Kent Bernhardt: For Debbie, wherever you are

  • Posted: Friday, February 7, 2014 8:11 p.m.

Throughout the years, I’ve been asked thousands of times for my thoughts on the mysteries of love.

Oh all right, make that hundreds of times.


OK, you have me. I’ve never been asked for my thoughts on love. Well, there was that time in the Holiday Inn lounge, but I’m pretty sure that guy was plastered and didn’t hear a word I said.

I’m certainly no expert on the complexities of love. However, throughout my years on this earth, I have managed to learn a few things about what love is, and more importantly, what it isn’t.

I’ve also learned that you never forget your first love.

She’s still there, very vivid in my memory. Her name was Debbie. She lived right across the street from me.

Long before I knew what love was, I loved Debbie. We played together as the best of friends. My brother often played with her brother, but for some reason I gravitated toward Debbie.

We told each other secrets. I could sit on her front porch and talk to her forever, or at least until my parents would call me for supper. After supper, it was back over to Debbie’s house.

A year older than me, Debbie was all tomboy. She could run faster than most boys — especially me — and I never saw a girl kick a ball farther than she could.

Debbie had a cute pageboy haircut, freckles across her nose, and always seemed to be tan even in the winter months. The thing I loved most about her was she was a lot more fun than most of my guy friends.

In the early ‘60s, it wasn’t cool for boys to play with girls. I didn’t care. Debbie was different.

I also liked Debbie’s parents. Her father taught me the first poem I can remember, a cute little ditty that went:

“Mr. Brown went to town on a load of hay. Mr. Martin came a fartin’ and blew it all away.”

To this day, I credit Debbie’s dad with my love of good poetry.

Once, we decided to stage our own circus. It was strictly a low budget event, and due to the lack of trainable animals, consisted almost entirely of a few songs, magic tricks, and acrobatic feats. We enlisted our respective brothers to serve as “clowns” for our extravaganza.

Debbie and I rehearsed diligently. When we were finally ready for an audience, we set up chairs in her driveway and went door to door inviting parents and neighbors, anyone we could entice to attend.

The show was a rousing success; except for the “clowns” who kept playing tricks on us like pulling our feet out from under us causing us to fall on our faces, and attempting to pull down our pants. I think we fired them before the end of the show.

I thought Debbie would be in my world forever. But one fateful day, I learned she and her family were moving. Railroad jobs were leaving the area, and her dad was forced to move the family to the faraway land of Spartanburg, S.C.

My 7-year-old heart ached in a way I couldn’t understand.

As the day of her departure approached, the pain got worse. In fact, as final goodbyes were being shared in the front yard of their home, I was nowhere to be found.

My mother called for me to come say goodbye, but her pleas went unanswered. I was hiding behind the couch in our living room, sobbing. I didn’t want Debbie to see me cry.

By the time I gathered myself enough to look out of the window, I caught the last glimpse of the family Pontiac disappearing in the distance. She was gone.

Little Debbie. I couldn’t pass a snack cake without tearing up.

I could be overly dramatic and tell you that I never got over Debbie. But the truth is, I did. In elementary school alone, my young heart would eventually find room for Rita, Cindy and Katherine.

Katherine and I even talked marriage a couple of years later. We weren’t going to have children, just a Volkswagen.

Time goes by and hearts heal. Love eventually finds us again. That’s the lesson I took from this experience and have carried through life. In fact, it’s a good lesson to learn at any stage of life.

Debbie and I did see each other again, many years later. In fact, I met her family at a church homecoming one Sunday. The freckles were gone. Her hair looked different. But there was something in her eyes that reminded me why she was once so special.

Love is like that, I’ve learned. Some people enter your life suddenly one day, and it’s like they were always there. Maybe they always will be.

Others are there just for a little while. But they leave an indelible mark on your world before they move on.

Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.

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