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On the island of Acadia, Maine, my family lived in the state park the summer I was fifteen. My father was ‘checking points’ (cartography term) on another survey team’s data. There, I met a college boy from Ukraine. Borys Stopnyski was studying geopolitics at Oswego U. Dad kept a close eye on me and I…
My brother Bob told me, when he was forty and I was forty-two, “Dad never talked about his experiences in WWII. It was too much for him to bear.” But our father told me, in gory detail, about navigating Fletcher class USS Hopewell all over the South Pacific, when I was a young teenager. He’d…
Somewhere between Michigan and West Virginia, when I was nearly eleven and my brother was almost nine, we moved into a small brick house near a huge cornfield. The first day there, my brother Bob and I went exploring. As we carefully trod (like Indians) along the road’s shoulder, we reached a spot where that…
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KEY WEST: Summer of JOY
The summer after I graduated from Langley High, Dad had to map the Florida Keys.
“Take her with you!” Mom shouted, pointing to me as I loafed around on one of my few days off from being a Junior Ranger at Lake Fairfax Park.
“Mother, I have to work!” My friend Denise and I had been saving money for our Dream Trip to California–everyone’s 1960s goal, we thought. My boyfriend was fixing up an old VW bus with a mattress, a stove (hole cut into the roof to let smoke out), a wooden box he carved to hold our writings and paintings. Curtains. All the accoutrements for a hippie get-away. We’d mostly camp out under the stars. We hadn’t even had sex yet! We’d been together since age fourteen.
Wayne and I met at Lake Fairfax, swimming. I kept diving to the murky, grassy, muddy bottom & kicking one heel on the dirt–up up fast like a breaching whale, then back underwater again. I loved it under any water: ocean, lake, stream, pond. Quiet Sanctuary.
This time when I came up for air, there was a tall, very pale-skinned (like me) boy with bright blue eyes, dark hair and a big grin. He was holding a large, smooth grey stone. “Wanna Rock?”
I laughed, he laughed and we were together from that day forward. Dad wouldn’t let me go steady, though. He’d periodically say to me, “Leave that Catholic Irish boy alone. You’ll be eating potatoes all your life. I want you to ask one of the Langely guys out on a date. Or a college guy. So off I’d go, down the Langley hallways or in the cafeteria. “Do you want to take me out dancing? Or to a movie? Or just get burgers? There will be No sex. I’m in love with a Herndon guy. But my father won’t let me go steady.”
Few guys said “yes” until I was nearly seventeen. I wasn’t sure why. But suddenly, boys were flocking to me. I’d always call Wayne and say “Dad is on his no-going-steady kick again.” Wayne would reply, “No problem, Mama San. Come over when he’s sick of those rich boys.”
Now I’d graduated from high school. I was still taking a few seminars at Georgetown and Catholic Universities: the history of non-violent protest and classes like that. Also, I was studying art and history (I Loved history, art and literature) at NOVA community college in Fairfax, Virginia.
After a long discussion, during which I Promised not to drink & help Dad’s survey partner’s wife clean our cottage & cook every day, my parents agreed I’d go South for the Summer.
My younger sister helped me pack lightly: shorts, t-shirts & underwear. I had always hated wearing a bra. Kathi & I, in a fever of Feminism fueled by the song “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” burned our bras in the incinerator Dad used for paper trash & leaves one Autumn day.
Mom blew a gasket when she found out.
“You will earn money & buy new brassieres,” she shouted.
That was easy, bras were two for $5.00 at the cheap-o store in Herndon. Kathi babysat & I worked at Lum’s Tavern & Lake Fairfax. Then I drove us to the shop, where we picked out new matching sets of panties & bras.
We walked around the house in our flower print bras & unders, singing “In Numbers Too Big To Ignore!” until Mom made us put clothes on.
“My God almighty, you two will drive me straight to the Loony Bin,” mother fussed.
George J. Horan, genius conductor & band leader, inspired some of us to the heights. So a drummer, coronet player, guitarist & I took our show “on the road.” We played in a few nightclubs in Washington, DC before the band broke up. I hadn’t told my parents about the group, remembering Dad’s “hop head” comments about jazz fiends. The clubs closed late & our group was usually last on the bill–midnight or later. I would get into trouble every time I got home after that 10 o’clock curfew. So I quit.
But I could never listen to jazz without mentally fingering the flute keys and being tense that my playing could never measure up to George J. Horan’s standards.
Wow, I am in the Gray Ghost, Dad’s Pontiac with the souped-up engine my brother Bob and his pals had fixed up for me to race around the Beltway. I always won, even against the wildest Chevy guys with their Bel Aires. A USGS decal on the back window. My father was as happy as a lark, like he always was when “out in the field.” The radio was on a jazz station. Usually, that kind of music bothered me. I’d been in a small jazz combo for a short while during high school.
Off we went, hot tunesfilling the air. We drove down through North Carolina, South Carolina–where we stopped for Brunswick stew. Through Georgia, where we made a visit to Miss Bonnie, Dad’s mother, in the nursing home. Her full name was Bonnie Blue Reynolds Elder. Her sister was Tempest Storm! We also stopped to see Uncle Jack, Aunt Inez & the cousins. Aunt Inez always had good food on the stove, so we enjoyed a massive mid-day meal (“dinner”) with them. Sweet tea! Mom never let us sugar our tea or buy soft drinks. “You’ll rot your teeth out.”
Thence through Florida, a long, long state. We were in a caravan, gypsy-style. Dad leading the pack & his survey team in separate cars, all headed for the Keys. We encamped near the Everglades, toward Key Largo first. Dad & his team made pretty quick work of mapping that area. I wandered around the beaches, swimming & soaking up the sun–in glory! I have always loved the sea, it’s part of my DNA.
After finishing with Largo, we headed to Islamarado. That tiny island took three days to map. Dad was super manic, in fine fettle & his team followed suit. Pal Ralph & wife Gladys were along, Ralph to help survey & Gladys to cook & try keeping an eye on me. She was fun. Her toenails were always shiny red. I took up after her & began painting my own toenails a bright, fire engine red from then on.
Gladys made big pots of stew, cornbread & bought beer for the returning survey party. I always thought it was apt that they called it a “party.” My parents’ homes, all over America (as Dad & his teams did TOPO), were Party Central. Cigarette smoke, records playing on the portable turn-table, loud joking, Mom frying eggs & bacon late into the night. That was our life.
It was no different now, just no Mom! I helped chop up vegetables, set the table & carried in big bowls full of food. The guys worked up huge appetites, hiking 10-20 miles a day. They drank beer, laughed, sang & joked all night. Started over again at Dawn. After Islamarado, it was Marathon, then Big Pine Key. All gorgeous with gloriously sandy beaches. Guys whistled at me in my white bikini but I paid them no mind. RW was in the Army, now. Not behind a plough! I’d go home to him & we’d run off to California. Dreamin’ Then: Key West! 1970. Un-freakin’-real. Hippies & beatniks were everywhere. Dad & his team too me with them to Sloppy Joe’s Bar every night after a hard day’s work. We ate soup, bread & drank beer. Nobody asked for my ID. I was just 17, you know what I mean. I’d put quarters in the juke box & start doing the twist. Dad would jump up & start a verision of the Lindy Hop. His pals would ask lady diners to join them. The place was a-jumpin’! Gladys sometimes warned me, “Now promise you won’t do any drugs or get pregnant on me.” Lord! “No way!” I promised & I meant it. I’d smoked a bit of pot in my last semester of high school, just to please my fellow anti-war protesters. But I was done with that. Beer, beaches & Hemingway were my Life that summer. I found Hemingway’s house, where he’d lived with hundreds of many-toed cats. I had read “The Sun Also Rises” & other books by him in high school. I was nutty for Hemingway. The house was slightly decrepit after years of disuse. A woman opened the door when I knocked. “Um, is this Earnest Hemingway’s house?” “Why, yes it is. Or was.” “I-I’m a huge fan of his. I’ve read all his books. Can I just walk around outside & look at everything?” “Come right on inside.” She opened the door wide. She showed me into a large room with a desk full of papers. There were books everywhere. An old sofa sat near a window, colors faded by bright island sunlight. “WOW!” I exclaimed. “Are you Kidding me! Hemingway actually lived here!” The woman showed me into the kitchen. It had blue tiles, many broke but those which were intact had lovely swallows & other designs on them. Out the door from the kitchen was a patio & a moldy green swimming pool. “Oh my gosh, can I swim in the pool?” “It’s rather filthy, dear.” “I’ve swum in swamps & lakes & ponds that were worse than this!” She pealed out a laugh & said “OK.” She went back inside & I took off my sweatshirt, t-shirt, shorts & shoes. I dove into the Hemingway water in my underwear & swam for a good half hour.
My manic mind was filled with scenes from his novels. Finally, I dried off with my t-shirt & put on my clothes. The kind lady offered me a cup of tea. We sat in the livingroom & talked. She was trying to fix up the house as a museum. She hoped people like me would come from all over the world, pay a fee & get tours of the fixed-up home. I offered to help her, super hyper with Summer energy. I returned every day that summer, dusting off books, scrubbing the kitchen floor, polishing furniture & doing what my OCD parents had taught me: Cleanliness is Next to (well, Dad was an atheist so he never said “godliness” but I knew saying).
Hemingway’s former lover would let me swim in the pool he’d had built. It was covered with beautiful tiles, many of which had fallen off–and it was full of algae. But I’d grown up swimming in ponds and lakes that were no different, so it didn’t bother me!
I’d go swimming in the sea to clean off–waving goodbye to the kind lady. Run toward the ocean after shedding my shorts, slip on Keds and shirt, down to my bathing suit. Dive in, burst up after a big wave passed over me. Again and again. Guys tried to interest me but no, I was writing Wayne every day and he wrote me back–his letters were full of psychedelic drawings of him and me in Cal-i-forn-IA!
At night, Gladys (my chaperone) would walk with me to Sloppy Joe’s bar. There were Dad’s survey party and my father–the star of every show. He’d be beating on glasses filled with various levels of water, beer, whiskey and wine, like Gene Krupa (with whom he’d drummed to one song at a club in the 50s!!!) We’d all eat heartily. The waitress would always say, “This skinny girl can put away some food!” I was proud of that. I got real tanned that summer and fit as a fiddle swimming, hauling wooden boxes full of detritus away for Hemingway’s Lady, walking fast all over Key West, visiting quirky graves. Including one that said “I Told You I Was Sick.”
One evening at Sloppy Joe’s, Dad told about finding “a shack out in the sea, up on pontoons. We went up the shaky wooden stairs. Inside, there was a typewriter, some empty booze bottles and a box with a book manuscript in it. Looked like Hemingway’s type of writing. I’m going to take it to someone in charge tomorrow. It might need to go into a museum.”
“Dad!” I shouted. “I’m helping set up the Hemingway Museum! Your story and the manuscript would be So cool there. I hope it really is by him.”
The Lady gave me a polydactyl kitten, great-great-great grand-kitten of one of Hemingway’s famous cats on my last day of volunteer work. I named him Papa. My brother called him Pompous because he was always posing. I was furious one day when I came home from NOVA and my job at the tavern. Mom told me, “I hate cats. Their mouths look like snakes when they yawn. So I let him go. He can fend for himself.”
Kathi, Bob and I spent weeks walking all over Great Falls but never could find Papa. Two years later, my sister was babysitting in the Rich People part of the land. The people had a mother cat with little kittens. Kathi called me excitedly, “They look just like Papa! Black and White with huge paws. I saw him streak out of the garage. He’s bigger but it was Papa!” I was ecstatic.