J.R. Sullivan: Zhivago, The Big Snow, and My Date with Joanne Dietrich

Copyright 2005, by J. R. Sullivan Posted online with permission

All I really wanted for Christmas in 1966 was Joanne Dietrich. And Omar Shariff was going to help me.

He didn’t know this of course. How could he from the big screen at the old State Theatre? But when Doctor Zhivago came back to town in December of that year, I took it as a sign, a signal. I had my first and newly-issued driver’s license in hand. And I believed I might enter the Rockford dating pool at the major league level. Camp Avenue’s Joanne Dietrich was already the Julie Christie of the West Side and she was the dazzling creature for whom I cast my wistful Omar eyes. I personally knew two guys who fought for the paper route in her neighborhood just for the chance of her answering the door on collection night. And Joanne, beyond even her all-around good looks, her mystery, her magnetism, had one especially heraldic feature that elevated her: she went to West Public High.

You see, in those days, familiarity tended to work against me. Boylan Catholic girls generally stamped my killer moves as “Mail Undeliverable.”

Not that it started well for Joanne and me. It was tough for me to get on a good-looking girl’s radar much less her dance card. “Then wear the gold hat!” I had been reading The Great Gatsby – that great novel about self and inventing the self in America – and here’s F. Scott Fitzgerald quoting some Renaissance or something poet on the title page of Gatsby: “If you can bounce high, bounce for her, too, Til she cry ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!’” But if that didn’t work for golden Jay Gatsby it certainly wouldn’t work for high or low-bouncing me. But does the impossible ever daunt the would-be lover? Never! There’d be no novels, no poems, no songs. Gatsby knew this and so did Daisy. So did Rudolfo and Mimi, Tony and Maria. Ask Scarlett and Rhett. Ask Pamela and Tommy Lee. Ask Omar Shariff’s Zhivago! He walks across Siberia for Julie Christie’s Lara. Ask me at the beginning of this story. Strive mightily! But like Jay Gatsby, sometimes you find yourself in the story you didn’t necessarily have in mind.

The first time I saw Joanne Dietrich she was on the first base side of the ballfield near East High. That’s where my American Bank Colt League team played and I sometimes started in right field alongside her brother Bill. Even at that age Joanne was Hollywood material, and I don’t mean the hamburger joint that sat at Five Points. I was in the midst of my “No batter, No batter” chatter and it happened. The evening sun slanted its hazy rays across the elms and caught Joanne’s golden hair there, in the bleachers. Everything went into soft focus. Charles Street turned its volume down. I heard songs in my head.

“Hey! Catch it or duck!” It was Joanne’s brother Bill, yelling to me from center field. I ducked just in time for a hard-hit shot to line past me for a stand-up triple.

“Sullivan! What in God’s name were you doing out there?” Coach Jim Brennan was at the end of his rope and the season had only just begun. “Writing poetry?”

“Wow,” I thought. “Maybe so.”

When I browse the magazine rack in stores today, and see the volume of slick covers offering advice on romance, dating, and sex, I well understand the market it serves. And how early our quest begins! But when my pal Jeff Shanley and I walked downtown in 1965 to see Doctor Zhivago on its first release, we were startled to see a lot of kids our age doing the same – and most of them young women. “Hey,” said Shanley, “I never thought the Russian Revolution could be such a girl-catcher.” Ah, but we soon knew the truth: it wasn’t revolution, it wasn’t spectacle…it was…Omar. It was all about the smoky dark look, the liquid eyes, the Russian accent of the Egyptian Shariff playing the poet Zhivago. A bell rang in our heads. The epiphany!

These moments do arrive in a boy’s life. He gets his first glimmer at what had been the inscrutable, he understands that there is a way for finding the hidden passage to Shangri-la, to exotic worlds of dating, romance, and – dare it even be whispered? – the first beckonings of sexual adventure! Dozens of young women sat about us, weeping as the doctor ditched his practice for poetry (“This part,” muttered Shanley, “is a possible fantasy.”). Zhivago wrote his poems in the dead of winter, in an iced dacha in the middle of Siberia, and all for Lara, all for love, and the girls were absolutely spellbound, they were enraptured, and here we two fifteen-year-olds sat – no longer at the Coronado Theatre, no, but rather on some far distant shore of discovery and as Merriweather to Lewis, as Balboa before the Pacific, we realized: “This is it! POETRY!”

Absorbing the abuse of Coach Brennan and snorts of disgust from my teammates, I thought back on Zhivago and I knew then that all the comparisons of Joanne to Julie were true and I began to think upon another option for my life’s path. Joanne’s brother Bill settled in next to me on the bench. He had observed the moon-swoon on my face and could only shake his head. He was by now thoroughly fatigued by the regular tsunamis of attention his sister Joanne was attracting: “Forget it,” he grumbled. “If you knew her like I know her you’d never in a million years want to know her. Besides,” he added, getting up for the grimy water fountain at the end of the dugout – and this is what put my high bounce into low – “she’s dating Big John Cass.”

John Cass! At sixteen already six feet two and a good thirty-five pounds up on any of our 140 pound frames. Cass, a major athlete, was the fireballing left-hander for our rivals, the City National Bank team. College scouts were already looking him over. He had wealthy parents, the world at this feet, and Joanne Dietrich on his arm – as I now saw, looking back into the stands. I was glumly jealous. But how could I have known then that poetry would play a big part in the wooing of Joanne Dietrich? Poetry and the Big Snow of ’66 that almost avalanched my love plan for Joanne?

Cass was of the kind that people used to call B-M-O-C – and he was big on campus in every way. As a basketball player he shot well, was terrific on the boards, and passed the ball with lightning speed. As a pitcher he was fast but he was dangerous, too, for John Cass had a tendency to be wild – a quality that also showed up in his swagger – and when John Cass was throwing wild we hitters all prayed that Swedish American Hospital might post emergency teams at the field just in case. His wildness was especially frightful for left-handed batters, like me. But just as often as Cass was off the plate he would, perversely enough, turn good at knicking the corners with his cutter – and this as we terrified left hander hitters were diving for the dust. When he was “on” he loved making opponents look ridiculous. Then there was his social standing. When school started in the fall, Big John was driving a new Ford Mustang. Convertible. Red. Here I was, trying to score the family’s boat-like Ford Wagon and now here comes Cass, stunning the world with his girl-magnet Mustang. Chances seemed grim for the hometeam.

But then, I was forgetting the secret.

Help came from Cass himself.

It was late in July. Coach Jim Brennan’s American Bank boys were scheduled to play the hated “Yankees” of our league, John Cass’s City Nationals. At 5:30, I was walking across the gravel and dirt lot by the field when Big John roared into the parking area, his Mustang kicking up stones and dust in a red warrior swirl. Big John dismounted, his narrowing eyes bearing an Achilles-like disdain for the mere mortal – me – coming across the lot, my spikes tied by the laces and slung over my shoulder. I knew that John’s erratic left arm was on the mound that night for the Nationals, but still, that would not have stopped me from cussing out Cass when – just then – alighting from the passenger side – was Joanne. If she was a West High wonder before she was Aphrodite and Venus now.

She wore sandals and a short skirt, and I

’m only saying that as if I were looking at the sandals and the skirt. My heart jumped like a handball off the court wall and then, by some diabolical whim of the Fates, my cleats suddenly became untied, dropping to the gravel at my feet. Cass, in a crew shirt and a California tan, strode my way while Joanne – Julie Christie-like Joanne – stood at the Mustang. “Hey, busher!” he cracked. “You better stay outta my way on the field, too.” But Joanne – Aphrodite Julie Joanne Dietrich Christie Venus – was moving towards me, reaching towards me, floating on the clouds left in the lot air by John Cass’s Mustang, and I – in my mind – was reaching out to her, opening my arms to her, ready to hear her say that she knew about me, had heard about me, liked me, and needed to know me, that we must have something to understand in the souls of each other even though we had never really met and she came within two feet of me and smiled slightly and brushed her blonde hair from across her temple to behind her ear and picked up my right shoe and said as she offered it to me – with hidden meaning perhaps? – “Sorry.”

I was inspired to strive mightily.

“Hey,” I tossed off with a debonair air. “It happens.”

I’ve always been quick with the witty ad-libs.

I joined Joanne’s brother, who was shagging flies in left. “Saw you,” he said in tired resignation, “talking to my sister.” “Yes,” I said, watching Joanne settle into the stands and reach into her bag as Big John disappeared into his team’s dugout to change into his jersey.

“I told her about you,” said Bill.

“You did?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I saved you a lot of trouble. I told her you were weird.”

“But why,” I wanted to know, “did you tell her anything at all?”

Bill shrugged. “She asked.”

I felt a surge of possibility in my baseball bones, a desire to excel as I never had before. And when our third baseman threw over our first baseman during infield practice I quickly ran in from right to retrieve the ball – in order to get another close look at Joanne. She was reading a book. It was The Lara Poems by Boris Pasternak. There was a picture of Julie Christie and Omar Shariff on the cover. Oh my God, I thought! It’s a sign!

“Sullivan!” It was the barking voice of Coach Brennan. “Are you playing for us today or are you just going to imagine you did?” I jogged over to our bench and to the peeved and cynical Jim Brennan and just then he began to look like Tom Courtenay’s scarred-by-life Pavel Pavlovich in the movie. Pavel Pavlovich Brennan had no time for bourgeois romance. It had come time to drive his American Bank Bolsheviks into the battle with the City National Cossacks.

Well, just as with the hubris of characters in the Greek epics, John Cass’s Mustang swagger seemed to be costing him on the field. He’d lost a little on his fastball and his curve was coming up a hanger for the left-handers like me. I connected on him twice, once with a two-run double to right center and then, with a low line drive that shot up the middle and actually kicked up mound dirt between Big John’s legs. He scowled at me as I rounded first and held there. It was the only really good night I was to have in two years of Colt League ball. Coach Brennan stood on the top step of the dugout, his mouth agape in awestruck amazement. I looked to the stands on the first base side and Joanne’s eyebrows went up for a moment and then, she nodded and went back to The Lara Poems. For that moment, Omar and I shared in her consciousness.

But – that was all, and as far as it went, until later that year, in October. My nemesis, John Cass, had not forgotten my presumptions at this pitching expense and he decided to get even with me. That day in fall a few of us had begun a pick-up game of basketball in the Dietrich driveway, playing a little two-on-two as a tune-up for team tryouts at Boylan and West – and Cass showed up, looking for Joanne, who wasn’t home. Seeing me, he felt the itch of revenge. Big John muscled into our game and began throwing his weight and superior skills around with intensity and ease. He crashed into us, the lesser beings of his planet, like Dick Butkus of the Bears. He dared me to cover him one-on-one and I did my best, but he drove me into the garage door two or three times and seemed to be having the time of his life doing it when a car pulled up to the front of the house and – Joanne emerged – radiant. She stepped quickly for the side door of the house, looking like she wanted nothing to do with anyone in the driveway. I saw Joanne long enough to observe that her Julie Christie eyes were as blue as ever and that her long blonde hair – today parted down the middle in just the way Michelle Phillips parted hers – swung from side to side at her shoulders and now I began to hear “Dedicated to the One I Love” in my head and I longed to write song lyrics or a poem in a league with a Paul McCartney – or a John Phillips for that matter – when, suddenly “Wham!” – I felt a stinging thud to the side of my head and I heard the hoots of John Cass and several of the guys on the driveway court. Big John had picked this moment to get back at me with his specialty: he beaned me, using a basketball.

“Where’s your head?” he shouted. And then, “Where’s your head at?” as if this linguistic refinement would assist my comprehension. “Where you got your head stuck, as if I didn’t know?” I looked him in the eye. Some of John’s pals called him “Jack” – and so naturally others of us – behind his back – called him “JackCass” – but I opted for dignity now and kept my cool.

Cass smiled in superior disdain and looked back at Joanne as if he had proved something. He was the very picture of Rod Steiger’s triumphant disdain in Zhivago. He was Victor Ippolitovich Komarovsky and I felt compelled to rescue Joanne from his miserable clutches.

Dizzy but destined, I threw all caution to the October wind, stepped up to him, and said: “You wouldn’t understand, Victor Ippolitovich.” John’s sneer fell into a jaw drop. I moved with resolve to Omar Shariff’s Egyptian-Russian dialect: “To you life is nothing more than a game. To me, it is a poem waiting to be written.”

To say that a silence descended upon the driveway doesn’t begin to define silence. There was some sound. Camp Avenue leaves rustling away in the autumn wind. My ears heard baliaika music.

Joanne’s brilliant eyebrows – would she understand? – lifted for a brief moment; but then, seeing Cass moving her way, she went quickly into the house. John Victor Ippolitovich Komarovsky, without invitation, followed. The game in the driveway was over, as dead as the Czar and the reign of the Romanovs.

Bill Dietrich approached me. “I told her you were weird, and you just proved me right.”

But soon after, the breakup of Joanne Dietrich and John Cass was the big news in both the halls of Boylan and West.

Strive mightily, I thought. I had new life.

In a fever pitch I began to write. But I soon realized what every would-be poet realizes: good is defined by so very much that is bad. And I was specializing in bad. It was my talent, really. It came without effort. Yet supreme effort was absolutely necessary now and the clock was ticking. I needed results fast. How long would a sixteen-year-old girl who looked like Julie Christie remain unattached? In a burst of new inspiration I began The Joanne Poems – soon discarding them, however, as too great a body of evidence for the author’s mental instability.

For the wooing of Joanne Dietrich I needed professional help. Dennis Duchon was my go-to guy for this kind of advice.

His family lived across from mine on Oxford Street and though he was away at college now Dennis had made it clear: Call if emergency conditions prevail. Only the summer before Dennis had bestowed upon me arcane and special techniques. “Girls love foreign languages,” said Dennis, a pipe held to his mouth and his bearing thoughtful and assured. “It’s a method only a few know.

Whisper ‘Yog elskadeeg’ at just the right moment and there isn’t a blonde at East High wh

o won’t fall over for you.” Dennis had given me the words I-love-you in French, in German, and in Spanish. He gave them to me in Danish, in Italian, in Swahili and in Greek. Now he directed me to what he called “the sure-fire amore poets” – and he gave me the three amore words in Russian: “Ya lublu vas.” I repeated them to The Master – “Ya lublu vas, Ya lublu vas” – over and over. He was to me now the worldly-wise Alec Guinness – Omar’s brother in Zhivago – noting in crisp British-inflected Slavic: “If there is one thing every Russian loves, it is poetry.”

But I tossed in the poetry-writing towel when I accepted the obvious. I could never do what Yeats did, what Pablo Neruda did, what Shakespeare or Pushkin or Dickinson or Whitman or any of them did. I was writing for effect. They were writing the truth. I hit my low bounce and the skids. I entered the dark days. I read all of Rod McKuen.

Then, one Thursday eve in early December, the old man came home from the Register and Morning Star newsrooms and plopped a copy of the next day’s entertainment sheets on the kitchen table. Blinking twice, and then again, I took a close look. There it was, in a three-column display ad, Omar Shariff holding Julie Christie just as on the cover of Joanne Dietrich’s Lara Poems book.

“RETURN ENGAGEMENT!” “Winner of Five Oscars, including Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Starring…”.

Well, you know who.

I knew my way to Shangri-la! It was by way of the Russian steppes and Doctor Zhivago! I immediately importuned my Pop for the ’64 Ford Wagon, for the 17th of December, a Saturday night and only two weeks hence. I was going to take that girl to Zhivago if it killed me.

And it almost did.

First, for the poetry strategy. I sent this message to Joanne at the Dietrich address on Camp Avenue the next day:

“The snow will bury roads,

Will cover the roofs deeply,

If I step out to stretch my legs

I will see you from the door.”

This isn’t me. It’s Boris Pasternak, writing as Yuri Zhivago. And it continued with:

“You are trying to be calm,

Nibbling your snow-wet lips.

“Melted snow sparkles

In dewdrops on your hair.

And a flaxen strand of it

Lights up your face, your scarf,

Your bravely erect figure.”

And now for the killer ending:

“It is as if your image

Were being etched forever

With burin and strong acid

Upon my very heart.”

“Will you go to Doctor Zhivago with me on Saturday the 17th? The next three words, in the Russian language, are not for this letter. You may hear them – then

I signed my name, said I’d call in a few days, but remarkably enough Joanne – called me.

“I’ve got to hear the three words in Russian,” she said. “It’s a date.” And then, in an enigmatic lower tone that gave me palpitations, “I think I know what they are.”

Well, I spent the next two weeks in a manic cloud. I washed the Ford Wagon every other day – and this in December, it near freezing in the garage. I took the Wagon to Scanlon’s for service and had the mechanics triple-check the exhaust system; it had fallen out on my way to the Homecoming Game that fall, creating another minor legend about me in the halls of the school. The 17th approached and I carefully began laying out the wardrobe – going heavy on the dark wools, recalling them as predominant in Omar Shariff’s sartorial choices. Everything seemed in order, including a check-in with Joanne herself by phone the morning of the big night…and, ten minutes later, a cold, cold rain began to fall.

It iced the trees, the phone wires, fences, everything. It wasn’t long before there were reports of the lines being down in several parts of town.

And then came the snow. And more snow. And a lot more snow.

By one there was already an inch sitting on top of the ice, and by four it had cascaded in white sheets to a depth of six. “No end in sight,” the radio reported. “Some phone lines are down in the city. All advice is that you stay home and stay off the roads,” and the reporter nattered on and on. I watched in despair from an upstairs window as my six-month dream was being buried. My parents tried to cheer me up but they made it clear: No way was that Ford Wagon leaving the garage. Even I knew that. It would have been like bobsledding the Titanic across Iceland.

“Call her,” urged my mother. The movie will be there for awhile. Make another date.”

Morosely, I moved to the phone, picked it up in despair, and dialed the number. But…the line at the other end was dead.

I went to the window again. I heard the reporter on Triple R radio saying that we were already up to eight inches and it could be twelve before it ended that night. The snow was a curtain of white and I thought of Camp Avenue entombed in mounds of it, the Siberia of Rockford, and then – I heard the music, Omar’s baliaika music, and I remembered the Zhivago poem:

“The snow will bury roads…

…I will see you from the door.”

Omar walked across Siberia to join Lara in Varykino. Of course!

At six o’clock I pulled on boots, threw on my coat, wrapped myself in at least three woolen scarves, put on a dark hat and wrapped my ears in another scarf. I set forth and – after bulling through drifts at least five feet high by the sides of Auburn Street, and slipping, sliding, and falling through Foster and Post Streets – I hit Camp Ave by 7:15. With grim satisfaction, I thought of John Cass’s Mustang, dead and buried, somewhere out on Spring Brook Road. And lo! now, as forecast, the snow was beginning to lighten and the sky starting to clear in the west.

I ran through the words – “Ya lublu vas, Ya lublu vas” – in my head and staggered through the last drift barriers to the Dietrich house. I was on time!

I fell twice before hitting the door. My reflection in the glass showed me showered in white, the scarves across my face iced with my own heavy breath, my eyes blinking in the yellow light of the Dietrich hallway. I knocked, a muffled sound, my heavy gloves throwing an instant blanket over the noise. I picked off the glove and knocked again and this time the door opened and Mrs. Dietrich gazed out in utter astonishment.

Joanne, impossibly beautiful, her eyebrows raised, stood right behind her.

“Omar!” said Joanne’s mother.

“Oh, my!” was what she had actually said. But my woolen scarves were still wrapped around my ears, and I heard “Omar!”

“No,” I said, “it’s just me. But thanks.” And I pulled off the hat, unwound the scarves, putting on my most casual mien and sophisticated manner, as if I’d just dropped by from the cabin next door on a Carribean cruise. “Why, hello, Joanne.” She lowered her head and smiled as I pressed on. “Care for a walk downtown – ?” and here I paused, thinking I might impress all the more by using the new lingo for the culturally clued-in – “Care for a walk downtown to see the film

“Joanne,” Mrs. Dietrich started to say, “I don’t think – “ but Joanne had already moved passed her to the porch, taken one look at the clearing sky, and turned back to her with “Mom, I’m fine. This man just walked here from the other side of Auburn. This will be fun.”

I smiled and shivered in another rite of passage. It was the first time a woman who wasn’t pre-registered as my aunt or grandmother had called me “a man.”

Bill Dietrich came out from the living room, looked at me, and shook his head. While he went into a quick conference with Mrs. Dietrich, Joanne was at the hall closet, putting on a dark coat and a black fur hat. It framed her Julie Christie face like a Botticelli at the Hermitage.

Bill approached me. “You are worse than weird,” he said. “But not as weird as her,” referring to his sister. “I’m picking you up at eleven, so be ready, okay?”

Joanne and I walked up to Main Street and we had the road almost to ourselves. The sky was now pitted with stars and by the time we got to the edge of the downtown, at Park and Main, the entire area was aglow with the new downtown streetlights on the piles of new white snow. The lights had been ins

talled the year before to great ballyhoo for – according to the Chamber of Commerce – Rockford’s was now “The Brightest Downtown in America.” This prompted my friend Shanley to remark that “perhaps Las Vegas didn’t know about the contest.”

Trees glistened with a coat of clear ice. Crisp light bounced from the snow to Joanne’s famous face and – now that I was looking at that face from such a close distance – I saw that it wasn’t exactly like Julie Christie’s after all. What it was was…exactly Joanne’s.

Joanne looked at me with a curious and remarkable Mona Lisa smile and said, “Ya lublu vas.”

I stopped dead in my tracks, my left foot sliding quickly up from under me, my right hand catching my falling body as it almost hit the snow on Park Avenue, right under the baby grand in the window of Jackson’s Piano Store.

Cooly, I resumed posture.

“You were saying?”

Joanne laughed. “That’s what you were going to say to me, wasn’t it? ‘I love you’ in Russian? Dennis Duchon’s brother Buster tried that on me last year and I know you live across the street from those guys. When you sent me the Russian poem I had a feeling about it. I’m right, aren’t I?”

Infallible are the intuitions of the women you adore.

“But you go ahead and say it,” Joanne then added. “I might like it better coming from you.”

The night turned into a dream. There was a Christmas carol playing from the Piano Store speaker. I took in a deep breath as I looked into the sky. The stars seemed impossibly close now; bright and alive, winking as they with Joanne waited for my next words. I had a sense of knowing even then that while big snows would come again, and Christmases every year, moments such as the one I was just then living were rare, sterling, and real. They have a luster meant only for the once in a long while and, like other true things – and not at all unlike a great novel, great poem, or great song – they have a luster that lasts.

“I thought you were awfully funny in the driveway last fall, when Bill hit you with the basketball. But I think what you said is true,” and here Joanne put her arm in mine. “Life really is a poem waiting to be written.”

“Ya lublu vas,” I whispered, discarding Omar’s accent for my own.

“I know,” smiled Joanne. “It’s nice. Languages are fun, but a sense of humor is a lot better. Come on. Let’s go see the movie.”


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