Three Weeks of Dates

When I was young there was an ice cream shop on McFarland Avenue in Rossville, GA called the Dream Cream which was an occasional  treat for our family if we went out for Sunday dinner after church.  One particular Sunday the decision was made that we were going to make an ice cream stop and I determined before pulling into the parking lot that I was old enough for a large chocolate milk shake of my own and I shouldn’t be required to share it with any of my brothers.  A discussion followed and my mother soon became frustrated with my stubbornness and decided to teach me a lesson, telling me that if she bought me a large milk shake, I would be required to drink every bit of it or I would get a spanking for wasting food.  Confident that I would easily be able to handle the Dream Cream Super Shake challenge without so much as a belch, I called her bluff.  I’ll spare the reader from describing the dairy induced details, but for the record, lets just say I learned a lesson on that day that I (nor anyone else in that car) will ever forget.

I had taken Libby back to Macon after a weekend at home and then surprised her (and myself) when I found out that I would be going back to Macon to work at a high school less than 2 miles from Mercer University.  My 20-year-old male brain had already begun to plan the agenda for the three weeks.  I would leave my hotel early enough each morning to go to breakfast with Libby, then I would go by for a sandwich most days during my lunch break and most assuredly, spend every evening together, beginning as soon as I got off of work and lasting late into the night, every night.  In the immortal words of Jacopo from the movie,  The Count of Monte Cristo, “…How is this a bad plan?”

The first week of dates had been everything I had imagined, we were together every possible minute, capped off with a romantic evening described in my previous blog entitled The Dance.  But as the second week of the trilogy began, reality set in as we reluctantly decided that we needed to plan around my work schedule, Libby’s homework, tests, papers, and all of the things we had put off during out first week of non-stop dates.

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Call it naivety or more likely, immaturity on my part, but on my way back down to Macon at 5 AM on that first Monday morning, I envisioned twenty-one days of steak dinners and double feature movies every night followed by ice cream on the way home (no shakes).  Instead, what I found in Libby was a dedicated student with a very aggressive class load involving some serious library time, especially after falling behind her first year when she missed so much school during her bout with mononucleosis.  In addition, I had to work several evening shifts so it wasn’t the dating marathon I had planned, but the biggest obstacle to my fantasy of non stop dating was that I simply couldn’t afford it.

Much like that large chocolate shake that I wanted when I was young, the reality of the experience in real life did did not live up to expectations that I had in by brain.  Don’t get me wrong here, I enjoyed the entire three-week stretch, it’s just that our relationship was changing (maturing?) and we were forced to make decisions and prioritize our time among our responsibilities.  In the process we learned that we couldn’t dance under the stars all of the time, we had to complete our obligations and then make the most of the time that we had to ourselves – a trait practiced but never fully mastered – over the next 37 years as we constantly struggled to balance time spent with one another against work, obligations and later on, children.

Libby’s Correction to My Reminiscings

From the first moment we started dating, Libby had her work cut out for her in the quest to keep me in line.  You see, Libby was a rule follower and she saw the world in black and white, so whether I was telling a story in which I misstated a date (insignificant to the story, in my mind) or if I made a joking comment to someone in passing, either way, Libby would correct the date that I had messed up and she would tell the person that I joked with, that I didn’t really mean what I said (although in my mind they should have known that I was joking).  That correction is apparently still going on today.

Recently, Nathan was looking through some old keepsakes when he found some of Libby’s writings from a composition class that she was required to take as a part of her continuing education classes.  Below is an excerpt from a paper written to Nathan and Jerod in 2006 to describe the beginning of Libby’s and my relationship along with some of her thoughts leading up to our first date.

In an earlier post, I described how Libby had shown up at my parents house with an old jersey, seemingly out of the blue. A portion of Libby’s story to Jerod and Nathan is reprinted below and it fills in some of the blanks and explains what happened leading up to the jersey episode.  Libby remembered details that I had forgotten, I did remember going to see my old friend from high school because she was sick, but I never knew until later how that visit had changed Libby’s view of me.  So as usual Libby has corrected one of my stories:

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For My Boys

I thought it might be of some interest for you both to know how our story began and the things about your dad that secured my love for a lifetime.

        It was one of those times when you just know in your spirit that you need to go home.  The year was 1977 during the spring quarter of my first year of college, when I noticed a drastic decrease in my energy level.  Over the next few days, I completely lost my appetite and by Friday midterms, my fever was up and down, between the chills of a Russian winter and the heat of an Arizona summer.

        Driving home half-delirious from the fever and the other half from pain medication, all I could think of was snuggling in my warm bed and being lovingly cared for by my mom and dad.  I needed rest, lots of rest!  Much of the next few weeks, I only remember in snippets.  “She has a severe case of mono which has caused an infection in her teeth,” the doctor said.  “She needs plenty of rest, a liquid diet, and I am prescribing some high-powered antibiotics.  She is one sick little girl.”

        A true Southern lady, I had always been taught to make yourself “presentable” and would not think of leaving my home without bathing, “fixing my face,” and curling my hair.  With that being said, when you are truly sick, the only priority you have is getting well and the only energy expended is to achieve that goal. 

        After several weeks of high fever and drastic weight loss, my mom told me I had a visitor.  Too weak to protest, I looked up to see my good friend Barry walk through my bedroom door.  Friends since eighth grade, we always had a special relationship, but today, little did I know, would take our friendship to a completely new level. With his dark raven hair, beautiful smile, quick wit, and outgoing personality, he was definitely a desirable date but the character he displayed over the next few days was decidedly, what secured my love when choosing a life mate.

        I am sure as he saw me he was taken back by not only the stench from the infection but also my appearance, but if he was, he never showed it.  He caught me up on all the “Valley People,” the latest in loves lost and gained, brought me eight track tapes of some of his favorites, Elton John and “The Eagles,” and made me laugh with his funny mix of humor and sarcasm.

        As he left, my spirits had truly been lifted, but in my heart I felt he probably would not be back.  Even my own family had to take turns waiting on me because of the terrible odor caused by the infection.  As I lay back down, I caught a reflection of myself in the mirror and could hardly believe the frail, weak figure whose hollow eyes stared back at me.  Oh, would I ever be well again?

        To my surprise and delight Barry’s spirit was undeterred and he returned many times until I was well enough to resume my studies at Mercer.  Over the last six weeks, we had talked about many things: our dreams, God, careers, football, music, family, and friends.  In all those chats, I began to believe this was more than a good friendship.  

        I believe with all my heart God allowed these circumstances to take place… I began to realize the difference between true love and infatuation.  In that little window of time, Barry had shown me unconditional love.  Love not based on emotions that rise and fall but the choice of your will to put someone else’s best interest above your own, the choice to persevere even in undesirable circumstances, the choice to remain faithful even if beauty fades and the body fails.

        Even though we did not start dating until several months later, I realized that this young man possessed qualities of character that were rare and would make someone a great husband.  Maybe that someone could be me!

        Now, after twenty-seven years of marriage, your dad’s character has only deepened.  He’s the hardest working man I know, not only to make a comfortable home for us, but is always there to help others in need.  He is not a man who lets his emotions lead him.  He makes daily choices to put us first and deny himself of his own desires.  Your dad is not perfect but we can both testify that he loves the Lord and serves Him daily through his actions.  He has truly loved us well because of his desire to please God.  I thank God for him daily and cherish him as the servant leader of our home, my very best friend, … a wonderful dad to you both, and as my beloved husband.

        May God fill you with wisdom, power, perseverance and faithfulness to love well until “death do you part.”  You have both been a delight and a challenge and I am proud of the young men you have both become.

 

                                                       Jerod and Nathan, I love you forever,

                                                       Mom

The Dance

I’ve mentioned this in previous posts but throughout high school it seemed as though Libby and I were always making plans for a dance. The problem was during our era it was not considered a “real dance” unless there was a live band, so in preparation for each dance we spent many afternoons traveling from garage to garage listening to different groups.  The search process involved enduring a lot of really bad music in our attempt to find the perfect band who had to be able to perform certain “classic” songs such as Free BirdHotel California and of course, the southern national anthem, Sweet Home Alabama.

Although a lot of time was spent selecting the bands and decorating the gym, in reality there never was a lot of dancing during any of our high school events, which was okay by me since I never really danced anyway.  Libby, on the other hand always enjoyed dancing, a fact that frankly shocked me since my church had always taken a such strong stand against dancing and yet here was Libby a preacher’s daughter, dancing every chance she got.

Most of the time during our high school dances Libby and I were busy working the gate or asking the band to turn it down because of complaints from the chaperons, or we were asking the band to turn it up because of complaints from the students.   If we weren’t adjusting the music volume or taking up tickets at the door we were trying to fix the mirrored disco ball that had quit turning, so even if  I was willing to “lower my standards” enough to dance, we rarely had opportunity.

Back in Macon, Libby and I had found an excuse to spend every evening together during that first week of our three-week dating marathon and to close out that first week of dates, Libby’s Chi Omega sorority was sponsoring a Saturday night dance at the local country club.  I had already planned to drive to Macon to meet Libby and go with her to the Chi O mixer but now that my job assignment had me stationed in Macon for three weeks, it made the entire weekend a lot less stressful especially since this was going to be the first dance in which neither one of us would be working.

Chi O 1

On the Saturday of the dance Libby and I spent the first half of the day together walking around the campus and generally enjoying the day with no agenda.  That afternoon I picked Libby up in front of her dorm with plenty of time for us to go out to dinner where we had a relaxing meal at a quite restaurant, then we made the short drive to the country club.

Libby, always the social butterfly, wanted to introduce me to all of her friends (and yes, she seemed to know everyone there).  After introductions and during one of the band’s breaks Libby had a part in her sorority sister’s program as they made a presentation to the senior girls who would be graduating, after which, those seniors recognized their favorite incoming pledge (you probably already guessed this one, yes, it was Libby).

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With Libby’s social responsibilities complete we finally had some time to ourselves, but the warm humid evening combined with the large group of hot sweaty couples dancing in every corner of the room, had overwhelmed the ballroom’s air conditioning system making the room very uncomfortable.  I had convinced Libby to step outside and so we walked toward the back of the ballroom through some large doors which lead outside onto a patio, away from the band, the sorority sisters and the heavy air.

While we were inside I felt completely out of my element, but outside everything seemed perfect as we settled into some large wooden Adirondack chairs and relaxed on the edge of the 18th green.  We were separated from the main event by multiple sets of French doors which had been propped open during the evening to allow the cool night air into the ballroom.

It looked like a scene from a movie as we sat looking back toward the ballroom with the tall glass doors each flanked by sheer white curtains billowing out of the openings as the breeze blew them out toward our haven on the stone patio.  The evening took on an even more surreal atmosphere as the bright lights from inside the room cast silhouettes of the dancing couples on the sheer curtains.  It seemed as if we were completely alone beneath the stars, yet surrounded by several hundred people.

Outside on the patio the damp night air felt nice compared to stuffy ballroom and the music was now muffled enough that we could still talk without yelling as we began to dance.  Oh yes, I need to explain here that the temptation to dance with Libby had eroded my resolve to the point that I finally gave in.  My dancing was horrible but Libby never said a word about it and I was just enjoying my time with her.

Despite my inept dancing and repressed guilt, the evening became another milestone in our young relationship because, for the rest of the night, no one interrupted our dance, nor discovered our secret dance floor.  Our week of dates had come to an end as Libby and I danced together outside that ballroom, and although memorable, I had forgotten about that evening until just recently when I was scanning stations on the radio and I heard an old Garth Brooks song entitled “The Dance” and the words to that song brought back all of those memories from 36 years ago:

“The Dance”

Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared ‘neath the stars above
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known that you’d ever say goodbyeAnd now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the danceHolding you I held everything
For a moment wasn’t I a king
But if I’d only known how the king would fall
Hey who’s to say you know I might have changed it allAnd now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the danceYes my life is better left to chance
I could have missed the pain but I’d have had to miss the dance

Now, a disclaimer here, I have never believed that our lives are left to chance, and I know that Libby didn’t believe that.  But with that said,  I can understand how much easier it would be for a songwriter to find lyrics which rhyme with “chance” instead of “the sovereignty of God”.

So with that exception in mind, click on this link if you would like to hear Garth’s version of  The Dance.

The Way We Were

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).

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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?”

A First Date

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.

Dressed up for date copy

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.”

Macon Again

Thanks to everyone who have taken the time to share, read, follow and comment on these posts; I am humbled and slightly embarrassed that Libby’s blog has had almost 6000 views from the US, plus additional views from 7 foreign countries.

 Readers of the previous post learned that after I took Libby back to Mercer on Sunday afternoon, we decided to go out and see a movie and, after some lengthy good-byes, I had left, drove home and then found out that my next assignment was in Macon, so without sleep, I turned around and went back to Macon.

Nearly every time I attempted to call l Libby when she was in school it would become a long drawn out ordeal.  The process would always began with a call to the payphone in the first floor hallway of Libby’s dorm, then I would ask the girl who answered the phone if I could speak to Libby Willis, adding that I was calling long distance in an effort to speed up the process.  I would then wait as my reluctant assistant would inevitably drop the receiver, letting it bang against the wall, where it would remain upside down, suspended  by its cord, as she went off on her quest for Libby.  For the record here, that old black payphone handset could pick up an amazing amount of conversations, with stunning clarity, while dangling above the tile covered hallway of the girls dorm.

Because of time constraints and the fact that I had spent too much time during past phone calls eavesdropping on girl talk, I elected not to call Libby on Monday morning when I got into Macon.  Besides, I had just spent the entire night driving from Macon to my house and then back in Macon arriving just after 7:00 AM and I still had to set up my photography equipment before starting senior portraits.  With no free time before I was scheduled to start at 8:00 AM, I decided to wait until after work and surprise her, since she had no idea I was back in Macon.

In the 1970’s our group of photographers used terms when discussing our work that would never be used today because of recent tragic events in schools, such terms as,”I am booked at a large school for three days and I will need to shoot at least 500 kids per day just to stay on schedule”.  One such large school was Southwest-Macon High School with a total enrollment over 25,000 total they had over 5000 seniors in their graduating class and it was said to be the largest high school in the United States.  The project to which I was now assigned at Southwest Macon would require five photographers to shoot senior portraits and I would have a different senior scheduled in front of my camera every 5 or 6 minutes for the next three weeks.

By 4 o’clock on that Monday afternoon and after “shooting” my quota of seniors for the day I was in my Camaro and headed the two miles across town to see Libby.  Within fifteen minutes of leaving the high school, I was standing in the lobby of the Mercer University girl’s dorm, in the exact same spot where I had stood just a few hours earlier.  

Some of Libby’s sorority sisters were in the commons area of the dormitory as I walked in on that Monday afternoon and, somehow, they all knew that I had just left at midnight the night before, even though at that time there were no cell phones, Facebook or twitter.  The girls did, however, have good old-fashioned gossip (which, in Chi-Omega circles, was faster than Facebook with about the same level of accuracy).  I told the girls the story of my sleepless night and my intent to surprise Libby, they said, ” Uhhh…..Wait right here, we will find Libby and bring her out here to you”.  The girls ran squealing and giggling down the hard tiled floor toward Libby’s room right beside that old payphone on the wall with its receiver hanging upside down (poor guy).

Very soon that same high-pitched shriek from the returning gaggle of girls rose sharply through the corridor as the group approached the commons area.  The escort group had now doubled in size as a very confused Libby shuffled along in the middle of the mob with four sets of hands covering her eyes, all the while being steered by her captures in my direction.  The spectacle drew even more attention as the giggling group halted in front of me.  Although the girls still had their hands covering Libby’s eyes, each girl was now attempting to move around behind Libby so that when she opened her eyes they would be out of her field of vision and she would only see me.  In addition to altering their position, each girl wanted to be able to able to see both of our faces simultaneously before removing their hands from Libby’s eyes.

Libby in dress late 70's copy

It was evident by the number of girls gathering around, that everyone who met Libby, fell in love with her and wanted to see her happy. Libby’s genuine love of others had endeared her to most everyone she had come in contact with during her first year at Mercer.  The interesting thing about this particular group of girls standing around Libby, about to “present” her to me, was that many of the same girls who were standing beside her now,  would be standing beside her as maids of honor during her wedding in less than 18 months.

It would be an understatement to say these girls “enjoyed them some drama”, but, the girls were making way more of this than was necessary.  My fear was that after all of the hoopla and build up, Libby would be disappointed when I was the only thing there as all of the girls took their hands away.

Finally, Libby was finally able to open her eyes and see why everyone was making such a the fuss.  “It’s just me,” I said, sheepishly, “I’m back”.  Once more, in less than 24 hours I was holding Libby and consoling her as she began crying in the dorm lobby.  But this time the crying was multiplied by about 12 others who had joined Libby.