'My True Self'

There is something a little unsettling about laying eyes on Vicki Gray forthe first time. Her shoulders look too broad, her hands too thick. When shewalks, her lanky arms move in prim arcs, as though limbs that swung looselyfor a lifetime had been tamed.

But at 64, Vicki Gray is finally comfortable in her skin.

At times, she can seem like a kid parading around with a new toy, or afreed prisoner inhaling fresh mountain air, or a desert-island castawaydevouring a cheeseburger that by some miracle washed ashore.

After a Sunday Episcopal service at her church in Northern California, aparishoner tells her, "I saw your picture in the paper." He is alluding to herpublic role in a fight over a power plant in her hometown of Vallejo. "You'refamous."

Vicki laughs. "Some would say infamous," she says.

But back at the house she shared with her spouse of 30 years, herconfidence falters. She trembles as she points to the photo of Mimi by thecouch - dear Mimi, with those dimples, that smile.

"I'm sorry," Vicki says, pressing a tissue to her eyes. "People say it getsbetter. It doesn't."

They married in 1967, when Vicki was Lt. Victor Stephen Gray, Jr., astrapping Naval Academy graduate and decorated Vietnam veteran, a charmer whorose out of Bronx poverty to become a diplomat.

They traveled the globe together as Victor moved from embassy to embassy,in Poland, Germany, the Bahamas. They also navigated an inner world few woulddare to imagine.

"It became more and more like play-acting to be Victor," Vicki says ofthose not-so-distant days. "I felt dishonest and deceitful not telling ourfriends, our relatives, the people we loved, who I really was."

Victor Gray knew he wanted a different future, but not if it meantsacrificing his past.

On June 21, 1958, a Navy telegram arrived at a crowded tenement in theBronx. The family's oldest boy, 19-year-old Victor Gray, saw at once the newdirection his life was about to take.

He had been accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, plucked at the last minutefrom the waiting list. His parents had wanted him to go to Fordham University,close to home. Too close, Victor thought, to their world of dead-end factoryjobs and small ambitions.

The Naval Academy was his ticket out. It would put him in a uniform, onships that roamed the seas. With its macho sink-or-swim culture, it alsooffered something else: the chance to prove he was a man.

He was 4 when he first sneaked into his mother's bureau. He would take herunderwear, slide under his bedcovers and try them on.

For this boy from blue-collar New York, women's undergarments became arefuge from the awkward trappings of manhood. Even then, he hated men's tweedyclothes, the tight collars, the ties. He hated the roughness he felt he had toproject to play his role, to protect himself.

So he lost himself in fantasy. Hospitalized with rheumatic fever, Victorlooked out of his window and day-dreamed as merchant ships massed on the EastRiver. Some day, I'm going to get on a ship like that, he thought, and set outover the horizon.

Then, at age 13, at the corner newspaper stand, Victor understood somethingabout himself for the first time.

"EX-G.I. BECOMES BLOND BOMBSHELL"

The headline spanned the front page of the New York Daily News. A26-year-old Bronx photographer and former G.I., George Jorgensen Jr., hadgotten a series of surgeries in Denmark that turned him into ChristineJorgensen. "Nature made a mistake, which I have corrected," Jorgensen hadwritten to her parents, "and I am now your daughter."

That's what I am, Victor thought.

But at that time, in that place, it was what he could never be.

At the end of the Naval Academy's grueling first-day orientation, plebescollapsed in their cramped dorm rooms, where they met their roommates.

Eddie Bealle, an 18-year-old from Baltimore, walked into his ground-floorroom and heard a thick Bronx accent that reminded him of thugs on TV policedramas. This picture of toughness was completed by the veritable carpet ofchest hair on Midshipman Victor Gray.

"When upperclassmen would see the black hairs peeling over the whiteT-shirt," Bealle recalls, " `they'd say, `Gray, I told you not to wear asweater - that's not an authorized uniform.' "

The questions about sexual identity that had tormented him as a boy, Victorhad now buried somewhere deep inside. He was training to be a warrior.

Through their four years as roommates, Bealle never wavered in hisimpression of Victor as a man's man, a collegiate boxer who loved sports,booze and women.

Victor was engaged three times, but there were no weddings. He broke offone engagement in the middle of his bachelor party, calling his fiancee from apay phone to say they were through.

None of these women were right, he told himself, because none had been ableto cure him.

Victor Gray was the gunnery officer on the destroyer USS Waldron in 1965when he volunteered to go to Vietnam. The 26-year-old lieutenant junior gradecraved a real war.

"I always had this question in the back of my mind: Could I stand up to itwhen someone was shooting at me? Could I be like John Wayne on Iwo Jima? Did Ihave the mettle?"

He was assigned as an American adviser to a South Vietnamese Navy base inLong Phu, along the Mekong Delta. His job was to stop sampans ferrying machineguns to the Viet Cong. He was so good at it that his superiors awarded him aBronze Star, with a "combat V," for "courage under fire."

Yet Gray felt his survival had less to do with courage than luck. Few ofthe sampans were carrying weapons. Most held just peasants and fishermen.

One day, Victor and the other sailors cheered as fighter jets bombed anisland off the delta, whipping smoke, fireballs and the stench of napalm intothe air. Minutes later, he stopped a sampan carrying a stooped, mud-cakedwoman. The old lady shrieked as she put down her paddle, picked up an objectfrom the boat and held it to Victor's face. It was a baby's blackened corpse.

Victor's friend Roger Krueger, another Navy officer, visited Long Phu soonafter and found a haunted man. Victor sat in his small room and stared at thewalls.

His superiors "started thinking he had too much of the Vietnamese," Kruegerrecalls. "The commanding officer didn't want him going nuts." So they gave hima new job, at a communications post atop a mountain in Vung Tau, along theSaigon River.

A report came in one night that a Navy hovercraft was drawing fire from aVietnamese sampan on a beach nearby. Victor ordered in U.S. aircraft.Surveying the damage afterward, the Americans realized they had erred. Theboat carried no weapons - just a village fisherman. An innocent man was dead.

Shaken, Victor traveled to the fisherman's village to offer his condolencesand a gift of cash he knew would never do. Within a year, he would resign fromthe Navy.

The day he got home from the war, Victor proposed to Mimi Geiger, aCalifornia girl with a gift for gab.

They had met just before he left for Vietnam. He was studying Vietnamese atthe Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, Calif. Mimi was teaching at anelementary school nearby. As they exchanged vows in an old, red-tiled Spanishchurch at the Carmel Mission, the future looked full of possibility.

Victor joined the State Department and in 1972 opened an American Consulatein Krakow, Poland. U.S. officials wanted a presence there during the thawingof U.S. relations with the Soviets. But the job's pressure was crushing.Everything went wrong.

The "14th-century house on the square" in Krakow that he and Mimi had beenpromised was actually a construction site. Victor fought for weeks with thealcoholic who was supposed to renovate it. He also had to hire 12 Poles asconsulate assistants. Meanwhile, his supervisors in Warsaw chewed him out forturning in reports on the Polish economy that didn't quite agree with theirs.

The stress cracked the psychological armor he had worn since leaving theBronx. When he stepped out to meet Polish dignitaries, among them the youngarchbishop Karol Wojtyla, who would one day become pope, they saw an Americanconsul in a formal suit. Underneath, Victor was wearing women's underwear.

It was extremely risky behavior for an American diplomat in Eastern Europeduring the Cold War. Several Western officials had already been compromised bytheir sexual pecadilloes. The Polish secret service was recruiting agents, andblackmail was a favorite tool. Victor knew he was being watched.

At their home in Krakow one day, Victor confessed to Mimi that heoccasionally wore her undergarments. He did not tell her the larger truth -that he felt he had been born in the wrong body.

Returning to the United States in 1977, Victor and Mimi settled inPasadena, Md. Over the next 15 years, he rose through diplomatic circles,eventually directing the State Department's Office of Northern EuropeanAffairs and the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of InternationalCooperation. His career was impressive; at home, trouble brewed.

After several years of trying to have children, they learned he wasinfertile.

Victor questioned whether there was a biological basis for his "genderdysphoria," as the books he had started reading called it. The books said thecauses were a mystery. Freudians pointed to an overbearing mother and anabsent or distant father. Some scientists blamed hormonal imbalances during acritical period of prenatal brain formation. He began to wonder about hisfraternal twin, a girl who was stillborn.

He felt he needed to act, but didn't know what to do. The books said somepeople who suppress their torment end up striking out against themselves inthe form of self-mutilation.

As Victor came to grips with these discoveries in the late 1980s, Mimi wasdiagnosed with breast cancer. Surgeons performed a radical mastectomy. ButVictor worried.

He needed her. He was sinking deeper into depression. He couldn't sleep.Work demanded more of him. He was teaching as the Department of State chair atthe Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington. He was also tryingto make headway toward a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland.

Once again, the stress nibbled at his composure. He was snapping at Mimiand hating himself. In anguish, he began slicing his genitals with a razor.

He told Mimi that he was thinking about taking estrogen and progesterone,powerful female hormones that would cause him to lose body hair and growbreasts. For the first time, Mimi recognized the dimensions of her husband'scrisis.

Why couldn't he fight it? she asked. She anguished over whether she wassomehow to blame. Had she stopped being attractive to him? What would theirfriends and family think?

Eventually, Mimi found his misery too hard to ignore, his moods unbearable.Do something, she told him. Anything. Get on with it.

Then Mimi's cancer returned. Victor felt it would be unfair to pursue hisown medical treatments now. So once again he pushed his gender issue into thebackground. He began driving her to a clinic for rounds of chemotherapy.

In the summer of 1995, he accepted a job at the World Affairs Council ofNorthern California, a prestigious educational organization, and they moved tothe San Francisco Bay area, where Mimi had grown up. Then came more bad news.Right after Christmas, Mimi's mother had a medical crisis. Mimi flew back toMaryland to make plans for her care.

All alone on New Year's Eve, Victor stood on the balcony of their new homeand looked out at the ships anchored offshore. "All the old feelings cameback," Gray recalls. "The depression, the urge to relieve the depression bycutting myself."

Inside, he dug out a magazine for transsexuals. There were listings fortherapists in the back. He called one the next day, and by February, he wastaking hormones.

No one would have blamed Mimi for leaving. Most wives of men who declarethemselves transsexual do just that, unable to recover from a feeling ofdeceit and betrayal.

But in the midst of her illness and his crisis, Mimi and Victor needed eachother more than ever. They had watched as things long taken for granted - herhealth, his identity - slid away. Each needed a tether to the past, with itscomforting certainties. Each found it in the other.

As Victor saw it, he and Mimi had reached a point, after nearly 30 years ofmarriage, where their love transcended the bodies they were born in. Othershad a different view. "Dr. Mimi," as her family called her, always felt shehad to rescue people.

"The thing about Mimi was she was so mature in her acceptance of her ownillness, in her support of what was happening with Victor, that she never cameto me and complained," recalls Jill Honodel, an assistant pastor at theirchurch who became Mimi's confidante. "Instead, it was, `Victor needs this tohappen. Let's get this done.' " That winter, their annual Christmas letter torelatives and friends made only a cryptic allusion to the shifts in theirlives. "We have discovered together new dimensions of love and commitment toone another," they wrote.

Their relationship was undergoing a slow but undeniable transformation.

Victor began to think of Mimi as a big sister, and at least in private,Mimi played along. She taught him how to walk with grace, make small talk, puton makeup. One morning, she looked across the bed and noticed the new contoursof her husband's body. The hormones were having an effect. "You make a prettygood woman," Mimi said. They laughed.

On Labor Day weekend 1997, Victor took off his chinos and T-shirt and puton a blouse, a skirt and makeup. It was the start of what therapists call the"real-life test." Victor Stephen Gray was now Victoria Stephanie Gray, or justVicki.

People with gender dysphoria must live full-time as the opposite gender forat least a year before doctors will authorize sexual reassignment surgery. Theidea is to give transsexuals a chance to see whether they can truly functionin a new gender role before they make unalterable changes to their bodies.

The next few months were a blur of paperwork. Vicki went to court to file achange-of-name form. She posed for a new driver's license photo. She changedthe name on her military records. She applied for new credit cards.

Mimi and Vicki roamed the aisles of J.C. Penney's and Lee Jeans, pickingout women's clothes. Vicki wanted to look the part of a dignified older woman.No miniskirts and high heels. She preferred cardigans, long skirts andsensible flats.

The cost of the surgeries - none of it covered by health insurance - wouldbe nearly $38,000. Vicki dug into their savings, sold their boat and auctionedbooks, maps and mementos from a lifetime of travel.

With both parents dead, Vicki sat down to write her brother and sisterabout the change. A letter, she thought, would give them time to digest thenews.

"It's been a long time," the letter began, "and there are lots of bigchanges in my life that I have to tell you about. This long overdueexplanation will undoubtedly prove more than you expected - so I do hope youare sitting down."

Mary Ann Smith opened her brother's letter after a day at her job cleaningoffices. A photo of a woman with gray hair fell out.

"You must have puzzled over the enclosed picture," the letter continued."Yes, it's me. I'm a transsexual - you know, Christine Jorgensen, ReneeRichards - and have undergone years of therapy and hormonal treatment. After aseries of surgeries that will begin October 8, I will be a woman and my trueself. As you must see from the picture, it is a prospect that brings me realjoy. I no longer have to lie to anyone - not to myself, to Mimi, nor to thoseothers I love and owe complete honesty."

A transsexual was not a transvestite or a drag queen, Vicki explained.Transvestites and drag queens cross-dress as a turn-on. Transsexuals wearwomen's clothes because it expresses their true identity.

The letter ran on for four pages, explaining the psychological diagnosis ofgender dysphoria, the lack of a "cure" or any real understanding of causes.Then Vicki explained why she waited until age 58 to act: "Because I have solittle time left to truly be myself."

Smith sat at her kitchen table in stunned silence. This was her brothersaying this - the one she had bragged about, the one who rose from poverty towin military medals, meet popes and statesmen.

"It's a very hard thing to grasp," she says. "If you're asking me if I washappy about it, no, I wasn't. How can I say I understand when I don'tunderstand?"

Vicki's younger brother, Larry Gray, an accountant, was unnerved. But heremained open to trying to understand his brother's predicament.

Vicki eventually paid visits to both siblings, and she calls on theholidays. After the initial shock, they say they have come to see past thechanges in their brother's appearance.

"Family's family," Smith says. "If he were a murderer or something likethat, that would be different. But it's nothing like that. He just decided tochange his gender," she says, with a laugh. "It doesn't make him a badperson."

Around this time, Vicki quit her job to focus full-time on "transitioning."Plastic surgeons flattened her Roman nose, gave her forehead a gentler slope,narrowed her jaw and chin. The hormones and electrolysis thinned her bodyhair.

Meanwhile, doctors seemed to have brought Mimi's cancer under control. Sheled a cancer support group at her church and became the household'sbreadwinner, teaching underprivileged preschoolers.

Despite her support for her spouse, Mimi made clear that she did not wantto be perceived as a lesbian. She told Vicki that when they went out inpublic, she would not hold her hand. And while they remained affectionate, thehormones made it difficult for them to love each other physically.

Still, Mimi was willing to join Vicki as she introduced herself to thepeople who had known her as Victor. None would need Mimi's reassurance morethan the parishioners at St. Paul's Church.

The article in the church newsletter ran in December 1997 under the heading"Welcome Vicki."

"Human sexuality is a mystery we continue to struggle with, and there ismuch we do not understand," the Rev. Harold O. Clinehens Jr. wrote. "Yet it ismy view that our acceptance of one whom we love does not requireunderstanding. It is never our place to decide who may come to the altar."

It had been a tough decision for the Arkansas-born pastor. His church wasin Benicia, a former factory town near Vallejo that attracted conservativeprofessionals fleeing the excesses of San Francisco.

Father Harold liked the Grays. They were smart, well-educated people whohad donated a tapestry to the parish hall, served as lectors and lent time andenthusiasm to church activities. Yet as they explained to him their desire tocontinue worshipping at St. Paul's, he secretly pictured every pastor's worstnightmare: parishioners storming out the door.

After their first meeting on the subject, the priest picked up a book ongender dysphoria that Vicki had recommended. Then he phoned the Episcopalbishop of Northern California.

The Book of Common Prayer allows the church to excommunicate anyone whoselifestyle is so immoral that it "scandalizes the body" of worshippers. Thepriest and the bishop mulled over the details of Victor Gray's case. Theyconcluded that gender dysphoria, while unusual, was not immoral. And so FatherHarold published his announcement.

It didn't take long for parishioners to start calling. They asked if Graywas a homosexual. A transvestite? Was Mimi now a lesbian? How were theysupposed to relate to the Grays? Is this sinful? What do we tell our children?

A question-and-answer session with Vicki's therapist drew about 80 people,more than a third of the congregation. Dr. Lin Fraser had counseledtranssexuals in her San Francisco practice for more than 25 years. Manyclients had asked her to explain their condition to bosses and co-workers. Butthis was the first time she had been asked to address a church.

At St. Paul's, she says, "people were talking about it much more in termsof who they are as a community, a culture, a spiritual body. This was a `we'kind of thing: `How are `we' going to deal with it?'"

Father Harold arranged another meeting, in the more intimate setting of aparishioner's home, this time with Vicki and Mimi present.

A dozen people turned out. After Father Harold led the group in a shortprayer, the questions came: Do you still love him? Do you still love her? Areyou still married?

For many parishioners, it was the answer to that last question that puttheir concerns to rest. "Mimi accepting it made it easier for other people,"says Tina Thornburg, 44, who had joined the church shortly before theannouncement in the newsletter. "If Mimi could do it - and she's the one whohas to live with Vicki - then the rest of us could."

Even so, three families left St. Paul's. One wrote the Grays: "Just becausewe're silent doesn't mean we accept your sinful lifestyle."

A little later, at a prayer group that met in the church basement, amiddle-aged man announced that either the Grays had to leave the group or hewould. He picked up a Bible and demanded to read a passage he said showed thesin of transsexualism.

Others objected. "Let him read it," Vicki intervened.

The man shook, beads of sweat forming on his brow, as he read from thesection of Deuteronomy known as Abominations: "The woman shall not wear thatwhich pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment; forall that do so are an abomination unto the Lord."

When the man stumbled over some words, Vicki put a hand on his shoulder, asif to steady him, and said, "You can do it."

The man finished the passage, stood up and left. All the while, Mimi washolding Vicki's hand.

Mimi had carried Victor across a rapids and showed him that there was lifeon the other side. She exposed herself to ridicule, guilt and embarrassment tosee her husband through his ordeal.

When Vicki came to in the hospital after the sexual reassignment surgery inSeptember 1998, she knew she owed Mimi everything. But how could Vicki repayher? In the end, there was too little time.

While on vacation in Santa Fe, N.M., in the summer of 1999, Mimi cried outin pain. Doctors discovered that the cancer was advancing stubbornly on herliver and bones. She lost 30 pounds and the strength to get around without acane or a wheelchair.

One day in early April 2000, Mimi stepped out of the shower and looked ather emaciated figure, the skin hanging loosely off her hips. Vicki dabbed herbody with a towel. "I look like Auschwitz, don't I?" Mimi said.

Vicki read aloud from her diary. She wanted Mimi to hear just how much hersupport had meant, how much she loved her. Then Vicki asked: "Do you stilllove me?"

It would seem so stupidly selfish later. Here Mimi was dying, and Vicki wasleaning on her shoulder. She needed to know that Mimi was OK with what Vickihad put them through.

"Do you still love me?"

"Uh, huh," Mimi said, her smile flickering.

On April 8, 2000, Mimi died. Vicki scattered her ashes in the sea. In theweeks and months that followed, Vicki cried often. Her friends, including JillHonodel, the assistant pastor, detected an undercurrent of guilt.

"As a priest, I look at Mimi as a symbol of God's grace," says Honodel. "Ina sense, God's grace is what is given to us when we don't deserve it. I thinkVicki, in a very profound way, feels a sense of not deserving the tremendouslove and support, and yet she knows she's a receiver and is humbled."

Faced with carving out an independent life, Vicki went to work at abookstore, waded back into her Ph.D. dissertation and began taking writingclasses.

She was still attracted to women, but declared herself through withromantic relationships. The hormones and surgery had muted most of those urgesanyway. But she began making female friends, finding them much better than menat emotional intimacy.

Despite her broad 6-foot frame and her knobby hands, Vicki felt like shewas "passing" as a woman. Her voice was still naturally a tenor. But shepracticed a falsetto and complimented it with other feminine cues, likesmiling and laughing more often. She even found that the commando drivingstyle that so often had Mimi clinging to the passenger seat was giving way toa live-and-let-live civility.

At times, there were stares or double takes. Once in a blue moon, someonewould hurl an insult, like the man who cursed and threw something at her fromhis car.

But there were also the older male customers at the bookstore whoseoccasional advances she had to fend off. She chuckled to herself that theireyesight must not be very good.

Many transsexuals make a clean break with their past. But Vicki had toomuch invested in her worldly accomplishments as Victor: the Naval Academy,Vietnam, the State Department, the Ph.D., her Christian faith, her marriage toMimi. She had fought hard for those things.

Underneath her personal motivations was an evolving political one. A17-year-old California boy who dressed as a girl had been killed recently inan act of hate. Vicki was beginning to feel that part of the reason thosethings happened was that transsexuals were invisible. "For decades, I tried tohide who I was, what I was," Vicki says. "I stepped out of that closet, andI'm not going to step into another one."

Last September, the Naval Academy's Class of 1962 held a reunion dinner atthe school's ornate Officers' & Faculty Club. Assembled inside were some ofthe leading lights of the 24th Company - two admirals, a federal judge,businessmen, a winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Vicki walked into the room in a black dress and jacket. "Hi, Tom. Hi,Stan," she said, recognizing the old faces.

Word had started circulating on the class's e-mail discussion group in thelate 1990s that one of their members had gotten a sex change. But whenorganizers of the 40th reunion got word that Vicki planned to come, there wasa measure of surprise.

"I thought it took a lot of guts - a lot of guts," recalls Pete Labyak, aretired Navy captain and classmate.

Vicki's class had graduated 14 years before the school began admittingwomen. Many still felt strongly that Congress made a mistake when it made theschool co-ed. Most were conservative Republicans, skeptical of the legacy ofthe social change movements of the 1960s.

At the reunion dinner that evening, Vicki's classmates broke the ice byoffering condolences. "I'm sorry to hear about Mimi," one man said.

The next morning, some 100 members of the class filed into a hotelconference room for a seminar on international relations. Vicki took a seat atthe table for featured panelists.

Stew Lingley, a classmate and reunion organizer, knew about Gray'sdiplomatic career and had asked her to take part. He warned the panelists tosteer clear of controversial political topics like Iraq.

But after a sleepy half-hour discussion, Vicki ran out of patience. "Nowlet's talk about Iraq," she briskly announced.

Lingley's head dropped into his lap. Oh boy, he thought. Now we're introuble. But what unfolded was an intense discussion that galloped along fortwo hours. Hands shot up and hearts spilled out as the Annapolis grads parsedthe moral questions behind a possible engagement with Iraq.

Vicki led the discussion with a brio that impressed her classmates,challenging people's views and displaying a masterful command of the issues.

"She didn't hold back in any way," Lingley recalls. "She projected herselfwith the same mind that was there before - it had nothing to do with thephysical changes."

That night, the entire class - all 300 at the reunion - gathered in a hotelbanquet room for dinner. One after another, they approached Vicki to say theywere glad she came.

The reunion's organizers were taken aback by the absence of whispering, letalone outbursts. But some weren't surprised at all. This was no gathering ofbrash young sailors. They were in their 60s now. Many had soldiered throughtheir own personal crises.

"You got to understand," says Labyak, the retired captain, "some of us havelost our own children already. Other people are in their third or fourthmarriage. We've seen war, we've seen death. I would say there's a heck of alot more maturity."

More than ever, Vicki was grateful for the lessons in toughness andcoolness under pressure she had picked up at Annapolis. "Sometimes," she says,"you meet crises worse than someone shooting at you."

To follow Vicki around in Vallejo for a week - to work, to lunch withfriends, to community meetings, to church - is to see a person at peace.People greet her with smiles, embraces, a raised glass of champagne.

After Mimi's death, Vicki began pouring her energy into Vallejo's civiclife. She got involved with her neighborhood group. She joined citizensfighting a proposed liquid natural gas plant on nearby Mare Island. And shebegan writing a column, "Vicki's View," for a local news Web site.

She finds her past and present interweaving in unpredictable ways. When shewrote a column headed "Propaganda 101" about the Bush administration's prewarinformation campaign, a line at the bottom said, "Vicki Gray is a retireddiplomat." Other columns bore tag lines identifying her, variously, as aretired professor, a Vietnam veteran, a former EPA official.

Not everyone could believe it. While testifying at a recent City Councildebate that touched on ship safety, Vicki tried to boost her credibility bymentioning her career as a Naval officer. One disbelieving citizen sniped,"You've squeezed a lot into a short life."

Much of her public persona is defined these days by her finesse forconfrontation. In City Council debates over the proposed gas plant, she mincedno words with the well-heeled executives from Shell Oil and Bechtel Corp.

"I wish you would go away," she told them.

"She is one of those people who will confront people face to face," saysElena DuCharme, who chairs the neighborhood group that fought the gas plant."Vicki will name names."

Under public pressure, Shell and Bechtel dropped their proposal. Thefollowing Saturday night, citizens gathered in downtown Vallejo to celebrateat the "Bad Gas Ball."

A mirrored disco ball spun from the ceiling, and shafts of colored lightsskittered across the floor as dance music thumped.

Vicki entered in a black turtleneck and a patterned scarf. A young manapproached exultantly and slapped her a high five. Next came an older womanwho threw her arms around her. Surveying Vicki's outfit, she said "You look socute!"

Vicki poured herself a glass of wine and meandered through the crowd. Inthe center of the room, a circle of a half-dozen people moved their bodies tothe music.

Vicki watched from a distance, until one of the dancers raised her handwith a little wave and said, "Come on, Vicki!" Then she strode into the group,spinning as the circle closed around her.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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