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The Love Boat: Big romance aboard the Big E

It all started in the No. 4 Air Conditioning Plant of the USS Enterprise.

Joi Jones was sneaking a cigarette in the unfinished area of the aircraft carrier even though a smoking ban was put in place because of a series of arson fires.

It was May of 1993 and Jones, who was 35 and a pipefitter, was one of the many Newport News Shipbuilding employees pitching in to upgrade the ship during its four-year midlife refueling and overhaul.

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She might have gotten away with her illicit smoke break, but as it happened she was spotted smoking by an interim pipe welding foreman, Billy Schuh, who was eight years her junior.

"He caught me, but he said he wouldn't tell on me, so I thought, 'Hey, he might be a pretty nice guy,'" she said.

For Billy and Joi, the encounter kicked off a romance that's now nearly two decades old.

Like many shipbuilders who worked on the Enterprise, which is at the end of its 51-year career, the carrier represents more than its 60,923 tons of steel, its 2,400 miles of blueprints and its eight nuclear reactors. But for the Schuhs its meaning takes on another dimension.

After their first run-in, Joi wanted to learn more about him so she sought out a welder on his team, who they both only remember by his nickname, "Gold Tooth" Williams.

"I asked his worker about him and if he was nice, and all that stuff and he said, yes," she recalled, during an interview at the couple's Gloucester home Thursday. "Well, apparently, he went back and told Billy what I said, and that I was interested."

Then she waited.

"During the time I was a little reluctant to ask her out because they were really preaching sexual harassment at the shipyard," Schuh said. "So it took two or three days for me to get up enough nerve to ask her for her phone number."

They went on their first date over Memorial Day weekend.

"We went to the Spaghetti Warehouse in downtown Norfolk and went to waterside," Billy said.

"And then you played Rod Stewart for me," she added.

Two years later the couple were married at a Presbyterian church in downtown Newport News near the shipyard. "We could see the aircraft carrier from the church," Joi said.

Both husband and wife have moved on to careers outside the shipbuilding industry, but they still talk about the Enterprise's role in bringing them together.

"There's no better feeling than to be on vacation and people ask you what you do," Billy said. "You say, 'Well, I help build nuclear aircraft carriers,' and then you tell them, 'I met Joi on an aircraft carrier.'"

"I've worked on the Lincoln, the Washington, the Reagan, the Stennis, the Roosevelt, but out of all the ships, the Enterprise is the one that was special to my heart because it's where I met the love of my life."

The ship also provided a profession opportunity for Billy, and a generation of up-and-coming shipbuilders, he said.

"It was just such a unique beast and all us young guys were working on it," Schuh said. "It was sort of a changing of the guard, you had a lot of the older shipyard workers teaching the new young guys like me."

He started on the enterprise in 1991, after receiving training as a nuclear welder. As part of the ship's refueling, the cores were cut out of the carrier's eight nuclear reactors. Schuh said he welded bundles of new fuel rods into the metal pots that house them inside the reactors.

Two years later at 27-years-old he was given a shot at management, supervising a team of 17 welders overhauling non-nuclear portions of the 1,123-foot ship.

"As a young person it gave me huge opportunities, leadership qualities and the education I was able to take out of the yard and apply it to where I work now," said Schuh.

After getting burnt out on welding, he went to work for Hampton Roads Sanitation District, his current employer.

Joi said she started work as a pipefitter after a divorce. A single mother of one, "I had to support my daughter," she said.

She was laid off along with a large number of junior pipefitters in 1995. Though she came back to the yard as a contractor, she eventually left shipbuilding and now works at Sanders Retirement Village in Gloucester.

The Enterprise paid their bills, as it did for thousands of shipyard workers.

"There were just so many guys that worked on it with the refueling and everything, and the maintenance because every six months it would come in, and we worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week on that thing, and it was just such a cash cow," Billy said.

"It afforded us a lot of nice things working on it, and it gave you such a sense of pride," he said.

In 1997, four years after they met, the married couple would get a chance to go aboard the ship off the clock during a day cruise for friends and family members of the Enterprise's crew.

"Actually I took her down to the space, to the No. 4 A/C Plant, which looked totally different because it was complete," Billy said.

"A sailor found us and asked, 'Well, what are you doing down here?', and so we told him the story."

"We still tell people that was our Honeymoon Cruise."

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