A warm summer rain topples raindrops out of weary trees, bouncing a lazy tattoo on the backs of the garden furniture. A soothing rhythm takes hold and I am in another town, in another time and it was long ago.
Perhaps it was ’43. The war was still raging. Daddy was somewhere in the Pacific; Mama was always home tending to the large old house and soothing the young war brides who rented rooms from us. Bluing bottles resting on the back porch window-sill, nestled beside shaggy African violets that refused to bloom.
It certainly was a childhood of uncertainties. War and rationing, blackout curtains, searchlights and air-raid warnings. It was a time for flowered wallpaper, and baseball, quilts that smelled of Virginia sunshine, and the taste of hot chocolate on cool nights. It was a time for radios and paper thin airmail letters, gazing at pictures. It was a united time, a time like no other.
In our patch of the backyard, we had managed to dig a victory garden. But everything conspired against us and we were pitiful farmers. The tomatoes came up eventually but they were a sorry lot. Still, Mama did the best she could. When there was a letter from my dad, she would read it to me, holding the tissue thin-V-mail gently, tenderly, as if it might crumble in her fingers.
The Wong Brothers, who owned the Chinese Laundry next door, were generous with their own abundantly producing little spread, and on warm summer nights would invite us to “come sit” on their flat roof and watch the stars. The giant arm of the searchlight would pass back and forth. “Counting her children” and we would shiver in the night air. The Wong brothers, with their long pigtails, coolie coats, and toothy smiles would pass around tiny cups of strong black tea, and talk longingly of China.
A Greek family two doors down, with hearty good-natured adults and misty, brown-eyed children, supplied us with grape leaves and taught my Southern mother how to make a spicy Greek dish—grape leaves stuffed with something—probably Spam. Everything was stuffed with Spam.
Our street was a close group of survivors. The town of Quantico was surrounded by the base and painted with Navy white and Marine Corps blue. It was indeed a snappy surrounding to grow up in the tattered alleyways, and the stores that smelled of pickles and garlic were as joyous and natural as any hometown, so of course, I thought everyone lived like this. It was fine with me.
Today when I dream of my old town, the people I once knew are moving along the sidewalks on Potomac Avenue, and somehow do not realize time has passed them by. The Chinamen, long gone, are still there smiling and nodding. Clotheslines are tilted with clean khaki shirts and pants. Their back porch steps are flooded with soapy water. It seems they think it is only another Monday.
In my dreams the light is everywhere on the sides of people’s faces, the front of buildings, on the grass and streets; they all relax happily under a blue-domes sky and forever they are held hostage in this tiny vacuum of time.
I see so many flags and before me the creased khaki shoulders of a young marine. He is teaching me to ride a bicycle, and the bluish smoke from a Camel cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, make his brown eyes crinkle.
“Kid, there’s nothin’ to dis, see? I gotcha—keep pedaling. It’s easy, kid. Easy.”
Nothing else was so easy for my friend, Charlie. He died on a lonely beach somewhere in the Pacific. Charlie was 23. A twinkling clown of a man who could swing into a soft-shoe and dance across Georgia.
Almost daily we fight the weeds of change and decay even in this new century. We listen to our leaders, shake our heads and hang on tight. Leaders are (giving or taking) more than we expected, more than we bargained for. And the memories of the 40’s for those of us who were there, live in our minds. The faces of all those young men (and women), yesterday and today, who will never come home, never get to scuff up their shoes dancing across Georgia, smile sadly in our dreams. And we know all wars will haunt us forever.
1 Corinthians 16: 13-14 (NKJV) Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.