As the schmaltziest holiday approaches, these couples give love a good name

Amy and Joe Martin Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Amy and Joe Martin Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Each February we media consumers get whomped over the heads with sappy romance stuff — longing love songs, movies starring Kate Hudson and/or Matthew McConaughey and those tear-jerking diamond commercials, to name a few.

Though these things entertain and sometimes stir up pleasant sensations in our guts, they are contrived, fantastical and primarily aimed at selling us something.

This month, we give you the Advocate antidote for the cynicism that no doubt digs deeper into our psyche with each passing year: a collection of true love stories from our real-life neighbors, complete with all the awkwardness and authenticity unseen in cheesy movies.

Amy and Joe Martin

Amy and Joe Martin Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Amy and Joe Martin Photo by Danny Fulgencio

For her, it was supposed to be an easy jog in the park. For him, it was perhaps the most stressful fitness feat of his 20-something years. It wasn’t the run that worried him, but the event he had meticulously orchestrated along the trail at Moss Park — a marriage proposal complete with a picnic spread, spirits and even a chair in which his love could sit as he bent on one knee.

Amy, a teacher at St. Patrick’s, met Joe at a bar in the early ’90s. “We used to tell our kids that we met at church,” Joe jokes, “but, yes, we met at Lone Star.”

Both, having had previous long-term relationships, knew that this one was different. They were undoubtedly the yin to one another’s yang. After a couple of years together, the young couple took up running and planned to race a Memorial Day 5k at White Rock Lake. The evening before the race, they scheduled a 2- to 3-mile training run at Harry Moss Park in Lake Highlands. When, less than a half mile into the exercise, Amy saw one of her kitchen chairs in the park, she knew something was weird. “What the …?” she exclaimed. Joe guided his dazed date to the romantic arrangement and asked her to marry him. She said “yes,” let the situation sink in, and started with the questions. “What? When? How did you manage all of this?”

Joe pointed to the other side of the trail where their two best friends stood cheering and waving. Joe had enlisted help to protect the proposal area. “It took us more than three hours to arrive after we set up,” Joe says. Therefore, he doesn’t really blame his buddies for drinking his brew.

“I stocked the cooler with lots of beer and champagne. When we sat down at the picnic, there was just a beer or two left.”

Today the Martins have two kids, Meredith and David, ages 13 and 11, respectively, and, while Joe doesn’t run much anymore, Amy just completed her ninth full marathon.

 

Josh and Autumn McLean

Josh and Autumn McLean Photo by Michael A. Anderson

Josh and Autumn McLean Photo by Michael A. Anderson

Joshua and Autumn McLean don’t mind crediting the nerve-quieting effects of alcohol with both their initial encounter and subsequent affection for one another. Wine-induced inspiration even helped them score a free wedding.

Josh and Autumn McLean Photo by Michael A. Anderson

Josh and Autumn McLean Photo by Michael A. Anderson

It was summer 2009. Autumn and her best friend, Brittany, were tipsy and reminiscing about old flames when Brittany had a brilliant idea. Her ex-boyfriend Jared’s brother, Josh, a handsome former Lake Highlands High School wrestling star, would make Autumn’s perfect match.

Sure, it was 2 a.m., but they had to inform Josh.

When he didn’t answer the phone, they left a sprawling message.

Upon return to sobriety, Brittany assured Josh that her friend Autumn wasn’t a wine-o or a nut. He would like her, Brittany insisted, adding, “She’s gorgeous.”

His curiosity sparked, Josh searched for Autumn on Myspace, the social media tool of the time. “Wow,” he thought. “She was really pretty.”

The two chatted online, but Josh soon flew back to South Carolina where he was training to be an Army Green Beret.

When he returned to Lake Highlands to serve as groomsman in a fellow LHHS grad’s nuptials, Brittany, who would attend the event with Jared McLean, suggested Josh invite Autumn. He needed no prodding this time.

The date started out awkwardly, as they tell it. Josh was in the wedding party, so they were separated much of the time. When he joined her, they both had butterflies and bumbled through the requisite banter.

But at the reception, “beverages were flowing and we loosened up,” Josh recalls. “It turned out to be one of the best nights of my life. I got to see all of my old friends, my old wrestling coach was there … and meet Autumn.”

Josh and Autumn McLean Photo by Michael A. Anderson

Josh and Autumn McLean Photo by Michael A. Anderson

They went on three dates before he returned to South Carolina. Autumn knew that a relationship with a guy who, in the immediate future, would spend months and possibly years in a faraway war zone was probably not ideal, but the damage was done.

“We sometimes talked on the phone three hours at a time while he was gone,” she says.

In 2011 Autumn moved to South Carolina to be with Josh. They rented a house. She awaited a proposal. The holidays came and went with no bended knee. Then, the day before Josh’s second deployment, UPS delivered a big box. Inside was a second box and another. The tiniest container held the diamond ring. (Turns out Josh was as distressed as Autumn by the delayed delivery.) Autumn’s answer when Josh asked her to be his wife was a resounding, “Duh!”

So the marriage was on, but Josh was headed to Afghanistan for up to a year. Plus, the couple’s finances were no match for the demands of modern wedding.

Autumn discovered a contest. Operation Marry Me, founded by a wedding photographer in South Carolina, offered a chance for military couples to win a free Veterans Day wedding. Autumn’s first entry was “half-assed,” she jokes, so several weeks later — after a long work day followed by sipping wine at her computer — she submitted a second, more imaginative entry, complete with slideshow. She later learned that this did the trick.

“One of the judges apparently thought it was funny and impressive that I entered twice,” she says. “And he liked the video.”

Aug. 15, the day winners were to be publicized, lasted forever and passed with no phone call. No emails. Nothing. What a letdown. The next morning Josh called and Autumn delivered the bad news.

“I wasn’t too disappointed,” Josh says, “because I knew there was no way we were going to win that thing.”

He was wrong. Operation Marry Me was just a tad tardy with the announcements. Later that afternoon, Autumn received a call from Teresa Hogan, the planner who would handle her prize wedding.

“I asked her to repeat what she had said and as soon as the words came out of her mouth I began to bawl. I hadn’t even realized how much I wanted this. A wedding was so far-fetched, considering the expenses and our situation. I have never been more thankful and flabbergasted in my life.”

Since Autumn couldn’t call Josh at the base, he didn’t learn his wedding date until the next day. He initially was skeptical. “I had never won anything. I had to do a little research to make sure it wasn’t some sort of racket.”

But it was the real thing. And beyond, Autumn says. Some 40 vendors — the consultant, a pastry chef, photographers, hotels, churches, caterers, florists, jewelers, tailors, bridal shops, spas and salons, a chauffer, engravers, travel agents and more — contributed services.

On Nov. 11, 2012, the bride and groom enjoyed a $35,000 event at an historic Cabarrus County hotel.

“When we won, I imagined it would be a modest little wedding, which would have been wonderful. But this was unbelievable. I mean, they made a Dallas Cowboys-themed cake for the groom, they drove us around in a Rolls Royce, the bridesmaids got their nails done … there was an ice sculpture. I don’t think anyone realized how amazing this would be,” Josh says. “It was just insane that all these people did all of this, pulled off this elaborate event — I didn’t have to lift a finger — just to help out a soldier and his girl.”

Michael and Diana Birmingham

Michael and Diana Birmingham Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Michael and Diana Birmingham Photo by Danny Fulgencio

When Michael Birmingham realized that he could not live without Diana, he had just moved some 5,200 miles away from her.

Michael, 18 and restless, joined the Army after high school. He was deployed to Korea, then Germany, and served a stint in Poland following the 9/11 attacks. Upon return to the base at Giebelstadt, Germany, around Thanksgiving 2001, he and his buddies were ready to unwind. They hit a nightclub called The Airport near the local university.

That same night, a Wednesday, a fresh-faced student with ginger locks and a heart-melting smile would also join her friends at The Airport.

It didn’t take long for Michael to notice.

“After I had enough drinks to work up the courage, I walked up to her and said something lame and asked her for her phone number.”

Diana gave him the number. And he soon called her. And called her. And called again. “She was kind of flaky about returning my calls,” Michael says.

“I’d say I returned one out of every three of his calls,” Diana admits, but says she had a good reason. For one, she wasn’t used to speaking English, so conversations were awkward. In addition, German girls learned to exercise caution when dealing with American military men.

“Soldiers can be crazy,” she says.

Michael and Diana Birmingham Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Michael and Diana Birmingham Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Michael doesn’t argue. “She had a right to be weary. We did not have the best reputations.”

And so it went for three or four months. Then, Michael took a holiday vacation and didn’t call Diana for a week. “A whole week,” she exclaims, shaking her head.

“I thought, ‘That’s weird.’ ” she says. “Weird that he wasn’t calling and weirder still that I was so affected by the fact that he wasn’t calling.”

When Michael returned, they started dating. Michael loved Diana’s beauty, her brains, her sexy German accent and the joy she brought to an otherwise anticlimactic military assignment. She loved his wit, how they liked the same things (their CD collections consisting of Beastie Boys, Nirvana and other ’90s alternative names were virtually identical) and the time they spent together watching American movies with subtitles.

But Michael’s German deployment had to end. When it was time to return to Dallas, he went alone.

The young man, who had never really lived free of either parental or military rule, wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his life. He needed to figure it out before dragging Diana into it, he says.

At 23, Michael traveled back to Texas, found a place to live and landed a job with Dallas ISD. He was on track. Except he wasn’t happy.

He asked Diana to come, but by now she was mid-way through law school.

Unwilling to wait any longer, Michael quit his job, packed his bags and returned, this time as a civilian, to Diana’s hometown, Wuerzburg.

They married there on May 5, 2005 and stayed until Diana graduated. Then they said “good-bye” to Diana’s family and moved again, eventually settling, with their three large dogs, in a charming Lake Highlands home.

Here in the states, Michael can use the GI Bill to attend college, which he does while Diana works Downtown.

When he’s not in class, Michael is stay-at-home dad to the adorable little product of this obstacle-busting romance, Lena Grace, who was born last February. Feb. 13, in fact, just after 6 p.m. In Germany time, seven hours ahead of ours, it was Valentine’s Day.

 

Mildred and Glen Haedge

Mildred and Glen Haedge  Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

Mildred and Glen Haedge Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

After almost 67 years of marriage, Mildred Haedge still knows her husband Glen’s military serial number by heart, even though she forgets her own social security number. She spent 33 months writing letters to him during World War II before they were officially engaged.

“I always say it took me six years and two weeks to get him to the altar,” Mildred says.

The two met in 1940 at a church convention. Mildred lived in Austin and Glen in Dallas, so their long courtship consisted mostly of letter writing, though Glen visited several times. In May 1941, they shared their first kiss and spent an afternoon dressed up in their Sunday best drinking Dr Pepper on a motorboat on Lake Austin.

Mildred and Glen only saw each other a few times before he went overseas but built their relationship on paper and postage.

“We did so much writing to each other. We loved each other,” Mildred says.

When the United States entered the war in 1941, Glen — who was an army private — asked Mildred to wait for him. He spent a couple years training in the United States and eventually headed to Africa, Italy, France and finally Germany, where he was wounded. One month before the war ended, Glen stepped on a landmine that broke his femur and shattered his knee. He was carried on a door from aid station to aid station, about six of which gave him morphine shots.

“I felt like I’d made it through the war because you were in danger of getting killed every day and when I got wounded, I wouldn’t have to face that death every day,” Glen says.

In July 1945, he was sent to the only Texas military hospital that could treat his wounds, in El Paso. Mildred and her mother hopped on a Greyhound bus in August and went to see him for the first time in almost three years. Glen and Mildred married on June 30, 1946.

Mildred and Glen, who now live together in C.C. Young Retirement Community, were separated again recently. Glen moved to the community’s nursing building after heart trouble. For two years, Mildred walked across the community campus once or twice a day to visit him. They now share an assisted living residence at C.C. Young.

“We’re just glad to be back together,” Mildred says.

After significant time apart, the secret of their marriage is in their togetherness, they say.

“That’s the main thing: putting up with each other,” Glen says. “If we get to arguing with each other, we put up with that.”

“And then we settle it before we go to bed,” Mildred says.

 

Natalie and Scott Taylor

Natalie and Scott Taylor

Natalie and Scott Taylor

For Natalie, it was just a ride around White Rock Lake — nothing unusual, really, though these rides had been especially enjoyable since she’d met Scott Taylor, both a training companion and potential soul mate, via the online dating service plentyoffish.com.

Both were seasoned athletes, and it was weird that, this particular day, Scott kept asking to stop for water breaks. As the couple worked their way over the Mockingbird Bridge, Scott, unknown to Natalie, was working up his nerve.

That’s when Natalie took a tumble, bloodied her knee, and wept ever so slightly (mostly from embarrassment, she says). The two soon powered on, heading south on the trail, along the shimming lake toward the bountiful backyard of the Dallas Arboretum.

Scott wanted to stop there to check the progress of the under-construction Children’s Garden. Again, weird. Maybe Scott had interests of which Natalie wasn’t previously aware. Alas, he was not really interested in the garden (admittedly, we don’t know that for sure, but it wasn’t his main concern).

When he popped the question, Natalie laughed and assumed he was joking, she says. Sweating, bleeding, giggling, crying and being eaten alive by mosquitos, she finally said, “yes.”

Natalie and Scott Taylor Photo by Mel Ferro Cole

Natalie and Scott Taylor Photo by Mel Ferro Cole

He originally had planned to propose on the Mockingbird Bridge, Scott says, but Natalie’s fall threw a wrench in the works. Once the deal had been sealed, Natalie says, the couple celebrated the way you might expect from two people training for an Ironman triathlon.

“With cold Gatorade at the Winstead 7-11!”