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OPINION: A Girl Named Liska

April 22, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

I'm not quite sure why this thought crept into my now so-very-old brain but, nevertheless, it found a way in. I wondered, and only quite unspoken to myself, if I were asked to name my favorite year of school what would my answer be. That was easy; it was my ninth year of school and final year at Jackson Junior High School in Albuquerque, N.M.

I was 14 years old and I thought the world was mine for the taking. I had a best friend, Bob, who lived just down the block from me. Although Bob was a grade less than mine, he was my age. I never knew the reason but, apparently, he had been held back a year when he was young. Bob's father was an officer in the Navy and I now can only surmise that maybe the family had lived abroad for a time and that interfered with his years in school; who knew then or even now, for that matter, but I never asked. He was just my best friend and that was all that mattered.

There were other kids we hung out with in the neighborhood but it seemed that, whenever Bob and I were together, we often communicated without speaking a word. It was almost as though we knew what the other guy was thinking. I remember that Bob and I had only one serious fight and I guess you would call the outcome a draw. We didn't see each other or even talk on the phone for a couple of days, but then we were once again the best of friends. It's funny, but I can't remember what the fight was all about.

Jackson Junior High was only two blocks from my house. It was so close that I walked home for lunch each day and more often than not had one of my Grandma Barr's fried bologna sandwiches. The round hunk of meat had been sliced four times around the edges and mayonnaise oozed from the sides of the white bread. That sandwich was delicious and I never seemed to tire of the taste.

The beginning of the school year was a time to renew old friendships with school chums I hadn't seen all summer long, but that year, my freshman year, was special. I could try out for the football, basketball and baseball teams. I wanted to wear the black and gold uniforms and be a Jackson Jaguar. I wanted to earn and wear a cream-colored Letterman's sweater with a large "J" on it; but was I good enough?

The football practice area was just a flat field with wooden goalposts at either end. Dirt and small rocks took the place of grass and, when you were tackled, it really smarted. Those small rocks found their way into the skin on my arms but there wasn't time, or the inclination, to remove them; at least not until the practices were over.

The games, and there would be six, were played on a grass field at the local high school, Manzano High School. The school was more than a few blocks away and, for the three home games, the team would ride a school bus. To me, someone who had never ridden on a school bus, that in itself sounded like an adventure.

Well, I made the football team and the coach told me I would be the starting quarterback. I remember how hard I studied each and every play. I didn't want to make any mistakes. I didn't want to be the reason the team was not successful. Even then I had a knack for throwing the football. I remember throwing one touchdown pass against the Van Buren Junior High School team. The coach and my teammates said the ball traveled 50 yards through the air. I accepted their accounts of the play all the while acting as though it was just an ordinary toss of the spiraling ball.

The next game would be against the team from Woodrow Wilson Junior High School. Coach Holder told the team that practices would be rough in preparation for that game as the competition was very good. Coach Holder pulled me, our two running backs, a wide receiver and the center aside following the last practice of the week.

The coach said that there would be a pep rally in the gym Monday, the day before the game. He said that the five of us would wear our uniform shirts and run one running play and one passing play -- both as entertainment for the bleacher seated classmates. How much fun would that be I thought? After all, nobody had ever seen my face as it was usually hidden by a protective faceguard.

The day and time of the rally arrived. It was decided that the two plays would be executed following a few cheers delivered by the five-member cheerleader squad. The five football players stood to the side as the girls cheered and it was then that I fell in love. Well, I thought I was in love. Each cheerleader jumped and shouted a cheer that included the name of a football player.

The most beautiful girl I had ever seen, Liska Pepper, took her turn. "Stan, Stan he's our man. If he can't do it nobody can." I was speechless as she jumped in the air as if she had wings. I kind of believed she did as I considered her to be angel-like.

The other four footballers elbowed, pushed and smiled at me. "She really likes you," Steve Beasley said. I couldn't and didn't speak as my voice had left my body and I didn't want to utter a less than masculine squeak. Then it got better for me. Liska looked at me, smiled and waved. I raised my hand slightly, the one grasping the football, but quickly returned the hand and ball to my side.

We won that game against Wilson and I had a pretty good game. The final score was 24 to 14. The rest of the year was also a good one for me, sports-wise that is. I was the point guard on the basketball team and a pitcher on the baseball team. I pitched 10 of the 12 games played.

Those accomplishments were important but, as the year progressed, I kept thinking about that cheer, the smile and Liska's wave. There was many a moment when I almost got up the nerve to ask Liska if she would go with me to a movie. Maybe I could have asked her to go to the Valentine's Day dance. But I didn't.

Sometimes I told myself that she expected me to make the next move as she had already said my name and waived. Then I considered the possibility that it was only a cheer and really meant little or nothing to her. That couldn't be the case, I thought. She could have spoken anybody's name but she chose mine.

I saw Liska off and on in the hallways and of course at football and basketball games, but I could muster no more than a "Hi Liska." She always acknowledged my courtesies with a "Hi Stan. I hope we win." Liska was the most beautiful girl that ever lived. At least I thought so.

Not long ago, I was curious. What had become of Liska? Surely she won one or more beauty contests. Maybe she changed her name and became a movie star. I had to know, so I used the internet and I found her.

Liska Pepper graduated from Manzano High School in 1967. She then attended the University of New Mexico where she, among other things, was a member of a dance troop. After graduation from the university, Liska moved to Santa Fe. She remained there until the age of 43. Liska A. Pepper died in 1992.

I never knew her middle name started with the initial "A." It must have stood for "Angel."

Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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