Daddy was commissioned as a Chaplain in the US Navy on November 4, 1957 at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois. Little did we know it would provide the catalyst that would move our family life from bad to really, really bad. It was in the Navy that my father felt not only encouraged to drink, but regarded it as part of his "socialization" duty as an officer. Thus the ominous dark shadow of his alcoholism was firmly planted and nourished with approval from those my father wished to impress from the very beginning of our life in Illinois.
We had moved several months earlier from the gentle hills of the country surrounding Indianapolis into the hustle and bustle of the busy Navy town of Waukegan, located north of Chicago on the western shores of Lake Michigan. At first we lived in a housing area called Lake County Gardens, but only for a few months. My older sister, Becky, says that as poor as we were and used to pretty wretched conditions, even this housing was too low on the Vernon family totem pole. So, we moved to a brand-spanking new duplex across the rail road tracks where eventually the good folks of Waukegan would build the Jack Benny Junior High School to honor its most famous son.
The move into the duplex would have been my parents' 9th move since their marriage in Eugene, Oregon 14 years earlier in December of 1943. They had lived in the Watts area of Los Angeles after they both graduated from Northwest Christian College and still lived there when my older sister, Becky, was born in 1946. They had moved into the back room of a church and were living in Rosemead, California when I was born. I don't know why Daddy left the Rosemead Church of Christ, but I suspect it was because we were a family who definitely fell through society's safety net. Mama, Becky and I moved from there to a trailer park in Phoenix, Arizona for a while. Daddy was not there. I think, I hope, he was elsewhere searching for a job.
Mama was pregnant with my sister Melody at the time and suffered from severe nausea the whole term (as did I when it was my turn to usher in the next generation). Becky remembers making her and me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sometimes a kindly neighbor woman brought us food while our mother stayed in bed for a good part of every day. Taking care of her 3 year-old sister was very heavy responsibility for that 5 year old little girl. What a sad picture. We must have been very lonely and scared. Our mother was unwilling or unable to provide much care for us during this time and we were on our own.
I don't know what happened or didn't happen in my parents circumstances, but we eventually wound up back in California-- Long Beach, where Melody was born in 1952 when I was 3 and 1/2. I'm pretty sure we lived in a trailer there as well, but there is no one alive to ask about it and there is no clear documentation. I do know we were living in West Covina in the Los Angeles area shortly thereafter and stayed there until our trek half-way across the USA to Indianapolis 3 years later in 1955.
But miraculously, only 2 years later, we were a Navy family, with a nice home, a father who had a steady income and meaningful work, and all the benefits of health care that we had never enjoyed before because of our poverty. The second move in Waukegan was my 7th move but my my first visit to a dentist. It looked as if life was taking a uptick.
Navy life gave us a community and in some ways an extended family that the church had given us before. I remember having a sense of pride in his accomplishment and proud to see the salute that was given every time Daddy came on base. But mostly I was sorry for myself that once again I was the new kid coming into a classroom full of others who seemed to have known one another and had been tight friends since babyhood. This wasn't true, of course, but to a newbie fifth-grade student, looking in from the outside, there's no other viewpoint but as the only one-who-doesn't-belong. My salvation came from a very caring and supportive teacher and eventually from a good friend named Susie Carlson.
Susie and I were the tallest two people in both our fifth and sixth grade classes. In our class picture, she is the one next to me in the back row forming the tip of the mountain to the rest of the foothills around us. I also had a friend that lived down the street from our duplex, Sandy Alvis. We hung around with the Carroll children who lived on the other side of the two-story duplex. If we opened the medicine cabinet and looked through the razor-blade slot in the back, we could see Brooks Carroll's eyeball through their matching slot. It took very little to entertain us.
Winter was a great time for neighborhood fun: making snow angels and icing up tunnels we had carved in the deep snowdrifts of our steeply pitched backyard. We played kick-the-can at back of the Texaco station when the owner was kind enough water down the paved parking lot so we could ice skate on it.
In the summer, we made boats out of found discards. I remember one time make a "boat" out of a bathtub and somehow poling it around on the marshy reef area adjacent to the tracks across the street from our duplex. I'm not sure how we managed that physics-wise, but I do remember it happening.
I also remember the peat fields catching on fire in the summers and sending up little columns of smoke for months at a time. Summers were also for tromping around and bike riding. I didn't have a bicycle at that time, but the last summer we lived in Waukegan, in 1960, I thought I might get one. My mother's mother was staying with us for a while.
Grandma Chaney had taken care of us three girls while Mama met Daddy down in Haiti for a short vacation. Daddy had been sent to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba with the Seabees after his tour at Great Lakes. It was a hotspot but I had no idea how much of one it was. We had stayed in Waukegan so Mama could keep working as a laboratory technician. The 3 1/2 years we lived there was the longest I would live anywhere until my last three high school years when Daddy was in Viet Nam with the Marines.
About two months after Mama got back from Haiti, we where finishing lunch when she said she wanted to tell us girls something. She asked us' "What would you like most in all the world?" Without hesitation I yelled out, "A bicycle!" Becky was a little quieter and slower, but she had the right answer, "A baby sister or brother!" Another Vernon was coming into the family. I was immediately thrilled with the idea of another sibling. (I wonder if anyone would have agreed with me if I had suggested "Schwinn" for a name; it would have worked for either a boy or a girl.)
Mama was always very clear that if she ever had a boy he would be named Douglas Steven. Her choices for girls' name was more flexible. Becky is actually Beverly Kaye; I don't know the sources of either of her names. I am Fay Kathleen: Fay from my mother's older sister, Faye, who died at 17 after going blind from a brain tumor. The Kathleen was from a popular Irish ballad called, "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen." (Alas, it is about taking the dead body of Kathleen back to Ireland after she dies!) Melody Anne was named for Mama's favorite hymn (and the one she could play the best on the piano, "In My Heart There Rings a Melody." I used to love her name the best out of all of ours, but I have learned to love my own name and have deep affection for it.
Mary Beth was named after the Carroll family's youngest daughter. By the time my third sister was ready to enter the world in February of 1961, Daddy had received orders to be with the Seabees in Davisville, Rhode Island. He had come back from Cuba to Waukegan to supervise the packing and the movers. On the night before Mary's birth, our duplex was empty of all but the possessions Daddy, Becky, Melody and I would take with us in our 1959 Rambler station wagon to our next home. I had pulled a ligament in my left leg playing kick-the-can a few weeks before, so my leg was in a cast up to mid-thigh and I had handy pair of crutches which I was tempted to use as Zorro swords. Together, me-myself-and I, my casted leg and my two crutches took up a big hunk of the back seat.
The snow was piled up high the day our dear Mary was born in the mid-morning hours. I was called out of my 7th grade class and given the news of her birth and also told that my father would be by to pick me up so we could take off for Rhode Island; I was to wait outside. I don't remember saying good-bye to any of my friends. Nor do I remember in which order Daddy picked us, but the three of us girls were not given the chance even to see Mama or new baby sister before we set headed south and then east into what would turn into a bitter blizzard. We would not see them for 8 days when they were dismissed from the Great Lakes Naval Hospital and flew from Chicago to Boston, where Daddy picked them up and drove them to our new apartment (this time in a four-plex) in military housing at Quonset Point.
Those of us who weren't lucky enough to fly found that we had to find a place to weather out the storm of February 1961 even before we got to the Ohio state line. We wound up stranded in a cheap and skanky hotel in Greenville, Indiana for which I have no fond memories. I had no awareness then that the storm and sense of impending danger were omens for the scary time that was looming for us all. And I had no idea that our somewhat easy life in Waukegan would be the last time I would feel more secure within our home than away from it. Rhode Island, the destination of my 8th move, would prove to be a pivotal time. At 12 1/2 years of age I was with the newly expanded Vernon family on a dangerous, scary, and pivotal journey from which there would be no return.
Next: 13 Rhode Island Blues
Will you pray with me?
God of the Journey,
We cannot change the past, but you can redeem our memories and heal us of our wounds. And it is not for us to know know what dangers and sorrow lie ahead. You give us the present moment and give us abundant opportunities to do the best with what we've got: to grow in wisdom, compassion, peace, courage, hope, and love.
We are grateful that we live neither in the past nor in the future, but only have this moment, this hour, this day before us. We thank you for this day that where we can find the fullness of life and goodness of your gracious blessings and the awareness and wonder to rejoice in it.
We ask that you will fling your Spirit's blessings wide this day, that those who suffer may discover a sense of your consolation. Cast your nets wide this day, that those who are lost may discover a sense of direction and purpose. Knot your fetters tightly this day, that those who have strayed into danger, addiction, evil, and violence may be surprised by the joy of being tightly bound by your steadfast love and mercy. O let it be that all pains and sorrows may take their place on the broken road that leads us all home to you! In Christ we pray. . .