My first date was in October 1968, when I was in third grade. One day a boy named Gary pushed through the recess crowds to the blacktop where we were playing army men, and asked “Wanna go to a movie Saturday? My Dad’ll drive us.”
I almost said no. Movies, or what old people called "the show," were the main thing God hated! But when Mom and Dad said ok, I decided to risk it. Gary had muscles, and besides, the movie was Village of the Giants (1965), starring Tommy Kirk, a cute teenager who was gay (back then all I knew was he that he seemed to like boys, not girls).
The promise of sitting next to a boy with muscles and seeing a teenager who liked boys outweighed my fear of getting God mad.
We covered our eyes, occasionally peeking through our fingers to see if the disgusting display was over, but we couldn’t block out the smooching sounds. The ordeal seemed to last for hours. I promised God that I would never again go to to the show, if only He would make Tommy Kirk like boys again.
God did provide Tommy with a cute best friend, Johnny Crawford of The Rifleman, but they obviously didn’t like each other. They didn’t even work together to save the town. Johnny Crawford grabbed a bottle of antidote and catapulted himself onto the bosom of one of the giant girls to shrink her. The audience cheered. I wanted to go home.
“This isn’t the right way!” Gary exclaimed.
“We must’ve went through the wrong door,” I said, struggling for a logical explanation.I had never been downtown before – I had only been in Rock Island for a few months -- but I knew it wasn't supposed to look like this. The signs on the buildings didn’t make sense. The parking meters were a weird pea-green col-or. The sky was almost black. The wind was sharp and stinging, making us shiver in our thin autumn jackets.
This wasn’t just the wrong side of the theater. We were in a whole different town, maybe a whole different world!
“Let’s go back to the alley,” Gary suggested. “Maybe that will take us to the right door.”
But we couldn’t find the alley again. Behind us was a solid wall of buildings! We ran around the corner, past a statue of a soldier on a horse and a billboard that showed a depressed man being rained on. We saw a marquee in the distance, and ran toward it – but instead of “Fort Armstrong,” it had a crazy foreign word: “Ar-cade.”
Scared, exhausted, we sat down on the curb and started to cry.
I looked up to see a teenager standing on the side-walk behind us. A hippie -- he had blond hair and a scraggly beard, and he was wearing hippie threads: a fringed jacket, a red tie-dye t-shirt, and bell-bottom jeans with a green belt.
“We’re lost," I said.
“Dad won’t know,” Gary added, to clarify the situation.
“Don’t sweat it. We can find your folks – we just have to work together.” The hippie sat down on the curb and squeezed between us and wrapped his arms around our shoulders. I collapsed onto his chest.
It was hard like steel! And warm, and fuzzy with little blond hairs!
I hugged the teenager, squeezed against his hard-steel chest, breathing his acrid-sweet hippie smell. He wrapped a thick arm around me and pressed me close. Suddenly I didn’t feel like crying anymore.
“Hey, little bud, it’s ok. Where did you see your folks last? Did they drop you off at the Arcade?”
“Fort Armstrong,” Gary whimpered. Why was he still crying? Why wasn’t he gasping with joy at the hippie’s muscles?
“We went to see Tommy Kirk,” I explained, “But Tommy Kirk liked girls, not boys, and God was mad, and then we went out the wrong door.”
In a few moments we were reunited with Gary’s Dad, still waiting on the sidewalk as the last of the kiddie matinee crowd came blinking from the theater. He shook hands with hippie who rescued us and gave him a quarter.
I went to the Fort Armstrong many times after that, and whenever I told the story, my friends insisted on trying to retrace our footsteps that day. We went through every door of the theater, even the one marked “Employees Only.” We circled the building, circled the block, peered into every alley. But we never found the deserted parking lot, the statue of a soldier on a horse, or the arcade where a hippie with muscles came to the rescue.