“Do you, Gary Norman, take this woman ……” The Reverend Douglas Carver stood on his six-inch crate on the stage of the First Baptist Church on August 23, 1958. His feet were hidden behind the kneeling bench where my bride and I had knelt most of the wedding so the audience could see him. I think this was one of the tallest weddings ever performed in the small panhandle town of Pampa, Texas; my bride was 6’ in the 4-inch spike heels that were popular in 1958, I was a lanky guy of 6’6”, and the pastor was 5’6” if he stood extremely straight and tall.
This scene was a culmination of what started five years previously when this tall, shapely, gorgeous brunette walked into my typing class at Pampa High School during my junior year. I immediately noticed her because she was much taller than the other girls, and I’ve always been attracted to tall girls. I didn’t know who she was, but right then and there, I decided to plan my strategy on how to get to know her and hence date this beautiful creature. Hey, I am talking about the woman who was the very first “Miss Pampa” in the “Miss America, Miss Texas” contest.
I will not go into all the details, but this began a five-year courtship with Johnnie Lee Smith, my future bride. Those years were filled with fun and companionship, and it grew into a deep love that many never experienced. During those years, I witnessed the inner beauty in her heart with the lasting charm of a gentle and quiet spirit.
We finally decided to get married between my junior and senior years at Rice University (or Institute, as it was called back then). That would leave me only one more year before graduating with a degree in Physical Education. Then I would go out to find a job coaching basketball. Yes, I was following in the footsteps of my coach, a great mentor, and friend, Clifton McNeely.
With great anticipation, we planned a large traditional wedding with many family members and friends participating in the ceremony. After the reception, the tossing of the bouquet, and both of us changing into “traveling clothes,” we hopped into my blue ’53 Ford Coupe that was all painted up on the windows, tin cans tied to the bumper, and rocks in the hubcaps. And so began “The Honeymoon” to the metropolitan city of Amarillo, Texas! Due to our schedule of getting back to Houston, we had allowed only three whole days… but it was enough to kick back, relax, and enjoy the beginning of our new life together.
We had reservations at the brand new motel, “The Pink Flamingo.” It was painted with the popular colors of that day, pink and black; it had a huge pink flamingo out in the front. Nothing was too good for my new bride!
The wedding night was fantastic, the way it should have been, with Johnnie coming out of the bathroom in a fire engine red negligee. For this shy girl to show up in red was quite a surprise! It set her olive skin and dark hair off just right. When she started to do the “dance of the seven veils,” it was more than I had ever fantasized! (And I certainly can dream up a whopper of a story.) But it is said, and I believe to be true, some things are best left to one’s imagination, so I will not go into what happened after that. So, on to the next day…
Saturday morning, I took the car through a car wash, and then we went to breakfast. We thought it amazing that the cooks at the Tottle House knew we were newlyweds, and they gave us breakfast as a wedding gift! After that, we decided to go swimming in the huge black and pink pool right there at the motel. Well, out comes another pleasant surprise. It was a tinny-Winnie, yellow, polka dot bikini, and Jon (which, if you don’t know by now, is what I call her) said she hoped I liked it! Did I like it? She was a knockout. (Now, she is going to make me tell you that a bikini in the year 1958 is NOT the same thing as it was in 2022.)
After swimming for a while, we decided to soak up the sun to go to Houston the following week with a great tan. And in the day’s tradition, we used the great tanning procedure called Johnson’s Baby Oil laced with iodine. It really speeded up the process. Well, most of the day was spent at the pool, with us even having lunch served there. Around 5:00 p.m., we decided to get cleaned up and eat some barbeque at the famous place called Underwood’s Bar-B-Q. Underwood’s was great. We pigged out on brisket, sausage, ribs, and all the extras. It was about when we began to notice that both of us were turning red from our day in the sun. In fact, we had the beginning of a world-class sunburn, although neither of us thought much about it at this time.
It was still too early to go to a movie, so we were just cruising along, trying to decide what we wanted to do. As we stopped for a red light, up drives my old buddy, E. Jay McIlvain! He was as surprised as we were to see each other. He had the car full of young kids, so we asked him what they were doing over in Amarillo on a Saturday evening. There was a youth revival he was taking them to…and the next thing we knew, we were following E. Jay and a car full of happy youngsters to an Assembly of God Youth Revival!
I should have known we were in for a very challenging evening as we drove up to the small church. The little building had to be fifty years old with no air-conditioning, and the lights were nothing more than cords hanging from the ceiling with light bulbs on the ends of them and a chain hanging down to turn them off and on. The windows were all opened to let whatever breeze blow through, and every bug with wings was inside that church. The seats were the old slatted, wooden chairs which were the hardest chairs ever invented. By the time we got seated, both of us were feeling the sunburn ever intensifying.
There was room for about sixty or seventy chairs set up in rows across the room. The stage was about a foot high with a very small podium. The little church was packed with young people, and a few adults sprinkled here and there. The sunburn continued to intensify as Jon and I sat very gingerly on our hard chairs in the third row, right in front of the podium. When we sat down, we discovered we could not lean back and allow the chairs to touch our tender backs. As the service started, everyone stood up to sing, and we were so relieved to get out of those stupid chairs! By the time the preacher began his sermon, we were finding ways to sit on those chairs that you wouldn’t believe. Jon had more problems than I did due to the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weenie-polka-dot bikini problem. Another thing not helping the situation was the heat. It was the end of August, the hottest part of the summer, and the temperature must have been over 90* degrees. So with our sunburns, the heat, and the packed room, we were both drenched with sweat.
Speaking of being drenched, our clothes were sticking to us. Jon had dressed to go to a movie for this evening in a very cute brown and white sundress. The problem was she had bare shoulders and a little cleavage showing… Not exactly what a girl would wear to an Assembly of God Youth Revival! There was also a problem with the hanging lights and the kamikaze insects. They insisted on being sacrificial and getting fried by the hot bulb, which led to them dropping on us. So here we are, with the sunburn of all sunburns, sweat rolling down our faces, soaked to the skin, picking dead bugs off our clammy clothes and hair.
To top all of this off, we had a preacher that was sure he had two remorseful or appalling “sinners” right in front of him that he personally was going to get “right with God” that very night. Brother Jones forgot there were other people in the little building, for he never took his eyes off the two of us. The sermon took us from the birth of Christ all the way to His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Finally came the closing, and the little church began singing the number one song to get you down the aisle, “Just As I Am.” There are four stanzas, and I know we sang all of them at least five times. During this alter call, Brother Jones would say, “I know there is someone here that needs to step forward and be saved,” all the while looking directly at the two of us. I leaned over to tell Jon if he said that one more time, he was going to need to be saved from me. Jon giggled, and the preacher frowned, but the singing ended.
As soon as the service ended, I nearly slugged E. Jay when he placed his hands on my shoulders. It was like a knife stuck me. I winched and let out a holler, which caused him to holler. Everyone was wondering what the heck was happening. Jon, in the meantime, was trying to make an exit, but the preacher was blocking the door with his hand out to greet her. He asked, “And what is your name?” She hesitantly reached out, and shook his hand, but thought “Oh my gosh, how do I introduce myself? What IS my name? Am I still Johnnie Lee Smith or Mrs. Griffin, or Johnnie Griffin?” She finally says, “My name is Johnnie Lee Smith…. NO…that’s not right. My name is…. well…I’m with him!” With that blurted out, she turns and points to me. I am sure Jon’s face would have been red from embarrassment, but due to her sunburn, she couldn’t get any redder!
As I walked up to introduce myself and rescue my bride, E. Jay came up to introduce me, then looked at Jon and says, “And this is Zeker’s mistress.” Well, Brother Jones stepped back, his facial expression said, “Ah-ha, I knew I had these two pegged for sinners!” After a pause, E. Jay laughs and says, “Not really. This is his new bride.” Then he slaps me on the back; I let out a yell, E. Jay yells, and we all start laughing at the evening of “A Comedy of Errors”.
We said our goodbyes and headed for a drugstore to get something to go on our burned bodies. The next two days were spent nursing them, staying out of the sun, and taking a lot of cold showers. Cold showers are good for sunburns, don’t ya know!!
The next two days came and went…then it was back to Pampa, loading all our worldly goods into that little car, and off to Houston for our next adventures…and boy, we had some. It is hard to believe that all of this occurred over 64 years ago. It seems like only yesterday…