My sister had bucked the Catholic school trend by not passing the entrance exam. She ended up at the local public high school, Greece Olympia, instead.
Lynn was a cute and very popular cheerleader. She had a great time going to school there. I wanted the same freedom and fun. So when my parents started arguing relentlessly about money, I put a bug in their ear, “ Mom, Dad, since money is so tight, why not send me to public school? Lynn went and she’s okay!”
I didn’t have to work too hard to convince them that I would also be fine at the public school. This was a big coup for me!
I was impatient to voice my opinions too about the government and its morally corrupt war, civil rights issues, women’s issues, the atom bomb and overpopulation. I also wanted the freedom to dress and look the way I wanted all the time. The idea of going to a school that had fewer restrictions and let you be yourself and wanted you to think out of the parochial box was heaven!
I felt like a character I saw in a movie called Hope and Glory. In it a ten-year-old boy in England, after the blitz, arrives back at his strict private school only to show up when another bombing starts. The boy looks up into the sky at the destruction of his school as it is falling around him and jubilantly yells, throwing his books into the air, “Thank you Hitler!” Oh yes, thank you money problems for finally freeing me from the tyranny of Catholic school!
One of the first things I remember about my freshman year at high school was a book about the atomic bomb. I am sure I had heard about it before. I was eleven when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened. The bomb and its deadly potential was on everyone’s mind.
During the missile crisis, my mother thought that the bathroom on our second floor was the safest place to hide. I re.member her herding me in there while the Catholic radio channel blared from her bedroom. A priest was saying the rosary for world peace interspersed with news reports about the crisis and whether atomic nuclear warheads would be launched targeting the US. I was on my knees praying with my mom. She was terrified and quaking. It was surreal. But then the crisis was over, Russia backed down and all seemed well again.
In my freshman history class we all were required to read The Atom Bomb! What it really means for human society. The reality that the world was teetering on the brink of disaster was now real to me. I was anxious about it day and night for months. It was a turning point for me when I digested just how truly scary the world was and that there was no hiding from it. We could all disintegrate in a nanosecond.
I had experienced air raid tests as a kid where you had to “drop and duck” under you desk at school, but since an attack never actually happened it didn’t seem real. Plus my parents weren’t the type to build an air raid shelter in the back yard. My father would always say, “What about the neighbors and if they need help? How are you going to keep them out of your shelter?”
At the same time I was also experiencing things like go.ing to my first dance and having my first kiss. It was such a roller coaster of feelings!
The first dance I went to was at Cardinal Mooney in the cafeteria. The music came from an old record player piped into the speaker system. I got asked to dance by two different boys who I knew from lunch, and as far as I was concerned this didn’t count as a “real ask” because we were already friends. They were also pretty dorky.
The first song that was played was “Hang On Sloopy.” Bubble gum music, but I loved this song! Pete was the guy from lunch I knew who had bad skin, a cowlick, and clothes that smelled like mothballs covered up by Old Spice. He asked me to dance with him. He had no rhythm whatsoever and kept bumping into people when he grooved backwards and nearly tripping over himself. He was a disaster to dance with.
Allen was another friend from lunch. He was tall and thin with messy blonde hair and never moved from the spot he started dancing from. He just kind of jiggled from side to side with his arms shaking like he held invisible maracas.
I was kind of embarrassed to be seen dancing with either of these guys. It was a toss-up which was worse, standing alone in the girls’ line waiting to be asked or to be seen dancing with the uncool boys. I couldn’t shake these two because I found it hard to say no, so I danced and had a good time.
Later, Pete, who I was really trying to avoid, asked me to dance to a slow song with him: “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” I was mad about this song and would play it over and over again on my record player in my room, swaying with my eyes closed, sitting on my bed, hugging my pillow and pretending I was dancing with a cool guy. When Pete asked me to dance, I didn’t care that he was a klutz; I just wanted to move with another body to the music. He and I kind of got carried away. I could feel his clumsiness turn to rhythm as he grabbed me tighter and it felt like we were moving in unison, dancing on a cloud! One of the nuns came up to separate us! She physically took out a ruler and measured the space between us and pulled us apart! She said, “Okay, eight inches, that’s the rule!” Oh my god, I was so pissed and humiliated by her! But Pete was cool: he just laughed at the nun, and as soon as she walked away he pulled me close again. I learned right there: never judge a guy by his cover.
Having gone to my first dance made me really want my first kiss. I was set up on a blind double date with a girlfriend from school, Vicki Capagrossi. Vicki was a rabid Beatles fan who would cry, scream and moan when she saw them on TV, especially Ringo and Paul. I liked the Beatles a lot, and though I couldn’t get into the screaming and fainting thing, I loved how she could.
Vicki set me up with a guy from another Catholic school. His name was Paul Paris. He was short, preppy and smelled like mint. What I remember was that he didn’t have much of a personality. He was probably shy but he came across as boring. He asked me to go with him to his winter prom. I wore a brown velvet dress that had a white lace collar, very Petula Clark. I had to wear flats because he was so short.
Paul was not a good dancer. He’d take two steps forward and two back for everything, even when he fast danced. He was very polite and I found polite, meant boring. I was look.ing for a guy to be more exciting. At least Pete had the nerve to defy the nuns! Paul just didn’t know how to take charge or make a move; not that I knew how either, but I did know that it was up to him to figure this out. At the end of the evening and with gum in his mouth, Paul kissed me goodnight. It was one of those wet, loose kisses that just kind of rambled and hardly connected. It felt like a slug trail! It was not a good first impression.
The rest of the school year was pretty low-key, and I was content to let things glide as I geared up to leave Catholic school behind me and looked forward to public high.
By 1966 I was fifteen, a sophomore on my way into public school, and my grandparents had just moved in with us. I had to relocate my bedroom to the smaller TV room so my grandparents could make a little apartment out of the third floor that had two bedrooms and a bath.
My father seemed to be doing better financially, at least we had two cars, our house to live in, and enough money left over so I could buy new clothes for school. My parents always loved to dress up and to see their kids dressed up too. They indulged Lynn and me whenever we needed new clothes.
As a sophomore going into a new school, I carefully chose things to wear that I thought would let me hang out with the popular kids. I wanted to be liked, look “sharp” and be confident. I worked hard at identifying who was cool and who wasn’t.
Fran Wozniak was cool. She hung out with the preps and the jocks. She sat behind me in English and we became close friends. She was short, round and Polish just like me. She wore these crazy flowered dresses that looked like curtains. I found out that they were made from curtains! Because her older sister Helen was a cheerleader and a senior, it automatically made Fran popular. All she had to do was show up and act friendly and she was welcomed into all the cool cliques.
Fran and I walked home from school together regularly, and before you knew it we were trading record albums, clothes and stories about boys we liked.
We had a good time, but I wanted to branch out. I was curious about other kids I had noticed, kids who were considered troublemakers, outlaws and known as the hoods!
I got to know them when I tried out for a school play. One of the drama club girls was a whacky chic named Leona. Leona was “out there.” She didn’t pay attention to cliques or clothing styles that were “in” or “out.” She did whatever she wanted with whomever she wanted and dressed the way that suited her, often looking very eccentric. She was a drama queen, but she knew how to work the deal. She crossed clique lines naturally and taught me how to do it as well. Because of her influence, I learned how to travel in all the different social circles at school too. It was easy once you stopped thinking anybody really cared.
Leona, as it turned out, was also sleeping with the drama teacher! I didn’t find that out until after I left school, but it certainly explained a lot of her peculiar behavior! It also blew my mind because I thought the drama teacher was gay!
I liked hanging out with my few hood friends. Jackie sat behind me in math class. She had jet-black hair, deep-red lipstick and heavy-duty eyeliner. She always wore a black motorcycle jacket. She was a really nice girl, and I just didn’t get why the hoods had such a dark reputation. They acted tough, but I saw they were just protecting themselves from a system they thought was unfair to them and often was.
The preps ostracized me for a while because I was friendly with Jackie and going out with one of her friends, Joe. On our first date Joe made fun of the dress I was wearing because it was pretty preppy. I think just the way I looked annoyed him, but he also wanted to make out and do things that I was not ready for. I realized I had my limits, too, and maybe I wasn’t as brave as I thought I was. It was a confusing time in so many ways.
A close friend of mine, Terry Ecker told me one day in drama class, kind of nonchalantly, that his brother had been killed in Viet Nam! He fell apart telling me. I felt so bad for him. His telling me was so random and out of context. I couldn’t understand why he was in school to begin with and why the school wasn’t helping him and his family cope.
Terry left school abruptly after that for a while. When he returned his boyishness was gone. He no longer smiled much or fooled around. The war and all the other unrest in the world was becoming personal for me. I was being forced to be part of it.
Life magazine was publishing horrific war photos to help make more people aware of what was really going on. Because everyone read it, there was no excuse not to know the awful facts. Every night the newscasts also showed footage of the carnage. There was no escaping the deadly details.
At Greece Olympia, my friends or friends of friends were drafted and went to a war that would either maim or emotionally scar them for life unless, of course the worst happened and they returned in a body bag.
In 1969 a guy from our school who graduated ahead of me was killed in Viet Nam, and his face was put on the cover of Life with the title “The Faces of the American Dead in Viet Nam, One Week’s Toll.” The photo of him was a blown up head shot that said it all. You saw his youth, his fear, and his haggard expression peering back at you from the page. There was no way to escape the senseless violence of this war. And it wasn’t just about the young men and women being drafted or volunteering to fight. It was also about the innocent women and children in Southeast Asia who were being blown apart and terrorized by the war too.
It took a while for Americans to see through the political rhetoric that was being spun. This was a bad war and no one would win it. Everyone would lose. It was a wake up call that shook this country up and offered unprecedented choices for teenagers. Were you going to be part of the corruption and establishment, work at changing it, or drop out?
I liked the idea of being a hippie, being counterculture, living in a commune. I don’t know why this appealed to me. I had never seen a hippie or talked to one. It just seemed cool to be in revolt.
When Woodstock happened I was oblivious to it going on. It was the summer of 1969. I was getting ready for college and working as a nurse’s aide part-time. I had no idea of this huge “happening” evolving. I was bored one Sunday after.noon, driving around for fun and saw some kids hitchhiking. They were hippies! Wow, it was an opportunity to check this out. I picked up two guys and a girl who were covered in mud, laughing like lunatics, and talking about Woodstock, which they were just coming back from. It was amazing to hear their stories about the hordes of people crammed into fields, the wild music and free love, but most importantly that with all the chaos there was no violence. Everybody was helping each other out and having a good time.
I offered to drive them home. They were going to a re.mote location about twenty miles from Greece, heading west towards Canada. They lived in the woods in an old beat-up house with a peace flag dangling in a window. Jimmy Hendrix was playing on the radio when I was invited in. People were half-dressed and walking in slow motion. The room was a haze of pot smoke. People were passing around wine bottles to share, lying around on mattresses on the floor and just sort of staring at me. I felt a little conspicuous in my clean-cut Bermuda shorts, button-down blouse and long blonde hair. I think they thought I was a narc because I looked ridiculously out of place.
The whole scene did not feel comfortable to me. It felt like I was on the verge of going down the rabbit hole. I liked to try things as long as I felt safe: this didn’t feel safe. This felt like if I tried any of what I saw I might get so lost in it I would never want to come back. It was too edgy for me. I could now check being a hippie off my list.
In the 60s it was the music that was our anthem and spoke the truth to us, providing some sanity in an upside-down world. Songs from Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and hundreds more gave people a voice, a movement, a way to change things by banding us together and making us aware that we had power and it mattered!
Draft card burnings, guys fleeing to Canada for political asylum, the riots on college campuses, police brutality at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, civil rights issues, the Black Panthers, assassinations, the violent bombings of the Weatherman, the war were all happening at once, and I didn’t know what to do, how to protest or how to help.
The worst of it was in my junior year, the spring of 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I remember listening to my radio in my room as I was getting ready for school and being shocked to hear the news about him being shot! How could this be? Tears rolled down my face as I sat on my bed, numb, unable to move.
Riots broke out around the U.S. in black neighborhoods. Burning and looting was going on. Black and white people were so angry they took to the streets in protest. It looked like the government had conspired to kill a man who was as revered as Ghandi. He was a hero to us. How could this be?
Then in June, just weeks later, Bobby Kennedy was shot. Television showed us the horrible scene over and over of Bobby giving a speech after winning the California primary, leaving the podium, and then pop, pop, pop! Shots could be heard as Bobby dropped to the floor and a dishwasher from the kitchen held the wounded Senator’s head in his hands trying to comfort him. It was shattering. All hope seemed to be sucked out of being American.
When you live through this kind of mayhem, violence and confusion, you either want to go to sleep or get angry and try to fight back. I felt I did a little of both.
As a teenager growing up in Rochester, I felt powerless. The action was happening in D.C. and other larger cities on college campuses. I would rail against the system, listen to protest music, write angry poetry and read about what was go.ing on. But my daily battles boiled down to how fast I could grow up, leave home, and find my way in the world.
I fell in love for the first time in 1966, with David. He was a football player, a jock, but he too didn’t feel he fit into any of the cliques at school and liked being an outsider. Leona set us up on our first date.
David was tall, had big shoulders and beautiful eyes that he squinted through, like Clint Eastwood, mostly because he needed to wear his glasses but it made him look so cool. He asked me out to see a movie: Dr. Zhivago, not a great date night movie. It was way too long and depressing. We left in the middle to grab a burger and to get to know each other better. David was a senior and had a car. My father, who had been so crazed about my sister and not letting her go out with boys in cars until she was a senior, let me go out at fifteen with a senior!
David seemed like a nice guy. He was mature and knew how to kiss! The first time he kissed me, I swear his kiss sent currents of electricity into my toes! I nearly fainted from the unexpected intensity of it!
That kiss stayed with me for years. In fact thirty-five years later, in 2003, David and I connected again on the Internet!
I was newly divorced and he was married for the second time. He randomly came across my name online because I was a journal writing teacher and he was looking for a writing program for his mom to help her deal with her grief after her daughter died.
When I got my first email from him, it was like I was a strand of old Christmas lights being plugged in again. One minute I was fifty, mature and rational, and then I wasn’t! I regressed right back to the love-struck kid I was when I knew him, full of hormonal angst, wired and ready to go!
It didn’t help matters either that David faxed me a photo of himself as a UN Peacekeeper, in his military fatigues with his sleeves rolled up, his Clint Eastwood squint going on and his thin but muscular frame looking hot! For reasons I will go into later, I had a big black hole of hurt going on inside of me. I was newly divorced and recovering from feeling unlovable. I was confused, touch-deprived, and my blast-from-the-past boyfriend seemed like a sanctioned no-brainer put on my doorstep by the benevolent side of the universe.
I knew it was wrong to get involved with a married man. I told myself a pack of justifications that in retrospect seem pretty dumb. It is not that I had a moral dilemma about it, although I knew the karma of it wasn’t good. But he was still married. That could be messy. But I was determined to finish some old business and felt every cell in my body was screaming to make contact with him. Although David and I had been in love with each other, we had never had sex. And because my first marriage was so painful, I was determined to see if I could find real love just once.
Our first meeting was in Greenwich, Connecticut. I acted like a giggly girl. I had not seen him in thirty-five years, and it was nearly impossible for me to hold all those emotions, memories and desires all at once in my body and manage them, so I giggled—a lot! We met at a beautiful French inn. It was classy and romantic but also like a B movie that I was directing, producing and starring in!
I was already in the room when he knocked on the door. When I opened it, I was face-to-face with a white-haired, fifty-three-year-old, heavy-set guy whose smile and voice were exactly as I remembered experiencing them at fifteen. It was crazy! Time and space didn’t seem to matter. The connection was still there between us. His face, his mannerisms, his voice were exactly as I had remembered them to be.
We politely talked for about five minutes before he reached over to kiss me and then we tore each other’s clothes off! I kept thinking, is this really happening? Are there hidden cameras? How bizarre to get a second chance like this again! How bizarre that we could pick up exactly where we had left off, as if there was no passage of time!
We kept murmuring how much we had missed each other, still loved each other and ached for each other. Who knew! He made me feel alive and reconnected to parts of me I had forgotten existed. I was young again, full of hope and joy, and blinded by a mosh pit of emotion!
My first marriage had been very complicated and left me feeling broken, unlovable and remorseful for not confronting things sooner. Unknowingly, David was gluing me back together, helping me to not only remember who I was at the start of adulthood but to feel it in every fiber of my being. I felt like there was a slumbering giant awakening inside of me, and I wanted more.
The nine months we had together were like living in a time machine circa 1967. It felt like we were given a second chance to make things right. A gift from the universe!
It was a spontaneous backslide on both our parts that didn’t have words, logic or common sense. It was just pure lust, raging adolescent hormones pumping non-stop through fifty-year-old bodies. Yikes! Kind of like a train wreck you can’t stop looking at!
I traveled to see David once a month. He lived in upstate New York. I was willing to take this risk and see where it might lead us. I naively thought that we had a chance to make things work out between us. Why else would the universe bring us together? But David had a fatal flaw, something I realized after the fact, left over from our earliest days: he never could make up his mind about me.
We started dating in the fall of 1966. It was his senior year and the senior prom was a big deal to take your girl to. We had been going steady with each other for months before he worked up the nerve to tell me he had already asked his old girlfriend Jackie to the prom months before we met and that she was holding him to his promise.
I was so pissed at him for not putting his foot down and saying no to her! What the hell, they weren’t a couple and she still wanted to go? Another part of me said, “Oh, he is a good guy just trying to do the right thing. How nice that he is honorable.” Yeah, right. In retrospect it was an indicator that sometimes David didn’t know exactly what he wanted and could easily justify his confusion by saying things to make it seem logical.
The second issue came after he enlisted in the Navy and went to sea for eleven months. I was a junior in high school at the time. He was lucky and didn’t have to go to Viet Nam, but he was at sea during a war that scared both of us.
We decided in true teenage fashion to be “true” to each other. At the very least, we would not have sex with anyone else since we hadn’t “gone all the way” yet with each other. When he got back from duty, he seemed different. My radar went up and I just knew something had changed. I wrangled the truth out of him and found out that he had slipped and had sex with a prostitute! But he said it meant nothing. The story he told was that on shore leave he had been dared by a friend to do it. Okay, I could see how this could happen if it was with a prostitute who was being presented to somehow make them feel better. But what really got me was that he was willing to lie about it and attempted to get it by me. That was a big warning flag.
Flash forward to thirty-five years later, he was declaring his love and affection for me and a desire for us to be together, even suggesting that I move from Maine to be near him! He said now that he had found me again he would never let me go. He told me I was the love of his life! I assumed he knew that he had to leave his wife in order for this to work!
He was convincing and I was looking for an excuse to let myself go and hope for the best.
He dangled me for months telling me that he and his wife wanted a divorce, but neither one of them made a move to get one. We had a few very emotional meetings where I cried, yelled, and demanded answers.
David could never take responsibility for the things he said to me. He could never man up and say what needed to be said to put me out of my misery, which was that he was not going to leave his marriage. By then I had realized my mistake. I believe David did love me, but he was stuck in a mess that had nothing to do with me. He just couldn’t get out of his own way.
I ended things, but he called and emailed me for years afterwards. He couldn’t let go. There were a few times that I did slip and we met again, but the same awful regurgitation would take place. It went nowhere. I finally blocked his calls and emails.
In retrospect, I had a wonderful time reconnecting with David, and it did feel like we had had unfinished business that needed to be completed. Now we had closure. It was messy, but I had learned a lot. I had learned that I was right to end our relationship when I was seventeen. It never would have worked. We both wanted different things. The good news was that I felt powerful again and lovable. I realized that I deserved to be loved and hoped I would find it. Sometimes you just have to learn things the hard way.
By 1967, with all the changes in the world going on and David at sea, I was still figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. The war and protests where raging. At home my father would rant against the politicians and call them “bums.” My mother demurred any opinions she may have had and would say, “Oh Henry, don’t say that!” as her way of protesting. My brother was married and working in New York City and my sister was working, dating and thinking of getting married.
My parents were busy sorting out the issues around my grandparents moving in with us, which was a very hard adjustment.
My mother and my grandmother wanted individual do.main over the kitchen. It created a lot of fights and bad feelings. My grandmother won most of the battles because she actually cooked daily. Grandma would make pierogies. She also made krusciki, which were pastries always piled a mile high with apples and brown sugar. With grandma love and food went hand and hand.
My mom was a good cook too, but she didn’t like cooking. She also worked until 5pm most days and just didn’t have the time or energy to cook. She would buy freezer food for the family like On-Cor roast beef or Swanson TV dinners, and it was up to each one of us to defrost something for dinner. To keep the peace, my father put a stove in the basement for Grandma to have a makeshift kitchen. It helped for a while.
I was pretty much on my own more and more. My parents started to travel for business and left me at home with my grandparents. My grandparents didn’t think I needed supervision. By 1968 I had a job, my own car, and no boy friend. I was able to graduate from high school in my junior year, work for a while, and then go to college.
Little by little I was taking charge of my life, testing the waters, and had no idea of what I was heading into.