On an especially hot Saturday evening a few weeks ago I had a strange experience with time traveling. While waiting for Dave to settle in so we could watch a movie, our television happened to be tuned in to PBS during one of their interminable pledge drives. Lawrence Welk was the featured program. Nothing takes me back to my childhood like the champagne bubble music of Lawrence Welk!
My parents watched Lawrence Welk sometimes, enjoying the singing, dancing and staging of his numbers. My father was especially fond of variety shows. In fact, as long as the humor was clean and wholesome, this Illinois farm boy cum middle class urban businessman–loved anything vaguely burlesque. Mr. Welk’s show almost fit the bill–it was squeaky clean with sanitized performers and performances. All it lacked were skits and comedians. This particular show was produced sometime in the late sixties or early seventies and was broadcast from a beach in Oahu. The strong breezes played havoc with everyone’s hair; the sound engineering was clearly a nightmare. From a hula dance to sentimental love songs to Norma singing about love lasting forever, this was a vintage Welk telecast.
The broadcast, with its perfectly matched costumes, idyllic setting and complete naivety, shot me back to my youth and early adulthood. There was no hint on the show of the turmoil in America or anywhere else in the world, even though the controversial Vietnam conflict, with its daily count of fatalities, topped the news. How could anyone, paying any attention at all, escape the street protests against the war, the university shutdowns over the draft, the racial tension with the rise of the Black Panthers? Somehow, Lawrence Welk and many other entertainers of the time managed to do just that.
At this point on a Saturday night in the present, I had some kind of reality break, unlike anything I have experienced before. I saw myself in the late 1960s—not a hippie, not a protestor, living at home with my parents while my husband was serving in the Mekong Delta. We had married on November 9, 1968, a month before he left for Vietnam.
I spent part of my senior year on campus after his departure, and the remainder at home with my parents while I completed my student teaching. I remember being caught between several worlds—one where every minute of the war was sheer agony and death counts were personal; another where I was a daughter living at home with her doting parents; a third where I was a student on a college campus living in the dorm.
On a Friday, a week before Labor Day weekend in 1969, I boarded a plane to fly by myself to Honolulu. My husband flew from Vietnam to Guam, and finally landed at Hickam Air Force Base. We spent his R & R together in Hawaii—almost a full week in a tropical paradise, where we stayed in the nicest hotels and ate in the best restaurants. The merchants, hoteliers, restaurants and businesses offered us 50% discounts throughout the islands. From that point on I was in love with everything Hawaiian—songs, tropical scents, Asian food. It was the paradise of young love, and loss, as he left on a bus to board the plane returning him to a jungle at war. When Hawaii Five-O premiered on TV that fall, I wouldn’t miss an episode, especially the exciting opening with waves, surfers and the skyline of Honolulu.
During 1969, I did pay attention to what was happening—I hated every bit of violence perpetrated on anyone anywhere because I personalized it all. That person had a mother, a father, a wife, a child… I voted in my first election for Hubert Humphrey while my husband voted for Richard Nixon by absentee ballot. When Rob returned from Vietnam, very thin and sick, he watched me graduate from college. He shared his expectations and dreams with me, fueled by his year of avoiding strafing, planning bomb drops and meeting the native villagers in his town. I knew then that I didn’t know this man, and probably never had.
A few weeks later I left home and everything I knew—the mountain-filled horizon of Denver with all its vivid sunshine was a huge loss. I became a part of another family in Chicago. My mother-in-law asked me to take care of Bobby, a name I never used for him. When I told my mother about this, thinking it was very sweet, she remarked, “I hope he is going to take care of you!”
After celebrating New Year’s Eve in Times Square (NYC), my husband and I moved to Bitburg AFB in Germany. We lived there for almost four years. With everything different and my childhood gone, I became a young wife, a teacher and a European traveler. As my experience broadened, I saw America from another side and I started to become an adult. Those were exciting, frightening, eye-opening, disillusioning years that I will always treasure and would not trade.
Our marriage did not survive our return to the United States. We had two wonderful daughters to cherish, but civilian life and adult responsibilities did not become my husband. He followed his own path to Florida while my daughters and I followed another back in Denver. Our daughters grew up in the Denver Metro area, visiting their father in Fort Myers, FL, every summer. As I wrote in an earlier post, I did mourn his death from a brain tumor in 2007, more than forty years after our first meeting in July 1967.
On this recent Saturday evening in July 2011, when Dave finally settled in, I asked him if he ever felt disconnected from the present. Here I was, trying to figure out my new iPhone while watching Lawrence Welk. How weird is that? We live in a world of technological wizardry, the people we were and many we knew are long gone, but somewhere in that time tunnel is a young Mary, in a very different time wearing a lei, breathing in heavy Hawaiian air, awaiting her young airman husband. Was I ever that young? Am I really that old?
Thank goodness Dave completely understood my strange mood.