A Time before Sunblock

Friday, February 10, 2006

In the mid seventies, I lived with my family on military bases. As the child of a Marine, we moved as dictated by commanding officers. We never spent two years in the same place and even a recent relocation did not guarantee an extended tenure in any one spot.

Therefore, many of my play recollections reside in the context of where we were living at the time. I have very distinct memories of the layouts of every house we occupied, as well as the outdoor areas. I have far less vivid memories of actual people and scenarios. My “stuff” was my security, more trustworthy than any place or neighbor. For just as we could receive orders to move, so could all my playmates and their families.

For my childhood years of age five through seven, we did live in the same place – Jacksonville, North Carolina. Many of my most vivid memories are from this span of time from 1975 to early 1977.

Military housing was generally built upon the concept of the Square. Square blocks of housing, all attached three to a row, with front doors looking out onto the streets and back porches facing one another in a square. In the middle of the back yard square was some type of metal apparatus – monkey bars, teeter tooters, or slides. Therefore, if you were dissatisfied with your own back yard equipment, you only had to go one housing square over to see what others may have.

While I have difficulty recalling all but two or three names of childhood friends, I distinctly recall moving in “packs” of children. There was always someone around. They may not be your exact age or same gender, but that wasn’t wholly important. If you lived anywhere nearby, you could be part of the gang.

Everyone, even the youngest children, had transportation. If you had a Big Wheel, you could join in. If you had moved to a two wheel bike – even better! We moved, quite literally, in a pack of wheels. I know that at five, I could be gone nearly all day without concern by my mother. My brother, then two, was also often outdoors for a majority of the day. By three, he had graduated to his Big Wheel and was off and running with me on my two-wheeler.

There was an absurdly innocent view of childhood and safety. We felt remarkably safe as we ran around these neighborhoods. There was no hesitation about going into neighbor’s houses. No one warned children to stay away from suspicious adults. Perhaps some of this was my age, but perhaps some of it was truly the environment. The military required you to get along to survive. This extended from the enlisted men to their families. You had to trust your neighbors. We had been trained as children to assume our collective fathers ultimate protection of our country and us. Guards saluted us as we drove on and off the base. You did not get one the base if you were not “one of us”.

The square in which I lived was not truly a square. The backside was an open forest area, as it bordered a road. Therefore, you could run out, past our monkey bars and find a tall pine forest area. Adjoining that forest was a small stream – a culvert really- that had slow moving water.

That was a magical spot. From that culvert dip and woods, you could watch one of the guardhouses that checked people on and off of the bases. There were real Venus flytrap plants that lived in those woods, growing wild in the moist acidic soil. We dragged found objects out there and built clubhouses in the pine needles.

My favorite time was the spring, when the culvert got a little faster and the tadpoles emerged. This was, as I recall, big news, and we looked for the appearance of the tadpoles daily. I hark back to bursting out from the screened in back porch with my washed out mayonnaise jar when the call came that the tadpoles had hatched.

It is the smell I remember first; that warm, muddy, dark sour smell of the culvert. We would take off our shoes, so as not to get them muddy and wet, and lay on the edge of the mud watching the thousands of inky black tadpoles.

Next came the indescribable pleasure of putting your hands in the water to catch the tadpoles. They felt like a million feathery whispers sliding over your skin; each a small black dot of softness. It tickled in a purely sensual way. The brave of us, myself included, would put our feet in the pool and let the tadpoles swim over your feet, landing momentarily on your toes.

Holding tadpoles in your hands is an art. You can neither have too much water or too little. If the water runs out, they will try to flop out of your hand onto the ground and you will most likely have lost it forever. Getting only one in your hand also requires some expertise. This is where the mayonnaise jar became crucial. Aside from doubling as an all purpose lightning bug home, the jar allowed some tadpoles to be taken from the culvert and examined more closely.

We visited the tadpoles daily and for extended times. We spotted the fast developers, seeing who was getting arms and legs first. Then over the weeks, they moved out of the culvert as they left the water. We saw how bigger tadpole/frogs would eat more recent hatchlings if they could catch them. This in no way disturbed us, but seemed to be the perfect order of the world. After all, we saw fathers who never came home, killed while overseas in motorcycle accidents. We saw friend’s mothers with black eyes and heard the adult fighting through the walls at night, if not in our own homes, then those adjoined to ours.

Then, as suddenly as the tadpoles appeared, they disappeared. We resumed play in the culvert – damming up the water, floating boats- as part of the ebb and flow of daily play on the military base. As summer wore on, sprinklers and small swimming pools occupied more of the “pack’s” preoccupation in those days before mass air conditioning. No one was rich enough for air conditioning and the struggle to remain cool was of prime concern. We were a tribe of small brown skinned, sun bleached blonde haired children in the time before sunblock.

We already knew the fleeting quality of life, as all five and six year old children know. It made perfect sense to us.

12 Baleful Regards:

Anonymous said...

Ah, the more innocent days of our youth. I wish I knew that my kids could play the way we did -- outside all day or back-and-forth with neighbors without care or concern.

You told this story so eloquently. I can almost feel the slippery mud and tadpoles between my fingers...

Fraulein N said...

This was great. You're a terrific writer, you know.

Jaelithe said...

That was a beautiful story. You should publish it somewhere (other than your blog, I mean).

I, too, remember running wild in the woods with my friends as a child, and walking through my neighbors' unlocked back doors without a care . . . *sigh* How times have changed.

Meghan said...

AAH! Great writing. I was right there catching tadpoles and smelling dirt with you. I love the smell of dirt in the spring.


Table4Five said...

Really well written. I remember long summer days of moving from one friend's house to another without stopping to check in at home first. And nights of "Kick the Can" that went on until it was too dark to see.

It upset me to read that you remember your friends' mothers with black eyes and hearing the fighting through the walls. I know it's not unusual in military families but it's still sad to know that you were exposed to it.

mamatulip said...

Powerful imagery, Dawn. This was really well written. I could hear the Big Wheels crackling down the sidewalks. ;)

halloweenlover said...

I think I felt the tadpoles on my hands a feet. WE NEED TO GET THIS WOMAN A PUBLISHER!!!

halloweenlover said...

and feet. That is what I meant. Spell check, damnit.

Mama D said...

That made my day! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Try literarymama.com or mamazine.com

Really good stuff chica!

Anonymous said...

You're right: there was an art to catching tadpoles, and fireflies. I had a mayonnaise jar for the former (of course), and a little wire mesh bug house for the latter. Once, I broke off a twig of milkweed with a pale green monarch chrysalis attached, and kept it in the bug house to watch the gold band spread around the cocoon as it matured.

I know I would have biked around with your gang if we knew each other when we were young (I had a purple bike with a daisy-covered banana seat.)

Do you know Dar William's song "When I was a boy"? She captures the melancholy of remembering the days when we were the masters of Nature's mysteries...

Julie Marsh said...

Lightning bugs. And military bases. Powerful memories here. Beautiful description, Dawn.

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