Courtship, Larry Baldwin Style

The greeting card atop the box of See’s chocolates just delivered to me read, “It’s more than a month until Valentine’s Day, but that’s no reason I shouldn’t send you a box of candy now,” and was signed “Larry Baldwin.” The girls in my rooming house went wild. They had never heard of such a thing. As for me, I had never before been sent a box of chocolates, let alone one related to Valentine’s Day. I was in awe.

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A few days after the company Christmas Dance, Larry had phoned me and suggested he drop by after dinner and we walk to the library. He showed up in suit and tie. While we walked he told me about some of his experiences when he was studying at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. One story was that a group of students took apart a car and reassembled it inside the owner’s dorm room. Another was that after Larry became a teaching assistant, he was assigned a small lab on the third floor for his use as an office. It had a long sink with faucets for “seven kinds of running water”; steam, hot, room-temperature, salt-water, cold, ice-cubes, and crushed ice.

Larry Baldwin graduating from CalTech in 1937. He and Carolyn met some years later while working on the Manhattan Project.
Larry Baldwin graduating from CalTech in 1937. He and Carolyn met some years later while working on the Manhattan Project.

On our way home, Larry suggested that the following Tuesday we each bring a sack lunch and eat together at a campus picnic area. Soon after that, while I was at work in my research lab, the inter-office mail was hand delivered as usual to my boss Phil. He picked out one of the envelopes with an amazed expression on his face, turned to me, bowed low, and then with a flourish handed that envelope to me. It was commercially printed with my full name and work address. The upper left hand corner designated “INTER-OFFICE MAIL.” Inside was a handwritten note from Larry. I don’t remember now what the contents were, but from then on one of these missives was delivered to me two or three times each week.

Larry and I began to spend time together whenever we could. Our only day off was Sunday, so I invited him to breakfast one Sunday morning. After we ate, I needed to clean the kitchen and mop the floor. We moved the breakfast-nook table out into the hallway, and he sat on the table’s bench with his long legs folded up, crossed under him. While I mopped, and despite the secrecy we were all sworn to keep, he went ahead and told me what we were really doing at our work projects. Yes, he was redesigning the electrical system for the sixty inch cyclotron, and I was working in the Radiation Lab—but the overall project was “developing an atomic bomb that will be so powerful no one has any idea what will happen when it explodes.” He said no one had told him this, but anyone with a Master’s degree in physics from Cal Tech couldn’t help but figure it out.

I was appalled. I didn’t know whether I wanted to continue contributing towards this bomb. I spent several days agonizing over what to do. On the one hand, I enjoyed my job and the people I worked with. My rooming house was only a ten-minute walk to my work. I had many friends close by.

On the other hand, did I want to feel partially responsible for blowing up people, or perhaps even blow up the whole world if things got out of hand? After a few days I decided that since I was only nineteen years old, whether I devoted all my time to the project or quit that day, it would make no difference towards the ultimate effect of the bomb or to the war.

I decided to continue. The outcome of my decision has been that, to this day, I overreact by shrieking and jumping with fright whenever I hear a loud, sudden “bang.” Besides being startled, I still feel some guilt.

Larry had asked me to our first date during the middle of December. In March he asked me to marry him.

I admired him, but didn’t feel ready to consider marriage. I was only nineteen. All my girlfriends were pressuring me, “Marry him. Marry him. He wants to marry you. He’s a great catch. That’s what’s important.” After quite a bit of inner struggle, I accepted.

The Newlyweds on June 2, 1943
The Newlyweds on June 2, 1943

By June 2nd we were saying our vows in a church located on the Berkeley campus, our families and friends attending. My mother was an expert seamstress and made a wedding dress for me that I would also be able to wear for other special occasions. Our reception was at a local hotel; the cost of the meeting room, plus a punchbowl surrounded by refreshments, was $35.

Larry had told me to how to pack for our honeymoon, but kept where we were going to be a surprise. The next thing I knew, we were on a train working its way up the foothills and into Yosemite National Park. (Remains of those old train tracks are still visible from Highway 140, along the Merced River.) The Army had taken over all of the big hotels to house wounded and ill soldiers, but Larry still found us a room. We spent three days hiking and exploring Yosemite; echoes of my father Sam taking my mother Ruth to Yosemite during their romance. My very first visit.

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My Introduction to “The Shoe Box”

The day after we returned from our honeymoon Larry announced it would now be my responsibility to send out announcements of our marriage to everyone in his card file. Then he introduced me to the shoe box and its contents.

He explained he had developed his shoe box strategy when he first decided he wanted to get married and have children. Being of an analytical mind he knew that the woman he married would have to have an intelligence level high enough to complement his own. In a psychology class he had taken at the University of Southern California (USC) while he was teaching there, he learned that his IQ was very near the top. This meant that out of a hundred eligible women, only about five would be compatible with him. But out of those five, perhaps not one would be interested in him! Statistically, out of a hundred women who might suit him, he figured five of those might consider him for a husband. He prepared himself to court almost two thousand girls, if necessary, to find his wife.

He chose his tactics. He took dance lessons. He joined a social club at USC and went to all their picnics, dances, and parties, taking a different date each time, or sometimes even two or three to the same occasion, apparently with some success. Every time he met an eligible woman he would arrange to see her every few days for a couple of weeks at some activity that did not cost him any money. Every few months he would buy two dozen boxes of See’s chocolates and send them out as gifts for holidays and birthdays.

Young marrieds
Young marrieds

He knew he would need to keep track of all the girls he dated, so he bought a thousand three-by-five-inch index cards with alphabetical tabs, and chose an empty shoe box to fit them in. Every time he met an eligible woman he would enter (in his trademark green-ink pen) her name, address, and phone number, later adding the dates each time he met her, with a secret code describing what happened.

At the time we became engaged Larry had about three hundred and fifty cards in that shoe box. He continued to maintain his shoe box, and relationships with many of those initial friends, until the day he died.

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