First Kiss – A Valentine Story

Bill and Mary Ellen at the Olde Hitchin' Post, 2016 (photo by Gary Wilkinson)

Who can forget their first kiss? But, what if you never had a first kiss?

This is a true story. I know it’s true, because it didn’t happen to me.

In 1951, I was captain of the Pirates, a Junior Athletic Association basketball team. That may not sound like a big deal, but in Columbia City, Indiana, it was.

I had a cute girlfriend named Mary Ellen who, like everybody else in the state of Indiana, loved basketball. We were in the sixth grade and went together to all the high school games at the gym.

One Saturday afternoon, Mary Ellen and I were going to double-date with Kaye Deane and Terry to see “The Thing” at “the picture show.” In my opinion, this really was a big deal. Other than attending the high school basketball games, it would have been our first “official” date.

Saturday morning, Mary Ellen called it off, because of a problem between Kaye Deane and Terry.

What was the problem?

Whatever it was, it was nothing and, stupidly, I said, “That’s nothing.”

I should have learned a valuable lesson from this, but, of course, I did not. After all, I was a stupid 11-year-old kid who didn’t understand that when a girl (or woman) says there is a problem (no matter how trivial), it is a problem.

When we went to the basketball games, I would make pop corn, walk to Mary Ellen’s home and we walked together to the high school. Eventually, the time seemed appropriate to take our budding romance to the next level. Under a street light in an alley, I suggested to Mary Ellen that we should kiss.

Her response was quick, “No.”

We went on to the game, ate the pop corn and cheered for the Eagles to win. A few months later, my parents divorced and I moved away.

When I got out of the Marines in 1962, I stopped in Indiana and looked up Mary Ellen. She was married and had a little girl, Laura. I visited her farm and was impressed with a cutout picture mounted on plywood of her husband wearing his Larwill High School basketball uniform. It was in a place of honor on top of the TV set. Her dream came true. She had married a basketball star. I was happy for her.

Larry Wilkinson, Larwill Trojans (photo by Bill Swank)

In 1978, my ten-year-old daughter Karen accompanied me on a trip to the Midwest. My wife didn’t want to go. Karen and I met Mary Ellen at the Whitley County Fairgrounds where Laura exhibited her horse. Karen, being ten-years-old, was quite impressed. Mary Ellen joined us and we drove around Columbia City to show Karen what I did when I was her age.

I stopped by the alley on Oak Street and we walked to the street light. My daughter understood the significance of the location, but Mary Ellen had completely forgotten my indecent request.

My plan was for Karen to take a picture of me kissing my first girlfriend, but Mary Ellen again refused. Indignant, she informed me, “I’m a married woman. I can’t do that.” I tried to explain that I wasn’t suggesting a lip-lock, but she was adamant.

I was too California for her… and she was too Indiana for me.

In the meantime, although I didn’t graduate from high school in Columbia City, I was invited to reunions. Mary Ellen never attended. I was asked to be the speaker at the 2013 reunion. Wearing my Santa hat and Hawaiian Santa shirt, I worked Mary Ellen into my talk. It got a laugh when I explained how Mary Ellen refused to kiss me back in 1951.

I pointed out that as we grow older, old friendships become very importance and we shouldn’t be shy about expressing our affection for one another.

I shifted my tone and said, “Johnny (former District Attorney of Whitley County), I love you and I’m going to give you a kiss!”

As I approached, he looked more terrified than Mary Ellen in 1951. I reached into my bag and handed him a Hershey’s Kiss. It got a big laugh.
I continued. “I love all of you and I’m going to give everybody a kiss.” I went around the room handing out Hershey’s Kisses. Several of the women reciprocated with real kisses in return.
A few months later, a letter arrived from Mary Ellen. Several people told her about my talk and a correspondence developed. I was invited to another reunion in September 2016. The plan was to visit Mary Ellen’s farm before the reunion and finally meet her husband, Larry.

As I drove up, there was a basketball hoop on the barn. We were too old for some one-on-one, but thought I could at least shoot free throws with Larry. Three women came from the house. I assumed one was Mary Ellen and she looked great.

It was her daughter, Laura, who said, “My father died this morning. My mother wants to see you.”

My first reaction was to wish I was a million miles away from Indiana.

Mary Ellen was standing in the kitchen, still in shock. I held her and don’t recall much was said. She was crying softly and shaking. As an old friend, I was able to offer support and comfort. Clearly, she would not be attending the reunion. I offered to take her and her family out for dinner the next evening.

She was reluctant, because, “It wouldn’t look proper.” Laura stepped in and said, “It’s OK, Mom. We accept.”

Marry Ellen Pritchard (Columbia City Reflector)
Billy Swank (Columbia City Reflector)









During our conversation, I learned that Mary Ellen loved Christmas. Every year, she made a pilgrimage to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, the “World’s Largest Christmas Store,” in Frankenmuth, Michigan. My stories as Santa Claus in San Diego provided diversion for her and the girls.

The next evening, we met at The Olde Hitchin’ Post in Larwill for dinner. I was still wearing my Santa cap from the reunion which, of course, focused attention on our picnic table at the outdoor eatery. Kids came over for photos with Santa. Rather than being low profile, attention was focused on our table.

Mary Ellen was seated beside me. Suddenly, she leaned over and kissed me on the lips. It was completely unexpected and over in an instant. She may have been more surprised by her action than I was… a pure and innocent moment between 11-year-olds. Nothing was said.

I would have liked a picture, but that would have ruined a beautiful and simple childhood memory.

During dinner, Mary Ellen’s son, Gary, said that I would have liked his father. Laura later wrote, “You came at just the right time to ease the pain”

When I got home and told my wife, she smiled and said, “You waited 65 years and finally got your ‘first kiss.'”

Happy Valentine’s Day.


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