Rich Wilhelm

“If I Leave Here Tomorrow”

In 1980s, 1983, Free Bird, Free Bird memories, high school, Lynryd Skynyrd on March 7, 2014 at 3:40 pm

During a Toastmasters meeting yesterday, the topic of memories connected to certain songs was introduced. Several stories swirled around Lynryd Skynyrd’s epic “Free Bird.” Here’s my “Free Bird” story. I originally wrote it for my blog back in 2009 but in light of yesterday’s conversation, I thought I’d repost.

This is the story of my first kiss, so naturally, Washington D.C., my old friend Roman, two weather-obsessed guys from Georgia, national and international politics, a famed new wave boutique, a girl named Gayle, Chuck E. Cheese and a pinch—just a pinch!–of dinner theater were all involved.

And, I’d be remiss if I left Lynyrd Skynyrd off that list.

On a Friday evening in January 1983, I was dancing with Gayle in a hotel banquet room near the Pentagon. We were dancing to the live version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s damn-near existential breakup anthem “Free Bird,” which clocks in at nearly 15 minutes long. If my memory is serving me correctly, the disc jockey at our closing dinner dance had set aside the last quarter hour of the event so that we could all hear the entire song.

According to my journal, I had danced with Gayle to every slow song that night but “Free Bird” is the only one I remember 31 years later. It was clearly an appropriate “last dance,” especially with its opening lyrical couplet, “If I leave here tomorrow/will you still remember me?”

During the early slow section of “Free Bird,” I probably had a chance to review the week, especially since the adult chaperones who hovered around might have frowned upon any first kissing action happening right on the dance floor. My mental playback might have gone something like this:

I had gone down to D.C. with a group from my high school for Close Up, a weeklong government studies program that involved schools from both Pennsylvania and Georgia. My pal Roman and I were rooming with two guys from the Atlanta area named John and Ty. At least one of them had some kind of weather obsession and frequently listened to a small, boxy radio that transmitted nothing but weather reports. Despite this, I felt like our Atlanta roomies were much cooler, better-looking and sophisticated than Roman and me.

Over the course of the week, we had visited historic sites and museums, toured the Pentagon and heard presentations from legislators and other various and sundry mid-to-low level government officials of the Reagan Administration. We dropped in on the Supreme Court, checked out the important documents at the National Archives and had, in fact, sat down for a night of rubber chicken and Kern/Hammerstein Jr.’s Showboat (I believe this is the only time I’ve ever attended dinner theater. Do people still do dinner theater?).

We even did Chuck E. Cheese one night, which seemed pretty juvenile to me at the time but, hey, I guess you just can’t afford classy dinner theater every night, right?

At some point during the week, Gayle and I noticed each other, but the exact moment has been lost to history.

Friday afternoon was free time so Roman and I took a Metro ride to Georgetown, which we had visited earlier in the week. We wanted to do some more shopping at Commander Salamander, a semi-legendary punk rock/new wave emporium, where all manner of t-shirts and pins proclaiming one’s allegiance to the various bands of the day could be purchased.

At Commander Salamander, Roman bought a t-shirt that plainly stated, “If It Ain’t Stiff It Ain’t Worth a F&$k.” I picked up a standard issue shirt bearing the store’s name and logo, along with a great big handful of small metal pins honoring bands like Stray Cats, the Clash, A Flock of Seagulls, the Fixx, the Go Go’s, Elvis Costello and more. History had yet to decide at that juncture which of these artists would eventually be inducted into the then-nonexistent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and which would be consigned to 1980s nostalgia hell.

Hurrying back to the hotel, Roman and I immediately planned to put our purchases to use for the dinner dance that night. I wore a suit jacket festooned with new wave pins on each lapel and a necktie thrown over my Commander Salamander t-shirt. We were feeling pretty damn cool, Roman and me. Still though, even at this point our Atlantan roommates seemed cooler and, as we were all getting dressed for the dinner, Ty upped the coolness ante considerably by cautioning us to stay away from the room during the dance as a girl he had met from Pennsylvania had asked him to “show it” to her that evening. In the parlance of today’s youth, I believe this would have been called “hooking up.” But maybe she just wanted to see the weather radio.

With all of this tumbling through my brain during the early stages of “Free Bird,” I barely had time to ponder how Gayle and I would dance once Skynyrd began to rock. I needn’t have worried about that though, as we continued to dance slow and close even when the triple guitar climax duel began in earnest. In fact, the more the guitars wailed, the slower and closer Gayle and I danced. But still, our lips did not meet.

The last notes of “Free Bird” and the roar of the Skynyrd audience signaled the end of our dinner dance. We gathered ourselves up and tumbled into elevators to head back up to our rooms for the night.

As the elevator door opened for the boys’ floor, Gayle got out with me and, before I knew what was happening we were kissing good night. The kiss probably wasn’t as long or as passionate as I’d like to remember it, but it worked for me anyway. Gayle turned, without a word, and got back on the elevator. I walked down to my room; along the way, friends who had apparently witnessed what had just transpired gave me high fives.

Back in my room, John, Ty and Roman were noisily burning off whatever energy they had left, but I called Gayle in her room and we talked until it was time to go to sleep. I never did find out whether Ty had hooked up with the Pennsylvania girl or not.

The next morning, Gayle and I may have kissed one final, less memorable, time before climbing onto our buses to go home. We exchanged a few letters in the months that followed that and in an obligatory mopey prom post-mortem journal entry I lamented the fact that Gayle couldn’t have gone to the prom with me because she lived “three million miles away.” But by the end of the school year, Gayle and I had exchanged our last letters.

All these years later, I’ve never much pondered that first kiss, but now I realize that what Gayle gave me that night was a tiny bit of insight into what another, even more important kiss would be like for me, eight years later, when I first kissed my future wife, Donna. I don’t know what, if anything, I gave Gayle that night, other than a (hopefully) fun memory. If nothing else, we’ll always have “Free Bird,” which is cool with Donna. She’s not a huge Skynyrd fan anyway.

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Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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