The former Alta Tilley threw up her hands and gasped, her eyes opened wide, her face frozen in a startled look.
“I thought, ‘Wow!’ ” she said. “What a surprise.”
She described the final moments of a triple date that also marked the first time she and her husband-to-be, Alton Talley, ever met, decades ago in their hometown of Birmingham.
“I was dating her best friend,” Alton, 90, recalls, “four of us crammed in the back seat of the car. Alta was in the front seat with her date. We were at her house, she turned back to say something, and I raised up and kissed her. It was dark, and the others probably didn’t see it. But that started the fire.”
And after 72 years of marriage, three sons, six grandchildren and a dozen great-grandchildren, the glow never faded. They will be together today, Valentine’s Day.
Alta, 88, dressed in a bright red dress and looking like a Valentine’s Day queen, clasped hands with her husband Wednesday at Morningside Assisted Living and spoke about their lives together. The beginning is as fresh in their minds as ever.
“My friend and Alton were going steady, but later he wanted to take me to the picture show,” Alta said. “I asked her if she cared, and she said, ‘Go ahead.’ From that moment, it seems we’ve been inseparable. And I’ve been ‘an AT’ all my life. Alton has introduced us as twins.”
After a year of dating, they eloped in his brother’s borrowed car, 20 miles to Pell City. He was 18; she was 16. They lied about their ages to get a marriage license.
“My brother and I were living at home, and I told him I needed his car to get my check cashed,” Alton said. “I was working as a machinist and made $75 a month.”
They picked up another couple, Alta’s friend whom Alton dated the first time they met, and her boyfriend. Another couple planned to go, too, but ran late. Alton refused to wait.
“We asked a police officer in Pell City if he knew a preacher who would marry us, and he escorted us to the house,” Alton said. “The preacher was sick, and we stood beside his bed while he performed the ceremony. It was Jan. 14, 1941.”
Hoping to conceal their secret, Alton dropped off Alta at her house and drove home. But the couple who stayed behind foiled the plan.
“When I walked in the door, mother asked, ‘Where is she?’ ” Alton said. “I responded, ‘What are you talking about?’ Mother replied, ‘I know you’re married, and if you’re married to her, go get her.’ The next morning, I brought Alta home. That was a long time ago.”
The couple, rarely separated, spent two years apart when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps during World War II. He served stateside in air and sea rescue. They had two sons, Richard and Robert, when he departed.
Alta worked about 12 years at a manufacturing plant in Birmingham making children’s clothes, and life wasn’t always smooth. While celebrating Richard’s fifth birthday party, she left to go to the hospital to deliver their third child, Edward.
Alton spent the last 18 years of his work life painting for the Birmingham Housing Authority. All three sons earned college degrees.
During their retirement, the Talleys traveled worldwide.
“We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary on our first trip to Hawaii,” he said. “We traveled there seven other times.”
The couple moved to Morningside about a year ago from their Birmingham home of 54 years to be near their son Richard and his family in Decatur.
“That was the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do, give up our house, car, my shop, everything,” Alton said. “But we like it here.”
Lanette Holtzclaw, executive director of Morningside, said the Talleys are a close couple.
“They’re always together, always holding hands, always smiling,” she said. “I believe the strength of their marriage is being supportive of each other and being very active.
“In the beginning of their residency here, the children were coming by every day, trying to visit them. But they were usually busy in the facility.”
Alton Talley summed up the secret of their long marriage: “Love. That has to be it.”
She agreed. “If I had not loved him, I would have stayed home with Momma.”
Ronnie Thomas can be reached at 256-340-2438.
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