by Kathleen Post; TV Radio Mirror, January 1967
“Call me baby-snatcher,” smiled lithe six-foot Peter Deuel, “but it’s true. At 20, I picked a girl of 13 for my bride.” Pete’s smile is wondrous to watch. It begins with a pair of dimples and gradually broadens out into pure radiance. This ill-starred brush with matrimony, he explained, was due to the efforts of his enterprising sister, Pam. “I’d been four weeks in the hospital because of an auto accident, and was bedridden in my parents’ living room. I was a college man at St. Lawrence University, and considered myself quite the bon vivant of the campus. So my sister brings around this girlfriend of hers who was — get this — in the eighth grade in high school. Feature that, if you can. Pam did. But that’s a sister for you. Wow!
“When Pam told her, ‘I think you’d be a great date for my brother,’ she had just laughed. A cool one, she said ‘I never met your brother, but isn’t he a little old for me?’ Pam, being Pam, an original if you ever met one, came running home to me with the banner news flash, ‘Pete, guess what, my friend Betty wants to go out with you!’ She was somewhat deflated when I answered indignantly, ‘Don’t you think she is a little young for me?’ But Pam wouldn’t be discouraged. She believed that love could bloom with no other excuse than proximity. So she invited Betty to the house. And mostly to get dear sister off my back, I quite condescendingly asked the ‘kid’ out. And before I knew what had hit me, I learned there was a method to my sister’s madness. An hour or two in the company of the cute youngster had an amazing effect. Like LSD, it sent me on a trip and I didn’t come out of it until I fell in love with the tot.”
How about Betty and her parents? The handsome young star of ABC-TV’s Love On A Rooftop smiled again, this time a bit ruefully.
“How happy could parents be about their 13-year-old darling going around with a college man who professed to be the world-weary sophisticate of his campus? Nevertheless, when Betty and I pleaded the cause of true love, they relented and agreed to let us date. Naturally they set certain stipulations. I had to bring her back at her usual bedtime hour, which was early. Would you believe 10 P.M.? No drinking or smoking for her, and no dance halls. Nice, wholesome places only. In spite of all the hurdles, I realize now that if the rules of our society were different, I might have married that child. Goodness knows I wanted to. But at that period of my life, the years separating us were more like 20 than seven …”
The romance began to get more serious with every date, and the subject of marriage became more and more important in their conversations. But Betty, a bright girl, was far more practical than Peter. She wanted to complete her education before thinking of settling down to becoming a wife and mother. Think of it, she very sensibly argued. A wife at 13, a mother at like 14 or 15, and maybe a grandmother, heaven forbid, before hitting 35! So Pete and Betty broke off to let the romance cool.
“I didn’t see Betty for nearly two years,” continued Peter. “In the middle of her senior year, I came home. I happened to be walking down the street when I saw her — her and a handsome young man of maybe 17. In a blaze of emotion, I realized the affair, if you can call it that, was far from over for me. Those baby-pink fingers had curled around my heart. That night I phoned her. ‘How about a date?’ I asked with an aplomb I didn’t feel. Her answer was casual, as befits a popular young lady who has been told she’s as enchanting as Audrey Hepburn. ‘Why, Pete, how very nice of you to call,’ she chirped. ‘Well, since you’re back for a vacation, I’ll cancel some other social obligations and save these evenings for you.'”
They dated all through his vacation and it was at the time when Peter had become enamored of acting as a career. At the university, in Canton, New York, he had done the lead in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.
Then he’d quit school at the mid-term and returned home to Rochester, where he renewed his romance with Betty. It wasn’t long before he was proposing, seriously, to her. “I think we can make the marriage work out now,” he urged.
Betty was 17 by then. And once again the level head of this youngster saved them from hurling themselves impetuously into what might have been disaster. She said, “We’ll consider ourselves engaged, but we won’t announce it. You say you’d like to give acting a try. That’s a risky business at best. Now is no time for you to even think of getting married. Besides,” she added, “I want to go to college.”
Between them, a parental agreement was wangled to let Betty study at Long Island University, which is in Brooklyn, a half hour’s subway trip from Broadway and fifteen minutes from Peter’s flat, also in Brooklyn. This entailed Betty’s giving up a scholarship to a school in Buffalo. Betty’s parents were far from ecstatic over this. “I must say I don’t blame them,” grins Peter. “It meant extra tuition, and they reasoned that if she was going to complete her education, she should be concentrating on study, not a boyfriend. Then good luck landed in my lap. A few days before school started, I nabbed a part in a movie, Wounded In Action, to be shot in the Philippines. So when Betty entered college, I was gone, hopefully on the road to stardom.”
Time passed slowly and they kept up a heated correspondence until his return. For several weeks, they spent every free moment together. Then Pete got another good break — a lead role in the national touring company of Take Her, She’s Mine.
Separate again? Never!
Pete recalls that his first reaction was panic. “What was I to do? I didn’t want to turn down this play which had been a hit on Broadway. At the same time, it was scheduled for six months on the road. I started running scared. I began pushing Betty toward marriage. I was afraid she’d be taken by someone else before I got back. I kept badgering her. She kept holding back. Then one afternoon she stopped resisting, and we went out and bought her ring. She seemed quite thoughtful and preoccupied. I felt something was coming and it might not be pleasant. We were on our way to get the wedding license when she stopped, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Pete, we’re just being silly. It’s December, and I’ll be winding up my first semester in February. Let me do that, and I’ll join you on the road then.'”
Peter couldn’t refuse this reasonable approach. He left with that understanding between them. They could wait just a few weeks for a wedding.
But after a while on the road, Peter felt certain inexplicable changes in his attitude. “We corresponded, but not as often as before. I also called her on the phone. Something in her voice told me she was also experiencing certain doubts. When I came back to New York, we met. And at once, with our kiss of reunion, we both realized it was all over for us. We were still friends but we had definitely fallen out of love.”
Betty finished her year at Long Island University, then went back home to Rochester. Some months later, Peter found himself in Rochester, too. He saw Betty. “I found her as attractive as ever, even more so, but the fire was out, not to be rekindled again. We spent a lot of time together. We had many laughs about this or that. Time clicked on and on …” Peter furrowed his brow in reflection. “I don’t know why or how it happened … falling out of love … but time does click on … and people do change …”
It is a shocking idea to grasp, but Pete now confesses that, young as she was, Betty was not his first love. “There’s a gal I still dream about once in a while,” he admits with smiling candor. “I guess we all have one.”
“This girl entered my life when I was a junior in high school. She’d come to our school from another state. I was an ‘A’ student then, exemplary in most ways. But in my senior year I suddenly became a bum, with a capital B. There’s a reason why. I had left childhood behind when I fell in love and I didn’t have any idea of where I would go, what I would do, or how. Even going to college was merely taking the line of least resistance. This girl had me wrapped up inside and out, mind, body, spirit, the whole bag. I tell you, it tied me in knots and left me busted into 50,000 bits on the floor. And then came the worst shock of all. She gave me the boot.”
Honest to the point of being brutal about himself, Peter explains how this happened. “One day I went to a wedding reception and got totally and thoroughly smashed. My girl was working as a checker in a market near her home. Well, I walked in, maybe staggered would be the word, and she was busy ringing up a customer’s tab. I asked her for a kiss then and there. She refused and told me I was drunk. Big deal. I’d show her. So I stretched out on the counter — that’s right, on the checkout counter, puckering up my stupid face for a kiss. She should have kissed me with a bottle of pop. The line was piling up and people were beginning to get very annoyed. In my state, I felt it was a most romantic situation like in the movies when Cary Grant might do it to get a kiss from Doris Day. They started to yell for the manager. So my buddy dragged me out by sheer force. Need I say more? She saw me a couple of times after that, but it was never the same. I could see what was in her mind, the picture of me lying on that darn counter, all puckered up for the kiss that never came. Say, that’s not a bad title for a song — The Kiss That Never Came.”
Peter reflects now. “In a way, aside from the pain of feeling rejected, I should be grateful to both my ‘dreamwives,’ since I’m a real happy guy now, doing what I love. I’d like to say this about both girls. Beauty and brains, plus class, make an irresistible combination at any age. And I had enough sense to recognize it when I saw it. If not for this combination, which was always practical and sensible, I might not be quite so happy with life today. God bless them both for knowing this and sending me on my merry way.”