Having been raised in the old fashioned tradition, I believed that a deal is a deal. You are supposed to live up to your deals through thick or thin, richer or poorer, for better or worse. Deals are frequently stated in plain words like I will if you will, or I will, but you have to go first, or I will, but it will cost you fifty bucks. These clearly stated deals are all fine, of course, until it is your turn to keep your end of the deal. That is exactly where I found myself.
There are, of course, different kinds of deals. In the business school, deals are called contracts. They may be written or verbal. If you end-up in court, it is better to have it in writing because people lie. They can go back on their word and lie about the deals they really made. In this case a deal is a deal, – maybe. Under oath they call this perjury, a serious offense for which many persons have gone to jail, excluding recent presidents, of course. The Navy solved this problem for me by requiring a written contract.
On accepting the Navy’s offer to pay for my education through four years of college, they required me to sign a contract. Like all contracts, it was several pages of small print. You sign that you have read and understand all the provisions of the contract. I suspect that few persons actually read the many pages of fine print, written by lawyers in language several levels short of plain English. After reading a paragraph or two, any reasonable person starts mumbling to himself. Then it becomes automatic to find the signature line, sign your name, and move on to something more palatable. I did, but I really knew the provisions.
One of the small print provisions stated that I agreed not to get married, I assumed, while attending college. When I was offered the contract, I was only 18 years old. I had met dozens of great marriage prospects, but had not narrowed the field appreciably, as I knew there were dozens more I had not met. I signed the agreement in good faith, believing it was not a big deal. I did not fully appreciate exactly how long four years was, particularly during these more virile years.
In the summer of 1952, fate struck a fatal blow to my deal when I met Lois, a little farm girl from western Kansas. On our second date, I played her sweet ukulele music on a sand bar in the Solomon River. Then I told her we would be getting married in the foreseeable future. She might have asked to go home immediately, but she didn’t. The rest is history.
Over the next few months, in view of the Navy contract, we discussed the options. There were only two, and neither was very pretty. We could marry after graduation two years away, or we could marry in secret and risk being caught. The latter, of course, was a breach of contract, and defines our dilemma. Numerous stories were circulating about Navy students who married, none of which could be verified. One student, presumably, was caught, and was asked to leave the program immediately, in effect terminating the contract, college support, and commissioning. A second reportedly went directly to the Commanding Officer, and announced his recent marriage in an apparent attempt to void his contract. The CO stood up, shook his hand, said Congratulations, and asked if he had any other information for him. Presumably the contracts marriage provision was simply ignored. Faced with these conflicting stories, a carefully crafted plan was needed.
I had no interest in voiding the contract, and fully intended to complete training, and serve my three years with a regular commission. At the same time, it seemed arbitrary to void a contract for a circumstance, which bore no relevance to performance under the contract. With this justification, we planned a wedding for the summer of 1953 between my junior and senior years. Secrecy was the keyword, and every effort was focused on keeping it that way. There were to be no announcements and no written invitations. The wedding party was to consist of a maid of honor, a best man, a preacher, and select family members we knew to be trustworthy. The family members were pledged to complete secrecy, trusting nobody.
Because of the risk of official public announcements, like issuance of a license, the wedding was planned for Colorado, rather than Kansas. We felt the greatest risk of discovery would be where we lived every day. For this reason, we chose to live in Topeka, rather than Lawrence, a 50-mile daily commute to the Kansas University campus. The plans were followed explicitly. We married on August 15, 1953 in Allenspark, Colorado, a remote mountain village an hour from Boulder. We moved into an apartment in Topeka, and with the beginning of fall semester I assumed all my usual student activities, while Lois started teaching school in Highland Park. The happy couple is shown in front of the fireplace in Settles cabin in Allenspark.
We had double dated with another Navy student and his fiancé the previous year. Believing they were totally safe, we told them that we had married in August. Following our example, they also got married within a month. Continuing to follow our example, they got an apartment in Topeka, and he and I commuted to Lawrence together for the rest of the year. At the time, there was a continuous gas war in Lawrence and Topeka. We not only shared the cost of commuting, we did so on gasoline for 13 cents a gallon. The daily cost of gas was about a quarter a day each for the 50-mile trip, a bargain by any standard.
Everything was proceeding nicely toward graduation. We knew that at some point, someone would discover our deception. At the time, both sets of parents lived in Palco, a small town off the beaten path in Western Kansas. Any secret in Palco has a half life of 24 hours. The next day, half the folks in town know the secret. As luck would have it, one of the towns greatest gossips visited in our part of Topeka. She had a friend with a child who attended Lois school in Highland Park. She asked her friend if there was a Lois Steeples teaching in the school. After a short delay, the friend said the only Lois in school was a Lois Settles. The cat was out of the bag, and was in the hands of Palco’s biggest gossip.
At the time, the foremost suspicion about secret marriages was that they were have to deals. The young lady is pregnant, of course, and the parents might not even know. As everyone in Palco knew both sets of parents, it was prime gossip, and the woman could hardly wait to return to the small town to share her information. Our fathers were both school principals, and were well respected, enhancing the value of the information. For whatever reason, the gossip went first to Lois mother, apparently to validate the information, and find out what was really going on. Did you know that Lois was teaching in Highland Park as Lois Settles? she said. Were they living together? and Is she pregnant? were her additional questions. The last question was the only one of vital interest.
Lois mother was somewhat startled by the questions, but took the honest approach with the woman, who otherwise might look for answers elsewhere. Of course we know they are married. No, Lois is not pregnant. she said. Then she confided with the woman about the Navy Contract, and the importance of maintaining complete silence. Apparently the woman was satisfied, and kept the gossip to herself for the rest of the year.
This incident was not without its consequences, however. Both mothers were acutely uncomfortable with the secret marriage, and worried that at some time Lois would get pregnant, the only real issue for them. Folks count, you know, and begin counting with the public announcement. They didn’t want folks to get the wrong ideas. To head off this possibility, the mothers prepared and sent an announcement of the marriage, dates and all. Folks in small towns tend to remain suspicious, however, and still insist on counting. In this case, the mothers simply provided the date from which to begin counting. The announcement satisfied the mothers, and in the final analysis, the town folks really didn’t care.
One additional scene we had not fully anticipated. The service pays an allowance for members with wives. These benefits are based upon providing basic information, and signing over a statement swearing to its truth. The Navy could check, and was entitled to require documentation, should any question arise. I was uncomfortable reporting a fictitious marriage date for the service, and preferred an official, recorded date for this purpose. To reveal the Colorado wedding would blow the whistle on the breach of contract. I was not interested in revealing a breach, and preferred to continue silence about the earlier, and only legal marriage. One related issue was security clearance for access to secret and top secret documents. Revealing a breach would raise a red flag, suggesting a degree of unreliability.
The only reasonable course was to obtain another official date for the Navy, this time in Kansas. It was not easy. We went to the Probate Court in Topeka and said we were interested in a marriage license. The clerk gave us the usual forms to complete. One of the questions was have you ever been married? We said Yes. The next question was about the divorce. We said that we had not been divorced. The automatic response from the clerk was that we could not get married. Rather than argue with the clerk, who had little authority, we explained that we had exceptional circumstances, and asked to talk to the judge in person. We were led to his office.
We explained the Navy contract to the judge, and our need for a date for the Navy’s official records. The judge listened to our plea intently. His first response was that he had never faced this kind of a request before. Then he said the second marriage would not be legally binding, in view of the earlier marriage in Colorado. He chuckled to himself, and said he had no wish to foil our plans. Then he told the clerk to issue the license, and wished us good luck. This was step one.
The next step was to get married again. We might have gone to a Justice of the Peace to avoid any trouble, but that was not our style. Don Evans, a minister from Topeka, performed the original ceremony in Colorado. He was a friend of the family on vacation in Colorado at the time. He was fully informed of our circumstances, and had been sworn to secrecy. We called him on the phone, and asked him to assist us again. We said we were not interested in a real wedding, but would appreciate a document signing ceremony. He set up an appointment for the following Saturday morning in his office. He said he had never before had such a request.
We arrived promptly. Don pronounced us already married, and signed the papers. We needed two witnesses, so we used the church secretary and the janitor, the only other people in the church. The papers were completed in his office and filed with the State of Kansas. The following day, Don announced from the pulpit that he had married us the day before. Then he added it was the only time he ever married the same couple twice. With that public announcement, he went on to other matters. Dozens asked us after church to fill in the missing details.
With this convoluted sequence of events, I have often introduced Lois as my wife, – – by my second marriage. Some of the responses are priceless. As usual, the Navy never knew the difference.