In 1959 Grace and Louie decided to try to get their marriage back on track. I didn’t understand much of what was going on. Not many nine-year old kids do. All I knew was that we were moving to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico to live with my Dad. That would be a big the trip for this kid.
There were three boys then, Linn was five, and Eric was not even two. Grace enlisted her big sister, Esther, to help drive to New Mexico in a car full of little boys. There probably was a moving company involved to ship some furniture, but in any case five people in a 1952 Chevy for more than a thousand miles seems like a daunting challenge. Five people and a cat.
My memories are pretty fuzzy on this, but I do remember stopping to “exercise” the cat, on a leash. He was probably as eager to get out of the car as we boys were. The other memory was walking into the motel we stayed at somewhere in Nebraska. The room was large, with what seemed like an endless row of beds. Four I think.
As I recall, the house was a two bedroom duplex on the edge of the air base. It was a pretty small apartment for us. All three boys were in one bedroom, Louie and Grace had the other. In our room was my desk (the same desk that’s in our house today) and three army cots, with woolen army blankets; maybe from the army surplus store?
We packed a lot into that summer, visiting the mountains and White Sands National Monument. White Sands was a strange and wonderful place to visit, almost other-worldly. Most interesting to me was the road. Originally the park service thought that a paved road was the right thing to do. Someone forgot that sand dunes tend to move about. Us boys were pretty excited to see a road going right into a dune that had blown over the road. Other than the main entrance, the roads we drove on were mostly compacted sand. My mother did revisit White Sands many years later with Norris.
The front yard had a tree big enough to support a swing. That swing looms large in my mind, as I spent a lot of time playing around that tree. One day I was swinging and, just as the swing carried me to the back of the arc, a huge blob of black and white stuff landed immediately underneath the branch, right where I had been just a fraction of a second earlier! I don’t recall exactly what kind of bird it was, but we always referred to it as a large owl. I just missed his gift.
One of Louie’s projects that summer was to get the car painted. (Contrary to popular opinion, cars were not better in 1952 than they are today.) He figured “How tough can it be to paint a car?” He pulled it into the side yard, got out a can of paint and a brush and went to work, much like painting a house. He may have finished one fender before giving up completely. The paint didn’t flow properly, leaving garish brush marks. Most irritating were the several bugs that got stuck in the wet paint. The next day he took the car to a professional.
As it was summer in the desert, I took swimming lessons. We started with the basics and moved on to learning several swimming strokes. To get the certificate of completion we had to swim a couple of lengths of the pool. Not being a strong swimmer this posed a real challenge. I solved that by touching bottom on the shallow end at the turn. I never knew if the instructor saw that or not, but he did give me a passing grade. That little cheating incident has stuck with me, possibly slowing down any tendency to cheat for a long time. Swimming is still not among my favorite activities. Thirty seconds every year at the lake is enough.
I started fifth grade while we were on the air base. Two things were memorable. I had a crush on a young lady in the class. Her name was Martha Wheaton. I remember her beauty and charm, but not a conversation. Then there was a class project with a local Savings & Loan Association. They opened a passbook savings account for us. I saved over two dollars before we left.
In early fall it became clear that the marriage relationship wasn’t going to rekindle. Apparently there was an incident with a hidden whiskey bottle. That was all over my head. All I knew is that I’d be going back to Grandma Luehr, Franklin School and my best friend Mark. That was the best news ever. I immediately wrote him a letter with the news, cleverly encoded in a puzzle. He was far smarter than I though, and quickly wrote back telling me how excited he was to have me return to Jamestown.
After that summer, I really appreciated Jamestown.
Louie writes about the time in New Mexico, too. His letter should show up later this fall. Watch for it, filed under Louie’s Letters.
To whet your appetite even more, when I was in the sixth grade our big project was to write an autobiography. We had recently returned from New Mexico, so that trip took a major piece of the book. Watch for it later this summer.