I do not want to go into a lot of detail here but, in the beginning, I do not remember much except regular food, new clothes, and meeting my new family. I knew I had been adopted and remembered my brother and sister. Over time however, they slipped further and further from my mind.
My new father, Harold, was Irish Catholic and very strict. I was not used to that and was a little rebellious, which I guess, is why I was in trouble all the time. He was also military and very regimented. He was a veteran of the Korean War and World War II as an aircraft mechanic and became an instructor in the jet engine branch of the Air Training Command. There is not a lot I know about him prior to my arrival. I know he is from Yonkers New York and all of his family still lived in New York. I only got to meet them once even though we had been to New York a couple of times. He swore he would never go back to Yonkers but he did once so I could meet his mother. We went back once more to visit his brother in upstate NY where I had my first run in with snow and below freezing temps. This Texas boy had thin skin. There was no love lost between me and Pop but I do know he did love me. By today’s standards, Pop would probably be considered abusive but there was only a few times I did not deserve the punishment I received. It was how the punishment was delivered that would have been abusive.
My new mother, Dorothea, was the complete opposite of my father. She was very soft spoken, kind hearted and never had a bad word to say about anyone. She could start a conversation anywhere, any time, with anyone and generally came to my rescue when she could but not always. She was the daughter of German immigrants and raised on a farm in central Illinois. She graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in business and was a member of the University of Illinois marching band. After some Air Force legal training she became a court reporter for the Air Force and worked for the Judge Advocate General (JAG). She worked for the JAG on Chanute AFB and that is where she met my father. They were married on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1950. That was actually 8 months before I was born. That was always a family joke and they usually confessed that I was adopted. Ma had a very strange sense of humor and never understood mine nor my fathers sarcastic humor. She was, however, my inspiration in music, photography, art, and my love of family.
It snowed once in Big Spring, not a lot but very rare. My next encounter with snow was in Illinois to meet my mothers family. Ma’s family was large and spread across a couple of states. She had two brothers who each had two children. My Uncle Paul lived on the farm and worked it with my Grandfather. My Uncle Joe lived in Charleston Illinois and was a Professor at Eastern Illinois University. My Grandfathers family lived in Indiana and Ohio. Almost all were farmers or did work associated with farming. My Grandmother Agnes Punke was a teacher and your basic farmers wife. She was a great cook and usually found things I could help with in the kitchen. Her family lived in the same general region of Illinois. The Punke family was also rather large. The three sisters had two to three kids each and each kid an another two or three and all but a few were farmers. My Grandmother’s sisters, Aunt Minnie and Aunt Anna, both lived to be over 100 and Grandma was 98 when she passed. They still hold the Punke and Burger family reunions. I still get an invite to the Punke one every year. These large family reunions were usually held in parks big enough to hold us all for many years. Fun times!
With my father being in the military we moved a lot. About every two to three years we would be moved to a new base where I would start a new school and make new friends. We moved from Webb AFB in Big Spring TX to Carswell AFB in Ft Worth TX. Not long before we moved, my sister Diane came along. We had just returned from Illinois where we attended my grandfather’s funeral in January 1960. My parents got a call from Catholic Services who said a baby girl was born and the parents, who were young and in transit, decided to put her up for adoption. My parents had talked to the local priest who knew they wanted to adopt a girl and he put the wheels in motion.
A lot of people do not believe me when I tell them I was raised in a bus that was converted to a motor home. I found out later on that it was not a conversion but actually a 1950’s Victory Motor Home. They were very popular RV’s in the day but ours was up on blocks just like a mobile home today. My bed was on top of the engine compartment. It had one bedroom, small kitchen, very small bathroom, and some storage. Our dining room was a small foldout table and one of the seats was the drivers seat. Over the years, my parents built a small addition on the side and that became our living room
I assume they sold the RV when we moved to Ft Worth. Many years later I would return to Big Spring and the trailer park was still there with a lot of old dilapidated trailers but the bus was gone. We moved to Richland Hills north of Fort Worth. My parents built a big house where Diane and I had our own rooms. What a change from me sleeping on the engine compartment and Diane sleeping in a crib on the kitchen table. I started a new school at St George’s Catholic School. It was my first encounter with Nuns and 18 inch long, 2 inch wide, and 1/4 inch thick RULERS! I learned to hate those things. People don’t believe me when I tell them my hair was really red. Well, compare my school picture to the sweater I am wearing. That’s some red hair! This is my school uniform and I still have the bolo tie statue of Mary clasp. The other thing I remember about Fort Worth was becoming a Cub Scout. I found that I loved the scouts and would continue until I was too old be one many years later.
After a year at Carswell my father was transferred to Eielson AFB in Alaska, where Pop became a training instructor for the maintenance crews on B-52’s. The B-52’s at Eielson where a part of Operation Chrome Dome which flew nuclear bombs during the cold war with Russia. They were always on alert and under constant maintenance. Even though my father worked his butt off, I had a blast playing in the snow. Snow drifts were has high as my window on the second floor. We would open a second floor window and jump in and dig to the bottom. If it was hard packed it would become a slide. We would dig to adjoining buildings and create a web of tunnels. Sometimes the tunnels would collapse and become forts for snowball fights. Of course they told stories about people dying during the below freezing winters because they would freeze to death as a result of breathing in ice crystals which would freeze their lungs. They would sometimes find their bodies under the snow drifts during spring thaw. At least one body was found every spring. The most fun in Alaska was becoming a Boy Scout. I looked forward to our camping trips. We had three camping trips a year; winter, spring and fall. I learned how to build a lean-to, start a fire, hide food from bears, sleep in a snow drift and stay warm. I learned to swim in black 40 degree lake water and most importantly, how a C-Ration tin of peanut butter would explode when thrown in a camp fire! (what do you want from a 12 year old boy)
We left Alaska right after the earthquake in 1964. We drove from Anchorage AK to Travis AFB near Sacramento CA via Highway 1 Highway 1 in Alaska was being built at the time, to connect to Hwy 1 in Washington State. You could only drive it at night and there were no guard rails and lots of huge boulders and cliffs on both sides. There are a lot of stories about this trip but maybe more about them in future posts. It was at Travis AFB that my father decided to retire. We spent only six months there then it was back into the car and back to Fort Worth. We moved back into the house my parents had built in Richland Hills. My mother went back to work at Carswell and my father opened a Texaco station. I returned to St George’s Catholic School. And on weekends I worked at the gas station sweeping up, pumping gas and cleaning windshields.
I do not remember much else of our time in Richland Hills except riding my bike up and down the hills, playing in the creek at the bottom. and the girl that lived across the street. She was a year younger than me with curly blonde hair and she was much shorter than me. Her father’s last name was Walton, he was Pops best friend and he was a big Texas Ranger. I also loved being in the Boy Scouts there. It is a shame the Boy Scouts are going through so much struggle today. The leadership is not what it used to be!