Finding a Reason
by Ron Van Sweringen
I could have died of a fractured skull when I was six years old and hit by a bus; or I could have died of pneumonia when I was four years old and so near death that I had an out of body experience. But for some reason, the powers-that-be spared me. They let me suck my thumb until I had buck teeth that required braces to make me the toothpaste model I am today.
It could have been the end for me one sunny day in Fort Worth, Texas, when I was nine years old and reached into the weeds for a bamboo fishing pole lying next to a giant diamondback rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike. I was alone and miles from any help, but again I was spared.
A few years later, after one or two more narrow escapes from disaster, it occurred to me that there might be a reason for my survival, especially after Bucky Williams, my fourteen-year old neighbor, was killed in an automobile accident.
The big question was: WHY? Why him and not me? I wondered as I sat under a shady oak in the backyard of the small apartment building we lived in. A hot wind sent up little swirls of dust from the dry soil where a horned toad made short work of an ant trail near my feet. As each ant was gobbled up, it reinforced the question. What was my reason for being here?
It was hard for me to imagine being killed in an automobile accident. We didn’t have a car, and no one I knew had one either. It was 1945 and the big war had just ended. Streetcars or buses took us anywhere our legs couldn’t, for fifteen cents. Movies cost a quarter and Little Tavern hamburgers were twenty cents each.
Life was simple. We had a dog and a cat, and a radio to listen to Fibber McGee and Molly. No one worried much about crime or the end of the world, and most folks didn’t lock their front doors.
I was happy to have sugar again for my cereal and everyone was happy that the war was over. Even more important than that, I had grown a whole inch in less than six months, according to the height marks on the kitchen door frame.
I had an inch to go before reaching five feet and amazingly, a dozen pubic hairs had recently sprouted and begun curling above my testicles. I was leaving Hopalong Cassidy behind and becoming a man.
That was the summer I met Ramona Carter, two months before my thirteenth birthday. I had two important reactions the first time I saw her climbing out of the public swimming pool. The first was heart palpitations and the second, a major erection which required me to remain waist-deep in the water until she disappeared into the ladies’ shower room.
I can’t remember anything up to that point in my life feeling as good as that under water erection every time I squeezed it. For that reason alone, I will never forget Ramona Carter.
The summer turned quickly into fall and when the school year began, I was sure I had found the reason for my fourteen-year old existence. Miracle of miracles, Ramona and I shared the same homeroom.
Gossip traveled quickly about the prettiest girl in school. She was an only child and had recently moved to Fort Worth from Germany. Her father was an Air Force officer and mine was a mailman. She was from Germany and I was from a burg in west Texas. Everything about her was glamorous and, to top it off, she was six months older than me and almost fifteen.
In those days we didn’t have a scale of 1 to 10 for perfection, but if we had, Ramona Carter would have scored a 15. She had it all as far as I was concerned: bouncy blonde hair and cornflower-blue eyes over juicy lips that wore a different shade of lipstick to school every day.
She also had great legs, but the star, or should I say stars of the show were the two grapefruit-sized mounds protruding from the front of her sweater. They seemed to defy gravity, to everyone’s amazement as she made her way down the hall.
Needless to say, stars attract stars and within two weeks she was linked arm in arm with Buddy Whitehall, the star quarterback of our high school football team. His curly black hair, suntan and mile-wide shoulders wiped out the rest of the male student body at Plainview High. It was clear to everyone that they deserved each other, but that didn’t stop the ache in me each time I saw them together.
The one saving grace at that point in my life was the twenty minutes in homeroom each morning before first period. Everyone had a chance to check their homework and prepare for the day’s classes. Low-keyed conversation was allowed unless it got too loud, and Mrs. Potts gave us the evil eye.
I had maneuvered myself, with the aid of various bribes and threats, to occupy the desk next to Ramona’s. For those twenty minutes every morning, Buddy Whitehall did not exist. I pretended he’d gone for a long Hail Mary pass and drowned in the Rio Grande, leading Ramona to the realization that I was the only man for her.
Near the end of that first semester I had miraculously grown over four inches and put on twenty-five pounds. Buddy Whitehall still outweighed me by fifty pounds and both of my shoulder blades only made one of his, but it was a definite improvement. I was now taller and weighed more than Ramona.
Sports were not my forte. Football, baseball and basketball eluded me, but there was one sport that showed promise for my slim body: swimming. It was not as romantic as catching a touchdown pass in front of a roaring crowd on Friday night, but it was beginning to get me noticed and written up in the school newspaper once in a while. I glowed when Ramona mentioned she had read an article about me. Little by little, we began spending time together when Big Buddy was at football practice or in detention hall for failing a test.
My fantasy was on the threshold of becoming reality. All it needed was a bump from the powers that be. That bump arrived unexpectedly one hot morning two weeks later. It was June 16th, the day after school let out. Ramona let me know that she and Buddy, along with some of their friends, were going swimming at Lake Worth. She half-heartedly invited me to bring a date and come along, knowing full well I didn’t fit in with that crowd.
After thinking it over, I came to a conclusion. If I wanted to spend the day near Ramona, I needed a date fast.
* * *
“Are you sure?” Martha Snow replied, a look of disbelief spreading across her face.
“Yes, I’m sure,” I smiled, trying to cover up my desperate need for her to say yes. “It’s just for a couple of hours. And my mom said she would make us a picnic basket,” I added, trying to make it impossible for Martha to say no.
“OK, I’ll go,” Martha giggled, “but I’m warning you. I don’t swim very well. “
I gave a huge sigh of relief, looking at the smiling girl in front of me. Martha Snow was in my chemistry and algebra class. She was dark-haired with brown eyes and a good figure. Actually, she was considered a knockout by some of the guys and I counted myself really lucky being able to show her off.
On the walk home from Martha’s house, I was unprepared for the sudden wave of guilt that swept over me. I didn’t like what I had done. Martha deserved much better.
At noon when we arrived, the lake was nearly deserted except for a secluded beach covered with bright towels and the music from a portable radio. Laughter and splashing echoed from the water and Ramona, seated on Buddy’s broad shoulders, waved at us. Wearing a white bathing suit, she glowed golden against the blue water as if she were a mirage. Martha, standing on tip-toes, waved back and I, with a deep breath, followed suit.
A few minutes later Ramona and Buddy raced each other out of the water and fell breathlessly on the sand beside us. I had never seen her so alive or beautiful.
“You two make a good pair.” Ramona smiled, throwing a pinch of sand at me. My face flushed at her closeness and I looked away to hide it.
Buddy nodded in agreement as he slid his arm around her waist. “They sure do.” His wide eyes looked at me and somehow for the first time I felt no animosity toward him.
“Let’s go for a swim!” I shouted at Martha, grabbing her hand.
“OK, I warned you.” She laughed. “I’m no mermaid.”
* * *
The heavy knock on the front door rattled the glass and sent a cold feeling through me. It was dark and while I fumbled to turn on the light beside my bed, I heard voices. My mother and father were talking to someone in the vestibule. The clock on my dresser said 12:30. I’d been asleep for two hours.
When I stepped into the hallway, the conversation stopped. My father turned to me with an odd look on his face. “This police officer wants to talk to you, son.”
The officer came directly to the point. “Were you kids drinking at the lake this afternoon?”
A sick feeling swirled in my stomach as I shook my head. “No.” I tried to block out what came next.
“We found an empty pint whiskey bottle in some towels on the beach, while we were dragging for the bodies of Ramona Carter and Buddy Whitehall.”
The color drained from my face and I slid down the wall slowly.
“You all right, son?” the officer asked, reaching to steady me.
“Yes, sir,” I mumbled as my mother knelt down beside me.
“It’s a sad business.” The officer shook his head. “But sometimes these things happen without rhyme or reason.”
Copyright © 2013 by Ron Van Sweringen