Libby and I had several long talks following our “cow date” to clear up some misunderstandings and repair the damage to our fledgling relationship. Although that initial meeting between Helen and Libby got off to a very rocky start, years later the two would become inseparable friends, in fact, when our boys were young they were heartbroken to learn that Miss Helen was not even related to them and worse than that, Helen and Kelly’s children were not their cousins.
Despite the pitfalls of that first date, Libby and I went out several more times that summer but it seemed, in my mind at least, that just days after we began dating during the summer of 1977, the fall semester began at Mercer University and she left for Macon.
Libby needed to maintain a high GPA in order to continue to receive her academic scholarship, so her school work really needed to take precedence over our relationship, at least for the present time. The coming of Fall not only meant Libby would be back at college, it also meant that school and sports pictures would be taking up a lot more of my time here at home.
My job was still new and challenging as I was busy learning about portraits, lighting, processing, printing and selling. Early in my career, my job with Olan Millls was to fill in for someone within the company’s network of photographers as they went on vacation, or help if they had overbooked and didn’t have enough of their own people to cover the number of sittings that had been scheduled.
I really enjoyed the variety and travel which was always a part of the job, but since Libby and I started dating just months earlier, my job was suddenly less glamorous and I began thinking seriously about my future. Soon my perspective changed completely and I started to view my job more as a way to support a family (a means to an end) instead of an end in itself; pretty heady stuff for a self-centered 20-year-old boy who, just months before, thought he had everything he needed.
During the weekends that I didn’t have to work in the winter of ’77-’78, I would drive to Macon on Friday evening and bring Libby back home for the weekend, then, take her back to Macon Sunday afternoon following church. One such weekend became a watershed moment in our relationship and the memory of what happened during those three days left an indelible impression in my mind.
I had driven the 3 or 4 hours to pick up Libby on a Friday evening (it was always 4 hours or more going through Atlanta on Friday afternoon) and then we made the return trip home, delivering her to her parent’s house about midnight. We had spent the day on Saturday splitting time between her parent’s house and my parent’s house, but Saturday nights were always reserved for a date which normally involved our favorite Caecilian pizza from Caesar’s Pizza (no resemblance, whatsoever, to the modern, Pizza Caesar’s).
After church on Sunday, we always had a “lite” Sunday dinner with Libby’s parents which would normally consist of roast beef with onions, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed corn, fried okra, brown ‘n serve dinner rolls and several deserts. Sunday dinner at the Willis house was an event not to be missed, which could have been the main reason why the Rev. Jimmie Willis’s sermons at Flintstone Baptist Church rarely, if ever, went past noon. After dinner, as the rest of the family began looking for their favorite napping spot, Libby and I would leave for Macon.
During this particular drive south, Libby and I were discussing some of our favorite music and movies and how we were both suckers for love-story movies, sappy love songs and ballads, a fact not lost on our friends in high school who often made fun of the songs we discussed, especially since some of our friend’s musical taste leaned more toward The Rolling Stones than James Taylor. But now, out of earshot of our classmates, we freely discussed Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel and one of our all time favorite songs by The Righteous Brothers, Unchained Melody.
Those frequent 4 hour trips between Chattanooga Valley and Macon turned out to be very effective pre-marital counseling for us and we would often spend that time discussing our beliefs, our families, our goals and our future. That’s not to imply that all of those conversations were serious, but that time alone without any distractions helped us better understand one another’s past and how that history shaped our views.
Libby came from a family with five girls who spent a lot their free time cooking, studying and gathering around a large table for elaborate meals, often on fine china. I, however, came from a family with four boys who spent a lot of our free time damning up creeks, building forts, blowing up damns, hunting, blowing up forts, fishing and eating bologna sandwiches that had been in our blue jeans pocket during a hike. The differences in how were each raised made for interesting conversations during many of our “interstate counseling sessions”.
Arriving in Macon on this particular cold, rainy Sunday evening, we exited I-75 onto Mercer University Boulevard and at the end of the exit ramp we saw an advertisement for a movie entitled The Way We Were. This movie, which starred Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand could be a trifecta, a love story, a sappy love song and a date! But this was even better than a trifecta because the movie had been out long enough that it was now showing at the dollar theatre, could this possibly be a “quadfecta”?
We decided dinner and a movie would be the perfect end to a great weekend. There was very little discussion during the short drive from the exit ramp to the girl’s dorm where I proceeded to unload piles of Libby’s freshly laundered clothes courtesy of her mom’s washer and dryer. While I carried the clean clothes from the car into the dorm lobby (which was as far as boys were allowed to go) Libby went to her room to get ready for our impromptu date. When my laundry duty was complete, I went back to my car instead of staying in the commons area where the dorm mother kept giving me suspicious looks.
It is still a mystery to me how Libby could always seem to look so good during those long hours in the car, but then she could go inside her dorm room for 15 minutes and still cause me to do a double-take as she came back out. She looked amazing, with fresh makeup, more curl in her hair, a bounce in her step and that “look”. The “look” happened often when Libby would self consciously drop her head down and give an embarrassed smile anytime she was complimented or if she thought someone was admiring her and, right now, I was in the process of doing both.
Glancing up at my reflection in the rear view mirror, I quickly realized that I would not be able to do anything to make myself presentable, so I jumped out of the car and ran to the passenger side of the car to open Libby’s door, bowing deeply, trying to dazzle her with my chivalry. Libby laughed self-consciously at my actions as she accepted my hand to help her into her seat, then I closed her door and hurried to my side of the car to make the short drive to our favorite steak place in Macon.
There was rarely any discussion about where we would eat, only what we would eat, because Libby didn’t ever want to try a different steak restaurant after she found a good one, because that is where we ate steak, always. The same held true for pizza (Pizza Caesar’s), sandwiches (Lotts Sandwich Shop) and most other foods. When Libby found something she liked, she stuck with it, which annoyed me because I wanted to try new places in the hopes of finding an even better place (the same principle would apply to the TV remote years later). Eventually in our relationship, I began to realize that if she really liked me, this “flaw” in her character would turn out to be a good thing for me.
After finishing our meal, we quickly drove to the local multiplex theater just as the previews were ending and the feature was starting. Just for the record, I’m not sure if either one of us ever considered the fact that dinner and a movie that didn’t start until 9:30 on a Sunday night would make it hard for both us to get up on Monday morning (harder for me than for her) but we were young and in love.
We both enjoyed the movie and we started discussing our favorite parts on the drive back to her dorm. Libby was convinced that Barbara Streisand was a rare beauty and although I may have used the rare in my description, “beauty” did follow in my assessment of her looks.
The title song The Way We Were became one of those songs that, when we heard it played, would instantly transport us both back to that rainy night in Macon; back to the image of Libby running out of her dorm toward my car, to the feel of sticky shoes on the theater floor, to the smell of popcorn, and back to our ongoing argument over Streisand’s nose.
What made the night special wasn’t the movie, or the songs, it was that indescribable feeling that we both experienced as the night came to an end. It was during this date that we both realized that this relationship was about to change both of our lives forever. As the date was drawing to a close, Libby began telling me what a good time that she had and what a fantastic day it had been, but then, unexpectedly, she started to cry. I must admit, I was following along in the conversation really well (for a guy) until the crying started, but now I was confused. Between sniffles and sobs Libby said she was sad because she didn’t want the weekend to end, besides: it would be so long before we saw each other, she was homesick, we were too far apart and she wasn’t even sure that she wanted to keep going to college. Although the feelings were mutual, I didn’t express it like she did, nor did I feel the need to use tears.
Reality soon set in and we both knew that we had responsibilities and obligations, but it was getting harder and harder to bridge the 200 mile gap between Chattanooga Valley and Macon because of my work and her school, that distance, added to her tears, made me want to move to Macon and find a job. We sat in the commons area of her dorm until the University’s midnight curfew put an end to our date and I reluctantly decided I needed to get home and get some sleep before going to work on Monday or I wouldn’t have a job at all.
I was working with another photographer at the time and we had discussed the next week’s assignment and my plans to be gone for the weekend, but at that time, our destination for the following week was still undecided, and he promised to call my house and leave a message when he found out our assignment. After our dinner and a movie on Sunday night in Macon, I finally arrived home just after 3:15 AM where I found the note that my dad had left next to the phone on my mom’s china cabinet, it read simply,” Long drive / pack for three-week trip / meet @ Waffle House Ringgold 4 AM.”
I was really going to be cutting this one close, so with no time change clothes, must less sleep, I hurriedly packed some clothes, loaded my photographic equipment into my car and drove to Ringgold. When I arrived at the restaurant I recognized my fellow photographer through the smoky cigarette haze of the waffle house dining room; he looked up at me and said, ” You look horrible, rough weekend? Grab something to-go or we ‘ll be late.” I said “No! Great weekend” and then I added sarcastically, “Thanks for the compliment”. I quickly ordered a biscuit and orange juice, then I headed out the door toward my car, just as he was getting into his van he shouted across the hood of my car, “Follow me, we are going to be shooting senior portraits”.
Our destination didn’t really matter to me, but if we were going to Dallas or Houston again, we would be flying not driving, unless we were leaving from the Atlanta airport, in which case, we would normally leave on Sunday evening.
So now, I was curious. As he was closing the door to his van I yelled “Hey man, where are we going so early on a Monday morning?” Poking his head out the window of his van as he shouted back, “Macon, Georgia………….. y’ever been there?”