The first three years – Jacksonville

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.

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Where we loved to bbq, swim, and fish — inJacksonville, Florida.

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.

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This is me in early December 1984. It was taken at a Navy Wives Club Christmas party. I was 19. We took lots of pics and made a video to send to our husbands at sea. It was my first Christmas as a married lady and I missed my sailor lots.

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

God watches over fools and children

I can never seem to find the exact quote or the source of the quote. Internet searches yield variations on the theme. Regardless of who said it or how it was said, this sentence applied to me in 1984. I was a fool and a child.

After the murder of Tammy Welch, I became nervous. I went about my daily routine, but there was a sharp edge to my life that I had not felt before. I had gotten a job as a teller at a credit union, and work was my biggest distractor. I went to work, came home, and ate take-out mostly. I watched tv, visited with friends, or went to the movies. It had become too cold and windy to go to the beach. I had settled into a routine. However, there was one glitch.

Every morning I had trouble starting my car. It became a regular thing and I had to allow extra time every morning to get the green Chevy Nova going. I didn’t like my job or my manager, but I was glad to have the distraction from my inner thoughts. For eight hours a day, I focused on the credit union members, keeping my till balanced, and tried to steer clear of my very mean manager, Darlene.

My introspective nature often made me unaware of my physical surroundings and the people around me. I was an expert at tuning out and turning inward. Loneliness made me more introspective. Tammy’s murder had made me more aware of the sinister aspects of the world around me, but this only made me want to retreat from the world. One weekend I noticed that a new tenant was moving into one of the apartments above mine. I saw the moving truck and a strange vehicle in the parking lot, but I did not see my new neighbor until the day he knocked on my door.

When I opened the door, there stood Gary. He was a 32-year-old man from Tennessee. He was in the Navy. He had reddish hair and a mustache and was polite and friendly when he asked if I had a kitchen funnel he could borrow. He said he had made a batch of barbecue sauce and he needed a funnel to pour the sauce into bottles for storing in his fridge. I told Gary that I didn’t own a funnel. He thanked me and left. I looked out the window and watched him walk to his car and drive off.

A week later Gary came to my door on a Saturday. “I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve been having trouble starting your car in the morning. It sounds like your spark plugs need cleaning. I can clean them for you if you’d like.” I took him up on his offer. I grabbed my keys and went outside to open up the car. Gary lifted the car’s hood and set to work checking and cleaning the spark plugs. I left him to his work and went back into my apartment. When he was done with the job, he knocked on my door and said, “I’m all done. You shouldn’t have any trouble starting your car anymore.” I thanked him and closed the door. It never once crossed my mind to be wary of him. I didn’t think it odd at all that he’d fixed my car with only my sincerest thanks for his payment. I just thought he was a nice neighbor.

Work had become a problem for me. I had grown tired of having to protect myself from Darlene’s constant scrutiny. As an inexperienced teller, my learning curve was a stressful one. I’d worked in retail in San Antonio, and I had never cared much if my cash drawer balanced. I didn’t like retail, and now I didn’t like being a teller. I felt as though Darlene was waiting for me to make a grave error so that she could fire me.

The credit union was closing on Christmas day, but I couldn’t go home to San Antonio because I was scheduled to work on Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas. My birthday was two days after Christmas, and I really wanted to spend the holidays and my birthday with my family. I took a chance and requested the entire holiday week off. Of course Darlene said no.

Nancy, one of my coworkers, was a very nice lady. When she saw how disappointed I was when my time off request was denied, she immediately invited me to spend Christmas day with her family. She was so sweet. For our office Thanksgiving party, Nancy had brought in a bowl of cooked and spiced cranberries that was absolutely delicious. I asked her for the recipe and she happily gave it to me. The only kind of cranberry sauce I’d ever eaten was Ocean Spray Cranberry Jelly. It popped out and onto a dish in the shape of the can it came in. Nancy’s cranberries were freshly made. Until then, I had no clue that grocery stores sold fresh cranberries. Nancy planted a seed in my brain. I’ll write more about cranberries in another post.

I did not have a thick skin n 1984. I felt raw and nervous. Rebecca, the book written by Daphne Du Maurier, is #3 on my list of favorite books. I have read it too many times to count. There is one particular passage that resonates with me because it reminds me of what it felt like to be 19, newly married, alone, and far from home. Were it my own story to tell, I’d replace the age of 21 with 19.

“They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word.” – Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier

I was very unhappy at the prospect of spending Christmas in Jacksonville. Just about all of the navy wives who made up my circle of friends were leaving town to spend Christmas with their families. Most of their destinations were close enough for them to drive the distance. I appreciated Nancy’s invitation to spend Christmas at her home, but I wanted to be in San Antonio with my family. I also wanted time away from Darlene and what I perceived as her hostility toward me, her micromanaging style, and her tense face. I reached a boiling point. It was bad enough that I had to be away from my husband. I didn’t want to spend Christmas with strangers. I decided to go home. I knew I wouldn’t have a job when I returned to Jacksonville after the holidays, but I didn’t care. I was youthfully optimistic about my job prospects. I’d find another job after the new year. I wanted to ring in the new year with my parents, my sister, my little brother, and all my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

My last day of work at the credit union was December 20, 1984. I told no one of my plans not to return. I went home and packed a couple of bags and asked a friend for a ride to the Greyhound bus station. I didn’t have the money to fly home. I remember that the ride was long and tedious. A lot of the passengers were in military uniform. I was so anxious to get home that I called my mom at every stop until she told me to stop wasting money on the phone calls.

I made it to San Antonio and it was so good to be home. There was one fly in the holiday ointment however. I had a guilty conscience about abandoning my job. I wanted to be rid of the guilt and kept thinking about how to close the door on my credit union job. I still had the key to my cash drawer. I felt awful about walking out on my job with the cash drawer key in my purse. It nagged at me and I needed to resolve it. I pulled an empty envelope out of the hall closet in my parents’ house. They always had a lot of envelopes. I scribbled a quick note to Darlene, letting her know that I would not be returning to my job. I slipped the cash drawer key into the envelope, sealed it, stamped it, addressed it to Darlene in care of the credit union, and mailed it out. I felt kind of bad that the key looked like it might cut through the envelope because I hadn’t bothered to remove the key ring. I knew it might get lost in the mail. I decided not to care. I was glad to be out of a job I disliked so much, away from a manager who clearly disliked me. The key and the job were gone from my life, and I thoroughly enjoyed the holidays and my birthday with my family. Mom and dad threw a New Year’s eve party and I got to hug and kiss all my aunts and uncles. I wore a silky gold blouse and a soft white skirt for the party. I felt pretty and happy. The festivities were great. The trip went well except for one thing. I missed Michael immensely.

The day after my birthday, my sister came with me to the San Antonio International Airport where I bought an airplane ticket to Jacksonville. I flew out of San Antonio on New Year’s day. I hugged and kissed my family, and I cried as I boarded the plane. Back in Jacksonville, my friend and neighbor Nancy picked me up at the airport and drove me home. I let myself into my apartment, too exhausted to be nervous or afraid. I went straight to bed and slept in the following day.

I woke up to the sound of a knock at my door. It was Gary and he had two brand new plastic funnels in his right hand. “I thought you could use a couple of funnels in your kitchen!”

Current work in progress – The day I learned about evil

Justice for TammyJustice For Tammy on GoFundMe.com

In the summer of 1984, I was a newly married Navy wife away from my home in Texas for the first time in my life (I didn’t count the frequent family trips to Mexico during my childhood). Away from my parents’ ever mindful care, I felt free and unencumbered by restraints of any kind. My husband, Michael, was at sea more often than he was home, and I had a car all to myself. I drove to the beach on Saturdays, alone. I drove around in the evenings and got to know the city, alone. I went to the movies, alone. And through all this, I was never, ever afraid.

The August 1984 murder of young Tammy Welch was a watershed day for young 19-year-old me. Tammy and her family lived in the same apartment complex that Michael and I had just moved into. Tammy’s murder changed my view of good and evil, of youthful positivity and the loss of innocence. The day before Tammy was murdered, I believed wholeheartedly in the basic goodness of humanity enough that I slept with my bedroom window open whenever I wanted. I often forgot to lock the door of my apartment and, although I knew it was an unwise move, I wasn’t afraid of anything bad ever happening to me. Michael and I had arrived in Jacksonville, Florida in late June and during those first 60 days I had met only the nicest people and had been pleasantly surprised to find that the residents of our apartment complex were friendly, fun-loving, swim-happy people. There were many fellow Navy wives to get to know as well.

After Tammy’s murder, I learned what it felt like to be truly afraid. Suddenly, I was haunted by that large empty field covered with weeds as tall as me located just steps away from my front door. It was now a sinister and frightening thing to look at. Anybody could walk out of those weeds and make their way into my apartment. The news that Tammy’s murderer was still at large made me feel even more anxious and fearful. That killer could be in those weeds. My family and my husband were far away from me, and I felt completely alone.

Aug. 27, 1984: Channel 4 report on Tammy Welch’s murder