That video I posted earlier this morning of the 4 year-old girl who was heartbroken to be moving away from the boy (teacher, I think?) she was so in love with kind of hit home for me. Like our young heroine, I, too, moved to Japan at a tender age, leaving behind a boy I was pretty in love with. I lived on a Navy base in Korea at the time and Young was a little Korean boy whose dad was our base doctor, if I remember right. Anyway, I came across his photo when I was home for the holidays and showing my husband a bunch of old family photo albums. In the picture, I’ve just finished a performance of a community theater production of “The Wizard of Oz” and I’m dressed in a little green munchkin costume with rosy cheeks and my red hair pulled back into two pigtails. I’m holding a red carnation, which was probably a gift from Young, who is standing next to me dressed in blue jeans and a plain white T-shirt, with a little dirt smudge on his face. The two of us are looking at the camera ever-so-shyly, like too-forward a glance or too-bright a flash might make our young love dissipate in a cloud of smoke. It was only a few months later that Young did what, to this day — with the exception of my husband’s proposal to me — remains the single most romantic gesture anyone has ever made toward me.
He and I were playing in the base playground, just the two of us. It was, like, 1981 or something, and the tiny military base (something like 25 families, total) was akin to a small, rural town in the States. Everyone knew each other and my house was across the street and only half-a-block down the road, so it wasn’t any big deal for us two 5-year-olds to be playing at the park by ourselves. What was a big deal, though, was the box of matches we brought (maybe found?) with us to the park. I don’t remember whose idea it initially was to start playing with fire, but I do remember that as soon as we lit that first match, I was mesmerized. I blew it out and lit another, and blew that out and lit another, and pretty soon I wasn’t blowing them out anymore. I was throwing them on the ground and watching the leaves catch flame. Then I’d stomp the fire out and start again.
Young was getting nervous and asked me to stop, but I couldn’t. I was on fire, so to speak. This was the most fun I’d had in ages! And besides, what could possibly happen? As long as I kept stomping out the flames, we were fine. By now, you can probably sense where this is going. Eventually, the flames got out of control. I was making them too quickly — not stomping them out before I lit and dropped another match. The wind picked up. Suddenly, the fire spread and the park was aflame.
My memory gets hazy at this point. I’m not sure who called the fire department — if we ran across the street and told one of the neighbors what had happened, or if a neighbor, seeing the flames from a window, went ahead and called without us knowing — but within minutes we were surrounded by fire engines. People were yelling, someone called my parents, I was crying — it was crazy. But in the midst of all that chaos, one thing remains perfectly clear: Young turned to me and said, “Let’s tell them I did it.” I was 5 and scared and didn’t have the strongest moral fiber at the time and I said, “OK.”
I wish I could remember exactly what his punishment was or whether I even thanked him for being such a nobleman, but I honestly can’t. I know I got a stern talking-to about the danger of playing with matches, but other than that, I wasn’t in trouble at all. I also remember that it was only a few months after that that my dad got orders to move to Japan. I was three-times heartbroken because not only did I have to leave Young, we had to leave our two dogs behind, too. It was all too much for a little kid to take — especially an only child who had no one else to really share in her overwhelming sadness (though my parents did soften the blow by perfectly timing the announcement of my mom’s pregnancy).
Of course, life went on, as it does. I got older, fell in love and had my heart broken many times over, but I look back at that incident on the playground when I was 5 years old as a real learning lesson. That was love. That was pure, selfless — maybe pretty blind and stupid — love. The kind of loyal, protective love I hope to show to those who mean the most to me. It’s an especially relevant reminder as I begin to settle into married life where romance isn’t so much the dinner reservations at fancy restaurants anymore, or flowers or chocolates or handmade cards — though all of that is still appreciated. More than anything, romance is caring — the kind of caring that sometime requires a bit of self-sacrifice. Even now, 28 years later, I still have a lot to learn from little Young.