Pete took my hands and looked into my face with a quirky half-smile. “Will you marry me?”
Tim, his best friend and one of his three roommates, hung back near the kitchen door, observing. Master of throwaway punchlines and understatements, he resembled a taller, lankier Woody Allen. I had a feeling I was being set up.
Actually, having dated for nearly a year, Pete and I had already discussed marriage and had decided to wait awhile, until after we graduated from college and had jobs or places in graduate school.
So I answered, “Of course.”
“I mean tonight.” Pete seemed about to laugh. Tim continued to observe, and I stared at the kitchen wall.
Getting married: the dress, cake, bridesmaids, flowers. Tonight?
“He won’t get sent to Vietnam,” Tim said quietly.
They explained. According to the five o’clock news, which they’d heard in the car on the way home from work, President Lyndon Johnson had signed an executive order that afternoon, stating that men married after midnight that day, Thursday, August 26, 1965, would no longer be deferred from the draft. By waiting until 5 pm to make the announcement, Johnson had created a cruelly tantalizing challenge: tie the knot by midnight, or face the noose of Vietnam.
“Isn’t that impossible?” I finally responded. In Mississippi, we knew, there was a three-day waiting period between the application for the license and the legalization of the marriage. You also had to have negative Wassermann tests for syphilis.
Suddenly, I thought of Livingston, Alabama, a famous “marriage mill” town just across the state line, where there was no waiting period. Stories of couples who rushed there to marry circulated regularly. It was nearly 6 pm.
Pete and his roommates shared the downstairs of an old house on North Congress Street, not a stately Victorian, but nice enough, with high ceilings and crown molding and fancy touches. We especially admired the telephone alcove, an arched niche built into the wall of the wide hallway. The old rotary phone was standard black, massive, immovable.
We crowded around Pete as he dialed long-distance information.
“Yes, ma’am. Livingston, Alabama. Can you find a justice of the peace there? Oh, I see. Well, connect me with the first one on the list.”
“Good evening, sir. We need to get married by midnight. Is it possible—”
He paused to listen.
“Oh, I see. That’s too bad.”
Again, he paused.
“Oh, he does? He’s there? May I speak with him?”
Imagine our agitation, waiting, knowing better than to interrupt the conversation or even make questioning gestures.
Assuming the judge probably had a typically Southern, anti-Federal attitude, Pete launched into his request, emphasizing the unfairness of a one-man decision to send thousands of boys off to die in an unpopular war and apologizing for the inconvenience of the late hour to the judge himself. Then he listened to the judge’s response.
“Yes, sir!” Pete finally said. “We’ll be there before midnight. The courthouse. Thank you. What was that, sir? Oh, that, oh yes. We’ll be seeing you.”
The judge Pete had called was retired, but another judge just happened to be having dinner at the retired judge’s home. Judge Dearman regularly married people, and he had been jovial and accommodating. We just needed those negative Wassermann tests, and there was no time for us to get blood drawn and tested.
We all stared at the wall.
Then Pete recalled that when he was working for a hematologist, he had gotten to know someone in the blood bank at the medical center. They were on friendly terms, but he wasn’t sure the person was on call that night.
When we heard, “Hey, buddy,” we knew he was.
This conversation lasted longer, but when Pete hung up the phone, we had a plan.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang.
There stood Jennifer, an old friend who had graduated that spring and had a job in Jackson. She had borrowed Tim’s vacuum cleaner and was returning it. As we helped her lug it inside, I realized I had forgotten one small detail. I was living at home that summer, and I would have to notify my parents that I’d be home very late, if at all, and many questions would follow.
“Hey,” I said, “we’re going to Livingston, Alabama, to get married and keep Pete out of Vietnam. Come with us. You can be my alibi.”
Jennifer’s response was typically low-key; her sense of humor was always unexpected and unique. “Sure,” she shrugged. “Don’t guess I’ll need a toothbrush.”
Back then, no respectable young lady, whatever her age, would call home and say, “Going out. Might not be home ’til morning.” In a 2000 article in George magazineabout this “altar stampede,” Thurston Clarke noted that even in California, considered much more liberal than Mississippi, some parents who knew their daughters were trying to get married before midnight were concerned about their “spending the night together” with their fiances. The mother of one young woman apparently even told her, “Don’t plan on coming here to live unless you’re married.”
Imagine: you’re twenty-one years old, an adult who can vote, but because you are female, you are under your parents’ rule as long as you live in their home. Although you have a house key and can come and go as you wish during the day, your nighttime activities are monitored. At college, too, young women leaving a dormitory on a date had to sign out, stating where they were going and with whom. A curfew mandated their return time. As Pete once put it, picking up your date was like checking out a library book.
Now imagine that your parents aren’t too taken with the love of your life. Your father angrily disapproves while your mother is tolerant but bemused. “Honestly, honey,” she says, “when he’s waiting for you, he’ll talk a little, but then he just sits there and reads National Geographic.” You tell her Pete likes National Geographic, and you tell your father he’s a nice fellow, but you tread lightly and say little.
“It’ll be better if we drive out to my parents’ house and let them see Jennifer,” I said.
“If we don’t pick up those damned Wassermanns, we won’t be going anywhere,” Pete warned.
Tim, Jennifer, and I sat in the medical center parking lot while Pete disappeared into the blood bank. It was 7:30 pm, getting dark now, and the wait seemed endless.
Jennifer broke the silence. “You put this together in a hurry.”
Tim muttered assent.
“How much of this was your idea?” I asked him, remembering how Tim had hovered in the background while Pete proposed. I’d heard stories about Tim’s spontaneous ideas: “Hey, let’s flag down that shrimp boat and go out and see what they do!” or “What say we rig up a tent on that old army-surplus barge and go up the Yazoo River for a week?” Tim’s schemes carried flair. He rarely pitched a plan. He just asked a question, and it flowered into a challenge. Later, Pete told me that after the radio announcement, Tim had said something like, “Hey, you and Melissa are probably getting married anyway. We could do this.”
“It would be a good idea not to get sent to Vietnam, wouldn’t it?” he told me. Vintage Tim.
“Well, that was an adventure,” Pete chuckled when he returned. His buddy had forged the forms, but they required a doctor’s signature. “We went over to the physicians’ lounge, and I waited outside while he went in. There was this long silence, then uproarious laughter. We got ’em!” Such complicity prevailed on the West Coast, too, where at least one physician told a mother requesting backdated blood tests for her daughter and son-in-law-to-be that he had already done that favor for several couples.
It took a while to drive across town to my parents’ place, and along the way, two storylines took shape. First, of course, was our actual dash to Livingston, but we also needed a plausible explanation for why I would be away all night. I planned to check in with my parents, introduce Jennifer, then go to my room and retrieve an overnight bag as a prop. I wondered if I’d need my birth certificate.
As we drove up the side street beside my parents’ corner lot, we could see a fish fry in progress two doors down; someone must have caught “a mess of fish.” Floodlights illuminated the patio. Laughter, hoots, and the aroma of frying fish floated through the backyards. My parents were there.
We strolled over, made introductions, said we’d already eaten, and let Mom know we were off to a party and that I was spending the night with Jennifer.
(It wasn’t really a lie: we were all planning to spend the night with Jennifer.)
All done! No more hurdles. Ready, set. . . .
“I don’t think my car will make it,” Tim said.
We were pulling out of my parents’ neighborhood, heading to US Route 80, east toward Alabama. I had grabbed a Mississippi highway map from my mother’s car and was opening it.
“What in hell?”
“Well, it’s burning oil. The engine could go.”
“Well, whose car do you think we’re taking?”
Pete had been riding home from work with Tim that day because his car would not run at all. My 1950 Chevy might make it, but who wanted to squeeze into a cramped two-door vehicle with no air conditioning and back windows that opened only partially?
“My skateboard only goes downhill,” Jennifer chimed in.
“Can’t you keep an eye on the pressure gauge?” Pete asked Tim.
“No. This is one of those new cars—” it was a 1961 Oldsmobile, “—and all they have is this idiot light that flashes and says, ‘You’re out of oil!’”
Is there such a thing as instigator’s remorse? I wondered.
The mileage chart on my current Mississippi map sets the distance from Jackson to Livingston, Alabama, at 142 miles—an easy drive nowadays with an interstate highway and 70 mph speed limits, but things were different back then. Route 80 was a two-lane road that ran through every town along its way.
Finally, we convinced Tim that we would stop whenever we saw a gas station so he could check the oil. That would slow us down, but we should be able to make it in three or three and a half hours. It was 8:30 pm.
That particular week also marked the highest weekly death toll since the war had begun. They later said some young men who married that day gave their girlfriends an ultimatum: marry me before midnight, or I’ll die in Vietnam. The government had continually tightened rules regulating draft deferments. Initially, college students received deferments; then they had to maintain a B average to escape the draft. When more draftees were needed, the government issued a standardized examination for all college students regardless of grade point average. So far, Pete had managed to meet those requirements.
There were, of course, other ways to avoid being drafted for combat. Conscientious objectors could, for religions reasons, be assigned a two-year non-combatant position in the military or in a civilian position. Others fled to Canada where some remained until the war ended. Pete knew someone who had accidentally shot off one of his toes while fooling around with a gun. “Turned out, he received a deferment,” he told me in a strange tone of voice. I doubt Pete would have deliberately maimed himself, but his resolve was evident. Yes, he opposed the Vietnam War, but as a college senior with hopes of being accepted into graduate school, he did not want a two-year interruption to his education. His desire was reinforced by his own family history. His great-grandfather had been a country doctor, but World War I had stopped his grandfather from continued schooling; then his father volunteered during World War II. When each returned, he had a family to support, and no opportunity to go back to college.
As Tim drove, Pete consulted the road map and gave advice. There we were, driving through the night with the guys in the front, girls in the back—the standard married-couple seating arrangement. Maybe Tim preferred a male’s roadway suggestions; maybe, since she and Tim were just friends, Jennifer preferred to stay out of the way and add humorous tidbits. The second time we stopped to check the oil, she disappered into the tiny store behind the pumps and returned with two Eskimo Pies. “Here,” she said to me. “Bridesmaid’s luncheon.”
As we were leaving Meridian heading for Toomsuba, we found US Route 11, which crossed the state line into Alabama. Thirty-five more miles! Soon, lights appeared in the distance; then, the Livingston city-limits sign. We drove slowly, peering at side streets. Cruising past some storefronts, we finally caught sight of a square, in its center a large building with the faint outline of a cupola. A light burned in a second-floor window. Judge Dearman’s chambers!
It was 11:45. Tim parked, and we raced up the sidewalk and through the front door. As we rushed up the stairs, we could hear a deep voice droning steadily. The door of the lighted room stood halfway open, giving us a glimpse of the judge, seated at his desk, addressing another couple. We could not hear what he was saying, but he went on and on, taking his time, as ours ticked away. We could watch the seconds pass on the wall clock behind the judge’s desk. The minute hand advanced; the second hand pulsed—11:56, 11:57.
Suddenly, Pete knocked lightly and stepped into the room. “Excuse me, Your Honor,” he said, “but if we can’t get married by midnight, we aren’t interested.” As if marriage were a used car and the judge a long-winded salesman.
The judge stopped, looked at Pete, and said, “Hold on, son. We’ve got all the time in the world.” Then he slowly swiveled his chair, reached up, took the minute hand in his, and pulled it down. “There. I’ll be done directly.” (A couple of hours later, in Las Vegas, Justice of the Peace James Brennan, his office packed with desperate couples, did a similar thing by hanging typewriter covers over the clocks; records showed he married sixty-seven couples in the “two hours” before midnight.)
Jennifer had spotted a soda machine downstairs. We trooped down, bought Nehi Orange drinks (the only choice), and settled on straight chairs along the upstairs hallway.
We had just taken a sip when Judge Dearman called us in. What followed returns piecemeal after fifty years, but I remember wondering about the protocol of drinking Nehi Orange in a marriage ceremony and placing my bottle under my chair. (Pete swears he swigged his through the entire proceeding.) Tim and Jennifer must have been there, but those details have vanished.
The “ceremony” flashed by. We must have said, “I do.” The judge must have pronounced us man and wife.
But we all remember what followed.
“Now,” Judge Dearman said with a patronizing smile, “marriage is a serious business.
“Melissa,” he began, looking down and reading my name from the license, “when Albert—” a——a gain he looked down, reading Pete’s given name, “—comes home from work, remember he’s had a hard day, so DON’T START IN ON HIM RIGHT AWAY!
“And—” he looked down again, “—Albert, you remember that—” another name check, “—Melissa has had a pretty hard day, too, so you be understanding.” Milder advice for the male.
On and on went this homily filled with bromidic advice delivered in a tempered voice, ending with, “And the family that prays together stays together.”
At that moment, his phone rang.
“Excuse me.” He nodded. Then, “Hello? I TOLD YOU I’LL GET HOME WHEN I GET THERE!!”
Appearances; reality. Serious business.
The trip back to Jackson remains a blur, although none of us slept. We all agreed that no one except the draft board would know about this. Pete and I understood that we would eventually go through a church wedding with the usual bridesmaids, cake, guests, and especially the gifts. Our penniless reality stared us down.
We broke our vow of secrecy on Labor Day weekend, when we were sitting up late in Greenwood, Pete’s hometown, chatting with his mother, who was worried about Vietnam. “By the way, Mama,” Pete said out of nowhere, “we got married in Alabama two weeks ago, and—”
“None of my children will have a nice church wedding!” she interrupted, bursting into tears. (One of Pete’s younger sisters had eloped two years earlier.)
“Calm down, Mama,” Pete said. “We’re not telling anybody but the draft board. We’ll get married later on in the church.”
“Will they let you do that?”
“Of course. The draft board doesn’t care.” We were no more certain than she was about getting caught, but—then as now—there was no national registry of marriages. Someone could marry in Alabama, then marry again in Mississippi.
Pete’s mom seesawed between excitement and anxiety until our second wedding. In October, for example, she called him with more questions about the wedding, including, “What color dress is Melissa wearing?” I still wonder why my mother-in-law asked that question. She may have still been under the impression that somehow our August wedding was public information.
However, that amusing question echoed the customs and morality of the times. Some girls in California, who had the benefit of three extra hours to reach Reno or Las Vegas, took time to find a white dress. Others, who had planned to marry at a later date, were disappointed about forfeiting their big church weddings. As for me, I’m sure I wore a dress that day—that’s what girls wore in the evening back then—but it was whatever dress I happened to be wearing when our adventure began.
We arrived back at the guys’ apartment around 4:30 am. Jennifer went home, and, fully dressed, Pete and I collapsed onto his single bed. By eight, we were eating our first married-couple breakfast—fried eggs and toast—in the medical center cafeteria.
We did not stare dreamily at each other or mention this change in our lives. We simply entered another day.
“You’re home early,” Mom said when I dragged into the kitchen around ten.
“P— Jennifer had to be at work early.”
“You look tired.”
“Late party. I’m taking a nap.” I slept until noon.
In early October, Pete asked my father for my hand in marriage and got reluctant permission; luncheons and showers followed, and on December 18, 1965, we had a nice church wedding.
However, our secret began to sneak out. One Saturday afternoon, I sat with Mom in her kitchen while I did laundry, listening as she fretted about my younger brother who was barreling through his freshman year in college. He had just wrecked a car; his grades were borderline; fraternity fees mounted. Mom broke down. “I don’t know what to do! You never did anything wild. You never wrecked a car . . .”
“I bet he never got married twice,” I said.
Mom’s tears stopped. “What are you telling me?”
I gave a brief summary, emphasizing the draft deferment, and waited.
Just as suddenly as she had broken down, Mom rallied: “What? How? Where?” Finally, she giggled. “And Pete sat right here and asked for your hand!” By this time, Mom’s feelings toward Pete had come around. The first Christmas after our wedding, she had given him a subscription to National Geographic.
“And all those months you stayed in the dorm?”
“If I had been caught out after curfew, I would have been expelled.”
“But how did you . . . manage . . . ?”
“Mom. It doesn’t have to be after 10 pm.”
“Well, of course.”
My father died seven years later without our having told him about the two weddings, though Pete remembers a time when they were out hunting, and Dad remarked, “You know, you didn’t ask for Melissa’s hand. You told me you were marrying her.” If we had told him about our escapade, he might have been angry, but he would have had to admit we did not act alone. According to the Thurston Clarke article, the lowest official estimate of marriages on that day was 20,000, but that number was a record for weekday marriages—August 26, 1965, fell on a Thursday—and for marriages performed between 9 pm and midnight.
Like other young men who had no wedding prospects, Pete’s three roommates made other choices: Tim got a deferment by joining the Peace Corps; another roommate had already been accepted into graduate school, which still carried a deferment; and the third chose Officers Candidate School and went to Vietnam as an enlisted man rather than as a draftee.
The story of our wild ride still emerges, enlivening a conversation, shocking a friend or relative who hasn’t heard it, and as we tell it together, we continue to marvel that it happened at all. What if? There are so many what ifs.
What if we hadn’t known about Livingston? What if Pete had called another judge? What if his buddy hadn’t been on call in the blood bank or Jennifer hadn’t shown up? What if Tim had not turned on the radio in the car on the way home?
What if, in those days without instant communication, I had not been at the apartment?
Sometimes the stars aren’t crossed, and luck or happenstance opens the way. Even then, we might have thrown up our hands and told ourselves it was just too much trouble.
But we didn’t.