The Navy Years

Courting Alice

By John Vollaro  March 2006
My enlistment in the Navy early in 1962 was part of a grand plan that included a career in electronics, marriage and a family. Since I had some control over the sequence of events, I decided to fulfill my military obligation first, then develop a stable carrier. With these necessities taken care of, I would begin to think about marriage and a family.

My view of life as a series of carefully measured steps soon changed to one of me swimming vigorously in a river where currents pulled me in directions I would sometimes rather not go. The death of my father only days after my enlistment began was the first jolting experience that swayed my point of view. After a necessarily short period of mourning with my family, I was back at boot camp where I was  quickly swept up in the strong current of rigorous training and Navy discipline.

The river analogy includes opportunities that occasionally drift by like leaves and driftwood that are also caught in the currents. If they come within reach, you can grab hold of them or let them drift by. One such opportunity that I was inclined to watch drift by was an invitation from a new friend to go home with him for the weekend. We both had the weekend off and he was headed to Michigan by bus. After talking with him about where we would be staying I realized it was not his home but the home of a friend, and he had not told them we were coming. When I refused to go under those circumstances, he offered to call and let his friends know we were coming. He did so complaining that it was not necessary, and when they said we were welcome to come, I agreed to go along.

When all was said and done, there were three of us traveling by bus to Muskegon Michigan. David Quick had invited David Eisenbiel as well as me on this weekend adventure. We were headed for the home of Ben and Betty Quartermaine who were long time friends of the Quick family. Dave Q said he was hopeful that he could convince the Quartermaine's daughter Alice to arrange a date for us all when we got there. She rose to the occasion and an evening beach party at a park on Lake Michigan was the highlight of the weekend. Alice and I seemed to have the most fun together with Dave E and Loreen Mcnit running a close second. Poor Dave Q who had organized the whole affair was less than enchanted with his date and the feeling was mutual with Linda.

David E and I had such a good time with our dates that we tentatively decided to meet again in Chicago some time soon. A few weeks later we spent another wonderful weekend together that included sailing on Lake Michigan. I was a member of the sailing club at the Naval Training Center and I managed to get two boats for us. In the coming months, Alice and I continued to get together about once a month and we really enjoyed each others company. Unfortunately we both realized that our long distance relationship would soon be exacerbated by my expected orders to a ship on the east coast. It seemed a shame that our budding relationship was doomed to end as so many before ours had, because of a call to duty and circumstances beyond our control.

My orders came and I indeed was shipped off to Boston to take up duty as an Electronics Technician on the USS Lake Champlain. It was an exciting time for me but tempered by the prospect of not seeing Alice any more. In spite of the inevitable, I found myself saving every penny I had and planning a trip to Michigan for Thanksgiving. The long weekend we spent together was fabulous but we were both realizing that this could not continue. The currents that had brought us together in the river of life were pulling us apart even as our attraction for each other continued to grow.

In the weeks following Thanksgiving I found myself yearning to see Alice again. We continued to write to each other but with no hope of anything more than occasional letters. We both realized that our love affair would fade without frequent visits and that it would not be good for either of us to hang on to a relationship with no hope of growth.

Christmas was coming and in spite of everything, I wanted to do something special for Alice. I don't know what was going through my head; Certainly no credible long term plan. I scraped together every penny I had and bought a round trip airline ticket from Michigan to New York for Christmas week. I bought a small plastic airplane, put the ticket inside and sent it to Alice. Perhaps this would be our last hurrah. Perhaps we would continue to do this every few months for the next four years. All I knew is that if Alice agreed, we would be spending Christmas week together.

It turned out to be a very memorable Christmas. We reveled in the time we had to spend together and Alice got a chance to meet my family both immediate and extended. It was a typical Christmas for our family and all the good will and good food was at its best. To this day, Alice regards that week as a milestone in her introduction to Italian food at its best.

I'm not sure what would have happened to our relationship from that point on had not one more small piece of drift wood chanced to float by in the stream. As it was it almost went by without me seeing it.

I was busy learning the ropes as a new technician on the ship. I knew I was going to like working on all the sophisticated radio and radar systems and I spent a lot of time roaming the ship and investigating the equipment. One day I was so involved that I was late for the daily meeting in the ET shop. As I arrived through the rear hatch, the meeting was just breaking up. In the commotion I heard the division officer shout "Oh I almost forgot, there is an opening for someone to train for Electronic Countermeasures. Is any one interested?" I wasn't interested because I had just finished a year of training and was anxious to get some real experience. Someone shouted above the noise "Where is it?".  As I was turning to leave I heard him shout back "Six weeks at Great Lakes Training Center". I turned again and yelled at the top of my voice "I'll take it!"

Alice and I got together several more times during the 6 weeks that I spent in training school. On one of those occasions I asked her to marry me. It was on the campus of Michigan State University where she was studying for an undergraduate teaching degree. My proposal was rather tentative since I had little to offer and no control over my circumstances for several more years. I still wanted Alice to know how much she meant to me and to set a goal that we both could strive for even though the odds were against us. I said something like "If we can ever work things out, will you marry me?" Her response was one word but it changed everything.

She said yes as I hoped she would. It's hard to explain exactly what happened when she said it but I will never forget that "yes". Her eyes met mine and her face lit up with a radiant expression of joy. When she said yes, it was a powerful, bold, confident, unmistakable and unforgettable response. It struck me like a bolt of lightening and in that instant all tentativeness was dissolved. From that point on we made decisions together and with firm resolve. We set a wedding date, reset it, and reset it again. Each time it moved closer and was finally set for December 28, about 6 months from the time I proposed. Alice decided to postpone her education and this was a major sacrifice on her part. The problems that loomed before us seemed to melt away before our confident resolve. The priest on the Navy base tried to talk me out of getting married and I patiently listened to his admonition. However when he crassly asked if Alice was pregnant, I shot him a "how dare you" stare but said calmly "She is not pregnant, I love her, and we are going to be married". He backed off and eventually apologized to me.

We were married on December 28, 1963. My Navy salary was $93/month and Alice received an additional $112/month from the Navy as my spouse. This combined income was somewhat below the poverty level at the time but we managed to purchase a mobile home and began our life together in Quonset Point Rhode Island. In addition to our living expenses we made the payments on our mobile home and an outstanding college loan. We never missed a payment and none were late. It may sound like a difficult time for us but we do not remember it that way. We had everything we needed and we were very happy together. Before my discharge from the Navy in June 1966, our first two children Daniel and Jennifer were born in good health. Although many things could have happened to discourage us and dampen our enthusiasm, none did and in many ways we count those first years among our best.

A Navy Family