The Tail Gunner’s Daughter: A Memoir

Part One: Privilege

Chapter One

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature – Henry David Thoreau

The Lake

The Lake

 I was drowning, and I had yet to see four years. I strolled along the dock pulling my scraggly piece of wood, its tiny wake fanning out in the water. It was my tugboat, like the ones that towed log booms from the St. Joe River up the lake past the gray cabin.  The splash stabbed my ears like icicles and the frigid water pulled me deep down into darkness. Sinking toward the bottom of the lake, I wondered where I was going, how long I would be there, and could I breathe when I arrived? The cabin moved farther up the cliff and the clouds waved goodbye as they wiggled across the gloomy, March sky.

Thankfully, Jerry Fox, an older kid saw me sinking. He plucked me out of the water and hauled me up the ziggy flight of stairs to the gray cabin where Mom yanked off my sodden clothes and plopped me in the sink. She splashed water all over me from an iron pot warming on the wood stove, suffocating the goose bumps.

Dad, his brother Don, and some friends had built the gray cabin in the late 40s. It was a small, two-story structure covered in weird, giant, composite roofing shingles. The cabin looked like it was in danger of sliding down the cliff and crashing into the lake, but it never did. Wrapped in a towel now, my eyes flashed to the big window where the gray sky was replaced by a spray of deep pinks and blues. The hills and mountains surrounded the lake like a big hug, and the mountains donned their purple felt capes of twilight. Lake Coeur d’Alene was, and still is, so special to us that we’ve always referred to it as “The Lake,” as if it were the only lake on earth.

Before my three older siblings and I were sparkles in Dad’s eyes, the lake became a part of of our bloodline.

“In 1946,” As Dad tells it, “While your Uncle Don and Aunt Lucille were renting a cabin on Lake Chatcolet, they found some property for sale on Lake Coeur d’Alene, and Don wanted to buy the land and bring me in as a partner. I was twenty-two and broke.” Dad shared their brief conversation with me.

“Don, how are we going to buy land when we have no money?” asked Dad.

“I don’t know, but I’ll come up with something,” said Don.

Don mortgaged his house. “In fact,” said Dad, “The house he mortgaged was at 1136 Harrison Street in Moscow.” I was amazed that Dad had remembered the address of his brother’s house from almost 70 years ago, when he always had trouble remembering my name. He’d go down the hierarchy of his kids and toss in the family pets before he got to me – Denise, Dalene, David, Daisy (our Brittany), Doodles (the cat), and finally, Dana. “It might’ve been 1120 Harrison Street,” offered Dad.

Don bought, in Dad’s own words, “Damn close to a mile of virgin lakefront property” from Big Cottonwood Bay, around Reynolds Point and into Little Cottonwood Bay for $3,500. “Then,” continued Dad, “On a foggy morning, with a 33HP Evinrude on a 16’ Birchcraft packed with a bicycle, Don putted twenty miles up the lake to Coeur d’Alene city and bicycled from the dock to the courthouse and bid $50.00 for 20 more acres of lakefront property, from Little Cottonwood bay up toward Gasser Point. Don sparred back and forth with another man until Don beat him with a $400.00 bid. We split all the property, and where the gray cabin sits seems to be almost in the middle.” Dad explained, “I paid Don back in installments and it was a very slick deal.”

Dad continued his story, “When Don and I were splitting the property into lots, three surveyors had to come out because every time a lot was surveyed the measurements weren’t right. The corners didn’t meet,” Dad explained.

“Corners?” I asked. “What do you mean the corners didn’t meet?”

“The county surveyor came out and said, ‘Two plus two equals plus or minus four. You have to leave room for error.’ Then the engineer came out and said, ‘No, two plus two equals four.’ Then the lawyer came out and asked me, ‘What do you want two plus two to equal?’”

I scrunched up my face. “You had to have a surveyor, an engineer, and a lawyer come out to assess the property?”

Dad laughed and said, “Dana, it’s an old joke.” I should have known.

Dad separated his property into 100-foot lots. He and Don saved several lots for themselves and sold their first 100 foot lot for $800.00. Dad and Don held their own contracts and this first contract was $50 down and $50 a month. Dad rented a lot each to some friends: the Kirk, Elmer, and Fox families, so every summer we had many friends with which to play and get into trouble. And Jerry Fox was the one who saved me from drowning during Spring break.

Dad and Don were also business partners in the wholesale company, Spokane Hobby. In 1961 they opened another wholesale warehouse in Seattle, at Fifth and Mercer. Dad and Don decided that Spokane Hobby didn’t sound right so they renamed the company Northwestern Hobby. (Somewhere in the process, Mom and Dad moved us from Spokane to Seattle.) Later the warehouse moved to Westlake and John Street. This building is still vivid in my mind because the first time I climbed up the creaky, wooden stairs I was four or five, and hid in the pleats of Mom’s skirt. She urged me to peek out so I did and I saw grimy windows too high to see out of. I was introduced to the secretary, Shirley, who had bright red curly hair.

The warehouse was loaded with model kits of battle ships, cars, airplanes, electric trains, and Matchbox cars, which were my favorite. At home, David and I would play with the tiny cars and trucks on the front foyer rug which had big squares set in white stripes that provided ready-made streets and city blocks.

The aforementioned home was at 123 Prospect Street on Queen Anne Hill, the home that Mom said she could not live without and told Dad she’d do “anything” if he’d buy it. I’m unsure what she did, and it’s probably none of my business, if you know what I mean, but he took out a $30,000.00 mortgage for a monstrous, four story house with six bedrooms, three bathrooms, and an old toilet in a tiny crooked room down by the rumbling furnace that supplied hot water to the steam heaters throughout the house. There were stairs everywhere. Steep, narrow, Bates Motel scary stairs up to the third floor, and another steep, narrow “servant’s” staircase from the kitchen to the second floor. The bonus feature of the house was the front staircase with a polished wood banister that ended in a swirly curl. We slid on that banister every time we needed to go downstairs, and even when we didn’t. And I, being the smallest, landed on my rump a lot. Mom had ears like a bat and yelled from the kitchen, “Get off the banister!”

From the living room windows, with Mt. Rainier and Puget Sound in the near distance, we watched the birth of the Space Needle for the 1962 World’s Fair. It would be the first world’s fair since WW II, and it was during the height of the Cold War and the space race; hence the name “Space Needle.”

During the Fair, Mom and Dad ran the house as an illegal bed-and-breakfast, renting out the basement decorated wall-to-wall with army cots. The house was full of people: out-of-town Scout troops, friends and relatives, and hobby dealers and reps that Dad knew from his line of work.

From the mad money they made during the World’s Fair, Mom and Dad built a swimming pool in the yard. The process left piles of dirt everywhere and for weeks it was David’s and my play station. We plowed through the mountains of dirt on our knees driving our Matchbox cars and Tonka dump trucks.

Out of the mess a small water park emerged. I was mesmerized by the sparkling blue water, and I thought I was looking down into the sky. For days I stood on the cement sidelines watching everyone swim and splash around while Mom tried coaxing me in. She had been a lifeguard and swam like a mermaid. Since I had nearly drowned before, I was scared to get into the pool, no matter how pretty it was.

“Don’t you want to come in, Toad? I’ll help you swim,” Mom said. I looked at her outstretched arms, the rubber swim cap squeezing her skull, the nose plugs pinching two nostrils into one, and shook my head. This went on for several days. I sat on the edge and observed Mom swim smooth laps, alternating each one with the back, side, breast, and crawl strokes.

One day, having seen enough, I stepped on the first stair. Then the next, and the next, and then my tip-toes touched the bottom of the pool and I was up to my neck in water. I stood still for a minute while Mom watched me as my feet slipped off the bottom of the pool. Later, sitting around the dinner table, Mom got excited and blurted out, “I just watched her as she got in the pool, not wanting to say anything in case it scared her away, and the next thing I knew she was doing a perfect breast stroke!” Clearly, Mom was impressed, the only one impressed. My siblings could not care less. They could all swim. “Dana’s the kind of kid who does things when she’s good and ready and not before,” Mom concluded. I was the only one listening to her.

Every June Mom drove us kids to the lake for the entire summer. It took all day to get across Washington. Hour after hour I’d sit in the car with my face pressed against the window. I was so bored I’d transport my body outside. I rode bare back on a chestnut mare galloping on the changing landscape, from the mountains of the Cascade Range to the cliffs of the Columbia River gorge and into the desert heat of Moses Lake, leading Mom’s car by a nose. My horse raced so fast that my eyes watered and my bangs flew straight up.

Hours later we’d be on the county road outside Worley, Idaho, where we’d all yell, “I see the yellow road!” The yellow road had been carved into the side of the hill by Dad and Don and was the only way into the cabin. Mom always let Daisy out to run the last couple of miles. It took several more hours to unload the car and settle into the gray cabin. It could have gone faster, but David and I always wasted time running amok.

After a week of exploring in the woods and getting dirty, it was laundry day. Mom revved up the wringer washing machine out back. We took turns placing the clothes through the squeezing rollers and watching the soapy water gush out as the clothes emerged flat and dehydrated. We’d get to do it all over again with the rinse water. How could laundry be fun? One time, a little green tree frog was hopping around the washing machine and I hollered, “Oh, isn’t it cute? Is that a toad? Is that what my nickname stands for?”

“No. That’s a frog,” Mom said. Later, David found a hideous, dark green toad covered in warts and told me that that’s what I was named after. I’d rather be called Frog.

Washing

Wash Day with Mom, David, Ray Fox, and Toad

Dad drove to the lake on weekends, hung out with us, didn’t shave, chopped wood and fixed things. He would pile us all in the boat and drive the twenty miles to Coeur d’Alene City for the Diamond Cup Unlimited Hydroplane races. Tied up to a log boom, we watched the piston-powered V-12 Allison or Rolls-Royce Merlin engines roar around in circles. My ears ring just thinking about it. The sun roasted our skin and it sizzled when we jumped in the lake to cool off. The Kirk, Elmer, and Fox families also tied their boats up to the log boom and it was a robust party. One year, Dave Kirk’s brother Stewart had anchored his tugboat by the log booms, so Dad tied up to the tugboat. We jumped into the lake from the cabin roof, which also gave us a higher perch to watch the race.

One summer, to avoid paying the log boom tie-up fee, Dad and a friend attached a small outboard motor to a dock and started driving that up to Coeur d’Alene, but the dock kept going in big circles and they ended up in Harrison, the exact opposite direction of Coeur d’Alene.

Hot summers of bike riding, boating, chasing snakes, frogs and toads, skiing, and playing kick-the-can at night ended, and school began again in rainy Seattle. On April 29, 1965, having recently turned six, I decided I was old enough to walk the mile or so to school by myself without my trio of bossy siblings. I woke up, rummaged through my closet full of frilly dresses, which I despised, yanked one off the hanger and jerked it over my head. In 1965 girls were prohibited from wearing pants at John Hay Elementary School. Maybe it was in all of Seattle, who knows, but it was a stupid rule. I tiptoed down the staircase into the large foyer, slipped into a parka, and sneaked out the front door.

I walked along the sidewalk on Prospect Street in the old, affluent neighborhood, where the Space Needle and Mount Rainier graced the horizon. It wasn’t raining, a small miracle, but the air was light gray and fragile, full of particles like tiny glass beads. I walked toward school to attend kindergarten, which I hated.

My stomach fluttered from the fear and the excitement of walking alone. After walking three blocks my legs wobbled. The ground under my feet folded, twisted and cracked, and a ferocious rumble nearly tore my head off. The violence tossed me to my knees and I flopped and bounced like a fish gasping in air. Trying to stand up was useless. Trees snapped and houses swayed back and forth and I watched a chimney crumble and crash to the ground.

And then nothing. I lie crumpled in a pile of eerie stillness. Dazed and confused I got up and ran flat out toward home and pushed open the heavy, wood door, which looked to me like it belonged on a castle, and ran to Mom who frantically paced the foyer.

“Toad!” she yelled with relief and hugged me and inspected me for injuries. “What were you thinking, leaving the house alone? Oh, your knees are all bloody,” she said as she turned me from side to side checking for more injuries.

All the fear and excitement exploded from my mouth, “I was walking to school by myself and I could have made it too if the earth didn’t throw me down and try to eat me.”

Mom laughed and replied, “I guess this was a bad day to declare your independence.” She looked me over again. “Here, let me tie your shoes.”

I pushed her hands away. “I’ll do it my own self.”

To be continued . . .

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About Dana J Dewey

I was a slow learner as a child and to overcome my fear of school, as an adult I attended many of them. I ended up with a master of science degree in counseling psychology and I'm a licensed mental health counselor who is passionate about mental health. This blog is about life, joy, and the pursuit of good mental health, and the eclectic way in which it's achieved. I'm blogging a memoir, The Tail Gunner's Daughter, and later, Parent-Able: Seven Strategies for Raising a Physically Disabled Child Without Going Insane.
This entry was posted in Books, Family, Memoir, Non-fiction, stories, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Tail Gunner’s Daughter: A Memoir

  1. Kevin says:

    Thanks for doing this, you are a great writer
    Kevin

    Like

  2. Susie says:

    Dana, I love it!!! Give us more! Susie

    Like

  3. cindi says:

    Beautiful

    Like

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