Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
“Tell me the truth. Do these pants make my butt look big?”
Every man with any sense – any sense at all – will run screaming from the room at that question. It’s the only rational response to a certain-death, lose-lose situation. When my first real girlfriend, Rhonda Walters, asked me that very question, I was less than perfectly prepared.
Somehow, Rhonda had prevailed upon me to drive her to the Pamida in Decorah to shop for jeans. The day had gone well, in spite of my forgetting to remove a string of muskrat traps from the rear seat of my ancient Ford. The jangling traps were somewhat distracting, and they smelled some of the marsh mud they’d once been set in, but Rhonda didn’t seem to mind. After all, Rhonda and I had been dating for several weeks, and she was used to the old Galaxie 500’s interior by now – including the likely prospect of sitting on a raw coon pelt, finding an odiferous jar of catfish bait in the glove compartment, or having 12-gauge shotgun shells rolling around on the floorboards. No doubt she thought that added to my own peculiar backwoods charm.
Then we went into the Pamida, and Rhonda asked me the fateful question.
“Don’t worry about that.” I replied. “I don’t really like real skinny girls.”
Upon regaining consciousness, I went searching for a rather steamed Rhonda, and realized I did indeed have a thing or two to learn about women.
As it Happened
A boy’s first real girlfriend provides an education the lad won’t find anywhere else on Earth. The finest arts of diplomacy are in fact attainable to a rough-cut teenage woods bum faced with the prospect of obtaining a smooch from his girlfriend.
For instance: My father, a man of staggering intellect as well as an old-fashioned country gentleman, had stressed the vital importance of honesty for all my young life. If a man’s word wasn’t reliable, the man was not worth knowing. And yet, my telling the truth here resulted in some pretty severe negative feedback.
What was a young man to do? Honesty was important, but the dizzying prospect of a goodnight kiss in the car before walking Rhonda to her door that evening took precedence.
Rhonda forgave me that first faux pas, but slowly. I only got a peck on the cheek that evening when I dropped her off, and that balanced against her father’s inevitable angry glare at the door was not a good cost/benefit ratio. Well, even a longhaired, slightly bedraggled woods bum could learn, and in this case the stakes were high; higher than they’d ever been, in fact. After all, the very fact that Rhonda was going out with me had staggered the expectations of all my friends, not to mention Rhonda’s father. I had to hold this thing together long enough to make it respectable. Besides, Rhonda was a dazzling specimen, with a smile that could lay a strong man flat.
My friends weren’t much help. Most of them hadn’t kept a girlfriend for more than a few days before committing some horrendous gaffe that sent the unfortunate girl screaming for Mother. The only exception to that rule was my buddy Dave, and he’d be no help either; Dave and his year-long girlfriend Stacy had daily shouting matches that you could hear for a good mile downwind, and yet always seemed to turn up on Saturday night with their arms around each other. Stacy not only tolerated the inevitable arguments, but actually won most of them. Of course, Stacy had the vocal capacity of a 30-year Marine top sergeant, and the strength, ferocity, and tenacity of a wolverine. She also seemed strangely tolerant of Dave’s shiftlessness, sporadic personal hygiene, tobacco chewing, beer swilling, and frequent weeklong absences into the deepest recesses of some distant tract of forest. Granted Dave had some bad habits, too, but Stacy overlooked those as well. No, I’d have to wait for another day to plumb that mystery. I had bigger fish to fry.
My campaign began the following Saturday night.
The evening began as evenings with Rhonda generally did. I parked my old Ford and walked across a vast expanse of impeccably manicured lawn to the massive double doors that marked the entrance to the Walters house. On ringing the bell, I was immediately subjected to five minutes of grilling by Rhonda’s father, along the lines of:
“Where exactly are you going?”
“What are you going to do?”
“Who’s going to be there? Are you going to be hanging around with that Hooper delinquent?”
“When will you have my daughter home?”
“Are you driving that crummy old Ford of yours?”
“You aren’t taking her out catfishing again, are you?”
After I stood interrogation, Mr. Walters turned into the house and bellowed, “Rhonda! Worthless is here!”
Rhonda appeared, a vision in tight jeans and a bright blue T-shirt. Once out the door, Rhonda twirled around once in front of me, and asked, “How do I look?”
I froze, openmouthed. This was the test. Rhonda had on approximately a pound of electric blue eye shadow, and her dark hair was newly hair sprayed into a swept-back, Farrah Fawcett-esque, seemingly solid helmet-like structure.
Well, this was new. Rhonda had always let her long dark hair hang loose before. She wasn’t much of a one for makeup, either. What was going on? Was I still on trial for the ‘skinny girls’ remark? Could this be my crucial test of honesty vs. possible smooches?
“Oh, hey, you look great” I stammered, trying not to look at her hair. Given the tight fit of her jeans, that wasn’t any great hardship. A teenage boy faced with a girl in tight jeans can almost always find a suitable place to cast his optics. “Love the hair.” I added. Great touch. Rhonda beamed at me and took my hand. “Good!” she piped. “Let’s go!” Her fingers, wonderfully warm, smooth and soft, twirled around mine. Maybe honesty wasn’t an absolute after all.
As we climbed into the old Ford, Rhonda floated another test my way.
“You know,” she began, scooting across the expanse of the Galaxie’s front seat to snuggle in close, “Jamie and Pete are going to see a movie, I thought we could meet them at the theatre and maybe go for burgers after?”
Oh, no. To say that Rhonda’s friend Jamie was abrasive was the most massive of understatements. It just wasn’t enough to say that Jamie was annoying; she could have given lessons to black flies. And her boyfriend Pete was worse still, the quintessential townie, the sort of boy who thought the world ended at the city limits, and looked down his nose at anyone who’d ever set foot in a cornfield. He certainly wasn’t one to pal around with guys who thought that leaving a dead carp in someone’s school locker was a rather good practical joke. To make matters worse, Jamie and Pete were as puzzled about Rhonda’s current choice in boyfriends as her father was and didn’t bother to hide their opinion any more than Mr. Walters did.
Rhonda scooted a bit closer and wrapped her left arm around my right. Her leg pressed against mine. She looked up at me and smiled, and reason and good sense abandoned me completely; at that moment I’d have driven off the old Mississippi river bridge at Lansing if she’d only asked.
“Sure. Sounds like fun!”
Dang. This situational honesty thing may have unforeseen consequences after all.
Things didn’t improve at the movie theater. In spite of my best efforts to hustle Rhonda inside before the dreaded pair could turn up, we bumped into Jamie and Pete in the bright lights right in front of the door.
“Oh, here they are!” Rhonda beamed. “Won’t this be fun! Hi Jamie, Hi Pete!”
I put on what must have been a sickly grin. “Hey Pete. Hey Jamie.”
Jamie Wehner smirked at me. Her voice was a nasal whine, her smile a sham, her demeanor one of annoyed tolerance. “Hi, gosh don’t you look civilized. Is that a clean shirt?” Pete Gilford simpered, “Hey man. Is that raccoon hair on your jeans, or are you shedding?” They both guffawed in glee. Rhonda was reading the movie show times, oblivious. My teeth ground together with enough force to sever a hardened steel carriage bolt.
I fought back a vivid mind’s-eye vision of strangling Pete. “Let’s see when the show starts, OK?” I growled.
The evening proceeded in like fashion. Rhonda and Jamie of course went off to the ladies’ room together in the mysterious manner that girls learn when very young, leaving me to suffer through a recitation of Pete’s latest achievements in model car construction. Through the movie and the stop for burgers and ice cream, I was faced with a series of snide comments, rolled eyes, and muffled giggles from the Couple from Hell. Every time my mouth opened to make a reply, I’d catch a glimpse of Rhonda’s flashing smile, and I’d bite back my retort.
The whole evening didn’t come to a head until after we left annoying Jamie and Pete. As I was driving Rhonda home, she turned to me with an arch look.
“You don’t really like Pete, do you?”
The moment of truth was at hand, and I was forced to abandon my earlier plan of situational honesty.
“No. I don’t.” I sighed.
“You don’t like Jamie either, do you?” she pressed.
“She doesn’t like me any.” I demurred.
Rhonda let go of my hand and edged away from me a fraction of an inch.
“You know,” she said, “Pete isn’t that bad a guy. He’s just got different sort of manners than you, he’s a little more sophisticated. He’s just not rough-cut like you.”
Ouch. My backwoods charm was, apparently, wearing a little thin.
The swamp mud smell of my string of muskrat traps rose silently from the back seat.
But there was a ray of hope. Rhonda and I had a date the next day, to drive to the Effigy Mounds National Monument for a long walk in the woods. As I dropped Rhonda off with another sisterly peck on the cheek to show for the evening, I figured I’d be able to patch things up then. “See you tomorrow” she said, with a slightly sad smile.
And Then This Happened
The next day, a bright Iowa July Sunday, dawned bright and clear. After putting on a clean black-t-shirt and freshly washed jeans, I left the house early and drove the Iron Coyote into town to a car wash. The traps were removed, and a good wash and a dose of air freshener had the prehistoric Ford looking and smelling as good as it ever did.
By the time I pulled up in front of the Walters estate, the sun was high in the sky, and the temperature and humidity were both in the nineties. A typical Iowa July day, but I knew that on the hillside under the tall trees at Effigy Mounds, the air would be cool and the walking pleasant.
Rhonda appeared, looking cool and enchanting. The previous evening’s hairspray and makeup were gone, and in its place the natural Rhonda I preferred. We set off for the forty-minute drive to Effigy Mounds.
The Effigy Mounds National Monument overlooks the Mississippi River, and consists of several miles of walking paths winding around ancient burial mounds built by early Indians who lived in the area thousands of years ago. The paths wind around the hillsides, under huge white oaks and shagbark hickories, with frequent stops at overlooks with views of the river.
We set out from the parking lot under the blazing July sun, making our way up the first trail from the visitor’s center. Rhonda was quiet and hadn’t taken my hand as she usually did. Things weren’t looking good.
As I was about to discover, there are advantages to being ‘on your own turf,’ as it were.
We stopped at an overlook with a magnificent view of the Mississippi. A barge was making its way upriver, throwing sparks of sunlight from its prow. I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. I pointed. “Eagle,” I informed Rhonda.
The mature bald eagle soared closer, riding the updrafts rising from the river bluffs. It turned its brilliant white head to look down at us as it passed overhead. Rhonda was wide-eyed. “It’s really an eagle! I’ve never seen one before.”
A light bulb went off. I smiled. There are many kinds of sophistication, and here we were in the middle of mine. “Come on,” I grinned, taking Rhonda’s hand. “Let me show you a few other things. There’s a lot to see out here.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon watching house wrens squabble in the bushes and red-tailed hawks riding the thermals over the hillside. I handed Rhonda my binoculars, showing her how to spot gray squirrels taking their afternoon siestas on high branches in the hickories; later we watched chipmunks scampering over the rocks at the edge of the bluffs. Rhonda was introduced to the year’s last few yellow lady’s slipper orchids in damp spots in the deep woods, as well as black-eyed Susans in the bright sunny meadows. She learned about the sweet tasting nectar in the flowers of the columbine, and where blackberry bushes grew thick on the forest edges. Together we watched a scarlet tanager in the treetops and searched for grouse in the raspberry thickets. Late in the afternoon we found a chipping sparrow nest in a bush, only a foot off the ground. Hand in hand we marveled at the tiny cup meticulously woven of grass.
The eagle soared overhead as we finally approached the parking lot. The sun was sinking behind the hill to the west as a cool breeze lifted off the river. Rhonda turned to me, frowning a little.
“I’m sorry about last night” she apologized. “I guess there’s nothing wrong with being a little… outdoorsy.” She leaned up on her tiptoes and kissed me. Not a peck on the cheek like the previous night’s, but an honest-to-gosh kiss, enough to turn all my joints to jelly. My knees went weak, and my brain switched off. Unable to do anything else, I wrapped my arms around her and went with the moment.
In the End
We both learned an important lesson that afternoon.
In the magic of the Iowa summer afternoon under the ancient oaks, Rhonda learned of a world she’d only glimpsed before, a world of animals, birds, and wildflowers whose names she’d never known before that day. In the wonder in Rhonda’s eyes with each new discovery, I learned the value of my own knowledge of the natural world, and how little most people know of their own natural surroundings.
By the time we got back to town, it was dark. The evening was cool and damp, and the electric buzz of cicadas echoed from every tree. “Tell me the truth.” Rhonda asked as we sat in the Iron Coyote in front of her parent’s house. “You didn’t really like my hair like that last night, did you?” She shifted her head on my shoulder to look up at me.
I looked at her and smiled and lifted a lock of soft dark hair with two fingers. “I like it like this. Just like this.”
There are all kinds of diplomacy. That was the day I discovered mine.