Raymond J. Harding
Pepperell, MA 01463
One of my students asked me yesterday if things were much different when I was in high school. As I thought about it, trying to search my memory for an incident or a relationship with which I could make some kind of comparison, one that might have some meaning for him, there flashed through my mind the cameo-faced image of Theresa Bettencourt.
Theresa had been in my Geometry II class. She sat in the first row by the window where the early morning light, coming as it did from the side, framed her face in a golden halo that took my breath away. She was lovely, and I did not do well in geometry that year.
That year was 1944, and there were only two things that mattered to me; the rest of the world, Euclid included was immaterial. I wanted to be somewhere else, killing Nazis and Japs, and I wanted to make mad, passionate love to Theresa Bettencourt.
Naively, I imagined that through some miracle I could somehow escape the tedium of my junior year in high school, procure an M1 rifle, or a P-38 fighter, a commission, and then proceed to make myself into the hero that I deemed necessary before approaching Theresa, by killing multitudes of the above-mentioned villains of World War II.
It never entered my mind that there were highly experienced, non-romantic Nazis and Japs out there who might well do bad, if not terminal things, to my body. Several years later, in college, I met a very sad and disillusioned young man to whom this had happened. His story-book fantasy of heroic battles came to an end when a young German soldier, with experience beyond his years, equipped with a heavy caliber machine gun, and bent on destroying my friend forever, creased his spine with a single bullet. The rest of the bullets made little pock-marks in the dirt just like they do on TV and in the movies, but the one that didn’t, left him in a lot of pain for the rest of his life when he tried to force his legs to move. It also left him impotent. He was a very young man. Hemmingway would have loved him, but that wasn’t much consolation. He never made love to his Theresa Bettencourt either.
I did manage to survive my junior year in spite of the war, and I went to dances, basketball games, movies and football rallies, but always, when I dated, it was someone else, never Theresa Bettencourt. After all, what had I ever done that would give notice to Theresa that I was even alive, let alone worthy of her attention.
Then came the blur of my senior year: trig, philosophy, “The Forsyte Saga,” a ski trip, a spring prom, and graduation. After that I never saw Theresa Bettencourt again.
Much later I married a lovely girl who had moved into my life so quietly that I often wonder how we really met. We’ve been together for a long time by today’s standards, and I think—for my part, I know—that we’ve been as reasonably happy as most people can expect to be. I only hope that Theresa found as many good things in life as I did. I hope that she has been very happy.
So, now all those young German boys and the Japanese boys that I longed to kill are either dead in spite of me or grown old, just a few years older than I am, and they are very busy manufacturing cameras and small cars, or perhaps, they, too, are teaching school and wondering if life, love, and World War II ever really happened.
When it came time, after a second or two, to answer my student, I really couldn’t voice what I was thinking. What I wanted to say was no, things haven’t changed a bit. We may dance to different music, and fight a different style of war, but we still march to the same foolish drummer. In the final analysis, the years that we spend growing up are the foolish years in which life’s warmest moments slide by beyond our vision, and of all those who love us, some pass unnoticed.
I remember meeting Theresa’s younger sister a few years ago in a suburban supermarket. In the course of our short conversation she said, “. . .and I do remember what a crush Theresa had on you in high school, but you never even noticed her. . .”