Tammy Welch was found laying in the grass near her family’s apartment. I remember the news rippling through the apartment complex where Michael and I lived. It was the Yorktown apartments on 103rd street. Our unit, a one-bedroom, was at the rear of the complex and faced a huge lot covered in tall weeds. When Michael was at sea and I had to take the trash to the dumpster, I always felt creeped out because the dumpster was at the edge of that creepy lot.
If I remember correctly, that day had been hectic for Tammy Welch’s mom because it was the day that the movers had arrived to pack up their belongings and move them to their new home at NAS Cecil Field, the base nearby where my hubby and Tammy’s dad’s squadron, VS-28, was located. Tammy and her sister had been playing outside as the movers were working. Her sister had run inside to their apartment and Tammy had stayed alone by the swings.
As soon as I found out that Tammy had been found dead in our apartment complex, I panicked and called my mom. She cried and was scared with me and worried for me. Mom had wanted me to move my stuff into storage and come home when Mike left for his cruise in October 1984, but I wanted the experience of living on my own. I enjoyed my new grown-up freedom. After hearing of Tammy’s tragedy, I learned that grown-up freedom has its down side. After that, I made sure to keep my doors and windows locked.
It was so hard when Michael had to leave me and go to sea. In those first three years of our marriage, he was gone a lot, both on short work-ups and months-long cruises. I cried a lot when we said goodbye. It was hard going home to an empty apartment. I found a good friend in a fellow Navy wife. Her name was Lori and her husband was on the same ship as Mike. She had two little boys and I loved spending time at her apartment. Her little boys were fun to be around, and Lori and I hit it off really well. We spent a lot of time together and got to know each other really well. Our friendship would usually taper off some when our husbands were home. During our time in Jacksonville, I only met one Navy wife who had no kids. Because I didn’t have kids, I didn’t fit in as well with the other Navy wives. They had their kids to keep them busy while their husbands were gone.
The cruises were tough on the sailors and the sailors’ families. Oftentimes kids acted out, spouses cheated, marriages broke up, and deaths would occur during cruises. I heard about it all when I attended Navy wives club meetings. Yes, the organization was a gossip mill, but it was also the only way for Navy families to keep up with ship information. We had no cell phones, internet, or email back then. Letters were the main means of communication for Michael and me, and they sometimes took forever to arrive. Weeks could go by where neither of us received a letter, and then one day we’d get a nice sized stack. Those were great days.
I got very good at keeping myself busy when I was alone. If I wasn’t spending time with Lori and her boys, I worked as a teller at a credit union, went to the movies, went to bookstores, the mall, the beach, watched movies on cable, and read books. I bought myself a used manual typewriter and I wrote a lot with it. The club on base was a favorite hangout for some Navy wives, but I have never been the club type, plus I was raised that good wives don’t do things like that. I was a homebody back then and I’m still a homebody.
Tammy’s murder had made me cautious and wary, so I now find it ironic that I let Gary , a stranger, fix the spark plugs in my car, and that I accepted his gift of two plastic kitchen funnels. I got to know Gary very well. He had a Betamax and that was really cool at the time. He would invite me over to his apartment for awesome spaghetti and meat sauce and he always had good movies to watch on his Betamax. He became a good friend.
I would write to Michael almost every day, and I would share with him about my evenings at Gary’s and the movies we watched and the food he would cook, as well as the other things I did every day. I shared my visits to Gary with Lori too, and Lori shared it in her letters to her husband Tony. Tony made it clear in his letters to his wife that she was never to go with me over to Gary’s apartment. Apparently Tony saw my visits to Gary’s as something suspicious and immoral, and he told Mike that he shouldn’t “let me” go over to Gary’s. Mike paid no attention. He never once even intimated to me, in letters or in person, that he didn’t trust me. He never doubted my fidelity or my love for him. I never gave him any reason to doubt me. When Mike came home from his cruise, Gary became his friend as well.
As soon as we got to Jacksonville, I immediately needed to see the beach. On the map, Jacksonville looks like it is right on the beach. Not true. Jacksonville Beach was about a 45-minute drive from our apartment on 103rd street. When Mike was home, we quickly established our fun spots. In order of preference, they were 1) St. Augustine, 2) Little Talbot Island, 3) Jacksonville Beach, 4) Daytona Beach. We visited these places a lot. We also had fun in Miami and, of course, at Disney World. In my memory, we spent a lot of those first three years of marriage at these spots having as much fun as possible until it was time for Mike to go to sea again.
I loved going to Jacksonville Beach. I remember that my upstairs neighbor, Shannon, thought it really weird that I would pack up the Nova with a cooler bag full of sodas, sandwiches, and tanning lotion and drive off to the beach alone. She hated the beach so I never invited her. I didn’t think going to the beach alone was crazy at all. I would spend time in the water and time on the beach tanning and reading a book. I never felt threatened or bothered by anyone. I would get to the beach by about 11 a.m., and would leave for home at around 4 p.m. I probably had a really good tan but I don’t remember it.
My sister Sandy came to spend two summers with me while we lived in Jacksonville, I did all of the same things with her that I did when I was alone, the movies, the mall, the beach, St. Augustine, etc. It was always more fun when Sandy was with me and I was always sad when she left. We had a blast.
During this time alone in 1984-85, I also taught myself to crochet. I mean it became a serious lifelong passion. My Grandma Nina had taught me to make a chain and do a single crochet. Without her to guide me, I learned the rest from a book I bought at Woolworth’s.
I cooked a lot for Michael and me. I only knew how to cook for five people, so we had a lot of food. I loved cooking for my husband and was always thinking of new things to make. It was back then that I developed the habit of showing my love for important people in my life by feeding them rich food. I baked a lot too.
Mike was away on a Mediterranean cruise on the USS Independence from October 1984 through February 1985. I had celebrated the holidays with my family in San Antonio, but in my heart I was saving up my holiday spirit for when my husband came home. I bought an artificial Christmas tree at a clearance sale in early January, took it home and decorated it. I left it up for Michael to see. I bought a turkey and kept it in the freezer. The day before Mike was due to arrive home, I made fresh cranberry sauce with mandarin oranges, walnuts, and cinnamon , as well as stuffing for the turkey, and put it in the fridge. I woke up early on the day of Mike’s arrival, stuffed the turkey and put it in the oven. I had never cooked a turkey before, but I followed the directions on the package. The turkey was beautiful and delicious. My husband was impressed. Gary had given me a recipe for the stuffing, and I still follow that recipe today.
Gary got his best recipes from a fundraising cookbook he bought in Louisiana. His Italian meat sauce, barbecue sauce, and stuffing were great. I still have those recipes.
I remember that I timed my cooking perfectly because everything was ready when I left to pick Michael up at NAS Cecil Field. His homecomings after cruises were always joyous, and I always cooked a feast for his return. After that first cruise, four months had seemed an eternity to me, and I was so happy he was home.
Tammy’s murderer was caught. Read more at https://www.news4jax.com/news/judge-man-accused-in-rape-murder-of-10-year-old-competent-for-trial