May 21, 2019 was not a good day. I lost a great friend that day and have been trying to devise a way to honor her memory. Denise Hawley (Huculak for much of her adult years) was a major player in many of our gang’s lives – leaving an emotional crater with so many who were fortunate enough to call her a friend.
Her family did a wonderful job with her memorial service, but it (rightfully) did not focus on her earlier years and here, I hope to fill in some of the details to illustrate some of the rowdy joy and color she brought to us. Here’s a taste of how I met and came to love her.
When I was 16, I visited a church and met a gal a couple of years older than me.
I had never met anyone like her. Denise had the most amazing personality. She was audacious and owned any room she was in. She had an mind-blurring ability of thinking at a rate few could keep up with. She loved reading, her friends and (best of all) adventures.
We hit it off immediately and began to provoke each other in all kinds of wonderful ways.
I introduced her and our church gang to my favorite author; George R. Stewart sometime near 1971, and starting with his book titled, Earth Abides. We tied into many of the ideas Mr. Stewart introduced and we could still be caught digesting it together in 2018.
But, it was not just that one book or author, it was several. Decades before Book Clubs, became a thing, we were doing it partially because Denise was leading us into the love of books. I already shared that love, but others were catching the bug from her.
Small groups of us often ended up at her home, stretched out in front of the fireplace together in, how do I say this, non-romantic cuddle piles. Yes, we were piled together, arms around each other, talking books, laughing at inappropriate jokes, clearing the kitchen of snacks, thinking great thoughts out loud and often persuading others of our CORRECT view of fine literary points with the power of a pillow. We were all teenagers – so of course we had lots of pillow fights. Her mom pretty much trusted us not to tear the place down and stayed out of sight.
Our church was Penngrove Community Church and spent many weekend days romping through various little known sites of fun around Penngrove and Petaluma, California. No site of interest was off limits from beaches to storm drains, lakes and book stores were all possible targets.
When summer arrived, we all went off to summer camp (Yep – that would be Camp Cazadero) with lots of kids from other churches where we taught them how close our group was when Denise and I led the them down to a nearby meadow. She and I had created a new form of fellowship on the fly one afternoon. One person would lay down on the grass but keep their arms straight up. Two others would lay down with their heads on that person’s stomach and lift their arms. This opened up 2 more stomachs and slots for 4 more people. Other than the rule of making sure everyone had a stomach for a pillow, the rest was a free-for-all of friends diving in to get a stomach to lie on. When everyone had a place, we all put our hands down somewhere safe, because there were lots of girls in the pile and we did not have to be told to be careful.
So, let your mind recreate what this had to look like because we were all too involved to ever snap a photo. We had created a formation of teenage bodies, lying interlocked with every head using someone’s stomach as a pillow. The next phase started the fun. Someone would say something funny causing someone else to laugh, which bounced the heads on their stomachs, which caused the owners of those heads to laugh, which bounced the heads on their stomach and the rest was as predicable as a domino chain.
This cycle of perpetual laughing was almost impossible to stop. Kids from other churches would wander by and we would invite them to find an open stomach and join the fun. I wish we had photos of some of the epic mosaics we formed because we always lot count of the number of kids in a given pile, and they often had to bribe us with food to get us to break the thing up.
These intricate jig-saws of teenage bodies were called, ‘Penngrove Piles’ and became enormously popular. They quickly spread to other events that involved other camps or activities. If we were there, Denise and I were always right in the middle somewhere – inciting, er, spreading, the joy.
There developed a core group of four of us, two boys and two girls. Doesn’t this sound like a perfect formula for two teenage romances? Well, in this case it did not. I don’t have permission from two of them to use their real names, so Hugh and Maddie became the other non-couple with Denise and I in this core group. We were often together even for non-church related adventures. There were hikes and movie events and wrestling matches on any free sand dune we could find. Denise led us to twisted versions of late night snipe hunts and “hot dates”. One night she picked me up in her car, took me to a lesser known make-out parking spot just south of town, blind folded me and let me figure out what was happening as I heard a match light and a really bad smell of burnt fruit smell filled the car. When I was too close to panic to take any more and ripped off the blindfold, I found her waiting for me to do so with her match and a date (yea, the dried fruit) on a toothpick, turning brown above the flame because pathologically she could not pass up the pun of taking me out for a “Hot Date”. She never – ever – let me forget that one.
As I recall, she followed that up by making me a birthday cake to share with the youth group all shaped like the torso and hips of a girl in a bikini using upside down Hostess orange cup cakes for the frosted boobs. The crowd went wild at my embarrassment on that one. Someone got a photo, but I could never afford to buy all the copies and negatives. So where were the adults? You know, at that moment – I was thinking exactly the same thing.
I secured use of the family boat sometimes, and the four of us haunted Lake Berryessa (California) with swimming, skiing, underwater lake weed forests explorations and lake weed wars. The weed in this lake was a type that had long stalks, with parsley-like leaves. In shallow water, you could reach down, grab a hand-full and pull. This brought up several stalks with about an inch of mud that worked well as a sling with an exploding payload of mud. We would swing it around and let it fly towards one of our best friends and if we aimed well, were rewarded with an explosive plumb of muck which covered most of your friend’s exposed body. Everyone would wale at what a great shot that had been while the victim would duck down into the water to shake and wash all the mud off so the game could continue.
I can only recall one time when things went sideways. One of my missiles caught Denise turning to target me with a missile of her own and took the hit right to the side of her face. We dashed to her and found that a huge pad of mud, oh no, in her eye. Without asking, I immediately found a relatively clean piece of lake weed, folded it and used it as a scoop to gently lift the mud out of her eye and made sure her contact was still in there. Of course, we halted hostilities while this medical care was provided.
If it was a hot day, the rule was anyone could call “Fire Drill” and I would kill the engine, no matter how fast we were going, and we’d all abandon ship into the cool water. Laughing, we would swim and catch up with the drifting boat and continue our journey.
Denise had twisted ‘I dare you’ streak. She loved reminding me of the day she snatched my car keys, dropped them into her bra and dared me to do something about it. This was way over the top for her, making it consistent with her personality, because she knew I could not resist a dare. On the other hand, I was not going to be baited into digging into her bra. She knew this would leave me stuck with a ripping dilemma.
We were right in front of my home and my dad walked out just in time to find me trying to solve the problem by turning her upside down and shaking her violently to try and dislodge my keys. I learned how tough a bra could be because I could not shake her enough to shake my target loose, but we laughed for years over that stunt. My dad wisely, just shook his head and went back inside smiling.
Between the long talks, walks, wrestling, sharing books, under the table food fights at Camp Caz or leading our group into mischief and unforgettable memories with both pillows and mud, Denise was that friend who you often wondered exactly how she was still alive and how glad you were that she was.
Outside of the arrival of her children and grand daughter and the daily joy they brought her, she would tell anyone who would listen that the early 1970s with us were among the happiest days of her life and she always trusted me to keep her safe (using a rather loose definition of the term). She certainly brought that kind of energy to each of our lives and I will be ever thankful that God sent her into mine.
If you too recall her, please add a comment to this essay and share a memory of this rare spirit.
Other stories of mine that Denise appears in: