Joe Costa, 88, met his wife Vivian, 84, at a spudnut shop in Glendale, Ariz., 67 years ago and, at least for him, it was love at first sight. (Spudnuts, by the way, are doughnuts made from potato flour, just like it sounds.) Now they’ve got seven grandchildren, seven more great-grandchildren, and another on the way. They had four children together, a boy and three girls. Their daughter Vanessa died in 2007.
When they first met, Vivian had moved to Arizona from Indiana to be near family. Her sister had moved there with their younger brother, who had asthma; the weather was much better for him than in the tiny town called Loogootee, where they grew up.
Vivian’s sister had met a guy in Arizona who was in the Air Force, and he had a friend, Joe, who might like to meet Vivian, the friend suggested.
“I didn’t want to meet her,” Joe tells me while we were sitting in the living room of their Vineyard Haven home last Friday. Their daughter Brenda was there as well; she lives with them for a few months in the winter and helps out. The walls of their home are covered with family photographs.
So Joe, who was born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard, ended up going to the spudnut shop with his buddy after all, and he did meet Vivian.
“She was pretty, still is,” he says, “We were headed back to the base, and I said, ‘Stop the car.’ I hitchhiked back to the spudnut shop and asked if I could walk her home.”
Vivian, only 17 at the time, told him she’d have to ask her boss, and once permission was granted, the two headed out.
“When I was an engineer in the Air Force, I used to wear these metal cleats, so it was clop, clop, clop all the way,” Joe laughs. “Then I showed up at 7 am and asked if she wanted to go to church with me.”
“I was in bed,” Vivian says. “I wasn’t even thinking about getting up at that time.”
Did she go? I asked.
But Joe was persistent. He waited until Vivian was 18, and then they got married in Arizona. He had a job with the Steamship Authority waiting for him back home when his military gig ended. “I had a car we drove back in, but we lost the timing chain on the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” Joe says.
“We had our son with us,” Vivian says. “He was 3 months old. In those days you did foolish things.”
Joe’s mother sent them money to get the car fixed, and they were back in business.
They got to Woods Hole, and Vivian had no idea where she was headed. “She saw that ferry, and she wondered what was going on,” Joe laughs.
“I grew up in a hollow,” Vivian says. “It was so different for me. I had nobody here.”
Joe’s mother wasn’t thrilled that they had gotten married by a justice of the peace back in Arizona, so they had their marriage blessed by a priest once they made it to the Island. They settled into a small house behind Joe’s family home on Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, and eventually three daughters were added to the family. The kids grew up with plenty of playmates, and it was good to live close to family.
“My aunts lived in the two-family, and we lived out back,” Brenda remembered. “I loved living there.”
“We were like the Kennedys,” Joe says, “except for the money.”
Back then, Joe explained, the ferries were based out of New Bedford, and he’d stay on the steamship in the winter and sleep in the bunks while he’d work on maintenance. He began his career with the Steamship Authority in 1950 as an ordinary seaman, Joe said, then worked his way up to able seaman, then night watchman, then quartermaster, then bosun, then second mate, and then purser. He retired in 1995.
In the old days, he explained, there were staterooms and female porters to take care of anything women passengers might need.
Vivian held down the fort and took care of the kids at home. It sounds like Joe might have been her biggest handful. “He’s a daredevil,” Vivian says.
Joe’s always had a fascination with planes, flying them, watching them, figuring out maneuvers, and then flying model planes. He was 12 or 13, Joe said, when he climbed up on the roof of his mother’s house and waved his arms at a plane that was spraying for mosquitoes. “I waved and he waved back, and then he went by and sprayed me.”
Vivian says that Joe used to walk the beach with Charles Lindbergh when the Lindbergh family lived at Seven Gates, and that he was friends with Lindbergh’s son. Maybe that’s why he was so fascinated with flying.
“I was 12 or 13,” Joe says. “His son came to school, and I was friendly with him. They’d pick us up, and we’d walk the beach. She [Anne Morrow Lindbergh] would give us cookies and milk. He came here to get away from reporters and stuff.”
Joe’s passion for flying and for adventure kept Vivian on her toes. “She let me do most everything I’ve wanted to do in my life. Well, I wanted to jump out of an airplane …” Joe starts.
“And I said no,” Vivian finishes.
Over the years Joe has chalked up thousands of hours of flight time. They’ve gone to air shows across the country, and countless trips to Indiana to see relatives, to Cape Cod to go shopping, and to Florida.
“The FAA gave Dad the Wright Brothers award,” Brenda adds to the conversation. “Fifty years of flying without an accident.”
Flying planes wasn’t the only passion Joe had. Vivian wouldn’t let him jump out of a plane with a parachute, so Joe went to Sears in Hyannis and bought a sewing machine. He looked at photos of parakites, and made one. Then he took it to the airport to see how it would fly. He’d take the kids up in it by pulling them behind the car.
“We did everything,” Brenda says, “watercraft, everything. It’s a wonder we lived.”
Joe also made his own motorbike by widening the wheels and putting a little motor on it.
“I went to the Registry of Motor Vehicles to register it, and I had bought all the parts at Sears, Roebuck,” Joe said. “They asked me what the name of it was, and I said, ‘Beatswalkin.’”
Vivian just shakes her head.
I asked them how they managed to stay together for so long.
“She’s still pretty,” Joe says.
“Well, I’m not as cute as I used to be,” Vivian adds.
“The kids today have an argument and they quit,” Joe said. “We had our arguments, but you get by it.”
“You just get through it,” Vivian adds. “You have to have a lot of give and take. A lot.”
“I take and she gives,” Joe laughs.
They’ve made their own traditions together over the years. Vivian makes Joe strawberry shortcake for every birthday. His mother used to make it, Vivian explains, and then she took over when they got married. She only forgot once, the year before last. She says she’ll never forget it again. And Joe buys her Chanel No. 5 every Christmas. He’ll get her flowers for Valentine’s Day this year, like always.
“The main thing is to have fun,” Joe says. “Be happy.”
And he should know.