Rita Rice and Norman Stewart met at a wartime dance hall. These dances were all the rage during the war and the buildup to it, and I remember Mama telling me once that Daddy was instantly smitten. (She didn't tell me how SHE felt, but I'll bet it was mutual.) They got married in November 1941, and I was born in December 1942 in Hanford, California.
Mama dropped out of high school just before graduation and never did get a high school diploma. I think she always felt a little embarrassed about that, and the fact that she never held a job outside of the home, other than volunteer work. But she was very smart and well read nonetheless. All my life I can remember her constant trips to the library on whatever Air Force Base we were stationed at, bringing home a box of books every week, and she read every one.
Since it was wartime, I think Daddy was gone a lot of the time, but these early years of their life together is lost in the mists of time. Norma Jean was born in Denver, Colorado in 1945 when I was not yet three. One of my earliest memories is of the tar-paper shack we lived in at that time, a long row of houses for military families. When I was three, we moved to Puerto Rico, where Daddy was stationed at Ramey Air Force Base. We lived off base, and my first playmates were Puerto Rican children, so I learned to speak some Spanish at a very young age.
Daddy was in and out of our lives, going away for long periods, which I now know were TDY (temporary duty) assignments. As a kid I heard the words but didn't know why he was gone. It must have been hard for Mama, since she had two little girls to take care of by herself. I remember a picture of us at a post office with Mama and other mothers sending packages off to the soldiers.
My parents were drinkers and entertained lots of other military couples over the years. They bought a bar and barstools when I was young, and I remember that the bar was one of the constants in our many moves. The top of the bar had pictures and cartoons that my parents had placed under a heavy glass cover, which occasionally changed as other pictures were added. The pictures were of us children, parties, friends, and pictures of them playing golf. Mama took up golf, and Daddy also began to play the game. I'm not sure which of them began to play first, but those two additions to their lives stayed with them for many decades: martinis and golf.
When I was six, we moved back to the mainland, to Fairfield, California, where Daddy was stationed at Travis Air Force Base. We were there during the accident described here:
On August 5, 1950, a B-29 bomber crashed shortly after takeoff. The impact occurred in the northwestern portion of Travis AFB. About 20 minutes after the crash, 6,700 pounds of explosives on the plane detonated. The explosive, cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine ("RDX") is an explosive used in nuclear weapons, as well as conventional artillery. Nineteen fatalities and numerous injuries resulted from the explosion.It was at night, and I slept right through it. I do remember the anxiety that was communicated from the adults around me, but I don't remember much else about it. My sister P.J. had been born in March of 1950, so now we were three children, all girls (much to the dismay of my father). Daddy was stationed at SAC (Strategic Air Command) bases, and he flew many missions as a navigator on B-36 aircraft and then KC-135 air refueling jets. I remember pictures he brought home from his first successful joining of aircraft that were refueled in flight.
My parents loved each other, it was obvious. Although they fought and had some major disagreements, my memories of their life together was mostly positive and harmonious. I think it helped that they had long periods of separation, so Mama could become her own person without Daddy's influence. And they had their military social life that revolved around drinking.
Just before my 13th birthday, Daddy was again stationed at Ramey in Puerto Rico. Our furniture was shipped to Puerto Rico while we made a trip from California to Charleston, South Carolina, in a station wagon, and our grandmother Ernestina (Mama's mother who was now a widow and would live with us) joined us in that car taking us across the country: Daddy drove, Mama was in the front seat with P.J., Grandma in a single seat behind the driver, and the rest of the back seats were folded up and a mattress was placed in the back for Norma Jean and me. It was an exciting trip with all of us in such close quarters for close to a week. These days everyone needs to be in seat belts, but I don't think there were even any installed in cars back then!
We lived in base housing this time in Puerto Rico, and as a teenager those years are filled with the social life you develop in high school. I didn't think much about my parents except when they kept me from doing what I wanted, but they were always having gatherings of friends in the evening that revolved around the bar, and they played golf whenever they could. Mama was quite good and began to win golf trophies that were prominently displayed. Daddy teased that they all had skirts on them for some reason.
When we left Puerto Rico, Daddy began having several short postings at different air bases, and we moved around a lot during my final years in high school. Just by chance (it seemed to me anyway), I graduated from high school in Ft. Worth, Texas, while my dad was stationed at Carswell AFB. While we were in Texas, Mama got pregnant, and my brother Buz was born when I was sixteen. You can imagine how happy my father was that he finally had a son. He was so pleased that he went out and bought a new car, a big long baby blue station wagon!
Just a few weeks after I graduated in 1960, we moved to Albany, Georgia, close to Turner AFB. While they lived there, I married Derald (being pregnant and all) and was not home when Mama and Daddy had their final two children, my sisters Markee (short for Mary Katherine) and Fia (short for Sofia). When Mama had me, she was 19, and when she had Fia she was 39. One daughter was born prematurely who did not survive (Tina Maria). I think she was born between Markee and Buz, but I am not sure.
The main thing is that my parents had seven children over a span of twenty years. I realize that most people these days don't have a legacy of having their parents as role models showing how two people can have a good, full life together. I know some people stay together for the children but don't really like each other. Others get divorced and start over. But sometimes a marriage lasts until one of them leaves through death. After Daddy left the Air Force, they returned to Ft. Worth to live in a house on Lake Worth. This allowed my younger siblings to grow up in one home, so different from the experience I had. Daddy worked for several years at General Dynamics in Ft. Worth.
Both of my parents had heart disease, with high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Daddy was a lot sicker than I realized, and I remember learning that he had a stroke but recovered. When I was called home when he had a severe heart attack in 1979, we hoped for the best, but it was not to be. All of us children were able to get there before he died at the age of 62. My youngest siblings had not even left home yet. It was a very sad time, and I remember that I and my sisters were allowed to go into the room after the efforts to revive him had not succeeded and say goodbye to him. I will never forget that moment, I can still see the sweat on his forehead as we stroked him and made our farewells.
Mama lived as a widow for another 14 years, but she was never as happy as she had been when he was alive. After Fia got married, Mama sold the home and had a house built near Lake Texoma. Not being particularly happy out there in the country all alone, she moved back to Ft. Worth to be near her children and their families.
In writing this, I realize that telling the story of my mother's heroic strength in her life and in her passing is worth a whole post in itself. More about her life alone and her medical trials will take up this spot next Sunday. Until next week.