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The Long Flight Home

Paula Antoinette Duren Shepard

Last week I caught Barry Levinson’s Diner on Turner Classic Movies. Set in Baltimore, Maryland, during the last week of 1959, Diner tells the story of a group of male friends who reunite for the wedding of one of their group. The title refers to the group’s late-night hangout.

Watching the film reminded me of growing up in the south during the civil rights era. We had our own diner. Although we would eat at the Woolsworth’s five and dime in downtown Greensboro, our diner was located at the Edmonds drug store in the Southgate Shopping Center. It was located near Gillespie Park School.

It was 1969, and I was enrolled at Gillespie Park School. I had attended a different middle school before Gillespie, but I was sent kicking and screaming to Gillespie. Unbeknownst to me, I uprooted from Lincoln Junior High as a result of my mother making a promise to her sister in law who was dying from breast cancer. My aunt wanted me to attend Gillespie with her daughter. The promise was made before my aunt died on December 5, 1968. I was enrolled at Gillespie in September of 1969. By this time, my cousin, who was 1 year older than I was in High School.

That decision changed the course of my life and created two new relationships that have endured peaks and valleys through the years.

It was Mrs. Salters French class.and I was the new kid. That class was filled with some smart kids. Diana and Paula sat next to each other in the front of the class. I sat two seats behind Diana. On this particular day, I was bored and feeling a little mischievious. Mrs. Salters had started class. She was writing on the board so she had her back turned to the class. As I looked down, I saw a pencil which had been broken into pieces. I picked up a piece of the pencil and decided to throw it to back of Paula’s head. I hit her. She looked back, but didn’t know what happen. Of course I was looking at Mrs. Salters. Paula turned back around. I waited for a minute and threw the remaining piece hitting her again in the back of her head. That did it. She was upset and her outburst got Mrs. Salters attention. Paula accused me of hitting her, but no one really saw me throw the pencil. Everyone was talking as Mrs. Salters scribbled out some French dialog on the black board. Of course I denied Paula’s allegation. Paula was upset and by the time we got to our class it had spread like wild fire that Paula was going to settle the score after school. Bell rings, and school is out. Kids are rushing out to see the fight. There was only one problem. Marty was also new at the school, and he knew me from our old school. Marty wasn’t having it. Nobody was going to mess with me. Marty who had a reputation as a little scrapper escorted me off campus to the lunch counter located in the back of Edmonds’ Drug store. After we ate our cheeseburger and fries Marty went his way and I headed home taking the scenic route.

Just as I approached the park, there was Paula in a change of clothing crossing Benbow Road. As we walked towards each other I could tell she was still steaming. I really didn’t want to fight, but if I had to I was ready. Instead of fighting we talked. She wanted to know why I picked her. I had no answer then, and I have no answer now.

A week later I called her on the phone. That started a conversation with she and Diana whom she had called to discuss why the new kid was calling her on the phone. Diana had told her that maybe I wanted to be friends. Friends is what all three of us became. We shared many a moment at Edmonds over cheeseburgers and fries.’ We experienced styling converse high tops, school integration, proms,and house parties. We defied the times by driving school buses. We worked summer jobs and attended college together. Paula and I went on to attend grad school together. Despite any disagreements we had growing up, and we did have disagreements, the bond remained strong.

Paula and I moved away, promising to return to Greensboro one day. Diana who left long enough to earn her PH.d now teaches at our Alma Mater: NC A&T.

Paula went to work for Pittsburgh Paint and Glass (PPG). I went on to law school and practiced law.

At PPG Paula rose from a customer service representative to Vice President. With a can do attitude she shattered glass ceilings at PPG’s Pittsburgh headquarters. She and her husband raised two fine young men.

Today at the age of 57 Paula returns to Greensboro on a flight with her mother and sister. I will not be there when they roll her coffin off the plane. On Saturday December 22, 2012, Paula lost her battle with colon cancer. With her family by her side, she fought to very end.

I can’t bear to see her in a coffin or lowered into a grave. I want to remember her as being the no non-sense, yet loving and caring person that she was. As long as I have the ability to remember, I will remember the good times as well as the bad times. You see death ends a life, but it doesn’t end the relationship which will endure forever.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Hargett Funeral Services

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