Saturday, November 22, 2014
Today, my sons are 6 and 13 years old. My oldest is a guitar-playing gymnast with a smile and a confident attitude that make him popular with the girls. What a contrast he is to the boy I was at his age.
I remember being in middle school in Alaska. My family moved there when the US Air Force sent my dad to Eielson Air Force Base, just a few miles from Fairbanks, in the heart of Alaska's interior. I remember vaguely a middle school dance at our rec center, and I remember showing up only to find that the boy to girl ratio was about 20 to 1. If there were three girls there, I don't remember the second nor the third. All I remember was the redhead from Missouri. She stood taller than her peers by six inches, and she had worn her arctic gear with as much grace as a middle school girl can muster. Golashes shed and parka neatly hung from a coat hook, now her white sneakers gleamed in the black light from the dance floor, as did her teeth when she smiled. I remember speculating with my peers about who would be man enough to walk over to the tiny group of girls and ask for a dance.
"I bet Barney will be first. He always gets the girls," suggested one spectator in a voice that was both reverent and envious at once, because he knew, as we all did, that Barney, the shortest kid in 7th grade, had some magical appeal to girls who hugged him and giggled whenever he smiled. I remember having no concrete imagery to illustrate what "getting girls" meant for us at the time, though there were tantalizing rumors that some girls used their tongues when they kissed.
"No, I bet Josh will, he's not afraid to look like a fool..." suggested another. Josh was a jock who seemed made for the Alaskan wilderness. He could throw a perfect spiral on the football field, or kill a moose with a single shot. I once walked in on him skinning a moose carcass in his dad's garage after a recent kill. It seemed that everyone on base hunted except for me and my family. Even though I started shaving at the age of 12, I questioned my own masculinity when compared to boys like Josh, whose broad shoulders and sinewy limbs seemed hewn from the spruce trees that spent nine months of the year bearing the weight of Alaska's frozen fury. Adolescence felt like a constant comparison chest hairs and bicep curls and other tests of manhood designed to embarrass the weak and the sensitive among us.
As I listened to the boys, I suddenly and impulsively took a step into the desolate space of the dance floor, ignoring the diamonds of light that flew like fairies around the floor and up the walls from the disco ball that spun radiantly over my head. In slow motion, I saw her friends look at me as I approached, her red hair fell in waves past her shoulder, and her smooth cheek was all I could see of her face as I slowly moved closer, one request poised in my mind, waiting for her to make eye contact so that the words could be released...hopefully without blunder, because if the first request failed, as I was certain it would, I would turn around and walk back, and then keep walking past my peers, down the carpeted hallway to the frost covered doors and back out into the arctic air, never to return.
Her friends froze in stupid shocked grins, waiting for my maneuver, and she turned. I distinctly remember her red hair seeming to fly in a silken arc that would sound like a cheesy shampoo commercial if I dared to describe it today, but then, I could imagine nothing more beautiful. Her eyes assayed my approach, and her lips smiled warmly, her freckles sandy on her pale skin.
“Hi, would you like to dance?” The words, surprisingly clear and strong considering their source, were received and accepted and she nodded, taking my hand and leaving her friends behind. We walked together towards the middle of the floor. Sadly, I can't remember the song that we danced to, nor can I remember all the details of our conversation, but I do remember feeling like a king. We were the only two kids to dance, and we danced three or four times, and for one night, I was envied and respected and even hated for my luck and my daring.
I think about that night sometimes, and wonder why I spent so many of my years shyly, lacking confidence, allowing opportunities to pass me by. Nothing became of that night. The redheaded girl and I talked only once more after that dance before her father was transferred to another base somewhere on the other side of the world. That was life in the military. Friendships often forged quickly, but were mostly short-lived. I spent my youth in transition, missing the idea of a hometown, of having roots, but learning lessons about life that are common to other military brats or children of missionaries.
In contrast, my sons have grown up in Fort Worth, connected to one place. My youngest seems more afflicted with the shyness I suffered than my eldest, who routinely performs in front of strangers, strumming his guitar with grace and poise. One of the blessings of fatherhood is the capacity for remembering...as I watch them mature, they take me back to my youth, and their struggles and victories become woven into my memories and we are connected, threaded through the unwritten narrative of my perception of now and then and what may be.