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Spearfish Lake Tales
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Joe/Joan book cover

by Wes Boyd
©2015, ©2016

Chapter 5

One day, probably about a week after I’d gotten out of the hospital, I was prowling around on the bookshelves in my room looking for something new to read. I’d already figured out that many of the books on Joanie’s shelves were things a typical teenage girl would have been interested in, which was well and good, since she had a more mature taste than Joe would have expected out of a teenage girl. There weren’t many “young adult” books there, thank goodness, and the ones that were there were more interesting than I expected.

In general her books didn’t interest me very much, although I knew that I ought to read some of them so I could at least be conversant with them if the need should arise. More than once I was tempted to go into Joey’s room where I knew he had some classic Heinleins. That would have been refreshing, especially since I knew I was a stranger in a strange land. From what I could understand, though, Joanie hadn’t read much of that, so I realized it wouldn’t be a good idea.

There was a book that showed a lot of wear, so I guessed Joanie must have spent some time with it. I pulled it out to discover it was Lord of the Rings, and just from the cover I didn’t think it would interest me much. (That was a mistake I didn’t rectify for years!) But when I went to put it back on the shelf, I discovered there was another book behind it, turned sideways. Was this some dirty book that Joanie had hidden? That might tell me a little more about her, so I eagerly pulled out the other books nearby to get it out.

No, it wasn’t a dirty book, but something much more valuable to me: her diary. In fact, it was one of six she had hidden on that bookshelf, going back to when she had been twelve. Those diaries, especially the more recent ones, were the keys that made it possible for me to assume her life as I healed up and couldn’t use illness or amnesia to cover up the fact that I wasn’t the Joanie that everyone around her had known up to the accident.

For all of that, I’m not going to tell much of what was in those diaries. They were personal, meant for her alone, and even as I read them the first time I felt like I was an intruder who shouldn’t be reading them. I was not the Joanie who had written them, and could never be; I was, however unwillingly, an imposter. Much though I needed to look inside her head to be able to act as if I was her, I wasn’t her, I knew it, and it made me feel guilty. It still does, even after all these years.

Reading those diaries gave me the realization that the former Joanie had been a real person, not just an abstraction, a figment of my imagination. I have often felt sorry that her life was cut short so that I could take it over from her. Now, that’s a rationalization, I’m sure; she may have been dead or at least brain-dead by the time my persona was injected into her head however it happened, so it may not have mattered. But that doesn’t keep me from mourning the person she might have become.

Now, that doesn’t mean that everything in the diaries was a big secret, because the revelations there weren’t. They were mostly just personal, the writings of a teenager who had what I felt were normal teenage interests and concerns. She wrote about how she liked this boy or that boy, and about how her few dates with some of them hadn’t lived up to her expectations, or things like that. There was gossip about her friends, and sometimes about people who weren’t her friends. She hadn’t liked her phys. ed. teacher, Miss Appleton. (Oh, yeah, that was her name! I could put a face with the name now and realize that I’d thought she was a lesbian, too.) To be honest, Joanie had also understood that Miss Appleton had been a lesbian, but hadn’t been able to comprehend how a woman could get hung up on other women, so she thought it was pretty weird.

The diaries also told me that, as I had suspected, Joanie was (had been?) a virgin, although she was as curious about sex as almost any girl her age would have been. A number of times she wrote things that told me she had been thinking about sex, but just contemplating it, not having done anything about it, which from my own memories was not all that uncommon for that time and place and age. Yes, there were some girls like Susie McVey who did get a little wild in the sex department, but as far as I knew most of them didn’t. That would change in the next few years, both from girls of that age group and of the girls Joanie and I had gone to school with, but that reflected the changing times. So, really, that wasn’t all that surprising: Joanie had in fact been a good girl.

There were other things there: plenty of complaints about Joey, for example – yes, there had been some sibling rivalry. Fewer about Mom and Dad – she hadn’t been a boat rocker, and seemed willing to live within the limits they set, although she chafed about them at times. Occasionally, not often, there would be comments about something that happened in the news; her diary entry about President Kennedy dying was obviously tear-stained. She didn’t like Lyndon Johnson and thought he was a blowhard at best, something that I as Joe fully agreed with. I could go on in this vein but I won’t since it doesn’t really matter now, except to me.

There was plenty of writing about her hopes and dreams and yearnings, what she wanted to be, what she wanted to do with her life. A little surprisingly to me, it was clear that Joanie hadn’t wanted to just be a wife and a mommy. She wanted to do things in her life, have adventures, do a few things out of the ordinary. Some of them struck me as being pretty good ideas, and early on I made up my mind that I would try to do some of them for her.

I didn’t sit down and read through the six handwritten books all at once, mostly because there was too much there, and I wanted to keep their existence secret just as much as she had wanted to – and I had an even better reason than she had. In fact, it took me several days of covert reading, with plenty of pauses to stop and integrate my impressions of who and what the old Joanie had been.

One of the important things I picked out of the more recent diaries what that Joanie had planned to go to college. In fact, she had already been accepted to Venable College, about a hundred miles to the north of us, and she’d been very excited about it. That was a little surprising, since there had been no discussion around the family or my friends about it. I was relieved to find that out, since I wouldn’t be caught flat-footed when the subject did come up. Assuming that I would be mobile enough to do it in the fall, which was a pretty safe assumption considering the rate at which I was recovering, that would mean the end of many of the hassles involved with pretending that I was still the old Joanie.

In the end, those diaries “improved my memory” a lot. As far as other people were concerned, I still had some lapses in my memory, although a lot smaller than they had been, so I was apparently recovering in that area, as well, to the point where no one was overly concerned about them.

I had been reading the diaries for a couple of days when I realized that there was a pitfall there – not in the diaries themselves, but in the handwriting. The “old” Joanie had nice looking, girlish handwriting, easy to read. For most of my pre-transition life, I had not. My handwriting wasn’t illegible, but not far from it, either. I could make out my driver’s logbooks if I worked at it a little, and then only because most of the important information consisted of numerals. I didn’t write anything out if I wanted to read it later – in fact, I used something of a modified form of elementary school printing, because I could usually read that. Joey’s handwriting, what little of it I saw, was not any better – not surprising, since he was the young version of me.

For the time being I could get by with a somewhat legible scribble mostly on the excuse of my hand being in the cast, but once the cast was off my handwriting could give me away. I’ll just say now that I toughed it out, a combination of taking more time with my handwriting, not writing any more than I had to, and the excuse that something in my brain must not have healed all the way after the concussion. In the end it never gave me away, although I worried about it for months.

*   *   *

About a month after I got out of the hospital, and a couple of weeks before Joey and I were due to graduate, the two big and heavy casts on my legs were replaced with lighter “walking” casts. “Walking” was not really an honest word to use since I was still unable to bend my legs, but I could get around on my own two feet, although slowly, with the help of crutches or a walker, and I used both. I still had to have help standing up and if I fell down I was in real trouble, but it was very liberating by comparison.

The revelation that Joanie had been planning to go to Venable College got me to doing a little more snooping around her (my) room. I soon found a catalogue from the college, along with some other promotional material, and I dove into it thoroughly trying to glean what information I could – once again, I had to know at least a smattering about it since I didn’t dare being caught totally ignorant.

There were some official letters from the college in that pile of college stuff, and I soon discovered why Joanie had chosen Venable – she had a scholarship. It was amazing that she hadn’t mentioned it in her diary, but I figured that she hadn’t been quite aware of the realities of the money involved. I will be honest and admit that it escaped me the first time I read about it too, but for different reasons. It had cost a ton to send Anita to college fifteen years of Joe’s life before – not that she ever did anything useful with the degree – and the numbers involved with Joanie’s scholarship seemed piddling by comparison. It was only after I did some digging that I realized that the numbers weren’t piddling in 1965 terms. In fact, they represented pretty close to a full ride!

I had already known that Joanie was a good student, better than Joey, better than I had been as Joe, but I hadn’t realized that she was that good. After a little more digging, I discovered that in addition to good grades, a good score on the SAT, and meeting a few other qualifications, some of which would be considered illegal or at least not politically correct fifty years later, she had qualified for this one particular scholarship. The Susan Barnes Memorial Scholarship, it turned out, had been named after a former Venable graduate from a long time before, and she’d left a lot of money to endow the scholarship.

In any case, that gave me some order in my planning, something to work towards other than just getting healthy again and not revealing who Joanie had become to my folks. But that set me to wondering what Joey’s plans were – it was one of those things that Joanie would have known, but that her diaries hadn’t been very revealing about.

Finding out from Joey without revealing myself proved to be easier than I had expected. I brought it up to him one afternoon when we were by ourselves. “Joey,” I asked, “have you had any more thoughts about what you’re going to do after we graduate?”

“Not really,” he shrugged. “I’m still tempted to join the Army or something like that, but the folks still want me to try college. I’m not real interested in going to Wexworth Community College but it won’t cost the folks too much for me to find out.”

That was no real surprise – it was just exactly what I had done as Joe fifty years before in his life, and the rationale hadn’t changed either. I had never really been able to get into studying there since I felt like I had spent enough time sitting in classrooms. I knew that WCC had changed in the years that were to come, eventually becoming a full four-year college, but in those days it was a two-year college that was more of a trade school – there were all sorts of trade-related classes that they were to eventually abandon. After a year there, the Army had seemed pretty appealing to me.

Speaking strictly about Joe’s experience, but concerning Joey by extension, I had only figured it out in the last years I spent as Joe. Although my IQ was well above average, I had little interest in sitting in classrooms at all, and preferred to learn things on my own. I was never very sociable, and rather shy; I was a loner and preferred to think about my own interests. I don’t think I ever heard the term “Asperger’s syndrome” back then and it may not have existed in those days, but after reading a couple of articles forty years later I realized I must have had at least a mild case of it. I never went to see a shrink about it or anything because I doubted if anything could have been changed in my life at that point – it was just something I had learned to live with. In fact, it may have been part of the reason I had been a pretty good truck driver.

With that thought in mind, I didn’t think it affected me as Joanie, at least the old Joanie. From what I could make out from the diaries, she had been a good student and got a lot out of classes, in spite of her tested IQ being just slightly lower than Joey’s. How much that was going to affect Joe as Joanie was hard to say, but I had different motivations about attending college than I’d had as Joe, so that was bound to affect things. At least I was aware of it this time around.

After a few days in the “walking” casts I began to think about going back to school, if for no more reason than to freshen my memories of what it was really like. Joey and my friends all thought it would be a good idea, because there were a number of people there who were worried about me, and they thought I at least ought to put in an appearance. At that point I had my family, Joey, and friends like Patty pretty well convinced that I was still the old Joanie, although I still had some problems resulting from the concussion.

Then one day the principal at the high school called and asked if I would be up to coming to school at least for final exams. “I don’t know,” I told him. “I’m still not handling stairs very well. I can get around a little with a walker, but I’m still most comfortable in a wheelchair.”

“I think we can do it so you’d only have to be on the main floor,” he told me.

What I couldn’t tell him was that I was concerned on how I would do on my finals, since I hadn’t actually been to class as Joanie at all. I had Joe memories of most of the classes – it was a small school and I had had the same classes as Joey, and he and Joanie had been in all but one of them together. But the Joe memories were vague, both from age and the fact that I hadn’t been paying much attention, even less than normal as “senioritis” set in.

In spite of my concerns I went to school one day toward the end of May, getting on down toward our last day of classes. Joey, my folks and I talked it over quite a bit, and we decided it would be best for me to just stay in the wheelchair rather than trying to negotiate things with my poorly working legs and the walker.

School was interesting. While it was pretty close to what my memories I had of the place as Joe were, it was still pretty new to me in some ways and I didn’t remember a lot of people. I mostly sat in a conference room in the office and did one final exam after another. I don’t know to this day if I was given special tests that were different than the rest of the class, but it could well be. For the most part I found them pretty easy, since as Joe I had learned a great deal more about the subjects than I had known in high school. Well, that, and the fact that I had done a lot of reading of the assigned texts in the last month, which was helpful since Joey’s notes were essentially useless.

The tests didn’t take all day and I had some time left over. Part of it I spent in the lunchroom, talking with people who Joanie was supposed to know and I remembered only through Joe’s memories. It got a little awkward at times but by then I was getting used to being a little reticent so I got through it all right. I wish now I’d had a little more time in school as the new Joanie, since other than my own experience that one day my memories were from Joe. It would have been much harder to keep up the façade, so maybe it was just as well that I didn’t.

After my final test that afternoon, Mrs. Higgins, the guidance counselor, came into the conference room where I had spent most of the day. I don’t know if it was for sort of an exit interview, or if she was just being friendly, but she asked me if I still thought I wanted to be a teacher. It was one of the things I knew from Joanie’s diary that she had contemplated, but I didn’t think she’d ever settled on it.

“I don’t know,” I told Mrs. Higgins. “I haven’t thought about it too much since I’ve had other things to think about. It could be that this whole experience has changed my thinking a little.”

“Well, I can understand that. An escape from near death will give most people a new outlook on life. Do you expect to have any problem getting around in college?”

“I don’t know but I don’t think so. I’m pretty well stuck in this wheelchair right now, but I’m supposed to get the casts off in another couple of weeks, and I’ll have most of the summer to get the strength back in my legs, so I’m not worried about it.”

“I think you will do well at college, but try to remember that it often changes people in ways they don’t expect. You will be exposed to new ideas as well as new people. You will have to take the time to examine them, and see if they will take your life in the direction you want it to go, or even if you want to go that direction in the first place. Things are changing rapidly these days, and all too often people don’t understand the consequences of the decisions they make.”

I wished I could tell her that she was preaching to the choir on that one. In my spare time I had been trying to dredge up some of Joe’s memories of the late 1960s and even though I had been detached from the mainstream for much of them, I remembered they were a tumultuous time. In Joe’s life I had spent most of 1968 in Germany and I remembered thinking that I wasn’t real eager to get back to the States as crazy as things had gotten. “I hear what you’re saying,” I told Mrs. Higgins, trying to not talk about what I knew would be coming.

“There’s a lot to do in college, and you want to work hard at it. But remember at the same time that it is a place where you can make new friends, and lifelong ones. Studying is important and you should work hard at it, but you always want to remember to stop and smell the roses along the way when you can.”

“That sounds like good advice,” I replied. It was, too. Although being serious about college would be a new experience for me, I had already come to most of those conclusions. It was nice to have someone agree with me on them, though.

Graduation came along a few days later. Under other circumstances I think I would have been just as happy to skip the whole thing, but I felt I owed being there to the old Joanie – it had been her work that had gotten us there, not mine, and I felt she deserved the credit.

Not unexpectedly it was pretty much like I remembered in Joe’s memories, with the exception that I was there, of course. It was a hot day for late May, and the relatively small gym was packed with people, so it was very warm and sweaty there, especially wearing the caps and gowns. I knew that was coming, so I had a sleeveless blouse and a light miniskirt on under the gown and it was still pretty uncomfortable.

I was still in the wheelchair, of course; it would be another couple of weeks before the casts were off. Even with the cast on my arm I could roll myself adequately to be in the procession with the other members of the Simsville High School Class of ’65. The actual ceremony was to be held on the stage, and there were several steps up to it. That wasn’t a problem; Joey was right next to me – he was right behind me alphabetically in the class, “Joseph” coming after “Joan,” of course. When we got up to the steps, Joey and the guy right behind him picked me up, wheelchair and all, and carried me up to the stage.

We sat through several long and boring speeches with the sweat running down our faces. I didn’t have to give one of them; I wasn’t the valedictorian although I was close, and in the Top Ten. Then came the time for us to actually get up and get our diplomas.

When the principal called my name, Joey helped me stand up, and held onto me tightly for balance as I stumped my way on my stiff and plastered legs to where the principal stood waiting. Much to my surprise, I got a huge round of applause from the audience – they all knew I was the only kid in the school to have been seriously injured in the tornado and survive.

“Thank you,” I told the principal, but in my mind I said to the memory of the old Joanie, or her spirit wherever it might be, “Thanks, Joanie. This one’s for you.”

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To be continued . . .

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