(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Hastings, Nebraska, May 1935
[It’s the night of high school graduation — May 1935. Al Cullen asks his girlfriend, Kate Jacobsen, to marry him. Things couldn’t be better — well, almost.]
Al Cullen, his graduation cap in his hand and his gown draped over his arm, walked quickly towards the corner of 10th and Hastings. His parents had kept him longer than he had expected — insisting on taking picture after picture of him in his cap and gown. He looked at his watch: 7:10. Ten minutes late. He walked a little more quickly. He turned the corner and could see Kate standing at the end of the block, tapping her foot, crossing her arms, and glaring in his direction. I’m going to have to do some fast talking, he thought, to get out of this one.
He had no chance to say anything before Kate spoke the first bitter words. “Where have you been? You’re fifteen minutes late and I’ve been here the whole time. I told some big lies to Mother and Dad. If we don’t get moving, they‘ll see us here!” Kate glared at Al, her deep blue eyes revealing only anger. Al is always doing this to me, she thought. No matter how many times I tell him to not keep me waiting, he still does it!
"Tonight is a special night, Al, and you’ve already ruined it. I don’t know why I go out with you. All you cause is trouble. I‘ve given up everything for you — my parents’ approval, my peace of mind, not to mention my reputation." A tear slid down Kate’s cheek. “Oh, now look what you’ve done! My make-up will be ruined!”
Al tried to hug Kate, but she pulled away. “Not here, Al!”
“Katy, I’m sorry. I tried to be here on time. I really did, but my parents kept asking me to stay for one more picture. If I’d been any more insistent, they might‘ve become suspicious. Anyway, I don’t think your parents are likely to come this way. Your dad’ll probably want to drive all over town, just to show off to the neighbours.”
“Don’t say that about my dad!” Kate stomped her foot, and straightened one arm while balancing her cap and gown in the other. Al could never understand why Kate would sometimes support her father; she was totally unpredictable about it. Kate stared at the sidewalk and then up at the sky. I won’t give in to Al, she thought. I will win this!
She looked straight into her boyfriend’s eyes. “Al, I can’t stand this! If you really care about me, I just can’t be stood up like this. You have to promise me that you will never, ever be late again. Promise me!”
Al stared at his beautiful tall, blonde, blue-eyed girlfriend. Oh, Katy, he thought, you always have these impossible demands. How can I know why I’ll be late the next time? This is such an unreasonable request, but how do I make you happy?
“Kate, I can’t possibly know about every incident that could happen in the future. I can’t promise you that! I can only promise you that I’ll always try to be on time. And, besides, can’t you see my side of it?”
Kate frowned and sighed — a huge, long sigh like the hissing sound of a tire going flat. “Al!” She said it like she was already the schoolteacher she wanted to be some day and Al was her recalcitrant student. “You know that’s not good enough! I’m not going to spend my life waiting for you to meet me. You can just go find another girl who’s willing to be used that way. What’s more, I can find a fellow who will treat me better.”
Al knew this argument would never end unless he said something to placate his girl, no matter how unreasonable it sounded to him. They had to be at the high school and there was little time to spare. He took a deep breath and swallowed. “All right, Katy,” he whispered softly into her ear. “I promise that I will never make you wait again.” What an impossible promise, he thought. “I love you, Katy. I’ll do anything to prove to you how much I love you.”
Al stared into Kate’s eyes and waited anxiously for her response. “You delight in doing this to me, don’t you?” he smiled. “And you know you’ve won.” He kissed her on the cheek and she touched the spot with her hand.
“I don’t want to lose you, Al Cullen. Everyone tells me how lucky I am to have you. You’re the cutest boy in the Class of ‘35!”
Al hugged Kate. “Ah, that’s the only reason you love me. I’m cute!”
“No, silly.” Kate lightly slapped his shoulder. “I’ll forgive you this time. But it’d better not happen again.”
“It won’t. I promise.” And then he gave her a wink.
Al grabbed her hand and held it tight, their eyes meeting in a moment of promise and forgiveness. “Let’s go,” Al said, and together they walked towards the high school. A gust of wind suddenly blew Kate’s skirt up. She grabbed for it and they caught each other’s hand and ran the last half block.
Inside the main hallway, outside the office door, their classmates lined up for the ceremony. Excited and animated, the students caused a din in the hallway and no one could hear anything. The principal walked by and quieted everyone, and then the refrain of The Graduation March echoed down the hallway. Al and Kate, along with their classmates, walked into the gymnasium — with family and friends watching — and seated themselves for the ceremony.
After several welcoming speeches, Al walked to the podium. As class president, he had been asked to give a speech to his fellow classmates. He never feared a crowd or an opportunity to speak. His voice was clear and loud, heard by everyone even at the back of the gymnasium:
“Mr. Peterson, teachers, staff, parents, friends, and fellow classmates, good evening. This is a special day for the class of 1935. Unfortunately, not everyone will remember our high school years with great fondess. We lived in difficult times and even Mother Nature unleashed her fury on us. We won’t forget the lack of rain, the dust storms, the failing wheat crop, and the Great Dust Bowl Storm which carried dirt from our own native Nebraska all the way to New York City.
“We won’t forget Mr. Lenin‘s reign of terror in Russia and the Nazis raiding the homes of 6000 clergymen. We won’t forget that waterfront strike on the coast which shut down most of the ports and many lost badly needed jobs. We won’t forget the riots in New York, or the many public meetings to address unemployment. None will forget the manhunt for Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and their final, horrific end. No, our four years of high school have not been all good for many. We are deep into the fifth year of this terrible Depression. Many of us have seen our fathers lose their business. We have seen our older brothers unable to find a job.“
The audience remained quiet. Small feet scuffled on the floor, someone sneezed and another person coughed.
Al continued: “But where there is a will there is a way, and we must not lose hope. Henry Ford has restored the $5.00-a-day wage, and the Saturday movie is still a great diversion. I believe that great changes will take place in our futures and our class will be a part of those changes.”
Al’s class stood and clapped their hands. Al signalled to them to sit down again.
"Most importantly," his speech continued, “we have been together as a class for four good years, and the memories we have made and shared in this building will remain with us throughout our lives. I expect to see all of you here again for our 50th reunion!"
Al’s classmates stood again and applauded their approval. Once again, Al signalled for them to sit down.
Al continued: “But education opens the doors to new and better things, and as high school graduates we have already opened some of those doors. We will be productive members of this society and help others. It is, indeed our duty and our honor. I salute you, Class of ‘35.”
The class stood and gave Al a third standing ovation. He smiled and bowed to the group, removed his cap and gown, and then did a hand stand and jumped off the stage. His classmates roared their approval, and the principal frowned at the momentary loss of decorum. Al returned to his seat and the ceremony continued: more speeches, the handing out of diplomas, and then the recessional.
Afterwards, family and friends gathered at a large reception sponsored by the senior class. Al and Kate avoided spending time with each other, since both his parents and hers joined the crowd. Several times, Al looked longingly towards Kate. If he caught her eye, she always turned the other way. I hate this secrecy, he thought. I want the world to know that I love Kate Jacobsen.
Late in the evening, Al left the party alone and told his parents he was joining his best friend, Roy, and some of the other members of the basketball team for a small party at Roy’s house; he promised he would be home no later than one o’clock in the morning. In the meantime, Kate left the reception with her best friends — Bette, Inella, and Liz. Like Al, Kate told her parents she was going to another party and would be home at around one o’clock.
Kate waited for Al on Bette’s front porch. As soon as he arrived, they headed for Heartwell Park. They had one hour to be together while their parents believed they were with friends, stolen moments which were all the more precious due to their limitations. They walked hand in hand, their steps lighted by the glow of the street lights at each corner. As soon as they were out of sight of Bette’s house, Kate asked: “Did I see you talking with Gertrude Chambers at the reception?”
Al had to think. There had been such a crowd of people at the reception, and he had talked to so many people, that he found it difficult to remember specific conversations. “Gerturde?” he asked. “Oh, yeah, Gerturde Chambers. I don’t recall talking to her, but it was really crowded. I suppose I might have spoken to her, yes.”
There was a pause. Kate stopped walking and turned to look at Al. Her voice seemed louder now. “You were with her. I saw you. You were by the punch bowl and no one else was around. She leaned over and said something to you, and she put her hand on your arm. I saw her do it.”
“That may be, Kate, but I don’t recall it. If she said something to me, I don’t remember what it was. If she did touch me, it was nothing.”
The slap hit him on the left cheek, and Kate spit out her anger. “You liar!” she screamed. “I saw you with her! She put her hand on your arm! Don’t lie to me, Al!”
Rubbing his cheek, Al said, “Why on earth did you do that, Kate? Honestly, I don’t remember the conversation with Gertrude Chambers. And I don’t remember her putting her hand on my arm. What’s the problem? There’s nothing going on between Gertrude and me, and why would you think there would be?”
“Because,” Kate responded quickly. “Because I know what men are like. And you’re all alike. Just like my dad. Not to be trusted.”
Al always softened at Kate’s reference to her father. He knew the gossip about her father’s philandering, even though he and Kate had never talked much about it. Al lowered his voice, trying to remain calm. “Katy, I’m not your dad. And I never will be. You can trust me. There’s only one girl for me — and that’s you. Please believe me.”
“Well, why didn’t you take her hand off your arm? Why did you let her put it there?”
Al looked into Kate’s eyes and shook his head. “Honestly, Katy, I don’t even remember it! It must have happened quickly and, since it didn’t mean anything to me, I thought nothing of it. Please. You have to believe me. I care about no one else but you.”
Kate softened a little at Al’s words, but she kept up her defences. Al tried to hold her but she pulled away, moved off the sidewalk and disappeared into the shadows. From there, she added, “I don’t know if I can trust you, Al. How will I know that you’re not involved with someone else?”
“You’ll know, Kate, because there is no one else. Katy, Katy, Katy, please listen to me. I care about you more than anything else in the world. Katy, I love you. I want you to marry me.” Al had planned to ask Kate for her hand in marriage that evening but not in the middle of an argument, and not as a means of placating her anger. Still, now that the words were out, he decided to make the best of it. When Kate made no response, he carried on, “Kate. Did you hear me? Did you hear what I said? I want to marry you. I want you to marry me. I love you.”
“Al,” she said, her eyes softening. “Do you really mean it? Or is this just your way of trying to make up for what happened earlier?” The couple remained in the shadows of the trees, away from the street lights.
“No, Katy. I’d planned this all along. I love you — I truly love you and no one else.” From his pocket Al pulled a small blue velvet jewellery box. He opened it and showed Kate a simple gold bracelet fashioned with delicate chain links. Kate’s pout melted into an O-shape as she saw the bracelet. “I knew I couldn’t give you a ring, Kate. I knew your parents would question that. But they won’t notice the bracelet. For us, it can be a symbol of our promise to each other. Next year we’ll go to Hastings College. Your parents will get used to us and they’ll learn that we’re not going to let each other go. Things will work out. I know they will. What do you say, Katy? Will you take this bracelet knowing what it represents for you and me?”
Kate’s eyes filled with tears. “Yes,” she said, “I will. Oh, Al, it’s beautiful. I’ll wear it all the time, I promise.” She kissed him on the cheek and Al wrapped the bracelet around her wrist and connected the clasps. He took her in his arms and held her tight. Both forgot about the argument and continued down the street to their favorite bench in the park. When they arrived, Al took her in his arms again and kissed her passionately. Kate responded with equal emotion. The night was warm, but they held each other for a long, long time. Later, they talked about their futures: Al‘s hope to teach and coach; Kate’s desire to obtain a teaching degree. Each of them hoped that there would come a time when they would be able to reveal their love and marry with their families’ approval.
When they realized that their time was almost gone, Al escorted Kate to the corner, a block away from her home. “Good-bye for now, Kate,” he whispered into her ear. “Take heart and be brave. Some day we’ll look back and laugh at these days. I love you, Katy.” Kate turned and kissed him on the cheek and then ran down the sidewalk. Al watched her until she had let herself in with her own key. Once the door was closed, Al turned and walked quietly home, filled with conflicting emotions, wishing that he could have walked her to her door.
Al arrived home to a quiet house with everyone asleep. He climbed the stairs to his bedroom, and fell into bed, exhausted and exhilirated. As he lay in bed trying to get to sleep, the evening replayed in his mind. He wanted so many things. He wanted to be older. He wanted Kate to be older. He wanted Kate’s father to leave them alone. He wanted his parents to like Kate. He wanted to be finished with college and have a job. He wanted to marry Kate and take her away with him. Their arguments would end when their families accepted the inevitable. He knew things would get better when they were together permanently, away from Kate’s father. Kate’s jealousy that evening had been a bit of a surprise, but he thought that it was flattering to have a jealous girlfriend; it showed how much she cared for him. He smiled as he thought of her joy when he gave her the bracelet. Al closed his eyes and finally went to sleep.
- Continue to Chapter 19.
- Refer to Family Tree to keep relationship of characters in mind.
- Return to Family Legacies Table of Contents.
Disclaimer: While it is true that my characters were inspired by my own genealogical study, I could not and did not know my ancestors with the same intimacy that I have created in my characters. Therefore, let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.