In 1960, Ray Kuhn completed a historic voyage. He was a sailor aboard the USS Triton, a nuclear-powered submarine, when it became the first vessel to circle the globe submerged.
However, a Christmas trip to see his parents in Blackfoot, Idaho, turned out to have more historic significance for him. That’s where he met Donna Lloyd.
His parents had become quite close with Donna’s, and when their sailor son arrived home on leave, they couldn’t wait for him to meet her. But Donna, a student at Idaho State College, had exams to prepare for and had turned in early. That didn’t stop Ray’s mother.
“She came into my bedroom and told me I had to meet Ray, so I put my housecoat on over my pink flannel nightgown and met him,” Donna recalled. “I was in bed at 7 p.m., so he knew I was a real live wire.”
In fact, he went out with her sister that evening, but Donna had made a lasting impression.
“He said it was the pink flannel nightgown that sold him,” Donna said.
Whatever the cause, Ray was truly smitten.
“She was gorgeous,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind. It was love at first sight.”
“After he was underwater 84 days, I looked pretty good to him.”
He looked good to her, too. She invited him to Idaho State’s sweetheart formal. Less than a month later they were married.
“He swept me off my feet with his green 1950 Ford,” she said. “I thought he was cute, and his smile attracted me.”
They married March 11, 1961.
Ray flashed the grin that remains unchanged since it was highlighted in a Look magazine feature and photo spread when he returned from his historic voyage.
“I’ve been in trouble for 58 years,” he said.
The Navy was the only life Ray knew. His father served 42 years, and when Ray started acting out in high school, his father asked, “Which branch of the service would you like to enlist in?”
There was only one answer.
But, Donna, raised on an Idaho dairy farm, said, “I had no idea what I was getting into.”
The Navy transferred the couple to California where their son, Dan, was born in September 1961.
He was premature, weighing just 5 pounds and measuring 18 inches.
“His legs were the size of chicken drumsticks,” Ray said.
From there they were sent to Hawaii, where son Paul was born in 1964. Daughter Linda completed their family in 1968 when they were stationed in Connecticut.
With Ray at sea for months at a time, Donna shouldered the financial and child-rearing responsibilities. She developed a routine to deal with his departures.
“The day I knew he was leaving, I’d start the laundry and start scrubbing, cleaning and crying. Then I’d drop him off at the boat and hang the sheets on the line,” she said. “A lot of wives would stay until the boat left. I didn’t. We don’t like to say goodbye.”
In one memorable instance, her routine was interrupted when the boat was delayed twice and Ray kept returning home.
By the third time she dropped him off, tensions were high.
“I’ll see you tonight or in six months,” he said.
Donna shook her head.
“After three drop-offs and no departures we were both ready to say goodbye.”
But the separations could be grueling. Because submarine movements are classified, Donna usually had no idea where he was.
“He was at sea during the Cuban missile crisis,” she said.
And there was no way to effectively communicate.
“I’d go out to check the mail, and if I smelled diesel, I knew I had a letter from him.”
Sailors could call home when they had shore leave, but that was painful for Ray.
“It’s tough to call, because after you hang up, you have to readjust all over again. I didn’t like to call,” he said. “And Christmas at sea was hard.”
They were able to send short messages called “Family Grams.”
“You could only use 13 words,” Donna said.
A message she sent him in 1967, when he was aboard the USS George Washington Carver, said: “Sweater progressing, almost through. Boys fine, pickup too. Bought piano. I love you.”
The update on the kids and truck was important.
“Every time I shipped out, the kids would get sick, or the car would break down, or the washing machine would crap out,” Ray said.
Donna quickly learned to rely on her military family. Ray’s shipmates would attend the children’s sporting events if he was gone, or attempt car repairs in his absence. And the sailors’ wives formed the kind of tight bonds that only military spouses understand.
While his average deployment was six months, toward the end of the Vietnam War the Kuhns were separated for eight months.
When she could, Donna would fly to meet him when he had shore leave. Several times when they were stationed at the same base as his parents, her mother-in-law would watch the children while Donna jetted off to Japan, or Hong Kong, or Rome.
After serving for 28 years Ray retired in Spokane, and the couple slowly adjusted to civilian life and living together full time.
“It was tough,” Ray said.
He worked at St. Luke’s for 10 years and then moved on to the physical plant at Whitworth University for eight.
Donna worked in the custom-decorating department at the J.C. Penney downtown for a few years before finally returning to school to finish her longed-for degree.
In 1997, she earned a humanities degree from Whitworth, followed by a master’s in international management in 2002.
When asked if their marriage is one of opposites, Ray, 79, grinned.
“Yes,” he replied. “She’s cranky, and I’m sweet and loveable.”
His words of advice for those who’d like to attain 58 years of marriage might prove difficult to achieve.
“Go to sea every now and then,” he said.
Donna, 78, laughed, but added, “Occasional separations are good for you.”
It’s certainly worked for them. She also offered these words for wives.
“Don’t make your husband responsible for your happiness,” she said. “That is a choice.”
Ray has never regretted choosing the girl in the pink flannel nightgown for his life partner.
In their North Side home, he looked at her across their dining room table.
“She’s the love of my life,” he said. “No question about that.”
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