There is a ritual that it familiar to every military brat that I grew up with. Every two to three years the family is gathered around the table or in the living room. Dad (or Mom) has new orders. It’s time to pack up and go again. In our house this was usually met with excitement and a sense of adventure. Sure we would be leaving friends, church and a surrounding where we comfortable, but we had known all along this day would come. There were usually tears at good byes and certainly address books were updated (address book = analog contacts app), but once we were on the road, it was all about looking forward.
I was 11 years old in the summer of 1983 and the current adventure had our family rolling from Virginia Beach, Virginia to Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico! Since these trips usually allowed a fair amount of time our tradition was to make a vacation out of them. That summer we headed north and west before heading south. We saw family in Massachusetts, South Dakota, Colorado and New Mexico. We visited Niagara Falls, rode the Chi Chi Mon ferry across the great lakes, saw Mount Rushmore and Devils Tower. It was a summer of memories; mostly great memories, but not all.
And then this…
We landed in Athens, GA where Dad was attending a class at the Naval Supply School. While we were there, all of our house hold belongings were neatly packed in shipping crates and sitting in a warehouse in San Juan awaiting our arival. I really don’t know if it was morning or afternoon. It was warm out, but it was summer in the south – it could have been anytime. I don’t remember if the skies were cloudy or clear, even if the sun was shining or if it was raining. I do remember a sinking feeling in my sthomach when my older sister and I overheard a conversation that had Moms in tears.
“Even all my pots and pans” was the phrase that sticks in my head. Dad had just told her that the warehouse that held nearly all our material possessions had burned to the ground. There was speculation of arson, some blame passed on to union labor. In the end it really didn’t matter. Ashes are ashes, no matter the source of the spark.
The news was eventually brought to my sister and I. We began the process of mourning stuff. My coin collection, my train set, my leather working tools. She had her mind on a custom built doll house that Dad has made. In additino to her pots and pans, which she later stated she was having a hard time beliving the solid metal was gone, Moms was thinking of pictures and family heirlooms. From that moment on, “stuff” would have a new, less prominent place in our lives. It would be amazing how quickly we reacquired plenty of it, but I don’t think I have ever been attached to a “thing” like that agin.
There were great stories of people helping out in the days ahead. The military is a tight community. News of the event and the 11 families it effected had reached the base and they were mobilizing resources before we ever landed on the island. We had a shopping trip back to the states to replace what we could. Dad didn’t want the house to look like something out of a catalog, so we learned the art of estate sale shopping. Something resembling home was soon taking shape.
“Ashes are ashes, no matter the source of the spark.”
That Christmas snuck up on us. In addition to having to forego our traditional live tree (they are not that great by the time they are shipped to the tropics!), we realized a big loss from the fire. Dad had collected Christmas ornaments from his deployments around the world. It was always a great time for us to hear the stories and bond around those memories. The tree would be quite different that year.
I’m not sure whose idea it was (I know it wasn’t mine). But I remember putting it into action. We headed out to Humacao Beach on the southeast side of Puerto Rico. We had been told that this was a great spot to collect sand dollars from the ocean floor. We weren’t dissapointed. All we had to do was walk along in water that was about chest high on me, feel the live sand dollars with our feet, dive down and pick them up by the hand full. Within moments, the five of us had collected over a hundered of them (and there were still thousands more we left behind).
What we do for family…
I said “five” of us. It was me, my sister, Dad, Moms and my maternal grandmother, “Grandma Leslie”. Grandma had come to live with us during our stay in the Carribean. She would end up staying a lot longer, but that’s another story. She had a fun and adventurous personality and was usually willing to give something new a try; including hunting sand dollars.
There was a problem: Grandma was a little “fluffy”. Combined with the salty ocean water, that made it difficult for her to dive down and get the sand dollars off the sea bed. She and my dad worked out a solution. When she was ready to collect them she would call him over, stick her face in the water and he would push her down by her back and hold her there until she had had enough time to pick up a few of the treasures.
For years he would describe this as the best “mother-in-law therapy” ever. She loved to tell the story and went on to have great respect for Dad.
Trimming the Tree…
Having collected the sand dollars, we cleaned them, bleached them and coated them with a solution of water and glue. The artificial blue spruce tree was set up and strung with over 500 white lights. We added the bright white sand dollars tied on with red ribbons.
The result was the most stunnning Christmas tree from my childhood memories. We would begin to collect new ornaments and the personality of the tree once again began to grow. But that tree was simple and clean. It didn’t need “stuff” to make it beautiful.
For years it seemed we would go looking for something and ask ourselves if we had that before the fire or after the fire. Three years later we were once again gathered at the kitchen table and announced a new adventure. This one took us back to Virginia along with a shipment of household goods that still managed to max out our weight limit!
There are many stories and symbols that come from the images of the sand dollar. They paint of picture of hope, grace and freedom. I was recently given a box that had a few dozen of those left-over sand dollars from 27 years ago. I’ve had fun making stuff out of them; from decorating mirrors to wood burning wall plaques to necklaces. I’ll eventually run out of them, but keeping them around simply as a “sentimental thing” seems contrary to all I learned that year.