Photo courtesy of Pixabay
It was cold by southern standards. It was 1948, and they had driven all night across the state to the little Mississippi courthouse right past the Tombigbee River. Mississippi did not require a three-day waiting period like Alabama did. They did not have three days. They were caught in the middle of a war, or a conflict, though the ones that carried the guns never cared much about what the government called it. She was running on passion and cold coffee; the gravity and his arm around her shoulders were keeping her down. It was only the 23rd day they had seen each other’s faces, but in less than an hour she would have his last name.
Her heels clicked on the tile floor that morning. They were already waiting on the judge when he pulled up, and soon God and the state of Mississippi would recognize them as husband and wife. They both wore blue suits. Hers was linen, starched so much it could stand up by itself, with a white cotton shirt and high heels. She always wore high heels. Even after a long drive, she looked immaculate. He wore the dark blue uniform of a sailor, and he still rolled when he walked, as if keeping up with the waves that had been under his feet for the past six months.
Love At First Sight
It all began a year earlier when she moved to Anniston, Alabama, from Crescent City, Florida. She was working at Fort McClellan when her friend and coworker Margaret said, “You should meet my brother-in-law. He’s home from the Navy.”
Margaret never meant to set them up. She simply wanted to get the sailor out of her hair and out of her apartment. That was Friday.
On Saturday the women went shopping on Noble Street and ran into the sailor, Jesse Bentley — Jesse B. to all who knew him. He was only home for three weeks before going back to San Diego, where he would work on a ship and travel across the Pacific to mend holes the Koreans had left in the U.S. battleships.
On Sunday, the day after they met, he said, “Will you marry me?”
And she said, “You are crazy. You don’t even know me.”
And he said, “I know enough.”
It took her two weeks to say yes. By the time he was set to ship off again, she had agreed to marry him on his next leave, exactly one year later — Christmas Eve 1948.
Years later, she told her granddaughter, “I know you don’t believe in love at first sight, but I have no other explanation.”
And her granddaughter had no other choice but to believe.
Diet Coke and Love Letters
One Easter Sunday, the granddaughter sat down with her grandmother. For years she had heard bits and pieces of her grandparents’ story, how she ran away with a sailor she had only known for three weeks, and it had always been her goal to write it all down. After all, that story was one of the main reasons she wanted to be writer.
The granddaughter had always been aware she was in a race against time to get that story before the Lord came to get grandmother. Now, though, there was a third factor in the race; her grandmother was developing Alzheimer’s, and she knew she had to get to the details before the disease took all the good ones.
Over marshmallow-shaped chicken pieces and Diet Cokes, they talked all afternoon. At times, the grandmother would say, “That is between me and Jesse B.,” and her granddaughter knew that no reporting skills she possessed would get her any closer to an answer for those particular questions.
On the day of Jesse B.’s funeral, the granddaughter’s father was talking to his brother, Mark, and he said, “I suppose that man loved us more than anything in the world.”
But her grandmother turned around, and with all the seriousness she possessed said, “No. That man loved me more than anything in the world.”
That is how it was. Their marriage burned with the same flame that incinerated the four pillowcases full of love letters they had at the end of the war. The grandmother had explained, “We had to get rid of them before the little boy’s eyes could read what was written.”
The granddaughter never met that sailor, even though she has his name. But she made the trip home that Easter weekend determined to find out what made the legend she’d always heard about. Simply hearing, “He would have loved you,” was no longer good enough. The granddaughter, Jessie, went home to find her grandfather, Jesse B., and she had to meet him through the woman who once sewed little blue elopement suits for her granddaughter’s Barbie dolls.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” she had asked Jessie. “All that about love at first sight. Do you think I’m crazy? I do. It was a crazy thing to do. That wasn’t me. That wasn’t him. To this day I don’t know why I agreed to marry that sailor.”
There is always something about your grandmother that puts her up there with the holy of holies. They live above the world, with a wisdom and grace that is only something little girls can aspire to. Jessie admired her grandmother for so much more than her poise. She taught her granddaughter to be independent — and to sit with her legs crossed at the ankles, like a lady.
As they talked that afternoon, Jessie learned more about her grandmother. She’d had the figure of a pin-up girl and one of those faces that was perfect for the little tin lockbox of a lonely sailor. She finished high school in Crescent City, Florida, where she graduated with a diploma and a diamond on her left hand. And it wasn’t Jesse B’s ring, either.
His name was Jimmy, and he was a Catholic. She was raised in the Church of Christ, with Gran Gran — the great-grandmother young Jessie grew up fearing.
“He wouldn’t change, and I wouldn’t change,” the grandmother told her granddaughter about ending things with Jimmy. “We both knew it wouldn’t work.”
She and Jimmy had gone to the movies one night, a drive-in they could walk to from her house. But when she got home, and he walked her to the doorstep, she pressed the ring into his hand, said, “I just can’t,” and slipped inside.
She left the next day to spend that summer with her cousins in Alabama, and Jimmy wrote her every day, begging her to come back home.
“I didn’t leave him at the altar like everyone tells you I did,” she told Jessie. It was true. Jessie had always imagined a nice, Catholic boy standing in a big cathedral, waiting on her grandmother to walk down the aisle. “I gave him plenty of time to get over it,” her grandmother explained.
Jessie imagined there must have been a one-day, when that boy went to Gran Gran’s house to get her grandmother’s new address. You often hear stories about daddies cleaning guns when suitors come to the door, but they’ve never been at the mercy of Gran Gran. She was Cherokee, so her cheekbones stuck out right below her black eyes, and her black hair, parted down the middle, fell over her ears. She was dark and angular, and she put the fear of God in people. When you stood before Gran Gran, she examined you from top to bottom. When you spoke to her, you realized she was smarter than you. Years later, Gran Gran could remember the birth, death and marriage dates, first, middle and last names of all 12 of her siblings, all of their spouses and all of their children.
And she did not like Catholics.
Jessie tried to picture Jimmy coming to that big house in the middle of Florida, knocking on the door, and asking for Gran Gran’s help. But she could not imagine it. In her mind, he always chickened out about the third step up and ran back to his catechism classes.
“She was so relieved when I did not marry that Catholic boy,” Jessie’s grandmother said.
Gran Gran lived to be 100.
Jessie B went off to war, and she moved to Munford, Alabama, a spot of dust on a road map. If your map has been folded too many times, you might mistake it for just another wrinkle or a coffee stain. Those were the days when big, black automobiles barreled down country roads stirring up dirt and hate and war. Those were the days when girls with broken hearts were sent with pressboard suitcases to live with aunts and uncles while they healed. Those were the days that saw Jesse B. on a boat, pulling the trigger of a pistol while he hid his eyes because he could never stand the idea of knowing he killed another man.
He spent his 18th birthday shooting at men in Inchon.
The day she got to Munford, she applied for a job as a typist on Fort McClellan, the military base in Anniston. She worked with a group of women typing technical manuals that told soldiers how to do everything but pull the trigger.
Jessie asked her grandmother to describe Jesse B. at different points through their marriage, and she said, “He was a gentle man.”
After she said it three times, Jessie felt sick, terrified that the Alzheimer’s was showing itself that day. But she asked her grandmother about it anyway.
“I’ve been watching you take notes, and you never write down that he was a gentle man,” she answered. “I thought I would keep saying it until you figured out how important that was.”
He was a gentle man.
He was a sailor, and although what was done on that boat is lost forever, it is fact that he never said a strong word in front of his wife or kids. Even his features looked gentle. He had a nice face — not a nice-looking face, but a face that looked like he was a nice person. He was strong and tall, with dark hair and dark skin. She was five feet tall and 90 pounds soaking wet.
After he proposed, they spent three weeks on what she calls, “just ordinary dating,” going to the movies and things she said were not even special. She said yes one night after discussing the idea of getting married, and the next day he shipped off for the second time.
“We wrote love letters every day,” she said. “I was getting letters from the Catholic boy begging me to come home, and I was giving my heart away to a sailor I barely knew.”
He came home one year later, and they were married before the first sunrise he saw in the South. Three weeks later, he was back on the ship.
She continued to work the entire time he was away. That was her nature. Even after he died of a perforated colon — a busted gut, she called it — she continued to work at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. People have often said she could command a room full of men as well as any colonel or captain.
That next December, in 1949, she got a letter saying she could go meet him in San Diego. She was afraid he would not come. She was even more afraid he would come, and she would not recognize him.
“I got on a plane and kept thinking, ‘I’m little. I’m alone, and it’s dark here,” she told Jessie. “All I could think about was being stuck in the dark. Remember, I had gone off and married a man I did not know.”
But he was there, waiting for her.
“I stepped off the plane and was just bombarded with those lights. I couldn’t see anything, but they could see me. Then a big arm came around my shoulders, and he said, ‘Hey baby,’ and I melted and thought, ‘Oh he did come!”
That is the granddaughter’s favorite part.
Jessie has heard so many fairy tales that they no longer make her put her hands over her heart and sigh. But that scene does. Imagining her grandmother in a traveling suit, worried about the dark skies of San Diego, then stepping off the plane to be greeted by a sailor who got home from war gets Jessie every time. No movie or song could ever put into words the moment in this story when her grandmother lowered her voice to emulate his, saying, “Hey baby.”
Jessie still wishes she had met him. Her parents thought she was going to be a boy, so they named her after Jesse B. But they were surprised, and they stuck an extra ‘i’ in the middle to be politically correct. Still, Jessie takes her name seriously. Jesse B. feared God. He feared hurting another human being. He loved his wife with everything he was.
“I only pray I do his name justice.”