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The Great Depression hit Otto Sloan's family, like so many others, hard. When his parents separated, Otto was sent to live with grandparents in Colorado. But soon, economic hardships once again forced Otto to move.
"Back when I was, oh, ten or eleven years old, my grandparents sent me to live with and work for Mrs. Rowan and her husband. So I went there to help and worked there with them. And I did that for some time," recalls Otto.
It was while living there that he met Betty Jean Hodge, the daughter of a neighboring farmer.
"My earliest recollection," says Betty Jean, "was when I'd get on the school bus, and he'd be on the bus, already there. And then he would look up at me, with a kind of smile in his eyes."
"She was a very pretty girl, I thought," says Otto. "And I wanted to speak to her then. But I didn't. I was very bashful, you might say. I never would look at her direct, into her face or anything like that. I always cast my eyes down. I still do that to this day."
As the years passed, Otto's and Betty's paths continued to cross.
"There were occasions when Otto would come down with the horse and he would round up the cattle," says Betty Jean, "and I would always beg him to let me ride the horse."
Otto wasn't sure about that, however. "I said, 'No, the horse is a one-man horse,' " recalls Otto. "I said, 'It'd be better if you didn't.' "
But Betty Jean persevered. "I had asked him and pleaded with him so much that Dad finally said, 'Otto, you might as well let her on it, because she won't give up until youdo.' "
"So he was hoisting me up on the horse," says Betty Jean. "And he wasn't sure just how to go about doing that, because he was afraid he might touch me in an immodest place on my body. He was very careful of that," she remembers, laughing. "He wanted to be precise in getting me on the horse."
"So I finally ended up making a stirrup out of my hands, and had her put her foot in it," says Otto. "I raised her up that way--and the horse just flew, it seemed to me, full blast for home.
"I hollered at her, 'Drop the reins, drop the reins!' She wouldn't drop the reins," Otto says, laughing. "If she would've dropped them, the horse would've stopped."
The horse finally came to a stop at the end of the field.
"And I looked up at Betty, and you could see that there was fright in her eyes," recalls Otto.
"I kind of leaned over and he put his arms around my waist," adds Betty Jean. "And I think I was probably trembling a little bit. He said, 'It's all right, you're all right.' And then he took me back home," she laughs.
From that day on, Betty and Otto were inseparable.
"I thought our relationship at that time . . . he was kind of like a big brother to me. Then in 1941 we started dating. And our dating meant going to basketball games together, or roller-skating," says Betty Jean.
As their dates continued, Otto's and Betty Jean's feelings for each other deepened.
"We'd been roller-skating several times together, and a friend of mine then had a little Model A with a rumble seat in it," says Otto. "Well, Betty and I were in the back in the rumble seat, and I reached over and kissed her. I really felt that that was what was supposed to be done. And that's what I did," he chuckles.
"I'll never forget the emotions I felt when he kissed me. He held me close and kissed me so gently," says Betty Jean. "And that just stayed with me for years. I never forgot it."
But the love that was blossoming between them was suddenly interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. And like so many other young men, Otto followed the call to battle.
"The last time I saw him, he came down to our place," Betty Jean remembers. "To see him go, it felt like I'd never see him again.
"It was hard. It was hard to see him go."
"I went into the navy in July of 1941. And they shipped us out of San Diego after we finished training, to Pearl Harbor," says Otto.
It was there that Otto would come face-to-face with the horror of war. On December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese bombers attacked the island in two waves of destruction.
By the time the surprise attack ended two hours later, 21 ships were destroyed and over 2,400 people lay dead. Otto's division of 122 sailors did not escape unscathed.
"There were only seventy-some of us left. So I lost a lot of good friends at that time. It was quite a blow," says Otto.
The only thing that helped ease the pain was Betty Jean's letters.
"And though he wasn't much of a writer, I would write constantly because I felt it was important to keep his morale up," says Betty Jean. "I would write about incidents that happened, the funny things that happened, and I would send jokes and letters and things."
The letters kept their love alive during the lonely months at sea. And then, just before Betty Jean graduated from high school, a special package arrived.
Betty Jean recalls, laughing, "I was practically tearing it apart on my way to the house. I got to the house and opened it up, and there was a little jewelry box, and inside the box there was a string of pearls. My first reaction was that he must have thought a lot of me to get me a string of pearls," says Betty Jean. "It meant a lot to me to think that he cared that much, and I think that it was his way of trying to tell me something that he . . . that he just couldn't express in words."
Betty Jean was right. Otto was in love and he was ready to ask for her hand in marriage. He eventually wired her to meet him in California when he returned to the States on leave, so that they could finalize their plans.
"But then her dad said no. He said, 'I don't think you should do that,' " says Otto. "I was really upset at the time about it."
"I was very, very disappointed that I didn't get to see him then," says Betty Jean. "After that was when things began to slow down a little bit. I didn't hear quite so often from him after he went back to sea."
As the war intensified, and Otto's letters stopped arriving, Betty Jean feared the worst.
"I had thought that he had been killed, because I hadn't heard anything from him after that. So," she says, emotionally, "I felt like he was gone. I felt that way for years."
As the war in the Pacific stretched from months into years, Otto made the difficult decision to stop writing his girlfriend so that she could get on with her life. And when the letters stopped coming, Betty Jean had no choice but to face the facts.
"When I came to the realization that I would probably never see Otto again, I realized that life would have to go on, though I hadn't heard from him. And I began to date others," she says. "Then I met my husband, Clarence, and we married and had five children."
As the years passed, Betty Jean would often wonder what had happened to Otto.
"He was always there in the back of my mind, like a piece of my heart that had been tucked away and hidden for a while," she reflects.
Life continued for Betty Jean, and in June of 1995, she and Clarence celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary.
"The years just literally flew by, and then came the time when I lost my husband. He'd been ill for some time. And then, my thoughts went to Otto. I could not get him out of my mind, wondering if he were alive. Just wishing I could hear something," Betty Jean says.
And then, as if someone heard her prayer, Betty Jean received a letter from one of Otto's cousins, Lila, with an old photograph inside.
"It had my three sisters and me in it, and it was taken in 1938," she describes. "A grade school picture."
"I was so excited and so exhilarated when I got that, that I just had to get in touch with Lila and thank her for it," recalls Betty Jean. "And I said, 'Incidentally, have you ever heard from your cousin Otto?' "
And in reply, Cousin Lila sent her Otto's phone number.
Betty Jean called him up, saying, "Otto Sloan? This is a gal that you probably won't remember."
"And I couldn't believe it, but I recognized her voice," declares Otto. "It's Betty Jean," he said.
"How did you know who it was?" she laughed.
"I'd recognize that voice anyplace," Otto replied.
The call could not have come at a more perfect time, for Otto had also lost his wife of nearly fifty years. And he too had never forgotten his first love. Soon they were writing and talking on a daily basis, and fifty-eight years of separation quickly vanished.
"You just don't realize how many times I've wondered where you were and what you were doing. And if you were all right," Betty Jean told Otto. "You're probably looking just as young as you ever did.
"And then the talks got a little more personal," Betty Jean reveals. "We told each other our strengths and weaknesses.
"We just talked about everything there was to talk about. It was just like we were face-to-face," she laughs. "And then it became apparent that we were discussing marriage possibilities."
"It was unbelievable that we could feel so much love for each other just by talking on the phone like we had," says Otto.
"We had made definite plans just over the phone, practically. We're getting married. If anybody had been there to pronounce us man and wife, we would've accepted that," laughs Betty Jean.
In the summer of 1999, after not seeing each other for fifty-eight years, Otto and Betty Jean were reunited.
"My heart was pounding so hard that I could hardly keep it in its place," says Betty Jean, laughing. "He just took my hand and hung on to it for dear life. And I whispered to him, 'Don't ever let go of me again. Don't ever let go of me again.' And he said, 'Don't worry, I won't.' "
Otto kept his promise four weeks later when he pledged to take Betty Jean as his lawful wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, so long as they both should live.
"Betty Jean is still the little girl that I used to love, and still love," says Otto.
"He's the same as he was when he was a boy," says Betty Jean. "And I've even told him that. I said, 'You look just like you were.' When he puts his head down and looks up at me like that, I just see him all over again, sitting there on that school bus when I'd get on the bus. I probably wasn't sure at the time what that really meant, but I found out later--fifty-eight years later," she laughs.
"And we feel that our getting back together was a miracle; our lives are like a dream. It's something that you just maybe would dream of but not ever expect to happen."
She adds, laughing, "I think we're living happily ever after."
High School Reunion
It was 1975, and Jenna Hamburger was a seventh-grade student in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. And, like most thirteen-year-old girls, Jenna was beginning to discover boys.
"My first crush was on a boy named Marc Meltzer," explains Jenna. "He was one of the smartest kids I knew. He was also adorable. He had blondish-reddish hair and freckles. He was just the kind of person that made you feel good to be around.
"And we had classes together. I would write notes to my girlfriends about him, how cute I thought he was. I used to tell my mom I was going out bike riding, I'd be back in an hour. And I would always go down Marc's street, just to see if he was outside, maybe mowing the lawn. And my heart would always pound if I happened to see him. And that's what I remember about discovering the opposite sex," Jenna laughs.
By the time she was a senior, Jenna had all but forgotten her first crush. But Marc Meltzer still had a soft spot in his heart for this young girl. And so, just before graduation, he gave her his class picture, along with a personal note.
"And then we sort of lost touch," says Jenna. "I had no idea what had happened to him. And that was about it."
Jenna and Marc went their separate ways. She enrolled in a local college, while he attended a school in Virginia.
Nine years later, Marc was back in Fair Lawn, running his father's sales agency. But the hard work and long hours left little time for a love life.
"The business that I'm in," explains Marc, "I don't really have an office of people that I can socialize with: 'Hey, I know somebody, why don't you go out with them?' My sister had asked me at that time, 'Why don't you put an ad in New York magazine?' And I thought about it for a minute, and I said, 'Well, you know what? Why not? Give it a shot.' So I sat down, and over a few days I composed an ad. It read: 'Call your mother. You've just found that nice Jewish boy she's always told you about. I live in New Jersey, but I've been looking for you everywhere. On ski slopes, at the movies, in Chinese restaurants . . .' And at that point, I didn't tell anyone. I didn't want people to think of me as, 'Here's a loser who can't find some girl on his own. He's going to go to a personal ad.' "
But Marc was not prepared for the response he received from his ad.
"When I went to the mailbox," Marc says, "I found not one or two letters, but ten letters in the first packet that came to me. And I couldn't believe it. For someone who didn't date a lot, here I was in a situation where I had three dates booked on one weekend. I had a Friday night date, a Saturday lunch date, and a Saturday night date, which was a totally foreign experience for me."