(Kathi Elder, age 8, in Great Falls VA backyard
Being Twiggy the Model)
Great Falls, Virginia, in the 1960s, was the boondocks! Wild woods. Green, rich countryside with rich, black fertile soil. Georgetown Pike was a winding road that led from our street—Ellsworth Avenue—southeast to McLean and Washington DC. It went northwest to Herndon and Reston, with Lake Fairfax Park between those two towns.
There were farms and small homes & a few newer brick ones, like ours. Ponds and lakes abounded. Great Falls Park was a cozy nook with a small snack bar. Rough, rocky waterfalls of the Potomac River rushed along toward DC. A bit further down, the river got calmer & teenagers swam in it.
We kids played outside a lot, even into our late teens. I was still climbing trees at age 18. We’d run through fields & woods all day, then watch lightning bugs & stars in the dark of night. Bob, Kathi & I swam in Beatnik artist neighbors’ pond when they were in Florida in hot Virginia summers.
But we had chores, too. I hated ironing. It was nerve-wracking because Dad and Mom were sure to find fault in how I did the job.
“Get on with it. You’ve been dawdling down there for hours.” Mom hollered from upstairs.
I wasn’t dawdling, I was trying to get everything ironed perfectly, with no wrong creases. At least I was allowed to play records while ironing. Jimi Hendrix, The Animals & Soul Hits were LPs I’d bought with babysitting & allowance savings. Sometimes Bob would lend me his Beach Boys LPs. Kathi often joined me, insisting on her Rolling Stones records so she could dance while I worked through a huge pile of laundry.
“This handkerchief isn’t square!” Dad would snap and he’d make me spray it down and iron it again. Often, he’d stand over me as I tried to get it perfect, my body shaking in fear. To this day, I have no idea why anyone’s handkerchief has to be perfectly square. Unless it’s going into a tuxedo pocket for a wedding!
This one Sunday afternoon, I had messed up Dad’s handkerchief and was taking too long in Mom’s opinion. That “Irish temper” was always broiling just below the surface.
So when Dad criticized my skills, I lost it. “Do it yourself, then!” I shouted.
Kathi was in the den with me, polishing Dad’s shoes over spread-out newspapers. She froze.
Dad slapped the back of my head, “What did you say to me?!”
He’d me smacked so many times, I was used to it.
“I said ‘do it yourself‘” and I stepped away from the ironing board, arms folded across my chest, jaw jutted out defiantly.
Just then, Mom called from upstairs, “Bill—are you ready to take me to the grocery store?”
“You’d sure as hell better have all that ironing done and I mean perfect by the time we get back.”
He took the stairs two at a time, as usual, burning up with fury I could feel all the way from the car as he roared out of the driveway.
Kathi looked at me, worriedly.
I picked up the spray bottle and stared at that basket full of shirts, slacks, dresses, handkerchiefs, sheets, napkins and tablecloths.
Halfway through, I sighed, “I give up! I can’t do all this.”
“Let’s go for a walk and when we get back, you’ll be able to concentrate.” Kathi was always right. Or mostly always.
We went outside into the hot summer sun.
I was too angry to talk. Everyone who knew me for real realized that if I wasn’t talking, I was dangerous. Usually, I talked a blue streak. But if in a foul mood, silence descended like a black stage curtain. I pointed toward Georgetown Pike. We took off at Elder fast pace, heads down, then began running at top speed.
I picked up a stick along the way & whacked at weeds, sending them flying into the air. Kathi tried to come up with a subject that might cheer me up.
“Maybe we’ll go to Ocean City later this month.” I said nothing. “Or what if we get to go to Maine?”
Our parents had been talking about camping out on an island called Acadia while Dad checked map points or whatever it was he did now that he had a desk job. He was so mean since he got that promotion to working inside. I wished he’d never agreed to stop working ‘in the field.’
We turned toward the Herndon route once we got onto Georgetown Pike, walking in the ditch to avoid sparse but dangerous traffic. Weeds hit our thighs. Mosquitoes flew in humid clouds around us. We were both wearing bell bottomed jeans, t-shirts and tennis shoes. Junky clothes for the weekend.
“Is RW coming over to watch TV tonight?” Kathi was still trying to get me talking about anything but Dad smacking me.
“Dad won’t let him now. He’s mad at me.”
“I hate it when he hits you. I can’t wait ’til we can move out!”
“Me, too. Where will you go? Harvard or Yale?” This was my frequent question, since Kathi was so intelligent.
“Anywhere far away.”
“Yeah, me too. California. That’s where I want to go. RW does, too.”
“What’ll you do for jobs?”
“Anything. He can fix engines, trim trees, any type of labor work. He’s a great artist, too.”
“So are you.”
“So are you.” We laughed. “He and I could set up a stand on a pier and do caricatures or portraits. Live in a van or tent on the beach!”
“You’re almost sixteen. Only two years ’til you can legally move out! I have to wait forever!”
“You can come with us. You could go to school in California. It would be groovy out there. You’re too smart for these stupid schools.”
Kathi wasn’t sure about her intelligence. It wasn’t until we found out about the freedom of information act five years later that we went to Langley and got her test records. She’d taken an IQ test in the 7th grade. It showed that her IQ was between 150-156. My records had been shredded by then, the secretary told us. Kathi could have easily gotten a scholarship to any college at age fifteen if she’d realized how smart she was. She’d hated school since that mean first grade teacher.
When we told Mom & Dad about Kathi’s high IQ score, Dad said “You are all 3 geniuses. Dixie’s score was about 10 points below Kathi’s & Bob’s was right around there, maybe 5 points lower than Dixie’s.”
Bob certainly accomplished a lot in his life, so did Kathi. I was more “twisty-turny” with some fantastic achievements but many, many failures.
My sister & I picked daisies and made crowns, wearing them despite bees hovering over our heads. We got about a mile and a half down the road which led to Herndon, alongside a farmer’s corn patch, when Kathi said, “We better turn back, they’ll be coming this way soon.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” We climbed a fence and cut through another corn patch. Running, we were smacked in the face with stalks and leaves. We left the baby cobs alone so they could grow. Often, we Great Falls kids stole full grown cobs and ate sweet white kernels raw.
My sister and I climbed a fence near the Pike and jumped into that ditch, then walked a few feet when something bit me.
“AAAA!” I screamed.
“What! What!” Kathi yelled.
“Oh my God! Something bit me! A snake!”
I pulled up one bell bottom to try to get a look but was so scared, I was jerking around and couldn’t see. I lost my balance and fell into the ditch, legs in the air.
Kathi ran around in circles screaming. “Help! Help!”
Then she got control of herself and rushed into the two lane road. She waved her arms at a station wagon coming from the Herndon route.
“Stop!” she screamed.
The driver pulled over onto the shoulder. It was a middle-aged man with greased-back hair and black 1962 style glasses. His wife had a Thelma Lou from “Andy of Mayberry” hair-do. She was looking at us suspiciously, as if we might be mass killers. A little girl sat between them.
“Please get us home! My sister got bit by a snake!” Kathi shouted.
We piled into the back seat before the husband or wife could say No.
The little girl, with no seat belt on, turned and stared at us with huge round blue eyes the whole way to Ellsworth Avenue.
“Right there, turn here!” Kathi instructed urgently.
We jumped out of the car before it came to a full stop.
“Thank you!” we shouted, polite even during an emergency.
The man pulled back onto the Pike as fast as he could. I rolled around in the grass, ripping my tight blue jeans off while Kathi yelled, “Get ’em off, get ’em off!” She helped by pulling on the bottoms of my jeans as I wriggled out of them, both of us shrieking in that high-pitched key only pre-teen & teenaged girls can achieve.
I was wearing my underwear set that had butterflies on it, sort of like a bathing suit but still hoped no one would see me half naked. I flapped my bell bottoms in the air and out flew a huge bug.
“Praying Mantis!” We yelled.
“Is it OK?” I asked. Kathi trod gently over to the milkweed stalk upon which the insect had landed.
“He looks fine, he’s praying.”
“Or she. They eat the males.”
Kathi looked at me. “Put your pants on!”
It was difficult to pull up my blue jeans with my sister laughing her head off and me trying to hold back guffaws. Gusts of laughter burst out of my chest. We were both weak from mad cackles. It wasn’t a vicious rattlesnake, no Cleopatrian asp—just a praying mantis.
“They eat the males!” Kathi shrieked, giggling away.
We ran home, put the Doors LP on and swirled around in the cool den. Then I got to work ironing. When Mom and Dad got home, Kathi rushed upstairs to help them unpack groceries, knowing I needed time to get caught up on the pile of laundry. She kept Dad busy, asking if we could go to Ocean City or Maine or Georgia soon.
That got him talking about when he mapped the Okeefenokee Swamp and other wild stories. He was in a great mood by dinner time and so was I, thanks to sister Kathi.