Monday, November 2, 2015

The Brief Age of Innocence

In a previous post, full of love and silence, I set out to test the validity of Tim O'Brien's assertions about young love in his novel The Things They Carried using two of my experiences, one when I was nine, the other from early adolescence. 

Upon reflection, however, the latter now seems to be largely irrelevant to O'Brien's belief that little kids' love with no language may be even better than what adults consider the real thing. My early-teen love is a good example of something else, but I don't know of what, or if my experience was a universal one.

So. A few years after the shimmering glow of Megan's and my love drifted gently away into that ethereal place where innocent love lives on into eternity, I somehow got a girlfriend, one that I will call Melinda Mae, even though that's not her real name. Just FYI, looking back, I can tell you it was a long-ass time before I had another. What followed Melinda Mae was a drought of biblical proportions.

Anyway, Melinda Mae and I were never silent.

We fell deeply in love the first year my family got a telephone. It was one of those heavy black ones with a stubborn rotary dial. My number was 929-4683, but, weirdly, I've forgotten Melinda Mae's. 

We were on a party line, so when I rushed to the phone to call her after school, there would inevitably be a couple of old women chatting about their respective illnesses, so I would just keep picking up the phone and setting it back down hoping they would take the hint and hang up.

I learned that if I tapped the receiver quickly, the operator would pick up and that could cause a brief ruckus. (This will tell you about my maturity level at the time: Occasionally, to amuse myself, I would rattle the receiver till the operator picked up, then slam the phone down and run out of the room. This now makes me think of Napoleon Dynamite.)

When I could finally call Melinda Mae, my worst fears were realized: Her mom would answer, and she had a deep loud voice and she would bellow into the phone, "HELLOOOO!"  I'd have to take a couple of breaths before I could stammer out, cotton-mouthed, "Uh, could I speak to Melinda Mae?" 

"WELLLLL," she'd reply, obviously enjoying the terror she was inspiring, "I don't know if you can or not. But you can TRYYYY!!"


"Okay WHAAAAAT? Who IS this wanting to talk my daughter?!"


"OHHHHH! Well, let me see what I can do." Then, rattling her windows and my eardrum, "MELINDA MAAAAE. Come talk to Roy!"

I hope you appreciate how much love and courage it took for me to go through this torture every day. Her mom was certainly getting a major kick out of it, and now I wonder if maybe Melinda Mae enjoyed it a bit herself. She did always answer with a little breathless chuckle. Still, that first sound of Melinda Mae made all the Gothic-Mother foreplay worthwhile.

So then we would talk and talk, and laugh and laugh, then talk some more until one of the little old ladies would pick up, sigh with exasperation, hang up, pick up again, then one of them would send me and my beloved off to our after-school chores by saying something like, "Could y'all hang up? I gotta make a phone call!"

Our sacred place was a canopy-covered skating rink at Pinetta’s Community Center. It was open Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, between the Methodists’ and Baptists’ major worship services. Melinda Mae and I were always there from when it opened till closing time.

And there I spent some of the sweetest hours of my life.

We could both skate reasonably well, so we took a few turns around the rink, holding hands, usually. But we quickly retreated to the railing where we talked and laughed.

There was this show going on in front of us, featuring the youth of Pinetta, the roar of all those roller skates almost but not quite drowning out the rock’n’roll music blasting and crackling with static through bad speakers suspended at the rink’s four corners. It was the time of the early Beatles, the first British invasion, and of the dying vestiges of late-‘50s American pop.

Melinda Mae and I mainly looked at one another as we talked and laughed, occasionally glancing at, say, the acrobatic Roy Williams, a small, lithe 30-something who could leap and twirl and skate backwards and do 360s and who would challenge any young punk to a race, then leave the guy behind as if he were skating through mud.

We would wave at our friends as they skated by and politely decline their requests to join them. They skated and we talked. Our friends would roll past and wave, then Roy Williams would dance by with balletic gracefulness, and we would glance their way, then soon they'd skate by again, still young, skating and skating. 

Round and round the circle game continued while Melinda Mae and I stood there, leaning into each other innocently, holding our spot. We didn't know we were praying, "Don't let anything change. Let this last forever."

Sometimes we stopped talking long enough to enjoy a favorite song, Melinda Mae singing along softly as she watched the skaters go by, I watching her sing, hearing her soft voice blending with Skeeter Davis’s singing about the end of the world, Paul and Paula’s singing about each other, and the Beatles’ singing about how they’d be happy just to dance with you, and I’d feel a breeze drift in from the cool north Florida night, and I’d know that I was in heaven.

I would say funny things because that is what I have always done, and she would reward me with a natural, ready laugh that was almost a squeal of joy. And when she laughed, she looked me in the eyes. What a sweet little intimate sharing that was: I offered up a goofy observation or a groaning pun, and she laughed within the comfortable confines of our enclosed space, a space that included all in the world that mattered.

Among the things that mattered was her fragrance. She told me the brand name, so I went to a drugstore and sampled it, and it so fully evoked her presence I was disoriented by her physical absence. (Just last week, I remembered what she was wearing: Somewhere. It's a lotion popular in the '60s. And that smell remains today in my Olfactory Hall of Fame.)

When I grew up to study poetry, I saw our experience described in the works of John Donne:
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?

Seeing yourself reflected in the eyes of another -- there I was, a happy, distorted Roy mirrored in Melinda Mae's eyes -- knowing that she sees herself in yours; eyes that are your home, a face that is fully welcoming, happy, and not in any way disappointed or distracted; this shared joy, regardless of age, regardless of the roar of the skates circling and circling, isn't this the One for which the Many clamor? Isn't this a marriage of two hearts?

If someone had walked up to us and said “There’s something even better than what you guys are doing,” we’d have thought they were deranged.

Of course there was physical beauty that accompanied this adolescent joining of the spirits. She had beautiful hair that reached halfway down her back, and in my memory it was light brown with strands of gold, and sometimes it draped over her shoulders like a shawl.

And sure, I noticed Melinda Mae’s lips and found them appealing. The bottom lip was a bit fuller than the top, and her mouth was almost always open enough I could see her white teeth with a little gap between the top incisors. But it never dawned on me to kiss those lips, and I didn’t go back home and lie awake in my bed and picture myself kissing them.

And, yes, I could tell by the way her blouse fit her that she was a couple of steps ahead of me in the Puberty Sweepstakes, but I never had male adolescent testosterone-laden thoughts about her, never seemed to know to desire her that way.

I didn’t have a watch back then, but occasionally our enchantment would shatter when I became alarmed at the notion that time must be – was -- passing, and therefore intruding. Maybe because it was getting darker or I’d notice that “P.S. I Love You” had played twice or that the place was becoming a little less crowded, the roar of the skates dying down. But then Melinda Mae would say something like, “Oh! I remember what I wanted to tell you,” and time would go away again.

Inevitably, though, the crowds would thin, and even Roy Williams, the Baryshnikov of the Roller Rink, would tire of his Olympian feats and become human again, and the music would stop, replaced by the sounds of parents pulling up in their massive American cars and trucks, and Melinda Mae and I would say good night, squeezing each other’s hands to consecrate our farewells.

Then, the fragrance of Somewhere still fresh on my shirt, I would take my love for Melinda Mae with me down the rough, washboard, dirt roads to my house, and keep it close as it illuminated and animated the dying months of my last innocence.


Okay, you know how at the end of "based-on-a-true-story" movies, just before they roll the closing credits, they use up a few frames telling you what ultimately happened, e.g., "Howie Shampford was fired from MapCan Industries and spent the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary." Assume the Melinda Mae story was a film, it's ended, you're gauging the wisdom of having mixed Raisinets with greasy popcorn, and now the following information appears on the screen. I've even supplied music to accompany the text, as any decent film would.

Ultimately, Roy and Melinda Mae were married, more than once, but never to each other.

A few months after the Roller-Rink days, Melinda Mae showed up at one of Roy's junior-varsity basketball games, having chopped her lovely hair off at the shoulders.

This mutilation made Roy believe that part of her was gone, that she had shown up at the game as someone else entirely. Distracted, he proceeded to foul out in the first quarter and was sent to the showers by a coach too angry to even notice Melinda Mae's new 'do.

After the game, he found it hard to look at her, let alone talk to her. He wouldn't dream of saying anything mean or critical to her, so he was stuck with the notion that she had broken a spell, and would never be the same again, stuck with it because he could never share it with anyone (until the making of this fine film).

Roy's tongue-tied disillusionment went on a little too long, and after a while Melinda Mae had had enough, and Eden's gate slammed shut, practically hitting Roy in the butt as he staggered almost directly into an arid, frigid Teen-Aged Waste Land, where he would wander among fellow lost souls until he went to college.

Their dissolution came pretty quickly and not too painfully. Melinda Mae gave him the bad news on the phone, and Roy was pretty sure he could hear her mom snorting with delight in the background. When he hung up, he rattled the receiver until the operator picked up, then slammed the phone down and ran out of the room.


  1. Was Melinda Mae's real initials LGJ? I guess this only because you wrote about her once.

  2. Can't believe I wrote the previous comment with a subject
    /verb error! "Were MM's initials?"

  3. Either way, you're right. Just did some quality revising. Thanks again for reading. Just for the record, this is my favorite starknotes post so far.

  4. Boy howdy, can I relate to this from another perspective, of course. Ah, the delicious innocence of that time.

  5. Reading of such sweetness and innocence makes me simultaneously long for the days when this existed for me, while also making me feel inexplicably old. When did such beauty and heartbreaking sweetness disappear? Beautifully done!

  6. Thank you. Unforgettable days, thank God.