"No person authorized hereby to celebrate the rites of marriage shall do so in any case without first having delivered to him a license . . ."
Section 30-107, District of Columbia Code
Hand in hand, eyes aglow, we entered the Superior Court Building and asked the guard to direct us to the Marriage Bureau.
He returned our ear-to-ear smiles with a bored look and motioned with his thumb to the long, long hall behind him.
As we crossed the threshold of Room 111, a man bellowed, "Here's where you come to ruin your life!" The fraternity of men acknowledged his remark with nervous laughter while his fiance and other women rolled their eyes.
An elderly gray-haired woman, dressed in a neat blue suit with matching pocketbook, sat alone with a straight back and an anxious smile on her face. In one had, she clutched her blood test results and in the other, the number "8" on gray cardboard.
Three other couples sat in the room where the yellow walls are lined with books in which the names of those wedded in the District as far back as 1811 are recorded in elegant penmanship. Nowadays, names are typed and placed in blue book binders and then microfilmed.
For the most part, the men smoked and the women waited patiently, chatting with each other occasionally, but with an ear perked for the sound of their number.
"Number eight," a clerk called, as if someone's hot corned beef on rye were off the grill.
We wondered who had number 13.
The Marriage Bureau is run by Robert T. Nash, a big, burly former bail-bondsman who is called "Marrying Sam" by friends and coworkers. Nash started as bureau clerk in 1966 and quickly climbed the ladder to become director five years later. Marrying Sam is entitled by law to perform marriage ceremonies and these days he says he is very busy, averaging four to five marriages daily.
He performs most marriages during lunch hours in his office. "Some of them come in with their suitcases and wearing white dresses and tuxedos," says Nash. "Others get married and go right back to work.
"After doing this for a while, you can tell whether a couple is really in love," says Nash with a knowing grin. "When they look into one another's eyes, they melt each other.
"Only a few who get licenses don't get married. But there was one man who came in seven times for licenses to marry seven different women." Nash is uncertain if the man ever tied the knot with any of them, but the licenses -- all of the licenses -- are still valid. Marriage licenses never expire in the District.
A license costs $12 in the District. No checks are accepted. In Virginia, the rate is $17 for a license that expires 60 days from issuance. A Maryland license, good for six months, costs $15.
In Maryland and the District, only one person needs to be present to apply for a license to marry. In Virginia, both need to be there.
Obtaining a license to marry is a simple procedure.
"There's really much more involved in getting a driver's license than in getting a marriage license," sayd D.C. Clerk of Court Thomas Rickenfeld. "For a driver's license, you have to take a road test, a written exam and even an eye test. With a marriage license you only have to take a blood test."
As of 1966, the District made it mandatory for applicants to have a blood test for syphilis within 30 days before filing for a license.
Maryland is one of only eight states that does not require a blood test before issuing a marriage license. While the District will accept blood tests for syphillis performed anywhere in Virginia (as well as D.C.), the only Maryland test it will accept are those performed by State Health Department officials.
And don't think that just because you have a family clergyman, he is permitted to perform the ceremony in the District. He must be among the 50,000 or so clergymen registered and licensed to perform marriages in the District -- or the wedding is not legal.
There are ways of getting around such Catch-22s, but it involves more red tape. You must have a licensed clergyman sponsor your out-of-towner and have papers approved by a Superior Court judge who handles such matters on a rational basis.
Even after you've completed the short-form application, submitted the non-reactive blood test results and taken an oath that the application information is correct, there is a five-day cooling off period in the District and a 48-hour wait in Maryland before they'll issue the license. Though no one will say so for the record, it apepars the government wants you to think about what you're getting into before taking the big step. In Virginia, however, they'll issue a license on the spot.
Don't forget, warns "Marrying Sam," to pick up the license. He's been called by clergymen in the middle of the night some Fridays telling him of a frantic groom who forgot to pick up the license the day before the wedding. "Many times I've had to come down here early on Saturday to unlock the doors to get a license." The Bureau closes promptly at 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
And don't forget that the license is important after the ceremony, reminds Dr. Edward L. R. Elson, who was the U.S. Senate Chaplain from 1969 to 1981.
"You may have the rings, but you should bring the license on your honeymoon as proof that you are bride and groom."