In 1960, just as the Vietnam War was heating up a half-world away, three airmen jumped into a beat-up '53 Chevy in Homestead and headed north. There was a dance scheduled at the armory on NW Seventh Avenue and 28th Street in Allapattah, and Leon Wegman, Jack Pamprin, and Hank Ridgeway had plans. They were gonna make trouble and maybe meet some ladies.
When the band fired up, Leon looked across the room and saw a pretty young thing with brown curls. As he walked toward her, he could not have known what that dance would start. April Whitby headed out onto the floor with the handsome fellow from a farm in Missouri near Jefferson City. And then her buddies from Eaast 11th Street in Hialeah — Liz Howell and Joann Weeks — snuggled up close with the other two guys.
They slow-danced that night, and Leon recalls watching wistfully as the girls drove off in the Hillman Minx with four speeds on the column. What he can't recall is whether he was wistful for the ladies or that car. "It was really unique," says Leon, who is now 76.
On Veterans Day, the story of these three GIs recalls a more innocent Miami. The trio began dating, not individually but as a group. They attended more dances and then worked up a ritual.
"We all went out on the weekends together," says April, now 73 years old. "Friday to the movies, Saturday to stock-car races in Hialeah, and then Sundays we would go to the beach, and finally the guys would all go back to Homestead. We did that until we got married."
Yeah, you read that right. "We" got married. Leon wed April at St. Francis Xavier Church in Hialeah. She was only 16 when they met. Her dad had to sign the certificate. "I was lucky he liked military guys," Leon says. Just a few months later, Liz was hitched to Jack, and Hank said "I do" to Joann. After the airmen's military hitches ended, those couples left South Florida for the Carolinas and Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Leon shipped off to Labrador for a while. He never did great things as a soldier, he says, but he did learn to fix cars and began working in garages when he returned to Miami. He is now the owner of King Automotive in Wynwood. The couple had three kids. Then came four grandchildren. And then three great-grandchildren. "You can see we started early," Leon says.
He and April still keep in touch with Jack and Liz and Hank and Joann, mostly through Facebook. Fifty-five years later, those couples are still together too. And they all have kids and grandkids. Leon thinks of their history often because his garage is just a few blocks from the place where he met April.
"It all started right over there," Leon says, looking toward the armory. "Right over there."