1969 was the most important year of my life. It was cram-packed with momentous events.
Neil Armstrong climbed down Apollo 11 Eagle’s ladder to set foot on the moon.
A computer network gave birth to the ARPANET, which evolved into today’s internet.
Ted Kennedy drove his car off a one lane bridge into Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island, killing both Mary Jo Kopechne and his chances of ever becoming President.
The NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn, triggering riots that led to the gay liberation movement.
A quarter of a million people marched on Washington to demand an end to the Vietnam War.
Big-name artists entertained a crowd of almost a half-million people on a dairy farm in upstate New York at a rock concert dubbed the Woodstock Festival.
These events changed the culture of the nation and altered its history, but I didn’t remember they had occurred in 1969 until I did the research for this post. The only day of that year I remembered without prompting was June 20.
I woke up in the Willcox Hotel in Aiken, South Carolina, feeling nauseous and light-headed. I took a long shower, turning the hot water faucet way up, then switching to cold water, then back to hot.
It didn’t help. My problem wasn’t physical. It was psychosomatic. I was nervous about the upcoming main event of the day. My wedding.
My anxiety didn’t spring from doubts about Cindy. From our first date on, I was sure I wanted to spend my life with her.
The problem was with me. I’d been worried ever since I’d asked Cindy’s dad for her hand in marriage. His answer went on for an hour. He didn’t say no, but he didn’t say yes. My winning personality didn’t seem to bowl him over. For some reason, he kept pounding on nitpicking details, like I didn’t have a job or any money or any prospects of getting a job or any money.
I came out of that meeting desperate to prove my worthiness. With a new sense of urgency, I managed to line up a job and squirrel away some cash before our wedding day, but my anxiety didn’t go away. Down deep inside I knew Cindy’s dad was right to worry about me. I was immature and untested, and on June 20, I didn’t know if I’d grown up enough to be Cindy’s, or anybody’s, husband.
Mid-afternoon I went to my parents’ room and told them I was scared sick. Mom had made clear to me long before the wedding that Cindy was my saving grace in her eyes. For the rest of her life, she would remind me every chance she got, “You never would have amounted to anything if you hadn’t found Cindy.” She had no patience that afternoon with my nervous stomach or anything else that might derail our marriage. “Get over it,” she barked.
Dad had suffered from a nervous condition since he was a boy, so he was a little more understanding. He took me aside and handed me a half-pint bottle of green viscous liquid, which he called nerve medicine. “Take two teaspoons of this,” he said. “It helps.”
I trundled back to my room. The label on Dad’s bottle of “nerve medicine” said it was thirty percent alcohol. Might work, I thought. I downed two teaspoons. It didn’t help. I took another dose. Still nothing.
I’d drained the whole bottle by the time Dad drove me to the church, but my stomach was still doing backflips. Suppose I faint during the ceremony, I thought. Worse yet, suppose I throw up. I’ll never live it down, and Cindy will dump me for sure. The more I envisioned all the ways I could screw up the wedding, not to mention my whole life, the worse I felt.
Cindy’s family’s minister and Dad marched me into the sanctuary, and we took our places in front of a huge crowd that filled every pew on a hot-as-hell evening with stifling humidity and no air conditioning. Sweat rolled down my back inside my starched white shirt as my brother took his place beside me as my best man. A college classmate, two friends from White Hall, Cindy’s sister as the bridesmaid, and three of Cindy’s friends walked down the aisle and lined up at the altar.
The organist keyed the opening notes of Here Comes the Bride; the big double doors at the rear of the sanctuary opened; and Cindy and her dad stepped forward.
Cindy was radiant, beautiful beyond words, and she smiled when she saw me.
In that moment, I calmed down and a small seed of confidence took root inside me, destined to grow slowly, but steadily, over the coming years.
Cindy’s dad walked her down the aisle, and she took my arm. Her hazel eyes shining, she flashed that pixie grin I’d fallen in love with the night we met, and we turned to face my dad.
He led us through the vows. “I, Ken, take thee, Cindy, to be my wedded wife from this day forward, to have and to hold, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, to love and to cherish till death do us part.”
The traditional vows are archaic and old-fashioned, I guess, but they seemed right to me back then. They still do. And we’ve lived by them through good times and bad.
I kissed the bride and we walked down the aisle, out the big double doors, and on into the next fifty years.
June 20, 1969, to June 20, 2019, 600 months, 18,262 days, three children, six grandchildren, countless cherished memories.
A half-century behind us. Forever still to go.