For me, 1966 was a very good year, the Vietnam War notwithstanding. It was a year in which my horizons were greatly expanded -- more so, I would dare say, than in any other of my life.
I hadn't been very many places or done very many things prior to entering the ninth grade at Newton County High School. I had been to Jacksonville Beach a few times and a taken sojourn or two to the Great Smoky Mountains. That was it, as far as travel -- unless you counted the occasional family reunion in Griffin and a family picnic at Callaway Gardens.
The little mill village in which I was raised was my world. The other little lintheads with whom I was raised were the only people I knew. I was totally unaware of the fact that there were people, other than those I saw on television, who lived in carpeted homes with central heat and light switches instead of pull strings. That first day of high school, my life changed forever, and I met hundreds of new people over the course of my ninth-grade year.
One of the first people I met, thanks to beginning high school firmly under the wing of my best friend and neighbor, Steve Piper -- a senior, like my sister -- was Sheila Bates. Sheila -- or "Bates" as everyone called her -- was also a senior, and one of the most vibrant and beautiful people -- inside and out -- that I have ever known.
Sheila Bates had a special glow. She always wore a smile, was always drop-dead gorgeous, and never, ever, ever made me feel insignificant -- even though I was a lowly freshman with an awkward haircut, big ears and funny shoes. She remembered my name and talked to me every time we passed in the hallway. I wasn't real smart, but I was smart enough to make sure that I passed Sheila in the hallway several times a day.
I guess it would be fair to say that I had a crush on her. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that I thought I was in love. I bet that "Bates" had that effect on an awful lot of young boys if they were honest enough to admit it.
I was never foolish enough to believe that I could be anything to such a worldly "older woman" than a young friend, but I was 14 years old and from Porterdale. Friendship was more than enough for me, and as that first year of high school rolled along, we did become very close friends. I watched her cheer on the sidelines of football and basketball games. I held my breath and crossed my fingers, waiting to see if she would be crowned homecoming queen. I told her about my classes and my girlfriends and my plans to be a "real writer one day -- one with columns in newspapers and books on bookstore shelves." She pretended to be interested in everything I had to say.
She must have thought I was the biggest pest in the world, but she never once made me feel like one, and on the day in the spring when we got our annuals -- kids call them yearbooks now -- she walked right up to me and asked me to sign hers -- and she wrote in mine. I still remember the inscription. "To one of the busiest fellows I know. Don't blow your cool! Love, 'Bates.'"
"Don't blow your cool." That was one of her favorite sayings. And she had signed my annual with "love." I showed everybody.
Sheila graduated that spring, leaving me to muddle through high school on my own. We lost touch and a year went by without my hearing from her and then five and then 30 or so. But one day, a few years ago -- maybe three -- I got a card in the mail with a return address I didn't recognize. "S. Adamson, Peachtree Battle, Atlanta."
I opened the envelope and to my delight the card was full of little cloth loops, removed from the backs of men's shirts. You see, I had recently written a column about high school in which I described the way girls used to snatch the loops off the shirts of boys they liked, and I mentioned that I always wished that Sheila Bates had snatched one of my loops. I might have even claimed that she did, because I never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. There was a card inside, from Sheila, "apologizing" for taking so many of my loops and saying that she wanted to "return" them.
What a day that was! I've never received a nicer gift. Bates was reaching out over the years to affirm our one year of close friendship. We became reacquainted after that and began to swap correspondence on a semi-regular basis. We always intended to get together in person, but never did.
Ironically, we battled cancer together for the past two years. We prayed for one another daily and through our correspondence I learned that Sheila never, ever lost that inner beauty that was so recognizable when I was a freshman in high school.
Sheila lost her battle earlier this month and has gone to be with her Lord. Her memorial service was Sunday. She leaves behind a family that loves her -- and a little linthead boy who will never forget how significant she made him feel.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.