In the “Olden Days” of my youth, before there were smartphones, people rarely took selfies. It was too big of a gamble, since you never really knew if the faces were framed correctly. And, we only had 12 to 24 shots available to us on a costly roll of Kodak or Fuji film, so it was best not to take chances.
No selfies and no where to post them. Except maybe on the fridge, three and a half weeks later. No rush of immediate gratification from emoji-loving responders. We were often forced to rely on word of mouth to tell our stories. So when something exciting happened, it helped to be a darn good teller of tales.
One of my favorite stories from my childhood involved Sarah Engman, a friend and classmate in elementary school, and her mother, Carol Ann.
Sarah and I had been fast friends since the third grade. We later began the familiar and awkward “drift-apart” dance in middle school, perfected it by high school, and in the years following had almost completely lost touch. Despite the distance, Sarah and Carol Ann reached out to me twice, after the death of my father, who Sarah later claimed had always been like a father to her, and again twenty years later, after the death of my mother. After Carol Ann’s passing three years ago, which I only learned about through Facebook, I attempted to return the kindness. For it is truly a gift, after the passing of a parent, to reminisce with someone who once knew them well. Who is likely to recall a long-forgotten incident or a humorous anecdote that Time has somehow swept under your cranial rug. Often, it’s simply a delightful comfort to know your loved one has made an impression on someone else’s heart. That you are not the only one missing them, or thinking of them from time to time.
It would probably surprise Sarah to learn that I often think of her mother. And, being a mother myself, who often feels invisible, especially when my children are socializing with their friends, this revelation would probably surprise Carol Ann even more. Carol Ann Engman, divorced and devoted mother, cooker of meals, coordinator of entertainment and taxi of children, made a significant impression on me. Curiously I am only now identifying it, almost 40 years later.
When we are young, we don’t actually realize that someone is making an impression. It’s just done, bonk, like a wax stamp on that deliciously soft and malleable, PlayDough-like child brain. Today, to take this impression and study it is a little bit like dusting off a rare and intricately detailed fossil.
Carol Ann Engman was a single mother, but never dated. She didn’t need to, because she was deeply in love. With Telly Savalas, the Greek actor who played a lollypop-sucking, badass detective named Kojak on television. Nowadays I would say he was definitely sexy to a thirty-something divorcee, but Sarah and I couldn’t believe she was crushing on him because he was bald, before bald was in. At sleepovers, we were not allowed to utter a word while Kojak played on the television. There was no Netflix and there was no Season 3 on DVD, so if you missed one “Who loves ya, baby,” you missed a lot, and we were properly shushed.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. One day, Carol Ann announces to Sarah and her older brother Charles, that for their summer vacation, they are DRIVING TO LAS VEGAS in their green station wagon to see Telly Savalas, live and in person, performing in his show at the MGM Grand.
I was dumbfounded, and consumed with envy, for many reasons. First of which, my family NEVER took vacations of this epic magnitude. We either visited family or we stayed at home. Period. Secondly, no family members lived anywhere nearly as exciting as Las Vegas. I had only seen Las Vegas in photos or on television, and I wasn’t completely convinced it even existed. Third, there was never, never, and I mean ever, a Hollywood star sighting in Shreveport, Louisiana. The famous pianist Van Cliburn’s mother lived there and, I kid you not, this was the pinnacle of stardom in our small southern town, in 1975.
To Shreveport folk, movie and television stars were like unicorns. We heard rumors of their existence, and saw them on the television, but no one I knew had ever had actual contact. And here was Sarah’s mother, Carol Ann, announcing they would drive 1,400 miles across the desert to see one in the flesh.
I tried not to think about how crappy my summer was while Sarah, Carol Ann and Charles were away on their trip. No snap chat stories, no Instagram, no Facebook posts, I could only guess at what they might be doing. It seemed as if they were gone for an eternity.
Like a house cat, I likely acted aloof upon their return. But I was soon suckered in the next time I saw Sarah. The first words out of her mouth were, “You’re not going to BELIEVE what happened!”
Sarah painfully drew the whole story out, beginning with the details of their excruciatingly long car trip from Shreveport to Las Vegas. 40 years later it occurs to me: the drive alone is a very cool, very ballsy thing for a sheltered, shy, divorced mom of two kids to do by herself in 1975. Add to that the fact that she wasn’t content just to watch her Telly on the telly, she wanted to see him in person. This is just not that big of a deal nowadays, but back then, it was huge. Women, moms, just didn’t give in to their whims like that. No GPS, there were no cell phones if your car konked out on the highway. Everything about this idea reeked of adventure. Dangerous and brave, it made my heart pound with adrenaline.
I endured many details about the boring drive, the long patches of desert where there was no radio. They were forced to play guessing games. Every time it was Carol Ann’s turn, she would say “I’m thinking of a TV show, and it starts with K!”
“Ugh!! Ko-jak!” the kids would groan.
They finally arrive in Vegas. Sarah gets her first glimpse of a prostitute in broad daylight. “Mom says they’re also called ‘streetwalkers,'” she informed me.
They eventually check in at the then-luxurious and top-of-the line MGM Grand Hotel. This is another sticking point with me, as I hailed from a strictly Mo-tel family, and up to that moment had thought Ramada Inns were the bomb. Sarah and Charles head for the swimming pool. There are not that many children around, and Sarah and her brother are sick of each other, and looking for some new kids to play with.
Finally, they spy a couple of other kids, about their age. “Wanna have a raft war?” they ask.
“Sure!” the two girls reply, and soon the four children are engaged in all kinds of splashing and merriment, undoubtedly disrupting the besotted adults nearby, who are attempting to gently nurse their benders or escape the lure of the casino.
Soon, it is time to wrap up the play date. The kids decide to exchange names and room numbers, in case they can swim together again. “I’m Sarah Engman, and this is my brother, Charles,” Sarah offers.
“I’m Candace,” the other child responds. Then the Heavens part, and the Angels sing, and everything moves in slow motion, as she serendipitously adds one magical, meteoric word: “Savalas.”
The universe, both unforgiving and generous, decided to gloriously smile down upon Carol Ann that day. Rewarded her for following her dreams across the desert.
Young Candace Savalas was a kind child, and upon learning that the Engman family had driven all the way from Louisiana to see her father’s show, insisted Carol Ann come up to her father’s private suite with her, and meet him. Carol Ann was flabbergasted, but was no fool, so of course she did. Her bald hero was gracious and utterly charming, everything she dreamed he would be, and more.
“He kissed my hand,” Carol Ann revealed, and in all my years this is the closest I’ve ever come to seeing a woman literally swoon, even at the retelling.
There is no selfie to commemorate and validate the chance meeting of the mother Carol Ann Engman and the famous actor Telly Savalas. Only memories, and words. I can picture every detail as if I had been there myself. Carol Ann, you threw caution to the wind. You followed your dream and you were rewarded. I wonder how many times I have summoned the courage to take a chance, only because deep, deep down, in the crevices of my memory banks, I have this imaginary selfie of you and your handsome heart throb, cheek to cheek, smiling together.