For four months every four years, our dad, like every other Airman in the 9th SRW, was rotated to Kadena in Okinawa. In 1966, Dad's rotation coincided with summer vacation. He'd been to Okinawa a couple a times already, fixing problems...whatever. But this was different. This was four whole months - in a row.
The Summer of 66 ended with a tally of 4 plaster casts; 102 stitches; 2 concussions; 4 visits from the Air Police (APs); 3 from the base ambulance. And at least 12 trips to the Base Hospital's emergency room.
What could I title these visits? Magic Stick v. Bees; Kid v. Barbed Wire; 2 Kids v. Skateboard and Innocent Bystander; Kid v. Tree; Other Kid v. Tree; Kid v. Neighbor's Fence; Kid v. Not-a-Rattlesnake-After all; Kid v. Bike...every week a new crisis, a new versus.
The Skateboard Incident certainly might have been the most exciting for the neighborhood. It left two of my brothers in casts, and the lady next door in an arm sling. Dwayne, whose left foot was already in a heavy bandage protecting 54 stitches (still a family record), broke his right foot. And Patrick, who had already broken his right arm riding his bike into the Gorgone's fence, now had an additional 2 broken fingers on that hand, and had to be fitted with a brand new cast. From all accounts this was Mrs. Brittany's first time getting knocked on her ass that year.
But I think my first anecdote should start before then - with our first visit from the Air Police (APs). An introduction of sorts. The Beale Air Force Base’s Discovery of Our Family. It isn't really a full story on its own...which I guess would make it more of a chapter, more like something that could have been written with a spectacular sort of climax, but in real life ended more with a tired, oh hell, let's just go back to bed.
At this point, we'd only been to the ER twice, and neither visit had resulted in stitches. It was still early June. I'd wiped out on my bike, and Patrick had been stung by several bees defending their home from the Magic Stick that must have poked their hive. He was just in the area. They must have thought he did it.
So how to start...where exactly does it start?
Base Housing at Beale was parked in the foothills of the Sierras. I could write 'nestled,' but it's not as though the interface was anything but abrupt.
We lived at the edge of Wildness. Our street defined the boundary between Imagined Perils and Obsessive Order. Our front yard was a perfect 4-cornered patch of weed-free, greenish bermuda grass, bordered on 3 sides with flawless strips of gleaming concrete. And our backyard was an exotic cosm of cliffs, caves, and condors. Abandoned mines and mountain lions. Rattlesnakes, blue-bellied lizards, golden eagles, and golden grasses of wild oat. As far as the eye could see, one hill rolled into another...all the way to Nevada.
Apart and together, my brothers and I spend our days exploring. Supplied with jars of frozen water, peanut butter sandwiches, and readied coffee cans, we ventured farther and deeper into the foothills, often leaving at daybreak, not to be seen again till suppertime.
These daily treks usually resulted in the relocation of captured reptiles - sleeping lizards mostly, warmed in our palms, calmed by the nearly constant stroking of their smooth bellies. Snakes were common, too - my favorites, actually. I'd bring them home curled around my neck. Most of these critters were released at the back door. It was strictly verboten to bring anything from the field indoors that wasn't first trapped in a jar, a can, or a box. This included all manner of reptiles, amphibians and bugs. And in case I forget to tell you later - shoebox lids mean absolutely nothing to snakes.
Now this isn't to say that no free reptiles made it into the house. Some just found their way in. Mrs. Gorgone had to call the APs once when she found a rattler curled up in her dryer. And who's to say how many lizards made it past the border guard in pockets and sleeves, forgotten by accident or by design. Certainly, there were several loose in our rooms. We offered them sanctuary in our sock drawers. And many times we'd set them to sun and sleep on the windowsill for as long as they wanted.
It was always a mystery to us how they found their way into the central heating-and-air system or into Mom's bedroom. Her startled shrieks in the background were as normal to us as the TV or radio. At this point in time, there was already one snake and one (or more) lizards unaccounted for. The lizard count was always a point of contention. With each sighting the neck colours were described differently, but then temperature changes could account for that. So no one really knew. It could be just one fella or as many as half a dozen.
It was universally accepted, though, that there was only the one Loose Snake. The one who got out of his shoebox. He was 41 inches long. We'd measured him in the field before we'd even brought him home. And we figured he was probably bigger than that by now, what with all the loose food living in our house.
Patrick and the Night of the 30 Frogs.
Not all of our pocket pets were lizards. Patrick had a thing for frogs. In the spring he and I would look for frog eggs, and bring them home to hatch…and more often than that, we’d bring home tadpoles in our water jars. We'd watch them morph into frogs, and then take them to the creek just down the hill from our house.
During the summer Patrick was never without a frog in his pocket, and while the rest of us were petting lizards, he was hand-feeding bugs to his frogs. While our coffee cans held lizards or small snakes, his almost always held something his frogs might like to eat.
I'm not sure what Patrick was thinking that evening in early June, but unbeknownst to us, he came to supper with a 3-pound coffee can filled to the brim with little frogs.
He set it next to his chair, and went to wash his hands. When supper was over, he set the can up on his chair. But then he forgot about it. And none of us gave it any notice. I mean, there were 3-pound cans were everywhere in our house. Even Mom used them. She had a forest of avocado saplings growing in coffee cans lined up against the patio door.
Fast forward past a routine summer evening of dishes, TV, bickering, baths, and pajamas to around 2am. The house would have been pretty quiet. The mammals, at any rate, would have been sleeping.
It must have been the frogs that woke me. Or maybe it was my cat, Mr. Magoo, poised on the edge of the bed, quivering. I rolled over, and there on the floor were two little frogs next to my bed and another in the doorway. needeep.
I slipped out of bed, and they quieted. That's when I heard the others...in the distance. I poked my head into the hallway to find 4 more. And as I stepped out, the frogs in my room started to ribbit again, while these frogs in the hallway stopped.
4 more were on the stairs...and just like the ones in the bedroom and in the hall proper, they stopped and started as I tread past them.
I got down the stairs and found frogs everywhere: on the couch; on the TV; on the dining room chairs...on Mom's dining room table!
Patrick’s coffee can lay on the floor next to his chair, the lid opened enough to make a sort of lean-to roof. The can was empty. I grabbed the two frogs on the table first, and then as I reached for the one on Pat's chair, it jumped away. I tried to grab him mid-air and missed, knocking over the chair and dropping the can.
That noise apparently woke our dog, because she started barking from the safety of Dwayne's room. But of course, that woke Mom. "Shut up, Cinders!"
But then once Cinders stopped barking, Mom could hear the frogs...and Pat, sotto voce, "oh shit."
It wasn't exactly a thundering stampede...more like a windy wooosh, as the entire household made its way to join me down in the living-dining area. Lights came on as hands passed switches on the walls. First the bedrooms, then the hall. And now the entire first floor. A Roman candle on the edge of Base Housing.
Mom told us all to grab an empty can. But there were no empty cans. So Hugh and Dwayne grabbed Pat’s bug cans, and emptied them on the front porch. (Ya know, looking back, that might have been a little noisy.) And in their hurry to get back in and catch frogs, they forgot to close the door.
Mostly it's hard to recall with total accuracy just what went down. Someone bumped into the floor lamp next to Mom's reading chair, and when it crashed to the floor, its glass bowl and light bulb all broke. (That might have been noisy too, since the doors were open.) Also, Hugh knocked against a picture frame and broke the glass out of it. And I remember dishes crashing in the kitchen, but I can’t think who might have been out there. Everyone had to run out to the porch and put on our boots so we wouldn't cut our feet, and Mom made us lock Cinders up in one of the bedrooms with Mr. Magoo.
There were shrieks, yelling, laughing, scolding from Mom. Mayhem and Chaos. And of course, Cinders spent half the time upstairs freaking out over the noise we were making.
There were still more than a couple a dozen frogs jumping around loose when the doorbell rang. We all looked over to see an AP standing in the open doorway, pistol on his hip, like a real cop. Mom went over to answer. She was in her baggy green calico pajamas. But I think it was her hair that the Airman spent most of his time trying not to look at. Mom always slept with her hair entirely in pincurls – dozens of tight little spirals of hair about an inch in diameter, anchored to her skull with two crossed bobby pins apiece. After an hour of reaching and ducking under and behind chairs, tables, and cupboards, some of her curls had loosened. Maybe 20 or so...a little bit, so that the bobby pins were swinging out and bumping back, every time she moved her head.
Parked in our driveway was a dark blue Dodge pickup, standard-issue vehicle for the Air Police. The driver was still behind the wheel, probably the ranking Airman - which would have made him what, an E-4? The Airman in our doorway was an E-2. At the time, I would have seen him as a grown up, but looking back, he can't have been more than 18 years old.
I'm trying to imagine what he must have thought looking past mom's swinging bobby pins. Every light in the house on; both the front and back doors wide open; the floor glittering with broken glass and broken dishes; dining chairs on the dining table; dining chairs on the couch; the coffee table up-ended; mom's leafy avocado trees - all on their sides, pushed up against the patio door; the TV pushed up against the stairs...every piece of furniture so obviously cattywhompus; and the bunch of us standing motionless in pajamas and rainboots, each holding a shiny, green MJB coffee can.
One of the frogs ribbited, and another jumped past the AP as he cleared his throat, and asked no one in particular, " Is, uh, everything okay here?"
Mom answered. "We're okay. My son brought home some frogs, and they got loose."
"How many frogs?"
Mom looked at Patrick, "How many frogs?"
Patrick looked at the Airman’s pistol, " I dunno. A lot."
The Airman looked at Mom, "How many have you recaptured?"
And we all pretty much answered at the same time, "2, 3, 2, 1, 3.” Almost an hour, and all we'd captured was 11 frogs.
“Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait till morning to find the rest, or find some quieter way to get it done.” He tried to deepen his voice. Mom wasn't impressed.
“We’re not going to get any sleep with these frogs ribbiting.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but you’re disturbing the peace. I’m going to have to ask you to keep it down.”
He made one sharp nod of his head, “Thank you, Ma’am. Good night.”
“Good night.” And she shut the door.
Dwayne and I swept up the glass, and the two youngest turned back out the lights. Mom let the dog out to tinkle, and once she was done, everyone went back to bed. This time with our doors shut.
Everyone stayed home the next day. And no. There was no frog hunt. We spent most of the day righting the furniture, and buffing the scratches out of Mom’s hardwood floors. For the next week, we’d see the occasional frog, hear the odd ribbit. We figure most of them either found their own way out, or ran into the Loose Snake.