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Before You Were Born: “We had a car. That was it.”

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Stories from our parents' surprisingly romantic youth: Adventuresome times in the 1970s.

Before they were "happily married writers," my parents were freewheeling, globetrotting younglings who probably wouldn't have gotten married if it weren't for the U.S. Army. Recently, I interviewed them about their adventures.

In 1976, Dad, you were graduating from college and leaving for Switzerland to play basketball; Mom, you were just about to start your sophomore year. You'd just gone on a few dates. Why did you decide to stay together?

D: It was bad timing. We both recognized that we had a real spark and a real attraction, but it just seemed doomed because I was taking off. It's just a testament to our attraction to one another that we decided we didn't have to cut this off because of timing; we could write these letters and kind of explore that. I just think… I was really intrigued. Mom had these angry eyes and was real pretty, and I just wanted to get to know her better.

M: And you were very lonely, weren't you?

D: You always put the blackest spin on things. "If you weren't lonely you would never have written to me." Yeah, that's true. If I had been in the circus, you wouldn't have been born, Livi. So I think it was that. It was just kind of unfinished business. And letters turned out to be a perfect kind of way to date, in a way. Transatlantically.

When were you officially together, then?

M: It was right before I went to Ireland.

D: I came back that next summer. I picked her up at the Philadelphia train station, and I remember our driving around together in this big boat of a car that my parents had. It just seemed odd. We'd written all these letters, but hadn't really talked that much! It was like meeting a stranger who you knew really well, through the letters. We were zipping along some freeway, and we were just sort of sitting there. It reminded me of the ending of The Graduate, when they sit there on the bus, like, what do we do now? But then I put the moves on her, you know.

M: Which terrified me.

And then when Mom was in Ireland and Dad was back in Switzerland, you visited each other?

M: Yeah. Dad came to Ireland first, before I went to Switzerland. I was sort of being watched. The program I was with was from a Catholic school, the University of Detroit, and we had a priest who accompanied the group. He was really displeased the first time I went to Switzerland.

D: Father McCranky. And I guess we met in Paris for Christmas that year? Then you came to Switzerland at the end of your time in Ireland. We took this long trip down to Montpelier, and then we went down to Barcelona, and then Madrid, and from there we went up to Oxford. We were just living on the cheap, just moving around, and it was great.

So when you came back to the U.S. for Mom's last year of college, the two of you lived together in Davidson. How did you decide to get married?

D: It was forced upon us by the U.S. military.

M: It was a convergence of things happening. Dad was unhappy with his doctoral program, or maybe unhappy about being separated, but unhappy in any case.

D: I'd started a doctoral program at the University of Rochester, and our silly little plan was that I would be doing my doctorate for four years and Mom would be in the army for four years, and then we'd get together. We'd live together and all that stuff. And that plan lasted a couple of months, basically. I didn't like the program or the city that much, and being apart wasn't working too well, so I decided to quit the doctoral program so that we could be together. But to be together in the military meant we had to be married, because they were going to ship her over to Germany, and they wouldn't ship me unless I was hitched to her.

So there was no proposal? It was just a decision?

D: Pretty much, wasn't it?

M: Yeah. I think you suggested it, as I remember.

Were you nervous about getting married so quickly?

D: It didn't feel quick at all.

M: No, I think we knew it was going to happen. I don't know if we knew we were going to get married, with an official ceremony, but I think we always knew that we were going to be together.

NEXT: "The troops I intermingled with didn't give a shit, but some of the officers could be real assholes about it…"

How did you know?

D: Loooove.

M: We're just really compatible. It's a good life. It's exciting.

D: I'm a believer in chemistry. I think we just chemically attract one another.

M: We really had spent a lot of time together.

D: Mainly we liked travel. We weren't afraid of not having a ton of money and kind of traveling on the cheap and doing some interesting things. This was also at a time when these sorts of regulations and traditions were just sort of shrugged at by young folks like us. We were committed to each other for long before that, so this sort of legalization of it just seemed unnecessary to us. A lot of marriage is for legal purposes or tax purposes. There was no religious significance to it. There was no, "Gee, now we're really committed," sort of thing to it.

M: It didn't really change anything.

D: Except now the army would ship me along.

Were you guys excited to go to Germany, or did you resent that you had to go into the Army and Dad had to go along?

M: No, I think I was still thinking that the military was a good thing at that point. I was young. And I was excited about going to Europe. I didn't understand what I was getting into. It was an adventure. Originally, we were supposed to go to Panama, but that's when the United States started pulling out of Panama, so my spot was canceled. So I contacted my dad, who was a colonel. He was in Belgium then, and he found me a spot in Germany.

D: I was just doing my best to support the troops. I thought we got really lucky. If we'd been stationed at some butthole fort in the United States, it would have been really hard.

M: In Germany, you could blend in with the outside world. You could have another life.

D: And with the Panama thing, we were kind of looking forward to that. We were taking Spanish lessons. We were young and stupid, so we were like, "Okay, what the fuck, that sounds kind of interesting. Let's go see what that's all about." Then when that fell through, we did the scramble and it was fortunate we ended up going to Europe. For me, anyway, it was like, "I can do that, I know Europe." I immediately started thinking about finding a basketball team. I was absolutely unenthusiastic about anything military. But I figured, hell, you know, we're in Europe. I'll find something to do that will be cool. If she'd been sent to Fort Hood or whatever in the States, it would have been pretty shitty. For both of us.

M: In a way, I don't know if we would have gotten married if I'd had orders to some place here in the States.

D: Interesting. I don't know.

M: Because I thought we got married to ensure that you would be paid for. That you would be shipped over with me. If I hadn't been going abroad, I don't know that we would have gone through the formal ceremony. I think we did the formal ceremony to be legal.

D: I hadn't even thought about that. If we'd been Stateside, we could have just continued to cohabit, we could have lived off base, I could have got some sort of job in wherever we were.

Did any of the governmental, formal things like taxes and stuff matter?

M: We weren't thinking about that.

D: We didn't have enough money for that to make any difference. But Mom would have caught a lot of shit in the military for living with somebody. And certainly in military intelligence, they might have considered her compromised.


M: Because any sexual relationship is seen as being able to corrupt somebody who has secrets.

D: Actually, I'm ready to reveal now that I was a Soviet spy. But I decided to stay in zis country, iz nice, iz nice!

Did you ever get shit for being an Army husband?

D: Oh, God, yeah. On my ID card, there was the very rare marking "DH," which meant "Dependent Husband." I don't know if there were any others in the whole military. It was weird, and the troops I intermingled with didn't give a shit, but some of the officers could be real assholes about it. Especially the West Point guys. They all thought they were hot shit.

You guys spent a decade over in Europe, with Mom in the army in Germany and then in Oxford while Dad got a couple of literature degrees. Is there anything else that you wish you'd done during that time? Any regrets?

M: My brothers and sister were all buying houses, and at the time I lamented that we were getting behind, but I think we've caught up. I think we caught up a while ago. So no, I don't regret how we spent our time there.

D: I remember when I was getting close to graduating from college, my dad said to me that there are two times when you can do some crazy stuff: one is right after you graduate from college and before you get established, and the other is after you retire. After college, you're young, but you have no money, and after you retire you're not so young, but you have some money.

M: And we had no obligations, you know? We had a car. That was it. We didn't really own anything else.

D: We were just living on the cheap, moving around, and it was great.

Now that you're almost fully empty nesters, would you ever move back to Europe?

M: In a second.