Thomas Rain Crowe
I've always been fascinated by firsts. Who was it that did what, first. The first person to break the four-minute mile. The first person to climb Everest. The first to break the sound barrier. The first to sail around the world. The first to fly. The first to discover DNA. The first poet to write in free verse. The first woman in space. The first man on the moon.
As early as the age of six, I had an eye for the girls. The first was my cousin Bennie. A first cousin on my mother's side, Bennie was a towhead with skin whiter than pasteurized milk. But as striking as she was, long, thin and all white, it wasn't necessarily the sight of her—which was wondrous enough—that released, early, my prepubescent hormones from their biological time sac, it was her smell. Maybe it was because at the age of six one's sense of smell is more active and acute than the other senses, and all this having mainly to do with the early preoccupation with food. Whatever the reason, it was Bennie's smell that was the hook. A pungent mix of honeysuckle and green tobacco leaves. A kind of sweet and sour which was another first, as up until that point everything had been either sweet or sour to my sensitive nose. Never both. But Bennie was an erotic combination of the two that had the same effect on me as smoke from burning hemp.
Growing up in the wild and relatively unpopulated mountains of western North Carolina, the first scent of honeysuckle in the late summer was one of my favorite things in life. And I knew, just as well, the smell of tobacco, as it filled the fields around my parents' house, and made for a great place to play hide and seek, which was one of my favorite childhood games. And my cousin, who had come to visit with her family for the first time from Texas, where, for all I knew, they didn't have either tobacco or honeysuckle, brought with her the unlikely mix of these two distinct odors, and it changed my world of short attention to a single mind.
The Lure of Bennie's honeysuckle musk drew me into the rhododendron thicket out behind the barn where we could "hide" from adults or other younger puppy-like brothers and sisters. Even though she was the younger, the fact was that I followed her almost everywhere she went, so strong was the effect of her scent on me. And it was in the rhododendron thicket out back of the barn that summer where I got my fist kiss.
Luckily for me, it turned out that Bennie had it as bad for me as I did for her, and she had already staked out the thicket behind the barn as the place where she was going to spin her web of magic over me, and take possession of my body and mind. I always was a slow learner, and she, even at five and a year younger, was way ahead of me with regard to "connivin," as the mountain people called it. I had learned about "sex" from my woods-smart Cherokee friends, but what I experienced that third day of August with Bennie I wasn't prepared for. Sitting there in the midst of our thicket, facing each other and sort of staring rather than talking or playing with random stones and leaves, she suddenly leaned over and put her face right up against mine and with her mouth, kissed me right on the lips. I wasn't at all shocked, but I was shy, and my reaction was to just sit there, rock-like, and stare at her, as she sat back on her feet to wait for my reply. When my response didn't come, instead of saying anything or asking why, she simply leaned over toward me and did it again. With customary sexual roles reversed, like the sleeping prince, with that second kiss my whole body came to attention as I woke up as if out of a deep sleep. By the time she had leaned back again and was sitting on her feet, I had already started my move, and my lips were headed for her face. Being shy and at an awkward age, I doubt if I hit the mark on that first try, but whatever I was able to manage from that first act of sexual aggression must have worked, for in no time we were kneeling on the bare ground there in the thicket and swapping kisses like only the day before we had traded handfuls of small round stones kneeling in the middle of the creek nearby.
Once was enough, and from that first kiss, I was addicted. For the next ten days while my mother's sister's family visited ours, and with everyone watching us, for some strange reason, very closely, Bennie and I found every way and place imaginable to go and kiss. We locked ourselves in the bathroom, kissing quickly and wildly as parents and younger siblings screamed and beat on the doors. We hid in the barn under the old brier-laden hay in the corner of the loft kissing blindly anything that felt like skin or hair, and coming up mostly with mouthfuls of straw or unchaffed grain. We would disappear into the closet in my parents' bedroom, where we thought no one would ever look, and kiss, thinking that by kissing hard and long we would make babies of our own so we could run off and get married. My boyhood friends must have thought that I had moved away during those two weeks that summer, as I was never at home when they came by to play, but out in the rhododendron thicket kissing Bennie.
Like all love stories, the two week visit came to an end, and the night before Bennie and her family were to leave to go back to Texas, I slipped into my 3 year-old sister's bedroom where Bennie and her younger sister were also sleeping, and woke her up, proposing marriage to her right there in the dark. Much to my astonishment and surprise her response to my proposal was: "We can't get married without a marriage license, what are we going to do?" With only a piece of paper standing between me and the object of my affection, I got up and ran out of the room, down the hall, and back to my own room and a little desk that my father had built for me where I was supposed to practice my writing, study my reading and math. In the desk drawer there was lined paper and pencils. I pawed out a piece of paper and grabbed a pencil and began writing:
I, Thomas, am now officially married to Bennie McGregor and Bennie McGregor is married to me. Forever and forever for eternity.
In a matter of minutes I had drafted the marriage license and my first poem, which I signed with my full name and the date, August 13, leaving a space for her to do the same.
I rushed—what I thought of as quietly but what must have seemed thunderously to parents sleeping with one ear open on the other side of the cracked doors in other rooms along the way—back down the hall and into my sister's bedroom where Bennie was still wide awake and waiting for my return. There in the dark we made our pledges to one another to always be married and to write letters to each other every day, and to see each other next summer when we could hide in the rhododendron thicket and kiss and kiss trying to make babies that would all look just like me and smell of honeysuckle and tobacco just like her.
The next morning as our two families said their good-byes out on the front lawn, the adults laughed and teased Bennie and me for our crying and the sweet sorrow of our parting kiss, which was staged and encouraged in mocking good humor by all. As she waved at me through the back window of her parents' dull green car and as it rolled out the short drive to the old dirt road that would take them into town and then all the way to Texas, I could smell, for the first time that summer, the perfume of honeysuckle coming from some unknown source. It was like an omen, and my mind was already, at light speed, racing ahead to the following summer and Bennie's smell on my lips.
Time and lifetimes passed following that magic summer which marked the event of my first kiss. I had finished school, gone to college, and kissed other girls. The first photo of Earth had been made from outer space. The first black woman had received the Medal of Freedom. The first black Senator was elected by popular vote. The first saint was canonized in the U.S. The first actual murder was shown on TV. The first nuclear submarine was named for an Afro-American. The first college offered courses to commuters in traveling railroad cars. And the first baseball player played in all nine positions in one game. I had traveled around the world, worked in monasteries and wineries, published magazines, and written my first book. The first underwater trans-Atlantic radio conversation had taken place. The first avowed homosexual was elected to a state office. The first woman governor was elected without succeeding her husband. The first Native American was pictured on a postage stamp. The first person gave birth while holding office. The first "Right to Die" law was enacted. The first school was established for professionally-trained circus clowns. And there was the first heavyweight championship fight to be refereed by a woman. And I had gotten married, which no one in my family thought I would ever do, coming at such a late date in my life as it did. And I was back in the mountains of my boyhood where I had been living with my wife and her three children for ten years. It was probably just the times we were living in. This, at any rate, was my best excuse at the time for why the marriage was failing. But so was everyone else's, and there was at least the element of "comfort in numbers" working in my favor as I began the early process of grieving an inevitable divorce.
It's funny how the timing of the unexpected seems to dovetail with our times of greatest need. "Destiny" I used to call it in my naive and romantic years. Now, jaded, I simply call it "coincidence." Whichever the case, the timing of the next event that would fall into the lap of my life couldn't have been better.
I was driving a transportation van for the only college in the southern end of the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, and driving professors and graduate students to research libraries within the radius of a day's journey as part of a government-funded program facilitating in-depth scholarly research. As "Van Driver," as one of the frequent riders in my "Star Van" had fondly named me, I was delighting in the mobility of this new job, as an end to a lifetime of manual labor which, to this point, had paid my way. Traveling to various university campuses and cities around the four state area of North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee, I was seeing new places and meeting new people.
It was during a day spent in Knoxville, Tennessee, while a van full of professors and graduate assistants rifled the UT library for facts, that "coincidence" found its way back into my life while sitting in the University Media Lab listening to a recording from the 1950s of Dylan Thomas reading his poems. As Dylan launched into "And death shall have no dominion!" there in my headphones, along with his boomingly lyrical voice filling my ears, my nose was filled with a familiar smell coming from somewhere in the room. A scent that jogged my memory, sending it back to early childhood days growing up over in the Joyce Kilmer woods near the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. As Dylan reached back for a burst of vibrancy that would unleash the lines, "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light," I identified the smell, which again had invaded my listening booth as if it had been programmed for release as part of the recording disk in order to create a multi-sensory experience. It was honeysuckle! The sweet August smell of honeysuckle. Honeysuckle laced with the aroma of ripening tobacco leaves. My mind raced back to the days spent running barefoot over the moss of creek banks and beds of pine needles on forest floors. My lips went numb. It had been during those days that I had smelled that musky scent for the first time, and now, forty years later, in such an unlikely place, I was smelling it again.
Thomas and Bennie, ages 6 and 5, with siblings, among the hemlocks and rhododendrons near his boyhood home in western North Carolina, 1955. Photo courtesy of Thomas Rain Crowe.