Thursday, April 11, 2019

#29 - Friends Forever

Collage of Norma, Brenda, Sandy Jr High
Norma Miller, Brenda Wilbee, Skagway AK 2019

MY BEST FRIEND from junior high days came to visit me in Skagway. I'd moved to Ann Arbor, MI, in the mid-sixties, a skinny little thing from the beach outside Vancouver BC. My younger sister Tresa and I went to a two-room school, where we played four-square under a tin roof, and I memorized all the kings and queens of England. Ann Arbor was a whole different story.

My family landed in a country fighting over racial injustice. I watched the news in horror as Governor Wallace of Alabama ordered the water hosing of people, watched as they were peeled from their hold off lamp posts, skidded on their backsides down sidewalks, rolled like sausages in the streets. I entered a junior high where the racial tension ran high.

Norma Linebaugh, Brenda and Tresa Wilbee
Norma, Me, Tresa
To make matters worse, my mother took me into the allergy clinic at the University of Michigan Hospital where residents were allowed to treat me without supervision. I ended up covered head to heel with uncontrollable eczema, an unsightly, itchy mess that on a good day looked like my skin had been turned inside out. Only my face remained unaffected and I thanked God everyday for that small mercy. I had two friends: Norma and Sandy Bird. The two stuck by when no one else did, and I've treasured their companionship and easy acceptance ever since;  they allowed me a sense of normalcy in a difficult world.

I've lost touch with Sandy, though I'd love to find her. Norma and I kept in touch. My family left Ann Arbor after my father got his PhD. We moved to Iowa, but every summer, as had been our habit, we returned to the West Coast. Between our junior and senior years, Norma came to hang out. We were in each other's weddings, and the last time I saw her was 1985. A long time to go until Skagway 2019.

She arrived by plane, a beautiful sunny day--and I spent a week showing her around and introducing her to the gang.

First on the list, of course, Miss Miss Bea and alley driving. "If you live here long enough," the town matriarch tells Norma, "you end up a little crazy. We're going to go look at the results of DOT being in town too long!"

I drove us down to the ferry slip and eased over to the guard rail. Yup. What up with that sign? Haha!

You can't of course come to Skagway without a trip to the Yukon. Judy Mallory and I took Norma up to Whitehorse, YK.

Norma Miller and Whitehorse, YK, pool
Whitehorse, being a real town meant we had our errands. Norma duly traipsed around with us while we stopped for my chocolate red wine at the liquor store, picked up some art supplies for Miss Bea at the Dollar Store, groceries at the Super Store, lunch at Big Bear Donair. We saved the best for last, of course--an hour at the Whitehorse Recreation Center. Judy and I collapsed into the hot tub. Norma actually went swimming! We were both impressed.

Lily Pad, Skagway AK
But it was in the evenings, tucked into the Lily Pad where I rented (my room the upstair's dormer) and Norma A&B'd (her window the other one upstairs), that I found something stir in my soul. She'd brought a picture album of Slausen Jr. High; and I discovered while pouring over those old pictures that, while she and Sandy were my only real friends, other faces became familiar, and rather pleasant, sometimes amusing, memories bubbled up from deep in my head.

"Oh, yea!" I'd say, discovering Dana all over again, "this is the girl who liked to 'fall asleep' under the tanning light and blister her face!" Yes, a fad. We had our own self-destructive behaviors back then.

Or, "oh my gosh, that's Jackie Smith! She still play the French Horn? Gordie and Louis Stout, I heard Gordie playing the marimba on the radio one day, one of his own compositions. They must have both gone into music."

"Oh, I know!" I said, "what about Bob Streeter? He was going to cure cancer. He was adamant about it." I'd actually never forgotten Bob. Only how to spell his last name, apparently.

Norma was a little fuzzy. Bob didn't go to the school reunions but she'd heard he was a doctor in the Carolinas, maybe. Maybe Virginia.

"Were you in my French class?" I asked. "When the teacher came up and clobbered me from behind."

Norma hadn't. I filled her in.

I'd been sitting in the front row. I sat as I normally did, shy, head down, quiet, minding my own business, when WHAM! I first heard her walking up the aisle behind me; next thing I knew she'd hit me hard, slamming me forward over the desktop, the bridge of my nose smacking the desk edge. My glasses went flying... I actually saw stars, I think, but it was the humiliation that horrified me. All around, stunned silence. Stunned. Frantically, I tried to not cry, blinking back the tears. I could see, blurry on the floor in front of me, my books and papers, an eraser, a pencil. I was in such terrible pain I couldn't move. Why-- What-- The teacher went on as if nothing had happened. I felt sympathetic glances, and began to calm down. Finally, the bell. Everyone got up and quietly traipsed past me. Carefully they skirted my scattered things. Someone retrieved my glasses, set them on the desk. I carefully put them on. And then along came Bob Streeter. He gathered up the rest of my belongings while I struggled to rise. He gave me a hand.  "Where's your next class?"

"Mr. Hart's. Science."

"I'll carry your books."

I'll never forget how he kept the crowds from crowding me, casting worried glances at my face. "I'm sorry," he whispered, settling me in.

From time to time I've tried to track him down, curious. Did he become a doctor? Was he trying to cure cancer? Never did find him; turns out I'd had the wrong spelling of his last name. Strieter, not Streeter. Duh.

Norma and I spent some time googling him, finally tracking him to L.A., where he has a history in cancer research and is a pulmonologist. I was glad to see he'd persevered. I was really glad to see his picture, the kindness that still dwells in his eyes and his gentle, compassionate nature undiminished and evident. He probably has no memory of that terrible day in French class. It's mine to treasure.

Norma had come my last week of a two-month winter reprieve to the far north. Slowly I began letting go of the fun and friends with her at my side, enjoying so much the fun evenings we shared, holed up in the Lily Pad while the wind whistled around the house. Together we looked back forty-five years, at all the old pictures of past lives that took on the present as one by one Norma caught me up. Many were dead: Mr. Gabrian,  David Wheelock, Jan Soefield. Others were alive and doing well for themselves: the Stout brothers, Jackie Smith, Karen Rice... Bob. Pursuing his passion. I hope one day he manages to be part of the puzzle to a cancer cure.

Junior High is Ann Arbor MI was tough, that's for sure; and racial tension still runs high in this country. But time softens when we look back. Good memories, friendly acquaintances, a kind boy, Sandy, Norma. She and I had a fun week, that final week in Skagway. Friend to the end, and still a friend, I don't think we'll wait so long to see each other again!