SEFFNER, Fla. – His hand brushed hers ever so lightly, and in that moment, Charlie Wellen's life changed.
"A big jolt of electricity went through me," he says. "Wow! I'll never forget that. And it's been that good ever since."
Her name was Barbara, a comely brunette with a quick wit. She lived with her folks two doors down from his family in the tiny town of Phillipsburg, N.J. — P-burg for short. They courted for about a year, then had a Catholic wedding ceremony.
On Thursday, the Seffner couple celebrated 71 years as husband and wife.
"The priest told us, 'It's gonna cost you $15. If you don't have it, don't come back.' Luckily, we did," Charlie says.
They'll be among 383 couples celebrating nearly 20,000 years of marriage Feb. 28 at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg. Of all the spouses renewing their vows, the Wellens are the longest wed.
He's 91, she's 92. When they dated, he thought she was just four months older. But on their wedding day, her father clarified that. "Barbara, you're off a year. You're actually a year and four months older than this fella."
"Boy, that was a surprise," she says. "But there were 11 of us kids. It was easy to get confused."
Back in 1939, it was a big deal to marry an older woman. Charlie didn't mind one bit. He was 20 with an eight-grade education. She was 21, a high school graduate.
They both agree: It has been a wonderful journey. They raised four boys, who have given them 14 grandchildren. They've lost count on the great-grandchildren.
"Somewhere between 32 and 37," Charlie says.
"No, that can't be," Barbara says.
"Whatever it is, it's a lot," he concludes.
Like a lot of married couples, they finish each other's sentences. Unlike most, they never fight.
"We've never had one. I'm not bragging, that's just the truth," Barbara says. "We get along so good together. He's for me and I'm for him."
Oh, there was "the incident" in 1958, when the Wellens went to South Florida to visit Barbara's niece. Charlie was so taken with the sun, the beach and the palms, he announced his intention to move the family there permanently.
Barbara hated the heat. She was livid and adamantly opposed to the idea. So he made an offer: Give me time to find a job and then give me two years. If you still hate it, we'll move back.
Still miffed, she agreed to the promise. Family lore says the couple didn't talk for a year.
"That's crazy!" Charlie says, bursting out with laughter upon hearing this. "It was more like four weeks. And I talked. She just didn't answer."
It really doesn't matter now. He found a good job with Pan American Airways in aircraft maintenance. When she made a quick visit back home, she looked at New Jersey through new eyes. It was smoggy, cramped and dingy. She promptly sold their home and returned to Florida.
"I knew she'd come around," he says.
They don't like to be apart. Early on, World War II separated them when Charlie got drafted by the Army and was sent to fight in Europe. He got just one five-day leave in his two years of service; Barbara gave birth to their third son the day he came home for the short stay.
It's been a blessed life, except for a few bumps. In 1992, their mobile home got blown away by Hurricane Andrew and they lost everything. Even worse was 40 years ago, when a pea-sized brain tumor nearly ended Barbara's life.
Charlie still gets teary-eyed remembering their fear. After surgery, he tiptoed into her room and saw the left side of her face was paralyzed. He didn't tell her. Three days later, she got her first look in the mirror and nearly fainted.
You're going to leave me, she cried.
Unthinkable then, unthinkable now. He takes her hand and gazes into her good eye.
"Wow, why would I ever leave her?" he says gently. "She's my Barbie." To this day, he says a prayer of thanks every morning to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, for giving his wife a second chance.
Neither imagined living so long. Maybe it has something to do with eating a bowl of oatmeal every day for most of their marriage, or keeping a clean conscience. They've paid every debt they've ever owed. On Saturdays, they go to the "gray-haired Mass" at 4:30 p.m. at St. Francis of Assisi in Seffner. Faith, they say, is the foundation of their union.
They live alone in a mobile home owned by their grandson Bob Wellen, a Dover accountant. He visits every day to check on them.
"My grandfather is a good example of what a good husband should be. He puts my grandmother first and gives his all for her," Bob says.
Every summer, the Wellens hitch up their camper-trailer and drive to their cabin home in the mountains outside Sparta, N.C. It was a ramshackle mess when they bought it 25 years ago for $15,000, but they renovated it themselves, transforming it into a little slice of heaven.
They say it's their reward for working hard and living right. Charlie still mows the property's 12 acres.
Charlie does a lot these days. Barbara's memory is starting to fail, so he decided to take over the household chores, like cooking and ironing. She took such good care of him for so many years; now it's his turn.
"I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have not just one, but two of the best parents a kid could ever have," says son Dave, 62, who lives in Tooele, Utah. And yes, it's true about his parents never having a fight. "Long as I've been alive, I've never seen it."
It bothers Charlie that people don't treat marriage so seriously anymore. His religion tells him that when you wed, it's for life. If a couple are is having doubts or troubles, he offers this advice:
"Just go back to your wedding day and remember how much you loved each other," he says. "And start over again."
"But start over with the same spouse!"
It's got to be hard, coming up with a new idea for a gift every Valentine's Day, especially after 71 years. Not for Charlie.
He leans over to Barbara and plants a noisy smooch on her cheek. "I give her a kiss, tell her I love her and say, 'Happy Valentine's Day, Honey."'
It's enough for Barbara. Because every day is a romantic holiday with Charlie.
"We do love each other," she says. "I would do anything for him and I know he'd do the same for me. I guess that must be love, right?"