It started out as an ordinary day, that is if any day could be ordinary for Cindy. Cindy, who only yesterday, it seemed, walked down the aisle with Hal, the love of her very young life.
Their story became the stuff of family legend. Hal was the bank president's son and their only child, a cool, poised teenager, new to the community, but already at ease in the high school whose movers and shakers had soon realized that this 12th grader would make a name for himself. And that he did. A bit over six feet, blue eyes, a somewhat square face, auburn hair worn short, perhaps to appease his parents, but he never admitted that, nor did his new friends ever ask him. Too light for football, not tall enough for basketball, but looking as if he could be a star at track and field—in fact the coach once almost begged him to try out for the 440 yard dash.
"Thanks, coach," Hal had answered, "but with my studies, my job at the bank, and Cindy, I wouldn't have the time."
Hal did well in his new school, seemingly making the honor roll with ease, making, too, frequent almost-half court baskets in gym classes, and even holding his own in occasional Indian wrestling during lunch hours.
It wasn't easy to be the only child of one of the megabank's rising stars. The family had already moved twice since Hal's grade school years, but, somehow, Hal had always mastered the challenges of a new school, and making new friends ... then leaving them when his dad was assigned greater responsibilities—in a different community. There were girls, of course, he noticed—and who noticed him—but the time to be serious, well it was not early adolescence, at least for Hal, who of course was expected to graduate from a Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Duke, Virginia, or some like school he might think he selected, but which his parents would subtly choose for him.
But then, as Robert Burns phrased it, but in Scots dialect, "the best laid plans..." One day, during the lunch period, and in his school two, sometimes three, grades had lunch periods together, Hal happened to glance at a girl, not in any of his classes, although he recognized text books as those used by college-bound 12th graders. Her poise, her walk, her voice, which he strained to hear, and her bubbly personality, which even from a distance was evident, caught and kept Hal's attention. She was tall, but not as tall as he was, with darker blonde hair worn long, and with strands never out of place even when she left her seat, or shifted attention from a friend on her left to one to her right. Sometimes, Hal realized later, she wore earrings, but they were frequently hidden by her long hair. Hal noticed her, one of several score girls in the cafeteria during his lunchtime, but, initially, said nothing, did nothing.
But then, maybe a week later, Hal saw that same girl, this time sitting at a nearby table, and made his move. "Hi, whoever you are," he said, as the cafeteria was emptying and students started heading to their individual classes.
"Well, hi," she responded, "whoever you are." And they parted, but not before she said, "I'm Cindy," and he said, almost simultaneously, "I'm Hal."
And next day, during lunch with his friends—all male, of course—Hal said to Jim, already a close friend, though they had first met in the English lit class they both shared, "See that girl over there, I am going to marry her!!"
Not quite one year later, what he predicted would occur, did occur. Actually, they were never sure if he asked her to marry her, or if each assumed it would happen, and the only question was "When will we marry?"
There was something special about Cindy, and Hal, though in many ways a typical adolescent, sensed it and, from the start, treated her just a bit differently in their occasional banter, mostly in the lunch room, but sometimes in hallways between classes. Their first date, he realized why she seemed special.
"Hal, you will meet my parents, of course, and I will never speak to you again if you say—or think—a comment such as 'Are you Cindy's grandparents?'"
When he met them, he understood why. They looked old, sounded old, yet radiated a welcoming graciousness that soon put him at ease, making it easy for him to avoid commenting, for instance, about the black-and-white photograph of a very young G I Joe standing near what was surely a World War II-era tank.
After they headed towards the school, and a somewhat ordinary high school basketball game that was their first date, Cindy explained things. "You now know that I am an only child. I was 'a gift from God', my mother tells me many a time. My mom was 47, my dad, well he was close to 60 when I was born. And if I am 'a gift from God', I have a lot to live up to. So do you, Hal, if we date more than once."
Cindy remembered, when she said that to Hal, they had been holding hands. "Gee, Cindy," he had replied, "can we at least hold hands?"
"Yes ... but, don't get too many other ideas!"
That first date, there was a good night kiss, and Hal remembered how natural it was, holding her tight during that kiss, feeling the swell of her breasts against his chest, but releasing her with a sigh when the porch light went on and she said, "Hal, I guess I must go. It was fun."
Days and weeks passed, and they went out, once in a while—sometimes walking or taking the bus, sometimes driving when Hal borrowed his parents' car. They went to movies, holding hands in the theater, although sometimes they gently cuddled, Hal's arm on her right shoulder, occasionally nearing her right breast. They went on bowling dates, in fact one time she borrowed a large rubber band from management to make her hair into a ponytail after he teased her about its motion when she released the ball. Their scores were only so-so, his almost always higher, and their drinks were ginger ale, with French fries as a side dish—one time he fed her one, then "happened" to smear a bit of catsup on her chin. She laughed, then dared him to kiss it off. He did!!
Winter came, and Christmas approached.
"Dad," Hal said at suppertime. "I want to get Cindy some earrings for Christmas. Can you help me?"
"Ah, the magical Cindy ... do you suppose we might meet her sometime?"
Hal had hoped his dad might give him a few extra dollars, but, instead, he was told, "Stop in at the corner jeweler's, ask for the owner—you might remember him from seeing him in the bank from time to time—and tell him what you want."
This was one of the times Hal was grateful for his after-school work at the bank. He occasionally had a teller's window, but usually worked behind the scenes. As a teller, he was patient with older customers, but felt a bit ill-at-ease when a classmate or friend from church came to the window because even a slight glimpse into their finances seemed intrusive. His dad kept an eye on him, and was pleased by the quality of his work. So, asking to speak to the owner of a jewelry store was something Hal felt he could carry off, and he did, quite successfully. He left the store, a tiny package beautifully wrapped, and promising to tell his dad the jeweler had asked him to "say Happy Holidays" to him if the two did not cross paths during coming days.
In the package, two tiny pearl earrings. Hal hoped Cindy would like them. Hal knew, or sensed, he might have gotten them at a bargain price. He realized he was right when his dad said to him, "Did you find something nice for Cindy, I told the owner you might be coming in."
One thing Hal had learned about his new community—families celebrate Christmas in wildly different ways. Some go all out for ostentatious exterior house decorations, others stress exchanging gifts, and some of his classmates bragged already about what would be under the tree for them. What Cindy did for Christmas, Hal did not know, but he soon would find out.
"Cindy, can I stop over Christmas Day?" Hal asked during one of the occasional times he walked her home from school. She lived somewhat near the school, and the bus stopped nearby, so Hal could ride home or to the bank, benefitting from a student pass discount.
Cindy explained her family's Christmas. "We get up early, play Christmas music, then I help Mom with Christmas dinner. I set the table with special china and give it a festive appearance. I have done this since I was little, and it has become a Christmas tradition. We go to church, then have dinner, open the rest of our presents, and then Dad goes to his desk and writes special letters." Those letters, Hal later learned, were to a couple of fellow soldiers he kept in touch with for many years, and two widows, each widowed during the Battle of the Bulge, a terrible, terrible battle about which, apparently, Cindy's dad never commented.
"But," she added, "come over for a few moments on Christmas Eve, you can help us decorate the tree."
"Daaad," the conversation started, and when it was over Hal was promised the car, for an hour or so during Christmas Eve, to be with "the magical Cindy".
Hal drove over to Cindy's Christmas Eve, rang the doorbell, and was greeted not by Cindy, but her father. A handshake seemed natural, and then the two of them walked into the living room, where the tree was standing, some lights already on it, a few decorations hanging from lower branches. And, for about half an hour, the four of them—for Cindy and her mom soon joined them—hung icicles, threaded lights from bottom to top of the tree—no two lights of the same color next to each other—and added ornaments. Some were old looking, in fact Cindy was once warned, "Be careful, dear, that ornament is one of those we bought our first Christmas together."
Then it was done, and all lights but those on the tree were turned off. The different colors, the tree lights reflected in pictures on the wall, all combined to give the room a magical look. Cindy's mom went to the kitchen and returned with four small glasses of eggnog. "Merry Christmas," her dad said, and they clinked glasses. Hal realized they were probably family heirlooms, the "clink" had a musical tone to it.
"Cindy, before I leave, I want to give you this." And Hal gave her his store-wrapped gift, feeling slightly awkward, for the box seemed the size that might be used ... for an engagement ring. Hands trembling, she unwrapped the package, and even in the room's dim light Hal could see the wonder in her eyes. "Oh, Hal, oh, Hal," was all she could say, as she showed her parents two earrings, each with a single, small, but perfect pearl.
"Dear, put them on," her mother said, and Cindy left, to return in a moment, her hair moved so each earring could be seen. The fit was perfect, and Cindy looked, and felt, radiant. And in her hands, she carried a small package. Hal opened it and found a tie clasp, narrow, very plain, gold in color, and saying, somehow, that it would be fashionable, this year, next year, and years into the future.
"Cindy, I will keep this forever." And, just a few years later, with tears in her eyes, Cindy saw to it that he would have it ... forever.
"Hal, I wanted to get you matching cufflinks, but I have never seen you wear any. Besides, Dad has about a dozen cufflinks, and swears he has lost at least six!"
Hal drove home, but not before sharing a Christmas Eve kiss with Cindy. This time, she had no coat on, and holding her close made him wish, just briefly, that her parents were elsewhere. Again, he shook hands with her dad and, this time, he kissed her mother goodbye, too. Or maybe she kissed him, he wasn't sure.
When he got home, he told his dad, "We had a magical time."
There were other dates, not one for New Year's Eve, for Cindy's parents were out with friends, and Hal, frankly, feared the festivity and noise of New Year's might cause them to do things they would regret. But he phoned her, about an hour before midnight, and heard his voice saying, "I love you." He heard, too, a sharp intake of breath before Cindy said, "I have been waiting to hear those words. I love you, too."
For Hal and Cindy, America, and the world in general, the new year was not an ordinary one, for the aftereffects of the abomination many call "9/11" had permeated much of American life. Hal had visited a few universities, been accepted by the four to which he had submitted formal applications, and decided to attend Princeton. Cindy was going to the nearby college, in part to be near her parents.
In March, conflict between Iraq and coalition forces started, and soon the statue of Saddam Hussein had been torn down, and America's president landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, a banner reading "Mission accomplished" hanging nearby.
One day, Cindy told Hal when they met in the cafeteria that a friend from their church had been sent to Iraq. "You don't know him," she said, "because he enlisted before I met you.". What kind of friends they were Hal never asked, just as Cindy never asked about any girl friends he might have had before he had met her.
Then, one Saturday, Cindy phoned Hal, and without a "hi dear" or "how are you" she said, barely getting the words out—"He's dead, they killed him with a landmine, Derek's dead!"
In church, the next day, Cindy, her parents, and the congregation learned the sad news, hours before local television identified the soldier "from the greater metropolitan area" who had been killed by a landmine. Saturday, an immaculate sedan had parked in front of his parents' home and two men in full military dress walked up to the front door, to be invited in, for parents of military personnel know two such men at their front door bring the saddest of tidings. Details were sketchy, his parents said in church, but apparently their son's body would arrive at the metropolitan area Thursday afternoon, services and burial with full military honors would be held the next day.
Derek's body did arrive at the metropolitan airport around noon, and the small cortege was escorted by county police to the interstate, where the four-lane divided highway permitted some cars—apparently in a hurry to get to their destinations—to slough off the solemnity of cortege, each vehicle but the police cars with their flashing lights carrying "funeral" pennants. Then, something utterly unexpected happened, and a chance photographer captured the scene from an overpass where two families, eight persons including one babe-in-arms, seven with a small American flags, stood watching. Just behind the funeral vehicles were four 18-wheelers, so positioned that no car could pass them. The photograph showed the bystanders on the overpass, the several police cars leading the way, their lights flashing, the funeral cortege, and the trucks, plus three dozen or so cars behind the trucks, knowing they could not pass. The AP article quoted one trucker to the effect that "we learned of this final journey being taken by a brave soldier and wanted to be sure all extended the respect he earned, dying defending our freedoms." The policeman in charge was quoted as saying that he had no inkling of the truckers' actions before they occurred, but considered what they did an unexpected, but very thoughtful, tribute to a very brave American. The photograph, distributed nationwide by AP, would later be included in several "best of the year" reviews.
As the cortege left the interstate, the trucks tooted in awesome unison three times, perhaps intending, the local newspaper wrote, to evoke start of the bugler's "Taps".
Thursday morning, the superintendent of the school district from which Derek had graduated announced on the radio and in the newspapers that classes would be cancelled on Friday so students would be able to attend services, or just line the streets as the cortege went from church to the cemetery. But Cindy and Hal attended a different school system, so they had no chance to attend Derek's services.
Thursday night Cindy phoned Hal. "Derek was my friend. I want to be with him when they play "Taps" and bury him with military honors."
"Cindy," Hal answered, "we can't skip school." He sensed she was crying, so said, "Wait, I have an idea. I will call you back."
Again, Hal's parents understood and helped, this time loaning him the family car, realizing why he wanted—needed—it, but asking no further questions, trusting the judgment of their son.
Hal phoned Cindy back and said, "I will call for you at 6 in the morning. Be in your Sunday best, and trust me." And so it was, just before 6:30, Mr Jack, the all powerful, very intimidating high school principal, heard a hesitant knock on his office door, looked up and saw two of his seniors, Hal and Cindy, dressed in their Sunday best, Cindy wearing her pearl earrings, holding Hal's hand, and each looking very, very serious.
"Mr Jack," said the new student, the banker's son, a student Mr Jack knew by name because he knew all his seniors, "Cindy and I must go to Derek's funeral. She knows him from church and she feels she must honor his bravery by attending his services and walk to the cemetery for his burial. I didn't know him, but I want to honor him, too."
"We will have to mark each of you as truant," was Mr Jack's formal response. But then he saw the pain in Cindy's eyes and ... mellowed.
"Let me say this," and Mr Jack seemed to grope for words. "You two can attend the services and go to the cemetery as formal representatives of this school. You can tell his parents that you are there as friends, but also representing this school. I will ask each of you to do one more thing. Write a report of the day, and read it in your separate English classes. Give me a copy of that report, and I may read some of it to answer any questions asked by the school superintendent or the board of education."
And so Hal and Cindy attended Derek's funeral and stood near the coffin, next to a school superintendent, the mayor, various military persons, and even a representative of the governor. They had walked with those persons, plus Derek's grieving family and close friends, from the church to the cemetery. They saw literally hundreds of persons lining the streets, honoring one of their own, and they heard church bells, mournfully pealing.
In Cindy's living room, later that afternoon, and into the evening after a break for supper, the two of them wrote their report. Each contributed, sometimes single words, sometimes a sentence, sometimes gently changing what the other had written. When they finished and were pleased with the final draft, they made copies, and at the end of one, Cindy added, "Hal helped me write this report"; at the end of the other one, Hal added, "Cindy helped me write this report". Mr Jack's copy, which the two of them gave to his secretary Monday morning, had for its byline their two formal names, in alphabetical order, meaning Cindy was listed first.