50 years wed, and high hopes for more

Eileen ?Wink? and Fred Bruning are showered with Eileen “Wink” and Fred Bruning are showered with rice leaving St. John’s Lutheran in Brooklyn on their wedding day. Right, they share a toast on their 50th anniversary. Photo Credit: Handout

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The Putins — Vladimir and Lyudmila of Moscow — are breaking up and so are media bigshot Rupert Murdoch and Wendi, his wife of 14 years. In South Carolina, Mark and Jenny Sanford parted after Mark, while governor, said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail but, really, was courting a girlfriend in Argentina. Even Al and Tipper Gore, whose famous onstage smooch at the 2000 Democratic convention became a symbol of sizzling wedded bliss, are no more.

Worry if your daughter is dating a Powerful Man.

Marital longevity long ago was outlawed in Hollywood, of course, along with liver spots, love handles. Katie and Tom, Madonna and Sean, Brad and Jennifer, Arnold and Maria all landed loudly in Splitsville. Uncouplings of an earlier vintage earned headlines, too. Richard Burton and Liz Taylor (twice), Ava Gardner and Mickey Rooney, Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan, Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman — the list of kaput Left Coast relationships is longer than lines at Disneyland.

Readers of gossip pages can be excused for presuming wedlock is on the edge of extinction and, as everyone knows, plenty of couples — celebrity and otherwise — fall off the cliff.

The American Psychological Association notes that 40 to 50 percent of marriages in the United States come undone, and HealthDay news service reports that more American couples now live together than swap solemn vows.

What makes marriage work? How to beat the odds?

“Quite an accomplishment,” people said recently when my wife, Eileen, and I, celebrated our 50th anniversary.

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At a little party, Milt, my brother-in-law, declared that “negotiating” skill was the secret to success in wedlock — Milt is an ad man and knows the power of persuasion — and someone else said honesty and “authenticity” were key. Love, honor, respect, said others. And, no doubt, fidelity, patience, sacrifice — all those count, too.

But, for me, at least, nothing is more important than the idea of two people — solitary pixels among the world’s billions — finding one another and saying, hey, let’s enlist for a lifetime and see what happens. Random luck is at play, no doubt. Certainly worked for me. Once, long ago, I called a dorm room at the University of Denver, hoping to speak to a girl named Jill and met Eileen, instead. The rest, we often tell ourselves, is history — 50 years’ worth.

More than wisdom or good fortune, though, I think, optimism is key — an outsized measure of high hopes. “If men could be contented to be what they are, there were no fear in marriage,” said Shakespeare in “All’s Well that Ends Well.” In other words, keep the faith.
A fellow I run into at the post office — nice guy in his 30s — plans a wedding next year. “Suddenly, it seems real,” he said recently. “Suddenly, I’m nervous.”

When Eileen — “Wink,” as most people know her — and I got married, there wasn’t time for the jitters. I was 22, she, 21. By the time of our June 1963 wedding, I had transferred to the University of Missouri journalism school and was expected back for summer classes.

After walking down the aisle of St. John’s Lutheran in Brooklyn, toasting our togetherness and kissing the relatives goodbye, Wink and I piled into our ’55 Ford hardtop and — on our own! — headed for the great Midwest.

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A night at the George Washington Motor Lodge just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike was all the honeymoon we could manage. In the motel restaurant, we ate steak tidbits with baked potato and drank Cokes. The tab, I think, was less than 15 bucks.

Two days later, we were in Columbia, Mo., I was hitting the books by the end of the week. Wink was at work. We lived on a gravel road outside town. We adopted a dog from the pound and named him George. We cooked burgers on the grill and washed the car on weekends. At night, we slept as though drugged. (We weren’t.) It was simple, soulful, good.

Just before graduation, I hunted work at newspapers in Colorado — we had a sentimental attachment to the place — and, after a few interviews, headed back to Columbia, Mo., on Interstate 70. It may have been 2 in the morning when, at St. Charles, we crossed the wide Missouri, sparkling with starlight. The radio was on. Timing perfect, Henry Mancini’s orchestra and chorus delivered, “Moon River.”

Schmaltzy? No question. But that sort of moment is apt to make a couple of newlyweds think, holy cow, isn’t this about the coolest thing?

And — normal run of troubles aside — it has been. Cool and more.

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For the party, our elder daughter — we have four kids — assembled a slideshow that had more material than a  Burns documentary. Friends and family gathered round. Now I won’t be disappointed if, at the final gasp, my whole life does not pass before me.

It already has.

On the screen were 50 years worth of places — Missouri, Florida, Colorado, Vermont, Brooklyn, Long Island — and pals and memorable moments. “A lot of life there,” said our younger son, eyes watery.

Listen, everyone gets married with good intentions. Everyone wants to make it work. The failure rate is fierce and reasons many. No one should strut around just because they survived. Things happen, sometimes good intentions aren’t enough. Ozzie and Harriet’s cozy TV world was a fantasy even in the ’50s.

At our anniversary shindig, people offered so many compliments that I found myself wishing the afternoon had been billed as a roast. More lucky than special, Wink and I found each other among the multitudes, that’s all. We believed in marriage, sweet solidarity, and so did most people we knew back then. We took a breath, gave it a try, held tight. Half-century later, we’re heading full steam toward forever.

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