It was 1943 when my father, an Air Force lieutenant in his 40s, was transferred to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. As a lawyer, he spent the rest of the war there writing air force contracts. I was twelve years old when we moved; my brother was six. I came from a small country day school of 60 people to the Oakwood High School, the biggest building I had ever seen. It was confusing – an understatement – to see hundreds of students in one place. In her belief that eastern schools were superior to those in the Midwest, my mother convinced Mr. Zook, the principal, that even though I had skipped the third grade, I should skip the eighth and become a twelve year old freshman in that giant building. I was scared. For me, it was an immediate transition to becoming a lifelong observer rather than a participant.
On the bus one day I met a girl who lived nearby and we began to walk home from school together. Joan and I became friends. We stopped often at “The Drug,” the drug store where we bought milkshakes and leafed through movie magazines, talking about her deep admiration for Van Johnson. Years later while watching him on Broadway in La Cage au Folles, I thought a lot about Joan and those days in the drug. On Friday nights, we went to “The Flop” (local movie house) for a serial, the cartoon, and the feature. On Saturday nights, she came to my house where we sat next to the radio listening to the Hit Parade, while waiting in great suspense for the top three of the week. I’ve never forgotten one night when the top three were “Send Me One Dozen Roses”, “Tangerine”, and “People Will Say We’re in Love”. We were delighted as we sat there, our heads bent to the radio. Sometimes on Saturdays, we took a bus downtown for a morning movie, a brand new thing in my life. Even now I remember the titles and the stars of the films we saw.
Our friendship evolved into a lovely trust. She wore bobby sox and saddle shoes, something my mother refused to allow. I looked freaky in brown oxfords and knee socks – the style of the school I had left behind. On all levels, Joan never intimidated me. She ranked #1 in our class. She was the star of the hockey team, and sailed through Miss Baker’s Latin Class without ever a hint of superiority. I, at twelve and thoroughly scared, was especially grateful to her for making me laugh. She had a delicious sense of humor that you never saw coming until you stopped for a moment to realize what she had said.
And suddenly it was 1945, war’s end, and we lost touch for years while each of us married and had families of our own. I found her again, by letter, in Wheeling, West Virginia with her family, her dogs, and, as I was, working for Kennedy’s election. And so there we were, friends by letter with our adult politics in common. She came to New Jersey once with her friend Walter and we went kayaking on the river and sometime later I went to Washington where we had breakfast with her son. After that we stayed in touch by email venting our political anger and sharing family stories.
And then one day, her thoughtful son-in-law called me to tell me Joan had died. For all my life I’ve remembered how much our friendship meant to me. She welcomed me without hesitation when Dayton didn’t like Easterners or Army people. She literally made my years there memorable by helping me relax into feeling as if I belonged, at least a little. I’ve always thought I became a movie critic years later because of our exciting bus excursions to Loews Keith in downtown Dayton.
I loved the trust and loyalty that we were able to renew electronically after so many years. She was my first real friend. She loved her children and her grandchildren and I have never forgotten how she helped me adjust to life in a new city during the war. Even though we saw each other only a few times as adults, the fun of life is knowing that people you care about are out there somewhere, living full lives. I still miss knowing that about her.