I would have sworn that Jack and Martha were newlyweds if they hadn’t been quite a bit on the older side. When they first came into the fast food restaurant where I was having dinner Monday night, they seemed like a young couple in love. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw them sit at a booth together — side by side instead of across from one another. What I didn’t know then is that they were newlyweds. They just got married Monday.
Jack fell in love with Martha more than 50 years ago, but he was too timid to approach the girl he said was the prettiest in the school. Besides, Martha always had plenty of dates, so he didn’t think she could possibly be interested in a skinny boy with little confidence and no apparent future. That was in the early ’60s at a high school near Birmingham. Neither knew that they would end up together in 2012.
Jack graduated from high school two years ahead of Martha and headed off to college. He kept a picture of Martha that he had gotten from one of her friends. Unknown to him at the time, Martha had wanted Jack to ask her out, but he had never shown any interest.
“There was something different about Jack even then,” Martha told me. “He was quiet back then, so I didn’t really know him. There was something about those blue eyes that made him seem like my idea of the man I wish I could end up with.”
Neither of them knew of the other’s interest as Jack went off to the University of Alabama, where he was part of the ROTC program, which meant he was commissioned as an Army officer upon graduation. Given the fact that he became a second lieutenant in 1967, it’s no surprise that he ended up fighting in the jungles of Vietnam.
“I was scared,” Jack said. “In high school, I was just a quiet boy who didn’t ever expect to leave Alabama. I never expected to be in a place like Vietnam. I sure wasn’t a hero and didn’t want to try to be. I just wanted to survive and get home.”
Throughout college, Jack had tried to date other girls, but his heart was still set on Martha, even though he said he considered it a foolish crush. When he traveled to Vietnam to fight, one of the few personal things he carried with him was the old picture of the girl he thought he loved.
“When you’re in combat, you’re surprised at the things that stay on your mind,” Jack said. “You can be in the middle of a firefight and think you’re about to be killed and you suddenly swear you’re smelling some food your mama made for you when you were a kid. You feel crazy and you try to find something to hold onto. I held onto Martha. She was with me through all the fighting and the men dying. I talked to her just like she was there. I’d pull that little school picture out and pour my heart out — about wanting to go home and being scared of dying and wanting to talk to her.”
Jack said he changed while he was in Vietnam. He grew up a lot in college and learned how to be an outspoken leader. But it was leading men in fights and desperately trying to find ways to keep himself and his men alive that helped him to lose his fear of things that had scared him before. He was deathly afraid of Viet Cong bullets, but he was finally ready to pursue Martha. He promised himself that he would look her up and ask her out if he could get back to Birmingham in one piece.
Jack arrived back in Birmingham and kept his promise to himself. It was 1969 and he hadn’t seen or talked with Martha since high school, so it had been six years. He didn’t have a phone number, but he knew where Martha’s family had lived, so he dropped by the house to inquire about her.
To his surprise, Martha answered the door. His happiness turned to dismay, though, when he discovered that Martha had been married for four years and he had never known. She had gone to Jacksonville State University, where she met a man who swept her off her feet. Just nine months after they met, they were married. She said she knew within a year or two that she had made a mistake, but she didn’t feel she could do anything about it.
“I felt like I’d made a promise and I couldn’t back out,” she said. “That’s just not what you did back then. I didn’t know what would happen to me. My parents would have been heartsick if they had known I was unhappy, but I thought they would kill me if I got a divorce.”
Jack and Martha talked several times over the next few weeks. Jack confessed that he had been crazy about her in high school, and Martha told him that his attention would have been welcome at the time. They both felt tremendous regret, but they parted.
Martha stayed in Birmingham, but Jack moved to Dallas for a business opportunity. He said he might never have taken the chance to move so far from home, but he had to get far away from Martha, because he realized he was still in love — with a married woman.
Jack eventually forced himself to marry. He said it wasn’t a bad marriage, but he never could give his heart completely to his wife, although he tried. While Jack was married, there was a time when he and his wife were visiting Birmingham when he saw a familiar face one night in a restaurant.
“We were at John’s restaurant downtown and I suddenly saw Martha walking across the room,” Jack said. “She didn’t see me, but I watched her for a moment. I felt guilty, because I was sitting with my wife at dinner with all my family, but as soon as I saw Martha, all I could feel was how much I loved her.”
He excused himself from the table and stopped Martha. She was happy to see him and they stood talking while their respective parties waited for them.
“We ducked out of the dining room into this little side room,” Jack said. “It wasn’t very light in there, but there was just enough light on her face for me to feel how beautiful she was. I had been trying for years to forget about her and love my wife, but it all came back to me when I saw her face and heard her voice.”
It turned out that Martha had eventually divorced her husband. She had overcome her fear of the stigma of divorce. Her parents even approved. Now it was Jack who was married and she was free. They parted that night after only a few brief minutes, but Jack said he could never again fool himself into believing he loved anyone else.
Jack’s wife died in a car accident in Dallas a few years later. He eventually decided to try to find Martha, but there was no listing for her in the Birmingham phone book. The few people he could find from high school who might have known her didn’t know where she was. There was nothing he knew to do.
A couple of years ago, Jack sold his interest in his business in Dallas and decided to move back home. He never even tried to date anymore, because he knew he still loved a woman who he had lost.
In April, a Sunday school class at Jack’s church was going to have a social event with a class from another church. Some of the people in the group knew each other and thought it would be nice to have a bigger group. Jack says he almost didn’t go, but when he did, the first person he saw was a familiar face.
“Someone let me in the front door and I came on down the hall to the big den where everybody was gathered,” Jack said. “As soon as I walked in the room, it was like there was nobody in there but her and me. We just kind of locked eyes on each other and stood there dumbstruck for a minute.”
Jack said he walked over to Martha and asked her a question.
“Are you married now?” he asked. Martha shook her head. “I’m not, either. I’d like to spend some time with you. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
Jack and Martha left the social together after just a few minutes. They’ve pretty much spent every day together since then. Each of them says the other is what he or she imagined the other to be.
Other people told them they were crazy to talk about getting married this quickly, but they both knew it was what they wanted.
“I’d been in love with her since about 1963,” Jack said. “I wasn’t going to let her slip away this time.”
They married Monday in a small ceremony in a pastor’s office. They say they don’t have a lot of specific plans yet. They just know they want to spend all their remaining time together.
“This is the man I was meant to be with,” said Martha. “I really believe that. I don’t know how many years we have left, but we’re going to live it by loving each other — the way I wish we had done 50 years ago.”