Photo: GARY PUCKETT. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By MARILYN SHAPIRO
In today’s crazy world, it is sometimes hard to find things for which to be thankful. So I have been trying to find gratitude in the small things: a FaceTime with my children and grandchildren; a good cup of coffee with a piece of warm challah; a special moment with Larry, my husband. Recently, I reached back 54 years to remember an evening that still holds a place in my heart.
In 1969, my brother Jay, who was studying for his master’s degree at Cornell University, invited me to visit him and spend a weekend. Jay arranged for me to stay with Leslie, his girlfriend—and his future wife—on the Ithaca College campus.
As a freshman at Albany State, and I was looking forward to the weekend. What made it especially exciting was that Jay and Leslie had arranged for us to double date both Friday and Saturday.
Less Enchanted Evening
After bringing me from the bus stop to his dorm, Jay introduced me to Date One: His roommate— Charlie. My first impression of Charlie was not favorable; he looked like a computer nerd and acted like he was roped into an evening for which he had little interest. We all agreed to meet back in Jay’s room after dinner.
I guess Charlie’s first impression of me was not any more flattering than mine of him. Charlie was a no-show. Leslie and Jay insisted that it was Charlie, but I was hurt and embarrassed. In my mind, I believed he was turned off by my nerdiness and by my before-contact-lens-coke-bottle glasses. “He probably took one look and headed for the hills,” I thought.
Despite the rough start, the three of us enjoyed our evening and the next day. I already loved Leslie and knew she would be in our lives for a longtime.
Night To Remember
Saturday night, I got ready for Date Two with a great deal of trepidation. Would I be stood up again? Thankfully, Jay’s choice for Date Two made up for Charlie —tenfold. Denny was a Robert Redford doppelgänger: Tall, blonde, with a British accent to add to his allure.
Our plans for Saturday evening were to see Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, who was my favorite musical group at the time. I was not alone in my passion. They were one of a very select group of touring acts to achieve prominence worldwide. In 1968, they earned six consecutive gold records and sold more 45 rpm records than any other recording act including the Beatles. They had played a command performance at the White House for Prince Charles and Princess Anne by special invitation of the president. I had worn out my 78 rpm recording of their first eponymous album, swooning to “Woman, Woman;” “This Girl Is A Woman Now,” and “Young Girl.” Seeing them on stage, live, with handsome, sweet, attentive Denny at my side was special.
When Denny said goodnight, he gave me a gentle kiss—a kiss I still remember for its compassion and kindness. Did Jay tell him about the Charlie catastrophe? Or did Denny just sense my vulnerability and lack of confidence? I never saw Denny again, but I will never forget that cold night in Ithaca, N.Y. where a kind stranger made me feel like a beautiful “woman woman,” with no cheating in her heart.
Move ahead to July 2023. An e-mail blast from one of our social clubs in my Kissimmee, Fla. home announced that Gary Puckett and the Union Gap would perform in our 55+ community’s ballroom on Sunday, Nov. 6. Despite Larry’s ambivalence (he barely remembered the group), I scooped up two tickets for the 8 p.m. show. I was psyched, despite the fact that Puckett had turned 81 two weeks before the concert. Judging from his website, he didn’t look like the handsome young man in the group’s trademark Civil War uniform I knew back then, but—heck— I was also a little older looking myself.
We arrived a half an hour before the show and took our seats. Soon, the seats next to us were taken by my friend Maryellen. She introduced us to her husband Ed. We commented on the large crowd who had come to see the show. “I am looking forward to this,” Ed said. “The last time I saw Gary Puckett and the Union Gap was at Cornell in 1969.” I gasped and stared at him. “I was at the same concert,” I told him.
At 8 p.m., the lights dimmed, the three “Union Gappers” took their places on the stage. As the introductory chords played, Gary Puckett burst onto the stage, singing “Lady Willpower.” I am not sure if he asked the audience to sing along to warm us up, or to rest his old vocal cords, but we all fell right into his warmth and charm.
Puckett still had a great voice, albeit a little choppier and less smooth than I remembered. He missed a few high notes and forgot some of the lyrics to a song by the Beach Boys. He turned to the audience, apologized, and asked, “So, how is your memory doing?” The audience roared with laughter.
A little over an hour later, the group finished off with “Young Girl,” which is how I felt that evening. There was an opportunity to wait in a long line for a picture, but Larry, who had enjoyed the concert more than I had hoped, agreed that I probably would be walking home if I stayed.
So, I am thankful. Thankful for that memorable evening in Ithaca. Thankful that Jay married Leslie and gave me a much beloved sister-of-my-heart. Thankful that Gary Puckett was still alive and kicking and entertaining the crowd. And, most of all, thankful that Larry—not Charlie or even Denny—was sitting next to me.
As we walked to our car, my husband of almost 50 years, gave me a not-so-gentle kiss. Yes, that girl is a woman now, and she knows how to live.
Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla. Keep Calm and Bake Challah: How I Survived the Pandemic, Politics, Pratfalls, and Other of Life’s Problems is the newest addition to her line-up of books. It joins Tikkun Olam, There Goes My Heart and Fradel’s Story, a compilation of stories by her mother that she edited. Shapiro’s blog is theregoesmyheart.me.