I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, March 14, 2010

My parents

My parents were pretty good-looking, don't you think? This had to have been taken when they were first married, so Mama must have been eighteen or nineteen in this picture, and Daddy, six years older, maybe 24 or 25 here. Daddy was a warrant officer in the Air Force and became a commissioned officer after World War II. I am hazy about the actual time, but I remember being told he was one of the oldest NCOs (noncommissioned officers) to earn a commission.

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.


Linda Reeder said...

Daylight Saving Time has arrived with a bright, clear morning! I see you have been hard at it for some time already.
As I've read today's chapter, I have been visualizing, something that I always do, and in this case, based on my own experience of the 50's nd 60's, and of course, movies. I have seen military family life portrayed, and that's how I imagine yours.
The moving around must have been hard. I think that must be another chapter for you. Did you make friends?
This is so different from my own experience, living all of my growing up years in the same house. My parents had a lasting marriage, though it was rough at times. Dad was a logger and a weekend drunk until he found God, and then alcohol was gone completely. We were poor and there were seven children, of which I am second oldest. We lived on a small farm in Oregon's Willammette Valley. My mother still lives in a small town near there.
Shy and insecure as I was, I am still amazed that I came to Seattle to go to college, and except for summers back home, I have been here ever since.

gayle said...

What a wonderfu tribute to your parents! I so wish I could remember more about my childhood!

TechnoBabe said...

You really moved around to different areas. My young life was moving to different places all in southern CA. It is interesting to see the social influence of alcohol back then. In our lives, alcohol was there nearly every day. And lots of fights. You sound like you were a pretty sturdy girl and did your own thing a lot. How did your life change and what was it like when you married? Your father was not very old at 62. It will be interesting to read more about your mother. By the way my mother's name is Rita too.

CrazyCris said...

That is a handsome photo!

Moving around a lot as a kid is hard, but it seems to me that being a "military brat" is a lot harder than a "foreign service brat". At least we got to spend several years at each post and didn't move around as much as you appear to have done! Having to change high schools several times must have been tough!

And it can't have been easy on your mom either moving the family around, settling everyone in each time. She must have been one strong woman!

The Retired One said...

What a big family you had...My Air Force dependent story is different...I only had an older brother who was almost 4 years older than me, so when we got older, I found it lonely, feeling almost like an only child moving from place to place.
Funny you should mention the drinking involved in the AF life...my parents also spent a lot of time at the NCO clubs...much to my brother and my sadness....
I think it was not healthy for the children of the Air Force people...
My folks were never abusive because of it, but at times maybe a bit neglectful, not coming home for dinner and leaving me alone for long stretches of time when I was still pretty young because they were socializing with other AF adults.
You were lucky to have siblings around to keep you company.

Norma Jean said...

Daddy was the first to play golf, then Mom took it up and got much better than him (much to his disgust). He always said what ever he did she always ended up doing it better.

I always like to read what you remember about our childhood because there are things that I either don't remember...or remember differently. I thought Grandma flew to Puerto Rico after we got there because I remember her frightening publico (sp?) story coming from San Juan. I also did not know we lived off base the first time.

Tina Marie was born June 25, 1960.

Far Side of Fifty said...

What a lovely photo. They look very happy! Military wives have to be strong..if your not you won't last long. I found that they all drank too much too..I think it was a form of escape..
This was a great look into your early life..I enjoyed it:)

Whitney Lee said...

It had to be tough to move so much, particularly during the tricky teenage years. I moved my freshman year of high school, and it was a major deal for me. Maybe, with the constant of your parents, it wasn't so bad.

It's wonderful that you can look back and see the strength of their marriage and the love they shared. I thought my parents would be together forever, but, after 32 years of marriage, they divorced when I was 20.

I wonder if you have gotten your love of reading and learning from your mother? It's really nice how Norma Jean filled in some of your blanks. Aren't siblings great?

The Lucy and Dick Show said...

It's good to know where we came from... and it also explains a lot. (You can generally explain character faults away with genetics!) You're lucky you have the Aunt to still ask questions. My father's mother told me several stories about ancestors, but according to my mom and dad, those stories were all false! Interesting mind... but big whoppers!

Nancy said...

Okay, so now I'm all caught up. I have read all of the entries in one day. I would go off and talk with my daughter, or play with my grandson, and then eagerly return to the "story." You have had an amazing life. I'm not surprised really, because you have always seemed so interesting to me. But to lose two children, go through all of the other trials and tribulations of life, and to be happy and content in the golden years, is a tribute to your strength and fortitude.

Now I need to add to my story, which I've started as a book. Whether or not it ever gets published is totally beside the point. I will have written it. And that's all that matters. And I've already written the hardest part. That part that sticks in your craw, and brings tears to your eyes each time you think about it. The funny thing is now that I've put it down on paper, it no longer has the same effect on me. Now I can just think about it without all of the emotion. Is that how it is for you, now that you've written your story?

Star said...

I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for you to be moving around all that time. I suppose at least you had your family around you and you did get to see lots of different places. This equipped you for the life you had subsequently but it also encouraged you not to put down roots. It's a strange phenomenon. I really enjoyed reading this piece about your parents and the photo is lovely.
Well done. Blessings, Star

Grandma Nina said...

Dj, How I love reading your life story. I love hearing about your parents, the Air Force and your family life. Both my sons are in the Air Force and I wonder if the exeriences for their children will be similar to yours. I do think that drinking was maybe more accepted in those days, although it may still be common in military families, I don't know. Your parents obviously did love each other a great deal and it sounds like you had a good childhood despite all the moves. We moved a lot when I was young, too, because my dad switched jobs and received many promotions in moving up the ladder in the manufacturing industry. I remember moving from PA to Calif. when I was a sophomore in HS. Not easy. But I always said it made me a stronger person and gave me better skills at communicating and making friends. It makes for a richer background with more experiences.

AnneGB said...

Hi. We seem to have had some over-lapping events in our lives. My dad, Frank R. green, was injured in the accident that killed Gen. Travis in 1950. He was very seriously injured trying to get survivors out of the plane when it blew up. I was born the previous year (in the Presidio) while he was stationed at what was then Fairfield-Sasoun (sp?). We also lived at Ramey AFB from 1956-1959. We lived on Cliff Road. Paradise for 2nd-4th grade! I enjoyed your family history. Anne Green Baughman