Won’t Be Needing Those Manners
“Lydia” was Lydia Scanlon. “Lydia the Moron” was the name most of the boys in class called her. Lydia was the class cipher. No one sat by her, and even fewer knew anything about her. She never spoke, even when called on, and she hadn’t been called on since fifth grade. There is always that student or two whom the teachers have to decide whether to fish or cut bait—there are only so many minutes in the school day, and if they won’t talk, you have to move on and teach the others. Five years of working on her to participate were apparently enough, and so most of us didn’t even know she was still in our class, although she was there every single day, in the last seat in the row farthest from our reality.
Lydia’s Catholic schoolgirl uniform was ill fitting, most likely the result of having been worn by two or three other girls in the family before her. Her hygiene was said to be worse than a boy’s, and her hair was cut… well, at least she had access to a mirror while she was cutting it.
It was no surprise that not one boy had made a beeline to her to ask her to be his date.
“I need you to ask Lydia to be your date for the dinner,” Mrs. Beachum said.
“Huh?” was all I could mutter. There was an instant lump in my throat because she was asking me TO GIVE UP THE BRONZE-LEGGED FUTURE-HOMECOMINGQUEEN BEAUTY AS MY DATE! I had won the Gold Medal, and now I was being asked to give it back! Just like Jim Thorpe! You cannot do this!
Without saying any of the above, Mrs. Beachum could read it on my face.
“Look, honey, I know you wanted to go with Kathy – but I know you know that no one will ask Lydia, and there’s just sumpin’ not right ’bout that. She’s a nice girl. Just a little slow. Some people fast, some people slow. All God’s children. All. ’Specially Lydia. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, Mrs. Beachum.” Yes, I knew that, and I actually even believed it. But weren’t the longest tanned legs in the school also something worth believing in?
“I knew that would be your answer,” she said proudly.
“Couldn’t ask this of the other boys. No sir! Only you. Thank you, child.”
Ugh. Why not? Why not ask them? Why me?
“Plus, I figured seeing how you are thinking of going to the seminary next year, you won’t really need many of these ‘manners’ I’m teaching you, now will you?”
Apparently the Mother Superior had shared my thoughts about becoming a priest with Mrs. Beachum. And, of course, what use does a priest have for sex, much less “manners,” much less those pink-black engorged lips you’re using to hand me the worst news of my life?
“Sure. It’s fine. But what about Kathy?” I asked. Yes, what about Kathy? You’re not considering the grief she’s going to experience not being able to be my date!
“Like I said, I already talked to her. She was very happy to do this special thing for Lydia. Said you would be, too.”
I decided to give it one last shot. “But, but then Kathy will be all alone at the dinner!”
“No, child, here’s what we do. Lydia will sit across from you. Kathy will sit with the both of you, next to Lydia. So in a way, Kathy will still be there as sorta your date, too.”
Sorta. (This will become the story of my dating life. More later.)
“But you’ll officially be there with Lydia and you will pull her chair out for her and order for her and talk to her and make her feel that she, that she… is…”
A hint of tears began to make their way to the front of her eyes, but she blinked fast enough to catch them and wick them back behind her sockets and finished her sentence.
“That she is wanted. Can you do that, Michael?”
That this had suddenly been elevated beyond an etiquette lesson, beyond a date, to a call for mercy and possible sainthood—well, that was all I needed to hear.
“Yes, I can do this. I want to do this. You can count on me! You’re right, I won’t have any use for girls after this year anyways!” Exactly! Mrs. Beachum, you’d just be wasting all these lessons on me. I’m off to be a monk for life!
I had a pain in the pit of my stomach.
I went into the classroom and asked Lydia to be my date. Though I tried to say it soft enough so none of the other boys would hear me, it wasn’t long before word got out that I had given up the top prize for the Loser Lydia—and these little men in their high-waisted pants spent a lot of time on the playground scratching their butch-cut heads and trying to figure out exactly what had happened to me.
“Don’t make sense, Mike,” Pete said, shaking his head. “How are you even gonna stand it, being next to her?” “I dunno” was about all I could muster. How was I going to sit next to her? Ewww.
The big night came to go to Frankenmuth, and Lydia was all freshly scrubbed and her dress was plain but pretty. I opened the door for her, let her take my arm, pulled her chair out for her and, in a momentary act of rebellion against my impending lifelong celibacy, I pulled Kathy’s out for her, too. Kathy talked to Lydia, then I talked to Lydia, and Lydia talked back to us. We heard the story of how her brother had died and how her dad was working two jobs because her mother had health problems and how she spent her time in her room writing poems. Lydia was shy but not a cipher. She was funny, and she had a snorty laugh that after a while was cute and catchy. The other classmates looked down the table to see what the three of us were up to, and a couple of the boys joined in to talk to the newly interesting Lydia. This gave Kathy and me a chance to talk, also a new thing for me, for up until now she had just been an object to observe as often and as vigorously as possible.
“You were a good guy, Mike, to do this,” she whispered to me.
“Really? Um, well, you know I’m going to the seminary?”
“Sure. I heard that.”
“So, you see, this class wasn’t really for me.”
“Well, it was fun, don’t you think?”
“Sure. Can I have your pie if you’re not gonna eat it?”
After our class’s First Date Night at the Frankenmuth Bavarian Chicken House, there was no going back to the War of the Sexes. Thanks to Mrs. Beachum, we all discovered that we liked each other—a lot. And while others contemplated their next moves in the dating life, I had time to ponder such things as what kind of trouble would Mrs. Beachum be in for having upended the Puberty Retardation Policy that the Church had implemented. Boys stopped picking on girls, and girls stopped laughing at boys. We helped each other with homework. We let the girls throw the basketball around. Everything felt better and we were grateful to Mrs. Beachum for her enthusiasm and her desire to teach us more than just the capitals of all fifty states. We looked forward to our afternoons with her; it was the best part of every day. So when we came back from lunch for our afternoon with Mrs. Beachum on February 5, 1968, we were surprised to learn that she had not shown up to school. She did not show up the next day, either. Nor the next day. We were told that no one knew where she was, that she was missing. At first, we hoped that maybe she had overslept and just not shown up for work for a few days. The Mother Superior filled in for her. But as the week went on, the look of worry and concern on Mother Superior’s face was evident, and her attempts to follow Mrs. Beachum’s lesson plans were awkward, as she was surely distracted. She offered no information, and by the fifth day of Mrs. Beachum’s absence, enough of us had complained to our parents and asked them to please get to the bottom of just what the heck was going on.
The nightly news on TV that week was grisly. It was the Vietnamese New Year (“Tet”) of 1968, and though this was the first time any of us knew the Vietnamese got a second New Year, the only reason we knew this was by way of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley explaining to us why the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese had launched their biggest offensive of the war. NBC News was especially graphic (in those days, TV showed the war uncensored). Their camera caught a South Vietnamese general grabbing a Viet Cong suspect on the street, putting his gun to the man’s temple, and blowing his brains literally out of the other side of his head. That made the Swanson Salisbury Steak TV dinner go down easier.
The Tet Offensive of 1968 sent a shock wave through the American public because, opposite of everything we had been told about the United States soon “winning” the war—“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel!”—in fact, Tet showed just how powerful the other side was and how badly we were losing. The Viet Cong were all over Saigon, even at the door of the U.S. embassy. We were nowhere near to winning anything. This war was going to be with us for a very long time. I stared at the TV, and I was happy I was going to the seminary next year. If you were in the seminary, they couldn’t draft you. One more reason not to need Mrs. Beachum’s dating service.
Word eventually filtered through the parents that Mrs. Beachum had indeed vanished. There was no official word from the parish, but this much was said:
“Mrs. Beachum’s husband is missing in Vietnam and presumed dead. Nobody knows where Mrs. Beachum is, but she has probably left and gone home to be with her family.”
We never heard from Mrs. Beachum again. No one did. It was said she was too distraught to talk to anyone at St. John’s and, if she had, no one would have quite known what to say to her. Others said she had a complete nervous breakdown when she got the news about her husband and she went off, to be far, far away, to be by herself and shun this cruel world. One parishioner said she took her own life, but none of us believed that because if there was one person who was thrilled about being alive, it was Mrs. Beachum. We finished out the year with an afternoon substitute teacher who did his best, but he never asked us to sing him a poem.
It was then, in the spring of 1968, after the deaths in Vietnam of Sergeant Beachum and a boy from the high school, plus the assassinations of King and the sweet man in the Senate elevator who helped me find my mother, that I made up my mind: under no circumstances, regardless of whatever amount of coercion, threats, or torture leveled at me, I would never, ever, pick up a gun and let my country send me to go kill Vietnamese.
And if anyone would ever ask me why I felt this way, I’d just look at ’em and say, “Don’t be facetious, child.” Perhaps Mrs. Beachum is reading this. If so, I want to say: I’m sorry for whatever it was that took you away from us. I’m sorry we never had the chance to say good-bye. And I’m so sorry I never got to thank you for teaching me all those wonderful manners.