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The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

It was a cool Sunday in Brooklyn, New York. The forsythia were just beginning to reveal their yellow buds and The Drifters were singing out from the speakers of sleek Chevy Corvairs and souped-up Buick Skylarks, reminding passersby that the air is fresh and sweet Up on the Roof.

It was a time of energy and possibility for the young women in their late teens and early twenties working their way through nursing school at Kings County Hospital. Sure, their mothers had warned them to steer clear of the Italian gangs from Bay Ridge and the black gangs from Brownsville, glamorized just a year earlier with the popularity of West Side Story. Their neighborhood was mostly Irish and Jewish and it percolated with the hope of the American dream and the restlessness of those on the edge of it, but out beyond Manhattan and its boroughs, George Wallace had recently been sworn in as governor of Alabama. Just a month later, John F Kennedy spoke to Congress about Civil Rights and the tasks remaining to achieve full equality among all citizens, specifically related to voting rights, public facilities and education.

On the corner by the soda fountain, as some greasers sang doo-wop and others coolly smoked on nearby brownstone steps, a group of nursing students walked along Flatbush Avenue with their starched white caps and blue pin-striped blouses under crisp white aproned dresses, casually puffing Chesterfields cigarettes with the smell of chili dogs from street vendors filling the air. Dottie McGrath, just nineteen years old, was told when she graduated from St. Francis Xavier High that she had the choice between secretarial or nursing school. She chose the noblest of professions mostly because it was closer to her parent’s Bedford Avenue apartment.

Across town, a group of sailors on shore leave headed from the Navy Yard off Flushing at Wallabout Channel. They were in submarine school in Groton, Connecticut and this was their first break from their studies. One of them, Bill Lowe, was from a tiny town in East Tennessee and this trip was his first view of the New York City metropolis. He enlisted shortly after graduation from Elizabethton High School, and the day he was given his Navy uniform was the first time he’d had a pair of shoes his actual size. As a boy growing up in the hollow, young Billy’s father would carve notches in a stick with his pocketknife indicating the length of his four children’s feet. He walked into town once a year to buy them shoes, basing the sizes on that stick. Bill’s fellow seaman joked that one of his legs was surely shorter since he’d spent his nineteen years walking along the sides of mountains, but the truth was, he walked taller now than ever before because he finally felt he was walking with a purpose.

A dance was cooked up on Saturday, March 2, 1963 at the local community center. The band was playing The Miracles’ You’ve Really Got A Hold on Me as several sailors asked the nurses to dance. Dottie and her friend, Carol Wiener, twirled on the dance floor as the music segued into Hey Paula and Dottie found herself in the arms of a seaman who seemed nice enough until, over cups of party punch, he showed her a stack of dozens of snapshots of himself playing basketball. The awkward conversation stalled as Dottie tired of feigning interest and squirmed in her folding chair along the wood-paneled wall, the crinoline under her red skirt scratching the back of her knees. When the dance ended, as was the custom of the time, the girls let the gentlemen sailors escort them home. Dottie never planned to see the bumptious basketball player again, but Carol gave her number to the young man she’d danced with, a Courtney Roberts from Key West. The next day he called and asked if she and her friends would like to go out with him and his Navy buddies. Ever protective, Dottie’s mother offered to serve them all dinner at her house rather than have these unknown young men take the girls elsewhere.

The next evening a few sailors, clothed in their Navy dress blues, joined the nursing students at the McGrath’s brownstone on Bedford Avenue. The basketball player was not one of them, but Bill Lowe from East Tennessee was there. Shy to begin with, he was particularly quiet because of how strongly his accent stood out in the big city and he sat in a corner as hors d’oeuvres were served, quietly smoking his pipe. He noticed the girl in the green dress with bright red lips laughing with her friends by the piano. His aquamarine eyes caught Dottie’s attention, and she smiled at him as she smoothed her emerald taffeta skirt and reapplied her scarlet lipstick from its tortoise-shell tube. His introversion seemed sweet and not common of the boisterous New York boys she’d dated before. All the girls seemed to notice him and attempted to get him to say things in “southern,” asking him questions like “What color is Ellyn’s dress?” “Yeller.” “What’s your favorite drink?” “Well, I like sweet tea.” The sailors departed after dinner as the young ladies prepared to take the bus back to the nurse’s residence. As they left the McGrath house, Dottie and Carol talked about the handsome sailors. Carol commented on how drawn she was to one of the sailor’s beautiful eyes.

Dottie assumed Carol liked the quiet Southerner. Who wouldn’t? “Well, you saw him first,” she told her friend, “I think he is really cute but you can have him since you met him first.” The discussion continued on the bus all the way to their destination, but as they disembarked, they came to realize that Carol had been talking about Courtney, the fair-haired Floridian. She wasn’t the least bit intrigued by the mountain-born blue-eyed boy. The two teens grabbed hands and jumped up and down with such girlish delight on the corner by the bus stop, twirling in circles, amazed by their good fortune and the serendipity that brought them both potential love interests. They double dated several times after that, and Dottie never dated anyone else. Her nursing school books are filled with doodled hearts and cursive renditions of her fantasized name in various forms: Dorothy McGrath Lowe. Dottie Lowe. Mrs. William Lowe.

Bill says every time her hears Roberta Flack on the radio singing The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, his eyes well with tears as he remembers the girl in green at the dinner party in the Brooklyn apartment. He calls it the quintessential love at first site. It took three trips to New York from Graton, Connecticut before the Southern Baptist shared a kiss with the Irish Catholic girl. He bunked at a YMCA in Greenpoint on every leave he could get, taking the subway to Flatbush Avenue and back each night after their visits, his peacoat smelling faintly of her Channel No. 5. One evening, he fell asleep in his uniform on the train and felt something pressing on his arm. It was the nightstick of an Irish policeman prodding his Seiko, “Sailor if you want to keep that watch you’d better wake up,” the cop gruffly declared.

They picnicked on Jones Beach where the Jewish vendors offered them hot knish and orange sodas. They had no car, so they walked for miles around Brooklyn from Flatbush to Sheepshead Bay, from Kensington to Brighton Beach. They rode the subway to Flushing Meadows for the World’s Fair and were awed by the promise of the dawning space age. After eight months of visits, Bill was traveling from even further away, having moved on to Nuclear Power School in Bainbridge, Maryland when he decided that he wanted to marry the beguiling New Yorker. One day, with palms sweating and Dottie out shopping at Bickford’s with her mother, Bill asked her father for her hand in marriage AND if he could borrow $200 to buy her a ring. The following week he rode on the back of a fellow sailor’s motorcycle to Havre de Grace, Maryland to purchase the engagement ring. On his next leave, during a long walk toward Coney Island, the couple stopped at Prospect Park where the sailor from Tennessee, who never imagined he’d even see the big city, found himself down on one knee asking a charming city girl to be his wife.

On a night when the forsythia were just beginning to bloom and life seemed languorously long, two nurses met two sailors and the path of destinies was altered at a bus stop in Brooklyn. Carol and Courtney celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary in April. Dottie and Bill became my parents and might have been married 52 years this August 28th, had she not passed away nearly two decades ago. To this day, Carol considers it a magical moment of friendship, that her best friend was willing to "give up" someone she thought was a potential soul mate for a friend. And Carol would have done the same for her. Fortunately for both, there were two sailors with beautiful eyes in Brooklyn that night.

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As shared at Stories Under the Stars August 18, 2017, 10 by 10 on July 5, 2018 and in Good Old Days Magazine, July/August 2020

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