A True Love Story...Part One
He died at the age of one hundred and eight years. On the bone-chilling afternoon of December 17, 1970 they found his body. A belt was cinched around his neck and the other end attached to a light fixture on the ceiling of his bedroom. His feet dangled a mere two inches from the Oriental rug that always guarded the end of his bed. Directly to the right of his body was the stool he had stood on, now toppled on its side, a piece of notebook paper pinned to it.
The bedroom was unremarkable in appearance; it had served as the sleeping chamber of Sam and Delores Conrad for thirty-seven years, since the day the house had been completed and they had moved their belongings into the modest, brick, Depression-era home in north Tacoma. Two dressers, a footlocker, a sewing machine, and a make-up table joined the four poster bed to complete the furnishings. Memories of their lifetime hung from every available space on the walls: a smiling young couple with two small children in hand; a Model T Ford with waving hands sprouting from the windows; fountains and bare legs; a picnic by a seashore; lunch at a lakefront cabin. And many, many more, proof that this family, all now finally departed, had once been vibrant, dynamic and happy.
One hundred and eight years. Sam had been born on October 13th in the year 1862, a year before Henry Ford entered this world and President Lincoln dedicated a cemetery in Pennsylvania. His family had been Iowa corn farmers and had moved west on the Oregon Trail when Sam was six; a brother and sister had died of cholera making that passage, leaving Sam as the only Conrad offspring. Along the path of his life he had been a logger, fisherman, trapper, mill worker, and twenty-five other jobs sprinkled through his life. The last thirty years of employment were spent longshoring on the docks of Tacoma, retiring when he reached sixty-five. A small party, some cards, handshakes and a gold anchor key chain ushered him into the life of retirement. Nothing ostentatious, just like Sam. At his retirement party his handshake had still been firm, for he was a big man, honed by years of physical labor in the weather of the Northwest. At his apex he had been 6'2” and a rock-hard 230 pounds. The body hanging from the ceiling had lost several inches and eighty of those pounds.
But all of that was just background, window-dressing for the larger story, insignificant unless viewed from the perspective of what Sam considered of central importance in his life.
Her name was Delores Fleming and he had first met her in the little town of Morton, Washington, in 1895. He was thirty-three, she twenty-seven. It was late afternoon on a day in May; he was bone-tired from working twelve hours of felling trees and bucking limbs and was trudging along Main Street towards the boarding house where he ate and slept. She, the daughter of the general store owner, was sweeping the wooden steps that led to the store. Not seeing Sam she swept a cloud of dust squarely into his face and their lives together had commenced.
Their courtship slowly flourished....buggy rides along the banks of the Cowlitz River, picnics in the glen at the base of Bald Mountain, dances at Jed Turner's barn, and church socials, though Sam was not a regular attendee of Sunday services. After a year of leading Delores through the mating ritual he asked her father for her hand in marriage and was promptly refused. No daughter of Peter Fleming would marry a heathen, albeit a likeable and reliable heathen, who did not properly fear and praise the Lord. But true love often shows the way to salvation, and so it was in Morton in 1896. Sam became a regular at Our Church of the Valley, and after six months of Psalms and Deuteronomy he again asked for Delores' hand and was at last granted permission. And for the next fifty-four years Sam and Delores were inseparable.
He was a good husband and he would often tell friends that a day did not pass when he did not thank the Lord for the appearance of Delores in his life. He considered her to be his best friend, his confidant and his equal. Religion had not changed this former hell-raiser into a gentle giant; that transformation was entirely attributable to Delores, who simply told Sam that she could never love a man who considered himself the superior of any other man or woman. She would constantly repeat that only the weak of spirit would try to dominate another, and “weak of spirit” did not describe her Sam.
His best friend was stunning, but it wasn't her physical beauty, which was considerable, that was her defining feature. Rather it was her personality, a veritable ray of sunshine cast upon an otherwise drab and unremarkable landscape. Her smile was of the “first flowers in spring” variety, and never failed to elicit joy in those who witnessed it. She carried herself with charm and grace and yet had the disarming habit of appearing to know a devilish secret that would stir your loins if only you were privy to it. As the years marched by Delores aged remarkably well, so that when I met her in the early summer of 1946, the summer of her seventy-eighth year, she appeared to be twenty years younger.
My family moved next door to Sam and Delores when I was a bumbling, fumbling, stumbling tot of five, and few days had passed before I was invited to their backyard for lemonade and chocolate-chip cookies. The scene was to be repeated many times over the ensuing years. They were marvelous hosts, making a five year old feel as though he were grand royalty. I was the center of attention during my visits and I soaked in the glory of it all. Every repast with them was accompanied with a mini history lesson as I was treated to tales of covered wagons, Indians in tee-pees, spar poles and flumes. My love for history, no doubt, was born from these visits and eventually led to my becoming a history teacher.
As the years slid by, and I became older and found other interests to occupy my time, I saw less and less of Sam and Delores. Our contact consisted of occasional waves as I sped past their home on my bike, hellos as I searched for my dog in their backyard and words of thanks when I shoveled their sidewalk on snowy winter days. Always when I saw them they were hand in hand, and it would be hard for me to forget the look of love on their faces, a look that said they had found that elusive prize that all we humans seek, a love so true that time and hardships could not threaten. I remember thinking as a teen how wonderful it must be to love another in such a manner, to be connected to another human being in every way.
The ambulance arrived on an April afternoon in 1957......(to be continued)