The Real Thing
But John Gaver was intrigued, and no wonder: Kay Rydberg, then 23, was blond and statuesque, 5 foot 10, her long legs well-displayed in a short skirt.
They worked together at a home furnishings store. John, only 19 and still in school, wore thick-lensed glasses with black frames and shirts with pocket protectors. An introvert who had a meaningful relationship with his slide rule, he knew by eighth grade he wanted to be an engineer. He was Dilbert primeval.
But on a summer day in 1962, John willed the courage to ask Kay out.
"What the heck?" she thought. "I don't know anyone else in town."
Almost three years later, in an Omaha, Neb., bowling alley, they decided to marry. League night. Beer and balls and pins, but no proposal, no ring.
And even now, after 33 years of marriage, no split. "He's my best friend," Kay says. And she is his.
Why tell the story of this long marriage? Because it is a miracle. Because any marriage that has survived the last third of a century is a miracle.
Once upon a time in America, couples got married and stayed married, for better or for worse. The few who divorced were seen as moral failures.
Then, about the time the Gavers got married, society went through an extraordinary transformation. Women, once typecast as housewives, contemplated new choices. The pill launched an era of free and easy sex. Religion lost influence. States passed laws allowing people to end their marriages just because they felt like it.
The divorce rate, which had risen only slightly in the previous 25 years, suddenly jumped. It has doubled -- doubled -- during the years the Gavers have shared a last name. In 1996, the last year for which statistics are available, 150,000 couples got married in Florida -- and 80,000 got divorced.
And yet through it all the Gavers stayed married. Happily, even.
So why has this union succeeded while others have failed?
You are a stranger arriving at the Gavers' home to ask this intimate question. Your mission is to elicit the secret of their love's longevity. You will do this by probing into their most personal corners, questioning their most deeply held beliefs and testing the validity and value of their lifelong commitment.
They let you in anyway.
"My own personal person'
Thursday night. You meet the Gavers at their home in Carrollwood at 6:30, then head to nearby Circles restaurant, a favorite of Kay's. They choose a round table that could seat six. That they sit almost shoulder-to-shoulder could be a sign of intimacy, or just of the reporter and photographer crashing the meal.
John, 55, runs the Florida operation of Wehr Constructors Inc., a Kentucky company that builds hospitals, among other things. He is tall and athletic, indicative of a workout schedule lately punctuated by a twice-weekly karate class. Within this rugged frame ticks the stainless-steel heart of an engineer: John breaks everything down like a scientific formula.
Ask why he married Kay and he says, "I guess to provide all the things I thought I needed."
Kay, 59, is an interior designer, albeit between jobs. John's answer doesn't go over with her. She married him, she says, because she loved him.
"Guess that won't look too good," John says.
Kay goes on.
"I can remember when we first got married, it was the coolest thing," she is saying. "I've got my own personal person. . . . I've got this person forever. It's really cool."
John wasn't the most romantic soul in Nebraska, but he had other qualities. He's a stand-up guy, for one. When, early in their marriage, the Vietnam War escalated, he joined the Air Force because he thought it his duty to serve.
He opines that everyone should perform some kind of national service.
Kay rolls her eyes.
"I tell him he has an invisible soapbox that he drags around with him," she says. "Every now and again he pulls it out and jumps up on the soapbox and delivers an oratory. . . . I'm like, "Get off the box. Enough! You've made your point.' "
John was stationed first in Japan. The Gavers lived there when Kay, who had gone off the pill, gave birth to the couple's first son, Jeff, in 1967. Then the couple experienced the first real test of their marriage. In 1970, John was sent to Vietnam and Kay and Jeff returned to Omaha.
In John's 11-month stint on an Air Force base, he did not see combat, nor anything like it. His job allowed him to play tennis every day and golf every weekend.
But he shunned other perks of his position, he says. He tells of an Air Force saying: Wheels up, rings off. Its meaning: When you traveled to a temporary duty assignment, as soon as the plane took off -- and the wheels went in their well -- you took off your wedding band.
After all, this was the era of free love: Movie theaters were showing Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, in which two couples consider swapping spouses. Hippies proclaimed "Make Love, Not War." Women were burning their bras in a show of independence and sexual liberation.
Had John slipped off his ring, Kay, half a world away, wouldn't have known a thing.
"There isn't any way you can do that," John says. "The harm is there. Something's lost."
Besides, the only love he was interested in was Kay's.
"I actually can't imagine being with anybody else," he says. "I can't imagine not wanting to be with her. Seriously. There's never been a temptation."
Kay says the same is true for her, but she still has two good eyes. She recently saw the film Jerry Maguire and observed: "Cuba Gooding's got a great butt."
That's about as close to free love as these two ever get. While other young people adopted radical new attitudes toward relationships, the Gavers have always relied on something more grounded: what John calls "traditional Midwestern values." Their parents' marriages lasted forever and they expected theirs to do the same. Their engagement, though ratified in a bowling alley, was not agreed upon lightly. The Gavers come from a value system where commitment means, well, exactly that.
John's not impressed with any other definition.
"We've gotten into a throwaway society. You can get married, and if things don't work out, no big deal. There's no stigma," he says. "If you figure it's easy to get out of it, then you don't have to think too hard before you get into it."
Oops. Back on the soapbox.