A few days after meeting a very attractive young lady at the Chicago USO on the 4th of July weekend, 1954, I pulled her phone number out of my pocket. “Anne DeNicolo” was the name above the telephone number. As I stood by the wall-mounted pay phone in the Fifth Army Band barracks I pictured her in my mind – a dark brunette girl with deep brown eyes, a soft feminine voice and a petite attractively well-proportioned figure. Her mannerisms had radiated propriety: Not the sort of girl to casually date a soldier who was far from home and of unknown “breeding.” So I was prepared to hear her say that while our Sunday afternoon at the USO had been nice she wasn’t interested in anything further. But that picture I held of her in my mind goaded me. She was worth gambling with my pride
Anne DeNicolo as she looked the day I met her
I had been rather humiliated and hurt in a couple of previous dating experiences. My “first love,” when I was a senior in high school, had worn my class ring around her neck for a couple of months - just long enough to let me believe I had finally “broken the barrier” and entered the realm of “guys who had girls.” A few weeks later she gave the ring back to me and, using that phrase girls must learn right after saying “ma-ma” while milk drools down their chin, said, “We can still be friends." A few years later when I was a junior in college another girl let me believe she was interested in me – so much so that I drove 140 miles from my college room a few times to date her. The last time I made that drive and knocked on her door to take her out her mother answered and said, “Oh, Margie went out on a date with Bob Miller tonight.”
With those two experience haunting me I would probably have never had the courage to call this lovely young Italian girl I had just met had I not had a more recent experience with a well-mannered and feminine girl while I was stationed temporarily in Washington, D.C. “Pat O’Donnell,” was her name and to be sure, t’was an attractive Irish “lass” she was. Pat went out with me regularly over most of the 6 months I spent in Washington. We enjoyed each other’s company and it might have gone further but it was a star-crossed relationship. Communications and travel in the 1950’s made a long-distance courtship an unlikely process. We both knew I had to go back to Chicago (Ft. Sheridan IL) in a few months. It ended – rather sadly for both of us. Pat had shown me, though, that I could attract a girl’s affection and that there were girls who could be trusted with my “heart.”
Knowing that helped me have a little confidence that I might be able to interest this dark-eyed lovely I had just met, so I planned an impressive “First Date:” A date that would reflect MY respectability and “class.” I knew she enjoyed music for she had been struggling with an effort to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” the first time I saw her. As though by some grand, heavenly design, which I came to believe it was, I also played piano and had mastered the “Moonlight Sonata” some time ago. As I stood behind the piano bench watching her play (and enjoying being close to her) she asked if I played the piano. It was an “Aw, shucks, ma’am” moment. I told her I did and that I could “sort of” play the “Moonlight Sonata.” She asked me to play it for her. I sat down at the bench and poured my heart onto the keyboard. Beethoven proved to be a very good ice-breaker. Although I ended up having to fend off a bothersome sailor who also wanted to be with her I spent the rest of the Sunday afternoon with her.
It was early July in a pleasant Northern Illinois summer. About 30 miles north of Chicago there is an outdoor concert stage in a wooded park called “Ravinia.” It was the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra although many other top-drawer musical groups and individuals appear on that stage
Tickets to get into Ravinia are considerably higher than a soldier’s pockets are deep but this was Chicago in the early `50’s. They loved “their boys in uniform” - loved us so much that all I had to do to get a pair of nice seats was show up in uniform at the gate with or without a date. As an aside, a soldier of the 50’s who appeared in public in uniform always had to wear “Class A” uniforms, so I would be well dressed. What young lady wouldn’t be impressed to have that as a first date? How could she refuse? I mean, this was a “cultural” date – no sex fiend, serial killer or unsavory young man would ask a girl out to such a place on their first date. Anne apparently felt the same way. When I told her what I had in mind and asked for a date she said “Yes,” with no hesitation. I went to my bunk that night a happy young soldier and fell asleep thinking how nice it was going to be to have that lovely young girl all to myself a few evenings from now.
My car at that time was a 1941 Chrysler Club Coupe wearing the same bile green paint that my 1937 “Darling Jill,” Plymouth had worn. Certainly no head turner but my dark-haired Italian beauty had seen it before. She and Mrs. Guccinelli, her chaperone, had ridden in it when, against all USO Regulations Anne allowed me to take them home when the USO closed, but it had been late twilight then. Other than the color it didn’t look so bad on the outside. Inside was a different story. The upholstery on the passenger side door had an upside-down "L" rip in it with the bottom of the “L” just below the arm rest. The torn triangle of upholstery hung down inside the front door like an old hound dog’s ear. In the back the glue in a two-foot square area in the left rear corner of the ceiling had given up the ghost. The headliner bellied down several inches. But in those days young men didn’t own cars as nice as or better than their parents’ car. I was more worried about money than about how my car looked.
Korean Era Army Privates were paid $78.00 a month, once a month. Since I had just returned from a 6-month assignment to the U.S. Naval School of Music in Washington D.C. followed by a 10-day leave back home in Kansas my net worth was around twenty dollars. Even though gasoline sold for about thirty cents a gallon it still took a lot of my money to keep the car running. I could NEVER afford to fill it. I tried to keep the needle at or slightly above the quarter of a tank mark and that’s where it rested when Anne got into my car for our first date. Although I don’t remember what she was wearing I recall feeling she was so beautiful that I could hardly talk.
When we walked through the gate and into Ravinia Park it was breathtakingly attractive with trees in full bloom, flower beds blossoming, well-groomed grounds and well-bred people. They were not dressed in their finery but they were dressed in ways that showed they respected other people enough to wear decent clothes. I’ve long forgotten what the Chicago Symphony played that evening but it would have been a musical treat. It made for a great date because it allowed us to sit close together and yet not be burdened with trying to carry on a sparkling, interesting conversation. As we walked back to my car following the concert I’m sure we were both “feeling good” about one another and thinking of the possibility of future dates.
Fortunately it was getting close to the time of evening when I had promised to have her home so I didn’t have to face the embarrassment of not having enough money to take her out for a drink or “coffee and,” so we headed back towards her Chicago neighborhood. We had gotten perhaps halfway there when the old Chrysler’s engine began sputtering, bucking and jumping. I knew immediately what was wrong and was aghast at what was happening. I had underestimated; the car was running out of gas. The great first date I had almost pulled off had become a calamity.
“Out of gas.” A cliché. The hoary unbelievable pretext guys have given for getting a girl alone in the car. The lame excuse that girls’ mothers warned them about when they first began dating. This charming girl whom I had taken great pains to impress with my gentlemanliness would never go out with me again. That thought and what I was going to say to her were pounding through my mind as I steered the old Chrysler onto the shoulder before it stopped dead in the roadway. What could I possibly say that might make this a credibly non-threatening happening?
Necessity is the mother of invention, the sages tell us, and I had a burning necessity to “save face” with this girl. The wisdom of old age tells me that at this point the truth would probably have been the better choice but pride took precedence over truth. Of all the voices clamoring for attention in my head the loudest was the one telling me that admitting to my abject poverty would make me look like a sorry catch indeed. I needed a plausible reason why the car would be out of gas and I needed it quickly. A demon from the netherworld, always happy to facilitate a lie, happily provided one.
“Oh. . .” I groaned in mock despair, looking up toward the ceiling. “There’s a small hole in the gas tank. If I fill it up it just leaks out. I can’t keep more than four or five gallons in it. We’re out of gas.” I said, stating the obvious, trying to make it believable.
I apologized profusely and did my best to appear as absolutely harmless as a 9 year old choir boy. My effort wasn’t helped by the fact that in our get-acquainted chatting at the USO I had, with tongue-in-cheek, told Anne that, being a soldier, I was a trained killer. I didn’t remember saying that at the time. I learned later that my lovely date almost immediately remembered it.
Fortunately we were in a populated area with service stations not far apart. I proposed walking to the nearest gas station to get enough to get us to their pump. I gave her a choice of walking with me or staying. Despite her concern that I was potentially a killer or rapist, she felt the unknown concerning me was preferable to the unknown as to who might find her alone, alongside the road, in that car.
The rest of the night was mostly embarrassment on my part. It didn’t take long for me to get the gas and get her home. As things have turned out I must have convinced the girl that I was harmless and terribly embarrassed. She accepted a second date and many more following it. Thanks to Chicago’s love for “the boys in uniform,” we enjoyed numerous concerts and ballets where we sat in the best seats in the house. Many wealthy Chicagoans, as well as large corporations, bought season tickets for orchestra and/or box seats but seldom used them. When we showed up with me in uniform, we waited until the program began and if the seat holders had not made an appearance we were ushered to their seats.
I never again ran out of gas until after we were married. After several weeks it was obvious that I had little money to spend on dates. Any lavishness we enjoyed was courtesy of the generosity of wealthy Chicagoans.
We became engaged in January of 1955, immediately after I returned from my Christmas furlough at home in Kansas where I spent the entire time moping and missing Anne. I arrived back on her doorstep unexpectedly. She had been cleaning house, was in curlers, wearing rather frumpy house clothes and absolutely radiated embarrassment over my finding her that way. As for me, I was so happy to see her that I proposed marriage to her that very day. She immediately accepted.
Years later, long after we were married, Anne “fessed up” to a “lie of omission” equal to or more egregious than my "hole in the gas tank" lie. It seems that while I was pining away out in Kansas during my Christmas furlough she had accepted a date from one of her long-time acquaintances. But just as I had felt my “out of gas” lie was necessary because I wanted to keep seeing her she thought it best to keep knowledge of that little clandestine (to me) date to herself for many years. Her rationale for going out with the guy was that she was beginning to have strong feelings for me but wanted to be sure that she wouldn’t be attracted to another guy. She didn’t want to lose me at that point and knew me well enough to know that if I knew she’d had a date while I was gone it would’ve been the “kiss of death” to our romance. She was probably right.
But I didn’t know. And she did accept my proposal only a few days after that “extra-curricular” date. And both of us have been absolutely faithful to every word of our marriage vows since we spoke them. The end rarely justifies the means yet sometimes it does. Yesterday, June 30, 2012, we celebrated our 56th anniversary. Four of our five kids and one of our grandkidscalled to congratulate us. We accepted the praise but give most of the credit to Our Lord and His Blessed Mother.
Both of us like the answer the Rev. Billy Graham’s wife gave when a reporter, in questioning her about their long marriage, asked if she had ever considered a divorce. Her answer is ours: “Never – murder, maybe, but divorce, never."
Anne Carriker as she appeared at 65
Don, I've read many of your stories, but this one really got to me. The love that you have for your dear sweetheart really shows through, and once again you have recanted your feelings in a most beautifully way. Isn't in interesting that growing up many of us seemed to have lacked confidence associated with 'rejection' of the opposite sex...until we find the ONE? Great story!
Thanks, Golden. Yes it surely is interesting. "Man proposes, God disposes." I believe, and have told Anne many times, that "Pat," was sent to prepare me for Anne. "Pat" was the first girl I ever dated that had the same sense of propriety and values as Anne. God has touched my life and blessed me in so many ways. As I'm sure you know, having been married for more than a few years yourself, it isn't the "heart-caught-in-my-throat" kind of "love" it used to be. Now it is more of a sense of warm contentment and the closeness that comes with being with someone with whom I've, metaphorically, gone to hell and back. Committed marriage is a wonderful thing. What a pity that so many younger people aren't willing to make that same "trip."
Don, if I could write like this I would have the greatest gift ever. Not only is the story a beautiful testimony to true love but the way you write is so beautiful I can't stop reading once I start. I needed this respite. Nicely done!
Shucks, Don....you make writing look easy. The reading was certainly easy, personal and more than a bit of a page-turner. Good on ya' and on your precious marriage.
Yours and others comments are what feeds my motivation. I started writing casual pieces in high school. When I began writing my doctoral dissertation my "committee" almost beat any further desire to write out of me. I got to the point where the only style I had any fluency in was "academic," so-called scholarly writing. It honestly took me quite a few years to "learn how to write" again. I enjoy it and it's is my only creative outlet since my hearing became so bad that I can no longer play music or sing. Thanks for encouraging me. If you're ever read the piece I posted called "The Summer That Lasted A Lifetime" you'll have a deeper understanding of why I love my wife so deeply and undyingly.