I entered high school at the age of 13 due to a November birthday and no inclination at that time to give an immature little imp like me a cushy, extra year of pre-k. We called it nursery school back then, and if you could flush a toilet you were on to kindergarten.
So, barely out of my tweens, I remember exiting the bus, walking through the doors of Williamsville South High School in suburban Buffalo and bracing for verbal attack. The kids here were intimidating. I felt so very naïve and unsophisticated. I was a chubby, pimply open target.
But as I navigated my way toward homeroom, I quickly noticed that nobody noticed me. Middle school had been so stocked with nasty. But refreshingly, high school kids seemed too busy getting to where they were getting and doing what they were doing to side-eye a dorky, incoming freshman.
And so the year proceeded. I had my Mill Middle School friends and I welcomed new ones. I joined chorus and theater and the newspaper staff and made my way through the year.
It was immediately clear to any incoming member of the student body that the biggest name on campus was Joe Austin. He was quarterback of our football team, The Williamsville Billies. (Buffalo is the home of the Bills, and our town name is Williamsville. Our school mascot is a billy goat. It’s adorable.)
Anyway, when I told Media Path Podcast producer Dina Friedman that the star quarterback’s name was Joe Austin she said, “Oh, my God. It may as well have been Johnny Football.”
But honestly, that was his name. Joe Austin. I was an obedient freshman. I went to the obligatory compliment of games and pep rallies. “Go Billies!”
I was in dutiful awe of the team, led to victory by our own Joe Austin. We all understand high school football stardust. It’s like having celebrities on your campus. If we passed Joe Austin in a hallway, we’d jab each other and jerk our chins in his direction. You didn’t want to stare but, come on. It was Joe Austin, walking right past us. Carrying books, like a person.
I was so insignificant a high school ripple that the yearbook misspelled my name in the homeroom photo. As you can see, I defiantly carved an “r” IN INK over the “z” in Palankez.
The year progressed. The seasons changed. From football to baseball. Joe Austin played baseball because, of course he did. We had absolutely nothing to do with one another. I never spoke to him. I never even imagined speaking to him.
That’s the year I enrolled in an acting class at the Studio Arena Theatre and got to take the Main Street bus downtown and ride home with my dad.
That’s the year I skipped that acting class one day to watch The Cowsills on The Mike Douglas Show in the TV section of AM&A’s department store. That’s the year I become obsessed with the three-part vocal harmony stylings of The Lettermen and began collecting their rich catalog of records. That’s the year then-Buffalo Bills superstar O.J. Simpson came over to our house for dinner!
That’s the year our theater department put on Mame starring Bob Hinshaw, my actual senior crush. He could sing and dance and by the time he graduated, he had a beard. What a man. I had auditioned for the show with “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” and it turns out that Burt Bacharach is very rangey. So, I was on the stage crew.
There was a lot going on during my freshman year of high school. Joe Austin and I were in very separate orbits. The school year came to an end and that summer I decided to learn golf.
I believe I was searching for acceptance. My natural interests had met with a ton of interference in our household. I wanted to play the drums, join a Little League team, have a paper route, wear baseball caps, hockey skates and high tops. None of the above was “for girls.” So, OK, let’s try golf.
Every golf course has a driving range and a putting green. That’s where you take lessons and practice, and both are situated fairly closely to the first tee of the course where there is a tiny building called the starter’s hut or shed.
The starter is an employee who is responsible for the orderly and timely movement of tee times, controlling the pace of play and thus ensuring that golfers are less likely to get beaned by the foursome behind them.
The starter was equipped with a clipboard, a watch and a list of names organized into threesomes and foursomes. The job requires comportment, multitasking and grace under pressure as country club personalities can often be described as “challenging.”
That summer, the starter at our country club was Joe Austin.
And that summer, Joe Austin and I became best buddies. Nothing romantic. Just great pals, roaming the now-closed Westwood Country Club together, sharpening our games and talking about whatever mattered to us as dusk settled on the golf course.
He was a delight. Bright, funny, kind. There was nothing mystical or magical about our friendship. We just liked each other. The Universe had presented me with a perfect leveling of compatible humans removed from societal sorting systems such as high school.
That’s how it felt from my perspective. To me, Joe had seemed unknowable. It’s possible that to Joe, a country club kid like me was from a different world. It’s hard to know. But absent any organized hierarchy, caste or strata, we were pals.
My friendship with Joe Austin lasted only the course of that summer but the lessons it taught me are sustaining. I belong anywhere I aspire to go. I may have to work to earn entry and acceptance, but I can get there and I can build meaningful friendships with kindred souls.
The summer ended. I moved on to three more years of high school. Joe headed off to college or somewhere outside my view.
We enter each other’s lives to share lessons. I learned a lot from Joe Austin.
— Louise Palanker is a co-founder of Premiere Radio Networks, the author of a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel called Journals, a comedian, a filmmaker (click here to view her documentary, Family Band: The Cowsills Story), a teacher and a mentor. She also co-hosts the podcast Media Path with Fritz Coleman, and teaches a free stand-up comedy class for teens at the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.