On January 12, 1969, a twenty-two-year-old sailor landed in California to begin a thirty-day leave from Vietnam. Having already served nine months of his initial twelve-month assignment, he extended his stay for an additional six months. In exchange, the Navy provided a thirty-day leave anywhere in the world.
He went home.
He changed planes in Kansas City, and then Chicago, before landing in Peoria. After a thirty-mile drive on route 116, he made it home, to London Mills.
Glad to be home, he spent some time in his small hometown, but had further travels in mind. After visiting with his parents, siblings, and friends, he got in a car and drove to New York.
While in Vietnam the sailor exchanged letters with his friend, Bob, who he knew from their time together on the U.S.S. Moale. Bob’s girlfriend, Anne Marie, had a single friend, and Bob suggested the sailor write to her, so he did.
He wrote a letter to her almost every single day from Vietnam for six months, and she wrote back to him. But she only wrote back because he was in Vietnam. Otherwise, she never would have answered him. But while on leave, the sailor drove to see her in New York City.
They were an unlikely pair. Three times as many people attended her high school in Queens as lived in his small town in Illinois.
But they hit it off, and a couple of days after meeting for the first time, while sitting in a car in Astoria, Queens, the sailor asked the girl to marry him, and she said yes. While this was happening, a romance-killing parking enforcement officer somehow wrote the sailor a ticket. A small price to pay to get the girl.
It took a couple of more days before the sailor worked up the gumption to ask the girl’s imposing father for the girl’s hand in marriage. He gave his permission, and opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate, despite behind-the-scenes reservations about his daughter marrying some sailor from the midwest whom she only met a few days before.
On Saturday, December 6, 1969, at 3:30 pm, the sailor married the girl in Our Lady of the Snows Roman Catholic Church in Queens.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, the sailor is my dad, and the girl is my mom.
They married fifty years ago today, after my dad had been discharged from the Navy, and began their lives together.
They lived apart until they got married, and then moved back to London Mills for a month, before moving to Daytona Beach so my dad could go to umpiring school. My mom worked for a preacher who ran his church out of the same building as his asphalt company.
When umpiring didn’t work out, they moved to Queens. And over the following eighteen years they moved from Queens to Port Jervis, New York, to London Mills, to Peoria, to Springfield, before settling in northwest Indiana. Along the way they had two daughters, and then a son, me. Realizing they couldn’t get a kid better than me, they stopped having kids.
I remember December 6, 1984. Their 15th anniversary. I was 6. My oldest sister was almost 12, and had somehow arranged for someone who worked with my dad to take her to the store to get streamers and balloons to decorate for their anniversary. We spelled “Happy 15th Anniversary” on the wall of the living room in yellow streamers. I remember thinking that 15 years seemed so long.
But they were still just getting started.
I can’t imagine what it took to stay married for five decades. Unless I live to a ripe, old age, I’ll never know.
I’m sure there were bad days. Maybe even bad years. They grew older. Kids grew up. Jobs changed. Houses changed. Times changed. But through it all, they remained.
It’s been 18,263 days since the sailor and the girl got married on that 39-degree day in Queens. But the last 55 days have been the most difficult, because the girl – the sailor’s wife, my mom – died on October 12.
I’ll spend today with my dad. And we’ll do our best not to dwell on the last 55 days, but rather appreciate all those days that came before.
And I’ll think about my mom, and Bob, and Anne Marie, and those letters, and that day fifty years ago that led to everything that I am.
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