This year, my wife, Valerie and I will celebrate our 41st wedding anniversary. New friends and acquaintances sometimes find that hard to believe. When they react, Valerie will always explain that she was a child bride. I simply nod in acknowledgment of a lot of years with the same woman.

The Prologue
For some strange reason, no one has any problem believing I've been married since Chevrolets, Fords and Plymouths all had tail fins. Everything was different back then in the early 60's.

A modest brick home in a good neighborhood could be purchased for less than the price of a new Volkswagen bug today. The cost of utilities to keep it comfortable totalled less than forty dollars a month--including the telephone. Since American-made automobiles were good for only about 60,000 miles, almost everyone drove cars that were no more than four years old. The original Beetle had become a popular alternative since it had a longer life span.

A major market had three--perhaps four--television stations, and about the same number of supermarket chains. Supermarkets sold groceries; gasoline stations sold gas. Drugstores sold ice cream, candy, all-occasion cards, health aids and pharmaceuticals. "Dime Stores" didn't sell "dimes," but a dime would buy a bag chock-full of something tasty and sweet.

Doctors--not insurance companies or HMO's--prescribed all medical treatment. Schoolteachers taught the four R's. Pastors and priests and rabbi's were responsible for the spiritual well-being of their flock and they themselves were the moral leaders. Most corporate officers, politicians and professionals alike at least professed a code of professional ethics. You could search the entire FM dial and only find three or four broadcast stations. Most of them had a classical music or an educational format. The breakfast cereal displays at the supermarket contained no more than half-a-dozen brands. It wasn't necessary to bend down to the level of a four-year old to get the sugarcoated stuff; or stretch overhead for the bran flakes for the old folks. Marketing focused on distribution--not on the demographics of the market, or on the quirks of human behavior. Things were far less confusing, for sure.

Perhaps the most important differences were cultural. And of the cultural differences, the most meaningful one to me was that marriage was forever--not until the new wears off, not until it gets old, someone sexier comes along or rough times set in. The wedding vows--for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live--weren't multiple choice. They came as a package, since over a lifetime together, common sense said that a lasting marriage would experience them all.

Getting Acquainted
My first memory of Valerie was as a pretty, blonde teenager, sledding on a light powder of snow down a hill in her back yard. My parents had purchased the home next door and I was at home, between my sophomore and junior years in college. My mom asked if I had seen the pretty little girl next door. I replied with a whine, "Ma-ah, she's just a baby!"
One day, Mom motioned me to a rear bedroom window for a peek. And while I was impressed with how cute she looked in the royal blue jump suit she was wearing, she was far too young for this college man. That didn't keep Mom from talking about the "pretty little girl next door" whenever she had the chance. As a matter of fact, Valerie now says that my Mom arranged our marriage just to drive a wedge into a relationship she didn't like!

Regardless, on a cool, autumn Sunday afternoon, about a year later, I decided that the "pretty little girl next door" was worth another look. My parents were out of town, and after performing with our band at a college fraternity dance the night before, I'd planned to drive into town to retrieve a copy of some audiotapes made of the session, by our drummer. He was an enterprising young fellow who went to school, played in the band, and worked weekends at a local radio station. Having made up my mind to test the water with the "pretty little girl next door," I paced the floor deep in thought, not knowing exactly how I was going to pull this off. Finally, I simply picked up the phone and dialed. Valerie answered, and I announced that I was Ron Burch, the boy next door. From there, she made it all too easy. "I know who you are, I've got a picture of you in my wallet," she responded. (Was this my lucky day or what?)

Of course I expressed surprise and asked how the picture got there. She explained that it was taken at a sorority dance where our band had performed the previous Valentine's Day. The coup de grace came later. She asked if I would like to see it. "You betcha!" was my quick reply, and I quickly changed clothes from blue jeans into a white shirt, tie and three-button Ivy League suit with, get this, cuffs on the coat sleeves. Looking "way cool" and feeling very confident, I drove the short distance from our driveway to hers in the shiny, black-and-white, '57 Plymouth Fury Golden Commando we called the Big P. It was a prized possession and something none of her current boyfriends had.

I gave the doorbell one short ring. The prettiest girl I'd ever seen opened the door. A little shy of five-feet-tall and perfectly proportioned, she was a honey blonde with creamy skin and sparkling green eyes and couldn't have weighed more than 90 pounds. She invited me into the den where we sat down on the sofa and chatted for a few minutes before she showed me the photo. Sure enough, there I was--red tuxedo, tenor saxophone and all--rocking out at the LaVista Women's Club on the 14th of February, a year or so earlier.

A few exaggerations later, I looked at my watch a bit pensively and asked if she would like to accompany me on a drive downtown to the radio station. She hesitated for a moment, then asked her Mom if it would be okay. Drying her hands on her apron as she came out of the kitchen, her mom looked at me, smiled, and said "sure." I felt like an NFL wide receiver who had just caught a 30-yard touchdown pass. We walked to the car where I, of course, opened--and closed--her door. The drive into town was filled with behind the wheel, and Valerie way over on the passenger side. She was practically hugging the right-side door.

At the radio station, while Valerie looked away, Freddy, the drummer in our band, gave me a "thumbs up." I was thinking the same thing, and I was already planning to extend the drive back home. About half way there, I placed my arm on the back of the seat behind the pretty little blonde. She responded by scooting over toward my side. My heart did a thump.

The Courtship
We began to date almost immediately...right after I said "goodbye" to the old girlfriend that my mom disliked. In fact, we were soon together whenever we had the opportunity. And living next door—there were plenty of opportunities. Soon it was time for my next move. I invited Valerie to tag along with me to window shop at the local boat store, Stovall Marine. She liked the red one best.

That night, Valerie told her Mom that I was going to buy her a boat. "Right," was the sarcastic reply. The next day, when I drove up with the red, 16' Glaspar ski boat in tow behind the Big P, Valerie--but not her Mom--was ecstatic. Over the next few months, the little blonde next door and I became best friends. We were nearly always together. If we weren't on the lake or out on a date, we were waxing the boat, washing the Big P or just sitting out on the patio, listening to music.

The Proposal
Rumors of a war in Southeast Asia and a renewed draft call had my pals and I thinking a lot about our futures. That spring and summer I was honored to be "best man" at several of their weddings. By late summer, much to the dismay of Valerie's parents, she'd said "yes" to my proposal and we, too, were shopping for an engagement ring. After much moaning and groaning and crying and pleading, her parents allowed her to accept the ring on one condition: she could wear it when she was out with me, but she wasn't allowed to wear it to school or at other times.

By Christmas, we were making wedding plans. We wanted to get married sometime after her birthday in February. Even though Valerie was still a high school student, I was employed fulltime by BDA/BBDO Advertising in Atlanta as a production artist. I earned a good salary--at least enough for us to make it on our own, without anyone's help. Sometime around Valentine's Day, we informed our parents of our plans. "Ron, you're both just too, too young!" exclaimed her Dad.

"I won't hear of it," her Mom announced emphatically.

"Son, I wish you'd wait, but you're old enough to know what you're doing," shrugged my Dad.

"If you're going to get married, I want to be there to see it!" my Mom chimed in.

Getting a License and Making it Legal
In preparation, we'd applied for a marriage license several weeks earlier. We had decided to apply at a county some distance away from our home, just in case Valerie's parents were snooping. On a cold and windy day late in January, we drove to the courthouse in a little town some forty miles outside of Atlanta. Once inside, the signs told us where to go. We walked uneasily passed a pot-bellied stove in the center of the room, and into the Office of the Ordinary. The Clerk eyed us both up and down, then gave us an application to fill-out and complete.

Paperwork complete, she asked for our IDs. To speed up the process--and to avoid having our names published in the County paper--I had fabricated a counterfeit driver's license ID for Valerie that said she was eighteen. There would still be a three-day wait. However, that was better than the two-week wait they would have required had we listed her real age.

On the day after the waiting period expired over a very extended lunch hour I drove back to the little courthouse to pick up our Marriage License. I parked the Big P between two gray-and-blue cruisers belonging to the Georgia State Highway Patrol.

"Wonder what they're doing here?" I pondered. I didn't have a topcoat and it was another cold and blustery day. I literally ran from the parking area into the Courthouse. There I saw two burly Highway Patrol Officers standing close to the pot-bellied stove in the center of the room, warming their rather large backsides. Each one was armed to the hilt with two holsters. They even had handcuffs hanging from their wide black belts. Now one thing my mama taught me was that "discretion was the better part of valor." So remembering that Valerie had used a fake driver's license as proof of her age, I nonchalantly walked over, joined them beside the stove, and struck up a conversation.

"Cold out, isn't it?"

One said, "Yep," the other just nodded in agreement.

"Uh, are you guys here all the time?"

One said, "Nope," the other shook his head. My heart skipped a beat.

I went further, "Then what brings you here on a day like this?"

"Driver's Licenses." Now my heart was pounding.

Nervously clearing my throat, I commented, "Oh yeah?"

"Yep," the talkative officer replied, "It's that time of year."

"What time of year is that?" I asked trying my best not to look like a criminal.

"Renewals. Son, you'd be surprised how many people put it off until the very last minute, then have to come out on a nasty day like this to avoid breaking the law."

Whew! Five minutes and sixteen dollars later, I had our Marriage License and my heart resumed beating at a normal rhythm.

The Elopement
Thursday night, March 1, 1962. While a temporary lock-down was occurring at Valerie's house, I was busy with a screwdriver under a dark carport, changing the license tag on my car, to the Florida plate it displayed when I purchased it. The next morning, before leaving for work, my Dad gave me a hug, shook my hand, patted me on the back and said, "Good luck, son. Drive carefully, and let us hear from you when you get to where you're going." Meanwhile, next door, Valerie's dad was getting ready to drive her to school.

At eight-fifteen, he let her out by the entrance to the gymnasium--unaware that I was lurking a few cars back. After waving goodbye and going into the gym door as expected, Valerie dashed back out to my car, climbed in, and crouched down underneath the dash to keep from being spotted by the crossing guard. While she remained out of sight and hidden from view, I pulled away from the curb and merged back into the line of school traffic. To avoid suspicion I smiled and waved at the crossing guard as I passed and made a left turn onto the main road. We'd met with our minister several weeks earlier. While he cautioned us about getting married so young and reiterated all the problems we'd be facing, he had reluctantly agreed to perform the ceremony. In the past week, the denial of parental permission as well as the lock-down at Valerie's house had spoiled our plans for a small church wedding. So we called and convinced our minister to marry us at his home.

As we drove down the main road and distanced ourselves from the high school, the clock on the dashboard read eight twenty-five. We were somewhat ahead of schedule. The minister wasn't expecting us until nine-thirty. We needed a "safe house" for about an hour. We drove to a cousin's home nearby and camped-out. At nine twenty-five, it was off to the minister's house, a scant eight blocks away, for the shortest recital of the wedding vows in history. Afterwards, I paid the minister, said goodbye to Mom (yes, she was there) and we headed south to Florida, and a five-day honeymoon.

The farther south we drove, the harder it rained. Driving state roads with questionable tires, the going was slow. Roughly seven hours later we were approaching the outskirts of Jacksonville. We decided that was where we'd spend the night. During the last hour or so of the drive, we'd hardly spoken at all.

"Are you going to call and tell my Mom?" Valerie asked.

"Sure, no problem," I replied.

"Are you sure? Do you promise?" she wanted reassurance.

"Yes, I promise." I just hoped I could do it.

Five minutes later, the same questions would break the silence once again.

The Confession
Just after five-thirty, we pulled into a Howard Johnson's Restaurant, next to the Arlington Motor Lodge, on the south side of the St. John's River Bridge. We knew we'd find a public telephone that was out of the weather inside the HoJo. Besides, we were both hungry.

It was all you can eat "clam night," and even though it was well before the traditional dinner hour, the place was packed. The only public phone was wall-mounted, near the end of an L-shaped serving counter. I elbowed my way to it, deposited sufficient coins for a three-minute call, and waited for Valerie's mom to answer. It didn't take long.

"Mrs. McDonald, this is Ron."

"Hi, Ron," she responded—almost warmly.

Without me saying another word, she continued, "Ron, Valerie isn't here right now...they were to take drill team pictures after school, and she hasn't gotten home yet."

"I know she isn't there, Mrs. McDonald. Valerie and I…uh…we got married this morning. Here, would you like to speak with her?"

Valerie gasped and took a short, quick breath. She shook her head “no” but eventually took the phone. The only thing her Mom said before hanging up was that she felt sorry for her.

Everyone at the counter was silent. Everyone was looking at us. While Valerie cried softly, I replaced the receiver and checked the coin return for a refund. Even though the call was far less than three minutes, Southern Bell kept all the money.

Valerie dried off her tears and we shrugged off the wet blanket her mom threw on the occasion. We checked into the Motor Lodge next door, unloaded the car, and went back to HoJo's for dinner. By now the news about the "little couple that eloped" had spread. Several folks came over to our booth to wish us good luck. I suppose that was our reception.

After dinner, Valerie said she wanted to go shopping for clothes. Perhaps this should have been a sign to me of what was to come. However, since her dowry consisted of twenty-five dollars and a pocketbook full of hair curlers, she obviously did need a few things. We bought clothes and a camera. Although Jacksonville was rainy, windy and nasty cold, we wanted to have some pictures of our honeymoon. I suggested we take them by the palm trees that lined the pool. No one had to know the temperature was only forty degrees.

The weekend flew by in a hurry. On Monday night we were lying in bed, wondering what would befall us once we arrived home in Atlanta. Suddenly the bedside phone rang loudly. We both jumped a foot into the air. It was my dad with a message from Valerie's parents: they said to come back home--they were now "in our corner." And so they were--even though they referred to me as "hey you" for most of the next twenty years.

Over the Threshold
In April we bought furniture and moved into our first apartment. In June, Valerie got her diploma and went to work. In August, we bought our first little house, only blocks away from our parents. In October, we were all drawn closer together as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded and we all practiced the "duck and cover."

A year later, Valerie's parents relocated to Dunedin, Florida. Whenever we happened to run into one of their former church friends or a neighbor, they acted surprised to learn that, A) we were still together; B) that we didn't already have a kid; and C) that Valerie wasn't pregnant. (I guess that's all those good Episcopalians had to think about.) I don't know if "love conquered all," or if sheer guts and determination got us through. Either way, we made it over the rough spots during those early years, and the two of us, as well as our marriage, matured greatly.

40 Years of Good Behavior
Our accomplishments since have been as a team. So have our failures. Valerie completed the course of study and passed the Dental Hygiene Boards in 1970. I became a partner in the graphics arts production firm where I worked. I learned to fly, got a Private Pilot's License and an Instrument Rating, and bought an airplane. Over the next thirty-five years, I acquired and sold several businesses--all the while staying involved in the graphic arts.

Along the way, Valerie and I tried to maintain a balance in our lives--personally, professionally and spiritually. We gave each other the space we needed to be individuals, our own persons. We've seldom argued or had angry confrontations.

When we had problems--and every marriage does--"calling it quits" was never an acceptable option, or one that was even considered.

As strong individuals, we sometimes held onto our strong opinions. When they differed, we both had to learn to pick our battles. Our philosophy was "major in the majors" and "minor in the minors." We learn to appreciate the value of compromise. Over time, the passion, the hormones, and the hot-rod Plymouth we called the Big P have all been replaced by a little security, lots of contentment, and a big old Buick. My love and admiration for that "pretty little girl next door" I married over four decades ago has grown deeper with each passing year.

At least for now, I'm retired--having sold the last business, the airplane, and quit my day job. I'm what you'd call lazy--fat and lazy, but that's okay...that cute little blonde still loves me, and she places her fuzzy house shoes under my bed every night!

Forty-to-life with the same women …who would have ever thought it.

©Copyright 2003 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.