“Which One?” (Part 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.” 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 continued. “I think she is.”

“Yeah, but you’re a girl—would a boy—me for example,” I said, “would I 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. 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 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. Many years later I would learn I was what is known as an Avoidant Personality, prone to generalized anxiety and chronic depression—as was my father. Other than those scouting activities, the last years I was at home, my childhood and adolescence were very unhappy. I wanted friends and closeness but was always irrationally fearful of looking stupid—doing the wrong thing or alienating people—so I withdrew into my loneliness—and had very few friends.

As the years went by and my self-image and view of life developed, I blamed the region I grew up in for my unhappiness. Life sucked because the Mohawk Valley sucked. Actually—it’s an easy place to dislike—the brutal winters that to a kid, last for years, the grimy, depressing, dying industrial economic base, the gloomy, shabby blue-collar neighborhoods and polluted rivers.

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 was 5 foot three and weighed 100 pounds.

I have no idea what we talked about in those 10 or 15 minutes before the service. 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 meting 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—she made 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—which was 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.

After 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

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