HILDA LOCKED HER BICYCLE outside Kaiserslautern High School, unsnapped the book-bag pannier and joined the flow of students going to their homeroom. She no longer felt self-conscious about her height, now that some of the boys were as tall as she.
Returning greetings and high-fives, she made her way to room 32B and took her seat at the back of the room. Jimmy Weasley slouched next to her in the same seat he had occupied since their first day together in fourth grade. The little boy whose feet had dangled from his chair had grown to more than six feet and was the captain of the basketball team. He was still pale, with a mess of freckles all over his arms and face, and an unruly mop of red hair. His eyes were blue, but watery compared to the striking lapis-lazuli of Hilda’s.
They had known each other longer than anyone in the school. Most families moved in and out in three or four years, a normal tour of duty, but Jimmy’s father had transferred from Pulaski Barracks to Ramstein Air Force Base, so the family was still living in Vogelweh housing. Jimmy started his adolescent growth only two years ago. He was still self-conscious about his height when he was not on the court. Standing near Hilda helped.
Hilda helped in other ways. A very shy boy, Jimmy did not make friends easily, and he struggled with his studies. In middle school, he had taken more grief at the hands of bullies than she had, especially during seventh grade, when the Paisley family spent a year at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Jimmy knew that if he were simply near Hilda that the bullies would leave him alone, like they left their friend Ai-lan alone in fourth grade. Even after his size made bullying less likely, he liked having Hilda around. When she scowled and flashed her eyes, new thugs trying to establish their street cred usually backed off.
She was as generous as she was smart. During middle school, she had helped Jimmy after the subjects became too complicated for his mother. Hilda taught him how to approach math problems, how to focus on key words and ideas when reading, and how to take notes. By the time they reached high school, Jimmy had a comfortable B average and seemed destined to succeed on his own. He never forgot.
“Hey, Jimmy, what’s up?”
“Same. Hey, sit up, man. You make me look like a sequoia.” She grinned as Jimmy unwound himself and sat up. He returned her smile eye-to-eye.
Their homeroom teacher tapped her pointer on the desk. “Good morning, everyone. Today we have what I hope will be the first of similar events for all of you: choosing what you want to do next. For the next hour, you will complete these cards.” She held up a five-by-eight-inch piece of white cardboard. “There is space for you to describe your preferred career, what schools, if any, you think you need or want to attend, and why.”
“Later, the guidance counsellor may call you in for an interview, or you can ask for a meeting yourself. Is this clear?” Assorted nodding heads. “Any questions?”
A sandy-haired boy halfway back on the right raised his hand. “How much does this count towards our GPA?” Grade point average. Titters and laughter.
The teacher smiled. “Funny, though I get that question every year. Nothing. But it may be the most important paper you ever turn in, if it helps you start looking ahead, or if you are wondering what to do with yourselves after high school.”
Just as the teacher returned to her desk, Hilda stood to turn in her completed card. Jimmy tapped her arm with his. “Thanks,” he said. Because she was the first to have her card done, she was surprised. She resisted the temptation to read his card on the way to the teacher’s desk.
The following week, the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams were working out at opposite ends of the gymnasium. During a break, the girls’ coach approached her colleagues and suggested a friendly match.
“You’re kidding, right?” The boys’ coach laughed.
“No. I asked them. They think they could whip you.”
“Wait a minute, Melinda. You’re talking about whipping the K-Town Raiders, DODDS champs for four years running.” Department of Defense Dependents Schools.
“Yup. We’re both DODDS champs, so it’s a chance to match two teams that are arguably the best in the league. But the league won’t let us do it in regular play, will they?”
The boys’ coach looked at his two assistants, who stood there with surprised expressions.
“Want to make it interesting?” Melinda asked. She could smell the money baking in their wallets.
“Let me ask the boys.”
Five minutes later, Jimmy Weasley and his championship squad faced off against Hilda Paisley and the most athletic girls in the school. To the coaches’ surprise, Hilda easily won the jump-ball against Jimmy by six inches. It was all downhill from there as the girls’ team stayed ahead for the agreed twenty minutes of the scrimmage.
Hilda knew that Jimmy transformed into a completely different person on the basketball court. He was like Patton with his army: fast, totally in control, guiding his teammates with nods and tilts of the head instead of shouting. He had drilled them in hours and hours of practice.
Hilda’s girls were simply more athletic: faster, nimbler, and all five of them could shoot three-pointers from outside the circle. They, too, had developed a habit of keeping an eye on their captain even in the tightest scramble with their opponents.
At the end of the scrimmage, the score looked like something from the professional leagues: 30-27. When the final whistle blew, Hilda let out a whoop and hugged Jimmy.
“Man, that was fun!”
Jimmy grinned. “Yeah, it was.” He shouted at his coach, not noticing the man’s scowl. “Hey, coach! We should do this more often. It would up our game.”
Melinda Harlow laughed. “Wrap it up, ladies.”
“Clean up and showers!” the boys’ coach said, breaking a reluctant smile. “I want to talk to Ms. Harlow here.”
When the teams came back to the gym after their showers, the two head coaches announced a pizza party. Practice the next day would be cut short to make time for it. By then, the boys’ coaches got over their disappointment, and agreed that both teams would benefit from regular scrimmages. They even picked up the tab for Melinda Harlow and her girls, without admitting publicly why.
The basketball season ended as expected, with both Raider teams taking their championships. What was not expected was the extent of the thrashing that they imparted on their opponents. Score differences of twenty points became commonplace during the last half of the season and into the playoffs.
The coaches and the players did not draw attention to their practice matches, although the coed scrimmages were no secret. What drew more attention around the school was the way the two teams interacted socially. Half the players on each team were going steady with someone on the other team, a natural outcome of throwing teenagers with a shared passion together.
Their respective captains did not date, however. Hilda and Jimmy simply never thought of it, having been friends for so long, and being so busy. Jimmy was active in his church, the Scout troop, and helping with his younger siblings.
Besides studies and basketball, Hilda had choir rehearsal Wednesday night at her church. Her mother was preparing to take over from her grandmother as music director. Both women held high expectations for practice and musicianship from Hilda and the other choir members.
On evenings when Tongai Paisley was in town, he and his daughter would don trekking clothes and ride out to the woods around Kaiserslautern. Long before she had filled out the white card in homeroom, she had convinced her father that she was serious about joining the army.
“Not as an officer, Baba, at least not at first. A soldier, like you and my sekuru.” Her grandfather had fought with the British Eighth Army in World War Two.
In the twilight and in the dark, the special forces warrant officer would drill her in backwoods skills, survival techniques, tactics, and unarmed combat. Much of Hilda’s confident leadership was a side effect of these lessons.
When possible, they would go to the shooting range, where Hilda learned how to shoot, fieldstrip, reassemble and maintain a wide range of handguns and rifles.
He knew she was serious, so he did everything he could to equip her not just to survive but to thrive.
“Hey, Hilda, wait up!” Jimmy called as she walked to the bike racks after school. The April day had been much warmer than usual for spring, and the sun was still bright and hot on the concrete. She was looking forward to the wind on her body on the way home.
“What’s up? Won’t you miss the bus?”
“No big deal. I can walk home.” He caught up with her and continued walking to the bike racks. “Would you like to catch a movie this weekend? Forrest Gump is at the base theatre. I haven’t seen it. Have you?”
“No, I haven’t. I’ve heard good things about it.” She stopped with her key in her hand. “Wait a minute – are you asking me on a date?”
Jimmy seemed as surprised as she. “Uh, I guess so. I think you’re the only one I’d want to take to a movie, so it felt natural.”
They stared at each other for a minute. “I think I’d like that, Jim. Let me clear it with my parents. Saturday?”
“Yeah. Let’s catch the five o’clock show and eat after.”
“Where shall we meet? You know I live in town.”
“Oh, yeah.” He thought for a minute. “I guess I could come get you, but Dad needs the car to go to work. Do you mind taking the bus?”
“Not at all, but do you still have a bike?”
“Let’s meet at the theatre or at your house. You’re still on Arkansas Street, right?”
“I’ll come to your place. It’s an easy ride to the theatre from there.”
“You’re welcome. I hope my parents clear it. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
“Okay. Tomorrow. Bye.”
She could have sworn his neck was as red as his hair as he walked away. He did have a spring in his step, though. My first date, she thought. Wow!
Only much later did she notice that she never called him Jimmy again.
Going to the early movie and having a light meal afterward was so much fun, that they did it again the next weekend. On Wednesday after the second movie, Hilda walked with Jim to math class.
“Do you like Mozart?”
“I think so. We heard some in music appreciation class in seventh grade.”
“How’s your German? I can’t believe that after all these years, I’ve never heard you use it.”
“It’s okay. Nothing like yours, of course, but I have lived here for seven years.”
“Die Zauberflöte is on at the Pfalz-theater this weekend. We can get in for free with our student ID. Want to go?” The Magic Flute.
“I’ve never been to an opera. Sure, let’s do it!”
The following Saturday, Hilda rode to the Weasleys’ apartment building. Jim’s father was out front, playing catch with their youngest, who was in fifth grade.
“Hello, Hilda. James tells me that you’re taking him to the opera tonight.”
“Not really, sir. We both get in free, so we’re just going together.”
“Well, considering that I’ve never seen him take any girl anywhere, especially three times, I must say I’m impressed.” He threw a long, high ball to his son, who scrambled to the edge of the yard for it.
“Is anything wrong?”
“Not at all. His mother and I are delighted. You must have noticed how shy he is off the court.”
“Oh, yeah, kind of.” They both smiled.
“He’s inside, probably struggling to figure out what to wear.”
“It’s casual in the regular seats. The people in the boxes only dress up on opening night.”
“Let him know before he panics.” He waved for her to go on. “And thanks for getting him to ride his bike again. With only one car, that’s a blessing.”
She smiled and nodded as she went into the building.
“That was really fun!” Jim held the door as they came out from the theater. “I’m glad the words were in the program, but I understood more than I expected.”
“It’s one of the most popular operas for a reason.” She felt a happy satisfaction to see his enthusiasm for the music and the lyrics.
“How does the Queen of the Night do that incredible thing with her voice —” he looked at his program “— der Hölle Rauch aria. That’s ‘smoking hell’ or something, isn’t it?”
“Close enough.” Hilda chuckled. “I can show you later if you want. It’s kind of public here.”
“Want to eat?” He asked. “There’s a Burger King around the corner.
“Yes, but this is my neighbourhood, so let’s eat at the beer garden over there.” She pointed across the street. “We might as well keep the atmosphere, don’t you think?”
“Sure. We hardly ever eat in German restaurants. Mom says they’re expensive, but I think she’s afraid to go into town without Dad.”
“You can eat cheaper there than at McDonalds. C’mon.” She took his arm and led him across the street. The drivers could hardly miss the two tall teenagers and flowed around them like water in a brook.
“Omigod, Hilda, do you always cross the street like that?”
“Usually. The secret is eye contact and moving steadily. If they know where I’m going, they adjust.” She indicated the other patrons crossing the street. “I think everyone knows that this is the place to go after the show.
“Hilda! Vad gör du här?” What are you doing here? They stopped on the sidewalk. Jim’s jaw dropped at the sight of the incredibly tall woman walking toward them on the arm of the tallest man he had ever seen. The blonde was the spitting image of Hilda, but Hilda had his skin and hair colour.
“Hi, Mama,” she said, “this is Jim Weasley. Jim Weasley, this is my mother, Margareta, and my dad, Tom Paisley.”
Margareta switched to English. “I’m so delighted to meet you at last. Hilda has been a little tight-lipped about her first two dates, but we know you from the basketball court.” They shook hands all around. Margareta looked at her daughter. “Well?”
“We were just coming here for dinner. We went to die Zauberflöte.”
“I wish we’d known. I could have gotten you tickets.”
“No need, Mama, we get in with our student ID.”
“Do you want to be by yourselves for supper?” asked Tongai. “We usually come here, which you should know, Hilda.”
“I forgot about that. I was really thinking about the food.” She looked at Jim. “Shall we join them?”
As they started toward the door, the crowd noticed the pause in their conversation and closed on Margareta. A half-dozen theatregoers pressed programs into her hands. Tongai smiled and pulled an ultra-fine-point Sharpie from his jacket.
“I didn’t know your mother was famous,” Jim whispered to Hilda. “What is that for?”
“She sang here for many years. People still remember her.” She pulled the door open, motioning that they should go in. At the reception stand, she asked for a place for four in German. The owner approached them from the middle of the room.
“Willkommen, Fraulein Paisley!” At Hilda’s quick glance to Jim, he switched to English. “Will you be alone?”
“No. My parents are outside.” She shrugged. “The usual delay, you know.”
He smiled, took four menus, and stood with them. “No problem. Her fans follow her in. It is good for business.”
The table was ready when her parents came in. As the owner ushered them to the back, most of the patrons stopped eating to stare. Many waved and smiled. Jim blushed fiercely.
Once they sat, Tongai and Margareta engaged Jim in easy conversation. Tongai knew his dad. The boy relaxed by the time their food came.
Hilda took her father’s arm when the bill arrived.
“We came here prepared to pay for ourselves, Baba.”
“I know, but I am so pleased to meet James here, that I want to do this. Use your money for the next date.” He looked at Jim. “We’re not scaring you off, are we?”
“No, sir, uh, thanks.”
“Good. When you’re a highly paid Army officer like me,” he said to Hilda, “you can treat the two doddering pensioners. Deal?”
“Deal, but I’ll be a sergeant, not an officer.”
“Don’t bet on that. The Army won’t let you hide under a bushel for long, mudiki.”
“What’s mudiki?” asked Jim.
“Little one. Family joke now, eh?”
Jim smiled. “My dad calls me little squirt.”
Tongai paid the bill. They rose and walked out. Hilda and Jim crossed the street to where their bicycles were locked; her parents turned left and walked home.
As Jim and Hilda rode down Arizona Boulevard before the turnoff to the Weasleys’ apartment building, Hilda pointed to the park on the corner.
“Let’s stop there. There’s no one in the park, and I can show you how the soprano does those passages in the – what did you call it? – Smoking Hell aria. That’s funny: I have to tell my parents.”
“Sure. Why here?”
“Wait till you hear it.” She led him to the bike racks and then to a picnic shelter. “First I need to warm up. It’s not easy.”
Hilda did some vocalises and swoops and a few scales. “What differences did you notice between opera and, say, the pop artists or, even better, country-western?”
Jim thought for a moment. “For one, something about the opera singer is clearer, more distinct. Not that I can understand the words any better – I got it – country singers swoop from one note to the next. It’s cool, but the opera singers don’t do it.”
“You got it! Most people don’t learn that until the choir director screams at them for the two-hundredth time. Actually, they do swoop, but only if the composer puts it in the music. You’ll notice the orchestra doing it too.” Listen.
Hilda sang a few bars of Shut up and kiss me. After she reached the first refrain, she stopped.
“That just came out!” he said. “I love that song.”
“I figured you would know it. Hear the swooping in the refrain?”
“But you were very articulate on the first verse.”
“So was Mary Chapin Carpenter. She sang many different styles before Columbia Records made her a country-western singer.”
“And the Queen of the Night?”
“Ah, now that’s a matter of getting the feel the composer is going for, which is why opera stars get the big bucks.” Listen.
Hilda sang the der Hölle Rauch aria, very slowly at first, then ever faster, until she was popping off the thirty-second notes like bird shot. Jim sat on the bench in wide-eyed wonder.
“Wow. You nailed each note. I could feel spaces between them. No sliding.”
“That’s how she does it.”
“That’s so smooth it looks easy. How did you learn to do that?”
“My mother had to sing that role more often than any other, because the Mozart was so popular. She made me sing everything she had to.”
Jim caught his breath, then asked, “how was the soprano tonight compared to your mother?”
“Honestly?” He nodded.
“She was good, very good. But Mama is in a different league altogether. If life had dealt her a different set of cards, she would be a poster child for the Met or La Scala. I’ve never heard anyone who could match her.”
“I love what you did with that song, and this is so interesting. Can we go to another one?”
“Sure. I think der Freischütz is on in two weeks. Want to do that?”
“I don’t know anything about it.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll bring some articles, the libretto and a recording on Monday, if you’d like.”
Jim discovered a new passion for opera and classical music. He still liked the pop and country music, but he was in awe of the skill of the singers he watched at the Pfalz-theater. His admiration for his friend Hilda grew in new directions.
Hilda rode home that night feeling something different about her friend Jim. She could not put her finger on it but being with him felt good. Very good.
© 2022, JT Hine