Thursday, August 29, 2013

Swimming Pools, Officers Clubs and Barber Shoppes Oh My! Lessons about Life and Food as Learned by a Military Brat

When I was in first grade we were stationed in Jacksonville, Florida. My Daddy was stationed at JAX Naval Air Station and we lived just down the road in a little neighborhood in a part of town called Orange Park. We were living in a house on a street that to this day I love the name of, Wonder Lane.

It was the perfect street name for a perfect time. When life was new and I was so young and the world was yet unknown and unexplored. Whether that exploration took the form of Winnie the Pooh books, playing outside in the backyard or neighborhood, helping my Mama in the kitchen or just watching the shadows on the ceiling of one's bedroom late at night. After you went to bed and the drone of music on the phonograph or your Parents talking filled the quiet corners of the house.

No adult problems yet to be had, no raging teenage angst or hormones. It was the time of life when being a kid is really all there is. And everything is new and different all the time because nothing has ever been seen before. A time when expectations are almost akin to imagination. Fresh new vibrant and alive was the world and all it's possibilities. This was life as a first grader in the house on Wonder Lane.
It was the first place I have truly concrete memories.

Now I can remember our first house in Charleston  where my brother was born but only colors and shapes and a few fun times spent with my brother in the backyard playing in costumes made out of sheets and tin foil. We were knights and kings, gladiators and spacemen. Well I was my brother mostly just followed me around being so little. We had a great time.

But I don't really remember it as well as I wish I could. I recall my Daddy being gone on the carriers and sending us postcards as to where he was. Mama put up a big map of the world and we would mark "where Daddy was". I remember a certain Christmas tree that was short and had to be put up on top of a harvest table in the dinning room which was disappointing somehow.

I can recall my parents going out and entertaining in Charleston. My Mama all done up in a floor length chiffon green gown, hair piled up on her head like the hairdos from the 1960's. Looking like Julianne  Moore in that Tom Ford movie. She was so beautiful. My Daddy dressed up in his blue dress uniform looking dapper. Off to some event or ball. I can recall house parties were I was put to bed early but would peek out to the festivities. Punch Bowls filled with Artillery Punch ( a deadly mixture I hear ) and sideboards groaning with platters of food. Maybe fondue pots and chafing dishes filled with Mom's Norwegian meatballs or cocktail franks.

But I can remember Jacksonville with clarity. It was the first place I recognized that we were a military family and also realized what that meant. We lived on and amongst bases and military neighborhoods for my entire childhood. Places surrounded by barbed wire fences and gated entrances where my Mother even got a salute from the MP. guards as an Officer's wife. Driving past planes and missiles and wharfs filled with a collection of various Naval vessels the world seemed very grand and powerful indeed. And our place in it purposeful and understandable.  Daddy was in the navy protecting our country. And we were a family bound to each other like a small nomadic tribe, carrying our memories and possessions with us from billet to billet. Moving from place to place the strange familiarity of the bases brought a sort of calm to otherwise total upheaval. To this day whenever I go onto a Military base I have a quiet sense of peace and melancholy and nostalgia for what went before. Or maybe it's just a longing for that simple and satisfying time of life so long gone by. Either way it's a good feeling cause it's all part of me and who I am and the fabric of my experience here on the planet.

Now a few years later with my Daddy being stationed in Hawaii, as a very small boy I had the opportunity to climb trees and scrape knees in the beautiful setting of those magical islands. Even living in military housing on a base was cool as a kid ( although not so much for my folks). But even my Parents admitted, to this day my Mama claims, that the overall experience we had as a family in Hawaii was a blessing that shaped so much of what was to come for us.

Now there were many experiences I associate with growing up on a base in Hawaii. But three which linger with me strongly to this day center arround a particular base called Makalapa. It was a base up the mountain from our housing and near where my Daddy was stationed at Camp Smith. It was a housing billet for single officers and was a large square wooden structure maybe 5 stories tall that housed all the things that these officer's could need. It had an exchange, a small commissary, an Officer's Mess, a rec. hall and a barber shop.

One of the things most memorable things about being a small boy and which to this day I have an almost visural memory of is going to a barber shop to get my hair cut. I can remember one of my parents taking my brother and me to get our haircut at the Makalapa Officers Club. I think for most men getting a haircut has a primordial memory of some fellow with beefy hands smelling of talc and barbicide. This fellow would then pull onto you a waxy plastic apron and using clippers and shears  shear one's young locks with manly vigor and precision. Sometimes scary and always intimidating the barber was definitely an iconic figure in the pantheon of my boyhood.

At the Officer's Club barber shop there was no mistaking this was a place for men. It was a rite of passage for young one's and a duty for the adults. It was a refuge from the world of women and a bastion of community and manly conversation. Sports, tours of duty, ladies fair and the manly version of gossip ( aka bitching) were the bill of fare besides hot towel facials, shaving and haircuts. It was the first place I became aware of a ritual that would continue most of my life. And to this day I think about the bright lights and wooden walls of that barber shop with it's framed prints of naval ships and commanding officers. Every barbershop for me is Makalapa.

Then there was the swimming pool at Makalapa. It was also a place that was the scene of a world of first's for me. It was there that when asked who could swim by the swim teacher, I raised my hand and plunged into the deep end only needing to be rescued by the instructor. Oh where is that shameless abandon now when taking on life! I did learn to swim and to dive there and that started a love for water recreation that is with me to this day.

But my favorite place on the base was without a doubt the Officer's Mess. It was the scene of many a family dinner for special family nights, visiting relatives from mainland and special command occasions. It was a grand naval dining room decked out with pictures of warships and flags. Brass lighting fixtures and white linen tables set with shining glassware and plates embossed with the Makalapa crest. Manned by an army of filipino naval stewards in starched white waiter coats, the maitre de in dark blue it was the grandest of dining for young boys like myself and my brother.

It was the first time I ever knew there was a steak called a filet mignon. Grilled to meaty perfection and served wrapped in bacon it was a delicious discovery, and a memorable one. The potatoes were stuffed and twice baked and even the asparagus made you want to stand up and salute. It was in a word, fancy. You see it set my boyhood imagination on fire that magical base Makalappa.

I have on occasion to this day wanted to capture my boyish awe at the first encounters with this and other like places like this of my youth. But try as I may they allude me. I have sought out haircuts in the best salons that did not give me the thrill of those early barbershop days. I have been in amazing places with amazing pools that somehow do not revive my memory of my first almost drowning. I have in steak house after steak house, even some of the best in the country, hoped for that meal. I have never quite reached the threshold of that succulent memory.

The Officer's Mess  the pool and the barber shop were perhaps never the things I remember them being. But it like my memory of soft hot breezes and the palms around the swimming pool or the smell of the barber's talc on my neck, they are things that I will never forget. And in glimpses of living my life today I occasionally capture, if only in a flash of memory when I climb into that barber chair, the boy I was and the beauty that time held for me. Not that it was all such a bed of roses ( again my parents concur). But it was a time that I can never forget and a time that made me part of who I am. For that I am grateful, as well as all the other nonsense that went into growing up in the Navy as a kid.

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