High School years: 1955-1959, Part 3
by Marry Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— In 1956, at age 15, I became a sophomore in Vermilion High School. The morning lectures from Father on the way to school continued.
“Don’t be a carrot, Mays,” Father said as he dropped me off for classes. I shuddered at the thought. “Beware of political and religious dogma . . . do your own thinking, Mays, and never follow the crowd.” Armed with such morning wisdom, I disappeared for the day through the double doors of public education.
Indeed, far from becoming a carrot, I felt a sudden sense of euphoria, as if I possessed some mysterious and secret power. I felt totally mature, able to handle any situation that might come my way, and I could not imagine ever being hurt or harmed. I believed I would never age, never be ill, age or die. Youth is a most marvelous state.
Life in the 50s was an innocent time. There were no drugs beyond cigarettes,which I could buy from restaurant machines for 35 cents, or the whiskey in Father’s gun closet. Our town had little crime and one policeman, Ed Benson, a kindly soul who allowed teenagers to grow up as if he knew we were spring buds that would one day blossom into full flowers.
Father handed me the car keys at age 14 and taught me how to drive. I learned to parallel park between the big poplar trees that grew along our driveway and leading back to Lake Erie.
Summers in Ohio were blissful. There were sodas, milkshakes and friends to enjoy at the counter at Hart’s Drug Store, cheeseburgers to savor at the Goody-Goody Bar, street dances on weekends, and the Vermilion River and Lake Erie in which to fish, boat, swim and explore.
That summer I became a waitress at the old Linwood Hotel that was a popular resort for Pittsburgh and Cleveland families. I loved having a job and earning my own money. Every payday I would hop on a bus to Cleveland and purchase latest fashions from the big department stores on Euclid Avenue like Halle’s, Higbee’s and the May Company.
I dated a few “boyfriends,” never “fell in love” or “went steady,” but rather I was an old-fashioned “no sex” kind of girl. Many high school friends married their high school sweethearts but, somehow, for me, that part of my life would come later.
That year I joined a social club called “TABU.” My big sister Alice was president. During initiation I was supposed to suck a raw egg through a straw but Alice felt sorry for me so I didn’t have to do it.
We wore black corduroy jackets with “TABU” in white block letters embroidered on the back and we thought we really “looked sharp.” We initiated new members from the upcoming freshman pool each year and, at least once a year, we had a big party. One such event was a Christmas dance at the Vermilion Fire Station across from the town park. A deejay played rock-and-roll music and as we jitterbugged to Bill Haley’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “Rock around the Clock,” and other “hits” of the day. We thought ourselves “cool.”
There was a boys club at school called the “Hot Rods,” but we did not mingle with them. They were more interested in cars than us.
I loved to read and devoured many “classics” during high school years. I certainly was “in love” with many of the men in books; for example, Prince Hamlet. That year I read Father’s slim copy of “Hamlet” from his college days at Ohio University and believed there was no finer man in the world than Hamlet. I loved his sulking, melancholy disposition and I wished to be Ophelia, except I didn’t much care for her end.
Then there was “Gone with the Wind” and the soft spoken, dreamy, poetic Ashley Wilkes, who also was a perfect man. I preferred my men to be safely cemented in words in the pages of books where I could take them or leave them.
Of course, I “loved” the high school’s star basketball player like every other girl that year. I saw him put a “slop shot” in the basket for the home team that year during the last few seconds of a championship basketball game, giving the Vermilion Sailors a surprise victory in the tournament. He was an instant hero.
Later, I would see our hero after he had graduated from high school working on the assembly line at Ford Motor plant during a class trip our senior year. I realized in one split second that the glory of high school sports stardom would not last past graduation, which was exactly what our teacher hoped we would learn.
I still remember the shock of it seeing him in jeans and an old flannel shirt. Gone were his shimmering satin basketball uniform that sparkled under bright gym spotlights and the cheering crowds of yesteryear. It was one of those “flashing fragments” of time that suddenly makes something crystal clear . . . what James Joyce called “epiphanies” . . . the realization that strikes one’s brain like lightning against the night sky on a hot summer’s night . . . the sort of mental experiences teachers wish students would experience much more than they do.
I stood there and shivered on the cold cement floors of the car plant as the grotesque parts of half-assembled cars dangled overhead on gigantic hooks. Would I end up on an assembly line? Oh, whatever would I do with my life? How would I support myself? Such frightful questions entered the grey blob of my developing brain for the very first time.
Mother planned for me to go to college, marry, have a family and be supported by my husband . . . for what else would a daughter do with her life? Somehow the thought of such a fate was horrifying. I wasn’t sure I could ever “fall in love.” The idea sounded preposterous. I desperately dreamed there was something more in life. (Continued next week).