I was 15 years old in 1968 visiting my paternal grandparents in Montgomery, Alabama. This set of grandparents were racists. Supporters if not card carrying members of the KKK. 1968 changed me forever and, I hoped, the world.
I had grown up with my Tennessee grandparents out in the country. We had no close neighbors. My friends were the animals and a black and white T.V. I didn’t know any Black people but this set of grandparents were not racists. Honestly, I had no reason to give it much thought. My Grandfather died and I was sent to Alabama.
Where were my parents? My father died when I was a baby. My mother had me when she was 17. I saw her briefly on holidays tightly controlled by my Grandfather who didn’t approve of her lifestyle. So, arriving in Montgomery in 68 was a little like being deployed to a war zone.
Immediately my Alabama grandmother made it her mission in life to transform me into a fine Southern Lady. Including but not limited to, how to hold a tea cup and finger sandwiches, how to dress for The Country Club and so on. This was the fine example of Southern womanhood who got drunk every night and had passed out face first in a plate of chicken and rice. Pop just got drunk and went to bed.
Hypocrisy is not my strong suit. By 9:00 PM I’d go out the front door. I’d met some older kids who hung out in someone’s abandoned garage. Erika was visiting from up north somewhere and she knew stuff. She always had pot. Babies first weed. Don’t worry that I’m going to give you a history lesson. If you don’t already know the significance of 1968, I can’t help you.
I wasn’t happy living in this place at this time. Although it made me who I am, set my politics in stone and opened my eyes to the world. For that, I am grateful.
One day after Grandmama went to work I called Erika to drive me to the airport. I only had one place to go – to my mother who was living with her new husband and baby daughter in an east Tennessee resort town in the Great Smokey Mountains. When I walked into their restaurant she said, “Your grandmother has been calling. What in the hell are you doing here?” Mommie Dearest had spoken.
Do not worry. Things were about to get a lot better despite that warm initial welcome home. There were many things I didn’t know at 15 but there were a few things I was sure of. My politics, I had no fear, took no crap and I loved this little town. I told my mother that she and her family could leave, move to the other side of the world but I was staying. By 17 I had moved out of her house and into a shabby motel room anyway. I was still in high school.
My father had left me a modest trust fund. I needed that money. I went to a local attorney who managed to have my minority dropped and sued my Grandparents for my money. I was Free. Everyone deserves to be free.
Even before I got the money I realized I’d landed right where I belonged. I began to believe I had some sort of Devine guidance.
Gatlinburg was a small tourist town. In the summer it was packed by badly dressed, badly behaved people who spent a lot of money. This was the most beautiful place ever. I loved to just walk around town. The air smelled like caramel apples or fudge depending on what shop you walked past. Musical groups played on outside stages. There was a guy blowing glass animals on the sidewalk. I knew all those people and got in free to the shows.
I worked in a souvenir shop taking the made in China stickers off brown bears and waited tables. The University of Tennessee was 40 miles away. A lot of students worked there in the summer. I partied. There was no one to moderate my behavior. I wasn’t that bad. I had to take care of myself.
East Tennessee was not a bastion of liberalism but I did meet some activists passing through. I waited on a group of hippies on their way to protest the war in Washington D.C. I tore up their ticket and asked if I could go. There were a lot of people carrying signs and marching.
At 15 I looked more like 12. I was screaming something at Nixon on the Capitol steps. A policeman approached me; part weary, almost amused he gave me a speech about Washington jails and how I wouldn’t like them. He was a nice man trying to do his job. I decided to agree with him and got off the steps.
When I got back home I just got another job. I’d learned a lot. There’s nothing as good as on the job training and I had a good time. Some 20 years later I participated in an anniversary March to remember the bombing of the 16th street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham. This story still makes me cry. I was on the outside nearer the sea of angry looking White people standing on the sidewalks. An elderly Black woman took my hand and pulled me to the inside of the marchers. I was looking at her not understanding. She said to me, “Honey, some of those people probably have guns. If they decide to kill someone they’ll aim at you. They really hate you. You’re White. Stay on the inside where you’ll be safer. An older lady who didn’t know me was putting me out of harm’s way and placing herself between me and irrational hate. Those early, brave protesters who’d met with violence and death were spirits I could feel around me. I was such a small cog in the machinery moving toward freedom and equality. I was humbled. Back to the time at hand.
School started. I only knew a couple of people my age but people were easy for me. I rarely met a stranger. I tried out for cheerleader. My mother told me I’d never make it. Not only did I make it, I got the second highest amount of votes.
I love to laugh and I’m a master of practical jokes. I was in my element in high school. We had a Basketball team that went to State Finals every year. Our Principal was the head Basketball coach. I took a slightly different approach to cheerleading. It was my job to daze and confuse the opponent while whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Consequently I became Mr Huskey’s favorite. As it turned out, Mr. Huskey became a father figure. A few teachers complained that he allowed me run of the school. It was a small school. Maybe 350 students. I could handle that.
After school we cruised town. Up Parkway, down River Road passing through Johnson’s Drive in. Sometimes we’d park, get out of our cars, sit on the hoods drinking beer, eating Cheetos and smoking cigarettes. The greatest music ever became the backdrop soundtrack of our lives. I remain to this day an analog woman. I prefer vinyl. That noise that the needle makes when it drops down making that momentary scratch as it touches down, only then is the sound right.
Mr. Huskey was found of saying we shouldn’t confuse his school with a Democracy. In Facist fashion I was blamed for the temporary renaming of his school and I had 24 hours to fix it. Taking those letters down was not nearly as fun as putting them up. I call that The Christmas Tree Decorating Effect and as would often be the case, my reindeer had disappeared.
One Sunday night it was getting late, I was about to call it when I noticed a museum formally known as Tour Thru Hell had burned to the ground. There was nothing left but those big block letters that had been on the roof. I had a flash of inspiration. I looked at Cindy, “Do you know what we could do with those letters?” Cindy didn’t look happy. About that time a young policeman pulled up, got out of the patrol car to ask what we were doing. I told him I (we) needed to get those block letters out to the high school and on the roof. I had nothing to lose. We needed help. He got on his police radio and gave the dispatcher a couple of phone numbers. He said to call David and Jimbo. “Tell them, he said, to bring their trucks, a couple of ladders and some rope to the site.” It took all night. Monday morning and it was perfect. The school was a one level building. Across the roof proudly standing was Tour Thru Hell. I’d put in in my top 10 list. Debbie said when she rounded to corner to the school’s parking lot she nearly peed her pants. She said that when Robert Redford had sex with Barbra Strisand too. Debbie had bladder issues.
And so Mr. Huskey did what principals do and called my mother. That was a waste of time. She told him to beat me or whatever he wanted to do. I got 3 licks with the paddle which became a tradition every 6 weeks on Judgement Day. Just me and the guys. I didn’t care. It was attention. Lonely kids need attention.
I don’t know how to write a screen play. If I had, John Hughes would have adopted me. I organized anarchy. I was competitive, creative and fearless but occasionally something would go wrong.
I worked as a waitress at Shoneys which was next door to the Riverside Motor Lodge. Shoneys kept gallon jugs of red food dye for the strawberry pies. After work one night late I poured that gallon of red food dye into the Riverside pool. As the cherry on top I dumped the Shoneys Big Boy into the pool. The interrogation was brutal. Seems that it costs a lot of money to empty a pink pool, clean and refill. Who knew? I’d left the empty food dye bottle at the scene of the crime. I always got caught. I don’t know how I got out of that but I did.
Life was good most of the time but I was lonely. My apartment was a one room motel/cabin with a bed, desk, small table and a bathroom. Sometimes holidays were sad. Even though I didn’t like my mother when they took my half sister and her best friend to Disney World on Thanksgiving I felt like unwanted garbage. I ate a burger in the lobby of a hotel and watched T.V. I wouldn’t have gone if they had invited me so I did what I always did. I shook it off. My friends invited me to their family dinners. I lied and made up something I had planned.
I was glad when the whole holiday thing was over and we went back to school. I felt like I belonged there.
When I was a little girl I was really ugly. I weighed 100 pounds in first grade. I was sent to see a specialist in Nashville. I was 11. I was told my thyroid wasn’t working and I’d have to take medicine. About a month later I started my period. Then I got the measles. I was really sick. When I finally felt strong enough to get out of bed and put on regular clothes, nothing fit. I buttoned my pants and they dropped to the floor. My friends mother said I’d transformed from a fat little duck to a small, beautiful swan. I borrowed some clothes from that friend to go buy some new ones. Why this made my mother mad, I do not know.
I was now in a place where no one had known the fat duck. By 1968 I was a pretty girl but that duck never let me forget. Boys started coming around. I liked boys better than girls. Still do. They helped me ignore than damn fat duck.
High school went quickly. My parents made a lot of money and moved into a big, expensive house. I asked my mother about going to college. She told me their money belonged to my half sister. Besides, I wasn’t smart enough anyway. After that I didn’t give much thought to my future. I also didn’t ask for help. That showed weakness and weakness was dangerous. As much as I liked people collectively, I didn’t trust individuals. I had no way of knowing then but my Angel’s were beginning to gather. It wouldn’t be my only device intervention but it would be the biggest.
About 2 weeks after graduation Cindy and I were cruising town. It was a nice warm night. Carolyn motioned for us to pull over. Our friend Anne’s mother had been in a car wreck in the park. I heard the sirens. This sounded bad. No one could find Anne. Cindy said she’d met a man who had just moved to the Burg. He was temporarily staying at a motel on Airport Road until his condo was ready. Cindy had been to a party there and that night so had Anne. We pulled into the parking lot and ran up the stairs. I pounded on the door. A man opened and I just pushed on through. Jenny was sitting on the couch. I told Jenny to get off her ass, put down the drink, go get her car and help us find Anne. Within 15 minutes we’d found Anne. Her mother was dead. I had to be up really early the next day. It was my last day working at The Pancake Pantry. I’d gotten a job at a new dress shop. The night had left me tired and gloomy. I just wanted to go to bed – alone.
The next day that man from the night before showed up at one of my tables. He’d heard what happened. He introduced himself. All I caught was the name Larry. He ate, left and became an afterthought. I had asked him how old he was because he seemed to be flirting with me. He was 32. From the perspective of a 19 year old, that was old enough to be dead.
The Hurdy Gurdy was the name of the dress boutique. The other new girl I’d known from previous summers. Her name was Holly. She was from Kentucky and was renting a room from Mrs. Ogle. I already liked her. This was looking good.
Latter that day Larry called the shop. He’d gotten moved into his condo and asked if I’d meet him for a drink at the ski lodge. I told him that Holly and I had made plans to go out that night so we’d probably see him there. That’s the kind of thing you say when you really mean No.
That afternoon a delivery truck started bringing in boxes of new clothes. Opening those boxes was like Christmas. I explained to Holly that we could borrow a couple of outfits for going out and reattach the tags the next day. We showed up at the ski lodge looking good. There were 2 rooms upstairs. A big room where the band played and people danced and a smaller room with a bar and a few tables. We had just sat down when I looked up and saw our Boss having drinks in the bar. We had to get out. About that time I saw Larry sitting at the bar and he saw us. It was now or never. It did help that the band started playing and people were dancing. I told Holly we were going to crawl on our hands and knees to the stairway exit. Meanwhile Larry was navigating his way over to us. We did it. Once we got to the stairs we were out of sight. We ran down, through the parking lot to my car. Larry was yelling, “Stop. I don’t know who you two are trying to avoid but follow me to the condo. They won’t find you there.” Why not I thought.
Nice condo. Beautiful location. From the balcony you could see the ski slopes and the lodge. The bedroom must have been downstairs and I almost laughed. Black leather furniture, a custom made bar, Neil Diamond on the stereo and candles. Who decorated this place? Hugh Hefner? Oops did I say that outloud? Apparently I had because he answered. “Barbara Rickert sold him the condo.” She was a local real estate broker. He had to move quickly so she offered to help furnish while he was moving from Virginia. Barbara was about my mother’s age which would make her 4 or 5 years older than Larry. Barbara had gotten a divorce not long ago and had more than a real estate listing for Larry.
We told him what we’d done and begged him not to tell, especially Barbara. He promised. I believed him. We had a drink and I announced that it would probably be best to get these clothes back to the shop. He said he understood.
We laughed all the way down the mountain. After returning and retagging the clothes, we went to The Shed, a local pub. Drank beer and celebrated still having a job.
The next day a young man came into the shop and asked for me. He said, “My name is Ronnie. I work for Larry. He asked me to come by and deliver this to you.” He handed me an envelope. Inside was a credit card and a note. The note said – You looked great last night. Buy yourself that outfit and call me. Only if you want to. Included was his business card. Did I use the credit card? I sure did but just for that outfit. You feminist please get your panties out of a wad.
Years later I asked Larry when he knew. He told me the night he opened the door for the first time and I raged through it.
Some things are preordained, written in the stars. Nothing and no one can alter that course of events. They don’t have to make sense, not to the earth bound. I couldn’t change what was destin to happen and I tried.
I’ve had a lifetime to think about it and a lifetime was how long we were together.
This crazy man who sent me flowers, became a permanent image in my rearview mirror. Refused to find fault with anything I did. But back to that summer.
I stood him up one night early on. Parked my car where I thought no one would find it. He found it and left notes all over my car. That made me mad. I would not be controlled. Back then we didn’t use the word stalking but I called it a version of that. He called it being protective. I hadn’t even slept with this man. I was sneaking around to sleep with a guy I’d been dating for a year.
He had finally crossed a line. I called him and told him to leave me alone. I meant it.
That apparently worked because I kept looking in my rearview mirror and he wasn’t there. Why did I feel so empty? Things would get back to normal. I had a date with a really cute guy. We had planned to go with 3 other couples to the ski lodge. I spent hours getting ready. I’m a girly girl. We like the anticipation ritual.
We got there seated around a large table. Everything was going great until… yep. Larry appeared. He said (I’ll never forget the words) “Vickie you look beautiful. I just have one thing to tell you. No one will ever love you as much as I do.” He walked away. I got up and went to my car.
I went to my apartment to change clothes. If I’m going to be that mad, I want to be comfortable. I drove to The Shed. Katie was singing that night. She had the voice of an angel. Generally that folk music calms me down but this night it wasn’t working.
This called for an in your face come to Jesus moment. This time I was looking for him. He was at home and look at this. He had company. Barbara’s car was parked next to his. I banged on the door. Barbara opened it. “Hi Vickie. Larry were you expecting Vickie?” Damn right or he should have been. “Who cleaned up around here” I said as I sat down in the floor. Barbara said she’d just tidied up a bit and was about to make Larry dinner. “That’s good. I’ll have some too. My dinner plans were interrupted.” Stupid bitch was about to start a battle on 2 fronts. I believe maybe you’ve had to much to drink. She said that to herself. Then she fired the shot heard around the world. “Larry, I think maybe I should call her mother.”
“No Barbra we’re not calling my mother to pick me up because I’m drunk and the roads are dangerous. You can call my mother and tell her you’re leaving. Apparently you’ve inhaled too much hairspray and the combination of Aquanet and polyester has effected your brain. You can call her and tell her that as soon as you get your ass out of here, I’m about to show Larry some mind blowing sex.” Larry hadn’t moved. He and Neil Diamond had gone radio silent. Barbara slammed the door on her way out. I’d won the battle but now, what about the war?