Thursday, March 05, 2009


She was in her early twenties that summer, the summer she took off for the West Coast.

It was 1966, and the California scene was beginning to metamorphose into that roiling, chemical-fueled Time of Semi-Hysteria that people would remember as “the 1960’s.” Young people migrated there in droves, impelled by the social ferment... and the chance to explore the forbidden vistas of drugs, sex, and Rock-’n’-Roll that beckoned from afar. But Barbara was no nascent hippie, no. She was a responsible young woman, a woman with a Real Job. It was the kind of job responsible young women tended to gravitate towards back then. She was a junior high school English teacher.

Her trip west was no Exploration of Alternative Lifestyles, no Voyage of Chemical Self-Discovery. It was, simply, a Vacation - the sort of summer vacation people have taken since time began. Or at least, since leisure time began. That, and affordable jet travel.

Our paths had crossed, Barbara’s and mine, thanks to our respective careers. She was an English teacher; I was her student - one of several classes full of eighth-graders. Her job was a paying gig, however, while mine was pro bono.

We tolerated each other. That, and not much more. I was a typical, obnoxious middle-schooler, at that miserable stage in life when the hormones are beginning to kick in and the brain doesn’t yet know what to do with them. I would sit in class and look discreetly at the nylon-clad legs of the girls, occasionally catching a stray word from the petite short-haired brunette yammering away in the front of the room. Barbara was attractive enough, but her oval tortoise-shell glasses warned of a no-nonsense demeanor... and of mine, she wasn’t having any. And yet, somehow, I managed to pull down fine grades. We tolerated each other.

The summer after eighth grade, we went our separate ways. High school, for me, meant staying in the same building - at the time it housed seventh through twelfth grades - but I figured Barbara and I had had enough of each other. And for her, it meant a vacation in California.

She never returned. That fall, we heard that she had been killed in a car accident while out west.

I still think of her sometimes. Her family operated - and continues to operate - a florist business in Amityville, New York. I have never driven past that flower shop without a pang... and now, with my children both older than Barbara was back then, it is a pang that incorporates all the fear and empathy that a parent could ever have.

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