She got the last seat on a flight next to a stranger. They’ve been married for 40 years

CNN  — 

Vickie Moretz had never left the southern United States, let alone traveled abroad. The prospect of flying across the Atlantic was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.

It was February 1982. Vickie was 22, a recent graduate from the University of Tennessee, en route to London to participate in a work study program.

She was traveling with one of her best friends, Sandra. The two young women packed enormous suitcases (“We bought everything in our wardrobe, two great big ones, each of us”) and lugged the bags from Ohio, via New Orleans to what was then called Washington National Airport.

The friends had standby tickets booked on a World Airways flight to London Heathrow Airport. They’d booked standby purely because it was the cheapest option. It never occurred to them that the tickets were cheap for a reason.

“I didn’t even know what the word standby meant,” Vickie tells CNN Travel today. “All I knew was I got a really good deal.”

The two women were so relieved to have arrived in Washington DC – it had been no small feat to drag their large cases onto a bus and a busy commuter train – that when they got to the airport, they both relaxed.

“I didn’t know you had to go to check in – I didn’t know what you were supposed to do,” Vickie recalls.

When the penny dropped, and Vickie and Sandra realized their tickets meant there was no guarantee they’d be on the flight at all, they panicked.

At the gate, the two women stood waiting anxiously, in tears at the thought they wouldn’t make it on – or, worse, that one of them might be admitted on board and the other wouldn’t.

Between sobs, they explained to airport staff that neither of them had traveled abroad before and were relying on each other for moral support.

Sandra was allowed on first. A few minutes later, Vickie was told she’d got the final seat on the plane.

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“They took me through first class, walked me all the way around the back of the plane, came around, tossed my luggage into a seat, it hit the person next to them, she turned around and it was my girlfriend.”

Against the odds, Vickie and Sandra had not only both made it on board, they’d ended up in seats next to each other. They hugged happily, each wiping away stray tears as they breathed a sigh of relief. And then Sandra introduced Vickie to the man who completed their row of three.

“This is Graham,” she said. “He’s from England.”

Graham grinned hello. Dressed in a green sweater with curly red hair, he exuded a friendly, relaxed confidence that instantly put Vickie at ease. The panic of the last few hours officially subsided.

Graham was also 22, and hailed from Lancashire, in the north of England. He’d graduated the UK’s University of Leeds the year before and had just spent several months traveling around the US while he waited to start law school.

“I saved up some money, bought a one-way ticket to New Orleans, and I spent about six weeks driving around the States until my money ran out,” Graham tells CNN Travel today.

Like Vickie and Sandra, Graham booked a standby ticket. Unlike Vickie and Sandra, he knew what that meant. He had no idea if he’d be let on the flight or not, but was thrilled to get a seat, and equally thrilled to be seated with two friendly Americans eager to hear all about the UK.

“They were exhausted and worn out, but obviously excited to be reunited on the plane,” recalls Graham. “And we just got chatting.”

Graham liked Vickie and Sandra right away – they were easy, fun company and their excitement was contagious. He regaled them with stories about England, and was keen to hear what life was like growing up in the American South.

Vickie liked Graham too. Thanks to him, she enjoyed a great first transatlantic flight.

“We had the best laughs,” recalls Vickie. “We stayed awake all night long – and that was our second night of staying awake, Sandra and I, because we’d been awake the night before trying to get to the airport. And he was lovely. He was just immediately a good friend.”

While Vickie found Graham fun and easy company, she didn’t think he’d be anything more than a friend – not to her, anyway.

“He had curly red hair back then – it was a perm, it wasn’t real – and my girlfriend adores curly headed guys. So I thought, ‘Oh good, Sandra’s met her somebody.’”

Graham promised to help Vickie and Sandra transport their luggage from Heathrow to London city center. After that, he’d have to head back up north to see his family, but he said he’d be back in the capital city before too long.

“We were excited that he was going to show us around,” recalls Vickie. “He gave us the history of England all night long.”

Vickie vividly remembers Graham attempting to explain 1066, seen as a pivotal date in English history, when William of Normandy defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings.

“I didn’t even know what 1066 was,” says Vickie, “The moment I left the plane, I knew everything that ever happened. I’m surprised I didn’t have the kings and queens memorized by the end.”

“I enjoyed educating the girls and introducing them to my country,” says Graham. “Couldn’t believe my luck that I got to sit next to two beautiful blondes, and certainly looked forward to seeing them again. I made firm plans to visit before I left them that first day.”

After landing in the UK, the trio made their way by train to the central hotel where Vickie and Sandra were set to be living and working for the next three months. Graham led the way, teaching Vickie and Sandra how to navigate the foreign transport system, and helping them haul their large bags on and off carriages.

It was rush hour, and the trio found themselves on a busy commuter train. Vickie was surprised that no one on board was talking, or even looking at each other. She, Sandra and Graham interrupted the quiet with their excitable chatter.

“The three of us caused a commotion with our laughter and constant commentary as we pointed out the windows, which caused some to smile at our excitement,” recalls Vickie.

“When we came out of the station, we were overwhelmed with how beautiful London was, even in the drizzle, and fell in love with the city that very day.”

Before saying goodbye and preparing to catch his train north to his parents’ house, Graham treated Vickie and Sandra to their first British cup of tea. He promised to return the following weekend, but his departure still had a tinge of sadness.

“While we were having the tea and he was getting ready to leave, we were saying, ‘Oh, no.’ He’d become our best friend. And we’re thinking, ‘Oh, we hate leaving him.’ So I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to get pictures,’” recalls Vickie.

Vickie and Graham posed for this photograph hours after they met in 1982, after disembarking the airplane in London.

Vickie dug out her camera and took her first London photograph: Graham and Sandra, smiling together.

Then she passed her camera to Sandra, and posed for her own picture with Graham. Without thinking, the American visitor and the British stranger put their arms around one another and leaned in, their hands brushing together, their heads touching.

“I was still thinking he was more for Sandra instead of me,” says Vickie. “But in our picture – he took the same picture with Sandra and their hands are further apart – and of course in ours, our hands are right up against each other, which is rather funny. I guess it was looking ahead at things to come.”

At the time, Vickie thought nothing of it. The photo was simply to celebrate the start of their UK adventure.

“It was just to commemorate: we have arrived in London, and here we are. And here’s our new friend – our new and only friend in London,” she recalls.

Graham said his goodbyes, promising to return the next weekend.

A perfect London day

Vickie’s first week in London was a baptism of fire. She and Sandra were working as hotel cleaning staff. They were equal parts clueless and committed, thrilled to be experiencing something new, and no idea how to go about it.

“I had a BS in business management, as well as a minor in computer science and one in real estate. I’d rarely made up my own bed and come over there to be a chambermaid. So we were very nervous about starting work there,” says Vickie.

Vickie also remembers a real culture shock. Most of what she knew about the UK she’d learned from Graham on the seven-hour flight across the Atlantic. She felt conspicuous, with her southern American twang, amid a sea of English voices.

“Back then Americans, of course, visited, but not like they do now. Now, you know, the Brits and Americans are so used to being together, it’s very similar. Back then it was very different,” says Vickie.

“We were really put under a microscope when we first arrived. But I couldn’t wait for him to come back.”

Back home in Lancashire, Graham called up a university friend of his who lived in London – Jim –and passed on Vickie and Sandra’s details, suggesting Jim look them up.

“He arranged to meet up with them and took them out for a drink. And I immediately got my train ticket to come back down that next weekend,” says Graham. “So that was the plan. And there was no doubt I was going to do it.”

The next Saturday, as promised, Graham arrived back in London, and he and Jim took Vickie and Sandra on a sightseeing day around London.

It was a glorious, sunny day and the group ducked in and out of museums and pubs, posing for photographs outside London landmarks. Vickie and Sandra enjoyed their first fish and chip meal, climbed on the lion statues at Trafalgar Square, peeked at 10 Downing Street and marveled at the imposing grandeur of St Paul’s Cathedral.

“We were all running around. We had the best time. We all got along so well, and we were joking and laughing,” recalls Vickie.

“Our friendship with these guys was just so easy, as if we had known them for years,” Vickie wrote in her diary that day.

Vickie still suspected Sandra had a soft spot for Graham. She was happy for them, and understood why Sandra liked him.

“His concern for us and warm personality were endearing, and we viewed him as being special because he had introduced us to this country before we even arrived, not to mention his curly ginger hair and smiling green eyes.”

In the afternoon, the group headed to Portobello Road, home to one of the world’s most famous street markets, a mix of antiques, fruit and vegetable stalls and everything in between.

Riding the escalator to exit the London Underground station, Vickie and Graham found themselves standing side by side. Sandra and Jim were lower down, amid crowds of tourists and locals.

Out of nowhere, a woman standing on the step in front of Vickie and Graham turned around to survey them both. They didn’t notice her at first, both preoccupied with one another. Then she spoke:

“You’re both Scorpios,” she said. It was more of a statement than a question.

“Yes, ma’am, I am,” said Vickie, surprised. She didn’t know Graham’s birthday, let alone his star sign, but she turned to look at him expectantly.

Graham said yes, he was also a Scorpio.

The stranger smiled, like this confirmed everything she already knew.

“You will make great love and will always be together,” she said, and then turned back around to disembark the escalator.

“Graham and I looked at one another, completely confused, and nearly tripped off the escalator,” wrote Vickie in her diary.

“We got the biggest kick out of that,” Vickie recalls today. “We laughed and couldn’t wait to tell Sandra and Jim about it. We thought that was so funny.”

But hearing the strangers’ words shifted something in both Vickie and Graham.

“By the end of that evening, we were holding hands,” says Vickie today. “That was March 6. And then we were engaged July 4, and married December 28.”

Turning point

Graham and Vickie grew close quickly after spending the day touring London together.

The interaction with the woman on the escalator seemed funny at first. But looking back, Graham says he thinks it was a turning point.

“That was the moment,” he says.

“The day had already been near perfect, and now Graham and I were looking at one another with new eyes,” wrote Vickie in her diary.

That evening, the group enjoyed a nightcap at The Bloomsbury Tavern. As they were leaving, Graham reached over to hold Vickie’s hand.

“He just reached back and held my hand and I took it, which would be unusual for me. It was just meant to be. I mean, it was – it is – very strange, but it was definitely meant to be,” says Vickie today.

Vickie and Graham’s chemistry and connection felt so natural, that Sandra, who had, as Vickie expected, quite liked Graham, was immediately happy for them.

“She was thrilled when we got together, she said it just seemed appropriate,” says Vickie.

From that evening on, Vickie and Graham were a couple. Graham traveled down to London from Lancashire whenever possible. And only three weeks after they’d first met on the airplane, Vickie traveled to the north of England with Graham to meet his parents.

Graham’s parents had been worried about their son traveling around the US on his own – his mother had a particular fear of American cults. But in all the hypothetical situations she’d fretted about, she’d never considered he might meet an American girl on an airplane and fall instantly in love. She didn’t know what to think.

“I think we really shocked them that we were dating and we were immediately serious,” says Vickie.

Vickie and Graham strove to make the most of their time in the UK together. They knew there was a deadline – Vickie had to head back to the US in only a matter of months – and this knowledge accelerated their relationship.

“We just didn’t want to be apart once we met, so we knew we were going to have to make some permanent plans,” says Graham.

“We knew that my time was going to be coming to an end quickly. So we sort of had to act quickly,” says Vickie. “What do we do to see each other, to stay together? And I remember us saying, we would have to get married – which was weird because we just graduated from university. It was the last thing on my mind to get married.”

The couple would chat about their future while sitting together in leafy Bloomsbury Square Garden, a quiet green space near to the hotel where Vickie was living and working.

“We would sit out there, and everything was just so peaceful. It was like the world was just right. That’s all we had to do, just sit together and the world just felt good,” recalls Vickie.

Vickie also had long conversations with Sandra about what to do. Was getting married so quickly a mistake? Her friend backed her up.

“I’ve never known two people that just seem right for each other like you are, especially so quickly,” Vickie recalls Sandra saying.

While in London, Vickie stayed in touch with her parents via letters sent back to Tennessee. She never called – long distance, transatlantic phone calls were expensive in 1982. Instead, she wrote about Graham in long dispatches home, explaining they were serious, and suggesting marriage might be on the cards.

“My mother said whatever I decided, she knew that I’d always make good decisions,” recalls Vickie.

As for Graham’s parents, they were worried their son’s prospective law career might be derailed by a transatlantic romance. But they saw how much he cared for Vickie, and also supported his decision. His friends were shocked, but supportive.

“Jim was amazed by how quickly it all was happening, but happy for us,” recalls Graham. “My other friends were all surprised, but once they met Vickie, they understood why I had fallen in love with her.”

A proposal and a marriage

Vickie and Graham got married in the US in December 1982.

On July 4, 1982, Graham proposed. Despite all the conversations leading up to it, Vickie was still surprised. They’d talked so extensively about marriage that she didn’t think they’d do the whole official proposal thing – it went without saying, surely?

“We made the decision to marry before the official engagement, but I wanted to be traditional and propose on one knee,” recalls Graham.

July 4, given it was a US national holiday, seemed an appropriate date.

“He came up to the room and said, ‘You know if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do it right.’ And then he got down on one knee and he asked me. And he gave me the ring that he had purchased, which was so sweet,” says Vickie.

Then Vickie had to go back to the US in September. Cue a tearful goodbye at London Heathrow Airport.

“The plane taking off brought on fresh tears,” wrote Vickie in her diary. “It was more than leaving someone I loved for a few months; it was about the ending of a chapter of my life. One that was unexpected. One where I took a risk and it worked and I had learned and grown so much.”

In December 1982, Vickie and Graham reunited in the US for their wedding day. Graham recalls the surreal, exciting week in which he met all of Vickie’s family within days of their nuptials. Vickie’s family also met Graham’s parents that week – it was a whirlwind, but a happy whirlwind.

“Everybody loved him the minute they met him and they really liked his family too,” says Vickie.

The wedding took place in Bristol, Virginia. Vickie took Graham’s name, becoming Vickie Kidner. Then the couple returned to the UK, where they lived for the next two years while Graham finished law school.

After that, Vickie and Graham relocated to the US. They’d been torn between life in the UK and life in the US. But in the end, the US won out.

“I didn’t want to leave my family as much, I wasn’t used to it. Remember, that was the first time I’d ever been out of the country, or out of the south,” says Vickie.

“Because I’d been to the States on my own, I think I was maybe a little bit more adventurous in terms of I was willing to take a bit more of a risk and travel and do something different,” says Graham.

Vickie and Graham went on to have two children, and brought them up in the US with plenty of UK traditions thrown into the mix.

Here's Vickie and Graham with their two children on a family trip to London in the 1990s.

Graham takes particular pride in his annual English Christmas dinners: “I usually do Yorkshire puddings,” he explains. “Roast potatoes, Christmas pudding…”

When their kids were growing up, Vickie and Graham would also take them on regular trips to England to visit their family.

Today, Vickie and Graham still enjoy returning to the UK, especially London – it’s always special for them to return to the locations of their early courtship. The hotel where Vickie worked is now an apartment block. But on a recent trip in 2022, the building manager let a nostalgic Vickie and Graham into the foyer for a peek.

“It looks nothing like it did with us. But we had a lot of happy memories there,” says Vickie.

Afterwards, the couple sat in Bloomsbury Square, the green spot where they first talked about marriage. It was special and surreal to look at how far they’d come in four decades.

They’re still friends with Sandra and Jim, and they enjoyed catching up with Jim during that recent UK trip.

Four decades later

Vickie and Graham recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, recreating the photo taken on the day they met.

Vickie and Graham recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, their neighbor Amanda Caldwell, who is a photographer, came to take a photograph of Vickie and Graham. She got the couple to recreate the photo they took the day they met, on Vickie’s first day in London, arms around each other, smiling.

“We met when we were 22 years old. We had both just turned 23 when we got married. And now we’re 63,” says Vickie.

“It’s hard to believe,” says Graham.

“Time goes very quickly,” says Vickie.

That first cup of tea together in 1982 turned into many more shared pots of tea. Vickie and Graham say they’ve always enjoyed just “doing nothing” together, relishing the small moments as well as the big adventures.

“You have to enjoy doing nothing together, as well as enjoy doing things together,” says Vickie. “You marry a friend, it’s about finding somebody you can be a friend with, because you keep friends.”

“And it’s also accepting the good and the bad,” she adds. “Your interests change over the years to some degree. Raising kids together isn’t always easy. But that’s why you marry a friend, somebody that you enjoy being with.”

Nowadays when the two travel on an airplane together, Graham usually puts on his headphones before take off, gets absorbed in a book and doesn’t speak to anyone.

“He’s become very, very British,” jokes Vickie, who says she’ll always chat to a seat neighbor.

Still, traveling together always leads them to reflect on how they met, and the coincidence that they both booked the same flight, both booked standby seats and against the odds, both made it on board that World Airways flight to London.

“When you think back, all the things that had to line up for us to meet is incredible,” says Graham. “One slight change of plans, we never would have met. It was meant to be.”

“It was amazing how we met, and how things turned out,” says Vickie. “And that we’re still together, that’s amazing too, we didn’t really know each other – we did, and we didn’t. And yet we’re still here.”