Bob Banks needn’t go far to see cherished reminders of April 1967. The Marysville man will mark several 50-year anniversaries this month.
On April 11, 1967, he came home from naval duty in the Vietnam War. That same day, Banks met the woman he would marry. She had been his pen pal while he served aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in Southeast Asia.
Just two days after his homecoming, on April 13, 1967, he bought a new Pontiac LeMans Sprint. He still has that car — now a classic. And on Sept. 16, he and his wife, Sue, will celebrate 50 years of marriage.
Sue and Bob Banks both remember 1967 as a much different time. It was April ’67 when Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army and lost his heavyweight boxing title. And for the first time that month, U.S. planes raided the North Vietnamese port of Haiphong.
“The war was in your face. We were seeing all that sadness on the news,” said 68-year-old Sue Banks, a 1966 graduate of Marysville High School. “Several of my classmates didn’t make it back.”
Her husband recalled when military members were met with scorn, not gratitude. “We were kind of the scourge of the earth,” Bob Banks said. His duty as an air traffic controller on the Kitty Hawk was safer than most in the Vietnam War. “It was a very good job with very good people,” said Banks, now 73. “I was fortunate in my military career.”
He was lucky, too, that he was able to return to his civilian job with West Coast Telephone Co. in Everett, later GTE Corp. With a job but no money, the 1961 Snohomish High School graduate got a loan to buy his LeMans at Everett’s Simpson Pontiac. He has a replica of the original sticker — the car’s list price, with all its options, was $3,476.43.
For years a family car, the LeMans is now lovingly stored in the couple’s garage. “It hasn’t been rained on in probably 25 years,” Bob Banks said. “We raised two kids in it. We used to call it our Pontiac Land Rover. We drove all the logging roads in that Pontiac.”
Sue Banks remembers the beginnings of what grew into a lifelong romance. After high school, she also worked at West Coast Telephone but had never crossed paths with Bob. One day a co-worker told her about a friend who was going to Vietnam and suggested she write the man a letter. That co-worker would later be best man at the couple’s wedding.
She and Bob wrote to each other for eight months before meeting. Sue’s brother was serving in the military in Germany at the time. At one point, while Sue was writing daily letters to Bob, her father told her that if she could write so often to a stranger she could certainly write to her brother. “So I had to write to my brother, too,” she recalled.
As letters crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean, feelings grew. “I was 19 at the time. I remember the first time the letter was signed ‘love.’ It makes your heart beat real quick,” Sue Banks said.
By mid-May 1967, little more than a month after Bob arrived home, they were engaged.
About 30 years ago, Bob Banks tried selling the car. “Nobody offered me what I thought it was worth,” he said.
The LeMans, which looks much like a Pontiac GTO of the same vintage, has an overhead cam six-cylinder engine and a three-speed shift on the floor. Also used in Firebirds of that era, the engine was the brainchild of John DeLorean, an engineer and onetime Pontiac executive best known for the gullwing-door coupe featured in “Back to the Future.”
Sue Banks treasures their LeMans for its sentimental value. “He says he keeps a car 50 years — and he kept his wife, too,” she said. “It’s a pretty car, but not a stunner. It has so much meaning to him, that’s what is special about it.”
The years have flown by, her husband said. “We’ve been awfully happy and awfully blessed,” he added.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein @heraldnet.com.