It was fall of 1961. I was 16 years old. My life was ruined. Utterly completely ruined. Dad had been called to active duty with Alabama Air National Guard in response to the Berlin Wall crisis and sent to … France. Wha? France? The President had activated the entire Ala. Air National Guard and shipped them off to Dreux, France. Take THAT, you stinkin’ commies! We’ll show you!
Actually, it kinda made sense. The ‘Bama Guard was a reconnaissance unit. So they’d fly missions over Germany from Dreux, photographing any sneaky Russian troop movements like mad. By this time, Dad was the commander of the unit’s hospital – not a big wig yet, a medium large wig.
Dad being gone meant zip to me. We basically didn’t get along/ never had gotten along. So he was off somewhere? I didn’t care.
I did care about me. (I was 16.) I was now cookin’ with gas: was my school’s head writer for “Teen Topics” appearing every Friday in the Montgomery Advertiser-Journal, named Art Director of the “Scabbard” yearbook my sophomore year, cartoonist for “Stars and Bars” school newspaper, etc. etc. In my pond I was a big frog.
Most importantly, I had been discovered by…boys! Yes indeed. After a lifetime (actually 3 yrs.) of being a wallflower, no dates, decorator-only of school dances, I was finally the object of male interest (woo woo). This was of prime importance. There was one Special Boy I liked and he had asked me to the Robert E. Lee High Harvest Ball in November! Life was finally beginning to take off! I glowed going to school every day.
Now, Mom announced that we were JOINING Dad in France! What? Dad had written Mom that there was an elementary school and an American high school at Dreux AFB. As part of serving the needs of overseas personnel in Europe, boarding schools had been set up throughout. They’d opened one of these institutions only one year before the Guard showed up, on the then-deactivated Dreux WW II base.
Mom and Dad figured that this might be the family’s only chance to SEE EUROPE! Despite the fact that it was ILLEGAL for Guard families to come to France (a crisis, who knew what the Russians might do next etc.), we were gonna go. My parents never shunned rule-breaking when pursuing pleasure. We were gonna go using tourist visas in order to get around the regulations.
Hey. Waitaminit. I had been asked to the Robert E. Lee High Harvest Ball! Get a grip, folks. Hold on. What’s really important here? My first real date! With even a boy I actually liked. On reflection, I decided the important thing was to remain calm. Reason was the way to go. Reason almost always worked with the parents.
I said – in response to the news – the trip to France sounded interesting. For Mom and the boys. I would stay with beloved Mammaw and Bampaw, our grandparents, here in Montgomery. I usually spent the night with them every other weekend. There was plenty of room there. I wasn’t interested in SEEING EUROPE. My sights were firmly fixed on Robert E. Lee High… and the Harvest Ball. Period.
One night as Mom and I washed, dried and put away the dishes, she brought up the Europe trip again. I remained adamant. Repeated the reasons I should stay. Drying her hands, Mom said we had to have a Talk – now. In her bedroom, door closed, we sat opposite each other. She looked me in the eye. Took my hand. (She NEVER looked me in the eye, much less took my hand.) She laid out what a great opportunity this was. What a Great Adventure. We would see the historic places, eat French cuisine, see all the famous paintings and sculptures I’d studied! This was a Wonderful Opportunity for an artist. My pout grew so large I resembled a Ubangi. I still …didn’t … want… to …go.
Mom sighed. The silence grew. She finally said “I NEED you to come.” I was speechless. Thunderstruck! Mom had said she NEEDED me. Actually said it. Verbally out loud. In real time.
Privately I knew how hard it was to manage all us kids, do the shopping, plan the meals, shop for the meals, manage the money, do the taxes, ferrying us around. We had Annie Mae to do the major cleaning & some meals now, but just giving three boys baths resembled a soggy 3 ring circus. We were constantly cleaning up spills, taking off their jammies and putting on all their clothes, then taking off the clothes to put on jammies. With one spill of chocolate milk, the kid had to be redressed again. Putting caps & jackets & shoes on/off … it was endless. Plus James Webb was only 2 – at the mobile-but-no-judgment stage. However, I hadn’t known until this very minute that Mom saw this noisy chaos as anything but the normal way of things.
She had always tried to project a calm, composed manner. Totally in control. An entire box of cereal secretly dumped on the clean laundry? Get the whisk broom. Hose left on overnight? Sweep the flood into the flower bed. Gate left open so the pedigreed Weimaraner got out? Take the leash and search the neighborhood. Don’t forget the flashlight. She was the One Who Knew What to Do. I was the one doing 60% of the doing. To my mind.
Suddenly it became clear to me. A lightbulb went on! She couldn’t manage without me. She had NEVER been able to manage without me. I could see that now. I HAD to go. As a romantic (if sarcastic) teenager, the poet in me suddenly saw myself as the Loyal Sidekick. I was Chingachgook or Robin the Boy Wonder, trekking through snowdrifts at Mom’s side. Together we would manage! (I could hear “Dixie” began playing slowly & softly as the soundtrack.)
“I guess I’ll go then” I said sullenly.
Mom smiled and dropped my hand. She turned to the pile of laundry on her bed.
“Fine” she said “Now go finish the dishes.”