Aren’t you ever curious how things from your childhood would look to your adult eyes?
I am and it drives some of my best adventures. You can’t go home again and I wouldn’t want to. There are always new roads, new people and new experiences to uncover. Still, revisiting a childhood haunt can unearth all kinds of feelings and new interpretations of things you once held as core truths.
I feel lucky that my brother and I were a hybrid of military brat, second generation East European immigrant, southern rednecks and post war baby boomer. We were an unusual stew of ingredients. In my case I was baked into a person who loves changes of scenery and activities. My brother came out of the experience a homebody and partial hermit I heard Garrison Keillor talk about the Norwegian Bachelor Farmers who never left home. My brother is the third generation of NBF from what I can tell but since I don’t have records going back before my maternal grandmother landed at Ellis Island, it could have gone back to the Ottomans.
When my mom was in her 80’s, I took her with me to California so she could visit her best friend from the WWII years. Carmel was the instigator who took full advantage of the disruption of the war to leave their small immigrant village in Ohio to work in Washington, D.C. at the war department. That’s where my mom met my dad and solidified our early gypsy upbringing.
After a frightening landing in San Diego for those that didn’t realizes the plane touches down smack in the middle of downtown San Diego, we drove up the coast. LaJolla had been a little cliff side town when my brother was born there. We walked around so she could see the changes and have tea in the Hotel Valencia with the greatest bathroom view I’ve ever experienced. Go pee whether you need to or not.
The biggest revelation was the Carlsbad house we lived in when I was born and my granddaddy was living with us. Heading north on the Pacific Coast Highway, turned left onto Tamarack street with ran into the sea at Carlsbad State Beach. We lived on Jefferson street, just about a half a mile up Tamarack from the beach. All that jived with memories of granddaddy picking me up from kindergarten walking me down to the power plant cooling pond to fish or cross the PCH and go to the beach to watch the whales migrating.
When we turned right onto Jefferson street, the nursery and house that was on the west side of this short street was gone. While I always thought of it as belonging to Junior Ikemi and his family, I have since learned our Japanese neighbors worked it for someone else. Junior and his family were some of our closest friends. I don’t know if they were interned during the war but that is a good possibility. Yet here they were in 1959, close friends with a Marine who had fought in the South Pacific and Okinawa.
I had seen it on an earlier trip but this was my mother’s first view of it in over 50 years. “Where is the A on the chimney? Where are the roses?” she asked. It was so small. A tiny, three bedroom /one bath house with a minuscule front and back yard. It looked like a little doll house. Yet I don’t remember feeling crowded when we lived here with our family of four, granddaddy, plus my dad’s hulking younger cousin Larry who spent weekends with us during his training at El Toro. During summer vacations, my aunt Mary Lee and her son and dog crowded in too.
I can only recall one memory of the inside of the house. My granddaddy was reading on the couch and the lamp was shaking. He yelled, “Quit yanking on the damn lap cord!” It wasn’t me. It was an earthquake but there wasn’t any panic.
All the other memories are outside – in my mom’s backyard rose garden, at the Ikemi’s picking avocados and fruit, down at the beach or at the cooling pond fishing, sitting on the porch stoop with my cousins’ staying out of granddaddy’s way when he felt we were pestering my little brother.
My little brother was my granddaddy’s favorite. They had a special bond because little brother had been born while my dad was in Okinawa, and granddaddy was his first father figure. It took my baby brother some time to adjust my dad’s booming voice and energetic presence when dad returned from his overseas tour.
Years later, a close Texas friend who now lived in southern California was going through some spots. She desperately needed a chance just to ride along on someone else’s adventure so she could heal. We checked into taking the Catalina Island ferry but seas where up and what would we do once we got there? Drink and shop? It wasn’t the catharsis she needed.
Twentynine Palms came on my radar when I heard a 1993 song by Robert Plant that was named after the town. My dad had been stationed at the marine corps base there for a time. Twentynine Palms is in the Mojave Desert, and butts up to the Joshua Tree Monument Park. For a while my dad would work in Twentynine Palms during the week and come home to Carlsbad during the weekends. In retrospect, maybe this vast open area was a tonic after his weekends in the doll house with crying kids, grumpy granddaddy and the rest of the squatters. It was remote and different enough from coastal California to be the short respite my friend needed.
My most vivid image of the place was my mother cowering inside our room at the visiting family quarters. She wore her hair teased high and had been told the area’s prevalent bats loved to nestle in a woman’s bouffant. Dad operated a gas station on the side where he gave out salty popcorn for free with fill-ups. Hot desert driving and popcorn meant his customers would need to buy cokes too.
He also bought 20 acres of desert land with his friend Hollis Glass, land that my brother and I took note of every year when we paid a few dollars in property taxes. My father had been excruciatingly poor as a child and he and his family were beholding to friends and neighbors for many things. The Marine Corps gave him pride and the ability to work hard and provide for his family. He believed in buying land but some of the purchases where questionable. The desert land in Twentynine Palms fit that description. So did the land in Deming, New Mexico which was the the focus of another trip that turned into a acquaintance with Pancho Villa and the first invasion of the of the US by a foreign power.
Now my friend and I really got to know Twentynine Palms. It was the site of the Marrah Oasis that drew native Americans from around the area for an estimated 9,000 years. The 29 Palms Inn, an old California style single story hotel/tourist court marked the oasis. There was a small registration office and a larger cinder block building with a restaurant that looked out over a man-made oasis – a large pool. The guest rooms were a mishmash of one and two room cabins scattered around the grounds. Few people were staying at the hotel when we visited so we checked out most of the cabins and took over one with two rooms and a private little patio that was walled off from the rest of the grounds with a cedar branch fence. About two hundred feet behind our cabin was the natural oasis, visible by the tree brake all around it. It was not all that big but it was significant enough to have sustained this area for thousands of years. One on side of the oasis, a pier jutted out from a guesthouse to a small scale houseboat. It was blocked off and was certainly out of place in the Mojave desert but it was the kind of quirky touch that made the trip special.
All these trips plus re-connections with extended family who shared some of these moments have made these memories so much clearer. I’ve learned what was happening in the everyday lives of my dad, mom, aunts, uncles and cousins and that now colors my understanding. I’ve toured our western roots and I’m just starting to explore those memories from the mid-west and east coast. I can’t wait to see what I’ll discover.