What were the first years of your marriage like?

What were the first years of your marriage like?


When Karen and I decided to get married I was working at a low paying sign painter’s job that wouldn’t support the two of us. Karen was in college. I applied for a draftsman’s job at Collins Radio and was hired in the Test Equipment Support Unit. We drew up the plans that the engineers designed for electronic devices that tested the actual products that Collins sold. So most of these were “one-off” machines that verified whether the manufactured equipment performed as planned.

I started as a beginning draftsman for a whopping $2.75 per hour. This sounds worse today but it wasn’t even that great back then either. You could almost support a family on that, but it wasn’t an easy matter. My folks let us have a little apartment in their basement. We bought our own food and had an old Ford panel truck that we got from the seller because we were the first ones to show up with $100. It was a Sunday and Karen’s dad, Les just happened to have that much in his wallet. The truck only had a driver’s seat so we rigged up a lawn chair for Karen to sit in. This was incredibly dangerous and it’s a wonder she wasn’t badly hurt by a sharp turn or a sudden stop. It wasn’t bolted down of course. The windshield wipers hardly worked. They would swipe the rain away but stuck when they reached the end of their swing. We had a long, heavy string tied to the driver’s wiper and Karen had to give a tug to get it back to the beginning of the stroke. I was still working at Collins when the radiator blew up on the way to work so it couldn’t have been any later that December of 1969.

Judy Thorpe and Bob Burns with panel truck

I had been putting off an operation to remove a pilonidal cyst, but I had to have it done which caused me to miss a couple of weeks of work. Something that worked to my disadvantage when Collins decided to lay off hundreds of workers. First they laid off all the goof offs, next came people like me who had missed a bunch of work (through no fault of their own in my case), but the most insidious was they laid off all the high paying workers who had a lot of time on the job.

In the middle of my time at Collins, Lance was born. He was definitely the star of the show. He was doted on by everyone. They used to put him in the middle of the dining room table and just stare at him.

Grocery Clicker

Early in 1970 we moved to a little house at 125 Bowling Street SW. We leased it for a year and set up housekeeping on our own. I started carpenter apprentice school. It lasted two months and after graduating from that I started getting short term jobs out of the union hall. After several jobs I felt the work just wasn’t steady enough for me to count on. Money was tight and we had to be very careful when we bought groceries. We only had $7 a week to spend so Karen went around with a little tally clicker and for anything she needed after she hit the limit, she had to put something back. One of the advantages of the carpenter jobs was we could apply for food stamps in between. They felt that a family of three needed $15 a week to eat healthily so we got a 50% increase in groceries and that was all for food. It didn’t include things like dish soap or other non-edibles.

A friend of mine, Ray Baragary, suggested I try for a job at Midwest Metal Products. I got it and was the first draftsman they had had in a long time. I describe this job more fully in the story “What was the best job you ever had?”

While I was working there (1971), Mom decided to take the whole family to England for a month. I told my boss, asking for unpaid leave after my vacation leave ran out. As the day approached he would never tell me if it was ok or not. So when we left, I didn’t know if I would have a job when I got back. We had moved back into my parents’ house for the few months before we left in order to save up a little money to have for spending while we were in England.

We had a good time in England (see English Vacation – 1971). When we got home we got another house to ourselves. This one was out in the country at the end of the diagonal runway at the airport. It was called “High Top Corner” and was a house they moved to that location when they created the Coralville Reservoir. There was also an old schoolhouse on the same lot. Both buildings had been converted to be rental properties.

High Top Corner


Butch and I were married on May 1, 1969 when he was 20 years old and I was just 19. I was pregnant when we married and unlike attitudes today, it was a big deal. Both of our families would have preferred that marriage would have come first. I had just finished my sophomore year of college but that came to a screeching halt and Butch had already dropped out and had not quite finished his sophomore year. It was an angst-y time in both of our lives since our families were disappointed. They were not mad at us but it was clear that the hopes they had for us did not include marriage and a child at such a young age. To top it all off, it was the middle of the Vietnam War and the threat of Butch being drafted was very real.

We married at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids. Our family members sat in the courtroom jury box and Judge Harold Vietor married us in front of the judge’s bench. Butch’s sister, Judy, and our friend, Jim Cada stood up with us. We all went to my parents’ house for wedding cake and pictures.

We left that afternoon for a short honeymoon camping trip. Judy loaned us her Volkswagen bug and we borrowed a tent from a family friend, Judy’s old Girl Scout leader, Phyllis Brooks. We literally had nothing of our own.

Honeymoon Camping Trip

I am sure that our marriage would not have survived without the unwavering support of our families. The two of us were in love which counted for a lot, but for countless young couples that was not enough. Both families surrounded us with love and were as committed as we were to make our marriage work. We had two great examples of what marriage should be and the idea that we would ever give up was not in our heads. First, Butch’s parents said that we could move into their basement so that we had a place to live. We used Butch’s childhood bedroom and turned the rest of the space into a living room, dining room and kitchen. Butch had a job at Collin’s Radio so we had an income. Our folks gave us cast off furniture and other household supplies to get us started. Our parents did not give us money because neither family had much extra but we knew they were there if things got desperate. We also had brothers and sisters who were very generous with gifts, time, and help. As soon as we had enough cash we bought a car which meant we could be somewhat independent. We were so lucky that our parents liked each other because we seemed to meld into one big family. For many years all of us spent major holidays together and got together for fun, and celebration. In my education career, I encountered many young parents who literally had no family to turn to for any support and I saw the impossible stresses that children, jobs, money, illness, and outside pressures put on a couple. I thank our parents everyday for being there for us.

Family Fondue Party

In those early years, money was always a problem for us. We only had one income because Butch was the only one working. He has always had strong technical skills and has always had work. He got a job as a draftsman at Collins which provided a decent wage for the time. We had a chance to save money by living with his parents at first so that helped. Unfortunately, he was layed off from there just after Lance was born because he needed to have an operation that kept him out of work for a month or more. Of course we had very little money as a cushion to get by. He entered a carpenter apprentice program with the local union, hoping that it would grow into steady and well paid work. We moved out of his folks’ house after only a few months so we were on our own. We rented a small house on Bowling Street and were at the mercy of the carpenter’s union to be sent out on jobs. When he was working the pay was good, but often a job would only last for two weeks and then he’d have to wait again. I carried a plastic clicker with me to the grocery store. We had a weekly budget of $7 for groceries. I’d click in the prices and if I got to $7 before I had the necessities, I had to put things back on the shelves. I got a part time job at Sandy’s hamburgers and sisters Linda and Lisa stepped in to babysit for free for us while I worked. (Thank you dear sisters!) I only earned $.50/hr but it was just about enough to pay for a week of groceries. As time went on, Butch gave up on the carpentry because we needed a steady income. He had a couple of other drafting jobs but was finally hired at Midwest Metal Products for steady work. We had a bit of security and moved to a new rental property out by the airport.

During these first years, we had an interesting social life. On the one hand, we couldn’t go out with friends much because we had little money and a baby to take care of. On the other hand, we were an established couple and had our own place to live. Friends would gather at our house every weekend on either Friday or Saturday night for a party of some sort. Mostly it was music, a few beers and a half dozen friends. People sometimes brought snacks to share. Lance was a baby and just part of the party until his bedtime when things had to get quieter so he could sleep.

Linda Krogmeier and Bob Unzeitig at our ususal Friday or Saturday night party

Around this time, Paddy and Raymond decided to take the whole family to England to visit Paddy’s family. They paid for our flights and general transportation while we were there but we needed to bring our own spending money. I had really never traveled before and this was a monumental adventure for me. It was the first time I flew on an airplane, the first time I saw an ocean, and the first time I visited a foreign country. Paddy’s family was very welcoming.

We had many memorable experiences including a visit to Stonehenge, the troubles in Northern Ireland, and sight seeing in London.

Karen, Lance, and Butch at Stonehenge

We had moved to a house by the airport when we returned from our trip but it was too far from town and too expensive to heat so we moved to the boxcar house on 21st Avenue SW. By this time Lance was a toddler, Butch had a steady job, and we decided that our best bet for getting somewhere was for me to go back to school and get my teaching degree. Tuition was manageable but money was tight and being a full time student and a mom was not easy. I remember this time of my life as being utterly exhausting. All the regular jobs of taking care of a family continued and time in class, commuting to Iowa City, and studying and completing course work was added on. Lance went to a daycare center that was a student cooperative. Each member family was expected to work at the center for twelve hours per week in lieu of full payment for child care, so that obligation was mine as well. My first year back I also got pregnant for Wendy and continued course work through the spring of 1972. Every break in the day when I didn’t have a class was spent studying, working at the daycare, or finding a place to lay down for a nap! After Wendy was born we switched childcare to our neighbor Marcia who took excellent care of our kids until I finished school. The two of us were determined to finish college and get our degrees. We were willing to do without any luxuries, new clothes, vacations etc. to accomplish that goal. We lived in a crummy house made from a boxcar for five years for heaven’s sake! I graduated in December of 1974. Butch graduated from Kirkwood Community College with an AA degree in 1973 and finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Iowa in 1980 and his Master’s degree in 1982. During this time I had a teaching career spent mostly at College Community Schools at Prairie View Elementary.

941 21st Avw SW

We had a pretty family oriented life during these early years as most families with young children do. We were lucky to live in our hometown so our kids had a close relationship with both sets of grandparents and with their aunts and uncles. Most of our siblings were nearby and Lance and Wendy were loved and doted on by them too. Since we had little money, our family activities were often free or very inexpensive. Butch had been a Boy Scout and was an experienced camper so we spent a lot of time tent camping at nearby county parks. We started camping when our kids were infants and continued camping in some form through their high school years. Being in nature, exploring woods, rivers, plenty of dirt, and campfires made for a lot of kid fun. We often dragged our friends along and camped with John and Sherry Hawn, Linda and Lynn Rutherford, and Bob and Penny Unzeitig.

We did go on two family vacations. We traveled on a camping trip to Colorado when the kids were pretty small and visited my sister Diane in Florida and went to Disney World there.

Butch, Karen, Wendy, and Lance at Disney World

These years were also a time of great sorrow. We lost both of our dear fathers in one year. Raymond had been a smoker his whole life and had a terrible cough and had trouble catching his breath for several years. He died in his sleep in January. The whole family was reeling with grief and Paddy was faced with providing for Bunny and Lisa who were still at home. Later that same year my dad was diagnosed with cancer and after a very painful illness died in June of that same year. Both of our mothers needed family support during this time and both of them found comfort and joy from Lance and Wendy.

I think that these early years of our marriage, though sometimes very difficult, helped us build an unbreakable relationship that has resulted in more than 50 happy years together.

This post is part of the StoryWorth project that I am participating in.
At the ButchieBoy main page click the Storyworth catagory to see all the entries in the series.

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