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Couple's love remains strong through Pearl Harbor and beyond
Of all the ornaments in Martha Martin’s home, there’s one that holds dear sentimental value.
Protected in a glass casing is an empty bottle of perfume with a tiny cloth bouquet of flowers still attached. Although neither emit a fragrance, they evoke powerful memories.
“He was very big on giving gifts,” Martin said, referring to the man sitting across the room from her bearing a large grin.
“The first one he gave me was a perfume bottle in the shape of a bride. She’s still holding her little bouquet. I think he had his eye on me.”
Bill Martin’s eyes were glued to Martha the first time he saw her at a Thanksgiving dance near San Diego, Calif., in 1939. A month later, he gave her the bride-shaped perfume bottle as a Christmas gift and symbolic gesture to foreshadow events to come.
“I was romancing her,” he said.
Coincidentally, it would take a third holiday five years later to bind the two for good.
Valentine’s Day this week marked 70 years of marriage for the Martins, who live in Langley.
They’ve spent seven decades together starting with a dance on Thanksgiving Day at the Wagon Wheel Dance Hall in Santee, Calif.
“He asked me to dance,” Martha said.
In many ways, the dancing has never stopped.
“It doesn’t seem like 70 years we’ve been married,” said Martha, now 89 while her husband is 95. “Seventy-years, that’s ridiculous.
“Especially in these days.”
The Martins’ life together has been whirlwind filled with many rich memories.
They met when she was a 15-year-old professional dancer while he was a 20-year-old hospital corpsman stationed at the Navy base in San Diego.
But Bill was no slouch in dance shoes himself and was an even more accomplished drummer who also played professionally in night spots.
Four months after they met, they danced together at fraternal clubs all over town.
“I was underage,” Martha said. “My mother always went with us to tie his tux tie.”
Bill and Martha were engaged to be married when he was transferred to the USS Tennessee and wound up at Pearl Harbor.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, leading to the deaths of more than 2,300 Americans, it would take days before Martha got a postcard informing her of her fiance’s fate.
“’I am all right,’” she said, recalling how the postcard began.
The USS Tennessee escaped major damage, while the battleship beside it, the USS West Virginia, was sunk.
Bill doesn’t remember many details about the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941 but recalls a vivid account of helping patients to the hospital only to hear the loud “boom, boom, boom” coming from a nearby battleship into the night sky.
“We were right out in the open,” he said. “It was so easy to see everything.”
After also serving with the Second Marines in the South Pacific, Bill left military service and began a civil service career with the Contra Costa County health department until retirement.
The Martins started a family and eventually resumed their passion for performing.
In the late 1940s, the Martins started a youth drum corps and junior drill team known as the Martinettes. It performed in parades all over Northern California with the drum corps winning nine California state championships and the drill team taking several state titles.
Their daughter, Gennie Martin, who now lives in Langley, wound up being one of the original Raiderettes for the Oakland Raiders.
Ultimately, the Martinettes disbanded and evolved into the Concord, Calif.-based Blue Devils, who’ve won 15 world titles and exist to this day.
It wasn’t until 1976 when Bill and Martha chose Langley as their retirement destination, recalling the comfortable cool climate they enjoyed during fishing vacations in prior years.
But they hardly retired.
Bill and Martha served as travel guides for a Bellevue-based company. They planned trips for doll-collecting enthusiasts, scouting locations in Europe first themselves before taking groups on exquisite trips to mansions, museums and factories to learn history, meet famous artists and see rare collections.
They figure they visited Europe 50 times.
“The secret to a long marriage is to keep busy,” Martha said. “And keep things interesting.”
They rarely slowed down.
On Whidbey Island in 1980, they formed a musical group of senior citizens called the Roadrunners with Bill on drums and Martha on keyboards. They played at various venues, including Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
“We were instrumental in raising money for the senior center in Oak Harbor,” Martha said.
“We kept on until people started dying off.”
“We stopped about 20 years ago.”
But that beat didn’t stop.
Bill kept teaching drum lessons to students from across the island in a studio behind their garage until he was 90.
Martha likes to make dolls, something she started in the 1970s.
“I found I could sculpt a good likeness of our first grandson,” she said. “That’s how it started.”
She pointed to a doll on a mantle she made that she calls “Mr. Old Timer,” which draws a laugh from her husband.
There’s another nearby she calls “Sonny the Rhinestone Cowboy,” which earned a first-place ribbon at a Washington State Grange event last year.
With age, they’ve slowed down but still try to keep busy. They’re happy to have both children, Gennie and Terry, also living nearby in Langley.
But mostly they’re just grateful to have had each other all these years.
“We’ve really had a good time,” Martha said. “We’ve had an excellent marriage. We determined, to start with, we would be there for each other. Everyone else was second, including our children.
“A lot of married people break up when their children leave because they don’t know what to do. We don’t have that problem.”