A Girl Never Forgets Her First Love… (Part 1)

I’ve had the pleasure over the past few days of reliving a very special part of my youth…long before the madness of my Mr. Big relationship…before my first boyfriend or my first kiss or my first heartbreak…when it was a simpler time, a time of innocence and crushes and puppy love…a time when the only thing more exhilarating and exciting and thrilling than the thought of a kiss from the Boy Next Door was one from the New Kid on the Block. Or even one from all FIVE of them.

Yep, like many girls of my generation, back in 1988, at the age of ten, I fell head over heels in love with Joey, Jordan, Jonathan, Donnie, and Danny – better known as the New Kids on the Block.

I can remember hearing their song “The Right Stuff” for the first time, thinking I had never heard a sound so sweet. My older sister, Cher, introduced me to NKOTB, as she and my cousin Niki had been listening to them for awhile and had already staked their claim on “whose girl” they were. Niki was a Donnie girl and Cher was a Jordan girl. I, being the quintessential annoying little sister and the baby of the family, quickly lost my heart to blue-eyed, angel-voiced Joey McIntyre, who was the youngest member of the group but, at the ripe old age of 15, was still significantly older than me.

As any 30-something woman can attest to, NKOTB were the Beatles of our era. Most women of my generation, when asked who their first love was, will sigh and say one of those five familiar names. Their exuberant innocence, rat tails, ripped jeans, and lovelorn lyrics melted the heart of pre-teen and teenage girls across the world – much to the dismay of teenage boys across the world. With my smuggled poster of Joey McIntyre hidden in my desk at school, worn and wrinkled from me sleeping with it under my pillow night after night, the boys in my class didn’t stand a chance.

Like the little girls of the Bieber generation today, we were crafty and sneaky and resourceful; constantly trying to come up with ways to track down our five favorite guys, or even just one of their distant relatives. We would scope out “Bop” and “Tiger Beat” magazines for facts about the guys’ lives, quickly learning to recite the members of their immediate and distant families as efficiently as we could our own family members. I remember my parents, God bless them, would allow us to stay up for hours on Friday and Saturday nights, making long distance calls to Boston, Massachusetts (where the guys were from) in the hopes of getting one of the New Kids’ family members on the phone. I have to cringe when I think of our thick southern accents calling the Boston-area 411 and asking for a number in, as we pronounced it: “Wor-chest-er, Massachusetts.” (Commonly pronounced by locals as “Wooster.”) The operators must have been thrown for a loop by the frequent calls from the Beverly Hillbilly sound-alikes who were never deterred by something like an “unlisted number.” No, we looked at those unpublished numbers as minor obstacles in the way to our goal of becoming Mrs. McIntyre, Mrs. Knight, and Mrs. Wahlberg. We knew it was only a matter of time before we found a way to connect with our boys and obviously, make them fall head over heels in love with us.

With the release of each new “cassingle,” our New Kids fever grew, and when the group announced they would be coming to our small college town of Murfreesboro in concert in February of 1989, it hit an all-time high.

Somehow, someway, we managed to rope my poor, unsuspecting father into agreeing to camp out with us for front row tickets to the concert. And when I say WITH us, I actually mean FOR us, as my fully grown, rough and tumble police officer father took two days off work and set up shop one morning in late fall outside Murfreesboro’s Murphy Center to secure his baby girls the best tickets he could. Determined to be the first in line, we stuck him out there on a Thursday morning…for tickets that didn’t go on sale until Saturday morning. That first night, in the freezing Tennessee fall weather, my dad camped outside on a lawn chair, by himself, all night long.

By the next morning, Friday morning, people were starting to join him, wondering who the 30-something man was who was so determined to score front row tickets to the NKOTB concert that he showed up a full day ahead of any other fans. We drove by the stadium on the way to school and could hardly contain our excitement.

“Momma, please can we camp out, too? Please, please, please?” we begged all the way to school, finally causing our mother to relent and allow us to take the second half of the day off and join my dad and the few diehard stragglers already perched outside the ticket office. (A note to parents – missing that half day of school never negatively impacted our grades, our schoolwork, or our educational experience in the least. What it did do was give us a memory that we have carried with us throughout our entire lives…much longer than anything we could have possibly learned during those missed three hours of class.)

Bundled up in our winter’s best, munching on bags of popcorn some friends had brought us, having sing-along’s to NKOTB tunes, and brushing our teeth inside the bathroom of the arena, we had the time of our lives during those long 43 hours that we camped outside in pursuit of getting a little closer to our teen idols. And that Saturday morning, we were rewarded for our diligence with front row, dead center tickets to the February 2nd show. We jumped and screamed and cried with joy, just knowing this was the first chapter in what would surely be the beginning of a lifelong love story. And we were right. Just not in the way that we thought.

We never married any of the members of the New Kids on the Block (well, at least not yet. I’m still holding out hope. Note to Donnie: Call me.) We never even had a real conversation with any of them. But we did build a scrapbook of precious memories that are still in my heart as I sit here, more than 20 years later. I think about the closeness that season of our youth built between me and my older sister; me, a nosy, pesky ten-year-old who wanted to be just like my big sis, and Cher, a burgeoning teenager on the verge of some of the most confusing years of her life – her high school years. At that point in our lives, we didn’t exactly share a great deal of common ground…but we did share our love of five boys from Beantown, who united us in ways we might have never discovered without them. I think about my parents, and the fact that my dad was a cop and my mom was a stay-at-home mom, and how they didn’t have a lot of money; yet they spent the money they did have on bringing a smile to their daughter’s faces. On giving them memories they would cherish for the rest of their lives. And on doing everything in their power to make their little girl’s dreams come true. Looking back on it all now, it means so much more to me today than it did back then. How my parents must have struggled to afford those concert tickets. Yet they never let us know it.

On February 2nd, 1989, we were front row, center with bells on – or actually, in my case, with head-to-toe black leather on. For some unfortunate reason, my parents had allowed me to purchase a black leather vest and matching black leather pants for the occasion of our front row date with NKOTB, which I was wearing over, you guessed it, a black turtleneck. I’m not sure why I thought Joey McIntyre’s head would be turned by a female, 11-year-old version of Johnny Cash, but I marched into that arena like it was my runway, ready to nab my man. And though the closest I got to grabbing Joey’s heart was grabbing his hand for three seconds during one of his solo tunes, those three seconds were pure magic. My sister was the one who Lady Luck was really shining on that night, as her man, Jordan, sprawled out on the stage right in front of her during “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time)” and sang pretty much the entire song to her. She gazed up at him like he was the Taj Mahal, tears streaming down her face, clasping onto his hand and screaming “I love you! I love you! I love you!” with more passion and gusto than a newly crowned Academy Award winner.

Over the course of about two years, my parents faithfully shuttled us around the mid-south area in pursuit of our teenage dream. From Nashville to Atlanta to Chattanooga, we were hot on the NKOTB trail, to the point where I sometimes muse if the guys weren’t starting to wonder if they should take out a restraining order against the Hale family for always popping up where they were least expecting us.

Several defining moments in my life revolved around NKOTB concerts. Before their concert in Chattanooga, my mom let me shave my legs for the first time. I remember feeling so worldly and sophisticated in all my smooth-legged glory, ready to show off my grown-up legs to Joey Mac (who I’m sure, by then age 16, would REALLY be excited at the sight of an 11-year-old’s bird-like twigs, that, even as hairless and fabulous as they may be, still bore a striking resemblance to a KFC chicken leg…and a really lean one at that).

Another time, in Atlanta, we figured out the guys were staying at the Ritz Carlton, the swankiest of swanky hotels that no amount of begging could persuade my mom and dad into breaking the bank for just to put us one step closer to our future husbands. They did, however, allow us to have dinner after the concert at the hotel’s restaurant, where we sat for hours, futilely waiting for the guys to show up, finally throwing in the towel around midnight when we all started nodding off in our milkshakes.

“Let’s hit the bathrooms then we’re headed back to our hotel,” said my dad, not having to convince us much, since we were all exhausted from jumping up and down like Mexican jumping beans at the concert earlier that night. We were also probably suffering from a touch of altitude sickness, as our seats at the show had been in row Double ZZ, more commonly known as “The Nosebleed Section.”

We were sleepily relieving ourselves a few moments later in the fancy ladies room when my dad burst into the bathroom (yes, running full speed ahead into the women’s bathroom), wild-eyed and waving his arms frantically.

“They’re here! They’re here!” he screeched, hopping from one foot to the next and gesturing wildly toward the door. “They’re HERE!”

“What? WHO’S here?!” we all asked in confusion, not understanding what my dad was getting at.

“THE NEW KIDS! They’re downstairs right now!!! Let’s GO!” he bellowed, dashing back out the door like a madman, leaving us yanking up our pants mid-stream, going from zero to sixty in 2.5 seconds to splash water on our hands and check the mirrors to make sure we looked as fetching as possible. This was our chance! We were finally going to meet our teen idols!

Racing down the ornate staircase to the front door of the hotel, nothing prepared me for the feeling I would have when I threw open the hotel doors and came face-to-face with none other than Donnie Wahlberg.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

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