The Outside World

My mom took a job in the early sixties with the US Postal Service. At first it was part-time, mostly needed at Christmas, but by 1966 she hired on full time. 

There were four kids, a house, and a yard, and Mom probably was pretty overwhelmed—something today I fully understand. For help my parents decided to host a student each term who attended a secretarial school in Spokane, called Kinman Business University. Lord knows what kind of credential awaited these young ladies after completion, but students did acquire skills such as shorthand, typing, filing, and other tasks.

The first girl who who came to stay with us was named Corrine. I can’t remember exactly the year, most likely around 1965 or 1966. I was in fourth grade. 

Corrine came to us from Alaska, and I remember she told me she was part Filipino or Native American, or both. I thought that pretty cool, Corrine to me symbolized the wonder of the outside world. 

Our house was constantly in a state of chaos, with quarrels, messes, a blaring TV, with people coming and going—chaos. But to walk into Corrine’s small quarters felt like a completely different world. All of her things were neatly stowed away, her bed carefully made, and the space even smelled differently than the rest of the house. I loved visiting her room, as it felt like an oasis of tranquility in a sea of crazy disarray. And it was in her little sanctuary that serene Corrine shared her life with me just a little.

A picture sat on her dresser of a boy. When I asked who he was, she told me his name was Ty, and that they planned on getting married in a few years. Married! I never knew a girl who had plans to get married! The only people I knew who were married were parents, and they were boring. 

He was called Ty, short for Tyrone, and he was visiting Spokane soon. Ty had received his draft notice and following basic training in the Army, he would ship out to a country called Vietnam. Corrine clearly missed him very much, and was anxious to see Ty before he flew to Southeast Asia.

My memories of his first visit are a little vague. I do recall that they sat on the couch in our living room and held hands in front of my parents. That moment struck me as fascinatingly real. 

Looking back I am sure that there were much deeper emotions at play, but whatever vibes filled the room zoomed over my 10-year-old radar.

And then Ty was gone.

The school term ended, and Corrine packed up most of her things and returned to Cordova for the summer. I’m not sure of the details or decisions, but she did return to us the next fall. Once again her room became that wonderful respite from the anarchy of the rest of the house. Ty’s picture again graced her dresser. 

Letters began to arrive to our house written on onion-skin parchment, marked AIR MAIL, bearing Corrine’s name. I’d never seen stationary like that, and she explained that was the cheapest way she and Ty could exchange letters. The paper was light blue, and felt like stiff tissue, but held its shape without creasing. Corrine had stacks of it, both fresh and received—the only sign of clutter in her neat little world.

Finally Ty came back to our house, and this visit was very different from the first meeting. The couple did not sit on the couch and hold hands. Not this time. My pre-teen sensibilities were shocked to see a grown man lying across her lap on the couch sobbing like his heart had broken. 

Poor Corrine! She, too, was dissolved in tears; red, puffy eyes behind her glasses. Ty couldn’t seem to help himself,  or compose himself, and he wouldn’t let go of her. The whole situation felt very surreal. I didn’t understand. How could this orderly girl, and her once orderly fiancé come apart like this, and in front of all of us?

That chapter occurred a very long time ago. My mother still worked, and there were other girls we housed. Still sweet Corrine and Ty live on in my memory as if only yesterday.

I grew up, went away to college, earned a degree in American History, becoming a teacher. 

For years and years I taught a unit on the Vietnam War to high school juniors. I recited the facts surrounding America’s entrance into that long, long, conflict. But in all my experience with those lesson plans, the veterans who visited my class describing their personal war, the analysis by historians we studied, nothing affected me more than the tragic transformation of that broken young man from Alaska.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

Chumbley has also authored two stage plays, “Clay” on the life of Statesman Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” an exploration of American racism and slavery.

One comment on “The Outside World

  1. Reblogged this on Gail Chumbley and commented:

    For Memorial Day.

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