Happy Valentine’s Day!
It was 1975. The Shephard Air Force Base (AFB) launderette that morning was almost empty, only two other airmen had also tumbled out of bed at dawn to wash clothes. Outside, in this part of Texas, early October felt like late summer, at 7 o’clock it was already warm. Inside, the sounds of the Air Conditioner and machines meshed, providing a soothing background. The AC hummed, pushing cool air into a room filled with the moist heat from dryers while water rushed into and swished around washing machines.
Plastic chairs lined one wall of the room. Waiting for my clothes to dry, I read. The door opened, I looked up. In strolled a tall, caramel-colored man, laundry bag slung over one shoulder. Even at that time of day he seemed neat: his clothes pressed, his afro oiled and trimmed and despite the Air Force-issued, black-rimmed glasses, aka “Birth Control glasses”, he appeared stylish.
I watched him as he searched for an empty washer. I tried not to stare but couldn’t keep my eyes off him. When he glanced my way I quickly pretended to read.
Oh my god, did he just see me looking at him?
As he busied himself with tossing laundry and detergent into the machine I noticed his defined shoulders, flat stomach and slender frame. His jeans fit snugly over a small, rounded behind that topped slightly bowed legs.
I was mesmerized. Hooked. Instantly attracted.
From time to time our eyes collided. I tried to appear friendly but nonchalant, gave a little smile then looked back at my book. But my attention was elsewhere, on him. I couldn’t concentrate on the story.
I lingered, fussily folding my clothes. I didn’t want to leave. Eventually I couldn’t delay any longer. I walked out the door wishing I’d had the confidence to say Hi.
Shephard AFB is a training base. I was there to learn to become a Medical Technician. Weekdays my roommate, Renée, and I woke, prepared for the day, ate breakfast, then rode the bus to the hall where all-day classes were held. We learned basic physiology and anatomy, how to assist doctors and nurses, write nursing notes, take vital signs, give bed baths and make beds with 45-degree hospital corners, a habit that remains to this day.
Weekends were different.
After a week of discipline and learning, our class, or training flight –all women, every one of us young, single and free — couldn’t wait for Friday to arrive. After class we’d rush to our dorms, pulled off uniforms, showered, and to up the cuteness factor, dressed in our latest attention-grabbing gear, dabbed on perfume and made up our faces.
Neither Renée nor I owned a car. Confined to base, we’d stop for a bite at the chow hall or BX (Base Exchange), go for a stroll, eventually making our way to the Airmen’s Club.
One evening, as Renée and I were on our way to the club, I saw my mystery man. I nudged her, whispered,
“That’s him, the guy I told you about, the one I saw in the Launderette.”
With my best friend by my side I could be courageous and bold. We pretended something was funny, laughed and talked loudly. He walked by, tossing a casual look our way.
Later that evening, in the noise and music-filled club Renée and I sat with a group of friends. All around us was smoke, loud conversations and laughter, young people dancing, drinking and having fun. Men hung around the edges or by the doors, being cool as they checked out the crowd, on the prowl for girls they wanted to dance with.
Then, I had quite a few unspoken fears. It was the mid-70s and the Black Power movement was going strong. Being light-skinned, I believed I wasn’t “black enough”. Also, I was sure I didn’t have the skills and beauty to make me attractive to many guys. A few drinks at the club helped me to hide those thoughts long enough to fool myself and make others believe I was self-confident. I didn’t want to lose total control and act stupid; I just wanted a little sweet something –Daiquiris, Pina Coladas, wine –to help ease the sting of rejection whenever a guy passed me over.
But then, as now, you didn’t need a partner to do the hustle.
“Come on, let’s join”, I shouted to Renée, heading to the dance floor.
Afterwards, energized from dancing, I sipped my drink and tried to people-watch in the dim lights of the club; the brightest lights came from a silver disco ball that glittered and rotated over the dance floor. There, the Saturday Night Fever-like atmosphere pervaded: people tested their dance moves, trying to impress each other and the crowd. When the music slowed, couples migrated to the floor to grind hips together and dance, the age-old, socially-accepted ritual of foreplay.
My gaze landed on a shadowy figure sitting at a nearby table.
It’s him. He’s looking at me. I can’t believe it. When did he show up?
I couldn’t see the details of his face, but by the way he sat –his body faced me, leaning back, arms crossed, thumb and forefinger curling around his chin, I felt him watching me. Bolstered by the remnants of dance energy and alcohol, I held his look and watched him smile; he seemed amused by my attention.
Oh my god! He really is looking at me.
I don’t remember how it came about that we started talking that evening. But we did. All night.
The cold, dark night slowly faded and gave way to a morning sky filled with layers of blue, gray then pink. Inside his car, a friend’s, somehow borrowed the evening before, we spent the night huddled in our jackets, talking and sharing stories.
We laughed, joked, flirted. Finally, he leaned in.
I’d been kissed before. My first, at fifteen, was by a cool-dude with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.
What did he do with that thing before he kissed me? I don’t remember him taking it out.
I received my second kiss at seventeen from a sweet, smart and kind soldier in his early twenties. The night before he rotated back to the US I finally allowed him to kiss me. With one kiss already behind me I thought I knew what to expect. Sadly, his overly enthusiastic, excited effort seemed more like a visit to the dental hygienist complete with wet and deep tongue-probing.
With John, the kiss felt like…perfection.
Was it youth, infatuation, love or lust that made me think it was sheer heaven?
Looking back, I think it was all three.
Tech-School romances, that’s what we called them. Six, eight, twelve weeks, however long training lasted that’s how long couples vowed they couldn’t live without each other, that a world without the other was, in the words of Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown, “…like living in a world with no air.”
Those were crazy times.
Young people, many on their own for the first time, met and fell in love. After school, most drifted apart; the romance had filled a need, eased loneliness, was an infatuation. Others, met and married, made a life together, their stories continuing into a “forever after”. Still others married and later divorced.
Shortly before Christmas, as we prepared for our first assignments, John heading overseas while I went south, we became engaged. Once settled, we wrote frequently, making plans to marry once he returned stateside.
By now you may ask: Did your story have a happy ending? Did it last?
It didn’t. But let me tell you a bit about questions I’ve pondered, lessons learned since then.
Mary Oliver, contemplated beauty and the impermanence of life in her poem, The Summer Day. She asks “…what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.”
Some time ago I decided to accept that death is an unsolvable mystery. That allowed me to, more-or less, embrace the roller-coaster ride that is life. I’ve learned that dreams and people come, not all will stay with me. But that’s not important. The fact they appeared, no matter how long, is a blessing.
We’re all filled with memories. Looking back, it’s up to us to decide: Is it worth agonizing over in the dark night or is the memory the other kind, you know, the wild, wonderful, insanely precious ones that do so much to add a hint of sweetness to any day.
What about you. Does thinking about your first love still leave you …a little crazy?
We love life, not because we are used to living, but because we are used to loving.