The Last Hurrah

We landed at Rein-Main Air Force Base, and the military police with drug-sniffing dogs throughly examined our luggage. We were picked up by Larry and went to Fulda, Germany. At the height of the Cold War, the military mission in Fulda was to stand ready against a potential attack from the Soviet Bloc. The Fulda Gap was the most likely, strategic entryway into Germany by the Soviets. The Russians could deploy a large-scale tank attack through the valley and lowlands.

In Fulda, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment’s assignment in the event of war was to delay a Soviet attack until other units of the US V Corps could be mobilized and deployed to defend the Fulda Gap. On their uniforms, soldiers wore a patch with a rearing, black stallion. They were referred to as the Black Horse Battalion. The Fulda Gap is roughly the same route Napoleon used to retreat after his defeat at Leipzig where he escaped back to France.

As a military dependent, I was required to keep at least a half-tank of gas in the car along with an emergency kit should we have to flee. My assigned, designated point of escape was to Italy. Although I considered us sitting ducks in Fulda, my view point was that the Red Army would over run and not destroy Fulda as they would need a staging ground. The Soviet forces goal would have been to occupy Frankfort which is the financial center of Germany. I felt much safer in Fulda than I would have been while fleeing to Italy.

The Iron Curtain, which divided the two Germany’s, was a series of fences and outposts which were manned at all times. The point of the wall was not to keep us out, but to keep the East Germans in. The border operations on the East-West German borders patrolled 24/7. The 11th Armored Cav, with the Calvary being tanks, trained in the field. At least once a month there would be an alert. An alert is an exercise in practicing going to war. In the middle of the night the phone would ring, and every soldier began the exercise to prepare to go to war. We lived out on the economy not in the military family housing, and the Army airfield was less than two blocks from our house. Before the phone rang for an alert, I would hear the noise from the helicopters and know that another alert had begun.

We lived in a temporary apartment for a couple of months waiting for an apartment to become available. We finally found an apartment and moved into a small village outside of Fulda. Our widowed landlady was a wonderful lady, and she was almost Larry’s size. Her husband died later from injuries that he had received as a prisoner-of-war in France. German houses are constructed to accommodate several generations. Anna’s parents had passed away, and her oldest daughter moved from Fulda when she married. Anna and her teenage daughter, Tia, lived downstairs, and we had the upper floor. Anna’s yard was completely filled with a garden where she grew most of their fresh food. In her side yard was an orchard of plum and apple trees. She bred rabbits for meat, and she kept a cow in the village barn. I could always tell when she had been to milk the cow as the rank, barn odors clung to her. From her house we could see the main clock tower in the village, it was over 900 years old.

I once asked her why the German population had followed Hitler’s ideology. She had been young when the war started. She told me that if anyone made the slightest remark they were reported to the German SS police force. She knew whole families that disappeared, and one could not trust their life-long, closest neighbor.

I bought a standard, all-most poodle. His father was questionable, but he resembled his poodle mother. When I started house-breaking him, a major storm came in leaving several feet of snow. I walked him daily, and he learned to lift his leg on the snow bank. When the snow began to thaw, I had to re-housebreak him because he couldn’t find his marked places.

Dona came to visit for several weeks, and on her last week there Vana came to Germany. We went to the airport to pick up Vana. The girls were in the back seat and were excitedly chatting. Dona was telling her about all the things she had done when I heard Vana say, “Do you think we will find any place with good German food?” Laughing, I told her, “No, but we can find Italian.” She died on the spot. Several days later, they took a train to Paris and both came home with their own stories to tell. Wanting the girls to experience German beer at its very best, we took them to the Kruezburg monastery.

Just outside of Wildflecken, Germany in the Rhon mountain area is a monastery named Kruezburg. The parking lot is midway up the mountain, and you have to walk a distance to get to the cloister and the brewery. On one of our first visits, it was a sunny day and while hiking up the trail we spotted sunbathers on the mountain side. Coming closer, Rob realized they were au naturale. Having to traipse through a gaggle of nude girls to go to a monastery certainly gets the attention of a 13-year-old. The monks raised Saint Bernard dogs, but the main attraction on the Kreuzberg is the brewery. The monks brew what is considered by many to be one of the best beers in the world. It’s a dark, smooth beer and was served in half liter mugs. In the winter months they produced a dark bock beer. We skied one weekend up in that area, and we went to a massive castle for a Frankenstein Halloween.

One summer weekend, we took Dona and Rob to Heidelberg to see the “lighting of the castle.” A beautiful castle dominates the Heidelberg skyline and looms over the Altstad (old town). That night, we found a spot on the Neckar River bank to see a spectacular, fireworks show which erupted in glorious colors and cascaded from the towers of the castle.

On a Saturday, we went to a small village which had a “people” parade. The village invited people to march in their native costumes. Men, women and children from other countries and the states of Germany came dressed in their finest garb to march down the cobblestone street. At local folk fests or at beer gardens, German men wore the traditional, leather lederhosen with braces, and the women would don colorful, drindle skirts and aprons.

On another Saturday, I took Rob and Dona to an Army air show. It was crowded, and we were standing in about the 10th row. A Dutch parachute team jumped from a helicopter at 10,000 feet. They formed a circle, and when they separated, I saw one guy bump the feet of another jumper. Watching, I realized his parachute was not opening, and he was in free-fall. I told Dona and Rob to turn around and to stand with their backs to the airfield and to not watch. I watched the parachutist and the crowd. The moment the unfortunate Dutch-man hit the ground, I turned around. Putting my hands on the kids backs, I moved them forward toward the car. As we walked to the car, the ambulance was making its way to the scene of the accident. Concerned about the reaction of the crowd, I drove out im-mediately. The kids at first were quite, then sad and then animated. It upset all three of us.

We went to the Schũzenfest folk fair in Fulda, and Dona loved going to the marketplaz for the breads and cheese. Being a beautiful girl, she caught the eye of a young, German motorcycle cop, named Heinrich. In his leather, police uniform and on a shiny, black motorcycle, he cut quite the figure.

We went to the Witches’ Tower which was a women’s prison in the Middle Ages and was actually part of the original fortification in Fulda. We visited the Fasanerie Palace which started as a hunting palace for a prince, and it was later turned into a summer palace. Rebuilt after World War II, the palace has excellent examples of exquisite furniture and paintings from the 1700s. Over the years with remodeling from Rocco to Baroque to the present Neo-classical style it became an elegant palace. The formal, terraced garden was transformed into a more naturally landscaped park over the years.

For everyone who came to see us, we toured Fulda. The Catholic Church is dominant in Fulda. It was the first seat of Catholicism that St Boniface established in Germany. The crypt holding the remains of St. Boniface (d. 754) is in the Fulda Cathedral (Dom). The Dom had a domed roof with magnificent, twin spires. While we were there the wildly popular Pope John Paul II visited. All of Fulda shut down for the day to see him.

The wooden pulpit in front of the high altar was hand-carved by two generations of craftsmen. It has an ornate spiral staircase leading to the pulpit where the priest stands high above the parishioners. In the church museum, they have wonderful statues and paintings. As you go down the stairs to the vault there is a large, bronze statue at the entrance. It has been rubbed by so many hands over the years that all the patina is worn from the statue’s foot. In the vault or basement there is a section in the walls where just the hearts of cardinals are buried. Looking up at the ceiling in the nave, you can see tiny birds nestled in a wreath, or petite, Baroque angels with their gold-tipped wings jutting out.

Next to the Dom was St. Michael’s Church. With its foundation built in the early 900s, it is one of Germany’s oldest churches. It is a Gothic style church perched high on a stone wall overlooking the Fulda Cathedral.

Fulda has many Baroque treasures in wonderful surroundings. The Residence Palace was built in the early 1700s and is an excellent example of a Baroque building. The interior has been beautifully refurbished with fine furnishings, and they have an excellent collection of porcelain items. On the extensive, palace grounds was a Orangerie, a 1700s house for citrus plants and the formal gardens which were incredible in the spring.

The last Christmas we were in Fulda, the Paris National Ballet company performed The Nutcracker in the Residence Palace. I had to pinch myself. I was watching a world-famous Parisian ballet in a Baroque palace; it was a Cinderella moment.

Larry was the manager for the Officer’s Club. Again he had late hours, and he was constantly at the club. I found a civilian job on post for the Non-Appropriated Funds (NAF) division. I worked days, and Larry was working at night. The NAF department’s mission was to insure that the regulations, procedures and accountability for the club operations, Rod and Gun clubs and the Morale Support Fund were in compliance with the military guidelines. Club management and the club employees fell under NAF division which eventually created problems between Larry and me.

One day, I was walking out of Officer’s Club, and the new regimental commander was entering. He stuck out his hand to shake mine and he said, “John Sherman Crow.” Without batting an eye lash, I extended my hand and gave him my full name, “Nancy Kay Shapiro.” It struck him funny, and for the next two years my job working for John Sherman was a joy. He was from Louisiana, and he was authentically Southern. He had a first cousin, named John David Crow, who was the 1957 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A. & M. The Crow family always referred to each of the cousins by both of their given names.

My office was in the Headquarters Building on the second floor across from the Community Commander’s offices. Next to my three-quarter-walled office was a bull pen where military support personnel worked. There was a full-bird colonel who would come to the office. He would make huge demands on the military support staff and in particular, the 2nd lieutenant who was in charge of the Moral Support Fund. The colonel would make an excuse to come into my office to visit me, but in reality he thought it fun to watch the turmoil he had created with the staff. On one occasion, I expressed my observance and asked him why he drove the staff insane. Smiling, he said that seeing them running around like chickens with their heads cut off entertained him. It even amused him that I had nailed him. Listening to the hubbub and peering over my office wall was a frequent activity for him.

John Sherman met with the Community staff on a regular basis. On our first briefing with him, we were invited to his private office where he was sitting at his desk. He indicated that we should seat ourselves at his conference table. Once we were all at the table, he put a lead-crystal ashtray and a pack of cigarettes on the table. He sat down and promptly leaned back in the chair, bracing his feet on the edge of the conference table. During the meeting, he started to light a cigarette, and he offered me one. I pulled my cigarettes out of my pocket and put them on the table. John Sherman and I were the only two people smoking. A briefing can last several hours, and eventually the lieutenant nudged me wanting a cigarette. John Sherman countermanded, “No, if you didn’t bring your own, that is too bad.” He loved pulling rank.

V Corps Headquarters in Frankfurt managed all the appropriations for Fulda. At the end of the physical year, any budgeted monies not spent by the military have to be reported. The following year’s budget would be decreased by the amount not spent. John Sherman had me keep projects ready to submit for year-end funding in order to capture any excess appropriations from V Corp.

John Sherman knew he could count on me. Because I was not in the military, he would give me unique assignments. He instructed me to do a survey on the border for anything the troops on border patrol could use. I was to be flown by helicopter to these sites, but he warned me about the helicopter crew. John Sherman advised me because I was a female and a civilian, the crew would do their best to terrify me.

The next morning, I got on the helicopter, and one of the two pilots handed me a head-set with a microphone. They gave me brief instructions on how to speak to them. In a cloud of whirling dust, the helicopter roared to life, lifted and began its advance – then the games began. They flew nap-of-the-earth which in essence is to fly as fast and as close as possible to the ground. When a tree, hill or a building came on the horizon, they popped over it at the very last second. I refused to let them know that the wild and woolly ride shook me.

We stopped at my first assignment which was a listening post. When we landed on a mountain side, the only visible sign of life was a chimney. In the side of the mountain was a room where they sat listening for activity across the border. The troops spoke several languages among them and spent weeks at a time at this remote outpost. I toured five more border sites that day and visited with the troops to see what items they could use. Because of the isolation, the troops mainly wanted cross-country skis, movies and gear for the day rooms. I can attest to how difficult it is to spend six hours in a cold, noisy, bone-rattling helicopter. On the next leg of our journey, the pilots thought it would be funny to fly me on the East German side of the border, while the pilots technically remained in West Germany. When the helicopter hovered sideways with my fanny suspended in East Germany, I finally laughed. My flying cowboys were ecstatic.

Another year-end project was to remodel and expand the Rod and Gun Club. I prepared additional plans for a new bowling alley for Morale Support Fund. All these projects were funded because we were prepared and immediately submitted on short notice.

Rod and Gun Clubs were on every garrison, and anyone attached to the military could use the facilities. Rod and Gun Clubs had shooting ranges, small bars, and they sold weapons. Their primary purpose was to sell rifles, revolvers, shotguns and ammunition. The clubs had access to international brands of hunting rifle at prices much lower than in the US.

John Sherman called me down to his office. He asked me to take a package via helicopter to the post at Wildflecken. He instructed me that under no circumstances would I reveal what was in the package, nor to whom I was delivering the package.

I drove to the helicopter airfield where two pilots had been alerted and were waiting for me. This time there were no games. The flight was about 30 minutes, and when we landed a car was there to pick me up. I was escorted to the commander’s office, where he patiently sat with me for at approximately 45 minutes. We made small talk until he was notified that a general’s helicopter was landing. I said that would be my appointment. The colonel escorted me to the car and I was driven back to the airfield. A lieutenant stepped out of the general’s helicopter and asked me if I had the package for Heidelberg. I handed him the package, and I returned to the helicopter to fly home.

The point of the whole episode was to avoid any military person in our command having any direct contact with the package. As I was a civilian female, John Sherman knew I would avoid a direct command by an officer. A general had purchased a hunting rifle at the Rod and Gun Club in Heidelberg. When he returned to pick it up at a later date, the rifle was gone. It had accidentally been sold. A general carries a lot of weight, and everyone took his threat to close down that Rod and Gun Club, seriously. They found the same model at the Fulda Rod and Gun Club, and its transfer was given to me.

Several weeks later, the colonel from Wildflecken was in Fulda. Upon leaving the Community Commander’s office, he saw me sitting at my desk. He knocked politely, and I invited him to enter. After a mo-ment of amenable conversation, he asked me if I were able to relay why I had been in Wildflecken. Informing him I was still unable to discuss my mission, he saluted me and left. John Sherman thought that was a hoot, and he saluted me.

The Officer’s Club consumed Larry. He was obsessed in having everything run perfectly. He had navy and black tuxedos custom-made and asked his father to tailor several suits for him. His strange obsessions were becoming more apparent. If he came to my office the whole time he stood at my desk, he would reorder and realign everything. When he left, my desktop had everything lined up in a perfect row. If I were sick and stayed at home, he would make up the bed with me still in it. Having to be alert to Larry’s many moods and the endless shadow-boxing became my constant companions.

A brand new 2nd lieutenant was assigned to the Officers club for hands-on training as he had just graduated from club management school. Jerry Walters and his wife, Deborah, were from Missouri. She had polio as a child and had a deformed hip which created a difficult gait for her. She was an extremely, pretty girl with curly, brown hair flowing below her shoulders. Newly married, she had never been away from home and was homesick. She hung out with me as Jerry’s hours at the club were terrible. Having additional help at the club didn’t improve Larry’s hours at work.

Debbie and I went to a crystal factory. She had a Heinz 57 pup that we left in my car. Walking out of the store, I was carrying all of the shopping bags as Debbie had difficulty walking down the hill. Her dog saw us come out of the building. Jumping excitedly, the puppy knocked the car out of gear into neutral. The car started to roll downhill and was headed straight for a Mercedes. Our first instinct was to start running. I was loaded down with the fragile crystal we had purchased, and Debbie’s balance issues made it impossible for her to run. I shouted, “Walk, don’t run.” As we sauntered toward the parking lot, I watched my car creep down the grade. Just as the car rolled close to the black Mercedes, it stopped. Everything turned out okay, we were laughing and happy. When she asked me why I had stopped running, I said, “The car was insured, but the crystal wasn’t.”

Taking the Walters with us, we drove to Switzerland. We begin to near the Alps as the day began to fade into twilight. Rob, Debbie and I were in the back seat of the car. We were leaning back and forth, across one another, and craning our necks to see the backdrop of the mountains in the evening light. We checked into a Swiss chalet, and the next morning, we awoke to a wondrous sight. The mountains, we had briefly caught sight of the night before, were the foothills – the Alps stood majestically behind them.

We rode a cog-train up the mountain to a small, picturesque village, Grindelwald, which sits on a glacier beneath the Eiger Mountain. Grindelwald is surrounded by the spectacular mountain trio “Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau” A book and movie named the Eiger Sanction were recently released. It was exciting to see the sheer, north face of the Alp which was prominent in the movie, towering at 13,025 feet. We spent the day in the village shopping, eating and enjoying the spectacular view. There was an ice museum in the glacier with all the statues carved in ice. Switzerland is more pristine that Germany if that is possible. In the German villages, paper and trash were always policed, and on Saturday, everyone swept and washed their front walks and the street.

Jerry was assigned to the Frankfort Officer’s Club. In January, we went to Frankfort to spend the night at their high-rise apartment to watch the Super Bowl, together. The Dallas Cowboys were playing in Super Bowl XII. Jerry, Rob and Larry were beyond, ecstatic when Dallas won. “How Bout Them Cowboys,” was the national chant for a year.

Anna’s married daughter and her family decided to return to Fulda, and they wanted to move back to her house. Anna had already found us a new apartment which was under construction near the air field. The Germans are so smart in the way they construct and heat their houses. The foundation was laid, and I watched as the construction crew stacked large cinder-blocks and applied stucco to the outside. Every room had a separate radiator. Furnace fuel oil was extremely expensive, so all the doors were kept shut. The radiators are only turned on in the room being used, and the door is always kept shut. Heating only what is needed at the time is an efficient way to conserve fuel oil. The kitchen and bathrooms had individual water heaters which hung on the wall. When I needed to wash dishes or take a bath, I turned on the water heater which held just enough water for the job.

Because electricity is extremely expensive in Germany most homes don’t have large refrigerators. With limited space for storage, Germans shop daily for meat, fresh fruit and vegetables. In downtown Fulda, there was an open-air market with stall after stall of local vendors selling vegetables, fruits and fresh-cut flowers. The bakery, the butcher market and the grocery store were located around the marketplaz. I loved going downtown to the marketplaz. The stunning flowers brought in year round from Holland or Israel always made me happy.

I traveled for my job. I went to a NAF seminar in Heidelberg. My roommate was a German girl who informed me that when she traveled, she was not married. I don’t remember her ever spending the night in our room the whole week, she only showed up to change clothes.

When I traveled, I rarely used all my per diem pay. I would split the remainder with Rob in exchange for him keeping the house up and getting a meal together on the day I came home. Traveling by train, albeit a super fast train, always made me homesick and miss Daddy. He would have loved the idea of a Euro-Rail pass to travel anywhere he wanted.

I was sent to Munich for a week to attend and speak at a NAF school for Morale Support Fund military personnel. I had been asked to speak on accounting at the Friday afternoon session. This time the Army quartered the attendees in temporary apartments, and my new, German roommate informed me that she had the same standards as my previous roommate. During the week, she brought her brand new friend back to the apartment because we had a large, living area and television.

Most nights we ate together as a group. On Thursday night, we went to a popular disco named the Yellow Submarine. The walls had been built to hold a fish tank that completely surrounded the club. Inside, the yellow walls had portholes, and you could watch sharks circling the build-ing. The guys partied hard.

By noon on Friday, the ones with hangover were barely able to function. My session was to be on MSF accounting issues. I realized it was fruitless to try to teach a bunch of half-whole, hung-over soldiers. Required to take a test on the information they covered during the week, they were concerned. My class was the last one of the week. Knowing the questions for my portion of the test, I advised the guys that I would teach the test questions for 15 minutes then allow them to nap.

When I was assigned to go to the seminar in Munich, I realized it was the last weekend of the famous Oktoberfest. I made a request of the Army to keep the apartment for the weekend, and Larry and Rob drove to Munich to attend the festival. Larry and I were at each other’s throats, but we called a truce long enough to get through the weekend.

We lived in the village of Sickles, and Rob was able to use the German he learned at school. He met a girl in the village and started hang-ing out with her. Her family lived close to the air field. He was invited to stay for dinner one night. He had always spoken German with her family, and they did not realize that he was an American dependent. Her father made a disparaging remark about the American military during the dinner. Rob felt he needed to inform the father that he was American. Rob spoke German so well the father didn’t realize he was an American. Impressed that Rob had proper manners when he was in their home, her father said he had misspoke and would reconsider his views on Americans.

Rob had two constant buddies, Pete and Joey. They forever were in trouble for small, but many infractions. They usually managed to get caught when they were up to no-good. They played on the 8th and 9th grade football and basketball teams. Rob had a teacher named Tom Shilitoe both years. The first year Tom taught Rob, he would call me whenever Rob was disrespectful, rowdy or failed to turn in an assignment. We would talk to Rob and punish if necessary. Tom called me frequently, and I began to be concerned about Rob getting through his class. Fortunately, he was able to advance to 9th grade. Over the summer, Rob grew to be over six feet tall. The following school year, Tom started calling me. After the third call to complain, I informed Tom that he needed to find a way to deal with Rob. Rob was larger than Tom, and Tom was on his own. Rob may not have improved, but I no longer had to referee on a daily basis. Since Rob was far from an angel, I am sure Tom had a rough year.

The boys had a female teacher, who gave them an assignment with the caveat she would not accept any homework that was not in a folder. Having a very small PX, the few folders available were sold instantly. The boys took turns in submitting their assignment because they had one folder between them. Rob was the last one to turn in the assignment. When it was returned to him, it had a red F across the front page. She learned that he had borrowed the folder and gave him a failing grade. I normally backed teachers, but I felt she had gone too far since his work was fine with the exception of the folder. I went to the school and spoke with her, but she was adamant and unwilling to reach a compromise. I quickly tired of being stonewalled and informed her, “The only reason you gave the boys Fs is because they don’t allow you to give Gs.

When I returned to my office, I was still fuming. When I ran into John Sherman, I proceeded to rant about the teacher. He thought my “G” remark was funny and agreed the shortage of a folder did not condone her actions. Several days later, Rob was happy as his stubborn teacher had been transferred to Frankfurt. Going downstairs, I asked John Sherman if he had gotten rid of her. He smiled and said, “Nobody gives Gs in my command.” Gotta love him.

Billy came to Germany to look for opportunities as an opera singer. She found a job on post at the military barbershop. She had previously owned a large barbershop in Houston. A military barbershop has “one cut fits all mentality,” and the barbers are extremely busy. She became upset when she was expected to sweep up the hair that fell at her station. She later said that it was a learning experience sent to her by God. Apparently, God wasn’t willing to sweep, so she quit.

At the community theater on post the Morale Support Fund built private, sound-proof rooms, so the soldiers could play their instruments. I asked for permission to allow Billy to use a music room to practice. I was cooking dinner, when I got a call from the lieutenant in charge of the MSF. Billy had decided that all of the soldiers using the facility were a disruption while she rehearsed. She took it upon herself to throw them out of their own building. She was asked to leave. Next, I asked the chaplain if she could practice at the chapel. I found an Army wife to accompany her on the chapel piano. That was short-lived when Billy argued with her. Fortunately, she found an opera group in Austria who put up with her for another six weeks before she returned to Houston.

Morris and Tootsie were waging a war with me. They asked me to find a Hebrew teacher for Rob to prepare him for his Bar Mitzvah. I refused. I felt it was hypocritical of them, and especially of us to have a coming-of-age, religious ceremony. For years, Larry had refused to attend services, and Rob wasn’t particularly interested in studying Hebrew. His grandparents had never been interested in his religious education, so it seemed to me it was all about a party for their friends. My views prevailed, and there would be no Bar Mitzvah in Houston that summer.

Much to my surprise and chagrin, they announced they were coming to Germany that summer. I assumed it would be paid by Rob’s Bar Mitzvah party fund. Although, Morris had refused to visit a Nazi country when we lived in Hanau, they flew into Frankfort. I toured the palace and Dom in Fulda with them and then took them to the Officer’s Club to eat dinner with Larry. Every place we went, Morris insisted on speaking Yiddish to the wait staff or salespeople. Most Germans don’t understand Yiddish much less with a Texas accent.

We took them to Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber which is a medieval city which sits on the plateau above the Tauber River. It is truly the best preserved walled city in Germany. Surrounded by the ancient fortifications and with its charming shops and winding, narrow, cobbled streets, Rothenburg is history at your feet. To see it, you have to walk as most of the city is car free.

Unaccustomed to speed, Morris hated riding on Germany’s autobahn. Larry drove at 100 MPH, and Morris was clinging, white knuckled, to the dashboard. He finally insisted on Larry letting me drive. Anxious to get home, I managed to stay at 80 MPH.

We drove to Amsterdam, Netherlands. Holland is technically only the center region of the Netherlands not the whole county. They speak Dutch which is similar to German, but many people in the Netherlands speak English.

Amsterdam, what can I say – I loved it on sight. Amsterdam which is largely below sea level is built with a series of canals and dams dating from the Middle Ages. The five of us went on a boat sightseeing tour of the canals. We looked up at the tall, narrow canal houses with huge windows where we saw large hooks mounted under the roofs’ eaves. A canal house’s stairway is so narrow, it is difficult to move in furniture. The furniture hooks are used to hoist large items up to the windows where the furniture is swung into the wide windows. We sailed out to the main harbor where freighters from exotic places were moored.

We toured the Heineken Brewery and the Anne Frank House. The attic of the house was the hiding place of the teenage Anne Frank while she wrote her diary during World War II. Amsterdam oozes atmosphere with its narrow streets, picturesque canals, unique shops and numerous open-air markets. The Dam Square with the Royal Palace and the Ode Kerk (Old Church) which is in the center of the Red Light district are all glorious example of Renaissance styles with their amazing facades.

Amsterdam’s Sailors’ Quarters is one of the few red light districts existing in Europe in its original, classical form. We parked on a narrow street, and Tootsie and I started walking towards the bawdy Red Light District. A young man approached me and said, “ Do you need any coke?”

“Nope,” was my reply.

He came back with, “How about some hash?”

I smiled when I told him, “Only if it’s corned beef.”

We got to the canal where the registered prostitutes are on display. The quaint, old canal houses have the famous red lights in the red-fringed window parlors where the ladies reveal their wares and are eager to bargain. In the Red Light District, it is impossible not to be struck by charm of the very old buildings, leaning at odd-angles and the tree-lined canals in the middle of a party atmosphere and sex for sale.

Larry, Morris and Rob were walking ahead of Tootsie and me. Under the twinkling lights on a canal bridge, I saw a beautiful girl approach them. She assumed that the guys were there for Rob’s first excursion. I saw Robin turn bright red in the night-light, and I realized what was being said .

In the former Jewish quarter is the Jewish Historical Museum which we visited the next morning. The museum is a part of a complex of synagogues. There is a theater which was used during World War II as a deportation center for Jews who were being sent to concentration camps.

That afternoon, we went to the Rijksmuseum which is home to two of my all-time, favorite museum exhibits. The collection of antique doll houses was fabulous. I can’t begin to describe all the many, wonderful doll houses with rooms filled with elegant, delicate and tiny pieces of handmade furnishings. The whole room was an instant transport to a little girl’s land of make-believe.

Then in the main art gallery, I found Rembrandt’s Night Watch painting. It is Rembrandt’s largest canvas, and its beauty stunned me. When Rembrandt painted it, he was out of favor. He correctly feared that the painting would not be displayed in a prominent place with good lighting. Initially, he did not want to paint the militia company, but he was a friend to the captain of the company and finally agreed to paint it. With limited studio space, he rented a warehouse to paint such a large canvas. When it was completed, it was too big to move from of the warehouse. Rembrandt had to remove the stretchers, and then re-stretch it when he was ready to hang it.

Rembrandt’s amazing and effective use of light, shadow, and the perception of motion with the military company coming out of an alley behind the captain and the lieutenant is astonishing. The other militia figures are in the shadows with only their faces illuminated. Rembrandt’s use of glowing light on the hands, hair and faces of the forward characters make them seem real. Wow, it still blows me away.

Leaving Amsterdam, we drove to Zamenhof in the central Holland area where the “greatest flower show on earth” takes place. The Dutch have been growing tulips for over 400 hundred years. The multitude of tulips and the combination of colors were enchanting. Tootsie and I loved the tulip fields. Again, I was happy to be at the right place and at the right time for flowers. We stopped in the countryside to look at an old windmill where we met a family that lived on a river barge.

The following March, we flew to Houston for Tootsie and Morris’ 50th anniversary party. She had the party at the Warwick Hotel which is surrounded by the museum district, Rice University and the Miller Outdoor Theater at the park. It was a lovely party with all their family and friends in attendance. For the ten days we were in Houston, we stayed at a hotel near their house.

Our next trip was a tour to France and on to Paris. Robin’s girl-friend was a senior in high school. She smooth talked her parents into going on the tour, also. We stayed in a small Parisian hotel, and Rob doubled with a single captain. Rob swears he had his first excursion in Paris.

We entered France through the city of Strasbourg, where we previously visited to shop for clothes for me. German clothes swallowed me, and I went to France where I could find my size. I loved Strasbourg, but was happy to roll through it this time.

We went to several military cemeteries in the Verdun area. After we toured the French memorial building, we walked around to the back of it. There I saw small windows around the edge of the basement. The small, oblong windows were at ground level. Being my normal curious self, I bent over and looked inside. Much to my amazement, I was looking into a mass grave for thousands of unidentified French and German soldiers. Seeing an unexpected jumble of bones and realizing it was the grave of unknown solders was unsettling.

In the Champagne region, we toured the Moét & Chandon winery where Dom Pérignon is made. In the grimy, underground cellars, we saw thousands of dusty bottles undergoing the fermentation and aging process. We were given a glass of champagne when we reached the main shop. From there we went to the famous Rheims Cathedral which had wonderful, stained-glass windows which depicts the process of making wine. Over the centuries, many French kings had their coronations in this amazing Gothic cathedral.

At the hotel in Paris I stepped on an elevator, and the young man running the elevator spoke to me in French. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying, but his voice was melodious. After hearing the harsh German dialect for so long, I fell in love instantly.

We went to the Louvre, where I was disappointed in the Mona Lisa. I think I expected it to be larger than life, and I was surprised to find it was a 30” X 20” portrait much like one would get from a professional photographer today. Di Vinci did regain my respect when we went to Italy. Originally a palace along the banks of the Seine River, the Louvre has been a museum since the French Revolution. The Louvre has a wonderful Egyptian collection, and the ancient Greece section with the Venus de Milo is exceptional.

We walked through Tuileries Park which begins at the Louvre and runs along the Seine to Concorde Square. It stretches straight down the Champs-Élyśees to the Arc de Triomphe. This is Paris at its best. The Parisian architecture of grand buildings, wonderful homes and apartments, all of which have been carefully preserved over the years, give Paris a presence that can’t be found in any other city.

Paris is called the “City of Lights” and at night the wide boulevards, bridges, monuments and the Eiffel Tower all glow and shimmer in the street lights and spot lights. Another favorite of mine was the beautifully decorated Galeries Lafayette department store. It is massive. It has so many salons, departments and restaurants, it could take all day to explore.

Along the Champs-Élyśees, we went into the perfume stores and then to the candy and chocolate shops. In the French candy stores, you first select a beautifully trimmed, decorative candy box. Then you select piece-by-piece, the fabulous chocolates which are done with an artistic flair only the French can do.

Strolling down the Champs-Élyśees to the Arc de Triomphe traffic circle and over on Avenue de Wagram, I found a kosher delicatessen quite by accident. When I walked in the deli, I could smell the garlic and dill from the kosher pickles. It was the kind of shop that has your mouth-watering the minute you walk in the door. We ate lunch there, and on the next evening we picked up food to take back to the hotel for dinner.

In Montmarté, we went to the Sacre Coeur Basilica which looks like a delectable, white French pastry perched on the highest hill in Paris. We saw the Montmartre windmill which has inspired many famous and unknown artists. At the bottom of the hill we walked the street where the street artists sketch and sell their artwork to the throng of tourists.

We wanted to see the famous cabaret the Moulin Rouge which is the home of the famous dance, the Can-Can, but it was for adults only. We had a quick tour of the well known Pigalle Place. Like Amsterdam’s Red Light District, Paris’ Pigalle Place is the home of all that’s X-rated: peep shows, sex shops, prostitution and strip clubs.

Paris was all about food even when I didn’t order it. We walked a lot and it was a very warm day. We stopped at a typical sidewalk café to get a cold drink. The waiter approached us, and I confidently said with my Texas accent, “Cinq, Cokes Monsieur.”

It seemed forever before he came back and dropped five grilled ham and cheese sandwiches in front of us. Trying to explain to him that I didn’t want sandwiches that we wanted Coca Colas became an ordeal. Irate, he finally showed me on the menu, Coque Monsieur. I realized I had indeed ordered grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. When you piss-off a French waiter, they will always win. His French didn’t seem as lovely as the elevator operator’s French.

Versailles really lived up to its reputation. The chateaus and the gardens at Versailles are the finest collections of 17th century French art in existence. King Louis XIII’s former hunting lodge was transformed and enlarged by his son Louis XIV, who installed his court and government there. The palace was embellished with new apartments during the 18th century in the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI. The royal family and the court were forced to leave Versailles after the French Revolution.

Marie Antoinette had a hamlet built as a private, summer home in the midst of the phenomenal, formal gardens. It was an unexpected jewel for me. At the palace we toured the fabulous Royal Apartments, the Marble Court, the Hall of Mirrors and the Queen’s apartments, all of which attest to the decadence and to the glorious art of the era. The history of the Kings and Napoleon in this wonderful setting made it possible to visualize the elite’s lifestyle in the 1700s.

Mother and Jay decide to come to Fulda before they married. Ruth had passed away, and Jay still lived in the apartment above Mother. Lee’s oldest son, Mike, from his first marriage was stationed in Germany. He agreed to come to Fulda by train to see his grandmother. He had a several hour lay-over in Wiesbaden. Since Wiesbaden was only an hour drive away, we drove there to pick him up at the bahnhof (train station). Mother had not seen Mike since he was 14-years-old, and she was concerned about recognizing him. We were standing on the platform at the train station when a blond, young man jumped off the train. It didn’t take us long to see that he had the distinctive stride of his Dad.

We toured Fulda and the surrounding area. I asked John Sherman for permission to take them to the border. On an Easter morning we were put in a military sedan for the drive to the border, and our tour guide was a sergeant whose wife was a friend of mine. When we neared the border and passed the Verboten (Forbidden) signs at the one-kilometer zone, I sensed Mother was anxious. At the border there is the wire fence, but there was also a wide, deep trench which was engineered to keep vehicles and tanks from crashing out. Along with a second, inner fence line were rows of observation towers, minefields and tank traps.

As we wound our way along the eerie-quite border and neared the first tower, an East German soldier who was carrying a high-powered rifle got on a motorcycle. The soldier began to keep pace with us. Mother was terrified as the two military vehicles rolled along in unison. I kept reassuring her, and finally the sergeant told her that we had our own guns.

We passed the towers which were on the East German side and were manned 24 hours a day. Each tower overlooked the next tower. If the soldiers on tower duty tried to make a run for the border, they would be shot down. The East German soldiers were rotated on tower watch in order to keep them from getting buddy-buddy and helping each other to escape.

Shortly, we arrived at a remote outpost for our military, where we went up to a platform which overlooked the valley and a small, typical village in East Germany. The village was completely automated to look like people lived there. Lights would come on at night, and the milkman would come in the morning. It was a village devoid of villagers. The fake village was a listening post for the East Germans to track the movement of the US military. Unnerved, Mother never appreciated the unique bonus of being the rare, American female who actually went to the border.

Larry, Rob and I next went to Spain. We invited Pete to come with us for Robin to have someone his own age along. I found a reasonably priced condo in Tossa de Mar for the week. Riding through the south of France, I was struck by the beauty of the rolling plains. It was what I had imaged Spain would look like. I saw red-tiled roofs and large haciendas on sun-bleached, rippling plains. I could have easily been on South Texas’ coastal plains.

Tossa de Mar is 60 miles north of Barcelona on the Coasta Brava. It was a medieval village with cobbled streets and a magnificent, ancient castle. Stacked above the beach is the lush, mountainous area where we found our condo. We let the boys rent mopeds as to climb the hill back and forth to town was rough. I thought they were old enough to have their own adventures. We would eat breakfast at the condo and would spend the day wandering and relaxing. Tossa de Mar was not the typical, tourist beach town, it was very much an ancient village.

I couldn’t adjust my appetite to the Spanish dining hours. We rushed to town to have lunch as everything was closed from 2 to 6 o’clock. The restaurants began serving dinner at 9 pm. I was always hungry at the wrong time, usually during siesta.

We took the boys to dinner at a lovely restaurant which was on the Mediterranean Sea. When I saw the Mediterranean Sea, I was amazed at how uniquely clear and blue the water was. Accustomed to the brackish Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean blew me away.

At the restaurant, Larry talked the boys into ordering lagnostino, a shellfish. The waiter came with a copper chaffing dish and prepared the meal in front of us. He plated the rice pilaf, and next he placed the lagnostino still in their shells on top of the rice. The waiter presented the first plate to Pete. Pete patiently waited for Rob’s portion to be served. When both boys had their plates in front of them, Pete looked up and very seriously said, “You know, I think I got all the ugly ones.”

I wanted to go to Montserrat to see the Black Madonna. There was a tour bus leaving from the next village. I caught a taxi, and the driver flew over the mountain at a break-neck speed. I was early for the tour. When we got to Montserrat, I was surprised to see a mountain of barren rock with almost nothing growing on it. Near the top of the 4,000-foot mountain is a monastery which is home to about 80 monks. Next to the monastery is the basilica where the famed statue is kept. The small, wooden statue is of a seated Black Virgin with a baby Jesus on her lap. Her dark color is due to changes in the varnish with the passage of time.

We spent a day in Barcelona and went to the Barcelona Cathedral. During the Roman Empire, the first basilica was built in the 300s AD. Over the centuries, the Barcelona Cathedral has evolved. Of all the Gothic buildings I saw in Europe, this was the finest.

I thought the women of Barcelona were exceptionally gorgeous. With their sleek and shiny, black hair they were so chic and beautifully groomed. We went shopping in one of the large department stores, where I bought the fabric fan that is always on my coffee table. We went to the old port and saw replicas of the ships of Columbus, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. We walked through the La Ramba area where the locals shop on a crowded, pedestrian mall of several blocks. There were hundreds of caged canaries for sale. It was not your typical open-air market.

Final Straw

It was decided Daddy would buy a business with some of Tom’s insurance money. Finally, their ship was coming in. With no retail experience at all, they bought a grocery store in Denver City, Texas. Adjacent to the store was an apartment, perhaps I should say rooms. Across the front there was a living room and my parent’s bedroom with a small kitchen behind it. A minuscule, breakfast nook was converted into a bedroom for Ron, and beyond that was an itty-bitty bedroom for me.

Denver City is a small town in the Texas panhandle.  It is west of Lubbock and 35 miles from Hobbs, New Mexico. It was born during the oil boom, and when we arrived; it was on the wane. Flat, bleak, dusty and gritty, Denver City reeked twenty-four hours a day from the gas well, burn-off odors. The town was in a two square mile radius, and the population was about 3,000 people. Demographics never occurred to my folks.

In Denver City, I met Ady Miller, who was to become my best friend. Long before Paris and Nicole became the poster children for BFF, Ady and I forged our bond. I have a small, tattered photo of us. The photo shows us leaning against a jewelry counter waiting to pick up a watch her mother had left for repair. The slightly off-color in the photo gives us a reddish cast to our hair. At least it is not in black and white. At 15-years-old, we were both desperately trying to be blonds, so I know for sure the color is distorted. I have on a red and white striped shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and Ady is, as always, prim in a short-sleeve shirt. Not even the thought of a wrinkle is on our faces. The memory of everyone thinking we were sisters is there as I look at both of us in identical, black, cat-eyed rim glasses. Sitting together in the car at the Dairy Queen, no one could tell us apart. Standing, I was three inches taller than she was, but sitting we were a matched pair.

On April 3, 2008, while visiting for her birthday, we discussed what we should do on the 50th anniversary of our friendship. Perhaps a trip together, but where and for how long was to be decided later. For our 50th birthdays which are two weeks apart, we went to New Orleans for three days. As we say in Texas – we had a high-heeled time. Having an entire year to plan our next adventure, we anticipated it would be as wonderful as our trip to New Orleans.

Ten days later in a flurry of 15 minutes, Ady had a massive stroke and died before her husband could get an emergency service to the house. In honor of our 50th anniversary, I planted a tree. As I watch it grow, I can remember our 49 years together. A best friend is like a second self and is a special, rare gift.

Billy went into show business. She returned to Arkansas and talked a school chum, named Ruby, into creating an act with her. Billy dressed in a fringed, Western costume, a la Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun. Ruby wore an Indian maiden costume. Billy had enough cash to fund her long anticipated daydream. She purchased the costumes, a small organ on which she learned to chord and use the rhythm function, a banjo and a 1959 pink Thunderbird. For some unexplainable reason, she cut one-third of the steering wheel off the T-Bird. It looked like the steering wheel in an airplane cockpit. The girls formed a duo and began to practice. They had some gigs in the area because they wandered in and out of Denver City regularly. Learning Billy was a lesbian put a crimp in the partnership, and Ruby disappeared.

During one of Billy’s sojourns home and being her normal ill-disposed self, she pushed me out of her way. I was sweeping the kitchen floor. I turned to push her back, and she cocked her arm. Out weighing me by 40 pounds, she fully intended to slam her doubled fist into my face. Without thinking, I instinctively pushed her against the wall. Jamming the broom handle across her throat, I pressed hard. I told her if she ever touched me again I would kill her, and at that particular moment I could ruin her voice forever. Seeing the intent and resolve in my eyes, she never physically abused me again.

Daddy bought a red Cadillac sedan. Later that year, he bought me a 1955,  fire-engine red Mercury coupe with a 1957 Mercury engine. I was an extremely happy teenager. Mother was into being a store owner. She hosted a Christmas cocktail party and dinners for the employees. She may have used the treasure trove she bought at Saks Firth Avenue.

The primary traffic that came into the store, besides the oil field roughnecks, were a few locals. Occasionally, there would be a truck load of migrant field hands who couldn’t speak English. While the group crowded the store, some of them stole from us. Late in the month when money was low, the town drunks came in the store to buy vanilla extract. It was a poor substitute for liquor.

Daddy’s spiral began to affect everything. My parents asked Lee and Kay to move to Denver City to help run the store. Once Lee came, the Ol’ Man emotionally walked away and actively participated in his own descent. Lee’s second son, David, was born in Denver City. Although he was an adorable and cute toddler as a new-born,he was red and exceedingly ugly. Unsightly seemed mandatory in bedraggled Denver City.

Daddy was drinking heavily for the first time in my short life. He and Mother had declared an all out, open range war. He joined a Lonely Hearts mailing list probably looking for a rich widow to resolve his problems. He tried explaining this to me in a round-about way.

Leaving Denver City one afternoon, Daddy and I drove to La Mesa, Texas. We went to a movie and this was highly out of character for Daddy. Seated for a short time, he whispered he had some business to take care of and for me to wait for him. Like I had a choice. I sat through The Rat Race with Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds twice, until he returned. I learned that when you’re in a rat race, you win a rat. Leaving the movie, he was so wasted, I drove back to Denver City. I was never sure if he had been out hustling some poor, unsuspecting widow or to the bootlegger. Normally, he didn’t have any qualms about going to the bootlegger with me in the car. After being left alone in a movie for several hours, I was absolutely positive it was detrimental.

His next escapade was beyond belief. Late one evening, I answered a telephone call telling me that Daddy was in a car accident and was at the hospital. Having no idea where Mother was, I called Lee. We both got to the hospital about the same time. Daddy claimed he had been cut off by another driver, who had shot at him. In a drunken stupor, he pulled off the road and unloaded his own Colt 38 revolver into his own car.

They lost all creditability in this small-minded town. I am sure they were heavily in debt. We cut-and-ran again. Lee and Kay lost everything along with us. Packing our meager possessions in two trailers, he pulled one trailer. I drove the second trailer as pulling a loaded trailer was something Mother was completely incapable of doing. We made our way down to Houston where Margaret and Van lived. It never occurred to Mother or Daddy to not let me drive. I was a teenager pulling an open farm trailer with no idea how to back it up and probably no insurance on it. I was locked up with Mother’s rage for 600 miles. Ron lucked out and got to ride with the Ol’ Man. Nearing Houston on IH 10, the freeway system stunned me. I had never seen freeways, and the heavy, city traffic blew my trailer-laden mind.

Trekking Back to Texas

We moved to Wichita Falls, Texas. How we landed there is an absolute mystery to me. In Wichita Falls, I began to see there were different types of homes, neighbors and family functions. A whole other world, one where people had lived in one house from the day they were born and used china that matched. We had lived in post housing for the previous six years, and most families had been similar to ours.

I started 7th grade at Reagan Junior High School. I doubt I lasted a week before I declared that under no circumstances would I return to that hell hole. My total system was in shock. I was a baby and had been thrown in with wolves. The school was primarily populated with Mexican children and their culture was alien to me. The school searched them daily for cigarettes, lighters, firecrackers, knives or any weapons. My sensibilities went into overload. Mother learned from a neighbor that although Reagan was closer to our house, we lived in the Zundelowitz Junior High School district.

Zundy was the happiest time of my school years. I had home room, a different teacher for every subject, and people who actually put a value on me. I joined the Future Teachers Club, went to ball games and had my own circle of friends. In English class, I was required to submit an essay. Later in the year, the school presented me with a bound copy of my essay which had been submitted to a national contest. Along with other students, nationally, I had won the essay competition. Again, I am surprised. Why in the hell do I not know when I am in competition. I still have that  little book.

During the 1950s, the Ducktail was a haircut style, popular initially for males. The actual name was the Duck’s Ass, but propriety called for the name Ducktail to be used in mixed company. The Ducktail hair style contributed to the term “greasers.” To accomplish this look, lots of grease was required to hold the hair in place. Still the era of hair creams, it only took a little extra cream to hold it in place. “A little dab will do ya!” Guys combed their hair through out the day with greasy combs. By 1957, it was a fad with girls, and I got a stylish hair cut for the first time.

Mother explained “the curse” to me. I was at least not surprised at something for once, but then my original explanation had been Toni. This was the year, Mother let me paint my room black. I got a used, Hi-Fi record player, and my musical taste expanded to Johnny Mathis and Peggy Lee. I felt Elvis, Ricky Nelson and Bobby Darren required something I wasn’t willing to participate in – screaming when they walked on stage.

Billy attended Wayland Baptist College in Plainview, Texas which is outside of Lubbock. She was in school on a basketball scholarship. Lee had moved to Lubbock, I am sure that this is part of how she got there. She dyed her hair red and had a statuesque body. Wearing a dress, she had a modicum of attractiveness. She was dating Tom Bowman, a married, older gentleman who bought her a yellow, MG A Roadster automobile.

She came to Wichita Falls frequently because I did most of her classwork for her to retain her scholarship. During her senior year in high school, I did almost all of her homework. Having a room alone for the first time, I was more than willing to do anything to keep her from moving home.

For the first time I can recall, Mother had a close, female friend with whom she visited and gossiped. Mom had never needed a girlfriend, but I think this one had a tainted past. Mother could instruct her in the wiles of a Southern lady. Her friend had been divorced and had a daughter a year young than I.

When I was invited to a prom, Mother borrowed a white, strapless formal with a full, ballerina-length skirt from her friend’s daughter. On the big night my date arrived to pick me up. When we got into the car, he introduced me to the couple we were double dating with. Much to my surprise, the beautiful brunette in the back seat had on an identical dress in pink. Initially taken back, I decided that I would just tell everyone I was her little sister. She went on to win the Miss Wichita Falls competition.

Needing a musical outlet, Mother decided we were religious again. The First Baptist Church had numerous, youth activities, and I spent most of my free time there. As an infant I had been christened Methodist. It was determined I now required a baptism. I was not included in any of the decision process. I felt it hypocritical to be arbitrarily baptized, and I was not pleased. During the baptism, there was too much chlorine in the water. The preacher failed to keep my nose closed. Inhaling water, I surfaced struggling and sputtering. I surmised he was trying to drown me for being a hypocrite. I was offended that the Baptist church did not deem me acceptable unless they performed the ceremony. I believe the natural order of things is to have an epiphany and then be baptized. I was baptized, and then I had an epiphany.

I was taught from the Old Testament about hell, fire, brimstone and retribution. It was a vengeful God who had sent Moses wandering the desert for 40 years, turned people into a pillar of salt, created a rain for 40 days and 40 nights, set Noah, his family and animals adrift, created plagues and required the slaughter of a first born. The New Testament’s lesson was that unless one completely accepted all its tenets, you absolutely would not go to heaven.

I needed explanations for Mohammad, Buddha, Hindus, any group declaring theirs was the way and the light and even an explanation for the big bang theory. I felt there was a supreme being. I believed angels or spiritual guides were possible. I favored reincarnation for it would certainly be an impossible and daunting task to obtain a higher level in one life time. I felt both heaven and hell existed on earth. With my usual irreverent sense of humor, my explanation is that when one dies the soul goes to a holding garage in Buffalo until it is time to return and have another stab at getting it right. I had just been baptized as an agnostic. I learned later that my personal hero, Einstein, was an agnostic.

During the summer, I went to church camp. Like all kids, we had a great time, bunking in cabins and running people’s underwear up the flag pole. We attended the services in an open, wooden tabernacle with barely a roof and no sides. I sat pretty far back, and the sermon was on Noah and the Ark. As the sermon began the skies darkened, the thunder rumbled, the air temperature dropped and the rain began. With this direct sign from God, the children streamed in troves down to the front altar to confess their need to be redeemed. Perhaps 50 kids were saved. This included a boy named Mike, whose father was a preacher. Mike hide his liquor bottle in our bushes most of the year. I was some what surprised at this mass reaction from the crowd.

I strongly felt that the clever, young evangelist had checked the weather forecast prior to the sermon. He used it to his advantage in his sermon. Lord, I was a complicated child and so tired of surprises. When camp was over, Mike promptly returned to hiding his liquor bottle in our bushes. Religion became a non-issue, again until we moved to Houston.

Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 2:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Six-to-Twelve-Years–Old

Daddy got a government job at Red River Arsenal. For the first time in his life he had a viable career. Red River was an ammunitions storage facility with tank repair facilities. I have no idea what he actually did there, not what mother purported which was allegedly top-secret. We were assigned a house in the housing facility in Hooks which is not far from Texarkana. Hooks is what Texans call a red, white and blue city – red necks, white T-shirts and blue northerners. When the Polar Express collides with northeast Texas, it leaves a trail of icy devastation across the flatlands and valleys.

Memories from Hooks still bubble up for me. I remember Billy getting in trouble for playing football, shirtless. She was 12-years-old, but not yet developed. She felt compelled to look and act like one of the boys. She was always tall and lanky with limp, stringy hair. Mother always referred to her hair as “cat smellers.” She made guns from scraps of wood and a clothes pin attached as the firing pin. She cut rubber inner-tubes into strips. Next, across the wooden barrel, she would stretch the rubber strips which were locked on by the clothes pin. You can be positive, we were her favorite targets.

Margaret brought Vana, her first child, home for a visit. Holding Vana up so we could see her, Ron and I would gawk from the doorway because Margaret considered us germ magnets. I found Margaret’s tulle formal from high school and made a bridal gown for my doll. When I showed her my beautiful doll dress, she exploded. I couldn’t quite grasp the enormity of her fury. I figured if the dress had been so important, she wouldn’t have left it behind. I was a rather bottom line child which set me up for my ever-present “get over yourself” attitude. It has actually served me pretty well, so I should thank Margaret.

We drove to Texarkana to attend church. I think Mother had the hots for the preacher more than religion. After what seemed interminable sermons, I was always desperate to potty. After the service when the preacher came by, Mother would preen and sashay. I would stand on one foot wiggling and willing myself to not wet my panties. I had very little patience with my Southern belle mother’s need to constantly flirt.

For a church pageant, a couple who had been missionaries in China dressed me in a soft, yellow, silk kimono. It was my first real taste of luxury. I absolutely despised Vacation Bible school. Maybe because I was so petite, they treated me like a three-year-old. I hated marching around in little chain-gang groups. Daily, they served orange Kool-Aid with stale, dry cookies, both of which I abhorred.

I started grade school, and I recall getting new dresses, all of which needed to be hemmed. I also remember wearing the same dresses in the 4th grade with the hem obviously re-let out. Since we moved frequently, and I would go to a different school maybe no one would know the difference. I was so tiny, I could wear the same clothes for four years.

I had a defining moment in Hooks. I was in the 1st grade and there was a school pageant. Each class had a princess and a prince, and we lined up from 1st through the 6th grades. Much to my amazement, I was the 1st grade princess. In a long, ruffled, organdy dress on the arm of my escort, we led the royalty up to the stage. How that happened and how I got the dress is long gone. The highlight of the evening was a raffle, which I won. Unfortunately for me, the prize was a pair of rabbits. I had to cry to get Mother to let me take the rabbits home. The rabbits did not last long because whoever kidnaps rabbits from six-year-olds got to our house quickly. What my folks gave with one hand, they took away with the other. I remember the organdy dress. I remember the rabbit’s disappearance more.

Lee’s wife, Jean, was from Texarkana. She had two Pomeranian dogs which she was insane about. Lee was in his early 20s and cocky as all get out. He would take Ron and me to their apartment on Saturday. He made a big deal out of being a big brother. Actually, I am sure it was to irritate Jean. She didn’t care for kids and wouldn’t let us touch anything.

During this time, Lee bought a new, baby-blue Ford sedan. He drove over a gravel road with me standing in the back floorboard. Looking over his shoulder, I watched as the speedometer inched up until we were flying over a 100 miles an hour. When we got home, I was happy about being the fastest kid in the world. Mother was not happy.

I knew that President Truman had ordered the atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan when I was an infant. I vaguely knew the details of the actual event, and I was aware that thousands of people had perished. Conceivably, millions were suffering the aftermath of radiation sickness as it was referred to in 1950. I could not begin to put this troubling information in perspective. My innate curiosity couldn’t grapple with an event of such enormity.

Looking at a globe and running my finger around the top quadrant as I spun it, I would look for Japan. It was an island next to two of the world’s largest countries, China and Russia. How could such a tiny country cause so much havoc that our President would drop the “biggest bomb in the history of mankind” on it? Did the Japanese have any warning? If it was such a ferocious bomb, how did the plane carrying that amazing cargo manage to get away safely? If the bombs had leveled the cities, where were the hospitals for all these people? At-six-years-old being aware and understanding were contrary concepts.

My teacher announced that the federal government had mandated all schools were to conduct bomb drills. Being familiar with fire drills, I was anticipating getting to go outside to the playground. She explained that when the siren sounded, we would be required to sit underneath our desks. We were to pull our legs up, wrap our arms around our legs and put our heads down.

Disappointed that we wouldn’t be going out, I did as instructed when the siren’s blast began. I slid down the smooth seat and eased onto the floor. I wrapped my tiny arms around my bony knees and waited. Surprisingly calm, I heard another child weeping, and I began to look around at my classmates. Some had their eyes tightly shut, others had eyes that were wide-with-fear, and one little boy was sitting at attention with a stoic expression.

With extreme clarity, it occurred to me that if a bomb should fall on us like the one that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it would be pointless to sit under a desk. Why would anyone bomb a Texas elementary school when Washington, D.C. would be a more likely target? Who in the government was under the impression that sitting underneath a desk was an effective deterrent to an atomic bomb? For certain, I had far more questions than I had fear. I may have been an old-six-year old.

In 1954, we moved to Pine Bluff Arsenal, Arkansas. I have many memories of playing outside until after dark, climbing trees, roaming in the woods and fine tuning my attitude. Ron was forced to play house with me for endless hours. We lived in post housing, adjacent to the arsenal, which was a closed to the public facility. The arsenal produced a wide array of munitions and chemical/biological defense systems. On the arsenal proper, there was the upper rank military houses, the officer’s club with a swimming pool, a golf course and a movie. The Army sent a bus to the housing area for movie pick-up, and we went to the movies for 25 cents. On the post there were massive, concrete, ammunitions dumps which were covered in tons of dirt with grass growing over them. During tornado alerts, we would stay in an empty one. The bunkers were dark, damp and dank, but everybody brought food and blankets to sit on. We played cards and visited with the other families. It didn’t take long for a “sing” to start.

Daddy was sent to trade schools by the Army. The summer he went to school in New York, Mother went with him. The highlight of the trip for her was shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue. She bought a demitasse cup set with saucers shaped like leaves, which I have. I doubt if they were ever used or brought out of the china cabinet. She purchased a silver-on-glass tea service which Ron has now. We were still afloat on a ship name Grand Illusions, because we were now accumulating materials things used by society. We were going to be prepared when our time to be rich and famous sailed by. I was fully aware that Aunt Sadie’s last salvo had sunk the original ship which never got to float, even if the rest of my family still aspired to the myth of our ship coming in.

Mother parlayed her musical ability into being the music teacher at the elementary school. Since she couldn’t read music, I am not sure how she pulled that off. Being into big productions with grade school children, she insisted I take tap dancing. I had two left feet. For one program, we picked hundreds of flowers and stapled them on the backdrop of the stage. By the time the program started, the roses were dismal, droopy and forlorn. She wrote a blues song, I’ve Got the Helicopter Blues. I am sorry that I don’t remember the words, I think having the blues for helicopters was a first.

I distinctly recall being in a Christmas program. My “get over yourself” personality surfaced during my solo. For all the musical ability in my family, I can not carry a tune. The humorist, Fred Allen, once said, “The first time I sang in the church choir; two hundred people changed their religion.”

I can see myself on the stage wearing an iridescent taffeta, navy jumper with an organza blouse which was a hand-me-down. Mother had chopped my hair off like an extra from Annie. Looking out into the audience and seeing Major Lane I thought, “I wonder if he knows I can not carry a goddamn tune?” That was my last musical performance. I remember the song. It was Winter Wonderland, and I still can’t sing it. From that minute on Mother quit pushing me to be the star, and that lot fell to Billy.

I wasn’t saddled with attending church during this period as Mother was now a music teacher. She didn’t have to rely on being in the choir. They bought a used piano, and now she could teach piano lessons. She required me to learn to play the piano, and I did learn the AGBDF (all good birds do fly) theory of music. I really don’t recall the lessons, I recall practicing. While she cooked, I practiced in the next room. When I made a mistake, she would fly into the living room ranting and raving about my inability to play as taught. I didn’t last long as a piano student, she dumped me. I did have a wonderful discovery, there was music other than hymns and country-western as it was called in those days. I discovered Debussy, Chopin and Beethoven. Classical music has been my preference since then.

Lee and Jean divorced. He left Texarkana and his first son, Michael behind. He brought his dog, Toni, home to us. She was a pedigreed, black Cocker Spaniel. Since she was Lee’s, we were allowed to have a dog in the house. She was beyond spoiled, and even Daddy would buy her a serving of ice cream in a Dixie cup. Toni got to be rather hefty. When we would pack for a trip, she would put her rump against the door hoping we couldn’t get out.

Toni came into heat. We were told not to let the dog out, but no one bothered to explain why to me. Unfortunately, on a Sunday morning, I was up, and the dog wanted to go outside. Naturally, I opened the door. In a short time, Mother drug me out to the back porch where I was required to watch the damage I had done. Toni’s suitor had wasted no time in mounting her.

On trips Daddy made sure we saw every historical attraction. He never passed a historical marker on any highway without stopping to see it. At every historical marker in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, we stopped to pay homage. We drove to Nashville to see Margaret, Van and Vana. The trip’s highlight for me was getting to go to the Parthenon replica in Nashville.

In the 1950s, most automobiles didn’t have air conditioners so the Ol’ Man always traveled at night. Early one morning in eastern Tennessee, we were traveling up a narrow, mountain highway. Everyone was asleep. Awake, I was looking over Daddy’s shoulder. Considering he had to be tired, I was worried. The rising, morning sun was shining directly into his eyes. The mountain jutted up through the haze covering the valley below. The haze clung to the highway. I looked out, and in a clearing I saw the drop from the mountain. There were no guard rails. I was terrified! When the family awakened, Daddy had parked at one of the panoramic vistas. We were surrounded by the glory of the Smoky Mountains. Looking through the telescopes, we swore we could see seven states from there.

We toured Mammoth Caves in Kentucky and crossed over into Indiana, one time just for the hell of it. The Ol’ Man had gypsy in his soul. Years later while living in Germany, I would see the gypsy caravans and automatically thought of him.

I loved traveling in the South in the spring. Mimosa trees grew heavily along the highways. There were massive wild azaleas and wild honeysuckle. Their sweet, heady aroma would waft into the car windows as we drove down the highway. When the dogwoods were in bloom, Mother would tell us the legend of the dogwood tree. Legend has it that at the time of the crucifixion, the dogwood was distressed to be the timber for the crucifixion cross. Since then the dogwood has been a small tree with petals showing a crown of thorns.

Growing across the South, there is a prolific, ivy-like plant called kudzu. The small white flowers have a subtle, sweet fragrance. The shapes created by kudzu vines growing over trees and bushes were delightful. We would drive by green, fantasy lands where the lush, sculptured intricacies of kudzu vine-covered abandoned barns, cars and fences were enchanting.

We often went to Mississippi for Mother to visit her family. Daddy, Ron and I would do all the tourist things at the beach. Never did he think to go visit with a relative or a former friend. It was almost as if he had never lived his first 38 years on the Gulf Coast. I have a black and white photograph of Ron and me standing on a boat in the Gulfport harbor with the wind plastering my dress to my body.

When we took trips to Mississippi, if at all possible Mother would dump us at Jackie’s house. Jackie was the only daughter of Aunt Lonnie who was an RN. Although Jackie and I were 1st cousins, she was seven or eight years younger than Mother. They lived in Pass Christian, a half block from the beach. Aunt Lonnie owned the house, but she lived upstairs in a small apartment,. She turned the remainder of the house over to Jackie and her husband, Emmet. Four of their six children had been born. The kids wrecked the house, tore the screens off the floor-to-ceiling windows and a continuous fight was always in progress.

When my parents would arrive, Jackie would make drip coffee. The chipped, enamel pot had a mahogany-stained, cloth bag which held the coffee grounds. It looked dirty, and I couldn’t imagine ever wanting coffee at her house. Jackie was short, squat and homely. Her bulldog features were close-set, and she had a pinched expression. Jackie screamed and cursed incessantly. Instantly, she could go into a rage. She was the meanest woman I had ever met. Emmet would take all the kids down to the beach, build a campfire and boil seafood. He did his best to keep us out of her line of fire.

My senses went into overload every time I had to stay behind in Pass Christian. Feeling sorry for me, Aunt Lonnie would take me upstairs to her apartment when she came home from her shift. In the late 1940s, Howard Hughes was a famous airplane designer and a prominent movie producer. For the movie The Outlaw with Jane Russell, Hughes invented a one-of-a-kind bra to up-lift the contour of the bosom. Aunt Lonnie was stout with rather large breasts which were uplifted high by her Hughes-like bra. In her uniform, she looked like a chalky-white ship’s prow. Her unfeminine, stern features belied the softness she always had for me. Thankful to leave the battle royal behind, I was thrilled she wouldn’t allow her grandchildren access to her living quarters.

Some summers, Mother would let me spend time with Aunt Clyde on their farm. Uncle Arthur was considerably older than Clyde, and they didn’t have any children. She weighed around 200 pounds, and Uncle Arthur was as skinny as a bed rail. They looked like Jack Sprat and his wife. Mother’s fastidious attention to her skin care always made me aware of my aunts’ complexion. Aunt Clyde had ruddy, coarse complexion with large pores. She wore frumpy, cotton dresses. Mother would say, “She looks like a toad sack tied in the middle.” True to the stereotype of fat people, Clyde was always jolly.

Clyde was a wonderful cook and made fresh lemon cake with real butter. Mother’s cakes always fell and in all likelihood she never bought real butter. The farm had huge, pecan trees that were so weighed down with nuts, I could hear the limbs cracking during the night. In the morning, she would send me to the hen-house to gather eggs. Every time I went to the farm, they would name a new-born calf after me. I would go with Arthur and his bachelor brother to milk the cows. I wouldn’t drink the fresh milk. They would have to go to town to buy milk for me. Aunt Clyde couldn’t drive and Uncle Arthur, who was almost blind, drove. When we would come up on a stop sign, she would shriek, “Stop sign.” He was all but deaf, too. One year, I wrote Aunt Clyde a letter begging her to let me live with them. I waited for an answer, and years later it occurred to me that Mother had never mailed my desperate letter.

Occasionally, Mother would let us go to Vancleave with her. We would visit with Aunt Clara and Sook. Sook was 19 years older than I, but she became my favorite cousin as an adult. Eventually, someone would suggest we go down to Toby’s house to drink coffee. Toby and Sook were siblings. They lived a mile apart, but it may as well have been an ocean.

Toby was a drunk. He and Nell had six children with the oldest about Ron’s age. Their house was literally a shack. There was a kitchen, living room and one bedroom for eight people. There was no need for doors, the kids climbed in and out of the windows like Jackie’s kids. Once, the adults were discussing a rape trial. A Black man had allegedly raped a white woman. I should have been outside playing with the other children. Hearing the men’s obvious prejudices, I asked Mother what would happen if a white man raped a Black woman. She bent over and whispered in my ear, “Hush, we don’t know who here is in the KKK.”

I adored Aunt Swint! She lived one block from the beach. and she was another wonderful cook. She would tell me to come help her to shell a mess of peas. She would cook the peas with bacon fat. Along with fresh squash and corn bread, we would feast. I once asked, “Aunt Swint, exactly how much is a mess?” Without thinking, she replied, “It is just enough for supper.”

Half of her little and ring fingers were missing. As a kid she had put her hand on a log while Uncle Joe was chopping wood. He told her to move it – she didn’t, and he caught it on the next swing of the axe. She had short-clipped, natural curly hair which she tousled dried with her fingers after shampooing. She was plain-spoken and dressed for comfort. When talking about a dress she would say, she was going to wear the “flower-dy or stripe-dy” one. Her wooden floors were invariably gritty, and I hated going barefoot at her house. Living that near the beach, everything is gritty.

She was matter-of-fact, but always spoke to me as if I were an equal. She never had children. As a young woman, she married a man who moved her to Chicago. When she found out she was pregnant, he forced her to have an abortion. In terrible shape from the botched abortion, she called home. Granddaddy and Aunt Lonnie went to Chicago to rescue her. Straight forward and always kind, Aunt Swint was a rock.

We toured Civil War battlefields and spent a lot of time learning about flanks, war strategies and the aftermath of war. Dad read every sign, brochure and monument. The Vicksburg Civil War Battlefield is located atop the high bluffs adjacent to the Mississippi River. The dense, wooded forests growing near the river supplied the materials needed for construction of fortifications along the siege lines. This major river was crucial for the shipment of war supplies and materials. At the Battle of Vicksburg, when the Confederate States Army fell, the North gained control of the Mississippi River.

During the 4th grade, I had a case of rheumatic fever. Mother and Daddy both worked. I went to school sporadically, but mainly my school work was brought home to me. I was home schooled, but I taught myself. I read everything in the house including Mother’s romance novels. Alone all day without television and responsible for myself, I probably did better than I realized. For a year we went to a neighbor’s house to watch I Love Lucy, until we finally got a set of our own.

I remember my 6th grade graduation. I was the class salutatorian and had to give a speech. Perhaps, my being self- taught wasn’t necessarily bad. I had never even heard the terms, valedictorian nor salutatorian. Having earned an honor came as an absolute shock, I was pretty much just doing my own self sufficient thing.

As I was frequently ill and stayed alone, I read a lot. Unnoticed by the family, I became part of the fixtures. My observation and self-reflection skills became greatly honed during this time. I began to question if there was more to life than what I was seeing. Perhaps they didn’t care what I overheard, but I really absorbed at this stage. I played with Ron, managed to avoid Billy and kept my own deliberations.

On a night trip to Mississippi, I developed an ear ache. I huddled under an old, dusty blanket in the back seat. When we arrived in Van-cleave, Mother went to bed. Aunt Clara, who was a nurse, got up from her bed to take care of me. My ear abscessed and painfully burst while we were on the road. Aunt Clara wrapped me in a homemade quilt, and Uncle Paul sat in front of the fireplace rocking me for hours.

Margaret was home often. Only eight years older than Vana, I was expected to play with her. She fell off a step, chipped her tooth and I was chastised for not watching her. She was cherub cute. There was a television jingle about Ipana toothpaste. I would sing it to her, substituting Vana for Ipana. She sneaked a nickel-bottle of Coke, and she hid behind the door frame to drink it. Thinking she was hidden, I watched the Coke Cola bottle jutting out and slowly being drained. She said her first sentence. She was freshly bathed and shampooed when I asked her what she was doing. She told me, “Brushing me hair.”

Ron and I were almost the same size, and people still thought we were twins. Mother didn’t bother to have separate, birthday parties for us. Our birthdays are three weeks apart, and we had our birthdays together for several years. We had chicken pox, mumps and pink eye together, too.

One evening, Mother insisted that Daddy spank me because I had ignored her command to take a shower. As he removed his belt, he told me, “Go to the bedroom.” Shutting the door, he demanded, “Cry and cry loud.” I was screeching like a night owl. Calmly, he beat the foot board of my bed. Normally, Mother was pleased to knock the daylights out of one us of her own volition.

Billy bullied still, but she was often gone to the movies or in a ball game therefore I had some respite. She was tall, lean and lanky and was called “Tex” as we had moved to Pine Bluff from Texas. She was in the high school play, where the die was cast for her to dog fame. She played a role in which she carried a cooked, pork chop and played the bass fiddle. In the play, she used a bass fiddle which belonged to Daddy. Of course, she demolished it. He was on such a tear, I figured for sure this time he was going to wipe her out.

Daddy played the saw which can be a musical instrument. The saw is bent over the knee, and the straight side is lightly stroked with a violin bow. Depending on how much arc and tension is on the blade, different tones are created through vibration. Obviously, it never caught on. When you don’t have any talent, you need a gimmick. I have often thought that the Ol’ Man played the bass fiddle by virtue of only having to know a couple of chords. It could more or less be slapped in time with the music, and one could hide behind it. He never performed again after Billy demolished the bass fiddle. I often wondered if Billy’s quest for fame was more to show him than it was to be Mother’s surrogate.

Daddy was a huge fan of television westerns and of the broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow. Murrow initially came to prominence with a series of radio newsbroadcasts during World War II which were followed by millions of listeners. His radio show was moved to television and named See It Now. Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to know that communist had infiltrated the United States government at its highest levels. During the McCarthy hearings, Murrow was openly critical of McCarthy. I recall seeing McCarthy rant and rave on televised interviews. Daddy always called him a “son of a bitch” because to his way of thinking anyone who was against Edward R. Murrow had to be the communist. Dad’s frequent rants were my political initiation.

Billy graduated from high school and I graduated from the 6th grade in 1956. At that moment our lives, especially Daddy’s, changed for-ever. Daddy’s security clearance was revoked and after having an actual career for six years, he was out in the cold.

Two to Five-Years -Old

The first house we lived in on Olive Street was directly across the alley from the elementary school which Billy attended. Our next-door neighbors were teachers. They asked permission to enroll me in an experimental program for the school district — it was called kindergarten. It always amused me that I was part of an experiment.

When I entered school, Billy was in the 6th grade, Margaret was in high school and Lee was in college. The school grounds had the usual swings, see-saws and slides where we spent most of our summer days.

Unless it was bitterly cold, we played outside all day. The back of the house had an alley which bordered the school grounds. Billy always made sure to let us know when rag-pickers were in the alley. Billy spent hours telling us that they were coming for us little ones. Havoc and fear were her calling cards. Lee had a Heinz 57 mutt, mostly bull-dog, that latched on to my underwear whenever I was outside. I wore a path around the house dragging that dog through the dirt.

On the back porch was a wooden ice box and in the summer the ice man delivered ice for it. After World War II, families were able to purchase refrigerators. Previously, most families survived with an old fashion ice box. I remembering seeing the ice man use a huge pair of tongs to sling that bulky block of ice over his shoulder. Icy, dripping water formed a trail as he walked around to the back of the house. Before the 1970s, most families had milk and butter delivered daily.

We listened to the radio as it was the lifeline for news, music and entertainment, much like television today. There were soap operas, quiz shows, sports, mysteries, comedies and dramas galore. I can still hear the mystery show announcer’s voice say in his eerie voice, “The Shadow knows!”

The older kids would slid back the throw rugs and danced to the Big Band programs, they tuned in on a tinny radio. They also did the “Jitterbug.” It was the first dance in centuries that allowed individual expression. During World War II, GIs took the dance overseas, and they spread it world-wide. We played cards, and it didn’t take much to start a “sing.” The entire family sang wonderful harmony, no matter what had happened that day.

Aunt Sadie, the last surviving child of John and Missouri Graham, passed away. Mother and Daddy rushed to Mississippi for the funeral and the reading of the will. The Graham property had been left to sons and daughters only. When Steed died, his share went to the remaining siblings. I am not sure if Daddy knew this or just failed to believe it. Through the elimination of siblings, the property ended up with Aunt Sadie who had no children. She left the property in total to one niece, who was the mother of our cousin, Louise. There was a lawsuit by Daddy and the other cousins to no avail. The lifestyle, so long ago promised by his mother, was no longer possible. That ship never came in, which is probably one of the reasons I am so cynical today. Don’t waste time waiting for a pig in a poke.

When they went to the funeral, Margaret decided to cut my blond curls into a Buster Brown hair bob, which I absolutely despised. In the early 1900s, there was a comic book character named Buster Brown, who wore bangs with blond curls over his ears. He had a dog named Tige. In the 1940s, a shoe company bought the rights to the Buster Brown name and opened shoe stores all over America. The stores had a contraption which would x-ray the foot in order to properly fit growing feet. Standing me on the toilet, Margaret held my chin with one hand to prevent me from moving. With her scissors snipping, I got the idea that being beautiful was torture. I am sure she doesn’t remember it that way. When the folks came home, I had pneumonia. I always attributed having pneumonia to that horrid hair cut.

We moved to another commonplace house further up Olive Street. It was old-fashioned without hallways, and the doors lead to each room. Lee threw a wriggling mouse into the bath room. Even with two doors leading out, we were unable to escape. Margaret stood on the toilet, screaming, while I cowered in the sink, crying until we were rescued.

While living in this house, I twice had pneumonia and a bout of whooping-cough. Unable to play outside and feeling better, I would pedal my tricycle in the house. When Santa came, he forgot to leave a toy piano for me. I remember Mother rummaging through a closet looking for the “God-damned” piano.

I vividly recall sitting on the front porch, watching an elderly, next-door neighbor smoke. She cut unfiltered cigarettes in halves. She would mount a lit, half cigarette on a toothpick which she daintily held with two fingers. It was years, before I realized that she didn’t want to get nicotine on her fingers. In the alley, there was a tiny, worn-out house where a Black family lived with two children about my age. I played with them and got lice, much to Margaret’s long-haired dismay. Ah yes, I had an idyllic child-hood, but somehow being number four was still the best advantage.

We moved a third time, up Olive Street to a nice house which was all brick with a large yard. The deep-set, smooth, concrete porch was so cool in the summer time, I played there with my dolls. The owner lived next door, a memorable Greek gentleman, Mr. Panis. He had grown children and seemed to adore us little ones. He would let me plant lettuce in his garden, and we played under his huge, grape arbor. On Saturday mornings, he would make pancakes, soaked in melted butter, sprinkled with sugar and crumbled bacon and layered with another pancake, butter, sugar and bacon. I thought this was the most wonderful meal I had ever eaten, much less for breakfast.

Cooking was never Mother’s forte. The only thing she successfully cooked were pots of Lima beans. Apparently she never cooked enough of them, because Lee would offer to pay me a quarter for my share. For all the beans he out-talked me, he still owes me. Dad had a Packard automobile, probably a 1949 model. It had doors so heavy I could barely pull them open. It was a four-door sedan, and we could roll the back windows down for air to blow on us.

The only responsibility that I recall Billy ever having was to take us to the movies, on Saturday afternoons. Margaret would braid my hair, apparently the Buster Brown cut had grown out. I hated that hair style, too. I would sit in the dark movie and upbraid my hair. I would emerge from the afternoon picture show looking like a future 1960s hippie.

We were dropped off at the movies every Saturday afternoon. We sat through several short features, cartoons and then the feature movie. There was not a specific start time for movies, you stayed until the place where you came in restarted. We would go in to the theater in the middle of a show and not be concerned as we knew eventually, we would see the beginning. Not until Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho in 1960 did anyone think about going into a movie in the middle.

A normal memory of Billy is at this house. On Halloween, she would get a large, paper bag and go trick-or-treating. She would not come home until she had visited every possible house.

On a Saturday, Lee was the designated baby-sitter for me while Mother and Daddy went to a church function. He spent the day telling me, “We are going honky-tonking.” I did not know what honky-tonks were and positive, I didn’t want to find out. Honky-tonks were rough establishments, mostly in the Deep South, which served liquor to neighborhood and working class customers. In honky-tonks, people danced to low-down piano players or small bands. I recall our parents dropping us off, and Lee dragging me down the sidewalk, caterwauling. He took me to see Snow White. Sometime later, Margaret took me to see The Wizard of Oz.

There is a black and white photo of me astride a pony. I remember the photographer coming into the yard with his camera and a pony. Putting a cowboy hat on me, he plopped me up on the pony. He took my picture with dirt still on my face, and my hair was frizzy from playing outside. It would have never occurred to anyone to brush my hair for a photograph.

Aunt Swint married Uncle Smitty, and they moved to Texarkana. Smitty was a true drunk, and I doubt if I ever saw him sober. Always sweet and patient, Aunt Swint worked and supported him. He eventually left her for his former wife Mary, also an alcoholic. Uncle Smitty was a fun drunk. We would eat cold hot dogs for breakfast as the night before he had come home drunk with a dozen hot dogs. On Sunday nights, he would take us to colored churches to hear the gospel singing.

Daddy resurrected “Kay Graham and the Night Herders” with Dallas Lee as the featured singer. Lee was in show biz. Over the years, Lee had a favorite joke. A man’s job was to be the pooper-scooper following behind the circus elephants. A friend told him he needed to find a better job. The man replied, “What and give up show biz!”

The band had been booked for an all day gig playing at a new Sears and Roebuck store. The featured attraction for the grand opening was Dub Taylor, a character actor of the Gabby Hayes genre. He was also known as Cannonball Taylor. He was balding with a fringe of white, spiky hair. His grizzled appearance was softened by slightly rotund, red cheeks. Between his bits, this gentleman played with me. He sat me on his knee, told me stories and teased me. He had blue eyes which twinkled when he cackled with his raspy laugh. I was impressed by an adult, who showed so much kindness and patience to a child. I looked up his biography on line. An actor of the movie heyday, he made 222 movies in his lifetime.

Lee was going to junior college and brought his buddies home, who boarded with us. They delighted in sneaking up and scratching on the window screens at night, scaring me and Ron witless. Ed Upchurch, one of Lee’s pals, was in a play in the college drama department. Lee took me to the dress rehearsal. Ed was lying in a casket. I became hysterical when I saw him. I was beside myself when he sat up. They lived to play pranks, even on a five-year-old.

Margaret was dating. After cleaning the living room, she would shut the double pane glass doors. She promised us dire happenings if we entered the room before her date came to pick her up. In close succession, both Lee and Margaret married. I didn’t go to Lee’s wedding as I was sick. Margaret and Van married in Nashville where his parents lived. They both moved out, and now Ron and I were saddled with only Billy for a big sister. She was a tomboy with the Dad’s volatile, depressive gene and Mother’s vanity gene. Always surly and abusive, she made her younger siblings pay, regularly, for having invaded her space. She bullied me every day of my life until I was sixteen.

Daddy in Living Color

I don’t know how long Dad managed to keep the position with the trade school as a watch maker. Apparently something worked, we moved to a better house and neighborhood on Olive Street. I haven’t discussed Daddy in detail, I guess an up period would be as good a place as any to start.

Daddy had become an adult for the first time in his life. I can’t rate him as a father before my birth. I didn’t have to endure his unrestrained immaturity as the older children had. Mother had begun to grow up and take more of the responsibility for us. Quite attractive at 37 or 38, she was no longer a raving beauty. She had wavy, brown hair, a lovely complexion and a good figure for a mother of five. “Don’t stand when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can lay down,” she told me constantly. She adhered to her theory through out her life. It was the Southern belle’s solution to avoid varicose veins. She laid down when ever possible or kept her feet propped up. We always knew where we could find her, and we spent many pleasant afternoons lying in bed with Mother. She was quick to tell us who was the beauty in the house. I didn’t have to contend with her vanity. Perhaps in my independence, I didn’t need her approval as my sisters did. I am sure I wanted Daddy’s respect which in his strange fashion, I got.

Lee was the fair-haired child who could do no wrong. Coming home from overseas, almost a man, our world revolved around him. He enrolled in a junior college on his G. I. Bill benefits. Margaret was the steadfast, dependable one. I was never sure if she had any connection with Dad as a person, or just responded to his incredible love for Mother and his five children. He could be ill-tempered, but adored Mother. Fueled by an over-bearing mother and being an only child, he had fanatical loyalty to his children. He believed the most we had was each other. Billy’s hostility towards Daddy was driven by Mother’s incessant harping about him. Because of her despotic loathing of him, he never gave Billy one moment of his time. I suspect, she made him cross, which was the family euphemism for “the Ol’ Man is on a tear.”

Ron was babied beyond words, especially by Margaret and Daddy. I think Ron’s lack of guile, his inherent goodness and sweetness made him an irresistible baby. What ever he wanted he got, but he wasn’t obnoxious with it. It was just to keep him happy, and I expect quiet. I can remember them putting a nipple on a Grapette soda bottle, and of Ron sitting on the porch step and drinking a soda with a nipple.

Dad died ten days before my 26th birthday, but I don’t feel the memories of my short relationship with him is skewed. I think I came closer to seeing him as he was meant to be, than anyone. Daddy was, what is presently termed, an occasional drunk. This is an alcoholic who doesn’t have to drink, daily.  When they do drink, they drink specifically to get drunk. He was never a social drinker; he drank to get drunk, period. I now understand, he dealt with depression and self-medicated with alcohol. In the midst of all the turmoil and an unemotional mother who had sullied him, Daddy had above normal intelligence. He wasn’t a savant or a genius by any sense of the imagination. Having an acute sense of numbers and logic, he would do algebra problems in his head.

Daddy had very little patience with stupidity. Despite his Southern background, he was a pretty liberal and progressive thinker. For someone who was seasoned in a South that still did Rebel yells and flew the Confederate flag, he never instilled prejudice in either Ron or me. He always had patience in explanations to me as I think down deep, he took some responsibility for my being on earth. Patience stopped there. If I was sitting in a room with four other, empty chairs, upon walking in Dad would automatically say, “Get up and give me that chair.”

He had curious, yet endearing habits, and he was a creature of habit in all of his life. At meal times, he insisted on having a linen cloth on the table, which I am sure was another requirement from Price. Coming from a home requiring proper manners, he ate with his left hand in his pocket in lieu of putting it is his lap. Oddly, I insist on having pockets in most of my clothes. Additionally, he was extremely superstitious. He wouldn’t put a hat on the bed. If a black cat crossed his path, he turned around. Failing that he would run over it.

He hated for anyone to touch his fountain pen, watches or cuff links. He was always selfish with his personal possessions. Certainly with five kids, we ruined many a thing for him. He was extremely particular about his shirts being freshly starched and he wore short sleeve shirts on rare occasions.

Dad was cold natured and shivered easily. Mother always insisted the house be kept excessively cold for her to sleep. Getting up in the morning, he would make coffee and light the oven. Shivering, he sat in front of the stove with the door cocked open for warmth. Faithfully, he served coffee in bed to Mother. He would serve me a cup of hot tea in bed. Probably, I was the only child ever afforded that little gift.

Lee and I inherited Daddy’s blue eyes. Lee’s eyes were a slightly lighter blue, whereas mine are a darker blue than Dad’s. Although several of the grandchildren are blue-eyed, Rob’s eyes are the exact same shade as Daddy’s were. He always wore a mustache, and I only saw him without it once. He slipped while trimming his mustache and had to wait for it to grow back. His hair was dark blond, and he wore it combed straight back with a dab of Brylcreem to keep it in place. Radio advertisements and later TV made this little Brylcreem jingle famous: “Bryl-creem, a little dab’ll do ya, Use more, only if you dare, But watch out, The gals will all pursue ya,– they’ll love to put their fingers through your hair.

We were always together with Daddy, and people often thought Ronald and I were twins. Dad loved trains, and we would go to the depot spending hours watching the trains with their sleeping cars and caboose. Granddaddy worked for the railroad, and Daddy spent time at the rail yards when he was a child. Margaret told me that as a young teenage, he would get friends to drive him a good distance from town. Once he was dropped off, he would hop a freight train and ride with hobo companions back to Pensacola. When I was about five-years-old, we were at the train station, and the diesel engine whistled in loud, short blasts. I jumped at least a foot high, wetting my panties. Instantly, he was mad.

At the depot, I would hear the overhead speakers announcing, “Now leaving on Track 5 for Dallas, Santa Fe, Las Vegas and San Francisco.” Passenger trains were the primary mode for transportation, especially for long trips in the 1950s. In the late 1800s, when steam engines were used, many small settlements were clustered along the rail lines. Water and wood were stored at these stops for the steam engines to replenish their fuel. Steam engines needed refueling often, and these locations were spaced out every few miles or so. Many of these tiny, Texas towns exist today.

Dad was a huge history and travel buff. From the time I was six-years-old, I trekked many places with him. We loved watching for Burma Shave signs along the highway. The Burma Shave Company placed five or six, small, wooden signs along the edge of highways, spaced so they could be read consecutively by motorists driving by. Once spotted, we would read out loud: “It gave McDonald that needed charm. Hello Hollywood. Good-by farm. Burma-Shave.” Burma Shave had hundreds of sayings on tiny billboards along America’s highways for 40 years.

As we moved up in status, we began to attend church. My parents clashed on many a Saturday night. On Sunday mornings, we went to church, primarily for Mother to sing in the choir. The reason, I digress at this point, is another of Daddy’s peculiar habits. While dressing for church, he always combed my and Ron’s hair. He held us by our chin and then slicked our hair down with water. Instead of holding our hands, he walked with his hands on the back of our little necks. “Was it for better control or to keep us from escaping?”, I asked, but Mother had no recollection of him doing that.

His hair-trigger temper was famous, but Mother’s ever-present irritability was just as explosive. Even in exasperation, he never struck out at us. He managed a couple of times to have Mother in his line of fire, but never any of the children. I never saw him hit her, but once while drunk, he bit her finger. I do recall seeing blood drip and splatter on the floor. I have often wondered if she put her hand in his face and was part of the problem.

Years later while repairing a lamp, he lost his temper. In a fit of rage, he took a hammer and began beating the television set. Stunned, I watched as he, systematically, beat the metal cabinet. Numerous dents covered the top and sides, but the glass screen was untouched.

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Wanted or Planned?

On December 1st, Mother turned 18 and on December 10, 1928, LaBaron Caraway Graham, Jr. (Lee) was born. Lee was the closest thing to nobility that had ever occurred to Price. She had a son who detested her and an egoistic daughter-in-law. Uncaring, she had no love for either of them. She quickly and easily replaced them once her noble grandson arrived. On April 2, 1933, Margaret Price was born. She was callously relegated to Cinderella chore maid to prevent Price’s grand plans for Lee from being interrupted. Being named after both her grandmothers held a slim-to-no advantage for my sister. Billy Ann was born on January 27, 1938. She was sent to the hinterland with Margaret.

In a span of a few short years, the family dealt with the Great Depression, a hurricane, losing their homestead and the death of Steede and Price. My parents left Pensacola and moved to Moss Point. Daddy got a job at the ship yards. It was probably the first time he ever actually toiled in a structured environment. He had pretty much bounced around as long as he had his parents there to provide for him and his family. He fancied himself the next Hank Williams. He tried his hand at being an amateur performer with no experience and limited talent. He formed a country swing band named “Kay Graham and the Night Herders.” Mother with her natural, but mediocre talent encouraged his musical ambitions. He also indulged his needs: drinking, drugs, carousing and whoring. Daddy was wild, unrestrained and had a hostile bent.

In Moss Point, my parents were encumbered with the full responsibility of being parents for the time. I suspect that I was the first baby that Daddy ever wanted. Wanted is quite misleading, planned is a better word. I have a hunch the three older kids were the result of intercourse. I can’t envision Dad, immature and selfish, having any joy in fatherhood other than to show his virility. Returning to Mississippi without his parents to provide for them, he needed to keep Mother in line. The rule of the day was to keep wives barefoot and pregnant.

Mother said when she found out she was pregnant with me, and she announced it to Daddy, he told her, “I know already, and the baby is due on March 12th.” She called him a “son of a bitch.”

Dad had to consistently show up to a despised job, take orders from a supervisor and perform menial tasks. For sure, he had never worked before with his hands. Having burned every bridge, he had to start making his own opportunities as he no longer had a free ride. Moss Point was too small to be notoriously erratic. Mother, in all likelihood, fared better than he had at this point. After living in Florida for years, she was near her sizable family. She had all of her sisters to visit and Margaret to babysit for me.

Being the first child born in the post, Price Graham era, I have always been glad this was the period of time in which I was born, probably for the strangest of reasons. When I was born, Albert Einstein was still alive. I have always felt that he was the one human who had the greatest impact on mankind and the growth of the last century. Historically, I was around during his lifetime.

The 1940s were the heyday for movies which were the primary form of entertainment away from the home. During a gangster movie, a character actor uttered, “Oh, yeah, so’s your ol’ man.” Lee kept using this expression until it caught on with the kids. Collectively, we all referred to Daddy as the Ol’ Man when speaking of him. In person, we still called him Daddy.

During World War II, all manufacturing enterprises, however small, had their production geared towards supplying the war effort. The civilian population were expected to make do with prewar goods or make the best they could with what was available. People routinely took their watches, shoes and clothes to be repaired. After the war, the average cost of a wrist watch was relatively high compared to an average salary. When I was slightly over one-year-old, Daddy announced he had a job as a watch maker in Dallas, Texas. He had started tinkering with watch repair. Dad decided he could make a living as a watchmaker.

Establishing a beachhead, Daddy and Lee went ahead to Dallas. Mother, Margaret, Billy and I moved to Dallas by train. Mother went to work in a drug store and then discovered she was pregnant. On February 21, 1946, a wonderfully innocent baby, Ronald Bowman Graham arrived. I was 23-months-old, and I had a new baby doll which I chose not to ignore as I had been.

Margaret was 13-years-old, and she kept us little ones when Mother went to her part-time job in the afternoon. Billy roamed the streets and spent every possible moment in the movies. Lee was 17-years-old and extremely upset with his folks for still having babies. He joined the Navy.

As a two-and-half-year-old, I walked daily with Mother to take Billy to school. Late one morning, I announced to Mother, “I am going to school.” She abstractly replied, “All right.” Shortly, the cold realization hit her that I had actually left the house. Alone and unafraid, I crossed several streets as if I owned them. Spotting the family dog running along the wooded creek bank, the Dallas Fire Department found me. Playing in the creek bed, I was startled when a fireman picked me up. This was my first act of independence.

Shortly after Ron was born, we moved to Texarkana, Texas. Dad had finagled watch-making, in which he had no formal education, into a job as a trade school instructor. This may have been one of his rare circumstances in being at the right place at the right time. Daddy, Margaret, Ron and I rode a train to Texarkana, Texas.

We moved into a humble duplex with the other side occupied by the daughter of the owner. Our semi-invalid landlady was greatly doted on by her daughter, who called her Mother Dear. The house was a small, white clapboard, and we had to share the bathroom with the adjoining family. The rent probably wasn’t $75.00 dollars a month. Margaret set up housekeeping for Daddy, Ron and me. Mother remained in Dallas to work, until she and Bill moved six weeks later. I use to wonder why we always moved by train before I realized – we didn’t have a car.

While living in this modest duplex, I remember going with Billy to pick up Coke bottles. Pulling a rusty, red wagon filled with several stacks of comic books, she collected bottles. Going to a neighborhood store, she returned the Coke bottles for the two-cent deposit. Additionally, she had a going concern in buying and trading comic books. This is one of my few memories of her being normal.

My first recollection of Lee was in December 1947. I was still a three-year-old, and he had just turned nineteen. I was standing behind Mother’s gathered skirt on the front porch. Out of a taxi, popped a sailor with a duffel bag. Peeking around her legs, I saw Mother crying tears of joy. Lee was home from Guam, and his tour in the Navy. My next memory is of Lee taking Ron, Billy and me to the drug store at night. When we came home, Santa Claus had been to the house. It was Christmas Eve, 1947. I later realized, Lee had set us up. Maybe he had been too excited to wait. As I grew older, I knew it was because he didn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn with a three-year-old sister and a baby brother. Together again, our family settled into an almost, normal life.

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 12:40 am  Comments (3)  
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