January 15, 2021
To many little girls, their father is a hero and for some of my childhood that was true for me. Dad loved adventures and sometimes they were fun, more often they turned into disasters.
Once he literally got us, my two sisters and me, a pony. It was a big surprise and he was so excited to show him to us. Actually, he showed me ahead of the big surprise when he had me walk with him the evening before the surprise, and I actually kept quiet about it. I don’t remember exactly how my mother reacted to this new member of our family on that first day, she was as surprised as my sisters. Anyway, the pony came with required lessons and a horse trainer who would come to our house in Carmel Valley which was a literal ranch. So my mother was told not to worry! This pony, named Copper, would eventually throw me several times, bite me and get in to all kinds of mischief. He rubbed the trainer up against the barbed wire and cut her deeply. He broke out of his corral more than one time, and on one such instance, my mother, exasperated with my father and his adventures, tied Copper to the swing set. Imagine her thoughts when the California Highway Patrol brought Copper, dragging the entire swing set, slide and all, to our front door. Apparently, Copper wanted to be on the Pacific Coast Highway that day. Copper soon found other accommodations.
A frequent and favorite adventure we would go on with dad was going for a ride in his convertible sports car. These were the days women had elaborate hair dos and mom did not like to ride with the top down much. So, he would choose one of us to go with him. He usually drank a beer (or two) on these rides. The beautiful coastal range was zig zagged with tiny winding roads, and me being little, I could not always see the road itself. On those days, he would drive extra fast and tell me we were flying. This myth I accepted as perfect truth, looking for the wings under the car when we got home. The myth was helped along with the yearly broadcast of the popular movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The biggest, well, not really the biggest but the defining adventure that really, I have never thought of much until recently, when I watched a video on YouTube in which the very witty film maker made spoon bread. Then, this adventure came back to me in full color, and really gave me a lot of insight into why my dad, an unhero a lot of the time, was the man he was. I’ll save the unhero stories for another day.
We were a military family and that comes with a multitude of adventures that are not of our own making as it is, but this one, my dad really may have made my mother the angriest of all. It was the early 1970’s and we were transferred to the Norfolk Naval Base, which was a big deal because dad would be running the meteorology for the entire Atlantic Fleet. He went on ahead to find us housing, and mom and my sisters and I visited with family in New Jersey for a few weeks. Somewhere along the line, my mother had laid down the law that we would eschew base housing and live off base.
So, finally word came that dad had found us a house. And it is on the beach! It has a giant front porch! It was not in the greatest shape, but that would be ok, because it was on the beach!
Mom drove us down, or maybe dad came to get us, we made so many trips between Virginia and New Jersey growing up that I only remember that the trips began with hot dogs at Howard Johnsons after crossing the big 17-mile bridge and ended with a sack of White Castles at my grandmother’s house. Anyway, the day came to move in, just temporarily, to our beach house.
It was in the Ocean View section of Virginia Beach, which in the early 70’s did not resemble the quaint shops and modern condos of that area today. Then, there were seedy amusement parks, fish shacks, and old beach worn houses. Ours sat right on the dunes, where apparently people dropped their used mattresses and broken furniture. This house stood in stark contrast to the modern ranch home of Carmel Valley with its swimming pool, horse barn and corral and giant living room with a wall of glass doors that we left behind in California a few weeks earlier.
My mother was horrified. I think I remember her saying, “How could you?” This was not the first time he picked unsuitable housing. In Spain, he rented a house because the local legend was that Washington Irving of Sleepy Hollow fame once lived there. Apparently, the house had not been updated much since the author lived in the house in the mid 1800’s. But it was situated near the place where they make Sherry, so… the real story is that I was born in that house and they had to move my crib depending on where the water from the rooftop cistern would leak into my nursery.
Back to the Ocean View house, it is only now that I realize my dad was so pleased with himself because he loved the ocean, and although he made it seem like he was a regular at the Jersey Shore, in fact he only got to go a few times for a day or two with a friend. My mother’s family spent the whole summer at the Jersey Shore, having their own house there. This house came furnished, as the military sometimes takes a long time to move household goods. The furniture was old, worn, and smelly. The kitchen floors were peeling, the walls sagging, the drapes stained. But, we were not complainers! We were adventuous sailors, and we would swab the decks and get the house ship shape! Dad probably said something to that effect as he drove off in our only car, leaving my mother stranded with two young teen girls and me, the baby of the lot.
Anyway, this house at the beach was also infested with cockroaches. Much to my mother’s horror. And ours. They were literally everywhere. To cope, my mother started buying pre-packaged foods for our school lunches so that we would not bring a cockroach to school, lest anyone know where and what conditions we were living in. A binge eating Little Debbie lover was born! We also learned the art of cooking TV dinners in aluminum foil packaging!
Also, in her efforts to cope, my mother took long solo walks down the beach. I played hours on the dunes, and she did not have to worry about me going in the water, she sealed my fear of the water pretty good already and I was terrified to do so much as put my toe in. I could usually see her slowly walking very far down the beach, cigarette after cigarette. One of the afternoons walks I went along with her. Instead of walking near the water line, we traversed the dunes, closer to the other, similarly dilapidated houses. Finally, she stopped at one house and said, “Come meet my friend.”
We walked up the steps onto an enormous porch and through the screen door, a radio was broadcasting a soap opera, and my mother yelled in to her friend. We were welcomed warmly by an ancient woman, who wore a dress, thick stockings and black oxford shoes, a hairnet over very gray hair, and a bright smile and smooth skin that was deeply brown. I just remember that she made us feel happy. The stout woman insisted we sit at the Formica table in her kitchen and she served my mother coffee, me kool aid (which was forbidden at home) and apparently a delicacy, spoon bread. The spoon bread, as I was told it was called because you literally eat this with a spoon, is not bread at all. It is also not bread pudding. It is corn pudding, but smoother. It is indescribable. I know I am going to have to try it again, but on that day, I hated it.
My mother must have seen my reaction, because she gave me the look. I obeyed and dutifully ate the mush, and lied to the old woman that it was delicious. I think my mother and this lady spent many afternoons smoking, drinking coffee and sharing foods. What a gift. My mother needed to get out of that awful house, and made a friend. I remember sometimes going alone there and listening to “As the World Turns,” with that gentle old lady.
Among all the lessons I’ve learned from my dad (and mom) are to go ahead and go on the adventure, it may be awful, and you may learn something, but you will be better for it, you will figure a way to cope. And, you test for cockroaches by turning the lights off, and waiting. Then, turn them back on, and you will see them scurry! Always check for cockroaches before you rent a house! Oh, and they still make Little Debbie’s. I’m more likely to eat a nutty bar these days then prepare spoon bread. But, considering current events, I just might try and make some.