By Jenny Neyman
In love, as in war, there’s no telling what the future will bring, nor the route of the path that will lead there. Sometimes it’s an uneventful hitch at a base in the U.S., or being smitten at first sight and getting hitched as soon as possible, or calculating the odds of success at asking for a date in a precalculus class.
Other times it’s being sent to combat zones in Iraq, Vietnam, Korea or Afghanistan, or reconnecting after a Dear John letter and over 10 years apart, or risking trust on a cocky mechanic after having your heart run over by a man who didn’t understand the concept.
It could be 61-years-and-counting of family life, or it could be a jarring end of life after a mere 29 years.
In either case, you take the leap and try to handle wherever that commitment lands you.
For the veterans at a Valentine’s Day dinner held in their honor Friday near Soldotna, military service took them across the country and the globe, in wartime and peace, for a few years or what turned into careers.
Their love stories were just as varied, if even less predictable.
Alan and Barbra Wills, who live in the Soldotna area, thought their relationship was over when Alan enlisted in the Navy after high school. They met as teenagers growing up in Michigan, exchanging shy looks across the room at a Methodist youth event.
“He lived four hours away. That was long time and long distance back in high school. No long-distance phone calls were allowed in my house. It was tough. We were kids,” Barbra said.
They saw each other sporadically, and Alan got calling cards so he could keep in touch with Barbra. But then came the day he told her he was enlisting after graduation in 1988.
“I was going away,” he said.
“And I didn’t get it,” Barbra said. She came from dairy farmers. The tradition of service in her family was to the livestock and land. “We lived out in the country, he was in the city. It was a whole different thing.
“We were on and off, I never knew what was going on. I hadn’t heard from him, and I started dating somebody else. I dear Johned him,” she said, cringing a bit at the thought of the breakup letter.
Alan served 20 years in the Navy. Barbra got married. Alan got married. Neither marriage lasted. Through that time they kept in touch, and about 12 years ago they reconnected and realized their hearts as teenagers had been onto something their minds hadn’t understood.
“Finally, I got it right,” Barbra said. They got married, moved to Alaska through the company for which Alan works, have twin, 7-year-old girls and have been married 10 years.
“It might have taken us a long time to get here. It should have been 25 years,” Barbra said. “I think the secret is we’re with who God intended us to be with.”
Dale Parker, of Soldotna, who served in the Navy from 1942 to 1946, isn’t one for romantic stories. Rose Clemons isn’t one to make her husband into something he’s not. Parker is a decisive, no-nonsense sort. Clemons has sense of humor for the both of them.
They met about 15 years ago. Parker was managing apartments in which Clemons and her husband at the time lived. He knew her. He liked her. His wife had died, and he was aware when her husband was no longer in the picture. Why get fancy about it? They certainly didn’t have any dramatic, romantic encounter upon their first meeting, when they had both been dropping off garbage. Sometimes, as for them, you take the opportunities as you get them. They’ve been married since 2002.
“He told someone that, ‘I met her at the dump,’” Clemons said. “He’s like that. I just laugh about it.”
Laughter is a big part of the dynamic between Byron and Char Moore, of south Soldotna. It almost has to be, given the circumstances of their courtship, which sounds like a made-for-TV movie. It even does involve TV, in fact.
They both lived in northwest Washington. He’d enlisted in the Army at 21 — serving from 1986 to 1992, stationed in Germany and Iraq — came back to his hometown and started up a body shop with a partner.
“She had wrecked a car, she brought it into the body shop and I met her, as a client-customer relationship, you know, a business kind of relationship,” Byron said.
He gave her a ride home, updated her on the progress of the repairs, etc. — business as usual. She drove away and that was that. About a year and a half later she went through a divorce and took her daughters to Alaska, which she’d always wanted to see, while the legalities were finalized. So that was really that.
Except she came back to Washington, moving to Sequim, nearly two hours north of where Byron lived. She got into a relationship that left her feeling as mangled as her car had been. He was a conman, wooing multiple women into financially providing for him, while he spun expertly constructed lies and promises. When Char realized the truth she went to police, who told her it was a civil matter. She was not civil when she appeared on the “Leeza” talk show, showing his picture and telling her story to warn other women away from him.
“It was very humbling, very humiliating, very devastating for my daughters. So I wasn’t going to trust guys again. Ever,” she said.
So that really, really should have been that, as far as Byron was concerned.
Except for another except.
“I just decided I was not going to be a victim the rest of my life,” she said.
Char placed a personal ad in a local newspaper, saying that she was looking to meet someone, thinking that this route would allow her to screen any potential suitors and avoid any other creeps or charlatans.
Byron saw the ad and it struck him with a country charm.
“Down to earth, that’s how I’d been raised,” he said.
He and Char started corresponding and realized they had both lived in the same town, both knew some of the same people, both knew of a certain body-repair shop.
“I was giving him the third degree when he responded to the ad. I wanted to know, ‘Who are your parents, where do you live, where do you work?’ The more we spoke he said, ‘I think I know you,’” Char said.
He remembered what she looked like, what she drove, where she lived. That didn’t exactly endear him to the extra-cautious Char. But she started to remember him, too — not that that helped, at first.
“All I could remember was his cocky attitude, him rocking back in his chair at the body shop like he thought he was Mr. All That. I was thinking, ‘I don’t remember what you looked like, but I don’t think I liked you,’” she said.
Curiosity won out, helped along by a roster of mutual friends whom Char greatly trusted. If her friends liked him, perhaps he was OK.
“I told her I was going to drive up to see her,” Byron said, an hour and 45-minute drive. He neglected to mention he was bringing a secret weapon.
“I didn’t believe him,” Char said, until he was standing on her doorstep with his son.
“He cheated! He showed up with a cute little boy, big brown eyes. Little (Andrew) looked up at me and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, that is so not fair!’” Char said.
“I drove up with my son and I never left,” Byron said.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Char said.
They got married in 1995 and have six kids between then. About five years after they got together they planned a motor home trip up to Alaska.
“Before we even left Washington state it turned into sell everything, pack the rest of it, we’re moving to Alaska,” Byron said.
And so they did. Byron is an instrument technician working on the North Slope, Char is a domestic engineer. They’ve been married 18 years.
“We’re both so ornery that nobody would put up with either one of us but each other. So God totally knew what he was doing when he put us together. He said, ‘Now these two deserve each other,’” she said.
When George Siter met his wife to be, he wasn’t thinking about who or what he deserved out of life. More like what life deserved out of him — and that was his dedication to keeping his word when he gave it.
When he first saw Shirley, though, he was a loss for words. His family had recently moved to Berkeley Heights, N.J., right after he graduated high school. He met some guys to hang out with, and soon after met the girlfriend of one of his new friends. Siter knew at first sight that this beauty had to be his girlfriend.
“Right off, the minute I saw her step off the steps. She wasn’t even off the steps, she’d just come out the door and I thought, ‘Wow.’ Beautiful blond girl. Fantastic parents — her dad was a World War I veteran,” Siter said.
He was just about to join the Air Force. He joined the service in 1951, during the Korean War. By the time he was done with his duty, in 1955, they were married and had started their family. Siter went on to a career in public safety in New Jersey, as a police officer, in the police training commission and in criminal justice and administration in the governor’s office.
When he retired, he and Shirley came to Cooper Landing for a fishing vacation to visit their son, who was career Air Force, stationed at Elmendorf. They liked the visit so much they came back the next summer and noticed a “For Sale” sign on Gwin’s Lodge. Their son bought the lodge in 1994 and Siter managed it until his son retired from the Air Force and took it over. They ran it until 2011. Siter then concentrated on his involvement with the Alaska Defense Force, from which he is about to retire.
Retire, mind you — not quit. That’s not a word he recognizes. Not in his career, his military service, nor in his now 61-year marriage.
“We’re both Christians, we made a vow before God and we’re not about to mess with him. When you make an obligation you’ve got to stick with it. I made an oath in the Boy Scouts, I made an oath in the Air Force, I made an oath in the police department, I made an oath in the police training commission, I made an oath in the governor’s office. But even if I hadn’t (made all the others), the one I made in the Boy Scouts would of stuck. It’s all the same oath,” he said.
For Tonya Halliday, of Nikiski, military service has been part of her husband’s life since she first met him.
Col. James Halliday enlisted in the Army when he was 18, and went to college on the GI Bill. He and Tonya shared a precalculus class, but it was his friends she noticed first, though not in a good way.
“They were a little weird. They were trying to hit on me. He got his nerve up because they were just kind of being obnoxious,” Tonya said.
It was clear James was intelligent and had a sense of humor, both requisites in Tonya’s book.
“Back 10 years ago you were kind of awkward. Luckily, you grew out of that,” Tonya teases him.
“I’m still awkward now. Luckily, the uniform kind of hides it,” James said.
He finished his degree in dentistry and they eventually moved to Alaska, where they now operate Cook Inlet Dental in Kenai. One week a month he heads to Fort Richardson to perform dental service with the Army National Guard, and he still deploys worldwide — so far in Desert Storm, to Bosnia for six months and Afghanistan for four months last year. Next he expects to ship out to Mongolia.
Raising kids and maintaining a business is a challenge with one spouse gone for large chunks of time, but the two take it in stride.
“It’s more of an adjustment for her than it is for me because I can slip into that military mode very easily,” he said.
“It’s always been hard, you have to learn to adjust,” Tonya said. “It’s just like Alaska, it’s an acquired taste. It’s not for everyone and you have to be able to adapt. Not everybody can do it.”
For those who do, they can find lifelong kinship with others who know what military life is like. That’s what brought the crowd of over 35 veterans and spouses to dinner Friday, at the home of Tom and Adele Bearup. Tom, along with being a pastor and former mayor of Soldotna, is an Army vet, himself, a tradition followed by some of his nine children.
Yes, nine. So hosting and feeding large groups of people is not unusual in the Bearup household.
“We had nine kids and she never knew who I’d bring home at night, so she’s always been busy,” Tom said, complimenting his bride of 38 years on the dinner and decorating she’d done for the veterans.
Their youngest son, James, had followed in his father’s footsteps and also joined the Army, serving two tours in Afghanistan. But he had a rough time of it, and struggled after his discharge with post-traumatic stress disorder. His family didn’t realize just how desperate James’ situation had become until he committed suicide in April. The Bearups were deeply shocked and even more deeply saddened. But rather than becoming angry — perhaps blaming their son’s plight on a lack of services and outreach for returning vets — the pastoral family decided to channel their loss into something that just might help someone else who is struggling with depression and PTSD.
So they’ve started an informal outreach, inviting vets and their families to a free Thanksgiving dinner at their home last year, and now the Valentine’s Day dinner. They’re also thinking about ways to use their 31 acres on the Sterling Highway near Solid Rock Bible Camp to help veterans, perhaps opening it as an RV park. For now, though, just being a friendly presence to area veterans, and bringing them together to connect with other vets, is a way to hopefully make sure no one else feels as lost as their son did.
“We wanted to thank you guys for your service, from the bottom of our hearts. We don’t have a lot of money, I can’t write you a check and say, ‘Have a good trip.’ There’s not much we can do, but we can make dinner for you,” Tom said.
The evening included dinner, music, photos, a chance for all the veterans to introduce themselves and, most importantly, plenty of time to visit, swap stories and get to know each other. James Bearup’s wife, Fawn, and their kids, James Jr. and Mya, helped Adele with the service. About 35 people attended. Donations were accepted to help with the cost of the event, but all was offered free of charge.
“It’s nice,” Tonya Halliday said. “It’s a great way for them to mend and then deal with their loss in a positive way. It’s just really nice.”