(Excerpted from my book of short stories: The Undisciplined Years [working title])
EARLY YEARS IN ANCHORAGE
In the summer of 1946 my father and his brother-in-law, uncle Vernon, traveled to Alaska to see about opening some kind of business together. The war had recently ended and my father could not live any longer in the congested government housing of Long Beach, California where we had been for the past three years while he worked in a Civil Service position at the Naval Shipyard.
Even though our family was from the coal mining area of western Pennsylvania my mother sniffed that she did not like having to live beside the ‘Tennessee hillbilly’ family who occupied the small apartment next door. The mom of that family looked like a typical country hick as she habitually tromped barefooted around the grassy play yard in thin floral print dresses, her hair looking like it had not seen a brush since antediluvian days, a wad of ‘chawin’ tobaccie’ stuffed in her cheek and a lighted cigarette dangling from her unpainted lips. I never saw her when one eye wasn’t squinted from the smoke curling up from that omnipresent cigarette. Her voice was louder than the freight trains that ran along the set of tracks next to the apartments.
Truman Boyd Manor, as our squat, two story Long Beach hovels were known, was comprised of some number of off-white painted apartment buildings running perpendicular to the main tracks of the military supply railroad which serviced the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. Most of the residents of the Manor had someone who worked at the shipyard. Our homes were no better or worse than the military enlisted housing units nearby – they just weren’t painted battleship gray. In between these rows of apartment buildings were small grassy open areas that were used by the mothers to hang their wash; by the children as a playground; by the men for their bull sessions; and on really hot, humid nights, by us all as a place to lay a blanket and try to catch some shut-eye.
On the other side of the tracks was a huge oil storage area. We could see the oil tanks looming larger than life and always wondered what would happen if somebody bombed that area – would hot burning oil would wash across the tracks and catch our homes on fire?
One clear, hot afternoon we found out.
We children were playing outside and looked up over the oil tanks to see a military fighter plane that looked like it was in trouble. It would fly straight for a moment, then plunge downward, then back up, then plunge again, all the while its engine was making the strangest coughing sound we had ever heard.
Suddenly the sound stopped and the plane plunged straight down into one of the large tanks. When it hit, there was a huge roar, louder than anything we’d ever heard, including the steam engines and our neighbor’s voice! The tank erupted into flames and we felt like the sun had just turned the heat up another fifty degrees. We kids stood transfixed by the sight of the flames shooting high up into the air. The sky was turned black from the smoke. Our eyes watered from the pungent smell of burning crude.
Soon we heard the wailing of fire truck sirens and the ominous sound of the air raid sirens. Instantly we scattered, each of us running back into our respective homes to the safety of our moms.
The image of that little plane vanishing into the top of the oil tank is forever etched in my memory, and I have always wondered whose son was aboard that day.
But as a four year old I mostly had a happy time playing with the three little girls who lived in that apartment next door. Marie was the eldest – perhaps seven or eight. Then came Crystal and Roberta who were closer to my age. Roberta was known as ‘Birdie’ to all of us back then. We played outside together every day, sometimes in the hot sun or in the soft, infrequent, warm rain that fell in Long Beach. A favorite game of ours was to stand on one rail of the tracks and dare each other to be the last to run away as a huge smoking steam engine would chug by. I guess we were lucky that we never tripped and fell in front of one of these behemoths. No matter how many times our mothers scolded us about playing on the tracks we were addicted to it and played the game over and over again throughout each day.
The most memorable event of that era, though, was when their mom would stand on the stoop and call the girls for lunch. Bellowing out into the common area so loud my ears still ache she’d scream in her best southern drawl, “Mawreee! Y’all brang Cryshtal an’ Birdie an’ come own,” Ptooey ! and spit a juicy brown slug of tobacco juice onto the cement walkway before slamming the screen door behind her.
- - - - - - - - - -