by James Lutzweiler
The adolescent pre-pubescent Charlie Brown never loved a fictitious little red head any more than I loved a real live Cheryl Freed in third grade back in Dixon, Illinois. Her obituary appeared in the October 27 edition of the paper. I was so informed recently by my west side sand box playmate of 56 years ago, the illustrious James Higby, who is to me now what the local newspaper is to Dixon in general: my local news anchor man.
Cheryl Freed is for me one of those sacred memories that Dostoyevsky writes about in his Brothers Karamazov. The Russian wrote:
You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory,
I cannot say that any memory of Cheryl was quite so dramatic as to be a means of saving me. But she is one of the many pleasant memories of Dixon that I have carried with me over a million miles into this life, along with a decent education.
The earliest recollection I have of her goes back to third grade. Lincoln School was overcrowded that year and, disappointed at the prospect of missing my familiar classmates, I was shuffled off to Woodworth a few blocks away and just a stone’s throw from Freed’s home.
I can’t say that I recall the first moment that she left her indelible imprint upon my soul, but I have a distinct memory of being insanely jealous of my classmate, Dennis Nelson, who played a trumpet solo in class one day and practically stole her heart. I decided then and there that I would take up the same instrument. I did. Since then I have added a guitar and a piano to the mix, but I still play my trumpet. In fact, I practice it while driving down Eisenhower’s Interstate system to the tune of 40,000 miles or so per year. I know there are laws about cell phones, but I haven’t seen any about trumpets. Sometimes I even roll down the window and give a car concert to passersby who give a friendly wave. I need not labor the gestures of others who seem to have no music appreciation.
After third grade Cheryl and I were both transferred back to Lincoln School. There my puppy love grew until I dogged her every step, just hoping to catch a glimpse of her. I would even get out the phone book after school and look up her father’s name and street address, just to make sure she was real. I recall suffering through one Valentine’s Day, wondering if I would get a card from her. Those were the days when we exchanged those cheap cards with most of the kids in the class. Much to my relief, I did. I still have it, only it is no longer cheap. I keep it with my Roberto Clemente autograph, my letter from Stalin’s daughter and my letters from Jimmy Carter. Pictured on the card is a blonde “Queen of the Jungle” with this jingle: “I’m not LION, Valentine, You’re the MANE thing in my life.” Talk about a thrill. It’s one Charlie Brown never had.
As might be expected, my main fantasy in those years was to place a kiss upon the angelic face of Cheryl Freed, preferably her lips. While I managed to steal a few from Sandra McCardle and Sandra Huggins in the Lincoln library one day (which may partially explain why I am a librarian of sorts today), I never did manage to be the MANE thing in Cheryl’s life that she had so sacredly promised me in that card. As we grew older, it became evident that there was no chance to fulfill that fantasy with her, and so the object of my fantasy -- and the fantasies themselves -- moved on.
At the same time, I never forgot that fantasy. Several decades later after we had both married different people, I heard from someone, probably the sainted Higby, that Cheryl had come down with muscular dystrophy and was living alone. I put it on my list of things to do to stop by and see her the next time I whizzed down the Interstates toward Dixon. One day I made it there.
Unannounced, I knocked on the door and she let me in. She was in a wheel chair and her face and hair had lost the glow I recalled from third grade. Disease does that, even to divine damsels. I re-introduced myself to her and indeed she did remember me, but not as the MANE thing in her life. Let us say that her recollection of me suggested that she had noticed my existence somewhere in grammar school, and she was altogether ignorant of my past passionate devotion to her.
And with that I planted a peck on her cheek that was just short of lingering. It wasn’t the passionate kiss I had thought might be possible thirty years earlier. But I suspect it might have had more meaning for both of us.
And now she is gone. But not my valentine or my memory.
Dostoyevsky was right.
James Lutzweiler serves as the archivist for Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and also teaches American history at Guilford Technical Community College. He owns a microfilming business in which he preserves old periodicals and manuscript collections.
Jim's research into 'the Yellow Rose of Texas' was recently celebrated in James E. Crisp's book, SLEUTHING THE ALAMO (Oxford University Press, 2004). He has written several monographs including REVIVALISTIC RECIDIVISM: THE 'CHRONIC NEGRO MOURNER' AND THE CONVERSION OF BILLY GRAHAM.
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