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.
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.