A mile east of Sumner on Route 250, the entrance to Red Hills State Park beckons. This is the land of night fisherman, weekend campers, and teenage lovers. When a boy takes a girl to Red Hills. . .wink, wink. . .well, everyone knows it’s not just to talk.
But that’s exactly what we do. Cathy and I—in the front seat of my Plymouth Duster, at Veterans’ Point, a spit of land that looks out over the lake and the restaurant on the other side. In the dark of the night, after leaving the Avalon Theater, where we’ve seen American Graffiti, we talk. There are a number of points and coves like this one throughout the park—secluded places off the main roads where a car can sit undetected—but for some reason I’ve chosen this one.
I’m content to sit in my car with Cathy, talking while the minutes pass. What do we talk about? I haven’t a clue. I remember the sound of peepers from the lake, the distant call of a whippoorwill, the night breeze cool enough for us to be glad for our jackets, the faint laughter from the campgrounds just up the road. Through the trees, still bare-limbed here in early spring, I can see campfires burning down to embers, can smell their smoke. But what we talk about, I can’t begin to recall. I only remember that we talk and talk. It’s easy for us to be in each other’s company. Cathy gets very animated when she talks, and looking back now, I imagine it’s because she’s a little nervous as am I because, of course I want to kiss her but I don’t because maybe she doesn’t really want me to—after all, we’re just talking. We’re not sitting close together. We’re not even holding hands. How am I to know whether she’ll welcome a kiss?
Then she’s about to say something—what, I don’t remember, only that it’s something that she can’t say unless she has something wooden to knock against—that old superstition—so as not to jinx it, and I get very involved with finding something in the car that might have a bit of wood, and I remember I have an ice scraper under my seat that has a wooden handle. I retrieve it and hold it out to Cathy so she can knock on it, which she does, and then she says the thing she’s been wanting to say and I bend down to put the scraper back under the seat, and when I raise my head, I see Cathy has her hand on the Duster’s horn, which is actually the pliant rubber center of the steering wheel.
“What’s this?” she asks, and she gives the horn a squeeze. The resulting blast sounds so loud in the otherwise quiet night.
“My horn,” I say.
She takes her hand from the horn, and as she begins to draw back her arm, I grab it and pull her toward me. Just like that we’re kissing, and it’s the most wonderful kiss I’ve ever had. Her hand is on the back of my neck. My arm is around her waist, and when the kiss is done, I press her to me, and we hold on a good while.
I could tell her I love her—when I fall, I fall fast and hard—but what sort of thing would that be to say on a first date? Instead, as we draw back from each other, our hands still touching shoulders, arms, fingers, I gaze into those blue eyes, and I’m powerless to resist whatever hoo-doo she’s throwing my way. Red Hill proper is the highest point between Cincinnati and St. Louis. On that hill is an open-air tabernacle and a lighted cross atop a tower. Each Easter Sunday, the local churches put together a sunrise service. A place of the spirit. A place for believers. I put my faith in what I feel for this blue-eyed girl, who whispers to me now, “It’s almost midnight,” and even though I don’t want to, I know I have to drive her home.
Do I kiss her goodnight when we get there? I can’t recall, but I’ve never forgotten that first kiss, the one we waited until the last minute to have, the one whose memory carries me to my home that night in 1974 and into my bed, feeling like I’ve never quite felt before. I know there are those who will call what I’m feeling infatuation or hormones, but I stand behind this: I fell in love with Cathy Hensley that night. I was helpless. It’s as simple as that.