A story from The Richest Man in Town

Narrow roads wound through the Normandy Village trailer park. Following Marty's directions, I made two quick lefts and suddenly found myself staring at a double-wide home. "That must be it," I thought.

Marty greeted me at the door with a brisk handshake. "Welcome. This is Mickey," he said. Mickey had kind eyes and a warm smile. She appeared to be a little shy, even when I extended my hand. After a few moments, Marty said, "Let's go into the kitchen and sit at the table."

That round wood table became our visiting place on countless nights. I would sit directly across from Marty. Mickey would be only an arm's length from her husband.

The coffee pot was always on. Several times during the course of an evening Marty or Mickey would ask, "Can I get you another cup of coffee?" Then, they would politely argue about who would get the cup. "I'll get it, honey, just sit down," or, "No, babe, I've got it." This happened time after time.

I don't like to drink coffee at night. Not wanting to offend them, I drank it anyway-and drank some more. Sometimes eight cups of coffee at a sitting. I found out later that Marty purposely kept my cup full, thinking I would leave if it were empty. It was his way of saying, "Please stay."

I brought along my notebook for my early visits to the Martinson home. On that first night, I opened it and Marty looked at Mickey. He nodded toward the notebook and said, "See, he writes stuff down."

Marty left school in the ninth grade to earn money for the family. For the next three years he worked in a traveling carnival. The job required him to operate all the rides and run penny-pitch games and the dart booth. Marty said, "The people I worked with weren't regular carnies, they were clean people."

Life with the carnival ended with a draft letter from Uncle Sam in August 1944. Marty was eighteen years old when the United States was fighting wars on two fronts. As a private in the United States Army, he sailed to the Philippines to fight the Japanese.

"I got shot at," Marty said, "and I shot back." He sent most of his pay home so his parents could buy a house.

Marty was part of what Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation." I thought he might like to tell me about some of his experiences. I asked him, "Do you have special memories of the war?"

The question turned him silent. Tears filled his eyes, and in a soft voice he said, "I saw so many of my friends blown up in front of my face. I can't talk about it." So we didn't.

He could talk about the end of the war. He was on a troop transport ship anchored a few miles off the Japanese coast awaiting orders. "Our commander told us that a lot of us were going to die when we invaded Japan. I was scared to death," he said. Then atomic bombs destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing the surrender. Marty said, "When I heard about the bombs, I was happy. Now, I feel sad about those poor Japanese people who died. But I got to go home."

Other wartime memories were just too painful. His grandson asked him to come to school to talk about World War II. On the night he told me about his grandson's invitation he said, "I ... I ... I ... can't!" Then he threw back his head and let out a high-pitched cry.

Mickey jumped from her chair and put an arm around Marty. "It's okay, honey, it's okay," she told him. "You don't have to talk about it."

Mickey had grown up under difficult circumstances, too. When she was nine years old, her parents were forced to give up their children because they couldn't care for them. Nine brothers and sisters were shipped off to orphanages.

Marty's quiet way attracted her when they first met. It also nearly kept them apart.

Mickey found the other men she had dated a little too brassy for her. She met Marty through her sister. "He was quiet, shy, and handsome," she told me. But Marty was too shy to ask her out, and she insisted that he personally ask her for a date. He had approached her sister to see if Mickey might be interested in him.

He did ask her out. Still uncertain whether she wanted to date him, Mickey asked her sister what she thought of Marty. "He would be a good catch," she said. "Besides, he's good to his mother."

That was enough. They courted for two years before they were married by a justice of the peace in a furniture store on June 1, 1950. "That was when you could get married for two dollars. The license cost us two bucks," Marty said.

"And we had to borrow that!" chimed in Mickey. They both laughed at the memory.

"We've had a beautiful marriage," Marty said. "Our friends call us the M-M kids. Get it? M for Marty and M for Mickey."

The early years were difficult ones for the M-M kids, as they were for most young couples they knew. "We brushed our teeth with Lifebuoy Soap," Marty said.

His wife worked as a store clerk for thirty-five cents an hour. "We paid a babysitter twenty-five cents an hour," Mickey said, "so I was working for eighty cents a day."

Their only guilty pleasure was smoking. That, too, was subject to their tight budget.

"We smoked Wings cigarettes," Marty told me. "You could get 'em for fifteen cents a pack. They were really long so we cut them in half. Instead of having twenty cigarettes, we had forty."

Marty worked in newspaper shops in a few small towns over the course of forty-two years before he retired. "It's my only regret. I should have quit sooner," he said. "I love mixing with people and I get to do that now."

He worked in a restaurant for a while, then for seventeen months took care of a man who suffered from Parkinson's disease. He worked for another restaurant after that.

Then a friend heard that Wal-Mart was looking for greeters at the local store, and he encouraged Marty to apply. The woman who hired Marty told me that when she offered him the job he broke down and cried.

I asked Marty about that moment. He said, "Yeah, I remember it. After she told me I was hired she walked out into the hallway and I heard her say to someone, 'Boy, I've got a honey in here.'"

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