Neighborhoods really are very unique. We have lived in a few over the years and can attest to that fact. When we first arrived in California, we moved to an apartment complex in a small town adjacent to the the Base where I was stationed. Actually, the western gate on Rosamond Boulevard was almost visible from the parking lot in front of the apartments. Some of our time spent in this location, you can read about elsewhere on the Blog under the title “Arachnophobia“, if you’ve trouble sleeping. I’ve been told that my stories are better than Sominex.
We had arrived in mid-October and proceeded to set up housekeeping in the tiny, furnished apartment. We quickly applied for Base housing and got on the waiting list. If you have served, you know that everything the military does, has a waiting list. “Hurry up and wait” is a time-honored tradition. The waiting starts in the induction station on the day you enlist and ends as you wait in line in some nondescript back office to have some clerk issue you a DD-214. That’s the long-awaited form that declares our draft status to be “Women and Children First”.
We weren’t sure then how long we might be stationed there. I fully expected to be deployed to an isolated location, such as Vietnam or the frozen Air Force wasteland of Thule, Greenland. I soon found out that Edwards AFB was considered the only “isolated” Base in the US. That would play in our favor a couple of years later when my “job” would be phased out and only continued where no civilian contractors were available. Ever the optimists, we determined to settle in for whatever Uncle Sam would dictate.
The weeks quickly passed and in January we got news that an apartment on the Base had opened up. We packed our meager belongings into our 1965 Ford and moved out. Our new-to-us apartment was part of a single-level stretch of six units. The inside, although spartan, was immaculate. We found out why it was so clean when it became time to move out years later. We had to clean it to military standards. Barracks living had taught me those standards all too well. For us in government housing, that meant the inspector would dissemble the kitchen range, as an example, and scrape around with a razor blade for any debris. Olga is a good housekeeper, but that was over the top. Even the kitchen floors were disallowed the slightest wax build up and polished to a perfect shine. I’d like to say you could see your reflection in the tiles, but years of toddler traffic and combat boots had taken their toll.
There were some signs of minor wear but the two bedroom quarters looked great to me and to a five-month-pregnant military wife. The smell of Simonize floor wax that drifted through the air paired nicely with the musty order of a fresh coat of nondescript military-grade off-white paint. The oil-based covering was no doubt purchased in the 55 gallon drum by some Airman with no sense of decor. The unfurnished place would become our home for the immediate future.
We needed some basic furniture so, I headed for Base Housing and borrowed what was available. The vinyl couch we commandeered was hot in the summer and cold in the winter but it was better than sitting on the tile-covered concrete floor. The tattered wood-frame bed would need a mattress. Olga gave a flat “no” to borrowing one that was slightly used, for some reason. Fortunately, the apartment was literally across the street from a civilian shopping center equipped with a furniture store. We purchased a cheap mattress, along with some sheets and settled in for our first night in base housing. In the days following, I managed to get my hands on a copy of the base newspaper, The Desert Wings. Soon, we stocked our new abode with universal trappings like dining room furniture and some small end tables. I fabricated a coffee table out of painted sheet of three-quarter inch plywood and a couple of decorative concrete blocks. Practicality would always trump fashion on our scant budget.
The housing areas on the base were divided up by rank and time in service. Officers had generous homes in one section, career NCOs in a downscale version of individual homes and then the rest of us lowly first-termers, regardless of rank, settled in what was named the Bailey Housing section. If you really want a lesson in humility, enlist in the Armed Services. My guess would be that the planners never had in mind the unintended consequences of piling us all together. When you stir in a physically close neighborhood with young families, all about the same age, nearly identical income and working for the same employer, you basically get the recipe for a huge family.
Our dependent wives were mostly stay-at-home-moms. Eligibility requirements meant that we had one child under three years. Entertaining the kids and keeping house was a full time job for the young mothers. The weather cooperated with sunshine averaging 360 days a year, making plans to be outdoors somewhat reliable. Summer had its limitations with the thermometer topping out over 100 degrees most days. You could always count on the wind picking up around three o’clock in the afternoon. Olga would hang diapers on our backyard reel-to-reel line. By the time she got them hung up, she’d go back to the first ones and begin taking them down. A function primarily of a steady 30 MPH wind and five percent humidity gave us the best, natural clothes dryer known to man.
Play Dates were popular with the wives and kids. That was the time for social interaction for both groups. One only needed a kiddie pool or a sandbox to complete the backyard experience. The pools would warrant the periodic addition of ice cubes that were liberated from the fridge, keeping the water from overheating in the desert sun. The adults would do the occasional dip in the three inches of water to cool off as well. The sandboxes proved a larger challenge. Before the kiddos would get in with their toys, you had to push your fingers around in the sand to extricate any scorpions, black widow spiders or the occasional snake. The desert’s natural residents couldn’t tell the difference between the local habitat and a child’s sandbox, evidently.
Our neighborhood almost seemed normal on the weekends. The smells of charcoal in the air and sounds of friends gathering around the grills, carefully filled with hot dogs, chicken and the more uncommon steak. We rotated our little gatherings throughout the backyards. Ours was often the yard of choice, as we had a bit more space on our corner lot. Also, I had constructed a rather large barbecue from a 55 gallon drum with a grate that a friend had built in the welding shop as a favor. The charcoal aromas gave a bit of relief from the usual dusty smells of the desert. Soon, our usual culinary fare would produce the typical suburban atmosphere, much like you might find in your own neighborhood. There were a couple of things that made it unique. We were not only in the same group socioeconomically but we were all a long way from home and family. I don’t think we thought much about it at the time but we were rapidly becoming a family of sorts. Stable, loving families spending time together, communicating and supporting one another. We would care for each other’s children, share problems and were always there when you needed someone. I guess we loved and cared for each other. It all seemed natural.
The Holidays were no exception. It was a wonderful time of the year, in spite of the central California location. Autumn came and went rapidly. The leaves on the trees would turn brown seemingly overnight then blow away with the desert wind the next day. Winter in the high desert was bleak, to put it mildly. Currier and Ives never had a sketch of any scenes from that landscape.
The kids were mostly toddlers and were our center of attention. We did everything we could imagine to make the holidays special. Olga and I carved pumpkins and made a snowman out of paper mache. Anyway, most of us were too far from home or too broke to afford any real travel. So, we opted for the next best thing and spent the Holidays together. New Year’s, Memorial Day, Forth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas and whatever other excuse we could find to get together and celebrate with a meal.
A package from home was always a delight. My parent’s next door neighbor faithfully sent a package each year for us at Christmastime. A reused box that had contained a treasured purchase had been repurposed to contain some of my favorite home-made items. She carefully packed Christmas cookies, mincemeat tarts and homemade candies. When the postman delivered it, Olga and I would rip the package open and the smells of home would surround us, sending our minds back to our mothers’ kitchens. A few minutes later, all that would be left were memories of home and a few, stray crumbs. Our thoughts of family far away might have left us lacking but the flavors in that little package lingered as a reminder of the warmth and friendships of our neighborhoods back home.
We were all technically adults. Serving our country in various capacities, trying to figure out how to be good spouses while at the same time learning how to parent. All of that without any close family support. We would have to learn from each other. Really, isn’t that what families do?
We had our wives to come home to at night. They raised little ones, kept house and kept their sanity with those neighborhood friendships. The men had whatever duties Uncle Sam had given us and the pals we worked with, but our wives had to lean on friendships with women they didn’t even know only a few short months ago. Compounded with the fact that they did not know from one day to the next when we might be reassigned. They could be left at home for the next thirteen months, if we were deployed to another isolated station or a war zone.
Probably the toughest thing that we all had to do in the military family happened all too often. We were on four year enlistments and regularly we all were either reassigned or released from active duty. We had gotten close and knew we all would eventually pack up and leave. Some, we would see again over the years. Others, our paths might never cross again. Needless to say, some goodbys proved to be very emotional, especially for our wives. Today, our hearts remain full with the memories of those friendships, so many decades ago.
If you are living close to your family today, know it is a blessing that few of those serving can enjoy. Treasure that fact and love on each other whenever you can. At the same time, look around at those in your neighborhood. Don’t assume that they are not lonely or that they have plenty of friends of their own.
Maybe you know someone who is serving or know someone in your circle of friends who have family members deployed, remember them with a card of encouragement or maybe even a box of homemade cookies. Unless you’ve been there, you can’t imagine how great it feels to know someone back home is thinking about you.
When Jesus was asked what was the greatest of the commandments, He said to Love God, Love your neighbor. What can you do to show that love for those who live around you? You can take some fresh-baked cookies or invite them for a family gathering at your house. There are lots of things you can do for them to show that you care. But, above all, be a friend.
P.S. If you were there, or if you’re curious, here’s a few pictures from our time there. Click on the images to enlarge.