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  LIFE AS A LOSER #179: "THE COURTSHIP OF WILLIAM'S FATHER."  
   
   
 

One bitter cold February 1970 evening in Mattoon, Illinois, young Sally Dooley, 18, was beckoned from her quiet room by Kathy, her roommate and best friend. "That asshole Bryan isn't here yet. He's an hour late. I'm sick of waiting on him. He's probably drunk again."

Sally, a somewhat sheepish yet wild-if-provoked bookworm, rarely went out on dates. She'd met a few guys in Moweaqua, her hometown, a village of 2,000 just outside Decatur and about an hour from Mattoon, but they were pretty much going nowhere, happy just to cruise around, drink beer and try to get in girls' pants, all three recklessly. It was a time of displacement for Sally; living with her brother Ron and Kathy, geographically too far removed from hippie rebellion, she simply wanted to go to college, studying

 
 

whatever -- today's choice was physical education -- and find some sense of order in everything. As for guys, well, all she really knew is that she wanted to date a guy with a nice car. That was key. But she was in no hurry.

Kathy was still screaming in her ear. "Goddamn him, Sally! He thinks he's so tough, with his motorcycle, but I'm sick of it. To hell with this. I'm going out. If he ends up showing up, tell him to buzz off and not to come by anymore. I don't like riding on that bike anyway. It just messes up my hair."

And so Kathy bolted, and Bryan showed up about a half hour later, can of Busch at his side, stoic atop his Triumph cycle, and Sally was waiting there, steeling herself to deliver the bad news. And thus was love born.

***

Well, that's the story the way my parents tell it, with them meeting accidentally and discovering some otherworldly, cherubic connection, sitting in the front room and talking for hours until Kathy came home with some other guy at 3 a.m., sending Bryan and Sally into fits of laughter. (To this day, Mom claims it's only because she had his favorite type of beer). It's a cute story, two radically different people, him from the wrong side of the tracks, her all bespectacled with a nose in a book, coming together because he was too much of a jerk to be on time and she was too much of a nerd to have anything better to do than wait for her best friend's asshole boyfriend to show up for a proper dressing-down. Love just appeared, when neither suspected it. When the eyes of Bryan and Sally met, angels came down from the heavens and sang breathtaking hymns of sunshine and peace. Flowers blossomed within seconds. Puppies frollicked in the foliage. Somewhere, a bell chimed.

I don't buy that shit for a second. Never have. They'll deny it to the day they die, but if my parents met any other way than by stumbling drunkenly into each other at some kegger, I'll eat my shoe. That's not an indictment of my parents, not at all. But no story like that is ever true, particularly not in Mattoon.

In my parents' old scrapbook, full of wedding photos and random candid shots from the courtship that look nauesatingly close to my sister and I making out -- it is creepy; at 21 and 19, Bryan and Sally looked exactly like me and my sister Jill -- there is a clipping from the Mattoon Journal-Gazette. It's in the Notices section, presumably copied down straight from the police report.

ARRESTED

Sylvia K. Dooley, 19, Mattoon, illegal transportation of alcohol, underage consumption.

William B. Leitch, 21, Mattoon, illegal transportation of alcohol.

Now that's more like it. I asked them about this curious piece of journalism once, and they just chuckled it away, like it had happened to different people all together. "We were just kids, then," they said. "Like you. Except if you pull that shit, we'll kick the crap out of you."

So this is how they tell it. Bryan and Sally hit it off splendidly, drinking together and finding their backgrounds were more similar than they had anticipated. Bryan was the roughneck, the guy always with his head stuck under the hood of a '57 Chevy, sneaking smokes in the boys' room and skipping out on every class except shop. Sally had been the smart one, enjoying the occasional flirtation with The Other Half. But both had come from large families -- Bryan was the oldest son in a litter of eight; Sally was the only daughter among three brothers -- and both wanted to have fun while they could before adulthood reared its nasty head.

The main difference: Bryan was going to escape Mattoon soon. With a few of his buddies from shop, he had enlisted in the Air Force. He was facing boot camp in about three months. This was during the Vietnam War, of course, and even though the big cities had been suffering through those dreadful protestors for a couple of years now, Mattoon had the same mindset it had through all the other wars. You signed up and served your country, the way that you were supposed to, the way your father and his father and his father had. In the Leitch family household, the first thing Bryan saw when he woke up in the morning was the picture of his father in uniform, strong, firm, Proud To Be An American. For a guy with no designs on college and no real problems with the war, nothing he could tell so far anyway, waiting around for your draft card was not even a possibility. You enlisted, because that was what you did.

Obviously, this rankled Sally somewhat, since she appeared to like this Bryan fellow quite a bit and was in no particular hurry to see him get his ass blown off in a war she had the vaguest suspicions -- never spoken of course -- might not be worth fighting. But he'd already signed up, and he wouldn't have been able to be talked out of it anyway, so they simply enjoyed the time they had left before he left for six weeks of boot camp and 16 more weeks of training. Besides, this was the Air Force; Bryan wouldn't exactly be shipped to the front lines.

Bryan and Sally, though, crammed quite a bit into their first three months. They quickly became an item -- the couple that gets arrested together, stays together -- and, since this was Mattoon, thoughts of long-term permanence seeped in. After all, Dad had a nice car, and she imagined he'd look pretty nice in a uniform. And Sally, truth be told, was pretty hot; long black hair, parted right in the middle, skinny, with mysterious eyes.

And boot camp approached. What would Bryan do? It had only been three months; was that enough time? To figure out if this was your lifemate? Sure, they had fun together, and she sure was funny after a six-pack, but who knew what would happen in the service? What if he ended up going to Vietnam? Could he take her back there, studying at Lake Land College, while he looked real life right in the face? She had come along at the wrong time, he was afraid. Maybe he would have not enlisted -- his draft card number had indeed been low -- had he known she would show up, but he had, and that was all that mattered.

So three months into their budding relationship, a week before he headed to Lackland Air Force Base in Lackland, Texas, before life started getting weird, Bryan broke up with Sally. She handled the news well enough; it would be easier anyway, with him halfway across the country, perhaps someday halfway across the world. As nice a guy as he seemed to be, as sharp as he probably looked in his uniform, as bitchin' a motorcycle as he might have, he was hardly the safest horse to bet on. And so they parted ways, likely never to see each other again.

Sally received the first letter about two weeks after he was gone. As always, Bryan was reserved in his words. The letter was bland in form, mainly just a here's-what's-going-on, my-hair's-a-lot-shorter, have-an-asshole-drill-sergeant type of thing.

(Years later, while discussing boot camp with a nephew who was about to enlist, Dad remembered the following exchange:

Drill Sergeant: WHERE ARE YOU FROM, LEITCH?

Bryan: Sir, Illinois, sir!

Drill Sergeant: ILLINOIS? YOU KNOW ONLY N---ERS AND FAGGOTS COME FROM ILLINOIS! DON'T YOU?!

Bryan: Sir, I'm not from Chicago, sir!

Drill Sergeant: THAT'S REALLY FUNNY, LEITCH! YOU'RE A FUCKING COMEDIAN! GET YOUR ASS DOWN AND GIVE ME 20!)

It was the end of the letter that caught Sally's attention. In Bryan's scrawled, broken English was the sentence: Sally, when I get back, I think we should talk.

For whatever reason -- it was likely the close quarters with a bunch of men, I'd guess -- Bryan couldn't get Sally off his mind. The letters started coming weekly after that, through the six weeks of boot camp and the 16 weeks following in Wichita Falls, Texas, for basic training. By way of his expertise in mechanics, Bryan was dispatched to flight maintenance and would not be going to Vietnam. He was needed here, working on planes, an under-the-hood troubleshooter. His two friends with whom he had enlisted were not so lucky.

During the 16 weeks in Wichita Falls -- when asked about the training, my father instinctively recited, "43151C, Flight Maintenance," like he had done so many times before, though likely not for about 30 years -- the letters became more and more frequent. By now, Bryan and Sally were talking on the phone whenever they had the opportunity.

Between the completion of maintenance training and his assignment -- he was to be stationed in Hampton, Virginia, at an Air Force base there -- Bryan would be in Mattoon for two weeks. Sally, soon after Bryan had left, dated some other people, but not now. They spend the aforementioned fortnight together, and then he left again, to Virginia, this time with a better idea of what awaited him back home.

The idea hit Bryan in a flash. As luck would have it, a fellow private at Hampton lived in Effingham, a city about 20 miles from Illinois. In March 1971, about three months after he'd arrived there, he propositioned the pal. "Hey, whaddya doing this weekend? Wanna go home for a few hours?" The drive was about 14 hours. They would have a total of about 10 hours in Mattoon, not alloting for luxuries like sleep. After a bit of persuading -- I think Dad still owes the guy cigarettes -- they took off. He surprised Sally, waking her, and handed her an engagement ring. It was the same ring his mother had received from his father, and the same ring, about 25 years later, his son would give his fiancee. Sally said yes, and they spent the next eight hours ... well, honestly, I don't want to know.

They planned a wedding date in June, a mere two months after the engagement and, in a seemingly incomprehensible conceit, after spending a total of two weeks together since they had broken up a year earlier. Bryan siphoned off a couple weeks of leave from the base, and they came back to Mattoon and were married. For their honeymoon, they headed to Effingham and spent a night at the Best Western Inn. The next day, Sally's grandmother made a comment, something along the lines of, "Hey, so Sally, did you have a good night last night, nudge, nudge," and Sally was so embarrassed she went in the bathroom, vomited and refused to come out for a half an hour.

And so was love consumated. It seems fitting such a union would eventually produce me.

 

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