Sixty-one years ago this week I stepped on a Pan American plane at Los Angeles Internation Airport headed for Tokyo, Japan. There I would marry the boy who would become the father of my two daughters. I was seventeen years old. My groom was nineteen. We had not seen each other in over a year, and we had known each other only three weeks before he left for his overseas duty with the Air Force.
That my parents would let me do this makes me shake my head now, but I do understand. Adult life began early in my family. My mother was fourteen when she married my father; my grandmothers sixteen when they said their vows. I had graduated from high school the previous May, something neither of my parents had managed to do. To them I was an adult, ready to make this life changing adult decision. They respected my judgement. They accepted my decision.
I have written about the marriages of my parents and my Willems grandparents in my book. What follows is the story of my fate-sealing marriage. It is not part of my present book, (which is now in the hands of my copy editor), but it is definitely related to it, part of the full California Mennonite story I want to tell. I will start pulling together that book, My Story, as soon as The Gift of Laughter is complete. The following piece will be part of it.
In the winter of my junior year in high school, my father answered a call by the California branch of the International Union of Gospel Missions to start a Rescue Mission in Phoenix. After several trips to Phoenix to get acquainted with local churches and rent a building for the mission and a house for our family, Dad quit his truck-driving job. We then packed up everything we owned and hit the road. That was Easter week of April 1954, and we left Stockton early in the morning, driving non-stop, five of us in our 1949 Buick Special—Mom, Dad, my sister Nita, who was thirteen; my sister Jacque who was four, and me. Following us was my Uncle Ed Baumbach in his old farm truck that was pulling a hay wagon loaded with our all our furniture and possessions, a truck that could only make 45 miles an hour when the road was flat and barely made it over the Tehachapi Mountains. That was a long, long trip, about 24 hours with only a couple of hours in the dark spent sleeping in the car and on top of the truck, stopped by the side of the road in the California desert. Starting again before daylight, we saw the sun rise in Arizona, saguaro cactus on craggy mountains silhouetted against a pastel sky, beautiful yet utterly strange to my California eyes. This was the land where I would now live, a place I had never before seen.
It was still fairly early in the day when we drove into the graveled driveway of the house my dad had rented for us on Twenty-seventh Ave just north of Northern Avenue. That location now is practically inner city, but was then way out in the country. Our house was across the street from an irrigation canal lined with huge cottonwood trees, and I liked the almost stream-like ditch and big trees. But the house itself was disappointing—just a small, concrete block rectangle with no porch, no garage or carport—and no yard except a patch of rye grass lawn in front of the house that was already starting to burn out in the April heat. The house was brand new, three bedrooms with a bath and a half. But the rooms were small, the house very hot, even though it was only early April. We didn’t live there for very long, though, only about three months. Early in July my Dad made a deal to purchase a house on West Garfield almost straight south, just a few blocks north of Van Buren, a location that is now most definitely “inner city.”
The church we attended, Bible Chapel, was just a couple of blocks south of our new house, within easy walking distance, and it was there on a Sunday evening at a youth group meeting that I met Ben. That was in early August 1954, about a month after moving into the house on Garfield. It was a good-sized youth group, about twenty-five or thirty, and we met in one of the auxiliary rooms at the church. On that fateful evening I walked into the room where the youth group met with a friend who visiting from the east side of town. After we got seated I began to introduce her to the others in the room. One of guys was a stranger to me, and I said, “Oh, I don’t know you.” He introduced himself, “Ben Richardson.” He later told me that right after the introduction he whispered to the guy next to him,”I’m going to marry her.”
Ben had just finished tech school after basic training and had orders for Okinawa, his first assignment. He was home on a three-week leave before shipping out. Okinawa was an eighteen-month tour. That was a huge amount of time to him, and he was afraid that he would get involved with an Asian girl while overseas. He didn’t want that and had decided that engagement to a State-side girl was what he needed to help him avoid temptation. He was determined to find a girl to marry while home on leave, and I was it. There was a catch however. I was already going steady with another boy from the youth group. He would have to reconnoiter, set up a pursuit plan. That did not stop Ben. He found out from the brother of the boy I was dating that I seemed to be getting ready to break off the current relationship. That was true. Don was nice, but I could never think of anything to say to him, and he could never think of anything to say to me—which proved to be very boring.
Ben set up a plan of pursuit. A day or two after the Sunday meeting, I got a phone call from Duane, another guy in the youth group, asking me for a date. Duane was in college, one of the “catches,” and I’d not had the slightest hint that he might be interested in me. Surprised, I said, yes. Then, soon after Duane’s call, Ben phoned and asked for a date as well. Astounded by my sudden popularity, I again said, yes, the date to take place the night following the one with Duane. As it turned out, my instinct about Duane was right. Ben later told me Duane phoned and asked for a date because he (Ben) asked him to do it. He wanted to find out if I was open to dating other guys before he called me.
I had actually heard about Ben before I met him. He had attended the youth group at Bible Chapel before he joined the Air Force and had been writing to some of his buddies in the church. I’d heard the kids in the group talking about him, about “crazy Ben” and his exploits. Asking about who this Ben was, I was told that his family used to go to the church; his father was a preacher, and that Ben was kind of wild, sort of the black sheep of the family. Ben knew about his reputation and figured I’d probably heard about it. He decided as part of his strategy that one of the first things he needed to do was to overturn that reputation. He would be a perfect gentleman. He would not even try to kiss me on our first date. And that strategy worked. I was surprised, and having my expectations over-turned made him interesting. I was intrigued.
Ben was different from any other boy I had known—and not just because he didn’t try to kiss me on the first date. For one thing, he talked—really talked. He talked about how he felt about things, about what he liked and didn’t like. He loved classical music (the only boy I knew who did). He loved to camp and hike, loved to swim, had expensive scuba gear, said he would like to take me scuba diving some time. All these things I loved, too. And he talked about Life, had opinions on everything, questioned everything—questioned every rule I had just accepted. He was intense, forceful, a risk-taker. On one afternoon when we were out driving, he deliberately turned south into the north bound lane of the divided highway because the lanes were currently empty, gambling that the lanes would stay empty until we reached the next exit. After an initial, “Ben, I don’t think…!” I just sat there stunned and tense.
Ben left Phoenix to ship out for his overseas duty just two weeks after our first date. We saw each other every day during that time, I think. My mom worked full time at Lerner’s downtown, and my dad was in California fundraising. My little sister, Jacque, was four, and I was responsible for watching her and taking care of the house, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking supper, mowing and watering the lawn. Ben would come over and help me get my chores done, then we would go swimming, taking Jacque with us. He was great with Jacque, gave her a lot of attention, and I liked that. Evenings when I was free, we would go for drives out in the desert. We went to a youth group party out in South Mountain; we went to a stock-car race; we went goofy-golfing; we made bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches over at our friends’ house after church one Sunday. And one day, it must have been a Sunday because Mom worked six days a week, Ben borrowed his brother Bob’s ’49 Chevy coupe, and drove us up the Black Canyon Highway to the road that would take us over Mingus Mountain and through the ghost town of Jerome to Oak Creek Canyon. This was August. There was no air conditioning in the car. The Black Canyon was unpaved north of Phoenix. The car had a cracked radiator or block. We had to stop at each water station we came to cool down the boiling radiator and refill it. It was an adventure. I was enchanted with Jerome where we stopped and walked around. I found the mountains and canyons and vistas absorbing.
On his last night in Phoenix, Ben took me out to dinner, a well-known place in Mesa that specialized in barbequed ribs. Eating out was a huge treat for me. No boy had ever before taken me out to eat at a real restaurant. Then, on the way home from the restaurant, Ben asked me if we could “get engaged.” He didn’t actually ask me to marry him; he asked if we could “get engaged,” be engaged while he was overseas. I don’t remember if I was surprised by his proposal. I’m sure I felt awkward and that I managed somehow to say no, or some version of no. I was just sixteen. I still had a whole year of high school to finish. I hadn’t even begun to think about marriage. But I agreed to write to him while he was gone and be his girlfriend while he was away. After we parted, however, while lying in bed remembering the evening and reliving the entire two weeks we’d had together, I regretted turning Ben down. The next day I wrote a letter telling Ben about my decision, telling him, that Yes, I would like to be engaged while he was gone.
Why? Why did I change my mind? A big part of it I think now is that I hated disappointing people, and Ben kept telling me how much he loved me, that his life would be ruined if I didn’t marry him. I didn’t want to ruin his life, and I was reluctant to throw away the love and devotion he offered. I didn’t want to be engaged for years yet. I wanted to just date boys, go to school, find a way to go to college. But college was becoming more and more daunting, seemed less and less possible, and I wanted marriage and family above everything else. I knew deep down that I was not “in love” with Ben—I didn’t even have a “crush” on him like I’d had on other boys going back to third grade. But I never mistook those crushes for real love, not even when in the midst of one. I didn’t really believe in the whole “in love” thing. “In love” seemed an utterly inadequate basis for marriage. Real love, married love was something a couple grew into, a relationship based on deep friendship, mutual interests and common goals, and Ben and I seemed to have so many things in common—love of classical music, of getting out and exploring. We both wanted family and children. And we talked—talked about the deep things in life, talked about things the way I’d always wanted to with a boy and had never been able to. Looking back, I think it was Ben’s ability to talk that was key, that and his intensity, his decisiveness, the sheer force of his wanting to marry me. What I felt deep down below words was an invitation to a life of adventure, adventure I longed for but was too cautious to undertake on my own.
School started soon after Ben left for his overseas tour of duty. I attended Phoenix Union High that senior year, transferring in from Glendale High, the school I attended when my family lived on 27th Avenue. It was a huge school, almost 5,000 students, and I signed up for college prep courses even though I had pretty much given up the idea of attending college. I felt very outside of things at school that year. The other students were friendly, but the other students had known each other for years. And I was engaged. I felt set apart, different. In that whole huge senor class at Phoenix Union, I met only one other girl who was also engaged. In some ways that difference felt special. There was a sort of prestige in being one of the first to have a fiancé. I felt like I was more interesting to the girls I met at school. I felt more “grown up” than the others, and getting my engagement ring at Christmas was definitely exciting. However, it wasn’t at all fun to have to discourage boys I could tell were interested in me. Going to parties and events as a single, being unable to flirt and engage in the excitement of the chase was a real bummer. I missed flirting and felt guilty for being attracted to other guys. Deep down I regretted the commitment I had made. I wanted to be free; I wanted to date. But I was not the kind of girl who would write a “Dear John” letter breaking up with a boy who was overseas. I had given my word. I had committed myself. I would have to live with that decision.
I was looking at two whole years of being single, of going places with girlfriends only, not just for my senior year, but for another whole year after that as well. Ben had ended up in Japan, not Okinawa, and Japan was a two-year duty, not the eighteen months we had originally been looking at when his orders said “Okinawa.” Ben got that news on board ship in the Pacific. He told me that when he read his revised orders he was so mad he kicked a stanchion on the ship deck so hard he broke his toe.
Two years felt almost unendurable. Ben hated the Air Force, and he hated Japan. In one of his letters the summer after my graduation from Phoenix Union, he wrote, “I wouldn’t ask a dog to come over here.” It hit me, “He wants me to come over there.” I thought, “Why not?” Going to Japan, getting married there would end this interminable waiting. We could get on with our lives. Start truly living again. I wrote and told him I’d be willing to come if that’s what he was hinting at. As soon as he got my letter he began to set things in motion, making arrangements with the Air Force, buying the air line tickets for the flights from Phoenix to Tokyo, telling me everything the Air Force required of me before I left the States. It was a huge stack of paper work, all of it complicated by my being only seventeen years old which meant that my parents had to have a say in all this.
My mother was no problem. She was all for it, found the whole thing very exciting. But my dad had doubts. He had always said that if I wanted to get married when I was sixteen, he would give his permission, so he couldn’t really refuse now that I was seventeen and finished with high school. But my dad had never met Ben. He had been in California on a fund-raising trip during the two weeks that Ben and I dated. He had no way of knowing what Ben was like. He’d met Ben’s parents and had gotten quite well acquainted with them during the year of our engagement, but Ben himself was an unknown quantity. Those misgivings were definitely called for, but unfortunately my dad could only express them in terms of Ben “not being German,” which utterly exasperated me. What in the world did “being German” have to do with anything at all! I completely dismissed his misgivings, and Dad gave in and signed the papers. He did make one condition, however. The wedding must take place the day I arrived in Japan. The chaplain and his wife at Yakota, the Air Force base where Ben was stationed, had invited me to stay with them when I arrived so that I could have a day or two to rest and prepare for the ceremony. But my dad would have none of it, would not budge. So that was it—arrival in Japan and wedding ceremony on the same date.
The wedding date was set for Friday, September 9, 1955. In the middle of the week before the time set for the ceremony, I got on a plane in Phoenix headed for Los Angeles where I was to pick up my visa for a flight to Tokyo, Japan. I had to go from the airport to downtown L.A. to get the visa, then spend the night in a hotel before heading back to the airport the next morning in order to catch the Pan Am plane that would take me to Tokyo. I had never been on a plane before, and all of this was very exciting—but that first part of the trip was daunting. I was only seventeen, and Los Angeles was a very big city. Finding out how to get downtown, then finding a hotel room and spending the night alone, having to get back to the airport alone—all the logistics involved were definitely scary. I wanted the help of someone confident, good at finding out things and getting to new destinations. I wanted my dad, and he gladly said yes. He would go with me, be with me until I got on the Tokyo flight. That felt very good.
I don’t remember anything about the flight to LA or how we got from the airport to downtown, but I do remember that the hotel where we stayed faced Union Square and that my room, which adjoined my dad’s, looked on to it. It was a plain room with its own bath, clean and perfectly adequate, but rather disappointing. Hotel rooms in the movies were big and glamorous. This was nothing like that. It was ok, but so ordinary. So this was what hotels were really like.
Another thing I remember is getting my hair done in the salon of a big department store downtown. We got into LA in the morning. There was plenty of time for a hair appointment after checking into the hotel and picking up the visa. I don’t think I made arrangements in advance. I’m quite sure I just assumed that I’d be able to find a nice salon and that I could get in immediately—which proved true. That hair appointment was my big treat to myself, carefully budgeted into my very limited funds. I wanted my hair to look really nice. I wanted to look like the photos in magazines. I wanted my too-curly hair to look sleek and glamorous—and I was not disappointed. My hair really looked nice, asymmetrical, swept back on one side, curving onto my cheek and forehead on the other. I walked out of that salon feeling sophisticated and grown up.
Air travel was very different back in 1955 from what it is today. It was a fairly new mode of travel and a really big deal, not the everyday, crowded and hassled thing-to-be-endured that it is now. Airports were not crowded. Planes carried fewer passengers. People got dressed up to board a flight. Stewardesses were slim and pretty in their tailored uniforms. Service was instant. Travel by plane was truly glamorous. I felt very sophisticated as I walked down the tarmac in my high heels and travel suit and climbed the portable stairs before stepping through the open doors of the Pan Am plane. I felt no fear, no apprehension. I was stepping into an adventure safe in the hands of people who would courteously shepherd me through the various stages of my journey. All I had to do was be attentive, follow directions and enjoy myself. And I did.
It was a long flight. This was before jet airliners. The four-engines on the plane could not make it all the way to Tokyo without refueling, which meant a two-hour stopover in Honolulu as well as another two-hour stop on Wake Island. Each of those legs took about twelve hours, I think, and I completely lost track of time. We were heading west with the sun, constantly crossing time zones, eventually crossing the Date Line before crossing more time zones. What I experienced was a long period of daylight that began in the morning in LA and ended with the sun setting as we descended at Honolulu. When we took off again, it was dark and stayed dark all the way to Wake Island. We passed through a storm. I could see lightening through the portholes. I fell asleep, and when I woke, a stewardess noticed immediately and asked if I’d like some cocoa. We descended in darkness at Wake Island and went into the bare-bones waiting room while the plane was being serviced. We got back on the plane just as it began to get light. We took off from the runway as the sun broke the horizon, rising through wispy layers of pastel clouds. Ethereal, unearthly. It looked like a film effect of someone going to heaven. Then it was daylight all the rest of the way, bright blue sky with islands of white cumulus clouds towering high above our 38,000-foot flying altitude, below us, a deep blue, white-capped ocean.
That time in the plane, all three legs—the long day, the long night, the long morning—seemed somehow outside of time. We were encapsulated in a world separate from ordinary life. The life that took place on the surface of the earth below us ceased to exist, lost all reality. Life in that plane made no demands of me, required no decisions. I was free to just “be.” I was totally in the present, looking out the windows, listening to the cockpit speaker when the pilot came on to tell us our altitude and other flight information, reading magazines, talking with other young women who were also headed to Japan, eating delicious meals with things like mushrooms, which I loved but rarely had. I don’t think I thought at all about what lay ahead. I told the other girls about Ben and our approaching wedding, but it had no reality. The only thing that was real was the plane, the girls I was talking to, the stewardesses, the voice of the pilots on the intercom, the rest of the passengers. Then we were approaching Tokyo. A flurry of excitement among the young women as we took turns in the lavatory fixing our hair and make-up, getting ready to look good when we got off the plane.
We were scheduled to arrive at the airport around noon, but there were delays of some kind. I remember circling Tokyo in a steep bank, the earth below me visible through my window, circling again and again—fighting nausea even though I had never been motion-sick in my whole life till then. By the time we set down on the runway and taxied to the terminal we were three or four hours past our scheduled arrival time, but I wasn’t worried. I knew Ben would be there. I knew he would wait. Then, as I was looking out my window at the airfield and its buildings, I saw the observation deck. We got closer and closer. Then I spotted him, Ben standing at the rail at the spot closest to the runway. Suddenly it was real. Ben was real. He was there, no longer something that existed in words in letters, a memory, a figure in my imagination. He was standing before me, flesh and blood. I recognized him because of memories supported by photos, but he was not a photo. He looked somehow different. All my sense of knowing him vanished. Suddenly the words formed in my brain, “I don’t know him.”
Copyright: Loretta Willems, December 18, 2009