By BOB VICKREY
There was something undeniably compelling about the television show “The Wonder Years” that ran from the late 1980s into the early ‘90s.
The show was set in a middle-class neighborhood against the turbulent backdrop of the 1960s, although twelve year-old Kevin Arnold and his pals were more interested in sports and their suddenly changing awareness of the opposite sex.
Enter Kevin’s neighbor Winnie Cooper, who only a year earlier had been going through her awkward phase while sporting pigtails, eyeglasses and dental braces. Her metamorphosis into a beautiful young woman on the first day of junior high school caught Kevin and his male companions completely by surprise—and he was instantly smitten with the girl he had once ignored.
Kevin Arnold’s experience reminded me of a moment in my own life many years earlier. Only mine happened in the last year of elementary school.
My early school years during the 1950s coincided with the height of the Cold War with Russia, but much like Kevin, we let our parents do the worrying about world events and went about our daily carefree lives.
In the sixth grade, I was struggling with several classroom subjects until my parents decided I needed to try a different teacher at the same school. I was relieved that I knew several students in my new class the day I was introduced by our teacher, Mrs. Fryer. The only empty desk was located directly behind a pretty girl who wore her hair in a ponytail. When I took my seat, she turned around and whispered, “Hi Bobby, I’m Peggy.”
I had seen her several times in the hallway during lunch break and she had often smiled at me. But sitting this close to a girl this appealing was a whole new experience for me.
I was reminded that I had changed classrooms for the specific purpose of improving my grades and concentration skills. But after only a few hours of sitting behind Peggy, I realized concentration improvement was going to pose a major challenge, because every time she moved her head from side-to-side, her ponytail took on a life of its own. I was completely mesmerized. History class was about to become even more difficult.
I found out the following day that her real name was Annette, but friends called her “Peggy.” She wore glasses which did nothing to distract from her gorgeous face. I soon found out I was not the only boy in school who noticed the same features that I had.
I had joined the elementary school football team that year, and several boys who were on the team were aware of my budding interest in Peggy. And sure enough, I was unceremoniously welcomed to our season’s first practice shortly after I caught a pass over the middle, and was duly leveled by linebacker David Rogers. He stood over me while I was on the ground clutching my throbbing ribs, and yelled, “Maybe that will teach you to stay away from Peggy.”
I found out a day later that David was Peggy’s next-door neighbor, and that he was likely just offering me a “friendly” welcome to his neighborhood. Sure enough, he approached me after school the following day and offered an apology about the incident. Within a week, David and I had become best friends.
I eventually summoned the courage to ask Peggy if I could walk her home from school and carry her books. She accepted my offer, but informed me that it would be a very short walk since she lived only one block from our school. When we reached her front porch, I tried to find a way to stall for time so I could extend my first “date” as long as possible.
“What subjects do you like?” was about the only line I could come up with on the spur of the moment. But my stalling ploy worked, as we sat on the steps near her front door. As she spoke, I wasn’t exactly sure what she was saying. Her lips were moving, but I was so distracted while studying her facial features that I was completely caught off guard when she asked where I lived.
When I told her my address and last name, she threw up her hands in excitement and said, “Oh, my goodness! Your mother is my Sunday School teacher. She is absolutely wonderful!”
In my wildest dreams, I would have never guessed my mom would have been the unknowing matchmaker that solidified our new friendship. Peggy told me that their annual Sunday School party would be held at my house the following weekend. I was already aware that these indoor gatherings in our living room were intended only for the girls in my mom’s class, so there would be no “home-field” advantage just because the party happened to be at my house.
On the day of the big party, I tossed the football with my neighbor in his front yard—placing myself strategically across the street from my house. As we passed the ball to one another, I watched the girls arriving one-by-one at our front door. And finally, a car pulled up in the driveway, and to my great delight, out stepped Peggy. She offered me a friendly wave as she headed into the house.
I knew that this party was going to be a bittersweet experience with Peggy inside my house, while knowing there was nothing I could do about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I finally sneaked into the backyard and stood on top of a washtub directly under the living room window. As I scanned the room, I spotted her sitting in the very seat where I watched television each night. I was so startled by the spectacle that I slipped off the washtub causing it to crash into the side of the house which created a huge racket. I ran around the corner of the house and sat on the ground while catching my breath.
When I saw Peggy at school on Monday, I didn’t allow that close call to stop me from asking her to meet me at our local movie theater for the Saturday afternoon matinee.
As I entered the theater that weekend, I found her sitting near the front row where she surprised me with a Coke and a bag of popcorn.
After the lights of the theater darkened and the preview of coming attractions began, I reached over and took her hand. I might be mistaken, but I don’t remember ever letting go of that hand until the credits rolled at the end of the movie.
My head was spinning as I left the theater, and even though I wasn’t quite sure what had just happened, I somehow knew that this was no ordinary day in my young life.
All these years later, as I look back on those last fleeting moments of innocence, I understand clearly now why they call them the “The Wonder Years.”
Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. His long-running “Lunch Club” series was published by the Palisades News. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California. You can find more columns on his website: bobvickrey.net