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Over Here: 29 - Empty Tankers

...They were fast times, even for kids. I checked almost every day, and there was a war going on! Gordon and I bounced from school to school like empty tankers in a level nine sea....

Continuing his autobiography, Ron Pataky recalls moving from city to city with his parents.

Because Dad's background was in heating and cooling, he was rather quickly hired to go and head up the engineering testing division at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. There would be a somewhat rapid succession of moves during the next few years, taking us, in order, from Arlington, Virginia, to Bethesda, Maryland, to downtown Washington D. C. itself, and finally to a place called Parkfairfax, Virginia, where the family would ride out the rest of the war. Had there been a "beltway" at the time, we definitely would have been a beltway family.

They were fast times, even for kids. I checked almost every day, and there was a war going on! Gordon and I bounced from school to school like empty tankers in a level nine sea. (Incredibly, the world seemed to bounce right along with us!). An equalizing effect was the fact that many other kids, particularly in the Washington area, were going through the same, utterly discombobulating exercise. (Then again, I often reflected, many weren't, too!).

Dad's job at Ft. Belvoir was a kid's dream, which I know for certain was the thing that got me through the incessant squabbling and occasional violence at home. The whole deal had pretty much speckled and tattered my youthful blossoms, and I was already by then a troubled and insecure kid. It was an insecurity that would haunt me for decades to come.

Dad, as already noted, was boss-man over the testing lab at the fort. This consisted of huge hot and cold arenas, in which captured enemy equipment (and some of the stuff utilized by our guys as well) was tested under extreme weather conditions. We could experience a dandy desert sandstorm and a devilish arctic howling on the same lovely Saturday afternoon. To enter the "cold room," we first donned parkas that made us look like overfed Eskimo walrus-hunters.

The "hot room," while requiring no special sartorial preparation, presented its own challenges, among them actual sand-flies and the blatant odors of persons present and past. The incredible thing was that Gordie and I were able to actually play in and around these sources of wonderment German tanks and cannons, Japanese trucks and weaponry, just about anything a kid could imagine at the time. We might see John Wayne storming a pillbox on one day, and find ourselves inspecting what we could convince ourselves was that exact accoutrement, in person, the next. (On one occasion, when the neighborhood kids were informed by me, of course that I personally had utilized a genuine flame-thrower only the day before - a story lent credence by a car-washing father who clearly saw the value in momentary assent - I was indisputably King for an Afternoon in Parkfairfax, where the news spread even faster than had the day-earlier devastating flames of the weapon itself!).

Many older readers will recall the Japanese midget submarine that had beached itself near Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and later toured the U. S. as a popular curiosity of war (primarily to aid in the selling of War Bonds). Gordie and I spent many play-hours in that very submarine as it was being stored and prepped for that forthcoming national war-bond tour. I was the Captain (alert the media!). Gordie was a lieutenant or something. For a lousy Jap captain, I manifested incredible authority over my seven-or-so-year-old crew of one ... tempered at all times, of course, with a natural, God-given empathy for subordinates and other lessers.

(It was in the middle of this period that Mom suffered the breakdown referred to in an earlier chapter. My brother and I were shipped back to Mansfield, where the one-room school adventures were to occur, adding one more school experience to our already-confused young lives. I'd have had a breakdown, too, I thought, if I'd been married to that guyl Maybe I actually did have a breakdown! When the school year was finished, we returned to our own wartime battlefield).

Among the several major occurrences during this "beltway" period was a jim-dandy of a flood. It was probably 1942, when the Potomac River, for all of its serene, picturesque reputation, rose to overflowing and flooded portions of the entire D. C. area. We were living in a small rented house in Arlington, Virginia, and had already planted what had promised to be a pretty doggoned impressive Victory Garden, located at a communal digs some blocks away. Then, as my pal Louie Bromfield had predicted five years earlier, "The Rains Came."

We had very little actual notice, and would, among other things, lose or have semi-ruined most of the photos of our young lives. They'd been neatly stored in an old black trunk in the basement, and would be completely underwater for more than a day. (For the next fifty years, powdered silt and mud-water stains were clearly evident on those few pictures that managed to survive the deluge. Such stains can still be seen on a few of the pictures in this book).

Dad would carry us out of the house that stormy night, up the rather lengthy hill of our by-then-submerged cul-de-sac, to our car, which had been parked up the hill earlier in the day out of fear of just such an event. (It had been pretty clear for a few hours that flooding seemed to be in store for those of us living in low-lying areas). He carried Gordie out first, then me. As we waited shivering in the car, nightfall was fast approaching, and I was genuinely worried that Dad might not bring Mom out at all! It was a great relief when they appeared out of the darkness, with Mom, like the two of us before, perched on Dad's strong shoulders. Broken glass had cut his leg rather badly during a trip into the basement, when a basement window had burst under the outside water pressure. Mom, though, had wrapped it tightly with towel and tape, so it appeared he would survive. Oh well, the gods might've been wet the night... but they were smiling! Well, sort of.

Thanks to the Army, we moved within days to another rented house on Roosevelt (Street?) in Bethesda, Maryland. Although few of the details remain in my memory today, we had, once again, a home. Hallelujah! Also, before long, another, even bigger Victory Garden! And, a puppy, our first Shadow. (Within weeks, she would be killed by a car in front of the house. We boys were at school when it happened. We later learned Mom had raced the dying puppy to the vets, but to no avail. A neighbor had cautioned her, "Wrap the puppy's mouth with some gauze or something. She may bite you in her pain." Mom answered through her tears, "My little darling would never bite me." And she didn't either. She simply died, peacefully, in Mom's lap).


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