50 years on a dare

They had known each other of course, the basketball player and the cheerleader at the small high school, but neither really liked the other all that much. She was smart, talented, headed for college and, truth be told, probably a bit stuck on herself. He was coarse and gangly with a quick temper shaped perhaps by being the youngest of four brothers, and from a family that sent its sons to the Air Force, not college. Their first date was more of a dare than a launching pad for romance.

Some tender shoot must have inviegled its way through such unpromising soil and gained a toe-hold, however. They finished high school in 1954 and became engaged, but set off on separate paths. She was off to Drury College in Springfield and he followed his brothers into the service, winding up in Germany. Her father wanted her to finish college; his Uncle Sam wanted him to spend 3 years near the Black Forest. Three years! Ah, but if you were a married man the Air Force would only keep you overseas for 18 months, and if you were an only daughter you knew the right combination of foot-stamping and soulful appeals to bend your father’s will. Rules and regulations met with hopes and aspirations and both paternal blessing and a 30-day leave were granted, and a late December wedding date was set.

The cold, waning days of the year are not a traditional time for weddings which more typically occur in the hopeful and promising days of spring, and other portents attending the event were ominous: the flower girl got stage fright at the back of the church and collapsed, crying, in the aisle, refusing to go forward; the ring-bearer wore a gaudy white patch over one eye as a result of a youthful accident immediately after the previous day’s rehearsal; the punch bowl was borrowed from a recently married woman who’s husband would later beat her half to death; and the pastor who married them would run off with another woman a week after performing their ceremony. Following the wedding they had to drive 90 miles through a blizzard to the swanky Case Hotel in St. Louis for their honeymoon (a gift from her parents), only to find the hotel on fire when they arrived.

Fortunately they were able to check into their room, and after the weekend it was back to spend a week with his parents and then a week in Indianapolis with hers before he had to board the bus for the two-day trip to New York and a flight back to Germany. Every time the bus stopped he had to fight the urge to get off and hitch-hike back to her, even if it meant going AWOL. It wouldn’t have been hard to do; in those days soldiers in uniform had little trouble hitching rides, but since the uniform represented the only clothes he owned he knew it was a very short-sighted strategy. He finished his time in Germany, now reduced to just seven more months as a result of his new status; returned to the states in July and together they conceived a son in August.

It would be nice to say that they used up all their hard luck just in getting through the wedding and early days, but nothing is that easy. She quit school and they put ten years and a lot of miles into the Air Force, living in base housing or whatever they could afford as two more kids came along. Real life was a lot harder than perhaps they expected and the knot at the end of their rope could get a bit frayed at times. They both had health issues and the kids had their own array of problems; one son walked funny and didn’t appear to hear well; another son seemed to require stitches for something every other week; the daughter seemed to be allergic to everything and would often swell up, or come down with Scarlet Fever. There seemed to be an awful lot of tomato-green bean casseroles for dinner. Just when the knot would seem about to give-way, though, there would be a timely visit from family or some stroke of fortune or fate to get them through. Later they would launch and sell a couple of businesses, she would go back to college for her degree and become an elementary school teacher and eventually a principal while earning Masters and Doctorate degrees.

The years came and went, as did the challenges and saving graces. That tender little shoot from their youth somehow grew into a strong, thick root — a bit gnarled and twisted, but all the harder to pry out of the ground for all that. They argued some, but hugged more and were absolutely resolute and united in trying to do the best they could for their children, even if the children didn’t always want to cooperate. Last Friday evening they stood in the same church where they were married 50 years earlier, posing for a succession of photos with children, grandchildren and relatives. They certainly knew everything that had gone into getting there, even if they were a bit at a loss to explain it.

“50 years ago all I had was a 1950 Mercury and my good looks,” he said with some wonder, “and now I don’t have that Mercury.” When she was asked for the secret she tried to give a short explanation for a long answer that is still being computed. “You just take it one day at a time, and sometimes, 15 minutes at a time.”

Happy 50th anniversary, Mom and Dad, and may there be many more!

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