Wayne Best is clear about who is to blame for a union that’s spanned 69 years. “It was all Clara’s fault that we met!” he said.
From their north Spokane apartment, the couple recalled their first date on July 4, 1941. Clara had been invited to accompany friends to Coeur d’Alene, but her boyfriend had to work. Wayne, 96, said, “But I was footloose and fancy free.”
With her boyfriend’s OK, she joined Wayne and their mutual friends. “We drove to Coeur d’Alene and got hamburgers and milkshakes and sat on the curb,” recalled Clara, 91.
Wayne was so impressed by the brunette beauty that he immediately tried to make plans to see her again. “He asked me out three times before I was available.”
After that Wayne made sure to secure a date with her before he took her home. In fact, he kept her so busy, Clara said, “I finally had to break up with my boyfriend.”
Wayne had served a four-year boilermaker apprenticeship at Broadway Welding when the pair met. “Every now and then the soot would flare up around you – in those days they didn’t have a lot of what you’d call safety measures,” he said. “I gave up being a boilermaker and became a combination welder.”
When asked how they became engaged, Wayne replied, “Well, I had to wait quite awhile for her to ask me.”
Clara shook her head and laughed. But they agreed that the engagement occurred just before Christmas 1941.
Before the couple set a wedding date, they had an obstacle to overcome. “She was Catholic and I was Protestant,” said Wayne. “We agreed that I would take lessons and we’d be married in the Catholic church.”
On Dec. 6, Wayne and his brother took a bus to Seattle to watch the Washington State versus Texas A&M game in Tacoma. After the game, Wayne went out on the town with a friend. “We slept in the next morning and when we finally went out, they said, ‘Did you hear what happened? Pearl Harbor was bombed!”
Instead of returning to Spokane, Wayne took a job at a shipyard on Harbor Island. He looked up the nearest Catholic church and met with the priest to continue his instruction. Wayne said, “We visited and the priest said, ‘I think you’ve gone far enough. I wouldn’t have any problem marrying you.’ ”
Wayne bought his fiancée a $26 airline ticket so she could fly to Seattle and make the wedding arrangements. “I didn’t want her to spend the night on a bus or train,” he said.
The couple married in the parish parlor on April 26, 1942. One wedding photo in particular captures their sense of humor. It shows Clara holding a chain attached to Wayne’s wrist. “I guess somebody figured she needed a little help,” said Wayne.
Their honeymoon was rather unconventional, as well. After their wedding night in a Seattle hotel, Clara and her bridal party set off for Canada. “The girls had never been to British Columbia,” she explained. “We stayed two or three days.”
Meanwhile, the draft board had lost track of Wayne. “I didn’t file a change of address when I moved,” he said. “When they caught up with me, it was no more deferments even though I worked in the shipyards. I just figured it was meant to be.”
Wayne reported to Fort Lewis on Dec. 28 and was sent to Louisiana for basic training.
A pregnant Clara returned to Spokane to live with family. She said, “It was hard to take, but it was work that had to be done.”
And it was hard work. “I was assigned to the Third Armored Signal Battalion,” said Wayne. “I was the head of the wire team that laid telephone lines. I made staff sergeant in a year and a half.”
Before he was sent overseas, he learned he had a son, Gordon Wayne, born May 23, 1943. “I got to come home on leave that summer,” Wayne said.
His son would be 3 before he saw him again.
After a short stint in Hawaii, Wayne boarded a ship and headed for Okinawa. “I got to see a very big portion of the Pacific Ocean as we were at sea for six weeks.”
He joined his company every morning for shipboard exercises. When he went ashore with a full field pack and three days of rations, he appreciated those workouts at sea.
“We followed a lot of fighting as we went up the island. The Japanese were still strafing Kadena,” said Wayne.
But he did as he’d been taught and laid face down in a bunker when under fire. He didn’t lose any of his wire team. “We lucked out,” he said. “The other part of the company lost a couple guys.”
He grew quiet and glanced out his living room window. “Some parts you don’t remember – some parts will be in your mind forever.”
Not all memories are painful. “We had the job of cleaning up areas in Okinawa,” Wayne said. “We found all these bottles of what was supposed to be Philippine rum.” He laughed. “We traded those bottles to the kitchen for cans of Spam!”
In December 1945, Wayne received his discharge. “They offered me a deal to stay in, but I said no. I had somebody to come home to.”
He returned in time for Christmas and within weeks found a job at American Machine Works, where he worked until he retired in 1980.
When their son was a senior in high school, Clara took a job at the Shadle branch of Old National Bank. She ended up working there for 22 years.
The couple lived in the home they purchased in 1950 until they moved to a retirement community a few years ago. Reflecting on the longevity of their jobs, home and marriage, Wayne said, “We’ve never been in a hurry to move around.”
Upon retirement they both took up golf and enjoyed many golfing excursions in Hawaii.
In June, his son Gordon accompanied Wayne for an Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial. He said, “It was a pleasant trip due to the fact that I had my son taking care of me.”
When asked their secret to 69 years of happy marriage, Wayne said, “It makes it awfully difficult if you have to keep your head down to the grindstone.” He smiled at Clara. “We weren’t afraid to make time for a little fun.”