Growing Up Gardnerville: Semester Break, Part I
Growing Up Gardnerville is a series of vignettes, combining the moments we’ve experienced, heard about and imagined in this wonderful Valley. It is an indulgence of the memory, Twainian in nature: It’s how it happened, clouded by years of exaggerated re-telling. The series premiered in June with The Lake. The places are real, some of the events are too, but names have been changed to protect the innocent, characters have been melded together for the sake of brevity, anonymity and convenience and the timeline has been jumbled and folded over on itself to serve a more entertaining storyline. When you say, “This didn’t really happen,” you’re mostly right. But it did happen, to one of us, sometime, sort of, growing up in this incredible place we call home.
Semester Break, Part I
by Joey Crandall, email@example.com
“Do you think Delilah is cute?” Billy Tompkins sipped deeply from his coffee cup before setting it pensively on the counter top at Katie’s Country Kitchen.
“Delilah …you know, from the radio?” he gestured up toward the speaker in the ceiling. “De-LIE-LAH?” He sang her trademark jingle, floating a hand near his ear with flitting fingers.
Delilah had just finished comforting some poor soul out in Tennessee who’d fallen for a guy who stole her dog , and then left us listening to Wham!’s “Last Christmas.”
“I hate this song,” Kyle Cooper hadn’t yet looked up from his menu as we sat in a neat row at the dinner counter fronting the Katie’s kitchen.
It was 11 p.m. I’d just gotten off work at Scolari’s, and Billy and Kyle, as had long been our habit, met me for a late, late breakfast.
“You mean like do I think she is cute? Or do I think she is cute? I’ve never seen her,” I said.
“Do you think she is cute? She sounds cute.”
“Have you ever listened to the words of this song? Like really listened? How is this a Christmas song?” Kyle grumbled.
“I don’t know, she might be. She sounds cute, That’s why they gave her a national radio show. I think she’s like 20 years older than you, Billy. And I think she’s married.”
“No she isn’t.”
“Well, she was. I think.”
“Crowded room, friends with tired eyes? I’m hiding from you and your soul of ice? … Hold my heart and watch it burn,” Kyle demanded inquiry of each line, jabbing a finger in the air for each phrase. “Merry Christmas, George Michael. Thanks for ruining my week.”
“Kyle, bud, what’s up?”
“It’s Tina, man. She brought her new boyfriend back from college to meet her parents.”
Tina Pinkle and Kyle Cooper met on the first day of seventh grade and dated only each other for the next six years. When Kyle stayed home at UNR and Tina left for Washington, they stayed strong through the fall of their freshman year but the natural progression of time and distance began to thin the bond.
Tina broke it off entering this past school year, when she started talking about wanting to make a life in Washington after school and Kyle started talking about never being able to be a Seahawk fan.
Mary Jordan, home on break from Montana, stopped by to take our orders.
“What’s it going to be, guys?”
“Chicken Fried Steak, scrambled.”
“Chicken Fried Steak, scrambled.”
“Chicken Fried Steak, scrambled … Hey Mary, do you ever listen to Delilah?”
“Shut up, Billy,” Kyle snapped. “Mary, are you guys hiring? I need a job.”
“I don’t know, maybe? Are you going to stop yelling at the radio if I put in a good word for you?”
That was the problem with semester break. It was a five-week void for the college student.
It was just long enough to recover from the Fall. Just short enough to not really be enough time to do anything worth anything.
It’s the first time you’ve been able to breathe easy and sleep in since the summer and still, after three days of eating Cheerios for lunch and watching previews for the Las Vegas Bowl — which was still two weeks away — on SportsCenter, you’re looking for something to occupy the time.
“Kyle, I’ll get you on at Scolari’s,” I said. “We’re busy this month every year and we’re light on staff.”
“Get me on? Get me on how? Like a cashier? Or a bag boy?”
“’Come on. It pays OK, it’s something to do. Hey, we’d get to hang out. It wouldn’t be so bad.”
Kyle gave a nod and shrugged his shoulders. “I think I’ll try an application here,” he said.
“Hey Mary, are you going to Grand Central later?” I asked.
“I don’t know, is Billy singing?”
“No!” Billy exclaimed. He’d been staring off into the angled mirror panels hanging above the counter, passively watching the numbers on the KENO board light up.
“He’ll sing,” Kyle said.
Kyle gave Mary a wink, “He’s singing.”
“OK. I’ll be there.”
Gardnerville in the late 90s left little to do to pass the time. Not for a college kid, anyway. There was Ironwood Cinemas. There was Meadowdale Theatre. And there was Katie’s.
But the thing is, that was mostly enough. If you went and saw “Toy Story 2” five times, you went and saw “Toy Story 2” five times. Five times. You went and saw it until all your friends had seen it. That’s just how it was.
Somehow, Grand Central Pizza had joined that list of things to do.
A group met there for dinner that first year, and they ran into another group. Tables were pushed together, and somewhere over the next hour someone started singing along with the radio.
Jan Engvold, a Swedish exchange student from our class who never exchanged back to his home country, just happened to have an electric keyboard in his car. In it came, more friends were called, and soon the restaurant had 15 Douglas grads taking turns singing Christmas songs, karaoke-style, abandoned of vocal inhibition.
This year, the place was full to the brim, maybe 100 former classmates milling around, by the time we walked in.
We could see Jan sitting at the back of the restaurant at a piano. A real upright piano that had somehow materialized in the year since we’d last descended on the pizza place.
Jan was tapping out the melody to “Blue Christmas,” while Sara Johnson belted out the lyrics over an amplified microphone Jan had purchased just for this event.
The whispers started as we made our way further in.
“Hey, Billy’s here.”
We found our way to an open booth along the side wall.
Elbows rubbed into opposing rib cages, heads turned, revealing smiles and glances of anticipation.
Tradition usually starts in something mundane. It winds up being fun, or funny. It’s something you talk about weeks or months later. And then, it happens again. And again.
Billy had done something that previous December that had carried over. The karaoke was fine; seeing friends you hadn’t seen in months was nice; but people had really come to watch Billy.
Jan played the piano to accompany all comers. Cheers rang through the air as favorites like “White Christmas,” “Grandma got ran over by a reindeer,” and “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” got sung … poorly.
So it went until the de facto stage went vacant for a moment.
The murmurs started from the back of the room.
“Yeah, ’bout time.”
“Come on, Billy. Let’s go.”
“Yeah, Billy. Celebrate.”
The request rolled quickly to the front of the room and and finally the crowd was able to cajole and applaud Billy up to the stage.
He shook hands with Jan, taking the microphone and giving a shy smile.
Billy had always been a quiet presence among his classmates in high school. Funny, good natured, but hard to read and slow to open up.
A year ago, at our egging on, he’d gotten on stage and unleashed a performance just hoping to draw some laughter out of the group of 15.
It did a little bit more than that.
Grand Central had become, and would continue to be, a semester break tradition because of what followed.
Amid the whoops and the hollers of the crowd, Jan Engvold started up with the familiar warm chord progression, trilling the piano’s high notes for effect.
Billy cleared his throat, twice, and lifted the mic to his mouth. A wry smile betrayed his lips.
“Home for the holidays,” Squeals of glee rose from our former classmates. “I believe I’ve missed each and every face…”
It took about 10 seconds for everyone in attendance to join in. The first time Billy had sung it, Jan played the refrain for 15 minutes.
For whatever reason, Kenny Loggins just struck a special chord.
The noise upon hitting the chorus was immense, vibrating through the seats and walls and cascading back down off the ceiling.
“PLEEEEASE, CELEBRATE ME HOME … GIVE ME ANOTHER…”
On through the song they journeyed, Jan pounding away at big, fat chords and Billy warbling all over the pitch, until finally getting to the phrase that had made the tradition small-town famous.
Jan hammered the notes down on the piano, rumbling intonations that rang through the aged mahogany of the instrument – Billy belted, “BeeEEEeeEE, what you want from MEE-Yeaah …”
Billy gestured emphatically with waving arms, Jan crashed the down beats and thrashed the frosted tips of his Swedish spiked coif like a conductor’s baton trying to keep the crowd in sync – Billy delved deep within, showing surprisingly good – errr, surprisingly dedicated, vocals –
“I’ammm this strong,yeah … IEE’LL be weeeee -EE-EEE-EEEEEEAAAK,”
He shrieked the high note, falling a good three or four tones short of actually hitting it. Gasping audibly for a breath, he half-chuckled as Jan cascaded his fingers down the keyboard to the rebound into the chorus – “PLEEEASE, CELEBRATE ME HOME … Give me another …”
Again and again, back-and-forth through the chorus we all went – the girls taking the “celebrates,” the guys handling the “well-I’m-finally-here-but-I’m-bound-to-roams.”
Differences and grudges were set aside. Hands waived through the air, old friends patted each other on the back and throats went hoarse from screaming the tune.
It was nearly 20 minutes before Jan finally brought it to a close. The room roared, Billy gave a slight bow followed by an emphatic fist pump, receiving high fives and back slaps on his way back to his seat.
As the buzz of the moment wore off, someone sitting behind us was asking another at their table, “Who was that guy? Did he go to Douglas?”
Something about tradition, no matter how repetitive and predictable, is comforting to the soul.
There was a time I didn’t think that, though. I was in about the fifth-grade when I decided the annual Minden Gazebo Lighting was possibly the least cool event on earth. Now, my qualifications to judge something as cool or not certainly could have been brought into question, but there would have been no convincing me otherwise.
It started, way back when, as a small gathering while someone fiddled around for the “on” switch.
Over time, though, it grew in size and significance, much like Grand Central Kenny Loggins Karaoke many years later. Even my interest was finally kindled in the gazebo lighting right around the time I hit eighth grade, mostly because I learned my next door neighbor Anne Marie Hazel would be there.
She’d long since moved to New Mexico, but I kept going every year, half-heartedly hoping she’d be there, home visiting relatives or something.
And there we were — Billy, Kyle and I — standing on the outside of the crowd and sipping hot coffee, kicking at the ground to keep our feet warm.
The temperatures hadn’t risen above 38 degrees all week, cementing Tuesday’s snow to the Minden Town Park grass that cold Friday night.
Billy toed at a cake of ice. “Why are we here? This is a kid thing.”
“Yeah, man,” Kyle agreed. “We look like creeps.”
We nodded and waved at former classmates and friends, some of whom already had their own children in tow, bundled up like Gore-Tex-coated marshmallows.
“I had the night off,” I said. “Besides, this is the type of stuff you’re going to remember later on.”
“Dale Knotts is going to see ‘The Green Mile’ later,” Billy said. “You guys want to come?”
Kyle groaned. “Tina’s here.” He pointed across the grass to his ex-girlfriend, standing next to a guy wearing a scarf . “She brought him.”
We didn’t know a lot about him. Heck, we didn’t know anything about him. Except that he was big. And that he’d worked as an Abercrombie & Fitch model.
Or so Tina had informed Kyle via AOL Instant Messenger.
Kyle grasped nervously at his chin with a gloved hand. “He’s on the lacrosse team up there … Tina said he was an All-American.”
This drew a grunt and a nod of approval from Billy.
“Shut up Billy, I could’ve played lacrosse.”
“But you didn’t.”
Kyle didn’t respond.
The time came for the lighting – the crowd gathered around the flag pole, which at the time, was the town Christmas tree, with the help of long strands of lights strung from the top of the pole to a large ring hovering further down.
The countdown, followed by a moment’s darkness.
There were “oohs” and “aahs” when the lights flickered on.
The high school jazz band launched into “Jingle Bell Rock”, the families with children began to drift down Esmeralda Avenue to visit Santa, Billy made a bull rush for the concession table when he heard they were passing out hot apple cider, and the rest of the crowd began to disperse back to their cars.
Then something terrible happened.
Mr. Abercrombie & Fitch led Tina Pinkle by the hand to the base of the flag pole tree and began to lower down onto one knee.
Women in the crowd gasped in delight, all eyes – diverted as they may have been moments earlier – focused in with eager anticipation on what was about to transpire.
It was a Carson Valley Christmas miracle.
“Tina, you’ve made me the happiest man in the world these past few months and I couldn’t feel any luckier to have met you …”
Gosh this guy talked loud. Was he proposing to her, or the crowd?
The hum surrounding the couple, now suddenly encircled by onlookers under the halo of colorful shining lights above, was palpable. With every new amorous proclamation, the gush from the surrounding crowd thickened.
Tina’s parents looked on proudly, while her friends – all apparently in on the surprise – awaited the climax of the moment with clasped hands.
Tina’s cheeks burned red as a tear, twinkling in the surrounding glow of Holiday light, slid down her cheek.
Friends whispered, mothers shushed their children and the excitement of the moment seemed to charge the entire park with energy enough to power the freshly-ignited Gazebo.
“No!”Kyle had gone sheet white pale and was starting to wobble. He muttered his protestations at first, repeating in desperately higher volume as the emotion of the crowd built. “NO!”
The boyfriend fiddled a box out of his pocket and paused for effect.
“Tina Pinkle, I want to know if you would do me the honor …”
Abercrombie’s face was obscured in a sharp, glittering cloudburst of loosely-packed snow.
The impact of the the projectile knocked him off bended knee and sent the box skittering across the frozen turf.
He rolled around, attempting to gain his bearings, while onlookers rushed to his aid.
Quickly retracing the path of the missile in my mind I realized, with little deduction involved, that it had come from Kyle’s hand.
Kyle, though, had disappeared.
I spun around to see him running at a full sprint down 6th Street.
Mary Jordan, arriving late, had the misfortune of being in the path of his retreat. He’d bumped into her, knocking her cider out of her hand and into her purse.
Kyle slipped on a patch of ice while rounding the corner onto Mono Avenue and fell hard on his face, the impact making a crisp audible snap in the frigid December air.
By the time I caught up to him, he was sitting on the steps of the school district administration building, cut badly on the chin and bleeding steadily from his nose.
We sat silent for a minute. Maybe it was two.
“That was messed up,” I said, sitting down on the step next to him.
His head hung low, but he didn’t reply.
“That was like a real life moment you just ruined there, Kyle.”
“I know,” he wiped the stream of blood from his nose. “I just lost my mind …”
A long, long pause.
“It’s like, this is the first time I really had to accept that it’s over.”
“I think it’s definitely over.”
“I think I lost a shot at the CVI job.”
“What, Mary? She’s fine, just find her and apologize.”
“I’m not going back over there right now. Everyone saw.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, they did.”
“I got him pretty good, though, didn’t I?” More blood wiped from the nose, followed by a resigned laugh.
“Yeah, no one saw that coming.”
“Is he OK?”
“He’s fine,” I paused. “… Kyle, she said yes.”
“Was that what the clapping was about?”
“Well, they weren’t clapping for you.”
Kyle started at Scolari’s, as a bag boy, a couple days later.
We managed to both get scheduled on the swing shift for the month.
Following the end of his first shift, we sat out in the parking lot on the hood of my Mercury Lynx, eating a Moose Brothers take & bake pizza we’d snuck into the bakery oven.
I rolled the windows down, left the key ignition and turned up the radio.
“He, like, gets Tom Hanks right up against the bars and sucks the infection right out with his hand til one of the lights explodes … and then he barfs this angel dust into the air,” Kyle said. “It was crazy. Jose Salas is going with some friends tonight. You should go. It’s a good movie.”
Just then, Delilah’s buttery sweet voice cut in over the radio.
“Hi you’ve found Delilah on this cold winter night. I understand our next caller has been going through a tough time … Who am I talking to?”
“Uhh … Mark.”
It was Billy.
“What’s going on in your life tonight, Mark?”
“Umm, I recently broke up with my girlfriend, and she brought a new boyfriend home for Christmas break…”
Kyle cackled sardonically through a mouthful of pizza. “Jerk, stole my story.”
“I just feel so lonely and heartbroken. I need someone to talk to.”
“Well, Mark, we’re running short on time tonight, but I can play you a song, if you’d like.”
“I’d really like to talk to you a bit longer, if that’s OK.”
“I’m so sorry Mark, we’ve only got a few minutes left. Here, here’s a song to help you feel what you are feeling. Good luck to you, have a wonderful night, and try giving me a call again soon, OK?”
“Uh, OK. I’ll do that. Thank you.”
The punchy synthesized intro of Wham!’s “Last Christmas” started blaring over the speakers.
“Uggggh,” Kyle exclaimed. “Turn it off.”