Leaving the U.S. for Rota, Spain

It was the very best of times

 

At some point during my second grade year, my stepfather, a sonar technician in the Navy, received orders that he’d been transferred to the USS Holland, a new submarine tender headed for Rota, Spain.  We were living in Charleston, SC at the time and although my memory is a bit fuzzy, it stands out as the first place I was able to complete an entire school year in one school.  The years before had been full of moves from one city to another or one home to another in and around San Diego, then Key West, FL,  so that meant school changes were necessary once I’d actually begun attending.   A kindergarten or two, perhaps two different schools for first grade — it sounds like a lot for a child to deal with, but I remember being happy, often finding time to wander around whatever neighborhood we lived in to explore vacant lots or think about how I might climb the old pepper trees near one apartment house we lived in.

I don’t remember how my mother explained we’d move to a country somewhere across the Atlantic, but I’m sure she did and in much the same way I adjusted to the other moves we made over the years, I must have thought it was just another adventure.  It helped to know our neighbors were being transferred to the same base and that we’d have one familiar contact there.  With my stepfather gone well before us, my mother, brother, sister, and I flew first to an airbase in New Jersey, staying for a night — maybe two — then flew to NYC where we caught a TWA red eye to Spain.

As much as I’ve tried to remember the first details of our arrival there, I can only muster up a dreary meeting in what we called The Annex, a building near the church on base where a poor guy was speaking to a packed house about what must have been the “How To” of living in a foreign country as a military family.  That day happened to be a rainy day and years would pass before I’d understand his reference to “the rain in Spain lies mainly on the plain.”  When out and about as a family, servicemen were to wear a suit and tie if not in uniform and ladies wore skirts or dresses.  Children dressed similarly.  Although I do remember we did comply, it was entirely different when my mother allowed us to play during the day and we wandered farther than she wanted us to, hair unbraided and without shoes.  We had to have looked like street urchins to the locals and were sort of adopted by one older boy, Isidro, who led us into all kinds of trouble.  None of it was harmful — except the fiery hot peppers he urged us to taste –  but it must have entertained him to know we were so gullible, trusting him as an authority even though we spoke different languages.

We lived off  base in the small town of Chipiona for more than a year  before moving onto the base at Rota where we finished our stay of four years — longer than most families at the time.  And in the grand scheme of my childhood they were the best of years for so many reasons.  I’ve always thought that because the U.S. had become involved in the conflict in Vietnam that being away from the unrest growing in the states at the time was a good thing.  My memories are those filled with a place safe and wonderful.  Days laced with strains of Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock,” the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” and  “I Can See for Miles” by The Who.  We had no television, so music always seemed to be playing whether from the records my parents had, or from our transistor radio taken to the beach or base pool for an afternoon swim.

This past February 1st, I answered the phone — something I rarely do –  and after hearing the tentative voice on the other end ask, “Kelly?” knew that it was Becky, my first best friend — the one I’d met in Spain at school.  We were in the same third grade class at David Glasgow Farragut School and although we became friends then, it wasn’t until our families moved within a house or two on Navarra Lane a year later that we became very close, spending whatever time we could having fun.

So many years had passed.  Lifetimes.  Marriages, children born and grown.  Yet immediately, I was taken back to those days in the mid to late 1960s and all they involved.  Faces and names I hadn’t connected in years, memories of carefree times with my family, classmates, teachers, all came rushing back.  There were the holiday picnics spent with other families in places like Arcos de la Frontera, the bloody bullfight when my mother caught the bull’s severed ear, and a fifth grade class field trip to the National Archives in Seville where we saw documents signed by great explorers like Cabeza de Vaca.   Goodness.

The last letter I received from Becky is dated February 4, 1982.  Even that seems a lifetime ago, now.

We talked forever that afternoon, attempting to help each other piece together memories, skipping from one topic to another, talking at the same time and crowding 30 years of life into our conversation.  Bits and pieces I thought I’d forgotten came back even after we had finished the call,  and it became all I could think about for days.   I dug through the old photos and memorabilia kept in boxes here and there in the house, some still layered in whatever we’d packed it in the last time we moved, nearly 10 years ago.  The exercise of sifting was a combination of joy and angst finding much of what I was searching for, but discovering much more missing. And it was horribly disorganized.  I hoped that my brother or sister had some of what was missing but knew that over time, it is impossible to keep each little piece of one’s life.  Perhaps it’s a good thing considering the time it would take to enjoy it all — like that matchbook cover I saved from a restaurant long out of business where my high school boyfriend  and I went on a date once or twice.  It wasn’t the first date, and the food wasn’t especially memorable, so I have no idea why I saved it.  It has long stopped meaning something to me,  yet there it is sitting alongside other mementos stuck on yellowing scrapbook pages, some beginning to disintegrate.  The idea that 55 years of life could fit in so few boxes occupied my thoughts even more than my inability to locate one old photo.

My mother had done a good job of keeping our family photos in an album that my brother, sister, and I enjoyed looking through often — so much so, that at least for me, each photo became a link to a series of particular memories.  I knew I had a photo of Becky somewhere, but couldn’t find it.  We were in our Girl Scout uniforms standing in our driveway early one morning — nothing significant until Becky and I both realized it was probably the only photo of both of us.  Thankfully, my sister did realize she had the photo and sent it along with many others.

When I think of how digital cameras and cell phones with cameras have allowed us all to easily snap photos often with little or no thought, I am sad to realize my childhood has been recorded in so few.  As much as I’m thankful my memory has kept much of it alive, I suppose the taken for granted every day aspect of our lives is what I would most like to see again just to help with the details.  My mother will say she feels guilty about this as she has a tendency to do when I’m recalling the past, but I certainly don’t fault her.  Life is just different now, and outside of realizing one just may not take a photo of their kitchen while kids were eating lunch or playing in the back yard, I can imagine purchasing film and having it developed was expensive — something our family probably couldn’t afford.

The camera I remember was an Argus — a dark brown rectangular box of a thing with two lenses on the front of it and a lidded view-finder in the top.  A flip of the lid created shade as the photographer looked down into it and saw the subject of a shot.  Although we have many color photos of special occasions such as Christmas, Easter, or the summer vacation we took up the Mediterranean coast, most are in black and white.  They’ve held up much better than the shots taken with the early 70s Kodak Instamatic that followed the Argus, which ended up in my boys’ toy box for years.  I doubt that anything was wrong with it, but like so much in life, we throw out the old to declutter and make way for the new expecting it will be better.  It often isn’t.  As I sort through our photos, those taken in the early 1970s are often blurred, printed on textured paper, and sporting a pinkish-golden tone.  They’re ugly, and to some extent only magnify how much a contrast that time in my life was compared to the years spent in Spain.

I have a tendency to blame it on puberty — something no one has fond memories of.  I remember being thrilled to be back in the U.S. that June of 1968 and able to see our extended family after such a long time away, but I was also going to begin junior high.  Days of multiple teachers, showers after PE, and a bad complexion lie ahead.  My mother would return to the working world and my brother, sister, and I would begin our responsibilities in helping taking care of our home with daily cleaning chores and dinner preparation and cleanup.   Of course I made new friends — the best of which I was lucky enough to have right next door — and from my Pollyanna-ish perspective, life was good in spite of things I wish had never happened.  It was clear there would be no going back.

Becky and I wondered together if it was our remorse over the loss of childhood in general that had us feeling so wistful at this point in our middle-aged lives, or whether being in a small place away from so much going on in the world magnified how special that time was for us.   As much as I definitely recall the less than wonderful moments in my childhood — and there were many — they pale compared to the longer stretches of time spent with a good friend doing simple things that kids today don’t seem to have time for any more, they’re booked so heavily by their parents.  I wonder about that.  About being so busy at such a young age to get everything done, that time to wonder or play is delegated to the unimportant.

Tetrapods Photo by Ted Rohde of Stars and Stripes

Google Maps View of Naval Housing Rota, Spain

I have often searched for my old homes using Google maps and enjoy using street view when it’s available to stroll along, looking for something familiar. So often, buildings have been torn down, or roads reconfigured to change the look of a neighborhood, it can be challenging to figure it out.   Although it was easy to locate the Navy base, street view isn’t available, so noticing changes has to come from a bird’s eye view.  The base is now under Spanish authority although it is a shared facility and American families are still stationed there.  The school is being rebuilt and the old playground is being used as a construction storage area.  The houses have been remodeled, and the hedges that used to separate one yard from another, occasionally doubling to create a shaded path and short cut to a friend’s house or the ball field, are gone.  There are fences instead and no evidence of hillside paths we ran along in the afternoon, and used flattened cardboard boxes to slide down.  The camp is gone as well, or perhaps just tucked beneath the tall Mediterranean pines the area is covered with. Camp Columbus was the first camp I attended staying a week away from home.  Although it was only a few miles from our house, it was away and that was enough of an adventure for me.

Becky’s family left the summer of 1967 after our fifth grade year taking time to drive through Europe before returning to the U.S.  I’d gone to camp again that summer without her, but learned that she would be able to stop by to say goodbye before the flight home.  Unfortunately, she was hospitalized after her appendix ruptured and I missed seeing her one last time.

We wrote for 13 years and then stopped.  I suppose the idea of continuing to write to a person you probably really don’t know any more because so much time has passed doesn’t make sense and that’s why we stopped.  Or life becomes too much to want to sit down and write about after you’ve survived a particular period that wasn’t great.  Some days can be difficult enough without having to relive the details by writing them down.  Who knows?

Becky and I have talked many times since February — she calls, and I write.  We have a visit in the works as well — one that is long overdue.  I re-read all of her letters after the call in February and in one after another she asked, “When are you coming?”  and I never did.  I know my parents couldn’t afford a flight from San Diego to New York, but wonder now if maybe that not so small detail was a good excuse for me to remember things they way they once were — safe and all wrapped up in old photos, and songs from the 1960s.

 

 

 

22 thoughts on “It was the very best of times”

  1. Wow, I loved this. So many times I sit back and think about times when I was a kid, where I was and what I was doing. You are a fabulous writer, absolutely wonderful :)

  2. What a nice surprise to see your comment here, so first, thanks for reading! And thanks more for appreciating it. I enjoy writing quite a bit and don’t make enough time for it. Here’s to hoping this changes that. :)

  3. Beautiful Kelly. We’re both from military! I never got to live outside the country and I was about 12 years ahead of you but I can so relate to all here … except I haven’t come across my best friend.
    Really enjoyed this.

  4. Thanks, Tanna. It’s been quite amazing. I’ve always had strong memories of our time there, but goodness — it’s been crazy lately. I’m enjoying it all. I’ve discovered many websites were DOD families are trying to find one another. There are reunions and message boards to wade through, but I enjoy it all.

  5. Kelly. I am not sure how I should respond to your post. I have always been amazed by your memory. I am happy that you remember the “good times”. Those years in Spain were good for me also. I took pride in my three children and did the best I could to be a good mom and to teach my children responsibility, honesty and work ethics. I am sorry that you remember this with some sadness. Nothing ever remains the same and we just keep on keeping on. You became a force to be reckoned with. Someone I have been so proud to say “that’s my daughter”. Now my tears are running down my face because you are in pain. I love you.

  6. Thanks, Mom. Actually, I’m not in pain. Remembering things important to my life can make me sad or wistful, but it’s something I enjoy. And whatever tears come from that remembering are no different than those shed for other things lost in the course of life.

  7. Oh Kellypea!! I loved this post SOFA KING much. Thank your for sharing your life story and these photos with us.

    I am so happy you and Becky reconnected again, after so many years apart. Isn’t it just wonderful when no amount of time and/or space can take away from that type of friendship? Absolutely fabulous.

  8. Kellypea, I found this page while looking for old pictures of the housing area at Rota. I must have left about the time you arrived at Rota. Dad was transferred from Port Lyautey, Morocco, to Rota in 1960. We lived off base at first (that beach looks very familiar!), then at D3 on base. I went to DGF, of course, second and third grade. Sliding on the hills in cardboard boxes, LOL. Do you remember the stable? I used to love going there, grooming and exercising horses. We transferred back to the states the summer of ’63. I’m glad you reconnected with Becky. As so often happens with military brats, I lost my BF (Cathy) and never found her again. Thanks so much for the blast from the past.

  9. Nancy — Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! Yes, we arrived the late spring of 1963 and were there for four years. I loved every minute of our time there. I can imagine Morocco must have been fascinating, though. I know other families spent time living around various places before and after Spain, but that was our only time out of the U.S. Right before I was headed to high school, I vaguely remember the possibility of relocating to Ireland. Although scary to think of then, now I regret that we didn’t go. I’m laughing over the fact that you also used to slide down those hills on cardboard. How hilarious! We wore through the seat of our pants and survived scolding my my mother before switching to the cardboard. So much fun! Yes, I remember the stables and had a friend in the 6th grade after Becky moved who had a horse — white with specks of grey. We’d go and I’d rent a horse so I could ride with her. Love the memories. Best to you on conjuring up yours as well!

  10. Kelly,

    I too lived in Rota, from the summer of 1972 to July 11, 1976. I was in the 2nd grand when we arrived and had just finished 5th when we left for the states. I also lived on Navarra Lane, the last house on the corner right across the steet from the fence that separated the base from the “outside” world and was patrolled by Spanish soldiers, La Guardia I think. I remember we had a very popular house because of the vacant lot just behind us. Many games of tag, football and whatever else we could come up with were played in that lot.

    Your words and pictures brought back a food of wonderful memories, thanks so much.

  11. Victor, thanks so much for taking the time to write a comment. It’s amazing how many people feel the same about a childhood spent in Rota, isn’t it? We lived in that last house on Navarra — the inside unit of the two, and yes, there was a big vacant lot behind it. I remember seeing La Guardia de Civil on the other side of that fence, too. We used a large set of storm drains as our hide out right next to the fence. Glad to have given you some time with good memories!

  12. Kelly, So well written! My memories are few from Rota. My mom thinks it was from 63 til 65 when our family was there. My fondest memories were of dancing at the officers club with my father, swimming with friends, my mother reading by the pool at the base, and mostly, being at the stable with my horse! I was also at that camp… girl scouts, and also lived off base the first year. Fontabravia I think it was called. I remember fiestas in Sevilla, the PX in Cadiz, traveling Europe when we could with my father. We had a Spanish woman named Carmen, our live in maid who I loved. We lost all of our pictures in one of our many moves. In case you or anyone else has pictures from then I would love to see them. My horse was Trigger, I did not name him lol, a beautiful chestnut quarter horse that I missed for years after we left. (And still do) We gave him to our friends the Hall’s when we left. They had three daughters, Linda, Barbara, and Carroll. Just throwing that out there in case you knew any of them. Their parents were Mary and Roger. My parents names are Mel and Jeri Hemmick. anyway thanks for letting me ramble. Would be great if this lead to any more memories or pictures from anyone who lived in Rota!

  13. Hello Kelly, congrats for this amazing story. I am a filmmaker from the south of Spain, currently based in NYC. I am researching about the life surrounding the American base in Rota in the 60s-70s for a new film. I have heard many stories about the impact of rock and roll, jazz and so forth in our music at the time. Spaniards were blown away by the records they got to borrow from their American friends at the base.
    If anybody knows any local stories about the cultural exchange/shock between these two communities or any books of memories I should read, please send me an email to raul@700gfilms.com. It will be a romantic film, so personal love stories are very much appreciated! :) Thanks a lot

  14. Mindy, I’m so glad you took the time to comment! I have enjoyed making connections with others who spent time in Rota in the ’60s and I will definitely share. As soon as you mentioned Trigger and described him, I thought of a friend’s horse — we used to ride at the stable together and her horse’s name was Trigger. Guess what? It was Linda Hall! She was a very good friend (we were in the same 6th grade class) and I have several photos of her. We wrote letters back and forth after we returned to the states, but eventually stopped. I’ve tried to locate her but have come up with nothing. I have been scanning all our old photos and will see if I can post them soon. Not many include people other than our family, but perhaps they’ll spark memories for you!

  15. Hello Raul, what an exciting project! I would suggest that you look into some of the Facebook groups related to Rota and to David Glasgow Farragut School (DGF) in particular. There are so many people connected there. Most seem to be from later times — not as many from the 60s when my family was there, but you can find them. https://www.facebook.com/groups/24137912502/ Although I remember the music popular at the time, I was quite young and rarely spent time with Spanish young people. Best of luck to you!

  16. Oh Kelly! Thank you for this WONDERFUL piece on Rota! I was married to a Navy man in 1987 & we moved to Rota in 1989 with a 5 month old. I lived off base for a year just down the Main Street in Rota from the main gate. Then we lived on base on PonteVerde (I believe), for 2 years. Your pictures brought back such great memories. Thank you so much. I met my very best friend to this day when I lived in Rota. We were both pregnant within weeks of moving to Spain. We “grew up” together while our husbands were stationed there. Did you & Becky ever get to meet up?

    Thank you again for the fond memories!

  17. Hi Reba — You are most welcome! My memories of childhood are so closely bound to our years in Spain I can’t imagine being a young mother there. I have asked my mother about it and I think as much as it looked like it was fun, I know it had to be tough as well. Yes, Becky and I have not only met up, we’ve each traveled across the country to spend the better part of a week with one another and have plans to continue until we can’t get on an airplane any longer. I’ll have to catch you up on that :) Thanks so much for taking the time to comment — it makes my day!

  18. If you are on Facebook, please friend me, I would really love to keep up with you. It was fun, scary, hard, challenging & WONDERFUL being a young mom in Rota. I was very blessed in that my sister, aunt and uncle were all able to visit for 3 weeks when I had my baby, so I wasn’t all alone. Thank you so much for replying. If you are on Facebook & will friend me, I’m Reba Carolyn Reeves! Thanks again & best wishes

  19. Kelly pea, that is amazing, 6 degrees of separation and all. I can get contact info for Linda, my mom at 92 is still in contact with her father. I just checked your site to show my husband pictures and saw your reply! We are on vacation right now, but please call at 330 701 5050. Too much to text.Thanks Mindy.

  20. Or contact me on Facebook, if more convenient. I devide my time between Ohio, Florida and San Diego! Thanks Mindy Hemmick- Murphy

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