Living the American Dream

By Donna Volkenannt

On a cold January night in 1968, I zipped up the micro-mini dress I’d recently purchased and put on a pair of platform heels. I sprayed on Wind Song cologne and slipped into my long winter coat. Although I was nineteen years old and had a job as a clerk-stenographer at an Army installation in St. Louis, my dad had a strict rule: I couldn’t go out of the house wearing anything shorter than an inch above my knee.

Earlier that week, two co-workers – Kathy and Judy – had invited me to go with them to the United Service Organization (USO) dance at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. When they arrived to pick me up that night, I yelled goodbye to Mom and Dad and hustled out the door. Thank goodness Dad was watching television. If he would’ve seen how short my dress was, he’d make me change – or even worse he’d tell me I couldn’t go out.

As we approached the bridge that spanned the Mississippi River, it started to sleet, and Kathy’s car skidded. We considered turning around until we drove onto the Interstate highway, which had been cleared. We agreed to press on and go to the dance.

I’m thankful we did.

Inside the USO’s recreation center, scores of young men with short haircuts hugged the walls. Young women sat at round tables, waiting for the music to begin. Before long, the band began to belt out fast songs. My friends and I sat in metal fold-up chairs, tapping our toes while watching a handful of brave couples gyrate to the Twist, the Monkey, and the Mashed Potato.

When the band switched to a slow tune, the wall huggers searched for dance partners – three airmen double-stepped in our direction. The middle one, with light blond hair and piercing blue eyes, stood in front of me. He held out a hand and bowed like Prince Charming.

“Would you like to dance?” he asked in an accent definitely not Midwestern.

The scent of English Leather and a hint of spearmint gum encircled him as we shuffled across the dance floor. We introduced ourselves, and once again I noticed his unusual accent, so I asked where he was from.

“Massachusetts,” he answered.

I took a step back. “One of the guys from work is from Massachusetts, but he doesn’t sound like you.”

“That’s probably because I was born in Germany.”

“How can you be in the United States Air Force if you were born in Germany?” I asked.

He shrugged. “You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to serve in the military. I could’ve been drafted if I didn’t enlist.”

That was news to me.

As the music played on, he told me he and his mother emigrated to America six years earlier to join his two older sisters, who had already moved here.

When the band switched into high gear, we left the dance floor and headed for the snack bar. Over watered-down sodas and salty popcorn, I complimented him on how well he spoke English. He said he’d learned a lot by watching televisions programs – cartoons mostly – before starting high school, first in Georgia then in Massachusetts. He told me about the summer he spent visiting one of his sisters in Georgia, and I confessed the farthest I’d ever been from home was a trip to Chicago.

That conversation was our first of many. Over months of long-distance phone calls and trips across the Mississippi River, we talked about our hopes and dreams. He loved living in the United States and hoped to see more of the country. Becoming an American citizen was one of his dreams. He told me a lieutenant in his unit tutored him once a week on the U.S. Constitution in preparation for the citizenship test. In addition to his good looks and gentlemanly behavior, I was attracted to his passion, patriotism and nothing-can-stop-me sense of adventure.

Romance must’ve been in the air that chilly night in January. Six months later – on a sizzling hot evening in July – Walt and I were married. And my friend Judy met the airman she would eventually marry too.

After Walt and I returned from our honeymoon, he resumed studying for his citizenship test. On a blustery day in November, in the Federal Courthouse in East St. Louis, Illinois, he raised his right hand and became an American citizen.

That was forty-nine years ago. Although our eyesight has dimmed, our hair has turned gray, and our creaking knees can’t handle much dancing, Walt and I still cherish our lives together. We are living the American dream.

About this writer

  • Donna Volkenannt

    Donna Volkenannt

    Donna Volkenannt winner of the Erma Bombeck Humor Award, is living the American dream in Missouri with her husband, grandchildren, and lovable black Lab. She blogs at

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24 Responses to “Living the American Dream”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Donna, I so enjoyed this essay. The nostalgia took me back, the story of how you met made me smile. You certainly ARE living the American dream.

  2. Pat says:

    Beautiful essay, Donna! I loved this sweetly romantic story.

  3. Alice Muschany says:

    Donna, loved your love story. The nostalgic references took me back in time—mini dresses, dancing to the Twist, the Monkey and Mashed Potato, English Leather and Spearmint gum. Here’s to many more years of happy-ever-after!

    • Donna Volkenannt says:

      Thanks for your comment and good wishes, Alice. Writing this story transported me back to my earlier days. It’s amazing how that happens.

  4. Patty Bade says:

    Donna…your story brought tears though my smile as I read it. You write so beautifully. I am waiting to see you and your handsome soldier dance one of these days. That would complete the story of your meeting for me! Love you both!

    • Donna Volkenannt says:

      Hi Patty,
      Thanks for your kind comment. Walt isn’t much of a dancer these days, neither am I, but the memories of the night we met are still alive in my heart!

  5. Mary H says:

    This is just lovely, Donna.

  6. DIanna Graveman says:

    What a lovely story, Donna. I think I’ve only met Walt a few times, but your marriage sounds like it was meant to be. Thanks for sharing this beautiful memory!

  7. Susie Davis says:

    What a beautiful story about a beautiful couple.

  8. Cathy Chmiel says:

    What a wonderful essay. Very moving. Remember you two so well from when we met in Holyoke Mass. You definitely have a way with words. Nice to know how you and Wally met.

  9. Cathy Hall says:

    Aw, what a sweetly romantic story, Donna! I mean, there’s something about a man in uniform, but to add a foreign accent? Be still my heart. :-)

  10. Judy Cox says:

    Donna, beautiful essay that brings back fond memories. Your memory of what you wore that night is far better than mine. What I do remember is that trip to the base that night was the first of many that we would make to visit Walt and Jim. We’re right behind you with 48 years.

  11. Val says:

    What a great story! Good thing you braved the weather and made it to the dance. Sometimes, life is all about being at the right place at the right time.

    • Donna Volkenannt says:

      Thanks for your comment, Val. I can’t imagine how my life would’ve turned out had we not braved the weather to the USO dance.

  12. Gerald McMullan II says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, I never knew. I miss you & Walt and this helps me feel a bit closer, hope to see you both sometime soon.

  13. Donna, You brought your romance to life with perfect details of the time period. I also didn’t know that non-citizens could serve in our military. Congratulations on being published in Sasee!

  14. Susan says:

    That was a sweet story, Donna. Enjoyed it. Congratulations! SIncerely, Susan

  15. Donna–I’ve always wondered how you and Walt met. In fact, I almost asked at the book signing event we were at recently.

    I’m glad I didn’t. It was delightful to have this story unfold as I read it. (And it brought back so many memories. Mini-dresses. Windsong perfume.

    Thanks for sharing the link. I enjoyed reading this.

  16. Mary Ann says:

    I am a pushover for English Leather also, Donna. Thank you for sharing your romantic “first date” and “happily ever after.”

  17. Theresa Sanders says:

    I love this beautiful story, Donna. You transported me back to innocent days of friends and rolled up uniform skirts — AFTER I arrived at my parochial high school, since my parents too didn’t allow anything above the knee! My mother- and father-in-law met at a USO dance as well, and I loved listening to my MIL’s stories. She has been a great loss in my life, and reading this was like sharing laughs and tears with her again over morning coffee. Thank you for taking me back in time. Your writing is simply a treasure.

  18. Enjoyed your story. Loved reminiscing with you, Donna. I also married a man in uniform, they are hard to resist.

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