MAKING MOVIES IN LIBYA – THE BLACK TENT

A couple of years ago, Terence Sharkey, who had been a teenage British actor in the 1950s, sent me an entertaining story of his adventure at Wheelus Air Force Base in 1955. He meant it as a Comment, but it was too long and too interesting not to include it as a blog, and I’m publishing the story again. I made a few minor changes (like American spelling) for clarity.

Terry told me: I was a guest at Wheelus almost sixty years ago and I still recall the warmth of the welcome which matched the 90 degree heat everywhere. In 1955 food-rationing from WWII in England had only just ceased, and for an English youth, my eyes had popped out at steak sizes I’d never seen, breakfast portions undreamed of, and chocolate bars in abundance. (I’d never heard of Hershey bars –but I soon learned). Suddenly England seemed even more austere when I saw the goods on offer in the commissary.

Terence Sharkey, teenage British actor

Terence Sharkey, teenage British actor, with actor Donald Sinden.

I was sixteen and had gone to Libya as a young actor for desert location scenes for a movie (The Black Tent) we were making at Pinewood Studios back in England. A couple of days after my arrival at Idris airport, the once daily flight from London’s Heathrow ended in tragedy when a BOAC DC4 Argonaut crashed in flames on landing, killing fifteen and badly injuring many of the forty-seven on board. Idris facilities were about what you’d expect of one of the world’s poorest nations with an international terminal that looked like it was the film set from Bogart’s “Casablanca,” and the boys and girls at Wheelus had mobilised immediately, with helicopters ferrying the injured to the military hospital.

A few days later, at a break in the filming schedule, I visited the base with Rosemarie, a young woman survivor of the crash. American helicopter pilots honored her with a bouquet. Their tears turned to laughter when Rosemarie discovered the bouquet was swarming with ants, which had joined the consignment somewhere locally. (Where had they had come up with fresh roses in such a desert?).

The base was enormous. I had been fearful that the sight of aircraft so soon after the tragedy at Idris airport on the other side of the city would be upsetting, but my companion was enjoying the tour as much as I was. At one stage our jeep rattled its way over the tarmac beside twenty or more very business-like looking fighter jets with US Air Force emblazoned on each silver fuselage together with the big white star. “F-86 Saber jets” our driver told us proudly. “See them swept-back wings? They’ll take on anything those Commie bastards can throw at us – they’ll out-maneuver any of Joe Stalin’s boys.”
Stalin had died two years before and his successor, Nikita Kruschev, had appeared to adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards the West in an attempt to end the Cold War. Our driver, if he knew of the demise of the despot, cared little for the changes and continued to extol the superior virtues of the Saber jets over the Russian MiG-15s, which he told us he had seen in dogfights in the Korean War a couple of years before.

An international incident was narrowly avoided when this naïve British visitor took a photograph of his beautiful companion. I had not noticed that the background included some tents and several large aircraft. I still have the Zeiss camera, which I had bought cheaply a couple of days before, just a museum piece now in our age of digital photography, but I will always remember that day when I had to hand over the film to the fierce military policeman declaring us off limits.

Actually, he turned out to be quite an affable sort who, having executed his official task, seemed more than happy to assist my companion, who had discovered that the ants were now invading her blouse. Uncle Sam’s Military Police are clearly up to anything the day throws at them and the fellow produced some magic mosquito cream, which he applied liberally to her neck. His enthusiasm for the task knew no bounds and soon it was the turn of the female visitor to gently point out what was off limits.

Apart from the loss of my pictures it was a memorable day with hospitable hosts, an air-conditioned day that offered a welcome contrast to the sweltering Sahara filming days that lay ahead.
Happy days! More are captured at Terence Sharkey memoir-Love, Life & Moving Pictures

SO CAL GHOSTS

Paraphrasing Shakespeare–Hamlet said to Horatio: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I have always been interested in the supernatural; I’ve had some experiences and know many friends who have had them as well. It’s a great topic for articles and stories. I’ve written a short book on Amazon about a true fascinating positive encounter—Angels in Uniform—and I interviewed a man who was living in a haunted house. The interview, upon which I based this blog, was published in the Daily News newspaper of Los Angeles when I had a column.

Glen Peterson had bought a dilapidated “castle” in the Santa Monica Mountains and began restoring it years ago. Resembling a German castle on a hill with its bell tower, gables, decorative wood beams, courtyard and guest house, the home was built in 1939 by Theodore Spurkuhl, a Paramount Studios director of photography known for his pioneering use of spotlights. Spurkuhl worked with many of the film greats: Ronald Coleman, James Cagney and Fred MacMurray, for instance, and was noted for his work on “Beau Geste” starring Gary Cooper.

SparkuhlHome

Sparkuhl Home

Spurkuhl put a great deal of energy into building the home. Since it was wartime, he even added a secret room in case the Japanese invaded or the Germans won the war. His descendants, who visited the site while Glen was restoring it, thought the cinematographer might have put too much intensity into the building project since he died in 1940.

Before Glen bought it, the home was owned by actor Nick Nolte, who purchased it in 1975 during the filming of the TV miniseries, “Rich Man, Poor Man.” The other primary actor in the series, Peter Strauss, had also bought property nearby. Coincidentally, Strauss’ property was later sold by Glen, who had been a real estate agent, to the National Park Service. This 1970s miniseries was featured on a PBS documentary “Pioneers of Television” not long ago.

The 70s were wild and crazy for Nolte. I remember seeing his old yellow Cadillac broken down by the side of a mountain road one day. Nolte and his friends partied quite a bit and the house suffered a good deal of damage. It was finally abandoned to birds of all types, squirrels and various other animals. It was a mess of animal droppings and the like when Glen began his restoration.

One evening after the house was beautifully finished, Glen was home alone enjoying a quiet evening. While listening to a new Terence Trent Darby recording and near the end of the song, Glen heard a loud knocking on the back door. He checked both inside and out and found no one. Back inside he restarted the song. The knocking began again at the exact same place.

This time he checked the windows, “I had repaired the windows just that morning,” Glen recalled, specifically to keep them from opening due to strong winds. They were all still closed, and he began the recording once more.

Glen played the song eight times, and he told me, “the pounding kept happening at the same time each time.” Every time it happened, he checked for a reason for the knocking, but found none. On the ninth try, the record played through to the end, and there were no further knocking sounds.

The mysterious last two lines of the song that finally played were: “No grave can hold my body down; this land is still my home.”

ENCOUNTERS WITH THE FAMOUS AND THE UNIQUE

I love “accidental” encounters with interesting people of all types; they don’t have to be famous or notorious. Because I enjoy it so much, I’m sure I probably attract it. A couple of years ago I attended a fundraiser luncheon for a local private Catholic high school and sat next to Catherine O’Hara, an actress who had been in several of Christopher Guest’s movies, like “Best in Show,” which I had really enjoyed, as well as in “Home Alone” and “Frankenweenie,” and is very active in show biz. Since we were next to each other for a couple of hours we discovered we had things in common–liberal views, enjoying people, and movies, to name a few. Afterwards, I saw her in a TV documentary and read her opinions on the last page of Vanity Fair magazine, a publication I’ve subscribed to for years.

Catherine O'Hara, comedian and actress

Catherine O’Hara, comedian and actress

Airplanes are an ideal place to meet people. I have had some very entertaining conversations with seatmates. On the flight to Dallas for Thanksgiving not long ago, my seat mate volunteered that he had been raised in Puerto Rico and had worked all over the US. He and I had no trouble bonding over Stephen Sondheim songs from West Side Story—“I Want to Be in America,” for example. Soon he was telling me about his childhood in Puerto Rico, how the females in his family firmly ran the household, and the foods he liked. We laughed a lot.

On the return flight, my neighbor turned out to be an LA sportscaster on the local ABC-TV station. He was returning from a family visit in time to cover the yearly classic USC-UCLA football game. If I’d been a sports fan, I’d have known his name. We talked about how life had changed because of the Internet, and how we could use it to further our careers. It didn’t hurt that he had a great smile and was very attractive.

Ventura Boulevard in the Valley has every type of restaurant. I particularly enjoy the inexpensive Chinese food at Bamboo. Next door is a ritzy French place, Cafe Bizou. After one lunch, while waiting for the valet (shared by the two restaurants) to get my car, I spotted actress/singer Della Reese a couple of feet away: she had eaten French food. I decided to approach her and told her I was a fan and we talked a bit. I even gave her my business card. Was she being polite or did she keep it?

Lunchtime can be an ideal time to spot the rich and famous and perhaps spark a conversation. I was with a friend at a place called Gaucho Grill a few years back when she spotted her lawyer. At the table right behind us, my friend’s lawyer was with TV and Broadway star Kelsey Grammar. At that time I was writing a weekly column for the Daily News newspaper and was always looking for new interview possibilities. Besides, Kelsey had met my son at a restaurant not long before and had invited him and a few other young men back to his home. I introduced myself, mentioned my son, and Kelsey couldn’t have been more gracious and down to earth. Before I had a chance to schedule the interview with him, my life changed and I ended my column.

My daughter and I love Hamburger Hamlet, which has been on Van Nuys Boulevard for many years. Last time we had a late lunch there, Heidi spotted “Mr. T,” who had been on TV’s “The A Team” and also in the famous “Rocky” movie. Our favorite waiter was telling us the most famous person he’d seen in the restaurant over the years was Marlon Brando. Brando was very overweight by then and ate a lot, the waiter said.

One of my favorite places to start a conversation is Trader Joe’s, the unique grocery store that started in Southern California. They hire sociable, highly individual people who may have tattoos or wear crazy hats; perhaps that’s just part of the SoCal lifestyle. I wonder if they take a friendliness test before they’re hired! The atmosphere must affect the customers because they’re usually quite affable as well.

A few months ago, I spotted Sally Kellerman, famous for playing “Hot Lips O’Houlihan” in the original 1970 MASH movie. She and I were shopping for fruit and vegetables, and I took the opportunity to tell her how I’d enjoyed her acting. She welcomed the conversation and told me she really enjoyed singing professionally. Her distinctive low sultry voice is very much in evidence and I can imagine it would translate easily into song. Her photo is below.

SALLY KELLERMAN

SALLY KELLERMAN

When I was much younger, I remember being a little embarrassed by my mother, who was a friendly Southerner who loved to talk to everyone. Now I find I have been doing the same thing for years. From mothers or fathers of babies to clerks or fellow customers, I’m not afraid of making a joke or coming up with a witty comment, and these days I can sometimes embarrass my own daughter!

CELEBRATING JULY 4th

Celebrating July 4th has always made me feel proud to be an American, no matter where I might have been living at the time. Fireworks are the capper: exciting and a bit ethereal.

Fireworks by Heidi Giraud

Fireworks painted by Heidi Giraud

The fireworks in Washington, D.C. are probably the most spectacular of any I’ve seen. I remember going with friends Ellen and Braxton, in the early ‘60s, to see them at the Washington Monument on the Mall. Since the crowds were dense and the parking sparse, we drove into D.C. early, way before it got dark.

With a blanket (no folding seats like today) and a few snacks, we explored the grassy area around the Monument for a likely spot. We were soon surrounded by hundreds of people. There was probably some entertainment, but I only remember the incredible variety of fireworks—all sorts of colors and types of explosions, including large frames standing on the ground that displayed patriotic graphics like the flag or faces of presidents in exploding fireworks.

Lying on my back watching the pyrotechnics explode above the white spire of the Washington Monument was an amazing experience.

Thanks to public television, PBS, I’ve watched the July 4th entertainment and fireworks from Washington D.C. for years. It’s presented on a stage across from the Capitol. In the summer of my college years, there were always concerts and plays to attend around that area. When I was in high school my church group put on a Christmas play there (I played a large toy rabbit in “The Little Match Girl”). It’s fun to reminisce about my connections to Washington, especially as I get older.

I'm the Rabbit in The Little Match Girl

I’m the Rabbit in The Little Match Girl at National Mall in D.C.

This week PBS presented a documentary about the National Mall, and it brought back many memories. One college summer I worked for the Navy Dept. in a WWII temp building, a short walk from the magnificent Lincoln Memorial. Over the years, I have visited the Smithsonian Institute Museum (the older “castle” with Lindberg’s plane, and the newer one), the wonderful Art Museum designed by I.M. Pei, visited Congress (both Senate and House of Representatives), seen the Air and Space Museum, enjoyed the cherry blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial, appreciated the summer Watergate Concerts on the Potomac close to Lincoln Memorial. I hiked up the Washington Monument twice! I also attended the marvelous Shakespeare plays during the summer on the Mall. Some day I’ll be back to enjoy some of the new museums.

In the 1950s I was living in North Africa. I no longer recall if there were fireworks in Tripoli on the 4th, but it was hard to beat the camel and donkey rides on Thirteen Kilometer Beach, not to mention the hot dogs and other goodies. The more recent Sex and the City movie featured the stars riding camels, which reminded me of my camel ride. The camels we rode on that Tripoli beach weren’t as well groomed or attractive; they looked a bit mangy, and were muzzled since camels do bite. I can still imagine the way it felt to be so high up, grasping the horn of the swaying saddle as the camel moved in a sandy circle while the owner held onto a rope.

There’s a German celebration in Heidelberg in the summer that uses fireworks quite effectively. The “Burning of the Castle” commemorates the few times the castle was actually burned, twice in the 17th century. My family joined my brother’s Cub Scout troop on a boat on the Neckar River and watched while all the lights in Heidelberg were turned off. The impressive fireworks, that looked like real fire, came from the Old Bridge across the Neckar and from the ruined Castle on a hill above the famous old city.

Here’s a toast to the Chinese invention of fireworks in the 12th century and to our Declaration of Independence in the 18th century!

SEXUAL IDENTITY – PREFERENCES

Sex is complicated and probably always has been. And sexual choices that are out of the ordinary invoke fears that may still result in bloodshed and serious consequences, like the shooting in the gay nightclub in Orlando. Add to those fears,  the laws and consequences of choices that have made the choice of the proper public bathroom an issue. It will probably take other incidents and lots of public information and introspection for us to accept our differences. Despite the tragedies, I think we are making progress because people have dared to come “out” and talk about their differences, like Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlin Jenner.

Currently, thanks to Caitlin Jenner, once known as Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, we might wonder who we really are and whether we’re happy with the physical gender we were born with. The conversation is out in the open and I’m sure we’ll discover all sorts of fascinating facts as the years roll on.

What was it that inspired me to write Melaynie’s Masquerade, my historical fiction about a young woman who masquerades as a captain’s boy to sail to the Caribbean with Captain Francis Drake in the 16th century? Women have pretended to be men and vice versa through the ages.

I had my own unique experience in the dating world when I met a man who enjoyed dressing up as a woman. Though his ad in the Singles Register newspaper hadn’t mentioned he liked costume parties, I didn’t know his preferences, initially. He had sounded very congenial on the phone, and I decided to meet him at his home. When he changed into his gear—a French maid’s outfit, high heels, and a blond wig, the show was on. Eventually he was attired in a white negligee while we played Trivial Pursuit and watched the Lakers game, and he wanted me to give him makeup tips!

I wrote about my experience and submitted it to Playgirl magazine years ago. It was refused so I turned that story and another experience into a small Ebook that is for sale on Amazon: Weird Dates and Strange Fates 

My book on Amazon.

My book on Amazon.

Here’s a sample from one of the stories:

A Single Gal’s Guide to Cross-Dressing

The man who answered the door was friendly and natural as he guided her into his house. Proudly telling her he had inherited the home from his uncle, he suggested they take a little tour. A typical one-story postwar 1950s home, it had nothing imaginative in its design, inside or out, but she pretended to be impressed. He led her through a step-down, rectangular living room and then outside to a concrete atrium whose only amenity was a hot tub and a few cheap and fading lounge chairs. Occasionally touching her elbow, he told her of plans to make a few changes here and there and asked her opinion. When he took her into his small square bedroom, she noted a white lacy negligee hanging over a closet door and beneath it, four-inch black spike heels.

“How do you like my new negligee?” he asked.

“It’s beautiful,” she responded evenly, wondering what revelations might come next.

“My wife liked me to wear lingerie to bed. Now I can’t sleep without it.”

She could tell he was watching and listening carefully for her reactions. So far she was accepting all of it as if it were all perfectly normal.

Back in the living room he showed her some photos of a recent costume party. “How do you like these? You see, here I am in my French maid’s costume.” He handed her the photo.

“Mmmm.” She didn’t know what to say as she looked down at the photo, which gave her time to compose herself. She was too startled after the negligee reference to take in the photo’s details.

HAPPY GRANDFATHER’S DAY

My maternal grandfather, Edwin Pendleton Motley, who was born in North Carolina in 1877, 12 years after the Civil War, descended from old American stock. His ancestor, Joseph Motley, came to the American colonies from Scotland as early as the 1730s.

In 1903 Edwin married Bertha Jackson Seago and they eventually settled in Danville, Virginia. In their happy 44-year marriage, Mama Jake and Daddy Ed (as they were known) had 8 children: 7 of them had fairly long, healthy lives. My mother, Bertha Garnette Motley, was second youngest. Big families were a fact of life years ago. Mama Jake came from a family of eleven and Daddy Ed had seven brothers and I don’t know how many sisters.

Edward P. Motley and Bertha Motley my grandparents about 1890 or so
Daddy Ed and Mama Jake
From stories I’ve heard and the poems I’ve read, my grandfather was a romantic. He played guitar, wrote poetry and sang to me as a baby. I wish I had more memories of him but he died at age 70, when I was only 4. I was told that I would run to meet him every weekday evening when he came home from the family furniture store. He would bring me some kind of little gift—a piece of ribbon or some kind of trinket to play with. Since he didn’t like sales, my grandfather handled the books for Motley & Sons, the family furniture store in downtown Danville, Virginia, and took the bus home for Mama Jake’s hot lunch every day. “He never came in the house that he didn’t go straight to Mama Jake and kiss her,” my cousin Amy Lee recalled.

Daddy Ed never needed to spank any of his children or grandchildren for misbehavior. He didn’t even need words, Amy Lee told me, since, “He could look a hole right through you.”

Besides being the family poet, Daddy Ed loved to entertain by playing his guitar and mouth harp. He had a good sense of rhythm and would sing little songs for which he had created the words and music.

My mother and I lived with Mama Jake and Daddy Ed in their roomy home on the corner of Berryman Avenue for a few years during World War II and a couple of years afterward. My father Victor, an infantry major, was serving in Italy when Daddy Ed wrote this poem in 1944 to my mother, Garnette. I would imagine the poem was for her birthday on July 22. I like to imagine that he sung it to an appreciative family audience as well.

Another year has rolled around,

To find Bertha Garnette still in town.

She has reached the age of twenty-three,

And started her a family tree.

Her baby girl, Victoria Anne,

The finest young one in this land,

She twines herself around our heart,

And with her we would hate to part.

While daddy Victor, over the sea,

Fights like hell, for you and me.

So we must care for Garnette and Viki,

She’s mighty sweet, but also tricky.

How in the world could sweet Sixteen,

Make herself the Major’s queen,

Secure for herself good things in life,

Without the struggles, stress and strife.

But anyhow, we wish for you,

Long life, good health, your lover true,

Your baby grow to love you most,

And Victor come back home as host.

Daddy Ed signed the poem: Mamma and Daddy

 

 

CHRISTO’S UMBRELLAS IN SO CAL

Umbrellas, like giant poppies, dot the California landscape

Huge Umbrellas, like giant poppies, dot the California landscape in the Tehachapi Mountains

Giant yellow umbrellas whimsically dotted the hillsides, the dips in the rolling landscape, appeared near trees, a billboard and a gas station and decorated a few ponds on various sections of the 270,000 acres of the private Tejon Ranch in the Tehachapi Mountains of Southern California. It was October 1991 and my girlfriend Sally and I were inspired to take the hour-long drive up the Grapevine on Interstate 5 to see this much-touted artistic statement by Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude (who died in 2009) were known for designing and installing temporary but overwhelming environmental works of art. Before the umbrellas they did several projects—wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris with material, for instance. In February 2005 they erected gates hung with yellow nylon material in Central Park. Christo is still at work creating ideas for installation. His latest creation is creating the painting of a lake on top of a lake–Floating Piers–in Northern Italy. He’ll soon be 80 but hasn’t lost his need to create, and he believes the spirit of his deceased wife still inspires him. For more on his story, see Smithsonian Magazine, June 2016.

The imposing yellow umbrellas we saw were part of a project Christo and his wife installed in both Japan and California. The umbrellas were formidable: about 20 feet high with a diameter of about 28 feet. They each weighed 448 pounds, without the base, which in most cases was steel and anchored to the ground. Not a small project by any means: 1,760 were installed!

Sally and I had both driven the so-called Grapevine before: it led from the San Fernando Valley through the Tehachapi mountains and down into another valley that led north to Bakersfield. At this time of year, before the California rainy season, which usually doesn’t get underway until November, the hills were brown, or golden, depending upon your outlook. The yellow umbrellas added a unique touch to the fairly barren area.

Although it was reported that almost 3 million visitors since October 9 had driven through the area, we easily negotiated the Interstate and were able to get off at the various viewing sites when we chose. I loved the bravado, the sheer uniqueness of the idea to take so much trouble to dot the landscape with huge unwieldy umbrellas. The day was overcast and the yellow stood out even more: almost like seeing an enormous garden full of massive yellow poppies.

The visitors we saw were enthusiastic and smiling at the incongruity of it all. There were a couple of places to stop and buy sweatshirts—“I saw the Umbrellas,” and similar sayings—and other memorabilia.

After meandering the 18-mile long area, taking photos and finding some refreshment, we headed home, satisfied we’d seen and participated in an event worth remembering.

Sally appreciating Christo's umbrellas

Sally appreciating Christo’s umbrellas

That day, October 27, turned out to be the last day of the art project. We heard on the news that a young woman visitor had been killed by an umbrella just after Sally and I left. In a fluke of circumstance, an immensely strong wind had caused one of the umbrellas to come loose, and it had flown through the air and impaled her against a boulder. At 448 pounds, it was easy to understand why she had no chance. Apparently, she and her husband were there just to view the artwork.

Ironically, I heard in a later news report that the woman was suffering from a probable fatal disease. Perhaps, instead of suffering, she decided to leave the planet in a particularly dramatic way.

WHEELUS HIGH, HERNANDO’S HIDEAWAY

I left Tripoli, Libya, the summer of 1958, the end of my sophomore year in high school. My dad received orders assigning him to duty at the Pentagon in Northern Virginia; he would work in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a prestigious position for him.

The last months at Wheelus High School were packed with activities and I went through the old Barracan newspapers to note a few highlights. Since we didn’t have a cafeteria at the high school, it was decided by the “powers that be” to make us eat at the Airmen’s Club in February. Apparently, one of the main reasons was to keep girls away from meeting airmen during lunchtime. Going out with GIs was a social “no-no” and Joe McDonald wrote an editorial about it in the paper. Too many girls, not enough boys, it seems.

By March the Airmen’s Club was closed for student lunches and we were all ordered to bring sack lunches – enforced nutrition by a school dietician! Apparently we were mostly disorderly at the Airmen’s Club and now had to eat in the school courtyard. To make sure our naughty behavior didn’t spill over to the elementary school, there would be a wall erected!

When students were asked what was the first thing they’d do when they got back to the States, Eddie Goldsworthy declared he’d find a patch of grass and look at it for an hour. Marla Bush was going to eat a hot corned beef sandwich, and Karen Gamel was going to eat a good banana.

A bunch of us were spotted at the Elvis Presley “Jailhouse Rock” movie on base. Steve Gaynor was seen with three girls—Karen, Kathy and Arnell. This according to Quidnunc, the gossip column.

Errol Cochrane’s Platter Chatter listed Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star” as the number one record, Danny and the Juniors had the number 10 hit – “At the Hop.” We heard these songs often at the Teen Club on base.

In the spring the sophomores sponsored a dance—Hernando’s Hideaway (inspired by the content and music from the Broadway play and subsequent movie “Pajama Game”) with entertainment. A few of us girls decided we’d do a chorus line dance to “Steam Heat,” a dance routine featured in the movie. My parents had the record and I remember practicing our routine in my Tripoli living room. Our very amateur group included: Betty Hubbard, Sherri Anderson, Karen Gamel, Wilnetta Edwards, and me. We started our dance in front of a fairly large audience at the evening activity. Moments into the dance the record skipped and we had to pull ourselves together and start again. I think the photo below of Wilnetta, me and Betty displays our self-confidence. We were probably too young to worry about it.

The boys did a can-can in drag after our dance and stole the show, but I don’t have the photo.

Dancing to Steam Heat - Wilnetta Edwards, Viki Williams, Betty Hubbard

Dancing to Steam Heat – Wilnetta Edwards, Viki Williams, Betty Hubbard

 

MEMORIAL DAY & ARMY MEMORIES

General Victor W. Hobson

General Victor W. Hobson, my birth father, when he was promoted to general.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a time to honor all our veterans and those serving in the military currently. On the lighter side of life, it doesn’t take much to remind me of my upbringing as an Army gypsy or brat and what military wives had to put up with to keep their husbands pleased and their families together. Army (or Air Force or Navy or Marines) fathers all wore uniforms and these had to be starched, ironed, and kept in excellent shape. My mother was expected to keep my dad’s things in perfect order, and she advised me ruefully never to let a man take me for granted. In other words, don’t volunteer to iron or you’ll be stuck behind an ironing board forever. Thank God, Permanent Press was available when I got married, and my husband had elected to stay only in the Reserve Army (two weeks of uniforms in the summer).

Way before the cheap giant stores, the Army provided the PX (post exchange) a version of department store with mostly quality things at lower prices and the Commissary (nicknamed the Co-misery by some) for reasonably priced food. Prices needed to be low since joining the service, whichever one was chosen, was not designed to make your parents rich. I still have some record albums (LPs – remember those?) from the PX in the early ‘60s that only cost $2.35! And a china cabinet full of nice silver and crystal from the PX I got for wedding presents. I could entertain like my parents, but who uses silver trays and bowls, fancy silverware and crystal except for very special occasions?

Cadet Darby Williams, Citadel student, before he became my stepfather

Cadet Darby Williams, Citadel student, before he became my stepfather

Entertainment was always a priority in the service; officers and their wives had calling cards and went through all the proper protocol. Officers and enlisted men did not socialize together: they each had their own clubs. The Class VI store, on the other hand, was available to those, no matter what rank, who were old enough to imbibe alcohol in its various forms. Cocktail parties, dinner parties, special dinners/parties given by a certain command or military groups were typical to celebrate holidays, promotions, farewells, etc. Each weeknight, if they didn’t have other social plans, my mother would put on a nice dress and heels and greet my dad with Martinis or Manhattans and sliced raw vegetables (pioneers for eating if not drinking healthy) for cocktail hour, from 5-7 p.m., wherever they were stationed. I don’t remember if he got comfortable first and took off the uniform.

Army posts offered tennis courts, bowling alleys, shooting ranges, gyms: you name it. There were always movie theaters and movies were very cheap. Because of my thrifty dad, however, I remember my mother making us kids pop corn and put it into small paper bags to take to the 35-cent or cheaper films on whatever post we were living in at the time. In the summer, there were usually several huge pools to choose from, an easy bike ride away. And when you became a teenager, there was a teenage club with lots of activities.

Rules and regulations were to be obeyed without protest; everything had certain hours, and in military time. My dad wrote me letters military style while I was away at college: paragraphs were numbered, and if he was scheduling a pickup or a visit, it would be written as 0800 hours or perhaps 1600 hours, for instance.

If your dad got orders, it was time to leave, no matter how well you liked your present home and school. Moving wasn’t ever that easy, but there were Army personnel to pack up your household goods: until the Army got smart eventually and starting providing furniture, dishes, bedding and the like at the new military destination, especially Europe. Personal household items didn’t always arrive at the new quarters, or arrive on time or in good shape, but that was to be accepted, even if it ended up on the bottom of the ocean, which did happen, although not to us.

Army fathers (as I imagine all service fathers) were used to a regimented schedule. When we went on a vacation in the States, we got up at 4 a.m. (0400 hours) and hit the road. I got a laugh from the scene in the movie “The Great Santini” when the family got in their car to leave in the wee hours. In the 50s we traveled to Tripoli in what some joked was a putt-putt airplane, propeller-driven and very noisy. It involved several refueling stops and seats were not all facing the front, which made it easy for my sister to throw up on my brother. Military airplanes in the 50s and 60s made stops in places like the Azores, Morocco, England, Scotland, Newfoundland and Labrador. Once off an airplane, you didn’t get your land legs back for at least a day. Until then your ears buzzed and everything seemed to move, even if you were sitting down.

Traveling by ship was more common in the 40s and 50s. I got my “sea legs” when I was four years old: from New York to Hamburg, Germany, and then by train to Munich.

When an Army father retired, he usually picked someplace near a post or base since he could still use the PX, Commissary, medical facilities and space-available air travel. Many times the retirement choice would be the area of his last post or base. When he’d had enough, my mom and dad chose Texas for the warm climate and the close proximity of Ft. Sam Houston, where, ironically, my mother and I had been briefly during WWII when she’d been married to my birth father. My mother left this world from Ft. Sam Houston.

Being an Army brat was a great adventure, despite the challenges. Living in exotic places was exciting but best of all were the friends you made and kept, if you chose to. My parents kept up with Army couples all over the world until they died, and I always looked forward to reading all the Christmas cards from everywhere. It’s a tradition I chose to cherish and carry on.

CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT

My life has never been dull, but I planned it that way. I believe I chose it from the spirit world before I was born. It’s been very challenging with lowdown times, along with plenty of excitement, and I’ve been grateful for all of it—especially for all the folks who chose to be a friend or an acquaintance. Some stayed a long time; others came and went. I am a kind person and attracted kind people, for the most part. I believe that’s the way life works—you get back what you put out. But that doesn’t mean any of us have a smooth ride—think back to the histories of family and friends…

I got my worldly view starting at age four and living in Bavaria, Germany right after the disastrous WWII. I had been blessed with a Southern Virginia loving family upbringing, I was totally accepting experiencing a strange, harsh-sounding language and bombed out buildings and learned to speak German fluently. My stepfather was a stern Army officer and I towed the line, for the most part. Another highlight were my teen years in the 1950’s living in exotic Tripoli, Libya, a country of desert sand, camels and a lovely seashore once trod by Romans centuries ago. I can’t say I understand the full implication of the history or philosophy in those ancient lands, but I can understand and relate to their humanity, which makes me more accepting of the upheavals that area has been suffering—with no end in sight.

My sister Tupper and I in Murnau, Bavaria, Germany

My sister Tupper and I in Murnau, Bavaria, Germany

These reminisces are probably typical as we age and are faced with health, financial and social issues. Since I’m a writer and knew that was my destiny from the age of ten, I tend to mull over my life’s ups and downs. Perhaps a reader will glean some self-wisdom from my words.

Viki Williams in 1956--the family Ford in from of our villa on Via de Gaspari, Garden City, Tripoli.

Viki Williams in 1956–the family Ford in front of our villa on Via de Gaspari, Garden City, Tripoli.

I’ve had some typical experiences—a marriage, the birth of a girl and a boy (both fabulous, loving humans), and a divorce. I chose to pursue a career in journalism, writing for both weekly and daily Los Angeles newspapers, before I wrote several books (Melaynie’s Masquerade – a 16th century historical fiction and several other books based on some true experiences – all available on Amazon:) As an author and a longtime newspaper editor, I felt the next best step was editing books. During the past 15 years, I have guided many wonderful authors, some of them first timers, through a wide variety of books.

Although I’ve generally been very healthy, I was challenged in the past few years with mobility issues that were getting worse, but I thought 2016 was going to be a turnaround year since I was getting a new hip on my right side. Instead, I’ve been dealing with various complications that sometimes come with surgeries, like losing my appetite for several months. The latest involved flashing lights and dizziness. Between various tests and doctors’ opinions (it wasn’t a stroke, as I first thought), I’m slowly moving forward, hopes high. Thank the Lord that we can’t see the future, for the most part. And we’re responsible for our attitudes. I’ve always been an optimist, thankfully, and that attitude has always suited me.

Besides an inner knowing that it will all work out, eventually, it seems I won’t be needing to go on a diet or take drugs for high blood pressure in the near future. Since my operation in January, I have dropped 45 pounds. It’s been awhile since I’ve been this slender. And my blood pressure went down about 30 points. The future looks bright.

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