Don was on leave from Norfolk and due back to the ship right after the first of the year, so we decided we would get married before he left. We chose December 30th. We had worked out all the details; we would drive to Tennessee, get married and be home by early afternoon, what could possibly go wrong?
I woke early on that Friday morning as Don was supposed to pick me up by seven for our secret rendezvous. I was ready on time but Don was nearly an hour late picking me up. Apparently unbeknownst to us another couple was having a house moved to its new location on that very morning, choosing to do so early so as not to inconvenience anyone. Yes, I am talking about a whole house. A single story, dark brown, brick ranch that was to be moved to its new location on that very day. The good news is the house is still there and every time we pass it we remember the day it found its new home on top of the hill. After that minor delay we were on our way.
We told my mother that we were heading to Bardstown to see Don’s father and would be gone most of the day, and had arranged for my then sister-in-law to join us as a witness. We drove to her house, waited across the street for my brother to leave, then picked up her and my nephew who was just a baby at the time. We dropped the baby off at his great aunt’s house and were on our way to Tennessee in our quest to become husband and wife.
The drive was uneventful, and we all arrived in high spirits. There was a line at the courthouse; apparently several other couples had hopes of getting married that day as well. When it was our turn, we told the lady at the desk we were there to get married. She smiled and said she needed our birth certificates. This was the second thing that nearly derailed our plans, as we had not thought to bring them. Before you chastise us for not being prepared please remember we were both very young. I had barely turned eighteen and my husband to be was twenty -one. This was way before the Internet was invented, so we had been unable to research what was involved. After a very tense moment it was decided that we could use our driver’s licenses since they had our pictures on them. We were lucky because at that time Kentucky was one of the few states that actually required photos on driver’s licenses.
After our identities were established she then requested the paperwork for blood test results. Glitch number three! Of course we had not thought to have any blood test taken. Things like this must happen on a regular basis as the lady was able to direct us to a clinic where we could get our blood drawn and returned that very day.
We drove across town and after several wrong turns -no GPS back in the day- finally found the clinic in rather run down section of Nashville. After arriving, and feeding yet another parking meter that seemed prevalent in the large city, we entered to find a sea of patients waiting to be seen. As we entered the building every person turned their head to watch us. I was terrified as all of those eyes followed us across the room, continuing to stare even after we had signed in and took our seats.
At the time I felt it was because somehow everyone in the room knew of our secret mission, but now as I type, I think it was more because we were highly overdressed for the area. Don was looking pretty dashing in his leisure suit. My sister-in-law had donned a nice dress for the occasion and I had on a new outfit. Purchased with my very own money from the new job I was working. I had on new blue jeans with a soft fur trim that lined the back pockets and a stunning black velour angel sleeve top. It was 1980 and this was extremely fashionable. Having just turned eighteen it never occurred to me that fur trimmed blue jeans and a black top may not have been the best choice of wedding attire. Besides, this was just our pre-wedding wedding.
Luckily we were only there for a blood draw and we were called back within a few short moments. They put us in separate rooms across the hall from one another where we each sat on an exam table and waved to each other like a couple of love struck kids. The nurse came into my room first, asked a couple of questions and then tied the tourniquet around my arm. As she was lowering the needle towards my arm I asked her when the results would be back. As the needle approached the crook of my arm she replied “oh not long, we should have them back in the morning.” I jerked my arm away just before the tip penetrated my exposed vein. “But, we are getting married today”, I exclaimed pulling at the rubber vice that still gripped my arm.
After a few moments of chaos we were sent across town yet again to a blood draw center that could accommodate a same day blood draw. After arriving and paying yet another parking meter, we made our way to a nice waiting area where we were met by a very friendly lady who assured us it would not take long to complete the process. After only a few minutes our blood was carted away to the testing area with the word STAT clearly labeled across each glass vile. We were told it would take about an hour and since it was now nearing lunch time it was suggested we take this opportunity to go and get something to eat.
I am not sure how much Nashville has changed since then, but in December of 1980 it was not easy for three highly stressed and very hungry people to find something to eat. We drove for a very long time before finally finding a Burger King. We ate burgers and fries and hurried back to the lab to get our test results. We had been gone for over an hour but when we returned the results had still not come back. After waiting well over an hour the receptionist finally called down to see what was taking so long. It turns out that our blood had been misplaced and no-one could find those two tiny glass tubes of blood. A trace was placed on them and we had no choice but to wait for them to be found.
After nearly two hours of panicking the blood was found and the results finally arrived. Don paid the fifty- six dollars and we were on our way. Unfortunately, instead of being on our way to the courthouse we were once again headed back to the clinic so the resident doctor could verify the results and declare us fit to be married. We returned to the clinic, walked back through the gauntlet of gawkers and spoke with the receptionist who in turn called a nurse who took our paperwork to the doctor. Forty minutes and Thirty- six dollars later, we exited the building, paperwork in hand which attested that we were in good health and genetically fit to become husband and wife, all signed by a doctor whom we never saw.
By the time we returned to the courthouse it was late, and all of the judges had left for the day. Feeling both physically and mentally exhausted I blinked in order to keep the tears at bay. Seeing my distress the clerk took pity on us and offered to call over to the night court and see if there was anyone who could perform the service. Luckily there was a judge there who agreed to see to our joining.
We made our way to the courtroom and opened the door. We were more than surprised to be met with a room full of people who turned to stare at the people who had suddenly disturbed the proceedings. We quickly closed the door without entering, fearing we had unknowingly arrived at the wrong court room. Within seconds the door opened and we were greeted by a distinguished man, with incredibly large ears, who assured us we were indeed in the right place.
The man introduced himself as Judge Doty and beckoned us to follow him. It was terrifying being led through that sea of faces in the court room and into a back chamber of the building. Judge Doty was a sturdy, kind, older man, with dark eyes that looked as if they had witnessed many years in the judicial system. He seemed rather pleased to be doing something as mundane as performing a simple marriage ceremony. When he asked which one of these pretty ladies was the bride, Don clutched my hand possessively, and proudly stated that I could cook too. He knew this for a fact as I had made him a spaghetti dinner only a couple of short months earlier when he was home on leave. What he neglected to say was that I had used boxed noodles, sauce from a jar, and he never even touched the homemade meatballs that I had slaved hours to prepare.
As Judge Doty began the ceremony he was interrupted by a phone call. After answering and assuring his wife he would bring home a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk he continued. A few seconds later a second call had been answered. This call was of greater importance as it ended with the promise of a fishing trip to take place the following day. When the service continued Judge Doty got to the part where a ring was needed and in one smooth motion without exchanging words, my sister-in-law slipped her own wedding ring off her hand and passed it to Don who then slipped it onto my waiting finger. Apparently in our haste to get married we had overlooked this minor detail. At long last, and without any further interruptions, we were finally pronounced husband and wife. It was official-after we handed over a forty dollar ceremony fee.
Upon surrendering the borrowed ring, and returning to the van, the first major test of our marriage was soon at hand. The van was nearly out of gas, we were over a hundred miles away from home and Don was nearly out of money. Between all the parking meters, blood test, doctor's signatures and ceremony fees, his cash was nearly depleted. He had a bit of money in an account at home, but that was way before the invention of the universal debit card. I had not thought to bring any money and my sister-in-law only had a couple of dollars on her, so we were frantically trying to figure out how we were going to get back home.
As it turns out Don had a money order in the van for the amount of six dollars, which he had yet to fill out. He took the money order to a bank across the street, went into the bank, walked up to the teller, slid the money order under the window, and told her he needed money. It was at that time that the guard saw him at the window, watched him pass the note and assumed he was robbing the bank. Apparently the bank had been closed for several minutes and somehow no-one had remembered to lock the side door. After a few tense moments my new husband was able to convince everyone he was not a bank robber, had just gotten married, and needed to cash the small money order in order to get his new bride safely back home. The teller, who had already closed out her drawer, took pity on him and gave him cash for the money order out of the money she had in her own purse.
With the funds from the money order and the small amount of cash on hand, Don was able to purchase gas which he prayed would be enough to get us all safely home. During the drive home, I having reached my limit proceeded to crawl into the bed in the back of the van and sleep most of the way home.
Needless to say we arrived back at the aunt’s house to pick up the baby much later than we originally intended. As we reached the back door my brother greeted us humming the hymn to the funeral march. As it turns out the baby had gotten sick, and his aunt had called my mom looking for us. When my mother questioned why we would take my sister-in-law with us to visit Don’s dad her aunt had jokingly stated “maybe they eloped.”
After gathering my nerve I called my mom, who demanded to know where we had been. There was no reason to lie so I told her Tennessee and when she asked why, I said “why do you think?” The next thing I heard was a dial tone. At that point I was very glad I had taken that much needed nap. My brother congratulated us, we had a celebratory glass of wine and we left.
After once again gathering the courage to call my house my younger brother answered the phone and wanted to know why mom had been crying ever since hanging up the phone with me. She refused to answer and told him to tell me if I wanted to speak with her I knew where she lived. An hour later we parked at the church next door to our house and, feeling as if we were facing the firing squad, slowly made our way across the yard and up the incline to our house.
My mom was still crying. My dad, not typically known for his patience, was so calm it was frightening. He wanted to know why we had eloped. Don spoke up and simply said “because we love each other.” Dad then asked the million dollar question, which was whether or not I was pregnant. We of course told them no, which was the truth. Dad visibly relaxed, slightly, at that point and left the room. Many years later I was told by my brother that he had seen dad with a loaded pistol in his waist band before he himself had been ordered to leave the house. I do not know for certain if this was true but I think it was a very good thing that an impending pregnancy was not the reason for our hasty elopement.
When dad returned to the room, both he and mom then attempted to make us see the error of our ways and get an annulment. They claimed that neither of them objected to the marriage, just the way we had gotten married. They wanted us to get an annulment and then go back the following weekend to get re-married with them beside us. I was afraid if we agreed to this they would find a way to keep us from a second ceremony. Dons refusal was because he was not about to relinquish his well earned prize. He had nearly been shot at the bank just a few short hours earlier and he was not about to let that experience be for naught.
After a long stalemate, it was decided that I would retire to my room for the night and Don would go home. All parties involved would discuss it further the following day, when hopefully calmer heads would prevail. I know there are some that would think it utterly absurd to sleep alone on ones wedding night but by this point Don and I were so exhausted it seemed like the right thing to do.
The final agreement was that we would follow our initial plan to keep the marriage a secret and plan for the big wedding in the summer. As with our elopement, things did not go as planned. We never had the big wedding, nor did I get the white dress. I am happy to report that I did eventually get a wedding band that many years later was replaced with a lovely diamond set. When we first got married several people expressed their disapproval, telling us it would not last six months. Thankfully, their predictions did not hold true and today marks our 35th wedding anniversary.
I guess, truth be told, one does not need a fancy dress, a shinny bauble or even a lot of money to get married. You only need perseverance, a trip across the state line and enough money for gas to get you home….