By Bob Kaster
It was February 14th, 1950, and Billy was at his assigned desk in Mrs. Bernard’s third grade classroom at El Sereno Elementary School, in an eastside Los Angeles neighborhood. The night before, he had carefully written the names of his classmates on twenty-three Valentine cards. There were twenty-four kids in his class, including Billy, so he had a card for everyone. Not every kid did that. In just a few minutes all the Valentine cards would be handed out, and Billy was eager with anticipation. But at the same time, he was worried. How many cards would he get? Would he get one from Peggy? He didn’t know Peggy very well, because her desk was in the front of the classroom and his was in the back; but he already thought he wanted to marry her. He was especially nervous because he had written something on her card that he hadn’t written on anyone else’s. He wrote, “You are the prettiest girl in the class.” The night before, it took him an hour before he finally got up the nerve to actually write that. Now, as he was waiting for the cards to be passed out, he was anxious; and he almost, but not quite, wished he hadn’t written it. How would she react? At last, the cards were distributed and he began to feel some relief as a large pile of cards began to accumulate on his desk. That night in his bedroom he spread the cards out on his bed, looking carefully at them for the first time. He counted twenty, which made him happy. But was there one from Peggy? Yes, there was! He couldn’t believe the words on the card. Peggy had written, “I really like you a lot, Billy.”
Nine years later, on February 14th, 1959, Billy had a date with his girlfriend Sally for the annual Valentine’s Day dance at Pioneer High School in the Almaden Valley neighborhood of San Jose. Billy was a senior, and so was Sally, and they had gone together for some time. Although they were “going steady,” each planned to go to college in different parts of the country, and assumed they would likely drift apart after high school. That night they double-dated with Billy’s best friend Tom and a girl Billy didn’t know, although she also went to Pioneer High. Billy was the driver, and picked up Tom first, because he lived just down the street. Then they drove to Sally’s house, about a mile away to pick up both girls, as Tom’s date had planned to spend the night at Sally’s. When they arrived, both girls were in the living room, ready to go. Looking at Billy, Tom’s date smiled and said, “Hi. I’m Peggy,” and held out her hand. “You must be Billy.”
Billy took her hand, thinking, Wow, she’s the prettiest girl in the high school, and said, “Nice to meet you. You look familiar.”
“So do you,” she said, “You know, this high school isn’t that big, and we’ve probably seen each other around. But I haven’t been here very long. My family just moved here a couple of months ago from Los Angeles.”
Later that evening, the two couples were sitting together at a table, and Billy asked Peggy to dance. The song was Chances Are, a slow romantic tune sung by Johnny Mathis, giving them an opportunity to talk while dancing. “Where did you live in L.A.?” asked Billy.
“El Sereno,” she replied, “It’s pretty close to Alhambra, if you know where that is.”
“I know exactly where that is,” Billy said. “And I know who you are. You were the prettiest girl in Mrs. Bernard’s third grade class.”
She brightened, looked up at him and gave him a squeeze. “You’re that Billy. Of course you look familiar. You gave me the best Valentine card I ever got.”
“So did you,” he said.
Billy and Sally continued to date until high school graduation. Tom and Peggy began a steady relationship through high school, and the two couples double-dated and generally spent a lot of time together for the remainder of the school year. Tom and Peggy went to college together at UCLA, but as expected, Billy and Sally went their separate ways. They kept in touch for a couple of years, but then lost track entirely. Billy went to the University of Texas, but remained close to Tom and Peggy and got together with them during summer vacations. In June of 1963, Billy was invited to be best man when Tom and Peggy got married in San Jose. Two years later, Billy married a girl he met in Texas, and invited Tom to be his best man. Tom and Peggy eventually moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and raised a family; and Billy and his wife did the same in northern California. With the passage of time the two couples lost track of each other, except for the occasional Christmas card.
In early 2009, Billy, along with all the other members of the Pioneer High School class of 1959, received an invitation from Terrie Simpson, a classmate who was organizing a fiftieth reunion. Billy’s wife had died more than a year earlier, and after more than forty years of marriage, he was devastated. Billy had never gone to a class reunion. “Why would I want to go and hang out with a bunch of old people?” he had said on more than one occasion. This time, his attitude was even worse since his wife had passed away. He had become reclusive, and the idea of socializing with “old people” wasn’t enticing at all. He sent his regrets to Terrie Simpson.
Billy’s daughter and her family lived in the same community he did, and a couple of months later, while having dinner at their house, his daughter said, “Why don’t you go to the reunion, Dad? It’ll be good for you.”
His son-in-law said, “It’ll be good for all of us to get you out of here for a while.”
Billy reconsidered. Why not? he thought. I guess there’s nothing to lose.
The reunion was a two-day event, and the first evening was an ice-breaker in the ballroom of the reunion headquarters hotel. The room was set up with tables and a dance floor, nightclub-style. There was a four-piece live band that played music from the fifties and sixties. Each person was given a name tag. Billy got a drink and sat down at a table by himself. After a few minutes an attractive lady came up to his table and said, “Can I join you?”
“Of course,” said Billy, trying to get a look at her name tag.
Her name tag said Peggy. “It’s nice to see you Billy,” she said. “I wasn’t going to come to this thing. Tom passed away two years ago, and I really didn’t think I could bear to come to something like this. But seeing you, I’m really glad I came.”
The band started playing Chances Are. “Do you want to dance?” asked Billy. When they were on the dance floor, he said, “You know, you are the prettiest girl in the room.”
She said, “You know, I really like you a lot.”