Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"Unlucky in Love"

Donnis Thompson in the 1950s.

MARCH 2012

Donnis Thompson had a bad feeling about the marriage—not her own, of course, which was just fine, but the one she was about to officiate. Still, she had a job to do.

In her early 20s in 1953, Donnis had come to Kenai to marry Stan Thompson, with whom she had worked in Fairbanks for the Army Corps of Engineers. Shortly after the couple settled in Kenai, Stan, who was in the process of creating a building-supply business named Kenai Korners, was appointed as U.S. Commissioner (a magistrate, essentially, in pre-statehood days), and Donnis became his assistant commissioner. Therefore, when Stan was away, Donnis had a part to play—of commissioner.

And thus it was that she was called upon to marry a middle-aged Kenai couple—a pair she does not wish to identify, except to say that they were known in the area as “heavy drinkers.”

In those days, Kenai had a population of about 300 people, was still seven years away from voting to become a city instead of a village, and offered few commercially profitable opportunities. The groom, as an example, was a professional net-mender, and he repaired commercial fishing nets year round. “All the time, really good, very fast,” Donnis said.

The bride had never cut her hair and typically braided it into two thick pigtails that hung down her back to well below her waist. She was proud of her long hair, and those braids would play a part in the lives of the Thompsons again at a later time.

With Stan out of town, Donnis was approached about doing the ceremony, and she didn’t like the stress. “I was scared silly,” she said. “I’d never performed a marriage ceremony before, and I thought, ‘What if I don’t do it right? What are the repercussions? Would the kids be illegitimate? What’s going to happen?’”

Donnis decided that her best course was to strictly follow the rules of such ceremonies and do everything precisely according to the book.

The book, in this case, was the U.S. Commissioner’s little black book of rules, regulations and guidelines. In this book was a wedding ceremony. “I read word for word from the little black book,” Donnis said. “And I got every word in.”

The ceremony was performed in the commissioner’s Kenai office, which Donnis described as being “about as big as a grandmother’s pantry,” with a wall-to-wall counter behind which she stood to officiate. Dressed in town clothes—nothing formal or fancy--the bride and groom, along with their handful of witnesses, stood on the opposite side of the counter, crammed into the tiny space.

Although she performed the ceremony flawlessly, she said, she disliked the experience, and she hated the way the marriage turned out.

A short time after the ceremony, the couple moved out of state. “They seemed fine at the time,” Donnis said. Within a few months, however, alarming gossip began to filter back into the Kenai area: First, the husband had had a heart attack (but survived). Second, the wife had tried to commit suicide (but survived). Third, they had gotten a divorce.

Both of them eventually returned to the Kenai area, and the Thompsons crossed paths, albeit briefly, with the ex-wife once again.

A few years later—still before statehood, when Stan’s commission expired—the woman was sleeping on a couch at Eadie’s Frontier Club. She had announced that she was tired because of some medication a doctor had prescribed to her, and so she slept soundly. One of her long pigtails was tucked underneath her, while the other one lay draped over an arm of the couch.

The sight of this dangling pigtail apparently posed too great a temptation for a young taxi driver who ambled into Eadie’s to pick up a fare. With no provocation, the cabbie pulled out his knife and proceeded to saw off the pigtail before leaving the premises.

When she awoke and was informed of what had happened to her hair and who had done the deed, the barbering victim went to the U.S. Commissioner and filed charges against the taxi driver, who hadn’t exactly been hiding his crime. In fact, he had been parading around other bars in town and bragging about what he had done.

At the trial, Donnis said, the woman came into the courtroom with her single braid wrapped around her head and tied up inside a bandana. She won her case and received some sort of financial settlement from the young cabbie. Afterward, she went into a beauty salon, had the lone pigtail lopped off, got herself a perm, and came out “looking 20 years younger.”

Until statehood in 1959, Donnis continued in her capacity as assistant commissioner, but she never again performed a marriage ceremony. “I figured it wasn’t my thing,” she said. “I should not marry people. I couldn’t give blessings, obviously.”

She decided not to officiate again, even if asked to do so. “I said I’m not going to do any more. I told my husband, ‘Don’t go away if there’s a wedding coming up.’ And he made sure that never happened again.”

Fortunately for the Thompsons, their own marriage has withstood the test of time, despite some initial struggles. They arranged the wedding by telephone between Fairbanks and Kenai; Donnis flew into Anchorage to be married in a wine-colored dress that Stan called “purple,” a color he disliked; Stan, who was hungry from an all-night, no-food working spree on the plumbing at their home in Kenai, ate five plates of food at the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Silver Dollar Club after the ceremony; the Kenai “cabin” that Donnis had romanticized about was actually a two-room building with gray sheathing on the outside and was “cleverly” placed between a muddy alley and the back of a garage.

Despite such things, the Thompsons will celebrate 59 years together in 2012.