Civil Marriage Also Has Tender Moments

A wedding brings together far more than the bride and groom and their relatives and friends. It attracts and incredible array of skills, trades, talents, callings and professions--all aimed at making the day one of the cornerstones for at least two lives. Last Thursday, free-lance writer Bill Manson examined big weddings, and this week he focuses on people who have--and help with--small weddings.

May 22 was sort of an anniversary for the County Courthouse on Broadway. The county had been marrying people exactly five years.

It hasn't been exactly a booming business. Oh, there are plenty of people who call there every day to get licenses and to get married, but it still has the feel of something the county decided it had time for after it dropped the processing of passports.

But when you go in there to tie the knot, you have to fight your way past the litigants and lawyers seeking papers for dissolutions of marriage and civil complaints. On a typical day, there are around 50 dissolutions, 90-odd civil cases.

Those who haven't been put off by that can then meet the kindest little lady on earth. She's on the 'right' side of the office. The far side.

On a typical Thursday or Friday afternoon, you'll see a couple of couples, sitting nervously on a bench beneath the window, holding hands. Some are dressed in rented tuxedos and white wedding dresses, others in sneakers and jeans. Hovering beside them, a brother, a sister, a best friend will be pacing back and forth, casting a nervous eye over the sea of bureaucrats behind the frosted glass partitions, one of whom is going to change their friends' lives.

Marilyn Powell has been processing and marrying couples since Day One, back in May '81. She's a little lady who looks firm--until she opens her mouth to speak to you.

Right now, she is in the middle of sorting out the problems of Casey Coleman from Mississippi and Rene Slaughter from Alabama. They are in the Navy. He's dressed in gray sweat shirt and gray jeans, and she in a blue-black checked top over black pants.

Somehow his blood test has gotten jumbled. They have been waiting six hours, since 9:30 a.m., to get married. They have done three trips back to base to get the test results. The problem is typically bureaucratic: two signatures in one box.

"Honest to God," Rene is saying. "I'm going back home to bed."

And now there are two couples ahead of them. Judee Cooper and Rand Hemstock who are marrying each other--again--and Dave and Caroline, who are eloping.

It's Frank "I've Made Grown Men Cry" Lundry who's doing the marrying today. He's the chief deputy county clerk and has performed hundreds of ceremonies in the little rooms set aside here and in the North County courthouse in Vista.

"June's the big'n," he says, "especially on Fridays. That's when they have time to take a little honeymoon without missing days off work. I love doing it. Not because it gives me any sense of power. When it was first suggested to me, I wanted nothing to do with it. I thought, 'Who am I to join people in holy matrimony? These things should be done in a church.'

"But the county clerk and all his deputies are automatically commissioners of civil marriage. Section 42:05.1. And after I saw the happy couples passing through, I thought it can't be such a bad thing we're being asked to do.

"They come here to get married because it's faster and cheaper, and there's no pre-counseling--and we leave God out of it, which suits some couples who might have opposing religious backgrounds. This sidesteps the issue for them.

"I know I've done over a thousand, because on my thousandth I didn't charge them the $15 fee. Come to think of it, I should have charged the county clerk. I married him, as it were, last Halloween.

"Essentially, all that's required is to witness the woman stating, 'I take this man to be my husband', and the man saying 'I take this woman to be my wife,' but each of us has developed a little ceremony to flesh it out a little."

It's 2:30.

"This way please." Lundry leads couple No. 1 into a small room on the divorce side of the large office. Inside it is bare, but pleasant, with a rendition of the aircraft carrier Lexington on the wall behind the lectern.

Lundry takes his position in front of the Lexington. He faces Judee, 27--she's in a white floral dress with yellow ribbons--and Rand, 30. And behind, in the arms of Rand's brother Russell, 7-month-old Charlotte, their daughter.

They have been married once, except the person who married them turned out to be not licensed by the state. "That was our good old hippie days," Rand says. "But when we tried to get a copy of our license, we found there was none. So here we go again."

"Russell," Judee says, "will you be all right with her? We'll give her a bottle when we get in the car."

"Uh, we are here," intones Lundry, "in the presence of witnesses, to join in marriage . . ." Judee takes a last quick motherly look at Charlotte, then turns to face the music.

"The act of uniting a man and a woman in marriage is one of the oldest and dearest ceremonies known to man," Lundry adds, offering some of his own feelings about the institution. "No other human ties are more tender, and no other vows are more important than those you will presently say."

He has them join hands. Charlotte goo-goos quietly in the background.

"Rand Hemstock, do you take this woman Judee . . ."

The door opens. A clerk's head pops through the gap. It stops.

"Oops. Sorry."

"And Judee, do you take this man . . ."

Back out five minutes later where wife-beaters' lawyers are lining up to file forms, Judee is all smiles: "This time it's for real."

She holds yellow roses and orchids, from a friend who owns a flower shop. The place echoes with an irregular thumping. Two clerks are stamping a pile of papers. It doesn't bother the newlyweds. They're married. Legally. So what now?

"Now we're going home to feed and nap Charlotte. The rest of the family may come around."

It's 2:40.

"I, David, take thee, Caroline . . ."

David and Caroline are eloping. Well, sort of. They come from Phoenix. They want to strike while the iron's hot, don't want to wait a year, get bogged down in the whole family thing. Didn't want to do it in Nevada. Too tacky. That's why they came here.

"Because it's, well, it's romantic here." They're off to a celebration for two at the Hotel del Coronado.

It's 2:50, and Lundry is standing before couple No. 3, Casey and Rene.

". . . And remember that it's love, loyalty to one another, caring and understanding that make a happy, enduring home. Marriage should not be entered into lightly . . ."

They exchange vows and rings, and then Lundry gives the word that always releases a well of emotion: "You may kiss the bride."

Casey and Rene go into a long, passionate kiss. Rene's eyes are brimming. For them, this is just the beginning. In six months, they'll have a big wedding celebration back with their families in Mississippi and Alabama. But now, at least, they're hitched.

"That last time you had to go back for that blood test paper, I all but gave up," Rene tells Casey. "I was going home to bed!"

Lundry folds his one-page script, shakes their hands and heads off to his normal work upstairs, dealing with Superior Court records. And Mr. and Mrs. Casey Coleman waltz out to a new life through the crowds shuffling around the Civil and Domestic Filings and Fictitious Names Filings and Superior Court Forms and the Stress Bear-Ometer, a clerk's attempt to strike a light note among it all.

But the couple's light note is already struck. They move out through the doors of the County Courthouse and look down Broadway. Strip bars, single dudes strutting, lonely wanderers and clear shafts of sun shining straight down the street from the West, lighting up the whole avenue like a movie set.

The world. It doesn't look the same any more.

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