The heat from the Texas sun on the tarmac penetrated our combat boots as we left the bus for the waiting aircraft. As we approached the plane, we saw the airline’s name displayed on the fuselage. Modern Air was a military contractor and we decided that name didn’t instill a lot of confidence. As we began to gain altitude, I looked out from my window seat at the perfect grids of farmland that formed the landscape, glad to be leaving the Training Command station and heading back east.
We soon discovered that our ride lacked the usual commercial amenities with only two stewardesses for about 180 GIs and the pilots flying straight through plenty of turbulence, making walking around the cabin a little challenging. Other than that, it was pretty uneventful. A quick refuel at Chanute AFB, then on to DC where we boarded a bus for Ft. Lee.
I had been at my new station in Virginia for only a couple of days when I made the call. I had found the closest phone booth to the barber shop where I got my usual military-style haircut.
Olga was living with my parents, so I dialed the familiar number. Sure enough, she answered. The well-rehearsed words rolled off my tongue as my heart began to race. “Hi, Olg. Do you still want to get married?” Her response was immediate. “Yes”, she said. I replied, “Great. How’s a week from Saturday?” Again, without hesitation, “Sure”, she replies. We agreed that our parents need not worry as this left only about 12 days to plan the wedding. We were content with a Justice of the Peace performing a quick ceremony. Besides, what would I have been worried about? All I had to do was show up in time for the ceremony.
I was only allowed a radius of 300 miles to travel from my duty station, so the 650 mile trip back to New York for the wedding, posed a small obstacle. I would technically be AWOL. I asked around about getting married at my Tech School and was told the I would need permission from the Air Force Liaison. Furthermore, there was no way on earth it would be granted, prior to being assigned to a permanent duty station. The Air Force didn’t want students distracted with dependent wives, I guess. As the saying goes, “If the Air Force wanted you to have a wife, you would have been issued one”. At that point, it seemed like a small obstacle to this young man who was in very much in love.
Back in New York, a frenzy had begun. Somehow, our mothers were pulling it all together. There would be printed invitations sent out in time. The bridal party and groomsmen assembled. Wedding cake, a photographer, as things began to fall into place. The big glitch was finding a church and reception hall on such short notice. The church that I grew up in was large enough but was not available. Neither were any of the larger venues around Troy for the reception. We were expecting nearly 150 guests, but really weren’t sure who would show because of the time frame. Fortunately, the tiny Ukrainian Catholic Church that was home for my soon-to-be wife’s family was available. Better yet, the Ukrainian American Citizens Hall was available on the same day. As half of the guests were Ukrainian, some were overjoyed. All we needed now was entertainment. As luck would have it, five guys that grew up with Olga in the Ukie neighborhood played the accordion and sang, so to speak. What were the chances? Nothing says “wedding” quite like accordion music and five Ukrainian guys singing “She’s Too Fat For Me”. Making the reception really memorable, they performed the ever-popular wedding song “In Heaven There Is No Beer” as an encore.
Back in Virginia, time is dragging for me. Friday night can’t arrive soon enough. As as classes concluded for the day, Dress Blues packed, I then asked a USMC Gunnery Sargent classmate of mine for a ride to the Richmond airport, about a half hour away from the Post. Darting from the car at the airport, I head for the ticket counter, make my purchase and I’m on my way NY. After a long layover in DC, I board the red-eye, arriving in Albany around 3:00 am. Olga greeted me at the airport, hardly noticing that I was 25 pounds lighter than when she saw me leave back in March.
I had called before I left Ft. Lee and my father asked me what I wanted to eat when I got home. Having served in the Army, he knew I’d be looking for a home-cooked meal. He had a huge T-Bone steak waiting for me and pan-fried, rare as could be. It was 5:30am, and I was hungry. It was a nice change from mess hall eats. A two hour nap ensued and morning arrives. It’s now only six hours to the wedding in Amsterdam. We’re in Troy and yet to procure a marriage license on a Saturday morning. We called the Town Clerk at home in Poestenkill, asking for a favor, which she happily granted to a pair of anxious teenagers an hour later.
The phone at Olga’s parent’s house was constantly busy that day, so when she got her hair done in the morning she couldn’t reach anyone to pick her up from the hairdressers. Normally, that would not have been much of a deal, but nothing is ever simple for us. She walked home when a lovely May morning shower started. No umbrella. So much for the hairdo.
People were already arriving at the church for the ceremony when we grabbed the first two English-speaking people and ushered them into the Rectory next door to serve as witnesses for the marriage certificate. We left there, scooted to Olga’s parents home, changed clothes and headed back to the packed church where everyone was patiently seated, waiting for the bride and groom to arrive. The combination of old furs and mothballs made the little church smell like it hadn’t been opened up all winter long. The rain had stopped but the heat had built up inside. The sanctuary was like being in a steam-bath. The ceremony was yet to begin and my wool summer Blues were making be feel claustrophobic already.
Drops of sweat began to form on my forehead and with little hair growth from the fresh cut, was starting to flow. Unexpectedly, two crowns appear and the priest places them on our heads. Olga’s veil held her’s pretty well, but the perspiration kept causing mine to travel. Not wanting to attract too much attention by grabbing the thing, I kept shifting my head to hold it in place. I felt like I was in a TV commercial for Imperial Margarine. Incense was now burning, smoking the place up. When she was growing up, this was a trigger to make Olga pass out. I began to strategize how I would catch her from falling without loosing my crown, so to speak.
As I stood there trying to keep my head straight, my mind was wandering when I realized the ceremony was in Ukrainian. The priest stopped talking and stared at me. I assumed that was some sort of cue, so I said “I do”. I’m not so sure that the ceremony was valid because I didn’t know what he asked me in that moment. However, we recited the vows and the commitment was for a lifetime.
Soon, we found ourselves exiting the church, welcoming the fresh, warm spring air as we descended the steep stairs to the street, quickly on our way to have pictures taken at City Hall.
We arrived at the Ukie Club for the reception. Congratulations were given and the well-wishers abounded. Olga asked me to stand next to here, behind the table we were sitting at when all the older Ukrainian couples began to line up, facing us. They came up to our table, presenting us with envelopes containing cards and cash. The money would be much appreciated in the months ahead as we settled in Virginia. However, I was about to be introduced to a memorable tradition. Both the men and women would kiss us both and offer their congratulations. We’re not talking a peck on the cheek here. They were planting them right on my lips. I turned to Olga at one point and said that if one more man kissed me on the lips, that I would run out of the reception spitting and screaming. I didn’t and did do my best to be gracious. As time passes, I would grow to love and respect these warm, wonderfully affectionate people who left their homeland for the “New Country”, as they referred to America. Later in the reception, the men would gather together in a circle, howling some song in their native tongue with tears in their eyes. That scene made a lasting impression on me as they sang songs about the Ukraine they loved so dearly that had been lost to the Communists.
It was May 24, 1969, truly A Day to Remember for a young Airman and his new bride. “And, the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
It had been a blur for me since Friday night and the next day we would board an airplane and set out for Virgina. We had one suitcase containing a few changes of clothes, a clothes iron and one set of bed sheets. Any thoughts of a honeymoon were released and we would settle in Virginia for the next six months, but that’s more stories.