"High School romances are always so tragic."
- Julie Ann Ching, 1976.
I remember the exact moment when I first saw her. It was a sunny day in the summer of 1975, at a leadership orientation outside the student government building. I was the KAS treasurer-elect, and asked Scott, a junior-to-be, who that girl over there was. It wasn't that she was stunningly pretty - she was okay - but there was just something interesting about her.
"Julie Ching!" Scott answered, in a "Don't cha know?" tone. Former sophomore class president, now committee chair for Inter-School Activities. Julie was Hapa; her Dad was Chinese and her mother Jewish, probably. Where else could she have gotten that gorgeous long brown hair, wavy as a package of Ramen?
I went over and said hello, but did not see her again until school started in the fall.
My first class of the new year was Electronics shop. In my high school, academically-oriented people did not take shop. Those who took wood shop would become carpenters. Metal shop, welders and machinists. Auto shop, auto mechanics. Electronics shop, TV and appliance repair technicians. Shop was for tradesmen. And, yes, that was tradesmen. Very few girls took shop, except those who were so butch, they were basically guys, anyway.
Against this backdrop, Julie Ching stood like a rose among mushrooms. Junior class officer, costume mistress of the school musical, a girl who thought of herself as utterly average, yet snagged a 30 on the MAA math qualifier. Julie, like myself, was part of a new breed - those who were taking electronics because they had dreams of a future career in computer design.
Once in class, while trying to explain some binary arithmetic to someone, I looked up and noticed Julie watching me from across the room. I glanced up and met her gaze, and for the first time in my life, didn't immediately avert my eyes. There's a concept of "moral looking time," the maximum time you can look at someone before it starts to mean something. Whatever the duration of that moral looking time was, when our eyes locked, we blatantly exceeded it. I knew that the other guys around me could see that something was going on - yet I didn't care.
After about ten seconds, Julie stood up and started to slink out of the room. Uh-oh! Wrong message.
"I thought you were hinting for me to leave," she said.
"No, no! It's just… well, you were looking at me." I thought I was being so slick at disguising my thoughts.
We had little money in those days, so most of us plundered our electronic components out of cast-off radios and TV's. New components were far too expensive (a transistor might cost a dollar!), but occasionally, we would buy bags of reject parts from a company called Poly Paks.
One of my fondest memories from High School was of standing at the transistor tester, sorting a bag of parts with Julie. The tester had six buttons. You pressed them one at a time, and if you got exactly two beeps, you had a good transistor. A part that gave no beeps was a dud, but occasionally, a part was found that gave only a single beep. With a separate test, I discovered that these were actually Silicon Controlled Rectifiers (SCR's), an even more valuable component.
"Don't throw away your bad transistors," I said philosophically, "they may be excellent SCR's. Just like people, everybody's good at something."
"I guess some people are just good at being average," she replied.
"Anyone we know?" I said coyly. I knew she was referring to herself, but somehow, that only made her even more attractive.
We made a little small talk about movies and such, and at one point, Julie said, "Oh yeah, I went to see that with my boyfriend – at the time, that is."
What a wonderful phrase that was, at the time. Julie's social skills were far in advance of mine. With a very subtle phase, she had indicated that she was available. Though my emotions were screaming, "Go get her!" procedurally, I had no clue as to how to go about that sort of thing. Nevertheless, it was a good day.
My One Shot
Going into my senior year, I had fully accepted that I would not be attending the Prom. It was not that I didn't want to go. It was the simple fact that these social events were reserved for the beautiful people, those with girlfriends or boyfriends, or at least those who had been on a date at some time in their life. Such things were not for nerds like me. But as I got to know Julie, I began to realize that the Prom might actually be within reach. I had one shot, and only seven or eight months to figure out how to ask her.
Kuhio Day Picnic
On Kuhio day (March 26th, a state holiday), two days after my 18th birthday, a group of us went on a picnic at Waahila State Park. Waahila was set on the ridge of a mountain range, in a rainforest of sorts.
I was in my element all day. We jogged the trail for a while, stopping at the rises to open our arms and catch the sweet, rain-scrubbed valley wind. It was exhilarating! I felt as if I could spread wings and soar!
Upon returning to the picnic area, I rescued some friends having trouble chopping wood and starting a fire.
After dinner, as it was getting dark, we broke out the guitars. No one had brought a lantern, but I was able to rig lighting for the music with a pie plate and a large flashlight. Just as I was starting to get bored, I noticed a silhouette moving away through the darkness, toward the lookout.
Hoping against hope, I followed.
"Who are you?" I queried timorously as I approached.
The answer was deep and thoughtful, touching upon how the façade we put on for others often even deceives our very selves, and we may never really know who we are. Actually, I was only trying to ascertain whether the figure in the darkness was Julie, or someone else. Of course, I could tell from her voice that it was she, but even if the answer had been written, I would have been able to tell. That was a 100% Julie answer. Jackpot!
She was perched on the railing in the near-moonless night, enjoying the warm tropical breezes that danced lazily up the hillside to caress the Ironwoods. We were only friends then, so I sat down near her, but not next to her. That dangerous feeling of just slightly violating the personal space zone of platonic friends was one of the most exhilarating and erotic I'd ever had. I made some awkward, crude, and basically really stupid philosophical remarks, as only a teenage boy could, but Julie listened intently and responded seriously, as only a teenage girl would.
One Word to Make My Day
Because I had taken an unusual sequence of classes in High School, I had Chemistry in my Senior year, in a class full of Sophomores and Juniors. One of these was Richard, who, though a year younger than me, was about a decade ahead in matters of sex and love. He had a girlfriend, but was also friends with Julie.
He remarked in an offhand manner, "You know who likes you?"
I said nothing, and waited for the answer.
Again, I said nothing, but my huge, irrepressible grin must have given away all. When I got home, I flopped down on the bed to revel in the delicious thought.
The Engineering Fair
One day in class, our Electronics teacher announced that there would be an engineering fair at UH (the University of Hawaii). It was like a science fair, but with specific assigned tasks. For example, one of the competitions was to design the smallest possible protective housing for an egg, so that it wouldn't break when dropped from several stories up. It sounded like it might be fun to visit, but when I found out that Julie was going, attendance became mandatory.
Since I didn't have a full driver's license, my mother dropped me off at the fair. Our teacher and some others, including Julie, were already there. We spent the morning looking at the various exhibits and watching the competitions. Although we were one big group, I was really hanging around Julie all day.
After the fair, I found out that Julie needed a ride home. I fairly jumped at the opportunity to offer one. For my mother, it was an opportunity to see this girl I was so keen on. I did have a permit, so was allowed to drive the van, with Mom riding shotgun. Our van had the seats taken out, so Julie sat on the engine cover between us (this was 1976 - no seat belt laws). I put myself in record mode as Julie gave directions to her house, which was distant by Hawaiian standards. I memorized every turn, every landmark, every street name, even odometer distances on the wild bet that someday I might have the privilege of using that information. When I got home, I transferred a detailed map to my diary. It took 3 pages.
The Radio Building Contest
In my Junior year (before I was even aware of Julie), the first annual Oahu Electronics Association Radio Building Contest was held. The objective of the competition was to build and align a 6-transistor radio from its component parts. There were no printed circuit boards; it was all point-to-point soldering. The finished radios were later judged on accuracy and sound quality, but truthfully, the contest was all about speed. Wayne Viveros and I took first place, setting the first state record of 22 minutes and some-odd seconds.
For the first year, the contest was only for boys, but the following year, girls were allowed. They had their own division, so that they would have a chance to win something. It was widely believed that the boys would have dominated the few girls entering.
That year, Julie entered with her friend, Rayna.
"Do you think you can make it to the contest?" Julie asked during lab one day.
"I wouldn't miss it for the WORLD," I replied. Truer words were rarely uttered.
Rayna was reasonably pretty, but of course, I only had eyes for Julie. On the day of the contest, Kalani High had the two foxiest chicks on the floor, hands-down. What was truly spectacular about them, however, was the way they worked together. It was like a dance. Their hands flew across the breadboard with peerless dexterity and precision. They never missed. Their finishing time was about 12 minutes - more than four minutes in advance of the first-place in the boys' division - forever dispelling the notion that girls would be slower.
I was indescribably proud! Until that moment, I had never realized that I could feel such a depth of pride in another person.
All year, I had been agonizing over how to ask Julie to the Prom. I had never even asked someone on a date, before. I had positively no idea how such things were done. I couldn't just walk up and say, "Hi, how ya doin', will you go to go to the Prom with me?" I might as well have been asking, "Will you marry me?"
As the deadline drew near, I became exponentially more anxious. I was terrified. And when would it be too late to ask her? Was eight weeks in advance too little notice? Was it too early - could it seem over eager and drive her away? I had heard that girls hate guys who try too hard. The clock was ticking. I didn't know when the optimum window would be to ask. And even if I did know, how would I be able to form the words?
Then one day in early April, as we were walking back from Electronics class, Julie solved the problem for me.
"Are you doing anything on the 22nd?" she asked, right out of the blue.
I was thinking, "Of course not! I never do anything," but replied, "Um, no." The 22nd of April had no significance for me. Now, the 23rd of May was another story. . .
"Do you wanna go to the Junior Prom with me?"
[Younger readers may not appreciate the magnitude of what she said. First of all, other guys must have been asking her. Julie was popular, and certainly must have either been declining invitations, or putting them on hold. Second, it was NOT NORMAL for a girl to ask a guy in this era. It was a huge risk for her. And third, even if she did ask someone, I thought she liked this guy named Clayton at another school. But she chose me! It was a compliment beyond belief.]
Angels sang! The whole background dimmed, and for a moment, she was the only thing in my universe.
I remember the precise spot where it happened, between the B and C buildings, almost at the B breezeway. That will always be sacred ground for me.
It could have been a split second, it could have been a minute, before I returned to this world. I don't know, even today, because time had dilated in the other universe. Trying to be the master of cool, again, I replied, "Gonna be in the student government building after school? I'll tell you then." What a jerk I was! Now that I think about it, it was such a thin disguise. She knew. She must have known I was totally smitten with her.
All day, I was preoccupied with what I was going to say. I had been handed the perfect setup to ask her to the Senior Prom, and still, I worried.
After school, we met in the small cabana used by student government (the F building), and made some small talk by the louvered windows.
After a little while, I said, "You know that thing you asked me this morning?"
"Yeah?" she started.
"That's kind of funny, because I was going to ask YOU to the Senior Prom..."
And so, it began.
The Junior Prom was on April 22nd, a Friday evening. It seems foolish now that it was held on a Friday, because it obliterated a school day. I could think of little else all day.
We doubled with my friend Richard and his girlfriend Lianne, because I had failed my driving test. But that's another story.
Julie came out of her house in an incredible orange-pink floral cotton scoop-necked dress she had made. And she had the build to take full advantage that scoop, too.
I didn't know how to slow dance, but remember holding Julie close in my arms, to "I Won't Last a Day Without You," forever assigning special meaning to the song. I went out later, looking for the single, but couldn't find it, so bought a whole album, just for the one song.
We cut out at about 10 pm to catch a show in Waikiki. Melveen Leed was playing. Julie was already knowledgeable about drinks, and asked for a wine cooler. I had just become legal, and showed my ID with pride when they carded me. Not knowing anything about drinks, I took the same. It was the first alcohol I had ever ordered. I didn't care for it.
Guinness Records Day
Our school decided to have a record-setting day. The way to set world records is not to challenge existing ones, but to think of things so offbeat, that no one ever thought of making a record of it. One of these was how long a person could stand on a block of ice, barefoot.
Julie and two others each had their block of ice. I had other things to do in the morning, but was able to join Julie after the first two hours. Ice doesn't hurt after the first few minutes, and since it was Hawaii, there was no danger of hypothermia. What a deal! I would have hours next to Julie!
The reality was a little different. We were all cracking jokes, especially this one other guy on the ice, who seemed to be paying special attention to Julie. She was laughing at his jokes! I had a confusing, sinking feeling that I had never experienced before. I didn't know what to make of it.
It wasn't until days later that I recognized what it was. Until that point in my life, I had never been jealous of anything. In anything academic, I had always been among the leaders. I may not have been the smartest kid in the class, there was plenty of room at the top. Totally secure. In athletics, I was in the bottom third of PE in most sports. But so what? None of my self-worth was bound up in sports. Girls, on the other hand, were an unknown quantity. I was completely inexperienced, and completely insecure.
On that block of ice I had to stay and (no pun intended) be cool; I couldn't escape. That was the true test, not the ice.
Jealousy remains my least-favorite emotion to this day. When I encounter terribly demanding situations now, I always return to the ice, as a reminder of what I can endure.
The Senior Prom was late in May. It was on Saturday, probably so that everyone would have more time to get ready. I had won my license by then, so spent time washing, waxing, and detailing the car (a 1970 Rambler), and even opening a vial of car air freshener in it. The scent was disgustingly overpowering, but at that age, I had no understanding of subtlety.
I had anticipated the evening for so long, and so ridiculously over-planned, that I actually ran out of things to do. In the humid climate, it was customary to shower before going out. But I couldn't do it, yet. The trick was to shower just barely before leaving so I wouldn't sweat, again. This was doubly true because I would be wearing a tuxedo, perhaps the most impractical garment possible for Hawaii. I simply had to wait around, as the clocks ground into slow motion.
At long last, it was no longer ridiculously early.
I drove to the flower shop to pick up the lei. In Hawaii, the leis (garlands) were the equivalent of corsages on the mainland, except that the girls would also give their dates leis. There were different classes of leis – your standard everyday lei would be made of backyard Plumeria flowers. For a Prom, to give Plumeria would be to advertise that you were cheap. I had asked Julie what kind of lei she would like, and she had said nothing too heavy. I suppose that was enough information, because the type of flower was understood. Pikake was the favored standard to give to a girl – it was light, feminine, and had a heavenly scent. Such a lei was measured by the number of strands it had: one, three, five – always an odd number. Unless you had the flowers in your back yard, you would have to buy Pikake at a florist. It cost about a dollar per strand, possibly close to two dollars at the peak of Prom season. (For reference, in those days, one could get a complete meal at McDonald's for a dollar.) When Julie said not to get anything too heavy, it might have been out of concern for my finances. So, how many strands? A single strand was almost invisible, and rarely used. Three strands would have been okay for platonic friends, who were there more for the Prom than each other. Five strands would have been the average size for a date that meant something. Beyond that, it was a question of balancing how much you liked someone, with the limits of practicality and good taste. I picked up her seven-strand Pikake lei from the florist, and was back on the road again, still way ahead of schedule.
I started towards Julie's house, which was 8.8 miles away - considered astronomically distant at the time. Not only had I plotted the course, I had done a dry run to see how long it would take. To that time, I added some slack, in case I messed up on the way over. As I reached Julie's neighborhood, I realized that I was more than half an hour early. Great. I pulled over to the curb several blocks away, so I wouldn't be seen, and waited.
At five minutes before my appointed arrival time, I started the engine, again. I walked up to the door just two or three minutes early.
Julie was not ready, yet, of course. Actually, it was probably just a ploy so that I would get to sit in the living room for a while and visit with her brother, mother, and grandmother. After a while, Julie emerged, in an elaborate lavender gown she had designed. She had mentioned that it was going to be lavender, so I had a similar color scheme on my tux. She carried a Maile lei in her hand, the standard thing to give a guy. Maile was basically nothing more than a bunch of leaves - often dirty leaves - but with a wonderful fragrance. We exchanged leis and kisses, bid farewell to the folks, and were off.
We had dinner at Kyo-Ya, a fancy Japanese restaurant in Waikiki that had been recommended by my teacher. We even had our own little private room. As was the custom, we removed our shoes before entering the room. Although we sat on the floor, there was a hole under the table into which we could extend our legs. No footsie, though - I was too timid.
I don't remember much about the actual dance except that we did, a few times. Perhaps I was so caught up in the emotion of the moment, that I wasn't storing details for later. The slow dances were better than the fast ones. She was warm and soft, and we were immersed in the music and the dark and the mingled fragrances of Pikake and Maile all around. (Even today, a whiff of Pikake will transport me back to that dance floor.)
The prom ended, and that was the time that everyone headed off to do other things. Being completely inexperienced, and still a little afraid even of Julie, I couldn't come up with anything else to do. I didn't know my way around the Waikiki scene. I would have loved to just sit and talk in the car for hours (some of my friends reported watching the sunrise together), but was afraid that she might interpret it badly if I suggested parking somewhere. I ended up taking her home early.
When I got back to my house, it was 11 pm. Now, everyone in our family stayed up late. I would generally sleep at about 2 am every night. My parents were usually up until midnight, but in any case, they were NEVER in bed at 11! Nevertheless, when I got home, the porch light was on, and the house was dark. My parents wanted to make it a point that they were not waiting up for me.
The school year was coming to a close, and I would soon be going away to college. I had the feeling that I might never see Julie again. As a parting gift for her, I made a little aluminum box, with a highly efficient LED flasher inside. I put such soul into its creation. Everything was as perfect as I could make it, down to each solder joint and the finish on the edge of the PC board. I have never created its equal. I had composed and etched a poem onto the outside face of the PC board, reflecting on how life would not dwell in the circuit forever, but the warm impression she'd left on me would surely never die. The circuit was designed to last 10 years without a battery change. It used technology that was fairly new at the time -- light emitting diodes, high-efficiency charge-pump oscillator, and an experimental power source - a large lithium battery.
Julie had gone off to live with her Dad for the summer of 1976 (her parents were divorced). She also spent some time touring various colleges. I remember her being particularly impressed with Case Western.
I had a wonderful summer job at a place called National Amusement, fixing pinball machines, jukeboxes, and video games for the obscene wage of $2.35 an hour. That was a fortune compared to the $1.50 or so that high-schoolers would generally get at the Cannery. The first few days on the job were lonely, but once I got to know the other guys, it wasn't so bad. In any case, the job was technically challenging, and kept my mind active.
But then, one day, as I was alone in the lab debugging a board, the full weight of the realization came down on me: it wouldn't be long until I went away to college, and I would probably never see Julie again. Tears welled up in my eyes. I hoped that no one would walk in on me. I just couldn't contain myself.
The Taiwan Troupe
Julie returned to Hawaii near the end of summer.
I remember watching a TV commercial advertising the Taiwan Acrobats coming to the Honolulu International Center. It was just the excuse I needed - I was too afraid to just call her up for no specific reason. I asked if she would like to go see the Taiwan Troupe on Saturday. She hesitated. It sent a chill of panic through me.
"Hold on a second," she said.
I heard some talking in the background.
"Okay, sounds good." she replied.
What a relief.
It was only when I picked her up on Saturday that she let on that she had bowed out of her brother's birthday party. I felt just a wee bit guilty.
We arrived early enough to park at McKinley High, and avoid the parking lot fee. We started walking across the field to the center, but when we were about halfway across, something horrible occurred to me.
"OH, SHET!!!" I screamed.
"Sssshhhh!" Julie said quietly, "What is it?"
"I forgot the tickets!!!" We had not even entered the auditorium, and I had already managed to screw up. I started to trip over myself apologizing.
Without missing a beat, Julie stated calmly and kindly, "Turn around. Start walking."
It was a real blessing that at least one of us was thinking clearly and rationally at any given time.
We sped back to my house, and stopped at the bottom of the long stairs. Julie asked who the cats were on the stairs.
"That's Jingles, and that's Brown Cat," I told her.
They were two out of the approximately 30 cats that had lived at our place over the years.
"Hello, Jingles! Hello, Brown Cat!" she called out.
It sounded strange to hear someone else speak to our cats with familiarity.
I zipped up the stairs, and retrieved the tickets from exactly where I had left them on the dining room table.
As we backed down the driveway, Julie waved, "Goodbye, Jingles! Goodbye Brown Cat!"
Love my cats, love me. . .
In spite of messing up early, it turned out to be a wonderful, magical night, that set my standard for romance for years to come.
I got to sleep in the wee hours that night, and had a terrible nightmare. I dreamt that Julie was mad at me, and I was unable to resolve with her, because I was immediately leaving for Stanford. I woke up drenched in sweat, but thanking God that it wasn't real. It didn't make too much sense; Julie had never been angry with me for any significant length of time, ever.
My Going Away Get-Together
The next evening, Sunday, was my going-away party at Pearl City Tavern. I had only invited six friends: Richard, Kenneth, Derek, Linda, Stacy, and of course, Julie. Pearl City was far away by local standards, so we ran around in our van and picked everyone up. Since Julie was so far out in the opposite direction, we picked her up first.
We had a fine upscale meal at PCT, then went over to the beach to sit, chat, and play games by lantern light.
At my father's suggestion, I had called the event a "get-together" rather than a "party," so that people wouldn't feel obligated to bring gifts, but they did, anyway. Julie and Richard gave me a present that looked like a record album, but when I opened it, it turned out to be a huge card that Julie had designed. The card was big enough to hold a magazine. That was their gift - a subscription to Playboy. How embarrassing, right in front of my parents! (They took it in stride.) Thinking back on it, it was a gift of noble intentions. Everyone knew I was completely inept, socially. Perhaps Julie was hoping I might learn from the magazine some of the things she wouldn't be able to teach me, herself.
When the evening finally ended, we took the reverse route in dropping everyone off. Julie, way out in Hawaii Kai, was last. I started to say goodbye to her in the car, but my father said he was going to go to the end of the street to turn the van around, hinting that I should walk her to the door.
I had never parted with someone I cared about so deeply, before. If I'd been experienced, I might have promised to write or keep in touch. But by unspoken understanding – or misunderstanding -- I think we both thought that pretty much, that was the end. Julie reflected that she didn't think she would get involved romantically in her senior year. It was a kind thing to say, but I knew that there would be many vying for her attention. As my Dad crept up the street at about one mile per hour, I thanked Julie for all the wonderful times and things she had shown me. It was my first step into an immensely larger world. We hugged. I did not kiss her. Though we normally closed with, "See you," that time, we just said, "Bye."
That night, I saw Julie one more time - in a dream. She kissed me on the cheek. It was so astonishingly real, I woke up and could still feel her mark. I found myself gently brushing my finger over my left cheek to feel for moisture.
Thank goodness for Julie. I would not go into college totally blind about girls.
Julie had such talent, such energy, such grand ambitions. During High School, in addition to her academic load and extracurricular activities, she held down a part-time job as a waitress.
I had always assumed that she would leave the islands to go to a top university. But somehow, she ended up at the University of Hawaii - a good school to be sure, but not a typical choice those on the fast track. Throughout college, she continued to waitress.
Julie graduated, and surprisingly, continued to be a waitress.
Years later, in 1985, my friend Jonathan said that there was something I should know. My brother Mitchell broke the news to me in the car.
"You remember Julie Ching? She got married about a year ago."
Great! She would have been 24, so that wasn't unusual news. I wasn't hurt about not being invited; I was genuinely happy for her. Lucky guy! Maybe I could send a card.
"And about 6 months ago, she shot herself."
I remember being simultaneously angry, saddened, and perplexed at the unfairness, the obscene waste of potential. Some lesser persons might not have had as much to live for, but I couldn't fathom it for such a lively and extraordinarily talented soul as Julie. I specifically remember not crying, but expending considerable thought analyzing what it could possibly have been. Abusive marriage? Broken dreams, lost hope? I also realized that her suicide was spookily aligned with the life expectancy of the flasher I had built for her. Had her hope run out at the same time the LED blinked its last? I found myself tracing my steps backwards, wondering if there was anything I could have done to prevent her tragedy. Mercifully, I concluded that there was nothing I could have done.
I will not debate in this essay whether Julie discarded a precious future. I will simply say that her years here were positively not wasted, because of her impact on my life at a highly awkward and delicate time. Julie gave me the gentlest possible introduction to interpersonal relations with the opposite sex. I treasure her memory.