This column was published in November 2007 in the Tri-Valley Herald.
In 1964, when Diane Nelson was eight years old, she made friends with a 10-year-old neighbor named Kent, a boy she came to love, a man to whom one day she would have to say goodbye.
Their families lived along Mines Road, a rural area a few miles from downtown Livermore, which back then had just one grocery store and stoplight.
“He was a pudgy boy with wavy blonde hair and big white teeth,” said Diane, who still lives in Livermore. “And he had arms that would stretch out as if to announce himself to the world.”
In contrast, Diane was “a skinny little tadpole with asthma,” prompting Kent to nickname her Wheezy.
Diane said Kent came to Livermore to live with his mother after she gained custody of the boy from an abusive father.
The two new friends often played together, building forts or hiking along a creek. At times they even played with dolls, though sometimes this would send Kent running for home in tears.
“One day we’d be with Popeye on the high seas,” she said. “The next we’d spend with Mr. Spock on the starship Enterprise.” Kent was a natural comedian with a galaxy of voices and characters.
“I can still see my mom laughing as he told us about his vacation with his family and a run-in with a woman in a big yellow muumuu,” she said.
At such moments, Diane would struggle for air, pushing oxygen into her unwilling lungs to express the laughter building inside.
Older and stronger, Kent would swing his little friend in circles on a patio as she wore roller skates and clutched a rope and screamed. Other days they’d gather friends and dance as an old radio crackled out the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
Then there were horses. Kent’s horse was King, and Diane’s—a little gray pony with a sweeping tail—was Suzy.
“We’d gallop down both sides of old Mines Road,” she said. “King liked to kick Suzy, so I had to be careful not to get hit by a flying hoof.”
Through it all, Kent’s mischievous and curious presence transported Diane somewhere else, into someone else.
During their teen years, they drove an Oldsmobile—the purple bomb—owned by Kent’s stepfather. “It looked like a space ship with its pointed fins and bulging headlamps,” Diane said, “and its worn-out springs seemed to levitate us down the road.”
Sometimes, though, Kent would drive recklessly, one time reaching 100 miles an hour along Tesla Road.
When Diane was a high school freshman, Kent asked the skinny tomboy on their first date. “We hiked up a hill and used big rocks to spell out Kent + Diane so airplanes could read it,” she said.
She wore his class ring, and the two went steady. Once they even made a show of kissing when they knew Kent’s 4-year-old sister was watching.
But that’s all it really was: a show. And eventually they stopped going steady, stopped dating, because something inside Kent made it impossible to be more than friends.
At 19, Diane left home to search for life’s answers. She found herself living with Moonies in a chilly Victorian mansion in San Francisco. One day Kent showed up on her doorstep.
“He’d come to talk to me, to save me from the cult,” she said, “and though I didn’t leave right then, his visit made an impression on me, and eventually I left and made my way home.”
As years passed and she married, she heard he’d moved to San Francisco to seek his own answers. Then, in the mid-1980s, Kent’s 30 years of life was slashed apart by the knife of his boyfriend, perhaps out of anger or jealousy.
“I didn’t find out until after the funeral,” she said, her eyes deepening. “And I don’t know the details of his death.”
Still sad and angry that she didn’t get to say goodbye, if she could speak to Kent today, she would push oxygen into her lungs to express her yearning for a childhood long gone, a time when she’d knock on his door and ask in a small voice if Kent could come out and play.
“And then I’d tell him goodbye,” she said, “and to keep King and Suzy saddled, because one day we’ll gallop again together.”