Home Is Where …

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 12.41.26 PMDonna’s Cousin Denise, her husband Clarence, and two youngsters, Solomon and Rachel, are visiting from Sacramento, California. We have a full house, so Polly has temporarily relocated to a friend’s mother-in-law cottage just down the road.

I’ve known Denise as long as I’ve known Donna. The three of us met in late 1964, when I was in my freshman year at American River College in Sacramento. Donna saw my carpooler-wanted notice on the student union bulletin board and called. She was living with her cousins in North Highlands, my own neighborhood. The next morning, when I drove up to the address she’d given me, Donna was waiting out front with three cousins lined up behind her to check me out and make sure I wasn’t a lounge lizard or ne’er-do-well: Denise, a year or two younger than Donna, then two younger girls, Debbie and Diane. Their mother was Aunt Margaret, the oldest of Donna’s dad’s siblings, their father the famous Uncle Art, the man whose secret chili bean recipe I’ve been trying to recreate all these years.

Donna was born in Pittsburg, California, down in the Bay Area, but her parents separated when she was young and she moved around the country with her mom and new step-dad. After high school in Detroit she moved on her own to San Francisco where she worked as a girl Friday for a few months, then decided to go to college in Sacramento since she had family there. I was the son of an Air Force family and had been in Sacramento since my sophomore year in high school. She was new to town; I was a relative old-timer.

Back to the driveway in North Highlands: Donna was a very attractive young woman. Cute, freckles, great smile. I didn’t have designs on her the first time I saw her, but after we’d been driving to and from college a couple of weeks I asked her out and she accepted. Our first date was at the McClellan AFB photo lab, where I took her in the darkroom and … showed her how to develop black & white film and print photos, my big hobby at the time.

We finished our freshman year at American River in the summer of 1965, just as my dad got orders to Germany. Donna had just turned 19; I was still 18. I wanted to finish college but my folks couldn’t afford to set me up on my own in Sacramento. The University of Maryland taught college courses at military bases overseas and that was the affordable option, so I went with my family to Wiesbaden. Donna and I thought we were moving on to new and separate chapters in our lives. Unknown to either of us, we had a baby boy on the way.

I didn’t have a dime of my own, but mom and dad paid Donna’s way to Germany and we were married there. We lived with our baby boy Gregory in a little town outside of Wiesbaden. I worked at the base exchange. After Gregory was born Donna went to work for the base exchange as well, and I moved to a higher-paying job as a truck driver, hauling goods from the main BX warehouse in Mainz to exchange outlets all over Germany. I took a few night classes through U of M, but with a full-time job, not anywhere near a full academic load.

I considered Sacramento home, and most of Donna’s family was in and around northern California. From the day Donna stepped off the plane in Frankfurt, we planned to move back. We saved up and two years later, in 1967, we did. We flew from Germany to Detroit (where I first met Donna’s mom and stepdad), bought a used car, and drove on to Sacramento. Our long-delayed wedding reception & baby shower was at (guess where?) Aunt Margaret & Uncle Art’s in North Highlands. Denise, Debbie, and Diane were there, of course, along with all of Donna’s California family.

The first year back was a lot like Germany: I worked full time and could only take a couple of classes, but Donna worked full time as well and in 1968 I was able to start at Sacramento State with a full load. I graduated in 1970, went on to grad school and finished that in 1972. (Years later, when we were stationed at Kadena Air Base in Japan, Donna was finally able to finish her own degree … thanks to good old University of Maryland, still in the business of teaching college at military bases around the world.)

All this is to explain why Sacramento, where we lived some of the most important years of our lives, is home to us. From the time we met there in 1965 to the time we moved away in 1972, less two years in Germany, Sacramento was our home for a little over five years. Before that neither of us had lived anywhere more than three years; afterward, during our own working and child-rearing years, never more than four years in any one place. Even though, since leaving the Air Force in 1997, we’ve been settled in Tucson more than twenty years, when people ask us where we’re from, we still say Sacramento.

When you’re a military brat with no strong ties to a childhood home, moving every two or three years, you adopt one, and it’ll most likely be the place you went to high school. That’s where you have your first adult experiences and form your first adult friendships. That was Sacramento for me.

Donna’s family was transient as well. Her stepdad, before settling in Detroit, hauled her all around the country. Even though she didn’t go to high school in Sacramento, that’s where she and I met and mostly lived, both before and after our marriage, and like me she considers it home. Denise and Clarence’s visit brings it back for both of us.

Sacramento. You could do worse.

Donna and the Sacramento gang are at the Sonora Desert Museum today, entertaining the ten-year-olds, Solomon and Rachel. I’m home administering CPR to this poor neglected blog. I’m on for tomorrow, when I’ll take everyone to the air museum for a personal tour.

© 2018, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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