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Suzie Sunshine and the
something in the water," Mike whispered
surreptitiously as she sauntered down the hallway
"I heard that, you pervert," she admonished him,
stopping in front of us. Tossing her long red mane
about her shoulders, she confronted us angrily like
a lion snarling at a circus tamer. Intense flames
darted within her green eyes as she stared at us,
one after another. "You boys are so ... so
immature!" she added, standing there with her hands
on her hips, doing that perfect Maureen O'Hara
imitation. Acting more and more like the mother hen
she was, she chastised us as if we had tracked mud
onto her freshly mopped floor.
Realizing the vulnerability of her stance, she
folded her arms in front of her, blocking from view
the obvious objects of our newfound interest. A
blush began on her neck and gradually rose to her
cheeks and forehead. We all recognized that look of
hers, a flushed tinge that usually signaled the
start of a kicking and screaming rampage that could
match any of us, blow for blow. She surprised us by
simply shaking her head and walking away.
I watched until she turned the corner toward fourth
period History class and wondered if she would cool
down before we boarded the school bus for the long
ride home. Mike was unsuccessfully trying to
explain to Bo what he meant by the "water" remark.
Out of the corner of my eye, I couldn't help but
notice that Bo was glancing down at his own chest,
unsure whether or not the water quality was having
any affect on his own anatomy.
Like Suzie, the three of us were "hicks." I was
never quite sure just what the term really
signified, only that anyone who lived outside the
city limits and rode the school bus automatically
had that derogatory label applied to them. The four
of us had been together since first grade. We stuck
together, not just out of necessity, but because we
honestly liked each other. Like the four
Musketeers, we shared a common existence and always
looked out for each other. Something was changing,
I sensed, as we headed to our respective classes.
I had always felt that living in the country was a
blessing, not a curse. I knew the name-calling was
due to our classmates' envy of our wondrous
lifestyle. I thought about the hillsides of hickory
nuts and black walnuts, of the blackberries that
grew in the thicket along the stream, and of the
crisp juicy apples that we would press into
sparkling cider. I remembered warm summer evenings,
the smell of freshly mown hay, and running through
the meadow gathering lightning bugs in wide-mouthed
mason jars. We would hurry to outdo each other;
rushing our hard won treasures back to Suzie, who
would admire their glowing beauty, then release
them, unhurt, back into the darkness.
She was the goodness that tempered our rough edges,
the coolness that calmed our impulsiveness, and the
softness that soothed our bruises, both real and
imagined. Always a tomboy, she could wrestle and
jump with the best of us, yet be the first to
notice the magic of a rainbow or find the first
crocus poking through the melting springtime snow.
Mike now called her "Sizzlin' Sue" but I still
thought of her as "Little Suzie Sunshine." I would
never forget that first grade pageant when Suzie
wore the cardboard solar halo. Bo, Mike and I were
relegated to being sunflowers. Standing there on
the platform, self-conscious in our green leotard
outfits, we constantly turned our faces to watch
her as she moved across the stage. Funny, I
thought, how here we were - six years later - still
turning our faces to watch her every move.
Bo and Mike rushed off to Shop class, while I
hurried to make it to History before the tardy bell
rang. This was our first year of junior high, and I
still wasn't used to the concept of changing
classes, or of not seeing the same faces all day
long. I looked over at Suzie's chair as I entered
the room. I wasn't sure if she saw me or not; if
she did, she didn't give any indication.
I couldn't help but sneak another downward glance
at her chest. The rocket tipped menaces were
still there. Like the pointed taillights on my
Dad's new '59 Dodge, they threatened anyone who
might be tempted to get too close. I knew what was
happening to her and felt thoroughly confused, both
saddened and excited by the pending changes.
Bored silly by the endless droning about Civil War
campaigns, I daydreamed about the
football season we had just finished. Mike was our
star quarterback, and I tried to
remember every perfect spiral he had zipped downfield into my waiting hands. Bo, the
towering - if somewhat ungraceful - giant, had been
the mainstay of our offensive line.
Although slow and not necessarily the brightest
athlete, his brute strength more than
compensated for whatever he lacked in understanding
of the plays. The three of us had
made quite a difference our first year here, and
had earned the grudging respect of our
city-slicker team mates.
Suzie couldn't understand how a simple game could
mean so much to us. She thought it to
be unnecessarily brutal, and had worried constantly
that one of us might get hurt. Personal
dislikes notwithstanding, she had attended every
game, sitting nervously in the stands and
cheering us on to victory.
Bo hardly ever expressed any thoughts about the
sport itself. To him, it was just another
chore ... an activity he was expected to perform
simply because Mike and I were there. I'm
not sure if he actually liked the game or not. In
either case he would have played the same,
just because he knew we needed him.
We called him Bo out of respect. His real name was
Roy, but only Mrs. Gillespie could get
away with calling him by his given name. The other
kids called him "Bohunk," a term
usually reserved for those of unknown
middle-European descent. In Bo's case it was
entirely appropriate, because he was truly a hunk
of an individual. Gentle and mild
mannered as he was, Bo never took offense at any
name, save for Roy.
Mike, conversely, was as unpredictable as a
springtime thunderstorm. He basked in the
glory of his on-field accomplishments. Stubborn and
independent, he seldom let his guard
down, except around Bo and I. As Irish as a New
York cop, David Michael McGary
demanded that everyone call him Mike. Not Michael,
and certainly not David, mind you, but
just plain old Mike. And so, we did.
As for myself, I lacked both Bo's physical strength
and Mike's drive and determination. I
made up for it by understanding the subtle nuances
of the sport: how to read an opponent's
defense and how to get to the open spot on the
field. I knew how Mike's mind worked and
always knew where the ball would be, even before he
threw it. Just as he knew where I
would make my cut, and when I would turn, we fed on
the synergy we created. Bo would
always hold off the opposing rushers how ever long
it took for Mike to set up the play. And
Suzie, of course, made it all possible by simply
believing in us. As a team, we were much
more than the sum of our individual talents.
The bell brought me back to reality and I hurriedly
copied down the reading assignment for
the next day from the blackboard. Suzie had already
left the room by the time I gathered up
my books. I tried to think what I would say to her
on the bus, but nothing jumped into my
I was usually the one to make the peace offering,
after one of us had offended her.
Sometimes, all it took was a single wild rose,
freshly plucked from the bushes near the bus
stop. Unfortunately, the roses were all gone for
this year. I wondered if a few of Grandma's
freshly baked walnut slice cookies might do the
trick. Somehow, I knew that this incident
might be too difficult to be resolved with a few
I figured that this time was probably just as
serious as when Mike had killed the baby rabbit
we trapped in her garden. How she had cried -
calling us "baby killers" - and threatened
never to speak to any of us ever again. It had
taken a hastily arranged funeral, complete
with a headstone for the grave site, and eloquent
eulogies and plentiful tears to appease
her sense of loss. I knew I had a chance to get to
her, if only I could find the right words.
Why did she always make my life so complicated?
Time healed the differences, and our close-knit
foursome remained intact throughout our
school years. Even Bo's faux pas, when he asked -
within earshot of Margaret, the school
gossip - if Suzie still had the birthmark on her
left breast. We were quite familiar with
Suzie's birthmark. We has seen it numerous times,
back when the four of us would strip
down to our underpants and take a refreshing dip in
the stock pond; back when all four of
our chests looked pretty much the same. Of course
Margaret didn't let on that this was
something that we had done while in the second
We survived all that, and more. Suzie's social life
managed to flourish, in spite of three
overly protective friends who scrutinized every boy
that dared to ask her for a date. She
often commented about how polite her boyfriends
were. Little did she know that we
threatened each prospective suitor with a fate
worse than death if they so much as made
Suzie mothered all of us through to graduation. She
wrote Bo's book reports and term
papers, and kept Mike's temper under control by
soothing his fragile ego. She kept me
pointed in the right direction, challenging me
always to do better and above all, to be
honest with myself.
After graduation, both Suzie and I went off to the
university. She was a liberal arts major
and planned on a teaching career. I landed an ROTC
military scholarship, and began
studying to become an aeronautical engineer. We saw
each other less and less as time
passed and we made new friends.
Mike tried the community college route, hoping to
make it as a junior college quarterback.
Unfortunately, the level of competition was much
higher than he expected. Without his
friends there to support him, his star quickly
dimmed. Within a year, he was out of college
and working the evening shift at the local glass
factory, where unpretentious Bo had
headed straight out of high school.
Suzie and I dated some during our early college
years. We grew increasingly more
polarized in our viewpoints. She began to identify
more and more with the growing anti-war
movement, while I edged ever closer to a full-blown
Even with our ominous differences, we tried to find
refuge from the world around us in each
other's arms. The physical desire was there, but
there was no common ground to sustain
us after the passion subsided. We both knew that we
had no future together, what with the
digressing paths we were beginning to follow.
Neither of us dared ask the other to
change. Gradually, we slipped back to being just
friends. In time, even that seemed to
I was in flight school earning my pilot's wings
when Bo got his draft notice. Mike, in a fit of
unbridled patriotism, enlisted to serve alongside
on the "buddy system." They were
nearing their end of their one-year combat infantry
tour by the time I flew my first mission
over the jungle. How different it must have
appeared to them, on the ground, than it did to
me from my vantage point high above the clouds.
Suzie had refused to see any of us off at our going
away parties. She had written each of
us a letter, explaining why we were so wrong, and
calling us every name in the book. Every
name, that is, except for "baby-killers." She had
played that trump card once already, and
knew better than to try it again. At the end, after
venting all the fear and frustration, she had
written these simple words: "Please come home safe.
Luv ya, Suzie." Suzie with the little
heart drawn lovingly above the letter "i" in place
of the dot.
The experts assured us that Bo had felt no pain the
day Mike's foot picked the trip wire
while they were out on patrol. I didn't get word
for several weeks, until Suzie's unexpected
letter shattered my world. Sure, I knew death. Some
of my flight buddies were either dead
or missing in action. But death at twenty thousand
feet is somehow more antiseptic - more
tolerable - than the "in your face" death that the
ground troops experience.
Until then, my bombing runs had been only a job.
Not the most pleasant job in the world, but
still, only a task to be accomplished. No feeling
... no emotion ... Actually, I hadn't thought of
it as much differently than running a play on the
football field. Now it was personal.
Numbed with bitterness, I wanted only revenge. With
every bomb I dropped - and with
every enemy I killed - I made Bo's life and death
more meaningful. My hatred, albeit
misdirected, somehow got me through it.
After I returned stateside, I visited Mike in the
VA rehab center. He was making good
progress learning to walk with the artificial leg.
I looked at the useless arm hanging limp at
his side and remembered the perfect spirals that
arm had thrown. Looking into his good
eye, I saw the emptiness within as we tried to talk
"I wish it had been me instead," he said.
I understood exactly what he meant. We hugged and I
tried to comfort him, but I had no
comfort left to give. At least Bo's death had been
quick; our wounds, both physical and
mental, would take many years to finally destroy
us. We were there, unsure of what to do,
when Suzie walked into the room. She joined us in a
group hug, and we sobbed like little
kids crying over a dead rabbit.
We agreed to stay in touch. We did ... at least at
first. Gradually our visits turned to
occasional phone calls, with the mandatory birthday
cards and Christmas greetings. In
time, even those faded until - eventually - we
tried to dismiss the past as a bad dream.
Suzie kept me posted long after Mike quit answering
my calls and letters. She told me of
his increasing problems with depression and
alcoholism. I finally told her I didn't want to
know anymore. Eventually, even her calls and
letters stopped coming.
I was going through the afternoon mail when I came
across the envelope. I glanced at the
return address: Mr. and Mrs. Roger Goodwin;
Clarksburg, West Virginia. I opened the
letter with trembling hands.
It was a Xeroxed form letter: Roosevelt-Wilson High
School, Class of '63 ... 40th Annual
Reunion ... I skipped down to read the handwritten
note at the bottom:
"Please try to make it. I'd really like to see you.
Luv ya, Suzie."
Suzie with the heart over the "i"... I smiled as I
thought of my little Suzie Sunshine. So many
years ... so many changes ... And yet, some things
are always the same. I wondered about
this Roger fellow; who was he? And what was he
doing with Suzie? ... my Suzie!
I tried to picture us at the reunion. I could
visualize the DJ on the stage, playing continuous
records, one after another, like an underground
oldies radio station without commercials. I
could see us out on the dance floor, trying to do
those ancient moves. The very thought of
sharing stories about our children and our
grandchildren ... it almost made sense to give it
But then the nagging doubts started creeping in.
What if Mike showed up? How would we
reconcile? And I knew there would be stories about
Bo. Could I deal with that pain again?
I thought of the inevitable awkwardness as we would
introduce our respective spouses.
How could we ever explain the story about the
birthmark to them? And there was this
Roger character, a man I didn't even know but
already despised. And of course my current
wife Lisa; she would be at least fifteen years
younger than Suzie. Lisa with the perfect
plastic breasts; with the perfect capped teeth ...
The list of reasons not to go went on and
on. No, I couldn't do that to my Suzie.
But then I remembered - of all the things Suzie had
taught me - that the most important was
to be true to myself. I knew it wasn't her I wanted
to protect; it was me. I didn't want to
admit that my Lisa could never appreciate the gift
of a single wild rose, and that she
wouldn't know a lightning bug from a spider. I
couldn't face the fact that maybe Suzie had
been right all along.
"I love you too, Suzie," I whispered to myself, as
I dropped the letter into the wastebasket.
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