Where the Dirt Road Leads

Life as a Military Wife Leads to Hawaii

Laura LoweIt was late summer, 1966, and we were living at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, when my husband Sgt. Clancy Pinkston informed me that we would be deploying to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii by early fall. It was exciting news. I rushed to read as much as I could about our 50th state. Hawaii became a state in 1959. It had been a territory of the US before then. Schofield Barracks was established in 1908 and named after General John McAllister Schofield, who had been sent to Hawaii in 1872 as Secretary of War for President Andrew Johnson.

The history was interesting, but I wondered how I would spend my days with two small children while my husband was soldiering. Memories of the loneliness of living in France were still fresh in my mind. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about keeping busy.

It was not love at first sight. We arrived during a rainy season; it seemed to rain for weeks after we came. We were met at the airport by a sponsor from Pinkston’s company, and the drive to Schofield Barracks took us past Pearl Harbor. I caught a glimpse of the USS Arizona Memorial, where 1,177 crew members lost their lives on that fateful December 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed the base and brought the US into WWII.

After a few days in the guest house, we were given quarters. Our apartment was a corner one with a townhouse design — with stairs. Now I had to worry about how my children, Tony and Pamela, were going to get up and down the stairs without falling. Actually, they did well. They would sit and scoot up and down until they were old enough to navigate them standing and holding onto the railing. Being a mom was challenging. Tony had been born with Down’s Syndrome, so he was behind in almost all of his development. Fortunately, he was inspired by his sister, and he rapidly caught up as she developed normally in the areas of walking, feeding herself, and toilet training.

Daily life continued on for me as a young house wife. My days were filled with childcare, keeping the apartment clean, preparing two meals a day, and gardening. I began to collect cookbooks and learned how to prepare gourmet dinners in addition to dozens of regular menu dishes. It was on-the-job training. I considered being a wife and a mother as a career. I also made friends and learned how to entertain with dinner parties and house parties, which were when someone would host a party by preparing food, others would bring beverages, and we always had such fun dancing. One of the records we danced to was Jo Jo Benson and Peggy Scott’s “Lover’s Holiday.” Little did we know that we would be moving to Fort Benning and Columbus, Georgia, the home of the singers.

Gardening was also a pleasure. The Hawaiian Archipelago was created by volcanoes, so the soil was rich enough that additional fertilizer was not needed. We had a banana tree in our yard. I harvested bananas from it and made one of our favorite deserts — old-fashioned banana pudding. We had a garden plot near our apartment where we grew vegetables. I remember the collards never did taste like collards grown in Alabama soil, though.

Though life as a wife and mom was fulfilling, I still regretted not finishing my degree. After graduating high school in 1963, I had completed a semester at Alabama A&M in Huntsville. Then I dropped out to get married and move to France. Now I decided to pursue my degree at the University of Hawaii. The school had a satellite facility on base, although prospective students had to go through the regular registration process. My grades transferred from A&M, and I registered for American History classes. I attended class two nights a week while my husband watched the kids. To get my studying done, in the mornings I would rise an hour before the rest of the household. In all, I completed several credit hours while in Hawaii.

The Vietnam war was raging in southeast Asia. Many soldiers were deploying from Schofield, but Pinkston did not have to go there at that time. During the three years of our sojourn, many tumultuous events occurred on the mainland: Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, riots erupted in major cities, and later a man walked on the moon. Looking back on that time, I can see that it was a time of major personal growth that has helped shape the person I am today.

When our time was up in Hawaii, we received orders to move to Fort Benning, Georgia. By this time, I had been thoroughly captivated by this island and living a few minutes away from the beach. There were many more sunny day than rainy ones. It was a tearful departure for me. I will always love Hawaii with special affection.

Hawaiian coast
Photo by Fotolia/MNStudio

Alabama Country Girl Moves to France

Laura LoweIn a letter to my parents dated March 26, 1965, I wrote: “We are over here in France and de Gaulle doesn’t want the Army or any other part of the U.S. in France.” The U.S. Military had a presence in France after WWII, but by the time I moved over there in August of 1964, it was apparent that — like the relative who overstays their welcome — the military would have to depart French soil. Of course, had it not been for the U.S. Military’s intervention in the conflagration in Europe and the South Pacific, history would have a completely different configuration, and one shudders to think of what that would be. Nevertheless, the U.S. Military departed France in 1966.

I had been a freshman in college, anticipating going into the field of medicine. My teachers at the high school from which I had graduated the year before (1963) as Valedictorian had high hopes of success for me in my chosen path. But instead, I jettisoned my college studies, got married, and moved to a foreign country. From the vantage point of history, I can see now that there is a strong possibility I would never have had children if I had hesitated in starting a family. Children — Anthony, Pamela, Ophelia, and grandsons Marquis and Robert — are the supreme joys of my life, so no regrets in that area.

What was it like living in a foreign country so far from my parents? It was an adventure, and yes, it was at times extremely lonely. France is a lovely country, steeped full of the history Mr. James Lewis had taught us in school. My husband and I spent some time in Paris before we journeyed to his duty station in Chinon, which is 200 miles south. Chinon is located on the banks of the Vienne River. In 1429, it is where Joan of Arc visited the uncrowned king Charles VII to urge him to declare himself king of France, and to ask his permission for her to lead an army to liberate France from English rule.

My high school French was not adequate to thoroughly converse with landlords, merchants, and neighbors, but I made a friend who served as an interpreter for us. Her name was Nellie. By the time my son Anthony was born, Nellie had become a valued friend. She adored my baby. We called him Tony. There is something about the French and babies that is interesting. Before Tony was born, I would walk down the streets in the town and no one approached me or spoke to me. That changed when I walked those same streets with Tony in his little carrier. People would come up to me and coo over the baby, exclaiming in French that the petite baby was so precious. It was some time later that I would learn my precious little baby had been born with Down’s syndrome.

My husband, Specialist 4th Class Clancy Pinkston, was stationed with the 83rd Engineer Battalion and was gone a lot. To pass the time, I resorted to what had gotten me through many a lonely day growing up on our isolated farm in south central Alabama. Reading was always my solution to periods of solitude. Tony and I spent most of our days at the library on base. He was such a good baby. He napped while I devoured reading materials from the shelves and checked out books to read at home.

It is with fond memories that I note that early time of innocence in my life and the pride I felt that my husband was part of the United States Army, a military that was the envy of the free world. The adage that “Freedom is not free” is appropriate. Probably we all pay the price, and none more than military families.

American flag
Photo by Fotolia/ednorog13

The Front Porch

Laura LoweMy dad and I had a special relationship. He and my mom had been married for 17 years before she was able to carry a baby to full term. Today their ages – 37 for mom and 44 for dad – when their first child was born would not seem odd, but in the 1940s it was. Momma told the story of her deep yearning to have children. She probably felt a personal kinship with the women of the Bible who had barren wombs.  She identified with Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and Elkannah’s wife, Hannah. Hannah prayed for God to bless her with a child. She later gave birth to Samuel. Sarah gave birth at the age of 90 to Isaiah. Momma also prayed for children.

I knew my brother and I were much beloved. Sometime Daddy and I would sit on the front porch after supper in the summer. He would talk to me about the huge family he sprung from. His father had been born in slavery in 1850 to a white father and black mother. His father was named Isaiah. He married a woman by the name of Emma. Together they raised 14 children on farm acreage given to him by his father. Daddy was the baby and was probably spoiled. In my adult life when I'm stressed and faced with challenges, my mind harkens back to that simpler time and a devoted father’s love. I wrote the poem below during one of those times …

Front Porch 

The Front Porch, ©2003
by Laura Lowe

Upon a place and upon a time,
I slip into a front porch swing.
With each gentle ride back and forth
Urban superficiality fades away.
In a world just out of reach,
Familiar melodic sounds fill a breach
between modern stress –
and much needed time to rest.
In the gloaming birds are singing
As they find a place to roost.
Tucked in snugly, they await a new day’s birth.
Oh, how peaceful – their sounds of mirth.
By some unseen cosmic signal
the cool dark curtain of night softly, silently descends.
Soon a mid summer’s night scene unfolds
in non-orchestrated splendor.
Heat lightning flashes in the northern sky;
while hundreds of fireflies flash in grassy
hillocks and leafy knolls.
Heaven will not be out done by the show on earth.
In the unlimited blackness of space millions of twinkling, sparkling stars
appear like heavenly fireflies in galaxies far, far away.
The amazing visual delight is augmented by such a cacophonous noise.
My soul, my spirit is calmed by creatures unseen –
no matter how I peer into the darkening green.
Dozens of frogs residing in the nearby creek
utter throaty croaking sounds, slightly off key.
Joined with the hind leg rubbings of cicadas and crickets,
it is a delightful symphony whose unseen maestro
has always been here.
Immersed in such a place, one is so near the beginning of time.
It is frightening.
A slight rebellion in our rational brain
nags us to return to the present time.
Alas! We must relinquish the mood.
For we cannot stay in a Unitive Experience forever.
Not in this life.
You see it is just a glimpse of heaven’s reward.
Once upon a place and a time far, far away.

Brother and the Martin Birds

Laura LoweHomes for Martin Birds

They were back. What a delightful sight and sound as the martin birds returned to the southeastern part of the United States in the spring. The martin birds are dependent on humans for their home. My daddy had already raised the poles with the gourds he had raised on it for the return. It was an annual ritual for him.

My younger brother would spend hours observing the birds. I have memories of him running around with a big leaf in his hand imitating the birds and their sounds. Years after we had grown up, I often thought that brother should have become an ornithologist.

Brother joined the Air Force directly out of high school. He was shipped off to Texas for basic training. He changed after joining the service. He and I were over-protected in our youth so perhaps it was inevitable that the world outside our family farm would hold an attraction and a desire to embrace a faster way of living.

The anniversary of Brother’s death has just passed. He died 12 years ago. He had developed prostate cancer and waited too late to accept the treatment offered. I still grieve for my only sibling. I still retain some of the anger I felt towards him for not doing better with his life. It was a life that held such promise.

During his tenure with the Air Force, he was stationed on one of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. It was an experience he did not wish to repeat so he departed the Air Force as soon as he could. He settled in Denver, Colorado. It was a state he loved. I grew to love the state too upon numerous visits out there. We would go dancing at some of the discotheques, drive up to the higher elevations, go hiking in the state parks and just have fun hanging out. On one excursion up to Estes Park he patiently waited while my sister-in-law and I went horseback riding for an hour.

Nothing reminds me of my brother more than the martin birds returning to the same nests they occupied the year before. How thrilled I was when I purchased a house in 2009 and the elderly neighbor’s yard boasted a couple of poles with gourds for martin birds. Every year the birds come back. I can observe them from my lounger in my back yard as they swoop around catching insects.

Perhaps in the other world there are many, many, homes for these birds and Brother is having a great time observing and interacting in some way with these beautiful little creatures. I know he is happy there …

Momma Hattie and Country Living

Laura Lowe Momma Hattie's Country House

My maternal grandmother would qualify as one of my most unforgettable characters. The earliest memories I have of her are of my brother and me visiting her in her little house near our farm. Her kitchen always smelled of ground coffee beans. She had one of those wooden coffee grinders on the wall near the wood burning stove. She loved a good strong cup of black coffee in the morning. The regret I still have is not having time to get to know her better. She died when I was 13.

Brother and I called her Momma Hattie. Her name was Hattie Mastin Mark. She was descended from Native Americans. By all accounts she was indeed a character. I remember her unabashed joy in life, her stinging criticism of anything with which she did not agree, and the last months of her life.

Momma was often mortified at something her mother would say to folks. We were visiting a neighbor once when Momma Hattie decided to voice her opinion on the woman’s housekeeping skills or lack thereof. “Uh huh, honey you need to call dem chillums in here and make em clean up this dirty house.” The woman often made people mad, but more often than not people would seem to forgive her for her cutting remarks.

Momma Hattie would come to visit us sometime. She spent most of her time quilting. Brother and I knew better than to bother her when she was in the process of creating those beautiful quilts meant to keep us warm in winter months. I know now that she was an artist who took great pride in her work.

One day Momma Hattie up and moved to the city of Montgomery some 40 miles north of our farm. Momma said she was tired of country living and wanted to party and have a good time. I didn’t understand then why a woman her age would want to leave the country with its beauty to move to the crowded city.

When I was 13 she came to live with us. She did not want to leave the city, but she had suffered a debilitating stroke and could no longer take care of herself. She moved into my room with me. I was devastated. All of a sudden my room was a sick room. I thought of my room as my sanctuary and private place. It was autumn and school was in session so I would bring books home from the library and spend hours in my room in front of the fire reading.

School actually turned out to be a haven from the sickness and my grandmother’s cantankerousness. Nothing Momma did pleased her. It was her illness and the loss of her independence that made her that way.

I was home in bed sick with the chicken pox when Momma Hattie died in the bed next to mine. She had been with us six months. The undertaker had to come from Montgomery to pick up her body. The next day Momma scoured the room. That night I slept in my room alone for the first time in months. I never forgot that night. There was a fierce storm that I noted before I fell asleep. I saw the numerous trees surrounding the house bowing in the wind, but I was not afraid.

Some of the neighbors were superstitious and were amazed that I slept in a room where someone had died. Many years later I realized that the experience was one of life’s lessons. The chicken pox had left pitted scars on my body, but the loss of my sanctuary left emotional scars. The lesson was that sanctuary is not a place, but a state of mind.

They are all gone now. My grief for them recurs when least expected — a snatch of a song, the smell of a spring flowering shrub or freshly spaded soil in the garden, the feel of the molten sunshine on my back. It brings back an acute pang of longing so intense it defies expression. It often brings back memories of the grandmother I hardly knew and her little house in the country filled with her beautiful quilts and the smell of ground coffee beans.

 Momma Hattie

Summer Musings

Laura LoweHigh flying cumulus clouds

In the past, how did country folks survive the long hot days of summer without central air conditioning? One of the things that helped my family tremendously was not having ever been exposed to air conditioning except in some department stores in the nearby town. Another help was being surrounded by trees. Trees are nature’s air conditioners. Even now I don’t particularly like a super cool house and will sometimes turn the unit off and open windows.

Looking back on that time I spent growing up in south central Alabama, I can still recall summers with warm — very warm — memories. Our farm house had a huge front porch covered as the whole house was with a tin roof. Rain falling on tin roofs is often a racket, but a soothing racket. One fond memory I can dredge up is of me stretched out near the porch swing on the floor gazing at the sky full of high flying cumulus clouds off to the north. My active imagination gave each one an animal title. Momma and I had done the weekly wash and there were sheets flapping on the line. I knew that the sheets would smell of sunshine later on the beds. Even now so many years later I can hear the sound of the dirt dauber building a nest in the top of the porch ceiling. Maybe I will knock it down later or maybe not. A black bug was flying slowly around the porch. Momma said that sometimes that was a sign someone was going to die. That was an old superstition, I thought, but what if Momma was right?

Another memory associated with those sheets drying in the sunshine feature my momma’s penchant for cleaning. The woman truly seemed tireless. In those days many houses in the country did not have insulation in the walls. Momma would heat a huge black cast iron pot of water outside and have the menfolk — Daddy and our cousin M.C. — bring the hot water inside and she would scald down the walls. On this Saturday she had cleared out my room and scalded the walls and the floor early so we could move all the furniture back in before night.

My room smelled of the soap Momma had used to scrub the walls. My bed had been made with the sun-dried sheets. One of the things Momma did that I also did for years was iron the sheets before making the bed. That evening I had my bedside lamp on when Daddy came in to sit and talk with me for a while. He had the newspaper with him and he began reading because I was reading my novel. I must have fallen asleep for a few minutes. When I woke up Daddy was still reading the paper and I heard the sounds of night insects hitting the window screens trying to get in the house. This was an encapsulated happy moment in time that still resonates with me. Every little girl, every child should be able to remember such moments.

I have not hung clothes on an outdoor clothes line in many years, but somehow I do believe that sheets dried in the sunshine magically bring sunshine into our air conditioned homes and into our lives.

Sheets drying on line.

Season unto Season

Laura LoweTomatoes are easy to grow and hot summers are perfect for growing.

Southern summers leave us breathless – seductively luring us into dark green lushness on the wings of bees and birds. Each day the fertile paradise of the garden brings forth an abundance of exquisite offerings so prolific that surely a magic genie has been at work overnight. Crepe myrtle trees offer their abundant flower clusters to teeming bee populations. White crepe myrtle flowers carpet lawns with snowy flower flakes. Summer sunshine is intoxicating and yet soothing in a warmth no other intoxicant can offer. And the colors – brilliant, resplendent, searing, titillating, hot to the touch – are perhaps the defining stamps of summer, whether worn by nature or nature worshipers.

Meat offerings are immolated on man-made charcoal altars, the scent wafts heavenward.  At dusk pyrotechnics dazzle the people gathered round – waiting for the awesome spectacle. Summer ripens into maturity.

Season leads unto season …

The woods are on

Autumn – full-bodied, mature, dressed in rust, gold, yellow, red, orange – presents her time of harvest and in gathering. Elevated to religious significance, thanksgiving is offered in various religious festivals. A pilgrimage to the mountains is in order to appreciate the leafy splendor igniting the hillsides with nature’s brush and palette. Moderating temperatures invigorate, dispelling summer’s languor.

Adults put away childish things. Citadels of learning beckon and chide the frolickers to repent, to atone for the pleasures of a season. The people bow and offer thanks for the land and what it has brought forth. It is such a good land that flows with milk and honey.

Season leads unto season …

 The naked trees show winter's bleakness.

Winter creaks and groans onto the landscape, ferried on bitter winds and frigid temperatures. Some of our friends abandon us. Sorely missed is their cheerful chirping and winged ballet flights. Nature reveals secrets we have missed before. Is the texture of tree bark noticeable at any other time? Winter offers a brown field to gaze upon without distractions of other times. Bare tree branches touch each other in a bony embrace, and the sound is vaguely disturbing. Disturbing and resignedly peaceful, is a melancholy sound that echoes across barren fields from tall pines at their edge. The lone crow calls out, but no one answers.

People light fires on stone hearths. Redolent smells of roasting meat and fowl mingle with evergreen boughs, cloves, scented candles, permeating cloistered domains. The celebrations bring light and joy to a dark world.

Season leads unto season …

Wisteria is such a pretty enchantress.

Now the wee ones are back, awakening us with joyous serenades. Spring is a pretty miss adorned in frothy pinks, greens, and yellows. Her beauty is astonishing. Monster bumblebees invade azalea blossoms, forsythia becomes a burning bush. Wisteria blossoms drape over fences, climb trees, and cling to wrought iron balconies, such a charming enchantress.

How does the garden grow? Daffodils, irises, roses, tulips, snapdragons, all an amazing show in the garden. Inside an encore performance arranged in cut glass vases and wicker baskets – mute sentinels to softly scented evening breezes, gently stirring delicate lace curtains at open windows. The mood of the moment is fleeting, yet tinged with profound nostalgia.

We celebrate the triumph of life over death and a liberation of slaves in an ancient land. Spirits, weary of winter’s introspection, begin to soar. The people are uplifted, renewed, reborn.

Season leads unto season …