I met Stephen on a BART subway train from San Francisco to Hayward sometime in 1978. I was in the process of breaking up with my current boyfriend when this short, dark-haired guy with a constant smile on his face in full Class A fancy military garb sat across from me. We chatted, and he said he was deployed to West Germany the next day, so he wanted to visit his family in Castro Valley one more time.
I figured it was okay to talk to him since I’d most likely never see him again. Before I got off the BART train, he handed me a piece of paper with his APO mailing address in Germany, said the postage was the same as United States and asked me to write to him. I said sure, though I wasn’t sure I would, although I was intrigued by the idea of writing to someone overseas because I was already a writer who carried a notebook around with me everywhere. We parted ways, and I saw him one last time as I rode down the escalator from the Hayward BART station. He waved goodbye to me. I waved back.
I almost forgot about that encounter until I happened to find the piece of paper, still in my notebook with yellow-lined paper a couple of months later. My ex-boyfriend and I had gone through an awful breakup and I moved back to San Francisco into a studio apartment from Hayward where I was happier anyway. As usual, my handwritten letter was long and sprawling, spilling out about five handwritten pages of words. I didn’t even proof it or read it over. I never did when I sent letters to people back then. I just folded the letter, stuck it into an envelope, put a stamp on it, and sent it off into the abyss of West Germany via APO. I wasn’t even sure what APO stood for.
Then I lived my life — went to work every day at a law office where I typed on an IBM Selectric typewriter, cutting edge back then, hung out with my friends, and made new friends at the apartment building where I lived. Then, a letter arrived from Stephen in Germany. How exciting this was. I anxiously tore it open, and a couple of photos fell out — of him with his buddies in the barracks and of the town where he was stationed. We kept writing back and forth, waiting out the two weeks or even longer it took for the other’s letter to arrive. I poured out my feelings and my life story, pretty much and he did the same. We both loved music, and he sent me an “America” songbook to play on my guitar. Then I sent him a cassette tape of my friend Paula and me singing and playing guitars. It went on for over a year, and we finally reunited that December when he came home on leave for 30 days.
When he arrived at my apartment in San Francisco, we hugged and kissed and immediately decided we were madly in love. We drove my Chevy Vega to Lake Tahoe during a snowstorm and eloped, with only his younger brother Chris for company. My friends and family thought it was insane and couldn’t believe it, and I did too because Stephen had to leave not long after we got married, insisting our honeymoon would be when he got me over to Germany to live with him.
It took almost six months for him to obtain a place for us, and I had begun to wonder if I made a big mistake because I didn’t feel “married.” Stephen finally called me which was rare and too expensive for us to let me know he had arranged it all. It was time for me to join him in West Germany!
I was so nervous and wondered if maybe I should back in, but hey, we got married, and I was going to see it through. I had to move out of my apartment, put stuff in storage in San Francisco and stay with a close family friend.
The night before my departure, my family and friends held a big party for me at Mary’s house. My Dad was there, my sister, all my good friends, everyone but Mom who lived in Oregon. I got out my guitar and began to strum and sing “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane,” but after a moment, I couldn’t sing anymore because I began to cry. I knew life would never be the same again after that night. I kept strumming and my Dad began to sing for me, then everyone in the room sang in unison while I cried.
And life never was the same again after that night.