A Stroke of Luck
All semester I’d known the big tenth grade biology project was due May 17. Our teacher had warned us not to wait until the last moment to begin collecting, euthanizing, mounting, and labeling 50 different kinds of insects. The ether-on-a-cotton-ball-in-a-pill-bottle method of execution took forever, so I opted for a quick kill—I plunged them into boiling water, and they came out like action figures. Think cryogenic Han Solo, but with heat. My project was finished—a week early! That had never happened—before or since.
As the leader of the Boy Scout Explorer Post at church, Jim Swearingen was in charge of organizing a picnic outing to a local theme park. To help the scouts practice their “social graces,” the adult leaders required each guy to invite a date to the event. It’s never easy experiencing rejection, but even harder when all the girls he called had the same excuse—“I’ve got to work on my bug collection!”
At fifteen, dating was not on my radar screen. I’d been to school activities and was active in my church youth group. I wasn’t unattractive, just not ready to complicate my life with boys. I was the studious type, on the school newspaper staff, with plans to major in journalism and write the great American novel. Outside of football season, my idea of a great Friday night was writing another chapter in the novel about my future life, while I listened to the top 40 on WHBQ. So when my mom said I had a call from Jim Swearingen, I was shocked. We barely knew each other. We certainly hadn’t talked. He was one of the cool guys who shuffled into Sunday School each week, intentionally late. The teacher always got a laugh when he thanked the “ four musketeers” for gracing the rest of us with their presence.
Why would one of the musketeers be calling me? I took the receiver from her hand and said hello. I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Marcia, this is Jim Swearingen… from Sunday School? I was wondering if you would be my date for the Explorer Scout picnic this Saturday at Lakeland Amusement Park?”
He was asking me for a date? My stomach was in free-fall and my mind was a jumble. Somehow I gathered my wits and responded: “Thanks for asking me. I need to know how long it will last and who will be driving before I ask my parents.” I was thrilled to have found enough words to buy myself time to think.
“I would pick you up at two o’clock Saturday. We’ll be swimming first, so bring your suit and a towel. Then we’ll eat and go ride the rides. I’ll have you home by ten.”
“That sounds like fun.” I said. “Hold on a minute.” If I chickened out before I got to the next room to ask them, I could say my parents said no. In my fantasy, action adventure novel, I controlled all the outcomes, but this was real life—more risky, and judging from my racing pulse, definitely more exciting. By the time I got to the next room I was begging to go. My parents recognized the family name from church. After verifying that there would be adult chaperones, my real life adventure was set for Saturday.
Once the shock wore off, I realized I didn’t even own a swimsuit. But when Jim picked me up, I was toting a brand new blue one with flowers on a trendy blouson top. It had looked so pretty in the dressing room, but once in the water, the over-blouse inflated. I looked like a giant jellyfish six months pregnant! I had wanted to make a big impression, but not like this. We decided to change and make our way to the picnic grounds. As Jim turned the ignition key, the radio sprang to life and there it was again, the song we’d heard earlier—a hauntingly beautiful melody by Sounds Orchestral called Cast Your Fate to the Wind. The irony was not lost on the novelist.
The day flew by and I realized we were actually having fun. By this time the sun had set and a brilliant full moon was rising. There was time for one more excursion and Jim chose the sky ride, a twenty minute journey high above a beautiful lake with a commanding view of the whole park. As soon as our gondola launched, I knew I’d made a big mistake.
For the first time all day we were completely alone and as we left the lights of the midway, it became very dark and very quiet. Jim slid his right arm around behind my shoulders. I’d never been kissed before and that wasn’t the script I’d planned for a first date. Too late now. I tightly gripped the edge of the open window and stared out at the reflection of the moon on the water, chattering away about how pretty it was, ever careful to keep my face turned away from his. He let me ramble on and then gently reached around with his left hand and pulled my chin toward his. At the last minute I pulled away. I was embarrassed that he would try and yet secretly glad he did. The last half of the sky ride was completed in silence. It seemed to take forever. Once back at the midway, it started to rain and everyone began packing up for home.
The next day at church Jim did speak to me, but then I heard nothing. Part of me was scared to death he would call, the other half equally scared he wouldn’t, but when the call finally came on Tuesday, I knew I could never go back to make believe.
It’s been 44 years since that first date. On a cruise to celebrate our 38th anniversary, I finally popped the question:
“Just how far down that original list of names was I?”
He leaned back with twinkle in his eye. “You, my dear, weren’t even on the list. I guess I just got lucky.”