It all started when Steve broke up with Carol around the fall of 1977. That every guy in my high school class wanted to date her was one of those truths held to be self-evident. She was funny, athletic and beautiful, but before this declaration of her independence it would have been futile to spend any romantic energy her way since Steve was equally funny, athletic and handsome, and, after all, our friend. One day after their breakup I asked Steve, in a hypothetical tone, whether he would mind if I asked her out, and, more importantly, did he think she’d go out with me if I did. He said he didn’t mind and added, after some thought, that he saw no reason why she would not go out with me. As reassuring as that wasn’t, it was all the encouragement I needed. And, after a little behind-the-scenes assistance from Laura, Carol ‘s best friend, I secured a date.
I don’t recall if we saw a movie or went out for dinner or went to a school dance,1 but I remember getting ice cream afterwards. I was driving my mom’s 1975 Lime Green Buick Electra 225, the longest 4-door, hardtop, non-Cadillac car GM ever built, powered by a 455 cubic inch engine with 315 horses, getting 8-12 miles per gallon if you coasted at every possible opportunity. The front bench seat was so long I couldn’t reach Carol sitting on the other side if I had wanted to. It had jet black velour upholstery, plush to the touch but also remarkably dairy resistant as we discovered while sitting in the Baskin Robbins parking lot when Carol’s two scoops suddenly dropped onto the seat and rolled toward her pants, sending us both scrambling. I juggled the melting ice cream balls out the side window as if tossing hand-grenades out of a foxhole while Carol triaged the seat with an inadequate cone napkin.
As we were cleaning up she asked what we would do next. “Oh … we’re going sparking,” I said. “Um … what do you mean by that?” she giggled, perhaps nervously, perhaps at the potential hilarity that might ensue since I had no idea that “sparking” might just be another term for “parking” in some social circles. To me, it was just a name my church friends called a certain activity involving candy while inside a dark closet. I was a fairly sheltered kid who had never gone “parking,” never played spin the bottle, had never even played truth or dare. In fact I think I have yet to play either of those games. “You’ll see,” I said, grinning, unaware how potentially lascivious this may have looked or sounded.
I drove a few miles to–of all places–my church, home of the Knoxville First Ward, my congregation. I stepped out of the car and declared: “Here we are.” The chapel was dark and empty, as was the parking lot. I pulled out my dad’s keys to the church building and we went inside. I locked the door behind us and we walked toward the partition hallway between the sanctuary and the gym, the darkest spot in the building. I don’t remember any speaking, just silence interrupted by squeaking door hinges and lock clicks. As the last bit of moonlight vanished from the closing hall door, I tugged her gently down onto the industrial strength carpet next to me and pulled a flashlight from my pocket, along with a roll of Wint-O-Green Lifesavers. “Watch this,” I said, as I put one of the small, white ovals in my mouth and flicked off the light.
Oblivious to the molar crown work this activity might some day require, I held my mouth open wide in the dark and bit hard onto the piece of candy as slivers from it ricocheted off my teeth. She interrupted the sound of my noisy chomping: “Get out of here! I don’t believe it. There are … little sparks … in the air! What are you … how … does it do it?” I had no answer. Chemistry, whether romantic or scientific, was not my strength. She groped for my hands, fishing around for the flashlight and the roll of candy and then likewise risked her own dental future. We laughed as we wrestled for the roll and light, taking turns sparking, sitting knee to knee, with Lifesaver shrapnel scattering on our pants and the carpet.
After we exhausted our supply of Wint-O-Green and wiped laughter tears from our eyes and bits of candy from our lips, I gave her … of all things … a tour of the building. It must have been a Saturday night, around 11:00. I showed her the closet with the rung ladder ascending into the building attic where an air-conditioning unit created a fantastic wind tunnel effect, our secret spot to sit and cool down during breaks at church dances in the summertime. I showed her the font where my own father had baptized me when I was eight years old. I pointed to a line of mortar in the tile wall I had laid myself with a trowel one night while I was forced to hang out with my dad and the other brick masons when the church was under construction, a job they gave me to perform out of desperation to stop my whining about being bored.
Then we went into the junior Sunday school room where I read random lyrics to Carol out of the children’s songbook as we discussed the meaning of life. I explained to her one of the more peculiar Mormon variations on Christian doctrine, that we had all lived with God as his children before we were born and we came down as spirits in a material world, destined to return to God’s presence if we followed Jesus, each of us possessing a bit of divinity within us. Reflecting now in my reverie about this unusual evening, I’m sure I was oblivious to Carol’s absolute graciousness in following me around by flashlight in the dark, listening to my ramblings about the strange sect of Mormonism, in what must have been a complete reversal of any possible romantic overtones my earlier talk about “sparking” may have suggested or possibly threatened. We then locked up the building and I took her home. I had the odd sense I was the “Mormon boy” she was then able to check off her dating list, even though we went out a couple of times afterwards.2
Many years later I have finally learned the cause of the Lifesaver spark phenomenon. It appears that sugar crystals in the candy, when crushed, create an electrical charge, a process called “triboluminescence.”3 And, what I once thought was a singular Mormon teaching, the pre-existence of souls and the descent of these divine sparks into our world, I’ve since discovered has been an enduring and fairly well-known element in western thought from the philosophy of Plato to the poetry of Robert Frost.4 But one mystery I’ve yet to solve, and for which no Wikipedia article or Amazon book has any adequate answer, is how, despite the closed doors of many years, a sudden triboluminescence in the darkness of memory will surprise me, turning my mind’s eye toward the many glimmers from my youth, leaving me with a roll of recollections that will never be spent.
1I have a high school dance photograph where I’m holding Carol hoisted up on my shoulder, as if my captive, standing in front of a giant gorilla face-painted backdrop, a kind of monkey-see-monkey-do pose. It’s difficult to reconstruct what the theme of the dance was, possibly a late nod to the Dino De Laurentiis version of “King Kong” starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange that was released late 1976–early 1977? Or maybe someone had a really big gorilla painting in their basement that they were just itching to use for some special occasion. We may never know.
2One date in particular will be featured in yet another future AML blog post.