It was cold by Southern standards. It was 1948 and they had driven all night, across the state to the little Mississippi courthouse right past the Tombigbee River. Mississippi did not require a three-day waiting period like Alabama did. They did not have three days. They were caught in the middle of a war, or a conflict, though the ones that carried the guns never cared much about what the government called it. She was running on passion and cold coffee; the gravity and his arm around her shoulders were keeping her down. It was only the 23rd day they had seen each other’s faces, but in less than an hour she would have his last name.
Her heels clicked on the tile floor that morning. They were waiting on the judge when he pulled up, and soon God and the state of Mississippi would recognize them as husband and wife. They both wore blue suits. Hers was linen, starched so much it could stand up by itself, with a white cotton shirt and high heels. She always wore high heels. Even after a long drive, she looked immaculate. He wore the dark blue of a sailor, and he still rolled when he walked to keep up with the waves that had been under his feet for the past six months.
It all began a year earlier when she had moved to Anniston from Crescent City, FL. She was working at Fort McClellan when her friend and coworker, Margaret, said “You should meet my brother-in-law. He’s home from the Navy.”
She never meant to set them up, simply to get the sailor out of her hair and out of her apartment. That was Friday. On Saturday the women went shopping on Noble Street and ran into the sailor, Jesse Bentley, Jesse B. to all who knew him. He was only home for three weeks before being sent back to San Diego where he would work on a ship and travel across the Pacific to mend the holes that the Koreans left in the U.S. battleships. On Sunday, the day after they met, he said “Will you marry me?” and she said, “You are crazy. You don’t even know me,” and he said, “I know enough.”
It took her two weeks to say yes. By the time he was set to ship off again, she had agreed to marry him on his next leave, exactly one year from now: Christmas Eve 1948.
“I know you don’t believe in love at first sight,” she told me. “But I have no other explanation.”
And right then, I had no other choice but to believe.
It was Easter Sunday more than a year ago when I sat down with my grandmother. For years I had heard bits and pieces of the story where she ran away with a sailor she had only known for three weeks, and it had always been my goal to write it all down. That story was one of the main reasons I wanted to be writer, and I had always been aware that I was in a race against time to get the story before the Lord came to get her. Now, though, there was a third factor in the race; she was developing Alzheimer’s and I had to get to the details before the disease took all the good ones. And, although we were friends talking over marshmellow-shaped chickens and Diet Cokes for the afternoon, there would be some parts to this story when she would say, “that is between me and Jesse B.,” and I knew that no reporting skills I owned would get me any closer to an answer.
My father said that on the day of Jesse B.’s funeral he was talking to his brother, Mark, and said, “I suppose that man loved us more than anything in the world.” My grandmother turned around and with all the seriousness she possessed said, “No. That man loved me more than anything in the world.”
That is how it was. Their marriage burned with the same flame that incinerated the four pillowcases full of love letters that they had at the end of the war. My grandmother said, “We had to get rid of them before the little boy’s eyes could read what was written.”
I never even met that sailor, even though I have his name. The trip home that weekend was with the sheer intent of finding out what made the legend I had always heard about. Simply hearing, “He would have loved you,” was not good enough any longer. I was going home to find Jesse B., and I had to meet him through the woman who sewed little blue elopement suits for my Barbie dolls.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” she asked. “All that about love at first sight. Do you think I’m crazy? I do. It was a crazy thing to do. That wasn’t me. That wasn’t him. To this day I don’t know why I agreed to marry that sailor.”
There is always something about your grandmother that puts her up there with the holy of holies. They live above world with a wisdom and grace that is only something that little girls can aspire to. I admired her for so much more than her poise. She taught me to be independent and to sit with my legs crossed at the ankles, “like a lady.”
She had the figure of a pin up girl and one of those faces that was perfect for the little tin lock box of a lonely sailor. She finished high school in Crescent City, FL., where she graduated with a diploma and a diamond on her left hand. His name was Jimmy and he was a Catholic. She was raised in the Church of Christ with a mother who I have always feared.
“He wouldn’t change and I wouldn’t change,” she said. “We both knew it wouldn’t work.”
They went to the movies one night, a drive-in that they could walk to from her house. When she got home and he walked her to the doorstep, she pressed the ring into his hand and said, “I just can’t,” and slipped inside. She left the next day to spend a summer with her cousins in Alabama, and he wrote her every day begging her to come back home.
“I didn’t leave him at the altar like everyone tells you I did,” she said. That is true. I always imagined a nice Catholic boy standing in a big cathedral waiting on my grandmother to walk down the aisle. “I gave him plenty of time to get over it.”
There must have been the one day when that boy went to my great grandmother to get her address in Munford. You often hear stories about daddies cleaning guns when suitors come to the door, but they’ve never been at the mercy of my great grandmother. She turned 100 last year and died shortly thereafter. She was Cherokee, so her cheekbones stuck out right below her black eyes and black hair, parted down the middle, falls over her ears. She was dark and angular, and will put the fear of God himself in you. When you stood before her, she examines you from top to bottom. When you spoke to her, you realize that she is smarter than you. Even after all those years, she could remember the birth, death and marriage dates, first, middle and last names of all 12 of her siblings, all of their spouses and all of their children.
And, she did not like the Catholics.
I have tried on a few occasions to picture him coming to that big house in the middle of Florida, knocking on the door and asking for her help. I cannot do it because in my mind he always chickens out about the third step up to the porch and runs back to his catechism classes.
“She was so relieved when I did not marry that Catholic boy,” my grandmother said.
She moved to Munford, a spot of dust on a road map. If your map has been folded too many times, you might mistake it for just another wrinkle or coffee stain. These were the days when big black automobiles barreled down country roads stirring up dirt and hate and war. These were the days when girls with broken hearts were sent with pressboard suitcases to live with aunts and uncles while they healed. These were the days when my grandfather was on a boat pulling the trigger of a pistol while he hid his eyes because he could never stand the idea of knowing he killed another man.
He spent his 18th birthday shooting at men in Inchon.
She graduated with a broken heart and moved to Alabama. The day she got to Munford, she applied for a job as a typist for the military base in Anniston. They hired her, and she would work with a group of women that typed technical manuals that told the soldiers how to do everything but pull the trigger.
They knew each other for less than 24 hours when he proposed. I asked my grandmother to describe him at different points through their marriage, and she always said, “He was a gentle man.” About the time she said it three times, I got sick. I was terrified to come that day because I did not want to see her get weak with Alzheimer’s. I asked her about it.
“I’ve been watching you take notes and you never write down that he was a gentle man,” she told me. “I thought I would keep saying it until you figured out how important that was.”
He was a gentle man. He was a sailor, and although what was done on that boat is lost forever, it is fact that he never said a strong word in front of his wife or kids. Even his features looked gentle. He had a nice face, not a nice-looking face, but a face that looked like he would be a nice person. He was strong and tall with dark hair and dark skin, and she was five-feet-tall and 90 pounds soaking wet.
After he proposed, they spent three weeks on what she calls, “just ordinary dating,” going to the movies and things she said were not even special. She said yes one night after discussing the idea of getting married, and the next day he shipped off to the Orient for the second time.
“We wrote love letters every day,” she said. “I was getting letters from the Catholic boy begging me to come home, and I was giving my heart away to a sailor I barely knew.”
He came home one year later and they were married before the first sunrise he saw in the South. Three weeks later, he was back on the ship.
She continued to work the entire time he was away. That was her nature. Even after he died of a perforated colon, a “busted gut” as she calls it, she continued to work at Redstone Arsenal where people have often told me she could command a room full of men as well as any colonel or captain.
That next December in 1949, she got the letter saying she could go meet him in San Diego. She was afraid he would not come. She was even more afraid that he would come and she would not recognize him.
“I got on a plane and kept thinking, ‘I’m little, I’m alone and it’s dark here,” she said. “All I could think about was being stuck in the dark. Remember, I had gone off and married a man I did not know.”
He was there waiting for her.
“I stepped off the plane and was just bombarded with those lights. I couldn’t see anything, but they could see me. Then a big arm came around my shoulders and said, ‘Hey baby’ and I melted and thought, ‘Oh he did come!”
That is my favorite part.
I have heard so many fairy tales that they no longer make me put my hands over my heart and sigh. That scene does. Imagining my grandmother in a traveling suit, worried about the dark skies of San Diego, then stepping off the plane to be greeted by a sailor that got home from war gets me every time. No movie or song could ever put into words the moment in this story when my grandmother lowers her voice to emulate his and say, “Hey baby.”
I wish I had met him. My parents thought I was going to be a boy so they named me after Jesse B. They were surprised and stuck an extra ‘i’ in the middle to be politically correct. Still, I take it seriously. He feared God. He feared hurting another human being. He loved my grandmother with everything he was.
I only pray I do his name justice.