It is cold and late at night in January near Memphis, but she warms up quickly. He has just changed from civvies into uniform so the marine guards will admit him back on the navy base. (WAVES can wear civvies on and off the base.) They steam up the windows of his newly purchased first car with some more smooching. He proposes, she accepts, and they feel the need to celebrate. He is proud; she is lathered up with joy. She wants to tell everyone; he wants not to be upstaged in declaring their intentions.
He drives to the hangout favored by many sailors and WAVES. A mile from the gate, it is the only food and beer in a place suitable for women to hang out. Also, most unmarried sailors lack a car. They pass a phone booth and he reminds her they no longer need it. It has provided them a great heater-upper break during cold walks back to the base. With the door closed and light bulb loosened, they steamed up the windows and faded out of sight to passing traffic. It was much like the old practice of engaged couples bundling in bed in sewed up individual sheets. Except that in a small phone booth it is vertical, the bundling is with heavy winter clothes, and hard corners can discomfort a rib or two. She loved the attention and affection. He loved the feel of her body even through so much fabric and against her moral restrictions. To this day the memories entertain.
As he drives he asks her not to disclose their plan to marry. She thinks, “Oh, s***! He’s already trying to back out. Why go there? Why celebrate if I cannot involve others in my happiness?” He cannot explain but she agrees and on arrival goes first to powder her nose.
She returns to cheers, sincere congratulations, and catcalls of whether she knows what she is doing. How can she take herself out of circulation? And with him?
To this day she begrudges his telling everyone. She wants the pleasure, but he has to protect his manliness. If she announces it, he becomes the beta guy or gamma dunce having to watch her declare his future. If he announces, his alpha side shines through. He at least starts out still in charge of what is ahead.
But a few minutes earlier, his proposal of marriage caused a gigantic hullabaloo and her accusations about the honorableness of his intentions have not quieted in 58 years.
He grew up in West Virginia, she in Texas and California. Both joined the Navy late at age 20 and 21 respectively. Their paths first crossed and quickly uncrossed on the commercial bus—the ‘Vomit Comet’—that hauled sailors back and forth between Memphis and the Naval Air Station 20 miles away in Millington, Tennessee.
She and Wanda Garcia, a boot camp friend, are reporting to their first duty station at NAS. They board the bus, take the farthest back seat, and fill the full width with luggage. The bus is nearly empty. Slightly encumbered when he steps aboard, he musters his beer courage at sight of a beautiful redhead. He focuses his eyes, steadies his body, reviews his intentions, and moves in.
As soon as he gets close, his ambitions turn honorable. Redhead, beautiful, and coming to a location near him, but his excitement overwhelms his charm—better yet, beer charm. She gives him the old heave ho with a hitch-hiker’s thumb wave as if to say, “Get outta’ here.” Her abruptness de-energizes him; she is one tough broad. I need to recover he thinks and slinks to a seat far away. If they giggle, he does not want to hear it.
That was October 1953 and he endures her icy coldness for a full year. She joins the admiral’s staff at headquarters. He works elsewhere but falls in ranks with her and the rest of the staff every Friday morning. Before or after formation, if she sees him first, she scurries away. If he sees her first, he tests every attractive appeal known to mankind but without success. It is not always “Get outta’ here” but it feels like it to him. Nothing matters. He is the redhead expert, but she defies his expertise.
He questions his qualifications. He recognized at about age 16 that redheads make the prettiest women. He specialized and became an expert. He ogled four without getting serious enough to date, dated three, and now hopes to marry the most beautiful, but she will have nothing to do with him.
So many defeats kill his initiative, until embarrassment forces a cowardly incident. Serendipity arrives at a Halloween dance. Five sailors and five WAVES arrive in two groups. They all know one another and sit around and swill at a round banquet table. Four sailors invite four WAVES to dance. Guess who is left across the table from each other. They have not spoken to each other in days if not weeks. A jitterbug number plays—‘In the Mood’. Embarrassment mounts. Should he or shouldn’t he? Is she embarrassed less than he? Would she rather be wall flower than dancer?
Oh, what the hell, he thinks. She loses, not me. With no thought of rescuing her or using the milk of human kindness to relieve her discomfort, he takes the coward’s way out. He says with no concern for her as if her response does not matter, “We might as well dance, don’t you think?” With bowed head she nods yes and gets up before he can round the table to help with her chair. Then lightning strikes.
After just a few bars, they dance as if made for each other. They are tuned to jitterbug perfectly. She learned from a brother in California. He learned from his sister in West Virginia. Now, in Memphis, they dance as if those teachers are grading the performance.
When romantic ballads play, it is near-lightning. Neither will admit to wanting to dance exclusively with the other. Their steps are together, but their spirits do not heal much less jell. They both dance with other partners as if nothing exceptional has happened, but it has. At the end the gals and guys return separately to the base, just as they came.
A week or two passes. It is noontime. He exits the Navy Exchange with two Hershey bars intended as his dessert. She is entering. He stops her, says that he has bought the chocolate for her. After a moment’s chat, she accepts both bars. Three months later they marry. He learns a vital lesson: Chocolate triggers a woman’s interest when words fail.
We now return to the unresolved and disharmonious disagreement over his proposal of marriage and the family’s entertainment over their present-day disputes.
Situation. It is mid-January 1955, the same night outside his locker club with which this story opened. His newly earned reenlistment bonus, after purchasing his first car, still leaves enough for them to marry but without a honeymoon.
They date several times a week for about three months, all without a car except for borrowing one a few times. If they cannot bum a ride, they walk. Saying goodnight at her barracks door is not always peaceful. In one moment of frustrated regression into adolescence, he tests her for round heels. She refuses to be pushed over into a flower bed. Whenever their sons need a good family laugh, they whoop and holler teasing dad about it.
Burgers and beer with an occasional pizza are all he can provide on E-6 pay of $195 a month. She makes $99 on E-3 pay. He gets about $100 more if they marry and rent housing on the open market, which returns them to about $300 a month before taxes.
With his orders to transfer to Pensacola, they discuss their future together. (After almost six decades of marriage, he admits his proposal of marriage hinged on her willingness to follow him wherever the Navy sent him. Could she handle being a Navy wife and live it up to his expectations?)
In those days a wife in service could not get orders to husband’s new duty station. She had to marry, resign from the Navy, and then move at private cost. But on that usually unacknowledged fact, loud accusations and disputes still flood the family with laughter.
His Version. Being practical, marriage plans come before the proposal. Presuming that she knows she must leave the Navy to follow him, he proposes that he transfer to Pensacola and prepare an apartment while she goes through the discharge process. While not proposed as such, marriage is implied by their spending plans for his reenlistment bonus. They have a couple months to plan, carry out a marriage, and get her discharged so she can go to Pensacola too. He has already disclosed that his reenlistment bonus will buy her wedding outfit, get pictures made, and set them up in housekeeping. Neither has other savings and she will not ask her father to pay. He anticipates that she will need at least several weeks if not months to map out wedding plans. He does not know her family or her intentions for them. He wants to hear how proud she is of his intentions and plans.
Her Version. He invites her to follow him to Pensacola so they can shack up. (Not the farthest thing from his mind but not his plan. After all, without marriage before he departs, she can neither follow him nor exit the Navy.)
Results. Misinterpreting his invitation to mean shack up, she blurts, “I wait for no man. Go by yourself. Take me home right now!”
Sensing that romance is not a life preserver as she prepares to abandon his ship, he smoothly shifts into recovery mode. He sticks his wrists together in front of her and says, “Okay, put on the handcuffs and ball and chain. Will you marry me?”
A couple of weeks later they marry in the base chapel with many friends but no family. They set up the first of 24 households (in the first 38 years) and honeymoon in Navy housing for two months while she is honorably discharged. They depart for Pensacola via his family home at Easter time. Five years pass before he meets her family.
Thus, she single-handedly conquered her male beast. Today she celebrates her 81st birthday. However, he is burned out when it comes to surprise gifts. She has seen it all and knows him well; nothing will surprise her. She has already been surprised with everything from diamonds to a new ironing board cover.
It was years before he discovered that the written word is more surprising than things. Consequently, he surprises that beautiful lady with the tribute above.
Happy Birthday, Grace. Thanks for 58 years in which each new year converts former years into better memories and appreciation of how great, attractive, and important you have always been as wife, friend, and mother.
P.S. This November 23 she celebrates her sixth anniversary as Mrs. A. Guy Maligned. (Darn it, life would be so much easier if we had two ironing boards.)