by Dave Friant
It was late January 1972. 21 years old and for all I knew my future was set in stone. Graduate from college. Exchange the vows with the fiancée at the small church wedding. Earn a decent living and take up residency within fifteen minutes of both sets of parents. Such was the blueprint for the majority of young adult males and their brides in southern New Jersey.
Little did I know.
Stockton State College was in the midst of its’ Spring term. My best friend and fellow student, Bill Friedman, were pursuing big scores in the college’s intramural bowling league. All was in order with pins being dominated and friendships amongst competitors developed.
Then came the unanticipated arrival of Gaye Townsend. She walked in and asked, “can I bowl with ya’ll?.” It was a southern drawl the likes of which no one had heard firsthand before in these parts. Accompanying the accent was a very attractive blond whose skill on the lanes also became immediately apparent. She lived in Valpariso, Florida and was residing temporarily with her brother. Unbeknownst to me, he was a Stockton professor. She was 19 years old. A captivating smile with a sizeable dose of kindness and humility tossed in. All boxes favorably checked within the first hour.
Hoped for with no disguise of intent was contact away from the lanes with Ms. Townsend. Being experienced was a moment of clarity about possibilities never before realized in my life about a girl. I was very shy. Some level of a pursuit was a significant mountain to overcome. Yes. I suppose a bit melodramatic for those who have never wondered while wandering.
Bill made an attempt to back petal me into reality. I was engaged to be married. “Don’t even think about messin’ around,” was his advice. Tagging along with his suggested bit of wisdom was the hankering he too had for the Southern Belle.
The resulting impact with my fiancée at the time (referred to here as LL) would be devastating, even though love was not a characteristic of our connection. I had been completely faithful to LL. We had been “set up” via a prank by a high school friend three years earlier. Told that “she likes you and wants to go out on a date,” I pursued LL and in essence manufactured the relationship. It took on a life of its’ own and I slipped onto her finger that $99.95 doozy of a ring in early 1968. Absent were the elements of happiness and joy. The script had been written. Set a date and move on with the expected husband, wife, and kiddo(s) portrayals.
Okay. When an advantage is ripe for the taking, pursue the possibility yourself. This was the philosophy exercised by Bill as he invited the Florida beauty to a Philadelphia Flyer hockey game. She accepted. Accompanying them on that outing, and an additional hockey match-up 10 days later, were LL and me. A double-date. I viewed it as an opening and opportunity to score some points and make some progress with the still unlikely possibility.
The song “Cold as Ice” by Foreigner comes to mind when evaluating the interactions between LL and Gaye on both outings. Any observer would have noticed the tension. LL from the start sensed an accurate over-the-top giddiness between Gaye and me. At the expense of LL, I tossed aside my shyness and made a not-too-well-masked play for Gaye. Continuous questioning about her life in Florida. Exercising my sense of humor and loving the way she responded. Topping it off was a snowball fight (her first time to see ice crystals from the sky) between the two of us. It was a textbook definition of flirtation.
Gaye left the land of boardwalk pizza for a return to her hometown in early April 1972. She cited homesickness and nothing close to a thumbs up regarding life in the Northeast as the basis for the decision. In my mind, it was her desire to simply exit the scene and not create further havoc between myself and LL. Continuing to walk the plank of fearlessness, I asked for her phone number and home address prior to the departure. She provided both. I was convinced that a unique attraction existed – at least on my side of the ledger that affected my daily thoughts. Might something similarly have clicked within her? Was there a legitimate basis for a pursuit? I needed to find out.
Two weeks to the day after her departure, I conjured up the courage to send Gaye a letter. My intent was two-fold. I wanted to thank her for being a part of the enjoyable evenings at the hockey games. More importantly, and with subtlety nowhere to be found, was the matter of her sentiments about a relationship. Did there exist any inkling of positivity regarding us being a possibility down the road? I was tossing out the line into uncertain waters. Might she view the hockey games as simply a fun time with a newfound friend? Would she view the major entanglement of my being engaged as a fly in the ointment?
Over the next few months, letters with increasing emotional intensity between the two of us were exchanged like clockwork. Additionally, a handful of coins were nervously deposited into a WAWA convenience store payphone for 30-minute calls to Gaye three times per week. They’d take place immediately after the dropping off of LL at her house 3 blocks from the store. Yes. Understood. This fits every definition of cruel and unwarranted behavior. Well within the definition of “two-timing.”
Developed was a ramped-up “what if?” relationship of possibilities. The obvious biggies in terms of concerns was the engagement status to LL, as well as the distance between the two of us. Both were resolvable, but not without some huge step-up-to-the-plate actions on my part and a continued positivity about the rightness of being together for the long haul.
Allllllrighty then! Let’s put some substance into this 1,100 mile connection. Plans were made for a flight to Valparaiso to re-unite with Gaye and meet her parents. Lay all the cards on the table and go for broke was my mantra for the trip. Memorial Day weekend of 1972. Prior to the departure, I told LL about my indiscretions involving Gaye and plans for the flight south. She was surprisingly not that crushed with the news and intentions to call it quits. Not aware of the letter-writing and secretive phone calls, LL did reference the flirtatious behavior on my part during the double-dates.
Three nights were spent with the Townsends during that holiday weekend. Absent extreme nervousness leading to a wallet-still-in-my-cut-offs dip into the gulf and spilled tea at dinner, all went well. These were outstanding folks. Genuine Christians who were not judgmental with their assessment of my communicative efforts with their daughter while I was still engaged. They were in unison when expressing confidence that it was divine intervention which brought Gaye and I together. Their total desire was joy and happiness for the only daughter in the family.
Okay again. All went well. Now what?
Decided upon was a return trip to “Joisey” and Gaye re-establishing temporary residency with the Stockton brother. Except for food, gas, and “potty stops,” it was a continuous drive involving 8 states in her Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. We discussed politics, upbringings, and spiritual matters during the approximately 18-hour drive.
We started to officially date and were engaged in August of that year. We married on December 16, 1972 (yes scorekeepers. . . one-half of a century ago this month) and remained in my state of birth for 2 years until employment opportunities took us to Florida and Texas. Two children and four grandchildren continue to be the proverbial cherry on top of the sundae.
She had me at “ya’ll.” We’ve been fortunate to have a committed relationship over the years. Our health has remained reasonably intact. Only successfully dealt with minor financial hardships have bumped us off-course at times. We’ve grown together and clung to those special vows while making the marital experience a joyful one. We thank the Lord for both His intervention into our lives way back when, and the assurance of His continual presence.