Like most teenage boys, Jerry Killian is a raging hormone factory. However, coming of age in 1959 proves difficult. He is shackled by his era's conservatism and by his own Catholic upbringing and, oh yeah, by his deep guilt over thinking he had killed his poor senile grandma. This Catcher In The Rye/American Graffiti-like tale touches the heart and funny bone of anyone who can recall the fifties -- or their teens years -- with bittersweet memories.
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1959 - In Search of Eldorado
There is a certain time in your life when the intervention of fate or the choice of options dictates how your remaining days will ultimately play out.
For me, it was the year of 1959.
Over time, I have often tried to steer a different course. But the winds of destiny always blew me back to where they wanted me or, perhaps, where I’ve always been.
As I entered Pennsylvania from the south, driving northeast along Interstate 81, the events of that most memorable year played over and over in my mind.
Forty-two years was a long time to hold onto a memory.
Would her diary still be there?
The time capsule that held the final words of my teenage love was buried beneath stone in the hills ahead. Until now, I didn’t have the courage to dig up the past. But if I was serious about writing a book about that year, I would need Cathy’s diary for inspiration.
The exit for Barryton appeared in my headlights.
Should I turn around and go back to Florida?
No … fate had already predetermined my course.
The miles ticked by, and my mind returned to that fateful year.
I can still remember that May when I turned seventeen. I was a tall, lanky kid with too many freckles for someone entering manhood, and, being void of all self-esteem, I opted to impress my peers with wackiness rather than by any feats of intelligence, strength, or daring. I discovered early on that girls liked guys with a sense of humor; so I used my one and only talent on them whenever I had the opportunity.
However, attending an all-boy preparatory school run by the Jesuits left me little chance to ply my chosen trade. The nearest females were the uniformed chaste girls of St. Martha’s, a Catholic school directly across the street from Barryton Preparatory. In desperation, on several occasions, I scaled the wire fence surrounding my eminent complex and made loud mating calls, hoping one of the giddy girls marching in somber procession from church to school would look my way. But the holy nuns had all the virgins in check, and when the pious “penguins” alerted Father “Tank” Clifford, the austere Prefect of Discipline, it was detention for me … once more.
“Killian!” Tank shouted. “Three days jug.”
That’s what it was called because the good Jesuits thought only a jughead would end up in detention. I thought it was worth it though if it gave my peers a laugh, and helped me to put another crack in the armor of the establishment. Back then I fancied myself as James Dean, a rebel without a cause; but, in reality, with my corduroy jacket and skinny tie and penny loafers, I was just another preppy nerd.
But how I craved to go biking with Marlon Brando and his wild pals!
After I had served three years of solitary male confinement, I wanted out from that life of chastity and obedience. I craved freedom. And, more importantly, I needed to experience what sex was all about.
That’s when I met my first true love.
Her name was Cathy Thomas, a tall, lithe, long-legged lass with auburn hair and hazel eyes that seemed to say “Yes!” even when her puckered lips murmured “No, no way.” She was more coy than shy, and I reveled in the challenge to capture her heart, and, of course, her body. She went to Holy Mary High School on the west side of town, which was where I lived with my family; in fact, I attended Holy Mary’s grade school before being accepted at Barryton Prep, a prestigious institution situated smack-dab in the center of town. My older brother, Edward, graduated from Prep with high honors four years before I started my freshman year. As for me, I gave up any hope of equaling his achievement by the end of my sophomore year when the grueling hours of study had ultimately turned my brain into mush.
I guess I should mention, earlier that year, I also murdered my senile grandmother—a dastardly act that didn’t help my emotional state, I’m sure.
Well, the truth is, I didn’t put rat poison in her tea or push her down the steps; I merely wished her dead … and she died a week later.
Poor Grandma O’Connor. Mea culpa. Mea culpa.
In truth, Granny was a major embarrassment to me ever since I was twelve. I couldn’t invite any of my friends to stay at our house because I feared she would go into one of her screaming fits or, worse yet, take off her clothes and scream obscenities at the television set. She especially freaked out when Bishop Fulton Sheen appeared on the tube. In her mind, he was the devil. In my confused young mind, however, I feared she was closer to Satan than the eloquent bishop.
The final humiliation came when two of my preppy classmates showed up unexpectedly one day, only to flee in horror when Granny appeared naked at the top of the stairway with fresh brown feces smeared down both legs and on her face—that’s when I killed her with a fervent wish. And, for the first time, she didn’t disappoint me. But Catholic guilt set in and I was never the same again.
In my freshman year, I studied hard and came close to honors a number of times, only to lose out because of a “personality conflict” I had with my gay English teacher, Father Rodney Francis.
Now, I know I might not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer as a kid but I did recognize someone who was a little light in the loafers. My first such encounter was with my Boy Scout troop’s foppish scout master who liked to hang around the boys’ showers at camp and grin a lot. Then when I was eleven, we had a new family doctor who smelled of exotic aftershave and always insisted on inspecting my lower region, even when I was only there for a scalp wound.
Anyway, when Father Francis made ambiguous advances and I declined, he was quick to use his God-given power to bring me down to size with a thrust of his erect grading pen.
Oh, yes, even then I was no stranger to the injustice in the world. All around me my undeserving pampered peers from prestigious families flaunted their wealth and blue-blood boorish breeding in my face.
Now, I admit we weren’t exactly poor. My father was a doctor, but he died in ‘56 of some rare disease. And my mother had a law degree, but she couldn’t work much since she had to take care of Granny. My brother was off to college and my little sister, Annie, was in grade school. My grandfather, who died a year before my father, was the mayor of Barryton for a time and something of a legend in northeastern Pennsylvania. But, apparently, he wasn’t very rich because he didn’t leave us much except the big old house on Watson Street where we lived after my father became ill and Granny couldn’t take care of herself anymore.
I was aware of the financial hardship my mother made in sending me to such an elitist institute of learning. I knew I owed it to her to stick it out as long as I could. But by the final semester of junior year my failing grades and comical antics became nothing more than a futile cry for help.
Luckily, that’s when I met Cathy.
As I recall we first met on a double date set up by my old grade school chum, Stanley Kuchar. He was dating Cathy’s best friend at the time, Margaret Mary Goosen. She insisted on being called Margaret, never Marge or Peggy. She was a bit of a prude, and plain-looking. Good enough for Stanley. Well, to be honest, anyone would be good enough for that doughboy. I was surprised he got anyone of the female persuasion to go out with him. Besides resembling a bloated swine, he drooled a lot. Neighborhood kids called him “Pigface.” He was a nice enough lad and, I guess, I had a soft spot for the underdog even back then, so we hung around together. In fact, when I was chosen as captain of our Biddy Basketball team in fourth grade, I picked Stanley as my co-captain. This was the highest achievement of his entire life.
When I went off to Barryton Prep, he stayed at Holy Mary. He was smart enough to ace Prep’s entrance exam but his family wouldn’t pay the tuition fee. So, after that, we got together only a few times during the summer, or on rare weekends during the school year when I was able to finish my homework and my preppy buddies were not around.
When he asked me to go with him on a double date, I was a bit reluctant. Sitting in the back seat with another Mother Margaret wasn’t my idea of a good time. But, Stanley assured me Cathy was “hot” and that I’d be dumb to pass up such a chance.
It was true I had no love life to brag about to my preppy brethren, but, still, it never stopped me from fabricating a good erotic tale or two for the hormonal enjoyment of my nerd friends. So, I agreed. Besides, when I was with poor Stanley, I had a better self-image. After all, I could have been born with a broad snout and a fat body, too. I was pretty sure Margaret went out with him out of pity. Then again, I never understood the female species. It was hard for a sexually challenged teenager to grasp the complexities of their minds. For them, physical appearance was not always a deciding factor.
Anyway, it was Friday night and I told my mother I had finished my homework at school. Actually, by that time, I didn’t give a squirrel’s nut if I ever graduated. I just wanted to experience sex, or cop a feel, or, at least, taste a girl’s tongue in my mouth again. Yeah, that happened to me when I was thirteen. We played spin-the-bottle and post office at birthday parties. Most were chaperoned, but some lax parents often left us to our own devices in the early fifties. They thought we were too young to even think about sex, let alone engage in it.
So, with the lights low, we explored this new frontier. It was Angela Marino, a well-developed and advanced fourteen-year-old, who first penetrated my oral cavity with her tongue. It was quite an uplifting experience for me, and rather embarrassing when the lights came back on. The little tramp, however, seemed to relish in my discomfort. But I got even with her later that night when I ravished her young body … in my erotic dreams, of course.
In truth, I was a skinny teenage Don Quixote living in a fantasy world of windmills and what-ifs. I never came close to going all the way. In fact, I barely understood which way was the way to go, or how to get there. It bothered me that even my mutant friend, Stanley, was probably getting more than me. The thought of him giving tongue to Margaret was even more than my creative mind could comprehend. So when he pulled up in his father’s Olds and I slid into the front seat beside him, I just had to smile.
“What’s with you?” he asked, with a dribble on his lip.
“Ah, nothin’.” I wiped away the grin. “So, what’s the plan?”
“Well, Cathy will be at Margaret’s house. We pick them up and go to a movie. Maybe a pizza later at Marino’s; then stop at Lookout Point, okay?”
“Sure,” I said, “if she’s decent.”
“Oh, she’s decent all right.” He raised his eyebrows for emphasis. “In fact, she’s too good for you. So, be cool.” He smiled. “You got money?”
“Enough for a movie and slice of pizza. No more, okay?”
“Don’t worry. I got an extra five from my dad. Can you believe it?”
“I can’t believe he trusts you with his wheels. You can’t see for shit.”
“Well, I said I’d be home by ten. Besides, since I told him I want to be like him, a truck mechanic, he’s been my bosom buddy.”
“Truck mechanic? Come on. I thought you told me you wanted to be a teacher. You said you were going to Penn State.”
“I changed my mind.”
A fake smile crossed his face as he looked into the side mirror and pulled over to the curb in front of Margaret’s house. He forced a laugh. “Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Isn’t that what you always told me?” We both laughed at my John Wayne philosophy and opened the doors for our dates.
Margaret appeared in a simple drab dress, brown shoes, no makeup—much as I expected. Behind her towered a statuesque vision of beauty in a felt poodle skirt, decorated with sequins and poodle patches. Her auburn hair was tied back in a ponytail and her lips and cheeks had a crimson glow. A youthful exuberance and femininity surrounded her as she floated down the steps.
I was awestruck and found myself blurting out, “Hep chick!”
Stanley snorted, but Margaret gave him the evil eye for my wisecrack.
“It’s okay,” he said. “That means he digs her … er, he likes her, that’s all.”
Cathy blushed and got in the back seat with me. Despite my initial greeting, I could see she was flattered. I ran a hand through my flattop and started over.
“Sorry,” I said, “I wasn’t expecting someone so … ah, nice.”
“That’s okay,” she said.
She smiled at me, and when she did I thought my heart would leap from my chest. What a great smile! I knew right then I had to play it cool or I‘d lose her.
“I’m Jerry Killian.”
She smiled. “Cathy Thomas.”
I began to melt.
Okay, don’t do anything stupid. Be polite. And above all, don’t stare at her boobs! If you get excited and she sees that bulge in your pants, it’s all over. She’ll think you’re some damn weird pervert.
I shook my head, knowing full well that I was a weird pervert.
“Hey, why so quiet back there?”
Stanley’s reflection in the rearview mirror appeared worried.
“Ah, just thinking,” I said. I glanced in the mirror. “So what movie are we going to see?”
“Ben Hur’s playing at the Strand,” said Stanley. “I hear that’s great.”
“That’s a guy’s movie, Stanley,” said Margaret. She turned around to face Cathy. “You don’t want to see Charleton Heston killing people, do you?”
Cathy looked at me and said, “I don’t care. Whatever they decide is okay with me.” Her voice was as sweet as a butterscotch sundae.
“How about that Jack Lemmon movie with Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe? That should be funny.” The words barely left my lips when my mind sent me an urgent message: Stupid! What am I thinking? My first date, and I take her to see Marilyn Monroe—the one, true love of my life, a woman who ignites my loins with a simple celluloid smile. Have I forgotten the excitement she aroused in me after seeing her in Niagara and The Seven Year Itch? “On second thought,” I quickly added, “maybe that Hitchcock film with Cary Grant would be better?”
“No,” Margaret said. “His movies are always too scary. I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight. Besides, I really like Jack Lemmon. I think he’s sooo cute. Don’t you, Cathy?”
“I guess. I mean he was really funny in Mr. Roberts.”
“Okay,” Stanley said. “It’s settled. We’ll go see Some Like It Hot.”
Ah, crap! I wish he hadn’t announced the title. I know what it is, but I didn’t say it aloud. I don’t want Cathy to think that’s what I have on my mind.
Ah, hell, who am I kidding? That’s what I always have on my mind. I like it hot, lukewarm, cold … whatever. I don’t give a damn how I get it, just as long as I get it. Hell! I’m such a damn pervert.
Right then I wanted to open the car door and throw myself under the wheels.
“Do you like movies?”
That voice. That sweet, innocent, pure, melodious sound.
I looked at her and smiled weakly.
“Yes, it’s sort of a hobby of mine. I’m a big movie buff.”
“No kidding. Me, too.”
She looked deep into my eyes. Then she tossed her ponytail to the side, blushed, and turned away. It was an awkward moment, but I felt triumphant.
She really likes me!
I smiled smugly at my reflection in the car’s side window.
Veni, vidi, vici!
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Young Jerry Killian doesn't possess his grandfather's strength. Jerry needs to rely on his family, his friends, his therapist, and, most of all, his own sense of humor and acceptance of fate to win the final battle toward maturity.