By Robert Chianese, Class of 1960, Hamilton High School, Trenton, New Jersey
The Death of a High School Classmate provokes a lasting memory of a teenage crush, and regret.
A high school classmate writes to me about a crush she had on this dearly departed guy.
After I learned about his recent death, and his life of dealing with alcohol and depression, I only hope that over these fifty-five plus years he may gotten a little pleasure—if he ever did know—that someone had a major crush on him for at least sophomore, junior and senior years. He sat behind me in Ancient History class and he smelled so good. He wore some cologne that was light and fresh. All I wanted was one little kiss. Is that too much to ask?
There was also a “local” guy that I was mad about when I was 13 and 14. He worked with his dad who was a landscaper. He was so handsome. Would you believe that it turns out he was in my husband’s class at college? I met up with him at a reunion years ago and I did tell him how madly in love I was with him. I know it “made his day” and now I get a great smile every time I see him. Don’t you think little things like that are good to do?
And, Bob I always loved you but that was different. Our love is real—not some childhood crush!
My Dear Classmate Confessor:
Wow. Know that I loved you too, all these years. But our “silent generation” was on the cusp—when heavy longing was in, but asking for a chaste kiss even too much. As another classmate asked at a reunion, “Why didn’t we screw!?” What she meant was why we Eisenhower kids in high school in the late 1950’s were so hot to trot, but uptight too? I think we know why.
First, we did have sex—if a commitment to marry was made and seemed serious. That’s why breaking up with a high school steady was so painful—it had likely involved marriage plans and sex. And a lot of high school couples got married and some stayed so, happy or not.
But for many of us, the idea of having uncommitted and unromantic sex for the simple pleasure of it, owed us young and hot lovely persons, would have to wait maybe 15-20 years. We had to go through the sexual revolution and the feminist revolution before that openness to enjoy each other could be fully embraced. A new joy had come to American culture, but too late for us in high school in the 50’s. Without that we were primarily worried about losing virginity, getting pregnant, and having to drop away from a trajectory toward upward mobility.
Without an openness about sex, and birth control, and the availability of abortions, sex was a very high-risk activity. That’s certainly one of the attractions middle class girls had for working class guys (your crush). Sex or even fantasizing about it with tough boys represented a rebelliousness from the whole pressures of social life. And dreamy reckless men were played by the most handsome and vulnerable of pop idols: Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Elvis himself—an old story. It meant giving up worrying about the personal and social consequences of sex, though that was hard to maintain after the thrill was gone.
Along these lines we have to admit that sex for us was either fondling foreplay (first base) or sometimes fingering penetration and even masturbation or rarely oral sex (second base), and then even more rarely all the way (third base). Our diminished options led to hot and heavy contact, or possibly deeper dives, or maybe just sometime that stolen taboo, transcendental and guilt-provoking third base.
Another factor was lack of experience. I wasn’t sure exactly how to perform real sex, though fumbling was an added attraction. Prophylactics—rubbers—were a necessity, but it was thought they hampered real pleasure, and maybe they did and so were often conveniently forgotten. Usually one of the partners had some experience (we were quite young—16 or 17), often the gal with an older guy, which also presented some competence worries.
But we didn’t have instructions—instead, plenty of myths: female orgasms (what were they?) only happened if you loved the guy; sperm caused orgasms. For the guy there were many techniques for delaying coming, which usually didn’t work and the idea of multiple orgasms for guy or gal together was a bit too far out. And the guy never imaged he was somewhat obligated to bring his partner to fruition and what the hell was a clitoris anyway—something discovered late in 1996!
Then there was the opportunity factor—where to make out. This depended usually on having a car, which I didn’t until a sophomore in college. So one made out at home, eluding or hiding from parents or siblings, or outside in a field or woods somewhere. These carried risks, which could up the excitement, but also dampen, literally and figuratively, the sense of pleasure, intimacy, and bodily languors.
And of course, there were the moral and religious condemnations of sex as something evil and vile. How youthful erotic energy powered through these ancient cultural roadblocks is a story in itself, and it often did, but they were factors in keeping some of us, guys too, nearly virginal and sex itself forbidden, particularly for Catholic and Jewish girls.
For us then, when we couldn’t ask for a simple kiss from a heavy crush, we might say we were doubly repressed and missed a lot on the romance side as well as the sex side. So, I hope your dearly departed sensed that your attentions to him were of the romantic sort—he too missed a kiss at the time that could have been a life-long treasure for both of you.
I had a crush on a girl in our class, the most beautiful black girl I had ever seen. Race means nothing to the love-struck. She sat in back of me, liked my jokes, and slapped her face over a particularly funny or outlandish one. I told my love, I did, and she was discretely appreciative, very calm actually, much to my disappointment. Then she showed up at the Junior Prom with this tall handsome older black guy in a limo and I felt defeated, though strangely happy for her.
After my steady broke up with me, painfully for me, I acted on high school crushes I had on two of our classmates about a year after we were all graduated. But both women were in a very strange place—that year after high school shifted everything—and I could make no sense of who they were. I had changed in that year too. Crushes, we should admit, are as deep as the fantasies we have about our beloved and may be dependent on a limited time and place. Once they fade, they are gone.
So, your high school crush is dead, mine could have grandkids like me, and now you and I have confessed abiding love for each other, which has lasted a continent away, without romance or sex. I feel more attractive and ennobled by having been loved by you all these years. These are confessions we now treasure.