Operator, Can You Help Me Call The Love Of My Life?

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Peter and Jacqueline Headen's courtship story is one of ups and downs — spanning one war, three countries and four decades. It all started in 1958, at a roller-skating rink on the Indian Head naval base in Maryland.

"I was there one night, and I saw this young lady skating around," Peter says. "And I waited for her to take a break and go get a Coke, before I made my move."

"He just grabbed my hand, rolled me around, and said, 'I'm Peter Headen. Who are you?' " says Jacqueline, who's now 68.

"And she says, 'My name's Jacqueline Le Fever.' And I looked in those big green eyes, and I was a done deal," says Peter, 69.

"From there we started dating," Jacqueline says.

But then, in 1959, the couple were separated. Jacqueline's stepfather, who served in the Navy as an explosive ordnance disposal diver, was transferred to Iwakuni, Japan.

"I decided, well, I'll go to Japan and get her," Peter recalls. "So, I went and joined the Marine Corps, and said, 'Well, I want to go to Japan.' " But it turned out the Marine Corps had its own ideas about where he would serve. Peter recalls being told, "Oh, you'll go to Japan — when we tell you you can go to Japan."

Later, Peter used his leave to return home to visit his family. He decided to see Jacqueline's mother — who promptly told him her daughter had gotten married.

"I just got married for all the wrong reasons," Jacqueline says. "And I was very unhappy."

But Peter still didn't stop thinking about her.

"I carried a picture of Jacque in my pack for three years in Vietnam," he says. "When we'd have a hard day, I'd just pull the picture out and say, 'I guess that's why I'm doing this.'

"So I wrote her a letter. Told her how I felt," he says.

"I don't know how the letter found me. It had all these forwards stamped all over the envelope," Jacqueline says. "And, he said, 'I love you. I've always loved you. I just have to get this off my chest, and I'm done.' "

It turns out that Peter's statement wasn't entirely truthful — at least the part about moving on.

"I did my tour, and I came back from Vietnam. I spent 24 hours at home," he says. "And I went in to my mother, about 4 o'clock in the morning, and said, 'I gotta go to North Carolina, to see Jacque.' And she kinda looked at me, and she said, 'I think you'd better leave that one alone. But I guess you've got to do what you have to do.' "

The meeting didn't go well — that's where Jacqueline picks up the story.

"And I sent him away," she says. "I came from a divorced family, and didn't want my kids to have a broken home. And my husband was a very domineering, controlling person. If I left, he wouldn't let me have my children."

She told Peter that she wouldn't see him anymore.

"That was Sept. 25, 1968," he says. "And I didn't hear from you again until Sept. 25, 1998."

"I had tried to call him, off and on, over the years," Jacqueline says. "And I'd always call the operator and say, 'Do you have a T.P. Headen?' And she'd say 'No.' "

"And, then, in '98, I had made up my mind: I am just outta here. I'm so miserable, I'm so unhappy," she remembers.

By then, Jacqueline had been married for nearly 40 years. And when she was considering life on her own, she recalls thinking, "Well, no one ever loved me but Peter. I'm gonna go see if I can find him, one more time."

So, she called the operator, and asked for help finding the man she hadn't seen since 1968.

The telephone operator told Jacqueline that she had found a listing for T.P. Headen, in White Plains, Md.

"Oh my god, that's him," Jacqueline remembers telling the operator. "I have been trying to find this person for 30 years. It's the love of my life."

"She said, 'You want me to dial the number for you?' " Jacqueline says of the operator. "I said, 'Yeah, you can dial the number.' She said, 'Can I stay on the line?' — I said, 'I don't care what you do,' Jacqueline says with a laugh.

That's where Peter picks up the story, from his end of the line.

"The phone rang," he says. "And she says, 'You know who this is?' And I said, 'Yeah, I know exactly who this is.' She says, 'I bet you're mad at me.' I said, 'No — matter of fact, I'm still in love with you.' "

"It's just sad, the time we lost," Peter says. "But, I got her back. So I won. You know?" as Jacqueline laughs. "And she's just as beautiful as she was when she was 15."

In May, Jacqueline and Peter will celebrate their 13th wedding anniversary. She has two children. Her daughter is in the Army Reserves and a veteran of the Iraq War. Her son is a Baptist minister who lives in Thailand.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo with Jasmyn Belcher. The Headens' story is included in the new StoryCorps book, All There Is.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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