“In Hopes that He May Peak Again!” (and find Beth Austin)

Yesterday, a lifelong dream came true. Really. Lifelong may be a stretch, but it’s not a break with reality. Let me explain.

I’ve mentioned my childhood best friend, John Warnke, in this space before. We’ve reconnected over the past couple months, which has been nice for both of us. John’s father, an Army officer paralyzed in a Jeep accident in Jordan as I remember, was a true American hero. Mr. Warnke, despite being wheelchair bound and having limited upper-body dexterity, reminds me of John McCain, a man whose life was no silver stair but who combined a sense of duty with a sense of honor with a sense of humor. This is not about Mr. Warnke, but I know he is the kind of man I’ve always wanted to be.

To my knowledge, John, my friend, had never been in a Jeep in Jordan, although the Warnkes didn’t move to Durham until we were in third grade so it could be that six- or seven-year-old John was tooling around desert dunes, although that’s not the kind of thing an eight-year-old boy would be likely to leave out of his biography. (That lengthy sentence is not even a digression, because I haven’t begun the journey. Call it a gression, and let me get back to my dream come true.)

John and I were both writers, or as writerly as third, fourth or fifth graders can be. While none of our childhood work survives, one of our favorite literary activities was to dramatize literature we’d liked. More honestly, we liked to write plays starring us with plots lifted whole from books, more horse theft than homage. Our tour-de-force came in fifth grade in Mrs. Quackenbush’s class, when we wrote our masterpiece.

Dangerous Island by Helen Mather-Smith Mindlin, involves gold bars, a cave on an island that only appears every two-hundred years, two boys and a girl who become stranded on the island and a helicopter. A challenge for staging in a classroom, the story intrigued John and me, and we wrote the play over a few weeks. As I recall, more time was spent on the final helicopter rescue than on characterization or dialogue. When we finished, we knew we’d written a perfect piece of art. After all, it had implied romance, treasure, potential death and survival. It also had a helicopter.

Since John and I had co-written the play, and neither of us was a girl, we split the two male leads between us and set out to choose our femme fatale. As I recall, most girls didn’t pay John much attention at that point; I, on the other hand, was positively rank with girl repellent. No fifth-grade girl wanted to be seen with me, much less be recruited into a play, even if I’d tried to convince her this was a great honor and a potential stepping-stone to television, movies or, at least, further opportunities in the theatrical future of Warnke-Howard Productions. It would be up to John to recruit the girl we both knew would be perfect for the part, and not just because she was too kind to say no.

Also, we both had crushes on her.

Beth Austin may not have been the prettiest girl in the world, but she was to me and John. Beth Austin may not have had the most dynamic stage presence in our grade, but she did to John and me. Beth Austin may not have been the most adept line-learner in our class, but she was to John and me.

Also, we both had crushes on her.

Much as I’d like to regale you with the details of that show, I won’t. My memory and the truth have likely long since parted ways. Still, I know writing and acting in that play was an unlikely capstone to an elementary-school career primarily constructed on a foundation of wasted potential and extreme jackassery.

Beth Austin moved away after that year, so was unable to appear in any future productions.

As an aside, John and I were together in school for three more years, through eighth grade. After that, John went to a parochial high school, then on to West Point, then on to a successful career in the United States Army. I spent years trying to balance a life on intelligence without hard work, wit without wisdom and various herbal, powder and liquid chemicals. Today, though, we are both happy men pushing 60.

In eighth grade, though, I’d revealed to John that Dangerous Island from three years before felt like the pinnacle of my life, and I doubted I’d ever reach such heights again. In my yearbook, John wrote: “To Keith—In hopes that he may peak again!”

I began this by talking about a dream becoming reality. It’s also a hope and a prophecy fulfilled. Yesterday, John Warnke called me to tell me he’d read my novel, On Account of Because, and proceeded to ask me thoughtful and insightful questions, about character, motivation, authorial choices. He was exactly the reader I’ve always wanted. I had peaked again.

Because has two primary male characters, Clayton and Shiny, but really only a secondary female character—Clayton’s mother, Lucinda, a horrific and evil drunk. When our fifth-grade class has its next, and first, reunion, John can play Clayton, I’ll play Shiny, who, at novel’s end, is sitting drunk with Lucinda.

I may not have a crush on her, but I do finally get the girl.

Beth Austin, where are you?

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