Monty Murty and Marlene A. Reckling wanted to get married on a recent Friday, but they also wanted to go sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.
So the Arlington couple packed their car and headed for the water -- with a brief stop at the Prince George's County courthouse in Upper Marlboro. There, dressed in blue and khaki boating outfits, they became wife and husband in a ceremony conducted by Court Clerk Norman L. Pritchett that took less than three minutes.
The couple said they had opted for a simple, "intimate" wedding, and had announced their engagement to friends only the night before. Murty, an Army officer, was also pleased at the convenience. The courthouse, he observed, is "right off the highway."
More than 3,000 couples trip through the Upper Marlboro courthouse on much the same mission every year, making it the busiest wedding center in the county. Courthouses in populous counties like P.G. and Montgomery get a lot of nuptial business, because, unlike the District or Virginia, Maryland requires no blood test. Judges do the marrying in the District, but in the Maryland suburbs, all it takes is a court clerk or an assistant.
Court clerk assistant John E. Norfolk, a veteran of more than 18,000 weddings in his nine years on the job, said it all boils down to "cost and convenience."
"That means a lot to people," he said. "It's not only convenient but it's fast. It takes about three minutes for a double-ring ceremony. . . . Walk in off the street, no appointment necessary -- it's open house from 10 to 12."
Applicants must get the license at least two days before the wedding, and it costs $25. Out of that, $15 goes to shelters for battered spouses under a new county law. The ceremony at the courthouse costs another $25.
Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to noon, couples rush in and out of the courthouse. The morning Murty and Reckling were hustling to get to the bay, a Richmond couple parked their tractor-trailer in front of the courthouse, put a "Please don't ticket -- getting married" sign on the window, and asked assistant clerk Colleen Joyce for an extra-quick wedding. Army officers Carl Lee Stevens and Elaine Meachum were also in a hurry that morning: Meachum, who is stationed at Fort Meade, had to report for duty within an hour.
Room 106-A, set aside as the "wedding chapel," is a no-nonsense place. The 12-by-15-foot former land records vault has wood paneling, a lectern, two large plastic croton plants, an American flag and a Maryland flag so old the black checks have turned green.
More than half of the 6,000 or so wedding licenses issued each year in Prince George's are cashed in here. Court officials don't know what to make of these figures, which have held steady for several years, other than that courthouse weddings are the most popular way to tie the knot in Prince George's. In Montgomery County, which celebrates about the same number of weddings, slightly more than 2,000 were performed in the courthouse in Rockville.
Pritchett, who said he has seen couples panic and abort weddings halfway through, tries to make people feel at ease. A small man, he stands with a huge smile behind the wooden lectern, his black hair slicked back and glowing under the fluorescent lights.
"Stop shaking," he will jokingly tell brides. "Now, that didn't hurt too much," he will say to grooms, who sometimes have the fortifying smell of alcohol on their breath. "Mr. Pritchett likes to joke around," said assistant clerk Colleen Joyce. "But he's a bachelor."
He clearly enjoys marrying people. "There aren't too many occurrences in a courthouse that are happy," he said. "Here, the people are always happy. It's a pleasant job to have. You meet a lot of nice people, and they remember you."
Joyce Burrows, a horticulture instructor at a special education center in Bowie, was married at the courthouse three years ago last March, and was so pleased with the way things turned out that she and her husband Louis have returned each March since then to go through the ceremony again, buying a new marriage license each time.
The casual nature of the ceremony is "unfortunate but true," she said. "People look at it like filing their taxes. It doesn't seem to have the romanticism" that a wedding should have. She said the chapel, which she helped redecorate several years ago, has become shabby and she wants to fix it up again.
But the main problem, she said, is the sheer number of people: the assembly-line effect is hard to ignore, even for those with love-blinded eyes.
Last New Year's Eve, for example, there were 49 couples waiting in line in the lobby.
Norfolk said he tries to give every couple a sense their wedding is special by turning out the lights after each ceremony and leaving the room. He meets each couple in the lobby and after the ceremony he discreetly busies himself filling out forms at the back of the room while the newlyweds embrace. Then he congratulates them with a vigorous handshake. "It's an enjoyable job," he said. "It breaks the monotony of a day's work. The only drawback about this job is pronouncing the names."
Norfolk said that, if he ever marries, he would prefer a courthouse marriage to an elaborate ceremony. "I'd much rather put my money to better use," he said. "It's a big show day, but you can take it or leave it." As for marriage itself, he will only say "I guess it's the most sensible thing to do if there are children."
"I see some very sad ones and some very happy ones," he added. "I saw one girl in here who was 13 years old and pregnant. I don't see any celebration there: I think it's very sad."
Under Maryland law, parental permission is needed to marry for anyone under 18. Persons under 16 may not marry unless they are pregnant, or have a baby -- and a doctor's certificate to prove it.
Shortly before noon on a recent Wednesday, Joseph P. Austin, 20, of Fort Washington, and Denise R. Morgan, 17, of Forestville, stood before Norfolk. Morgan, wearing a white dress and brown high-heeled shoes, smiled while Austin, dressed in smartly pressed brown trousers and an open shirt, stood nervously clenching and unclenching his hands. Terri Robinson, a friend of Morgan's, sat on a bench holding 2-month-old Joseph P. Austin Jr. in a yellow plastic carrier.
Austin is a Marine stationed in Mississippi. Standing on the courthouse steps after the wedding, he said he was not enthusiastic about getting married. He was returning to Mississippi three days later, and his wife said she will join him, wherever he is stationed, when she graduates from Prince George's Community College in December. "We just wanted to hurry up before he left," she said.
A few minutes later, Ronald K. Adams, 23, of Maine, and Karen Louise White, 20, of California, drove up to the courthouse in a jeep. They are both stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, she with the Air Force, he with the Navy. White, wearing a blue dress and a white headband, pulled two wedding rings from a brown paper bag in her purse, and handed one to Adams, who was wearing tan trousers and a tan shirt.
After the quick ceremony, they said they planned a large wedding next year, when they could bring their widely scattered friends and family together. "You really don't feel like you're getting married," said Karen Adams, "when some guy just stands there and says, 'That's it, folks.' "