone to share my life

One morning I woke up and decided to start exercising—and stop living off of a diet of frozen pizza, ice cream and jelly donuts. For the first few months I walked a couple of miles every day. Then I joined a gym, lost weight, bought some new clothes. After about 6 months I noticed the ladies at work looking at me a little differently.

Did the on-line dating thing—that was interesting and a great game. Met some very nice women—met some total nut cases. But the bottom line was I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. The main problem seemed to be—every woman I talked to that was age-appropriate—had so much baggage, were so stuck in or unwilling to change their lives or were just so damaged by life “it”—meaning a real relationship of caring, commitment and devotion—just wasn’t going to happen. The more I failed to find someone, the emptier the house I lived in became.

After a year of working out and searching the internet I was in great shape physically—I’d lost 60 pounds and now had a physique like a man in his 20s—but I was sliding back into depression. I couldn’t understand why a healthy, single, educated professional couldn’t find an intelligent, healthy, normal woman. One of my (married) female colleagues at work asked me one day how the search was going.

“Not good,” I said. “It feels like I’m not supposed to find anyone—either I’m not interested in them or they’re not interested in me.”

“What do you want in the way of a woman?” she asked. I didn’t have to think long.

“I want someone who thinks I’m wonderful,” I responded. “And who I think is wonderful.”

I looked back over the last year. I was in better health physically but no closer to finding Ms Wonderful than I was 12 months before.

Then that magazine—the one I mentioned earlier that came monthly—the one I didn’t even subscribe to and that I typically just threw into the re-cycle—changed my life.

End part one.

Begin 2

Back in those days my routine was to come home from work each day and after parking the car, walk over to the mailbox and get the mail. As I walked back to the house I’d separate the important or interesting stuff from the junk mail and—as I passed the re-cycle tub on the front porch—toss the in the junk.

The AARP (American Association for Retired People) magazine was one of those things that usually hit the tub with barely a glance. But on that particular day I glanced at the name of the featured article which was, “Re-connecting with Old Flames.” It instantly caught my attention. Without even changing clothes or taking off my shoes I immediately sat down on the bed and read it.

I suspect most people, like me—when they find themselves on the far side of fifty—start wondering about people they knew as kids. I was 58 the day that magazine came and had wondered from time to time for years—“Whatever became of Joanie?”

Joanie was my first girl friend—the first girl I ever kissed. I was 17 when we met—she’s 6 months older than me—she was 18. That was in February of 1963—a long time ago. John F. Kennedy was president and you could buy a gallon of gas for a quarter. I’d even developed this fantasy where I found out where she was living, traveled there, knocked on the door and her youngest daughter—who would be 18—would come to the door and she would look just like Joanie did when we met.

I would drink in her beauty for a moment then ask to speak to her mother who would be living a very successful, happy life with a good husband. Joanie and I would sit and talk and reminisce awhile. I’d let her know how precious our relationship had been to me all those years since we went our separate ways. Finally I’d hug her, kiss her on the cheek and leave to make the best of the rest of my life but—before I left—I’d whisper in her ear something like, “If you and your husband should ever separate, please give me a call.”

The article related a number of cases of people who—having lost their spouse or gotten divorced—looked up former boy or girl friends, got back together and re-established loving relationships.

As soon as I finished the article I went downstairs, sat down at the computer and looked up property tax records for Bellamy County, NY and the town of Odyssey. There were several listings for households with her last name—which fortunately was not a common name. I remembered her family had lived in that area for many generations.

I called one of the names—explained who I was and who I was looking for. The man I spoke with turned out to be a cousin of Joanie’s and was happy to give me her phone number and married name.

Before dialing the number I sat for perhaps 15 minutes thinking about what I was about to do. I thought carefully about every girl I’d had even a half-way serious relationship with during the 20 years before I married my now ex-wife. I thought about each of them carefully. Did I want to try calling any of them? Was there any chance any of them might be interested in re-connecting? I couldn’t think of a single one that I felt even slightly inclined to call—that I thought might in some way be interested in seeing me again.

The only girl I’ve ever known who I thought might possibly, somehow, maybe, perhaps be at all interested—was Joanie. The way I remembered her was as the one girl who was completely smitten, totally, unconditionally, utterly in love with me. I’ve been privileged to be loved by several beautiful women in my life but none of them loved me like Joanie.

Joanie was the one girl in my life who didn’t just love me—she believed with all her sweet, adorable heart that I really was—wonderful.

I sat there for several more minutes thinking to myself,

“Are you serious?”

“Do you really think a 59 year old woman would be at all interested in getting together or even just getting to know again—a guy she went with when she was little more than a child—a guy she’d had no contact with in 42 years? Yeah—you’re depressed and a bit desperate—but are you nuts?—are you delusional?

I took a deep breath, dialed the number and listened to the phone on the other end ring.

End part 2

Begin 3

I think the phone on the other end rang four times—what is that—about 4 or 5 seconds?

During that brief time it was like those stories you hear about people who are about to die—seeing their whole lives in a flash. I found myself remembering the first time I saw Joanie—in February of 1963—in the vestibule of the First Baptist Church in Rome, New York.

A mutual friend—Christine—had approached me one day in school a few weeks before.

“Orion,” she said with an engaging smile. “I have this friend who lives in Odyssey. She’s a lot like you—I think you’d like her. She likes the outdoors like you and is very sweet—she has a wonderful personality.”

Of course to a typical 17 year old boy that “nice personality” thing is adolescent code for “she’s a dog.” But I’d only just started talking to girls with thoughts of a date so in any event I listened carefully as Chris went on telling me about how this Joanie girl loved to hike in the woods and camp, wasn’t a party type—tended to stay to herself—loved the company of animals more that the company of a lot of people—just had a few close friends. I had to agree that sounded a lot like me.

“Uh, well—is she pretty?” I asked trying not to sound too lascivious and superficial.

“Well, yeah,” Chris—who was herself an unusually cute girl—continued. “I think she is.”

“Yeah, but you’re a girl,” I said, “would a boy—me for example, think she was pretty? Do you have a picture of her?”

“No,” she went on with that impish smile and twinkle, “don’t worry—she’s pretty.”

The Sunday Joanie and I met was “Boy Scout Sunday.” That meant I and the other kids in my troop were supposed to wear our uniforms to church. I’d been active in scouts for some years and at 17 was now an Assistant Scoutmaster. I had received my Eagle Scout award a few years before and was due to receive my, ”God & Country” medal that Sunday. I’d worked for months on that award and was excited about finally getting it—I liked attention just as much as the next teen-ager and figured if this girl should turn out to be attractive, this accomplishment and public recognition might impress her.

A friend—Don Loman—was standing there in the vestibule with me providing moral support that Sunday. He was almost as excited as I was to see this girl. The minutes ticked by—people were climbing the steps to the main sanctuary—the service would start in a few minutes. I kept fidgeting, smoothing and adjusting my scout uniform.

Scouting was one of a very few ways I had to feel good about myself. The progression in rank, the merit badges and awards, camping trips, hiking, camaraderie around a campfire—I enjoyed these things a lot. I was not a well-adjusted kid—as much as I liked people I was a bit of a loner—and had only a few friends.

It seemed to me and still does—that my parents and almost everybody I and my family associated with during those growing up years (in the late 40s thru early sixties) in the Mohawk Valley—had this tiny-minded, bovine acceptance of immediate circumstance and suffocating conservatism. Once I finally did leave home I had only contempt for Upstate New York and though I had family there, would go for 10 or 12 years at a time between return trips.

Standing there in the vestibule I was nervously blathering on about some pointless nonsense when Don touched my arm and nodded toward the front doors where Chris was coming in from the Upstate New York cold. And with her was Joanie. Probably the best way to illustrate my reaction would be to say I was real glad I’d just used the bathroom.

“Close your mouth,” Don said.

“Huh?” I said standing there staring at the approaching girls.

“Close your mouth, idiot,” Don whispered. “Your mouth is hanging open.”

The girl walking beside Chris had the most beautiful coal-black eyes and the darkest, thickest lashes I’d ever seen on a girl. In fact, to this day I’ve never met a girl with such beautifully penetrating eyes. In the journal I kept back then I described them as being like, “black fire.” And the kicker (I later found out) was, Joanie didn’t use any make up at all.

If that wasn’t enough—she was built like the proverbial masonry, sanitary edifice. Later I would find out I could literally put my open hands around her waist and by squeezing just a little, touch my thumbs and fore fingers on each hand, together—her waist was that small. And as far as that part of her anatomy that every adolescent boy obsesses about, the phrase, ”more than ample” comes to mind. She looked to be 5 foot three and weighed 100 pounds.

I have no idea what we talked about in those 10 or 15 minutes before the service but I did notice her looking at me carefully. I couldn’t sit with her and Chris—I had to sit in a special section up front of the sanctuary with some other scouts who were also receiving awards.

The main thing I remember taking with me from that first meeting was eye contact. I went home that day remembering Joanie made almost constant eye contact with me every minute we were together. I was cautiously optimistic.

The next morning—Monday—Chris comes up to me in the hall at school and before she can say anything I blurt out,

“Did Joanie say anything,” I pleaded, “did she say she liked me?” Chris studied my expression a moment making no attempt to hide a smug, self-satisfied smirk.

“Joanie wants you to write her,” Chris explained.

“OK—sure—but did she say she liked me,” I persisted.

“Just write her,” Chris replied as she pushed a scrap of paper into my hand with Joanie’s address and phone number in Odyssey—about 30 miles from Rome—on it. I wrote a letter, put a stamp on it and walked three miles across town in the upstate New York winter cold after school that afternoon to mail it at the post office because the mail had already been picked up at my house.

I sat there in front of the computer holding the phone to my ear listening to the rings. On the forth ring a woman picked up the phone and said “hello?”

I tried to keep my voice calm.

“Hello,” I returned, “is this Joanie—maiden name Joanie Watkins.”

There was a brief pause.

“Yes,” she replied. “This is Joanie Watkins—my last name is now “Brown.”

The woman I was talking to—whose voice I had had listened to very carefully—didn’t sound anything at all like Joanie.

End part three

Begin 4

“Hi,” I continued. “I might have the wrong number—but—do you remember the name “Orion? Did you—when you were in high school—date a guy by that name?”

There was dead silence on the other end for a very, very long minute. During that time the 8 or 10 months we went together, before I enlisted in the army, continued to play out in my thoughts. The long walks in the countryside. The long talks about our respective plans for the future.

“Yes,” came the apprehensive response.

“Well,” I said trying to sound just a little breezy but polite, “you’re talking to him.”

Again—a long, dead silent moment on the other end. While I waited I puzzled about why she didn’t sound like my Joanie—I kept straining to hear Joanie in each word but just couldn’t. All I could hear was this upstate New York Mrs. Brown woman.

“Joanie,” I said in a more familiar tone, “this is Orion—this really is me.”

Another few seconds of silence.

“This is a joke—somebody’s playing a joke on me,” came the defensive response.

“It’s not a joke Joanie,” I said, “this is Orion—you’re talking to Orion—it’s me.”

“This is a joke,” she insisted, “did my sister put you up to this?”

I began relating details of our relationship—the color of the gown she wore to the senior prom, the other couple that went with us, how we used to spend our days together walking in the woods and fields of Bellamy County, my scouting background, her love of animals, our first kiss in the back seat of her father’s Studebaker Lark the evening he drove us back from visiting one of her relatives. She could not be convinced that it was really me.

“OK,” I said, “ask me something only Orion would know.”

She didn’t hesitate a second.

“What,” she almost hissed, “was your military service number?” I couldn’t believe it—42 years later—she apparently still remembered my service number from writing it on all those letters.

When I went into the service at 18 I had never been away from home more than a week and certainly had never been entirely on my own. Basic training was tough. I didn’t know it at the time but I was assigned to an Airborne-Ranger preparatory unit. I didn’t enlist intending to go Airborne and Ranger. I found out much later, in that particular training cycle at Fort Dix, they didn’t have enough guys who planned on entering those elite groups to fill out a training roster. A few dozen guys—including me—were randomly assigned to fill the empty bunks.

We ran—a lot, did push-ups—a lot, marched all night with full packs and combat gear—a lot, spent time in hand-to-hand combat training and crawling under barbed wire and machine gun fire—a lot, got screamed at by the drill instructors—a lot. I got to where I could quite literally sleep standing up. I was so chronically exhausted I had a slight cold, headache and sore throat for the entire two months. A lot of guys washed out. I was constantly scared I’d be the next one.

The physical demands of the experience weren’t the hardest part—it was the emotional and psychological stuff. The individual emptiness of the military world and the persistent sense I was always on the verge of failure, made it everything I could do to get through each day. Each night as I went to sleep, the feeling tomorrow would be the day I could no longer hack it—haunted me like a black spirit. I just knew it was going to happen—I’d wash out—I’d be sent home—a disgrace, a no-balls-wimp and a failure.

Adjusting to adulthood and independence under those conditions bordered on overwhelming at times. I remember very clearly the moment I realized I really was on my own. A small group of us were sitting by the side of a road out in the boondocks somewhere waiting for a truck to pick us up. A career Staff Sergeant was telling us about his service in Korea. I’ll never forget the shiver that went down my back when he matter-of-factly said something like…

“Some of you kids—I know—are looking at me like I’m your daddy. Like I’ll be looking out for you if we go into combat. Forget that shit. If we get into a fight I’m looking out for my own ass. You’re on your own.”

I realized instantly he was right—I had been thinking of him as a father figure—that he or somebody like him—would look out for me if the situation got dicey. And I realized—fully—I wasn’t a kid anymore—nobody was going to protect me like my parents did growing up. I was alone and on my own and like it or not—ready or not—I could be a man—or something less. That was probably the scariest moment I had in those months of training.

Joanie’s letters to me while I was in basic, then later in Advanced Infantry Training, were the only thing that kept me hanging on. She wrote almost daily. The letters that came almost every day were like oxygen while under water. Several times she sent little perfumed handkerchiefs that I kept under my pillow. I’d often fall asleep in the dark, World War Two era barracks, with one of those handkerchiefs over my face, breathing in the love, caring and sanity and praying I’d somehow make it through the next day

It was about a year after I’d enlisted—while I was stationed in Alaska—I got that last letter—the one where she told me she was getting married. I could not in any way fault her. Though I cared about her deeply—and for the rest of my life always thought of her as the perfect first girlfriend for me—I was never able to say to her, “I love you,” even though she professed her love for me many times. I cared about and respected her too much to lie to her. I remember writing her back and wishing her well then crying myself to sleep that night.

The decades rolled by. After the army was years of college then a career in the mental health field—two marriages—but I never forgot Joanie. In my memory she was always the sweetest, prettiest girl I’d ever known. I didn’t realize it until many years later but it finally dawned on me, every girl I ever dated—I measured against her.

Without any hesitation on my part—I rattled off my service number. An ex-GI never forgets his service number. I remember an uncle who was in World War Two—a few years before he died in his 80s—spiting out his service number like he was still a young soldier in uniform.

“RA one-nine-one-zero-eight-six-two-one,” I replied confidently.

“That’s not right,” she snapped back at me, “I knew you were a fake—besides—you don’t sound anything like Orion.”

End part 4.

Begin 5

Her comment about me not sounding like—me—or more precisely, sounding like the Orion from the early sixties—rang a bell—something clicked. Her response to my service number stunned me for half a second—it was like being told I got my birth date wrong.

“Joanie—what are you talking about?” I said in exasperation, “if that’s not the correct number then what is it?”

“It’s RA-one-nine-one-OH-eight-six-two-one,” she snapped back.

I laughed—and was relieved.

“Joanie,” I said, being careful not to be patronizing, “zero and “oh” are the same thing to most people in this context.” In the very focused intensity of the moment she had failed to remember that distinction.

Silence on the other end.

“And even if you want to insist on that difference—how did I get the rest right? And I think I know why I don’t sound like me—to you. I’ve been having the same reaction to hearing you—you don’t sound like my Joanie to me.”

More silence.

“I take it you never left the Mohawk Valley. You’ve been living there in Odyssey your entire life?”

“Yeah…” came the tentative reply.

“My speech has changed,” I said, “I’ve lost my upstate New York accent. My pronunciation and inflection are now more mid-western. I’m the one who has changed—

and as I changed I unconsciously thought of you as speaking like me. I was wrong, of course.”

But even though I now understood why she didn’t speak like I thought she should—she still didn’t sound like my Joanie. I was still speaking to this Mrs. Brown from upstate New York.

Joanie’s manner relaxed. She finally decided it really was Orion she was speaking to after all these years and we started to catch up. I told her about what happened after leaving the service—college, my two marriages, my kids, career and so on.

She told me the marriage to the guy she wrote me about back in early ’65 was quite brief—the mistake of a 19 year old. After high school she took a secretarial class at a local community college and worked as a typist at Browning Arms—locally known simply, “The Arms”—there in Odyssey.

During the Viet-Nam War Browning was awarded several large government contracts and production was expanded considerably. A military liaison office was set up in the factory and in 1973 a young Navy Pilot, Rogers Brown, was assigned to head up that office. Brown had flown A-6 Intruders off aircraft carriers in the Tonkin Gulf for the better part of two tours of duty until his plane was brought down by a soviet S-75 missile during “Operation Linebacker.” Brown bailed out over the gulf sustaining relatively minor injuries but they were sufficient to keep him out of action and at a desk in Odyssey, New York, for the rest of the war. After leaving the military Brown, who had a degree in mechanical engineering before entering the service, continued to work for the Navy as a civilian employee.

Good-looking and affectionately known at the plant as “Captain Rogers,” sometimes “Buck Rogers,” Brown had a reputation as a lady’s man and in addition to earning a doctorate in mechanical engineering design (dissertation project in weapons guidance systems), sooner or later dated almost every single girl at the factory. “The Captain”—as he was sometimes called—was notorious for one night stands and “love ‘em and leave ‘em” relationships until he asked out the girl with the incredibly beautiful black eyes and even more incredible body who worked in Parts Acquisition. Seven months after their first date Joanie became “Mrs. Captain Rogers.”

Three children were born to the Browns. Kristin, the youngest was a homemaker and mother of two in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Mark the middle child, served 6 years in the Coast Guard becoming a fire-fighter on Cape Cod after the military and would later serve in the Air Force Reserves in Iraq. The oldest boy Rogers Junior, took after his dad and, after college, became a fighter pilot serving in the First Gulf War. Like his father, his F-4 Phantom was shot down but unlike his father—did not survive. A routine investigation determined the reason the 22 year old pilot’s plane fell prey to a simple surface to air missile was a malfunctioning weapons guidance system.

A system his father had designed.

End part 5

Begin 6

In the desert west of Bagdad, Rogers Junior had locked onto a mobile SCUD missile launcher and launched a Hellfire missile that hit wide. One of the Iraqi soldiers then fired a shoulder-launched stinger-type missile making a one-in-a-thousand direct hit on one of the plane’s fuel tanks. The plane exploded in a fireball—the pilot had no opportunity to eject. The wreckage and body were recovered by the American military within a few hours. The report on the missile error concluded: “The missile’s “Single Shot Kill Probability” (SSKP) was compromised due to computer data interpretation errors randomly deriving from the hard drive materials choice rendering the missile’s target tracking sub-system unable to make accurate use of return signals necessary to derive reflector steering signals (which in turn maintained the reflector being tracked.)” In this case, the SCUD launch vehicle.

The report went on to conclude data interpretation errors were not a matter of software input but hard drive materials degradation as a result of environmental conditions—specifically the desert heat. In hurried and minimal field testing in the much cooler United States, the system had performed well. No one could have anticipated this kind of problem deriving from utilization in high temperature conditions, but Brown was not a man to eschew responsibility for his work and took full responsibility for the systems failure.

Nothing was said to Brown—there was no individual inquiry or censure—but he was taken off further system design projects. Less than six months after his son’s death Rogers Brown took early retirement from his government job.

Brown held a commercial civilian pilots license which allowed him to carry paying passengers over commercial routes. He and two other pilot friends started a shuttle service between Utica and New York City. Typically Brown was gone 2 or three days a week depending on bookings and weather conditions. Most of the company’s business was conducted using a 6 passenger Beechcraft Musketeer but Brown also maintained a Piper Cherokee for personal use which was hangered at Bellamy County Airport.

Joanie noted her husband was drinking more after their son’s death but assumed it would pass in time as his grief subsided. She also noticed on several occasions, the fragrance of perfume on his shirts—a fragrance that was familiar but she could not place. She shrugged it off as simply a passenger brushing up against him in the small confines of the aircraft. After noticing the perfume a third time it occurred to her the shuttle business had been in operation almost a year and this hadn’t happened previously.

There were other little things going on. Rogers had lost weight and was working out—which he hadn’t done in years. He had bought new clothes and had been to the family dentist to get his teeth whitened. And there was that credit card in his wallet that was unfamiliar and for which no statements came to the house, though scratches indicated it was well-used.

Joanie began to suspect Rogers was cheating on her—he certainly had plenty of opportunity—often being gone half the week and flying across most of southern New York State. Her suspicions were more or less confirmed when she found in Roger’s duffle, a take-out menu from a Chinese restaurant in Cleveland. Rogers had never mentioned going to Cleveland, the FAA had not granted the shuttle business license to use commercial routes to that part of the United States and he had no personal reasons to go there—that she knew of.

She discussed the situation at length with her long time friend Christine—the same Christine that had introduced Joanie and me decades before. She decided when he returned from his current trip she would confront her husband—but that would never happen.

Less than twenty-four hours after her decision, Rogers Brown would be dead on a desolate mountain top in the Adirondacks and dead next to him in the shattered Piper Cherokee—was their dental hygienist.

End part 6

Begin 7

Rogers’ death was a devastating blow to Joanie and her remaining kids. The loss itself was bad enough but the shameful circumstances surrounding made it an especially difficult—if not traumatic—event in their lives.

That said—Joanie was never one to delude herself. The marriage had been little more than a façade for years. The caring and intimacy had been fading even before Rogers Junior’s death. After that Joanie and Rogers senior were little more than housemates. In the last months of his life, Joanie spent most evenings when her husband was home, watching him drink himself unconscious. It also later emerged that Rogers had been seeing at least one other woman during that last year.

Kristin and Mark handled their father’s death much better than their mother thought they would. Both had known for years what their parent’s marriage really was like and what their father was doing. As difficult as it was—to a very real extent—the death of Rogers senior was a relief to the entire family.

Finances were never a problem. Joanie was an expert at managing money and Rogers’ pension and social security plus a solid, conservative portfolio of investments meant she would be comfortable for the rest of her life. There was no need to maintain the large house where the kids had grown up. It was sold and the proceeds placed in a trust fund for the education of the four grandchildren when they came of age.

Joanie took a modest apartment in the same complex as Ruseen—another old friend—in fact she lived just across the hall from her. They routinely had supper and spent several evenings a week together.

Still a beautiful woman with a figure most women in their twenties would love to have, Joanie did not lack for male attention. About a year after Rogers’ death she began keeping company with the family dentist—Phil—a widower and the employer of the hygienist who had died in the wreck with her husband.

The information I just related did not all come out of that first call—it emerged over time. What I did learn to my deep disappointment in that first call, was Joanie was engaged to Phil—in fact a date for the wedding had been set.

By the time we got around to talking about the engagement, the mood of the conversation had improved considerably—there was even the occasional bit of levity. By that point in the exchange the mood was relaxed and pleasant but I still was talking to Mrs. Brown—not Joanie. We talked for over an hour.

“Well, I guess I’d better let you go Joanie,” I said feeling deeply unsettled and hollow—darkness filled my heart. That connection to love was so close and yet so incredibly far away. If only I had called a year earlier. I was swept with a sense of self-piteous rage—tears filled my eyes, spilling onto the computer keyboard in front of me.

“Yeah,” Joanie returned,” it was really great hearing from you. I’ve wondered for years what became of you.” She went on to say she always imagined I’d be living in a cabin up on the side of a mountain somewhere far from any city, running a trap line and hunting for food. She laughed when I told her I lived in a gated community and was a vegetarian.

“Well,” I said again, “it’s getting late—I think you said Ruseen is waiting supper for you? You told me you don’t use a computer—do you mind if I write you occasionally?” I said, trying not to sound too pitiful.

“I think that would be OK,” she replied and gave me a mailing address and made sure I had the phone number right. I felt like I was tearing my own heart out but I made myself say, “Goodbye Joanie.”

Again—as earlier—there was a moment of silence as I waited for her reply.

“Goodbye—Orion,” she whispered in a suddenly entirely different voice. Other than when she said I “didn’t sound like Orion”—it was the only time she spoke my name. It was like someone else had taken the phone.

And in that whispered goodbye—I finally heard it. I heard my Joanie.

End part 7

Begin 8

That extraordinary moment was not as straight-forward as it seems in print above. It took 5 or 10 seconds after I hung up the phone for it to register. Then I started wondering—“did I just hear what I thought I heard?”

I went to bed several hours later still obsessing about that sudden and astonishing shift in tone and feeling. I lay awake for most of the night going over every word of the exchange I could remember—examining each phrase and dissecting the content. It seemed to me she was very clear about the engagement to Phil whom she was looking forward to marrying. She glowingly described him as a genuinely decent, caring, intelligent man and spoke highly of his two adult children.

But several things struck me as incongruous and I clung to those considerations like a life preserver. 1. She spoke with me for well over an hour, 2. She conspicuously avoided saying anything about how she felt about me all those years ago—the depth of her devotion, 3. She was fine with my writing and made sure I had her number but most of all, 4. That shift in tone when she said, “Goodbye Orion,” and the way she said my name.”

In that last phrase I thought I could clearly hear an aching sadness and girlish yearning I chose to believe arose out of a perfect love at a formative time in life that she was never able to leave behind. The fact she remembered my service number (though her memory was only average) seemed to support that contention. I was not simply a guy she had dated and once loved when she was a high-school girl—I was the one great love of her life.

During the course of the conversation we talked about Christine—the mutual friend who introduced us. Joanie and Chris had remained close friends over the years and during a visit one weekend about a year after Rogers’ Senior’s death, my name came up. They tried to locate me on Christine’s computer—without success. I was probably living in some wilderness they decided, where there was no phone service,

Joanie gave me Christine’s phone number and urged me to call her. I had such positive memories of Chris from all those years ago—and had also wondered how her life had unfolded—I decided to call her the next night.

I had hoped to surprise Christine but, as you might guess—Joanie had called her (I later learned) right after speaking with me. When Christine picked up the phone instead of “hello” she answered with “Hi Orion—it’s been awhile.”

We chatted awhile—kids, education, spouses, careers, personal interests—the usual stuff.

An amazing bit of information came out of the discussion of our kids. It turned out Christine’s daughter and son-in-law lived less than 30 minutes from me. Chris had visited them numerous times over the years and was anticipating a visit in the near future.

“Wow—I can’t believe the serendipity,” I responded. “When do you think you’ll be down here again?”

She couldn’t be precise—sometime in the next 3 or 4 weeks.

“Well,” I chuckled, “I’ve been meaning for some time now to do something to repay you for introducing Joanie and me. She was the perfect first girlfriend for me. Sorry it took so long. How does dinner at my favorite restaurant sound? Do you like Indian?” She laughed and said she’d be delighted but encouraged me to do something about my problem with procrastination.

I didn’t dare ask her the question I wanted to—one I’d asked her once before—“What did Joanie say?—does she like me?”

Instead I brought up something I’d been thinking about quite a bit in the previous 24 hours.

“Christine,” I began, “do you think Joanie’s happy?—specifically—is she in a good relationship with this guy Phil? Have you met him?”

“I have met him,” Chris replied. “He seems like a very nice man—he’s quite a bit older than Joanie—seems to be in good health. He’s quite well thought of in the community. Joanie mentioned he drinks possibly a bit much.”

“Joanie seems to have a tendency to hook up with guys who drink more than a little,” I returned.

“People who drink more than they should,” Christine responded, “would include just about everybody in the Mohawk Valley.”

I remembered, growing up in central New York, there was a bar or liquor store on every corner in town and any time I went to anybody’s house wine or beer was consumed like iced tea or coke in this area.

“Yeah—I suppose,” I agreed. “Do you think this guy loves her?”

Chris was silent a moment—choosing her words.

“I think he loves her,” she said, “but I don’t think he really appreciates her.”

I took a breath.

“Do you think Joanie loves him?” I came back.

Again—a pause to carefully choose words.

“I think she appreciates him,” she began, “whether she loves him…”

“Chris,” I inquired, “do you remember the way Joanie talked about me to you in private when we were kids? Does she talk about him in that way?

No pause this time.

“Orion,” she replied, “in the last 40-odd years since you left, Joanie has never talked about anybody the way she used to talk about you. Not even close.”

End part 8

Begin 9

About a month later I came home from work one evening and the “message” light was flashing on my phone. It was Chris. She was in town and looking to collect on that dinner I promised. I called her daughter’s house and set up the date for the next night.

In the month intervening I had chatted with Chris a few more times and she had expressed concern that my coming back into Joanie’s life at this time could be disruptive at best—possibly even destructive. Phil’s kids thought the world of her, Joanie’s kids really liked Phil. The two families had become quite close in the last few years and were looking forward to becoming one extended family and now this guy from four decades ago shows up…

The sky was cloudy—a chilly day in late fall—as I drove into town. As I rolled through the Virginia countryside—the trees were nearly bare—the last red and gold tatters of autumn dangling and fluttering in the melancholy breeze. I was excited, a bit nervous—looking forward to seeing some one I had such good memories of—to reminiscing, to having a good meal with a good friend. I found the daughter’s house without any problem. Chris’s daughter and son in law were delightful people—Chris looked much as I remember her—she still had that impish smile and twinkle.

The restaurant was moderately busy. I was disappointed to learn my favorite chef—Hashish—had left the restaurant—and the country. He had taken his savings and gone back to India to marry the wife chosen for him as a child and set up his own business. My favorite table was open—I asked we be seated there.

The mood in the restaurant that evening was quiet, composed, almost serene. While the Malai Kofta was not quite as good as Hashish’s it was nevertheless excellent. Chris said her Tandoori Chicken was delicious. As always the Basmanti and Naan were perfect.

I had brought along my high school yearbook. We flipped through it—Chris told me what had happened to this person, that person. So many of those fresh, young faces were gone from this world—so strange to look into those smiling immortal eyes and know that beautiful young person was dead—in some instances, decades ago. Despite the occasional sad moment, over all it was a wonderful evening of conversation, good food, sharing and remembering.

I noticed the restaurant staff were going through their closing chores and rituals—unlocking the door to let people out. I paid and we went outside where a cold, black rain was falling. We stood under the strip mall canopy watching the rain while Chris lit a cigarette—it reminded me of those days so long ago when high school kids who smoked were considered much cooler and mature than those who did not. I wonder if kids these days still believe that.

Inhaling, then exhaling the blue smoke, Chris looked at me as I stared into the streetlights across the parking lot watching the rain fall out of the night sky and wash across the black asphalt, the glare reflecting from chrome trim and dozens of dark, silent windshields. I would later learn she was thinking something along the lines of, “Well—forty two years later—it appears Orion turned out OK.”

“We never talked about Joanie,” Chris said in a tentative voice and took another drag on her cigarette.

I continued watching the rain fall and wash over the dormant cars in the streetlight.

“No,” I responded. “We didn’t. I guess we were having fun—just the two of us talking about ourselves—our lives. This has been one of the most pleasant evenings I’ve had in a very long, lonely time Chris.”

Chris also stared into the falling night rain—inhaled again and flicked away a bit of ash. I could see she was thinking about what she wanted to say—or maybe how she wanted to say it.

“You and Joanie have talked about me I assume,” I began—trying to transition to what I really wanted to ask, “about my coming back into her life—and yours too.”

“Yes,” she answered. “quite a bit.”

“I want her Chris.” I said surprising myself with my bluntness.

“I know,” she replied, exhaling a languid stream of smoke. “Joanie knows it too.”

End part 9

Begin 10

“I don’t want to cause her any harm,” I offered, “or cause trouble to people she loves. I don’t want to screw up her life. On the other hand maybe I’m giving myself more credit than I’m due. Chris—we were Kids—and it was a very long time ago. So much has happened in our lives—so much time has passed. I mean—how much influence can I really have after all this time?

By this time I had moved back and was leaning against the brick wall of the store front.

“A lot more than you might think, Orion,” she said. “Joanie’s very vulnerable…”

“To me—my influence?” I asked.

“Yes,” Chris returned, “to you.”

“After 42 years?” I continued.

She nodded silently, still watching the rain, now pouring down heavily.

I struggled to find the right words—I felt like I was walking on the edge of something.

“Are you saying—she still—after all this time—has a special place in her heart for me?”

“Yes,” she said. “Orion—she has a good life—she’s surrounded by people who love her. But—she’s very vulnerable to you.”

“Do you think she loves me?” I said—holding my breath.

I could tell Chris didn’t want to answer that question.

“She’s very vulnerable, Orion.”

We were both silent for several minutes. It seemed to me Chris was hinting—saying I had a real shot here—that I could take back this beautiful girl I’d thrown away so long ago. It was as though Chris was again acting as a go-between as she did 40 plus years before. Reading between the lines she seemed to be saying, “Go for it Orion.” But I was still puzzled and divided. On the one hand Chris was saying I could really mess up Joanie’s life but on the other hand she was saying “go get her—you have the power.”

Years later I would realize that wasn’t what Chris was saying at all. What she was saying was “You have this power—but if you care about Joanie—you’ll butt out—not pursue this.” Even so—I think Chris really did have mixed feelings which (I think) is why she was not more explicit that night.

But mostly—that night standing there under the strip mall canopy in the rain—I heard what I wanted to hear.

“My god,” I muttered to both of us. “What an honor and privilege it would be to lie next to a woman like her.”

Another moment of silence. Chris continued to smoke her cigarette—the rain continued to fall.

“You’re her friend—her best friend,” I said looking directly at her. “Why would you tell me this?”

Chris’s composure slipped a bit. She seemed confused.

“Why wouldn’t I?” she asked in a puzzled voice.

It drifted through my mind like vanishing smoke—there was some sort of miscommunication or misunderstanding here—we were talking past each other. But I brushed it away. All I could think of was—this beautiful girl—from so long ago—is in my power. That’s every adolescent boy’s dream isn’t it?—to have a pretty girl entirely at his mercy.

Suddenly I didn’t give a damn how my taking back this woman effected others. No one concerned themselves with how I felt when my wife, the mother of my children, walked away to another man’s bed—there was no one there for me during my years of aloneness and futile searching. But—in the business I was in back in those days, I was always exhorting clients to pay attention to their own thoughts and ask themselves—“do I like being a person who thinks this way?—do I respect this person?”

I calmed myself and decided to approach this from a position of enlightened self-interest—going after what I wanted from a compassionate frame of mind—not out of self-righteous anger or entitlement.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Chris watching the rain, smoking her cigarette and glancing over at me as I leaned against the building lost in concentration. As I tried to pull back from my rushing thoughts, I inexplicably found myself thinking of all the girls and women I’d been involved with in the last 40 years and wondering why none of them loved me the way Joanie did.

Thunder rumbled in the distance and it drifted into my mind like a leaf on a pond.

None of them was Joanie.

I almost laughed out loud at my stupidity.

A gust of wind blew rain across the concrete walkway we were standing on. Suddenly it hit me. I had been comparing every female I met for the last 40 years—with Joanie. She was the standard against which I measured every woman I encountered. I could sense the whole universe changing a bit as the realization took shape in my mind—I had loved her all these years without knowing it—until that night under the strip mall canopy.

On a simple emotional level, ordinary immaturity (back in those high school days) had a lot to do with it but what struck me as a more plausible explanation was where it happened. I hated the Mohawk Valley and at that time—my life was about one thing—getting the hell out of upstate New York. I could not allow myself to love or be attached to someone who was a part and product of that culture and milieu—and I could not involve myself with someone who would associate me with or attach me to, that region.

But in all the years of hating and rejecting and trying to put the central New York dust “from off my sandals” I could never escape one simple fact. Upstate New York was where I came from and no matter how much I despised it—I was just as much a product of that upbringing and that regional perspective as Joanie.

Joanie wasn’t just a girl who loved me—we were part of each other. That’s why no other woman could love me like she did. That’s why she was the perfect first girl for me and now I wanted her to be the last.

After dropping Chris off at her daughter’s house the drive back to my own home through the rainy Virginia night was a blur. All the way home I focused on my strategy. My first step would be to write a letter—a letter no woman who was even slightly interested, could resist. I’ve always been good with words. This was going to be a love letter on the order few women ever get and the most important letter I’d ever written.

I wasn’t just interested in bringing up the big guns. I was going to exercise the nuclear option.

End part 10

Begin 11

Every night after work I would work on my letter to Joanie—my manifesto of love. I was surprised at how much material I had in the attic from those days—journals, letters, photographs.

There were pictures of Joanie and me walking in the woods, hanging out with other kids and her family and going to the prom—I had these copied. I was able to construct an accurate timeline with details from the period we first met up until I entered the service with more general remembrances after that. I talked in some detail about the dramatic conversation Chris and I had under the strip mall canopy and my revelation. The main point of the letter was to explain why things had happened the way they had between us all those years ago—my inability to accept or grasp my love for her and my personal issues regarding growing up there in the Mohawk Valley.

I commented on the general course of my life, my inability to find someone new to share my life and how I felt things happened the way they were meant to—our coming together at the onset of adulthood and now again in the final years of our lives. I closed with a poignant image of myself waiting—like a ship-wrecked sailor who has thrown a bottle with a message in it into the ocean—hoping desperately for salvation. It would not be an exaggeration to say I crafted that message like a Stradivarius.

By the time it was ready to go there had been some other events and thoughts about current circumstances so I wrote a letter of update which complimented the first. I put together a package of the two letters—which totaled 10 or 11 pages in length—along with 2 sets of photos—one for her and one for Chris.

I waited a week until Joanie had received the package, then called Chris. I was quite certain they would meet to discuss the letters and share photos. I was right and my timing was fortunate. They had had lunch together only the day before.

There had been two or three calls from me to Chris during the two weeks after our meal and conversation. I told her I’d be sending letters and photos to Joanie so she was anticipating the package’s arrival. I cannot remember the details but Chris fairly quickly came to accept my pursuit of Joanie. I think she loved us both and really did want us to come back together. And—being an active and devout Christian—was willing to leave it in God’s hands. Interestingly enough—for whatever reason—Joanie delayed opening the package until she met with Chris in the restaurant. As I thought she might—Joanie shared the letters with Chris—handing each page to her after reading it.

Christine thanked me for the pictures and effusively praised my writing. I thanked Chris for her compliments.

“But you’re not the one I was hoping to impress,” I said with a tone of pleading optimism. “You were there—you’ve known her most of your life—what was her reaction?”

I couldn’t see her face obviously but I’m pretty sure she was smiling.

“Astonishment,” Chris responded, “That’s probably the best word. Joanie’s never gotten a letter anything like what you wrote. I think she was overwhelmed. Really—you didn’t have to do anything to bring her back other than let her know how you felt—but those letters… It sounds corny but you swept her off her feet.”

“She loves me,” I said, “she wants me back?”

“Orion,” Chris responded, “Joanie never stopped loving you. She had to get on with her life but her feelings never changed. As far as wanting you back in her life—yes—she wants you but things are complicated. She hasn’t told Phil—she’s told her sister Barbie—she & I are the only two that know. Do you remember Barbie?”

“I do,” I said, “a year or two younger—very sweet girl—who would do anything for her sister. I remember she didn’t completely trust me back then—at least at one time. She told me she thought I would break her sister’s heart—I guess I did. But I’m trying to make amends.”

“You did break her heart Orion,” she went on. “Her judgment was poor—that’s why after you left and it became apparent you weren’t going to come back to her—she jumped into that first, foolish marriage.”

“Yeah,” I muttered and sighed. There just wasn’t much else I could say. It saddened me to think I’d had a part in that episode in Joanie’s life.

“So how is Barbie with all this?” I continued.

“Well, she still doesn’t trust you,” Chris replied—half joking and half serious. “She’s in between a rock and a hard place—she wants Joanie to be happy but she has no idea who you are now—what kind of person you are. Even if she liked you back then—people change. I suspect she thinks you’re just taking advantage of Joanie—not really caring what problems you cause or who you hurt.”

It was sobering to hear that. I’d thought quite a bit about the ripple effect of my jumping back into Joanie’s life. Any big change—positive or negative can of course have enormous, unintended consequences and impact people you’re not even aware of. But change in life is inevitable. People adapt—they deal with it and get on with their lives—like Joanie did when I left all those years ago—like I did when my wife left me. If we never did anything because it might be disruptive or cause problems—we wouldn’t do much of anything that involved other people.

I decided—that night under the canopy—that it made the most sense to just be clear about what’s in my heart and as much as possible, make decisions and take action in a calm, mature frame of mind—being certain I was acting with compassion and respect for others while still trying to meet my own legitimate needs.

In a fairly brief period of time Barbie would come around to supporting Joanie and accepting me. Barbie was in much the same position as Chris—the same kind of mixed feelings. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I wanted love and companionship—I think everyone has a right to that and I know Chris and Barbie understood that too.

End part 11

Begin 12

A day or two later I wrote another letter. This one was just newsy—talking about things I was doing—my passionate involvement in photography and other interests—the kids—a few little anecdotal observations on our lives and inquiries about her life and family.

About a week after sending that I got a letter back from her—my first letter from her in over 40 years. It was such an incredible experience to see my name and address and her return address on the envelope written in the exact same hand-writing as all those life-preserving letters I used to so look forward to when I was in the military. It felt a bit like time-travel as I stood by the mailbox staring at the envelope.

It was a Saturday her letter arrived. It mostly concerned itself with the quandary she found herself in. She essentially was saying she was interested in getting back with me but there were so many people who would be effected or at least concerned and apprehensive for her. And there were people would simply be hurt if Joanie were to take any sort of big step. But the part of the letter I focused on—like that night under the canopy when I heard what I wanted to hear—was where Joanie asked me what she should do. She was asking me if she should pursue a relationship with me or not. That’s a bit like asking the fox if he wants to guard the henhouse.

I decided to call her. Chris had given me her cell phone number so after reading the letter I immediately began dialing it. Before I had dialed four numbers there was some sort of click and bleep and Joanie was on the other end. Joanie had dialed me at the same time I dialed her—literally within the same space of 3 or 4 seconds.

After we got over the surprise of that curious event we began discussing her quandary. I told her there wasn’t any decision to make—whether to get on board with this or not. I said as far as I was concerned, from what I felt and what I knew about her response—that train had already left the station. There really wasn’t much to discuss on that issue. Joanie inferred she thought I was right but there was a cloud of uncertainty and ambiguity coloring the atmosphere on Joanie’s end. We talked about her family—especially her children and grandchildren and some events involving other family and friends.

It was a warm chat—and I was now definitely conversing with my Joanie—not Mrs. Brown—after all the years I was again feeling the warmth and devotion I remembered from decades ago—there were moments when I actually felt like we were teen-agers again. In back of the friendly conversation however, we were both thinking the same thing—asking the same question. “What next?—what do we do now? Yes—the train had left but now it seemed stuck.

Something was missing on Joanie’s end—certainty.

I had committed myself. In my manifesto I had made it abundantly clear I wanted to plunge in—take it to the next level. But her situation and mine were almost complete opposites. I was single and living alone with almost nothing in the way of family dynamics to contend with. The only people my moving into a committed relationship would affect were my two kids—the inevitable adjustments that they would have to go through such as they did with my ex-wife’s new husband.

Joanie was certainly involved with me but things on her end were complicated—a fiancé’ who no doubt had every intention of building a new life with her and two families—people she loved—whose future would be deeply effected by Joanie’s choices. I had put her in an unenviable situation. It would be one of the hardest, most far-reaching decisions she had ever made.

There was one more emotionally ambiguous letter then silence. In that letter she said she might call. I waited—I didn’t want to impose myself. Nearly two weeks went by with nothing. Then one Saturday afternoon as I was getting ready to go out to lunch with my son, the phone rang—I was expecting a call from someone interested in purchasing a photograph. It was Joanie—her voice was a bit strained.

“Orion?—it’s Joanie,” she said, “this is Joanie.”

“Oh hi Joanie,” I replied, “I wasn’t expecting to hear your voice—are you OK?—is everything alri…”

Before I could complete the word “alright,” she breathlessly blurted out, “I love you Orion—I love you.”

End part 12

Begin part 13

That was what was missing—the last piece falling into place—the train was moving again—gaining speed. Six years later I can’t remember what precisely we talked about after what Joanie would later call her “Big Blurt,” but I do remember quite clearly reaffirming my commitment to her.

“I will do whatever I have to do,” I said, “to bring you into my life—for the rest of my life. I will wait as long as it takes. My ex-wife,” I went on, “said she left me to make her own life better—not to hurt me. Of course I was hurt—I suffered more than I’m comfortable saying but it couldn’t be helped. The only thing I know to do,” I continued, “is act out of love and legitimate self-interest—not out of resentment, entitlement, fear and so on. The most important thing for me now,” I continued, “is what’s best for you. I won’t ask you to do anything for me—whatever you choose to do—do it for yourself.”

In the phone conversations that followed—and there would be calls every day—I made it clear if she choose to make a new life with me—to sever ties there—when she made the leap I would be there to catch her. I stressed she should take whatever time she needed—do what she felt was right—even if that meant marrying Phil. As it happened—I didn’t have long to wait at all.

On a Friday night a few days before New Year’s Eve—about a month after Joanie’s “Big Blurt,” I was getting ready for bed. The kids were at their mother’s. I had just gotten back from the gym and was watching TV to wind down before retiring when the phone rang. On the display I recognized Joanie’s sister’s number. I remembered her friend Ruseen was out of town and Joanie was going to be at her sister’s that weekend. It was Joanie and she was crying.

“I broke it off, Orion,” she began, “I broke off my engagement to Phil,” and she sobbed almost convulsively for several minutes before she could catch her breath and speak again. I could hear Barbie comforting her.

She would alternately cry and describe in snatches—what had happened. The whole thing—the break up—was apparently quite abrupt and unanticipated—but in retrospect—had been building for some time. I learned that night and in later conversations there were some issues with Phil she had hinted at previously—like his drinking—which was a lot worse than she had related. In fact he had had his license to practice suspended once before due to alcohol-related troubles and now it was suspended again.

It also emerged he was pathologically jealous and a control freak—evidently there had been some jealousy problems in recent months. Earlier that evening he had told her he didn’t want her associating with her friend Ruseen and her own sister Barbie. When Joanie objected he shoved her and called her a “stupid bitch.” That was when Joanie ended it.

I sat helplessly listening—very glad she was there with her sister who I knew would take care of her during this crisis. I was thankful she was out of what turned out to be a bad relationship but as the gravity of the situation sank in I could feel a slight sense of fear come over me. I knew exactly what that was about.

I had told her probably half a dozen times if she decided to make the leap I would be there to catch her. She had leaped.

And now it was time for me to put up or shut up.

End Part 13

Begin 14

There it was—in my face—what I’d been chasing, dreaming about, yearning after for months and in a way—looking for my entire adult life. I wanted Joanie—and suddenly there she was in my lap. The old admonition, “Be careful what you wish for,” flitted through my thoughts.

Looking back now I realize it wasn’t a difficult decision—really there was no decision. Mostly it was the shock and surprise—being hit between the eyes with, “You want it—you got it—now deal with it.”

It took a few minutes for me to focus my thoughts and find my voice.

“I’ll come there—I’ll come get you,” I said (now it was my turn to blurt.) “I’ll drive up there tomorrow—I’ll leave at 5 A.M.—I should be there about 3 or 4.”

I could hear Joanie and Barbie talking. Suddenly Barbie was on the line.

“Orion,” Barbie began, “there’s 3 feet of snow up here. Do you have snow tires on your car—chains in the trunk?

Where I live—central Virginia—we typically don’t get a lot of snow. In an average winter we might see 4 or 5 light snows and a few of some consequence but they usually melt in 3 or 4 days. I calmed down a bit and acknowledged Barbie’s point.

In the days that followed Joanie and I—with input from Barbie—decided it would be best for all concerned to wait a few months. The thought of waiting 2 months now that Joanie was unencumbered and committed to me—was like being told I had to hold my breath underwater for two months—then I could come up and breath.

Odyssey was (and still is) a small town with the typical small town collective nosiness and preoccupation with minding everybody’s business but your own. Something as minor as a couple breaking off an engagement—can easily become the subject of vicious, judgmental gossip and lascivious distortion—especially when a fairly high-profile couple in the community break up and a new boyfriend magically appears the next day. Ridiculous as it might sound to some people, it would almost certainly become a scandal and a lot of people would be hurt and embarrassed. You might call it the dark side of Mayberry.

So we started crossing off the days until I would fly up. The third weekend in February was a four day weekend—two national holidays tacked onto the weekend. It would be an agonizingly long wait until then. During that time we would call twice a day and talk about our lives—share secrets—discuss the future—get to know each other as the mature adults we were now with 42 years of life lived apart from one another.

Our lives had taken such different paths. Joanie’s dream had always been to raise a family and make a home in the community where she was born. My path had been to leave home, travel, search—sometimes learn. After escaping the Mohawk Valley via the military and following the military, I had attended colleges and universities in three states and had lived in 6 more.

Joanie was a nurturing, domestic, small town girl who had lived exactly the sort of life she had always wanted for herself. I was a malcontent, anxious, restless wanderer for most of my life, always wanting to see more, understand more and while there were a number of shining moments that I still treasure—I would never really be happy.

Now, in the final few decades of my life I had come full circle. Four decades earlier I had rejected and left the region I grew up in as well as the one, perfect girl for me. I would think to myself and say to Joanie over and over, I wish I had recognized how I really felt about her and married her when we were kids but we both knew it never would have worked back then. I had to chase my convoluted, narcissistic dreams—I could not stay home and be unsatisfied and unhappy—I had to be unsatisfied and unhappy in a dozen towns in nine states.

In the last weeks of the two month waiting period I was incredibly anxious and miserable. I desperately wanted to go—but was terrified something would prevent it. The only way I could find any approximation of peace was to accept that it wouldn’t happen—that I would never get to go back to the place I came from and be with my Joanie.

But the day to go came right on time. And other than the plane being delayed 2 hours due to weather up north, nothing happened to stop me. On a chilly, grey Friday afternoon in February I claimed my window seat, stuffed my carry-on into the overhead and snapped my seatbelt. Before boarding the plane I called Joanie on my cell phone to tell her the flight would be 2 to 3 hours late. In a daze of unreality I watched the runway outside my window slowly taxi past and the horizon gently spin around as the plane turned into position for take-off. The heavy whine of the jet engines rose to a controlled scream as the accelerating runway raced by the window faster and faster then dropped away into broken clouds and a grey-blue mosaic of mountains, farmland and tiny towns passing slowly, silently far beneath us.

I was going home.

End part 14

Begin 15

Seated next to me was a lean, good-looking man in his early-sixties wearing a “Gold’s Gym” tee-shirt. It was obvious he was a weight-trainer so we immediately had something in common. He introduced himself as “Peter,” and we discussed workout routines, diet and training tricks for perhaps half an hour before we began talking about our lives.

Before joining the diplomatic service in his late thirties, Peter had been a lecturer in American and English literature at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Since his retirement from government service 5 years earlier, Peter had been working on a novel about his early years growing up in central New York—Constantia, Sylvan beach and South Bay—all towns on the shores of Lake Oneida. Only a few years older than me, we both came out of the same era and the same upstate New York cultural heritage. It was a bit eerie how much alike we were—growing up about a half hour apart—both of us had left home at the same age—18—and both of us had a problem with the area we grew up in. For me it was personal insecurity, anger and resentment. Peter had somewhat more enlightened, better-adjusted parents. His problem was a gnawing sense of incompleteness and a yearning sense of unarticulated purpose. He saw the same squalid provinciality of the region but didn’t harbor any particular resentment toward it. He just wanted to leave, learn, grow and become someone with perspective—someone possessed with more than a day-laborer’s mentality. Of course the most significant thing we had in common was we were both now pilgrims returning to our origins for deeply personal reasons. Our meeting like this struck me as more than a coincidence.

And he did leave, learn and grow. But he was going back because he was now ready to absorb the rich life lessons and human resonances of this region and, in the context of his larger world understanding, accomplish much the same sort of full-circle reconciliations and resolutions I was seeking in the love and person of Joanie. Peter left seeking perspective and a better appreciation of his place and circumstances in time—returning now to complete the undertaking. I left seeking love and redemption—returning for the same reason.

Peter’s novel was structured after Homer’s Odyssey with considerable influence from Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Structured as a journey of course—it was partly autobiographical, largely metaphorical fiction—beginning with the narrator’s origins in the Central New York-Lake Oneida region to his years in Connecticut, his governmental service in several European countries and back—like me—to his place of beginning.

The tests, trials, failures and victories of Peter’s narrator’s life-journey—of course color who he finally becomes—but his existential essence, his uniquely Upstate Weltanschauung ultimately determines who he finally is. The way Peter explained it is, by the time he and I left home at age 18—our unarticulated views of the world, life, man’s place in the cosmos and so on—were formed years before but were still malleable.

Our Upstate childhood was the theme—the summary influence of our experiences after we left was the variation. He and I share a common theme but have separate and distinct variations on that theme. We agreed you cannot truly come home again because home changes and we change. We look at whatever happened in the growing up years with adult eyes—with an understanding not the same as what we had as young people. But to know who you are—to achieve any sort of reconciliation, redemption or completion—you must nevertheless go home again.

During his years at the University of Connecticut among other things Peter taught a class in T.S. Eliot—one of his and my—favorite poets. We both agreed Eliot understood and beautifully articulated our shared life agendas when he wrote:

“In my end is my beginning…and in my beginning is my end.”

and

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I told him the story of Joanie and me and he was entranced at the coming full circle—returning to origins and first love after, like him, extensive traveling and searching. The trip north was delightful and I lost track of time—suddenly the “fasten seat belts” sign was on and the attention signal was chiming. I glanced out of the window and could see below tiny, soft lights gleaming bravely through darkness and swirling snow. As the plane descended to Syracuse-Hancock Airport, I could see headlights of tiny cars moving along snow-covered highways rising up beneath the plane and growing larger.

I turned to see Peter saying something to a flight attendant as the pitch of the engines changed an octave. There were several soft thumps as the landing gear unfolded into the churning, snowy darkness. A white-blanketed tree line on the other side of a large open field flew by the window and the muffled thunder of wheels hitting the runway came up through the cabin floor. Shortly we were taxiing up to one of the terminal buildings. I peered out of my window to see high mast lighting silently glowing through a falling wall of impossibly heavy snow. I remember asking myself—“Was it really like this growing up?” I immediately answered my own question—“Yeah—it was.”

The PA system came on and the female flight attendant’s voice cheerily told us to remain in our seats until the plane came to a stop.

“Welcome to snowy Syracuse, New York,” the attendant said in a vaguely amused tone, “the current temperature is 8 degrees and the forecast is for more snow—lots and lots of snow. Bundle up folks.”

End part 15

Begin 16

Peter opened the overheard compartment and pulled down his bag. I did the same and we stood in front of our seats while passengers from the back of the plane slowly moved through the aisle past us toward the front of the plane. Finally a break in the passing stream let us step into the aisle and we shuffled forward. As we neared the exit I pulled a compressed down coat out of my bag putting it on over the heavy flannel shirt that was sufficient when I boarded the plane in central Virginia three hours before.

The flight attendants wished us well as we stepped out of the plane and into one of those big boxy deplaning tunnels that funnel you into the terminal building like cattle through a chute. I was a bit surprised at the cold—even enclosed in the tunnel my breath vapor was full and thick. It was shortly after midnight as we walked out of the tunnel into the warm building. Peter and I separated with a hug and mutual best wishes.

Gone are the days—I guess—where you could get off a plane and immediately meet your friends, relatives, associates—the inconvenient reality of the post 9-11 world. I followed the signs to baggage pick-up, claimed my bag then set off on my hike down thru the vast, nearly deserted concourse. As I searched for the waiting area sign—despite my racing, impatient thoughts—I tried to remember the last time I actually saw and touched Joanie.

It was probably a few days after Christmas of 1964. I had flown down from Alaska on a MATS (Military Air Transport Service) plane, landing at Griffiss Air Force Base. After the holiday I had to take a bus back to the base to catch the return flight and the bus station was where I said goodbye to Joanie and my mom. The image of the two of them, crying while trying to smile and waving at me through the bus window was quite clear in my memory’s eye. My mom and Joanie had hit it off beautifully. Mom would have loved for Joanie to be her daughter-in-law.

As I walked through the echoing concourse I kept glancing around looking for an open restaurant. I was hungry—a small bag of peanuts on the plane had been my only supper that day. Despite being a big airport with flights coming and going from all over the world twenty-four hours a day it appeared every business—including food—was locked up and dark this time of night.

An ice cream shop reminded me of how, when Joanie and I were kids, we—along with Joanie’s sister and her boyfriend—would often walk several blocks to a local ice cream parlor called “Louvier’s” and get ice cream. The walk to the store was always a quiet, beautiful experience. Holding hands—the warmth and sunlight of the day fading into coolness and twilight, crickets beginning to chirp—as we strolled along old worn sidewalks under towering elms through tidy working class neighborhoods. The first time we did that was the same evening I kissed Joanie for the first time.

Earlier in the afternoon that day Joanie’s father had brought us along on a visit to a family member—an uncle I think. I don’t remember a thing about the visit—only the drive back—Joanie and I in the back seat—her father driving—watching the road—pretending to be oblivious to what was going on in the back seat. I had enough sense not to hesitate when I put my left arm around her—to do it with quiet confidence. When she readily accepted that, I knew I was “home free.”

As head-lights from passing cars and soft illumination from street-lights slipping by lit her, sweet, pretty features, I brought my right hand to her chin and gently turned her face to mine. As I did she closed her eyes and parted her lips slightly. In the sporadic play of light and shadow, her dark, thick lashes made her look angelic. I brought my lips to hers and she eagerly accepted the kiss. I sought her tongue—she resisted a bit at first but relented and joined in my passion.

I didn’t get to second base that night—but I did take my first tentative step into adulthood—as did she.

I rounded a corner entering an area filled with rows of empty seating and saw Joanie—for the first time in 42 years—walking toward me. I couldn’t believe how pretty she still was—for a flash I was seeing her again for the first time there in the church vestibule. There were the beautiful eyes I remembered so well and she still had the same figure she had when we were teen-agers. As she was four decades earlier—she looked to be five foot three and 100 pounds.

I had hit the lottery.

End part 16

Begin 17

I dropped my bags to the floor while continuing to walk forward. We embraced each other and the vacant emptiness of 42 years of apartness began to fade. Joanie was no longer a sweet memory and a voice on the phone—she was a real woman who wanted to be in my arms.

Teary and in that daze of unreality I’d experienced as the plane was readying for take-off, I kissed her passionately. She felt so perfect in my arms—the end of my searching. The notion that this girl was the standard all other females are measured against was not just a conviction—now it was a physical sensation. She fit my arms so perfectly. I also had this peculiar feeling like another, much younger version of myself had joined me. I decided that was how coming full-circle felt

That weekend together was pure magic. One of the few good things about getting older is perspective. Looking back across my life, I cannot remember a more beautiful brief period of time than that weekend. Those several days were spent getting to know Barbie again, her husband John and meeting other members of Joanie’s family. The snow finally stopped and we drove all over the area visiting places we used to go as kids, laughing and reminiscing.

We talked endlessly about our lives—all that had happened since we split up. Joanie took me to places she had lived over the years. I wanted to visit her parent’s graves and pay my respects to the two people who brought the perfect woman (for me) into the world and because I had such fond memories of the good people that they were. But the cemetery they were buried in was large and complex and the deep snow made finding the graves virtually impossible.

Several months later—in the spring—Joanie came down to central Virginia to check out the community, my home, meet my kids and learn a little about the encompassing region. Again—another magical weekend. A few months after that I flew to Upstate New York on a one-way ticket. We rented a U-haul truck, filled it with Joanie’s stuff and drove it back to Central VA. The agreement was to co-habit for a year then decide whether or not to make it a permanent arrangement. A year later there was no real decision to make and we were married in the living room of our home with my kids and Joanie’s family in attendance. Joanie’s sister Barbie finally came to the conclusion I can be trusted after all and she and I get along very well now.

That was almost 6 years ago and while I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a perfect marriage—I do believe ours comes as close as is humanly possible. I am very happy with my life with the perfect woman for me.

We’ve been back a number of times to Upstate to visit and each time we go I’m able to let go of a little more anger and resentment for what is actually a beautiful and unique region of the United States that I very much enjoy photographing. I am much more at peace with who I am now that I have finally embraced and nightly lie next to the beautiful essence of my origins. As Peter and I discussed on the plane and Eliot said so profoundly,

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

End part 17—End story


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