Sunday, April 20, 2008
THE GIRLS IN PORTLAND
This was my original high school cohort. Every morning we walked down Alberta Street to Jefferson High School, because we all lived just a half-block or so off Alberta. It was 1953. The distance was about two miles.
We’d all been born just before WWII except for Pearl Lee who was a little older. I think you can tell which one she is. Her family had been refugees when the Japanese invaded China and the Baptists helped them get out. We were a generation that grew up with war as the norm, Pearl more than the rest of us. She would never go to a war movie.
Years later Pearl and her husband, Ron, went back to help the people of Hong Kong leave when the government changed. They’ve stayed faithful and serving Baptists all through. Pearl, Ron, Pearl’s sister, and the sister’s husband came to visit me in a big RV a few summers ago. She was unchanged. So was Ron. But I was GREATLY changed. This puzzled her.
Bob Richardson was Joan McGowan’s boyfriend. Leaning on a girl was how boyfriends showed relationship in those days: ownership, domination -- even when they were kidding. I don’t know what happened to him. Joan has married, maybe more than once, and for a while I heard she was running a kennel. No kids, I think. That’s all I know. She doesn’t come to reunions in Portland and since I moved back here, I don’t either.
I’m on the far right end. This is the front porch of my house. Joyce Thomas actually lived in the next block towards school, but she’d walk up to our house to wait even though the others were almost never late. Joyce was my best friend/biggest enemy for our primary years when we walked to Vernon Grade School together. I remember us clobbering each other with our galoshes once and wearing the same coat at the same time once. Then she transferred to St. Andrews, the school attached to St. Andrews Cathedral on Alberta, not far away. When it was time for high school, she went public school again. Her father died and I think they didn’t have money for the all-girl Catholic St. Mary’s High School downtown.
We were in the same algebra class and very competitive. We’d talk back and forth to compare answers and at first the teacher, Mr. Knutson, tried to stop us, but then I think he understood that we were really learning that way. The second year I was in a different algebra class and came as close as I ever did to flunking.
The dog is Duncan McTavish, half-Scottie and half-Sealyham. Death on rats and snakes.
One year three of us decided we’d make dresses just alike and so we did, except that Joan and I bought green stripes and Pearl bought pink. Also, she used the collar option in the pattern. We thought we were really snazzy in our big crinolines. Not satisfied with starch, we dipped them in sugar syrup so we shed sticky sparkly little flakes when we walked.
The three of us had the same birthday, even though not the same year, so we celebrated together. Now we’d gone to wearing high heels! And I was big on gloves -- these were pea green. I had this suit on layaway all summer at Penny’s while I picked berries and beans to pay for it. I often wore a hat with it, a little green one with a white cuff that I borrowed from my mother. I think we went out for lunch together to someplace fancy.
This is probably the first, last and only time I tried to play tennis. As a friend used to say, I might as well use a racquet with no strings since I never hit the ball anyway. This was the high school uniform at the time, but you can see why Joyce always looked so pretty and stylish and I always looked -- well, serviceable. I wore white bucks, she went with saddle oxfords. My pants were always baggy, hers are fitted and cuffed. I weighed a little more.
In those days girls, women and many men all wore Pendleton jackets: wool, big buttons, cuffs, patch pockets. They were practical in the thin Oregon rain, just the right weight to be warm enough but not too warm. Those of us who couldn’t afford readymade went out to the mill in Washougal on the Washington side of the Columbia and bought the yardage and a pattern. I have four buttons, Joyce has three. Little differences like that make a LOT of difference when you’re tuned to that sort of thing. I think hers was bright red. Mostly people wore plaid.
If one tries to think the unthinkable like “The Girl in Saskatoon” (about the unsolved murder of a young woman) the one of us most likely to have been murdered was Joan, but she wasn’t. The likelihood and the preventative were both the Bob Richardsons of the world, because we understood them to be our owners and protectors. Our safety depended on their good will, so one always picked a boyfriend who was possessive, but sheltering of his possessions, so he didn’t beat up his girl. Bob would never have really hurt Joan, we thought. Part of the unthinkableness and protection was that none of us drank. Joan’s father had an occasional beer. He was working class and maybe that was part of the reason we didn’t drink: it wasn’t classy. There were no drugs we knew about and we didn’t smoke either.
The cohort came apart in the course of the four years and ended when I went to college at Northwestern University in Chicago. College was so mysterious to most that when I said I was going to Northwestern, many of my classmates thought I meant the business college downtown. They’d look puzzled and say, “I never figured you for an office worker.” Joyce and I were both in “enriched” English classes but I don’t know where she went after graduation. I think she had two boys and was widowed, like her mother.
By the sophomore year I’d become so active in dramatics that I hardly saw the others. Pearl and I were both in National Honor Society. I was Pearl’s bridesmaid when she married Ron and never could think of any occasion for wearing my pink bridesmaid dress after that.
I think Joanie was also a bridesmaid, but she disappears from the yearbooks after our sophomore year. I can’t remember why. Did they move? Did she drop out? Transfer? When we all graduated, her dad bought her a Ford Thunderbird “instead of college.” That’s the summer we were likely to get killed one way or another. We could barely cram three riders in: she and I and Diane Milburn, another walker who isn’t in the photo because she lived much farther along Alberta. Joan and Diane’s mothers would say it was all right to go out cruising “if Mary goes along” because “she won’t do anything dangerous.” Ha. We went drag racing.
One night we got into the car of the stock car champion racer of the state of Oregon with three unknown boys and raced another car along a twisty road beside the Columbia River -- cliff on one side, drop-off on the other. Then we said we had to go home because it was almost midnight. The boys pretended they were going to take us to a remote cabin they knew of and hold us prisoner. (They didn’t say rape.) Just when we were feeling most desperate, it turned out that one of the boys also had a midnight curfew and they took us back to the T-bird.
For a few minutes we were going 110 mph on a dark narrow wet road side by side, with both cars vibrating -- only a foot apart. The crash simply didn’t happen. There were other close calls before and after, but I was never again so aware of how thin the separation was between living and not.
But also what I learned that night was fatalism and the power of choice. Say “no way” back in the beginning, or face death as real. As I type, we’re right in the middle of a major blizzard, no visibility, high winds, icy roads, seven degrees, a foot of snow. People traveling are in the cold hands of fate tonight. I'm staying home.
(This post responds to the earlier post about “The Girl in Saskatoon,” a newly published book by Sharon Butala that is presently #7 on the Canadian best seller list kept by the Globe and Mail.)