La Luna de Miel: The Honeymoon (from my memoirs)

The aftermath of a great war leaves everyone trying to rebuild old lives or begin new ones. The end of World War Two found my husband and me both eager to get started on our future together.

Lynn had spent six years, from 1940 t0 1946, in the U.S.Navy and was relieved to be a civilian again, especially as our family now included two small daughters. He continued going to sea, serving now as a Marine Engineer with the U.S. Military Sea Transport, and our new way of life began to take shape.

Looking back over the hectic war years, it occurred to us that something important had been overlooked in the rush of our modest marriage. We’d never had a honeymoon!

So in 1949, six years and 4 months after the “I Dos,” we dropped our two daughters off with my mother, loaded up our 1940 Studebaker Champion and, with gasoline no longer rationed, we headed south. No “Just Married” signs smeared our car windows, no tin-cans rattled and clanked along behind, there was no rice falling out of everything, just the two of us enjoying perfect autumn days as we drove through the colorful Ozark mountains.

Our destination was Monterrey, Mexico. We didn’t speak a word of Spanish but somehow muddled and mumbled our way across the border. An American insurance company, Sanborn’s, had offices in every border city, ready to insure travelers with cars for any time spent in Mexico.  They also provided maps and guide books so we felt well prepared.

By the time we’d spent a week in Monterrey we’d fallen totally in love with the country, the people, the culture and the history. Our time was spent sightseeing, going through the wonderful museums, browsing the gift shops and eating real Mexican food; in other words, being tourists.

Feeling adventuresome, we decided to spend a few days in Saltillo, at that time still a small colonial mining town in the mountains. Driving up and down the hilly streets, we were delighted by the beautiful, black-eyed children who ran out at every turn, waving their arms at us and shouting  “Una Via!”  “Una Via!” We smiled and waved back, calling “Hello! How are you?” in English, pleased at such a warm welcome.

Fortunately for two dumb gringos, true Innocents Abroad, there was almost no traffic, We later learned “Una Via” meant “One Way” in Spanish and we were definitely heading backwards everywhere we went.

As in all honeymoon lore, our most treasured souvenir of a fabulous trip made his appearance nine months later, welcomed by his two big sisters and his proud parents. We parents were also busy cramming Spanish lessons in our spare time, anticipating our next trip to Mexico.

Life has a way of happening and quite a few years passed before we were able to see our dream come true. We made brief stops in Mexico a few times but it was some years before we had a chance to spend any quality time there. We’d lived in the Panama Canal Zone for nearly 12 years, driven through every country in Central America and chosen Guatemala and Belize as close runners-up to Mexico as favorites. We’d also traveled extensively throughout our own 50 states and most of Canada.

When the chance to revisit Mexico finally came, we eventually drove through every state, or “estado,” on numerous trips, usually with a small travel trailer bouncing along behind. Over the years of our retirement we spent months at a time in both the beach town of Mazatlan and the lovely old city of Guadalajara, enjoying the many friends we made.

And, yes, we did improve our Spanish.

Memorizing the Dictionary

So here I am, poring over my Merriam-Webster again. I’ve been inspired by the recent TV and newspaper pictures of that six year old girl studying for the National Spelling Bee. Did you catch that? Six years old? National Spelling Bee? Amazing!  She didn’t have a paperback of Crossword Puzzle Answers either, it was the official dictionary. When I was six I was still trying to figure out why the word “Dick” didn’t look like the word “Jane.”

I decided if I want to pass myself off as a would-be writer, I’d better spiff up my vocabulary. With that in mind I’ve made several lists of words I’d love  to use in my writing or in my speech if I could just spell, pronounce or understand them.  I found a few words that duplicate the meanings of other words, created for the sole purpose of confusing us. I even found words I thought I knew the meaning of, only to realize that Boy! Was I wrong!

First, a list of words I’d love to slip into everyday conversation, providing I could use them properly.

ABSTEMIOUS – means sparing of food and drink.

my definition: no fun at all.

PRIMOGENITURE – means oldest son inherits.

my definition: good plot for a murder mystery.

PROPINQUITY – means nearness in time or place.

my definition: “get outta my face.”

INTERPOLATE – means insert word in conversation or text.

my definition: be a buttinsky.

OMNISCIENT – means infinite awareness and insight.

my definition: parents of unruly teens need ESP.

ABROGATE – means to annul. My definition: “I really wasn’t

pregnant. Sorry about that.”

Here are a few words that have basically the same meaning:

EGOISM and EGOTISM – mean excessive concern for oneself or

too much conceit, also, talking about oneself

obsessively. My definition: “That’s enough about me.

How do YOU feel about me?”

EXTRAPOLATE – means infer from unknown data, and

EQUIVOCATE – means use misleading data. my definition:

Similar usage meaning fake news.

And a few words I thought I knew that can only mean “Boy! Was I wrong!

ZEIT-GEISTE – means the general spirit of an era.

my guess: haunting, ghostly horrors.

QUOTIDIAN – means daily or ordinary. My guess: related to ancient tortoises basking at the Galapagos Islands

CORUSCATE – means flash or sparkle. My guess: extreme erosion, as in Grandpa’s toenails.

I made up one phrase I absolutely love! I’d like to use it somewhere just once:

OBSEQUIOUSLY LOQUACIOUS: my definition: smarmy baloney.

And my last phrase, with a great big “HUH?”

OBSCURANTISM means deliberate ABSTRUSENESS. My definition:

stubborn as a Missouri mule.

If I might INTERPOLATE here, I’d like to nominate the word UBIQUITOUS as the most overused word of the decade. It used to be a fun word to use, unexpected, impressive, a bit tongue-twisty, and slightly mysterious. Now it’s become so – well- so UBIQUITOUS I’m sick of it. Time to break in a new word. OMNIPRESENT might do. It rings with that slight aura of anticipation, kind of leading us on. It might not become quite so UBIQUITOUS.

After I’ve memorized the dictionary, I plan to go on to Roget’s Thesaurus, then when I have that down pat, they tell me the entire Encyclopedia Britannica is online. I’m so excited! My LINGUICA will soon be IRRETRIEVABLY TRENCHANT!  Or did I just say “My Polish sausage is beyond caustic?” OOPS!

By now I’m totally OBFUSCATED. I’d better concentrate on my MNEMONICS and be a little more PERSPICACIOUS. Maybe I’ll leave the big words for the politicians, the eggheads and the six year olds..

DOs AND DON’Ts

Why do we women spend so much time, effort and money on our hair-dos? Why is the perfect cut or the perfect style so elusive?  Why does our ‘do only suit us for about one week out of the year? and why do we care so much?

You guys don’t go through this. All you ask is a decent barber and a comb with most of its teeth. You probably don’t spend more than 2 or 3 minutes a day on your hair and you’re happy. If you can comb your hair with a damp towel you’re even happier.

My husband’s idea of a decent barber was me. No, I didn’t have any training but I did have a few things going for me. I owned some good sharp scissors, I was usually available, and I was cheap. Besides which, he had lots of curly hair, which is very forgiving. On occasion, if I didn’t happen to be available he’d been known to pick up the shears and hack off his own hair. As I said, curly hair…

I only need an operator for a new perm 3 or 4 times a year, no weekly visits. In that respect, I’m fortunate but even then I can run into snags. The last time I called “my girl” to make an appointment, she was recovering from a broken wrist.

“But don’t worry, Sugar, we have a brand new stylist for you. She’s young and full of clever ideas. Besides, she’s just darling. You’ll love her.” So how young is young as compared to too young, and how darling does she need to be? All I want is a good perm, not a new best friend.

Just “darling” turned out to be a walking example of Miss Clairol’s worst nightmare. A 24 inch purple swatch dangled from a bright orange top knot, set off against green bangs. Maybelline’s entire line of cosmetics decorated her face and  2 inch nails. Tight jeans and  stilettos completed the look. Let me assure you I was more than a little nervous as I stressed exactly how I wanted my perm done, right down to the timing,  which happens to be crucial. Oh, and no color, definitely no color. I tried not to shudder as I looked at her orange, purple and green ‘do.

“Doncha worry now, Hon. I’ve done lotsa perms, either 2 or maybe it was 3. You’re in good hands.”  This assurance was given to the tune of loud gum popping and chomping. Somehow I had a hard time putting a lot of faith in her, but Hey, I’m here now. In for a penny, in for a pound, or one of those old sayings, let’s get this rolling.

Just as I hesitantly seated myself, Adele’s latest hit “Hello” blasted out from the vicinity of a tight jeans pocket and she turned her back, parked her gum on the mirror, and spent the next 20 minutes twittering away with her back turned while I studied my nails, eyed the other stylists and clients and  stewed over the whole situation. Finally she hung up, grabbed a bag of Lay’s Kettle Chips and began stuffing them down.

With a remark that might have been  “I mffed mrunsh” she handed me the bag of chips and offered some. I declined. She stuffed another handful in her mouth, wiped both greasy, salty hands down the sides of her jeans, and finally picked up her shears.  I decided the grease might possibly do my hair a little good in some weird way, but I was pretty dubious about the salt.

She started snipping away. But wait, don’t we do a cape, a shampoo and then a cut? I brought this to her attention.  “Doncha worry now, Hon. This’ll be better.”  With no cape around my shoulders, tiny snippets of hair fell like snow – or dandruff – down my neck, across my lap, everywhere but on the floor where it could be swept up. She began slowly, slowly clipping  away barely noticeable amounts of hair. Surely I needed it to be much shorter? This was taking forever.

She popped her gum, parked it on the mirror again and delved into the bag of chips. “Adele” rang importantly, good for 17 minutes of twittering this time. Time crawled. What time do they close this place, anyway? I should have brought a sleeping bag.

After 45 minutes of slo-mo snipping, gum chomping and twittering, I was finally ready for the shampoo bowl. Grabbing a small towel, she gave me a fast wash, rinse and rub, throwing the sopping wet towel across my shoulders. Out came the rods and the perm solution, pungent, acrid smelling and eye stinging. WAIT! What was going on? She was rolling my hair from the bottom up! I questioned this, only to get another “Doncha worry Hon.”

By now my clothes were soaked, my eyes stung, perm solution dripped off my chin and I was gasping for air. Somewhere between the neutraliser and all the rinsing, a passing operator mercifully handed me some dry, clean towels. The bag of Kettle Chips was nearly empty and “Adele” was briefly quiet. Maybe we’ll get through this yet.

The jolt of the blow dryer turned on full force startled me. The hotter the air got and the drier my hair got the more it frizzed up. I wondered, can this be right?  Where were my soft curls? Why was I looking like an steel wool scouring pad? At least the heated air was drying my clothing and blowing all the bits and pieces of hair away.

4 long hours later, my frizzy ’do smelled of rancid Kettle Chips and had a mysterious pinkish aura, but it did seem to be done. I wanted this to end. I was so ready.

“So what do I owe you?”  “It’s just $90.00, Hon.” A bit much but I opened my checkbook. I’ve paid more.

“Plus $30.00 for the cut.”  Oh, the cut. I see. By now I just wanted to get out of there so I sighed and picked up my pen.

“Plus $30.00 for the shampoo.” My blood pressure went up and the pen quivered in my hand.

“And then another $30.00 for the blow-dry.”  Her gum crackled. Steam came out of both my ears, threatening to melt my new ‘do, bad as it was.  My mouth hung open and for the first time in my life, I was totally speechless. All I could think was  “This can’t be real!”

“Oh, yes, I forgot,” SNAP POP with the gum, “That’s another $30.00 for the Scalp Rejuvenation Therapy.”  and she was back to the Kettle Chips.  What the heck was Scalp Rejuvenation Therapy? Was that the 20 second fingertip scratch and rub?

“But I’m only charging you $20.00 for the mousse, setting lotions and spray.” More crunchy Kettle Chips, more greasy hands down the sides of the jeans. By now, “Adele” was ringing again.

I went ballistic! I screeched  “Let me tell you how it is, HON, you lost me on the second $30.00. Your tip just went out the door  and me with it, HON.”

I very grudgingly signed my check and let it waft on the breeze I stirred up as I flounced out. I never even learned her name.

I’m seriously considering a ‘do I can comb with a damp towel.

Skittery Critters

SKITTERY  CRITTERS

 

    Working on my memoirs recently I realized I’ve had more than a passing acquaintance with quite a few cockroaches in my day. Not that we were ever on a first name basis or got really personal, but I’ve known more than my share.

    Considering that cockroaches have been around for 320 million years, able to survive incredible heat and sub-zero  temperatures, radiation, and all known insecticides, we can probably count on them rising in triumph after we mere humans have managed to blow ourselves to Kingdom Come with our nuclear toys.

    Can’t you just see this; one giant cockroach, probably a Madagascar Hissing Roach, close to 6 inches long, atop a smouldering mountain of debris, brandishing tiny flags in all six arms, loudly hissing “Roaches Rule.” Representatives from all 4,600 of his fellow species skitter madly about in their haste to establish a brave new world order.

    My first experience with cockroaches came as a very young, very pregnant, very impoverished Navy wife during World War Two. My husband and I were living with four other couples in a small house in San Diego. (We rented the dining room as our private quarters).

     I awoke late one morning and headed for our shared kitchen to find the other wives in a frenzy of activity. The kitchen had been invaded overnight by huge flying roaches. My big belly and I were led gently but firmly to a chair and told not to move, so I had a front seat for my first lesson in how to handle cockroaches. First you panic – then you start screaming, then you stomp, swat and hammer with any and all available tools.

    I found that San Diego, similar to most of Florida with it’s warm, humid climate, was ideal for cockroaches. Those large flying roaches are known as Palmetto Bugs in Florida, but I’ve got news for Floridians, they’re really cockroaches, just one more of the 40 some types that hang around humans.

     My next experience with roaches was in San Francisco, which has a cooler climate, not that the roaches cared. My husband was still in the Navy, the War was still on, and housing in San Francisco was impossible to find. We were reduced to moving every 4 or 5 days from one sleazy old downtown hotel to another, the time limit having been imposed due to wartime regulations.

    All of these horrible places had a few cockroaches hiding out but we hit the jackpot with one room that was so bad we had to leave all the lights on all the time, just to keep them at bay. I never did unpack my suitcase.

    When we moved to the tropics some years later, by then as civilians, I learned that any previous experience I’d had with cockroaches was just a warm up. Roaches in the tropics are a way of life. Or so I thought until I discovered one of the few things that will actually kill them, Boric Acid Powder!

    With the fervor of a religious convert I took it upon myself to educate all my friends and close neighbors. I’d mix small amounts of boric acid with a  bit of sugar and set little foil cups around in likely spots, being sure to keep them hidden from small children and pets with their endless curiosity.

    There is always some mad fool who will try to tell you roaches are basically harmless. Anything that crawls through sewers is not harmless. However, roaches have been used in some cultures as medication, sometimes fried in garlic for indigestion and sometimes boiled up as a tea for tetanus. I myself, will take my chances with both indigestion and tetanus. A few intrepid souls actually keep the Giant Madagascar Hissing Roaches as pets. There again, if I have a choice I’ll take a nice cuddly boa constrictor.

    I did come across sort of a recipe for an edible (their word, not mine,) – ediblle spread to use on crackers or bread. I’d never have the nerve to try it but I’m happy to share it with anyone who is more daring than I.  Wanting a catchy name, I’m calling it  “Bug Butter”. Read on, if you dare. The “ick” factor gets pretty deep right about here.

    Take about half a pound of cockroaches, simmer them in vinegar and remove the head and entrails. Are they kidding? Do you have any idea how many roaches there are in an ounce, let alone half a pound? And remember, a cockroach can live up to an hour after it’s head has been removed. Next remove the entrails? They’ve got to be kidding! A person could starve to death just picking over the first few ounces.

    If you’ve gotten this far, you’re finally coming to the good part. Saute all those little carcasses in butter, salt, pepper and plenty of garlic, and serve hot or cold on sourdough rounds. Bon Appetit!

    O.K. they’ve got me with the butter, garlic, and sourdough. I’ll just skip the protein. Who wants those tiny little legs in their teeth anyway?

    If we ever get to the point where our civilization finds us lounging around, snacking on “Bug Butter” maybe it will be time for Armageddon. It’ll definitely be time for the Giant Madagascar Hissing Roaches to take over.    

    

    

 

          

Thirty-Eight Moves, Part V (from my memoir)

After a 12 year sojourn in Panama, my husband Lynn, our two youngest children and I returned to the States late in the summer of 1965. He had saved up 3 months of vacation so we rented a small, furnished house in Mason City, Iowa. Being near our families was a very rewarding experience after so many years away. Kerry enrolled as a junior and Kirk as a freshman in my old high school and Lynn sorted through several job offers. Mimi, our oldest daughter, was in Missouri finishing her B.A. degree.

Lynn settled on a position at Palisades Dam in Swan Valley, Idaho, and we moved at the end of October. There were 24 modest 3 bedroom houses in the government settlement below the dam. We were on the banks of the Snake River, at about 6,000 ft. elevation. This was a drastic change from our years in the tropics and living in Idaho took some huge adjustments.

The scenery was  breathtakingly beautiful, especially after an ice storm, but we had a hard time remembering to put on our shoes, not to mention coats, hats, mufflers, boots and gloves. All amenities, including the high school were 54 miles away in Idaho Falls. The school bus left before dawn and returned after dark, making it impossible for the kids to take part in any extracurricular activities.

Kirk was eager to get out with his new friends and try all the winter sports, although he much preferred warm water sports and his old friends. Kerry never really adapted. She fell on the snow going out the door in the morning, coming in the door at  night, and who knows how many times in between. Neither of them complained but we soon realized we’d made a really bad choice.

Spring finally arrived with snow in the tulips on May 30th. Mimi and her guy, Howard, joined us for their small family wedding on June 1st, a joyous occasion, then they were off to start their new life.

Now that school was out, Lynn transferred to Yakima, Washington, a much more sensible move. We rented a huge old house near downtown. With a full, finished basement and an attic, it was the biggest house we’d ever lived in and we really rattled around in all that space.

I always wanted to be able to walk to a post office and a library, so this was fine with me. Kerry enrolled in a gloomy, dark old high school, not really a fun place for a girl in her senior year, but she coped. She soon found a part time job at the city library which she enjoyed.

Kirk was a sophomore at a new school in the suburbs and worked at various jobs, the worst being one where he had to keep smudge pots going in several hop fields overnight. He’d  arrive home at 7:00 a.m. to shower, eat, and get to school on time. Smudging soon became illegal and everyone breathed easier after that, in both meanings of the words.  We spent a lot of weekends camping in the meadows on Mt. Adams, sleeping among the wildflowers.

We soon bought a new 3 bedroom, 2 bath house in the suburb of Terrace Heights, Lynn enjoyed his job and I went to work in the Bon Marche department store. I also got back to my painting, found a congenial group of fellow artists and before I knew it, I was the president of the Larson Gallery Guild. Mimi and Howard were working at their first jobs in Yreka, California, not too far away.

Those were busy years and they flew by. Before we knew it, Kerry graduated high school, finished a course at a local business college, married a handsome young local lad and moved to Memphis, Tenn. when he joined the Navy. These were the late 1960s, war years again, Viet Nam was on everyone’s mind and the war at home consumed Americans with a never before seen divisiveness.

Our son Kirk joined the army as soon as he turned 18 and was sent to Ft. Lewis, Wash., then South Carolina and back to Ft. Lewis, then on to Vietnam where he served 2 tours of combat duty. We became empty nesters overnight, it seemed, a very lonely feeling.

Lynn dusted off his engineer’s papers and made two trips to Vietnam on a freighter. We sold the house in Yakima and moved to Marin, County, California so he could complete some requirements he needed for his licensing. Once that was finished we loaded both cars, both cats and a whole lot of STUFF and headed back to Oregon and the newly finished John Day Dam on the Columbia River. This being December 22nd, his brother, sister-in-law and a nephew caravanned with us, planning to spend Christmas in Yreka with Mimi and Howard.

We ran head on into a major storm that had me doing a donut in my little red Datsun on the iced-over I5 right out of Redding. Fortunately I had chains and 2 carloads of family to help me. Kirk met us in Yreka, having come down from Washington on a Greyhound bus that had to stop while the passengers helped chain it up.

Christmas Day was festive in spite of the weather, and the next morning Lynn and I continued up the Interstate. We got as far as Portland but were held up for four days as I84 East was closed due to ice storms. When we were finally led through by the Highway Patrol, it looked like a war zone with vehicles of every description in the ditches on both sides all the way out.

We had arranged to rent a small house in Wasco, Oregon, near The Dalles. That little town looked so dismal under cover of ice and snow I could only think how much better it would look by spring. Not so, by then it looked even worse. Eventually we moved into The Dalles, then across the river to the tiny town of Stevenson, Washington, settling into a truly spectacular view site on a bluff overlooking the river. The Columbia River Gorge is noted for its storms and we had our share.

At long, long last Lynn’s retirement become a reality. In January, 1972 we sold most of our belongings, stored a few things and moved into a 19 ft. travel trailer with an International Harvester vehicle to tow it. It didn’t take us long to head straight south, not quite non-stop, but we didn’t waste very much time getting to the Bay Area and warmer weather.

We spent the next few years wandering at will, making certain we took in every one of our beautiful states, including Alaska. We would have gone to Hawaii if possible, although we did eventually get there in the more conventional manner. We spent months visiting most of Canada, every state in Mexico and re-visiting most of Central America.

We joked that we’d finally found our true calling, being tourists. Lynn’s early retirement on a reduced annuity was challenging but we lowered our sights and traveled on. Eventually we found ourselves spending the majority of our time in the lovely old city of Guadalajara, Mexico. We became close with a large circle of friends, most of them American and Canadian ex-pats. Lynn joined the local branch of the American Legion (they had the best parties) and we made ourselves right at home.

Before long we realized we needed a home base and bought three acres and a cabin on the Grand Lake Of The Cherokees in Wyandotte, Oklahoma. It was heavily wooded, mostly oak, and we soon learned to take precautions against more than a few natural enemies.

We never hiked our woods without tucking pant legs into socks and dusting both with sulphur powder to keep the bad bugs out. The tornado hideout, known locally as a scaredy hole, was full of already shed snake skins of the  more dangerous types, and a giant centipede lived under the kitchen stove until our cat nosed him out.

We discovered a great way to spend our time and make a little extra income. We finished remodeling the cabin, then had an offer to sell it at a nice price. It was a case of “Why Not?”  We were still spending most of our time in Guadalajara so we took our ill-gotten gains, found a beautiful acre with another fixer-upper on it in Prescott, Arizona and did the same thing.

We became so fond of the next place we fixed up, in Arroyo Grande, California, that we kept it for 10 years, although we leased it out for 6 of those years and continued our travels.

By now we’d upgraded to a larger travel trailer and vehicle, making the rounds of visiting our children and other family members, then back to Mexico for the winters.

Finally tiring of travel, we bought a mobile home in the High Desert town of Yucca Valley, California. Our son Kirk, his wife Linda and our very first grandchild, the beautiful baby Sarah, all lived there. Kerry had moved from San Diego to Palm Desert nearby, and Mimi and Howard, having done their share of working and living in exotic places, were now in Lucerne Valley. When our strapping grandson Steve was born our family was complete.

We still had our urge to travel, but now we’d just jump in the car and stop over at motels.

Of course nothing is ever simple in life. Before we realized it, our Yucca Valley friends suddenly began to age and either move away or pass on. Kerry moved to Fresno, Mimi and Howard moved to Taft, near Bakersfield, and Kirk, Linda and the kids all packed up and went to Oregon.

Wondering if there was a message for us in all this moving, we joined the crowd and moved to Bakersfield, California. We found it to be a very pleasant little city with a nice old-fashioned appeal and lots of kind “down home” folks. The city was big enough to have all the facilities and amenities one could want.

Our first apartment was comfortable and convenient, but the neighbors were all young working families and we soon found ourselves getting lonesome. We moved into a lovely new garden apartment in a gated community just for seniors. The big old trees and grassy lawns appealed to us after so many years in the desert, and new friends were just outside the door. We made one more move, relocating to a shadier, more private apartment there and finally relaxing.

Sadly, Lynn, by now 86 years old, left me after a brief illness, ending our 65 years of marriage. In one of our last conversations he remarked that he had done most of the things he wanted to do in life, which I looked at as a pretty decent testimonial. I can only hope others might consider themselves as fortunate when they reach the end of their lives.

So here I am, back in Oregon, family nearby with lots of wonderful new friends, keeping as busy as I want to, and looking back on my 38th move as a good way to round out my own long life.

I probably should close with some words of wisdom, if only I had any. All I can say is, keep moving. It’s not necessary to uproot and go across country as often as we did, but stay in motion, one way or another.

The only lesson I ever really learned is that careful packing is highly overrated. Grab and throw, and sort it out when you get there. Who cares if it’s wrinkled, wrinkles come out. You’ll only need half of it anyway.

Thirty-Eight Moves, Part IV (from my memoir)

Driving a Volkswagon bus north on the Pan-American Highway from Panama to the Texas border was an adventure in itself. All the bridges had been completed with no more fording of rivers, and the road was in very good condition. However, moving from the home we’d made in the Canal Zone for nearly 12 years was wrenching, but Lynn and I, with our children Kerry and Kirk, had a lot to look forward to. We regretted that our oldest daughter Mimi wasn’t with us but she was already in college having her own adventures.

With Kerry, who was more fluent in Spanish than the rest of us, doing the translating, we crossed the border into Costa Rica after a beautiful drive through the Panama highlands. Most of Central America is mountainous with tiny, brightly painted houses teetering on the brinks of deep canyons. San Jose is a lovely modern city with a strong European influence. A side trip to view Mt Irazu, Costa Rica’s tallest mountain and the site of a recent volcanic eruption, was a sobering look at an ash covered wasteland.

The drive to Managua took us along the coast of Lake Nicaragua for quite a few miles. This vast lake had been under consideration as a likely location for the canal that was eventually built in Panama.  We spent a night at a very nice hotel, reassured by the big blue bottles of water in dispensers everywhere. The next morning a stroll down to the lakeside was an eye opener. We watched as men wearing the hotel uniform stood knee deep in the lake, filling the bottles while cows also stood nearby, also knee deep, placidly looking on. Fortunately Mom had lifted the ban on sugary sodas for the duration of the trip so no one got sick from the drinking water. I could only hope the water for my coffee had been well boiled.

We passed through a small section of Honduras, mostly jungle. To our surprise, a fully armed Honduran soldier stepped out into the road and flagged us down. Naturally we stopped, more than a little nervous. He climbed aboard, went to the back of the bus, sat down between the kids with his rifle across his knees, and off we went. Kerry tried a few words of conversation but got no response. He rode with us for many miles before he signaled for us to stop so he could get off. We decided that he mistook our bus for public transportation and probably wondered why the burly blond bus driver didn’t ask for a fare.

Enjoying dinner at a pension in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, was memorable mainly because there were windows on all sides of the large comedor, or dining room, and no matter where we looked a volcano was looming in the background, looking over our shoulders. At that time El Salvador was the least advanced of the Central American countries, lost somewhere between native and modern cultures.

Guatemala has always been my favorite Latin country, incredibly beautiful with lush fields running almost vertically up and down the mountainsides. The cities have a strong Colonial influence. The indigenous tribes are colorful with their hand woven clothing, each weave identifying a tribe. They speak their native languages as they go about their daily business with an amazing amount of industriousness.

The Governor’s Palace in Guatemala City is huge and ornate, the reception area lined with rococo chairs covered in the most delicate yellow satin. Every time I’ve been there it’s been full of natives trotting barefoot up and down the elegant halls in their bright costumes, patiently waiting to take care of whatever business they may have. I wonder what they must think of their elegant surroundings.

We took a side road through the mountains that had absolutely spectacular scenery. Needing gas halfway along, we finally came to a station out in the middle of nowhere. It only had electrical power for an hour every morning so Lynn and Kirk had to get out and crank the gas pump by hand while the attendant watched carefully.

We spent the night at a pension with the most delightful family who seemed thrilled to have a family of Norte Americanos staying with them. The floors had just been mopped with kerosene so we were sure there wouldn’t be a problem with insects, if only we could breathe.

We were served a delicious Guatemalan meal, including what our kids called “black bean blop”, familiar from other trips. Just as we were nicely full, La Senora proudly entered with her specialty, a can of Spam neatly sliced. Our hearts sank. It must have cost them a great deal, and knowing it was a delicacy to them we each took a tiny piece, (I think I cut mine in half,) and sent the rest back to the kitchen for the family to enjoy in private.

If you like museums as much as my family does, Mexico City is the place for you. We spent a week there, making some interesting side trips to such lovely old cities as Cuernavaca and Taxco, and visiting as many museums as we could manage. After touring the brand new National Museum of Anthropology, we paused as we left and I turned around to take a picture. There, coming down the broad staircase, was a couple we knew from Panama!

It wasn’t quite the coincidence it seemed. Every year a new crop of young students interned at Gorgas Hospital in Ancon, and it was time for them to rotate back to the States for their residencies. We had heard that several of them, all young men with their wives, were driving back at the same time we were. We had dinner together that night and went our separate ways the next day.

We made an interesting stop at the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan, huge pyramids, mostly restored and now a famous tourist site. Fortunately we had the place to ourselves. Ever on the lookout for bad food or drink, I was the only one of us who got sick. My memories of Teotihuacan are of a dizzying white brilliance over everything while I made a mad dash for the nearest pyramid and upchucked my last few meals, apparently the victim of listeriosis, which is caused by tainted dairy products. Fortunately we had the place to ourselves. I had a hard time living that one down.

We spent one last night at Ciudad Victoria in an North-American style motel with a North American owner/manager who served us her homemade American pie, coconut cream I believe.. The next morning we made our run for the border, arriving in Brownsville, Texas and headed for our next home, wherever that might be.

…to be continued…

Thirty-Eight Moves, Part III (from my memoir)

Soon it was time for another promotion and we moved to the town of Gamboa, this time into two adjoining apartments in one of the old 4 family buildings, on the third floor again with lots of breezes and great views. Gamboa had most amenities although the high school students had to take the local train 17 miles into Balboa.

This train traveled between Balboa and Cristobal, a 50 mile run, several times a day. I’m pretty sure it was one of the most uncomfortable modes of transportation ever, beginning with the woven straw seats that invariably pulled the hair on any head trying to rest on them.

At that time, there was still no air-conditioning anywhere in the Zone, for an unusual reason. The Canal used “mules,” little tugs that ran on the shore alongside the ships in transit, doing the towing. They were all wired for 25 cycle electricity and almost all American built appliances were operated on 60 cycle  electricity. At this time conversion had just begun, a huge job that took several years. I  was overjoyed when we finally got our first air-conditioner.

Every two years all Zone employees were given 2 months of  paid vacation which we were expected to take in a more temperate climate. The Pancanal Company ran a fleet of small 200 passenger/freighters back and forth to New York or New Orleans. The cruise to New York took 4 or 5 days with a stop in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Once in New York, we would buy a used car and drive across the country, catching up on Grandparent time and stocking up on items not readily available in the Zone.

We usually flew back and would have one suitcase crammed full of swimsuits. With five of us in and out of the water almost every day we went through a lot of swimsuits. They were available in our commissaries but not in any variety and never on sale.

Lynn began building two small runabout boats, known as Sea-Babes, under our building; one was to be for friends. When the boats were completed we spent many hours exploring the lakes and rivers. During dry season, when the lakes were low, artifacts and relics of past lives could be found. Several of our group found gold earrings, of both Indian and Spanish design, small decorated bowls and an occasional coin.

A lot of ceramic ginger beer bottles were found. Previous attempts at building a canal had been made before drinking water became safe. Ginger beer was imported by the caseful and the empty bottles were turned upside down and buried in mud so the flat bottoms formed cobblestone walkways. The only thing I ever found intact was a square hand blown case lot bottle, originally for rum.

By now Lynn had been promoted to Power System Dispatcher for the entire Zone. Any time there was a power outage, especially on a holiday, we’d remind him that it was his turkey in the oven in our all-electric kitchen so he was obliged to make sure our area went back online first. I don’t really think he had any choice in the matter but it was a fun tease.

Our next move was into the main city of Balboa, next to Panama City on the Pacific side. This time our big old 4 family apartment building was of masonry construction, also up on posts and we were once again on the 3d floor. This location was very convenient to schools, post-office, church, our favorite yacht club, commissary shopping, the theater and the clubhouse with its cafeteria. This was the heart of the Canal Zone with the Administration building, a bank and other necessary offices all within walking distance. The fun thing about this old building was that a marble placed on the floor at the front of the apartment would roll unaided all the way to the back of the kitchen.

After this we moved to one of the oldest structures in the Zone, a wooden single family house on posts, looking down across the city to the Pacific, and backing right up to the jungle. We were entertained with flocks of coati mundis doing acrobatics on the bird feeder and desperate to get into our kitchen so they could scavenge for food. An anteater lived just behind us and could be heard tearing chunks of bark off the trees in search of treats. We only saw him once but heard him often.

The tropical jungle was a big disappointment to me. I guess I’d seen too many “Disney” type depictions of jungles; monkeys chattering as they swung from lavishly flowering vines and animal eyes peeking out from under every bush. In reality, we saw a deep green wall of foliage, silent, solid and quiet, impenetrable and forbidding. There were gorgeous flowering trees during dry season but they could only be seen from a distance, as on a hillside.

Any cleared area would be a riot of colorful flowers of every variety; the leaves, caladiums, crotons and such were sometimes as showy as the flowers. Tropical flowers often don’t have a lot of fragrance with the exception of the torch gingers, frangipani and others of that type. They make up for it in brilliance; there were bougainvillea, hibiscus, anthurium, and poinsettias, to name a few.

This old house was due to be torn down soon so I was free to splash paint on all the inside walls to my heart’s content.  We soon had a shocking pink kitchen, a charcoal dining area and other gaudy rooms. This was 1960, after all. Besides, oil painting was now an absorbing part of my life and I was happiest with a brush in my hand.

Lynn finally began work on his dream boat, a 30 foot long trimaran, a sailboat with two outriggers, Polynesian style. When it was launched we gave it the Polynesian name of “Otaha,” meaning Man-o-war, or frigate, bird.

Most of the boat was constructed under the building. When it got too big and extended out into the yard, we covered it with tarps to keep it dry while not being worked on. Somehow he managed all of the construction himself, corralling any family member who happened to be in the vicinity when he needed an extra hand. Every article of clothing we owned had glue, fiberglass or paint stains somewhere on it.

The kids got to the point where they would try to sneak past him when they came in from school for lunch or at the end of the day, but he was usually on the look-out. I was now doing oil painting as a hobby so I was never too tidy at my best and was willing to do my share of boat building.

Launching the completed boat was a major event with a hired flat-bed and crane, a police escort and the usual parade of kids on bikes and yapping dogs. We had some wonderful family trips out to the islands in Panama Bay, usually with other boats along for a fun trip. The islands of Contadora and Taboga were among our favorites with their fabulous beaches. The artist, Paul Gauguin had lived on Taboga for a period of time before moving on to Tahiti.

By now I was seriously into painting and crafting. I especially enjoyed creating woodcut prints, using the native pre-Columbian designs as my inspiration. I entered two oil paintings in a prestigious exhibit at the Panama Art Museum and won second prize. To my delight, the museum purchased both of my works. I was also serving as Canal Zone branch president of the  League of American Penwomen so these were busy years.

Our last move while in the Canal Zone was to a newer masonry duplex in the town of Ancon. It sat on the corner of Almond and Calabash Streets, or as the kids called it, Nut and Pumpkin. This was a masonry building and at long last the electrical conversion was completed. I think I may have been the first in line to purchase an air-conditioner. I’m sure I was the happiest. We had to staple heavy plastic across the screened windows until louvered windows became available.

We drove a tiny Morris Minor car, painted white, known by its appearance as a doggy ambulance. All it needed was a red cross. Lynn’s pride and joy was a beat-up old Ford pickup, once painted silver. Its fenders were so bashed in he was accused of forcing it to fit into the narrow garage under the house. One of his sailing buddies was a retired Navy admiral. Lynn, having been a mere 1st class petty officer, loved to pull his wreck up to a shuddering stop at the military bases  while the admiral pulled out his I.D. and they sailed through the guard gate.

Our family was growing up and our life began to change. This was now 1964 and our oldest daughter had graduated from the local Junior College and was off to college in the States. The other two were now 14 and 16 years old. Times were changing and the Panamanian people, long the best of friends to the United States, began to get restless, wanting “their” land back. The legal aspects of the original treaty were argued for months, beginning in 1960. The Eisenhower administration had already sent a delegation down several times, red-tape was rolling and things began to get a little ugly.

When a group of young Panamanian students marched on the high school in January 1964, trying to tear down the American flag and run up their own, the reaction from the American students, including our own two young patriots, was immediate. There were weeks of strife, some shooting, and this was an unsettled time for everyone.

We sheltered some close friends, business people who lived in Panama City and and had begun to fear for their future. They stayed with us for a few weeks until things finally began to return to normal. A treaty was signed by both countries and the United States agreed to turn over the Canal Zone to Panama in 1999.

Somehow the shine wore off our lives and we realized the time had come for us to return to our home country. This was an extremely difficult decision for all of us after almost twelve years but we saw the necessity and began to make our preparations.

We bought a brand new 1965 Volkswagen bus and loaded it down. Goodbyes were very sad, our many friends had become our families and they were having to make decisions too. All the bridges were now completed along the Pan-American highway, and with no more rivers to ford, we headed north through Central America and new adventures.

… to be continued…

I must add a few comments made during conversations I’ve had with each of our children about their memories of the Zone.

Our oldest daughter, Mimi, recalls being a 5th grader in California and discussing the day’s events after school with her friends while sitting atop a butane gas tank. A few months later, more conversation with new friends, all sitting in a mango tree. She recalls spending 10 cents for after school treats, slices of green mangoes with lime juice. As a teen-ager she was able to work as an usher at the Balboa Theater, one of the very few jobs available to Canal Zone kids. She and I attended a class in DESIGN together at the local Junior College. She went on to graduate, I didn’t.

Kerry, our second daughter, remembers her dance classes and the “American Bandstand” type dances held every Friday afternoon. Some of them were televised on the local Armed Forces TV station. She remembers rushing home late from a scavenger hunt, muddy and grass stained, and having to pin her hair up, pop on her long white dress and shoes, and rush up a flight of stairs, late for a Rainbow Girls meeting, trying to hide her muddy feet.

I was the leader of her Girl Scout troop and over one momentous weekend, we obtained permission and the loan of enough jungle hammocks for 20 some girls, myself and 2 assistants. We spent a really interesting night camping in a jungle clearing. Needless to say, nobody slept.

Our son Kirk and Kerry both remember their after school snacks, bags of a tropical fruit called “ginip”  (there are several spellings). The Ginip Lady was a fixture outside Balboa Elementary School while they were students. Kirk recalls making a 1 mile swim in one of the lakes as a requirement for a Scouting badge. He actually swam it twice as he didn’t quite make it the first time. He was either 9 or 10 at the time and a very strong swimmer. I was his Cub Scout Den Mother before he went into Boy Scouts.

He was bitten badly on the leg by a coati mundi while we were touring the Fort Sherman Jungle Warfare Training Center once. The critter was tethered but he backed up too close and got a nasty bite and a scar for life. The medics in attendance gave him a tetanus shot and a bandage. While this was happening the girls spotted an enormous boa constrictor draped across the shoulders of 8 or 9 GIs who were strolling around showing it off. That was quite a place!

Kirk’s fondest memories were of our trips to the islands and following his dad around as he swung a machete through the jungle. Dad got over enthusiastic once and gave himself a nice gash on the leg. His treatment? – a swim in the salt water.

Thinking back, I believe that was our preferred treatment for most of our little problems, and a few big ones too. We did love those beaches.