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Eighteen Months Part Two

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I said that 1968 was a tough year for my family. It was. It was also a tough year for the whole country. The Vietnam War was going badly. Bobby Kennedy was killed. Martin Luther King was killed. There were riots, anti-war demonstrations. Everything and everyone seemed stressed out. Some say the only thing that saved 1968 from being a total loss was the Apollo Eight mission around the moon. I will always remember the Astronauts reading from the book of Genesis and reminding us, me, who was, who is, still in charge.

Eighteen Months Part Two.

I could name this entry Fish out of Water (in more ways than one) because that is exactly what it felt like.

It didn't take long to realize that we came from a different world and that we would not fit into this small town.

I got along fine with my Denton cousins and their families, but that is where it ended. It is always hard to come into a new school halfway through the year, but to come from a school with twelve hundred students to a school with less than a tenth of that amount was more than rough.

I caught it from every member of my class. I didn't think like them, I didn't dress like them and I certainly didn't talk like them and they constantly reminded me of those facts. They didn't believe that the school I left was as big as it was and that we changed classes six times a day. They had no concept of large grocery stores, shopping malls, large airports, aircraft carriers, or anything much outside of their community. The biggest thing for some of those kids was to visit Thomasville, a somewhat larger town nearby that made lots of fine furniture. There they were awed by the Big Giant Chair, in the center of town. I told them I had been to Washington DC and seen the big giant capital and all I got in return was a bunch of boos, calls of liar, and some line like "No one has ever been to Washington, it's too far away!"

Worst of all they called me a Yankee. I hated that. I told them they had no sense of history. I reminded them Virginia was the home of Robert E. Lee. I also reminded them that during the War Between the States (Lord help you if you call it the Civil War), Richmond, Virginia was the capital of the South! But that didn't stop them. They didn't seem to know anything about the Mason-Dixon Line or Petersburg, or Cold Harbor, or much else. I became the official Yankee of the class and there was nothing I could do about it.

I didn't make things better for myself when I said that when General Sherman made his march to the sea, he took his army around Denton instead of burning it down because he didn't want to do the South any favors.

I was sent out to the hallway for that remark.

Things were no better for my brother. One day he took a large piece of lava my father picked up when visiting Mt Etna in Sicily, to school for his fourth grade show and tell. He showed it, told them about it, and the class ridiculed him. They said something to the effect that he was nothing but a story teller cause that stupid old rock could not have come from Mt Etna, "Because No one has ever been there, it's too far away!"

Some kid in the class said in his best southern drawl, "Now I bet you will be telling us your old man has been to that big Volcano in Hawaii, what's it called Mt Killawhale or something?"

"You mean Mt Kilauea? Sure, he has been there a bunch of times."

That did it. With shouts of "Liar, Liar pants on fire!" my brother found himself at the wrong end of a ten year old fist.

For show and tell at dinner that evening, my brother's exhibit was a black eye and a note from his teacher saying that my Mom's son was being a class distraction.

We were The Yankee and the Class Distraction. The boys on the Porch.

It didn't help that during this time, our father was rarely seen by either of us. He found a factory job in Salisbury with a company called Fiber Industries. They manufactured polyester thread, which they sold to numerous other manufacturing companies, such as Hanes, Burlington Mills and others. Polyester pants were popular in those days, so the factory ran twenty four hours a day; seven days a week and my father worked the swing shift. Some days he worked noon to nine pm. Some days he worked three to midnight, or midnight to nine am, but never nine to six. During the evening, when we were home from school, he was either working or sleeping.

We saw each other on the weekend a few times, but on those days we were usually on our land clearing trees, trying to get the spot ready for our new home. Living on the front porch and in one bedroom of my Grandfather's house was becoming old really fast.

Once our terrible school year (we had the grades to prove it) was over, things improved some. Dad was still working strange hours with lots of overtime, but now that we were out of school we did see more of him. The family savings was growing, but the nest egg was not allowed to get too big because it was necessary to make a couple of trips back to Norfolk to repair broken pipes and a broken bathroom wall, courtesy of our renters.

Rod and I were starting to turn into country boys. We ran around barefoot, raised chickens, got ourselves a big dog and I bought a rifle. It was only a bb gun, but who knows what I would have wanted next. I was starting to adapt to my surroundings, but I am sure Dad was not. His peace of mind was starting to wear out. He wasn't comfortable with how our lives were changing. Five months and no new home, and it would not be long before another school year would be upon us, and being a long distance land lord only added to his unease.

In late June of 1967 we made our big trip to Montreal, Canada. It almost didn't happen. A few weeks before we were scheduled to leave, my brother came down with a case of viral pneumonia. It wasn't his first time, quite the contrary. This was something he got quite often. He would cough, and hack, run a fever and his lungs would get so full of fluid that he had to stand on his head to drain them. It took him about two weeks to recover from this episode. I was afraid our trip was lost, Mom and Dad said not to worry, but I could hear them at night, discussing the very strong possibility that we would not be going.

A few days before the trip Rod's illness seemed to get worse, and then I got sick. I suppose it could have been the stress of the idea of not making the trip of a lifetime that caused me to get ill. I had a blazing headache, a terrible sore throat, and plenty of nausea. One hot night, I couldn't sleep, and my head hurt more than it ever had. Dad, having two sick boys to deal with, figured that if one of them was unconscious, maybe we would all feel better, so he gave me a Darvon capsule. It did make me quiet, but it may have mixed with some cold remedy that I had also taken, or I may have been allergic to it. I don't know. I do know I had a terrible reaction to it. It didn't start out so terrible, but something was wrong. During the night I felt like I had water running down my face. It was really strange. I ran a hand over my face in the dark. My cheeks felt large and spongy and I could feel bumps on them.

I got up, ran to the other end of the house, to the back porch and then to the bathroom. I turned on the light, looked in the mirror and starting screaming my head off.

I looked like something from a cheap horror movie. My face, arms and chest had broken out with large hives. Big red welts with white bumps covered my face as well. My cheeks had swollen so that only the end of my nose was visible. One eye was swollen shut; the other was red as an apple. I looked, in a word, hideous.

Dad reached the bathroom first, took one look at me and went white as a ghost. Mom came up behind but he wouldn't let her see me. She insisted, pushed around him, saw my face and started to laugh. I know now that it was hysterical laughter, but at the time I could not figure out what was so funny. I told her so too.

"It's not funny!" I wailed. "Look at me! I think I'm dying!"

"You aren't dying" Mom responded, "You look like you stuck your head in a bee hive."

Actually, that was a pretty good description, but I didn't appreciate its accuracy.

I threw up.

Not a pretty picture, a big red swollen head spewing all over the bathroom.

Mom stopped laughing. "Clay, I think you better take him to the hospital."

Dad, thinking the same thing, got me cleaned up and half carried me to the car.

It was thirty miles to the nearest hospital in Lexington. I had my head in a trash can the whole way there. Dad drove like a mad man.

If we had lived in Norfolk, a trip to the hospital, civilian or navy would have expected results. You would go to the emergency room, see a nurse, then a doctor, be poked, prodded, a thermometer jammed under your tongue, blood pressure taken, what ever. The main thing is you would just walk in and see somebody.

We arrived at the Lexington hospital. There was no emergency room. We had no choice but to go to the front door. By this time I was feeling very dizzy and light headed, and my heart was racing a mile a minute. Dad had to carry me.

The door was locked. No one in sight but there was a door bell. Dad pushed it and finally someone came to the door. The person was a janitor not a doctor. He said can I help you, and before anyone could answer, he took one look at my face and well, seemed to get sick himself.

He pushed open the door, grabbed a wheelchair that was close by. I ended up in it and found myself being pushed down the dark green hall to a desk where a nurse was sitting looking over a clipboard. She looked up. My face sure could produce a powerful reaction.

I looked at her. She stared at me. Along with the big nasty hives, she saw something in my face, because she quickly opened a drawer and pulled out a plastic container and handed it to me.

Yes, I threw up again.

"Oh my stars honey, you sure are a mess, let's see what we can do to help you."

Her kind voice seemed so distant.

She asked my dad some questions, about what medications I took, what I had to eat and so on. She took my blood pressure, and stuck a thermometer under my tongue, which wasn't all that easy considering how hard I was shaking and how stiff my jaw was. Then she picked up the phone and called the doctor on call. After about a minute, she got up went to another room and came back with a tray on which lay a syringe and a cotton ball. She rolled up my pajama sleeve, dabbed the alcohol soaked cotton ball on my arm and then stuck me with the needle. Whatever was in that syringe started working almost as soon as she squeezed it.

My heart rate dropped, my nausea went away, and at that moment I just wanted to go to sleep.

The rest of the night is just a blur. I remember waking up the next morning, feeling well, a bit hung-over, and hungry. I made my way to the breakfast table where I proceeded to frighten my sisters, which tickled my grandfather. Obviously I was still a handsome sight, as handsome as Quasimodo. It didn't take long for the cousins to hear about the new face in town. The two oldest girls, Dawn and Pam, decided to look after me. They told everybody else to have a look and then leave me alone. They fed me lemonade, and iced down my ugly fat face. In a few days I was a good as new.

At the end of June we left for Canada.

I will tell you right now that our vacation was absolutely great. We stayed in hotels, rode Monorails, and trains, roller coasters, a Hugh Ferris wheel, ate out, went shopping in large malls, saw, heard, touched and experienced things at the Expo that were fantastic. We concluded the trip by staying with old Navy friends in a cabin on the shores of a beautiful lake, Otter Lake, in Ontario to be exact. We went boating and fishing. The only bad thing was the kids we met, thought that Rod and I talked funny, like real Southerners. They would come over to our cabin just to hear us speak. I found it amusing, but I don't think my parents did. Well, Dad didn't anyway. The trip gave him time to think. He was thinking it was time to make the trip home. Home to North Carolina, but ultimately back to Virginia.

Our Canadian adventure ended all too soon. We headed back to North Carolina.

July soon ended. We did have some good times. We hiked, fished, and went swimming. Papa killed some of my chickens and we ate them, well that part wasn't so good.

Dad gave notice to our renters that we would be coming back. We gave notice to our relatives that we would be moving back to Norfolk. None of them wanted us to leave. Papa, my normally strong grandfather, broke down and cried. My Mom was miserable. She knew it was the best thing to do, but she didn't want to give up her dream of being close to her family while living in her house in the woods.

Sometime around my birthday, in August 1967, Rod, Dad and I went back to our home in Norfolk. We would spend the next two weeks scrubbing floors, cleaning out cabinets, painting walls in order to get our home back in order for the girls.

It was a tremendous amount of work. We cleaned during the day, slept on the floor at night, ate off paper plates. It was a male bonding time. We made the house ready and just before the start of the new school year, Mom and my sisters arrived. At the same time, the moving company that back in February, moved all our stuff out and put it in storage, now moved it all back in.

It took us some time to unpack boxes, get settled in, enroll in school and try to pick up our Norfolk lives where we left off. It wasn't easy. Dad spent a lot of his time looking for employment. He was hired by a commercial heating and air conditioning supply company but it wasn't much of a job. In late November he found a Civil Service position. He went back to working on navy aircraft. He would speed the rest of his working days in Civil Service employment, driving to the same base that he retired from, and happy to do it.

Christmas 1967 is not a time I remember many details about, except we were broke, again. I remember participating in my high school Concert Chorus Christmas cantata wearing dress shoes I borrowed from Dad. We drove past the ships on Christmas Eve; at least I think we did. I am sure Dad put out presents for the girls. The old glass ornaments were on the tree. 1968 looked like it would be a good year, nice and quiet. We were back in our home, had our old friends back, we were back in our neighborhood church, same neighborhood schools we could walk to. All seemed right with the world.

February ... Soon it was one year from the day Dad retired from the Navy.

We received a call from Denton. Papa had a stroke.

We rushed back to Papa's house.

It was so sad to see my Grandfather, who had been so active, looking after his farm, his animals and all his grandkids, including us, not able to do anything for himself. We had to leave after just after a couple of days.

He would only live a few weeks. It just didn't seem real, another trip down to Denton for another funeral. My Mother was devastated. It was crowded but quiet during the drive down. Mom quietly cried almost the whole way. When we pulled into the driveway of Papa's home, our home just a few months earlier, she broke down. There was nothing I could do except hug Penni, who just didn't understand what was happening.

We were there for about four days and it was time to leave again.

My poor Mom now had lost two parents, her dream house and her family all in less than eighteen months. We had also pulled up roots twice during that same time. All of us were sad, exhausted and not sure what our future would bring.

My grandfather's death was a sad time made even sadder when it was discovered there was no will and as a result the family decided to auction off everything he owned with no exception. So in March we made another trip to Papa's farm to help with the auction. I asked for a birdhouse that Papa helped me build that I had left hanging under the eves of one of his barns. No, that had to auctioned off as well. I tried to buy it myself but three dollars wasn't enough.

Something happened to us as all of Papa's possessions were being carried away by strangers. We all felt like a part of us was leaving as well.

We made our way back to Norfolk and once there a dark cloud settled over our family, over my Mom and over me. Mom struggled with grief and guilt. I struggled with her and with school, I argued with my teachers and both my parents and my siblings. I became impatient and angry, and Mom didn't know how to deal with me and became even more depressed. Dad tried to hold everything together but it was almost impossible. From March to May things got really bad.

We truly needed a miracle.

We received one.....

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