Been A Hoot-owl Howling Outside My window Now ‘Bout Six Nights in a Row

She’s coming for me, I know

Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi.

Fourth grade brought the ‘Chinese Jump Rope’ craze. I was not very good at counting in Chinese, especially since we were actually counting in Japanese. But I turned out to be pretty good at the game.  It involves jumping over elastic strings wrapped around the legs of two people while counting:  “ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi.” As you complete each level, the elastic, which starts at the ankles, is raised: shins, knees, thighs, hips, waists. Determined to not allow my size to make me lose every game, I practiced at home constantly, making Sean and Tonia stand for hours until Larry set up some posts in the basement for me and set Tonia and Sean free.

Julie and Jeanette had moved away in 1974 and my new best friend was Cathy. She had two sisters: Rita, who was in Tonia’s class, and Jackie, who was in the grade between us. She also had a brother named Randy who was Sean’s age. Their mom’s name was Carol, like in the Brady Bunch. We girls became fast friends and spent as much time together as we could. Graduating to 4th grade meant a new playground.  This one seemed determined to kill us: metal monkey bars were set into concrete above macadam; metal rings were the same. And vault bars, like giant staples sticking out of the macadam.  We swung around these by our knees and how no one ended up with shattered teeth or a split skull, I’ll never know.  

I remained about half the size of all of my classmates. Someone had to lift me up to the monkey bars or rings and that got old for everyone real fast. I learned to launch myself from the top of the ladder and grab the first monkey bar so I could swing across. The rings were even higher and instead of a ladder there was a single metal step, way too high for me to step on, so I had to shimmy up the bar and launch myself from the tiny step.  To increase the difficulty, the first ring was higher and farther away from the tiny step than the first bar on the monkey bars was from the ladder.  Depending on the mood of the playground, I was allowed a second attempt if my first launch was unsuccessful. 

The Rings. I can still hear the sound they made…

As a result of the rings, monkey bars, and Chinese jump rope, I became pretty good at jumping straight up in the air. I couldn’t jump far, but I could jump high.  This was a skill that did not come in handy at all ever for the rest of my life. Beyond my playground successes, fourth grade didn’t seem to impress me much; I can’t even remember my teacher’s name. I just remember being outside at recess and roaming the neighborhood with Cathy, Jackie, Rita, and Tonia, and our dog Midnight after school.

For some reason that year, we decided sleeping in the garage would be the thing to do. Armed with sleeping bags and pillows, soda, popcorn, and candy, we would set up camp in someone’s garage, play the radio, dance and sing to it, and then tell ghost stories late into the night. I spent many nights on a hard cement floor, needing to pee but too afraid of serial killers with hook hands to leave my sleeping bag. Especially funny when you consider how difficult it would be for a serial killer to get into base housing.

Sean, Tonia, and I would also squeeze into a closet and spend the night there when it got too cold to sleep out in the garage.  I cannot explain the reasons for this, and even at the time, I found it pretty uncomfortable.  But we did it often anyway.

That was the year Joyce got a job at the base commissary. She worked in the afternoons into the evenings, leaving just before Tonia and I got home from school. She’d put Sean down for a nap about 2:30 pm and leave for work about 2:45 to arrive at work by 3. Tonia and I would arrive home around 3, wait for Sean to wake up, have a snack, and watch TV while waiting for Larry to get home. We weren’t allowed to play outside if an adult wasn’t home. Larry would get home a bit after 5, cook dinner, and watch us until Joyce got home in time to get everyone ready for bed. He really seemed to watch the TV more than us, which led to a frightening incident that I have never been able to explain or forget.

In the north, it gets dark early in the winter–it can be full dark by 5 pm.  One night while Joyce was still at work, Tonia and I took our pre-bedtime bath and discovered all our pajamas were still in the dryer. In the basement. Joyce and Larry had convinced us the basement was haunted to keep us out of it and away from their pool table. Larry was in his bedroom watching football on TV. Tonia and I wrapped ourselves in towels and told him our clothes were in the dryer in the basement. He couldn’t tear himself away from the game, so he told us to go get them out of the dryer ourselves.

“But the ghosts-!” We protested. “Don’t be babies!” he replied, and off we trekked to the basement.

We were very small and very scared.  We turned on every light we could as we went, but the way the basement door was situated, light couldn’t be thrown into the stairwell to show the way. The only way to turn on the basement light for a tiny little girl was to take the first two steps down into the basement and reach out along the stairwell wall until you found the switch. It was dark. We were small. We were wrapped in bath towels. I was the oldest: I had to go first.  

With Tonia clutching my back, we took one step down into the basement. Then two. I reached my hand out for the light switch on the wall and looked down toward where the last step should be. And from across the basement, a sound. Like the sound of claws on cement, trying to find traction as they started to run. Then, finding purchase, the sound of a four-legged creature running across the basement to the foot of the stairs. And 2 red glowing dots like eyes, moving quickly toward us across the floor. Then we heard whatever it was hit the bottom stair with a thud as it started up the stairs toward us.

Tonia and I practically climbed over one another to get out of the stairway, slammed the basement door shut, and ran to our bedroom. We slept in our towels that night, and in the same bed, clutching each other’s hands. No, we didn’t tell Larry. Pity the fool who interrupts the game a second time.

To this day I have no idea what it was, but Tonia swore her whole life that she remembered the event the same way I did. We owned no dogs at the time and we lived on a military base in a relatively new house with a secure basement–I don’t know how a wild animal like maybe a raccoon could have gotten in. Maybe we were so afraid of the ‘haunted’ basement in the dark that we shared a hallucination. I don’t believe in ghosts or monsters as an adult, but I have never found a satisfactory explanation for whatever frightened Tonia and me that night.

Basements are scary.

Joyce made friends at work, which led to her bringing home her own strays. One of her friends was a guy named Bob, who wasn’t a stray. He wasn’t even in the Air Force, but worked at the commissary full time as some kind of manager.  He had a wife and 2 daughters our age, and they lived downtown, which seemed very exotic and exciting to me. Since he wasn’t a stray and Joyce couldn’t bring him home, our family visited his family 2 or 3 times. Tonia and I didn’t get along very well with the daughters–they didn’t want to entertain us, preferring to play with their own friends. Who could blame them? We’d have rather stayed at our home too, after we found out there was nothing really special about living downtown.  The only thing remotely interesting about visiting Bob as far as we kids were concerned, was that his house had windows low to the ground that you could climb out of. I guess Larry felt the same way about visiting Bob, because the visits stopped after the 3rd one.

Sometime that spring, Joyce asked Larry for a separation or a divorce. I don’t know which; we were never told what happened. When school ended, Tonia, Sean, and I were told we’d be spending the whole summer in Florida, spending about a month each with Elnora, Juanita, and Ruby Mae. Larry was going to go to Sweet Springs, Missouri, and spend his month leave with Don and Jeanette and Joyce was going to stay in our house on Ironwood Drive, and keep working. We were told Joyce needed some time alone and room to think.

What we kids really heard was: beach, swimming pools, grandmas, and no parents. And for a little over a month, that’s what we had. Three grandmothers to dote on us, buy us skateboards, give us perms which we ruined by going into the pool immediately, feed us all our favorite foods until they were no longer our favorites. I remember reading every book in the three houses, lying on a hammock in Elnora’s back yard, sitting in Scott’s bed while lizards climbed the walls, swinging on Ruby Mae’s porch swing.

I realize now that Joyce and Larry were contemplating divorce and, left for a season alone with Bob and without kids, Joyce probably would have ended the marriage that summer. Tonia, Sean, and I would probably have grown up in Great Falls, and Larry would never have met Lynne. None of this was to be. Sadly, Jesse died at the end of June, and unable to face the loss of her beloved father alone, Joyce called Larry and we kids were brought home.

NOT a raccoon.

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