Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
It being Valentines Day and all, I thought I’d write a Valentine message about the woman I generally describe as my “gorgeous ex-fiancee”, my wife of 35 years this November. I thought I’d say a few words about her and how we got married … because as is usual in my life, nothing is usual in my life in the slightest, and our wedding was no exception.
Me’n my gorgeous ex-fiancee, 1984, off of Beqa Island
Now, I’d never planned to get married. I never considered it once. I was a rolling stone, me and moss were not friends, not even acquaintances. But in 1978, at the age of 31, I found myself once again without a girlfriend, an unacceptable condition. My older brother is a private pilot. He used to fly for a group called the “Flying Doctors”, who’d fly down and set up weekend clinics in dirt-poor parts of northern Mexico. He had met his then girlfriend, now wife, on one of those trips, she’s a doctor.
So I figured heck, it worked for him, he found a girlfriend, I’ll give it a try. I signed on as a Spanish translator, and on the next trip jumped in my brother’s plane with his girlfriend and some other folks, and we flew south. The first time I saw my good lady, she was 24, and standing by another private airplane carrying doctors as we refueled in Southern California. I found out later she was a nurse.
So that was Friday. We talked a bit at dinner in El Fuerte. Saturday, the docs and the nurses set up shop, and I was busy translating all day solid. But we walked around in the evening, talked about our lives.
On Sunday we all flew to Hermosillo, and we spent the morning on the beach. Then they all hopped in the airplanes and headed back to the states. I didn’t go, though, I figured heck, I’m in Mexico, I’m on early retirement again, why hurry home? She’s cute and all, but this is Mexico, don’t waste the chance to see some new country and talk to some new people.
So I started drifting south along the Mexican coast, no destination, just meeting folks and talking story. I’d write postcards to her, though, just stuff about my travels.
I ended up needing a place to stay in some town just inland from the sea, so small it didn’t have a motel or guest house of any kind. Someone said I could probably find a bed down at the Fishermen’s High School.
Man, I liked the sound of that, “Fishermen’s High School”. I sure wished I went to that high school. So I picked up my backpack, and I started walking the couple of dusty miles to the ocean. When I got there, I started talking to the folks, and sure enough, it was a high school for fishermen. I talked commercial fishing with the teachers, and they told me about their school. It was a four-year school. First two years, general marine studies. Second two years, you specialize, either the deck (seamen, mates, captain) or the engine room (wipers, juniors, engineers, chiefs). They let me sleep in the dormitory with the kids, who found it hilarious because their beds were built for very short people, and my feet hung way over the end …
The teachers said they had to take the school’s training boat, a clapped-out forty-foot Cuban-built commercial fishing vessel, south about a 2-day run to have some work done on it, and asked if I wanted to come along … we left early the next morning. I asked about food for the trip, and I was assured it was covered.
The way it was covered was that about thirty miles (fifty km) into the trip, we pulled up alongside a Mexican shrimp trawler. The captain tossed over a five-gallon (20 litre) bucket, and it was returned full to the brim with shrimp … which we ate morning, noon, night, and for snacks until we arrived in Mazatlan. Tough times.
We had four in the crew, two teachers, me, and a fifteen year old kid who was learning to stand watches. We set it up one man on watch, three hours on, nine off, and if you need a hand you call the next man on the list, the previous man’s gone to sleep. I was nervous about the setup. I’m not used to running with some kid at the wheel. What if he put us on the rocks?
Now, the kid was on the 12 to 3 shift. So that night, I set my alarm, and I got up at about one. I went up on deck, and stood at the lee rail reducing the hydrobiostatic pressure, but really I was watching the kid. I zipped up and talked to him, checked the compass, he was on course, checked the boat’s wake, he was steering straight, but looking a bit green. As we talked, he was looking worse, sicker and sicker. Finally, he asked me to take the wheel, and he went to the lee rail and threw up. “Knows enough to puke to leeward,” I thought, “but I bet that’s the last I see of him tonight”, and I mentally prepared to stand the rest of his watch while he was hors de combat with seasickness.
But no, the plucky little bugger finished puking, rinsed out his mouth out with water from jug, spat over the rail, and to my amazement took the wheel from me and said “Gracias, señor, lo tengo. Usted puede dormir.”, meaning “Thanks, sir, I’ve got it. You can go back to bed”. And I did, with no further worries about his seamanship or solidity, and an increasing respect for the Fishermen’s High School.
But all the time I was on the boat, I was thinking of that good lady. So when we arrived in Mazatlan, and the boat was all tied up, and I’d thanked the guys, and the kid, I went to the airport, and after a total of three weeks in Mexico I flew back to the Bay Area. I called her, and I met her on the campus of San Jose State, where she was going to school.
We talked for an hour or so, and we were so happy to see each other, we’d both been thinking about the other, and one thing led to another, and the madness came over me, and I asked her to marry me. I figured to myself, dude, seriously, don’t let this woman get to know you too well first, you might lose her, strike while the iron’s hot and she doesn’t know your backstory …
And to my complete astonishment, she said sure, why not get married? Hey, we’d spent maybe eight hours together, why not indeed? So I said I’d be happy to get married anytime, six months, a month, tomorrow …
She said that sounds great, let’s get married tomorrow … girl of my dreams. So I called up my buddy, he’s a Presbyterian minister, and I said hey, can you marry us tomorrow? He said sure. And I called up my future father-in-law. I told him I didn’t know him, but I wanted to marry his daughter, and I was really hoping to have his blessing on our wedding. He said if I was good enough for her, I was good enough for him, so it was fine by him.
The next day we drove to Fairfax, to my friend’s church. He was the only one there. I said, didn’t we need a witness? He said no, he’d get his roommate to sign off on it, and of course we’d have to get the blood test for syphilis before we got married, but there was no impediment there, he’d put whatever date we needed on the wedding certificate.
Both of us wanted to get married outdoors, but there was this slight impediment. It was raining. But Michael, bless his heart, said he didn’t mind if we didn’t mind.
So under a lovely poplar tree in a light fall rain, in my usual blue jeans and work shirt, I married a woman I hadn’t even spent a full day with.
Now the course of true love never runs smooth, and this was no exception. Remember that Michael had said that we had to get the blood test before we got married? Well, we got the blood test, and it was just over a month before we saw Michael again. He dated the wedding certificate for the day before we saw him, and all was well … until we went to the County to register our marriage. It’s not official until the County says so. The lady was all happy we’d gotten married, and then her face clouded all up. Oh, no, she said, I’m afraid you’ll have to get married again!
We were stunned. She explained that the marriage had to occur within one month of the syphilis test, and the blood test was on December 6, and the marriage license was dated January 7th, so we were screwed, we had to get a new syphilis test and get remarried.
We went home and talked it over and came up with a plan. I took the syphilis test certificate, rolled it into my trusty Underwood typewriter, and changed the syphilis test date from “December 6” to December 16 with a single keystroke. The next day we took it to the next county over, registered our marriage without incident, and laughed all the way home about how in America you have to be a criminal just to get married …
Since then she has been my boon companion and solid support in countless adventures around the world, as well as the beloved mother of our daughter. One year when I was fishing, she and the dwarf and I all lived in a shipping container in the Peter Pan yard in Dillingham, Alaska. She got a job nursing in the local hospital while I battled the Bering Sea, plus she took care of the kid, and laughed while we were doing it, what more could a man ask?
My most enduring memory of her, though, is one time when she and Jeff and I leased the “Olinka”, a sixty foot steel commercial salmon fishing boat, and were fishing offshore from San Francisco near the Farallones Islands. Icing down the salmon is the worst job, you have to go belowdecks, and there’s not enough height to stand up. You’re bent over, trying to stay upright as the boat pitches and rolls, packing the salmon in the ice, putting ice in the belly cavity. Usually Jeff or I did it, you need a strong stomach and good sea legs for the job.
One day, Jeff and I were on the back deck, and I didn’t see my lady anywhere … so I went belowdecks, into the fish hold, to see if she was there. She was bent over, slipping around, icing the bellies of some fish that hadn’t been properly stored. When she saw me, she blew a wisp of hair out of her face because her gloves were covered with ice and salmon gurry and she gave me a smile so full of pluck and adventure and sweet determination my heart melted completely, she gave me the thumbs up, she had it under control, she’d seen Jeff and I doing it, she knew the drill … I went back on deck shaking my head in admiration.
Me, I reckon I’m a pretty good guy … but I’m a good guy because I’ve learned how to be a good guy. It’s not my natural state. For her, she’s the other way around—beauty’s only skin deep, and she’s got that too … but that woman is good and kind and strong to the bone.
Anyhow, that’s my valentine for her, love you, babe, let’s do another 35 years …
PS—Now, some of you ladies, I can hear you thinking, “How come that skonk of a man of mine doesn’t talk pretty that way about me? How come he’s not praising my attributes like Willis does his lady?” I know this, because I have seen poor innocent men busted for this very crime in the past.
I assure you, ladies, that while your man assuredly thinks those things about you (or else he would be long gone), every man has his own skills, and not every man is a troubadour and a wordsmith. No good expecting a bear to be a bunny, so give that bear a Valentines hug for all the good things he does do …
… from Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …