On my way to a huge world of strange faces and unfamiliar places.
December 17, 2014
MY PARENTS AND MATERNAL GRANDFATHER waved good-bye as the Greyhound Bus backed away from the Birmingham Terminal. I was nineteen, leaving home for the first time, headed West and feeling lost in a huge world of strange faces and unfamiliar places.
After being activated to federal service, my husband, Gerald, had completed boot camp at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, for the Alabama Air National Guard 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Group based in Birmingham, Alabama. He transferred to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver in January 1963 where he began his photographic journey. Uncle Sam gave him the opportunity to study the photographic theory, large format cameras, photojournalism, and skills in mixing chemicals from scratch to develop film in a darkroom.
Gerald wanted me to join him, but I thought I should keep my job in the layaway office of New Ideal Department Store and save as much money as possible. He said, “Sell my rifle, sell the refrigerator, our only valuables except our car. We compromised. I kept both. I packed my bags.
I wore an emerald green skirt with a white and green striped blouse. Over my arm was a matching jacket and a long coat that I used as layers as we approached colder atmospheres. My mother pinned a twenty dollar bill to my bra. It was still there when I reached my destination. She packed my blue overnight bag with peanut butter/jelly and ham/cheese sandwiches, bananas, apples, and her no-bake oatmeal chocolate drop cookies.
Not from curiosity, but through a conscious activity to pass the time, I became a people watcher. By observing interactions, personalities, and picking up on idiosyncrasies , I tried to guess their personal stories. I recall two particular characters.
At dusk, somewhere in Tennessee, a staggering man who spoke with slurring words, and who reeked of alcohol and bad hygiene made his way to a rear seat and slept quietly all night. I was thankful that he sat a distance away. The driver seemed unconcerned about him, so perhaps that was a regular routine . Maybe he was going through difficult times. The next morning, wrinkled, and tired looking but sober, he climbed into an old green pick-up with his wife, three little boys and a white shaggy dog in the bed of the truck.
A soldier sat next to me . Wishing it could be for good, he had meticulously planned a homecoming surprise for his family. A little money had been set aside to help them with expenses. The bus pulled over to the side of the road . A one pump filling station combination small log store on a backroad in the corner of Kentucky was the rural bus stop. That was where he got off. There were no cars or houses visible in any direction. He told me that the tobacco farm was located five miles down a dirt road through the corn maze and deep into the woods to the open field. He would walk. Maybe he could hitch a ride on a hay wagon. I wondered how his creased uniform and shiny shoes would look by the time he arrived. I imagined that his family would not notice the dust.
As the bus rolled into Missouri at some point in the middle of the night, I could no longer ignore the talk and laughter of the other passengers. I had enough. I could smell the tar on the two lane blacktop, the exhaust fumes of cars, and the smoke of cigarettes in the bus. I had motion sickness. The rolling hills of the Ozarks didn’t help . I moved to a seat closer to the door and hoped that I didn’t heave. Finally, near Springfield, the land flatten out. My stomach eased. I could enjoy the great American west.
Traveling across the Great Plains, I was totally removed from anything I knew. Through that rare experience , I viewed wild west animals in their natural habitats. I had only seen them in Saturday morning cowboy shows. Coyotes chased rabbits along timber lines.
A colony of black tailed prairie dogs dodged here and there , gave their high pitched warning calls, and disappeared into burrows. Herds of majestic wild shaggy buffalo roamed freely in the golden swaying grasses under the vast sky. They moved continuously as they grazed. Swift-running antelopes bound over the plains with light agile motion.
Suddenly , I understood Kansas’state song, Home on the Range, the unofficial anthem of the American West.
I was fascinated by the abundance of natural vegetation found in the desert. The prickly pear cacti with its spiny specimen of a pink and yellow flowers, clusters of white flowers on yucca bushes, and silvery green sagebrush shrub in scattered patches across the desert were a great paradox of nature. I marveled at the expansive prairie with rolling tumbleweeds.
Because I wanted to share my experiences with my parents, a detailed letter was written with excited dedication. Maybe that is the reason these vivid scenes are still etched in my seventy year old memory. I stayed in touch with my parents by using a pay phone when one was available. I placed a collect call. When the operator asked mama if she would accept a call from me from a certain place, it was declined. That was her way of knowing where I was.
After hours of riding and a half dozen welcomed stops in small towns, ( the bus had no restroom) I drifted into an uncomfortable sleep. I was so exhausted that I didn’t know when some kind soul slipped a pillow between my head and the cold window. In Kansas, just before the Colorado state line , I woke up thrilled to experience my first snowfall! Crisp, white, powdery snowflakes transformed the landscape into a magical land. I lived off that excitement for the next six months. I thought about the hardships that the first settlers who traveled by wagons pulled by oxen faced as they crossed the country. I wondered how they dealt with the cold weather.
Finally and mercifully after traveling three days and nights and changing buses every morning,
we reached Denver where the temperature across the metro had dropped below zero. Gorgeous snow covered the mountains, roads, houses, and everything else in sight! According to locals, January 1963, was a tough month for residents who were digging out of a major snowstorm. What a big change for me! I had left seventy degrees! When my husband met me at the bus station, I hardly recognized him. He had a GI haircut, and he had gained weight. A new friend had given Gerald a ride. Al, who had long black hair, wore a black leather jacket and boots. I thought, “What kind of friend have you made?”In those days, the tough guys dressed in that attire. However, I soon learned that he was a very nice person who lived with his wife in the apartment next to us.
To Be Continued: