The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town by Jennifer Niven

  The woods are lovely, dark and deep …

  The morning of the pictures, my hair, of course, didn’t cooperate. It was big in all the wrong places but not big enough in all the right ones. Standing in my yellow bathroom, dressed in my favorite Esprit sundress, suffocating from Aqua Net fumes, I thought I would have a breakdown. Here it was, one of the most important days of my life, and my hair, as usual, wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. Was it too much to ask that it look good? That, just this once, it would behave? I knew that Sherri Dillon and Deanna Haskett never had these problems. They probably just jumped out of bed and their hair bounced right into perfect, perky position.

  I saw Joey in AP History class, and we passed a note back and forth while Mr. Johns rattled on at the board. We look like the ultimate Speech Presidents, Joey said. God, I’m sooooooooo nervous! I saw almost everyone on the new team already, but I was too scared to say anything! I have to remind Beth & Ronnie now about pictures! Good article in the paper, huh? Almost makes you think it’s true, doesn’t it? Almost makes you want to be a Speech Team member, doesn’t it?

  I wrote back and said, No … I’ll never believe it. If I see it with my own eyes, then maybe—but not a second before.

  Last hour, Joey ran into Jonetta Sowers-Clark, who said, “I heard speech team photos are being taken for the yearbook after school. What time should I be there?”

  Joey said, “Where did you hear that?”

  She said, “Ned Mitchell was talking about it at lunch.”

  “Really? Did he say he was coming?”

  “I don’t know. So is it right after school? Why didn’t you tell us? I don’t think Stephanie or Michelle know. Do you want me to tell them?”

  Joey said, “No. We’re only taking pictures of new members now.”

  She gave him a suspicious look before huffing away and Joey knew it was only a matter of time before we heard from the other members, the ones who had put in so many hours in room 81 and given up so many Saturdays to make the team what it was.

  Nearly everyone was in the library—and, most important, Tom Dehner was there. The new speech team members asked one or two questions about team protocol, but mostly we posed for pictures—all together—and in smaller groups by the card catalog. We were there for an hour, laughing, rearranging ourselves, smiling. The new Richmond High School speech team.

  Beer, beer for old Richmond high.

  Bring in the whiskey, bring in the rye …

  And then, one by one, before we could talk about what would happen next and what our plans were for the team and its future, everyone disbanded. Tom Dehner was the first to leave. He gathered his books and grinned his crooked grin and said, “Thanks guys. I’m off.”

  I thought, Where? Where? And, Take me with you!

  Joey and I watched him push through the turnstile, jacket and books under his arm, already heading toward the next place. Some of the others stayed around and talked. We talked with them, but our hearts weren’t in it anymore.

  Joey, Hether, Ross, and I walked out to the parking lot. Hether climbed in her Cougar and Ross got into his Camaro, and Joey and I stood there waving at them till they disappeared. Then he and I jumped into the red Calais and went screaming all the way to Dayton. Joey had somehow talked Millie Carroll into giving us the negatives, and now we headed to the Dayton Mall to the one-hour developer. We were never so breathless, the music blasting, the car flying, me clutching the roll of film in my hand. We talked and laughed, and pulled up to the mall in what seemed at once like minutes and hours, and tumbled out and started running.

  “These are very important pictures,” we told the man behind the One-Hour Moto Photo counter, who looked bored and ready to go home for the day.

  “Okay,” he said.

  “No,” I said. “You don’t understand. These are the most important pictures you will ever develop. Please be very, very, very careful.”

  His eyes got wide. “Okay,” he said. He seemed a little scared of us. He looked at the negatives. “Since these were shot in black and white, I can print them in either black and white or sepia. That’s with a brown tint. So it looks kind of old-fashioned.”

  We said at the same time, “Sepia.”

  After he promised to have them done in an hour, we milled about and bought hot pretzels and an Orange Julius each and sat and ate.

  “I can’t believe they showed up,” said Joey. “That Tom Dehner showed up.”

  “I know,” I said. I sighed a little. “Did it really happen?”

  “I don’t know. We’ll see when the pictures come back.”

  “What if the pictures come back blank?” I said.

  We shivered. We ate.

  I said, “What do you think will happen to the team?”

  Joey said, “As long as those pictures come back fine, who cares?”

  When the hour was up, we went back to the photo place and stood at the counter, waiting. The man brought us our pictures and asked if we wanted to check them first before we walked away, and we told him no, we wanted to sit down and enjoy them.

  We chose a bench that was quiet and away from the crowd and sat down side by side. We opened the envelope. We were very quiet. We pulled them out of the sleeve. At the same time, we caught our breath. They were more wonderful than we’d imagined. It was maybe our greatest success so far.

  Here was one of all of us together. And another. Another. Another. Ned Mitchell with his fist in the air, his arm around Robert Ignacio. Danny Dickman, Ian Barnes, Eric Ruger, Ross, and me. Joey, Hether, Ronnie Stier, Robert, Ned, and me with Tom Dehner. The entire group of us milling around, unposed, laughing. Joey and me, just the two of us, leaning on the card catalog, grinning like two Cheshire cats. Tom Dehner leaving the library, pushing through the turnstile, his books and jacket under his arm, on his way to somewhere …

  When we got all the way through to the end, we went back and began to talk over them, choosing our favorites, analyzing this one and that one. We sat there for nearly an hour, lost in the moment.

  The speech team fell apart after that. None of the new members ever came to meetings or practices. They didn’t show up for meets. Mr. Alexander abandoned us. One by one, the original members of the team disappeared. We saw them in the halls of school and some of them smiled and waved, and some of them looked away. But we still had our pictures, which we got out from time to time and looked at, of the speech team that might have been, that almost was, that still existed, just for a moment, on film.

  The Richmond High School History Team. From left to right: Ronnie Stier, Joe Kraemer, Jennifer McJunkin, Holly Ogren, and Eric Ruger

  Triumphs and Tragedies

  It was hard working as a group at first. We’re all very different people. But then everything came together somehow—the ideas, the research, us—and before we knew it, we were a team.

  —Jennifer, interviewed in the Palladium-Item, April 1, 1985

  When we were still in the midst of planning the new speech team, Joey and I drove down to the Purina Factory and this time we walked past our favorite boxcar. We climbed instead up the narrow metal ladder on the side of the Purina tower, the one that stretched toward the sky, careful not to let anyone see us. This was something we usually did only at night. I looked only up, not down, as I climbed, till we got to the very top, up where the Christmas tree sat year-round slightly tilted. We stood for a moment before sitting down in the sun. From up here you could see all of Richmond.

  We were well into the fall of our junior year and time was running out. If we were ever going to get Tom Dehner, we needed to figure something out now.

  This time I was the one who thought of the plan. I said, “What about a history team?” We sat facing the high school.

  Joey said, “What’s a history team?”

  I said, “It’s something that sounds really nerdy, but is actually only slightly nerdy. You get to wear costumes and perform in front of people and have them clap for you and win awards. I did it twice i
n junior high. I won district and state both times, and got to go to nationals in Washington, D.C.”

  “Washington?” Joey sat up straight. I could tell his mind was already spinning with images of him, me, and Tom Dehner in D.C.

  “You can have as many as five to a group.”

  Much like with the speech team, we considered the candidates carefully. More carefully this time because there was an actual competition involved and I wanted to win. We both did. We needed people who could help us do that. They had to be smart, capable, and, if possible, comfortable in front of an audience.

  We both agreed Holly Ogren fit the criteria. She was in our AP History class, a good student, and as responsible as a parent. She was also used to performing because she sang not only in concert choir but in Madrigals and sometimes appeared in Drama Club productions.

  The next day at school, we asked Holly if she would be interested and she said yes. Then Joey wrote a note to Ronnie Stier, who was also in our History class. Ronnie was good-looking and smart, a super-cool jock. We were sort-of friends with him, but asking him to be on the history team was something else. Ronnie and Tom were very good friends. We couldn’t approach Tom Dehner till we found out Ronnie’s decision. Getting Tom depended on getting Ronnie.

  Ronnie said he’d think about it. For days we lived on pins and needles. Would he do it? He was a football player. Why would he be interested in a history team? Finally, on a Monday morning, after an endless weekend of waiting and wondering, I wrote Ronnie a note in AP History and passed it back to him.

  R., Have you thought about it? Write back this time because I want to know what you think. Jennifer

  After about a hundred years, the piece of paper came back to me. It said: I’ll do it.

  We got Ronnie to ask Tom Dehner, and, miracle of miracles, Tom said yes. Yes! The Richmond High School History Team was complete.

  One snowy day, we all met at my house. Joey arrived first and then Holly. We ran from window to window screaming—even responsible, rational Holly—until we saw Ronnie’s red car pull up in front. Tom and Ronnie got out and came up the walk, wearing their letter jackets. They kind of ambled, hands shoved in jean pockets to ward off the cold, as if they had all the time in the world to get to the front door. Out on my front lawn, the red and gray of their letter jackets standing out against all that white, they glimmered almost a little above perfect.

  Inside, Tom sat on the long, low sofa by Joey’s chair, and I sat next to Tom. Ronnie sat in a chair across from Joey. Holly was on the piano bench. I thanked God we had a cool house with cool artwork, even if we did live on the wrong side of town. My parents may have lacked good real estate sense, but they did have taste.

  We talked about the parameters and themes of this year’s contest: Triumphs and Tragedies in History. We tossed out possible ideas. All of mine were based on costumes I might like to wear (a hoop skirt, a flapper’s dress, a pencil skirt and pumps like Bonnie Parker) or stories that I was fascinated by (Leopold and Loeb, Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James). Joey’s wit was sharp and on target. I did my best to both shimmer and not be too silly. Holly didn’t talk and we were thankful. Ronnie was sweet and cute. Tom was easy, warm, and funny—completely himself. He was sitting on my couch—my couch!

  Hours later, after Tom and Ronnie left, we weren’t any nearer to figuring out what the subject of our performance should be—maybe something on the Civil War? No event in American history seemed more dramatic or complicated or more tragic. Reconstruction could be considered a triumph in many ways. Plus, I loved Scarlett O’Hara.

  After Holly left, Joey stayed. I moved over onto the very spot where Tom Dehner had sat. It was still warm. “Oh,” I said. “Tom Dehner sat here …”

  “Let me have a turn,” Joey said.

  “Not yet,” I said. “Just a minute longer.”

  For days afterward, Joey and I talked about the meeting. Had Tom Dehner really been at my house? Had he sat on my sofa? Was he really and truly on the history team?

  One week later, we presented everyone with the schedule of district, state, and nationals—when each competition would occur, should we advance, so that everyone could write it on their calendars. Tom not only played football, he also played baseball, which was one of the many reasons we loved him. He could, it was clear, do anything.

  As soon as he saw the schedule, Tom came to us and said he had a problem. “I can’t do the history team. My baseball schedule conflicts with state and nationals.”

  Joey said, “We don’t even know that we’re going to get to state or nationals.”

  Tom said, “But what if we do? I can’t hold us back. We haven’t even picked a topic. It’s better that you guys get someone else now before we even get started.”

  We couldn’t believe it. We had been so close and now, just like that, he was gone.

  We had to decide what to do. Forget about the whole idea, tell Ronnie and Holly we weren’t going to do it, or move on with someone else.

  Holly said, “I still want to do it.”

  Ronnie said, “I’m still in. But who are we going to get?”

  We went round and round about it. How do you replace Tom Dehner? Finally, we decided on Eric Ruger. He was a good friend of Ronnie’s—quiet, good-looking. He threw fun parties on his farm. He was a wild card because we didn’t know if he could perform in front of an audience or if he was even a good history student, but we liked him. The most important thing was he was someone we could all agree on.

  We based our play on a private collection of letters to and from W. G. Eaton, agent for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in Georgia and South Carolina from 1865 to 1866. A friend of my mom and dad’s had given them the letters, knowing how much they both loved history. We decided that so many of the human problems of Reconstruction in the South had passed through the Freedmen’s bureau offices, and we tried to show a slice of life by dramatizing just such an hour in W. G. Eaton’s workday.

  Ronnie played W. G. Eaton. Holly was Emily, a northern schoolteacher who was in the South to teach black children. Eric was Robert, owner of Mulberry Plantation, who came to the Freedmen’s bureau to hire freed slaves to work his fields. I was Margaret, a southern plantation owner widowed in the war and resentful of the North. Joey played a college student (and our narrator) just returned from presenting a paper he wrote about the era of Reconstruction.

  We ended the play with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in …” My mom, who served as our coach, helped us sort through the research and draft our ten-minute play, which we called Malice, Charity, and the Children of Pride: The Reconstruction of the South. Mr. Johns, our AP History teacher, became our faculty sponsor.

  In April, we won the district competition. The Palladium-Item covered the story, saying: The group chose the Reconstruction for two reasons. After reading Gone With the Wind, McJunkin said, she always wanted to wear a hoop skirt and this would give her the perfect opportunity. Second, the topic fit in well with the theme of the competition—“Triumphs and Tragedies in History.”

  My mom said, “Mercy, Jennifer, why did you say that about the hoop skirt?”

  “Because it’s true.”

  “But it makes your whole reason for wanting to do a project on the Civil War sound so frivolous.”

  “But it’s true,” I said. I thought it made me sound funny and flirty. “I do want to wear a hoop skirt. That’s one of the main reasons we chose Reconstruction.”

  I got to wear a wonderful costume—all of our costumes except for Joey’s (his own jacket and tie) and Ronnie’s (an actual Union officer’s uniform from the actual Civil War) came from the Earlham College costume department. Besides my hoop skirt I had a wide hat with streamers that looked like something Vivien Leigh might have worn. As the northern schoolteacher, Holly’s plain blue dress and crocheted shawl were dumpy and
frumpy, and Eric’s suspenders and black hat made him look like a member of Duran Duran.

  May 10 and 11, just days before my birthday, we headed to Indiana University in Bloomington for the state finals. At IU, we stayed in the dorms with the other contestants. The night before our presentation, the five of us broke into the theater where we’d be performing and chased one another in the dark wings of the stage. Afterward, we came out into the lobby into a crowd of people dressed up for a prom. There was a fat girl in an ugly dress who was loud and obnoxious. Joey or Ronnie insulted her and her boyfriend started a fight. Ronnie was given a black eye, which Joey explained, in an impromptu way during our performance the next day, was a result of a bad scene in the Civil War. I stepped out of character and said, “I love a man who can stand being hit. I think it’s courageous.”

  We won first place. We were going to nationals. The Palladium-Item wrote, Jennifer McJunkin’s prediction came true. She said five weeks ago that the five members of the Richmond High School history team would win the state contest—and they did—Saturday in the Indiana University auditorium. Now she will get to wear her hoop skirt again.

  • • •

  Even Ronnie seemed excited about D.C. He had remained wildly unmoved through district and state, but he wasn’t nearly as Steve McQueen–cool over nationals. Almost everyone went with us June 11–14 to the University of Maryland, where the competition was held—our teacher Mr. Johns, Mr. and Mrs. Kraemer and Joey’s brothers Mitchell and Matthew, Mr. and Mrs. Ruger, Mrs. Stier, and my mom.

  Our families stayed in hotels while the five of us lived in one of the dorms at the University of Maryland with all the other History Day participants. We were separated by the elevators—the boys on one side of the hall, girls on the other. Holly and I had a huge, spacious room with wide windows, large enough for ten people. We had never felt so free.

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