Tabbitha Langston came roaring into my life when I was six years old.
I was starting first grade at Glendale Elementary in Salmon Lake, Washington and I was scared. I had been raised by a rather cold and impersonal aunt and uncle since I was three, and I guess I really wasn't ready to begin socializing with those my own age. They weren't abusive, mean or harsh; it was more as though they were following some kind of manual. My parents had died, my mother in childbirth and my father shortly thereafter from too much alcohol. I think he blamed me, although I have no real clear memories of him; that was just a feeling I got looking back on it later.
I was taken in by my maternal grandparents, but they were too old to take care of me full time so I was shipped off to Salmon Lake to live at my Uncle Tom and Flo. Let the good times fucking roll.
Back then Salmon Lake was a pretty tiny place. It's still nothing to pay much attention to; most people have never even heard of it. In those days, that area was mostly farmland and hay fields and horse farms. Most of the kids going to school for that first time were tough farm hicks and I was pretty much a city slicker, even though I had lived around there all of my short life. It was like they could smell the city on me, or something. Plus I was small for my age and not at all impressive to look at, a situation which didn't change for at least another ten years...
So there I was going to school for the first time, feeling like I was heading toward the execution chamber. It was a bright sunny day, but I felt a cloud of doom hanging over me like a sword of Damocles. I just knew something was going to happen - somebody was going to steal my lunch, knock me in the dirt - something. I wasn't going to have any friends and I would end up sitting in a corner all by myself. I just knew it.
I was about to step up onto the sidewalk in front of the school when a bunch of tough looking third graders came up and surrounded me in a semicircle. I felt a lurch in my stomach and I thought here it goes, Bobby. The thread holding the sword had snapped and soon I was going to get knocked in the dirt.
"Well well, what we got here?" one of them sneered, poking me in the chest.
"It's a little pansy!" another one crowed in delight, pulling on the pocket of my new button-down shirt, tearing it a little.
"What do we do to pansies?" the first guy said, poking me again.
"Leave him alone, Frank," said a girl's voice from over my shoulder.
I turned and saw a girl with short curly black hair and a gingham dress staring at the guy who had poked me, whose name, I guessed, was Frank.
"Aw, Tabby, we was just havin' some fun with the pansy," Frank whined, but I could tell he was almost done. He had backed off a little and looked as though he was trying to find a way to run away and still save his pride. "We didn't mean nothin' by it."
"Go pull your crap somewhere else, anyway," the unknown girl said, glaring at Frank and company.
"See, you really are a pansy. Have to have a girl do your fighting," Frank sneered at me one more time, and then he swaggered off, laughing at me with his buddies.
I was mortified, and without even saying thank you to the girl, I turned and beat feet into the school, ears and face red with shame. I hadn't been knocked in the dirt, but I had to be saved. What the hell kind of wimp was I?
Since there was only one first grade class, we were both in it. The teacher, Mrs. MacKenzy, made us all introduce ourselves to the class, which was when I learned her name. I still did my best to avoid her, though.
However, She didn't let it go. When we came out for lunch in the rare September sunshine, I found her sitting under a tree that I was heading for. I started to change direction, going red again, when her voice stopped me.
"Hey, you have to sit with me, Bobby," she said, looking up at me with big brown eyes.
I looked around for Frank and his pals, but didn't see them. She correctly read my mind though. "Forget about him and come over here."
Without any other choice, I settled gingerly as far away as I could and opened my lunch bag.
"Don't you say anything?" she questioned, exasperatedly. "Hi would be nice and I could use a ... introduction." She stumbled over the last word a little and I guess somehow that made me loosen up a bit. She was human, like me, or something. I don't really know how to explain it even all these years later. Hearing her stumble over the word introduction and using the wrong article somehow brought her back to earth with me. It was a weird way to think, but that was how it was.
"Hi, I'm Bobby Torrence," I said quietly, not really looking at her, but intensely interested in my lunch bag. Today for my first school lunch, it was a cold meat loaf sandwich and a boiled egg...
"Tabbitha Langston," she said, ignoring my efforts to keep a distance between us and scooting right over, sticking out her hand. I numbly took it and she gave me a brisk shake. "Where are you from, Bobby?"
"Right here," I said, still quietly, not sure what the hell was happening. "I live with my Uncle Tom and Flo Torrence."
"Oh, out on Highway 99, I know where that is. That used to be a big horse farm, my daddy says."
"They sold the last one before I got there. Hard times or something."
"Yeah, I heard about that. We run a dairy so we don't have much of a problem, least not yet. Daddy says some big company might try and buy us out though..."
"Oh, you're that Langston? We have your milk in our fridge."
She giggled. "Come over sometime and I'll show you all the cows and stuff. You'll love it."
"Okay, I can do that," I said, surprised to hear myself agreeing. I didn't know how she did that.
She beamed at me, showing me white teeth. "Great. I'll meet you after school today."
So began my friendship with Tabbitha Langston, the first black girl I ever met.
When I came out that afternoon she was standing out on the front steps. She was right in the middle of a crowd of girls giggling like mad with them. I was about to turn away thinking she had changed her mind when suddenly I found a hand slipping into my elbow.
"Hey, where you going?"
I nodded uncomfortably toward the giggling gaggle. "I thought you were with them."
She giggled herself. "I was waiting for you, silly. Let's go."
For some reason my face got warm at that, but I let it go.
"Are you planning on walking to school every day?" I asked, looking at the long road ahead of us.
"Nah, I walked here today because it's the first day and I was excited. I'll probably get Mama or Daddy to drive me here, 'specially if it rains."
"I will probably walk because I don't live too far from here. My uncle leaves early for work and probably wouldn't drive me, and my aunt doesn't care."
"That's terrible," Tabby said, squeezing my arm.
We chatted about our first day of school for a while, our way taking us out of town onto a gravel road. "What time you have to be home, or do they not care about that either?"
We had come to a long driveway that could almost be its own access road by this time. Big evergreens lined the side of the road and I could already smell cows.
"Six-thirty," I replied.
"I'll get Daddy to drive you home," she chirped, leading me down the long driveway toward the big farm house.
The spread was a typical farm. There was a big white farm house with a wrap-around porch. A dirt path sloped down behind the house to a row of six barns, from which the sound and smell of large numbers of cattle emanated. There was a bottling plant and a fleet of trucks off to the other side, and a low slung bunkhouse for the farmhands squatted on top of a low hill to the east of the main house.
Tabby dragged me up to the house and pulled me inside. Somehow along the way there she ended up holding my hand. "Look who I found, mama!" she called out, dragging me into the big country kitchen, still holding my hand.
A woman in jeans and a sweat shirt turned from where she was chopping potatoes and smiled at us. "Why, you done dragged home another stray, girl. What on earth am I gonna do with you?"
"Oh, Mama," Tabby said, letting go of me and going up to hug the woman. "This is Bobby Torrence, he lives over at the old Suttner place."
The woman dried her hands on an apron and stuck one out. "Hi there, Bobby. I'm Barbara Langston, this here rascal's mother."
I shook her hand, a little bemused. I was totally out of my depth in this situation. The love emanating from this kitchen was something that I had never experienced.
"Pleased to meet you," I mumbled, but before I could scuttle into a corner and hide, a big bear of a man came stomping in, wearing a checkered lumberjack shirt and green rubber boots.
"Well hello, my family!" he boomed. He went over and scooped up Tabby and swung her around, making her giggle and shriek. "How's my kitten this afternoon? Did you have a good day at school?"
"Put me down, Daddy!" she squealed, laughing. "We have company."
Mr. Langston set his daughter gently back down and turned to me. "And who might you be?" he asked, still wearing a smile.
I introduced myself and somehow before I knew it I was invited to supper.
Mr. Langston showed me around the farm and I got to meet all the cows. He even let me help out with the evening milking. They called my Aunt Flo and she said she didn't care if I stayed over or not. Mrs. Langston told me, when I was older, that she got the distinct impression they didn't care if I ever came home at all.
Tabby trailed along, smiling like a fool the whole time. I thought she was a little bit crazy, smiling like that. I mean, I was a boy, she was a girl and we were only six years old, and I'd barely said two dozen words to her. So why was she adopting me or whatever the hell she was doing? It took me a couple more years to get it.
Well, more like four or five years. From that first day onward, Tabby and I stuck together. It was us against the world. I spent more time at her house than I did my uncle's, a situation I think he was grateful for. Eventually I just never went back and more and more of my stuff found its way into the Langstons' spare room. And before I was eight, they had requested guardianship of me.
In the late fifties things were a bit easier. I just changed my address in the school files to the Langstons' and that was that. I wasn't even in the system really, since I had been shuffled right away to my uncle's house without any real paperwork done on the move.
Now I was at the Langstons' and much, much happier.
I never saw Tabby as my sister though. She was always Tabby my friend, rather than my adopted sister, even though the Langstons never really made anything formal. Whenever there was a group of kids over - which was pretty often, as the Langston house was a popular destination - Tabby would never go too far from me. When we walked to school holding hands (though it was all very innocent, the way only little kids can be), even the cries of "Bobby's got a girl friend, Bobby's got a girl friend" didn't bother me. When the kids saw that, the cries stopped and we were left alone for the most part.
It was Tabby who first introduced me to rock and roll too. We went to the county fairgrounds in Vancouver and I heard Jerry Lee Lewis banging out of the speakers, singing about a whole lotta shakin' goin' on. Like thousands of others, the music gripped me and made me stand up straighter. There is something about that early rock and roll music. It was raw, new and untamed, because so many rock and rollers used cheap ass equipment and barely tuned guitars. It reached down to all of us dumb kids, the losers, the rejects, the kids hanging out in the corners of the school yard overlooked by everybody else. I wanted a guitar so I could play like Chuck Berry and have the screaming adulation of thousands of fans. I wanted to pound a piano like Fats Domino or Little Richard, or get upside down and bang on it like Jerry Lee Lewis. I wanted to holler like Elvis doing Jailhouse Rock and have girls send me pink teddy bears. In short, I wanted to be something other than a stray loser taken in by Tabby's family.
I knew, intellectually, that they didn't think of me that way, as a charity case. I put in my share of work helping around the farm or kitchen, and I was assigned my own list of household chores. When I was ten, Mr. Langston promised to teach me how to shoot, and Mrs. Langston was always showing me things in the kitchen. "You're going to be one heck of a catch if you know how to cook," she would say, before demonstrating a recipe or technique.
Nevertheless, I felt like I was always owing them something for giving me a way out of the life I possibly might have had. That feeling never quite went away as long as I lived there either.
Rock and roll was my dream. I vowed one day that I would at least make the attempt to learn how to play guitar, because I wanted to do something on my own merit rather than have somebody help me out of some kind of obligation. Maybe I wouldn't be a huge star like Chet Atkins but I would at least try. And yeah, I wasn't alone; hundreds and hundreds of kids dream the same dream, even now when rock has degenerated into a tired, boring shadow of its former self.
Even in the eighties, rock still had some vitality left. All the hair bands and David Bowie and even Aerosmith were doing some pretty good music. Then after that all the old rock stars got tired, or the creative juices dried up or something, because rock just sort of started fizzling. Nothing really new came onto the scene. There were the occasional good songs, and even an album or two that splashed across the landscape, but for the most part - no. Just blah.
Back when I was still a kid, rock was shiny and new and oh so alive. You could feel the vitality and energy when Gene Vincent sang that stupid song about Bee-Bop-a-Lula, or when Frankie Ford sang "Sea Cruise," or when Elvis got up there and hollered that song about the hound dog. That music had energy and it could make almost anyone get up and dance. Between 1946 and 1960 was the most peaceful era in the country's history, except for the Korean War of course. Rock and roll shook all the baby boomers' parents out of their complacency and the revolution began.
I wanted part of that. I probably wasn't going to get it, but I wanted to capture a little of that energy and have it for my own. I was nothing more than somebody's cast off garbage. My folks died, my aunt and uncle didn't give a good flying fuck about me, and I had to be taken in by the local dairy farmer or end up in the foster care system. Even with Tabby's influence, I never once felt like more than a guest there, even though they did their best to make me feel like part of the family.
So when I was eleven I got a paper route and started saving money - a few dimes here, a quarter there. Tabby even got right up with me at five in the morning, the silly girl. I told her every time to get back into bed, and she would give me one of those looks that all women must be born knowing how to give men. The look that says you're stupid for even suggesting such a thing, and that you should know better.
We would hop on our bikes and ride over to the paper's offices. Once we were on the route, we would have little throwing competitions with the papers. She won more often than not; that girl had one hell of an arm on her. And she'd giggle at me and say "Try harder next time."
I tried giving some of my earnings back to the Langstons, but they wouldn't let me. "You are going to have to learn how to start saving money eventually," Mr. Langston told me one day in his study after the milking was done. "I don't know whether or not you will stay here and be a farmer with us or whether you want to go out on your own, but we have been delighted to have you here, and giving us money for something we were happy to do would kind of cheapen things. Do you understand?"
I did all right. Much later, with adult experience, I understood what he was saying. He was saying in a subtle way that he would be insulted if I gave him money. But just then all I heard was "charity case." However, I nodded and said that I understood. He clapped me on the shoulder and smiled, said I was a good boy and dismissed me so he could work on his profits.
Over the next year I also started mowing lawns for money. I scavenged around for returnable bottles and I shoveled snow when we got about six inches in December. By the time my twelfth birthday rolled around in February of 1960, I had managed to save about fifty dollars.
Earning money wasn't all I did in that year. My relationship with Tabby changed too. It was very subtle, but it was there. I'm not even sure I can pin down the exact nature of the changes.
Tabby used to knock on my door in the morning to wake me up and we would walk or ride our bikes to school. Sometimes we'd hold hands and sometimes not, but I was always surprised when I looked up from our conversation only to realize her hand was in mine. Once we got to school she'd wander off to join her friends and I would go do my thing.
She would sit at the table with me as we did our homework, help me wash dishes, or just simply sit with me while we watched the TV or read books. She was always around, but never underfoot.
Shortly after I turned eleven, though, things changed.
Gradually I became aware that instead of knocking on my door in the morning, she would come in and shake me awake, and sit on my bed until I did. She began to hang with me a lot more than with her friends, and toward the end of the school year I started noticing that she'd glare at any girls who started talking to me.
I never thought anything of it, since all the changes were so gradual that they just sort of crept up on me. And, too, I hadn't really started noticing girls as girls; they were still friends and classmates and all the sexual games hadn't started yet. My endocrine glands were still fast asleep and they didn't really wake up till much later. I didn't have my first wet dream until I was thirteen and then I woke up thinking I'd pissed the bed. What followed was a rather embarrassing talk with Mr. Langston, who explained things to me.
Basically Tabby was staking a claim on me. When I would go over to Vancouver with her and her family and stare at the guitars hanging in pawnshop windows like exotic animals, she'd lean on my shoulder and whisper quietly so her folks wouldn't hear, "I'll be your number one groupie, Bobby." Then she'd giggle and laugh at my mystified expression.
One thing I liked about her was that she never criticized my dreams. I told her about how I wanted to learn guitar, although at that age I couldn't really articulate everything I hoped to achieve; I just didn't have the emotional vocabulary to express heavy concepts like reaching for dreams or aspiring to greatness. Even now I know it sounds silly. I wasn't ever going to be a god damn rock star, and I knew it.
But Tabby never laughed at me. She'd give me that white toothed smile that reached all the way to her deep brown eyes and say, "Go for it, Bobby. I'm behind you all the way."
"What, you're not gonna laugh at me?"
She smiled again. "I would never do that, Bobby. I think you can do whatever you want."
I think that was when I started loving her as more than my friend Tabby whose family had taken me in. NO sexual components yet, she was just this super special girl who believed in me, no matter what. Do you realize how fucking rare that is? Not once in all the time I knew her did Tabby say, "I'm not sure you should do that, Bobby." She never said, "Maybe you should take some time to think about that, Bobby." She was behind me in everything I wanted to do, and she supported me and tried to help me wherever she could.
Things rolled along pretty smoothly all through that year until Labor Day. That was when I almost died.