2012: A Boomer Childhood in Arizona

Uhl’s Apartments in Willcox, Arizona. Eugene and Diane Smith on left, Elaine and Debbie Smith on right. Late 1953 (photo courtesy Diane Joens).

Uhl’s Apartments in Willcox, Arizona. Eugene and Diane Smith on left, Elaine and Debbie Smith on right. Late 1953 (photo courtesy Diane Joens).

My parents, Eugene and Elaine Smith, moved from Iowa to Arizona in 1953. I was about 18 months old, and mom was expecting my sister Debbie. Mom tells the story that she sat me on a potty chair in the back seat of the car, all the way from Iowa to Willcox, Arizona, the first place we lived. Mom said I was potty trained when we arrived in Willcox.

We lived a while in Tombstone. Shortly afterwards we moved to a little town outside of Ft. Huachuca named Fry. In those days, there were six little rock huts on a street outside the Main Gate of Ft. Huachuca. We lived in a little trailer by a barbed-wire fence that separated Ft. Huachuca from Fry. My dad worked for the Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Coop, and installed most of the electrical lines between Sierra Vista, Charleston, and Tombstone. He could climb those wooden electrical poles really fast with a thick belt fastened around his back, and special cleats on his boots.

In 1956 the town was incorporated and renamed Sierra Vista. As a five-year-old child, I can remember thinking the adults were pretty silly for fighting about the name. Some wanted it to be Fry, after the most recent founders of the community.

I didn’t get to go to Kindergarten. There wasn’t such a thing in Fry, Arizona, at that time. I always say that is why I’m not very good at coloring.

My sister Deb had pigeon toes. There was a big fire once not too far from our little trailer. Dad was working on cutting the electricity to the big building. We were worried about dad so we got a little closer to the fire. Then mom got nervous and started running with us back to our trailer.

We were running fast and mom was holding Deb’s hand, pulling at her to go faster. We were really worried about dad, too. Somehow Deb lost one of her shoes. That was a big deal because she wore ugly and expensive corrective shoes. Later, we had to go back and look for that shoe!

Some of my best memories are the trips we took way up in the mountains for Sunday picnics. There was a beautiful waterfall up Carr Canyon. When my grandparents or aunts and uncles came to visit, we’d head for the mountain with our picnic basket. Dad liked to scare my grandmas by driving close to the edge of the road, pretending the car might go over the cliff. We kids thought it was funny. We were desert mountain kids, and used to heights. We put total trust in our dad’s driving abilities. He was a hero that could rope the moon or answer any question you asked. He’d always save us. Why in the world was grandma so scared, we’d think?

We also picnicked by the San Pedro river. Who would have thought it would later become so famous? We just thought it was a muddy little river in those days. No appreciation at all for the wonderful, flowing resource that it was. I had no idea there were special birds in the area. My parents were from Iowa farm stock. They didn’t have any special appreciation for wildlife or birds. Animals were things you raised to feed your family and the world. Dad hunted deer, doves and quail. We ate them, but I never liked the taste of any of those things.

Living in Sierra Vista, our family traveled to Iowa to visit my grandparents who lived on the farm. Before we even got to Willcox, just 80 miles from home; we started the incessant questioning, “Mom, how far is it now to granny’s house? Dad, are we there yet?” Those questions were asked every 10 minutes for the entire eleven-hundred- mile trip. Unless, of course, one of my parents would sternly admonish, “Don’t ask that question again!”

We’d straighten right up. If we didn’t behave, mom would get out the trusty tool for obedience…the fly-swatter, and she didn’t mind swinging it in the air a few times until compliance was achieved.

There was no car air conditioning in those days. We always went back to Iowa in the summer, during school vacation. My sister Debbie and I, dressed only our underwear to stay cooler, cried all through Kansas and Nebraska. We would ask mom and dad, “Are we in the basket yet?” That’s what we thought Nebraska was called—the basket. We knew once we got to the basket—with those unusual brick streets that made the car tires sing clickety-clack-clack—Iowa and granny’s farm weren’t too far away.

In the 1960s we did other traveling, mainly to the ocean beaches past Hermosillo, Mexico. It was usually March or April and often windy, but beautiful. I still love going to the ocean to this day, based on those memories. The beaches then were so pristine. There were few people. What washed up on the beach was purely ocean related—starfish, sea shells and sand dollars—no garbage. Dad loved to fish. He and his friends owned those big long, long fishing poles. We also dug for clams in bay areas. We’d dig down in the mud, squiggling it between our toes. We’d fill a bucket with clams and saltwater. The clams would spit out their dirt, and we’d set them atop hot charcoal briquettes. When they were done, they’d pop open, and we’d eat them with soy sauce. Yum.

I had to do dishes at a young age. I always had to do them, and my sister Deb just had to clean off the middle things—like putting away the ketchup, salt and pepper, and the milk. I had to do the dishes because I did a good job. Being the youngest and no dummy, Deb was a master of parental manipulation, and did a sloppy job on the housework and dishes. It paid off handsomely when it came to chores being delegated. Hating the daily routine and drudgery, I procrastinated, and it sometimes took me all evening to do those darn dishes. To this day my husband pays for my childhood dish-washing slavery. He doesn’t mind doing the dishes, and I don’t mind letting him.

Please note, I love my sister and have totally forgiven her for these childhood transgressions. She did more than her share after I left home to seek my fortune. She grew up to be an awesome person.

I was always the “responsible one.” Being the oldest, with both of my parents working, at the age of eight years old, I had to make sure I got myself and my sister off to school. I would make sure our faces were washed and our hair combed. I’d check to see that the toilet wasn’t running, the sink wasn’t dripping, the heat was turned down, the lights were off, and the door was locked. Then we would walk to Carmichael School, a half-mile or so. One day on our way to school, I looked at Deb. I had forgotten to comb our hair! I burst into tears of remorse, just knowing how disappointed my mother would be. Perfection was never attainable, but I really tried.

When we were kids, we were not taught to believe in Santa. We were strong, church-going Southern Baptists, and mom always said that she wanted us to believe in Jesus. She feared that if she “lied” and told us there was a Santa, and we found out there wasn’t, that we’d think the same about Jesus. Anytime we went to a Christmas party and Santa was going to be there, we got threatened within an inch of our lives: “Don’t you dare tell the other kids there is no Santa.” I’d go through the whole evening biting my tongue so I wouldn’t accidentally blurt out the big family secret.

In those days we couldn’t wear pants or shorts to church, can you imagine? We wore fancy dresses and black patent shoes. And dancing, or playing cards…that was evil! Well, as you probably know, life is a little more relaxed these days. Thinking back, though, learning all those Bible verses in Sunday School never hurt me one bit.

As mentioned, we lived in a little travel trailer by the main gate of Ft. Huachuca for the first few months we lived in Fry. Then we got a brand new, larger trailer and moved to Sleepy Hollow Trailer Court. It was in the same lot as the Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Coop yard. We played among big spools of electrical wires. They made great tables to play dolls and hold fancy childhood teas. In the ‘50s in Sierra Vista there were a lot more trailers than stick-built houses. Later my dad went to California and brought back a few prefab houses, and built a house on 5th Street in Fry for us. After living in a trailer, the house seemed huge, and we girls could even ride our bikes down the long hallway to the bedrooms.

While there, when I was 10 years old, mom and dad had another little girl, Kandi. Kandi was the apple of our eye. We also had a big, furry German Sheppard dog named Zipper. We called him Zipper Darlin’. He was a protector. Mom and dad didn’t worry much about us when Zipper Darlin’ was with us.

When I was about 12, we moved to a nice house on Brockbank Place. That’s where mom had Kirk, my little brother 14 years younger. Dad had always wanted a boy, someone to carry on the Smith name. Mom said that was real important to a man in those days.

In 1966, when I was almost 15 and Deb was 13, mom and dad decided to move back to Iowa to be closer to their aging parents, and so their teenage daughters wouldn’t date Ft. Huachuca soldiers. Dad became the utilities superintendent in Manilla, Iowa. We packed up all our things and the six of us moved.

But we couldn’t take Zipper Darlin’, who was about 14 years old at the time. Mom and dad didn’t think he’d make the trip and survive the brutal Iowa winters. When we left, Zipper cried real tears. Deb and I both saw him crying. That was the hardest part of moving to Iowa. Leaving Zipper Darlin’.

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