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Suzie Sunshine and the Sunflower Gang


Bob Hyman

"Must be something in the water," Mike whispered surreptitiously as she sauntered down the hallway toward us.

"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 mind.

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 treats.

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 grade.

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 her cry.

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 military commitment.

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 wane.

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 about Bo.

"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 a try.

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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