Growing up I frequently heard my parents speak of meeting when they were young but I never knew much else. I usually ignored what I considered “mushy stuff” when I was a kid. During the last few months of his life I had the good fortune of spending a lot of time with my Dad. He told me about their meeting and courtship. It was always his favorite subject. Putting it together with what Mom told me and other sources I feel I have a good feeling for how it went. It was such a neat story I wanted to record it.
As a sad sort of coda, after Dad died I found a bundle of letters that Mom wrote to him during the first few months of basic training. I don’t know why these letters survived and none others. At first, I didn’t know what to do with them. Should I read them? They were private correspondence. I finally decided that since they were both deceased, it was okay to read them. I’m glad I did. I got a picture of my parents that I never saw. They were starry-eyed kids, so much in love. They never lost their love, but it settled down with time. But the letters spoke of the bright kind of love between a man and woman just a few months married, both still thrilled with each other and cruelly torn apart. And there were some passages that made me blush. I even found a discussion of possible names for “junior” if there ever was one. I also found bits of family gossip that I never knew. It was definitely interesting reading.
But now, the main event. The Courtship of Mary and Alton.
A Love Story
In late 1952, eighteen-year-old high school senior Mary Reid wanted to have a Christmas party. Problem was all the Saturday nights in December before Christmas were already scheduled. So, she decided to have the party after Christmas, on December 27. Her friends told her she was crazy to schedule a party then. So close to Christmas everyone would be doing family things. But Mary was stubborn. She stuck with her plan. Saturday evening came and a few friends stopped in. Then a few more showed up. Then more and more. Soon the house was filled with people. A friend told Mary he was so glad she decided to have a party because he was sick of family gatherings.
Later in the evening, Mary’s frenemy, Edith, showed up with her new boyfriend, 22-year-old Alton Bass. The six-foot tall, handsome blond-haired blue-eyed farm boy caught every girl’s eye. He was quite a catch. He said later that he felt an instant connection with the party hostess. Within a few days Alton had broken up with Edith and paid a call on Mary. She was thrilled to be asked out by such a handsome boy, with a car, and making Edith mad was a bonus. Soon Alton had a date with Mary every weekend. He also came by frequently in the evenings after his farm chores were done. He would play cards and board games with Mary’s brothers while she finished her schoolwork. Father Reid said no courting until that was done. Alton had no brothers but three of Mary’s five brothers lived at home. They readily adopted Alton and made him part of the family.
Winter turned to spring and in June, Mary graduated from high school. She wasn’t ready to settle down and wanted to try life in a big city. She moved to the state capital, Raleigh, an hour away, found a job and boarding house and settled in. Alton was not happy about this. He was in love with petite blonde Mary. He continued seeing her. He would drive the hour to the city twice every weekend. He said he became very familiar with all the back roads. He ran off the road more than once while falling asleep at the wheel in the wee hours of the morning. He said his car only had two speeds – high and fly. He never got caught by the police, although he outran a patrol car one night.
This wasn’t working out. He was crazy about the girl so Alton asked Mary to marry him. She readily accepted. Since they had met in December they decided on a December wedding. They were married December 18, 1953 and settled down to farm life. They were in love and everything was idyllic. Then Uncle Sam called. Alton was notified in March, just three months wed, that he was needed for the peacekeeping in Korea. The country had been partitioned in the ceasefire just a month before Mary and Alton were married. No one knew if the peace would last.
Mary was frantic. Mother Mollie and father Lloyd Bass were also concerned for their son’s safety and the fact that he was their only son, and was their sole support as the one who worked the farm. The officials they spoke with assured them that Alton would be dismissed from service for “hardship” on his family. The paperwork was applied and the hearing came. A county official had to make the decision. This was a woman who for some reason did not like Mollie Bass. I have never heard my grandmother speak ill of another person except this woman. Mollie said “she dressed and acted like a man and was so ugly no man would have her.” The woman said Alton should not shirk his duty and refused to dismiss him. He entered the Army on May 18, 1954. Mary went to live with Alton’s family. She said in her letters that she cried herself to sleep every night.
Alton eventually was relieved of serving in the former combat area because he was the sole support of a farm family. By the fall, he was stationed in Japan. I have copies of some of the pictures he and Mary exchanged during the long separation. I have a picture of him lying beside a pool referring to himself as a “bathing beauty”. Another shows Mary in her Easter outfit with a note “The wind nearly took me away.”
Mary decided she did not like living on the Bass farm. She wanted to go to work. She moved back to Raleigh, got her old job back and moved into an apartment with a friend. I have a picture cut from the newspaper that shows her as the “girl flashing the big smile” as she is mailing drivers license renewal forms from the Department of Motor Vehicles in 1955.
In February 1956 Alton was told his enlistment was coming to an end. The Sergeant encouraged him to apply to Officer’s Training School and become career military. He said “I just want to go home and see my wife.”
The night before his ship left Japan Alton’s friends took him to a local tavern to celebrate. Some Navy men came in and as nearly always happened when Army and Navy mixed, a brawl broke out. Alton’s friends told him that if the MPs got him he’d be in the brig and miss his ship. They drug him to a back room and literally threw him out the window. He made his ship and spent 2 weeks sailing across the Pacific. I have pictures he took as they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge with all the soldiers waving their hats in the air and cheering. They had three days in San Francisco until air transport was available. Alton and two friends went to a café. Their waitress was blonde, pretty and flirty. She eventually became a bit suspicious of the three young men staring at her. When she cautiously approached their table one of Alton’s friends said, “Excuse us, ma’am, but you’re the first white woman we’ve seen in two years.” She smiled and turned on the charm. She got a big tip.
The soldiers’ air transport first landed in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was 20 degrees below zero and the men only had their tropical uniforms on as they had to hustle across the runway. Alton said the hangar seemed miles away.
Plane and bus and eventually in early March Alton stepped off the bus in Raleigh, NC. Mary was waiting and a mess with tears and makeup streaming down her face. She wrapped herself around him and said “Don’t you ever leave me again.” He promised and kept the promise for over 50 years. They went home and nine months later I was born.
Mary Bass died in 2007. Alton mourned her every day until he passed away in 2016. His love for her was legendary in the community.