Thinking back over sixty-five years of married life and doing some quick calculations, I was amazed to realize my husband and I had moved a total of thirty-seven times during our lives together. (The thirty-eighth move was the hardest of all, the one I made by myself after I was alone.) I had to do some serious thinking before I finally came up with a list of all the homes we’d had.
Any move that called for a Post Office change of address, a pile of old newspapers and a raid on the trash behind the local grocery store for usable boxes made the list.
In 1943, as a young Navy bride stepping off a train from the Midwest, I was thrilled with our very first home. Lynn, my new husband, had rented a studio apartment at 230 Oak St. in San Francisco.
I enjoyed the city so much in those days. It was fresh and clean, and the air had a zesty brilliance. The briny sea smell and the odor of roasting coffee gave it an extra piquancy.
The most fascinating feature of our new apartment was the Murphy bed, a novelty to me. I’ve never forgotten the experience of waking up to my first earthquake. Being gently rocked back and forth as the bed slid around was so soothing that the quake was over with before I even had a chance to panic.
Those were war years, World War II was in full swing, so five months later Lynn’s next assignment, the newly launched U.S.S. Oakland, was deployed to the South Pacific to join the devastating battles already underway. This was his second deployment and his second ship. The first one, the U.S.S. Atlanta, had been sunk in a major battle the previous year with a huge loss of life. His injuries kept him hospitalized for some time but now he had recovered and was being sent back to the war.
We met during his thirty day convalescent leave and married after a three month engagement. The idea of my brand new husband returning to the nightmare of war was traumatic for both of us. However, he had no choice and willingly did his duty.
After the ship left, I moved back to Iowa until Lynn returned to San Diego four months later and I was able to rejoin him. Port cities seem to be so much busier than other cities, and San Diego, lovely as it was, was no exception. Housing in war-time San Diego was almost impossible to find, but we finally lucked out with a room in a small two bedroom cottage.
There were already three couples living there, one couple in each of the bedrooms and one couple in the living room. We were allotted the dining room and a fifth couple settled in on the screened-in back porch. With one bath and a tiny kitchen, the lack of privacy and the need for tight schedules created a lot of problems. The guys all showered at their duty stations, a big help and a savings on hot water.
Living like this was also highly illegal, as you might guess. The original renters kept subletting until every livable space was filled. We were just happy to be crowded in and wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining.
When Lynn rejoined his ship in the South Pacific, it was back to the Midwest for me, by now pregnant and feeling very much alone, hating the long gritty, greasy smelling train trips. Our first child, a daughter, was seven months old before she met her daddy when he was finally able to join us for a week in Iowa. We reluctantly left her with her Grandma, knowing it was for her own good, and we were off to San Francisco again for a brief two weeks together.
We were very fortunate that we’d been talked into leaving our baby behind, as difficult as it was. The two weeks stretched into a month and once again finding a place to stay in another war-time port city was a nightmare. Even the seediest, tackiest old hotels in the city were limiting occupancy to four or five nights before tenants were forced to move on.
The really old places reeked of the most unpleasant odors, and the sanitation left a lot to be desired. I barely unpacked each time we had to move. In the most forgettable of those awful places we left all the lights on 24 hours a day to keep the cockroaches at bay. Much as we missed our baby we were thankful not to have her with us under such conditions.
Once again the ship sailed and it was back to Iowa for me, another wretched train trip and a long, long wait for the war to end. By mid 1945 the war in Europe was over at last and in August the war in the South Pacific finally came to an end.
The entire country rejoiced! It was one of the happiest times ever.
I made another tedious train trip to the Bay Area with my tiny daughter and we had a joyful reunion with Lynn. We found government housing in the city of Richmond, an industrial city of about 100,000 at the time. It was the home of a huge Standard Oil refinery which sent acrid emissions across a vast area of the East Bay. Ramshackle wooden apartment buildings had been thrown up for shipyard workers and these were now made available for Navy personnel. Our little one bedroom apartment was very cozy and soon got a lot cozier. Sailors returning from one month leaves were flat broke and ready to board the ship, but found their leaves had been extended for another 30 days while the ship was being worked on, and they had no place to go.
We took in as many as we could, usually between 10 and 20 at a time and our splintery wood floor was lined with blanket rolls (no sleeping bags in those days) and snoring sailors every night for a month. Our bedroom was reserved for the three of us, otherwise the rest of the place was fair game.
Having learned a few basics of cooking as I helped my mother feed a family of nine, including an elderly grandfather, I managed to stretch ground beef and pasta every way possible so no one starved and we got through the month. Even though he had no money, any sailor always had a deck of cards with him so we passed the time playing our own crazy creation, Solitaire Tournaments, making up the rules as we went.
Lynn’s ship was sent to dry dock in Bremerton, Washington and we were given housing in the tiny town of Port Orchard. At that time Port Orchard’s only claim to fame was a large Veterans’ Home sitting on a hill, and the hastily built Navy Housing. In order to shop, a daily necessity, we walked across the grounds of the Home, waving greetings to any retired veterans who might be sitting out on the lawn. There was a boat landing at the foot of the hill and a small covered launch ran across the bay every hour, tying up at the foot of Bremerton’s main street. Since our apartments had no refrigeration we stowed fresh milk and other perishables in a wooden box set outside the bedroom window and accessible by opening the window and reaching in.
Both the cooking and the heating stoves were wood burning, possibly romantic in other circumstances but the smell of wood smoke is not romantic when it’s pouring out of an oven that is supposed to be cooking your supper. A big Navy truck dumped a load of logs in a pile every morning so our main recreation was chopping wood.
Our other recreation was endless games of pinochle during the long, dark evenings, with several couples gathering at one another’s apartments, putting the children down for naps and making batches of donuts from tubes of refrigerated biscuits. These were a brand new novelty and we would separate the biscuits, drop them into hot oil, brown each side, then drain and roll them in sugar, serving plenty of strong black coffee for a real feast.
Lynn managed to keep ahead of our firewood usage but when we were moved into similar quarters in Bremerton and the ship sailed on down to San Diego, we wives learned to chop wood in a hurry. We were very happy when we were allowed to follow the ship.
This time we were assigned to Quonset Huts in National City, just south of San Diego. Each Hut was divided in half cross-wise and wouldn’t have been too bad except for the high summer temperatures, those metal roofs overhead, a lack of insulation and of course, no air-conditioning.
We eventually moved into a privately owned apartment in half a garage. Being a Navy town, San Diegans had been housing sailors for decades and the city was full of innovative quarters. This must have been an extra large garage as there was room for two tiny studio apartments, divided by a shared bath. Dismal, yes, but quite an improvement over the Quonset Hut.
After six long, eventful, tension filled years, Lynn received his Navy discharge in November of 1946. We were profoundly relieved and overjoyed to be independent for the first time in our married life. We moved back to Richmond where we had family. He soon got his Marine Engineer’s papers and began regular trips back and forth to Asia with the Military Sea Transport Service. The MSTS was set up to re-settle personnel and dependents for the duration of five or six years after the war.
We rented another of the little apartments we’d lived in before, then returned to Iowa for a period of time, and back to the Richmond apartments, where there were plenty of vacancies now that the war was over. Our two youngest children were born there, another adorable baby daughter and a strapping blond, curly-haired son, the apple of his daddy’s eye. With our family complete we qualified for a larger apartment and the extra bedroom was a real luxury.
And at last our sailor decided he’d had enough of the sea and he took a civilian job in Watsonville, California. I must confess, I may have hastened that decision along. Left alone for six weeks at a time, with two small girls and a newborn, I had one of those meltdowns where the oldest child is wistfully waiting to be fed, the toddler is having a tantrum, needing a change and a big hug and I’m rocking the rockers off my old chair trying to calm a colicky infant. I remember turning to a very hungry little girl and telling her, “If your daddy doesn’t start staying home we’ll have to get a new daddy.” This remark was repeated to said daddy on his next turn-around and he only made one more trip.
Utilizing his engineer’s license, he went to work at the brand new Pacific Gas and Electric power plant and began a whole new career. We rented a big old place in town for a few months and at last we proudly bought our very first home. It was a small two bedroom fixer-upper on a half acre just out of town and it was OURS! This was 1952 and our house cost us $4,000.
Watsonville was a small agricultural community, known as the “lettuce capital of the world,” seven miles from the Pacific Ocean, very pleasant and livable.
Being an enterprising, think-outside-the-box type of guy, Lynn quickly realized that an extra building on our property which had never been used before would make a perfect addition to our small house. With a little ingenuity, some assistance and a lot of muscle it was soon securely attached to the house and we began our very first remodeling project.
Our realtor told us the building had been intended for use as a chicken house. With floors made of 2x4s it would have been the sturdiest chicken house ever seen. We came up with a lot of hilarious jokes about the giant chickens we’d replaced.
We also bought our first little sailboat, a 12 foot Snipe, great for relaxing on Morro Bay. The bay was well protected, the water was icy cold and the little boat loved the spanking breezes. Lynn discovered sailboat racing, a sport most of our little family enjoyed for years, me being less enthusiastic than the rest.
SO . . . just when we thought we were finally settled, no more moves, ready to live the American dream most people aspired to, along came the biggest move of all and I was soon packing again.
…to be continued…