Even after their long honeymoon trip to Mexico and Central America, Daddy wasn’t satisfied to stay at home on weekends. I guess he was restless or bored because he was always planning and scheming to try something new or go somewhere he’d never been before or revisit places he especially liked.
Daddy had lived at Yosemite National Park, high in the Sierra Nevada, for a couple of years when he was a boy. He and Mommy met there in 1937, right after they graduated from college. But it had been more than six years since they’d been to the park, and he was anxious to see it again. Sitting at the breakfast table only a few weeks after Christmas, he announced: “What say we head up to Yosemite for a few days?”
“But we just—”
“We can take Mike Bradley along too. That way, maybe the Bradleys will take care of the mutt while we’re gone.”
Mommy and Daddy had taken Eleanor to the snow at Big Bear before I was born, but I had never even seen snow except in picture books or on Christmas cards. I was so excited that I didn’t mind leaving Rusty with the Bradleys or leaving my new bike hidden under a towel behind the boxes piled in the garage.
A few days later, we all bundled up—jackets, boots, plaid woolen scarves and knitted mittens—piled into our Plymouth four-door sedan, and headed for the mountains. The car was equipped with a heater but no radio, so, as Daddy drove along, he began singing, our newest family tradition. Eleanor and I already knew all the verses to “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain,” “My Darling Clementine,” and dozens of others, but our hands-down favorite was now “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” the first Army song Daddy taught us after he came home from the Philippines. Before long Mike Bradley got over his shyness and joined in, too, and people in other cars on the highway smiled and waved because we were having so much fun.
Several hours later, not long after we passed through Merced, small patches of snow began appearing on both sides of the road. As soon as he came to a turnout, Daddy pulled over so I could touch it and taste it for myself. It tasted kind of yucky, like dirt, but I didn’t care. I wanted to have a snowball fight; the rest wanted to hurry up and get there. Every mile we drove, the snow grew deeper and the mountains bigger and more beautiful, sparkling in the sunshine.
“I wish I could live in Yosemite,” I said.
“Maybe someday you will.”
“Maybe someday I will.”
When we entered the park, Daddy drove straight to Camp Curry at the base of Glacier Peak—the same place he’d lived when he was twelve—disappeared into the office for a few minutes, and then came bounding out again, grinning from ear to ear, his hand high in the air, waving a key. “It pays to have friends in high places,” he crowed.
Our tent cabin had a wooden floor and wooden walls that went up six feet; from there up, it was canvas, just like a regular tent. Inside, wooden bunks and some chairs and a table lined the walls, and a black kerosene stove provided heat. “It’s not exactly the Ahwahnee Hotel,” Daddy said with a wink, “but if I lived all winter long in one of these things, I guess we’ll survive for a couple of nights.”
Mike and Eleanor and I wasted no time. The snowplow had pushed up a huge mountain of snow at the edge of the parking lot, and already other kids had smoothed out a sled run. At first we just stood and watched, but pretty soon they gave us a turn. In between runs down the snow hill, we threw snowballs and made a snowman and had a fine time.
Later in the day, we all piled in the car again and went for a drive to see some of the biggest trees in the world. “Sequoias,” Daddy called them. One, called the “Wawona Tree,” was so big we could drive our car right through it, like a tunnel.
Then Daddy asked, “Wanna go on a bear hunt?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” we all chimed in, all except Mommy, who was trying not to laugh.
Daddy drove a few miles to a place where all the hotels and campgrounds in Yosemite dumped their trash and food scraps. He parked as close as he could. Sure enough, a dozen bears were pawing through piles of garbage about fifty yards away. We begged to get closer, but Daddy wouldn’t let us get out of the car. That was a good thing because two of the biggest bears got in a fight and stood up on their back legs and snarled and bit at each other’s faces.
Cooking wasn’t allowed inside the tent cabins at Camp Curry, so we ate all our meals at the Lodge. As we gobbled hamburgers and potato chips, Daddy told us what it had been like when he was young.
“Each afternoon in the summertime, outside the hotel up on top of Glacier Peak, employees built a huge bonfire, and each evening, down here at Camp Curry, the park rangers put on a wonderful program of songs and stories for the guests. As the finale of the program, when it was completely dark—usually around nine—one of the rangers used a bull horn to holler up to the men far above: ‘Let the F-i-i-i-e-r F-a-a-l-l-l!’ In response, the men on top pushed the rest of the fire right over the side of the mountain, creating a trail of fiery red coals and sparks all the way down. Everyone sat mesmerized, the only sound the plaintive recorded voices of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy singing ‘Indian Love Call.’ When I was a kid, I never missed the Fire Fall. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world.”
“How did they think that one up?” Mike wanted to know.
“Glacier Peak was too far away to haul their garbage down to the dump every day, so in the beginning they did it just to get rid of the coals and ashes left after burning the hotel’s debris. But people down here in the valley could see it and began to look forward to the spectacle. Eventually the rangers built their entire story program around it. It became a tradition. The word spread, and people now come from all over the world to see Yosemite’s beautiful mountains and waterfalls, but they also come for the Fire Fall,” Daddy said. “They’ve been doing it now for more than fifty years.”
“Can we see it tonight, Daddy? Can we? P-u-l-e-e-e-s-e?”
Not this trip, Trish. They don’t have the Fire Fall in the winter, but I promise someday I’ll bring you girls back in the summertime so you can see it for yourselves.”
“Can I come too,” Mike pleaded.
“Of course you can. Maybe our two families can come up together.”
For our next trip several weekends later, Daddy wanted to visit his Uncle Lock and Aunt Dink on their farm. He hadn’t seen them since Christmas of 1940, just before he left for the Philippines. Uncle Lock had worked for an insurance company in Fresno all his life, but when he got close to retirement, he bought an old-fashioned farm near Woodlake in Tulare County.
It was still dark as we set out on Saturday morning. Leaving the thick Bay Area fog behind, we passed through Oakland, Hayward, and Livermore before seven. As Daddy drove through Modesto and south on Highway 99, the temperature began to climb, so he flung the Plymouth’s wind wings wide to let in the breeze. Then he started the singing. He began with “Old MacDonald had a Farm,” only this time he changed the words: “Uncle Lock he had a farm, E-I-E-I-O, and on that farm he had a cow, E-I-E-I-O. With a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there, here a moo, there a moo, everywhere a moo-moo….” We took turns picking the animals as we went through every verse we could think of: cow, pig, horse, lamb, dog, cat, duck, chickens, and more. My favorite was always the pig verse because the snort noises I made with my nose made everyone laugh. Time flew, and before we knew it, we were in Woodlake and bumping up Uncle Lock and Aunt Dink’s dusty driveway.
Rusty was with us too, but he wasted no time in making trouble. As we pulled up in front of the house, he evidently spotted a flock of chickens pecking at the ground over among a grove of scrubby trees. He pressed his nose against the side window, his body tense and quivering. Without thinking, I opened the door, and in a flash he was gone, barking wildly and scattering the terrified chickens in every direction. This was even more fun than chasing cars or cats!
“Damn that dog,” Daddy muttered as he jumped out the driver’s door, grabbed a rope from the trunk, and sprinted after Rusty. When Daddy finally corralled him, he walloped him a couple of times on his bottom with the coiled rope and tied him up to the front bumper of the car. Rusty crawled underneath as far as he could reach and hid behind a tire.
After all the kissing and hugging was over with and our suitcases hauled inside, Mommy took Rusty a bowl of water. But Uncle Lock, an old softie when it came to dogs, felt sorry for him, so he rounded up the chickens and put them into their pen so he didn’t have to stay tied up anymore.
After lunch, Uncle Lock suggested that Eleanor and I take Rusty and go swimming in a big irrigation ditch that crossed their property a ways from the house. At first Mommy was afraid the current might sweep us into a culvert, but Uncle Lock just winked and said the culverts were screened to keep critters out, so he guessed we wouldn’t drown. The word “critters” got our attention. “What kind of critters?” we wanted to know.
“Well,” Uncle Lock said as he winked at Mommy again, “there are probably alligators and crocodiles and maybe a rhinoceros or a hippo, but they won’t hurt you because I have them trained not to bite little kids or cocker spaniels.” We could tell he was just kidding, so we changed into shorts and off we went, clanging the kitchen pots and spoons Aunt Dink had given us to play with.
Eighteen inches of water filled the ditch, cool but not cold. The mud on the bottom squished between our toes as we played, splashing each other and Rusty too. Mommy called us in after only an hour, but we got sunburned anyway and had to have Aunt Dink rub Crisco on our shoulders to ease the sting and prevent peeling.
Then Uncle Lock asked if we’d like to go for a walk to check out the farm. Eleanor had begun reading a Pearl Buck book she’d brought along, and Rusty was already snoring on the rag rug under the dining room table, but Daddy and I thought a walk was a fine idea. I trotted along beside them until we came to a willow tree with several thick dead branches at its base. Uncle Lock broke one off with a loud crack, took out his pocket knife, cut off a chunk about five inches long, scraped off the bark and sat down and began to whittle. I squatted beside him and watched, fascinated, while he worked. He carved a little wooden doll, with legs and feet and everything. They didn’t move, though. As he handed the doll to me, he said with another wink, “This is a good luck doll. It’ll protect you so that you never get eaten by any alligators or crocodiles.” Daddy laughed. I laughed too and took Uncle Lock’s hand as we walked back toward the house.
While Daddy went ahead to unload more things from our car, Uncle Lock unlatched the gate of the chicken pen and I followed him in. In a flash, he grabbed a chicken by its feet, flicked open his pocket knife and, with one quick move, cut off its head. Then he grabbed another and did the same thing. I looked on in horror as the chicken bodies ran around in circles, blood spurting from the necks, while the two heads lay there in the dirt, the beaks wide open and the bulging eyes going blink, blink.
That evening Aunt Dink made a big fried chicken supper. I ate lots of mashed potatoes and gravy and two whole ears of corn, but I didn’t touch the chicken, and I decided at that moment that I would never marry a farmer.
Our Woodlake trip satisfied Daddy for a couple of months, but then he started to get restless again. “Antsy,” Mommy called it. He bought a book about camping, and in the evenings he pored over it, underlining things and making pencil notes in the margins. He drew pages and pages of diagrams and made a long list on a tablet.
“What on earth are you doing?” Mommy wanted to know.
“You’ll see,” Daddy said, humming happily to himself.
He made several trips to the lumberyard and the hardware store. Then he closed himself in the garage and began sawing and hammering. Nobody was allowed to go in. After working in the garage for three weekends straight, Daddy wheeled his masterpiece out onto the driveway.
“What is it?” Mommy asked.
“It’s a camping trailer,” Daddy announced proudly. “As soon as school’s out, we’re going to Lake Almanor!”
It wasn’t a fancy camping trailer you could sleep in, but rather a plain, brown-painted wooden box with an open top and a wheel on each side, small enough to be towed behind our Plymouth. The tailgate of the trailer dropped down on hinges to form a counter, and behind that Daddy built cubbies to hold kitchen goods: tin plates, cups and cutlery, a cast-iron skillet, a couple of pots, matches for starting a fire. Bisquick, Crisco, pancake syrup, ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper, sugar and coffee. At an Army surplus store he bought a Coleman stove with an attached screw-top metal bottle for kerosene, a couple of Coleman lanterns, four down sleeping bags—mummy bags, he called them—and four air mattresses, the kind you had to inflate with a foot pump that looked like a turtle. Finally, he bought two khaki-colored canvas pup tents.
“Why are they called pup tents?” I wanted to know. “Is that where the doggies sleep?”
“No. They’re called pup tents because they’re much smaller than full-size tents, just like pups are much smaller than full-size dogs. Pup tents are made smaller and lighter so soldiers in the field can carry them on their backs.”
“Don’t soldiers have doggies?”
“You, Trish, ask too many questions.”
A hatchet, a couple of buckets, a card table, two canvas director chairs, a folding shovel, and lots of fishing equipment rounded out our gear.
For a cover, Daddy made one last trip to the surplus store and bought a heavy tarp with grommets around the sides. He tied it down over the load with a long rope that crisscrossed over the top from side to side, held in place by sturdy hooks from the hardware store.
“Day after tomorrow,” Daddy announced, “we leave for Almanor!”
“We’re going camping,” I informed Mike Bradley, puffing out my chest, “but you can’t go. Rusty gets to go this time, and we’re going to sleep in sleeping bags on top of air mattresses inside our new pup tents. They’re real Army tents, not like the ones at Yosemite, and they’re small enough so the soldiers in the field can carry them on their backs.”
“Wow,” said Mike, suitably impressed. “I wish I could go too.”
On the way to Lake Almanor, the rope holding the tarp on the trailer came loose, leaving one corner flapping in the wind. Daddy said “dammit” and pulled off on the shoulder so he could tie it again, more securely this time.
We hadn’t been back on the road five minutes when I had to go to the bathroom.
“Why didn’t you go when we were stopped?” Daddy snapped.
“There wasn’t any bathroom.”
“Haven’t you ever peed on the side of the road?”
“No. I didn’t know we were allowed to do that.”
He pulled off again and told me to get out and go.
“But what if somebody sees me?”
“Nobody’s going to see you. Go ahead and pee. We haven’t got all day, dammit!”
I jumped out on the passenger’s side, yanked down my jeans, peed as fast as I could, pulled my jeans up, and jumped back in the car. “I got some pee on my shoe,” I said.
Our tires squealed as Daddy pulled back onto the pavement.
Not thirty minutes later we heard a loud pop, and the trailer began thump-thump-thumping down the highway. Daddy said “dammit” two more times as he braked and veered onto the shoulder. By now it was over ninety degrees. He had to unhitch the trailer and take a bunch of stuff out of the trunk in order to reach the car jack stored at the bottom. Then he jacked the trailer up and took off the flat tire, pulled out the inner tube, and got out his repair kit to patch the hole. Sweat ran down his face and dripped from his chin right onto the glue he was using to fix the tube. “Dammit,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mommy and Eleanor and I sat on the ground in the shade next to the car. I had hold of Rusty’s leash, but he wasn’t interested in sitting. He sniffed around here and there and then, stretching as far as his leash would reach, he peed right on the trailer tire lying on the ground. “Goddamn that dog,” Daddy muttered.
We pulled into the campground at Lake Almanor late in the afternoon and got our first taste of what camping was all about. Daddy hiked down to the lake to fill two buckets with water, strung up the rope from the trailer as a clothesline, and then showed Eleanor and me how to use the turtle foot pump to blow up the air mattresses. We had to take
turns because it was hard work. Then he put up the pup tents and used the folding shovel to dig a shallow trench around each tent and continuing off into the trees. “In case it rains,” he said, “the water will drain away and not seep into our tents and soak everything.”
Our last chore was to spread our sleeping bags on top of the air mattresses inside the tents and gather a pile of kindling. “In order for an outfit to run smoothly and efficiently,” Daddy reminded us, “everyone has to do their part.”
While he was telling us this, Rusty went over and peed on the side of one of the tents. Daddy yelled at him and tried to catch him to give him a spanking, but Rusty ran under the car and wouldn’t come out. “Goddammit,” Daddy muttered under his breath. “Goddammit to hell.”
By now we were all starving. Daddy set up the Coleman stove on its stand and worked the little metal pump with his thumb so the kerosene would go to the burners. Mommy opened two cans of pork and beans, and while the beans heated, she spread a piece of bright yellow oilcloth on the redwood table provided at the campsite and got out the bread and butter.
“You girls set the table for your mother while I find some larger logs for our campfire. In order for an outfit to run smoothly and—“
“Yeah, yeah, Daddy, we know.”
After dinner we were all so tired that as soon as the dishes were washed and put away, we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night. Rusty was tied on a rope outside, but it didn’t take him long to wriggle under the mosquito-net door of our tent and snuggle down between Eleanor and me. It was, after all, a pup tent.
The next day we went fishing. Daddy showed us how to stick the hook through the worm’s body several times, starting with the head. Eleanor and I hated that part, but Daddy said it didn’t make any difference because the fish were going to eat them anyway.
I caught my first trout that afternoon, and Eleanor caught two. Daddy caught a whole bunch. The colors running down their sides reminded me of shiny rainbows, all pale, shimmery red and green and blue. Daddy kept them alive in the water on a string threaded through their gills and mouths, kind of like Rusty on his leash.
Late that afternoon, he cut off the fishes’ heads right behind the gills—yuck!—slit open their bellies—yuck, yuck!—cleaned out their guts—yuck, yuck, yuck!—scraped off their scales with a little scraper, and turned them over to Mommy. Her job was to dip them in beaten egg, roll them in Bisquick seasoned with salt and pepper, and fry them in the frying pan. When they were all brown and crispy, she squirted on a little lemon juice and set them on the table. Daddy showed us how to use a knife and fork to carefully lift the fish meat off the string of bones that went down the fish’s middle, but I guess I wasn’t doing such a good job because Mommy came around and finished it for me. “If you swallow fish bones, she said, glaring at Daddy, “they could perforate your stomach.”
The pink trout meat was delicious, and I ate every bite.
Later, as we sat around the campfire, Mommy said she and Daddy had a surprise for us.
“Tell us, tell us, tell us,” I yelled. “Tell us the surprise!”
“Well,” Mommy said, “you girls are going to have a new baby brother or sister in a few months. I have a tiny baby in my tummy, and it’ll be ready to be born this fall, probably before Christmas.”
“Just one?” I wanted to know.
“I think so,” she said. Sometimes people do have twins, but I’m pretty sure I just have one baby in my tummy.”
“How will it get born? Do you have to squeeze it out like Mittens squeezes out her kittens under the boxes in the garage?”
Mommy laughed. “No, Trish, not quite like that. I’ll go to the hospital to have our baby.”
“Is our baby a boy or a girl?”
“I want a baby brother,” Eleanor said.
“Oh, yes, I want a baby brother too,” I chimed in. “I want a baby brother with blond hair and big blue eyes and fat red cheeks like an apple.”
“I want a boy too,” said Daddy, “and I don’t care what color his hair and eyes and cheeks are just so long as it’s a boy. I wouldn’t even care if it’s two boys! But one of them will have to be named Arthur, after me.”
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Mommy said, patting her tummy and smiling a nice happy smile.
That night, as I snuggled down in my mummy bag, I dreamed about the new baby, only in my dream there was a whole litter of babies and they had to stay under the boxes in the garage at night because Daddy wouldn’t let them come in the house because they had fleas.”
At the end of July, the Bradleys invited us to spend a weekend at their family cabin up at Russian River. Daddy was thrilled to have another short vacation on the agenda, and the rest of us were excited too. Even Rusty was invited.
I didn’t like the drive up to Russian River so much because toward the end the road started twisting and turning, and my tummy began to feel sick. Mommy handed me a saltine cracker and told me not to look out the side windows. She said if I sat in the middle of the back seat and looked straight ahead out through the front windshield at the painted line down the middle of the pavement, I’d feel better. And guess what? It worked! I kept my eyes glued on that center line every second until we got there.
The Bradleys’ cabin, surrounded by towering trees on the bank above the river, was dark brown with red-painted trim around the windows. Mommy called the cabin “rustic,” but I thought it was beautiful. It looked like the Alm Uncle’s house described in my favorite book about Heidi and the goatherd, Peter. Or maybe Snow White’s house in the woods, with dwarfs and squirrels and tweeting bluebirds. The roof was tall and pointy and covered in thick wooden shingles right up to the stone chimney.
“The cabin is made of redwood,” Daddy explained as he began unloading our suitcases and sleeping bags. “It doesn’t have to be painted because bugs don’t like to eat redwood and it lasts for a century without rotting.”
Inside, most of the built-in furniture was made of redwood too, even the built-in bunks in the bedrooms.
In the living room, a massive rock fireplace rose from the floor all the way up to a giant beam that supported the roof. I’d always been fascinated by flames dancing and sparks swirling in a fireplace, but there was something I loved even more about this particular fireplace after Mr. Bradley told us their family tradition: “When company comes up here to the cabin for the first time,” he said, “each visitor makes a wish and then hides a coin in one of the crevices among the rocks.”
“What a charming, delightful idea,” Mommy gushed.
Daddy reached into his pocket and gave Eleanor and me each a dime to add to the collection. After some thought, I wished I could stop chewing my fingernails right down to the quick so that maybe Mommy could paint them pale pink and I could get a gold ring with my birthstone in it. I hid my dime as high up as I could reach, deep in the crack between two rocks right next to the wall. Eleanor hid her dime too, and Daddy and Mommy each tucked a fifty-cent piece into cracks higher up on the fireplace. Of course, I didn’t know what any of them wished for because, if you tell what you wish for, it won’t come true. Everybody knows that.
That afternoon Daddy and Mr. Bradley and all the kids put on bathing suits and clambered down the path through the huge boulders that protected the cabin from the Russian River. The sandy river bank was gradual, and the water, except for the deep channel on the far side, shallow and slow-moving enough in summer that we weren’t in danger, even if we couldn’t swim yet.
Partway across the river, at the edge of the deepest part, a giant dead tree lay stuck in the sandy bottom. Mr. Bradley claimed the tree had been knocked down in a big flood long before he bought their cabin and had been stuck there for so many years that it was now worn satiny smooth by the current and had its own name: “The Old Man.”
A neighbor brought his rubber raft down to the water’s edge, and Daddy and Mr. Bradley helped him load up driftwood chunks for the fireplace. They used Mr. Bradley’s axe and wedge to split the bigger pieces into smaller ones and some of the smaller ones into kindling.
As the men worked, we kids had a fine time splashing in the water and climbing on The Old Man, stuck forever in the sandy bottom of the river. We pretended he was a pirate ship and we were the pirates. Using driftwood branches as swords, we sailed an imaginary ocean, yelling “Ahoy, ahoy there” as we boarded every ship we could catch in order to steal their cargo. “Ahoy, mates! Arrgggh, look at all me gold!” hollered Mike Bradley, waving his pretend sword menacingly overhead.
The neighbors joined us for hamburgers that evening. Mommy served the fruit salad she’d brought with us from home, and the next-door lady contributed a chocolate sheet cake for dessert because it was her husband’s thirtieth birthday. He made a wish—of course, he didn’t tell what it was—then blew out the candles with one l-o-o-o-n-g puff.
After dinner, we all crowded in front of the roaring fire in the fireplace and took turns telling stories. Mike’s story was all about swashbuckling pirates and stolen gold, and Mr. Bradley followed that up with an exciting tale about rescuing mermaids on the high seas.
When it was time for bed, we kids unrolled our sleeping bags on the built-in bunks in the biggest dormitory bedroom. Rusty hopped up next to me and snuggled close. The others dropped off right away, but I couldn’t go to sleep. I didn’t have my thumb anymore, and all I could think about were the nickels and dimes and quarters and fifty-cent pieces—and, who knows, maybe even a silver dollar or two—hidden away in the deep, dusty crevices of the fireplace in the living room, probably enough money to buy all the bicycles and roller skates and princess dresses and birthstone rings in the whole world.
We no sooner arrived home from the trip to Russian River than Daddy got busy planning another, more ambitious camping trip, this time all the way to Canada. Because Mommy had the baby in her tummy, she didn’t feel like going, so Daddy asked Grammy Buffum to go along instead to do the cooking and help keep tabs on Eleanor and me. When I asked if Rusty could come, Daddy said, “No, absolutely not. That dog is more trouble than a pack of rabid monkeys. He’ll have to stay home with your mother.” Without Rusty, I didn’t want to go either, so in August Daddy packed up the camping trailer and he, Grammy, and Eleanor headed off to Canada.
While they were gone, I helped Mommy get ready for the baby. She sewed a new lining for the wicker bassinette she borrowed from Aunt Charlotte, then threaded blue satin ribbon through the slats of the hood and tied big blue bows on each side. We took the bus to go shopping in the baby department at Capwell’s. Mommy bought four yellow flannel receiving blankets, printed all over with little blue lambs, and one large knitted blue blanket edged in yellow scallops. We picked out six little wrap-around undershirts and six long-sleeved nightgowns with drawstrings at the bottom—those things came only in white—and we chose a blue knitted sweater with matching hat, mittens and booties, a little blue teddy bear, and two blue baby rattles. Afterwards, we had lunch at The Terrace Room, decorated in bubble-gum pink. I never could figure out why it was called The Terrace Room when it was actually down in the basement! Back at home, I helped Mommy clear out the bottom drawer in her dresser and fill it with the new baby clothes and blankets.
Sometimes in the evenings, as we sat together on the couch listening to the radio, Mommy would take my hand and place it on her tummy so I could feel the baby in there, rolling and kicking its feet so hard that it looked like Mommy’s tummy had the hiccups.
“Must be a boy,” Mommy said, smiling.
“Oh, I hope so,” I said. “Daddy really, really, really wants a boy.”
Daddy and Grammy and Eleanor came home from Canada just in time for us to head back to school. I got Mrs. O’Connor for first grade, and Cyntha sat at the desk right next to mine. We were best friends now.
Mrs. O’Connor handed out the first-grade readers about Dick and Jane and Fluff and Spot, and pretty soon I got the reputation for being the best reader in first grade. Cyntha was next best. I didn’t tell anyone that I already knew the whole book by heart because Eleanor had brought it home and read it to me over and over again when she was in first grade.
Pretty soon it was October and Halloween was coming. I loved Halloween. I planned to wear a hand-me-down clown suit, but Mommy sewed a brand new Gretel costume for Eleanor, who needed it anyway because she had gotten the lead role in “Hansen and Gretel,” our annual holiday school play scheduled for December. We carved fat pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns and helped Mommy bake oatmeal cookies with raisins to hand out to the kids who would come trick-or-treating on the 31st.
At school one afternoon a couple of weeks later, a lady from the principal’s office came to Mrs. O’Connor’s room and told me to get my coat and come with her. Our Aunt Charlotte had arrived to pick us up.
“Why?” I wanted to know. “My big sister and I always walk home together. We can walk home by ourselves now, and don’t need to be picked up anymore.”
“All I know is that your Aunt Charlotte is here. Now get your coat and come on.”
When I got to the car, Eleanor was already in the passenger seat. I climbed in the back.
“We’re old enough to talk home by ourselves,” I told Aunt Charlotte. “Why are you here?”
As she drove, Aunt Charlotte spoke quietly. “Your mommy and daddy were in a car accident this morning on their way to San Francisco. They’re both okay, but your mommy has to stay at the hospital for a few days. Your daddy is at the hospital with her, and he’ll be home later this evening. You two are going to have dinner with us and stay until your daddy gets home.”
“But if she’s not hurt, why does Mommy have to stay in the hospital?” Eleanor asked.
“Your daddy will tell you when he gets home.”
We drove the rest of the way in silence.
Aunt Charlotte made us bacon and eggs for dinner, but I wasn’t very hungry.
As soon as Daddy arrived home around seven, he told Eleanor and me to sit by him on the couch. He swallowed hard a couple of times and then he began: “Your mommy and I were on our way to the doctor in San Francisco this morning for a checkup on the new baby when all of a sudden the traffic in front of us stopped. I slammed on my brakes and was able to stop too, but then a yellow taxi swerved into our lane behind us. I guess the driver didn’t see us because he didn’t hit his brakes or even try to stop. He hit us hard from the rear, and your mommy was thrown into the dashboard.”
“Did she smash her face?” Eleanor wanted to know. “Aunt Charlotte said Mommy wasn’t hurt.”
“No, not her face, but she hit her tummy hard. When the police came, they called for an ambulance to take us the rest of the way to the hospital because your mommy was having labor pains.”
“What are labor pains?” I asked.
“That means the baby was trying to be born.”
“The baby is here! The baby is here!” cried Eleanor, jumping up off the couch and clapping her hands together. “Now I know why Mommy has to stay in the hospital! Is it a boy? Is it a boy?”
“Yes, honey, it was a baby boy, but he didn’t make it.”
“Yes, honey, the baby died. Because of the accident, the baby got all tangled up inside your mommy’s tummy and couldn’t be born the regular way. By the time they got the baby out, it was too late. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sorry too,” Eleanor said.
I didn’t know what to say.
Right after that, Daddy tucked us into bed, and eventually we both fell asleep.
Later in the night, when I woke up to go to the bathroom, I heard a noise coming from the other bedroom. As I got closer, I could hear Daddy crying. I’d never heard a man cry before, and I didn’t want to hear it now. I peed as fast as I could and ran back to my bed and put my head under my pillow and pushed the sides of the pillow against my ears with both hands to shut out the awful sounds.
Mommy stayed in the hospital for a week. Before he brought her home, Daddy cleared all the baby things out of the house and gave them to Uncle Cecil and Aunt Jane, who were expecting their second child in March.
Christmas of 1946 was quiet one. We had a Christmas tree and a few presents, but I don’t remember much about it, only that Mommy and Daddy seemed very sad that there would be no more babies in our family.
Aunt Jane gave birth to a baby boy in March of 1947. They named him James Stephan Buffum. He had blond hair and big blue eyes and fat red cheeks like an apple. I thought that, at the very least, they should have named him Arthur.
The rest of my first grade year passed quickly, and at the end of it I got straight S’s on my report card, meaning I did okay in all my subjects. Mrs. O’Connor wrote in her notes that “Patricia is a very good student, but she lacks self-control, particularly with regard to talking in class when it is not appropriate.” Cyntha got the same note on her report card. When Mommy showed the comment to Daddy, he just smiled. He knew all about my nonstop talking, but all he said was “Hey, kid, talking isn’t a bad thing. It shows your brain is working. You just have to learn when it’s okay to talk and when you’ve gotta zip your lip.”
“Yes, Daddy,” I said, not arguing but not at all sure I could ever learn to zip my lip. I just couldn’t seem to help it. I always had a head full of words, and saying them was much more compelling than listening to someone else drone on and on. I hoped Daddy wouldn’t suggest the same sticky gray tape that had worked so well to cure my thumb-sucking.
With summer vacation looming, Daddy’s feet began to itch, as usual. Because Mommy and I had missed the first Canada trip, he decided we should go again, all of us this time, even Rusty. He packed up our camping trailer, tied the tarp down securely, and before dawn one morning in early June, we left Berkeley and headed north toward Oregon.
Late that first afternoon, after driving more than 400 miles, Daddy stopped for the night at a campground along a river near Bend. We all pitched in and did our jobs to set up camp, including trenching the tents and gathering a big stack of firewood. Mommy heated a can of Dinty Moore beef stew—another staple in her camping pantry—and sliced some fresh apples. We were all too tired for a campfire that first night, though, so right after dinner we changed into our pajamas and snuggled into our mummy bags. Even Rusty’s snoring couldn’t keep Eleanor and me awake. It had been a long, long day.
The next morning, it was pancakes and fried Spam for breakfast. As soon as the plates were washed and dried and stacked in their cubby, I followed Daddy down to the riverbank. He was anxious to try out his new fishing pole. He’d also bought himself some khaki-green rubber overalls and galoshes all stitched into one. He pulled them on over his shoes and snapped the brass buckles on the straps that went up over his shoulders.
“What funny-looking pants,” I giggled.
“Oh, they’re not pants,” he said. “They’re waders. They’re to keep me dry when I wade out in the river to cast my fly rod.”
“Why are you trying to catch flies?”
“I’m not trying to catch flies, Trish. I’m gonna use flies to catch trout—big ones. I hope. But these are special flies, not like the ones we swat at home. Here, I’ll show you.”
Arranged by color in the little compartments of the tray inside his tackle box, these flies were made of feathers and shiny silver and gold thingies and tiny glass beads just like the ones in the purse that Aunt Eva had made for Grammy when Grammy was a teenager in Pasadena. Daddy chose a fly with black feathers, a gold thingie and red bead, and attached it to the end of his line where the worm was supposed to go. Then, with his finger and thumb, he pinched two tiny lead balls onto his line a couple of feet up from the fly.
“What’re those?” I asked. “BB’s?” They looked just like the little balls used in the BB guns the two brothers across the street on Spaulding Avenue had gotten last Christmas. Mommy had complained to their father that BB guns weren’t safe in a neighborhood with so many children, but he hadn’t taken them away; instead, he’d told his sons to shoot only at birds or targets in their backyard. “Don’t you ever go in that backyard,” Mommy had warned Eleanor and me. “You might get shot in the eye with a BB and be blind for the rest of your life.” She didn’t know I’d already been in that backyard and had no intention of ever, ever going back there again.
“No, Trish, they’re not BB’s. They’re called weights. They help pull the fly down below the surface of the water where the fish will see it.
“Now I’ll show you how to cast,” Daddy said, wading out till the water reached his knees. He flipped the fly rod back and forth over his shoulder half a dozen times with his right thumb still on the reel, and finally lifted his thumb and let it go. Not the whole rod, just the line part with the fly on the end. The fly landed on the water three feet away. Daddy reeled the fly back in and tried again. Four feet this time. The third time, as he flipped the rod back and forth over his shoulder, the fly on the end got tangled in the line and ended up in a knot. “Not as easy as it looks,” Daddy said to no one in particular as he waded back to shore and got a pair of tweezers from his tackle box to help get the knot out. On his next cast, the fly went about three feet again, but at least it didn’t end up in a knot. “Damn, he said as he reeled it back in.”
I watched while Daddy tried several additional casts, muttering to himself and getting more frustrated with each failed effort. I could tell he was getting mad and figured it was time to go somewhere else. Rusty and I meandered farther up the path along the river’s edge, looking for something to do. I threw a stick in the water. “Fetch, Rusty! Fetch!” I guess he didn’t understand because he just cocked his head and looked at me as the stick floated away. I threw another stick. Same result. When I picked up a good-sized pebble and threw it as far as I could out into the river, Rusty found this new game more intriguing. He jumped in the water, paddled out a ways, and swam around and around in circles, trying to find the pebble.
“What a silly dog you are, Rusty,” I said.
Twenty minutes later, we headed back down the bank. The water now came up to Daddy’s waist. I watched as he whipped the fly rod back and forth over his shoulder and then lifted his thumb and let it go. This time the fly zinged nearly all the way across the river and landed on the shaded water under some overhanging bushes. Daddy gave me a wave and a triumphant smile.
At the very same instant, the fly rod bobbled and began to bend. “Here we go!” Daddy shouted as he jerked the tip of the rod back up—to set the hook in the fish’s mouth, he told me later—and began reeling the line in, a couple of turns at a time. Every few moments, the fish got a new burst of energy and swam hard down the river, taking the fly and yards and yards of Daddy’s line along with it. Each time, he reeled the line back in, a few turns at a time, gradually gaining the upper hand and bringing the fish in closer and closer. At one point, the huge rainbow hurtled itself right up out of the water, splashed back down, and again swam hard downstream. “Did you see that? Did you see that?” Daddy hollered. “What a beauty!”
When the trout was exhausted, Daddy pulled it in close and scooped it into the short-handled net he unclipped from his belt. Then he waded to shore where Rusty was barking and running in circles and I was jumping up and down and clapping my hands. “You did it! You did it!” I yelled.
“Yes, I sure did,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “I’ll bet this baby weighs eight pounds!”
“Can I try?”
“You’re not big enough yet, but someday I promise I’ll teach you.”
“Yes, I promise.”
Late that afternoon, Daddy cleaned the big rainbow, scraped off its scales, took out all the bones, and cut the fish into chunks. Mommy rolled them in Bisquick seasoned with salt and pepper and fried them in Crisco until they were crisp and brown. With a squirt of lemon, and Minute Rice on the side, we all shared the feast. As Daddy piled more wood on the fire, Mommy made our favorite dessert: hot chocolate with marshmallows.
“Wanna hear a story?” Daddy asked.
“Yes, yes, tell us a story.”
“Well, once upon a time there was an army colonel who came home from the war to his pretty wife and two young daughters and their worthless cocker spaniel who was more trouble than a pack of rabid monkeys—”
“No, no, not that one. I don’t like that story.” I loved Rusty with my whole heart and I hated it when Daddy called him worthless.
“Well, then, you tell a story,” Daddy replied.
“Okay, I will. Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Cynthia who was prissy and snotty and spoiled and had a whole closet full of princess dresses that she wore to school every day, and she had her fingernails painted pale pink and wore a gold ring with a real amethyst birthstone in it. But she was so prissy at school that one day the teacher took her to the cloak room and spanked her bottom and made her cry, and after that nobody wanted to play with her anymore and—”
“And you made friends with her and now you two are best friends forever,” Eleanor sniffed. “You’ve told that story a million times, and we all know the ending.”
Daddy came to my aid. “That’s enough, you two. I like that story, but it’s time to hop in the sack because we have a long drive tomorrow, all the way to Lake Pend Oreille.”
Author: Patricia Minch, Writer, etc.
Growing up an “Army Brat,” by age eighteen I had lived in nineteen different homes in half a dozen states, Europe, and the Far East, and had traveled extensively beyond those. A National Merit Scholarship finalist in 1958, I attended the University of Texas, El Paso, and the University of California, Berkeley. Years later, I took additional courses at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California, and then spent thirteen years as a self-employed editor for court reporters. An avid writer, genealogist, gardener, landscape designer, amateur architect, woodworker, and antiques collector/dealer, I am also wife, mother, and grandmother. I’ve written feature articles for local newspapers and recently completed my first book, a narrative non-fiction account of my father's experiences as a guerrilla in North Luzon (Philippines) during WWII. I currently live with my husband, a retired college instructor and Air Force veteran, in Northern California.