When I was sixteen, a junior in high school, my family moved from our home in Stockton, California to Phoenix, Arizona. We were going there because my father had answered a call by the California branch of the International Union of Gospel Missions to start a Rescue Mission in that city. 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 had quit his job driving for Lange Trucking Company. We made the move Easter week of April 1954, and we left Stockton early in the morning with five of us in our 1949 Buick Special—Mom, Dad, my two younger sisters and me. Following us was an old farm truck pulling a hay wagon loaded with our all our furniture and possessions. The driver was Ed Baumbach, one of my uncles, who owned the truck, which was old and not very powerful, could only make 45 miles an hour on flat roads and really struggled when we hit the mountains south of Bakersfield, barely made it over Tehachapi Pass. That was a long, long trip. We were on the road for over twenty-four hours with only a brief stop in the dark California desert when Dad and Uncle Ed got too tired to keep driving. Ed napped in his truck; Dad and Mom climbed on top of the trailer and lay down on a mattress tied on top. Nita, Jacque and I slept the best we could on the bench seats of the car. Starting again while it was still dark we saw the sun rise in Arizona, saw giant 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 onto the graveled driveway of the house my dad had rented for us. It was in the far north side of Phoenix, a location that is now practically inner city, but was then way out in the country. Our house was on 27th Avenue, across the street from an irrigation canal lined with huge cottonwood trees. I liked the big trees and stream-like ditch, but the house itself was disappointing—just a small, concrete block rectangle with no porch, no garage nor 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. As usual, we moved in quickly, did our best to make it home. Mom immediately made curtains for the bare windows; I hung up my clothes and put out my treasured ceramic figures on top of my dresser.
The following Monday, Mom went downtown to look for a job, and my dad went to the old church building he had rented for the mission, taking my little sister Jacque with him. Nita walked to Washington Elementary School, which was about a half-mile from our house. I caught the school bus that took me to the high school in Glendale, a farming town about ten miles northwest of Phoenix.
Three months later we moved again, this time to a house on West Garfield almost straight south of where we had been living, a location that is now most definitely ‘inner city’, but was then an interesting area of modest older homes on large, tree-filled lots with some newer homes mixed in. The houses on Garfield were probably about five years old, old enough for lawns and shrubs to become established. These houses, too, were concrete block, which was standard in the desert, but were much more pleasant than the houses on 27th Avenue. They had carports and porches, concrete driveways as well as curbs to add definition to the yards. I liked the house, and I liked its location, close to a bus stop and close to the church that was the center of my social life.
The church was an independent Bible Church with a good sized youth group. It was just a couple of blocks south of our new house, within easy walking distance. It was there, on a Sunday evening meeting of the youth group that I met Ben. It was late July or early August 1954, about a month after we moved into the house on Garfield, and I had friend with me. As we sat down I began to introduce her to the people in the room. One of the guys was a stranger to me, a guy in his late teens. “Oh, I don’t know you,” I said. “Ben Richardson”, he replied. After I sat down, he whispered to the guy next to him, ”I’m going to marry her.”
Ben was in the Air Force and had just finished tech school. He had orders for Okinawa, his first assignment, and 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 going steady with a boy in the youth group. 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, a ‘catch’, 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. 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 he had asked Duane to phone and ask me out because he wanted to find out if I was open to dating other guys.
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 written 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. Curious, I asked who this Ben was and 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 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 liked classical music (the only boy I knew who did). He liked to camp and hike, liked to swim, had expensive scuba gear, said he wanted to take me scuba diving some time. All these things I liked, too. And Ben talked about Life, had opinions on everything, questioned everything, questioned every rule I had just accepted. He was intense, forceful, a risk-taker. 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 and 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 for his overseas duty just two weeks after our first date. We saw each other every day during that time. My mom worked full time at Lerner’s Dress Shop 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 a 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 block. We had to stop at each water station we came to in order 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. It was fun.
On his last night in Phoenix, Ben took me out to dinner, a well-known place in Mesa that specialized in barbecued 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 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, but 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 except as something on barely visible horizon. But I agreed to write to him while he was gone, 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 changed my mind. 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 was that I hated disappointing people. 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. Thoughts about getting engaged had felt years in the future. I’d just begun to date boys; I wanted to 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. 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. Ben’s ability to talk, his intensity, his decisiveness, the sheer force of his wanting to marry me were what I remembered that night as I lay in bed after we parted. It felt like l had been presented with an opportunity that might not come again. I was a firm believer that a bird in the hand was better than one in the bush. I felt like I was making a reasoned, practical decision.
That was my conscious reasoning. There was something else at work in that decision I see now as I look back. I had been on a clear cut path ever since I was a little girl starting school. One year automatically led into another year; one grade was followed by another grade. Now that automatic path was coming to an end. I would graduate from high school at the end of the school year. After graduation there was no clear path forward. The future beyond that point was blank. I wanted to go to college and become a teacher, but mine was not a family in which college was expected or encouraged. People in our family entered adult life as soon as they left high school. A high school diploma was a terminal degree. Girls either got married right away or got jobs to earn money to help the family until they married. College belonged to a different world. People we knew who attended college became different people, left the church, moved on and away. Yes, I wanted to go to college, but I was also afraid of it. I didn’t want to lose the world I shared with my family. I liked my world. I wanted to stay in it. Saying yes to Ben provided a path forward, a path that kept me in the world I didn’t want to lose, the world of marriage and family and church.
Loretta Willems, April 23, 2020