Crushes came easily to me as a boy. Unfortunately for me, I was exclusively a generator and never the recipient. To be fair to all the girls I knew, I was always the shortest boy in class, but made up for it by being loud, disruptive and, although I was occasionally amusing, offensive, having been gifted with an EZ-Flow oral filter at birth, so that “unuttered thought” was an oxymoron to me. Still, I would have enjoyed one girl having a crush on me. To my knowledge, it never happened. Instead, in addition to unuttered real-life crushes on girls in my elementary-school classes (hello Beth Austin and Tracey Thompson), I developed serious celebrity crushes. Like my behavior, these attractions were strange and inexplicable. My first real crush came when I was six and I fell hard for an older woman. Much older and much woman. Although I’ve been in therapy for years, I’ve yet to uncover the reasons for my attraction to that first crush, except that she starred on television. (Not to disappoint, but in the previous sentence “starred on television” could also be written as “was a panelist on a game show.”) My first crush was on Kitty Carlisle, a regular on a To Tell the Truth, a program that would take longer to explain than I have space. Suffice to say, to little Keith she was the height of sophistication and elegance. She was also in her mid-fifties when she captured my heart. One of many strange memories of my childhood is pretending a block of wood was a walkie-talkie and that I was communicating with Kitty. The memory does not include audio, so I have no idea what I was saying to an old lady who, before I discovered her had been in Marx Brothers movies, although the smart money would be on protestations of love.
Hard to believe no little girl developed a crush on a boy who was in love with a woman his grandmother’s age.
Shortly after this, I developed a stronger, more lasting and, slightly, more age-appropriate celebrity crush. Oh, and even stranger, according to everyone to whom I’ve ever revealed this. You may not know this, but at one time the morning Today news show starred Hugh Downs, Joe Garagiola and the love of my elementary-school life, Barbara Walters, the intelligent newscaster and interviewer who stole my heart.
Born in 1929, Barbara looked into the camera and smiled at me as I ate my before-school Cheerios each morning. Even 10 years later, when her speech patterns were being mocked on Saturday Night Live, and I had real-life girlfriends, I still defended Barbara. If she’s still alive, and single . . . well, you know.
Hard to believe no little girl developed a crush on a boy who was in love with a woman his mother’s age.
Since I’m going down in years, beginning with a woman my grandmother’s age, then one my mother’s, the writer in me would like to finish this piece by revealing I had a celebrity crush as a boy on a girl my own age. Unfortunately, my desire to be honest has overcome that urge, and I’ll confess I was never attracted to TV girls, perhaps because I had so many classmates prepared to reject me. Or because television didn’t have elementary-school girls as actresses in the mid-sixties. Or because I dreamed of growing up and getting older.
But not this old. I just realized I’m older now than Kitty Carlisle was when I talked with her on a block of wood. That’s not older than dirt, but it’s older than a lot of trees.
Read this only if you want a better understanding of how my mind works, how my writing process works, or if you really, really want to learn more about how shy I am around women. You’ve been warned.
I jot down ideas for columns all the time. Among the titles/notes/drafts on my computer desktop are:
Magic is a Time and Not a Place and Can’t Tell the Salt from the Wound and In Hopes that He May Peak Again and Cowards Stay and Face the Consequences.
The piece above, did NOT begin as “Older than Kitty Carlisle.” It didn’t start off as “Kitty, Barbara and Me: A Love Story.” The note was not “How Did I Get So Old?” It began as “Carol Tillock and the Fish out of Holy Water.” Readers of earlier columns (e.g., here) and novels (Cult of One), and one suspects the FBI from their investigation to grant me a Secret Security Clearance, know I tried to convince the lovely, charming and intelligent 12-year-old Carol into going to a junior-high dance with me by holding a live sea minnow over my mouth and saying, “Carol, if you won’t go to the dance, this fish is a goner.” Even those unfamiliar with the story, can guess the outcome.
Carol apparently cared more about her self respect than the life of a minnow.
I’ve had a crush on Carol for more than 45 years, a crush on a girl/teen/woman who has spoken, maybe, 200 words to me in that time, and many of those were along the lines of:
“You’re disgusting!” or “Stop being so immature.” or “What’s wrong with you?” or, most commonly, “Go away!”
Needless to say, these were appropriately spoken, befitting my jackassery. My intended role, prior to Carol’s words, was that of the mysterious paramour about whom my intended would be driven to learn more. My actual part was of weird creep or, if I was lucky, creepy weirdo.
What I’ve never told before is how I risked eternal damnation (or at least shocked looks in a Catholic church) to get her attention. Carol was and is Catholic, as was and probably is my childhood friend, John Warnke. (Another note on my desktop is “Colonel Warnke and Iced Beer,” a rough draft about John’s dad, a paraplegic who was paralyzed in a Jeep accident in Jordan. He was a true American hero who deserves better than I will provide him.) I was not, am not and, really, never was a Catholic. (For an undergraduate education class on learning theory, I had to practice metacognition by learning how I learned about something new. I went through adult catechism at the Durham Catholic Church. It didn’t take.)
John and I were good friends in junior high, and did a lot of things together. Boy Scouts (until I got kicked out for throwing up. More honestly, I got thrown out for throwing up on the back of the boy in front of me. Most honestly, I got thrown out for throwing up on the back of the boy in front of me because I swallowed the stolen chewing tobacco I was trying to impress my fellow scouts with before the meeting.), riding go-carts of various design (I still have scars on the back of my left hand from one disastrous run) and talking about the girls with whom we were in love. As I recall, John was smitten by Cindy Bechtell, and I do hope I haven’t broken some pre-adolescent blood oath by revealing it here. I, of course, spoke only of Carol, about whom I honestly knew next to nothing except that she was pretty and smart and demonstrated good taste in her disdain for me.
One thing John and I didn’t typically do together, for obvious reasons, was go to catechism, the training young Catholics go through before, as I understand it, Bar Mitzvahs, Rumspringa, Quinceanera or First Communion. John was sincere in his faith, and wanted to share it with me by taking me to catechism—or else my mom couldn’t pick me up on time and Mrs. Warnke dropped me off at church with him. Either way, once I learned Carol was in his Catholic class, I was excited.
In my admittedly faulty memory, the young postulants (?), communicants (?), supplicants (?) were gathered at the front of the church, Carol absolutely stunning in t-shirt and jeans, eyes rolling once she saw “that little weirdo” walk in with John. The font of Holy Water sat right inside the sanctuary, and John dipped his fingers in it and made the sign-of-the-lower-case-T, as he’d doubtless done hundreds of times before.
Here, I had a choice to make. If I touched the water and wasn’t supposed to, I could imagine the rapid intake of breath from all my Roman Catholic schoolmates as they imagined my shriveled soul sucked from my body. On the other hand, if I walked into the church without blessing myself, I would be thumbing my nose at God and Carol Tillock. Luckily, a third option—the worst of all—presented itself to me, and before I really knew why or what I was doing, I impersonated Frankenstein’s monster and walked into the font, knocking the Holy Water to the ground. John stared at me as though I’d exposed myself, and I suppose I had, exposed myself as a heathen.
“That water had to be brought in from the Jordan River,” he whispered to me, a misstatement, but one that carried more fear than the truth. I didn’t know much about air-freight prices, but assumed it must be expensive to fill planes with water in the Middle East and fly them to churches around the world. Had John told me Holy Water was plain old Durham town water blessed by a priest, I would have assumed this blessing didn’t require a lot of preparation, and the parish priest could even take a stroll over to the Durham reservoir and turn every bathtub in town into a Holy Water font.
Having only John’s explanation, I feared I’d just bankrupted the Durham Catholic Church, which I pictured as a Double-A farm team, with one priest being groomed for better things in the future and another few ecclesiastics who’d end up throwing batting practice at a roadside shrine. Perhaps word of my sin and its financial cost would go all the way to the Major League of Faith and the Pope would come looking for me.
Mostly, though, I thought about Carol Tillock, and how she wouldn’t go to a dance with a boy who’d murdered a fish out of love. Now that I’d bankrupted her church, committed a very, very bad—if not quite mortal—sin, and let loose the beast of my jackassery, she’d never talk to me again. There, I was wrong.
She did talk to me again. She said, “Go away” and “What’s wrong with you?” and . . .
I realize I’ve said a few times that Carol Tillock was intelligent and charming and lovely, demonstrating one of the worst writing habits one can fall into: telling rather than showing. In other words, where is the evidence?
Carol went from Oyster River High School to Yale. While she was entering her freshman year, by contrast, I was completing basic training at Fort Knox. From Yale, she went directly, I think, to Stanford Business School—I was working as a radio disk jockey and newsman. Since her graduation from Stanford, to my knowledge, she has become a barefoot Madonna, wandering the hills in California, brightening the lives of the downtrodden with her beatific and yet come-hither smile. I’ve got Facebook documentation for Yale and Stanford—the barefoot Madonna piece is just the logical conclusion to the vision of beauty that was Carol Tillock. In short, Carol has been transformed into an even brainier Joan Baez, and I’ve remained one of Bob Dylan’s dumbass kid brothers.
I live in the Great North Woods in a Tiny White Box. I haven’t killed a fish or knocked over a font in a long time. I don’t seek forgiveness or conciliation, although I would not refuse either were it offered. Until then, though, I’ll walk through the forest, a block of wood held to my ear:
“Carol, have I told you lately how beautiful and smart you are? And have you seen Barbara Walters on the view? She’s lovely, but nowhere near as pretty as you . . Hold on, I’ve got a call from Kitty on the other line. . . .”