We live in paradise, Dad, Mom & me. No, we really do. Dad is assigned to an eighteen month air rescue tour of duty on the remote island of Guam in the Mariana Islands. Family is allowed on this tour and so off we go, the three of us.
Well, to back up a step, Dad goes ahead. Mom & I follow after getting all of our belongings shipped from Texas and safely tucked away in the far reaches of the partially above ground immense basement at 6416 in Richmond. Our boxes and barrels and my beloved bicycle are stored next to the dirt garage section, out of the way from the simple all wood rooms designed for doing the family laundry, holding the coal furnace, and housing the gardener.
It is 1952, I am eight, when we land on Guam, after a stop in Honolulu where Dad meets our ship, and where we get a preview of what life in the amazing tropics is like. This Guam that we find ourselves on is so new to all but natives and a few hardy government employees that Mom gets to pick all of the trappings for our just completed house down to the fabric for our living room furniture. This Guam is not the one that my best friend’s Dad declares he is never so glad to leave. His, no families allowed, tour just a few years prior to ours is on a rough uncut diamond Guam.
We are dropped eyes wide open into a paradise so pristine and beautiful that it defies description. It is the first bloom on a hibiscus that will bear many blooms but never again a first one. There are no poisonous animals. There are no snakes. Tumon Bay is a no more than a beautiful beach reached through the jungle. There is always sunshine. When it rains, it’s a short shower of warm drops that barely get you wet. But that’s more than enough to maintain a lush growth of everything tropical because the humidity always hovers near 90 percent. And the temperature stays in the 70’s day and night year around. We have no glass windows in our house. Louvers for adjusting light and occasion breezes is all that is needed.
We all play at our own speed. I roam the entire base with no fear. It is my playground. My friends and I constantly make up games that require only the outdoor space around us. In summer and on weekends we go to nightly outdoor movies on the base. We sit in real seats under the stars and visit with our neighbors when the reels are being changed. There is no charge unless you want popcorn or a drink, and a nickel or two covers that.
Every chance he gets Dad goes on short leave to Japan and always brings me back dolls, wind chimes, tea sets and other wonders from that intriguing culture. Mom exchanges recipes and new ideas for adult parties which are never ending.
Whenever the occasion ship comes in with cargo from around the world it’s a mad dash to buy everything. Things are so inexpensive but not at all cheaply made that, as Mom says, “You can’t afford not to buy it all.”
Mom and I have dresses sewn for next to nothing by Hong Kong ladies trained in the art of exquisite tailoring. They custom cut and style to our specifications exactly what we want. We have our own private house of couture.
And then my grandmother, Mom’s mother, gets very sick. I am sure that the message from the states is concise and most likely in the form of a telegram or perhaps a Red Cross phone call because all but the most serious communication is by letter. And in Ashland, Virginia where Mom grows up the phone is still a luxury, especially a private line. Party lines where anyone can listen to your conversation are more the norm.
This is the grandmother who elopes to Charlottesville one January weekend just because she and Granddaddy want to get married and so they do, neither being much for fuss. This is the grandmother that I know as a stickler for rules and no frills living. And this is the same grandmother that lets me sleep with her and together we listen to The FBI in Peace and War and Dragnet on the radio in the pitch dark of the bedroom even though I am only six. And now she is very sick and we must go, Mom and I. But no one, not even dependents, leaves their tour of duty for any reason.
Dad plots and finagles and finally stealthily gets us on a military transport headed to Hickam AFB in Honolulu. Being a transport plane it has no real seats only jump seats along the inside walls of the plane. We are required to wear our Mae West vests the entire time since we are flying over water. Of course, there are no child sizes so I am engulfed in this massive life vest that presents a greater chance of suffocating rather than saving me it is so big. There is no heat. Mom and I do not have the advantage of airmen flight suits so we are agonizingly cold. Still we are against all odds on our way to Virginia.
In Honolulu we wait for a lift to the states trying to be as invisible as possible lest some by the rule book duty officer spies us and decides to ship us back to Guam. We are in luck. A hospital flight is headed to Travis AFB and there is room for us. If you by chance have ever been on a military hospital air ship you will know that it is designed for maximum capacity. There are no seats, it’s a hospital transport. Horizontal cots line both sides of the plane and are so tightly stacked that once you are in your cot, you can barely lift yourself up on your elbows. It’s for the severely sick or wounded why would you need to sit up anyway. But we are not sick, we are hitchhikers. And thankfully the only ones on board save the crew. Mom is immediately physically unsettled. My smirk at silly Mom quickly turns sour. There is something about being forced to lie completely flat on a moving airplane that just does not work. My barf bag and I become much too close. Finally, finally we land in California.
Mom and I roll out of our prisons and stagger off the plane. We breath in the fresh air. We have made it! Virginia is but a cross country train ride away. No more stolen space available for us. It is early evening but daylight is waning. Mom is a firm believer in a set bed time. No fudging, no gray area, no exceptions. She looks at me. “Are you hungry?” she asks. For way too many hours we have only snacked here and there. And then there is the matter of our last ride still churning in our stomaches, but suddenly I am really ravenous. I nod, yes. I wait for a practical let’s grab a quick bite and get you ready for bed announcement. She inhales and one girl to another says, “Let’s clean up, put on something fresh and pretty and go to dinner.” Bedtime flies out the window.
And for that moment, for that entire evening, we are not mother-daughter, we are not parent-child. We are two equals. We are two girls traveling the road of life together.