Dominic Kieltyka was the first boy I ever kissed, in the midst of a early Northern thaw. Winter still held sway and would for months, but a warm wind rushed over the deep snow and icy snow melt surged down ravines tearing down the sides of ridges and filling the valley creeks under the bright sunny sky. At night though, the fleeting warmth fled under the bright stars and the world froze again, with rough ruts and channels of ice and frozen mud everywhere.
I was visiting close friends and fellow home-schoolers in a rambling owner built home in a beautiful valley about an hour from my ridgetop home. I was 14 years old, and restless and reckless like that snow melt tumbling down the hills, looking for an adventure. I wanted to get that first kiss out of the way. According to my friends, Dominic was a perfect match for this first kiss business. At 14, Dominic was tall, slender, and gangly, with a shock of white blonde hair, kind blue eyes, a prominent beaked nose that would take years to grow into, and with both gentlemanly manners and courage beyond his years. I took a deep breath, and agreed to the match. A quick phone call was made to set up the details, and late that night I slipped down a pair of creaking back steps with my intrepid friend, guide, and amateur matchmaker, and we wheeled a pair of bikes over the frozen ruts of the gravel driveway and onto the lonely country road. I vividly remember that late night ride in that still, silent, frozen night under a sky full of stars burning brightly. My breath froze and trailed in clouds behind my bicycle as I pedaled to the rendezvous point miles away, full of mingled anticipation and horror.
We met under a tiny bridge on the sandy slope above a small creek. Dominic slipped under the bridge and joined me on the cold sand, and we were both frozen with nerves. My friend helpfully struck up a tune from her perch a discreet distance away, launching into country crooner Garth Brooks melancholy love songs. We sat in silence until Dominic quietly asked “May I have permission to kiss you?” His manners were impeccable, which somehow made me even more mortified, but I acquiesced. Our kiss was awkward and fleeting, and to our mutual relief the deed was done.
I was too embarrassed to talk much to Dominic for a year or two, and tended to flee if I happened to see him. Our kiss had clearly not fated us to a great romance, or any romance at all. I do remember attending a performance of Russian Folk dancing in which Dominic had a starring role. He leapt nimbly and with grace. It was impressive, but in Western Wisconsin in the early 1990’s Russian Folk Dancing was far from the epitome of cool. Dominic was on his way to becoming very cool, however, along with my brother Gabe and their best friend Hansel. In their mid to late teens, these three were quite the trio of juvenile delinquents, running the ridges on motorcycles with bandannas on their heads, cigarettes in their lips, and often policemen in close pursuit. Dominic was famous for the great cornfield chase, with cops shining bright lights into the dense seven foot leafy rows as he silently sweated to push his bike further and further into the deep concealment of the corn. He got away that night, at least that’s how the story goes, but a series of such adventures and mishaps in his late teens led to some furious fights at home, and eventually Dominic ended up staying at the Slattery household for extended periods of time, and slowly becoming the sixth Slattery brother.
The year that we turned 21 (an extremely exciting event for Dominic, and in fact an epic tale for another time) we both ended up living in the big battered farmhouse with my parents and the seven younger kids who were all being home-schooled at the time. We were both working through some disgrace, as Dominic had just been discharged from the county jail for a series of infractions and I was pregnant and planning to place my child for adoption. That winter, my Dad invited another large family of home-schoolers to come over for pizza and help us tear off the back of our house, leaving a heap of rubble in the wake of the party. I suppose it makes sense, as children do make an effective if messy demolition crew. The entire rear section of the house was ripped off in preparation for an addition project to enlarge the space. The rear section of the house included the one and only bathroom, so for the rest of the winter and early spring while Dominic quietly and competently worked on building the addition we all used a bucket and sawdust for a low tech composting toilet. Mary Brigid also rescued a tiny baby goat that winter, bringing her into the house to warm her up and save her life. Bella was a lively and charming house guest for a solid couple months, and added to the already high level of excitement in our home. Dominic had some wild nights on the ridge that spring, but mostly I remember him speaking quietly of the future, dreaming of building an airplane and learning to fly, laughing, wielding a hammer, and helping to build our home. Without Dominic our farmhouse would never have expanded to offer so much hospitality and beauty to so many people.
After helping to build the Slattery home, Dominic was part of the great migration south, where several northern Slattery sibling seekers in their early twenties headed to North Carolina to search for jobs and adventure in a warmer climate. For my brother Robert and cousin Cale, Dominic was an extra big brother who did the practical work of finding a place to live and work. For me, Dominic was a sweet and reliable friend who not only stopped by to chop my firewood on a regular basis, but amazingly agreed to be my partner so I could take a tango class. I told him that perhaps a bit of ballroom dance would sweep the women off their feet, and so once a week after a rough day of chewing tobacco and building houses he would put on a clean shirt and comb his hair and show up for class. Sadly, I was clumsy and deeply lacking talent for tango. I also insisted on wearing an ancient and disreputable pair of cowboy boots with the soles worn clean away, and one night they slipped right out from under me. I pulled Dominic down on top of me in a loud and awkward crash. I don’t think that is what he imagined when I promised he would sweep women off their feet.
Dominic Kieltyka was the first friend I ever lost. The season turned too quickly, and the mild March spring of Eastern North Carolina blossomed into hazy heat and burning blue skies. Dominic headed out onto a lake with an old canoe and my brother Rob, with no life preservers on board. Far, far from shore the canoe overturned and the two were submerged in the icy waters of early spring. They swam for their life, but that cold water took Dominic and there was nothing Rob could do but keep swimming, and start screaming when after an eternity he reached the shore.
Dominic was fearless. He wasn’t afraid to take wild risks, ride wild horses, race fast cars off cliffs. He was fearlessly generous and gentle in his love for his friends and for his family. He wasn’t afraid of living, and he was the least afraid of dying of anyone I knew. I don’t think Dominic was scared to go on ahead, but I know that for a long time we were all scared to keep living without him.
Dominic Kieltyka died on March 6th, 2004, in the early spring. His season ended far too soon.