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Memories of Jeanie F.

The scene is upstate N.Y., church camp, 1964. It seems like it was just yesterday.
Here’s the podcast of it:
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Memories of Jeanie F. audio
Here’s the story:

The last summer I went to camp before we moved overseas was the summer of 1964. That was the summer I liked a girl named Jeanie Fisher. Her real name was Norma Jean but she went by Jeanie. She had brown hair and green eyes (correction – hazel eyes) and she liked me. I liked her very much and was comfortable in her company. I was fourteen and I had had “girlfriends” in two previous summers, but I think Jeanie was the first girl with whom I had an unselfconscious, intentional relationship. Even at age fourteen, I think she and I were mature enough to begin learning new lessons in relationality.

At our Bible camp there were lots of opportunities for boys and girls to socialize—it was easy and safe. We had plenty of time to sit together, walk and talk, and play games. We were fundamentalists—we didn’t dance, but we did play games. And about half of the games we played featured hand-holding as an integral part. Take for instance an outdoor game I liked called the Flying Dutchman. It was a large circle game in which the whole group would form up in the field and hold hands all the way around without a break, boy girl boy girl boy, the more the better. The first pair to be “it”, a boy and a girl, would circle the group on the outside perimeter, holding hands and speeding up, looking for a pair to tag. The chosen pair, tagged on their joined hands, would then have to break out of their place and race the first pair around the circle, running in the opposite direction, trying to beat them back to the empty space. And the rule was, don’t let go the hand of the person you are paired with. If you and your partner lose the race the two of you become “it” and have to circle the group looking for a couple you think you could beat around the circle. It was a great game for learning about centrifugal force—and the opposite sex. Games were a parable and an illustration of all kinds of principles and ideals in life, the first being that the opposite sex is wonderfully marvelous, and touching and holding on to them is both enjoyable and beneficial.

I could go on and on about the games, but I won’t because I want to say more about Jeanie and me—how the memory came into my heart a few days ago and now will not leave. And right at this moment I don’t want it to leave because it is so beautiful.

I’m thinking about Jeanie and me and Sadie Hawkins day—how we caught each other and got to spend the whole day together, and as well as sitting next to each other in Bible class and other times, but the major memory I have is, saying goodnight after campfire. At this time each night boys and girls who liked each other could find a way to get two or three minutes alone for a goodnight kiss. Our particular tradition actually facilitated hand-holding (planned or not, that’s the way it was). It didn’t matter whether it was one of our devotional campfires or, on alternate evenings, the fun campfire. As a benediction we would cross our hands right over left and grasp the hand of the person next to us who also had his or her hands crossed. Then we sang taps. “Day is done, gone the sun, from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest. God is nigh.” Goodnight.

Then, since you already had ahold of your girl’s hand, you could just not let go. One of the two of you would twirl around—again, without having to let go her hand, and voila, there you were walking down the dark path to the main compound, down around Bonnie Lodge. Now there might have been one or two lights on the eaves of the buildings down there, as well as the occasional flashing of peoples’ flashlights, but there were plenty of shadows to aim for, under the trees or around the corners of buildings. And the wonderful thing was it was thrilling without being anything but completely safe. After all, we weren’t planning anything illegal—just a kiss on the cheek and a hug, then a few more steps, until we had to go our separate ways—to the boys’ tents or the girls’ cabins, whichever applied.

I think the first time or two that Jeanie and I did this goodnight ritual I took the lead, walking her to the compound, instigating a kiss on the cheek. Her face was so smooth and clean. I can almost remember how she smelled. I can certainly remember how she made me feel. And after that I would float, two feet off the ground, down to the boys’ area with the army surplus folding metal cots, and crawl into my sleeping bag, full of lovely thoughts of liking and being liked and, how nice tomorrow would be, and how many days would be left before Jeanie and I would have to part.

Then one night, as I was aiming for Jeanie’s cheek she turned quick, in a split-second, and got me on the lips. She may have even licked her lips first. It fills me with the deepest wildest yearning as I remember it—to think I could have been the object of the affections of such a wonderful girl. To think I could be a part of such an innocent little pairing. Even at fourteen years of age it was certainly possible for one to make another person feel so meaningfully loved. I wonder if Jeanie ever thought back on it with the same sort wistfulness I have. Secretly I hope she has.

One day a group of us went on a bus trip from camp to somewhere about an hour away—it might have been Chittenango Falls. I don’t remember very much about the day—probably we had a cookout and hiked around at the base of the falls—probably got our feet wet. But I do remember very well the bus trip back to camp. There were so many people that Jeanie had to sit on my lap part of the way back. Now mind you, I didn’t hold her tight; she just sat there straight and prim as could be on top of my knees. Of course I was affected by the closeness and felt lovely but at the same time somewhat uncomfortable about it. By the time we were home it was dark already and I was ready to be relieved of my burden, despite the delightfulness.

My friend Brent, who was a year older than me, also had a girl on his lap in the dark bus. I don’t remember her name but I remember she was the kind of girl who seemed a bit socially backward. It seems like she might have been from the country and also was not pretty. So when I saw that she and Brent were kissing passionately and making out energetically, I thought they must really be in love. The next day I mentioned it to Brent. I said, “You and that girl must really be in love, huh?” He said, “Oh her? I’d rather have a dog than her.” That’s not the answer I expected; I figured the more passionate the making out was, the deeper the love must be. And so besides the fact I was disappointed in my friend, it was the first time I realized there was a possible disconnect between real relationality and physical intimacy. For the record I was not then, nor have I ever, in all the years since then, become reconciled to that disconnect.

Before our two weeks were over Jeanie and I had grown comfortable with each other. Once she volunteered to sing a song for the talent show and I accompanied her on the guitar. She sang 500 Miles.

“If you miss the train I’m on you will know that I am gone. You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.”

Jeanie was nervous and kept saying her voice was going to crack but she did fine. (Well, maybe it did squeek just once on a high note.)

When I think back about it, she was the first girl I played music with. Before the session was over we exchanged addresses and promised we would write letters to each other, which we did. Phoning long-distance was out of the question; it cost too much. But a postage stamp was only four cents, and so we wrote each other letters.

There’s a another memory back there that I’m not sure I want to bring up, but I think you will enjoy hearing it, so here goes. To the best of my recollection, Jeanie went home after two weeks, but hoped to come back again for a later session that summer. Meanwhile other things were going on in her absence.

One afternoon as we came back from the swimming hole, I saw Cathy Field, my “girlfriend” from two summers ago. She was sitting on the well playing her french horn. I was overawed. She was fresh as the sunrise—blonde and blue-eyed, hair cut short and cute, sitting there just as nice as you please. Her mom must have brought her after her band practice, to make arrangements to come to camp. I approached her gingerly, as if she were a space alien I used to know on another planet. But sure enough she remembered me; or at least she didn’t say she didn’t. We had known each other—had even written a few letters back and forth, then we drifted apart. I still had fond memories but they were distant ones—until all of a sudden she showed up and and my little soul was all awhirl with happy but mixed up feelings.

Then, when Cathy arrived to stay, it was a Sunday afternoon I think, I immediately stuck to her like glue. I was changeable, wasn’t I? But this time I had competition. Some kid, whose name I don’t even remember, thought he was her boyfriend. And Cathy was non-commital; she refused to choose between us. I affirmed my commitment to her, so did the other kid. The two of us competed to win her affections, by feats of athletic ability, or by impossible promises, but she would not choose between us. I remember walking around camp holding her hand—and that other kid holding her other hand. She was eating up the attention; I really think she had a boy-friend in her home town and was funnin’ with us.

Howe’er it was, I didn’t feel one twinge of guilt about being untrue to Jeanie, or if I did I sure didn’t dwell on it, I was so full of myself.

Soon Cathy heard through the grapevine that I had another girlfriend and quizzed me about her. She would be returning to camp in a few days and what would I do then? I said, “I will stick with you.” She had her doubts about that and said so. “When Jeanie comes back you will go back to her,” she prophesied. Cathy had the wisdom of years, after all she was six months older than me.

And she was right. It wasn’t a hard decision. Jeanie was really something after all, and I was ready for her to come back. Plus, there was the thing about Cathy having two boyfriends at once, and refusing to reject one of us—and that other kid wouldn’t give up. That was kind of wearing on my psyche.

I don’t know how long I stayed at camp that summer. Maybe four, maybe five weeks. I sure felt at home there. My family was getting ready to move to Washington, D.C., then overseas. I guess they didn’t mind getting me out of their hair while they packed up and got rid of most of the stuff in the house. We thought we were going to Bolivia, and that’s what I told Jeanie. Then we found out it would be Pakistan. That seemed so much farther away. Either way we wouldn’t be back to the states for at least two years, and even then, though I didn’t know it at the time, we would never again live in the state of New York.

I wrote to Jeanie that we were going to Pakistan. She wrote me back saying, “Pakistan! that’s even farther than Bolivia. I’ll miss you. It seems almost like you are going into the army. But you’re too young for the army.” That made me feel like Jeanie was devoted to me and, of course that’s a heady draught for a fourteen year old, almost fifteen. I don’t remember how many letters we wrote back and forth, but I’m pretty sure they trailed off by the time we got to Pakistan. Maybe I lost her address; maybe she lost mine. Maybe she got another boyfriend and stopped writing. It’s hard for teenagers to keep a relationship going by correspondence, when there are other living, breathing boys and girls around them in real time.

One thing is for certain. I never again felt as comfortable, and as well liked by a girl as pretty, and as nice as her, until, around age twenty, I met my future bride. But that’s another story.

3 Comments

  1. Judy Drewett wrote:

    Joe, I LOVED your story! It was so sweet and innocent. It brought back MY memories of Camp Wyldewood in Arkansas, where I met my first true love at age 15, and where I spent 5 blissful summers, only for it to come to an end when I was suddenly TOO old for camp! Even in my mind NOW, I would NEVER be too old for camp! They were some of the best memories of my life! I remember going one session to Camp Hunt with you and Mary Jane, too.

    Sunday, July 29, 2007 at 12:30 am | Permalink
  2. Jane Bland wrote:

    What a sweet story. It brought back a lot of my own memories of my own memories of Flying Dutchman, campfires and first kisses.

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 7:02 am | Permalink
  3. Klyd Watkins wrote:

    I like it Joe. Thanks for informing me about it.

    Wednesday, August 1, 2007 at 10:35 am | Permalink