Each Sunday, the newspapers print the wedding and anniversary announcements side-by-side at the back of the features section. The arrangement gives a false impression of inevitability, as if the young newlyweds need only look across the columns of type to the facing page to see themselves as loving grandparents celebrating a half-century of wedded bliss.
What the newlyweds don’t know is that the old couple across the page argues every week after church about whether to take the freeway or the side streets as they drive to lunch. They don’t know that their own grandparents have been a hair’s breadth from divorce every day since they both retired.
All marriages are happy. It’s the messy business of living together afterward that causes all the trouble — the sacrifices, the exhaustion and frustration of raising kids, the betrayals and compromises that are required to keep two people from killing each other for 50 years.
These things are not for the newlyweds to know. They are smiled upon by the sweet bird of youth, and thank goodness for it, otherwise no one would ever get married, and you and I would never have been born. What a dreadful world that would be!
Yes, love is for the young. Commitment — now that’s something different. We’ve all been in love, but how many of us have done what was necessary to make this thing work no matter what, till death do us part? Damned few, that’s how many.
So it is important that we celebrate Ronal and Marty Bohanan’s 50th wedding anniversary. They have kept the promise they made on October 20, 1962, during a small ceremony at Hobart Street Baptist Church in Pampa.
They’ve also endured three children, more than a dozen moves around the United States, blizzards, a fire (I’m really sorry about that), heart-breaking deaths, decades of hard work and, now, six grandchildren. And somehow they’ve made it look fun — because it has been, mostly, thanks to their resilience and good humor. As Dad has told me many times in recent years, as I go through the same things, “This too shall pass.”
I think that philosophy is a necessary foundation for any successful marriage.
But what do I know? I’m divorced.
Sweet bird of youth
Mom was 20 when they married, and Dad was 22, soon to be 23. They were probably like those newlyweds in the newspaper, who can’t keep their hands off each other long enough to snap the photo. They had no wedding photo, so I can’t prove that, but I remember a good deal of kissing every day when Dad came home from work. He’d plop down in his recliner, and Mom would sit on his lap, wrap her arms around his neck, and smack, smack, smack they’d go.
Ten people attended their wedding, including themselves and the preacher. Their parents — Clarence and Jewel Bohanan of Amarillo, and Ray and Cora Lee Robertson of Pampa — were there. Dad’s younger brother Jerry was the best man. The maid of honor was Carolyn Robertson, who was married to Mom’s older brother Dudley. It was strictly a family affair.
The ceremony was on a Saturday evening at 7. Afterward, the newlyweds drove to Amarillo and checked into the Townhouse Manor, a motel on Amarillo Boulevard and Polk Street, across from the old St. Anthony’s Hospital. They went dancing that night at the nightclub where they met, whose name is lost to the ages. Misti stayed the night in Pampa with Nanny and Granddad, as we called Mom’s parents.
The next day, they picked up Misti and drove to Albuquerque, N.M., where Dad had a job loading trucks on a freight dock. He had been living there with his sister, Jo Dickinson, and Mom and Misti moved in too until they found an apartment.
Neither Mom nor Dad had yet found the occupations that would sustain our family over the next few decades. Dad had dropped out of high school, then did a three-year tour in the Army, followed by a variety of jobs. He was selling insurance when I was born, in 1963. He started working as a union ironworker when he was 24 or 25, and he made a career of it for 28 years, until he was in his early fifties and his body said, “No Mas.” He bought a liquor store and worked in the whiskey business, as he called it, for a dozen years until retiring just before he turned 65.
Mom had several retail jobs before becoming a hairdresser in 1970, a profession where she was in high demand for nearly three decades. Her services were passed down from her original clients to their daughters and, eventually, to their granddaughters. She retired in February 2001 after falling on the ice at Home Depot, breaking her arm and both hips and ending her career. On occasion, when one of Mom’s former clients dies, she is called upon by the family to style the deceased’s hair, and to apply her makeup, for the open-casket funeral.
Work began at an early age for Mom and Dad. Dad starting showing up at the Amarillo Country Club at age 8, gathering with the other boys early on weekend mornings and waiting for one of the club members to hire him as a caddy. Dad could barely lift a bag of clubs, and he tried to stay out of harm’s way when the competition got too fierce, like the day when the Catholic boys whipped the thunder out of the Protestants.
After his Army tour, Dad worked at a welding shop and a freight dock, sold insurance, delivered milk. He also worked at Affiliated Foods and at the zinc smelter, both in Amarillo.
Mom got her first job at age 14. She worked at a drug store in Pampa, at the cosmetics counter, where she learned to smoke and drink coffee so that she could meet with vendors and order the store’s beauty products. When she was 17, she moved to Amarillo with her mother and Dudley and worked at Woolworth’s jewelry counter, and later at Custom Laundry and Cleaners and at Doche Cleaners, both in Amarillo. She left her job at Malone Cleaners in Pampa to get married.
The “Army way”
Mom and Dad each had a previous, short-lived marriage. Neither of them graduated from high school. They last attended Amarillo High School, when it was still downtown on Polk Street.
A few years ago, when Dad met a man about his age, the guy said, “Don’t I know you from Amarillo High School?”
Dad said, “I don’t know, I was there on a Wednesday. Which day did you go?”
He stopped attending school regularly during his sophomore year and hung out in the pool halls, hustling dominoes and pool. He and one of his friends, Jimmy Smith, decided to enter the Army on the buddy system, and Grandma and Grandpa, no doubt glad to get him off the street, signed the papers so that he could ship out before his 18th birthday.
Just before they were to report for duty, in January 1957, Jimmy slipped on the ice and broke his arm and couldn’t enlist. “Some guys get all the luck,” Dad said.
After basic training at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Dad was stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., and trained as a radar specialist, a skill he never used. He shipped out to Mannheim, Germany, on a troop ship that took 11 days to cross the Atlantic.
He arrived in Germany around the first of July 1957, at the height of the Cold War, and he was there nonstop for 29 months. He entered the Army at age 17 and got out, to his relief, at age 20. “It’s hard to grow up in the Army,” he said.
Those who know Dad won’t be surprised to learn that he had trouble adhering to the “Army way,” and at one point he got in a fight with his sergeant. When he finally got his travel orders to go home, he nearly cried because this time he got to fly instead of being sardined on a troop ship. The Army took his weapon and field equipment and relieved him of his duties, and he wandered the fort for the last three weeks with the other short-timers until he shipped out.
The plane touched down at McGuire Air Force Base, near Fort Dix, about 18 hours after taking off from Frankfurt. It stopped twice en route to refuel and allow the men to eat — once in Scotland and again in Newfoundland. When they arrived at McGuire, the troops walked into the terminal as the jukebox played “God Bless America” by Connie Francis.
Money makes the world go ’round
Like our parents, Kathy, Misti and I also learned about work and money at an early age.
When Kathy was 5 or 6 years old, she would ask Dad when he came in the door in the evening, “Did you have fun at work, Dad?”
“No, I didn’t have fun at work!” he’d bark, and we’d hide our giggles. But the message about work was clear – it’s no laughing matter.
We kids all had jobs by the ages of 13 or 14, and by that time we were living in a nice, three-bedroom home in south Amarillo. But the early years of our family were more precarious, and some of my most vivid early memories have to do with money.
One year, I must have been about 5, Mom and Dad bought me a pair of suede cowboy boots, and I was so excited to wear them for the first time at the Tri-State Fair in Amarillo. As it always did in September, the weather had turned cold and rainy, and puddles had formed everywhere on the gravel midway. It felt good to wear my new boots, even if I had to be a little careful because I didn’t want to get them muddy.
That year I was finally big enough for the Magic Carpet Ride, a six-lane slide with two giant humps. You’d sit on a burlap sack and glide down a polished plastic lane. The first time I rode it, I went airborne over the first hump, and it knocked my breath out when I “whumped!” down on my tailbone. I slid to a stop at the bottom, jumped up, exhilarated and out of breath, and ran over to where Mom and Dad were watching from behind the metal barrier. “Can I ride it again!”
“Sure, go ahead,” they said, and off I went, running up the three or four flights of stairs and racing past anyone ahead of me. I rode the slide four or five times, incredulous each time they said I could do it. I knew we didn’t have the money for such frivolous things, and I hurried so they wouldn’t change their minds.
About a year later, when I was in first grade, they bought me an electric football set for Christmas. Actually, Santa gave it to me, they said. But on Christmas morning, I realized my parents had bought it. What a complicated feeling of guilt and love washed over me in that moment. Mom and Dad actually loved me enough to buy me an electric football set! And deep inside I was afraid that this gift would be the undoing of our financial solvency.
I had already inherited from my parents a lifelong dread of living beyond my means.
We were a tight-knit family when I was in elementary school, thanks to our living accommodations during much of that time. Dad was a union ironworker who traveled the country with a five-man crew building television towers. Mom, Misti, Kathy and I traveled with him during the late 1960s and early ’70s.
When we were on the road, we lived in a 35-foot travel trailer that had a living area and kitchen in the front, my parents’ bedroom in the back and a bunk bed in the middle for Misti, Kathy and me. Kathy and I slept on the bottom bunk, and Misti slept up top. The bedrooms were separated by a tiny bathroom.
It took about four to six months to build a tower, and when one was finished we would move to the next city. As a result, I don’t remember all the elementary schools I attended. Amarillo was always our home base, and sometimes Dad worked there in between tower jobs. I went to three different elementary schools in Amarillo (Oakdale, San Jacinto and Coronado). During that time, we also lived in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas; Farmington, N.M.; Austin, Texas; Springfield, Mo.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Gary, Ind.; and Middletown, Ohio, where Misti started first grade.
When Dad was working, we had plenty of money. One time he came home flush with cash and he and Mom headed to Montgomery Ward’s and returned with a microwave oven. Revolutionary!
It came with a cookbook, and Mom followed the directions to a T.
“The first thing I cooked in it turned to stone,” she said. “It said to cook the carrots this many minutes and the broccoli this many, and it all turned to stone. I put the hot dogs in a bowl with a little water, like it said, and they all blew up.”
Conversely, when Dad was laid off, or when the weather was too cold, snowy, wet or windy to work, he didn’t get paid. When we were in Colorado Springs, in 1972, it seemed to snow every week that fall. I remember trick-or-treating in waist-deep powder in the trailer park, and we gave up after knocking two doors. We were already soaking wet and freezing.
I enjoyed the snow, getting to slide down the hill at recess during school, but Dad worked so little that we were down to our last $25 just before Christmas. Mom loaded me, Kathy and Misti into our 1966 Ford Galaxie and headed for Amarillo. Dad stayed behind to finish the job. The snow piled up as we headed south on Interstate 25, and when we reached Raton Pass, the police stopped us because we didn’t have tire chains. With no money for a motel, we spent the night in the car on the side of the road.
Mom started the motor occasionally to run the heater, but she couldn’t leave it running long or we would have run out of gas. She had brought blankets and some food, so we didn’t freeze or starve. We were grateful when the sun came up and the pass was finally cleared and we were able to continue south. For the next eight hours, our world was reduced to the few dozen yards ahead of us as we crawled through the blinding whiteness that blanketed the High Plains all the way to Amarillo.
The next day, Mom enrolled us in San Jacinto Elementary School, then went and found a job at Wanda’s Beauty Salon on Martin Road.
When I look back now, with the benefit of nostalgia and a warm computer, the forced togetherness seems a source of comfort, like a womb that protected us from the outside world.
But as we kids grew older, the arrangements became unworkable. When I was in fourth grade, I remember being at Nanny’s house on Christmas Eve and overhearing my mom say that we were about to move again, and I ran into the living room so that no one would see me burst into tears at the prospect of being the new kid at yet another school. In hindsight, such a nomadic life made me and my sisters more resilient and adaptable. We all developed a glib tongue and a thick skin that helped us survive the bullying and hostility that all new kids face.
I think this made me, Kathy and Misti closer than we might have been. We made up stories and nicknames for each other. I called Kathy “Rickshaw” because she wore her hair in a long braid down her back, and I once brought her to tears when I pretended to cut it off with scissors.
By the time Misti was in sixth grade, she had fallen dangerously behind in math at school. Mom told Dad that we needed to stop switching schools and that she and my sisters and I would no longer travel with him. That’s when they bought the house at 3601 Lewis Lane in Amarillo, in 1973, the summer before I started fifth grade. That house will always be home to me. I lived there for 10 years – still the longest I’ve lived any one place. Misti, Kathy and I all graduated from Tascosa High School while living there.
Obey the rules and miss the fun
Once we moved to Lewis Lane, our lives became more settled. Kathy, Misti and I finally had the chance to make friends. Mom came home from work every day and made dinner and drove us where we needed to go, made us do our homework and insisted, as best she could, that we follow the rules.
We didn’t always follow the rules.
Misti had a penchant for sneaking out of the house. In ninth grade she was caught sneaking in, sort of. When we were getting ready for school one winter morning, Mom noticed a trail of dead grass, starting where Misti had backed in through the small bathroom window and stepped on the fuzzy toilet lid cover. The grass trail continued down the hall to the girls’ bedroom.
It was a fascinating, dangerous cat-and-mouse game that we played with our parents, and that my kids have played with me. Misti got caught that time, and I slipped out of the house and off to school as Mom gave her hell.
Misti also wrecked Dad’s truck when she was about 15. Mom and Dad were out of town, and Misti was trying to sneak it back into the garage when she mashed the driver’s side into the door frame. She left it parked in the garage as though nothing had happened, and all hell broke loose when they got back in town.
Misti had chutzpah and derring-do, because I never would have stolen Dad’s truck. (I did wreck his car once — sorry about that, too.)
I also burned down an abandoned house across the alley from Grandma and Grandpa’s on Kentucky Street, in Amarillo. I had stolen matches from Grandma’s kitchen, and Misti and I were playing in the vacant house. I was about 6 years old and Misti was 8. I began striking matches and throwing them onto a mattress that had the stuffing falling out of it, to see if it would catch fire.
Large flames erupted quickly, and I panicked, running into the alley with the thought of getting the hose across the alley to put it out. Soon, the Fire Department was summoned, and the Amarillo TV stations followed. That night, as my parents watched the news, I saw the camera pan across the crowd that had gathered, and there was Dad, his hand clamped like a vise around the back of my neck. I thank God now that the news crew was there so that he didn’t kill me. The house burned to the ground.
Kathy was the youngest and learned a lot about what not to do by watching Misti and me. She was the only witness to those times when Misti and I tried to kill each other, and she once saved me when Misti was choking me in a rage. They shared a room, a hell which only Kathy can imagine.
One of the ways she had of getting back at Misti was diabolical. Mom took off Mondays to clean the house, and each week as she ran the vacuum cleaner under Misti’s bed, it became tangled with a mess of clothes hangers that had been thrown under there. Every Monday when Misti came home from school she suffered a tongue-lashing (or worse) for having thrown the hangers under her bed yet again.
I’m not sure where Kathy was standing to enjoy these episodes. You could hear Mom shouting through gritted teeth from anywhere in the house.
We laugh to keep from crying
Yes, Mom could be tough. You have to be to raise three kids, work all day, prepare all the meals, clean the house and run a car service for teenagers.
Dad is tough, too. For years, he worked 2,000 feet in the air without a net. His leg was once run over by a crane, and another time two of his fingers were cut off. A doctor sewed them back on, but he was never able to bend them again. And eventually his shoulders gave out, forcing him to retire from ironworking.
They also have a lot of soft spots.
Mom loves Elvis, having come of age in the 1950s, and she owned all his albums. (I’m so sorry that they were stolen that summer after I graduated high school. My fault — again.) She was at work the day he died, August 16, 1977, and her best friend, Barbara Self, called to tell her the bad news. After work, Barbara came over with a six-pack of beer and they sat in the kitchen, drinking, commiserating and crying.
Mom also cried on her 30th birthday. Misti had made her a cake with black icing, and Mom’s sister Darla and Darla’s friend Mary Ann came over to celebrate. The black icing did it. Mom cried and everyone teased her about getting old.
In July of 1969, Mom and Dad invited friends over for the moon landing. Dad set up our TV in the yard, and the adults gathered around to watch the first steps on the moon. We kids were playing nearby, and Dad called, “Son, come here!” I ran over and watched as Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder onto the lunar surface and uttered his famous lines. I looked up at the “real” moon and squinted, thinking I should be able to see tiny black dots where the space module and the astronauts were. I looked at the TV and back at the moon, trying to reconcile the two. Eventually I ran off and started playing again.
Dad also enjoyed putting a rubber snake or spider in his lunch box for Mom to find when she cleaned it out at night, and he once traumatized the whole family while we watched the thriller “Wait Until Dark” in our darkened living room. At the climax of the film, one second before the intruder leaps to grab the young blind woman played by Audrey Hepburn, Dad jumped up from the couch and screamed, causing panic and serious bladder-control problems.
Mom and Dad’s softest spot has always been reserved for the family. They have never given up on us, no matter how tempting we made it.
Through the years, they’ve held together an extended family that would scatter to the winds without them. Their house is the place where we gather for Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter — anything that requires food and a place to eat. They are accustomed to taking care of all of us.
That’s why I’m taking this opportunity to say, Thank you. And I love you both. You are an inspiration.
To Mom and Dad, on the occasion of your 50th wedding anniversary, October 20, 2012
By Sonny Bohanan