BRANDON — Near the end of summer 1941, Ted Keiser met a gal who could dance the big apple.
A stunner in red lipstick and high heels, she didn't miss a step to the popular wartime swing dance. In that moment, Ted was glad his brother had brought him along to meet his girlfriend's little sister.
The quick-witted blond flirted openly, accompanying Ted to a nightspot in Ludington, Mich., where a brass band played and she coyly kissed his cheek. As he watched her hips swing, she decided to make him her husband, and church bells rang just three months after their first date.
"I didn't try to resist her very much," Ted Keiser, 93, says, playfully engaging his wife, Ann, 89, who sits across from him at their Brandon home.
"Well, in those days you couldn't have a long engagement," she says. "It was 'Goodbye, dear. I'll be back in a year.' We got married and he was sent right off to military training."
For the Keisers, reminiscing is a lot like putting together a puzzle. They go back and forth sharing whatever bits and pieces they can recall. His days as an Army pilot. Her becoming a mother.
After 70 years of marriage, dates and times get mixed up, but they still remember the love, the intangibles that held them together through tough times. Starting over after the second world war. Disagreements about finances.
Just last year, they lost their oldest son to cancer. They helped each other grieve.
"We've always been a team," Ann says, "ever since the beginning. That's what makes a marriage work, togetherness."
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Ann Keiser says it wasn't easy starting a marriage during the war.
Ted, a pilot in the Army Air Corps, rarely spent a night at home. For a brief period in 1942, he and Ann shared a Chicago apartment. When Ann became pregnant that year, she returned to their Michigan hometown to live with her sister, whose husband, Ted's brother, was also away.
After the birth of Ted Jr. (nicknamed Thad), Ted Sr. left on a mission based in Italy, where he manned bomber planes throughout Western Europe. Letters and phone calls were exchanged, but Ann often worried. She didn't want to raise a child alone.
In 1945, she received word by messenger that her husband's B-17 had been shot down over Yugoslavia. Other airmen parachuted to safety; Lt. Ted Keiser was reported missing in action.
Ted recalls jumping from the plane as it crashed into an endless wilderness of snowdrifts.
"A Yugoslavian nationalist found me entangled in a tree and saved my life," he says. "Back then there were friendly and unfriendly forces. I was lucky to be found by friendly forces."
When Ted was treated for injuries at a Red Cross station, his family still didn't know he was alive.
"It was horrible," Ann says. "For six weeks, no one ever told me that he was all right."
Another time during combat, Ted was hit with shrapnel and consequently awarded a Purple Heart. Ann kept newspaper clippings detailing the events. When Ted returned home a war hero in 1946, he struggled to overcome memories of lost friends and fiery skies.
"I was relieved and happy to be back with Annie," Ted says, "but the first year back was tough."
Ann reflects on those days with a sigh.
"We had no money," she says. "We had so much time to make up for."
• • •
Ted, a Michigan State graduate, decided to go to dental school after the war on the GI Bill, a government education assistance program for veterans. The Keisers had a second son, Rod, and in 1950, the family moved to Florida. For 25 years, they lived in St. Petersburg.
Ted practiced dentistry at the Don CeSar hotel in St. Pete Beach. Ann was a homemaker and worked part time with mentally disabled people. The couple loved to cook and entertain friends and enjoyed hiking and sailing.
A back injury prematurely ended Ted's dentistry career ("he just couldn't bend to treat patients," Ann says) but he never stopped being active. At one point, he and Ann were avid golfers.
To this day, they bike 3 miles every morning.
"Exercise is important," Ann says. "It keeps us moving."
Back in the 1970s, the Keisers ventured into real estate. Through the years, they bought, renovated, lived in and sold homes in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Brandon. His brother and her sister worked with them to design and build the homes.
The house the Keisers live in now, off Durant Road, was purchased decades ago by the family. Nieces, nephews and other relatives have all lived there at some point, leaving behind an eclectic collection of furniture and artwork.
An antique green blender sits on the kitchen counter. School photos of great-grandchildren are plastered on the fridge. Keepsake boxes are stuffed with pictures of the Keisers growing old together.
Their niece lives in the house behind them and looks in on her aunt and uncle. Their son Rod visits often. Friends come by for coffee.
• • •
The rare nature of their relationship surprises the Keisers.
"I don't understand divorce," Ann Keiser says. "Kids these days are so quick to quit when the littlest thing happens. You've got to give it a chance."
Ted looks at Ann today and says he still feels smitten. Her white hair is curled and sprayed. Her lips are painted red. She cuddles next to him on the couch and he kisses her forehead.
"She couldn't have been any better anywhere along the line," he says.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]