Two weeks ago Diane and I closed on the sale of our little Communications business that we started back in 1991. We are now officially retired. If our lives were a book I guess we are turning a new page. I consider my life to be more of a magazine. I have discovered that being retired is a bit strange, especially after being self employed for so long. Diane says its can be described as trying to jump off a moving train. I have talked to my dad about it. He retired twice; the second time from Civil Service, the first time from the Navy.
I was a born Navy brat at Portsmouth Naval Hospital. I spent my first few years in Navy housing, and quite a few living in a Navy community. Most of my friends were Navy brats. I bought my clothes, my favorite music albums, and my Hardy Boys books at the Navy Exchange. I learned to swim in a Navy pool. I went bowling, and to the twenty five cent movies on base. Then one day it all changed.
In February 1967 my father, George Clayton Parker, at the rank of AMHI (for you non-military folks, that translates to Aviation Metal Smith first class), retired from the Navy. He had a distinguished career that spanned twenty one and a half years starting in July 1946. A few days after his 18th birthday, he enlisted.
Just months after the official end of World War II, my father, then a member of the Military Police, soon found himself in the Philippines as part of a combined service task force whose assignment was finding and apprehending Japanese soldiers hiding in the mountains around Manila. He also had to do the same in Guam. These desperate men had either refused, or in many cases didn't know how, to surrender. This was a dirty and potentially a very dangerous job with no glory attached to it at all. Like many vets of the War, he has never talked at any great length about that time.
My dad's last position in the Navy was as a career counselor, and his job, ironically enough, was to try to keep people in the Navy. The Navy couldn't keep him. Our family was growing faster than his military paycheck could keep up with, and Dad came to the painful conclusion that he could support his family only if he became a civilian.
That wasn't all of it, though. My mom wanted to move back to Denton, North Carolina, to be closer to her father. To that end, Mom and Dad purchased four acres of land from my grandfather for a very low price. The plan was to move in with Papa, and live there while Dad and my Uncle Hubert, who was in the home construction business, built our family dream home.
It was not a bad plan, I suppose. Dad could find a job in the area. There were many booming textile factories in Salisbury and other towns around Denton. All of us would pitch in to clear our new property and start building. At the same time, my mom would be near her dad and the rest of her clan. My brother and I would attend school in Denton. My sisters, too young to attend school, would have all kinds of female cousins and aunts to fawn over them. When summer came my brother and I would be living on a farm with mountains and lakes and cousins close by. It would be one big vacation! Or so we thought.
I remember the day my dad retired. The ceremony started at 7 a.m. and took place inside the enlisted men's gym. I sat nervously on a hard chair, with my hands under my backside because they were shaking so hard. I watched my dad, wearing his starched Dixie cup hat and in his crisp Navy Blue dress uniform, with lots of gold hash marks on the sleeves, walk between the ranks of Navy Men also in their dress blues. He was making a final inspection, a privilege usually granted to retiring officers. My dad, however, had an exceptional career and was given a retirement ceremony that recognized his service. Before the inspection a Navy band played the National Anthem and the Navy Hymn. The Commanding Officer of the Norfolk Naval Air Station made some complimentary remarks; my dad, at times choking back tears, said some farewell words.
He finished his inspection, was piped out of the building and his days as a sailor were over.
I was no longer a Navy brat with trips to the base theater, the bowling alley, the exchange and all the other perks that I took for granted. It was now time to go to our no-longer home, pack up our lives into various-size boxes, rent the house to strangers, then say a lot of goodbyes, and head to a small town where everybody knows everybody else.
My grandfather's house was a two-bedroom place with a large glassed-in front porch, a dining room, formal living room, den and an enclosed back porch. It was built long before indoor plumbing was in style and so the bathroom was an ad-on that you got to by way of the back porch. The house was heated by an oil circulator in the den and there was also a potbellied wood stove sitting on a stone slab on the front porch. I would get to know that stove very well.
We moved in during a bitter cold spell sometime around Valentine's Day 1967. My sisters shared a bedroom with my parents. Rod, my younger brother, and I, we moved into the enclosed front porch.
The porch was divided by a curtain to give Rod and me some privacy. We had a couple of twin beds with electric blankets, a desk, and some shelves. Underneath the shelves we fastened some iron pipes to hang our clothes. We also had a chest of drawers and on top of that our own television set. It was black and white, of course. The antenna was attached to a 10-foot pole just outside one of the porch windows. One of us would go out there and stand on an overturned wash tub so we could see the television. Then we would turn the pole until we got a picture that was viewable. We did this every time we changed the channel. It's a good thing that there was only two or three of them.
I remember twisting that pole on Friday nights, so that Emma Peele of the Avengers could be viewed without being in a blizzard of electronic snow. We twisted it on Saturday mornings in order to watch the Three Stooges. There were times when my fingers froze to that pole. There would be other times when it was too hot to touch.
It was quite an adjustment to learn how to live in the dead of winter in a porch room heated by a wood-burning stove that went out in the middle of the night. Having no heat was not good. Some of our first nights, the temperature dropped down into the low teens.
I liked to shower before bedtime (my grandfather didn't have a tub) and many a night I would wake up with my hair frozen to my pillow. Rod wrapped himself up in his electric blanket. In the moonlight shining through the windows, it looked like a white body bag in the bed next to mine.
Not long after we moved in, Mom took us in to town to register us for school. Denton had one elementary school, one junior high, middle school as it is called now, and one high school. So we knew where we would be going, it was the same school my mother attended, her brother and sisters, and most of my cousins. We would be riding on the bus with one of our first cousins and a distant cousin was the driver. The bus picked us up in front of my grandfather's gas station and country store at seven am on the dot. Rod and I were the first ones on the bus and the last ones to get off. It took one hour to get to our destination.
The day Mom registered us we took the car into town. That took only twenty five minutes. The principal was in charge of all three schools and he had been there forever. My mom told me that Principal Harper (not his real name) was known, without affection, as The Frog.
Everyone in the school office knew us, and knew we were going to register that morning. I think they knew it before I did. That is just the way it was in that town. As a matter of fact, later that summer my parents planned a trip to Expo 67 in Canada. They wanted to surprise my brother and me, but the surprise was spoiled by the local barber, who told me about the trip while cutting my hair. How he learned about it is still a mystery.
Let me get back to my story. Mom registered us without a hitch and just before we were to go to our new classes Mr. Harper commented on how we would like our school here more than the big city schools we had moved away from.
"Why is that?" I asked.
Mr. Harper's response was totally unexpected.
"Because young man," he said with a smile, "we have no coloreds here in our school."
I didn't know what to think about that. I was a Navy brat. My former school was mostly Navy kids, so it was integrated. My family had lived in Navy housing, it was integrated. Our church was integrated. My dad's second floor Navy office was integrated, so was the enlisted men's club that was on the first floor. The Navy exchange and the Marine exchange, the theater, the commissary, all of these were integrated. I knew about people being separated by rank. The house in Norfolk we just left was in a neighborhood of homes owned by mostly Navy officers. I went to school with their kids, but I had never been in the officer's mess or in the officer's club. I was used to that but this statement by the principal didn't seem right to me. Not right at all.
I looked up at my Mom.
Something seemed to come over her. She lifted her chin up, stood up straight and looked the principal right in the eye. In her best "you better listen to your Momma" voice, she responded.
"Mr. Harper, I have no choice, I have to enroll my boys in your school, so I am going to ignore that remark and I will hope that in spite of the fact that there are, as you so proudly put it, no coloreds here, that my boys will still manage to get a decent education."
She grabbed both our hands and jerked us toward the door.
"Now would you be so kind as to let me take my boys to class."
Mr. Harper's mouth flopped open and his eyes bugged out. I knew then why they called him The Frog.
Once outside Mom started walking so fast toward the Junior High School across the street, that she pulled Rod off his feet. As she was helping him back upright I said to her:
"Way to go Mom, you sure let The Frog have it!"
She turned and glared at me. I had seen that look before. That look could kill flies in mid air. "Mr Harper is still your principal and don't you ever forget that, do you hear me?"
"Yes, maam," I answered meekly. "I hear you."
"Okay, now let's go to class."
It seemed like the best thing to do. I had a lot to learn. As it turned out, we all did.