At noon on August 20, 1973, the bells were chiming from the California Tower in Balboa Park, which is one of the most beautiful parts of the beautiful city that is San Diego, California. August 20, 1973, was also the day that I married Clarice Braxton in Balboa Park, and although the bells in the California Tower chimed every day at noon whether I was getting married or not, I imagined that they were ringing for the happy couple. On the surface it looked like a promising start to a life of marital bliss for the lucky pair. A brilliant sun was shining out of the vast blue dome of the sky with not a single dark cloud to portend a cold, chill rain falling on this day or any other in the lives of the hopeful bride and groom. Family, friends and neighbors collectively drew in their breath as the radiant bride, clothed in white and projecting the beauty and serenity of a Greek goddess, stepped out of a tent that had been set up as her dressing room and walked across the grass to where a judge was waiting for the ceremony to begin. Everything was ready, but where was the groom?
This story begins two years earlier when I met Clarice in a history class at Grossmont Community College in El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego. We sat next to each other and I was surprised that this beautiful girl was so friendly with me. I was very shy and didn’t expect to connect so easily with a girl as attractive as Clarice. I pulled together my courage one day and asked her if she would like to go on a picnic with me and several of my friends, and I was again pleasantly surprised when she agreed. Thus we began a five year relationship which included living together, being separated by 540 miles when I attended my first year away at Sonoma State University (“College” at the time that I attended), limited fidelity on both of our parts, and then living together again in San Diego after my first year at SSU was completed.
Both Clarice and I were not likely candidates for a long and happy marriage from the start. Neither one of us came from a successful family and we went into our marriage without any sort of model of what a successful marriage even looked like. Clarice’s parents had divorced some time before I met her, I’m not really sure how long before, and while I never saw any open hostility between Ellen and David Braxton on those rare occasions when they were at the same place together, it was easy to see that there were still scars, and that those scars still hurt. I liked both of Clarice’s parents very much, but then I didn’t live in their home while their marriage was dissolving.
Clarice’s younger brother Don did live there however, and the strain of it showed up in his personality. Either that or he was just a jerk from birth. Don was a jock, a basketball player on the junior college team. I was, if anything, the Anti Jock. A skinny guy with wild, curly shoulder length red hair and a beard that looked like a big, red Brillo pad stuck to my face, I cared not one little bit about the latest clothing style or who was throwing or attending the best parties or, more to the point, that Don played on the Grossmont College basketball team or any other basketball team. We tried to get along at first but we were like matter and anti matter, and only avoided a major collision as a result of periodic intervention by Clarice or by sheer luck when I went storming over to their family apartment with blood in my eye one day but he either stayed indoors or wasn’t home. This was probably a great blessing for me as I am now almost certain that he could have kicked my ass three ways from Sunday.
Out of this family life Clarice emerged with an outlook that was a blend of fairy tale and tragedy. She seemed to see herself as a Scarlet O’Hara figure from “Gone With The Wind” and would on some occasions lapse into a Southern drawl that I found sort of creepy. And while I never once felt the least bit like Rhett Butler, I can’t help but believe that she somehow saw a little bit of Rhett Butler in me. Clarice clung close to me, closer many times than my wild and unmoored self was comfortable with. In spite of my continuing indulgence in partying with friends whom she did not care for, or my sitting on a bar stool until midnight or later with my friends Wes and Joe, Clarice would be waiting for her Prince Charming when he finally slouched in, bleary eyed and mostly ready to just go to sleep. With some modifications a variation of this theme continued to be the pattern for our relationship for the next five years.
My preparation for marriage was no more auspicious than was Clarice’s. My parents separated when I was twelve years old but reunited in less than six months because my brother Brad and I were spinning out of control and my mother could no longer handle us alone. Our home was very much like the Cold War which was then simmering between the U.S. and the now defunct Soviet Union. Between periodic outbreaks of violence was a nearly continuous low-level tension and a fear that bad things could erupt at any time. Brad got himself thrown out of the neighborhood high school and was sent to the continuation school, or “Hard Guy High”, which oddly enough was structured like a college in that one could take a greater work load than most and graduate earlier than kids at the conventional schools. Most of the students at Hard Guy High did nothing of the sort but Brad took that route and graduated from high school at seventeen years of age. He then asked for and received our father’s permission to join the Army at the age of seventeen and thereby escaped our home. I would graduate from the neighborhood high school four years later in the usual manner, and would also join the Army at eighteen years of age and in the middle of a war in order to make my own getaway,
My mother and father endured each other; that is the best way that I can describe the only marriage that I had had a close personal look at. Love was never mentioned and never shown, and I got my training on love and marriage from “Leave It To Beaver” and from rock and roll lyrics and movie scripts. It is not much of a stretch to say that neither Clarice nor I, and especially I, knew anything at all about the love that is supposed to be the foundation of a marriage and the hard work and commitment required to make a marriage succeed.
But we decided to give it a go anyway. In June of 1973 I returned to San Diego for the summer and we moved into a lovely stucco cottage in a courtyard apartment not far from the home where I had grown up. Brad promised to introduce me to the exhilarating and profitable life of a drywall installer, and I immediately began to spend long days engaged in that physically demanding and, in those days, very lucrative job of hanging drywall. Clarice stayed home most of the time waiting for me to return, which I did after downing several beers with the guys after work. Drywall hangers in those days reveled in their image of hard working, hard drinking cowboys. I don’t know if that continues to be true today. Still, Clarice and I spent many hours together in relative bliss and so, one day, while we were sitting at a bar called ‘Grandma’s’, I put down my glass of beer and said “You know what? I think that we should get married.”
I’m pretty sure that was not the proposal that Clarice had dreamed of since she had been a little girl. No down-on-the-knee action in a restaurant, no “close your eyes” and a ring in my hands when I say “open your eyes now”. Just a transvestite playing the piano in a neighborhood dive and a guy who truly did not know any better saying “You know what? I think we should get married”. What followed is absolutely inexplicable: Clarice said “Yes”.
Now began the days of planning. A license was to be applied for and obtained, blood needed to be drawn, a date and location in Balboa Park had to be reserved and a hundred other details needed to be tidied up. Clarice did most of those things while i continued to hang drywall in order to pay for all of this. We went together to Tijuana, Mexico, to find a shirt to go with my nice new blue jeans. It was pale green with a quetzal bird motif. We also found our rings in Mexico; silver, with what they said was a peyote bird imprinted into it. As far as I know there is no such animal as a peyote bird but that is only a bothersome detail; I liked the sound of it and so we bought them on the spot.
I continued to work as the big day approached and about a week before the ceremony was to take place I had an accident on the job. For one moment I lost my concentration and in less than a heartbeat I had drawn my finger across the fresh blade in my drywall knife and sliced a slab of meat off of the side of my right middle finger. Brad took me and the now-separated piece of my finger to the emergency room at a nearby hospital where it was deemed necessary to reject the sliced piece and graft another chunk of flesh removed from my arm onto my finger. The result of this was that for the next couple of weeks I constantly appeared to be flipping people off with my heavily bandaged middle finger, which I held upright a lot of the time to limit the throbbing pain that I felt when it hung down by my side.
At long last the day arrived. Clarice disappeared early with a coterie of family and friends to be pampered and primped and prepared so that she might emerge from the tent in the park as a dazzling example of feminine perfection. I, on the other hand, had little to do except get dressed and be at my appointed spot at the appointed time. As it turned out, this was too large of an assignment for me to handle. When I arrived at the park Brad and Wes were waiting for me with a cooler full of ice cold beer, and it wasn’t long before we were drinking to my wedding, to each other’s health, and finally just drinking for the hell of it. I remembered my role in the day’s business when my dad walked up the hill and cuffed me on the back of my head. “Late for your wedding” he said. “That’s about as shiftless as it gets”. Dad was grinning when he said it however. He was rather proud of having raised two boys who seemed determined to march to their own drummer the way that he had done all of his life, and would continue to do until the day that he died a little more than thirty years later.
I arose, somewhat wobbly, and made my way down the hill to where the crowd of spectators was waiting. The judge was anxious to get things underway so that he could return to his weekend routine, and a very hairy hippie to whom we had given $20 began to strum a guitar and sing something from his seat on the grass under a nearby palm tree. I stood there in my haurache sandals, blue jeans, and quetzal bird shirt with curly red hair exploding out from under my leather headband and the beard which jutted from my face, and with a big gob of gleaming white gauze and taped wrapped around my upwardly extended right middle finger in a way that made it seem like I was giving the judge, Clarice, and the whole world in general, the bird.
In the end the wedding went off without a hitch, except for the fact that we were hitched when all was said and done. We stayed hitched for nearly three years, but our marriage was a doomed ship from the moment that it left port. We both continued to mature slowly after that day, Clarice more quickly than I. Ultimately however neither one of us embraced the idea that marriage is hard work, and that fairy tales are imaginary. On that day however we were both happy as larks; me with my goddess and her with her scruffy knight in shining armor. The sky which boasted of it’s glowing sun and unbroken blue was indeed littered with clouds filled with the promise of a future storm, but we couldn’t see them. It seemed like a very good day to us at the time, and I am happy to leave it at that.