In 1961, Bobbie Rustad, 20, had earned three weeks of vacation from her job at F.W. Woolworth in Dickinson, North Dakota.
When a visiting friend had to return with her husband to his Air Force base in Thomasville, Alabama, she invited Bobbie along.
“I asked my mother if I could go, and she said, ‘Bobbie, when you get married you won’t see a damn thing, so go on the trip,’ ” recalled Bobbie.
On her second day in Alabama, she met Gordon “Willie” Wilson on a blind date. Fifty-five days later, they were married.
Raised in Georgia, Willie had enlisted in the Air Force at 18, despite being recruited to play professional baseball.
“I didn’t want to ride around in a bus,” he explained.
Bobbie was immediately smitten during their first date at the NCO (noncommissioned officer) club.
“He had the most beautiful head of wavy auburn hair,” she said, sighing. “He was so kind, and a gentleman without being silly about it. I knew I’d met someone like no one I’d known before.”
Willie was equally intrigued but more prosaic in his recollection.
“It was very boring in Thomasville,” he said. “Then she showed up, and I thought I’ve got to get to know this lady.”
Within a month, he’d decided to spend the rest of his life with her.
“Her laid-back attitude was different than girls I’d dated before,” Willie said.
Bobbie’s parents must have been stunned when she called to tell them instead of coming home she was getting married, but her father said, “If Bobbie picked him, he’s all right.”
However, there was still a lot the couple didn’t know about each other. Bobbie found out her bridegroom was 28 – eight years her senior when they went to get their blood tests before the wedding. She passed out at the blood draw but is confident the news had nothing to do with her wooziness.
On Oct. 1, 1961, beneath an arch of magnolia blossoms, Bobbie and Willie were married.
“I was so nervous I was shaking like a leaf, if not more,” Willie said.
Not his young bride. She was so relaxed she fell asleep and had to be roused to get ready for the nuptials.
“Our upbringing and our food tastes were completely different,” she said. “But we just fit. I can’t imagine living without him.”
They rented a little house off base for $50 a month and welcomed daughter, Lorraine, in 1962. Eleven months later, Lois completed the family.
When their daughters were 1 and 2 years old, they finally visited Bobbie’s parents in North Dakota.
“Her dad was the only man who’d ever hugged me,” recalled Willie.
The Air Force transferred the family to Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast.
“We lived right on the ocean,” Bobbie said.
War interrupted their happy beach life. In 1968, Willie was ordered to Vietnam. He took his wife and daughters to Wallace, where Bobbie’s parents had settled.
“Our 5-year-old daughter said, ‘Mommy isn’t that where they shoot people?’ ” Bobbie said. “I told her, ‘Yes, but I’m pretty sure your daddy will be all right.’ ”
Her daughter agreed.
“Yes,” she replied. “He can hide under the bed.”
Willie didn’t have to hide under a bed, but he spent a lot of time in bunkers in Vietnam. During his time at Phu Cat, they were shelled once. But his transfer to Plieku proved different.
“My first night we were shelled 17 times with 122mm rockets,” he recalled. “From then on we were shelled every night.”
Once he was sitting in the dining hall when a rocket came through the top of the structure and lodged in the floor. Thankfully, it was a dud.
“We ran right past it on the way to the bunker,” he said.
The couple kept in touch by letter and cassette tapes, and every so often, Willie could call.
“It made things worse to hear his voice and not be able to touch him,” Bobbie said.
After a year in Vietnam, Willie returned stateside in 1969. When his plane landed in Seattle, he said they were met by crowds who booed and spit on them.
No wonder, he decided to retire while stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base in 1971.
“I cried when he got out of the military,” Bobbie said. “I was made for it. I loved the moves, all of it.”
They bought a house in Medical Lake where they still live, and Willie got a job at Lakeland Village.
In 1983, he dabbled in retirement.
“I was going to just play golf, but after two weeks, I said, there’s got to be more.”
He went to work for the Department of Corrections, setting up food services at Pine Lodge and Airway Heights, before finally retiring for real at age 60.
“He worked part time at the hardware store in Medical Lake,” Bobbie said.
She used her talents as a seamstress doing alterations at several places before ending her career at the Bon Marche.
They’ve spent 60 years getting to know each other.
“Recently, I told him a little romance wouldn’t hurt,” said Bobbie, 80. “He said, ‘Well, I’ll think about it.’ ’’
They both chuckled.
“As far as I’m concerned the reason our marriage has lasted this long is because every day he makes me laugh,” she said.
And she values his loyalty and kindness more than any romantic gesture.
“When I was younger I thought if I ever married and settled down, that was it,” said Willie, 88. “I wasn’t going to throw away a beautiful wife and family. She’s a sweet lady, and I thank God every day for her.”
Bobbie reached for his hand across their dining room table.
“I thought I loved him when I married him,” she said. “But it’s nothing compared to the love I feel today.
Correspondent Cindy Hval can be reached at email@example.com.
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