I Remember You, Especially as a Secret
I don’t know how well people who knew me in junior high school remember the overweight kid with wild hair, a bad complexion, and virtually no friends that was the kid I was. Actually, she still resides close by, and I have her to thank for teaching me things she did – as I apologize for being so horrified by her for such a long while, but I digress. To assume a writerly distance, I will move to the third person. It’s just easier to tell the story of my secret.
Linda had just transferred from the sheltered environment of a Catholic grade school to a public junior high. She couldn’t wait to grow up. Once regarded as reasonably intelligent, funny, mature, and a good friend to nuns and others, suddenly in 1968 -as if by miracle - she became so much less. The model called Twiggy was really popular in those days, and she was well known for her extreme skinniness. Of course, this is the nickname fellow students bestowed upon Linda. Henceforth, only teachers used her proper name. Other humiliations followed: catcalls in hallways, old friends avoiding her, lonely lunches, and horrid experiences in the gym showers under Mrs. Wakat’s unwavering, judgemental eye.
Linda was generally sullen and sad, and always trying to cover up by wearing her father’s dress shirts over pants she’s altered by hand stitching the seams in a vain attempt to make herself look smaller. This just made her look even more comical to fellow students, one of whom took note of her big white shirt one day and said, “Wow, you could show a movie on her.” She would also get in trouble with Dad for taking his shirts. He wasn’t around much anyway, so the aggravation was worth the perceived benefits to Linda, who was secretly fearless, even if she didn't know it at the time.
Unbeknownst to everyone, Linda had a secret friend. He was 19 to her just-turned 13. Lance Corporal Michael S. Detherage, USMC was stationed in Viet Nam. She had found his name on a list of Illinois soldiers seeking correspondence. He was from downstate Illinois, far enough away to be safe when he returned home. There was little chance he’d bother taking a long road trip to follow up personally with his underage pen pal. And he definitely wanted to correspond, responding eagerly and personally to her inquiries about how Viet Nam had changed him.
For more than a year she corresponded with the soldier, never mentioning how old she was. She loved the depth of the stories Mike shared, spending long hours writing back sympathetically and as thoughtfully as she could in response to the mind-bending details of his everyday life in swamps and running for his life - along with the litany of losses that was the Vietnam experience no matter whose side of the line you were on.
One day she arrived home from school to the familiar sight of her mother ironing a shirt, the same sullen look on her face as always. Making a beeline for her bedroom, her mother stopped her. “I have a bone to pick with you.” Linda’s heart thumped.
Mother picked up a letter she’d picked out of that days’ mail. “How do you know a Lance Corporal in the Marines?” she asked.
Thinking fast, Linda lied, saying corresponding with a soldier was part of a school project. From then on, Lance Corporal Detherage got care packages occasionally and all was well. Miserable as always in school, now failing some classes, Linda was happy in her secret life. If she felt herself to be dying of the sort of pain only an isolated thirteen-year-old girl can know, well, Mike her friend was suffering much worse, and she had the documentation to prove it.
The spring she turned fourteen, Linda opened a letter from Mike to say he was coming home on leave. He’d found a friend to drive the 4 hours it would take to get to Hoffman Estates. He had to meet his friend Linda who, he said, had entertained him, amused him, and comforted him and his entire unit. Linda froze. Soon the jig would be up and the outcome would not be good.
Linda told her parents about Mike’s visit. Now her mother had to face her father, who knew nothing of what was going on. The parents weren’t very involved in her life, but even her father, despite his anger, looked at Linda differently after the obligatory lecture about being jail bait. She had made a difference to somebody, and the letter was the proof.
“He needs to come when I am here, and you need to tell him how old you are,” he said, reasonably for once.
And so the fateful afternoon came. Mike came up the driveway, dressed casually compared to Linda’s church dress that had been carefully selected to hide whatever poundage it was capable of handling if she didn’t sit down enough to wrinkle the thing across her lap. Those horizontal lines only made everything worse.
Mike was handsome, taller than Linda, who immediately ‘fessed up as Mike handed her a bouquet of flowers. Mike’s cheerful expression turned downcast, but only for a moment. Linda turned beet red. The visit continued pleasantly. Mike shared more war stories and Linda tried to make light of her eighth grade experiences.
Linda never heard from Mike again.
I tell this story because of the questions I’ve buried about this episode of my life, and no, I never wrote Mike again either, figuring it was useless. Besides, at the ages we were then, we both had other possibilities; however blind I was to my own, I had made friends with loss by then and I would just move on if I had to. There was no choice.
Besides, Mike had never gone sappy and said he loved me; we had only shared a most wonderful and soul searching correspondence. Like the soldier-gentleman he was, he'd carried me for more than a year through one of most miserable times of my life. I could only hope whatever he sacrificed to be that friend to me --to find the paper, pens, postage, time—had not been too great in exchange for what he found waiting for him in the yellow dress at 113 Flagstaff Lane that cloudy day.
Flash forward many decades and his name came to mind. I found him. He’d survived Viet Nam. He’d even made Sergeant, later moving back to his small Illinois hometown. But he died in the year 2000 of undisclosed reasons. There are no obituaries and no family associated with him anywhere, other than the Marine Corps. I know only where he is buried.
I would have never tried to contact to him; I just wanted to finish my little self-imposed task of looking after him in my safely distant way.
But now that he is dead, I can just go ahead and connect again if I want, so here goes:
Thank you, Mike for defending our country. Hard to believe Viet Nam exists in other forms, but there you have it. Mostly though, thank you for being my friend and my secret source of strength. You never took advantage of me, you were just good and honest and lonely enough to be my perfect correspondent. I hope I did help you as much as you said I did and that your life after Viet Nam was good.
I am pretty sure you had the sorry ending of our story figured out within the first few moments of meeting me, but didn’t I look mature for my age? I am sure my parents made you uncomfortable, and that you had hoped for something more from me. (I saved one of the flowers you gave me until it fell apart.) With you I felt I could grow in many ways, trying to relate all that you went through. Because of effort you put into your writing, my world became much larger than Helen Keller Junior High School, that pit of personal misery. I wrote to you, not as a kid, but with my whole heart, from a place I was completely free.
I could never do anything about the years that separated us, but you know that.
Before I go, I also have to say that you were first to teach me how little distance of any sort matters when you have found a real friend.
Hence, this letter, awkward as it is.