True Love Ways

Graduating from Purdue (6:1968)

Graduation day at Purdue University. Also pictured are my father Robert, mother Margaret and grandmother Grace. (June 1968)

The past is but a beginning of a beginning…   —H. G. Wells

Let’s begin at the beginning.  Simple enough—except knowing when to begin this story isn’t that easy.  You see, I didn’t meet Mary Ann Wiggins until December 1968, but the story somehow seems to have begun earlier than that.  Let me explain.

If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.  

There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave…   

—Barry McGuire from Eve of Destruction

The year 1968 was a momentous one—for our nation and for me personally.  The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the ongoing dissention and discord around the Vietnam War were straining our nation to its limits.  The “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union was going full-bore; we Americans lived with a specter of nuclear holocaust at any time.

It was in this context that I graduated with a degree in biochemistry from Purdue University in June 1968.  I had been an Air Force ROTC cadet during college and I soon received my military orders.  They instructed me to report to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois to begin training as a Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Launch Officer.  I would later be assigned to a large, yet obscure missile base in Wyoming.  Since I aspired then to eventually pursue graduate studies, this assignment seemed to be quite a detour for me.  Even worse, it could lead to a dead end.  I knew that, as a Missile Launch Officer, I would be on the “front lines” in any nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union—and that prospect seemed very real to me in 1968.

Fording stream in Utah (8:1968)

‘Hannibal’ fords a stream in southern Utah en route to California. (August 1968)

He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.                                                                                                          —James Joyce

Despite such sobering aspects of my new Air Force duty assignment, there was another side to that summer of 1968 following graduation.  In August I loaded all my possessions at the time (e.g. golf clubs, record player, childhood and college keepsakes, etc) into my Volkswagen “bug” (which I had nicknamed ‘Hannibal’) and drove cross-country to California where I was to undergo a second level of missile launch training at Vandenberg Air Force Base.  It was my first extensive road trip to the West—and I made the most of it.

I drove across the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and then wandered on remote backroads through southern Utah as I headed west.  The landscapes of the southwestern deserts were amazing to me and unlike anything I’d ever known before.  When I got to California I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time, as well as other wonders such as the Sequoia trees of the High Sierra.  I felt emancipated—and alone.

Initial encounter with the Pacific (9:1968)

An initial encounter with the Pacific Ocean in California. (September 1968)

I was also adapting to personal constraints imposed by the Air Force, which ranged from the kind of haircut I could have to the strict uniform dress codes.  So I occasionally found ways to withdraw from the Air Force regimen and visit natural places where such influences seemed far away.  It was an illusion, of course, but it helped.

Downtown Cheyenne (1968)

Postcard of downtown Cheyenne, Wyoming. (1968)

By mid-October 1968 I had concluded my training at Vandenberg and drove back east to my permanent duty assignment at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  I soon resumed the practice of withdrawing from my base regimen for a few hours whenever I could.  I referred to these times as “going on the loose.” Most such excursions during the initial months were into the High Plains west of Cheyenne.  This was a foreign landscape to my Midwestern eyes—remote and stark—and yet I (and my camera) found it beautiful.

Snag on High Plains west of Cheyenne (11:1968)

Pine snag on the High Plains west of Cheyenne. (November 1968)

*******

Missile Combat Crew (1968)

Missile Combat Crew. (November 1968)

“Lt. Simmons, will you turn your launch key?”

“Yes, Colonel Scott, I will.”

On November 22, 1968—one day before my twenty-second birthday—I was called to brief the Wing Commander, Colonel Robert Scott, on the emergency war procedures I would follow in the event of an authenticated order from the President to launch my ICBM missiles.  It was a part of the Combat Crew certification process.  At the conclusion of the briefing, Col. Scott looked directly at me in the eyes and asked if I would launch my missiles when I received the order to do so.  He was not smiling.

I knew this question was coming; it concluded every certification briefing to the Wing Commander.   During my training I’d sometimes wondered privately what might happen if I answered the Wing Commander’s question by saying, “I don’t know!”  It would have been closer to the truth, although my “good soldier” response this day was a simple “Yes, I will.”  Just like that, I became a certified Deputy Missile Combat Crew Commander.

Combat Crew certificate (1968)

Missile Combat Crew Certificate. (November 1968)

My Crew Commander, Craig Hansen, had been through this briefing before; he had, in fact, already served most of his missile tour of duty.  He soon received an assignment to another base and I moved to a new commander.  In the few months Captain Hansen and I worked together, we discussed many things and became friends.  However, I don’t recall us ever discussing implications of our assignment as to how we might respond if an order came to launch our missiles.  It was the “elephant” in the Launch Control Center.

Minuteman Missile displayed at F E Warren AFB

Minuteman missile displayed at F. E. Warren Air Force Base.

*******

Steve K decorates apartment Christmas tree (12:1968)

Roommate Steve Koeckeritz decorates the Christmas tree in our base-housing apartment. (December 1968)

Besides Captain Hansen, another friendship I formed early in my time at Warren Air Force Base was with my base-housing roommate Steve Koeckeritz.  He arrived two weeks after me and we soon became close friends.  We were the same age (birthdays within two weeks of each other) and shared the same name, so I suppose it was destiny that our friendship would be a good one.  Steve and I did discuss our misgivings associated with the implications of our Air Force missile launch officer assignment.  We both soon had concluded that we would pursue discharges from the Air Force as soon as our respective tours of duty were finished.  Steve and I were roommates for slightly more than a year before he married and moved off the base.

Mary Ann Wiggins during college years (1967)

Mary Ann Wiggins during college. (1967)

“You should ask Mary Ann to go skiing with you, Steve.  She’s taking lessons!”

                                                            —Sharon [Alexander] O’Connell

One of the things I did upon arriving in Cheyenne was to find a church.  I sought to strengthen my faith, of course, but I also saw it as an opportunity to broaden contacts within the community—and especially with others in my age group.  A short time after starting to attend there I was invited by an acquaintance, Sharon Alexander, to a Sunday-evening gathering of young adults from the church.  We met at a restaurant in Cheyenne known as The Owl Inn.  There were perhaps six or seven of us around a table in one corner.   Sharon sat across from me and next to her was another woman from the church, Mary Ann Wiggins.  I had noticed Mary Ann before but had not yet met her.  She had grown up in Cheyenne and attended college out-of-state before returning to her hometown.  Her parents still lived there and she desired to be closer to them.  She accepted a first-grade teaching job at a local elementary school.

After arriving in Wyoming that previous November, I’d become enthralled by downhill skiing.  I often traveled to Colorado ski areas within driving distance of Cheyenne.  Sharon knew of my interest and early in our conversation she informed me that Mary Ann was also a skier.  Mary Ann recalls the exchange this way:

We all had a good time talking and then the conversation turned to skiing.  Sharon said, “Oh, Mary Ann is taking skiing lessons!  You should go skiing together sometime.”  I knew I was a mere beginner, but my friend Sharon acted like I should really know a lot about skiing since I’d had lessons.

Within a week or so I was approached by the associate pastor at my church and asked to finish out the year as a co-sponsor of the Junior High Youth Group.  He also informed me that the  person with whom I would be working was Mary Ann Wiggins.  I accepted Frank’s request without hesitation.

Mary Ann and I began meeting and planning activities for our youth group sessions each week.  As I recall, there were about fifteen “regulars” in our group and most of them were from families in the church.  Mary Ann was acquainted with most of them, although they were unfamiliar to me.

One of the events we helped plan early-on was a festive Valentine’s Day dinner.  It was a tradition of the church and intended to offer an alternative to dances and other “secular” activities in the community.  Our youth group looked forward to this event, although it became apparent to me that this was partly due to the fact that they intended to “match up” Mary Ann and me at the dinner.  Some were concerned that Mary Ann had already graduated from college and did not have a boyfriend!  They had determined that I would be a perfect match for her—and they hinted as much with their actions whenever we were together.

As the time of the dinner arrived, Mary Ann and I were asked to sit at the same table and the students saw to it that we were not distracted.  I don’t recall that she and I discussed these well-intentioned efforts to get us together, but I realize now that I wasn’t ready to form a serious relationship yet.  However, I did follow up on our mutual-friend Sharon’s earlier suggestion to go skiing together—and this is that story.

*******

Steamboat Springs ski area (1969)

Steamboat Springs ski area. (1969)

Not long after the Valentine’s dinner, I asked Mary Ann to go skiing with me at Steamboat Springs in northern Colorado.  I’d already been to that ski area a number of times and considered it to be a ‘day trip’ even though it was about three hundred-fifty miles round-trip!  It would be Mary Ann’s first time skiing at Steamboat.  I picked her up at her apartment early on a Saturday morning; we left before daybreak.  I intended for us to arrive by the time the ski area opened at 9 AM.  As we drove along we talked about any number of things, and I imagine we discussed our youth group and what we might do with them the next week.  The time passed quickly.

From the outset I was very comfortable with Mary Ann; and I don’t recall being at all apprehensive about skiing together with her.  Considering that she had taken lessons, I expected that she would be a comparable skier to myself and we would be together throughout the day.  We did end up spending the entire day together, but it wasn’t quite in the way I had envisioned.  I did regard this day with Mary Ann to be a kind of “date” so when we arrived I rented her skis at the lodge and bought her lift ticket.  I was “old school” about such things.

I wish now though that I’d initially taken Mary Ann to the beginners’ hill and evaluated her level of skiing proficiency.  If I had, I would not have taken her onto the more advanced trails of the mountain.  She may have had ski lessons, but her experience was limited and her confidence was low.

Instead I took her with me straight to the chair lifts and we went to the top of the mountain.  The slopes back to the base were all rated at least intermediate in skill level, and most had hummocky bumps called moguls, which made them even more difficult.  Mary Ann was in over her head.

Mary Ann puts on positive face during downhill skiing at Steamboat Springs (2:1969)

Mary Ann puts on a positive face during our downhill skiing “date” at Steamboat Springs. (February 1969)

I should have recognized my error then, and suggested that we ride the chair lift back down to the base of the mountain.  But pride got the best of me; we had come to ski after all.  Here’s Mary Ann’s account of how it went from there:

Not only was I completely overwhelmed by the moguls I’d never encountered before, but I was very nervous in the presence of this man who obviously was a good skier.  My confidence was completely gone, my legs were like mush, and I fell more than I skied.  Steve would ski ahead a bit and then wait as I criss-crossed from one side of the slope to the other, falling at each turn. It took us the whole rest of the day to descend the mountain.  I must have looked like one giant snowball!

We finally reached the base of the mountain in mid-afternoon—and we were both finished for the day!  I felt terrible for having taken Mary Ann onto areas of the mountain that were beyond her ability.  She thought my day of skiing had been ruined and regretted not being more forthcoming about her limited experience.  We returned Mary Ann’s skis to the rental office and made our way back to my VW.  We were determined not to let this unfortunate skiing experience affect the remainder of our day.  With an earlier than expected departure, I assumed that we’d arrive back to Cheyenne in early evening and we’d be able to enjoy a nice dinner together at a restaurant; all would be well.  That was not to be.

*******

After leaving Steamboat Springs we followed US highway 40 across Rabbit Ears Pass and then turned north on Colorado highway 14 towards the village of Walden.  It was now late afternoon, and although conditions were relatively good for winter driving then, I could see unsettling signs ahead.  After we passed through Walden the wind became much stronger from the west and snow was blowing across the road.  I remarked to Mary Ann that we might be in for some ground blizzards ahead and “it might slow us up a bit.”  However, I’d driven through ground blizzards before during prior skiing trips and figured I’d be able to handle whatever lay ahead.

Changing weather in North Park Colorado

Changing weather along Colorado highway 14 in North Park, Colorado.

Ground blizzards occur when loose snow on the ground is lifted and blown by strong winds.  Usually the snow stays low and moves across the road surface, but in more extreme cases it becomes like a snowstorm and greatly reduces visibility.  Darkness was also coming on, which might make ground blizzards even more difficult to navigate.  I did give thought to returning to Steamboat and making the drive to Cheyenne during daylight the next morning, but Mary Ann and I were scheduled to lead the junior high youth at church on Sunday so I decided to press on.

A few miles after passing through Walden I regretted my decision not to turn around.  The winds increased even more, and I could see that ground blizzards ahead would be more severe.  I was still relatively new to winter driving in the mountains and had little idea what “more severe” might mean.  A few minutes later I found out.  I was suddenly driving in “white out” conditions and had to drastically reduce my speed as I peered ahead through the windshield to make out the center-line of the road.  Mary Ann also tried to help me see through the driving snow and we both hoped this ground blizzard would be a short-lived one.  I quietly worried that whoever else was on this highway and heading towards us was likely having as much trouble seeing the road as we were!  Would they stay in their own lane or would we have a head-on collision?

Serious ground-blizzard conditions

A serious ground-blizzard.

Then conditions worsened again.  It was dark now and the snow blowing across the road was so dense that it soaked up my headlight beams and rendered them useless.  I considered pulling to the side of the road, but I wasn’t sure there even was a shoulder on this stretch of the rural highway.   There were few houses or side roads, and considering the darkness and poor visibility we couldn’t see them anyway.  My speed was down to ten or fifteen miles per hour by this point, and we limped along straining to make out the roadway ahead.  Another troubling thought came to me: what if another vehicle came up behind us at a faster speed and did not realize we were moving so slowly?  It would surely crash into us from the back.  I don’t recall that I discussed these private worries with Mary Ann, although it was abundantly clear to both of us that we were in great danger.

Then conditions worsened even more.  Neither of us could make out the center line at all, so I stopped my car right in the road and waited for this blast of ground blizzard to subside.  It was complete white out; I had no idea how to proceed.  We both expected another vehicle to smash into us from the front or back.  I prayed for safety—and Mary Ann did the same; we both then became silent and waited.

I’m not sure how long we sat there at a dead stop—it seemed like forever.  It was probably a minute or two later when we could begin to make out the center line again.  I crept forward and gradually increased my speed to perhaps twenty miles per hour.  I still felt vulnerable to a collision.  More time passed and I was able to increase my speed again to about thirty miles per hour; our spirits lifted.  By the time we reached the Wyoming state line, we were traveling maybe forty miles per hour, but the ground blizzards had lessened.  We sensed that the worst was behind us.   About two-hours later, we arrived at Laramie, Wyoming, and turned east towards Cheyenne.  We were confident now that our nearly-disastrous ground blizzard saga was over; we were in the clear.

We arrived back to Mary Ann’s apartment about 11 PM.  It had taken us almost seven hours to travel the usual three-hour journey from Steamboat Springs to Cheyenne.  We were limp with fatigue after our stressful day and too tired to debrief the experience then.   I returned to my apartment at the base and went straight to bed.  And before going to sleep I offered one more thanksgiving prayer for having survived one of the most harrowing experiences of my life.

Mary Ann and I probably shared our ground-blizzard experience with the junior high youth group the following day.  I don’t recall that we discussed it much between ourselves though.  We both knew we’d been in the crucible together—and there wasn’t any need to belabor that fact.

When I look back on that Steamboat Springs skiing trip with Mary Ann now, I think it was an early indication that we were capable of supporting each other through the thick and thin of life.  And in the fifty years we’ve been together since then, it’s never been much thicker than it was that night when we sat in my VW at a dead-stop on Colorado highway 125 and waited out that ground blizzard.  Throughout that stressful day of skiing and the ensuing trip back to Cheyenne, I don’t recall us becoming irritated with or unsupportive of each other.   It definitely drew us together—although it was another eight months before I appreciated that fact.

Sometimes we’ll sigh,
Sometimes we’ll cry,
And we’ll know why
Just you and I
Know true love ways.

—Buddy Holly

 *******

Spring skiing at Steamboat Springs Colorado (March 1969)

Spring skiing at Steamboat Springs Colorado. (March 1969)

Spring skiing at Jackson Hole Wyoming (March 1969)

Spring skiing at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. (March 1969)

Mary Ann and I continued to see each other regularly in conjunction with our youth group sponsor responsibilities, although we had no more “dates” that winter or spring.  I continued to make skiing excursions to Steamboat Springs and other areas in Colorado, sometimes in the company of my roommate Steve Koeckeritz.  The two of us each skied more than forty times during that 1968-69 ski season!  It included for me a trip to Jackson Hole Ski Area in Wyoming, which at the time boasted the greatest vertical drop of any ski area in North America (4139 feet).  This adventure gave me the opportunity to experience the Grand Teton mountains for the first time—something I’ll never forget.

During hike to St Mary's Glacier (4:1969)

During hike to ski St. Mary’s Glacier in Colorado. (April 1969)

After the ski season I had one more memorable experience—skiing on a glacier!  Technically it was a semi-permanent snowfield, but it was called St. Mary’s Glacier and in 1969 that was good enough for me.  One day a friend and I drove to a trailhead in the mountains west of Denver and hiked two miles (while carrying our skis) on a trail that led back to the remote “glacier.”  We skied from the top of the snow field to where it fed into a scenic mountain lake.   We then hiked back up and skied it again before walking back to our car.   It was yet another amazing experience etched into my young mind.

The season turned to summer, and my recreation shifted from the ski slopes to mountain hiking trails.  I continued to take “on the loose” excursions, although those had extended into more distant locations by now.  In July my parents came to visit me for the first time.  I took them on several outings and one of those was to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  As we drove along a portion of Trail Ridge Road in the park that day, we stopped to take photos at a picturesque alpine meadow.  My mother took one picture of me seated among wildflowers that is now symbolic for me of who I was at the time.  I was comfortable with my singleness, but I was beginning to wonder how—and when—that might change?

In an alpine meadow at Rocky Mountain National Park (July 1969)

In an alpine meadow at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (July 1969)

*******

During the summer of 1969 I had few dates and mostly focused on my Air Force duties.  I appreciated whatever times I could find for hiking in the mountains.  And I began thinking more about Mary Ann too.  She had left for the summer and went to visit some friends in southern California.  She and I weren’t communicating while she was gone so I wasn’t aware that she actually looked for a teaching position while she was there.  Had she found one, she would have stayed in California and not returned to Wyoming again.  In the meantime I was considering how to ask Mary Ann out again after she returned from Los Angeles.  I reasoned that we would no longer be co-sponsoring the church’s youth group anymore so we could approach our dating relationship in a more conventional way.

While in California, Mary Ann soured on the idea of staying there and she made plans for her return to Cheyenne.  However, it was now my turn to leave Cheyenne for a while.  In August I was asked to be one of four missile launch officers from my base to be assigned to temporary duty back at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  Our task was to launch one of the Minuteman ICBMs from my base as part of an ongoing Air Force testing program intended to demonstrate to the Soviet Union (and to ourselves) that the U.S. Minuteman ICBM force was reliable and effective.

After arriving at Vandenberg, I began pulling alert duties much as I would have if I had been back at my base.  There were some differences, however.  My Launch Control Center (LCC) at Vandenberg was above-ground, not sixty feet below-ground.  And our alerts were only performed during a typical work day, not over a 24-hour period as at our base.  Although we didn’t know the date or time of the launch of our missile beforehand, we knew a message would eventually come from the Command Center—and then we would turn our keys and launch the missile.  We’d heard from other officers involved with previous tests at Vandenberg that the launch order could come anytime within two and four weeks after we began our duties there.

Self-portrait at the top of Nevada Falls in Yosemite National Park (9:1969)

Self-portrait at the top of Nevada Falls in Yosemite National Park. (September 1969)

Since I had weekends and a some other days free of duties, I made some excursions away from the base to other parts of California.  For example, I returned to Yosemite National Park where I had stopped briefly while driving from Vandenberg to Wyoming the previous year.  I spent two days at the park this time and did a number of hikes there.  One was to the top of Nevada Falls, and since there were few other hikers on the trail that day I was mostly alone.  When I reached my destination, I took a “self-portrait” by using my shadow silhouetted against the crest of the falls.  This photo was yet another representation of my solitary life in this time.  And I continued to wonder how—and when—things might change for me?

Missile Launch from Vandenberg

Test Minuteman missile launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Back at Vandenberg, we launch officers received notice that the time for testing our missile was drawing near.  It came in the morning of Thursday, October 2nd, and the four of us officers on duty had previously drawn straws to see who would be able to step outside the LCC and watch the launch.  The missile was in an underground facility about a half-mile farther down the coast from us.  Two other officers and I drew long straws, which meant we were able to leave and watch.  The one officer who got the short straw stayed in the LCC and monitored the mission’s progress.

The weather was perfect that morning as our missile rose quickly through a cloud of smoke over the launch facility.  I was surprised since I’d watched televised launches of NASA space program rockets, which initially rose slowly from their launch pads.  Our missile moved rapidly into the cloudless sky and arched out to the west over the deep-blue Pacific Ocean.  I’ll never forget it.

We three officers watched the missile for a couple of minutes until it was just a speck in the distance and then reentered the LCC.  Our colleague who had stayed there to monitor communications informed us that our missile was already over Hawaii and its warhead would soon land in the South Pacific Test Range.  We later learned that it landed just a short distance from its target, an aspect that surely impressed Soviet ships positioned in the Pacific at that time to track such test launches.

Missile launch certificate (1969)

Minuteman Missile Launch Certificate. (October 2, 1969)

Before I left California to return to Wyoming, I took a walk along the Pacific coastline near where I’d been a year earlier before moving on to Cheyenne.  A friend took a photo of me alone on the beach that day.  As I walked, I thought back over the year since I’d seen the Pacific Ocean for the first time.  In that time I’d finished missile training and established an entirely new life.   I’d discovered some wonderful places in the Colorado and Wyoming mountains and had formed a number of new friendships—including one with Mary Ann.   As I anticipated my return to Wyoming, I sensed this was an inflection point in my life and I wondered what the next year might bring my way.  I would soon find out.

Along the Pacific Ocean near Vandenberg AFB (10:1969)

Along the Pacific coastline near Vandenberg Air Force Base. (October 1969)

*******

“How about coming over for supper tonight, Steve.”   —Stan Scheer

It was a week or two after I’d arrived back to my base in Cheyenne.   I had just finished playing an afternoon racquetball match with a married friend from my church, Stan Scheer.  As we departed the base’s recreation building, Stan asked me if I’d like to come over to his house for supper that evening.  I didn’t have other plans so I readily accepted his invitation.  As we continued to walk to our cars Stan added, “Oh, I think Alona [his wife] invited Mary Ann over for supper too.  I hope that’s alright.”

What could I say?  I recognized that this was their scheme to get Mary Ann and me together—and I was fairly sure Mary Ann was as much in the dark as I was.  I looked at Stan, smiled sheepishly and responded, “Sure, that’s fine.”

I truthfully don’t remember much about that evening.  I’m sure Mary Ann and I were cordial—we were well-acquainted by this time after all.  Yet the circumstance of being thrust together by our friends was a bit awkward.  We likely talked about our respective stays in California (it was the first time we’d been together since my return).   I also probably told about launching the missile at Vandenberg too.  Since Stan and Alona knew Mary Ann well, they surely discussed matters of mutual interest as well.

The Lincoln Theatre - Cheyenne

The Lincoln Theatre in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Whatever I then thought about that evening with Stan, Alona and Mary Ann, I now regard it as a gift.  I’d determined while I was in California that I would ask Mary Ann out again after I returned to Cheyenne, although this unexpected connection with her (compliments of Alona and Stan) hastened our getting together.  I asked Mary Ann for another date within just a few days.  We attended a film at Cheyenne’s classic Lincoln Theatre, although neither of us remembers now what picture we saw.  We then continued to go out together through the remainder of the fall.  I particularly remember one hike with her at a park near Cheyenne, and recall thinking then that such activities might become a cornerstone of our future relationship.  By the time the Holidays came around, I was spending more time with Mary Ann’s family too—and “the plot was thickening.”

With MA during hiking date (11:1969)

With Mary Ann during a hiking “date” in November 1969.

Mary Ann and her family (12:1969)

Mary Ann and her family in December 1969.

*******

By January, Mary Ann and I began skiing together again.  This time our experiences were not so suspenseful as they had been the year before.  In February Mary Ann decided to purchase a set of skis and I offered to take her to Denver to look for them.  At one ski shop she decided to purchase a pair of ‘Head 360’ skis, which was a popular recreational model at the time and one of the best-selling in history.

Mary Ann's Head '360' skis

Mary Ann’s ‘Head 360’ skis.

After purchasing the skis, we drove over to spend some time with our friend Diane Richardson who had recently moved from Cheyenne to Denver.  She was a hospital nurse, and after we had gone to dinner together she left for a shift at the hospital.  Mary Ann and I stayed around her apartment while she was gone. It also happened to be Valentine’s Day and a most-memorable conversation ensued.

I was fairly certain by this time that Mary Ann was the person I wanted to marry.  She and I had not explicitly discussed the idea, however, so I wasn’t sure what she might think of it.  Yet I had concluded that this would be the perfect occasion to broach the subject.  Not being one to beat-around-the-bush, I simply asked, “Would you marry me, Mary Ann?”  She responded with a resounding “Uh-huh.”  I took it as “Yes” and that was it; Mary Ann and I were engaged.

When we returned to Cheyenne we set a date for the wedding—July 18th—and began informing friends and family.  Most were not surprised even though we’d only been dating for four months.  All seemed pleased for us.  I made it a point to also speak directly with Mary Ann’s father, Wilbur, about our decision and plans.  He smiled at me and said,  “Well, Steve, what took you so long?”

Mary Ann and I after our engagement (2:1970)

With Mary Ann after our engagement. (February 1970)

My parents were next.  Because they lived in New Jersey and had only visited me once, they’d never met Mary Ann in person.  In fact, since I spoke with them infrequently by phone and wrote few letters in those days, they were mostly in the dark as to Mary Ann’s and my relationship.  So they were surprised when I informed them that Mary Ann and I were engaged—and that we would marry in July.  After they caught their breath, they invited us to come for a visit in April around Mary Ann’s spring break.  I suppose they thought it would be good if they could meet this woman who was about to marry their son!   They then each wrote “welcome” notes to Mary Ann, and my father added a  humorous anecdote:

 …We talked with Phil [Steve’s brother] by phone.  He plans to be home from college too when you come to visit.   He thinks Steve has “flipped his lid” and talked of sending him a sympathy card.

Clearly Mary Ann and I still had some work to do to win brother Phil over to our cause.

Reading a letter from my parents to Mary Ann (3:1970)

Reading a letter from my parents to us before our trip to visit them in New Jersey. (March 1970)

*******

Mary Ann on the observation deck of the Empire State Bldg (4:1970)

Mary Ann on the observation deck of the Empire State Building at sunset. (April 1970)

We spent much of our time in New Jersey with my parents at their home.  They also pulled out the stops and showed us a good time.  Since Mary Ann had never been to New York City before, they took us to see various sites in the city–beginning with a trip to the top of the Empire State Building at sunset.  At the time it was the tallest building in the city.  They also treated us to a popular Broadway play of the day, Fiddler On the Roof.

Mary Ann Dad and I entering theatre to attend Fiddler (4:1970)

Entering the Broadway theatre with Mary Ann and my father to watch the play “Fiddler On the Roof.” (April 1970)

Later that week, New Jersey experienced a spring snowstorm, which curtailed our further explorations of New York City.  We finished out our week, and thankfully they were able to get us back to JFK airport to board our flight back to Wyoming.  Both of us felt that Mary Ann had met with the approval of my parents; our path to the wedding in July was now clear.

Returning to Wyoming after first visit to NJ (1970)

Returning to Wyoming after our visit to my parents’ home in New Jersey. (April 1970)

It had been only five months since our initial date to the Lincoln Theatre.  It’s worth noting though that both of my Air Force roommates during that time, Steve Koeckeritz and Warren Malhiot, had gotten engaged before me.  Both had dated their fiancées only a few months too.  And Steve had gotten married in January 1970!  So looking back on it now, I think the rapid progression of these friends’ relationships influenced my thoughts about where my friendship with Mary Ann might lead.  Each of us is still married to those “quick romances,” so I guess we can say that our apartment was quite the wellspring for fruitful matrimony during that brief 1969/1970 period.  It’s certainly a delight now for each of us to be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversaries during the same year of 2020.

With Warren Sheron & MA before party (spring 1970)

Mary Ann and I with my Air Force roommate Warren Malhiot and his fiancee, Sheron, before attending a “Back to the 1950s” party in spring 1970.

*******

April, May and June mostly involved making wedding arrangements for Mary Ann and me.  We sent out invitations, participated in pre-marital counseling sessions with the pastor who would marry us, ordered flowers and arranged a photographer.  Mary Ann and her attendants made decisions regarding their dresses and accessories.  The pastor of our church in Cheyenne was to be out of the country on the date of the wedding, so we arranged for a Denver pastor whom Mary Ann knew to marry us.  Robert Fredericks was an excellent choice for us.  We also decided that there would just be a simple “punch, cake and nuts” reception in the church’s fellowship hall after the ceremony.

During outing to Snowy Range before wedding (7:1970)

During the outing to the Snowy Range mountains with my family before our wedding. Pictured are my grandmother Grace, my mother Margaret, Mary Ann and me.

Four days before the wedding my parents, brother and paternal grandmother Grace arrived from the East Coast.  The next day Mary Ann and I took them on a picnic to the Snowy Range, a mountainous area west of Laramie, Wyoming.  For my grandmother (who was seventy-six years old at the time) it was her first time to experience the Rocky Mountains.  She was amazed at snow drifts still persisting in the mountains, and she liked that we chilled our picnic watermelon in a snowbank before cutting it.  That was not something she’d seen done in July in her home state of Indiana!

Rehearsal dinner with Pastor Fredericks (1970)

At the rehearsal dinner with Pastor Robert Fredericks. (July 17, 1970)

Friday evening was the groom’s dinner.  It was a festive time for our parents, my grandmother, the members of our wedding party and their spouses, and Pastor Fredericks.   We’d “rehearsed” the ceremony earlier that evening and one apprehension I had before the wedding was that either Mary Ann or I might forget our memorized wedding vows.  Perhaps Pastor Fredericks wanted to reserve those vows for the wedding ceremony itself, so he did not ask us to recite them as part of the rehearsal.  We lived in suspense as to how it would go—and we ran our vows over and over in our minds.

During the morning of my wedding day, I played golf.  It was one of my longest-standing sports interests and provided me a ready escape from my anxieties about the ceremony.  I then joined my family and we dressed to go to the church.  We took photographs and all were in good spirits.  Since I was the first of my grandmother’s grandchildren to be married, she seemed to especially appreciate the occasion.  Brother Phil (four years younger than I) was my “Best Man,” although I don’t recall ever talking with him about the significance of this step for me.

With Grandmother Grace before the wedding (7:1970)

With my grandmother Grace before the wedding.

Since our’s was a traditional ceremony, I didn’t see Mary Ann at all until the time of wedding itself.  The photographer took some traditional shots before the ceremony, including a “This is your last chance!” photograph involving my groomsmen and me.

This is your last chance (7:1970)

“This is you last chance!” Pictured (left to right) are Best Man Phil Simmons, Groomsman Warren Malhiot and Groomsman Stan Scheer.

The wedding came off without a hitch.  Mary Ann was stunning in her gown, and I was on top of the world.  And the words of our memorized vows came without hesitation:

Mary Ann, as the one God has given to be your husband, I commit my life to you.  I understand and affirm that I was created to be a channel of Christ’s love to you—to respect you, to honor, encourage and esteem you so that you might love and serve God even more. 

Pastor Fredericks’ exhortation to us during the ceremony was both personal and heartfelt.  It helped that we’d met extensively with him before the wedding; he knew us and our situation well.  And true to the traditional nature of our ceremony, he pronounced us “husband and wife” at its conclusion.  We happily exited the sanctuary of the church.

Leaving the wedding ceremony (7:1970)

Leaving the wedding ceremony. (July 18, 1970)

Your’s was the most impressive ceremony I’ve ever seen!  I know I’m prejudiced—but when vows are memorized and as forthright as your’s were—it’s something else.  —from my mother’s note to us after the wedding

There’s a saying that funerals are for the living, not the deceased.  I think this idea might also apply to weddings; they’re as much for those who observe the ceremony as for the bride and groom.  When Mary Ann and I planned our wedding, we earnestly desired for it to edify our parents and special friends who were such a large part of our lives then.  It’s not possible to gauge how well we attained this aspiration, although one note written by my mother after she returned home is especially treasured.  It’s tangible evidence that, at least for her, this beginning of Mary Ann’s and my married life was a most-meaningful experience.

Photo with parents and Grandmother Grace (7:1970)

With our parents and my grandmother Grace at the wedding. (July 18, 1970)

********

Because of my Air Force duties at the time, Mary Ann and I delayed our honeymoon until a year after our wedding.  In fall 1971 I arranged enough leave from my duties to permit us to make a three-week journey to Europe.  We visited eight countries, including France, and one of our most-memorable times was traveling with a friend in the picturesque Loire River Valley.  We’ve returned to Europe several times since then, but never to that area again; it remains one of our fondest memories.

Steve & MA in Loire Valley (10:1971)

With Mary Ann in the Loire Valley of France. (October 1971)

During the initial two years after our marriage, Mary Ann and I lived in Cheyenne as I completed my Air Force time.  We continued to associate with most of the same people who were important in our lives before the wedding.  Among these were my former Air Force roommate, Steve Koeckeritz, and his wife, Jane.  About a year after our marriage, the four of us made an excursion for an afternoon hike at the Pole Mountain area west of Cheyenne.  We scaled one of the prominent rock formations there and watched as rich sunlight bathed the landscape.   I took a photograph of Steve, Jane and Mary Ann as they looked out upon the grand scene before us.  It’s a bit grainy, but that only adds to its evanescent and timeless qualities for me.  The picture symbolizes a particular time in our lives when we were in the prime of youth and in the presence of dear friends.  Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, Steve and Jane were also to be a part of our lives over the next five decades—and still counting.

With Steve & Jane K at Veedauwoo (1971)

With Steve and Jane Koeckeritz during a hike together in the Pole Mountain area.

There are moments

Of great energy,

Wonder…

When we release all that was

And embrace all that is.

That is when we catch a hint

Of something fine on the air

Something we might have missed

In the perpetual motion of youth.

But now we sense it

With power and presence.

And we climb with a passion

To the top of a ridge

Just to catch a scent of it

Out there on the horizon.

                                                                        —adapted from Carrie Newcomer 

EPILOGUE

Soon after the birth of daughter Jill (5:1974)

Soon after the birth of our first daughter Jill at a hospital in Ft. Collins, Colorado. (May 1974)

When Mary Ann and I married in 1970, our future was a “stick figure” at best.  I’d begun taking courses towards a Master’s degree in agronomy at Colorado State University, although it wasn’t clear where that might lead either.  After my discharge from the Air Force in June 1972, we moved to Colorado so I could complete my degree, which I did in March 1974.   Two months later our first daughter, Jill, was born and we moved to Minnesota where I continued my graduate studies.  Our second daughter, Lara, was born there on the same day I defended my Ph.D. thesis and began my faculty position at the University of Minnesota.  Daughter Dawn followed in 1981, the same year I was granted tenure at the university.

To be honest, I foresaw very little of what has actually transpired for Mary Ann and me since the evening with Steve and Jane Koeckeritz atop that granite pinnacle fifty years ago.  If I’d been asked then about our future plans, I probably would have said something about obtaining a Ph.D. “some day” and possibly about teaching at a college.  Yet I could never have imagined spending thirty-two years on the agriculture faculty at the University of Minnesota–or rearing three daughters in the North Star State!  I wouldn’t have foreseen that Mary Ann and I would travel extensively both domestically and internationally.  And at just twenty-four years of age then, I never would have envisioned being a grandfather with three beautiful grandchildren!

In that letter my mother wrote to Mary Ann and me following our wedding, she offered several affirmations of the ceremony.  Those are meaningful, but what has stayed with me most was the simple, heartfelt encouragement with which she concluded her note:

…Nothing but the VERY BEST to both of you ALWAYS.                        

Sincerely and lovingly,

                           Mother

You nailed it, Mother!

Family portrait (indoors) - 2:14:16

Family portrait. (February 2016)

The journey seemed right

To both of us,

So natural,

–that’s our shared mystery.

                                 —Gerhard Frost

Acknowledgement

The following photo depicts our entire wedding party on July 18, 1970.  It represents just a moment in time with these special people in our lives, although Mary Ann and  I wish to express here our deep appreciation to each who came alongside us fifty years ago during our “beginning of a beginning.”

Three of those pictured here—Alona Scheer, Phil Simmons and Stan Scheer—have since passed on and are missed.  We also lost contact with some of the others in the years since then, although we’re deeply grateful that many are still woven into our lives.

And now we’re into the next fifty years…  😉

The Wedding Party (7:18:1970)

 ___________________________________

Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2020.  All rights reserved.