Here’s the thing I want you to know about my sister.
A long time ago—I must have been about seven years old, which would have made Ruthie five—I did something rotten to her. What it was, I can’t remember. I teased her all the time, and she spent much of her childhood whaling the tar out of me for it. Whatever happened that time, though, must have been awful, because our father told me to go lie down on my bed and wait for him. That could mean only one thing: that he was going to deliver one of his rare but highly effective spankings, with his belt.
I cannot recall what my offense was, but I well remember walking down the hallway and climbing onto the bed, knowing full well that I deserved it. I always did. Nothing to be done but to stretch out, facedown, and take what I had coming.
And then it happened. Ruthie ran into the bedroom just ahead of Paw and, sobbing, threw herself across me.
“Whip me!” she cried. “Daddy, whip me!”
Paw gave no spankings that day. He turned and walked away. Ruthie left too. There I sat, on the bed, wondering what had just happened.
Forty years later, I still do.
Ruthie would grow up to be a schoolteacher, a friend, a neighbor, and quite possibly the kindest person many people in our Louisiana parish had ever met. But our little town, St. Francisville, suffers no lack of kind people. There was something different about Ruthie, though. I didn’t always see that, of course—and I didn’t really see it until the end. Ruthie had always been my little sister, which, in our family, meant my frequent foil.
My little sister was born on May 15, 1969. My parents named her Lois Ruth Dreher, accomplishing the neat trick of honoring four elderly female relatives with only two names. As far as I was concerned at the time, the kid ruined my life as a two-year-old prince of the realm. When Mam and Paw brought her home from the hospital to our house in the country, I was appalled. Ruthie had a crib in her own room, across the hall from mine. That was too close.
When she had been home from the hospital for about two weeks, I told my parents, “I don’t want her.”
“Okay, we’ll take her back,” replied Mam. She loaded Ruthie in the car after making a show of packing up a little suitcase. Then Mam put me in the car and started to drive, wondering how far we’d have to go before I gave in. We got all the way to Highway 61 before I started crying and said that I wanted her. “My baby, my baby,” I cried. Crisis averted, Mam turned the car around and headed for home. But I was still jealous and would remain so for some time.
This scenario or some variation of it should be familiar to anyone who has been a sibling or raised siblings. But as time went on—and not much time, either—it became clear that Ruthie and I were so different it was hard to imagine that we came from the same family.
The Drehers were country people. We lived in Starhill, a rural community six miles south of St. Francisville, a town of two thousand souls and the county seat of West Feliciana Parish. Though our little red brick house wouldn’t have been out of place anywhere in late 1960s suburban America, it had the intimidating distinction of being smack in the middle of plantation country, a land of magnolias, Spanish moss, and architectural grandeur. West Feliciana is in English Louisiana, a southeastern region settled by people of Anglo descent, some of them Tories escaping the American Revolution. They built magnificent cotton plantations, and sold their goods at Bayou Sara, a trading port on the Mississippi, just below the bluffs on which the town of St. Francisville was built.
Growing up in St. Francisville you can’t escape history. Every schoolchild goes on a field trip to Grace Episcopal Church, and stands under the moss-strewn oaks to hear the story of the time a cannonball from a Union gunboat on the river struck the church’s bell tower. Our ancestor Columbus Simmons fought as a Confederate sniper in the battle of Port Hudson. For eleven days, he lived in a hollow tree, eating grubs, his legs peppered by shrapnel, until his capture. After the battle the Yankees let their prisoners go, and he limped back to his home in Osyka, Mississippi, and rejoined the Rebel army. Later Columbus migrated to West Feliciana, bought land in Starhill, and raised his family there. His children were George; Clint; my great-grandmother, Bernice; and her two younger sisters, Lois and Hilda. My sister and I learned about Columbus as a small boy at Lois’s and Hilda’s ancient knees. That’s how close history was to Ruthie and me.
My father, Ray Dreher, was the first in our branch of the family to go to college, though against his will. He wanted to be outside, building things and working with his cows. But after returning from a stint in the US Coast Guard, my grandmother Lorena insisted that her son take advantage of the GI Bill and enter Louisiana State University. In 1958, while working on a degree in rural sociology, Paw bought sixty-seven acres in Starhill from his great-aunt Em—the asking price was forty dollars an acre—and began small-scale farming on part of the old Simmons place. He also started a job as the parish sanitarian, which, in a rural parish like West Feliciana, meant he was not only the health inspector, but often the public official who helped impoverished families get basic plumbing into their houses. To look upon my father as a young man—freckled forearms, sun-scorched face, chest the size of an oak trunk, fiery orange cowlicks blazing atop his head—was to understand immediately that he was a man who had no business confined to a desk. It wasn’t in his nature.
Dorothy, Ruthie’s and my mother, moved to town with her family from Mississippi at age eleven, when her father took a job at a sweet potato canning plant. She was nine years younger than Ray. One day in 1962 Paw walked into Robb’s Drugstore, and was startled to learn that the beautiful young woman behind the counter, the one with the tender brown eyes, the sunshiny smile, and the way of speaking that made you feel like you had known her forever, was Dorothy Howard, all grown up. They began courting, and married in the summer of 1964.
Dorothy and Ray—Mam and Paw, as everyone calls them now—built their Starhill house when I was two years old. It sat in an open field at the edge of a pasture where Paw grazed his cattle herd. Paw would raise his children in the country, a mile as the crow flies from where he had grown up. His parents, Murphy and Lorena, still lived in the old cottage on Highway 61, and his brother, Murphy Jr., a real estate broker and world-class joker who once—no kidding—prank-called Ayatollah Khomeini, was raising his family across the road from them.
Starhill was where all the Drehers lived. There were fields and forests everywhere. For us, going to town meant driving the six miles north on Highway 61, in those days a two-lane blacktop, to St. Francisville. Baton Rouge, thirty miles in the other direction, was an exotic journey. New Orleans, an hour and a half farther downriver, might as well have been Paris.
From an early age Ruthie loved the country life. “Ruthie wanted to be with me whenever I was doing something outside,” Paw says. “I never will forget the time when Ruthie was in diapers, and taking a bottle. I came in the house frustrated. It was in the wintertime, and I had planted sixty acres of rye grass back on the place. Old man John I. Daniel’s cows kept tearing down the fence. His cows were getting in there eating all the rye grass I had for my cows.
“Ruthie heard me telling Mother that I was going to be back there a while fixing fence. She told her Mama that she wanted to go with Daddy, and she wanted Mama to fix her a bottle. She went herself, got her two diapers under her arm, and got in the truck. This was eight thirty in the morning. I was back there till eleven o’clock. That baby never said one time that she wanted to go home. She would kneel at the window watching me, or take a nap on the seat, or call me if she needed a diaper change.”
Wherever Paw went in his pickup truck, Ruthie wanted to go too. Me? Not so much.
“If I didn’t take her, she’d be mad at me. You? You didn’t give a damn,” he says, laughing. “You were watching TV or reading. Me, the kind of man I was, I wanted you to be outside, with me.”
Most of all I preferred to be with Aunt Lois and Aunt Hilda, technically my great-great-aunts and the last of the Simmonses. The sisters, born in the final decade of the nineteenth century, were in their seventies by the time I came along. They lived together in a tumbledown shack at the end of a gravel road that ran through a pecan orchard near our house. That tin-roofed wood cabin, framed by sweet olive trees and enclosed by groves and gardens, was, like C. S. Lewis’s enchanted wardrobe, a doorway into another world.
I now know that Lois and Hilda—whose father, recall, had fought in the Civil War—were the most extraordinary people I will probably ever meet. As a little boy, though, they were just Loisie—rhymes with “choicey”—and Mossie (Hilda married Ashton Moss, who died young). They had grown up in Starhill as strong-willed country girls who loved life on the farm, but who also yearned for adventure. When the United States entered the Great War, the sisters volunteered as Red Cross nurses. They caught the train at the bottom of the hill near their family home and didn’t stop their journey until they arrived at the Red Cross canteen at Dijon, France.
On many mornings in my early childhood, after Buckskin Bill, the Captain Kangaroo of Baton Rouge, told his loyal TV viewers good-bye from Storyland Cabin, my mother would give me a couple of diapers and let me walk through the orchard to Loisie and Mossie’s place for the day. Sometimes I would stray from the pea-gravel path and walk under the pecan trees, with their faintly tangy musk. In the springtime a spray of white dogwood flowers hung high in a thick grove of trees opposite the pecans, a bunting celebrating the end of winter and marking the border of Loisie and Mossie’s yard.
In that cabin I would sit with the two aged aunts, thin and frail as dried kindling, on their red leather couch and look through canvas-backed photo albums of their war years. There was the time, Lois said, when General “Black Jack” Pershing showed up at the canteen late one night and nobody could find the key to the kitchenware cabinet. Lois had to strain the general’s tea through her petticoat. Hilda told of being in Dijon on the day the Armistice was announced, and slapping a giddy Frenchman when he seized her on the street, shouted, “La guerre est finie!” and tried to kiss her. She pretended to be scandalized by this, but what I heard was the excitement of someone who had had a grand adventure in a part of the world unlike our own, where nothing ever happened. Sitting on the couch beneath three rare Audubon prints, the sisters told me of their travels through Provence, the Côte d’Azur, Toulouse, and Paris, beautiful Paris. We tracked their route on the pages of a vintage Rand McNally atlas splayed on our laps.
Sometimes I would sit in Loisie’s lap in the kitchen, not much bigger than a closet, and stir her pecan cookie batter by hand. We would pull sheets of those cookies out of the oven, each one buttery and crisp and about the size of a quarter, and eat them with cold milk on the front porch (or “gallery,” as the old aunts called it, in the antique usage). Often we would sit by the fire and read the newspaper together. I loved the look and sound of those exotic words in the headlines. Kissinger. Moscow. Watergate. I could only intuit it at the time, but these elderly ladies, spending their final years in rural exile, were among the worldliest people I’d ever meet. Hilda, an eccentric Episcopalian, taught herself palm-reading. Scratching her bony finger across my soft pink palm one day, she said, “See this line? You’ll travel far in life.” I hoped it was true.
Lois was an accomplished amateur horticulturalist, and took me with her on strolls in her gardens. There was a large Magnolia fuscata tree in her front yard, with its pale yellow blossoms that smelled of banana. Loisie and I would walk, me holding her hand, past her camellia bushes, the stands of spidery red lycoris, King Alfred daffodils, and jonquils. There was a pear tree, a chestnut, cedars, live oaks, flowering dogwoods, and, towering over the backyard, an old Chinese rain tree, its podlike blossoms puffed like a thousand and one pink lanterns.
There was a king snake that lived in the bushes under the huge magnolia tree in Loisie and Mossie’s yard. Loisie taught me that the old snake was our friend. If he was there, she said, he would keep rattlesnakes away. One day when I was eight, I walked with a friend to the aunts’ cottage, and there was the king snake, black as night and marked by pale yellow runes, stretched across the pea gravel, sunning itself. My friend was paralyzed by fear, but I stepped right over the snake without bothering him. Loisie had said he was our friend, hadn’t she, and inasmuch as she was the happy genius of this grove, who was I to doubt her?
This was my haven as a boy, a house and a garden a three-minute walk from my house, where I learned things that would shape the course of my life. But it was foreign territory to my sister. “Aunt Hilda turned Ruthie aside,” is how Paw remembers it. “She was one of those women who dotes on boys. And she favored intellectual-type things. You were reading at three and a half. Ruthie wasn’t. You liked books. Ruthie liked outdoor things. You were so interested in the lives those ladies had lived, and the places they had been. Ruthie wasn’t, but it still hurt Ruthie badly that she would never be included.”
Ruthie would have been bored stiff by parlor conversation and strolls through cultivated gardens. She wanted the woods, rough as it came. She loved it when she could prevail upon Paw to take her down to the hunting camp in Fancy Point swamp. I spent a fair amount of time there too, though the last place I wanted to be on a wet, frozen Saturday morning was standing in the woods with a shotgun—I was too young to handle a rifle—looking for a deer to shoot. For me the best part of those mornings was being with my dad and his friends in the warmth of the camp kitchen, drinking hot, sweet Community coffee, eating jelly cake, and listening to the crazy talk from Oliver “Preacher” McNabb, the old black cook who had once been in Angola State Penitentiary for murder. And then I had to go pretend to enjoy stalking deer, when I really wanted to be inside, cooking with Preacher and listening to his stories. Deer-stalking is what our culture told us young boys were supposed to love above all things.
Ruthie, she really did love all of it—especially the hunting. As soon as she was big enough to carry a shotgun, she did. When a hunter brought down a buck, the men took the carcass back to the camp to skin it. If I got too close, I would start to gag. Ruthie was right in the middle of it all, and in time, learned to skin a buck herself. “One time when she was a teenager, she and I went down on the edge of the swamp, down by Ed Shields’s house,” Paw says. “I put Ruthie on one hill, and I got up on the next one. After we sat there a while, we heard the dogs barking and coming. There were lots of leaves on the ground, and it was dry. We could hear the deer running in the leaves.
“As they got close, I heard Ruthie shoot that rifle of mine. I hollered, ‘Ruthie, did you get him?’ Her answer was, ‘Hell yeah, I did!’ That deer was running wide open, and that baby had hit him square in the neck. That was a difference between y’all. That time you killed that big thirteen-point in the swamp, you were torn up about it. But she was on top of the world.”
Our family spent a lot of time outdoors, which was a normal thing around West Feliciana back then. In the spring, summer, and early fall, we fished in rivers, creeks, and ponds. When Ruthie and I were small, our dad had a pond built on his land and stocked it with bass, bream, and catfish. Fishing on that pond was what we did. It was great fun, especially when Paw gave us mini-cast rods and reels, which made pulling in those auburn-breasted bream, only the size of a man’s hand, like landing a trophy bass. Fishing was our family’s thing, and Paw’s pond was our family’s place. Though I was no fan of the outdoors, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
But I would also be lying if I said I wouldn’t rather have been in the city, at the movies, or better yet, at a bookstore. I loved science fiction, and novels, and books about space, and comics from Richie Rich to Archie to the Green Lantern. And best of all, there was Mad magazine, with its smarty-pants humor, and its snappy Yiddishisms. Nobody around here talked like that. I wanted to be where people talked like that.
“You were our dreamer,” Mam says. “Ruthie wasn’t. She was satisfied with what she had in front of her. You had your head in books all the time. She loved nature, and being outside.”
If that’s what you love, there is no better place to be on earth than West Feliciana. But if not, well, you’ve got problems, or at least you did if you were growing up in our house. I think the incomprehensible strangeness of her older brother brought out Ruthie’s competitive nature, which manifested itself at an early age. She figured out soon enough that she was far more athletic than I, and that she could best me in most any physical contest.
She was a tough little strawberry blonde, barrel-chested like our father, with our mother’s deep brown eyes. I was pudgy, weak, and embarrassingly uncoordinated. In third grade the playground fad was a toy called the Lemon Twist. It was a plastic lemon connected to a strip of flexible plastic rope, with a loop around the opposite end. You slipped the loop over your foot, and let it rest around your ankle. Then you spun the lemon around, leaping over it with your free foot. You might as well have asked me to dance the tarantella. My little sister was an instant ace on the Lemon Twist.
For me this was humiliating. It was a pattern that would repeat itself. Once Paw mounted a campaign to encourage me to build my upper body strength. I was on the floor in the living room, struggling to heave out a pitiful few push-ups. Paw tried to keep Ruthie out of the house when this was going on, because he knew she couldn’t resist trying to outdo me.
“There she came up the hall, saw you on the floor, then flopped down and started pumping them out,” he recalls. “That was the end of that ring-dang-doo. You just quit.”
Ruthie was always a fighter. After we were both in school our mother took up driving a school bus. The drivers would line up outside the elementary school in the afternoon, chatting with each other until the final bell rang, letting the kids out.
“One day,” Mam recalls, “Ruthie was probably third grade, I remember Clyde Morgan, one of the other drivers, sitting there with us saying, ‘That boy better watch out.’ Your sister was coming across the way to the bus, with her lunch box in one hand, and her book sack in the other. This little boy kept running by her, hitting her on the head. We watched her weigh the book sack in one hand, and the lunch box in the other. Clyde said, ‘Look, she’s choosing her weapon.’ She picked up that book sack, and when he made the next round, she whacked him with the book sack, knocked that boy on the ground. Calmly picked up her book sack and got on the bus. Never said another word about it.”
Ruthie was a hard little nut. But if that were all she was, she wouldn’t have had so many friends, and no enemies. She was one of those rare people who had a natural talent for nurturing friendships with both boys and girls. And though sports, hunting, and fishing were her passions, she could be as feminine as she needed to be when the occasion called for it. Ruthie was probably our town’s only homecoming queen who really did know how to skin a buck and run a trot line.
Our parents hadn’t let Ruthie go to kindergarten, so when she started first grade, all the other children had already hived off into groups. Ruthie was left out. That was the year Mam started driving the school bus. Ruthie’s first-grade class would be on the playground when Mam drove up for the afternoon bus run.
“I would see Ruthie sitting by the tree alone, with nobody to play with. It would break my heart, but she’d never complain about it. She never forced herself on anybody,” Mam says. “I’d try to suggest to her ways of making friends, but she’d say, ‘I’m okay, Mama; I’m watching them play.’ After that first semester she was in the middle of everything. She was just kind of magical. She saw something good in everybody, even as a child.”
In the summertime we’d all spend two or three nights each week in the baseball park in town, with either Ruthie or me playing on a team, or watching players from the older leagues compete. There were two ballparks—a little one and a big one—at Vinci Field, which had been carved out of the woods atop a hill near downtown.
The ballpark was the center of social life for us. Moms and dads whose kids played on the peewee teams would back their pickups against the chain-link fence at the little field and drink beer while their kids faced off under the lights. After the peewee games, most folks moved over to the big Babe Ruth League field nearby to watch teenaged boys play serious baseball. Whether you watched the game or not, whether you played the game or not, the ballparks at Vinci Field were where you saw your friends and neighbors, made plans for weekend cookouts and fishing trips. You squared off on the diamond against boys named Tater, Booger, Sammy, and Allen Ray, and you hoped your umpire that night would be Tut Dawson, thin and tough as a razor strop, because he had an unerring eye for strikes and called them true.
For my 1970s generation of West Feliciana kids, summer smelled like neat’s-foot oil, light beer in a can (you’d sneak a sip when your dad asked you to fetch him a fresh one out of the cooler), Off! mosquito repellent, the decaying wood of the big green Babe Ruth bleachers, and the smoke from our folks’ Marlboro Reds. You’d go home at night worn out, sunburned, with a thin film of dirt covering your body, scratching fresh mosquito bites with filthy fingernails. Your belly was full of Cherry’s Potato Chips and fountain Coke—free if you recovered and turned in a foul ball—and you’d barely be able to keep your eyes open long enough to take your shower.
The ballpark was also the place where many of us were touched by tragedy for the first time. In the summer of 1974, on my first team, the John Fudge Auto Parts Angels, a towheaded Starhill kid named Roy Dale Craven was the star pitcher. That might not have meant much in a league where the oldest players were, like Roy Dale, nine years old, but Roy Dale was a real phenom.
He was also a poor country boy with a million-dollar smile. His mother, Evelyn Dedon, and his father had divorced when he was very young. She raised Roy Dale and his brothers in a little brick house on the side of Highway 61, on the outskirts of Starhill. Roy Dale invited his father up from Baton Rouge one afternoon to watch him play his first game. The dad must have seen what a raggedy mitt his kid was playing with, and bought the boy a new glove. A week later that glove was as floppy and dirty and broken in as if Roy Dale had used it all season long.
Roy Dale and his glove were inseparable. One day Paw drove home to Starhill for lunch and saw Roy Dale and his brothers headed across a bottom for Grant’s Bayou, carrying fishing poles. Roy Dale also had his glove. There was no one else to play with, but he couldn’t bear to leave it behind. Paw, who was one of the team’s coaches, remembers that Roy Dale was so passionate about baseball because he had so little, and grasped at every opportunity offered him. He was a sweet kid. The game was his life.
One night the coaches pulled Roy Dale from the mound after he completed the second inning because he vomited up his supper in the dugout. All he’d had to eat before the game was pickles. No one knew if he had eaten so badly because he had chosen to, or because that was all the food his family had in the house that day. No one wanted to ask.
On July 15, late in the afternoon, Roy Dale lit out from his yard to his cousin Allen Ray’s, across Highway 61, hoping to catch a ride to the ballpark. He did not see the northbound car, which struck and killed him. The driver was not charged. I found out about the tragedy sitting in the back of Paw’s pickup, headed to the game, when we were stuck in traffic backed up from the accident scene. Paw said later it was just like Roy Dale to be so excited about playing ball that night that he didn’t pay attention to anything else.
That funeral was the first time most of us kids had seen death up close. At some point before the service started, one of the Angels found the courage to step into the aisle at the funeral home chapel, and go forward to pay respects to our teammate. A gaggle of six- to nine-year-old boys walked forward and saw that beautiful kid, Roy Dale, dead in his coffin. They buried that Starhill boy with his glove on his hand and his uniform on his back. This may have been the nicest set of clothes Roy Dale owned. That night I heard Paw and his friend Pat Rettig, the other coach, out on our back porch, talking. I stood by the screen door to listen, and realized these grown men were weeping in the dark. I didn’t know how to take it, and went away.
The baseball seasons came, and the baseball seasons went, and the ballpark was the stage for other childhood dramas. One night, after a Babe Ruth game, Mam was helping a friend close the concession stand at the big field. “You kids were out on the field there running,” she says. “Remember, Ruthie was competitive with you, but she wouldn’t let anybody say or do anything to her brother. So we were in there packing up chips, and Gerald Bates said, ‘Oh my God, y’all, look.’ These two boys had jumped on you. Ruthie was a feisty little thing. She ran through the gate, grabbed one of those boys by the neck, and started whipping him while you turned to the other boy.”
For all our sibling rivalry Ruthie and I got along most of the time and enjoyed growing up together in Starhill. We played ball together in the yard, often with some permutation of neighborhood kids: the Wilsons, the Morgans, the Rettigs, and the Shipps. We fished, worked in the garden, rode our go-cart and Paw’s Honda three-wheeler, and swam in the town pool while everybody’s mom sat under the shaded benches, smoking and chatting away in the heat of the day. Sometimes the grown-ups would load a mess of kids into the back of somebody’s pickup, and off we’d go to the creek.
We had cats and dogs and chickens, and cows for a time, and horses too. We even spent a weekend one chilly autumn with a blind calf bedded down by our fireplace. Mam took in every stray animal she could, including a baby owl she and Paw found abandoned in the swamp during the flood of 1973. When she was in elementary school, Ruthie doted on Little Bit, an ugly little mutt that looked like a bleached haggis with legs and a splotch of brown gravy. As far as I was concerned, Little Bit existed to give me the opportunity to tease Ruthie.
Somehow I discovered that Little Bit hated it when anyone sang “Happy Birthday.” It made her howl. “Happy birthday to you-u-u,” I sang, and the pitiful creature would sit on her haunches, throw her head back, and bay.
“Dad-dee!” Ruthie yelled.
“Happy birthday to you-u-u!”
“Happy birthday dear Li-i-ittle Bi-i-i-it—”
“You stupid idiot!” she would say, and then her fat little fists flew.
This script played itself out a lot, only varying when she skipped the appeal to parental authority, and went straight for the pummeling.
Little Bit loved to follow the big dogs from the neighborhood when they tracked deer through the woods. But she was so short and stumpy that she couldn’t keep up with them. Once she failed to return from running deer. Ruthie couldn’t stop crying over it. Late one chilly night Paw and Mam put us into the cab of his pickup and we rode to the back end of the place to see if we could find her. Paw heard the dog howling in a creek bottom. While we waited in the truck with Mam, he went into the dark, rattlesnake-infested woods, climbed down a steep, twenty-foot embankment into the creek bed, picked up the cold, frightened, lost dog, and brought her in.
Ruthie was overjoyed. Little Bit almost certainly wouldn’t have survived the night if Paw hadn’t done that. She would have died of exposure, or more likely a coyote would have killed and eaten her.
Our family’s social life revolved around neighborhood fish fries, crawfish boils, and barbecues. Our fathers hunted and fished together; our mothers traded stories as they made potato salad for the barbecues and fish fries. There was something particular about Mam and Paw that made our house a center of the community. They didn’t have a lot of money, but there was always room for more at our table. People dropped by constantly, and stayed for dinner—and sometimes late into the night, even during the week. They wanted to be around Mam and Paw, who were boundlessly hospitable.
Our family was happy and secure. In the winter months Paw got up before sunrise to build a roaring fire in the living room fireplace. He went out and warmed Mam’s school bus up, then came inside, unwrapped store-bought honey buns, topped them with a generous pat of butter, and slid them into the toaster oven. Ruthie and I would come in for breakfast to those gooey treats. Most nights when we were small, we crawled into Paw’s lap, him sitting in his big recliner, each of us nestling into a crook of his arm. He smelled like tobacco and bourbon, if he’d had a drink before dinner. Mam brought him a cup of hot black coffee and we would lie there in his arms, talking about our day. I never saw any of my friends do that with their dads.
Ruthie and I knew we were in a special family. Paw was a strict disciplinarian, but he didn’t have to do it often because we had such respect for him and for Mam. He was the kind of man you wanted to please because he seemed so strong, so wise, and so good. It seemed to us that there was nothing he couldn’t do, or didn’t know.
We hero-worshipped him, Ruthie and I did. And this became a problem for me when everything in my life fell apart in the summer of 1981, not long after I turned fourteen. A group of kids from our school, including Ruthie and me, took a trip to the beach. Before this vacation I had been one of the most popular kids in my class, from the time I started school until then. But for some reason, a handful of kids a year older than me decided that I was going to be the mark on this trip.
I wandered one afternoon into a hotel room where the kids were hanging out with two of our adult chaperones. Before I knew what was happening, several of the older boys, including football players, had me down on the hotel room floor, threatening to take my pants off in front of the girls standing on the beds giggling. The girls, especially two popular ones at the center of the preppy clique, egged them on. I thrashed and flailed and begged them to let me go. I called out to the chaperones, the mothers of classmates, and begged them to help me.
They stepped over me, lying pinned to the floor, and left the room.
The gang let me go without stripping me naked—they probably only intended to give me a good scare—and I fled down the hall, into my room. I wanted to catch the next flight out, but had to endure the next few days, hoping that it wouldn’t happen again. Ruthie, who had been off at the beach with one of her friends, never knew what had happened, and wouldn’t have understood what it meant to me if I had told her. I made it home without further incident, but the world looked very different to me after that. To this day my mother remembers a sea change: “I knew something had happened on that trip. I didn’t know what, because you wouldn’t tell me. It was in your eyes.”
When school started that fall, word had spread that I was now untouchable. Boys who had been my friends since elementary school now wouldn’t talk to me in the hallway. Older boys shoved me on occasion. The preppy queen bees made a point of insulting me every day. By no means was I the only one they treated like this. There was nothing that anybody could do about it, or so it seemed. The thing that killed me, though, was how my best friends literally dropped me overnight. Cutting a boy who had been their close pal most of their lives was the price required to join the cool kids’ club, and gain access to their booze, cigarettes, and social status. It felt like the end of the world to me. I doubt it troubled them one bit.
School became little more than a daily opportunity to confront what a piece of stinking garbage I was, and how powerless I was to make any of it stop. The misery continued throughout my tenth-grade year. None of this made sense.
During this time I fought often with my father. I honestly can’t remember what we argued over, but I remember him being frustrated with my outcast status. Both he and my mother worried about me, but they didn’t know what to do, and panicked. It was especially hard for my strong-willed father, who could not empathize with a son whose way of seeing the world was increasingly alien to his own. In one of our yelling matches Paw accused me of bringing all this on myself for being so obstinately strange. And that’s when I knew how alone I was.
I turned at the time to the woman who had been my ninth-grade English teacher, Nora Marsh. With her tightly braided curly red hair, her Yankee accent, and fondness for rock and roll, Nora stood out among the teachers. Descended from an old West Feliciana family, she had grown up in Chicago but moved to the parish to live in and care for Weyanoke, her family’s antebellum plantation house, and spend weekends at her place in New Orleans. She was fun, smart, and—catnip to a teenager like me—had a “Question Authority” bumper sticker on her Chevy Citation. She became a mentor to several of us bookish outcasts. Nora knew how hard we had it in school, and served as a cheerleader for us, and a messenger of hope. What she told us, mostly by her example, was that we were okay, that we were normal, that loving books and ideas was nothing to be ashamed of, and that, honest to God, things weren’t always going to be like this.
One Friday in the autumn of 1982 several of us were hovering around Nora, waiting to go to a pep rally when we heard an announcement on the school intercom. Representatives from a new residential high school for juniors and seniors were going to be in a particular classroom if anybody wanted to meet them. What was this? We had to check it out.
The idea behind the new Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts was to bring academically gifted juniors to a refurbished high school in Natchitoches, a town in north-central Louisiana, put us up in unused college dorms, and teach us college-level courses. It was to be a state-funded public boarding school for Louisiana gifted and talented students. An escape! Only two could be accepted from West Feliciana; three of us wanted to go. Nora helped us all take the tests and gather our transcripts and recommendations. As exciting as the academics were, I wanted more than anything to leave, to get out, to put as much distance between my hometown and myself as I could.
One day, near the end of the spring semester, I stopped by the post office in my old blue Chevy pickup before heading to my after-school job at the grocery store. I went in, opened the box, and there it was: a fat letter from the Louisiana School. I took it back outside, sat in my truck, and trembling, opened the envelope to learn my fate.
I was in.
Paw was against my going. I had no business leaving home at sixteen, he thought, and God knows what kind of nonsense I could get into up there. There was nothing wrong with me that more effective discipline couldn’t fix. Mam did not want me to go away so early either. But she could also see how broken I was, how lost, and how miserable. She fought with Paw for his permission to let me go. She finally got it.
And so, in August, the day finally came for me to leave home. With our pickup full of my worldly goods, we met my old friend Jason McCrory, the other kid from our school to win a slot in the inaugural LSMSA class, and boarded the car ferry across the Mississippi together. Jason and I stood on the bow of the boat, saying nothing. I thought about what I was leaving behind. The intolerance, the social conformity, the cliquishness, the bullying. At sixteen this is what I thought small-town life was and always would be. There, on the far side of the river, was the rest of my life, straight ahead. I had no intention of looking back.
When I set out for Natchitoches, I left my little sister behind in St. Francisville. This was the fork in the road for us, the moment in our lives in which we diverged. Neither of us could have known it then, because each of us had begun a joyful new chapter of change that would determine the courses of our lives. I was finally among my tribe now in Natchitoches, and gaining the confidence that comes with knowing that one has a place in the world. For Ruthie the world brightened because of a boy from Texas they called Blue Eyes.
Mike Leming moved to town in 1980, when he was twelve. Ruthie, then a fifth grader, came home from school one day to say there was a new boy in school. Mike was a year older than Ruthie, which meant they didn’t see a lot of each other until they were in high school together. When we were growing up, kids in the first through sixth grades attended Bains Elementary, a flat-roofed, one-story red brick building on the Bains Road, three miles north of St. Francisville. It was one of those desultory 1970s modern schoolhouses that might have been designed by the architect dad on The Brady Bunch, and which looked like 1966’s idea of the future. Mike came to town the year West Feliciana High School opened just up the low, sloping hill from Bains. It too was a flat-roofed modern building, but it was built into the side of a hill, and after Bains, this shiny new school imparted the approximate euphoria of new car smell. What’s more every single classroom was air-conditioned. Every one! No more scheming to get assigned to the desk that was closest to the classroom wall fan. In the West Feliciana school universe, this was what it meant to move up in the world.
We children didn’t understand this at the time, but ours was a poor parish; the fancy-pants new school came courtesy of tax receipts from the River Bend Nuclear Generating Station, construction on which began in the mid-1970s. There were few rich kids in West Feliciana schools. The student body was evenly divided between black and white, but the white kids—almost all middle or working class—were generally much better off than the black kids, most of whom were very poor. There wasn’t much palpable tension between the races, but there weren’t many deep cross-racial friendships, either. We went to the same school, but lived in different worlds.
The social universe of white kids was roughly divided into three cliques: preps (middle class to upper middle; drug of choice: alcohol); potheads (working class; drug of choice: marijuana); and nerds (everybody else; drugs of choice: anxiety, Dungeons & Dragons). There was overlap, of course, and a number of kids—like, well, Mike and Ruthie—who wouldn’t have identified as preps but still hung out with them. To be sure, despite the fact that some of them wore argyle socks and Izod shirts, none of the kids we all called preps would ever be mistaken by actual preppies as one of their tribe. Plenty of so-called preppy guys drove pickup trucks and listened to country music. No small number of girls in those preppy circles had bows in their big hair. “Preps” was the day’s catch-all term for socially engaged white kids who didn’t smoke dope (or at least much dope), some of whom thought of themselves as elites.
It was common in those days for teenagers to have after-school jobs, and there was no question that Ray Dreher’s kids would work to make their spending money. Ruthie spent part of the salary she drew as a clerk at Boo Bryant’s pharmacy on Hank Williams Jr. cassettes. One year she had tickets near the front row for a Hank Jr. concert in Baton Rouge. Wound up and possibly under the influence of Tennessee’s finest sour mash, Ruthie took off her bra, whirled it around her head several times like a lasso, taunting the chortling band members, and threw it onstage. Hank put the garment on the neck of his guitar, raised hell, and tossed her a drumstick after the song.
If there wasn’t a concert or something else going on in Baton Rouge, teenagers didn’t have much to do on the weekends. In the seventies there was a local pool resort called Bikini Beach, and a burger-and-pinball place called the Redwood Inn (which boasted the first Pong game in town), but by the early 1980s, when Ruthie and I were teenagers, both places had closed. The only fast-food joint in town was the Chicken Shack (the sun-bleached yellow plastic sign out front said “Log Cabin Fried Chicken,” but nobody called it that), in a gravel lot off Highway 61 next to Choo-Choo Bennett’s Gulf station. There was no place to sit at the Chicken Shack; you’d drive up, wait for the cashier to open the mosquito screen on the right side, order a hamburger or box of fried chicken, then wait in your truck until the mosquito screen on the left side opened, and someone barked out your name. It was a great day when the Chicken Shack installed a bug zapper the size of a mop bucket from the overhang in front; it meant you had something to do while you waited for your order.
It was that kind of town.
For a couple of years Boo Bryant, the pharmacist, spun records at Catholic Hall for Catholic Youth Organization dances, which were a lot of fun, and gave awkward seventh and eighth graders, smelling of Sea Breeze, Love’s Baby Soft, and Brut by Fabergé, practice in the art of slow dancing.
With nowhere to hang out, West Feliciana teenagers took their partying to wherever they could park their pickup trucks. In Ruthie’s high school years that place was typically the parking lot of the new Sonic Drive-In on 61 or down by the Mississippi River.
Sometimes the gang gathered down by the ferry landing where Bayou Sara empties into the Mississippi. There were rusted hulks of cranes and other abandoned heavy equipment. On other occasions teenagers drove down a gravel road that ran along the riverbank and parked in a semicircle in a clearing in the woods two miles out of town, overlooking the water. It was secluded and far from adult eyes. Unless they built a bonfire, the only lights were the moon, the stars, and the glow from the Big Cajun coal-fired power plant on the opposite bank. The river was where you went to drink, to listen to country music, and to be with your crowd.
The river wasn’t the only place to go, though. Somebody was always having a party, either at their house, their parents’ camp, or at a barn. Teenagers were often on the road to Baton Rouge to the movies, or bowling. A lot of teenage social life centered around the West Feliciana Saints, the high school football and baseball teams. If the CYO scheduled a dance for the same night as a Saints football game, a win meant the priest would let the kids dance till one in the morning, but a loss meant the music stopped at midnight.
In those days teenagers in our town didn’t really go on formal dates. Instead you’d either go out with your friends, or you’d “go with” someone—which meant you were seeing that person exclusively. If a boy and a girl liked each other, the boy would screw up the courage to ask the girl to go with him. That typically meant they would hang out with all their friends anyway, but would be off-limits to the romantic attentions of others. It was easy to tell which girls were going with which boys: if you got behind them on the highway, the girl would be riding in the front seat of his pickup as close to him as she could be without actually sitting in his lap.
Mike Leming was a year older than Ruthie and began noticing her in the hallway when she moved up to ninth grade, and therefore over to his side of the high school building. He liked the way Ruthie carried herself. He had never seen anyone like her—tomboyish and girly at the same time. She had lots of friends and never talked about anybody, nor did people gossip about her. When kids were changing classes in the hallway and huddled to talk in groups, he was struck by how she had a way of making people comfortable by the way she talked to them.
Ruthie’s social ease was especially attractive to Mike. Though he was tall, blond, handsome, and athletic, Mike was painfully shy. He couldn’t figure out how to approach Ruthie.
One April night in 1983 Ruthie convinced Paw to let her attend a creek party. She was two weeks shy of her fifteenth birthday, and couldn’t believe he had let her go. She saw the Leming boy there, and they got to talking, and laughing with each other, and the next thing you know, he kissed her. Ruthie had a midnight curfew and made it home with only three minutes to spare. That Monday at school everyone teased her for kissing Mike Leming at the party. What was the big deal? It was just a creek party. “Mike and I are just friends!” she protested.
The next weekend the Saints baseball team played John Curtis High, a suburban New Orleans school, in a regional playoff. John Curtis was well known around the state as an athletic powerhouse. Squaring off against them was a David-and-Goliath moment for the West Feliciana country boys. Mike played right field for the Saints. Ruthie rode the fan bus to New Orleans for the game.
To everyone’s great surprise the Saints played the hell out of John Curtis, and reached the bottom of the ninth inning ahead, six to two. Victory seemed so certain the West Feliciana fans finally answered the city team’s pregame taunts by singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But then John Curtis rallied, coming within one run of tying the game.
Bases loaded. Two outs. The John Curtis batter had struck out every time he had come to the plate that night.
And then, on the next pitch, the batter connected. The ball struck a high, hard arc over right field, like an incoming mortar round, right through the heart of West Feliciana’s season. Mike ran for the chain-link outfield fence and started to climb, hoping to lift himself high enough to catch the ball and win the game. There was no catching this ball, glory-bound for a grand slam. Sammy Patrick, the West Feliciana pitching ace, collapsed on the mound in shock and disbelief. Mike hung on the fence for a few seconds, then let himself fall to the ground, spent and defeated.
Ruthie, like every other West Feliciana fan there that night, was shattered. She and her friends held each other, wailing and sobbing. Our boys worked so hard all year, she thought, and had this game all but won! The Saints’ gruff coach gathered his team behind the dugout, and with tears in his eyes told them how proud he was of them.
Heads bowed, the boys gathered their gear and loaded back onto the team bus. The fan bus followed close behind. The buses pulled over at a McDonald’s on the way out of town. Mike sat next to Ruthie in the booth and they ate hamburgers and fries together. This left her giddy, and almost redeemed the disastrous night.
The following weekend Mam and Paw let Ruthie have a birthday party in Paw’s old barn, just up the gravel road from their place. They promised her they wouldn’t stay back there, watching the kids, but they trusted her to make sure her friends wouldn’t drink alcohol. A big crowd turned up that night in Starhill, parking their trucks in Paw’s field, and beckoned by the sound of country music, joining the party under the tin roof. One Starhill kid turned his truck lights on and captured Ruthie and Mike making out by the fence row.
“What’s the matter with him?” Ruthie fumed. “Hasn’t he ever seen anybody kissing before?”
In the aftermath of the evening Ruthie and Mike had to pick up several trash bags’ worth of empty beer cans and whiskey bottles. Mam and Paw were furious. Ruthie and Mike were disappointed in their friends. That’s how these parties usually went, though. That next week Ruthie turned fifteen and got her learner’s permit to drive. Paw let her take his big white Lincoln Continental, a wedding cake on whitewalls, to school.
Ruthie and Mike were crazy about each other, but couldn’t quite move to the scoot-across-the-truck-seat phase of a West Feliciana teenage courtship. Were they just friends, or weren’t they? Mike adored Ruthie, but couldn’t believe a girl like her wanted to be with a guy like him. His self-doubt and natural timidity caused him to hang back. Ruthie took this for disinterest. They were at an unhappy stalemate.
One July day Mike was riding a lawn mower, cutting grass outside the Bank of St. Francisville. He saw Ruthie drive by four or five times with Mam in the car, and wondered what she was up to.
“Ruthie,” said Mam, “if you don’t pull over and ask that boy, I’m going to do it for you.”
Ruthie stopped the car, got out, and walked over to Mike. He powered down the mower.
“Hey,” she said.
“You know that Junior Babe Ruth championship tournament they’re having this month at the baseball park?”
“Yeah, I’m playing in it.”
“I know. I’m going to be on the court. Some kind of queen thing. The girls on the court have to have one of the baseball players escort them. I was kind of wondering if, um, you would escort me. You think you might be able to do that?”
Mike only managed to say, “Yeah, I reckon I could.” Ruthie thanked him, got back into the car with Mam, and drove away. Mike started the mower again, and glided across the Bermuda grass. And that was all it took. Ruthie Dreher took her place on the tournament court, on the arm of Mike Leming. They were never again apart. Years later, in fact, they would both say it was hard to remember a time when they hadn’t been together. Ruthie and Mike just knew this was how it was supposed to be for them—a conclusion all their friends quickly drew.
With Ruthie at his side, and not a paper’s width between them, Mike would drive them to Baton Rouge on dates. They would go to the movies, and then to eat at Wendy’s, Ruthie’s favorite. When the Greater Baton Rouge State Fair was on in the fall, they would drive into the city to the far end of Airline Highway, and step out into the colored lights of the midway, with all its funnel-caked, cotton-candied, Tilt-a-Whirled glory. Ruthie was the fearless one. She would ride every ride. It didn’t matter. She just wanted to do it. Not Mike. She’d ride them, and he’d wait for her, tickled and proud that she was his girl.
Most weekend nights, though, they would ride in Mike’s truck into town to see what their friends were up to. Creek parties, barn dances, and in the fall, football on Friday night. There wasn’t much going on in St. Francisville, but for Ruthie and Mike, it was enough. The main event was each other—it didn’t matter where they were or what they were doing, as long as they were together.
“I don’t care about my friends,” Ruthie told him. “I just always want to be with you. You’re not only my boyfriend, but you’re my best friend. I can tell you anything and you understand me.”
Their devotion deepened throughout the fall of Mike’s senior year. One night they went to a party on the sand dunes at Thompson Creek. Late into the evening they lay with each other under the stars, in each other’s arms, staring at the full moon.
“I love you, you know,” Ruthie said.
“I love you, too.”
And that’s when they knew this was for keeps. A year later Ruthie wrote Mike a letter in which she called that moment “the best night of my life.”
“I’ve been happier than I’ve ever been,” she wrote, “and it’s all because of you. I’ll love you forever and a day.”
Ruthie began wearing Mike’s blue football and baseball letterman jacket. When his senior class ring came in, Mike never put it on his finger; he gave it straight to Ruthie. Because Mike’s family lived a long drive away, at the northern end of the parish, Mam and Paw invited him to sleep on the couch on weekend nights. That worked to Paw’s benefit too. On Saturday mornings Paw put Mike to work cleaning fence rows, cutting trees, removing brush, chopping firewood, and doing other chores.
At first Mike was intimidated by his girlfriend’s father, but the intimidation eventually gave way to respect and affection for Paw. Because Mike didn’t have a lot of spending money, Paw bought him several steel traps, and taught him how to snare raccoons by placing the traps underwater in the creek. Mike set a trapline in the hollows behind Paw’s place, and caught two or three coons each night. Ruthie sometimes helped him run his traplines. Paw taught him how to skin the coon to keep the hide intact. Every couple of weeks the buyer came through and paid Mike fifteen dollars per hide—enough to buy gas for his truck and burgers and Cokes for him and his girl. Paw called him “Trapper.”
During her junior year Ruthie’s crowd began hanging out at the river, where they could build bonfires and drink beer without adults hassling them. But Mam and Paw had forbidden Ruthie to spend time there. After a local boy died in a drunk-driving crash, parents were scared. They had reason to be. Still, if you weren’t a social outcast, and you wanted to be with your friends from school on the weekends, you went to the river. Mam and Paw, however, would not yield on their conviction that it was no place for a girl to be.
After a while some of Ruthie’s friends began taunting her for her absence at the river. You think you’re better than us, they said. That got to Ruthie, who hated elitism above all else.
One night Mam and Paw went to a ball game in town. As they left the stands Mam told Paw she had a strange feeling Ruthie was down at the river. They drove to the ferry landing, took a left, and motored in the darkness to the bonfire site. And there was Ruthie. She had come there with Mike.
Furious and hurt Mam parted the crowd and took her startled daughter by the arm.
“Sister, I can’t let you come down here,” Mam said. Ruthie knew instantly that she had been caught, and that she was in the wrong. She put her head down and, through scalding, humiliating tears, let her mother lead her away. She wept and didn’t say a word all the way home. Mam was crying. Paw was crying. It was the worst thing they had ever had to do to their daughter.
Ruthie went silent around our parents for several months—not from anger, as they suspected, but from shame that she had hurt them. “It just about killed her that she had caused them pain,” Mike says. “She had this deep sense of not wanting to hurt other people, not to be a burden to them.”
My sister’s sensitivity and her loyalty to our parents only strengthened her bond with Mike. Mike was a deeply shy, introverted young man whose upbringing had been difficult, in part because of family finances, in part because his workaholic father was so emotionally and physically remote. Ruthie’s love built his confidence. “I knew I could trust her. She was so loyal. How can a person do that, especially at such a young age? But that was the kind of heart she had. Pure. It didn’t really matter if I saw her talking to another guy. It never bothered me, because I knew she was loyal to me. I never had to worry.”
This purity of my sister’s heart gave Mike peace of mind when he joined the National Guard as a senior and, after finishing high school, shipped out to boot camp in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for four months of training. She wrote him every single day to encourage him, to tell him how much she loved him, and to keep him up on news from home.
Ruthie spent that lonely summer working in our cousin’s law office in St. Francisville. “I’m making seven hundred dollars a month!” she told Mike. “Can you believe it? That’s a lot of money.”
By that time I was between my freshman and sophomore semesters at LSU in Baton Rouge, and was home working a summer gig at the nuclear plant. There was no place I wanted to be less than stuck in Starhill. So I checked out. I’d come home from my nine-to-five job, make myself a tall glass of Tanqueray gin, grapefruit juice, and soda, and retire to my room to drink, read Hemingway, listen to ska, and marinate in self-doubt. To the rest of my family I looked like a self-centered, uppity layabout. There was no doubt some truth to that, but it was also the case that I was confused and drifting.
Ruthie, though, may have been lonely, but she was rarely bored, and she doubted nothing about life. Everything she had, or could have, sufficed. She was the kind of person who would never grow up to write a memoir about her life because she was too happy and involved in living it. I didn’t want what Ruthie had, but I was jealous of the way she had it. How did she do it? She made everything look so effortless. On some mornings she would wake up at daylight and get a couple of hours in fishing for bass and bream on the pond before she went to the law office. On weekends she played golf with her and Mike’s buddies, babysat for extra money (she was already saving for her and Mike’s future), or went bowling with friends. She went to parties every now and then, but it didn’t feel right without Mike there.
Ruthie and I got along surprisingly well that summer, no doubt because I stayed out of her way. One Saturday afternoon we drove into Baton Rouge to go shopping, and I told her about the dream I had the night before.
“I dreamed that you and Mike got married,” I said. “Is that weird? Are y’all thinking about it?”
“We’ve talked about it,” she said nervously, “but I think we’re going to wait until we get a few years of college behind us.”
“Did I tell him the right thing?” she later asked Mike in a letter. “That’s one dream that I wish would come true! What I want most in life is to spend it with you. I love you more than anything in the world. I always daydream about what we’re gonna do on our honeymoon and what our house is gonna be like. I sure hope we can make my dreams come true…. I’m ready to start school and get it over with so we can hurry up and start our life together. It is gonna be a damn good one too! I can’t wait!”
Though Daddy’s little girl had lost her heart to Mike, Ruthie and Paw grew even closer that summer. They spent many afternoons on the pond together after work, casting for bream. On Father’s Day weekend Ruthie washed and cleaned out the inside of Paw’s Bronco, as his gift. Meanwhile I had promised to mow the grass for Paw that day, but instead holed up inside the house watching the live MTV broadcast of the eleven-hour Amnesty International benefit concert from Giants Stadium, starring the Police, U2, and Peter Gabriel.
“Rod says it’s great music, but I don’t know,” Paw wrote to Mike. “That still don’t get the grass cut. Maybe tomorrow.”
I had no interest in going fishing with Ruthie, so she often went up to the pond with Billy Lawton, a neighbor kid. One afternoon Billy and Ruthie floated in the middle of the pond in Paw’s aluminum boat, their lines dangling in the water.
“Ruthie, look!” Billy whispered.
Billy thought he was looking at a cow standing at the water’s edge at the pond’s other end.
“Billy, that’s a buck!” Ruthie gasped.
The big deer, antlers coated in velvet, studied them closely. A fish took Billy’s cork under and ran with the line, but Ruthie quietly ordered him to ignore it. She was afraid he would scare the deer away.
The buck dipped his head to drink, then raising it, concluded that the people in the boat were no threat. He ambled down the raised levee that was the pond’s west bank, marching toward them. No fear. He finally found his way into the cornfield, and was gone.
“All I could think about was how you would have fainted,” Ruthie told Mike, in a letter. “Maybe you can get him this winter. I can’t wait!”
She was overcome by excitement at the buck spotting. Me, I would have had to see Elvis Costello in the car next to me at the Sonic to have registered similar glee. No surprise then that I declined to accompany Paw, Mam, and Ruthie on a weekend trip to Holly Beach, a rustic Cajun coastal community in southwest Louisiana, near the Texas border. Some family friends had a camp in the remote and fairly desolate stretch of sand and invited them to make the four-hour drive down. Mosquitoes, alligators, heat, humidity, and no girls? Could there be a more dismal way to spend a weekend? I chose to take my chances at home with gin, air-conditioning, and the English Beat.
Ruthie had a blast. She fished, sunbathed, and learned how to use a throw net to catch crabs in the surf. They ate a fish stew called court bouillon over rice, crawfish crepes, boiled crabs, T-bones, and leg of lamb. She took a drive with Mam and Paw down the Holly Beach main drag to eyeball the gators living in the ditches on either side of the road. She was shocked to see a pickup passing the other way nearly run over a four-foot gator on the asphalt. Paw stopped the Bronco to see if the gator would move. Ruthie leaped out and chased the big lizard out of the road.
“Ruthie!” Paw said when she climbed back in. “You would have died if that thing had started chasing you!”
“I didn’t think about that, Daddy,” she said. “I was just worried that somebody was going to run over the poor little thing.”
On the long drive home that Sunday, Ruthie wrote to Mike to tell him about the glories of Holly Beach. “That place would make a great honeymoon spot, hint hint,” she said. “It was so relaxing and romantic.”
Paw and Mike also grew closer that summer, despite the distance. Mike wrote a couple of letters that grabbed the older man’s heart. Mike told Paw that he was a good man, and a special one who had been like a father to him. Ruthie wrote Mike to praise him for his sincerity and thoughtfulness.
“You couldn’t have gotten to his heart in a better way than this,” she said. “You really let your feelings flow and it really made him feel good cause he feels the same way. He loves you like a son. After he read it, he got up and went to the back because we had company and he had to go wipe the tears off his face.”
Paw wrote Mike too, addressing him as “Trapper,” and tried to keep his spirits up amid the rigors of basic training.
“There is nothing they can do to you that you can’t take. Just keep your mind in order, your spirits up as well as your strength,” Paw counseled. “Do not be misled by those who don’t care, and be the best damn soldier possible. You will end up the winner, and a better man for it. We are all mighty proud of you and what you are doing.”
In late July Ruthie rode to South Carolina with Mike’s parents for his graduation from basic training. She would have only a day or two with him before he began advanced training. They didn’t have much time together, but for Ruthie it was the highlight of her summer. She and Mr. and Mrs. Leming had not even checked out of the Fort Jackson–area hotel that Sunday when Ruthie put pen to La Quinta Inn telephone pad notepaper and began her next letter.
“I just thought I’d write you before we left here so you would get this quick,” she wrote. “I want you to know how proud I am of you. I can’t wait to get home and brag on you. You just look so sharp and handsome in your uniform. It just made me want to cry every time I looked at you. You make me feel so good inside when you compliment me and look at me with those beautiful eyes.
“I’m sorry I cried so much today, but I just couldn’t help it,” she continued. “I didn’t want to embarrass you but I just love you so much and you make me so proud that I have to cry. It felt so good being in your arms and kissing you. You make me feel so secure. You have really matured and are a man now! I love your muscles—they’re so sexy.”
She ended by assuring him, as she often did, that she was his girl, “forever and a day.”
“I can’t wait to get our life started,” Ruthie wrote. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
In the fall of 1986 Ruthie began her senior year of high school. Mike came home later that autumn and prepared himself to start classes at LSU that spring. It didn’t take long for Mike to discover that college wasn’t for him. After a difficult semester he went to work at the local paper mill.
Ruthie was the class of 1987 valedictorian and left her graduation ceremony that night with her college education already paid for with scholarships and awards. Nearly all of the ninety-three graduates in her class announced plans that night to go to college, or to some form of career training. At the end of her freshman fall semester, Ruthie phoned Mam and Paw from her dorm at LSU, and told them she had something to tell them when she came home for Sunday dinner that weekend. They were afraid of what she would say, guessing she was planning to break the news that she and Mike had eloped.
That Sunday, after Paw said grace, Ruthie declared: “I’ve got something I want to say. That group that I graduated with? Only three of us are left in school now. And I want to thank y’all for what you did for me. I know it wasn’t easy to be tough.”
Recalls Mam, “You can’t imagine what hearing that meant to us.”
When Ruthie started LSU that fall to work on an education degree, she lived in the dorm next to mine. I was a junior. We saw each other only in the cafeteria behind our residence halls. During the week she stayed buried in her books, worked hard, and made perfect grades. I was studying journalism, philosophy, political science, and considered long, beery arguments over existentialism with my fellow young scholars to be time well spent. My college transcript, while respectable, does not support this generous interpretation.
At LSU Ruthie thought I was getting away with something, and not only because I managed to ace tests even though I had stayed out late drinking beer and barely studied. She may have experienced on campus the same frustration and envy I felt when Ruthie triumphed on every front back home with so little effort. Worse, Ruthie could not understand what I studied, and what engaged me intellectually, and therefore she regarded it with suspicion, even loathing.
Excerpted from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher Copyright © 2013 by Rod Dreher. Excerpted by permission.
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