|Wake Up Barbara!
And Help Me Find This Snake!
Early March, 1974, from Barbara, at Eastern College in Pennsylvania, to Sue, at Abilene Christian College, Texas:
I wish I could talk face-to-face with you. You are not going to believe what's happened.
The last person on this campus that I would've wanted to be seen with has asked me to marry him. That is not the shocking part. The shocking part is that I'm considering it. And all of this has happened in the month since I last wrote to you.
My head is spinning, and maybe writing to you will help me sort it all out.
I've never mentioned Ralph to you before because until a month or so ago, he'd done nothing but disgust me, and I'm still puzzled by the change that came over me; such a change that now, I feel like I'm in love with him.
I've always noticed Ralph. He's not easy to miss. He sticks out. He's so weird, in fact, that I always tried to avoid him.
The first thing I noticed about him was that he never wore a coat. There'd be three feet of snow on the ground and he'd saunter (he thinks he walks like the Pink Panther) across campus with no coat. Just a long-sleeved shirt, with the sleeves rolled up most of the time. My friends and I would say, "You know it's really cold when Ralph lets his sleeves down."
My first too-personal contact with him was at a rehearsal for the school play. I was on the stage crew. Ralph was on the lighting crew. All of us met early in the semester to plan what props we could each contribute for the set. We were in a room that had those folding metal chairs. Ralph arrived after I did, and sat down next to me but shoved his chair back a bit. Then he started pushing his foot against the leg of my chair. He was trespassing into my space, pushing on my private chair. Then his foot nudged my foot and I moved it away. His foot moved again, against mine. I just felt violated.
The director asked who could supply various props we'd need. Ralph seemed intent on drawing attention to himself – boasting and obnoxious. He'd say, "I got lotsa old books. All the old books you can use. And empty liquor bottles if you need any of them. And old pipes. I ain't got no cigarettes. I quit smokin' them when I was nine."
That type of thing. I was disgusted. It's funny when you hear Hal Holbrook playing Mark Twain, saying things like that. But not Ralph. I was not amused, though others in the room, particularly the guys, seemed to enjoy his comments.
A couple of weeks later, at a rehearsal during mid-terms, a small number of people showed up, so the director assigned us to do work behind the scenes. He asked a Nigerian exchange student named Laye, and Ralph, to help me hang up costumes. So the three of us headed off to the small costume closet.
Now, Ralph is tall and skinny, with unusually short brown hair. Laye is a bit shorter than Ralph, but massive, rock solid, and midnight black. He looked like he could break Ralph in half if he wanted to. These two began helping me hang up costumes.
Then all of the sudden, Ralph, who had a nice blonde girlfriend named Judy, started accusing Laye of trying to steal her. "I saw you talkin' to Judy, now don't deny it," he said.
Laye, with careful pronunciation, said, "But Judy is very pretty. If you treated her right, she would not be talking to other guys."
Ralph got a knife and stone out of his pocket, and started sharpening the blade. He raised the leg of his pants and said, "See how sharp this here knife is? It shaves the hair right off o' my leg. You wanna argue with my knife?"
Laye smiled casually and said, "I will use some Nigerian voodoo on you that will put you in bed for three weeks with very bad sickness."
I was observing all of this out of the corner of my eye as I eased my way over to the door and slipped out as silently as I could. I ran all the way back to the dorm, sure that Ralph was racing after me with that knife.
I didn't know that as soon as they realized I was gone, they doubled over laughing. I had no idea that it was all an act, put on for my benefit. I later found out that these two liked to do this around campus, and especially in front of innocent girls. They liked to get a reaction. To them, this was fun.
Ralph loved to cause a stir all over campus. He told me that he used to go into prayer meetings where he'd hear them praying for him. They wouldn't know he was there because everyone had their eyes closed and heads bowed and he'd get there late. He'd hear them praying, "Lord, be with Ralph. Help him to mature. Help him to be serious about the intellectual pursuits here at Eastern. Help him to overcome his wayward tendencies and irreverent humor. Please work your Spirit in his life."
When they had finished their prayers, all of which he knew had merit, he would pipe up, "Lord, help us to understand Ralph and all of his bountiful and abundant problems." They'd know it was him because no one talks like Ralph, and he'd hear gasps around the room.
Ralph talks like a country hick. He uses incorrect grammar, and words like "ain't." When you first hear him, you assume he's uneducated and uncivilized. When I started to get to know him, I was flabbergasted at all he knows and more flabbergasted at how much he wants people to think he's the uneducated country bumpkin. He just loved creating a stir in the prayer meetings.
A few months after my experience with Ralph and Laye in the costume closet, I was a captive audience again. I heard Ralph telling about revenge he'd taken on some kid who'd made him angry the year before.
"We waited until about 2:00 in the morning," he said. "We took a big ol' long bamboo pole and put a hook on it, and used that to jerk the screen away from the winder. Then we took a two by six, big ol' long thing, and we pushed the winder up ever so gently and quietly. And we wedged that two by six up under there so he couldn't shut the winder. Then we commenced to lobbin' water balloons in there."
Scant weeks after I heard him tell that story, Ralph approached me in the library while I was trying to study, and asked me out on a date. All I could think of was that when I said no (which was what I'd say – no way I'd go out with such a vile creature) I'd end up with a room full of water balloons. I was shaking, Sue. Finally, since I couldn't say yes and was too scared to say no, I said, "I'll let you know."
I left the library (there was no way I could study at this point), and started talking to everyone I ran across. I talked to the switchboard operator, the mailroom clerk, every student I passed, a couple of professors, even the Dean of Students. I went down to the lake and threw crumbs out to the ducks and the fish and pondered my impending demise in a storm of water balloons.
It's time for my sociology class.
After class today I walked back to the dorm a different way. We're having what you'd call dreary weather anywhere else, but this campus enchants me no matter the weather. The lakes all have a heavy mist over them, and the waterwheel was slowly turning. Sometimes I wonder if it's possible to come to this campus and not fall in love.
Though that was not how I was feeling the day Ralph first asked me out. After seeking advice from everyone I could find on campus, and getting nothing I could use, I headed to the library. I felt defeated – positive that my life, as I'd known it, was about to come to an end. Then I bumped into Dave – a decent guy, real "man about campus" type. I knew Dave was a friend of Ralph's, which was amazing to me because Dave was too decent and respectable. I told Dave what had happened, and he filled me in.
He said, "Ralph is all show. And he's hurting. Judy broke up with him, and you shouldn't kick a man while he's down."
I told Dave I would never, ever, go out with Ralph.
Dave said, "Be nice to him. Say no if you don't want to go out with him, but be nice. He won't hurt you. I promise you that you won't see the first water balloon." And at that, Dave kind of chuckled. I could tell that for some strange reason, he admired Ralph. And that's one thing that really puzzles me. Dave's not the only one that admires Ralph. Lots of these guys who seem, to me, to have so much going for them, appear to aspire to getting away with the things Ralph gets away with. I guess Ralph lives the life that other guys fantasize living.
I never have known how to act toward a guy after I've turned down a date. I have always been afraid that if I was too nice after a rejection, the guy would ask me out again. I think Rich did me in. Do you remember me telling you about him? He asked me out a total of seven times – each time receiving a flat-out "No," but he kept calling. And that was painful. I didn't like doing that. But since he was one of the few members in my youth group at our small church, I had to remain polite and could not give him the cold shoulder. So since Rich never took the hint, I've been scared of that happening with other guys too.
Dave said, "You ought to get to know Ralph. He's nothing like the façade he projects."
"Then why does he project that objectionable façade, if he's nothing like that?" I asked.
"It's part of Ralph's enjoyment in life. It gives him pleasure to convince someone that he's ignorant, then come out with a profound statement, or little-known fact, and shock them by his wisdom."
And that's true. Ralph does that all the time. It gives him a big thrill. A couple of semesters ago we were both in a history class on the Civil War. Ralph came out with comments that left everyone, including the professor, scratching their heads. Like, once he said, "The south won that war – by losing. Slavery had hung like a millstone around the neck of the United States, and it took that war to shake it off. At the end of the Civil War, the Reunited States was the world's superpower, 'cos we had the two best equipped and trained armies the world had ever seen up to that time (even the one that lost). If combined, like Grant suggested, they could have whupped anything whut came their way because we had the Gatling gun and the repeating rifle, while the Brits were still usin' Brown Bess."
I mean, he's always coming out with these things that make you scratch your head.
Dave gave me courage. I told Ralph no, but I followed Dave's advice and was polite. Ralph and I had a religion class together, and I walked back to the dorms with him occasionally, since we were both going the same way. He'd be fascinating to talk to, Sue, and I enjoyed getting to know the real Ralph. But if someone else came along – like someone I admired, I'd wish I could hide. It embarrassed me to be seen with Ralph.
Then Amy Aron, a friend of mine, saw me with Ralph and got all excited. She adores him. Amy always was a little different, but this was startling. She joined us and was just all aflutter. And the strangest thing happened – I found myself beginning to feel a little bit possessive of him. He's attractive, in his own country hick way. Did you ever watch "The Real McCoys" on TV as a kid? Ralph looks like Luke, the character Richard Crenna played. He acts like him too, playing the hayseed from the back woods. But he's an intelligent, educated fellow.
Several people have been instrumental in helping me change my mind about Ralph. When Ralph asked me out again, I talked to Bill Holmes, another friend whose opinion I value. I asked him if he'd think badly of me if I went out with Ralph. His response was much like Dave's had been – he too seemed to admire Ralph's rogue qualities. Ralph's not a bad guy – he just puts on this rogue image. Bill assured me he would not think badly of me if I went out with Ralph. In fact, I think if anything, people act like they admire someone courageous enough to date Ralph.
I was noticing, too, that Ralph (the real Ralph that I was beginning to know) was a lot like my father. Dad's an aerospace engineer at IBM, and is mechanically inclined – fixes everything electrical or mechanical at home. And Ralph is like that on campus. He fixed the TV in the lounge, and often helps students with repair work on their cars. One time last year I was watching a movie on campus when the projector broke, and Ralph got up from the other side of the auditorium, sauntered up to the projection room, and fixed the projector. He's always fixing things around here. When my tape recorder was on the blitz, he not only fixed it, but loaned me his record changer, and it seems like overnight my feelings for him changed. I became intrigued. I started feeling proud when I'd be seen with him. Like – 'I know the real Ralph better than you.'
He explained why he does some of the weird things he does, like not wearing a coat. It's part of his Karate training (a mind-over-matter thing). Another weird thing about him is that wires stretch out his dorm room window to a tree. He explained that they are antennas. He's a HAM radio operator, which is something I know nothing about. Calls himself "Whiskey Bravo" something, whatever that means. Like his name on the radio, I guess.
We started hanging around a little bit together, and then he asked me to go see a movie on campus. It was an awful movie, but it was nice being with him. It had snowed a lot that day, and when the movie was over, he asked me if I wanted to take a walk. We walked for miles around this campus, through this beautiful old, classy neighborhood.
He steadied me when I slipped on the ice once, then held my hand as we continued walking. I had a great time, and he was very gallant. Walking in the snow that night was almost like a metaphor for my feelings for him. All the rough edges of the landscape were smoothed over by the snow, and Ralph's rough edges were smoothed over by the 'real Ralph' coming out of hiding from behind that mask he always wears. Of course, there were still some rough edges. Like, he asked for a tissue, blew his nose, then tried to give it back to me.
And after that date we were together every chance we got. We ate all our meals together, and Ralph walked me to classes, (except Economics, because at the beginning of the year, he'd taken a drop note to the professor, who'd said, "You're in the wrong class." Ralph replied, "You're on the wrong planet.").
I went home with him for the weekend. He lives in Medford Lakes, in the "Pine Barrens" of southern New Jersey, an area that stunned me. Nothing like the industrial metropolis I expected. Lots of farmland and a country feel to the small town. Medford Lakes is full of manmade lakes (that used to be cranberry bogs) with beaches, and log cabins. It even has the largest log cabin east of the Mississippi, a lodge with hotel rooms and a fancy restaurant.
But more stunning than finding a town like that in New Jersey, was meeting Ralph's family. His parents were nice and – normal. I don't know what I expected, but since he's so unusual, I half expected them to be the Beverly Hillbillies. He even calls them "Ma" and "Pa." Ralph had talked about trash-picking a typewriter, which inspired Pa to learn the rest of the alphabet… Last year I'd overheard him saying, "My family lives in a yurt (that's a Mongolian conical tent), and when someone stays with us, we just zip on another room. It's handy, 'cause when the revenuers get too close, we find ourself someplace else to roost."
He tells these stories but his folks are normal middle-class people. They live in a nice two-story house very similar to my folks' house except there's a lake off their back yard. Ralph's dad's an accountant, and his mother teaches fifth grade. She went to the University of Pennsylvania with a full scholarship. (Pa calls it the "University of PU"). They are educated people. And they get a kick out of Ralph. They are proud of him, and proud of the way he marches to his own drum and thumbs his nose at everyone else.
Ralph and I are so different. For schoolwork, for instance, I always read the assignment the teacher gives and have to work hard for every decent grade I get. Ralph doesn't usually read what's assigned, but he goes to the library and picks out his own sources for the same material. Doesn't worry about grades, just is always hungry for information. That's so unlike me. I work for grades. Period.
Ralph is really funny. While we were at his house, he told me that Ma had taught him and his twin sister the alphabet and even how to read and write before they ever went to school. He went around the whole house with crayons and magic markers, and as high up as he could reach, all over the walls, he wrote, "Ralph." His parents laughed while he told me this. Then he said, "That's the year we painted the house."
I haven't met his twin sister yet. She lives in South Carolina. And one brother lives in Utah. His youngest brother lives at home. He's about 15, I think, and already taller than Ralph (who is over six feet). Ralph says, "I'm the runt of the litter." Even his sister was taller than he was until a couple of years ago when he shot up.
My mom came down to Eastern to meet Ralph. She likes him. I think she understood him much quicker than I did. Since she grew up on the farm, she was used to people like him – or people like his façade. But he was genuine with her, too.
Ralph is something special. We've been dating now for only a month and he's head over heels in love. That's a great feeling, to have someone feel that strongly for me.
I love him too, but he scares me. He's got all these dreams and plans about the future, and I'm not sure I can live the life he wants to live. Dr. Campolo, my sociology professor here at Eastern, is involved in missionary activities in the Dominican Republic. You probably know where that is, but I had to look on a map to see it's between Cuba and Puerto Rico. Did you know it's on the island that made Columbus fall in love with the New World? Tony has asked Ralph to go this summer and help a medical mission. They have a fleet of trucks that need a mechanic. So Ralph wants us to get married and go down there together. On one hand that's thrilling to me, but, can I do it? Is this what I want for my life?
Also, Ralph talks about how he wants to have a big house with a large room in the middle, other rooms off to the sides. He wants anyone and everyone to be welcome at any time. People with no place to stay can come whenever they want.
Sue – this is not my dream. I'm a private person. I am not an entertainer. Yet Ralph's plans are specific. He is my opposite, Sue, so I'm startled that he's attracted to me. What does he see in me? My dreams are not his dreams. My plans for the future are not his.
Actually, I don't have that many plans. If neither you nor I were married by the time we finished college, of course, I'd hoped we could share an apartment in Texas. I'd thought maybe I'd get work as a youth director in a church down there. But I'm not sure about those plans now. I'm not sure I'm cut out to be a youth director. When I was younger, I loved to think of spending lots of time with teen-agers. That thought doesn't appeal to me as much anymore.
Ralph loves me so much it bowls me over. It took me longer to fall in love with him, but right now I can't imagine spending time away from him. He is always in my thoughts; he won't let anything else in. Schoolwork has been impossible. It's like my heart is full of Ralph and he's spilled into the rest of me too.
I've been searching for love like this all my life, and what I'm feeling is unlike anything I've ever felt before. I've often "fallen in love" or felt like I was in love with one guy or another, but this is beyond all that. I've seen Ralph's faults (in fact that's all I saw at first) and love him in spite of them. What a way to start a relationship. Starting from the bottom, though, I guess there's no place to go but up, right?
I've always wanted to find a good husband, and I guess you could say that's always been my first goal in life. Might not sound too inspired, but that's what I've wanted, to be loved by a Godly man. And Ralph is a Godly man – in his own rogue way.
It's a beautiful feeling, to know how much he loves me. And now he wants to get married. And soon. I don't know what to do.