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Arts & Culture

Book Excerpt—Johnny Cash: The Life

Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos

August 7, 1954—Cash marries Vivian Liberto at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in SA

Photo: , License: N/A

With Vivian and the girls (Rosanne, left, Kathy, Cindy and Tara) at the Casitas Springs home

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Rather than J.R. or even John, he told her to call him “Johnny,” the first time anyone could recall his using that name. It was as if he wanted something new and more personal, a sign perhaps of just how fast and hard he’d fallen for this young beauty. Johnny stared into her hazel eyes and at her light bronze skin, trying to figure out what to say. Finally he blurted out, “Would you like to skate with me?”

When she replied yes, Johnny felt his heart racing. Crazily enough, the shy boy from Dyess started singing to her, but not one of his country favorites. Probably fearing she might have no interest in country music, he chose a pop song, “I Still Feel the Same about You,” which was a current hit by Georgia Gibbs. It was perhaps an odd selection, because the song wasn’t a tale of romantic bliss but an apology for having broken a girl’s heart.

Vivian was flattered. It was the first time anyone had sung to her. As they continued to skate, Johnny told her that he was from Arkansas and was going to be sailing to West Germany soon. She in turn said she was seventeen and a senior at an all-girls Catholic high school. Johnny was so dazzled by her that the Catholic part didn’t even faze him, despite all the whispering he’d heard in Dyess about the mysterious religion.

As they circled the rink, Johnny pretended he was a novice skater, which encouraged Vivian to hold onto him frequently because she thought he was about to fall. When the house lights flickered, indicating closing time, John felt himself panic. He didn’t want to let this girl go. “Can I take you home?” he blurted out, and his spirits soared when she answered, “Sure.”

Because he didn’t have a car, John had to accompany Vivian home on the bus. On the way, he learned that her family had deep roots in San Antonio. There was a popular market named Liberto’s, and one of her uncles had started the first Spanish-speaking radio station in town. Her father, Tom, owned an insurance agency and her mother was a homemaker. She had a younger sister and an older brother. When they arrived at her front door, he asked if he could see her again. After she said she’d like that, he leaned over and tried to kiss her. Stepping back, she said, “I don’t kiss boys on the first date.”

It may not have been the reaction John hoped for at the time, but it was, in fact, the perfect answer.

Cash was attracted by Vivian’s beauty, but he also quickly decided that Vivian was a “good” girl and that she’d make a faithful, loving wife and a caring mother. And, he would soon learn, she was even a fan of country music. If he had known that, he joked years later, he would have sung her an Eddy Arnold song. Within a week, he was thinking he would someday marry her.

In her room that night, Vivian retraced every moment of the evening. She told herself she had found her Prince Charming. She spent much of the night tossing and turning, wondering if he’d really call. Her answer came early the next morning. John called not just that day but every other day until he left Brooks in early August. The pair also went out every time he could get away. They went to movies. They went to the malt shop. They went window-shopping. They held hands and strolled along the city’s picturesque River Walk in the moonlight. It wasn’t long before Johnny got that first kiss while they sat on the roof of a car at a drive-in. Soon after, he carved J.C. Loves V.L. on one of the wooden benches along the River Walk. They daydreamed about the future. They were collecting a remarkable number of memories for just three weeks together.

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