Monday, December 1, 2014

"Making My Bed...And Lying in It," Ch. 6 of J. Axtell Memoir

Making stupid mistakes (like my getting pregnant while unmarried) can ruin your life, but only if you let it. You can accept your lumps and go on from there. Quitting school was not an entirely bad thing for me. I knew it would limit my future employment choices, but I didn’t expect to work outside the home when I had kids anyway. My mother had, and I felt she missed many of the joys of motherhood and regretted missing them. I knew, if I had a choice, I would choose to stay home. That choice came much earlier than planned, but I had made my bed… at least for the time being.

Our December wedding was hastily planned, and not exactly a fond memory. It was a rushed affair, personally embarrassing and somewhat tacky. We got married in a willing minister’s living room surrounded by his toddlers in various stages of undress. I was not old enough (20) to get married by a JP, so we had to take what we could. Friends of mine, Tom and Carolyn, stood up for us. We were appropriately dressed; we looked nice, but the rest of the setting left a lot to be desired. All I can remember of the ceremony was a diaper-clad baby crawling around us, a harried looking Mom skulking behind him, and a glaring minister.

Then it was off to our basement. A basement! Ours was great – as a rec room, but not as a reception hall. The walls were lined with records and books, a dart board, a ping pong table, piano, hi-fi equipment, and chairs and tables procured for the occasion from everyone we knew. Paper wedding bells hung from the unfinished ceiling. Nice try.

My grandmother’s friend, Elsie, made the food. Sister-in-law, Sue, made the cake – which was the only accoutrement that was remotely elegant. I was smiling in the wedding pictures, but just for show. I know I tried hard to appear happy and grateful for everyone’s efforts, but I was miserable. There I was, almost three months pregnant, not at all sure about this giant step I was taking, and about to drive across the country and leave almost everyone and everything I knew and loved… in two days. Poor Ashley tried very hard to be romantic that night, but I would have none of it.

We packed everything we could fit in a trunk and fastened the trunk to the back of Ashley’s old Triumph convertible sports car. We had my regular clothes and a few maternity outfits, two spoons, two forks, two knives, two plates… you get the picture. We had NOTHING! It was freezing cold and we were about to take off in a car that had no heat and was far from being air-tight. Driving at 60 mph, there was an inch of space between the side curtains and the frame. But not to worry – Ash had a bear skin rug, minus the head, thank God, though that might provide an even funnier image. We had our first flat tire thirty miles from Newburgh, a bad omen for the trip ahead. I’d like to say I was a real trouper, but I wasn’t. I was a scared kid. If I were Ash, I might have thrown me out of the car somewhere in Wyoming… or maybe at the New York/Pennsylvania border.

Ashley was stationed at the U.S. Army Language School in Monterey, CA, studying to be an Army Security Agency Polish linguist. It was a beautiful place to start our lives together… more so, if we’d had some money, but the scenery was free and gas was cheap. Our first apartment was in downtown Pacific Grove, not far from the Bay. The furnished, one-bedroom apartment was nice, and the landlady was determined to keep it that way. She climbed the stairs each morning to tell me what I should clean that day. She also tutored me on how to walk more quietly, “Put your toes down first, dear. Walk like a ballerina.” The proverbial last straw for me was the morning I was scolded for moving a pillow from one chair to another in the living room. This was not going to work, so we went apartment hunting.

The only contact I had with my second landlady was when she brought me a bag of rags as a housewarming gift. True, I hadn’t brought any with me, but really – a bag of rags? Funny, the things you remember.

Our second apartment was in an attic. This was not a problem for me, but Ashley could stand up straight only when he walked in the middle of the rooms. He had to sit down or hunch nearly in half to pee in the toilet, but this apartment had a television, more kitchen wares, and a landlord who didn’t live in the building. Much better.

My library card was my best and, for a while, my only friend. Home computers didn’t exist. We had no phone. Ash had the car all day, but I was within walking distance of the library. I became a voracious reader. It’s all I did. The TV was usually on, but my escapes from reality were more often found in books.

On the days I went for prenatal checkups, I rode to school with Ashley, waited for the bus to Fort Ord, waited at the clinic an hour or so to be seen, waited for the bus back, and waited for Ash to get out of class to go home. But, I finally met someone who lived near me. Ginger was a savior. A little older than I, a nurse, and further along in her pregnancy, she became my “go to” person. We didn’t hang out a lot, but I felt safer and less lonely.

Things were looking up: Ash invited a friend home for a game of Scrabble. John was a Scrabble fanatic. He would bring a quart of beer for him and Ash, and John and I would play. It’s hard to imagine why my Scrabble game seemed important enough to stuff in our trunk, but there it was. John was a Yalie and not above cheating. “Sure, that’s a word,” he’d say while sitting on a triple word space for 200 points. Not an English word, certainly.

“Okay, if you say so,” I’d reply. I was still having a bit of a problem challenging these well-educated types – not sure of myself, at all. He ‘fessed up though, and it became a running joke.

John also joined us on many of our weekend outings. This presented quite a problem as I grew in size. A TR-2 is small – very small, and John was tall – very tall. I was the only one who could fit behind the seats. As my due date approached, Ash and John got some pretty nasty looks while the two were trying to extract me from my prison. One would grab my arms and pull me up while the other lifted or pushed me from behind. If one were to listen closely, I’m sure he would hear a “pop” as I broke free.

I made quite a sight at the tennis courts, too. By the end of June, people were begging me not to play. A Scrabble game and tennis rackets? Guess that demonstrates what my priorities were. We had no cook books or dish towels.

Randy was born July 8th to one of the world’s least experienced and most incompetent mothers of all time. Well, I probably wasn’t the worst, but I sure wasn’t good. I had baby-sat for older kids, but not infants. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got home from the hospital.

Charge nurse, Major Trott, ran the maternity ward at Fort Ord where Randy was born. I was in the army now! Good Lord, the woman was a tyrant! There must have been about fifteen of us lined up in our beds – exercising on command. “Raise right leg… one, two, three, hold. Left leg… one, two, three, hold. KEGEL, KEGEL, KEGEL!” There were no officers’ wives enduring this crap. They had private rooms, but we were cattle, herded from one activity to the next. Hurry up and wait! Sure, it was for our own good, but it was humiliating. I couldn’t wait to get home. I had never held a newborn before, and diapers were icky, but get me outta here!

Mom did come out for a week when Randy was born and we muddled through the worst of it together, but after that I was on my own to sink or swim. I swam. Mom brought lots of baby stuff when she came. Good thing; I wasn’t at all prepared. We had bought a second-hand car bed for him to sleep in at home, some diapers, blankets and a few baby clothes, but….

Well, there was a reason for my lack of preparation. I was uninterested in having this baby. I was not excited; I dreaded his birth. Ginger and the other mothers I’d met at the clinic were filled with happy anticipation. They talked incessantly about their purchases and their plans. But, I felt none of that, and it scared me to death that I didn’t. What was wrong with me? I made excuses: I had no money; I was too far away from the shopping areas; I couldn’t carry everything; Ashley might get mad if I spent too much money. But they were excuses. The real reason I didn’t prepare was because at that time I didn’t want this baby or Ashley or this situation. I told no one. I had made this very lumpy bed and had too much pride to complain about it.

The first words Mom said to me when she walked into our bedroom were, “Oh, Judy, you don’t even have any pillows!” Finally, someone who cared about me. I was struggling. I don’t know if I felt sorrier for Randy or myself. My motherly instincts were starting to kick in, but the more I came to love him, the more inadequate and guilty I felt.

But, Mom got us some pillows before she Left – perhaps the best gift I ever got, because this simple gift led to some extraordinary changes. It was like a virtuous circle story. Her gift made breast feeding a lot easier, which made me feel less inadequate, which made me happier, which made me nicer, which made Ashley nicer, which made me happier. It was probably the result of my hormones calming down, but I’d like to think it was because my mother got me those pillows!

After California, Ash was off to cryptanalyst school, and then on to Germany. Rand and I stayed with my folks until we could join him there. That was probably a mistake; it was entirely too comfortable being home again. Surrounded with the love and support of family and friends, made my life a little too easy. I missed Ashley, but not enough to be anxious to join him – and the unknown.

I was at home almost ten months before boarding the plane to Frankfurt. Do you remember that flying experience when you wished you could somehow throttle the kid on the plane, and his mother too? Well, I bet there wasn’t a person on our flight who didn’t want to kill us or commit suicide – especially the older man who sat in the row with us.

Randy was sixteen months old and was wearing a yellow, fuzzy sleeper for the overnight flight. The toy he brought along was a wind-up music box that played One little, two little, three little Indians. He didn’t talk yet, but he screamed whenever he didn’t get to do what he wanted… which in this case was to run up and down the aisle and visit everyone. Everyone within three rows of us was slightly fuzzy and at some point wound up the music box and sang the counting song for him. My row mate and I looked like we’d been dipped in glue and thrown into a bin of yellow fluff balls. Okay, I’m exaggerating – but not much.

The first thing I did when we got off the plane was to throw away that damn music box. Never, never take a music box (or any toy that makes a noise) on a plane!

So, we’re in the Customs line. I put my bag on the table, picked up Randy… and he barfed on himself, me, and the table. We got waved through. I’ve never been described as “pretty,” but that morning when Ash met us, I must have looked and smelled like an asylum escapee with a stomach virus. He hugged me anyway. Now, that’s love!

Living off-post in Germany in 1964 was like stepping back into the forties in America. None of the amenities we were used to were easily available. There was running hot water, but only if you remembered to turn on the small water heaters over the kitchen and bathroom sinks. Tub water took forever to heat. There was no central heating, only kerosene space heaters. The refrigerator was tiny – very handy for Randy to get into – and there were no electric appliances like toasters or mixers or vacuum cleaners. And our apartment was the best of all the Ammies’ (Americans‘) we knew living off-post. We had the best landlord and landlady, too.

The Kaltenhausers were fantastic. Randy was irrepressible and all they ever said was, “He’s a boy; he’s a boy.” (They had three girls.) Even when he opened the spigot on the kerosene drum and the kerosene ruined half their garden, that’s all they said. They didn’t let us pay for the damage or the kerosene.

Our friends became their friends. We were invited to their wine fests and their sausage fest, too. I’d like to forget that one, but it’s lodged in my memory banks somewhere between the plane ride to Germany and the death of my dog, Hasso. Pig-killing day in Bavaria is a big deal. Friends and neighbors gather to kill the pig, clean the pig, make sausage from the pig, and eat the fresh, raw sausage. The sights and sounds from that day shall be left undescribed.

I equate my time in Germany with being away at college (but with a kid in tow). It was sort of a half-way house between adolescence and adulthood – just like college is. All our basic needs were met, but choices were severely limited by all the rules. Because of Ashley’s MOS, there were lots of very smart (but somewhat immature) guys around. Our apartment soon became a favored hangout spot for many of his fellow specialists. Most had quit school as Ash had, because of the draft, and most liked nothing more than criticizing the Army… and generally questioning all the powers-that-be. Think college BS sessions. I loved it. And they, it seemed, loved me – a piece of home with the girl next door.

Ashley didn’t join in these conversations much. He was usually fixing someone’s car at the motor club’s garage; but even when he was home, he didn’t join in. Somehow, he often seemed “above it all,” except with Connie and Dick.

Ash had become friends with them before I arrived, so I met Connie very early-on. She would become a lifelong, and very influential, friend. I would be a different person today if I hadn’t met her. Serendipity, I think. It was she who told me I was a lot smarter than I thought I was. She was brilliant (solved matrix algebra problems for fun), a biochemist and the most unassuming, non-judgmental “smart” person I’d ever met. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but she provided exactly what I needed at that stage of my life: the confidence to be Ashley’s wife! Ash was tough, and so was Connie’s husband. Con and I were both only children, and now we each had a sister with whom to commiserate.

To this day, Connie is my favorite person to talk to on virtually any topic: religion, politics, science, culture -everything. We are both “big picture” people, so we automatically try to reconcile each discrete belief we have with every other discrete belief we have.

For example, neither of us sees religious dogma as a precursor to morality as most people do. We think an innate (not learned) sense of fairness (demonstrated when a three-year-old whose piece of cake is smaller than his brother’s will scream, “That’s not fair!”) was a precursor to religious dogma. From those beliefs, we can further conclude that religious teachings are not necessary to maintain a moral culture, and that dogma (specific beliefs as to WHAT is accepted as fair at any given time) is imposed by the prevalent culture.

“Big picture” people usually question the prevailing wisdom, examine the consequences of holding false beliefs, and try to resolve the problems politically. But that’s now. Then, we didn’t address political policies at all. Political opinion seemed a separate entity that didn’t connect to our daily lives. Boy, were we wrong about that! (Connie made the political connections before I did.)

Our time in the military is, more or less, responsible for my current political beliefs on socialism. It demonstrated to me how socialism works only in limited situations, for a limited number of people. It’s definitely not for everybody.

At the time though, I didn’t see it that way. I had read a lot about communism – we were in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and a hot war in Viet Nam, and I was not at all sure socialism was inherently bad. The civil rights movement, which still guided the few political opinions I had, was also in the news, and many social-welfare policies seemed quite attractive to me. I remember one gab-fest where a black friend said, “You guys are going to have a lot more trouble finding a job when we get out than I will.” We all agreed and were very happy that the times, they were a changin’. (1965)

It wasn’t until many years later that I looked back critically at my only personal exposure to a socialist system – the Army. I liked it for the most part; our needs were taken care of, not well, but well enough. BUT, the guys couldn’t wait to get out; they all had “short-timers” calendars, counting off the days. Hmmmmm!

I do recognize the necessity of having an authoritarian hierarchy in war-time (or in preparation for war-time). Without a strictly enforced chain of command, chaos would reign and nothing would be accomplished. But…at what cost to personal freedom? One can’t leave, can’t change jobs, can’t fraternize with those above, can’t offer opinions, and can’t do anything without permission. There is an abundance of “can’ts” and “musts” in the Army… and many are pretty darned arbitrary and capricious! In many respects, adults are treated like children, and when they are, most (if they think about it) resent it.

The military is necessarily designed to be a caste system from which one can’t easily escape until one’s time is up. Good for some, not so good for others. Almost to a man, our circle of friends got out, went back to school (if they hadn’t already graduated), and thrived in the outside world. Ash became a chemist and later a builder; Doug, a veterinarian; Lowell, an artist and a teacher. The Army was only a tiny blip in their professional progress – a positive negative, just like working in the bobby pin factory was for me. It showed us where we didn’t want to be and what we didn’t want to do.

Ash and his co-workers were a group of competitive, high achievers stuck in a system that removed merit from rewards. Being good at something didn’t pay off, so they tended to goof off. They did crossword puzzles and flew paper airplanes around ops when they weren’t busy. Hey, it’s real easy to goof off when you have that kind of job security regardless of performance. That’s not to say that response is singular to socialism, but I think any system that ignores merit and hands out attendance trophies certainly contributes to a “why bother?” attitude in some people.

Ash was once reprimanded for wearing a uniform that didn’t pass inspection. He had to do KP or something. There was something about that incident that really rubbed me the wrong way. Such a little thing, but looking back, it rather defines life in a socialist system for me. The worst boss you can imagine in a capitalist system couldn’t (and wouldn’t ) put you on KP duty for a messy uniform… and you could quit if he did. Only a government can have that kind of absolute power. Very dangerous.


We are serializing Judy Axtell's memoir, What Cost, which I edited and which is published by Outskirts Press, available from them, from and other on-line sellers.

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