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SUNSET BEACH—Bill and Maggie Ehling have known each other a long time.
In fact, just this past Tuesday, April 17, the Sunset Beach couple celebrated a real milestone—their 60th wedding anniversary.
At their Sunset Beach home where they’ve lived for the past 13 years, the couple enjoyed a few jokes and jabs and laughter as they told how they met—back in the 1950s when both were in the Army and stationed in Germany, working in communications.
Maggie, 80, who was born in Brunswick County and grew up in New Jersey, was in the Women’s Army Corps, otherwise known as WACs. Bill, 85, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, was an Army man and party animal who was soon tamed by his Margaret Rose, the woman he married about a year later.
“The first thing I ever remember her saying walking down the hallway in the communications center was ‘This damn girdle is killing me,’” Bill recalled, seated inside the couple’s picturesque home where Maggie does all the gardening.
“Well, the first thing I ever heard of him, we were on the firing range and everybody was saying how cute he was,” Maggie responded. “All of a sudden, he stood up and he says, ‘We are lovers, not fighters!’”
And they’ve been in love and sharing life moments ever since.
“Right out there is where she fell in the pond,” Bill said, pointing toward the backyard as he recalled another anecdote about his wife that occurred just last fall, about a week after Hurricane Irene hit Brunswick County.
Maggie was seated outside on the Ehlings’ yard bench overlooking the pond, feeding the fish like she always does. Bill was sitting at a table working a crossword puzzle on the couple’s enclosed back porch.
One minute Maggie was sitting there smoking a cigarette. The next minute, “I look out there and I thought, darn, she’s looking awfully short,” Bill recalled, finally realizing, “Oh my God, she’s in the pond.”
Bill grabbed a long limb from a pine tree, “made like a fishing pole” and ran out to reel in his wife.
Maggie said she had been sitting on the bench when she reached toward the pond to retrieve some debris, a pond branch that had blown down.
“Miss Clean-Clean gets over here and reaches to try to pick it up,” Ehling recalled as his wife laughed at the memory. “It was too far, and in she went.”
As she stood in the mire and muck of the pond, Maggie thought it wouldn’t do any good to yell for help because Bill was inside the house and wouldn’t hear her. She thought she could try to swim out.
“I went to pick up my legs and I’d lose my balance and go backwards,” she said.
“I was in goop up to here,” Maggie said, gesturing toward her knees.
Miraculously, Bill saw what had happened and ran out to rescue his bride. She was able to grab hold of the branch he extended.
“She’d take one step forward and two steps back in the mire down there,” he said. “I reeled her in that way—yeah, that’s the biggest fish I ever caught.”
“Yes, he was my knight in shining armor,” Maggie said.
Two passersby stopped by to help after Bill and Maggie both wound up on the ground, exhausted after the struggle to pull Maggie in.
“One came by bike and one came by car,” Maggie said. “They got both Bill and I up.”
“They left right away before we could get their names,” Bill said, adding they’d like to thank the men “just to show there are still good people around.”
To top all that, “we didn’t even think about the alligator being in the pond till after we got her out,” Bill said.
Yes, they said, there is a resident alligator that lives in the pond.
Not long after her mishap, Maggie dressed up in a seaweed costume to tell her story at their community POA meeting. It’s one of many stories they’ve got to tell after 60 years together.
The Ehlings’ wedding is a “story in itself,” Bill said.
In Germany, their ceremony was to be conducted by the local burgermeister, who is the mayor.
“Well, the mayor died, so we had to postpone it and wait till they got a new mayor,” Bill said.
Later, they made an appointment with a chaplain to get married in the church. The chaplain was a no-show, but all their drunken friends were there “waiting to go to the reception,” Bill said. A Catholic chaplain with another party offered to go ahead and marry them.
“I had all the chances in the world to back out,” Bill joked.
They lived in Europe—in Germany and Paris—for 17 years prior to returning to the States.
The Ehlings had four children—two boys and two girls, as well as three grandchildren and two great-grandsons.
Bill worked for years as a manager for a company that makes steel for buildings for companies like Walmart and Sam’s Club.
He credits Maggie for taming him in their early years together.
“I was on my way to becoming an alcoholic, and I was just partying, partying,” Bill said. “I’d have probably been dead a long time ago.”
In their subsequent years, Bill has had six minor heart attacks and once died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Both are cancer survivors.
Bill frequently attends Sunset Beach Town Council meetings and occasionally gets up to offer his observations.
“That’s the only way you’re going to find out about what’s going on,” Bill said. “I’ve always approached the thing, if you want to say something, open with a little bit of humor, close with a little bit of humor, put the meat inside. Maybe they’ll forget how much meat you put in, but maybe some of it will rub off.”
Maggie has another reason why it’s important to stay in touch with what’s going on at town hall.
“We found paradise,” she said of their retirement years in her native Brunswick County. “We want to keep it that way.”
As for Maggie, she’d rather “dig in the dirt than do anything,” Bill said.
Their next-door neighbor, Judy Presnell, said everybody in the neighborhood loves the Ehlings because “they treat everybody the same. They’re tickled to see you.”
For their anniversary this week, the Ehlings planned to celebrate in a low-key way by dining out at a favorite restaurant in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The secret to a long marriage is “give and take,” Bill explained.
Both parties, he said, need to think they’re doing all the giving.
“I’ve got a lot more giving to do than her, because I can remember back when I was such a party animal,” he said. “She put up with a lot. I more than owe her.”
Laura Lewis is a staff writer at the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.