Before there was The Wife, there was Cheryl.
Oh, we never dated or held hands or kissed. But I loved her with all the raging hormonal intensity of a teenage nerd. If Cheryl was the Molly Ringwald of Stockton High School, then I was Duckie. Or the Michael Anthony Hall character, depending on which John Hughes movie best speaks to you.
Who’s that girl?
The year was 1977. The time was 7th hour, the last period of the school day. I was sitting in Study Hall, probably reading one of Mike’s “Green Lantern” comics when Mark sticks his head in the door.
“Mr. Eubanks needs to see Ronnie.”
Mark had avoided the monotony of Study Hall by volunteering to be a “band aide,” which meant that instead of sitting in Study Hall for an hour, he could sit in the band room for an hour. Doesn’t sound like a big improvement until you consider that Mr. Eubanks wasn’t near the totalitarian dictator that Mrs. Woody was.
Seventh hour was Junior High Band. I had a good idea what Eubanks wanted, so I swaggered into the room with all the gusto of a freshman trying to impress seventh- and eighth-graders.
“What can I do for ya, Big Man?”
“Go teach those kids how to play.”
Now I couldn’t read music — that’s why I became a drummer — but I could fake it better than most. I took a pair of sticks from someone and tried to work out the rhythm. Eventually the kids and I got it close enough and I was dismissed. I saw Richard, another “band aide,” sitting over in the corner. Mark wasn’t around, and there was something I had to know.
“Who’s that girl in the drum section?”
“Oh yeah. There’s two. Huh, she’s cute too. But you know the one I’m talking about.”
The next year I concluded that being a band aide was a pretty sweet gig, so I convinced my buddy Jay to join me.
“Who’s that girl in the drum section?”
“Do you know her?”
Despite the fact that he was a trumpet player, Jay spent most of that year hanging out in the drum section. They eventually dated. Jay was the first of my friends to go out with Cheryl. He wasn’t the last.
The following year Cheryl joined us in high school. Now one of the advantages to being in the drum section is that we always had more drummers than we had drums, so people had to take turns playing. Many mornings (high school band was first period) Cheryl and I would sit in the back and just talk while everyone else played. It’s not like I needed the practice. And it annoyed Darren, which made it even better.
I suppose it was during those morning chats that we became friends. I would talk about how I was going to New York to be a writer and she would sit and nod. Cheryl was one of a kind. She was a cheerleader/twirler/prettiest girl in school but she didn’t have that one drawback that so many high school cheerleader/twirler/pretty girls had: Attitude. She liked me despite the fact that I didn’t play football, wear a letterman’s jacket or drive a Trans-Am.
It was weird but I wasn’t going to complain.
Dear Pen Pal
In 1980 I graduated from high school and left the small town of Stockton for the medium town of Columbia. It is at this point in the story where I need to pause and explain something to the young people who may be reading this.
Kids, when I was your age we didn’t have e-mail, twitter, cellphones, Facebook or texting. If you wanted to communicate with someone and they weren’t in the same room as you, you could either call them on the telephone (which I would never do) or write a letter.
A letter is when you take a piece of paper (or more) and a pen (some people used typewriters but we won’t talk about those heartless individuals) and write out your thoughts. You’d tell your friend what you’d been up to and ask about them. It’s like e-mail only longer. Maybe a long blog post.
Anyway, you’d take the letter and put it in another piece of paper, called an envelope. The envelope was a carrier device. It had a sticky substance on the back that you would lick and then close up the envelope with the letter inside. On the front of the envelope you would write the name and address of the person you were writing to. Then you went to the post office and bought a small, square object called a stamp. It had a sticky substance on the back that you would lick and then you’d affix it to the top right corner of the envelope. You left the letter with the post office and for the price you paid for the stamp they would deliver the letter to your intended recipient. The whole process of writing, addressing and sending the letter could take a few days or a week or so.
Barbaric, isn’t it? At any rate, you learn who your real friends are when they have to write you a letter.
When I got to Columbia I had maybe a half-dozen people on my write-to list. I didn’t really expect Jay to write back and he didn’t, so I only wrote him once. Guys aren’t big on letter writing, although Mark did write some good ones. Some never responded, some kept in touch for a while. Only one person stuck it out. You know who. We didn’t write frequently, but I always knew that if a couple of months went by without hearing from Cheryl, there would be something in the mailbox within a week or two.
In 1982 Cheryl graduated from SHS. I begged her to join me at the University of Missouri in Columbia but instead she chose the University of Missouri in Rolla. Because, you know, ROLLA. Who wouldn’t want to spend four years studying engineering in that hotbed of fun?
In 1984 I met Laurie Thielmeier who taught me that not all friendships need be platonic and not all love need be unrequited. I asked her to marry me on the spot. I may be dumb but I am not stupid.
A couple of months after meeting Laurie I graduated from college. Cheryl rode in a car with my parents and my sisters for 4 hours to attend my college graduation. Who would do that? No one goes to their friend’s college graduation. I almost didn’t go to my college graduation. I can’t image what conversations went on between her and my mother and my sisters during all that drive. I’m confident dad had nothing to say.
Fortunately we couldn’t all fit in one car afterwards, so the family took off in one car while I drove back with Cheryl and Laurie beside me in the front seat (this was in the days before bucket seats were all the rage). My new girlfriend and my old crush meeting for the first time over a 4-hour car trip. Yes, I was nervous. They wouldn’t stop talking the whole drive. I learned more about Cheryl that night than I’d ever known before. Turned out they had a lot in common. What is baroque music?
While You’re Busy Making Other Plans
At this point I would direct you to go back and reread my 9/11 column, but the online archives don’t go back that far. So here’s the short version:
While Laurie and I had rushed into engagement we were in no hurry to get married. That changed in 1988 when Laurie’s father became ill. We had to throw the wedding together in weeks. It was no problem rounding up the usual suspects but I had lost track of Cheryl. She was out of college and working somewhere but I knew not where.
The night before my wedding Mom handed me a letter that had shown up at the homestead earlier that week. It was from Cheryl. She was in New York, starting a new job.
Cheryl was in New York. I was getting married. It was all so backward I just had to sit on the curb and stare at the letter and smile.
I should point out that our relationship was not all sunshine and roses. There were times when someone got upset and we’d stop talking. It was always my fault. It was during one of those non-communication times that Laurie gave birth to my son. Shortly thereafter Cheryl had her first child, a daughter. When I heard about Jennifer being born I sat down and wrote her a letter — from Andrew.
Hi, you don’t know me but our parents used to be good friends. I figure, why should we let their stupidity keep us from being friends? …
A few days later Andrew received a letter from Jennifer. And so it goes…
It took a while but I eventually convinced Cheryl to join me on the Internet. Email would be so much quicker, I said, and we could talk on a more regular basis. It is, and we do, but to be honest at times I miss the letter writing days.
The early part of the 21st century was pretty hard on Cheryl and me. My career went down in flames and her marriage went south. She recovered better than I did. First she started telling me about her friend Bob. They had known each other for a while. Now they were starting to hang out.
And go camping. And rock climbing. And kayaking. And mudding. And what the hell is geocaching?
“Oh, get this. Bob and Cheryl climbed a mountain and he proposed to her at the top.”
“That’s so romantic.”
“I wouldn’t climb a mountain to look at a lake, let alone propose to someone.”
“Yes dear, we all know you’re not an outdoorsman.”
“Don’t get smart with me. You’re idea of ‘roughing it’ is staying at a hotel that doesn’t offer complementary breakfast.”
“And that’s why you’re with me and Cheryl is with Bob.”
Cheryl and Bob got married last Saturday. We made the 4.5 hour drive through the mountains of Illinois and Indiana for the occasion. I don’t know Bob but he seemed like a nice guy. I do know that Cheryl looked happier with him those three days than I’d ever seen her in my life.
But I can say I have no better friend.