Tanja Randolph—First Love

(1961, age 13)

In the early 1960s, I was a real “nerd,” to use a modern term. I was into anything electronic, building first a radio receiver and later a transmitter to create my own signals. I remember an early circuit I wanted to build that needed an aluminum box as a chassis. Not having the money to buy one, I “borrowed” one of my mother’s square cake pans and modified it with the necessary holes and cutouts for my project. I thought she wouldn’t miss it. I was wrong.

I was an electronic junkie in those days. I couldn’t get enough. I had found something that neither my brother Robert nor my mother could tell me a thing about, and that was just fine with me. I got lost in the world of technology and withdrew from my family and many friends that I might have made. We lived at 21-B Buckeye Circle at Lockbourne AFB in Ohio at the time, but my “room” was the single-car garage set aside for that residence. The garage was at least 50 yards from the house and we had only one automobile that stayed parked in front of the house. The garage wasn’t used by the family, so I used it for my room. I wired it with 28 volts and installed surplus aircraft lights and converted it into an electronic workshop. Many magical projects came to life in that garage. Countless hours were spent with the door down, the radio quietly playing, and me lost in a world of technology and magic.

I had visitors sometimes. School friends, of which there were very few, knew where to look for me, but they were quickly bored with what I was doing. They wanted to “do something,” and couldn’t understand why I would rather stay in a small garage with my cathode ray tubes or my transmitter or my boxes of junk electronic parts.

April Tanja Randolph

One person who was always welcomed was Tanja. April Tanja Randolph. We were forbidden to see each other by both of our parents, which made our meetings in the garage all that more powerful. On the darkest nights she would come to the garage and knock a special way. Knowing it was her, I dimmed the aircraft lighting in the garage and raised the door just for a moment so she could come in, unobserved in the dark. With the door back down, I’d turn the voltage up on the lights and we’d have some precious moments together. We talked of so many things, of the little things that had happened in the day, perhaps at her school or at mine. Or we talked of the future, because we were very much in love as only young teenagers can experience-that first love that goes to the bottom of your very soul. It was unfortunate that we couldn’t see each other publicly. It forced some pretty strange behavior. For example, if I knew Tanja was babysitting and taking the children to the movie, I would go to the same movie. It only cost 25 cents at the Base Theater back then. She would sit on an end seat against the wall-never mind where the children wanted to sit. Around the side of the seat behind her she would reach her hand. I would be sitting in the seat right behind, and we would watch the movie in the dark, holding hands, but not together and not able to speak. Sometimes there were spies in the theater which made this necessary-the spies were Tanja’s older brother and snitchy little sister who loved to get Tanja in trouble with their father.

We also met somewhere else where we felt even safer: at the base hospital’s morgue. We would meet in the room where dearly and recently departed bodies were stored. There wasn’t a big chance that anyone who knew us would bother or even see us there.

But our meetings were few and far between. Yet we communicated each day. We went to different schools, but each of us passed the same spot on our way to our respective bus stops. At that spot there was an old bicycle with an old fashioned seat. There were two springs under the seat cushion of that bike. As each of us passed, we would leave a folded-up note wedged into the seat springs of that old bike. It was a quick, simple motion to exchange a note for one from the other, already there.

All of this because of one fateful night…

Tanja’s family had moved in next door, and I had seen her a few times. I wanted to get to know her better. On one quiet summer night, she was babysitting at a neighbor’s house. I went over to visit. We talked a bit and then later we stopped talking. I remember her reading a book on the floor and me lying quietly next to her not talking, not touching, but just feeling different and good about being with her.

The hours passed quickly, and soon it was time to leave. If it weren’t for some unfortunate timing, much of my life may have turned out different. I’ve lived all my life with the ramifications of what happened in the next minute of my story.

As I left the house where Tanja was babysitting, the parents of the children she was caring for were returning home and coming up the walk to their front door. I was coming out of their house and down the walk. As I passed them, they looked very surprised. They assumed the worst had happened—that Tanja and I had secretly planned the night, and that something terrible had happened. When they told Tanja’s father that she and I had been together in the house, all alone once the kids were asleep, he became very upset.

Nothing happened that night. Tanja’s father overreacted to what he suspected a fourteen year old boy and a thirteen year old girl might do if left alone for a few hours. At least for Tanja and I at that time, there was no danger of the type her father imagined.

His immediate reaction was to forbid Tanja from seeing me ever again. This was announced to my parents, and they agreed. Probably my mother agreed. Whether what Major Randolph said was true or not, I believe my mother felt Tanja wasn’t good enough for me to spend time with. She also probably felt that I was too young to have any relationship with a girl because that might interfere with my studies. If I were to have a relationship, in her book it should be with someone who could benefit me in some material way. Tanja, the daughter of a Air Force major, was not such a person in my mother’s eyes. Dad likely didn’t want to take a stand, though I’m guessing he knew that it wasn’t quite as bad as the thirteen year old girl’s father made it out to be. But the result was the same: I was forbidden to see Tanja.

Of course this solidified the relationship, and for five years—five normally very important years in the development of an adolescent’s ability to deal with people-for five years Tanja was my “girlfriend.” She was my official girlfriend, though I had several other friends who were girls. I developed a double standard. There were girls who were friends and that’s all they would be. They were safe with me, because I would never let myself fall in love with them and they knew that.

Tanja and I were both Air Froce brats, and our fathers, both career officers, were transferred around the country. When we both lived in Ohio, at 21A and 21B Buckeye Circle, we were forbidden to see each other. Later her family moved to another duty assignment in another state and we were really apart. Still later her family moved to Arizona. My father was reassigned to Savannah, Georgia. So our relationship, which we planned to last a lifetime was strained by distance though not by time.

It’s important to understand Tanja’s parents’ thinking. The family comes out of the bayou country of the extreme south of Louisiana. Well south of New Orleans, down by Thibodeaux and Cutoff. There is a strong French influence there, cajun French, and there are some old-fashioned ideas. One is that fathers protect their daughter’s honor. Mr. Randolph assumed the worst because in his culture, young girls blossomed and committed themselves young. It was almost a rural hillbilly-French culture that made him overreact. But Tanja’s mother was more understanding. I believe she had felt the repression of her husband for many years on her own life. Yet she was a very strong person and knew how to get her husband to move a little to her way of thinking. It just took time. So it was over a period of almost three years that she was able to convince her husband that maybe Roger could see Tanja again. Tanja and I had been writing letters steadily, and I hope her mother knew that her daughter was still innocent regardless of what gossip that fateful night of babysitting might had suggested.

April Tanja Randolph

By 1964, I was able to see her again openly and safely with her parent’s blessing. I think by that time they would have approved of Tanja and I getting married, but that wasn’t going to happen. Near the end of his life, Tanja’s father confided in her that the worst decision he ever made was to forbid her from ever seeing me.

Tanja had put much of her social life on hold for those years, as had I. Oh, I had girlfriends, and I didn’t hide that from Tanja. I felt that Tanja was the one for me, but looking back, maybe she wasn’t so sure. My relationships with girls who were friends, as opposed to girlfriends, could never be serious. This approach probably saved me some heartaches, as I never got very emotionally involved. In any relationship, it was understood that I was spoken for. Perhaps that’s why it was safe for girls to become really good friends with me, and they often did. Yet as these relationships unfolded for Tanja, she was often hurt. I heard this from her mother, years later. Vivian had told me that “If you and Tanja get married, and if you play around like you’ve been doing, then I’m going to tell her to leave you, and with my blessing.” What she didn’t know, and what Tanja didn’t know, is that if she and I had been married, neither of them would have to worry. As a modern country song goes, “She had me from hello.”

goodbye

Tanja unexpectedly broke off the relationship in a letter I received years later when I was a freshman at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. My world was shaken to the core. I couldn’t continue at Carnegie, so I transferred to the University of Oregon, a state school. But life held little meaning there, either, so I dropped out of college altogether and joined the Air Force. I hoped that four years of military service would give me time to recover and re-focus my life, though it would be a life without her.

There had been only one true love in my life up to that time, and losing Tanja had hurt me deeply. It took me a long time to even start to trust my heart again.


From “Young Maiden” published in 1848, Chapter 11: “First Love”

I am one of those who believe, that in strict truth, the first love is the only real, all-pervading affection. There are other sentiments, on which the marriage relation may be founded with fair and reasonable hopes of an happy result. But no one can love two individuals, simultaneously or successively, with equal strength. There is a fervor in the freshness of the heart’s first gift that no second occasion can quicken. Petrarch could never have found another Laura. Though his was love at first sight, it endured until twenty-one years had terminated the life of its object. Our earliest manners, tones of voice, and expression of countenance, endure the longest. So does the stamp of love’s seal, when new, outshine every subsequent impression. Hence the importance of bestowing this primal treasure with wisdom. Where all of this life, and all of the future is at stake, wary should be our steps, and well pondered our decisions.