It’s hard to tell a college-aged guy what to do and not to do, whom to date and not to date. I know I wouldn’t listen to anyone, especially not to my friends. No, I had to learn the hard way, and drive the long way, too.
I lived in the college town of Montevallo, Alabama, twenty-five miles from my home in Bessemer, and fifty miles from Clanton. Clanton isn’t an important town to me, never was. Like Bessemer, it’s just one of those places that you wouldn’t pull off an interstate for, except to wonder how and why its citizens kept themselves going, and there. I never noticed it, at least, until I had to.
Until, that is, I decided I had to date a girl who lived there.
I met her in the lounge of the SUB where she hung out with the commuters on the second floor, drinking soda, just down the hall from the SGA offices where I often had college business.
The canteen was downstairs, and so many times as I was walking up and down those marble-tiled stairs, I’d see her. Reddish hair cut in a shag, wide blue eyes that, indeed, stared my way.
Now I’m not the world’s most masculine man, not the boldest, either, but in those days I was on a streak of getting “Yes’s” to my queries,
“Do you wanna go out one night?”
I had been a high school reject, not the most physical guy dating-wise, and so college for me, like for many, was a chance to start over. So after seeing her seeing me a few times, I walked up to her, asked her her name, and in a soft-spoken voice she said “Kay.”
And when I asked her out for that coming Friday night, she said, simply,
And then, “But I live in Clanton.”
I didn’t know then how far Clanton was from the college (again, fifty miles), nor did I know that to call her, I had to dial long distance. All of this should have discouraged men, and a less passionate guy might have thought better about his next move. I, however, had a date, and no force on earth would stop mixed-up, muddled-up me.
The night before our date, I called her and asked if there were any good movies playing in Clanton.”
“Well, we only have the one theater, but it’s a twin,” she said.
I don’t remember the other movie playing that night, but the one we chose was The Bad News Bears Go To Japan. I’m not going to parse that title and explain how truly symbolic and prescient it was. Tatum O’Neal hadn’t signed on for this sequel, which should have told me something else, something more. Again, though, nothing mattered except for Kay.
And my incredulous and irate father. When I told him I needed to borrow his car for my date, he asked, as he usually did, where she lived. I had a horrible record, you see, of finding girls to date who lived in the most remote but still accessible parts of greater metro Birmingham: East Lake, Dora, Brighton, Leeds. Dad tried to hold me accountable for gas, but since I had so little money, and since he wanted grandchildren one day, he always relented. This time, however, he exploded:
“Clanton? Do you realize that Clanton is 75 miles from here? That means 150 miles round trip, not to mention that you have to get home from school and go back later!”
“No, I’ll spend the night at home,” was all I could manage.
In 1977, gas cost a dollar a gallon, so you do the math.
Along with being immature, stupid, and crazy for girls, I was also a budding young radical. I wore my hair past my shoulders, had a long red beard, and considered myself a socialist-in-the-making. In 1976, I voted for that socialist leader, Jimmy Carter, and more than anything else, I read everything I could get my hands on about the Nixon fall:
All the President’s Men
The Final Days
The Boys on the Bus
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
I hated Nixon, then, and reveled in his shaming. Had I been old enough in ’72 to vote, McGovern would have been my man, and maybe my Dad would have killed me back then and spared us both…Clanton.
So there I was, driving to Clanton in my jeans and Levi’s jacket, my red flag unfurled against all conservative comers.
And there was my date, waiting for me.
And there also were the Bad News Bears.
On the way home, after making our small talk, I said something quasi-political, and my date more firmly than at any other time said,
“I hate those Democrats for what they did to President Nixon. I’d like to talk to him one day and tell him how I feel.”
“Well, I’d like to talk to him, too,” I sneered.
“I just bet you would!”
Still, despite our distance, when I walked her to her door she squeezed me tight and kissed me as passionately as any other girl had.
On my seventy-file mile drive back to Bessemer that night, I thought long and hard about myself, about the lengths I went for bad movies, for random dates, for five minutes of French kissing. Somewhere in San Clemente, I knew Nixon was smiling.
Maybe I learned my lesson that night about choosing all the wrong people to date, about distance and time.
Six years later, though, I met, and the following year, married my wife. We’ve been together thirty-four years, and both of us are disgusted by our current president.
Oh, one more thing. My wife traveled a great distance—from Iran–for us to find each other, a mutual act of which even my Dad approved.
Terry Barr is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother (Third Lung Press), and We Might As Well Eat: How to Survive Tornadoes, Alabama Football, and Your Southern Family (TLP). His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, storySouth, Wraparound South, Flying South, Full Grown People, Left Hooks, and Vol 1 Brooklyn. He blogs at Medium.com/@terrybarr and lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.