May 17, 2009
They say you can hear all sorts of things in a beauty salon. Here''s a story I heard while getting my hair cut Wednesday.
It''s 1952 and a soldier home on leave walks into one of his hometown''s two five and dimes and strikes up a conversation with the girl at the candy counter. The soldier thinks the girl is kind of cute, and feeling frisky, he pulls a rubber monkey out of his pocket and waves it in her face. "I want you to help me make clothes for him," he said laughing. He''s driving a brand new Kaiser automobile, a detail that doesn''t escape her notice.
When the soldier asks the girl to go to a drive-in movie that night, she''s quick to say yes. It''s Thursday.
The girl had grown up a Wallace in Lamar County, Alabama. After graduating from high school a year earlier, she came to Columbus, and got a job working at McLellan''s at the corner of Main and Market streets. She lived with her aunt in a two-story rooming house east of what was then Mississippi State College for Women.
She had never been out of Alabama and Mississippi and was impressed with this lively and presumably rich soldier boy. That night they went to the State Drive-in to see "High Noon" starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. As young people often do, they took a circuitous route home after the movie.
Somehow the couple ended up on Lehmberg Road. At a turn-off, the man stopped the car. He and the girl talked awhile; maybe they kissed. Then he asked her a question. Would she marry him, he wondered. They had talked briefly at the five and dime that morning, watched a movie together and now he was asking her to marry him. Why yes, she thought she might.
The next day he left to go back to Camp Atterbury in Columbus, Ind., where his Guard unit was stationed, and she walked down to Jean Ann''s and used the best part of her $24 paycheck to buy a white dress. The soldier returned the following week, and on Thursday, exactly one week after they had first laid eyes on each other, they were married by S.R. Woodson at the First Baptist Church.
Earlier this month, on the eighth of May, the two of them celebrated their 57th anniversary.
Wednesday just after noon Virginia Wheeler was sitting in a chair recounting the story to no one in particular at Wendy''s Nu-Look Salon in East Columbus. Everyone in the room seemed to have heard the story. No one seemed to mind; it''s one of those tales you never tire of hearing.
"You don''t have to know somebody forever. You can know somebody for two hours," Virginia said. "These young people getting divorces; if you work at it, it will work.
"It''s been a good marriage," Virginia declared. "Do you regret any of it now, Bill?"
"Too late now," laughed Bill, who was waiting to get his hair cut.
"When we married, it was only the second time I''d seen him," Virginia said. "I saw that car and thought he was rich. He''d only made one payment on it. My allotment checks went for the rest."
The couple spent their first night in a motel across the river. The next day on the way out of town they met each other''s parents. Virginia, who now has closets full of clothes, had packed every garment she owned in a small metal suitcase. They had a little over $100 between them
"My daddy said Bill stole me," said Virginia. "He asked me, ''Do you know that man?''"
"I didn''t," Virginia admitted years later.
They headed to Canada for a honeymoon. Somewhere in Indiana, Bill put Virginia behind the wheel of the Kaiser. She''d never driven before.
Later they would return to Columbus and Bill would go to work roofing buildings with his grandfather, Dallas Wheeler, and later his uncle, Bert, and cousin, Doug.
Saturday morning I visited the Wheelers in their lovely home on Ridge Road near the Country Club golf course. The house sits on a rise overlooking a manicured and beautifully landscaped lawn. Inside, the house is no less immaculate.
Sitting at the kitchen table, the Wheelers and I looked through a small Kraft envelope of snapshots and a couple of crinkled panoramic photographs of Bill''s military unit. In the envelope were pictures of Virginia as a young girl, her wedding announcement from the paper and even a couple of Brownie snapshots of Bill in the car that made such an impression on Virginia.
Oh, and there''s one more thing Bill and Virginia pulled out to show me, a zip-lock bag containing a small rubber monkey. He still needs some clothes.
Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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