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

Heaven and the Beach Boys

­My sister Kathi was born one day before my 5th birthday. When Mom called over to Aunt Bernice’s to tell us we had a baby sister, I said, “Bring her home so she can have some birthday cake!”

Kathi and I were extremely close growing up despite the five year age difference. Of course, we argued about stupid stuff but 90% of the time, we were each other’s best allies.

When she was 38, she was diagnosed with cancer. It attacked her liver, stomach, intestines before the doctor could figure out what was wrong. I was furious that he mis-diagnosed her with IBS and told her to quit eating fried foods. A specialist finally realized the true diagnosis and operated on her that same day. But it was too late. Although she had been on a macro biotic diet for a year, eschewing her beloved Margaritas for super alfafa smoothies, the cancer went into her brain.

Kathi knew I was a devout “Jesus Freak Christian.” In my faith, God loves everyone. She also knew I’d had two NDEs. Kathi asked me all sorts of questions about “The Other Side.” I assured her she would go there, even though she was agnostic.

We lived only two hours away from each other, so spent most weekends together before and after she got sick. My husband & I visited her every weekend while she was ill. Our brother flew out from Florida as often as he could.

Mom & Dad moved in with Kathi, her husband, daughter (age 17) and son (age 8). She was also close with her step-son, Ryan, her husband Pete’s son from a previous marriage. Mom was a nurse so she went with Kathi to get special treatments all over America. Kathi did chemo’, radiation and every type of non-traditional treatment she could find. Pete was happy to pay for all the treatments.

I made a cassette tape with Kathi’s, our brother Bob’s and my favorite songs on it. I gave copies to Kathi and Bob.

The first song on the tape was Kathi’s favorite Beach Boy’s tune “Good Vibrations.” The second was Bob’s favorite “California Girls.” The third was my favorite “God Only Knows How Much I Love You.” I filled the tape with other great songs from our teenaged years, including tunes by Kathi’s beloved Rolling Stones.

The last song was a joke. Kathi had always teased me that “Louie Louie” was my favorite song. It had 3 notes. I was a bit of music snob as a kid and a teenager. I played flute in symphonic and jazz bands. So I used to make fun of “Louie Louie,” saying a monkey could have written it. But Kathi, Bob and I loved dancing to that tune. Three wild teenagers in the den back in the 60s. Those hits were on the jukebox in our favorite diner up in Maine where we spent a great summer when I was fifteen, Bob was thirteen and Kathi was ten.

I’d spent the weekend with Kathi right before she went into a hospice. The next day, her daughter Kerra was sitting with her when she died at Dawn.

My mother called to tell me the horrible news. I screamed “NO!” I slammed down the black phone and ran outside. I “came to” about an hour later, having dug with my bare hands a large oval in the front yard by the porch. This later became a garden filled with irises, columbines and a tree surrounded by quartz and other beautiful rocks. We call it “Kathi’s Garden.”

But that day, I was in shock. Without realizing it, I walked downtown, nearly a mile. I entered my favorite thrift shop. The owner always had her radio tuned in to an oldies station. As I entered, “Good Vibrations” was playing.” The next song was “California Girls.” Then came “God Only Knows How Much I Love You.”

I stood there, amazed. I prayed “Kathi, if that is you, make the DJ play ‘Louie Louie’ next.”

The DJ started babbling “You guys know I never play songs by the same band twice in a row. Don’t know why I did that set—so let’s mix it up! Here’s “Louie Louie!’”

I gasped loudly. Customers and the shop owner came up to me, asking what was wrong.

I told them all about my sister dying that day, the cassette tape and the DJ playing those exact three songs, plus “Louie Louie.” Every person in the store had a similar story: husband’s photo falling off the wall on their anniversary, after he’d been dead for three years; seeing a license plate that said “HIMOM68” reminding a mother, whose daughter was born in 1968, was saying Hi from Heaven and many other wonderful stories.Kathi Family

I knew my sister, who’d been an agnostic since age 20, was in Heaven.