My grandmother’s friend whom we called “Auntie Blanche” lent us her small apartment in Laguna Beach for our honeymoon back in 1945. Only two blocks from the beach, it was an idyllic place to start our married life. Wally was back from his second tour in the Pacific war zone. This time as a fighter pilot on the carrier Ben Franklin. Before he'd left, in his proposal to me he had said, “If I make it back from the war zone alive, will you marry me?”
Neither of us knew at the time how prophetic those words were. He was in the air over Japan when his carrier was hit by an enemy aerial attack. The decks had been loaded with fighter planes armed with bombs and ready for take-off. The enemy had picked a good time, for them. Sixty percent of the personnel aboard perished in the fiery catastrophe and The Ben had to list its way back to the States. Wally and his wing mates were ordered to land on another carrier. Their planes had to be dumped after landing, and the pilots were sent home.
Laguna was a good place to step into married life but I was young (19) and didn’t know about post traumatic stress. Wally didn’t talk about it but losing some of his best friends and the fate of the carrier must have affected him deeply. We got married on April 25 at the Mission Inn Flyers’ Chapel in Riverside. Someone lent us a record player and we bought a stack of classical records which we played over and over in Auntie Blanche's place. We spent time at the beach too and read books aloud to each other. One was a new best seller called “The Egg and I” by Betty MacDonald. In spite of the trials of country life we read about in that book we agreed that sometime in our life ahead we’d want to have a country experience. We promised ourselves that.
Exactly thirty years later our time came. We moved onto a sixty acre ranch in Southern Oregon. The place looked like a picture from a storybook when we first laid eyes on it from the road across the river. Red farmhouse, red barn, red chicken coop, red woodshed and red workshop, nestled back from the bend in the Upper Applegate River amidst the green woods of the Siskiyou foothills. It looked like a corner of Heaven itself.
A chapter in my only book, Claudia’s Home, tells about that. Suffice it to say the realities of country living were not totally idyllic although I felt these were worth it. Wally did not. He sadly opined, “I thought we’d just be sitting on the front porch looking out over our little spread, but you had to populate the place with chickens, ducks, a cow, a pair of sheep that turned into fifteen, and those horrid guinea hens who screech. We have to pull weeds and rocks out of the pasture, plant hay and alfalfa, and water the whole works by setting irrigation pipes. This is definitely not the way I thought I’d be spending my retirement!”
I stood my ground though and Wally agreed to stay on. After about eight years we sold my little Paradise and moved on. We sold it for a hefty profit and that sweetened the experience for Wally but I cried as we drove out for the last time. Would I be glad to be there today? No, I guess not.
Not long after we left some friends of ours told us of their country experience too. It was to have been the fulfillment of a honeymoon dream like ours, a small ranch in Southern California, but they only lasted two years before becoming disenchanted and selling out. No one came to even look at their place until finally one day as he was painting the house an agent brought three or four clients in business suits to see the place. The lookers walked briskly through the house, glanced around at the property and said, “We’ll take it.” No dickering. Full price. When they left our friends hugged each other and yelled, “Whoopee!” Two weeks after the closing of escrow and their moving out they heard on the radio that an amusement park called Disneyland was going in there!
Well, Betty MacDonald’s book about her country life was a huge success. We made a big profit on our ranch, and our friends escaped their bonanza. I guess country life is for pioneers. I love those books that tell about the early settlers. I love the special memories I gleaned when I washed clothes with an old-fashioned Maytag washer, hung them on the line and milked a cow for homemade churned butter. I see in my mind's eye the free range chickens, gather their eggs, the ones that don’t get hidden by a broody hen, and turn into baby chicks.
There’s a little video about the ranch in my brain that can be played at odd moments when I review my life. In it I sit by a cozy Franklin fireplace watching snow fall on the big Sequoia tree in the front yard. I see the pond where we swam and watched little yellow ducklings follow their mama on a summer’s eve. I walk with Wally along the creek that makes a waterfall into the river. I smile when the baby lambs come out the barn door and frolic like jumping jacks. I climb the apple tree and pick enough for a pie. I get the water pot ready for fresh sweet corn on the cob. I churn the cream from Nambi my Guernsey milk cow to make the best butter in the whole wide world and lather it onto freshly baked homemade bread. I pet our little Border Collie dog when she comes in for a treat. I do countless little and large chores again and take walks through the woods and talk with wild birds and gaze at trees dripping with Spanish moss. I swing on the rope swing that sends me flying out toward the Siskiyou mountain called Old Brushy. I go to bed and hear the frogs croaking out by the pond and in the morning I look out over the land I can call mine again in memory.
And I remember that man of mine who gave up several years of leisure to fulfill a promise we made on our honeymoon. I think the war and the ranch contributed to his demise at the age of sixty-six. It was our honeymoon promise, a dream come true, but like all dreams you never know how they’ll turn out.