Libby and I would meet, date, marry and raise a family in the small community of Chattanooga Valley tucked into the mountains of Northwest Georgia. During the 60’s and 70’s most everyone in our valley knew one another or at least they knew one another’s families, often attending church and school together, or at the very least, catching up on things during the annual Chattanooga Valley Kiwanis Club Bar B Q, a summer tradition held in giant circus tents on the front lawn of the elementary school. Although not native to the area, Libby would call the Valley home for the rest of her life after her family moved here from LaGrange, GA when her dad, Jimmie Willis, accepted the call to pastor Flintstone Baptist Church in that summer of 1971.
Even though I was slow to pick up on Libby’s ulterior motives when she brought back that ratty old jersey after collecting dust in her closet for several years, I did eventually “get a clue” and I asked her out for our first date. Now, I had put a lot of thought into this and decided that the “cool” factor of driving my sporty blue ’72 Chevrolet Camaro was outweighed by the fact that it had bucket seats and a center console. I never really dated a lot in high school, it seems like I was always busy shooting pictures for the school annual, planning events and going out with a bunch of people (what our kids now call group dating). I did, however, know enough to realize that when going on a date with just one person it was generally expected that your date would eventually sit next to you in the seat. I wasn’t sure if Libby would decide to sit next to me on our first date or not, but at least in my mom’s ’74 Chrysler I could fold up the arm rests and make the front seat one very long bench seat, just in case she decided to slide over.
I had made reservations at a new restaurant on Brainerd Road called the Sailmaker where each table had a different movie or TV show theme and the wait staff dressed up in character. I left my parent’s house in plenty of time even after spending most of the day washing my mom’s car and vacuuming out the interior. Throughout high school I never really had a “girlfriend” but I did have several “girl” “friends”, but now, I had just asked Libby Willis out on a date and we didn’t have an upcoming Physics test to talk about, so it goes without saying that I was nervous and anxious about this date.
I arrived at Libby’s house a little early, fidgeting nervously as I watched Libby come down the stairs while her younger sisters, her mom, and I all looked on. Libby’s head dropped forward-looking down at the floor, genuinely embarrassed by all of the attention, but her sisters and her mom were all smiles, rotating their heads almost in unison back and forth, as if in a tennis match, looking at Libby and then back at me to gauge my reaction. I could tell by the wry smiles and glances between each of them that I had been the focus of the conversation just a few minutes earlier. But now, with the “presentation” completed and with her younger sisters holding their hands over their mouths to suppress giggles, we were finally headed out the door on our date.
Libby and I had been friends ever since her family first moved to Chattanooga Valley six years earlier, and during all of time we were able to talk about any number of current events, plan school functions, laugh and study together for hours at a time, but now that I was about to go out on a date with her, and I silently wondered what we would talk about during dinner. It had been less than 48 hours since Libby had shown up at my house using some flimsy excuse and my whole world was turned upside down, because now, things were different.
Looking back on it now, it’s interesting to me that when we started dating, friends from school would ask, “Hey, I heard you and Libby Willis are dating now, how’s that going?” I would answer, trying to explain the change that I felt as I was falling in love, “It’s going good, but things are different now”. The real irony is that I often used that statement during the time when our relationship was just getting started, and now 37 years later people will say to me, “I heard that Libby died, I am so sorry. How are you doing?” I normally respond, “I’m doing okay, but things are different now”. The term, “things are different now” became the bookends of our life together marking both, the beginning of our relationship when I was falling in love, and again now as our relationship has ended and I adjust to a life without her.
As we left the Flintstone Baptist Church parsonage on our date, Libby slid just a little closer to me in the seat about the time we passed the Ace Hardware (quite possibly because we were now out of sight of her sisters, who were all looking out the window). My worries about having nothing to talk about were short-lived as we stopped within a mile of her parent’s house because of a wreck in the “S” curve between the two bridges on Happy Valley Road. We sat discussing the option of turning around and going through Chattanooga toward Brainerd, when I looked up and noticed that I knew the person that had just wrecked. I turned to Libby and said, “That’s Helen Buckner, a friend of mine. I need to go see if she is okay.”
While Libby waited in the car, I went to see if I could help and as I walked toward the wreck I noticed Helen was very animated and understandably upset having just wrecked her 1973 white Dodge Challenger . As I walked toward the accident, Helen saw me coming and, recognizing a friendly face in the chaos, ran and put her arms around my neck and began to cry while trying to explain what had happened in between sobs and sniffles. I was trying to understand her muffled explanation while at the same time reconciling the things she was telling me with the things happening around me, but since I couldn’t see another car I was having trouble understanding how this wreck had happened. That’s about the time I saw the “victim” lying next to Helen’s car, a black and white, 1600 pound Holstein and according to Helen, “That heifer stepped right out in the road when I rounded the curve, and that’s when I hit her.” The damage to Helen’s Challenger was significant, but as it turned out, the cow got the worst end of the deal. As I was absorbing everything, Helen went on to tell me how that this was the second time she had wrecked a car by hitting a cow, which explains her apprehension in calling her dad to tell him she hit a cow and wrecked her car, again. Soon though, Helen’s dad arrived on the scene about the same time as the farmer who owned the cow (actually steaks and hamburger now). So with things getting back to normal and one lane of traffic open, I told Helen that I really needed to get back to my date and she thanked me again for stopping to help, hugging my neck once more before leaving.
Pleased at myself for my good Samaritan deed, I climbed back into the car to continue our date, but now Libby seemed cold and distant and I was clueless as to why (the first of many times). I thought if I used my reasoning skills I should be able to figure this out, so I asked, “Is there anything wrong?” Libby said, “No, nothing”.
My first instinct was to take her word for it and just drop the subject, but her body language was telling me that things had changed since I had left the car a few minutes earlier. Libby had moved to the other side of the car where she was looking out of the window, staring at nothing in particular and all conversation had stopped. As we drove toward our destination I was still wondering what had happened and against my better judgment I asked nervously, “I know you said nothing was wrong earlier, but it seems like you are upset, am I missing something? Did I do something wrong?.” That’s when she turned completely in her seat to face me, her head was tilted back and her arms were folded across her chest (I couldn’t help but think to myself at this point that the bucket seats may have been the better option).
“Who was that girl?” she finally asked. Now, at last, I was starting to understand the problem. I said haltingly, “Who…Oh you mean that girl….. Helen? She’s nobody……She means nothing to me… We’re just friends.” (Now, looking back, that was probably not the best way to phrase my response). Libby had leveled a look at me (repeated often over the next 37 years) which let me know I had made a mistake and I had better figure out what I had done, fix it and not ever do it again. The only problem was, I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, in fact, in my mind I was showing sympathy for someone in distress and Libby should have been able to see that I was compassionate and considerate, or at the very least, chivalrous.
That night was our first of many lessons in relationships and communication and it took us both a while figure it out our responses, because we would continue to misunderstand, apologize and forgive from that day on, never mastering those lessons completely. Today,with the advantage of hind site, I have often thought that if I knew on that first date, what I know now, I would have responded differently to Libby’s question,”Who was that girl?” I would have taken Libby Willis (Gilley) by the hand and walked with her over to Helen Buckner (Hawkins) and said, “Libby, I want to introduce you to Helen; she will be your best friend for life.”