Her name was Sheila; she was my first. This fact, along with the times, the place and the innocence of youth will forever make the summer of ’69 and the time I spent in Kentucky one of the most memorable events of my life.
The government moved us out of our Fort Knox military housing back in late 1967 when they sent my father to Vietnam. I guess the policy was such so as not to appear cold-hearted should they eventually have to kick the family out of their home if the service member lost his life while at war. The mandate forced my parents to buy, in rather a hurry, a house in the small town of Radcliff, just next door to the military base. In hindsight, I guess it was for the better, as the dependents would at least then have a home, paid for by insurance, should the service member not return.
Although much of the population of the little town had ties to the military base in some fashion, most of the friends I made were from families that had lived in the area for generations--good ol’ boys. I genuinely liked it here, too; it was definitely unlike the army brat existence I had known up until then. The people were different somehow. I had two close male friends; something I would not again know for most of my adult life.
I would also find here my first true love—and the bittersweet heartache that comes from parting ways. It would be in this place that I would transition from child to adult in so many ways, much of it having to do in part with the freedom I would have in my father’s absence for the next couple of years.
With my male friends, I have memories of skinny-dipping at the reservoir--and then running bare-assed into the woods when surprised by a troop of schoolgirls on an outing. Then there was the first time I’d got drunk and my friends gave me a cold shower in an attempt to sober me up before sending me home to mom. It was also here that I would start smoking cigarettes—a legacy I would carry with me for the next 35 years. I have other memories also—like the night we ran from the cops for no reason and ended up at the police station, where the police chief instructed us on how properly to hold a cigarette in our fingers, so as not to appear effeminate. I remember nights, just hanging out at the park with my friends until all hours, talking about all the joys and pitfalls of life, as understood by us, the experts, the teenagers.
After a while, getting drunk was something we did regularly; however, there were a number of obstacles standing in our way of obtaining alcohol. For one thing, Hardin was a dry county back then. If one wanted drink, it was necessary to drive over the county line to buy it—but none of us drove or had a car. Secondly, all of us were underage. Fortunately, we had a resource. One of my friends had an older brother who was with the Outlaws motorcycle club. While their mother was away working the swing shift at a job on base, my friend’s brother and several of his friends and their women from the club would often hang out at their mom’s trailer. There was always something going on there and new people to meet. Of course, we were much younger than this crowd, but they tolerated our presence nonetheless. The main thing was that we could always count on them to bring us back a bottle whenever they made a run to the next county for liquor--assuming we had the money of course, another obstacle.
Directly across our street—where I lived with my mom, my two younger brothers and younger sister—lived Sheila with her mother and siblings, all of them stuffed into a little two-bedroom crackerbox home, with a yard that was more dirt than grass. They were poor.
She was the oldest of five children, all of whom had different fathers. Five foot tall, with mouse brown and brown, her long hair was parted down the middle as the style of the times dictated. She and I were born the same year and she shared with my mother the same December birth date. She seemed to have few friends—and no boyfriend—at least none that ever came to her house.
During my first year living here, she and I had a flirty yet contentious relationship. At the school bus stop, she and I would often pick on one another, such as adolescence of the opposite sex do, fully cognizant that we were only covering up for our inner hormones, raging just below the surface, seeking release. For me, it was a time of transition. Although I spent a lot of time back then thinking about girls, I think I still had at home in my closet a box of old toy cars and whatnot, which I might have even pulled out and played with on occasion.
By the time the ’68 to ‘69 school year ended and spring began turning to summer, Sheila and I had become much more comfortable with one another; at least we no longer felt the need to cover up our desire to talk to each other using childish antics as mitigation. In time, and at my invitation, she started hanging around more and more with my two friends and me. I was still very much unsure of how to relate to girls, and although I was interested only in being with her at this point, I felt more at ease having them around as shields. I could sense they resented her because of the way she affected me; we were just no longer the same group of guys, doing the things we once did.
One night, as dusk set in and the two of them left, Sheila and I suddenly turned toward one another and kissed; it was spontaneous and completely unexpected. We then held one another. Her clench was tight and lasted for some time; I was beginning to wonder if she was going to let go. Once we did release our embrace, we walked the mile home without saying a word. Shortly before arriving at our street, we again kissed before splitting up to go to our respective homes, so as to space out the time of our arrival, should anyone be watching.
She was the first girl I had ever kissed. That night, alone in my room, I thought about us kissing. Although I found it quite the thrill, mentally—physically, it wasn’t at all what I’d expected. I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe I did it wrong! She probably thinks I’m an idiot! What do I do now that we’ve started this relationship? What do I say to her tomorrow? I felt this obligation to—well, I really didn’t know what my proper reaction should be toward her from here on out. I was thrilled, of course—I was thrilled that a girl would consider me worthy to kiss—hell, I was thrilled that a girl would actually want to have anything to do with me at all. However, it seems there was a flip side to all of this, a double aged sword that I’d never considered. What if she changed her mind by tomorrow and said it was all a mistake? I quickly found out that to be in love is to worry about another’s feelings toward you, something over which you have no control.
In the coming weeks, despite all my initial fears, we drew closer. We talked about her, and me, our hopes and fears, our plans for the future, or lack thereof. We kissed and hugged, and French kissed. I was high on puppy love--and what a high it was. Our main problem, in seeing one another, was in where to go. She drove, but could only infrequently get her mother to relinquish the car; I, of course, had neither license nor car. We were therefore limited to the park and to anywhere in the immediate area we could walk. Fortunately, not many people frequented the park and we usually had the whole place to ourselves. We often stayed until dusk. My mother, it seemed, had given up all supervision of me since my father had left; on the other hand, Sheila’s mother, although she did not keep an excessively tight leash on her, did expect her home by 10 PM each night.
I would occasionally ask my friend with the biker brother to get me some beer or hard liquor. Sheila, however, would have none of it. She neither drank nor smoked nor swore, except perhaps in the mildest terms. I think it probably had something to do with the men her mother had brought home over the years—she just did not want to be like them. In fact, Sheila belied all the stereotypes of a girl from a single-parent, poor white-trash household that one would expect; she had uncommon integrity, growing up in the surroundings that she did. After a while, alcohol lost its appeal for me also, just being around her.
At this point, I had pretty much abandoned my male friends to spend all my time with her. The one friend, whenever I did have the occasion to see him down at the supermarket or wherever, would quietly give me hurt looks as if I had transgressed some unwritten oath of loyalty. I didn’t know quite what to say to him, but I really didn’t care; I had found my little treasure and she was all that mattered right now.
As twilight just began settling over the park one night, Sheila and I were starting to go at it hot and heavy, kissing and necking, she lying atop me, the both of us in the grass behind a berm. We were having dry sex, rubbing up against one another through our clothes until we had both reached quite the frenzy. She suddenly rolled from me and with a flushed face said that we needed to stop--that this wasn’t the place-- that we might be discovered. We shyly started discussing our situation in two or three-word sentences. We eventually concluded what we already knew—there really was no place for us to go. Someone was always home at my house. Someone was always home at her house. Someone was always home at any of our friends’ houses—besides, I’m sure they just couldn’t wait to underwrite our problem. We didn’t have money for a motel; they probably wouldn’t have rented to someone our age anyway.
I then suggested the woods behind old man Curry’s farm, not far from where we lived. I told her of the old abandoned orchard there, a place I had discovered while hunting rabbits with my .22 last year. Almost immediately, I was sorry for having suggested the idea. I half expected an angry response. As a backdrop for such a tryst, this was not exactly a classy suggestion to make to a lady, even if the lady was only a 16-year-old girl. But, to my surprise, she was open to the idea; she just had questions as to whether there was a possibility of anyone seeing us, and if there were any bugs or snakes there. I assured her it would be all right. I had spent many a day exploring nearly the entire woods last year and I’d never run into anyone out there. We made tentative plans to go there the afternoon of the next day. Once again, we walked quietly the entire way home; my thoughts were muddled, as I’m sure were hers. My feelings were a mixture of guilt and anticipation. I felt as if we were conspiring against—well, I’m not exactly sure against what it was I thought we were conspiring. All we knew is that we had to do this thing—and the time was now.
Early afternoon the next day, with great stealth, I sneaked a thick bedspread from the house, taking the long way around; meanwhile, Sheila, carrying several bottles of pop, sauntered to the end of our cul-de-sac and into the woods. We met just inside the perimeter of the forest, the last house on the dead-end street still visible from where we stood. She smelled of soap and perfume; I’m sure she could smell my father’s aftershave also. We walked, single file, down a narrow and indistinct trail, her ahead of me. It was a typical Kentucky summer’s day, hot and dry. As we walked, the distance between us negated us speaking to one another.
After walking for nearly a half hour, I took the lead and we walked off into a grove of trees several hundred yards to the left of the path. The old orchard had a variety of fruit trees, some with early fruit—apples, pears, plums and cherries--already growing on their branches. The ground around the trees was covered with grasses that grew in thick clumps. We picked out a spot and laid down the bedspread. We then stood there looking at one another. With a dry voice, I asked her what would happen if she became pregnant. She said she was not “receptive” at this time of the month. I didn’t really understand what she meant, but she assured me it was all right.
As we tentatively started to undress, we looked at one another and started laughing. There really was no place to hide from one another’s gaze—we were standing in the stark daylight with the sun flickering upon us through the leaves of the trees. If we were going to do this thing, we were just going to have to bite the bullet and undress in front of one another.
We both fell naked on the bedspread and went about the eternal dance at once, gently. Mentally, I loved it; the desire to do this thing came to me easier than rolling off a log. Once again, however, it was not what I had expected. Things just did not come about nearly as spontaneously as I had anticipated. In fact, I soon came to realize that sex actually took effort and active participation.
There were also other aspects surrounding sex, which I had not anticipated. For instance, I could feel her ribs and pelvic bones through her flesh, which made me recognize that this body against mine was not just a girl, but an actual human being—a scary thought. Of course, I knew this already, but I had several strange thoughts such as these—it was sort of weird.
She surprised me though; she actually knew more than I would have thought. I think I surprised her also. For a couple of virgins, we did all right. Back then, any sex instruction you received in health class was cursory at best, so I can only think that the two of us must have checked out the same books from the main library at some point. We continued with our acts of lust for several hours that first day. Occasionally, we’d stop to talk and laugh and eat green apples--then, we’d be right back at it again.
We experimented and did all the usual stuff that couples do. While walking back to our street that day, it had become obvious to the both of us that a far deeper bond had now formed between us than we had anticipated would happen.
All that summer, we met in the woods for several encores nearly every day. As far as actual activity, we were probably way ahead of the rabbits out in the fields by several innings; after all, they didn’t have 16 years of pent up sexual energy that needed liberation. The both of us were convinced, at least as far as the spiritual aspect of sex was concerned, that no one had ever before experienced our level of closeness and intimacy. We revealed to one another, by word and deed, all those things about our own sexuality that neither of us had ever thought in a million years we could let another human being know. Sheila and I could sense a sea change in each other, the both of us having a newfound love for life that neither of us had previously known.
Occasionally, it would rain and soak the forest floor and whatever bed covering we'd stashed in the area. After a while, my mother must have been wondering what was happening to all her blankets and comforters. I couldn’t very well bring them home; a heavy, wet blanket in the laundry would not exactly have gone unnoticed by her. Sheila hated the wool army blankets, which she called itch-bitch blankets, so they were about the only thing not in short supply at my house. After a heavy rain, we would always have to wait a day or two until things dried out.
Another technical problem, which developed later that summer when the ripened fruit fell from the trees and started rotting on the ground, was the large number of yellow jackets it attracted into the area. It was on more than one occasion that we had to stop what we were doing to swat away the insects with our shirts, while running bare-ass naked around the orchard. We eventually moved our spot away from the fruit trees over to some oaks, but there were still quite a few bees in the area and the danger of being stung in the ass was never far from our minds.
The choice of birth control in those days was meager at best. I don’t know if they even had the pill back then, but if they did, it was for certain that no one was going to dispense it to a couple of minors, regardless. During those times when Sheila was “receptive,” we would use condoms, which I would get from the machine in men’s room of a motel restaurant in town. For those few times when she was receptive and I’d failed to come up with the condoms—well, there was always oral and masturbation, something which we practiced with regularity anyway--we were so very close.
In hindsight, for a couple of kids, we were remarkably responsible. Although the country was supposedly in the middle of the sexual revolution, no one had yet informed these small towns and there was still quite the stigma attached to unwed pregnancies—it would definitely have complicated matters.
All during this time, we never let on to anyone that we were seeing one another. Whenever in public, as on our street, we seemingly ignored one another. Exactly from whom we were hiding, I don’t know. As far as her mother was concerned, as long as Sheila was safe and didn’t get into any trouble, I really think she could have cared less. After all, what could a woman with five children, all from different fathers, say to her daughter anyway? But, that’s unfair; she was a nice lady. My own mother had other things about which to worry—like the prospect of my father never returning and being left alone to raise four children. I’m sure our friends, all of who were sure we had fallen from the face of the earth, couldn’t have cared one way or the other about what we were doing. Nevertheless, this secrecy, the forbidden-fruit aspect of it all, as if were were hiding something from someone, added to the thrill of our relationship.
For me, there was also that macho thing. Not only did I now smoke cigarettes, not only had I now tasted liquor, but I had now also had had sex and I was no longer a virgin—something none of my friends could claim, although they’d try. Yep, I was a real man. Today, of course, this all sounds so ridiculous that I’m ashamed to admit, even to myself, to ever having thought this way.
When school began, it curtailed our sexual activities considerably. We had again started seeing more of our friends and it was only on weekends that we would rendezvous for our encounters.
On the day following my 17th birthday, I went to one of my friends' houses after school for a game of sandlot football—tackle football, with no protection. At one point in the game, I attempted to body block my friend, 250 lbs., who was running with the ball—I ruptured my kidney in eight places. I spent the next two weeks at the army hospital in Fort Knox, where I shared a ward with many Vietnam wounded, all of whom were about my age. It was during this time that my father, close to the end of his second tour of duty, returned to the family.
Things began moving quickly. The handwriting was on the wall and it was speaking to the inevitable changes that were to come. My father got orders for Germany. I was determined to stay in Radcliff because of Sheila. However, in a small town such as this, there are not many jobs, and even fewer people interested in hiring a 17-year-old boy, especially one that didn’t even have a driver’s license.
I realized my only other option was to join the military. Sheila and I spoke about it. We figured we could get married before I left for boot camp; and then, even if they sent me to Vietnam, we would rejoin once I returned. It sounded like a difficult and convoluted plan, but I was determined I wanted to be with her at all costs. However, all came to naught when I appeared for my preliminary physical. The doctor took one look at my recently-acquired operation scar, which ran from one side of my abdomen to the other—well, let’s say, we could have taken care of the rejection over the phone and saved everyone a lot of time. We were out of options—Sheila and I both knew it.
In the short time we had remaining, my parents did not find a buyer for the house and turned things over to a realty company. The moving truck came and my parents made all the other necessary last minute arrangements.
Sheila took several days off from school. We were now openly affectionate in full view of her both her mother and my parents, as well as in front of both our much younger siblings—on the street and at one another’s homes. It really didn’t matter at this point. If any of them was at all surprised, no one let on in the least.
Both Sheila and I probably felt the worst either of us had ever felt in our young lives—the situation was tearing apart our insides to the point of panic. All military brats have been through this before many times. We say to ourselves that we will again see our friends, someday, and in our minds, we even make tentative plans; but, generally, these plans amount to no more than fantasies and deep down inside, we know we will never see these friends again.
However, for Sheila and me, it will be different this time. I would do whatever it takes to be with her—after all, the world had never known a love such as ours—it was going to last. We made a solemn promise to love one another forever—and that promise WAS solemn. She gave me an id bracelet as a going away present; my name was inscribed on the outside and hers on the inside.
My father drove the family car to the east coast and we probably left for Germany out of New Jersey that year; I don’t remember. The coming months were excruciating; it was one of those times in your life when you wonder if it is possible for a person to die from sheer longing and melancholy. Sheila and I started writing to one another immediately. We would also phone occasionally, but that was expensive back then. We would profess our love for one another on paper in however many ways came to mind, examining the possibilities and making plans for our future together.
One of my fears at this time was always that I would be the one to change MY mind--that I would be the one to forsake her and the love we had for each other. I had on my arm a healing scar--one of those childish things I did with my friends back in Kentucky, where we could put together our arms and drop a cigarette between them to see who would chicken out first. Of course, no one ever chickened out, so I had a considerable burn mark on my arm from when I had last participated in the ritual. So, I took another cigarette and re-burned the same spot in hopes that the scar would be there forever, a lasting reminder never to forget Kentucky and Sheila, the scar a signet that sealed a contract I was making with myself. The faded hint of the scar is still with me today.
Unfortunately, as things go, absence does not always make the heart grow fonder, especially if too much time goes by, and you start doubting that your plans will ever come to fruition. She accused me of seeing someone where I was living in Germany; she said she knew for a fact that I was seeing someone because someone she knew in my neighborhood was writing her and telling her so. For a while there, I thought she actually did know someone in our housing area, and I was beginning to wonder why anyone would say such a thing--I wasn’t seeing anybody. We threw several contentious accusations at one another in our letters. I didn’t quite understand it, but I could see things were falling apart.
Eventually, she wrote the inevitable “Dear John” letter. I wrote back several times, imploring her to reconsider. She wrote back telling me of the futility of our situation and how it would be better if we move on to other people. I was convinced she had probably found someone else, so I incorporated several friends in Radcliff to act as spies, but none ever reported seeing her with anyone or had reasons otherwise to believe that she had a new boyfriend. I believe today, I could have convinced Sheila to reconsider her stance; I believe her rejection of me was just juvenile game playing to draw me out, to see how I would react. However, I suddenly found myself not caring much anymore--I was the one giving up what we once had--which saddened and depressed me all the more. The thing I’d feared most had come upon me.
Years past, and other girlfriends came and went. I occasionally thought of Sheila; she sometimes even crept into my dreams. Several times, years later, I’d considered calling her, just to see how life had turned out for her. I even thought several times to drop into the old neighborhood, seek out old friends, and to see if maybe she still lived there. More than likely, she would have married someone in the service; or she might still live there, with five kids from five different fathers. I never quite brought myself to the point of doing either; I always decided before taking action that it was better to let sleeping dogs lie.
Two years ago, I was speaking with my brother over the phone. We talked about our life and times in Radcliff and about the people we had once known there. He was only in elementary school back then, probably fifth or sixth grade, but still, he had vivid recollections of what things were like then. Several days later, he called me. After doing research over the internet, he’d managed to contact one of Sheila’s brothers, and spoke to him at length--Sheila was dead. In fact, she had died thirty-one years ago, in 1973.
The news hit me like a punch to the face—it started a grieving process that lasted for many months. To this day, I still don’t quite understand how I could grieve for someone who died over thirty years ago—even if I did just find out about it yesterday. I guess it must be because I always assumed she was alive and well. Like most people, unless they are of significant age, I just assume that everyone around my age IS still alive and well—somewhere. I thought to call Sheila's brother. Perhaps by speaking with someone who knew her well, we could commiserate and it would lessen for me the creeping emptiness I felt. But no—for him, she had died over thirty years ago--and he had grieved more than thirty years ago, not yesterday.
The story was that she hit her head on the bathroom sink of her mother’s house after apparently fainting; she died from the blow to the head. However, I needed confirmation. Maybe there was a misunderstanding and my brother didn’t quite get the facts straight; perhaps her brother was lying for some reason. I had to check it out myself, to see if she was actually dead; so, I got on the internet. Of course, back then no one had ever heard of nor envisioned the internet, but perhaps some enterprising government agency had transferred the old vital records into electronic form—and someone had. There wasn’t much—just her name including middle initial, her age, the date she died, and some control numbers. It was she. She died October 25, 1973. With her birthday being in December, she didn’t even make it to twenty-one. It pains me terribly to write it down.
Today, I live with my life partner of twenty-five years, Bonnie. I’m glad things turned out the way they did; I wouldn’t have it any other way. Looking back, I sometimes wonder just how much power I actually did have over my life, and how much of it was fate. I think of all the “ifs”--if I had found a job in Kentucky, if I had not gotten hurt and was able to join the service, if I had overcome all the other hurdles that forced Sheila and me apart, and if… I wonder, would death eventually have made the decisions for us anyway? It just seems some things are just not meant to be.
Kentucky, for me, was a time of firsts—first cigarette, first drink, first love, first heartbreak. It seems I read something to the effect that when your memories exceed your plans, your life is just about over. Reading over some of the things about which I’ve been writing lately, I think I’m just about there now. Today, I see sixteen-year-olds, and I can’t believe Sheila and I were that young. Mentally, it felt as if we were in our twenties, at least. She was my lover, my treasure, my first—my little country girl. Being my first, she will forever retain a special place in my heart. We made a solemn promise to each other that we would love one another forever—considering how painful it has been to write this piece, I think in some strange way, I kept that promise.