THE PACK RAT
A.K.A. WOOD RAT
Peering down at odd bluish chunks in the graveled driveway, I say to the real estate agent, “That’s soap! Why is Irish Spring bar soap trash out here?”
“Oh, that wards off packrats,” she replies. “They can be annoying – everyone has them out here, but they can be controlled; they hate Irish Spring.” (Later we learned otherwise, when a neighbor snorted and told us they love to line their nests with it.) Seeking to distract us, she gestured over to some admirable cactus groupings, popular xeriscaping. Not much water out here, and one makes do with Mother Nature. Best to use what the desert offers to enhance your property. The owners here had done a splendid job. “The saguaro cactus, whose bloom is the Arizona state blossom, is a dramatic icon out here,” she said. “See how many this property has?”
But I was too dismayed, appalled, viewing the blue bits with alarm, to be so easily diverted, as impressive as the monumental cacti were. We were besotted with the property – wonderful view of the city spread out in the distance – and intended to make an offer. But what were we getting into? Packrats so rife you needed to sow soap in the driveway? Good grief.
Images from childhood flickered through my mind. I again hear my Dad bellowing about finding acorn bits on his dresser right there where his money clip had been. The critters steal and swap. One imagines a little wee conscience plying payments for thievery. I envisioned vermin scurrying with bright shiny things in their paws and teeth, stuff they’ve stolen and are hauling back to their nests. Keys, buttons, bits of foil from gum packets – a diamond ring? – like magpies, any shiny thing that hits their fancy – leaving maybe a discarded nut as payment. Strange varmint. In my childhood home, rustlings in the walls and on rooftops turned out to be, yes, packrats.
I didn’t wish to have any on my beat. And I knew they were already there, as witness the messy display of Irish Spring. We bought the house and called in Mr. Pack Rat, ecologically kind capturer and releaser of the furry, furtive, little beasties.
He educated us: Prevention is kinder, cheaper and more effective than extermination. He pointed out bits of trash collected in one little area around a prickly pear. “That’s a sign to look for,” he said. “They nest in cactus root systems, making walls of thorny spines for protection. Pretty smart, these guys.” We nodded, glassy-eyed. “And you must clean up piles of brush debris around your acreage. They love those for nesting.”
He rid us of all nests he could find, and we carefully did what he recommended. Then found more. The previous owners were a combo couple of artist and professor, minds adrift on other than packrats. Would you believe the rascals took over an outside barbecue grill? And in the nighttime we heard scuffling sounds over our heads. Maybe bobcat? More likely pack rat.
What to do? Prevention is best. But forget the Irish Spring.
My tensed body on the qui vive, I panicked, shaking my husband’s sleeping form.
“Eeeeeek!” I hissed at him. “There’s a snake in the bathroom. He’s essing himself across the bathmat.”
My groggy mate raised his head, in a “what now?” configuration.
It was midnight, we were in our new-to-us Tucson house. It is a 1950s vintage structure, apparently with the odd tiny hole making a come-hither entry for a wee thirsty beastie prowling for water. We are, after all, in the crackling dry Sonoran Desert. Daytime brings a pot pourri of needy birds to our patio fountain – even quail and a road-runner and a Cooper’s hawk. (And a stalking bobcat). The pool (it came with the place)? Doves have learned to use the Creepy Crawler float as a perch to sip from. Saguaro cactuses loom around the house, magnificent in the daylight, other-worldly in the dark of night.
Our house is in a well-established wildlife area. Packrats creep about under the prickly pears, tunneling cozy nests as home base for foraging. The furry pests particularly like tasty car engine wires. No garage? Hang a work-light under the hood as a “Keep off” sign. Funny how rodents world-wide like engine compartments. (Our erstwhile Martha’s Vineyard junker grew stinky over the winter, to the point that we simply gave it away to a mechanic.)
“What can we do? I don’t want a snake in my bathroom!” I shuddered.
“Well, we can go back to sleep,” growled my unenthusiastic mate, dropping his head back onto the pillow.
“Bloody hell, I’ll not close my eyes with that thing slithering around who knows where.” I glared at him. “Maybe it’s poisonous.” That got him up to look.
“It’s gone,” he said. I peered in after him. Uh-oh. He was right; it was gone. But where had it gone?
It was a little thing, a small stripey pretty snake, it could hide anywhere.
I carefully, quietly, peeked around. Aha. There it was! It had made its way behind the toilet. I didn’t want to rile it – but I also did not wish to have it near my precious pink parts, nor my toes nor my rump.
Burrowing back in the bed, I grabbed up my source of information, the dizzying data-driven IPhone, and typed into Google “How to get rid of a snake in the house?” To my amazement “Arizona Wildlife Protection, 24-hours” (or something like that) and a telephone number floated up in front of my eyes. I called.
A groggy male voice answered, and I explained my problem. He gave me another number.
Another less groggy male voice answered and explained that yes he could remove the snake – for $110.00. Or, he said, we could just ignore it and it might go away. Probably would.
Oh no… not an option.
My sweetie agreed that I should cater to my fears and hire the guy to come out. (He can be such a mensch.)
In no time at all our expert appeared at the door. A tall, rangy, blue-jeaned fellow with piercing blue eyes and a shock of white hair ankled in, a remarkable Ted Danson dopple-ganger, bringing a simple empty gallon jug and long-handled pincers. A stethoscope hung around his neck.
But where was snakey? Oops… no snake. Not behind the loo, not anywhere.
“You cannot take your eyes off the animal for an instant,” he tut-tutted. “He could have gone anywhere at all. “Looking around he said, “Baseboards are the most likely places.”
He knelt on the floor, folding himself up like a grasshopper, and with flashlight in hand scooched around on his knees. I envied his flexibility and said so. “It’s genetic” he replied, grinning.
Perseverance paid off. With a stethoscope he detected movement under a baseboard. I got a pry bar from the tool supply, and off he pulled it. Little snakey (a harmless and useful mouse-eating king snake, but what did we clueless imports know?) quickly wriggled across the floor. Our herpetologist snapped it up with the pincers and coaxed it into the jug. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds; senor snake was not cooperative, his wee head writhing vigorously away from the opening.
Once the scare was safely contained, our Ted Danson look-alike rocked back on his heels. He pointed at my book posters. I explained. He smiled delightedly and remarked that he too had once taken up flying.
The hunt quickly turned into a jovial “did you know” and “were you ever” party right there on our bedroom floor, in the quiet Arizona night under millions of stars, surrounded by desert varmints snoozing in their hidey holes – or not. We knew the vicious fanged havalina liked a nighttime scrounge about. But at least one adventurous serpent was no longer a threat.
We paid our fee gladly and saw the white hair off into the darkness, his figure lost against the saguaros as he climbed into his jeep.
Who’d have figured that curious thread would be woven into my life tapestry?
BALLOONS, the Hot Air Kind
“Up, up and away, in my beautiful balloon…” The Fifth Dimension musically wooed us to soar high and wide. Marilyn McCoo’s crooning pulled our hearts into the sky, triggering a yearning to throw off gravity, that force pithily called “surly” by a young John Magee, student pilot. “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth” he wrote, in his poem, “High Flight,” decades before. (There were “laughter silvered wings” in there, too.)
It’s just that. And beautiful? Today, balloons strive to be just as splendid as the silk and paper wonder that carried the French Mongolfier brothers’ experimental balloons aloft. Not that the brothers themselves had the nerve to take that initial test flight. They planted a chemistry teacher in it, Professor Pilâtre de Rozier, shouting a loud and hopeful “Bon voyage, mon ami!” to the brave volunteer rising above them.
Before him, there had been an aeronaut trio team of chicken, duck, and sheep. They’d had a four-minute ride, coming down with a harmless bounce. That cleared the way to send a man aloft. There are no notes recording a clucking or quacking riffle of feathers, or a panicky bleat from the sheep, but one assumes a gratitude to be back on terra firma.
A balloon festival should be on your bucket list. Maybe a ride? They sell rides at festivals. Balloons range from whimsical to stellar – “Pigs Fly” is my favorite, a building-size pink piggy. The most dazzling hot air balloons are stitched from a rainbow array of nylon. From Abilene to Albuquerque to Quechee Vermont, there are a plethora of colorful fiestas.
I caught a ride in Albuquerque, covering the event for our Aero Club of New England. That gave me a press pass to go aloft, gratis. But it also plopped me too firmly on the ground, flopping the balloon over into dragging mode in a wind beyond the capabilities of the pilot. I still can see grasses whizzing by my eyes – and feel my sternum go “pop”. Never mind. I got great pictures.
It seems to be my karma to get pilots who land hard. Turkey was another bust, over Cappadocia, banging down hard on a hillside and putting me into a wheel chair and early flight home. Was it worth it? You betcha.
It went like this. Up at dawn in still air at a quiet valley bottom, we eagerly scrambled into a ten-passenger basket. But wait. A hailing jeep burst around a boulder into our gathering, and the driver jumped out. “It’s looking breezy up there!”
A preflight observer had driven up to the plateau to see how things lay. He looked gloomy. The air was stirring up. There was a storm in the offing. Far away as yet, on the horizon.
“How many knots? If ten or less, we can go.” Our pilot was a swarthy, studly commercial pilot with Turkish Air. He was greedy?
“We’ll be fine.” he mused a moment, then announced a “go”. Going adrift, viewing the ancient wind-and-water-carved hoodoos of the Capadoccian terrain, was good moonlighting duty for the underpaid captain. He didn’t want to lose this chunk of money.
Over three hundred churches and chapels lay below, carved out of ancient volcanic rock, “tuff.” It was believed that if you built a church, paradise was guaranteed. Christians occupied the valley back then. There’s a complete multi-level town tunneled under there, with a giant passageway wheel that when activated, rolls and rumbles across to stymie raiding invaders. Claustrophobic for me, but a fine hideout with escape routes for the persecuted. Five levels they said. I could only handle two. It was a loopy rabbit warren, not nice level floors.
The Turk stood beside me; we compared notes while he handled the gas flames and control lines. I had more air hours than he, but none piloting a balloon.
Ahead, distant massive purple clouds threatened our path, and being a hot air vehicle, we had no motor to change course. Dark and ominous, a horizon-wide storm drew nearer; the ground below was scooting by alarmingly. Our lighter-than-air vehicle was being pulled uncontrollably; we were being sucked towards those clouds with a guarantee of being drawn up into them and pitched about mercilessly. Winds, air currents, had been formed by rapidly building, rising, cumulus storm clouds.
Suddenly the sweat in the Turk’s arm pits turned rank with fear. Uh-oh, thought I.
Suddenly he bellowed, his face a mask of fear, “Crouch down! Squat! We have to land now! We’re going to head for that hilltop patch there to avoid power lines.”
But not. We were sinking… a forceful orographic valley downdraft made sure he didn’t quite make it to that target hilltop, despite all the flaming heat he fired up into the balloon. It hardly rose an inch. As we watched, cowering and crouching, the hillside chillingly ran at us. He came in too low and missed the field, thereby, happily, missing those wires, thank God. But the struggling ten-passenger basket abruptly, briskly and meanly, whanged sideways into the slope.
We were shaken but mostly unhurt, and scrambled out into steep dirt, grabbing grasses to hitch ourselves upwards. The chase crew met us at the edge. We cheered and applauded our survival. But – we should not have been taken up in the first place.
I don’t crouch or squat too well, and ended with a chipped patella. That was my third flight.
The first of my four balloon rides (so far) was a perfect tiptoed sunset landing, swooshing between someone’s backyard willow trees, in central Massachusetts. The next, a dawn landing in a gentle pasture, near Brisbane Down Under, surrounded by curious horses. A curious, warbling currawong came to greet and perch on the basket.
Two out of four, perfect. Fifty percent perfect isn’t bad.
Death in Alamos.
Yes, like everywhere, some die in car crashes, and sadly some O.D. But some just choose to run out their days here, finding kindness and solace in gentle hands.
And if you’re connected, a bartender will send a margarita to your bedside, something to ease you through those dying weeks or months. I swear, only in Alamos.
She was a beauty queen in her youth, all traces now erased by time and tequila, leaving a sagging face and limp hair. She was ill from… something. Maybe cirrhosis? Whatever. Like many, she had been a nightly habitué of the local watering hole. She had a history in the town, and was a favorite of the cantinero (bartender). He would not let her down in her end days. She was a renter in the complex where we were staying. One day I asked where she was. We hadn’t seen her for several days.
“Oh no se’ senora, no le he visto tampoco.” (I dunno ma’am, I haven’t seen her either.) “No contesta cuando toco.” (No response when I knock at the door.)
“Oh oh, check her room. Maybe something happened to her.” I severely admonished the sweet but not too motivated domestic. “Let’s go see,” said I.
Poor woman. She had finally deteriorated to the point that she was unable to arise to relieve herself, and had lain for days in her own filth. The stench was pitiful. She was their tenant; they knew she was failing. Why had no one checked on her?
Incensed, I called the apartment owner.
“Senora, a dreadful scene here – not to be tolerated.” I bellowed into the phone – sometimes righteous anger works best. I demanded a massive in-house cleanup of the bed-ridden and her room, then advised the local doc of what I had found and asked him to please find her a visiting nurse immediately. If necessary I would pay for it. I personally did not particularly like the woman, but humanitarian attention was required.
She lasted a few more months. One afternoon I was greeted at the building’s entry by a hand-wringing helper. “She is gone, senora.”
“What do you mean, gone?” I asked.
“Se murio” she said. (She died.)
I bustled to her room to see. She looked plenty dead. But I asked for a mirror to check for breath. No breath. She looked horrible, mouth hanging open like a dead carp. She’d have been as appalled as I.
“Quickly – get me something to push up her chin to close her mouth,” said I, to the hapless attendant. “She mustn’t be allowed to stiffen up like this.” I had zero experience with corpses, but logic told me this was so. “And get me her lipstick – she needs to be fixed up a little.”
My instincts were on target. When her wake was held the next evening, she had been fluffed up to be as beautiful as when she a young woman. Angelic, actually. Candles were lit around the coffin. The little church choir sang at her side. Those who took the time to come to view her were astonished. She hadn’t looked so good in years.
You do what you can, when you can.
GOOD OLD TERRA FIRMA
Oceans are bulging and swamping coastlines. Floods fill cities. Winds are whipping landscapes into flatness. Man is frail, and so are his works. Earthquakes crush what the winds don’t reach. Mankind struggles to help itself, wailing over its terrible losses, reaching out helping hands however it can.
When I was a child in far off Luzon, I noticed a decorative doo-dad of little glass pieces hanging down from the living room ceiling. The hand-painted glass clinked sweetly when I jiggled it. “What’s this, mommy? Is it a wind chime? Shouldn’t it be outside?”
“No Spookie (my nickname from Halloween) – that’s an earthquake detector. If the earth deep beneath us begins to tremble, long before an earthquake gathers force, it tinkles a warning – it senses vibration – transmits it through the silk threads holding those glass bits, making them move and touch each other, tinkling. Those little gadgets are all over this area, all over Japan and the Far East.”
I thought about that, and looked at it from time to time, in my childlike way almost willing it to clink. Kids can be moronic like that. What did I know of earthquakes? Just sounded exciting.
But then came the typhoon, sweeping through the nighttime, ripping half the roof off our house. Mama and I hunkered in cots in our dry closet, a central walled location. No room for Daddy… he put his cot in the living room. He’d been through worse during the recent conflict. Luckily the flooding only rose halfway up its legs. Mattress spared. During the calm, along with neighbors, we poked outside for a moment to peer at the impressive wall of its passing eye. Next day, we were astonished to find our first survivors – wet chickens, bedraggled but unbroken, clucking in sunlight. Besides removing our roof, 120mph winds had shredded banana tree leaves to feathery fringes – how had the chickens come through alive?
Time catapulted us to Los Angeles – I was now fourteen. At five twenty-in the morning an odd cacophony of clattering awakened me. A massive wave of rattling, like thousands of venetian window blinds. The ever-increasing noise swept towards our home, wave-like across the city. It hit my window. My bed began to pitch. I scrambled up and streaked in a wobble down a rocking corridor to hop in bed with my parents. Like the Fun House on the Pier, it rocked and rolled, then quit. I knew exactly what it was as soon as I heard it. Funny how there’s no question. You just know. The noise, the clatter – emphatically broadcast it. It was an earthquake, pitching the city into dismay.
Now decades later, I watch the media-reported horrors of nature from a temporarily safe place. Nice day. Clouds forming up over the mountains though. I remember our own 2008 Alamos calamity, when Hurricane Norbert stopped to squat on those scenic mountains, dumping over twenty inches of rain and sending avalanches of historic proportions down on this little town. Boulders were loosened and sent tumbling like marbles down the mountainsides, creating tell-tale scars on forested slopes and forming debris dams, killing the unlucky in its unstoppable tide of mud. Bridges were swept away, stores and homes filled with watery muck.
The first we knew was when a huge vibration shook and rumbled up through our pillows to our heads. Not wind, but what? All I knew was I surely toast. Fatalistically I sent prayers and love to dear ones, and then grabbed my husband saying: “Wait! What was that? Someone is calling to us!”
Our neighbors were at our window hollering “Michelee, Hal, wake up, see what’s happening to your property!”
A flashlight beam revealed a dramatic surging waterway…. arroyo floodwaters had burst and leveled our property walls, bucking and plunging just beyond the house – we were on higher ground. Upshot: We were marooned for 3 days, the whole town for a month. Via our little airstrip, supplies and help arrived and bailed out the town. Today there are no signs or traces.
It will be that way someday, for Mexico. But we must help.
It was my first time to drop a jumper from my plane. To chunky balding Andy, a man with many jumps “under his belt” as they say, I sang out a hopeful “Adios, amigo”’ as he traded a Perfectly Good Airplane for leg-flailing insecurity, hurtling earthward through unforgiving air.
I watched intently, waiting, expecting, to see his parachute open.
I didn’t see it. I kept on not seeing it. No billowing rainbow-hued poof, no swinging man hanging from a multi-colored fanciful shade – no Andy at all, in no quadrant of the sky. I circled and scoured the landscape, goose bumps crawling up my arms. I clutched the yoke anxiously.
Oh dear God, what do I now? I asked myself. Urges to just keep flying away, far far away, like even disappear into the wilds of South America, were invading my brain. Someplace where I wouldn’t be found and blamed for Andy’s splatting bone-snapping bloody death against the ground. The air turned sinister, I heard terrible music…
I shook my head. NO. Andy was highly experienced at this killer sport. NO worries.
I headed back to base. I landed, taxied up to the building, shut down the engine, and collected myself. The guys who had seen us off trotted up to greet me. They had helped extract the right front seat so the crouching jumper would have a launching site.
“So. How’d it go?’
I gulped, quavered, and looking pale, tremulously spoke from my pilot seat:
“I never saw his chute open. Never spotted his parachute.”
They looked at me, chewed that over, then shrugged, snorted, and said, “Oh well, easy come easy go!” True airport characters.
I climbed out, went to the office phone, and shakily contacted the people into whose party he was jumping (they were into drama and entertainment). “Has Andy arrived yet?” I casually inquired.
“Oh yes, it was so exciting! Just a while ago he landed smack on target.” (Earlier in the afternoon, Andy had laid out a sort of bulls-eye on their lawn, a large white crepe paper circle, crisscrossed with a giant X to aim for). My legs stopped trembling.
The airport manager had long-since pegged me for what I was, a clear-eyed adventurer. Of other people’s exploits. That is, I was mighty good at aiding and abetting the thrill-seeker, just not exactly one myself. He knew I could be counted on to cant my wings to accommodate parachute jumpers, to slip through the airstream so they wouldn’t tangle themselves on the control surfaces. It was a New Thing, and I was into New Things. I had learned to fly and to soar, hadn’t I? He figured that had to qualify me as Patsy-to-the-Ready, for ‘chutists looking for a hike up.
Ultimately I did that, while hollering out at their downward hurtling bodies, “Bye Fools!” (I could take four at a time.)
I mean, really. How could anyone leap out of a perfectly good airplane?
So the permit to change my plane’s configuration by removing a seat and door, to allow jumpers to eject from one’s Perfectly Good Airplane, went like this.
First, I had to pull together all its certifying documents – and mine – and trot them to an area FSDO (Flight Standards District Office). That’s a government agency that hands out all sorts of permits, if you pass. If you don’t, you’ve got a problem. That means you’re missing proper airworthy documents, or your own., and you have to get the missing item (s) in order to ever fly again. The gov loves paperwork and documents. Someday they’ll sink under the weight of it all. But we got ours, and copies thereof joined the tons of their ilk in those vast FAA archives. And we were good to go.
We made our flight and the jump. I hied myself to the party for the cheers and accolades along with Andy, recounting with humor not being able to see his chute open (keeping the part to myself where I’d been scared witless) – and drank the champagne toasts – smiling to myself.
Jumping thrills? Not me.
I like a reassuring solid surface under my behind.
As I look out on the distant high Sierra Mt. Alamos, foreground framed by masses of hot pink bougainvillea, bright blue swimming pool a trap for drifting blossoms, I wonder how a wintery thought could possibly bubble up in my head. It’s climbing to 100f degrees out there. After lapping up gulps at the fountain, our dogs have listlessly flopped in the shade. Local birds flutter and blither at the outrage. It’s their watering spa, and they do not like to share with those oafish beasts.
Seeing that mountain, I’m reminded of thickly frosted forests cascading downslope to a beckoning airport. There’s a town over there…at a distance, a grid of streets stands out against a few white traces of winter. We’re flying south from winter to a Texas visit, touring as we go.
“Know what?” said my attentive navigator. “The Luray Caverns are just over that ridge. Not far from the town.” He had been paging through the AOPA airport guide, a handy compendium of airports and good nearby stuff.
Luray Caverns? Notations were that those were the eastern US’s beauty challenge to the west’s Carlsbad Caverns. Here too were vast caves dripping with spires of stalactites and stalagmites. Okay then… That would certainly be a good take for our boys, now huddled for warmth in the back seat. The heater in our little Cessna didn’t have great output. They were bunched up under a pile of thick blankets, peeking out of hooded polar jackets. And making breath ice pictures on the windows, scraping out lines of tic-tac-toe.
Reducing power to drift down into the valley, I dropped to just above treetop level and slowly swept towards the airport, admiring the white frozen forest below. Although it was south and Virginia, the weather could be harsh. A quickly passing snow squall had happened overnight at the higher altitudes… the ice line dramatically melted to pine tree green when the outside temperature rose. Frosty outlines of trees evenly etched against a fresh blue sky glittered in the sunlight.
They say it’s just not true that southerners are nicer, but I can swear that south of that Mason-Dixon line, people are indeed nicer. Full of warmth and honey. At least at first impact. Nicer than the cold suspicious Yankee. We were greeted with warmth and helpfulness when we touched down and rolled out at the Luray Caverns airport.
“Well, hello there; where you all comin’ in from?” And then, “How long y’all gonna be with us?” And “Will you be needin’ fuel?” Our line guy arranged a ride to the Caverns.
Those words – and a big crinkly southern hospitality smile – made us welcome. The line man was right there to help with whatever we needed. And it wasn’t because we were fancy. Our plane was a weathered old Cessna 172, in the years before we repainted her.
“Put your money into new radios… you don’t need to get her a new dress.” Practical advice from our local airport manager/CFI. So we did that – a nav/com and a Loran, the day’s state-of-the-art navigation system (now passé and replaced by the GPS, global positioning system). Howard Cadwell, mentor of my glider towing and commercial pilot rating, the man who after 17,000 hours of flying would grin and say, “Aren’t we lucky?… Look at those miserable ground-huggers down there. They’ve no idea how beautiful it is up here.”
Of course when we flew to any new place, we would hide our bedraggled bird on the back line. Yeah, we were proud. One day, the new paint would make her into a beauty. But Howie was aviation through and through. He knew what was truly important. R.I.P. old friend.
The Caverns. Besides the eons agreeably outfitting the underground vault with arresting mineral formations of gleaming spindles and spires – someone had ingeniously rigged little hammers to tap out melodies on them, ones such as the hauntingly beautiful “Shenandoah.” (Historic Luray is in the Shenandoah Valley.) As that reverberated through the high cavern, we hummed along with “Oh Shenandoah, far across the wide Missouri.”
The boys were intrigued with it all. It was a good stop. Luray could be a bucket list destination. Who knew?
D-Day plus 10 years
I’m sixteen again, in France. My father has been transferred to Paris. But he has war on his mind from his years in the Pacific theater, issues to set free. He needs to see where it all began to end.
So. We’ve taken our little Fiat to Normandy, map in hand, searching out Omaha beach, rolling through the small village of Saint Laurent-Sur-Mer… a quiet little village that gave no hint of what lay down the road.
We now are standing by an appalling German bunker. It’s truly evil, truly ugly, a massive teutonic beast. Ten years after the end of the War, I’m there with my parents, almost shivering from disturbing feelings. Oh yes, sunny day notwithstanding, there was something… bad. It’s clearly a haunted place. We move along to a vantage point looking down a sweeping beach, out across bright noontime seas. Eyes shaded, I squint to penetrate the misty miles, and I imagine I can see across to England. But of course I cannot. The beguiling blue skies that were once dark with allied war planes are clear and benign… the waters that were so thick with attack boats they say you could walk across them all the way to England – are free of all but a carefree white sail here and there. The graveyard, tended carefully by the French, is a sad final home to all those wasted men.
It’s eerie. I turn around, feeling the unrestful presence of invisible thousands. But no one else is there – just us. There are no monuments, memorials hadn’t been constructed back then – it’s only ten years after D Day; Europe has barely begun its giant cleanup.
The beach reaches out on both sides, the waves lap gently. There’s not a hint of the horror that took place here. Yet it’s there, hanging in the atmosphere. We do not disturb the silence with conversation. My parents hold hands, my father’s face more serious than ever I’d seen it before. My mother is praying – she spent a lot of time doing that.
Maybe it helped.
A FAVORITE MEMORY
1946 – The war was over. We were going to see our own soldier again – far across the globe in a distant land.
Behind a giant Vee-spray of water our MATS transport ship had muscled the Pacific Ocean out of its way, till three weeks out of San Francisco – spouting whales, rocking storms and all – we were at last hauling into Manila harbor. We passed Corregidor’s familiar profile, General Macarthur’s famous battle post, and settled into a rumbling drift towards the dock.
Slogging to a slow stop, the ship was practically listing to port, anxious dependents cramming the railing to spot fathers and husbands. Below, a band played a poignant “Kiss Me Once, Kiss me Twice” in the center of a shifting mass of olive drab, men whose grinning faces and waving arms eagerly welcomed us. We spotted who we belonged to, shrieked and waved, then pushed down the gangplank. There were fierce whirling hugs and requisite “Oh how you’ve grown” stuff – then the agonizing wait to be processed. You ever notice wherever there’s government, there’s processing?
Cargo unloaded and distributed, a waiting government issue sedan picked us up and hauled us away to Clark Field. It was full dark by the time we got there; the road had been full of bumps and mysterious shadows, headlights briefly illuminating… something. I could see nothing outside. We entered through the gates of what I later learned was the erstwhile Fort Stotsenburg, now Clark Field – Ft. Stotsenburg was a prewar post my mother had murmured about in reverential tones. She and Daddy had been there a decade before the war. (Daddy? Yep – he’ll always be Daddy.)
Finally slowing, our headlights passed over a structure I thought was a hotel. But no – we were there… We had rolled up to the commander’s quarters, a large plantation-style home with two floors, deep screened balconies and wide porches. We would spend a few days there before traveling on to my father’s post, Floridablanca at Tarlac. (The war there, turned out, wasn’t exactly over. We spent many nights dodging Huks attacks, guerilla filippino communists.)
Inside, floors gleamed with overlapping circular patterns of wax. Early next morning, transfixed, I watched barefoot house boys, feet gripping coconut halves, skate in sweeping circles to bring back the shine, mucked up by footfalls of the previous day. A primitive buffing machine. Intrigued, my eyes followed graceful dancing moves, sometimes with a candle stub grinding under the coconut against the floor.
“Missy do?” They grinned and offered me the chance to try. “Oweeee” I whimpered… the hard coconut hurt my feet. Total failure. I toppled off, giggling. As I walked around barefoot, I picked up a stiff layer of wax on the bottoms of my feet. Shoe soles did the same. But never mind – the floors gleamed richly, enhancing the huge plantation-like homestead.
It’s been seventy years, yet I can still feel and see that gray wax coating my barefoot soles. And see my father’s face in the crowd on the dock.
THE DALHART INCIDENT
Flying the wide span of west Texas plains can shake your confidence. Not from the endless empty square miles of land (embellished only by the odd cattle tank and small shed – where are people?) but from the fast, frightening growth of towering cumulonimbus storm clouds, popping up like colossal cauliflowers. Their energy plainly threatens your future. One can tear you apart. The horrendous updraft draws you in, sucks you up, breaks you up and spits parts out the top. We remember iconic test pilot Scott Crossfield, pilot of the X-15, and his shocking demise in a ripping thunderstorm over Georgia. When the storm passed, parts were found scattered over a ten mile area.
Clammy palms come with visions of torn wings and spiraling fuselage, images that ooze into your mind as you reroute yourself to dodge them. FSS had said, “Possibility of scattered showers.” Right. Weave between? They’re well-spaced. Rule of thumb: “Give a 20-mile berth.” Well, they’re probably forty miles apart. But swiftly expanding.
Dalhart is now nearby. We flight-planned for it, we’ll make it. We had called FSS to extend our flight plan. Unplanned off-track wandering had added time.
We touched down in the scruffy terrain of a yet mostly unimproved west Texas desert community. One runway was weedy and unused. Thing is, pilots generally take the strip facing into the wind. The other, not favoring the prevailing wind, was neglected and overgrown.
Dalhart’s surrounding landscape since has filled with queer-looking platters of green… see those? The result of circular irrigation. We are bemused. Back in the day of our adventure when flying west for a niece’s San Diego wedding, it was still very rough country. Only a few of those whimsical round fields.
We had a welcoming committee. The airport manager and a curious side-kick came out with raised eyebrows and scolding words.
“Flight Service has called looking for you – you are an hour and a half overdue!” Typical Flight Service. A lazy government worker had taken his time passing along my flight plan extension. The service was so infamously inefficient that pilots rarely used it. They didn’t get much traffic at Dalhart – the odd rancher and whatnot. We stirred them up, brightening their day. Only a few other planes, bleaching on the periphery.
So – dinner and an overnight. We’d be off before dawn with much distance yet to cover. Eschewing iffy enchiladas, we had steak. Why not? It was Texas. Should be safe. But later in bed, I felt my gorge rise, and I miserably off-loaded it. So much for strange places. Hal battled his back. Not smart.
Next morning in the dark predawn, we taxied cautiously towards a possible runway – the weedy one, it turned out, our taxi light giving faint guidance. In rolling for takeoff the propeller mowed a path, hurtling bits of loco weed or whatever past our windows. Putting on flaps for a quick boost up into ground effect, we left the weeds and climbed into the pale dawn, heading towards the Sangre de Cristo mountains. They were a glorious sunrise red. Hal felt lousy and didn’t care.
As we passed westward over more dry flat lands, the sun came up. He made use of a de facto H.E.R.E. bag – the pilot’s cockpit Human Element Range Extender – in this instance, a ziplock bag lined with a paper towel. That helped a little. It went out the window onto a rattlesnake-infested land. Probably wasn’t the first. Maybe it’s still there, decomposing in the tumbleweeds. Maybe scorpions like plastic.
Soon we were looking for the nearest airstrip for the rumbling bowels. Turned out Sandia was right there, off the nose. “Sandia,” to me, meant mysterious Air Force activities, hearkening back to my A.F. brat youth. Deferential comments like, “He’s off to Sandia.”
Never mind that. We landed, rolled onto a taxiway – and found a fly-in community. A woman came out onto her porch and called offering help. It was still very early, before most people were up and about. I bellowed my husband’s problem, she swept wide the door, and he trotted over. The “trots.” So embarrassing.
However, the issue wasn’t there resolved. Poor guy cowered in bed for all the wedding festivities. He got “atta boys” and kudos for the try, though. That, and for the wedding check.
Did you know that sandia means watermelon? Sniff.
So much for the cryptic reference to secret Air Force R and D activities.