Saving Becky Thatcher (2000)

When life imitates art, the guy doesn't always get the girl.

MARK HAD JUST unlocked the door to his pickup truck in the mall when he heard the chirp of tires. Looking up, he saw a parked sedan backing out and taking off. In the front passenger seat, a woman was screaming for help.

This was no lovers’ quarrel, Mark knew. The driver had forced his way into the woman’s car. So Mark did what anyone would do.

He flung himself onto the windshield. 

The enraged driver could not shake Mark off. When the driver crashed, Mark opened the door and beat the living daylights out of him. Was the babe grateful? You bet. “He’s my hero, my Superman!” she cooed. It didn’t hurt that her hero resembled the lumberjack on Brawny paper towels.

a lady swoons by her knight

a lady swoons by her knight

Fact is, every red-blooded guy dreams of one day rescuing a maiden from an abductor, a dragon, or a dire fate. 

My day came in April 1975, in a university classroom.

Humanities professors can be eccentric, but our new professor—Mr.Wendel—defined the image: meandering discourses, rumpled tweed jacket, and unkempt hair. For his first day—April Fool’s Day—I wrote in my diary, “New Hum. teacher: Wendel. Zany, individual.” He assigned us to read The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli’s 16th-century primer for teaching a monarch how to look out for Number One.

“Who’s the Prince?” Mr. Wendel began.

“Cosimo the First, Grand Duke of Tuscany?” offered an unsuspecting scholar.

“Wrong. Who’s the Prince?”

We looked at one another, puzzled.

“Who’s the Prince?” he demanded, leaning forward.

Confused silence.

“I’m the Prince,” he intoned, eyes ablaze like Jack Nicholson leering "He-e-ere's Johnny!"  in The Shining:

Mr. Wendel’s approach was odd, but you couldn’t argue with his results. We were engaged, provoked. Just what he wanted.

On the home front, however, life had spun out of control. Mr. Wendel was going through a divorce. To numb the pain, he had taken to drink. When he showed up to class at all, he arrived late, his breath suggestive of whiskey. His Socratic dialogs, always scattered, now veered onto paths we couldn’t follow. “He’s lost it,” students murmured. 

One student did more than murmur. He—or she—told the Master of the Humanities that Wendel was unfit.

There was an electricity in the air April 22 when Mr. Wendel staggered in, ten minutes late, and shut the door. He shuffled to his desk, and plopped his worn, leather attaché case on the floor. Choking back tears, he began: “I—just—came—from my boss. And he tells me—that someone in this class—told him—that I—don’t know—how to teach. “And I—want to know,” he slurred, “‘Who told my boss I can’t teach?’”

Someone with guts, I thought. Someone like Carol Tate.

I had a crush on Carol. Blonde and curvy, the free spirit from Colorado wore a smile that bespoke her joie de vivre. That winter, I had watched her leap up and disappear into a snowbank. From that moment, I was gripped by love, or something like it. I’d have done anything to win her heart. 

Carol sat in Row Two. I sat in Three, careful not to glance at her. Then, ominously, Wendel began to walk.

Suddenly, I was not in a college classroom. I was in Mr. Griffith’s fifth-grade class, reading—no, living—a scene from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Becky Thatcher—Tom’s crush—had been leafing through a secret anatomy book that belonged to their schoolmaster, the stern Mr. Dobbins. When a shadow appeared from behind, Becky shut the book—and, in her haste, tore the colored frontispiece. 

Tom pondered:

Old Dobbins will ask who it was tore his book. Nobody’ll answer. Then he’ll do the way he always does—ask first one and then t’other, and when he comes to the right girl he’ll know it….

Mr. Wendel walked to the first student. “Was it you?”

“No, sir.”

There was not a sound. One could have heard a pin drop.

Mr. Wendel advanced to the next student. “Was it you?”

The stillness continued; the master searched face after face for signs of guilt.

“No, Mr. Wendel.”

Quick! Something must be done! done in a flash, too!

In half a minute, Mr. Wendel would be eyeballing the face of my lady love. What if she was the culprit?

Mr. Wendel’s countenance glared down at the first student in Row Two. “Did you tell my boss?”

“No, Sir.”

The next girl was Becky Thatcher. Tom was trembling from head to foot with excitement and a sense of the hopelessness of the situation.

Mr. Wendel now stood face-to-face with Carol. 

"Rebecca Thatcher, did you tear—no, look me in the face—did you tear this book?"

I had to distract him—now or never.

  • A thought shot like lightning through Tom’s brain. He sprang to his feet and shouted, “I done it!”

Heart pounding, I bolted to my feet: “Mr. Wendel, I deplore this inquisition and demand that you stop!”

“Sit down!” he barked. A young lady in Row One scooped up her backpack, opened the door, and marched out. And in the hubbub that ensued, the inquisition ceased. 

A quarter-century later, my recall of what followed is hazy. Wendel exchanged angry words with the class. But I was in another world, my mind transfixed on a single, satisfying thought: I may have just saved Carol Tate.

The surprise, the gratitude, the adoration that shown upon him out of poor Becky’s eyes seemed pay enough for a hundred floggings. Inspired by the splendor of his own act, he took without an outcry the most merciless flaying….

Tom won his lady’s heart. But no token of thanks passed from Carol’s lips to me—until this week, when I sent her this essay. She did not recall reporting Mr. Wendel. “If I have never thanked you for an act of gallantry you performed on my behalf, I thank you now. My husband is every bit as gallant as you—which is very gallant, indeed.”

He fell asleep…with Becky’s words lingering dreamily in his ear—Tom, how could you be so noble!”

For this hero, the wait was worth 25 years. 

©2000 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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