Living with the Colonel

Right after he came home, Daddy had to go into an Army hospital across the bay in San Francisco for a bunch of tests to make sure he was healthy, both in his body and in his head. “Debriefing,” Mommy called it, the same procedures every returning prisoner of war had to go through. I guess they couldn’t figure out how any man could survive living for nearly four years among primitive headhunters in the mountains of North Luzon and still come home in one piece. After several weeks, when they couldn’t find anything serious wrong with him, Daddy was allowed to move back into our house on Spaulding Avenue.

Maybe the Army didn’t find anything wrong with him, but Mommy found him quite changed from the dashing young man she’d married eight years earlier, and from the doting husband and father who’d sailed away to the Philippines in early 1941. Now he was The Colonel, accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed instantly, no questions asked. He took over the reins of our family and set out to turn us into a model military unit. He made new rules for nearly everything, and assigned specific punishments for each infraction.

The first thing Daddy did was banish Rusty from the house at night. Using some of the old packing crates in the garage, he nailed together a doghouse in the backyard. The doghouse was nice enough, but Rusty didn’t like it and didn’t willingly accept this change in his routine. He howled to come in. He howled so loudly that Mr. Bradley came outside to see what was wrong. Daddy spanked Rusty with a rolled-up newspaper and used our garbage can to barricade him inside the doghouse. Still he howled. Mommy was very quiet while all this was going on. She didn’t say a word, but the muscles in her jaw kept moving, like her teeth were having a wrestling match inside her mouth.

Rusty’s howling was so loud that first night that I put my pillow over my head. Even though I pushed the sides of the pillow up against my ears with both hands, it didn’t shut out the awful sounds. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I got up from my bed and went out to the living room and stood right in front of The Colonel, tears rolling down my cheeks: “Please, Daddy, please can I sleep outside with Rusty? He’s been sleeping on my bed ever since he was a puppy. He’s afraid to be all alone outside in the dark.”

There was no yelling. The Colonel just said in a very even voice: “No, Patricia. Dogs have fleas and should live outside. He’s not afraid, he’s just spoiled. He’ll get used to it. Now go back to bed.”

But he didn’t. Rusty howled every night for a week. The Bradleys began giving us dirty looks, and Mrs. Agabashion, Eleanor’s piano teacher next door, came over to complain. Mommy didn’t argue openly with The Colonel, but she clamped her mouth into a thin line to show her displeasure.

I tried a different tack. Every chance I got, I crawled up on The Colonel‘s lap, put my arms around his neck, and looked him straight in the eye. “Please, Daddy, please, please, p-u-l-e-e-e-e-s-e. I won’t even ask Santa for a bike this Christmas if you’ll just let Rusty back in. And I promise I’ll stop sucking my thumb. Please, please, p-u-l-e-e-e-e-s-e.” I repeated this procedure two or three times in the coming days. But The Colonel didn’t budge. And still Rusty howled.

I needed a different approach. First, I planned and practiced my speech. Sitting on the couch next to The Colonel one evening, I talked to him in my very best grownup voice: “Daddy, when you were away fighting the Japs in the Philippines, we cried all the time because we thought you were dead. Then we got Rusty and we didn’t cry so much. Rusty took care of us, just like a daddy would. And now he has to stay outside at night like he doesn’t matter anymore. It isn’t fair.”

I guess the emenies in the Philippines had never tried this plan during the war. They should have because it worked! The Colonel began to soften. By the end of the second week, he gave in. Rusty could come in the house at night. Sleeping on my bed wasn’t even discussed. It wasn’t a complete surrender, but Daddy recognized when he was outgunned and it was time to retreat.

In the meantime, The Colonel made another set of rules regarding the bathroom. Because I was the youngest, I was to begin getting ready for bed promptly at seven o’clock. I was allotted fifteen minutes to get in and out of the bathtub, brush my teeth, put my pajamas on, and present myself to Mommy and Daddy in the living room to say a formal good night. Eleanor began the same routine at seven-fifteen and had to be finished by seven-thirty. If we went over the time limit, we earned one swat for each minute over fifteen. The Colonel pulled out his old pledge paddle from his days in a fraternity at UCLA in the mid-1930s. If either of us accumulated a swat or two, we had to present ourselves to The Colonel in the living room, bend over with our hands on our knees, and take our punishment. Then we had to say, “Thank you, Daddy. Good night,” and go to bed.

Within three days, both Eleanor and I accumulated swats. They weren’t really hard swats, not enough to make us cry, but they did sting. Again, Mommy’s mouth formed a tight line. She didn’t interfere openly, but her pretty blue eyes looked like ice cubes, and it was plain these new rules weren’t to her liking. As I remember, the bathroom rules lasted about three months before they, too, disappeared in favor of a more flexible schedule.

Other rules were easier to swallow. At the dinner table, we had to sit up straight, our backs not touching the chair back, napkins in our laps. No slouching. No elbows on the table. Absolutely no talking with food in our mouths, and no interrupting the adults if they were speaking. Mommy had already taught us most of these rules, but now they were strictly enforced. If we broke a rule, we had to leave the table without finishing our meal and go to bed. Period.

Each morning Eleanor and I made our own beds. We’d always done that anyway, more or less, but now Daddy demonstrated how the sheets and blankets were to be tucked in securely, with squared-off hospital corners, so that a quarter dropped from two feet up would bounce.

The Colonel said, in order for an outfit to run smoothly and efficiently, everyone had to do their part.

The new command wasn’t all negative. Daddy decided Eleanor and I should have a regular allowance, a nickel a week for each year of our age. Eleanor got thirty-five cents every Saturday morning because she was seven, and I got a quarter. Daddy cut slots in the lids of two empty peanut butter jars and printed our names in block letters on labels on the sides. No one else was allowed to touch our jars. Eleanor kept hers under her bed, but I kept mine under the socks in my underwear drawer. Although we were encouraged to save a little every week, we didn’t have to. We could do anything we wanted with our allowance, even spend every last penny.

In addition to allowances, Eleanor and I were given more freedom. Just a block away, on the corner of Addison Avenue and California Street, was The Corner Store, a lot like Bradley’s Pharmacy, except it didn’t have a soda fountain. Big glass jars held candy on the counter next to the cash register. The Corner Store didn’t carry toys, but it did have comic books you could buy for a dime. I already knew how to read a few words—yes, no, dog, cat or Dick, Jane, Sally, Fluff and Spot from Eleanor’s first-grade reader—and I loved comics. My favorites were “Little Lulu” and “Our Gang,” about Tom and Jerry and Barney Bear and Benny Burro. Those didn’t have many words, and sometimes they didn’t have any words at all, just pictures. For fifteen cents, I could buy one comic book and enough candy to last all day Saturday, with maybe even some left over for Sunday.

We had another option too. The University Theater was only two blocks down and one block over. On Saturday afternoons, for a quarter you could watch two serial features, more than a dozen cartoons and a full-length movie—usually cowboys and Indians, but sometimes scary movies like “Frankenstein’s Monster.” Some Saturdays, right after lunch, a pack of kids from Spaulding Avenue walked to the University Theater and spent the whole afternoon inside. The problem was, if I spent my whole quarter on the movie, I couldn’t buy popcorn. Eleanor could, and sometimes she shared. Mike Bradley, who was only eighteen months older than me, always shared. He was the nicest boy on Spaulding Avenue.

Because of getting an allowance, we learned about money from an early age. Daddy called it being savvy or knowing the value of a dollar. It didn’t take me long to figure out how to trade comic books or use candy instead of money to buy one at a reduced price from another kid who didn’t want it anymore. Some kids would even give one away for free when they finished reading it. I thought that was pretty dumb when they could trade the comic book for candy or a nickel. I never, ever turned down a free one, even if I’d already read it myself, even if it was one of those detective comics that had big words I couldn’t read and didn’t care about anyway. I knew I could trade again for something better.

As for my thumb-sucking, I finally asked Daddy for help. I don’t know why, but I only sucked my right thumb, never the left. My left thumb just didn’t taste good, and, besides, I needed my left hand to twirl a piece of my top hair around and around whenever I sucked my thumb. Anyway, Daddy came up with a strategy. He moved my bedtime to eight o’clock so that I’d be very sleepy. Just before eight, Mommy poured me a small glass of warm milk. Then I wrapped the fingers of my right hand around its thumb to make a fist, and Daddy secured my fist with sticky gray tape. When I got in bed, I tucked that fist under my pillow, closed my eyes, and began whispering to myself: “I’m not a baby, I’m not a baby, I’m not a baby.” I repeated it about a hundred times. That first night, it took a long time to fall asleep, but within a week I was cured. I was so thrilled that I forgave Daddy for all the new rules. I even forgave him for the pledge paddle.

As soon as Daddy’s debriefing was complete, he became eligible for six weeks’ leave, and a great deal of back pay. He put together an elaborate plan, and in early November he and Mommy left on a trip to Mexico and Central America, the long-delayed honeymoon they hadn’t been able to afford when they got married in 1937. Aunt Lucille, now graduated from high school, came to stay with Eleanor and me.

In the second week of December, after they returned from Mexico, Mommy took us to downtown Oakland to see the Christmas displays in the department store windows. Capwell’s always had the best windows: snowy winter scenes with reindeer, animated elves making toys in Santa’s workshop, and red and green and blue and gold blinking lights outlining the windows all around. If I squeezed my eyes almost closed, until everything got blurry, I could imagine it was all real and I was right in the middle, like magic.

Then we went inside to visit Santa Claus in the toy department. When it was my turn to go up and sit on his lap, I really wanted to ask for a bike, but I remembered my promise to Daddy and asked for roller skates instead. Having Rusty sleep on my bed was far more important than a bike. After Santa, Mommy took us to The Terrace Room in the basement for hot chocolate with marshmallows on top.

A week later we helped Mommy decorate the Christmas tree and hung our stockings on the fireplace mantel.

Christmas morning came. Eleanor and I were up early, but I don’t remember what I got in my stocking. The only thing I remember of the whole day was the bike! Right there in the living room was the most beautiful bike in the world! It said “Patricia” on the tag. It was a blue twenty-four-inch two-wheeler with a white stripe like a lightning bolt on each side and a shiny blue seat and a little white basket attached to the handlebars. I don’t remember how long it took me to learn to ride it, or even who taught me—I suspect it was Daddy—but it was the best Christmas present I’d ever gotten in my whole life.

 

Author: Patricia Minch, Writer, etc.

Growing up an “Army Brat,” by age eighteen I had lived in nineteen different homes in half a dozen states, Europe, and the Far East, and had traveled extensively beyond those. A National Merit Scholarship finalist in 1958, I attended the University of Texas, El Paso, and the University of California, Berkeley. Years later, I took additional courses at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California, and then spent thirteen years as a self-employed editor for court reporters. An avid writer, genealogist, gardener, landscape designer, amateur architect, woodworker, and antiques collector/dealer, I am also wife, mother, and grandmother. I’ve written feature articles for local newspapers and recently completed my first book, a narrative non-fiction account of my father's experiences as a guerrilla in North Luzon (Philippines) during WWII. I currently live with my husband, a retired college instructor and Air Force veteran, in Northern California.

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