The airliner sinks slowly over the quilt-work brown and green landscape of southeastern Washington state as it approaches the Tri-Cities Airport. The Tri-Cities are Pasco (where the airport is), Richland, and Kennewick—where a woman who was my girlfriend when we were in the eighth grade, sixty-seven years ago, lives. Her name is Barbara.
Yes, eighth grade. Not high school. Barbara and I danced the “bear hug” in eighth grade, had a few dates, then went our separate ways in high school. Neither of us remembers why. Just getting on with our lives, I suppose.
Over the decades, we stayed in loose contact with each other. Basically, a Christmas card every other year or so. I visited Barbara once, for a couple of hours, fifty-three years ago when she lived in the Oakland Hills in the San Francisco Bay area and was pregnant with her second child. I was captain in the Air Force and happened to be passing through San Francisco. That was the last time I saw her.
Now I’m about to land in Pasco where she’ll be waiting for me. She told me she’ll be wearing tight jeans and a pale yellow blouse. What the hell am I doing? I wonder. I’m eighty years old. I probably should be scouting out retirement homes, not looking for a woman in tight jeans.
Allow me to draw a deep breath here and explain how I ended up about to land in Pasco, over twenty-five hundred miles from my home in Atlanta, on my way to visit an “old flame”—in several senses of the word.
Barbara and I had reconnected—not in a romantic sense, but in an old friend sense—several years ago when I discovered she had an interest in and talent for writing. She became one of the beta readers for my manuscripts including When Heroes Flew and When Heroes Flew: The Shangri-La Raiders. (A beta reader is a “first reader” of a raw manuscript before it ever goes to a publisher.) I discovered that she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind about my work, a necessary trait for a beta reader.
After my wife Christina died, a little over a year ago—although Alzheimer’s had claimed her before that—Barbara and I began corresponding via email more frequently. Several times a week. Weekly phone conversations, usually of an hour or two’s duration, began last summer. (Barbara’s husband had passed away a number of years ago.)
I won’t go into detail, but we discovered we had a stunning amount in common—our beliefs, our experiences, our interests. We seemed to genuinely hit it off. We developed a unique comfort with each other. Despite that, I had no sense of a romance blossoming. It felt wonderful just to have a woman in my life whom I could open up to and share my joys and disappointments.
As my eightieth birthday approached, I decided to blog about being eighty, “old,” and where I saw my life going. I sent a draft to Barbara. She responded rather sharply that I wasn’t old and that what I had written sounded too damn whiney.
So I toned it down . . . a little. Barbara wrote to me later about her reaction to that blog and to my attitudes at that time. She said she knew I hadn’t given up on life, but that I had accepted where I was and was merely going to go through the motions of living. That I saw nothing to look forward to. That no excitement and very little pleasure loomed on my horizon. She could read it in my words, hear it in my voice, and was damned if she was going to let me remain in that purgatory.
Then she sent me an email that altered the course of my life. February 12, 2021.
I’ll blog about that on Wednesday.