Getting older certainly can be challenging, as our bodies begin to slow down—and sometimes betray us in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we were younger—but I’ve said it many times: I would never want to be young again. A few years ago that statement came with a caveat—not unless I could bring my wisdom from lessons learned with me. Now, with the world in the state it’s in, a multi-trillion dollar deficit that grows greater each day, a corrupt government, school shootings, terrorism, and more … well, let’s just say I don’t envy our youth. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the tomorrow I will one day never see, I’m just more realistic about making a difference in the world.
When I first started writing 500 Miles to Go, I struggled during the early chapters, when Alex Król was a teen. It’s been many years since I’ve been a boy, and so I had to dig deep to find the boy I once was: the endless energy, the ability to dream large, the belief I could achieve anything. But most daunting to me was writing of young love, especially in the mid 1950s and early 1960s.
When I started developing Alex and Gail’s relationship early on, I was fairly fresh out of a relationship. I was hurting, grieving, and pretty much had given up on finding love. But a writer writes. He or she draws on experience, and observes the world around themselves. For all our modern technology, the dating ritual is pretty much the same today as it was while I was growing up: boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy asks girl out, girl agrees, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girls, boy wins girl back.
Below is another excerpt Alex and Gail scene from 500 Miles to Go, now available from Second Wind Publishing, at Amazon in both book and Kindle format. It describes Alex meeting Gail’s parents for the first time—certainly composed of more angst than a young man can know prior to the event:
I met Gail’s mom the following Monday when I walked Gail home from school for the first time.
I slipped my hand into hers as we exited the building; I was aware of the envious glances of many of the guys we passed, and I thought, This is surely what winning the 500 must feel like.
As we approached Gail’s house, I let go her hand.
“Why did you let go of my hand?” she said, sounding disappointed.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I wasn’t sure how your mom would feel seeing us holding hands. I don’t know what you’ve told her about us. About me.”
“It’s just hand-holding,” she said. Then she took my hand in hers, and I felt my heart over-rev: six thousand BPM and rising.
“Mom, I’m home,” Gail said as we entered the house.
I glanced around the modestly decorated living room, neat and clean.
A moment later, Mrs. Russell came around a corner. She was a woman of about thirty-five years, and it was obvious from where Gail had gotten her looks.
“Gail,” she said, “you didn’t tell me you were bringing home a guest.”
“Mom, this is Alex, the boy I was telling you about – the boy who took me to the dance last Friday.”
“Alex,” Mrs. Russell said, taking my hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine,” I said. “Any mother of Gail’s is a mother of mine.” I immediately kicked myself, thinking perhaps my comment, which hadn’t been rehearsed, was too familiar; but Mrs. Russell laughed and thanked me.
“Gail has told me a lot about you.”
“Really?” I said, pleased. “Considering we’ve known each other only a few days, she can’t possibly know much.”
“Well, what she knows, she likes.”
“Mother!” Gail said, blushing.
I grinned and said, “What I know about Gail, I like, too. What’s not to like?”
“She’s a good girl – but then again, I’m rather partial. Why don’t you two go sit in the yard. I’ll bring out some lemonade.”
“That would be swell,” I said. And then, with a glance at Gail, I added, “If that’s okay with you.”
We stepped out the backdoor into an expansive yard; a moment later, a brown ball of fur appeared from the furthest reaches of the lot and raced toward us.
“You have a dog,” I said, dropping to one knee. I was elated.
“That’s Dixie,” Gail said.
Dixie slowed as she approached me, and I held out my hand for her to sniff; then she wagged her tail and I scratched her between her ears.
“She likes you,” Gail said.
“What’s not to like?” I quipped again. Dixie was now licking my hand. I delighted in the sandpaper texture of her tongue.
“She doesn’t usually take to strangers so quickly.”
“I’ve yet to meet a dog that didn’t like me.”
“They’re very perceptive creatures.”
“Yes, they are,” I said. “I hope you’ll come to like me, too.”
“Silly Alex. I already do.”
“You don’t have a dog?”
“Why not? I’d have thought with a farm you’d have several.”
“My mother is a bit of a neat freak. Her idea of a clean house doesn’t include pets.”
“That’s too bad. Dixie is a toy collie-poodle mix. Fortunately, she doesn’t shed much; usually in the spring, with the onset of the warm weather.”
Mrs. Russell came out of the house with two glasses of lemonade on a tray. I stood up, took both glasses, and handed one to Gail.
“Will you be staying for dinner, Alex?” Mrs. Russell asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. Then to Gail I said, “Am I?”
“Would you care to stay for dinner, Alex Król?”
“I’d like to, very much.”
“Then it’s settled,” Mrs. Russell said. “Why don’t you two go sit at the picnic table while I go set another place at the table? Your father will be home shortly.”
We sat at the picnic table, under a Maple tree. Dixie was curled up at my feet. It was early May, and the temperature was comfortable. Gail looked radiant, her complexion smooth and soft. It was a good moment.
We said nothing for a time, but neither of us felt uncomfortable with the silence, punctuated by the sound of birds chirping and the breeze rustling the leaves above us.
Finally, I ventured, “I like you, Gail.”
“You don’t know me well enough to like me, Alex Król.”
“True,” I said. “But I know that what I know about you I like, and I’d like to get to know you better.”
“So much the better, Alex Król,” she said with a sigh. “Because I feel the same way.”
“I’m glad,” I said, grinning. “Why do you call me Alex Król?”
“Because that’s your name, silly.”
“I mean, why do you use both my first and last names?”
“Oh, that. It’s southern etiquette, mostly. But also because I –” she averted her eyes and blushed.
“What?” I said.
“I like your name. Alex Król,” she said, looking at me. “They go together well. It sounds like the name of someone destined for fame. Are you going to be famous someday?”
“I want to be famous only in your eyes.”
Gail smiled and said, “You say the sweetest things.”
“You have a beautiful smile,” I said.
“Thank you. I like yours, too, mischievous as it is.” A moment later, she changed the subject. “Do you like to read?”
“I don’t read much. My father doesn’t approve of my taste for Strange Tales and the science fiction of Alfred Bester and H.G. Wells. He thinks I should be reading the classics.”
“He should encourage you to read anything, even if it is pulp. Your taste will evolve as you get older. You ever read Mark Twain?”
“I read Tom Sawyer, which I enjoyed. What do you like to read?”
“I have a voracious appetite for nearly anything. Jane Austen is my favorite. She was English, lived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and wrote mostly romance. Sadly, she died very young, at forty-one. Emma is my favorite Jane Austen novel. It’s a novel about matchmaking. Before she began writing it, Jane wrote, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’ In the very first sentence, she describes Emma as ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, but she’s also rather spoiled and greatly overestimates her matchmaking abilities. I loved John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Much of the language is very vulgar, but accurate to the period. When George shot Lennie, I cried for days.”
“I like that you’re so passionate about books,” I said. “Do you think you’ll ever write one?”
“I never thought about it. What would I write about? I don’t think I’ve lived enough to write anything meaningful. I want to be a teacher. But who knows? Maybe one day I will – write a novel, that is.”
I was utterly charmed by Gail’s passion, as well as by her ability to carry on a discussion with little input from me. She was beautiful, intelligent, and had depth. She was the girl I always dreamed of meeting.
“I think you can do anything you set out to do,” I said.
“That’s kind of you.”
“I mean it.”
I felt my leg nudged; Dixie stood, wagging her tail with a rubber ball in her mouth. She wanted to play catch, so I took the ball and threw it toward the back of the yard, and off she went, her paws kicking up blades of grass as they sought traction.
“What about you, Alex Król? What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to race cars,” I said without hesitation.
Obviously, Gail didn’t take me seriously since she only said, “That’s just a dream. Seriously, what do you see yourself doing after graduation?”
Dixie had retrieved the ball, which I took from her mouth and threw again.
“If the racing thing doesn’t work out,” I said, “I figure to work for my dad and eventually take over his business.”
When Gail said nothing, I added, “What do you think? Can I become famous in your eyes as a grease monkey?”
Gail smiled and said, “Only time will tell. But I can see you as a prominent businessman in the community.”
“Dinner is ready,” Mrs. Russell called from the back porch.
Once inside, I asked if I could use the phone to let my parents know I wouldn’t be home for dinner.
“Thanks for letting us know,” I heard Mom’s voice in my ear. “Enjoy yourself.”
“Thanks, Mom. I will.”
I sat down at the dinner table across from Mr. Russell. While Mrs. Russell had made me feel welcome, Mr. Russell’s stern mien took me by surprise, and then I recalled Gail telling me he was Baptist. Suddenly, I became very nervous.
After a brief prayer of thanksgiving, the plates were passed in silence: pot roast, string beans, and potatoes, along with banana slices suspended in lime Jell-O. While on the phone, I’d spotted on a counter what smelled like a rhubarb pie that looked to be homemade.
“Tell me, Alex,” Mr. Russell said. “What are your aspirations after graduation?”
My mind raced. Recalling Gail’s own same question from a few minutes ago, I thought it best to say nothing of my dream; instead, I settled on a noncommittal reply.
“I can see myself following in my father’s footsteps.” There was some truth in that. “He’s South Lyon’s best mechanic. If you ever need work done on your car, Mr. Russell, he’ll quote you a fair price, and his work is the best.”
“Thank you, Alex. I’ll keep that in mind.”
I took a bite of the pot roast; it was flavorful and not too dry. Mrs. Russell could give my mom a run for her money in the kitchen.
I risked a glance to Mr. Russell; he’d just forked string beans into his mouth. He chewed a moment, swallowed, and asked, “What’s your denomination?”
“Catholic, sir,” I said. “I’m God-fearing.” Although in that moment, I feared Mr. Russell more than I did God.
Mr. Russell nodded. “And your political leaning?”
“Republican.” And then, remembering what Gail had told me about the Dixiecrats in North Carolina – that they were against civil rights – I added, “I believe in human rights for everyone, color notwithstanding.”
And so it went throughout dinner, with Mr. Russell making no effort to conceal his efforts to determine if I was the right young man for his daughter. The only question he didn’t ask was what my intentions were concerning his one and only little girl.
After dessert – the rhubarb pie was delicious – Mr. Russell excused himself while I helped clear the table, then Gail showed me to the front door.
After making certain we were alone, I whispered, “How’d I do?”
“You did fine. I think Daddy likes you.”
“Really?” I said, grinning. “How could you tell?”
“He’s strict and stern and slow to warm to people. He’ll come around. What’s not to like about you?” she finished with a smile. And then, after checking to make sure we were still alone, she kissed me on the cheek and told me she’d see me in school tomorrow.