Yesterday our oldest daughter (13) went to the mall with a couple of friends. When she left, it looked like she was going to a dance. It was her first time going to the mall without parents.
“So, why exactly are they going to the mall?” I asked my wife.
“To find their independence.” she said.
“At the mall?”
Then I thought about it and realized that I did the same thing.
The year was 1978. I was 13 and living in Orange Park, Florida. We’d moved to the suburbs of Jacksonville several years earlier. Before the influx of people, and before the mall was built. Like most kids during that simpler time, we spent our summer days running free – bouncing from one house to the next, and when we weren’t playing sports, we were exploring the great outdoors. But that summer something amazing happened when we noticed that girls weren’t the weird people we’d thought they were for so long. In fact, girls were kind of cool. They smelled good, and had soft skin. Yes, girls were good. We were curious and wanted to learn more about them, and the one place girls seemed to congregate was at the mall. So that summer, when we had had our fill of sports and outdoors, we would ride our bikes to the mall in hopes of understanding girls a little better.
In order to get there, we had to pass by Jacksonville Memorial Gardens–a big cemetery that was situated next to the mall. For the most part, JMG was like any other cemetery with its manicured landscapes and rumored ghosts at night. But there was something else about this particular cemetery that was special–Ronnie Van Zant was buried there. Van Zant was the lead singer of a local band called Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they were quite popular. The year before, the band’s plane crashed and Van Zant died, making his headstone something like a tourist attraction. So on the way to the mall we always made sure to stop by and pay our respects. His marble headstone was etched with a bird flying through the clouds, and there were always funny smelling cigarettes left on the bench next to the grave.
Because no one locked their bikes in 1978, and also because the mall didn’t offer racks, we’d sometimes leave our metal steeds in the woods at the edge of the cemetery and walk down a little hill to access the mall through the Sears store. Once inside, we felt like kings. We had the run of the place. We’d eat at McDonalds, pop into Spencer’s Gifts, and of course spend way too much time in Aladdin’s Castle, a dark game room filled with pinball machines, skee-ball, and air hockey tables. Sometimes we’d see girls in the mall, but, naturally, we were too shy to approach them. Still, we were finding our independence.
That summer I had my first bonafide brush with fame. As we were leaving the mall we spotted a man with a thin mustache and thin tie standing in the lady’s section next to a round woman who was rummaging through the blouse rack. The man had black hair slicked down on his head. Could it be? It was. Standing before us was Slim Whitman – a man whose face graced too many album covers at my house. My friend and I ducked behind some nightgowns and peeked up to confirm our suspicions. It was definitely him.
“Hey Slim!” my friend called out.
Slim jerked his head in our direction like a grazing gazelle sensing an attack.
“Slim!” I yelled.
Slim adjusted his tie and nervously looked around as we hid behind the nightgowns. He knew he’d been spotted and wanted nothing to do with it. We called Slim Whitman’s name as we ran through the Sears, across the parking lot, up the hill to fetch our bikes, into the cemetery, past Ronnie Van Zant’s grave, laughing all the way home.
When my daughter returned home yesterday afternoon I asked her about her trip to the mall. She smiled. “It was good.”
“Were there any boys?”
“I don’t know. We were too busy having fun.”