More than most of us, BoomerCafé contributor Erin O’Brien of Redondo Beach, California, hasn’t lost a single memory from her childhood. She even remembers wondering, Whatever Happened To the Red-Haired Boy?
Leslie was a tall red-haired boy in Sister Ann’s first grade, and very quiet.
Many years later my family moved, I changed schools, and became The New Kid in Class. It was traumatic but I recognized a familiar red-haired boy. “Hi, my name’s Erin. We went to school together,” but Leslie, who now went by Les, was already walking away.
The worse part of eighth grade wasn’t pre-algebra or acne. The worst part was the dance lesson on Fridays in June, an attempt by the faculty to prepare the socially-inept adolescents for the graduation dance. This was compounded by the fact that there were three extra girls, and I was usually one of them.
On the night of graduation, our dancing and socializing skills were put to the test. The parish hall had been transformed with crepe paper and a punch bowl and a real band on the stage, to resemble a night club. Our parents and families peeked in the door and then left us in the care of our chaperones.
The smartest boy in the class asked me to dance. He would later grow up to be the lead in the high school play, senior class president, and a district attorney. After a while, I summoned my courage and approached Les, who had his hands in his pockets. “Hi, Les, would you like to dance?” but he was already shaking his head with the faintest of smiles, and walking away.
I held back the tears until I got to the pay phone at the front of the parish hall. It was dark and I fumbled for the dime in the pocket of the dress my mom had made me. “Mom, please come and get me,” I cried, “I asked Les to dance and he laughed at me!”
It was dark as I stood alone in front of the parish hall in my new dress and curled hair and carnation corsage. I could hear the muffled sound of the band inside. When my mom’s blue Ford Galaxie 500 pulled up, I got in and sank into the seat.
Everyone was asleep when we got home, but there was a graduation gift waiting. My mom gave it to me and I tiptoed upstairs to open it: Elton John’s new album, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” I sat on the carpet and played it over and over, the volume low, so I would not wake my sister.
A few years after college, I was between jobs so I took a waitress position. One busy weekend night when I brought a bill up to the register, I saw a familiar face. It was Les, with his wife. I noticed he had a tattoo. “Hi,” I greeted them, in my wholesome uniform. “I’m Erin. We went to school with each other.” He looked confused, and was as quiet as I remembered. I said good night. Maybe he was just a snob.
About ten years went by before I saw Les again. I was teaching, and roofers were working on one of the classrooms. As I walked across the campus I said hello and then my now familiar, “Hi, my name’s Erin. We went to school together…” This time he smiled. I was a teacher and he’d started his own plumbing & contracting business. He didn’t remember me, which was a relief because I wasn’t recognizable as that eighth grade girl. In a few moments he’d opened his wallet and was sharing photos of his wife, whom he’d married right out of high school, and his son and daughter. “I was so afraid of girls, it’s a wonder I got married!” he said. For over thirty years, each time we met, what I had perceived as being aloof was merely shyness.
The next time I saw Les ten more years had passed. He greeted me with a hug at the back yard gate. My husband and I had hired him to re-lay the gas line and sprinklers in our back yard. One day there was a labyrinth instead of a rose garden, piles of dirt and bricks, pipes and men working, and then one day everything was back in its place. Les said he approaches each job as if he’s working on his own home. “Your old classmate Les is such a nice guy,” my husband said. He was absolutely right.