Brian and Diana Alm celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in October.
The story of their engagement is a wartime tale of secret missions, unread mail, and standing in line for hours on a pier in a remote country to pop your girlfriend the question. It also is the story of how a young Brian Alm served during the Vietnam War and learned the leadership skills he carried with him for the rest of his life.
"I went to college and graduated and went to work as a teacher," said Alm, who was born in 1945 in Kewanee, Ill. "I had traveled most of the country and lived in Germany — where I worked in a factory — while I was in college.
"There was a war going on, and I wanted to serve my country. And ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be in the Navy. I loved the sea and ships and that seemed like a fit. I decided I wanted to be a commissioned officer."
Alm earned his commission in 1968 and found himself aboard U.S.S. Chicago, a guided-missile cruiser that weighed 18,000 tons and measured 700 feet from tip to stern.
"I had 47 men under my command and I was 24 years old — and I had no idea what I was doing," Alm said. "I had my training and I got some really good advice.
"I had a commanding officer told us: 'None of you have the expertise to do what your men do. You cannot order them around as if you know more than they do. What you have — your stock and trade — is your judgment.'"
Alm said he always carried those words with him. He went on to achieve the rank of lieutenant senior grade.
"For your men, the officer becomes virtually everything — counselor, disciplinarian, teacher. On a ship, there is nowhere to go and the responsibilities of command are enormous. It's pretty damn easy to sink a ship. So the men need your judgment. Your guidance.
"Learning the lessons about leadership gave me great confidence in myself. And I think the leadership skills helped me long after I left the Navy."
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In 1969 Alm found himself sailing toward North Korea on a mission so secret it remains classified today.
"We were gone for weeks," Alm said. "And when we got back, there was a truck filled with 67 bags of main for our ship. I ripped through those letters looking for the latest one from Diana and I found it and she wrote she was sick and tired of waiting for me to write back.
"She said she had four dates lined up and if she didn't hear from me, she was moving on."
Alm said he stood with roughly 700 other men on a pier waiting to pay $15 for a five-minute call.
"I got Diana on the phone and of course she asked me what was going on," Alm said. "I told her I couldn't talk about it, and I asked her 'Do you want to marry me or not?' and she said 'You know I do.' and I told her 'We have four minutes to plan a wedding, and I'll be back in the fall.'
"That's how I asked my wife to marry me. Command decision on the phone. We've been married ever since."