THE BECKY By Joe Holt
I cant believe what this reunion did to me. This last weekend I went to my thirtieth high school reunion. Ive never felt a need to attend reunions. Its not like I had to go to this one, but when I got the notice in the mail a couple of months ago, I said why not? Simple enough. Why not? There is a certain curiosity.
For me high school wasnt all that great. For one reason or another we moved a lot. I went to four different high schools. I dont feel an allegiance to any one school, but I did graduate from Sunnyvale High, so I decided to go. Judy had absolutely no interest in going with me. I could hardly blame her. As I was getting dressed for the occasion the phone rang. It was Messmore, a fella I had served with in the Marines in 66.
This tale has very little to do with high school, ya know. Or for the reunion, for that matter. The whole circle of events actually began in the summer of 66. In the summers following high school I got so bored, and my ambition so totally non existant that I joined the Marine Corps. I know. I know. Had I lost my mind? Probably. But here I was in the Marine Corps on my way to Vietnam. My outfit, the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, had orders to proceed to Vietnam via a swaying old tub, the USS Renville (APA 220).
The Navy really knew how to packem in. There were a zillion of us aboard, with our berthing compartments racked six high. Real boredom. We would assemble on the fantail once a day to do our workouts, but other than that...pure boredom. Wake up, stand in the chow line, eat, then get back in the chow line for the next meal. It would take us hours sometimes to actually get to eat. Wed take books to the chow line. Wed take cards to the chow line. Anything to keep us from goin stir crazy. Thered be a bunch of times you wouldnt even go to chow. It was too much of a hassle. It took us weeks to cross the Pacific. A good portion of that time standing in the chow line.
One thing, though, we got to know one another. Youd be standing in the chow line, and youd turn to the next guy and go, "Where ya from?" The conversations started simple, but they always progessed to other subjects; women, cars, women, sports, women, family, women, and girlfriends. There was a definite difference between women, in general, and girlfriends. You had to be respectful when a fella talked about his girlfriend. If they showed you her picture, even if she was as plain as a mud fence, you had to say something complimentary. I always said something like, "Beautiful eyes!" or "Shes too good for you." You never, ever, said anything sexual or off color. This was definitely a death defying act. You could get your ass kicked before you knew what hit ya.
We were nineteen. Pure testosterone. Crude. Primitive. Wed been trained to be violent, and violent we were. Violence was as common in the Marine Corps as green. Violence was considered to be an attribute. Disagreements were often dealt with immediately in a physical manner. Many a time Id seen arguements turn to punches. Occasionally grudges were held, but more often than not the end of fight meant end of discussion.
Women, on the other hand, were open season. I cant tell ya how many times Ann Margaret or Sophia Loren were the objects of our active imaginations. They, among a long list of others, came under the heading of WOMEN. A glimpse of any attractive girl in a magazine would result in an immediate discussion in which everyone would try to out lie the other in various personal sexual techniques. What we lacked in experience we made up for in imagination.
It was entertainment, nothing more. We were in this perverse enviornment without women. We were obsessed. You can imagine. Or at least I hope you can imagine. We were one thousand nineteen year olds with out a woman in sight. Obscene really.
Kessler and I were standing in the chow line one day. A few of the guys were from my platoon. Most werent. The fella next to Kess asked him where he was from. Simple enough. Kess was from Chicago, I knew, but when the guy mentioned that he was from California Kess said that he had lived in Sunnyvale when he was a kid. I was surprised. Id known Kess for only a few months, but wed talked for hours about everything under the sun This was the first Id ever heard him mention Sunnyvale, and I casually told him so.
"Bullshit, youre from Chicago. You dont know shit about Sunnyvale. What are ya talkin about?"
He didnt bat an eye.
"Shut the fuck up. I spent over a year in Sunnyvale...when I was in the sixth grade."
"Why didnt you say so before? You gotta know I graduated from Sunnyvale High?"
"Youre kiddin. You went to Sunnyvale? I never knew. You never mentioned it to me."
Somehow, in all our jabbering over the last couple of months, I guess high schools never came up in the conversation. When I thought about it, why would I mention it? High school seemed a thousand years ago.
"OK, so whod ya know? Run some names by me. See if we knew any of the same kids."
"Shit, it was the sixth grade. I dont remember much. I didnt know many kids. It was one of my foster homes. Only a year." At which time he would mention a name, and Id go,
"Nope, didnt know him."
Hed mention another.
"Nope, never heard of her."
This went on for six or eight names, then his eyes brightened a bit, and he said,
My heart actually missed a beat. Becky Gingrich! I sure remembered her. The other guys in line had been listening to our conversation. It seemed to be the best one going within earshot so they were as pleased as Kess when they saw that I had recognized her name.
Like a moron I asked,
"Did you know Becky?"
Of course I knew he knew Becky, but my question was, did he really know Becky or was he just dropping her name just to see if hed get a rise outa me? A few days after Id gotten to Sunnyvale High I saw her walking in the hall. I actually asked somebody what her name was. She was simply a delight to look at. Not just good lookin, but full of life. She wasnt a cheerleader or even hang out with that bunch, but all the guys knew who she was.
"She lived down the street from me," Kess said with a sense of pride. " Id run home from the school bus just so I could be sittin on my front step when she walked by, and she would say, Hi, Bob. It sounds stupid, but it made my day, let me tell ya."
I understood completely. Becky was beautiful. No. Pretty. Even when I knew her in high school she was just so damn pretty. And nice. Blond, blue eyed, walked with her books in front of her. Cardigan sweater, skirt. And her smile. That was it. It was her smile. It beamed. That squinty sorta all American smile that made you happy just to see her happy. I could just imagine Bob sittin on his step just waitinfor that smile. So I told him so, and he was happy as could be that he knew somebody who knew Becky. We stood there in this chow line, with about twenty guys listening. So one of the guys in line finally bursts out,
"Who the fuck is this Becky?"
Bob and I tried to describe her to those interested, but they were in no mood for "Good girl" stories. The mood in this narrow passageway was natually surly. Some of the more barbaric amoung us were muttering things. Crude things. I had been so preoccupied with my mini fantasy that I hadnt heard the first of the remarks, but Kess did.
"Whatd you say?
"Oh, nothin much. Its just that if shes so good looking shes probably puttin out for some lucky son of a bitch.
This type of talk seriously interfered with my image of Becky, and it obviousy had the same effect on Kess because he straightened right up and took a step forward, and said,
"Watch your mouth, motherfucker."
He took the words right out of my mouth. I was indignant. This was Becky we were talking about! How dare he even think bad stuff about her. The guy could see hed pissed Kess off. The other guys snickered some, but nobody else chimed in with any more comments. It was obvious that this wasnt just some woman we were talkin about. It was Becky, whoever that was.
The guy just wouldnt leave it alone. He had to put in one more stupid remark. Of course, I never heard the whole thing because when he smiled and said,
"Ya know, when I get back to the world, Im gonna look this Becky up, and Ill just betcha that I can get in her pants in....."
Bam! Down he went. Kess had just stepped up one more step and decked the guy. Whappedim right in the eye, he did.
Everybody in the passageway lit up. Shouts. Pushing. Im not much of a fighter, but I was very impressed with Kess at this point, so I stood next to him, waiting to take on all comers. Anybody wants to bad mouth Becky, theyll have to deal with Kess!....and me.
After a few moments of scrambling around that tiny passageway, we all sorta stood our ground. The guy whod been decked was already on his feet, wanting to do something, but knowing hed better not. His mouth had gotten way ahead of his ass, and hed just have to live with it. He had crossed the line. He had insulted Becky. Or at least the image of Becky, whoever that was.
By the time we ate and got back to our berthing compartment, the word was out about Kess and this guy in the chow line. A lot of stories. Most ofem more entertaining than the actual events, but Kess had increased his reputation. Rightly so. To defend a womans honor on this ship was quite an achievement. When the lights went out for the night, when the guys talked to one another throughout the compartment, the question of the day was, "Who was this Becky?"
That night, in that compartment, with only the red night light, we all talked about Becky. We laid there for an hour talking about the sun in her hair, her walk, even her grades, as if we knew. By this time all two hundred of the guys in this compartment had heard about Becky. Surprisingly, only once did some guy from across the compartment ask something vulgar about Becky.
"Hows her tits?"
Upon hearing this I just assumed Kess would leap into action again, but before this thought got completely across my mind a dozen other guys had shouted the guy down.
"Shut the fuck up!
All of us had our own imaginations. We didnt need this asshole to bruise the image.
These were guys that hadnt heard of Becky until that evening.
Over the next week or so, when talking about women, the guys would describe all sorts of various sexual practices theyd attempt with any number of women, but one particular conversation ended with,
"But not "The Becky".
"The Becky". It stuck. Over the next couple of months of training, whenever her name would come up in increasingly reverent situations, she would be referred to as The Becky. She had become the ideal. The perfect girl. Even the guys with girlfriends would compare them with The Becky. Whoever that was.
I decided we had to get a picture of Becky. My platoon, the second, was even considering writing her a group letter. Imagine having The Becky as a pen pal! I wrote to my high school buddy, Ron, and asked him if he could look her up, get her address. I wrote to my Dad and asked him to send me my senior year book. The thought of actually having a picture of The Becky excited everybody. Though the whole compartment knew of The Becky, but second platoon had personal interest. Kess and I actually knew her! Yeah, right.
Our training was complete. We boarded the USS Pickaway (APA 222) and sailed towards Vietnam to engage in amphibious assaults wherever we were needed. Few casualties at first. South of Quang Ngai. Then to the DMZ. We were sent to look the place over. To see if the North Vietnamese were coming into the south through the DMZ. This was July of 66. We found more than we bargained for. Intense gunfights. Many casualties. Very bad stuff. Well over half of us either killed or wounded. Second Platoon had lost many of its guys. Immediately after this episode they moved us to Chu Lai. No longer based aboard a ship, they gave us an area of responsibility just outside of the airstrip perimeter. We assumed the normal daily duties. Patrols. Ambushes. Perimeter security. This was now our home.
Mail call! This was the first mail wed received since we got off the ship. I had returned from chow to see a small bunch of guys hovering around my gear. My mail had been left in their capable hands. One piece of mail that was of particular interest was a package. Obviously a book. They knew. It was my year book. They werent goin anywhere till I opened the package so they could finally see a picture of The Becky. I wasted no time opening it once I realized that Kess was in attendance. I opened it like a holy book to the photos of the senior class. There she was. Becky Gingrich. The typical posed graduation picture.
Kess was the first to say anything.
"Thats her, but thats not the way I remember her." He was disappointed. The other guys, there musta been ten, looked over our shoulders, and were properly respectful.
Even a "Gee."
But I knew what Bob meant. The picture was to stiff. A portrait. For one thing, her hair was in some sort of style that didnt fit her. We remembered her with the soft blond pony tail. It didnt show any of the dazzling prettiness that I knew he remembered.
No problem. Shed been in a bunch of clubs and stuff. I flipped through the pages til I found the one I was looking for. Big picture it was. About an eighth of the page. Class officer of some sort. Perfect. There she was, with the sun in her hair, smiling directly at us with her magic smile. Bob actually gasped. He gently took the book from me and drew it toward his face. For about a half a minute he simply stared at her picture. It looked as if his brain had called it quits, but I knew what was going on in his head. This pretty sixth grader hed once had a crush on, had grown to be this absolutely lovely woman. His dreams had become much more real now.
Once the other guys saw this picture they could see what we meant. They became downright excited. The Becky was real, and her picture proved that she was everything that all of us had wished.
It occurred to me at that moment that there were missing members of the unofficial Becky Gingrich fan club. Malone, Daniels, Olsen, Cruz,and Fence, even Sgt. Haley. They all had their moments of soothing apprecation of the sweet qualities of The Becky. They were gone now. And others, our badly wounded. The last wed seen of them was when they were lifted out of the jungle on a helocopter sling. Not to mention all the absent guys, not from Second Platoon, that shared their thoughts in the berthing compartment aboard ship.
We found six or eight pictures of The Becky in that year book. A few no bigger than a pea, but I made the decision to cut them all out and giveem away. Who gave a shit about anybody else in the book? Not me. Anyway, Kess got the good one. I never got any, unless you count the senior portrait. Even the tiny pictures made the new owners feel wealthy. They had a picture of The Becky!
A day or two later we got more mail! I guess itd been stackin up someplace while wed been troupin around the mountains of the DMZ. I got a letter from Rons mom from Sunnyvale. Great. Wed finally get an address. Not that any of us, by that time, had nerve enough to correspond with her. Shed long ago become an ideal. We couldnt have anything tarnish that.
Wed all discussed what we thought The Becky would be doing these days. Most of us thought shed be a student somewhere. A good school. She was smarter than most. Right? Others had visions of her working in an office or even as a waitress at some all American diner. Imagine looking up from a menu and being greeted by her. The smile.
I cant remember exactly what the letter said, but I do remember the opening sentence. "Joe, I hope youre not going to be too disappointed." Uh oh. Our Becky had gotten married right out of high school. Shed recently had a baby boy. I didnt recognize the name of the guy she married.
Surprisingly to me, I wasnt all that disappointed. Her gettin married seemed sorta natural really. I was much more concerned about Kess and the other guys. I broke it toem gently. two or three at a time. Every last one of the guys I told didnt say a word. They simply stood there for a minute and absorbed the news. Even Kess. I thought how strange this was. For them and me. She was important to us, yet now she had become more normal.
That night we had bunker watch. Three to a bunker. One guy awake. The other two asleep. No conversation on the perimeter, but we had a lot of time to think.
The following morning we straggled to the chow tent a few at a time. The tent was set up for thirty or forty guys. Picnic tables and benches. SOS and reconstituted spuds. Mmmm. Mmmm. Good! These were guys from the whole company, not just second platoon. We had a whole bunch of replacements by then so most ofem didnt even know what this Becky stuff was all about. The Becky had been on my mind most of the night. I was surprised that some of the other guys felt the same. Right out of the blue Gurbal says,
"I bet Beckys the best fuckin mother around. Like Donna Reed."
This simple loving comment started an active conversation on what qualities the perfect mother must have. In less than ten seconds some guy said,
"She bakes chocolate chip cookies,"and then added.
"Not from one o those silly ass mixes either"
Then another complimentary comment from a guy across the tent,
"Fuckin A. Shes a helluva cook!"
For the next few weeks, whenever anybody happened to think of another trait of the perfect Momma, theyd say it. Even the guys that had never known of the Becky. It became a small type of entertainment. Simple, safe, and it made us feel better. The Becky had become Donna Reed, The Beavs mom, and Father Knows bests wife all rolled up into one. I know...Barbara Billingsley and Jane Wyatt. Who could forget?!
Then I got transferred. A very scary experience for me. To Charlie Company, First Battalion, Fifth Marines. Charlie Company was a good enough outfit, for sure, but I felt like an orphan without my regular guys. I rotated home four months later. I got out of the Marines in 69. Life went on. The Becky faded from my memory. Thirty years have gone by.
Sorry for the sidetrack story, but it all comes together in the end.
My high school reunion was happening over a three day period. The first night, Friday, was a casual get together at the old pizza place, PeeWees. The second night would be the official banquet, then Sunday wed have a barbeque at the local park.
Like I said before, I was gettin ready to go out to the pizza place when the phone rang. Larry Messmore from India Company, Fifth Marines. Wed served together in Vietnam back in 66. For the last few months the outfit had been planning to have a reunion in96...the thirty year reunion of our major gunfights. Messmore had gotten my phone number from the reunion fella, and he just couldnt wait to call me. It was great hearing his voice. Sounded exactly the same. We talked for over a half hour when I told him I had to cut the conversation short because I was late to my reunion. So he says,
"What, your high school reunion?"
"Yup. Ive never been before. It oughta be somethin."
He paused, then said, "Hey, is this the same school The Becky went to?"
I was flabbergasted. Id forgotten. Forgive me, no I hadnt. Its just that Id been thinking of so many things for so many years that The Becky had dimmed. My life is sweet. Ive been married to my wonderful wife for over twenty years. My three kids are my life. Ive not needed The Becky. She was a long, long time ago. In another world.
"Wow, Mess. Yeah. I hadnt thought about her for a while. I cant believe you still remember her!"
"Oh yeah. How could I forget The Becky?" He laughed. "Are you gonna see her tonight? Teller hello from me, will ya?"
It hadnt even occurred to me. I made the reservations months ago. All the contemplating Id done over this reunion, and I never equated the event with Becky. The memory of her lingered with my second platoon group, not with high school, yet Mess was right. It could happen. I might actually bump into Becky Gingrich tonight.
Nah. Becky wouldnt be there, I was sure. Not our Becky. Our Becky was only in our heads. I mentioned this to Mess, and he actually agreed, but if I did meet her, and if she was as wonderful as wed dreamed, I had to call him and let him know. We ended our call on that note.
I showed up at PeeWees an hour early. Id planned it that way from the start. I got a pitcher of beer and posted myself at the far corner of the place, facing the door. I wasnt sure if Id know anybody, but I didnt want to missem if I did. I was the first one there. A couple of regular customers were sitting at the bar. I mustve looked a little strange. About ten minutes later some folks started showing up. They appeared to know each other, but I didnt recognize them. A few minutes later a couple walked in, and the husband had a yearbook in his hand. They looked around, obviously didnt recoginze anyone they knew, and were deciding where to sit down when I waved them over in my direction.
I said, "Im pretty sure we dont know each other, but youve got the yearbook, so sit down and we can compare notes on who we do know."
They were receptive enough to my plan. They walked over and sat down across from me. Quick introductions. Bob and Joanne Rominger. Theyd come from Georgia! I got two more glasses and poured them a beer, but none of us actually drank much. Bob was the one that graduated in my class. Joanne was a couple of years younger. They both looked great. It only took a few minutes before I caught on that they both had great senses of humor. We began to look through the yearbook...one picture at a time. I knew some. He knew many more. Any thought of Becky only occurred when we turned the page to the names beginning with G. Our comments up until this moment had concentrated on which persons were in whos class. Or who was infamous for what? Joanne had a limited amount of interest, but she and I had a ball making fun of the makeup and hair styles. When we got to the picture of Becky I asked Bob,
"Did you know her? He looked at the picture for a second or so, then looked me in the eye and asked,
"I wish I did. I only knew her from seeing her in the halls."
"I had her in a class once. She was nice. Real nice."
"She looked nice to me. I thought she was the best lookin thing in the school."
"Yeah. .Me too, but she was just so nice to be around. She didnt hang around with any particular crowd, but she sure was popular."
Joanne thought shed be cute and said, "She looks like a slut to me."
Bob almost winced and said, "Hey. Thats not nice."
Then me, "Yeah, were talking about Becky here." I added in a mock tone, "How dare you!"
You could tell by the look on Bobs face that he agreed. Joanne was surprised she had hit a sore spot with us both, and gave us a startled look.
"Come on. I can be catty if I want to." Its half the fun."
Bob was trying not to overeact. She was just joking.
I wondered if I should tell them my story of Becky. Would it sound too goofy? Not to Bob, I was sure, but Joanne was another matter. In the midst of all the noise and commotion of PeeWees Pizza I slowly told Bob and Joanne the whole story. I didnt tellem the distasteful bits, but they got the picture. I was correct in thinking Bob would understand. Throughout the telling he reacted with little nods of agreement and what may have been sympathy. On the other hand Im not sure if Joanne could put herself in our shoes. I got the impression she thought I was slightly silly.
I didnt tell them because I needed their approval. It was just a story. It was only a couple of hours ago that Messmore reminded me of the whole situation. I just thought it was a neat story. Joanne asked,
"You think shell show up?"
"You sound awfully sure."
"I guess Becky Gingrich might show up, but The Becky wont. She was just someone we made up."
"What if she does show up tonight. What would you say to her?"
"I never thought about it. One, I cant believe Becky will be here, and two, I never knew her, so what would I really have to say to her."
Bob didnt agree at all. "Youve gotta tell her the story. Shell love it. Trust me."
We three consiously kept an eye on the door the rest of the evening. It had been a real nice evening. I had seen half a dozen folks I recognized, but Bob and Joanne were the only ones I spoke to at any length. I felt that I had made two new friends. We made plans to meet a little early for the banquet.
That night I went to sleep thinking about all the guys from second platoon. Vivid memories floated to the top. Good and bad. And The Becky. While doing my gardening the next day I constantly found myself mulling over old memories, something I dont normally do. For the first time in twenty something years I missed the guys, wondering where they were now, and what they were doing. Not just curious, but caring.
I got myself as spiffy as possible, then off I went to the banquet. Others had shown up earlier. It was obvious that there were going to be many more at the banquet than had attended the pizza feed. Id promised myself I was going to mingle. I simply wasnt going to sit in a corner and look at folks. I was going to introduce myself to as many people as possible. I am a sociable kind of guy, but last night had been my first attempt at reunions, and I was amazed at how I had fallen into my old high school rut. Not tonight! Im gonna have a great time.
Bob and Joanne strolled in about ten minutes after I had arrived. Joanne looked absolutely delicious in a red dress and heels, and I told her so. We made the decision to sit at the same table when dinner was served, then we drifted apart in our own conversations.
I met some of the nicest people. Id never known them in school, but I was enjoying them tonight. A guy from Bakersfield whod married a classmate of mine. We talked for twenty minutes about my summers there. Another guy that still worked on custom cars, which is what we all wanted to do way back when, and making a living at it. I was struck by how many had moved out of the area, and had come to town just for this reunion. It appeared that we had all grown up exactly the way we were supposed to. There were those that had traveled. Those that had gotten married right out of school. Teachers. Doctors. Im embarrassed at how many of them were lawyers. I sat down at a table with a couple that actually lived in Yosemite. I was listening to them tell me about the various concerns with the park when somebody walked by me and bumped my arm with my drink. Just a bump. No mess. She turned to apologize, and when I looked up to see her name tag my heart nearly stopped.
It was Becky Gingrich.
I stood up. I looked into her face. She said something, but havent a clue as to what she actually said. Blue dress. Blond hair, but short now. She was absolutely beautiful.
I have never, before or since, experienced this reaction. Instantly I had become slow. My face felt hot. Everything around me faded. I thought,"Am I going to faint? I damn well better not!" I thought of my guys. Then. Now. I knew what theyd say. Theyd say, "Tell her! Tell her! But dont fuck up whatever you do!" There was a mild roaring in my ears. I had to tell her, but I had to take care. I had to consiously make myself slowly say,
"Hello. Its Becky Gingrich, right? She looked toward my name badge, but I said,
"No, you never knew me in school, but Ive been waiting for twenty eight years or so to tell you a story...if you have a couple of minutes to spare."
I had so much I wanted to tell her in such a short amount of time, but if I forced the issue I would sound like an asshole. I had to be calm. Every word considered. Keep it simple.
She smiled. (Oh, my!) "Well, I suppose so." She was curious, but tentative.
I started at the beginning. Did she remember Bob Kessler? Sixth grade. No? Thats OK. He remembered you.
Then I told her the story. About Bob, the one punch, the nightime ramblings in the berthing compartment, The Becky. She thought I was teasing at first, but I swore not. When I got to the part about her being married with a baby boy her attitude immediately changed. She believed me. She slowly reached out and took my hand. She listened and she believed.
I have never been so succinct in my story telling. I omitted the vulgarities. I couldnt bring myself to explain the violent deaths. Better left unsaid.
With every word I sensed the guys. They approved. My heart ached. Im amazed I didnt weep, but my eyes were dry. My voice calm. I looked into her eyes the entire time. She knew I was sincere. I finished. My hand was still in hers.
I apologized for taking up so much of her time. Surely she must want to visit with her friends in the room. She didnt move. She told me that her husband didnt want to come to the reunion. Shed nearly cancelled the trip, but now she was glad that shed come. My story had made the whole trip worthwhile. I attempted small talk. What did she do for a living? She was a fouth grade teacher. (Of course she was!) She had three sons, all grown.
I suddenly realized I was exhausted. Totally spent. I didnt want to talk anymore. The story had gone perfectly, she was wonderful. I didnt want anything to ruin this.
My last words to her were, "I cant wait to get home and call some of the fellas, and tell them youre more beautiful than we ever couldve hoped for."
Again she smiled. I thanked her again and slowly walked away as if I knew where I was going. Bob came up and remarked how good she looked. Yup.
They announced seating for dinner. As I approached the dining room I realized that my evening was over. There was no way it could get any better than it already had. I went home. I walked in my front door not more than an hour and a half after Id left. Judy was concerned, but I explained what had happened. She thought I was silly.
It wasnt even dark yet, but I had to go to bed. I was tired. While laying in bed, waiting for sleep, it occurred to me that maybe I should have had my picture taken with Becky. No, of course not. Who was I to think that I was special enough to have my picture taken with The Becky!...Right guys?