I Am Cousin Dale!

There are those few moments in life that we are designed to remember forever.  These are the sort of moments that are often recreated by Hollywood films, accompanied by soaring music, slow dissolves, and artful, sometimes suggestive composition.

Think things like your wedding, the birth of your first child, or losing your virginity (hopefully not in that order.)  Of course, there is the granddaddy of them all: your first kiss.

Hollywood, for instance, makes quite a bit out of the kiss whether it be the first or otherwise.  It was Clark Gable that said to Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind “You need kissing badly.”  This is true for the silver screen; it needs kissing badly.  There’s the family-friendly Lady and the Tramp and their iconic snout bump over a plate of spaghetti.  Think Richard Gere and Julie Roberts on the fire escape in Pretty Woman, Natalie Wood as Maria and some other dude as Tony in West Side Story, or Ryan O’Neal laying one on Ali McGraw (before she’s dead) in Love Story.

The original Uptown Girl

They’re not all perfect either:  I can’t imagine it was really all that comfortable when Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr were getting pounded by the waves while macking in From Here to EternityOn Golden Pond’s Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn offered up some octogenarian smooching while Luke kissing Leia in The Empire Strikes Back becomes decidedly problematic one sequel later.

The 80’s gave us “the most passionate, the most pure” kiss ever in The Princess Bride, the literally hot kiss over 16 candles in, appropriately enough Sixteen Candles, and a silhouetted close-up of Tom Cruise’s tongue going very deeply inside Kelly McGillis’s mouth in Top Gun.

There are some creepy kisses like Demi Moore kissing the Ghost of Patrick Swayze (something she could try again now that’s she’s single and he’s, you know, dead), Rain Man getting his first action from Valeria Golino, or that weird upside-down smooch between Spider-Man and Kirsten Dunst.

The list, while not literally endless, is very close to:  Titanic, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Planet of the Apes, Moonstruck, When Harry Met Sally, Say Anything, Cruel Intentions and Brokeback Mountain.  As a nearly 41-year-old guy, I can’t begin to hazard a guess at how many kisses I’ve seen on the screen.  There are even some I wish I could un-see.

So it really shouldn’t turn out as much of surprise that when it comes to the first, when you, by definition, have no personal experience with the institution, that Hollywood might serve as a form of guidance.

As it turns out, this was exactly what happened to me.  My own first kiss had a heavy Hollywood component to it.

The year was 1982 and I was a fifth grader at the Torey J. Sabatini School in Madison, New Jersey.  They called it, oh so cleverly, “The Best All Round School” because the building was, in fact, round.

Trust me, it’s round.

I was a new kid at the school, having just moved back to New Jersey after four years in Texas.

I don’t really remember how our relationship began but “Abby” (as we’ll call her) and I were acknowledged public boyfriend and girlfriend.  What that entailed in the fifth grade, mind you, didn’t amount to much.  We rarely saw each other outside of the school day despite living just a few streets apart.  We never came close to going on anything even approximating a date.  There was no hand holding or other indication of intimacy.  There was, in fact, no real intimacy of any sort.  I don’t recall sharing with Abby anything I didn’t with my other friends.  But in the end, that didn’t matter.  We were, by all accounts, a couple.  This despite our only being ten-years-old (actually, now that I think about, she was probably nine.)

I can’t say with absolute certainty that Abby had never kissed a boy but I know that I had never kissed a girl.  I don’t know whose idea it was that we change that but I do remember there was a plan in place.

It would be at my house, after school, and she would be bringing her best friend “Hillary” along with her.  It was Hillary’s job to witness the event such that she could report back that it had, in fact, happened.  I don’t know to whom she would be reporting, but she was there.

Upon their arrival, Abby dispatched Hillary somewhere else while she suggested we head down to the basement.

The actual room, as furnished by a subsequent owner

We set up shop on the sofa in our rec room which was pitch black as Abby insisted we leave the lights off.  I was, by all accounts, following orders throughout this entire process, but doing so happily.  It was here, very soon, that I would be learning that Abby had selected a very specific bit of Hollywood inspiration for our big smooch.

Remembering that we’re talking about the spring of 1982, John Hughes hadn’t directed a movie yet, Chariots of Fire was big in the box office and hardly a source of pre-teen inspiration, and Dallas was the biggest show on TV.  There was plenty of kissing by J.R. and the gang but not the sort that we were looking to engage in.  Frankly, had My Girl been made a decade earlier, it would have served as perfect material for the sort of kiss we were in the market for.

Undaunted (though I’m not sure that Abby was ever necessarily daunted) she came up with a perfect scene for us.  And, she informed me, we would be acting it out, line by line, right up the climatic kiss which, to be fair, was really better termed a “peck.”

So what was it going to be?  Cinderella?  Nope.  Harrison Ford and Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark?  Not so much.  Perhaps she’d choose something from The Love Boat the week before?  Not even that.

In the end, our first kiss came as the climax to a scene we acted out from the seminal 80’s sitcom Gimme A Break! (exclamation mark theirs, though I would have happily added it myself.)

For those not familiar (but, really, how you could you not be?) Gimme A Break! was the story of a nice family living in the fictional Glenlawn, a suburb of Los Angeles.

The patriarch was the widowed father of three daughters who was the town’s police chief.  To fill the void of this dead mother, Chief Kanisky hires Nell Harper to be a live-in housekeeper.  Nell Harper was played by Nell Carter.  What a coincidence!

The three daughters were all, in true sitcom fashion, completely different but very stereotypical.  The oldest daughter Katie was a pretty blonde who decided not to go to college.  The middle daughter was named Julie.  She wore enormous glasses and had brown hair so (of course) she was the brainy one.  Finally there was the youngest Samantha.  But she had short hair and liked to play baseball so they called her Sam.  How convenient for her not to be named, for instance, Desdemona.

For our scene, Abby would be playing the role of Sam and I would be her buddy Scotty (played by the actor probably best known for being Cousin Dale in National Lampoon’s Vacation.)  I’ll admit at this point that I have very little recollection of the set-up or lines from the scene beyond that I remembered they were both wearing their baseball uniforms and sitting on the living room couch.  Thankfully, through the magic of YouTube, I have been able to view the scene again.  You’ll be able to do the same, if you wish, further down.

It is even better than I remember.

I will now offer a few select lines from this scene that would lay the groundwork for our first kiss:

  • “I’ll never understand what the big deal is about kissing.”
  • “Seems to me God made lips for just one thing – to keep bugs off your teeth.”
  • “My aunt Margaret kisses like a saint bernard.”
  • “Kissing with you wouldn’t be like kissing a girl.”
  • “If you tell anyone, I will punch your lights out.”

After a bit of nose-jostling, they exchange a quick and passionless kiss.

Abby and I acted out this scene time and again in our unlit basement until, at some point, I became concerned that my father would show up because his beer fridge was in the room and Abby felt it was time to show Hillary our stuff.  We thankfully didn’t bother to play out the rest of episode that eventually features Sam breaking down in tears because she believes that she may have gotten pregnant from the kiss.

We relocated upstairs to my bedroom where, apparently, Hillary had been busily coloring a number of “Abby + Marshall” signs with hearts galore.  It was in my closet and in front of Hillary that Abby and I, without benefit of the awkward recreation from Gimme A Break!, kissed one more time for the record.

That door is THE closet 20+ years later.

The girls then took off and, as it turned out, Abby’s and my relationship had peaked.  It wasn’t very long after this that Abby heard a rumor from another girl in class that I had said that Abby wasn’t my girlfriend (not true!  Never happened!)  She called me angrily after school one day, demanding to know why I would say such a thing.  I told her I hadn’t, she told me I was lying and I, showing maturity beyond my years, hung up on her and went back to enjoying my bowl of chocolate ice cream.

The next day, Abby taunted me from atop the dragon made out of tires that was a centerpiece to the playground at “The Best All Round School.”  She said some mean things to which I responded in kind.  Our great romance was officially over and all because Carlyn (name NOT changed for the record) made up some story about me.  Take that Carlyn!  It took me 30 years but I’ve finally called you out on your vicious, vicious lies.

NOT the original but a reasonable facsimile

Abby and I went to school together for another five years before I moved to Argentina but were never really friends again (until Facebook officially anointed us with that title again a couple years ago.)  Despite that, we did actually kiss again and, true to form, it was as the climax to a scene we acted out.

In the summer of 1987 or 1988, my mother signed me up for an acting class for teens.  Abby, as it turns out, was also in this class.  The teacher assigned us a scene from, as I recall, Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (again with the exclamation mark.)  I was Edward and Abby played Muriel.  I remember nothing about the scene beyond that, about three-quarters of the way through, we kissed.  Every time Abby and I rehearsed this scene, we would merely make a kissing sound at that point and soldier on.  When we actually acted out the scene on our final day of the camp, we got to that point and actually froze.

The teacher quietly but emphatically said “kiss!” and we did.  When the scene was over, Abby commented that we had actually done that before and then she and I went our separate ways.

In the end, I can’t say where my first kiss ranks on a romantic scale in comparison with others but I know that I (clearly) still remember it very well.  I actually enjoy all the dramatic silliness that it encompassed.  People could be recreating a Casablanca kiss forever.  Countless young sweethearts may have played out their version of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  That’s unoriginal as far as I am concerned.  I was John Navin Jr. to Abby’s Lara Jill Miller and instead of being timeless is was, what?, timeful?  There’s no mistaking the era during which we were coming of age and, as children of the 70’s and 80’s, it is only fitting that she chose a sitcom that was really emblematic of the time.

I expect that I’ll remember Gimme A Break! until I grow old and, despite what you may think, that’s a good thing.

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One thought on “I Am Cousin Dale!

  1. I had to read this again, just for a little chuckle!! Thanks, Marshall!! AND I hope you will keep it coming despite that little thing called a JOB! All the best to you and your family!

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