Please join author Mark Cronk Farrell and me, Wednesday, April 13, for a discussion of her latest book, “Close-Up on War.” It’s the amazing story of Catherine Leroy, who documented the war in Vietnam through compelling photos.
She was an only child. He was one of seven.
He was a Catholic. She was a Protestant.
She joined the Air Force. He joined the Navy.
He’s an extrovert. She’s an introvert.
The adage “opposites attract” certainly applies to Becky and Harry Flanigan.
They met as children growing up in the same neighborhood in New Albany, Indiana. But Becky had no intention of dating Harry, two years her junior, let alone marrying him.
Harry, however, had other ideas.
In their Kendall Yards apartment, he grinned as he recalled his first sight of Becky. His speech has been impaired by a stroke, but he communicates with hand gestures and short sentences.
“I was 4 years old when I met her. I was 11 when I knew I wanted to marry her,” he said.
It seems when he was 4, a button popped off his snow pants, and Becky’s mother sewed it back on for him. That’s how they met.
At 11, he was stricken by polio and from his bed near the living room window; he watched Becky and his older brother walk to school each day.
“I told Mom I was going to marry her,” he said.
But marriage would have to wait.
After high school, Becky went to nursing school at Ball State University. When an Air Force recruiter came to talk to the soon-to-graduate nurses, she and three friends signed up, and were soon sent to Minot, North Dakota.
Meanwhile, Harry, who hoped to be a doctor, attended St. Louis University until he ran out of funds. After working for the Army Corps of Engineers for a couple years, he enlisted in the Navy.
In 1966, he was attached to the Marine Corps unit in Chu Lai, Vietnam. He and his fellow corpsmen sent up and ran the field hospital there. He doesn’t talk about his experiences in Chu Lai.
When asked if he lost friends during the war, he hung his head and buried his face in his hands.
Becky said, “He brought home a machete and once I asked him where he got it. He said, ‘You don’t want to know.’”
One of the first things he did after returning home was to call Becky and ask her for a date.
“I said yes,” she recalled. “Then I told my mother, ‘What have I done?’ I’m older than he is. I’m taller than he is. And now he knows I was sitting home alone on a Saturday night.’”
It was March 25, 1967, and when Harry picked her up, she was relieved and surprised to find he’d grown.
“He was 5 feet, 2 inches tall, the last time I’d seen him,” she said.
Her mother waited up for her, and when Becky returned she told her mom she’d had a nice time, but wasn’t interested in seeing him again. Harry planned a career in medicine, and she definitely didn’t want to marry a doctor.
The next day he brought her an Easter card.
“He was charming as all get out,” Becky said, smiling.
He must have been, because they got engaged on April 16.
Coming from a large family had its disadvantages – namely little sisters.
“I had no idea he was going to propose,” Becky said. “But we stopped by his house and his little sister said, ‘Do you like your ring?’”
There went the surprise.
The boisterous Flanigans were a bit overwhelming.
“He invited me to a family party, and there were 100 people there,” she recalled. “I wanted to run away.”
She didn’t, and they married Aug. 12.
“His mother told people at our reception, we wouldn’t last six months,” Becky said.
Then she grinned.
“She did eventually apologize, but it took her 30 years.
Harry enrolled at Indiana University, but was disappointed when he wasn’t admitted to medical school. Even though his grades were excellent, he was told the university had no interest in retraining him from his military experience.
He studied business instead and took a job with Union Carbide after graduating in 1970.
Becky gave birth to their daughter, Amy, in 1971, and the family embarked in a series of moves across the country as Harry rose in rank and responsibility within the corporation.
Tragedy struck while they were living in California. Harry, age 46, suffered a stroke. His carotid artery had dissected and life as they knew it changed forever.
The stroke affected his speech and partially paralyzed his right side.
“The last thing he said to us was ‘I’m sorry,’” she recalled.
His prognosis was grim, but Becky said, “He felt since he beat polio, he could beat this.”
Harry, a driven, Type A, workaholic, channeled all of his energy into recovery, making it his full-time job. He learned to walk, to drive and to care for himself, though speech remained an issue.
But despite his amazing strides, he couldn’t resume his career.
“The worst day of his life wasn’t the day of his stroke, but the day they retired him,” Becky said. “He loved his job, the people, the travel. …”
Their daughter was attending law school at Gonzaga University, so they decided to move to Spokane. They’ve never looked back, because soon they had three grandchildren to dote on, including a grandson who is now attending the United States Air Force Academy.
When he could speak more clearly, Harry told Becky, “I think the stroke is the best thing that happened to me. It slowed me down, brought me to a stop and allowed me to appreciate my family.”
With his left hand, Harry, 75, gestured upward.
“My grandkids and Amy lift me up,” he said.
As to his wife of 50 years, well, he’s always believed marrying her was his destiny.
He curled his left arm into a muscle-flexing pose.
“She’s strong,” he said.
Becky, 77, said, “People ask me if I’d do it again and I say, ‘Yes, in a heartbeat.’”
When asked why, her eyes filled with tears.
“I guess it’s just true love,” she said.
“Yes,” Harry said, nodding. “Yes.”