Once upon a time, the June I turned 19, I moved clear across the United States from my Southern California roots to Alabama and then Kentucky to be with my helicopter flight school attending husband. For us and the other young couples in the air cav, time together would be measured in months, before they all shipped out. We lived in the present, there was no future that we could see from where we were standing.
I didn’t mind being away from home. I was more fascinated than lonely and I didn’t complain when my pilot husband was off for days training to go to Vietnam and fly, he loved helicopters and the army. For me, there was too much to experience, see, do and understand in this new alien place. I was an Air Force brat and the military lonely lifestyle was something that was second nature in my family.
My chariot of choice in my explorations was a black and yellow, brand new 1967 Barracuda convertible with a huge engine and straight pipes. Gas was 25 cents a gallon and that car let me explore old towns, old cemeteries, and all the history I could find within a day’s drive. I hated the muggy weather, the daily rain and the snakes, but still…. driving down a tree lined street with houses looking like Tara on either side made up for a lot.
In November, we moved to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, assigned to the 101st Airborne. The winter actually came in Kentucky, with snow, ice and cold. I bought boots and a black furry coat with a hood and even a pair of long johns. Because it was too cold to explore for the California Kid, I discovered the base library and changed my literary life forever.
I was hunting through the shelves and found a book called ‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R. Tolkien. The end papers were maps and it looked like a giant fairy tale. I checked it out and devoured it. I discovered there were four books making up the cycle, and the Hobbit was just the beginning. I trekked back to the library and the only one on the shelf was the second book. I read it anyway. I went back and this time I found the last book and read that. In weeks of waiting, I never found the first book and I remember being so frustrated because there were such gaps in the story. There were no bookstores close enough to either buy or order the book and time was moving on. My husband was shipped out and I was shipped home, back to California.
I was 18 when I got married, right out of high school and in a haze of doomed romance. I married someone I really didn’t like and I knew it. I even tried to get out of it, but my mother had already paid for the wedding and I was going to go through it dead or alive according to her. The best thing about that marriage was finally escaping my mother’s claws and her influence. She went on to completely destroy my brother’s life and my sister’s, but my trajectory was up and out and I never looked back. I left the pilot, I couldn’t do it anymore. He returned in one piece and went on to remarry and have a good life in Oregon.
I had my life back and the summer I was 20, I went on a long camping trip, again in that Barracuda, up the California coast with my friend Danny. Danny’s fiancee Brenda had just dumped him, becoming unengaged after a full year, and running off with a guy who was wanted for punching a cop in Dallas. Hey, it was the 60s and we were young and full of angst and hope and upheaval. I was half in love with him, he was still half in love with her, it was the stuff of bad novels and it made for a memorable trip which included skinny dipping in the Russian River, exploring Big Sur and every inch of highway 1 before it was a heavily traveled tourist trap.
San Francisco was heaven and Sausalito was even better. In 1968, Sausalito was a sleepy, hippie, fishing town. It is now big money but there are still patches of that vibe and I love going back and finding it to this day. Sausalito also had an amazing bookstore and in that store I found on 9/23/68 all FOUR volumes of the Lord of the Rings plus the Hobbit. I will never forget that store, that moment, or that day. Danny bought those four paperbacks for me and as our budget was small, it was an enormous gift. The books were the Ballantine Books authorized editions, each one was 95 cents.
That was the cherry on the top of the trip for me. We spent a few more days exploring and camping and resisting returning, but jobs were calling us home and funds were getting low. We made it to Eureka, California before we turned around to drive almost straight through 12 hours to Redlands and home. The real world came back with a crash and life went on for us, but those weeks out of time were magic. It was the start of our relationship and we wound up with marrying and having three amazing sons.
Our marriage didn’t last forever because I am very bad at the art of marriage, we even tried twice. We made it through the bad parts and our friendship was close and it was forever. I thought someday we’d wind up rocking on a porch and arguing about politics.
Dan died on April 9, 2002, after a recurrence non-Hodgkins lymphoma surrounded by his sons and his wife, Dorothy, the real love of his life. I’m glad they found each other in time because if anyone deserved to be loved, it was Danny. I still miss him and when I look at my boys, I see their dad so clearly. Corey looks most like him and the resemblance is startling as Corey gets older. Joel moves most like him, he has his father’s physical gestures and joy in living. Josh is the passionate one, Danny could argue all night long and drill you into the ground when he cared, Josh can do the same thing and does.
As for me, I’m the one who remembers him as a young man, the twenty-four old with the longest eyelashes I ever saw and as much curiousity as I had about what was around the next corner. We had fun, we really did, and the best years of our lives were spent together. For a very long time, I religiously read all four of the Tolkien books every September, the anniversary of fulfilling my quest to read the last book, and perhaps to remember a magic moment in my life when everything was as perfect as it ever gets.
The books are now getting tattered and fragile and yellowed, they have obviously been loved, and one had a fishbowl break in its vicinity years ago, but it was saved and dried out.The Fellowship of the Ring had a corner land in a coffee cup, but that too passed, and nowadays my quest for the fourth book filled, they are on my shelf of best loved books and most cherished memories of There and Back Again.