I’m writing this on August 27, which is Ellen’s and my wedding anniversary. Number thirty-four. And, yes, it is fun to count as our happiness at being married grows along with the astonishing number. Astonishing because inside, of course, we still think we are those fresh-faced people in their twenties.
It is also the day that Barack Obama was nominated as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. It’s the first time an African American or anyone of color has been chosen to head a major party ticket. And the first time this century we might have a president who actually speaks the language.
Our 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was born on this day 100 years ago. LBJ is the only president I’ve ever seen in the flesh. He campaigned in 1964 at the site of what would become the University of California Irvine campus. I remember standing in those still empty hills a great distance from the speakers platform but nevertheless impressed that this was a big man: big head, big ears, big voice. LBJ said (on another occasion): “The presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands.”
I was probably physically closer to Richard Nixon a couple of times when I was out surfing at Cotton’s Point in San Clemente and Tricky Dick was in residence at his cliff-top Western White House. Security was certainly different then. We used to mess with the Secret Service guys standing stiffly in their dark suits on the terrace. We’d build oily driftwood fires on the beach and watch the agents shift positions, and shift again, to avoid the black smoke.
Today is also the anniversary of the day in 1883 when the island of Krakatoa blew its top spewing massive amounts of rock and ash into the atmosphere and also generating the loudest sound in recorded history. The explosion was heard 1,900 miles away in Perth, Australia, and nearly 3,000 miles across the Indian Ocean in the Mauritius group.
On a happier note, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez resigned on this day in 2007 after a career littered with yes-man memos justifying official torture, perjury before Congress, and a rash of politically-motivated Justice Department firings. Our 43rd president, George W. Bush, who called Gonzales “Fredo” or “Speedy” to his face, said on accepting the resignation that this was a “man of integrity, decency and principle.”
Today is also the birthday of Tuesday Weld, who sprang to prominence in 1959 on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. We’d never heard of anyone named Tuesday. My siblings and I referred to her as Tuesday Wednesday, for good measure. Tuesday Weld turned 65 today. What do you bet she still looks 16?
Of course, the big day is our own. It was the summer of 74. We’d met at Keystone teaching in the ski school there. Then we’d taught together through the next winter at Bear Valley in California’s central Sierra. We were gaga for each other. Getting married seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Both of us had been married before (foolish youths), so we didn’t have to go through all that again. We decided to do the deed on our own at the Alameda County courthouse, then throw a dinner party for our closest family and friends. We’d do all the cooking and celebrate in the little front room of our rented Berkeley flat.
Ellen had been sewing that summer, dying beautiful osnaburg cotton fabric and making clothing for a Berkeley shop. She made matching wedding outfits for us – slip-on, free-flowing and white. It was the 70s. In Berkeley.
The judge was a kindly old guy (old – he was probably in his fifties) who reminded me a little of Dobie Gillis’s grocer father. He took us into his chambers and told us: “Kids, marriage is not a bowl of cherries…” The cleaning lady stopped her vacuuming and stood as our witness.
Back home, Ellen baked Coquilles St.-Jacques – scallops, vermouth, cream, breadcrumbs, and parmesan cheese – served on plate-sized scallop shells. We drank Bull’s Blood Hungarian wine – cheap and uncomplicated. We drank enough that Ellen and I sang as best we could “An American Folk Song” from Orson Bean’s Live at the hungry i album. It begins: “George Fink lived with his mother/and sold washing machines.” You had to be there.
Ellen’s parents, second-generation Americans who weren’t at all sure about their only child hitching up with a ski instructor/poet, were, I am happy to say, completely charmed by the evening. My parents, who had not approved of my first marriage but had had the good sense to let me make my own mistakes, were thrilled with Ellen from the beginning. So our party was for them a happy confirmation.
Every few years on our anniversary my mother will tease me and say, “Did you two really get married that day? Really? Legally?” To which I reply, “Yes, Mom, we did. But with such a brilliant beginning, would it have mattered if we hadn’t?”