The New Frontier


These are my folks. Today is their 62nd anniversary, and unlike my last anniversary post, mom and dad are still alive and kicking, arguing about the same trivial nonsense in the same house where I grew up.

Example-Dad:We drove to Minnesota in ’68 in that black Chevy. It’s just before we bought the white one.

                  Mom: (condescendingly) Dave, you had sold that truck already, we drove the white one.

And so it still continues, even into their eighties. It’s that kind of banter that seems to keep them young. And it’s funny, but that is how they endure in my memory, as young parents, with small children. Though I was one of the brood of four, the two of them remain youthful, and optimistic in my mind’s eye, raising their family in the heady years of JFK’s New Frontier.

After their almost teenage marriage, Dad and Mom bought a modest house on a modest street. My dad worked shifts at Kaiser Aluminum, sweating over pots of white-hot molten ore, spewing the kind of heat that would have made Andrew Carnegie happy. If my father could snag a “double,” stay on for an extra shift to earn more cash, he would jump at the opportunity. Dad wasn’t really a workaholic, because he was foremost a family man, and played as hard as he labored. Still, at the same time he sought financial security, and knew ‘all blessings flowed’ from contract negotiations, remaining a proud member of the Steel Workers Union.

In contrast my mother preferred staying home. She still does. Her home has been, and always will be her sanctuary. She is an interesting individual. As a teacher I can state for certain, if there had been aptitude testing for school children in the 1930’s, my mother would have qualified for a gifted and talented program. No joke–if we analyzed the hours the woman has spent reading, her eyes have scanned print more than looking at my dad. Mom’s face is available in both hard cover and paperback, (no e-book format yet). I think that if she couldn’t read, my mother would wither up and blow away.

Well, after some difficulties in those early years, my older brother arrived on February 10, 1954. And they named him Dale for my mother’s uncle. The next year, I showed up on February 10, 1955. It seemed to make some sort of cutesy sense that I should be called Gail. The timing of our precisely dated births convinced my mother, and maybe even my dad, that all God’s children naturally arrived on February 10th. (You’d think birthday parties would have been easier to plan, but my mom says no).

The path they have tread through the years was not exactly paved with gold. My dad’s employer, Kaiser Aluminum semi-regularly initiated lay offs as the metals market waned. But, was he daunted? Not by a long shot–he had a trick or two up his plaid flannel sleeve. My father, at heart, was not a factory drone, he was an outdoors man, a tree expert to be precise, equipped with winches, come-alongs, Swede saws, augurs, and thermoses of bad coffee. Dad just started his own business, a tree removal and yard clean-up enterprise. And though he actually made more money than at the plant, his practical, family-man side, the side that considered his wife and children, sent him back for the medical insurance and a retirement pension.

My dad always knew how smart my mother was, and instead of feeling intimidated, he was proud. Even today the woman can clear the board on “Jeopardy,” faster than Alex Trebeck with his cheat sheet. In the early years of the 1960’s, he convinced her to challenged the Postal Civil Service Exam, which she passed in spades. Instead of resenting Mom going to work, he encouraged her natural smarts and her remarkable abilities as a positive thing.

Now my mom wasn’t as convinced. Like I said before, she liked being a haus frau. However, her talents shined from the beginning, drawing attention from the postal hierarchy, who saw her as management material. So, after the birth of my youngest brother in 1962, mom entered the workplace and blossomed, eventually becoming a supervisor and working, for the most part with air mail at the airport. She memorized every air route, every airport designation, every schedule, with few mistakes. Her memory skills are almost scary. (I don’t know why he still bothers to argue with her).

So today my young, Kennedy-era parents are celebrating their 62ned wedding anniversary. They will eat dinner at 4:00, and chat about some earlier vacation . . . perhaps the Mesa Verde, the Custer Battlefield, or the semi annual holy pilgrimage to Minnesota, the land of his people. Maybe they’ll reminisce about the time I dropped her diamond watch into the toilet, or the chronic illness that plagued my younger brother through his childhood. Maybe they’ll laugh about the sauna they built, proud to have imported the authentic stove all the way from Sweden. After waiting weeks for the package to arrive it finally came by post. Opening the box they read it was made in Bellevue, Washington, five hours away by interstate.

I think their marriage just might be a good one.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January.

This is no Fluke


I spent a couple of days with my folks in Washington State, where I grew up.  It’s always good to go, and even more imperative as they age.  However, the part I seem to forget when I visit, is that time portal called their front door.  When I step through, the world suddenly changes, and I have traveled back in time.  The atmosphere inside, at the latest, is around 1970.  That’s the truth–you can ask any of my childhood friends.  Nixon unfortunately is still in the White House, and they still speak of John F. Kennedy with reverence.

Two of my brothers came over and we settled into the family room to answer questions on Jeopardy.  My dad has his evening viewing schedule locked up.  After Final Jeopardy, he flips over to MeTV for an old rerun of MASH.  It isn’t a very humorous episode.  Hawkeye and company are falling apart, dreaming of home, away from freezing Korea.  So I attempt some lighter conversation.  But no one is listening to me, they are glued to Colonel Potter while he dreams of his childhood horse.

The spell eventually breaks and we talk a bit.  My older brother describes another rerun of the Jack Benny Show which was so funny he had to turn it off.  It was too soon after his stomach surgery and it hurt to laugh. We’re talking about Jack Benny, not How I Met Your Mother.

The next verbal  tussle involved the first episode of All In The Family that dealt with homosexuality.  My younger  brother argues that the gay guy was played by Charlton Heston, and I know he wasn’t.  So we go back and forth arguing about that.  He wants to bet five bucks.  But, I’ve got him.  I have my iPhone and internet service.  I find a clip of that particular show and he grows quiet.

I can’t really fault my family for their desire to remain in a past time.  Dad loves his Nelson Eddy movies, and figuring out the vocalists in big band pieces.  It seems that talking played a bigger role in family life and socializing in 1970. Nobody could end the verbal give and take with substantiating, electronically generated facts.

I get it.  I can see easily why I became a History instructor.  I can understand why River of January was a temptation too irresistible to let go. I came by my passion honestly.  And here, in my mountain house? I’d say it’s about 2005.  I know I’m still pissed about the invasion of Iraq, House reruns occasionally flicker from the small screen in the living room, and in a guilty pleasure my Sirius Radio station is set to “Classic Vinyl.”

What year is it at your house?