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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Christmas Leave 1940, but You Can't Go Home Again

My ten-day Christmas leave began on the 20th of December.  I still had not saved enough money for either a bus or train ticket so I elected to hitch-hike home to Vancouver.  To get out of the San Diego and Los Angeles areas, I did buy a bus ticket to Bakersfield, California, then hitchhiked up Highway 99. Men in uniform had very good luck hitch-hiking in those days and I had the good fortune of decent weather in the Siskiyou mountains.  I arrived in Portland, Oregon, the morning of the 22nd and caught the interurban bus to Vancouver.
My first leave in uniform was not the triumphant return I had envisioned and, in the end, it emphasized the point that already my life and my interests had diverged from those of my family and my old friends.  It began with the fact that the family had moved du9ring my absence of six months.  Instead of the familiar yellow house I had left in July, they now lived in a small shingled house on the eastern outskirts of town.  It was somehow not like “coming home”.
They were all glad to see me, of course, and admired my tailored uniform (Richard had come on boot leave in a regulation baggy blouse).  It was nice to be there for Christmas, but somehow there was a feeling that I no longer really belonged.
The same was true of the close friends I had left behind.  Dad still had the old Chevrolet and the first evening home I drove it down to Gearhart’s.  The only ones I saw were David Schaeffer and Ariel.  We had a Coca Cola and they asked me the usual polite questions about life in the Navy, but it quicky became obvious that they were not really all that interested.  I had been away and was not up to date on local happenings.  Our acquaintance had become casual.
I spent some time on evening with Shirley Mills and her family, but did not take her out on a date. She had started to Oregon State College and was only home for the Christmas holiday.  Again, I answered the usual questions about life in the Navy.  Shirley and her sister Mary admired my uniform, my suntan, and my muscles that had been hardened by daily calisthenics.  Mr. & Mrs. Mills asked polite questions also, but then they would suddenly be discussing local events or happening at OSC whih left me feeling very much the interloper.  Before long I excused myself on the basis that I had to get back to my family, but instead, I drove down to 13th and Kaufman to see Patty Cross.
That was one fo two gratifying instances during my leave.  Pat wanted to hear everything I had been doing and, unless she was an accomplished actress at the age of fifteen, was truly interested.  Her mother welcomed me like a returning son and I spent a comfortable evening with them.
The other gratification was a movie date with dear Elaine.  She had enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle and was home for the holiday.  I recall that she wore a simple black dress for our date and the scattershot high school girl was becoming a poised young lady.  She, too, was truly interested in what I have been doing and, with her rapid fire delivery, wanted to tell me all about the university.  She was a dear, sweet friend, but I did not have the feeling that a serious relationship could develop for us—I had too far to go out there in the world.
My leave was to be up on December 30th.  I decided to leave Vancouver on the morning of the 27th to allow time for hitch-hiking in case rides were slow or scarce.  The weather had turned rainy in Oregon with possible snow in the Siskiyou Mountains so, although he could not afford a ticket to San Diego and it was my responsibility, Dad insisted on buying me a cut-rate ticket on a small wildcat bus line in Portland that would get me into Northern California.  The crowded little bus deposited me in Redding and from there, with less than five dollars in my pocket, I was on my thumb.
I had good luck with rides down the long valley through Sacramento and by dawn on the 28th had been left near a truck stop café in Lodi.  There my luck seemed to have run out.  After an hour or more with very few cars and trucks passing, I went to the café for a glass of milk and a doughnut (I still had not developed a taste for coffee).  The driver of an automobile transport truck loaded with wrecked and used cars was next to me at the café counter.
When the truck driver heard that I was headed for San Diego, he made me an offer.  He said that he could ick up the wreck of a Cadillac convertible in Modesto but that he had a full load of cars.  The rear car on his truck, however, was a driveable Chevrolet sedan and would I drive it for him to Los Angeles?
I jumped at the chance.  When he had finished his breakfast we drove to Modesto, unloaded the black Chev sedan, and loaded the wrecked Cadillac in its place.  He instructed me to simply stay on his tail and to flash my headlights when I needed to pull off for gas.
The drive was uneventful until we reached the top of that section of old Highway 99 past Bakersfield that was known as “The Grapevine”.  It was sunset when we pulled off at a café for some supper and was dark when we took to the road again.
That truck driver took the twisting curves of that steep mountain grade considerably faster than we comfortable for an inexperienced driver like me.  I had to keep his taillights in sight, however, because I did not have the address of the wrecking yard in L.A. that was his destination.  He had just said, “Aw, you won’t have any trouble keeping me in sight.  If I lose sight of you in my mirror, I’ll just pull over until you catch up,” so, with sweating palms on the steering wheel, I stayed glued to his tail.
The worst part was when we got into Los Angeles and its traffic and stop lights.  It seemed to me that at every stop light it would turn red while the truck was pulling through the intersection.  I was afraid that if I lost him he might make a turn before I caught up so I got the front bumper of the car as close to the truck as I dared and simply shot though the red lights.  It was fortunate that we did not encounter a police car as I left exasperated motorists honking at fifteen or twenty intersections, or so it seemed.
We finally found the wrecking yard on the south side of L.A. and I heaved a sigh of relief when I parked at the yard and, since he lived in Long Beach, I had hi drop me at the bus station there.  He had paid for my supper andI had just enough money left to buy a ticket on the late bus to San Diego.  IT had only a few passengers so I stretched out on the long rear seat and slept.
From the downtown San Diego bus station, it was but a short walk down to the Broadway Landing where I caught the “nickel snatcher” foot passenger ferry out to North Island.  I arrived on the Naval Air Station dock just at morning colors and, as I walked to the barracks past the tall flag pole with the stars and stripes waving against the blue sky in the warm breeze, I had the feeling that I had truly come “home”.  I belonged there.  I loved my close knit family dearly and would always be concerned for them; however, never once again would I feel any real pangs of homesickness.  For a long time to come the Navy would be my real home and my squadron would be my “family”.
[I would argue that the Navy remained what defined my father for his entire life.  Although only a relative short part of his life in actuality he thought of himself as “an old Navy man” until the day he died.]