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Ricky Ray and his fiancee talk about questions of age, AIDS

The engagement announcement was only the beginning. As word of the pending nuptials spread Monday, the happy couple found that the world wanted to know all the details of their wedding plans. Who will be the best man? Where will the ceremony be performed? Where will the honeymoon be? And repeatedly, why are you getting married?

Engagement announcements that garner this much attention usually involve royalty, or at least great wealth. The one that drew a media circus to a modest Sarasota home Monday involved only an ailing 14-year-old boy and his 16-year-old sweetheart.

Ricky Ray, who has AIDS, described his love and his marriage plans over and over Monday with patience and good humor. His fiancee, Wenonah Lindberg, did the same.

There's nothing so special about all this, they said. They just love each other and want to be together, regardless of how long their union may last and regardless of what the world thinks.

"We want to spend 24 hours a day together. We can't live with each other (unmarried) without HRS coming in and saying something," Ricky said.

Said his future mother-in-law, Debbie Lindberg, "They want to consummate their love in the best way possible. They want to share an intimacy they would not be able to share without marriage."

Letting them live together, she said, "would be going against everything I stand for. Morality is a big thing for these kids."

Ricky is the oldest of three brothers with hemophilia who are believed to have contracted the AIDS virus from tainted blood products. He developed full-blown AIDS in March, and a subsequent AIDS-related infection has temporarily blinded his right eye.

Originally, he and Wenonah, who have known each other about four years, had planned to wait two years to get married. "But when I found out about my eye and it being so difficult to deal with and it could get to my spinal cord and kill me, I decided to do it sooner," he said Monday.

The date for the wedding is Friday, Dec. 13, a day Ricky chose.

"I think it's magical, kind of," Wenonah said. "We'll stick with it. Some people think it's bad luck. To me, it's not. It's pretty cool."

Three of Wenonah's friends were fighting over who would be the maid of honor, so Wenonah chose instead television actress Tina Yothers, who played Jennifer on Family Ties. Ricky met Yothers at a fund-raiser for the Ryan White Foundation, he said.

For his best man, Ricky wants former Los Angeles Raiders linebacker Linden King, another celebrity friend from fund-raising. His second choice, he said, is Phil Donahue.

Ricky is no stranger to world-wide attention. He and his two brothers have been on the talk-show circuit before and have been involved in AIDS-awareness campaigns.

An autographed photo of Ryan White, the Indiana teen-ager who first brought young AIDS patients to the public's attention, hangs prominently over the family's kitchen table along with other autographed celebrity photos _ the cast of Family Ties, Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy, David Copperfield, Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson.

A handwritten note from George Bush promising a cure for AIDS hangs on the living room wall.

As the local media and reporters from CNN, People magazine and an Australian news service watched Monday, Ricky and Wenonah held hands, chatted and posed in a cuddling position. She was wearing a black turtleneck with the L.A. Raiders emblem. Ricky, like a typical 14-year-old, had on jeans and a surfer T-shirt.

He joked that he wanted to change into cooler clothes if he was going to make the cover of People.

Ricky is small. At 14, he's 4-foot-11. At Monday's doctor's appointment he weighed in at 80 pounds. The most he has weighed is 85, but he dropped to 78 recently.

His hair is long in the back and bleached a brassy blond because Wenonah likes it that way.

The young couple plan to alternate living in garage apartments each family has converted. They'll eat with the families and use their phones, Ricky said. But they'll have to pay for their own long-distance calls to celebrity friends around the country.

A year ago, Ricky would have dismissed the idea of getting married. "I was not interested in girls. Girls were always my best friends."

He and Wenonah worried about what becoming boyfriend and girlfriend would do to their friendship, so they waited a long time. "When we took that step, we took it together," Ricky said.

The two see each other almost every day. Mostly, they hang out and watch television or movies on the VCR _ usually comedies.

"If we've got money, we go out to McDonald's," he said.

Wenonah said answering questions about their future sex life and their monetary situation have been the hardest part of the publicity.

As for sex, they plan to talk to counselors from the county health department about ways to be intimate without endangering her health.

"I can trust him. He'll never do anything to hurt me," she said. "Sex isn't everything in a relationship."

And the money?

Wenonah said she wants people to know she's not marrying Ricky for his money. "I've offered to sign a prenuptial agreement, and Ricky turned me down."

When he's gone, his share of money people donated will go to his brothers, Ricky said. But he wants Wenonah to have his share of the money the family received in a $1.1-million settlement with the DeSoto County School Board, which forbade the boys from attending classes in Arcadia.

"She deserves that," he said. "I want to make sure she's taken care of. . . . That was another reason I wanted to marry her."

Ricky said he and his brothers each get $900 a month in the settlement. Of that, he said, $600 goes in the bank for expenses and $300 is theirs to spend. Wenonah plans to get a driver's license before they marry, and Ricky said he has asked his lawyer about buying a vehicle.

His bride-to-be is a good cook, Ricky said. "She only messed up once. She made this sausage, and I bit into it and all this grease just mushed out."

Eating is something Ricky has trouble doing these days. He's on a marijuana-based drug to improve his appetite, he said, but the medicine makes him dizzy and feel off balance, so he avoids it.

By late Monday afternoon, the only thing he had eaten was a Rice Krispie cake and some nuts.

"I just eat so my mom won't nag me and so my future wife won't nag me," he said.

Their honeymoon plans are still up in the air, but Ricky's idea of a great honeymoon is a day at Disney World.

"By the time this is over, they're going to want to be gone for a month," his mother, Louise Ray, said.

The Lindbergs and the Rays have been friends since the Rays moved from Arcadia to Sarasota almost four years ago. They met the day the Ray children enrolled at Gocio Elementary. Mrs. Lindberg was there because one of her girls had a stomach problem.

The Rays and the Lindbergs live three blocks apart in a sprawling, wooded neighborhood of modest homes. The children became playmates and the families became friends.

The Rays have given the marriage their full approval, going with Ricky to the jewelry counter at Wal-mart to pick out the small diamond engagement ring he gave Wenonah May 11.

Her parents approve wholeheartedly, too.

"Because they love each other and with Ricky having AIDS and his eye going, it isn't an option to wait until they're 20 or 21," Debbie Lindberg said. She said marriage is the right thing to do "in the eyes of God, in the eyes of the Great Spirit."

Ricky's grandmother, Mary Laage, who married at 14, said Ricky is a special case.

"Under normal circumstances, none of us would be for it," Mrs. Laage said Monday. "I know Ricky enough to know he's grown up enough to handle it."

Before the wedding plans, Mrs. Laage said, Ricky had nothing to look forward to. "He got down and out," she said. "Since he got engaged, it's like he got another lease on life."

As for Wenonah, Mrs. Laage said, "She's going to know she gave him a lot of happiness."

That's all any of them want, Louise Ray said.

"I want him to be happy for what amount of time he has," Mrs. Ray said. "People who disagree, I'm sorry they don't agree but it's not their life, it's not their child, it's not their choice. You don't have to agree with me, but don't condemn us either."

The families planned to appear on the Larry King show Monday night before flying to Chicago to tape the Oprah Winfrey show and to New York for Geraldo today.

They expect to hear more of the criticism that has surfaced since the engagement announcement appeared in a newspaper Sunday.

Clifford Ray spent Sunday night in the living room with a gun after a caller threatened to kill him. A woman called Monday afternoon to yell to Ray that his family is completely sick. "Just as sick as yours," he answered as he slammed down the phone.

"If it was any other 14-year-old in the state, you wouldn't hear about it," he said. "In Texas, 14-year-olds get married all the time. My brother's wife is from Texas and a lot of her brothers and cousins got married at 14."

"Marriage is condoned by God," Ray said. "How many (critics) are out there living with someone? How many of them are cheating on their wives?"

He said he's tired, too, of the same old taunts. "If they call me and harass me, I wish they'd think of some new names. I'm tired of all the old ones."

On a Monday morning radio show, one caller accused the families of selling their children for publicity. Another said Hollywood was paying Wenonah to do this because it would make a good ending for a movie.

"I'm not selling our kids," Mrs. Lindberg said. "To us, this is normal."

The reaction wasn't all bad.

John Lindberg said all the tellers in his bank congratulated him Monday. As the Rays and Lindbergs gathered in the Rays' front yard for a session with photographs, pizza deliveryman Sid Fox drove up with two large pizzas.

"Congratulations son," he called to Ricky as he shook the hands of the parents, saying, "I admire you and I'm glad to know you."