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  • November 6th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


Last week’s post was an attempt to avoid talking about or even thinking about the looming election. Now, a week later, the election is past and for better or worse we are stuck in the muddle of history for another four years. I don’t want to think about it and certainly don’t want to remember the last four. One reader of last week’s blog commented “Will there be a chapter two?” about the ongoing romance between Martha Lou Vance ne Leist and me. Things change but, yes, there is.

Jim Despain has passed on Suzann is a widow and the Larry Don, last time I passed by its anchorage, is a heap of rust metal sinking into the mud of the Lake of the Ozarks. The Strip has been bypassed by a modern highway. For a another nostalgic look at Lake of the Ozarks, read Bill Geist’s highly entertaining memoir “Lake of the Ozarks” about his association with our honeymoon Lake and the Larry Don.


Last week  I told how I met Martha Lou Leist on a blind date and fell in love. I could paraphrase the words of the old folk song “Cotton Eyed Joe” and sing “Where did you come from/ where did you go?/where did you come from Cotton Eyed Joel” Let’s find out.

At the time it seemed to Marty and me that we were proceeding toward the altar with due deliberation, but actually it was a giddy six months from the moment she floated across the Leist living room and I lost track of whatever her mother was saying, to the terrifying moment when I couldn’t remember what to say when the minister asked, “…to be your lawful wedded wife?”

                We met on the Easter break from school, were married Sept. 30 and for three of those six months we were separated by 800 miles, writing daily letters that, to an outsider, are so gooey as to cause a sugar high (or, in the case of our youngest daughter Amy, an embarrassment so acute she can’t read them).

                Marty and I met in March and I proposed on the throbbing deck of the Larry Don cruise boat barely two months later.  Our folks were dumbfounded when we announced our engagement and even more thunderstruck when we told them after another two months that we planned to marry in September. 

                Their reservations were as obvious as skin damage from extreme acne and for them every bit as painful.  Meanwhile Marty and I floated on a sea of bliss, so distracted by love that we never considered the practical ramifications of marriage.

                Such as:

  1. Marty would quit college a year early and not get a degree, thus not be able to teach, thus not being able to add to the family income (which, for a beginning newspaperman, was the very definition of “poverty level”).
  2. The family income for the next six months would rely on me, a second lieutenant who would be making $275/month and who, after that
  3. Had no money and no real prospects for a decent job (see 1. above re newspaper salaries);
  4. No car;
  5. No hope of help from parents who had no help to spare;
  6. A multiplicity of other good reasons that we ignored, not the least of which was that we had not been together long enough to discover incompatibility, if it existed.

                That dopey unrealism is why at least half of today’s marriages fail, but failure wasn’t part of our disconnected dreaminess.  We had each other and that was enough.  We were exemplars of all the smarmy lyrics of 1950s love songs: “But we’ll travel along/Singing our song/ Side by side” warbled Kay Starr and if it was good enough for her it was good enough for us.  Of course Kay Starr made more money on that song than I was likely to make in a lifetime.  She also sang about catching her parents boogying to rock and roll which wasn’t likely to happen with Marty and me unless Marty married someone else who could dance.

                That was but one inconsistency in our lifestyle.  I liked country music, early jazz, blues; she preferred Sinatra and, oh unhappy day! Liberace.  She could dance like Ginger Rogers; I was as clumsy as a water buffalo that has been darted with ketamine.  She was friendly, outgoing and self-confident; I was friendly.  She went to a high school where they actually played football and had a track team; I went to one where the track equipment consisted of two hurdles, both of which I managed to knock over trying to be the school’s designated hurdler.

                But none of that mattered.  We were in love.

                The proposal came during a weekend at the Lake of the Ozarks, 60 miles south of Columbia.  We loaded up our provisions—a half dozen quarts of beer—and headed south in Jim Despain’s venerable DeSoto.   Jim’s date was Suzann Carey, Marty’s best friend from high school.  I’d lined the two of them up a month or so earlier because Jim and I were good friends and, while I had a date and he had a car, he didn’t have a date.

                So we began double-dating.  Jim and Susie hit it off and someone suggested we go to the Lake for the weekend.  This was an incredibly daring venture because it would involve an overnight.  Jim and I both came from backgrounds where the idea of sharing a cabin, much less a bed, with someone of the opposite sex was unthinkable unless you were married.  .

                Or, it was thinkable, but unlikely.  Thinkable in the sense of erotic daydreams which, like most daydreams, was…well, a dream. Girls were an abstraction that had no basis in my reality.  I knew them as friends; I knew them as occasional dates…but I didn’t really know them, either in the Biblical sense or in the practical sense.  Girls were alien beings, possessed of knowledge that I, as a male animal, had no access to.  There was an ageless well of wisdom in the female and it was as secret from males as if it were writ in cuneiform.  Women, for all their historic subservient status, were an entity that I was both baffled and intimidated by.  

                And both girls, Marty and Susie, were 1950s “good girls,” an attribute that didn’t mean they were goody-goody, but that their reputations were unbesmirched.  They drank beer and, in those days, smoked cigarettes, but they didn’t go on overnight outings with boys.  After all this was the era of “Wake Up Little Susie” when the Everly Brothers lamented that they’d fallen asleep on a date and waked up at dawn realizing “our reputation is shot.”

                It was a romantic and naïve attitude, but one typical of boy/girl relationships in the 1950s, at least mine and Jim’s.  Jim was from Arkansas and had been going with a girl there just about forever (they ultimately would marry).  But Suzann was fun to be with and they liked each other enormously.  I don’t think there was any thought of anything beyond enjoying each other’s company.  Unlike Marty and me they were not in love.  They were in like.

                There was no question but that we would rent two cabins at some resort, one for the girls, one for the boys.  Jim and I didn’t even discuss it, none of that locker room sniggering about “getting lucky.”   In fact, we never discussed whether or not we got lucky.  Maybe there were guys who bragged about the girls they had scored with, but Jim was cautionary about premarital sex. 

                He dragged me aside and growled, “You’d better take care of that little girl!  You won’t find another one like her.”  I was chastened.  He was right—I’d never felt the way about a girl that I did about Marty. 

                Lake of the Ozarks was dramatically different from my North Missouri background.  Corn and bean fields gave way to hills and sparkling water (I’d never seen water that clear except out of a well).  The Lake is a power generation reservoir of 61,000 acres, built in the 1930s by Union Electric (now AmerenUE).  Zebulon Pike, en route to the Rocky Mountains, would have had a hell of a portage as he traveled up the Osage River had Bagnell Dam been in place in 1806.

                The lake was built at the dawn of a spree of dam building in Missouri, mostly by the Corps of Engineers, which saw some of the state’s most historic and wonderful streams vanish beneath lake waters.  Not just streams, but whole towns—the town of Camdenton (now nearly 4,000 population) was created when Lake of the Ozarks drowned the original village.

                But stream destruction was far from our minds when we crossed the high dam, looking for a place to stay.  We had no plan, hadn’t even thought about a romantic sail on the Larry Don until we passed a sign advertising the boat.

                Marty and Suzann had taken a cruise on it during a Girl Scout camp at the Lake and one of them suggested we take the Moonlight Cruise, a two and one half hour excursion, complete with music and dancing. I could only dance  what we called “belt buckle polishing” (what Fred Astaire, who was considerably more sophisticated than I called “cheek to cheek”), but dancing seemed better than wandering The Strip, which was the name of the tawdry shop-lined road leading from the dam.  It wasn’t exactly a cruise in the Mediterranean, but it was the best the Ozarks had to offer.

                The Larry Don left from Casino Pier on Lake of the Ozarks each night during the summer, cruised uplake, made a turn and headed home.  Lights from shoreside resorts and homes shone like fireflies and the heavy diesel engines thumped rhythmically. 

                For country kids it was as exciting as yachting on the Riviera since we’d never yachted on the Riviera and had only a vague idea of where it was. 

                The reality of the Larry Don was somewhat less exotic than cruising with the Onassis crowd.  The Larry Don was a converted Union Electric barge, used to transport equipment during the construction of the Dam.  No amount of paint and chrome could transform its squat outline from a barge to a yacht.  The boat was named for the two sons of the original owner and it was the oldest excursion boat on the Lake of the Ozarks, dating to 1948.  It took moony couples out on the lake on soft summer nights, their sweaty hands intertwined. 

                We paid our $2.50 per couple, a sizeable excision from my disposable income, and we trooped onto the big boat, along with about 190 other lovebirds.  We managed to find a booth and realized that if someone wasn’t in possession of the booth at all times we’d lose it.  So we took turns dancing.

                The boat was crowded with couples, swaying to the music and the gentle rock of the boat as it lumbered through the night.  I danced then like I dance now—awkwardly.  My mother had taught me a simple foxtrot when I was in high school, the two of us determinedly marching around the living room while a scratchy phonograph played 1940s swing music. 

                Fast dancing was an art form as foreign and unattainable to me as etching Biblical scenes on the head of a pin.  Marty on the other hand danced fast or slow like Cyd Charisse.  “Come on,” she urged when the band struck up a fast tune, “I’ll show you.”  I dug my heels in, bowing my neck with my lower lip stuck out, like a two-year-old on the verge of a tantrum. 

                “Don’t wanna!” 

                “Oh, come on!” she exclaimed, laughing.  She thought I was being coy, but I was being childishly adamant and the next step might have been me stalking stiffly out the door, except there was nowhere to go but a half-mile of deep water between me and shore.

                She tugged at me and I shouted, “No!” and her eyes got big and hurt.  It was our first argument and I had just lost it.  “I don’t like fast dancing,” I mumbled miserably, wishing I weren’t such a jerk.  Fortunately the song ended and the next one was slow, something I could handle, and as we danced I felt the stiffness go out of her.  I tucked my head next to hers and kissed her on the cheek and things were as they had been.

                It was our turn in the booth, so we sat while Jim and Suzann danced.  We were on the lower deck, inside the enclosed part, below the captain’s bridge.  Susie and Jim were on the exposed deck, dancing to the music of The Beachcombers, a five-piece swing band.  It was fairly quiet toward the stern of the boat and Marty and I faced each other across the table. 

                We started telling stories about silly names.  I said I’d heard that a woman in my home town had so many children that she ran out of names and when the next one came along she cast about desperately for a given name and happened to see a calendar on the wall and named the tot “Buford Plow Company Jones.”

                Marty said, “I know a girl named Susie Collins, but she’s engaged to Don Genuse, so if she gets married she’ll be Susie Genuse.”

                With no forethought I blurted, “How does Marty Vance sound?”

                There was a pause during which the stars stood still, the boat didn’t rock, the music didn’t play and I didn’t breath, stunned by what I had said.  Marty started to laugh, thinking it was another joke, then the words sank in and she assumed the expression of a sheep that has just head-butted a locomotive.

                “Fuh..fuh..fine!” she quavered.  To this day I don’t know if she intended to say yes or if I surprised it out of her.

                Jim and Suzann came back from their dance to find that their friends now were engaged.  They looked at each other and had two thoughts: 1. What the hell is the matter with them—they hardly know each other; 2. I hope to hell they don’t expect us to do it too.

            Jim would spend the next four months trying to talk us into waiting but to no avail.  Both he and Suzann` would marry others, but Marty and I, for all our impetuous and irrational haste, have stuck it out for more than 64 years and counting.

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By Joel M. Vance     There were a dozen couples grouped around a table in a nightspot, all of us on dates. I knew the guys but was only vaguely familiar with their girlfriends so I studied their names more assiduously than I ever did, for example, algebra. It would be horribly embarrassing to […]

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