Wyoming Picnic

It was the summer of 1961. My father had been chosen by the US Interior Department to be on a team of cartographers and explorers to live in Antarctica for eight months of the 1961-62 season. There would also be scientists studying ice cores, and other investigations. This was part of the Antarctic Treaty. We kids didn’t know about the Treaty. We just knew that our father would be living in an igloo and hiking all over Antarctica while we lived in Douglas, Wyoming with our Grandmother Iris Mae Thurston.

Dad would train in New Zealand for six weeks, take a barge to Antarctica. Just as he was going off on his great adventure, we three kids went to the big Converse County Frontier Days picnic. Grandma and Mom packed a large picnic basket, filled with carrot sticks, celery, peanut butter and honey sandwiches for us younger ones. The grown ups got cheese on buttered bread. There were big jars full of pickles. Small aluminum cups kept lemonade cold. Mom poured drinks out from a big, glass jar. We got thirsty running wild amidst all the horses, cowboys, cowgirls and rodeo clowns.

At one point, my brother and I crawled under the picnic table where Grandma and her pal Billy Budd were sitting. Mom was off with her high school friends. Three year old Kathi was with cousin Connie and Connie’s parents a few table down.

Bob and I loved “spying” on grown-ups’ conversations (although I am sure now that they were always aware of us underfoot.)

“Iris Mae, you will drive me batty with love-lorness. When are you going to let me come a’courtin’? That man of yours passed on lo these many years!” Billy’s legs were right up against Grandma’s long, slim, brown legs.

“Get on with you. What foolish talk. We’re past all that.”

“You know I fell for you the first time I seen you cuttin’ cattle on that roan.”

“That’s a long while back. Time has flown, Billy.”

“My heart still skips a beat whenever you pass by.”

“You struck a hard bargain on that ranch with Ben. Nothin’ but dust and flies.”

“It was all right, I guess. And it paid for the dry cleaner’s. You want some more lemonade?”

“As long as you let me spice it up with this here.” We heard a flask screw cap loosen. “Just a drap?”

“A tiny little drap, OK Billy.”

I coughed.

“Is that them young’uns under th’ table! I’ll be dogged! Git up here, you fiesty little thangs.”

Bob and I crawled under the picnic table seat and sat opposite Grandma and Billy Budd.

“You know stories about your Grandma an’ her  folks would fill a library, don’t you kids?”

“No sir.”

“Well, let me jist tell ya. Her an’ I met when we was both workin’ in a Wild West show. Not that consarned Buffalo Bill an’ his trucked up horse patty mess o’ lies. Jist real folks, ranch hands. Yer Grandma could shoot a gun good as any a’ man. She done trick ridin’ like yer Maw. We traveled round about th’ Territories in summertimes.” Billy stared off into space, down through the year. “She took mail out to all them ranchers, rain, shine or blizzard. Near about froze thet one time. Good luck I come along! An’ not only thet, she delivered babies—cow, horse and human!” We perked up. This was fascinating.

“Kept thet little ole young’un o’ yers in th’ bread warmer ‘til it got good n’ healthy.”

“What bread warmer?” I pictured Grandma placing a newborn baby into a toaster.

Grandma said, “Our old cookstove, everybody’s cookstove—you’d put wood in to start a fire and bake bread or what-not, roasts and so forth,” Grandma told us, “there was a small box off to the side, made of iron like the stove. You’d lay your bread loaf in there after the stove cooled down a bit, wrapped in a damp towel to keep th’ bread warm. Premature babies needed to be cozy so we’d lay a little blanket in there & put the baby in it.”

I was in shock. Early-born babies not in a hospital but in an oven’s bread box? It sounded like something out of Grimm’s fairy tales.

“Was the baby OK?” my voice quavered.

“That’s your Aunt Kate. She’s a ball o’ fire but I reckon she’s OK.”

My Aunt Kate had bright red hair. She let me visit whenever I wanted to her house in Douglas, about five blocks from Grandma’s. Kate painted my fingernails, set my hair in bobby-pins and I was allowed to read her wild magazines with huge headlines: LIZ AND DICK!! SHAMELESS LOVERS!!!

I was nine years old and got all my sex education from Photoplay. I knew that my Aunt Kate, who was “living in sin” (according to neighbor kids) with the Sheriff of Converse County would be featured in Photoplay one day.


“What else happened?” Bob asked, leaning forward and staring into Billy Budd’s rheumy eyes.

“Wellp. Your grandaddy—you never did meet him. He died durin’ th’ war. Not th’ war t’ end all wars. Th’ one after thet. He come out to Th’ Territories in a Conestoga Wagon. Lived in a sod hut with all them others from Maine.”

“What’s a sod hut?”

“Jest a hole in th’ ground. Dig a hole big enough for all th’ family. Cover it up with branches and grass dug up with th’ dirt still in it. Keeps cool in summer and ye don’t freeze t’ death in winter. If’n yer lucky!”

His daddy sold whiskey to them Indians, took Ben’ along with him soon as th’ boy turnt ten. Got a pert near pile o’ turquoise an’ furs.”

“WHAT! Is that true, Grandma!” I couldn’t believe my grandfather had such a wild childhood. It made me feel guilty that my great-grandfather had taken turquoise from the tribes in exchange for firewater.

“Got along good an’ well with them tribals. Set an’ ate a fine meal ever’ time they come across a campment.

Hired some t’ work th’ ranch. Hardy folk. Knew th’ lay o’ th’ land. But th’ best story. Well, one o’ th’ best. Yer Grandaddy ran with Calamity Jane. She was crazy as a hoot loon an’ follered thet Wild Bill Hickock all over th’ dern place.”

I had read the biography of Martha Jane Canary that very summer. “Are you kidding me!! I thought she died in 1906 or something.”


“Wellp, yer grandaddy was born in th’ 1870s. So by th’ time he was comin’ up, sixteen er so, he fixed his eye on her. Older women always more interestin’ then young uns don’t ya know.”

“Grandma, is he lying!”

“Billy has some tall tales but the heart of them is true as a gold nugget. Ben never did court Jane. But he ran with people like that. It was early days for settlers out in The Territories. Everyone helped each other out. Drank together. Drove cattle together. Now you read about these folks and it’s like history. But back then, it was just people gatherin’ in saloons, workin’ hard, tryin’ to survive.”

My eyes were nearly popping out of my head. “Billy! Then what?”

“I ort ‘t go backwerds in time, I reckin. Ben told me about them times when his Daddy put t’ farmin’ in th’ Dakota Territory. Wasn’t yet a state, north er’ south. Up in th’ mid 1870s I think it was, Iris? (Grandma was too busy folding up cloth napkins to answer him).
Billy continued, “Bad winters. Cows froze in th’ field. Ever’body workin’ each other’s land, tryin’ t’ eke out a livin’. Folks wanderin’ ranch t’ farm beggin’ fer food, fer work. Anything. Ben would’ve reached ‘bout ten er eleven year old.” Billy stopped, took a sip from his silver flask and carried on with his story:

“So here comes these two brothers. Hides tanned by th’ sun, long days ridin’. Horses needin’ water bad. Ben took th’ horses to th’ trough, got th’ saddles off’n ‘em. Whilst he was a-doing thet, them brothers begged yer great-grandaddy fer work. Anythin’ at all. They’d cut wood, brand cattle, any damn thing, black smithin’. So yer great-grandaddy took a pity on ‘em even tho’ his own family was barely fed. They all struck up a fine friendship there. Them brothers sure did work hard. An’ fer not just yer great-grandaddy but any an’ all farmers up an’ down th’ line. Like them brothers, folk back then hated railroaders. Puttin’ iron lines in, bustin’ up cattle drivin’ routes. So them two brothers was considered fine folk. When they went out doin’ their other type o’ work, they’d always come back an’ distribute gold coins as shiny as could be.”

“Who was the other type of work?! Bank robbers?” Bob shouted.

“Thet there was Frank an’ Jesse James. None other.”

“Grandma! Is it true?”

Grandma paused from packing up the picnic basket. “Your grandpa could weave a fine tale. I never knew which threads were pure and which were false. He did live in the Dakotas back when those James brothers took refuge there for a time. And like we say, folks helped each other out. And he did buy some of our ranch land with gold coins. So you go on to the library and do your research.”

She turned to Billy, “Lord, these childrens’ ears will be a-burnin’ for th’ next 200 years!”

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Jesse James

Willard and the Mustang

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It was mid-summer in Great Falls, Virginia. Humid, in the high 80s. I was fourteen. Dressed in cut off jeans and a striped t-shirt. White Keds. I’d gotten the ironing done, despite stopping frequently to dance to Donovan’s Sunshine Superman LP playing on Dad’s hifi.

My parents had left the house at ten o’clock a.m. to buy groceries and get lunch somewhere. So we kids were free. Bob was off playing baseball with the Great Falls team. Kathi was up at Mary Beth’s with Susan.

I wandered out through the front door and saw Willard in his front yard, leaning on the manual lawn mower, wiping sweat off his face.

“Hey, Willard!” I shouted.

“Dixie!” He came loping across the dirt road and into our yard. “Hey, get this. There’s a traveling salesman driving around the neighborhood in a blue Mustang. Why don’t you distract him so I can take his car for a joy ride?”

“Distract him? How?” I asked.

“Are you kidding me, Dixie? He’s like twenty-eight years old. He’ll get one look at your legs and his jaw will hit the ground.”

“You are doofy, Willard. Shut up.” I flapped my hand in his general direction.

“C’mon! He’s down at the end of Ellsworth. I can see his car right now.” He leaned his long body to the left and shielded his eyes from the sun. “Yep. Coming this way. Let’s do it!!”

“No way!!” I ran back into the house and down to the cool den, curtains drawn, blazing sun shut out. I put on The Rolling Stones’ Flowers LP, volume to 10 and began to rock out. I imagined being in college with a handsome boyfriend. We’d go out to dances every Saturday night. Then have dinner in an elegant French restaurant, like in 1950s movies. White tablecloths. A jazz combo. Women in gowns. Men in tuxedos.

In the midst of “Backstreet Girl,” as I twirled, someone banged on the front door. “Willard” I cursed.

I ran up the stairs and flanged open the door. “Willard! I said NO–” but it wasn’t my buddy. It was a good looking young man, with what we Langley girls called ‘collegiate’ looks.

“Hello, are you the Lady of the House?” He asked, pushing a vacuum cleaner toward the cracked-open door.

“No, I am not. And I am not supposed to let Anybody in the house when my parents are gone.” Oh no! I thought. Now he knows Mom and Dad aren’t here. What if he’s the Boston Strangler or somebody like that!   “And they will be back here in about two minutes. They just went up the road. To get gas.” I lied.

“Then they will be glad to see this all new deluxe Kirby vacuum cleaner with every accouterment a woman might need.” The guy actually put his foot in the door! He was doing a hard sale.

“My father vacuums. Not Mom.” It was true. I glanced out past the salesman’s head and saw Willard’s skinny form bending to get into that Mustang. The idiot! I almost screamed: “No! Willard! No!”

“You have got to GO!” I shouted. Meaning go get your car. But that didn’t come out right.

The young man heard his car start up and yelled “He’s stealing my car!” He turned to me and shouted, “You were in on it, you little whore!”

“I was Not! I told you to get out.” I was mad now. I had told Willard No Way.

“I’m calling the cops.” This was forty five years before most people had cellphones. How was he planning on calling the police. I always thought fast, like my brother and sister. “You can call from our telephone.” That would make me look innocent. Which I was! Dammit!

College Boy followed me upstairs to the clean, well-lit kitchen. I glided my palm toward the wall-mounted, yellow phone like a hand model. “Help yourself.” Then I went outside to sit in the grass and wait for the police. Willard was in Deep doo-doo.

The fellow came out and stood in front of me, legs spread apart like the Colossus at Rhodes. “The police will be here any minute.”

“You’re blocking my sunlight. I’m trying to get a tan.” I snarled. I tried hard to play it cool. But I was freaking out.

In less than five minutes, a police car drove up and parked in our gravel driveway. Dang it. If my parents got home early, this would be a real fiasco.

The furious salesman rushed up to the officer, blathering his story on the way. “This girl seduced me while her boyfriend stole my car!!”

“Seduced! I never did anything of the sort! And anyway, Willard is Not my boyfriend! Plus, I told you 100 times that you could Not come into my house but you shoved your way in anyhow.”

The cop tried to hold back a grin. Just as he was writing in his little black notebook, Willard drove up. His face was triumphant until he saw the police car.

“There he is! Arrest him!” Shouted the harried salesman.

Willard slouched his way over to my side. “Shit” he whispered.

“So, young man. What do you have to say for yourself?” This was one of the nice, younger cops. He and his partner would make teenagers dump their beer out if they caught anyone driving around with a six pack. They’d always say “Now, go home and stop wasting your money on cheap beer.”

“It’s just such a Great car,” Willard said, “I couldn’t help myself. I took it for a joy ride around the neighborhood. Five minutes, max. I didn’t think he’d even notice with Dixie. Well, Dixie. I mean. You know.”

Now the cop did laugh. “I get what you mean, son.” He turned to the hapless Mustang owner.

“What do you say? Why not let these kids off with a big scare? And you move on to some other neighborhood.”

The college boy spluttered, gesticulated toward my house and then Willard’s house. He frowned. He snorted. Then said, “OK, you hick cop. I can see you’re all in on this together.” He went back to the front porch of my house and picked up his Kirby and all the luxurious accessories. He trudged back to his gleaming Mustang.

The police officer told Willard and me, “I won’t tell your parents this time. But any more shenanigans and you’re in for it.” We both held up our hands and swore to be good forevermore.

After the cop drove off, Willard and I fell to the ground, then lay like the Vitruvian Man, staring into the clouds. “That’s a Mustang,” Willard said, pointing to one cloud formation.

We both burst out laughing, rolling in the grass.

Update: this photo came up on Facebook as a Memory today. Wild

Dixie Elderjohnson's photo.

Brother Bob, me, Sister Kathi, Mom’s sister Bernice, Mom

Diary found in box full of junk

Failing at Marie Kondo

Oh, my Lord. What is this? My diary that goes back to when I was age nine.

My father gave it to me for my 9th birthday. He said, “Some people need to write everything down. I’m like that. This doesn’t mean you are going to become a famous writer. Maybe you will. But it helps to get things off your chest.” I was as emotional as Dad. So I decided to put that book to use.

The diary was small, brown and came with a lock long since gone due to my brother’s endless breaking & entering, then reading aloud passages which sounded So stupid in his manly boy voice:  “Today I talked to a boy! He has black hair and is nice! He plays coronet in the band. He fixed my tie and said ‘that’s better’.”

“Give that back! Mooom! Make him give it!”  Bob would do a ballet-twirl, holding the diary aloft, just out of reach, even though we were the same height & weight until Bob hit nearly six feet at age twelve. I was dying to be six feet tall or more but growing stopped me at five nine & three quarters.

When I was twelve, we moved from Sanford, Florida up to Waycross/Hoboken Georgia. Our house was right on the border. It was a ranch style brick house with sliding glass doors and a “Florida Room,” which was just the thing back in those Mad Men days.

Unlike at other schools, I’d been fairly popular in the 6th grade. We lived for the first half of the school year in Bryson City, North Carolina.  Then we’d moved to Endicott New York so Dad could map upstate. Then back to Bryson City and all of a sudden, my boyfriend Billy (who had given me a silver ring and swore to love me until the End of Time) was walking around with a beautiful girl who had the right style (bubble hair-do, tight skirt, cashmere sweater & she had gotten bosoms!)  O Woe Is Me!

Then we moved to Sanford, Florida. I was in the seventh grade. We lived on Silver Lake near a huge expanse of orange groves. The bus ride was an hour long. I hated Sanford from minute one. Except for band. On a Spring trip to the state band competitions, Doug fixed my tie, then looked deep into my eyes and said, “that’s better.”  All the girls hated me because Doug Button had pledged his troth with those words.

I knew for sure that I would Never get bosoms. So that last part of the 6th grade in North Carolina & all of the 7th grade was tragic. Some of the North Carolina girls tried to cheer me up but a lot of my old pals had gone over to the Bubble Hair Do girl’s side. They all loved Billy Davis who once loved me because I could draw XKEs.

To make boys like me, I would draw their picture sitting behind the wheel of a silver XKE. Then, during class, I’d send it, folded up, with the boy’s name on front. They’d mouth, “WOW!” and later tell me, “You’re a good drawer.” But it was Billy I loved and would marry someday, I wrote into my diary.

Now here we were in Georgia. Not a scary state, since Uncle Jack, Aunt Inez & our southern cousins lived not too far away in Hinesville.   The school in Hoboken was small. Grades One through Twelve all in the same complex. There were about 30 kids in the 8th grade and they all were friendly to me right off the bat.

Helen rode my bus, as did Mack. He was the handsomest boy in school. Or should I say man? He had a five o’clock shadow by Noon and beautiful black hair with sapphire eyes. Marilyn, I would find out, was his girlfriend.

Deloyce came right up to me in homeroom, extended her hand and said “Hey there, what’s your name?” When I said, “Dixie” everyone laughed. Johnny Tallevast & his best friend began a resounding rendition of “I wish I was in Dixie!” which I had heard ten thousand times. The joke was stale. I gave them the evil eye.

Lynelle, a lovely redhead, sat down by me in the cafeteria that day at lunch time. Or rather, as southerners call it, dinner. I was in 7th Heaven. The lunch ladies cooked from scratch!! Collard greens with ham hocks, field peas, bisquits covered in red gravy. Oh my Lord!!! Darlene joined us, as did Helen and Deloyce. Marilyn had something to do in the ladies’ room but she came along fairly soon.  “Got my friend,” she groaned. “What friend?” I asked, completely clueless.  “You know, Dixie–the curse!” I’d never heard any of those terms but, afraid to appear dim, I said “Aah, yes. The curse.”

Claude, Danny, Johnny, Mack and other boys kept parading past our table, like as if we were going to shout out “I bid on that one!” while an auctioneer chanted out “Heybuddabudda, hey ya’ll; who wants that guy with th’ black hair? Heybuddabudda, yeah he’s fourteen, nearly six foot tall, budda budda.  Sold! To the highest bidder!”

Sometimes, my mind would drift and then suddenly, I’d hear the person talking. “Dixie, where are you from? You talk like a Yankee.” Oh, I knew that was Fatal. You had to fit in, wherever you lived.  So I quickly told them, “NO! My Daddy was born in Damascus and raised up all over Georgia. He gave me this name. My Mama’s from Wyoming. That’s how come I talk like this.” Which was a Lie.

Dad hated southern accents. He thought they were uncultured and ignorant, even if the person had gone to Harvard. He demanded that us kids never, ever pick up an accent Down South. And to be fair, he also hated the Bronx accent, Brooklyn yawl and numerous other ways of talking. My father had odd prejudices. We were taught to respect people of every “race, color & creed” but talking Southern was verboten!

Funnily, my brother chose in Waycross/Hoboken to steep himself in the beautiful Southern style of speaking. He never lost that accent. My sister Kathi & I stuck with our mish-mash of words from where we’d lived all over the USA. People would often ask us, “Are you from Michigan! You say ‘beg’ for ‘bag’?” And we’d have to set them straight Just as we told people who thought we might be from Maine or Boston  (since we said “wicked cool”) or Chicago, “No–sorry–we just move around a lot due to Dad’s job.”

That Hoboken school year was wild. I had never gone to so many events. Greased pig race. I purposely flopped myself down in the mud, so as to evoke laughter from the crowd (but also to spare that poor pig the indignity of being captured by a skinny twelve-year old.) There were fairs and carnivals. Going to the tourist shop to buy penny candy and a Co-Cola after school. 

Walking was our favorite thing to do, and we girls walked for miles & miles every day after doing our homework & chores. We’d talk and talk about which band was better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. I chose Buddy Holly & the Crickets. We talked about our strict parents, boys we loved, which student had been sent to the principal’s office and how many whacks with the paddle he got. It was always boys misbehaving enough to get paddled.

We discussed our teachers. Hub was nice and he taught History real well.  But Lordie that hateful old lady who taught English! When she taught. Mostly, it was hollering: “Ya’ll shut up! Ya’ll sit still!” as if a room full of twelve, thirteen and fourteen year old boys & girls could sit still!  That mean old woman once duct taped a boy for “being fidgety.” She wrapped him from forehead to waist, securing him to a chair. 

The boy closest to the door dashed out & ran to get Hub, while the rest of us were whispering: “That ain’t right” and “Ma’m, you are cruel.” When Mr. Hubert got to the classroom, he ripped that tape off while shouting, “Miz Anderson, you discipline these children too hard. They are My home room. If you get problems, you come fetch me! I don’t want to ever hear about any such of a hateful treatment again!” Mrs. Anderson glared at him but she never duct taped anybody again, no matter how wild we all got.

Gym class was fun. Our gym teacher played 45 records like Stevie Wonder’s “I was made to love her” and “Do Wah Diddy, talk about the boy from New York City.”

Diary page 1

(page from my diary, last day of school. Helen & I were moving. Me to the D.C. area
Helen was far more popular than I was. She’d lived there forever. But all us girls
were sobbing about her & my moving. (Bessie is Mrs. Anderson, the mean teacher.)

Diary page 2

(Reverse of inserted first page from my diary. About moving from Georgia to DC area.)

I was all in love with Johnny Tallevast from Day One at Hoboken High. He had auburn hair, freckles and a great big smile most of the time. Just like Huck Finn. His best friend was taller, with black hair and brown eyes. On the playground, they would both throw acorns at us girls as we swung in the swings. Primitive form of flirting. We girls would shout “Stop it, ya’ll!!” and “We’ll tell Hub!” They’d just laugh and run away.

I’d never had a birthday party in my life. But for my 13th, Mom said I could invite all the girls from the 8th grade. That was so Wild. I was terrified they’d all say no. Two respectfully declined the invitation but the others were excited about my party. I could not believe this. A real party with 45 records, dancing!! No boys but lots of great food. I told all the girls to bring their favorite 45s. We’d go swimming in the swamp, then get cleaned up, first being sprayed off with the hose (brother Bob would do that job, dressed up as Bond, James Bond with his red swim trunks, sunglasses and silver tooth.) Then have dinner and cake.

Mom asked what food I wanted and I made a list: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, collards, iced tea, soda pop (a rarity in our home), ice cream in three flavors and a cake! Chocolate and big enough for all the girls, Mom, Dad, Bob, Kathi and me. October 8 could not come soon enough.

We danced the twist to 20 different records. Laughed our fool heads off. Swam in the Okeefenokee. I dared Helen and the other perfect teased-up, hair-do girls and they jumped right in with my tomboy self! The food was delicious and we got real messy eating chocolate cake out on the back porch.

Bob kept strolling by, saying “Bond, James Bond. Shaken, not stirred.” We laughed at him. He was only eleven and thought he was Mr. Cool.   

All that year, I had so much fun with those 8th grade girls. And some of the boys. One boy asked me at Helen’s going away party to teach him how to kiss because he had to practice up for his first kiss with his true love. I told him, “Gary, I have never kissed a boy! Try it out on your girlfriend!”  He begged & begged. I suspected this was a trick but went on ahead. I was sitting on a split rail fence and he bent down for the big event, kissed my nose, then slid down to my chin and we both broke up laughing.

Oh, no. There stood Johnny Tallevast! He’d seen me kissing Gary.  The song: “But I love him (there’s not another thing that you can do! Foolish Little Girl” was playing. And then “It’s Judy’s turn to cry!”)  I jumped off the fence & ran over to Tally. “That didn’t mean anything. Nothing.” He glared at me & went inside. I followed, trying to get my point across. But he kept his back to me like an angry cat. My friends circled around me as I burst into tears, asking what had happened.

All I could do was sob, “Gary……Tally.”  They hugged me, not understanding but being the sympathetic Southern sisters they were, love was always freely given.   

In May, when Dad made the dreaded announcement “I got my orders,” Kathi, Bob & I all shouted: “NO!”  We Loved Waycross/Hoboken. Riding donkeys, balancing on a barrell, easy classes, swimming in the swamp. Poling our boat through cypress knees, shaking cottonmouths off with our oars. Shooting down mistletoe with our bows and arrows, getting wild honey from a swamp log. I played badly on our basketball team. We had gone To State and lost to Ludowici.

I had read Gone with the Wind in three days. I read regional books wherever we lived. What better place to read that one than in Georgia? 

Dad told us, “Tell your friends that when the school year is over, we’re leaving for the Washington, D.C. area.” 

Not that danged place! Uncle Jack always said “There’s more swamp up in D.C. than anywhere in the South” and “Them Yankees can’t run this country. They are as ignorant as possums.”  I imagined Pogo as President. Why not? 

I went to the school library and read up on Washington D.C.  They had cherry blossom festivals. All the monuments. The White House where LBJ reigned supreme.  A big library, The Library of Congress and anybody could go there to read books. That was a positive. The Potomac River. I wondered if you could swim in it.

Reading about a new location always helped me adjust. When I told my girlfriends about the upcoming move, they already knew Helen was leaving due to her father’s job. We wrapped our arms around each other in a big circle and cried like howling wolf cubs.

The boys walked around, helpless, saying “Ya’ll gonna be alright. Ya’ll write us now. Don’t you forget Hoboken High.” I did write everyone for two years. Gary, Sharon Prescott, Deloyce, Lynell. Even Johnny Tallevast. He never did write me back but Gary, Sharon and Lynell did. Then the letters fizzed out as I got used to the Great Falls Virginia, Langley High School ways.

Mom bought me a beautiful woolen light blue pantsuit to wear when Sharon came to visit. She and her mother had come up to see some relatives, so they stopped by our house one Autumn afternoon. When she saw me, Sharon said, “Dixie, you have changed. It’s in the Bible that women shall not wear the clothes of men.”  I said, “Well, Dad won’t let me read the Bible. And anyway, Mom bought me this in a Ladies‘ clothing shop.”

We sat there in my parents’ fancy living room, trying to think of things to talk about. Music, boys, classes in the ninth grade. Hating math. But I had gone Yankee. There was no going back to my happy times at Hoboken High.
(Note: thanks to Facebook, I have reconnected with three of the “girls” who were at my 13th birthday party. They keep me up-to-date on other folks I knew and it’s always a joy to hear from them.)

Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing, night, child and outdoor

(left to right: not sure who, Lynelle, me, Sharon Prescott, not sure, Deloyce,
“Shorty,” Helen, (not sure) )



The Monkees

My friend, Denise, and I were out for a walk in our neighborhood of Great Falls, Virginia. It was the end of March, 1968. The forests surrounding the houses were a beautiful light green. The weather was starting to warm up a bit so we were in shorts and t-shirts. We were both fifteen. She was tall, with long ash blonde hair and bright blue eyes. I was nearly five-ten, with auburn streaked caramel colored hair in an Agent 99 bob. Denise had done my hair cut and it turned out pretty well. I had dark brown eyes which, like my father’s, would go obsidian if I got angry. Which was often. Both of us, as per 60s regulation, were tanned to the max.

Denise was dating Allen and I was dating Allen’s younger brother, Wayne. My father didn’t allow me to “go steady.” So every three weeks or so, Dad would say “Time to tell that damned Irish Catholic you’re on hiatus. Call some other guys to go out with.” I always answered with “Arugh!!!” My sister Kathi, ever loyal to me, would shout, “No Fair! They’re in Love!!”

So I’d dial up some guy I knew from Langley High or from Lake Fairfax, where I worked during the summers. Always with the caveat “No sex! Just burgers and a movie.” Most of the boys said yes. My father insisted on interviewing each guy a week before the date was planned. He’d ask questions like: “What are your plans for the future?” and “What is your favorite subject in school?”

It was fun for the guys to see if they could “get past” Mr. Elder. Dad approved some boys who had octopus hands and rejected guys who were perfect gentlemen, based merely on their interview skills. He even approved a twenty five year old park ranger! That guy was the most moral man I ever met. He wanted to marry me but never laid a wild hand on me.

My sister and I would stand at the cracked doorway to her bedroom and listen in on the pre-date interviews. My bedroom was farther down the hall, so it was hard to hear from the kitchen into my bedroom. We’d gasp at Dad’s questions and giggle at the boys’ answers. They all claimed to want to become doctors and lawyers. We knew better. Every guy we knew wanted to travel the world or be in a rock n’ roll band or both. Except Wayne. He wanted to be a carpenter and was learning through an apprenticeship.

Denise and I were killing time walking that March evening until Allen and Wayne would come over to watch “The Monkees.” It was our favorite show, except for Mod Squad, which was groovy, too. Denise had a crush on Mickey Dolenz. I was in love with Peter Tork. His hair was so cute! And he could play guitar for real. The whole show was crazy fun. We had no idea that tonight’s would be the last Monkees episode!

Even Frank Zappa, whose music drove me insane, loved The Monkees. My older cousin Michael was a Zappa maniac. He watched The Monkees just because Zappa was in an episode with them. Zappa’s music was complicated, sort of jazz bee-bop crossed with John Cage. So I could admit he was progressive. But his lyrics were utterly bizarro world. Like “The moon through the prune in June reveals your chest!!” What the heck? No matter how many times my cousin insisted I listen to “this Great Zappa song. Now you’ll get it!” I never got it.

Weirdly, in 1987, I married a Zappa fan named Peter. We even chose a Francesco Zappa song to accompany me down the “aisle” (Peter’s Mom’s back yard). But luckily, the boom box battery died, so only the sound of a neighbor’s dogs barking interrupted our wedding ceremony.

As usual, Denise was bugging me to have sex with my boyfriend. Wayne and I had met while swimming in Lake Fairfax when we were fourteen. His older brother Allen was in the lake, too. He fell in love with Denise that bright July day. Wayne and I were instant soul sister/soul brother.

He will break up with you and find a girl who’ll have sex if you don’t!” Denise warned.

Too bad. If he can’t keep our vows, I’ll find another guy and he can have as many hussies as he wants.”

On to the Next One” was my motto. I often counseled weeping boys at parties, whose girlfriends had left them for other guys, saying “Move on to the next one! She didn’t really love you.”

Dixie, you seriously do not still have that stupid scroll, do you?”

Yes, I do. It’s hidden in a shoe box in my closet. I stopped walking and put my right palm on my chest: ‘We, the undersigned, do solemnly swear not to have sex until we are twenty-one or married.’ Signed Wayne Robert Pearson and Dixie Elder. The End!”

I grabbed the Miller Street sign post and did a pole dance, turning upside down, hanging by my lower legs, clutching with one hand, spinning around and around.

But you made that goofy vow up when you were fourteen! It’s outdated. Everybody is doing it. Love Ins. Make Love, Not War.”

Even little tiny fleas do it” I loved Cole Porter’s lyrics. “And, by the way, Not everyone is doing it. Only three girls I know at Langley have and they’ve been going steady for over two years.”

You and Wayne have been together for almost two years. You’re old enough. Almost sixteen.”

Except on and off, due to Dad’s regulations. So that doesn’t count. Plus! I am only fifteen and I am an Immature fifteen. I’d go crazy if I did sex now. I’d get addicted to it. Dad told me that once you start, you can’t stop. Like heroin. Besides, pregnancy. VD. Et cetera!! If you’d seen the photographs of VD in Mom’s Merck Manual, you would never do it again!”

The British have The Pill.”

Which we might get but not yet. America is So behind the times! Plus, The Pill doesn’t fight off VD. Anyway. It sounds gross. We had a unit on it in Health Class. Bleagh. The guy’s doo hickey gets massive. Huge! Macy’s balloon size. Oh my God. And the other parts sound equally as disgusting. No thank you. Anyway, what’s it like?”

At first, it’s awful. It hurts. But then when you get used to it, it feels better than anything! And it shows love like nothing else can. But guy’s balls. They feel like rotten apples.”

I let out an F#7 shriek and ran at full sprint forty feet. Denise caught up to me in no time flat.

Every time the subject of sex comes up, you run away. It’s like you cannot face real life.”

Pardon me for not wanting to touch rotten apples!! My hands will stay safely outside the zipper, thank you.”

It is a human need, every human being needs sex.”

Nope! Not at my age!” I ran another twenty feet. “You start out in Maslow’s hierarchy with food, clothing, shelter. Safety. Then you move up to self actualization.”

I helped you study for that test. Sex is in the basic needs category.”

Not for Me! Forget it. You are So obsessed!”

And none of those other guys you’ve dated ever tried anything?”

I always tell them upfront ‘no sex’ and then if they get Odyssean hands, I jump out of the car. And scream. Plus, Bob taught me some karate kicks.” I mimicked my brother’s lunging back kick. “So that’s that.”

But Wayne adores you. He worships you.”

You just want somebody else to be doing it so you don’t feel weird about doing it. Can we Please talk about something else!” I crouched down into a supplicant’s posture. “Anything! Like what if we save up all our Lake Fairfax pay and coat check pay and move out to California? Live on the beach in a VW bus? Get jobs waitressing but then try out to be on The Monkees? We can both dance great. I bet we’d get in. Mickey would fall in love with you and Peter Tork would fall in love with me.”

And they’d expect sex. They are grown men. Famous Rock stars! They could all date Julie Christie or Twiggy or Aretha.”

I’m running!” I ran around our neighborhood, down Ellsworth Avenue to Carol Street, up Miller Avenue, past Mary Beth’s house, past the Sorg’s, down to Georgetown Pike. Back to Ellsworth. Up Carol, down Miller. Over and over for six times. Then finally to Denise’s. Her Mom had dinner ready. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob with iced tea.

We all ate heartily. Then the brothers knocked on the door. Both were dressed in windowpane slacks and black turtleneck sweaters. Allen and Wayne worked trimming trees and doing construction. Part of their pay went to their parents for rent. The rest of it was for groovy clothes and gas for their Anglia. Wayne and I had the same haircut, thanks to Denise.

Down to the den. Monkees on, full blast. Mr. Lively had sound proofed the den after my fourteenth birthday party. Jesse from The Incredible Fog had played his electric guitar that October night and even though Denise’s parents were cool, they weren’t psychedelically cool.

We danced the Frug, the Boog-a-loo and the Monkey. Judy Gray had taught me the Boog-a-Loo one day after school while we were watching Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Gladys Knight and the Pips were singing “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Judy could truly, seriously dance. I was all long, skinny arms and knock kneed legs. It took her an hour to teach me simple boog-a-loo moves.

That dance came in handy for nights at the Herndon Rec’ Center and the McLean Teen Club. Dates with boys I didn’t love, guys who passed the “Mr. Elder” test. Dressed in the mock Twiggy outfits Mom sewed for me. She always put together the shortest mini skirts. I’d insist on wearing shorts under the skirts. “Don’t be such a prude,” Mom would tell me. I think she wanted me married off and out of her hair by age seventeen!


Dixie age 17

Sugar Cubes

When my father was mapping the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, we lived in Bryson City. This was a small town with a school that went from first grade to twelfth. It was 1962.

My mother almost immediately began helping out at the free clinic. She was a registered nurse and even though we moved every two to six months, she could always get work wherever we lived.

She brought home trays of sugar cubes one evening and put them carefully into the ‘fridge.

No one is to touch those sugar cubes,” she warned. “They are medicinal, not snacks.”

What kind of medicine, Mama?” I asked.

It’s to fight off polio.”

What’s polio?” My little sister wanted to know.

It’s a terrible germ that makes people so sick they get paralyzed. Their lungs don’t work and they lose the use of their legs.”

Can we have our sugar cubes now?” Brother Bob was always looking for solutions to problems.

You will get this medicine when all the other kids come to the clinic. I want you three to help out. You be brave and eager to take the medicine. That will make the other kids and parents less afraid of it.”

Well but why would anybody but afraid of medicine that makes it so they can walk and breathe right?” I asked.

Some people just don’t like doctors.” Mom began chopping up onions for the spaghetti sauce. We knew it was time to stop asking so many questions.

The next day, the three of us talked about the “good medicine” for legs and lungs at school. Some kids told us we were weird-os. But others wanted to learn about the bad germ making people paralyzed.

On “Salk Sunday” we walked into the clinic and did our best eager act. All three of us took sugar cubes and sucked on them, saying “Yum! This is SO good!”

Image result for salk sugar cubes

Other kids followed and there was quite the crowd. Mom kept up with this work the whole time we lived in Bryson City, which was nearly six months.

Dad’s workers and their wives liked to hang out at our house. One guy was a beatnik. He opened the ‘fridge to get a beer, pulled out the tray of sugar cubes, and said “Oh, let’s all go as far out as we can! Benji’s providing the trip!”

Mom hollered at him, “You put that right back this second. That is medicinal!!”

I wondered what the heck the guy meant by a trip on a sugar cube.

The next year, we were living in Silver Lake Florida, way out in the boondocks. We were renting a brick house with a bomb shelter in the three acre yard. Dad drove me to school in Sanford. He’d talk to me in French, since I’d be studying languages in high school. I was only in the 7th grade but wanted to learn some phrases before high school began.

Ave vous votre livres?”

Oui, j’ave mon livres.”

as-tu dormi la nuit dernière?

non, je ne dorme pas.”

Then I’d clutch my stack of books to my chest and walk, head down, past the gum-snapping 9th grade girls in tight black skirts and striped shirts. They always made mean comments like “She’s not old enough to be in this school” and “Go back to the fifth grade, baby.”

I’d never changed classes in a school before so this was scary. Band was first period. I loved playing my flute so at least the day started out right. But after that was hygiene and health studies. The teacher for that class had a loud, high-pitched, grating voice as she made us repeat after her.

The ailementary canal contains the Mouth, salivary glands.

  • Oesophagus.

  • Stomach.

  • Pancreas, liver, gall bladder.

  • Small intestine

  • Large intestine

  • Anus.

Oh my gosh. How embarrassing!! There were boys in the class and we all had to say that last word together.

One day, she wrote on the chalkboard:

Johnny Talbot

Saint Luke’s Hospital

600 Lake View Drive

Sanford Florida

You all know that Johnny is in an iron lung. So if anyone wants to write him a get well card, here is his address.”

I want to write to him.” I spoke out of turn, without raising my hand. Mistake!

Miss Elder, please raise your hand and Then ask the question.”

It wasn’t a question but I wasn’t about to point that out to the teacher.

The boy sitting to my right whispered menacingly “You don’t even Know Johnny. He was in the hospital before you moved here, retard.”

So? Can’t I care about someone who’s having a hard time, even if I don’t know him?”

The teacher clacked her hard heels toward us. “No talking. Sit and write down Johnny’s address if you want to send him a card. His mother will read it to him. He has polio so he can’t move his arms or legs.”

Oh no!! He hadn’t had a chance to get a sugar cube!

When I got home that day, I sat down for my chocolate milk and chunk of cheese. Mama was trying to fatten me up because the doctor in North Carolina had told her I was “dangerously underweight.”

Mama, this boy in my school is in an iron lung. What’s an iron lung?’

Oh my gosh. That is just awful. An iron lung breathes for people who have polio. He may be in that thing for the rest of his life. Remember the sugar cubes? They had Salk vaccine medication in them. The sugar was to mask the bad taste. If only that boy had taken the Salk.”

I spent a good hour, working on a hand-drawn card for Johnny, the boy I’d never met. I drew flowers and the sun and a blue sky, hoping it might cheer him up. Although how could anyone with polio be cheered up by just a card? My sister wanted to contribute. She put a four leafed clover into the envelope.

Bob spent a good deal of time trying to scare Kathi and me that year. He’d jump out from behind a door, shouting “Polio!! Iron Lung!!!”

We were surely glad we’d swallowed those sugar cubes.

Frank and Jesse’s Treasure!

It was midsummer, 1962. I was ten, my brother was eight and our sister was four. My father’s new USGS assignment was to topo map the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. So my parents left us kids with Grandma Iris Thurston in Wyoming while they went to set up “base camp.” Mom and Dad always got us fixed up with a place to live—motel, boardinghouse, rental house and sometimes, for very brief assignments, Dad’s big Army tent.

Image result for shenandoah valley virginia usgs map 1962

USGS topographical map of Shenandoah Valley
done by my father and his team in 1962

Bob and I had a ball that summer, playing with kids we’d met at school. We’d gone to the same school for an entire year while Dad was mapping Antarctica! That never happened before!

Bob and I got up to our usual high-jinks, tricking other kids into believing we’d found Frank and Jesse Jame’s Treasure Map. Of course, Bob and I made the map, using old paper from a 1920s ledger Grandma gave us to draw in. Her dry cleaning business was full of old things like that ledger.

We spent over an hour perfecting the map. Bob was as good with topo as Dad was. So he drew the map part of it. I had excellent handwriting, so I wrote at the top “Frank and Jesse’s map!! You will die if you steal this!!” I also drew a big red X with a crayon and wrote “Here is the Treasure.”

Then we went to the sandbank about a mile north of Douglas and buried some costume jewelry Grandma said we could have, along with a bunch of old coins from her big glass jar. She paid us for doing chores around the house with money from that jar, so we had twenty coins—ten of mine, ten of Bob’s. Kathi was only four years old, so she had absolutely zero interest in our endeavour. She and cousin Connie (also four) would play with their dolls all day long. Boring!

Kathi Doll

Kathi and her doll in Grandma’s backyard (Douglas, Wyoming)

Bob gathered up all his pals and I got my one friend to join us on a hot Sunday afternoon. The movie house was closed on Sundays, so there was nothing better to do than play outside.

Bob announced, “Dixie and I found this Treasure Map. Who wants to come help us find the treasure!?”

Lemme see that,” a dirty faced boy grabbed the map from my brother. He turned it this way and that. Then said, “Looks real to me.”

That fired up the other kids so off we went, following my brother as he dashed northwards through the small town.

We had carefully covered our tracks to the sandbank by using a broken off branch from a cottonwood. Dad had taught us how smart Indians brushed their tracks away so white men couldn’t get them. This trick came in handy on many an occasion.

Let’s see,” leader Bob mused. “Looks like if we dig around here (he swept his tanned arm in a southerly direction) we will find the treasure.”

We all started digging away with our bare hands. Nobody cared about getting dirty. We dug like wild dogs, throwing sand behind us as we went. Finally, the dirty faced boy yelled, “I got somethin’!!!”

It was an old wooden cigar box we’d buried the treasure in earlier that day.

Check it out!” Bob grabbed the box and slowly opened it, revealing the glittering jewelry and old coins.

Wait a minute!” I shouted, “Let’s see how old those coins are. Grandma said Frank James didn’t die until 1915, three years after she got married. Grandpa was friends with Calamity Jane, so maybe Jane got this stuff from Frank and put it up here for safe-keeping, Those outlaws were all pals.” I drew a coin out of the hoard.

It’s a 1910 wheat penny,” I rubbed it to a nice shine, “Authentic.” I loved using big words.

Image result for pennies 1910


The younger kids did a wild dance, whooping like Apaches. They believed me because I was older and did well in school. Why would the teacher’s pet lie?

Bob announced, “OK, everybody gets One thing for helping find the James boys’ treasure.”

He passed the box to dirty faced boy, who took a danged long time picking something out.

He finally said, “I get this diamond pin for my Ma.” I felt a twinge of guilt. It was only rhinestones, which Grandma had explained, “those are fake diamonds—if people are drunk enough, they’ll think you’re rich.”

The box made its way around the circle of fortune hunters. Everyone got part of the treasure. We were all sweltering in the hot Wyoming sunshine.

Let’s go to Grandma’s and get some lemonade,” I suggested.

YEAH!” everyone screamed in unison.

Despite the heat and the energy we’d spent on digging, we all ran hell-bent for leather toward South Fifth Street.

Grandma!” I yelled, entering the cooled-by-shade-trees house. “Can we have some lemonade?”

For cryin’ tears,” Iris said upon seeing the dirty group. “Get out to the pump and wash up. I’ll make up a pitcher for you.”

We retreated to the back yard, where a water pump awaited us. We took turns using the lever while each of us dunked our heads under the cool gush, then spraying our hands until they were clean enough.

That lemonade sure did taste good. And Grandma said nary a word as each kid bragged about his or her treasure. She even grinned toward me, as if to say “I was just as wild at your age.”

Wayfarin’ Stranger

When I was eleven years old, we lived for two months in Kentucky.

It was a beautiful state filled with huge old oak trees that my sister, brother and I enjoyed climbing. There were fresh streams with clear pools full of wriggling fish, too quick to catch. Four year old Kathi had caught a huge trout in her bare hands up in Wyoming a few months before, when we lived with Grandma Iris. Dad was mapping Antarctica that year, so we’d moved into the Thurston home on South Fifth Street in Douglas, Wyoming.

Now we were in Appalachia. Dad had to map all the borders of that region for the USGS. He and his team also mapped the mountains and valleys, filled with rhododendrons and azales. Appalachia stretches from Alabama and Mississippi, up through Georgia, Tennessee, just touching South Carolina, and on upward until it reaches Maine.

In every location we lived near the Appalachian Trail, we’d have family hiking days. Mom would pack a bunch of sandwiches wrapped in waxedpaper. Then she’d fill one thermos with water and one with coffee. Dad would carry along his canteen full of water, to be refreshed at natural springs.

Mom would put the food, drinks and sketch pads (plus a medical kit which included a rubber suction snake bite gizmo) into Dad’s gigantic backpack. Then we’d go on the Elder Family Quest which involved various adventures depending on where we were living.

Image result for snake bite kit 1950s

Starting in Alabama, we’d hike two or three miles up the Appalachian Trail. This was not fun for me because there were always way too many people. It wasn’t like living out in the bayous or wildwoods where my brother, sister and I could run as free as we wished. I never did like too many people around, having started my life as an infant riding in the 1950 DeSota up and down the Rockies, free as a bird. Groups of loud-talking people filled the Trail. But at least it was an adventure that I could make notes about in my diary.

Dad always reminded us about The Rules before we began hiking. You had to stay on the trail, lest you ruin wildflowers (or get into poison ivy or poison sumac). And as always with Dad’s obsessions, we were supposed to learn what animals lived in the area, pluck leaves to stick into our botany notebooks and examine and identify rocks (igneous were my favorites) which we would sketch during rest breaks. Rocks always went back into the dirt. No stealing!

After we hiked a few miles the summerI was fifteen on the Maine part of the Appalachian Trail, Dad proudly announced, “Now! We’ve done the whole thing!”

Mom disagreed, “The whole thing would be over 2,000 miles, Bill. So let’s not get swelled heads.”

Mom Bryson City (2)

Maybe we didn’t have swelled heads but our feet were sure swollen! Dad had hearty work boots but us kids were in standard early 1960s Keds. I had permanent blisters on my heels where limp white socks got eaten into my shoes. Every five steps, I had to stop and pull my socks up, trying to ignore Bob’s nagging “C’mon, fool! Let’s go!” Even Kathi, five years younger than me, could tear along the trail faster than I could.

My father and his USGS survey team mapped all the borders and mountains of Appalachia. So we kids rambled and ran barefoot through all that beautiful land.

When we lived in Kentucky, we often watched folks playing fiddle, washboard, tub and banjo. The musicians sat on warped wooden porches whil­e women in hard-heeled shoes stomped out the beat. People like me, who couldn’t catch a tune in a rain barrel, would clap along with the shoe-tapping beat.

We moved to Bryson City, North Carolina just as sixth grade began for me. I was almost eleven. Mom had sewn the most beautiful dress for my first day of school. It was a dark green lawn shirt-waist with chiffon of lighter green laid over the top like a soft spring cloud. She made my brother Bob a burgundy sports jacket with a gold emblem so he could be like Bond, James Bond. Kathi, who would begin the first grade, a lovely yellow and white checkered dress.

This was the Smoky Mountains now, not Appalachia, Dad explained about the mountain ranges’ differences as we carried boxes up to our new rental house. It looked so much like where we’d come from in Kentucky. The Smokies lay up against Tennessee, where we’d lived for a fantastic summer before moving to Wyoming.

First day of school and I was wide awake long before dawn. I heard my father getting ready for work, talking low so as not to bother us kids. The sound of Mom’s percolating metal coffee pot and the scent of that forbidden hot drink reached my ears and nose. I breathed deeply like Dad had taught me when I was four and never could sleep that whole entire year.

In……..out…….in……out” I pressed my palms against my lungs to encourage them to breathe correctly. I’d always had problems with getting out of breath.

My sister turned to me from her side of the double bed, “are you awake?”
“Yes, I can’t wait to put on that dress!”

I wasn’t usually a girly girl. But that dress was calling to me from the closet where it hung next to Kathi’s yellow one.

Let’s wait ‘til Dad’s gone,” I advised, the wise elder sister. “He gets mad if we make too much noise when he’s having breakfast.”green dress

On the left, my green dress barely visible over box with Gretchen von Elder & her puppies in Bryson City, NC. On the right, me giving Gretchen a bath in Silver Lake Florida.
At this time, no one in the family had a color camera. These photos were taken by Bob
on my Kodak Duaflex camera given to me by my father when he got home from Antarctica.

Image result for kodak duaflex camera


OK,” Kathi whispered. We lay there, forehead to forehead, her gold-green eyes staring into my dark brown ones. Kathi’s wispy white hair tangled up into my wild, dark-auburn tresses. We held hands and breathed like yogis, men our father had told us about who lived far, far away. They never wore any clothes except diapers (which made us laugh until Dad told us to never laugh at other people’s customs). Their hair grew and grew until it reached the ground. They wrapped their hair up on top of their heads and twisted cloths around and around until they had a turban. We were yogi girls, breathing in each other’s breaths.

Slam, the front door shut. Dad was on his way to the government Jeep! We both leapt up, rushed into the bathroom and took turns washing up at the sink.

Are you two up already?” Mom complained. She liked some alone time, which she rarely ever got.

Bob dashed to the breakfast table before we girls could even get our shoes on. Patent leather black shining below folded down white socks with pink ruffles.

Well, you will have to wait until I get these eggs going.” Mom laid bacon into the heavy, black skillet. Fresh brown eggs from our neighbor’s hens lay in a brown bowl our mother had bought from a lady who threw pots in Kentucky.

I was, as usual, ravenous. “I’m Starving!” I moaned.

You’re always starving, Dixie,” Bob said, “Then the minute you finish eating, you say ‘Oh no, I’m so full I’m about to die!’” He mimicked my voice exactly. Bob was a great actor, usually getting the leading role in any play I wrote.

So!” I glared at Bob. He was darkly tanned after July and August in Kentucky. We’d barely even gone inside during those months, running all over heck and back.

I burnt badly and the red skin peeled off so I was white as a ghost. Kathi had cute freckles over her tanned skin.

Mama, we’re starving!” Kathi joined me. We were baby birds shrieking for worms.

There, now eat up and shush it up.” Mother set down three plates full of eggs, bacon, toast with butter, cooked tomatoes and potatoes. She took her cup of coffee into the living room where she sat on the brown tweed sofa and flipped through a magazine.  We kids brushed our teeth, then ran outside to wait for the school bus.

That year, I had the greatest teachers ever. The school went from first grade to twelfth. Some schools I’d gone to had only first through third. Or first through sixth.

This sixth grade was team-taught. I’d never had that before, just one teacher in each school. My new teachers had gone to first-rate colleges, Dad had told me. So I was excited from Day One.

There was a giant auditorium in the big brick building that housed high school classes and the main office. Grades one through six were in a different brick bulding near by.

On rainy days when we couldn’t go out for recess, teachers led us to the auditorium where students would stand onstage and recite poems or speeches they’d memorized. Sometimes, kids sang songs without instruments. Other rain-days, high school students who were in the symphonic bands would play popular songs like “18 Tons.” I knew it was really “16 Tons” but Dad sang the lyrics as Eighteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt,” in his perfect baritone.

Every work day, six days a week, Dad carried a heavy telerometer in a big metal box. He hefted over his shoulder the wooden tripod on which the telerometer would be placed. A backpack with his “kit and kaboodle” (other equipment, food, a thermos full of coffee) added to those 18 tons. So I got used to singing “18 tons and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt.”

On the first day of band class, each student had to audition. Ivan Gibby, another flute player, and I were immediately sent up to the tenth grade band room. We were both terrified that we’d never be able to keep up with the high schoolers. But a few weeks later, our parents signed us up for private lessons with the town dentist. He had been in one of the 1940s Big Bands as a young man. He kept time by snapping his fingers and saying “Yeah, man.” It helped Ivan and me to feel like we were cool (we absolutely weren’t) to have a hep cat as our music teacher.

On special occasions, the school hosted bluegrass bands from all over the Smokies. These were historian-musicians who traveled all over the country, playing traditional ballads and talking of Old Timey Days.

Our English teacher explained that these folks were called ‘troubadors’ (for the men singers) and trobaritz for the women. Their songs were from a long line of music stretching back into Medieval times in Europe. Mostly Scottish and Irish people had settled in this area but there were also ballads from English people.

One day, all the students from first to twelfth grades filed noisily into the auditorium.  The principal, behind a round wire microphone, called for order. Then he said loudly,

Let’s all welcome the Bluegrass Boys.”

Well, they weren’t boys. They were sort of old to my eleven year old  self. After tuning up, plucking strings and chuckling with each other, the singer turned toward that microphone and announced:

Wayfarin’ Stranger.” He began to sing in a real high pitched voice:

I am a poooor, wayfarin’ straaanger
travelin’ through this world below…
there is no sickness, toil ner danger
in that bright land to which I go…”

That song hit me right through the chest. I’d always been a stranger in each new USGS base, a stranger amongst kids who’d gone to school together since kindergarten. I was a poor, wayfarin’ stranger. The singer’s voice filled my head. I wandered around for days, hearing him sing. My own singing voice, though way off-key, was deeper than even that grown-up man’s. Bob had perfect pitch, so he could imitate any singer from Bobby Darin to this new guy from the Bluegrass Boys.

We drove our poor mother crazy for weeks after the concert, three kids running through and around the house, singing loudly in our best, newly learned North Carolina/Kentucky accents:

I’m jest a poor wayfarin’ stranger
Traveling through this world below
There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

I’m goin’ there to see my Father
And all my loved ones who’ve gone on
I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home

I know dark clouds will gather ’round me
I know my way is hard and steep
But beauteous fields arise before me
Where God’s redeemed, their vigils keep
I’m going there to see my Mother
She said she’d meet me when I come

So, I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home
I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home