We were in our apartment at Poplar Apartments in Durham, North Carolina, when Dad opted for the Air Force instead of waiting for his draft number to come up. Originally, we were to be heading to San Antonio, which I thought was cool since I’d been learning all about the Alamo, in fact, we had just watched the John Wayne film classic. However, at the last minute the final verdict came in and it would be “Wright-Patt”, so it was off to Dayton, Ohio.
I’ll never forget Dad’s enthusiastic anticipation of joining the US Air Force as a Captain in the Medical Corps. After visiting the local exchange, he returned home with some basic uniforms consisting of khakis and blues, polished combat boots, field hat, flight cap, pins, badges, and his Captain’s bars. He also picked up an officer’s “Dress Mess” but when he tried on the fancy, navy blue (or was it white?), waist-length dinner jacket, it was too small so he had to return it.
We packed up and moved to Huber Heights, which was then the largest brick single-family housing development in the country due to the escalation of the Vietnam conflict and the importance of Wright-Patterson as a SAC Bomb Wing. We were the first family to dwell in the particular house on Milhoff Road and the yard was still dirt clods with various construction debris scattered about.
Settling into our new home, with the help of Grandma and Grandpa Peckinpaugh, we decided to grill out. Realizing we didn’t have a grill, Dad, Gib and I, ventured to the local junkyard and found an old rusted out one. We took it back to the place and covered the bottom with several sheets of foil. That grill served its purpose for the duration of our Dayton experience.
The first thing Dad had to do was fly to Sheppard AFB in Witchita Falls, Texas, for his basic training. We dropped him off at the local airport and when we returned to pick him up after a few weeks, Mom pointed him out among a long line of freshly trained Airmen coming off the plane but I didn’t recognize him with his buzz haircut. They all looked exactly the same to me.
He was assigned to the centrifuge project, a part of the space program, performing research on the effect of G-force on mammals, which includes humans. After several months, Dad and his team were featured on a segment of “The Twentieth Century with Walter Cronkite”. The three of us sat around the little black and white TV and had a blast when it aired. Because of the use of baboons for much of the research, the Airmen coined the nickname “The Boon Doc” when referring to Dad.
We soon connected to the local Methodist Church and one beautiful Sunday after the service, we stopped at a pet store on the way home. There, sitting in a cage in a pile of his own duty, was a sad looking beagle puppy. We went on home but after a couple of hours of the three of us stewing about this sad puppy, Dad and I ran back over to the store and brought him home. We named him “George.”
Dad and I started building a dog house right away, painted it red, shingled it, and when we finished, George immediately got up on the roof and started chewing away the shingles. We kept him on a chain staked into the ground in the backyard with the dog house near the perimeter. George would quickly form circles in the newly planted grass so we would have to move it frequently. When rain came, George would get “on top” of his new house.
It was one evening when Mom was at a function that Dad and I decided to let George in the house, something that Mom had made very clear should never happen, ever! We laid down newspaper in an attempt to “house-train” him. He got to the point where he would walk over to the newspaper and sniff it out. He would then proceed to squat about 1 foot away from the paper and onto the new carpet. Dad instantly took the rolled-up newspaper to him, scolded him, and took him outside. About 30 minutes later, Dad and I both felt remorse for the poor young pooch, so we decided to give him another chance. This time, he walked over to where he’d made his prior error, sniffed it, then walked over to the laid out newspaper. He then doubled back to the exact location that he’d peed before and started to do it again!
Once more, he was given the rolled-up paper, the scolding, and put back outdoors on his chain. We finally had to accept that George just wasn’t the “sharpest knife in the drawer!”
Since Dad’s work involved the use of test mice, he got into the habit of bringing a cage full of the doomed critters home the night before the “experiments”. The smell given off from those cages was a cross between sawdust and urine, a feral scent indeed.
That odor, as well as the one emanating from the garage during the winter when we would keep George in there to get out of the cold, has lingering effects on me to this day. Our two snow shovels were constantly caked with frozen dog crap for most of the 3 months of the Ohio winter.
In the first few months, we acquired some new Mediterranean-style furniture pieces to replace the old 1950s styled items we’d had since my earliest recollections. Mom finally talked Dad into buying an upright piano. I started taking piano lessons soon after. I think Mom had aspirations for me!
Also during that time period, Mom arranged for me to take some lessons in the French language through a sophisticated elderly French lady she knew who lived in Huber Heights. I lost interest after a couple of sessions though, not realizing that in 15 more years, I would actually spend 10 days in Paris.
My first experience with a computer was when Dad took me to the centrifuge lab and off to the side was a room full of equipment with a typewriter that typed by itself.
I had a new uniform of my own when I joined the Cub Scouts. Starting at the “Bobcat” level, I rapidly advanced to “Tiger”, then “Wolf”, finally making to “Bear”. Only one more level remained, “Webelos”, before being eligible to enter the Boys Scouts. Dad got involved with the local scouting group too and became the Den Master for all of us at Monticello Elementary. Downtown Dayton had a department store named “Rikes”, which supplied all of the scout necessities, from uniforms and patches to manuals and other various CSA and BSA paraphernalia.
Usually, we would all congregate in the gymnasium/lunchroom of the school, but we often ventured to other venues such as Cricket Holler, a local tradition for all scouts of the area. Our Den mother, Mrs. Kaminski, who had 2 sons in the den, was fantastic – she always had great ideas for fun activities for us at our weekly gatherings. Once, she had us all write letters to a list of active troops listed in the paper. I had a marine named Donald who was stationed in Hong Ha. A few weeks later, I actually received a response from him, never forgetting the special APO envelope with the red, white and blue markings on the edges. We remained penpals through a few exchanges of letters but then I never got a response.
Mom and Dad would host dinner parties from time to time, and there was one Hungarian woman, the wife or girlfriend of one of Dad’s Air Force buddies, that was always the life of the party. I would listen to the lively conversations, then later, the amazing stories shared by the other Officers, from my bedroom down the hall.
One night, as I was doing my homework, Bob Kennedy, the decorated Air Force pilot who lived across the street and whose kids I played tetherball with, was being awarded the Flying Cross on national television. One morning not too long after, Bob’s daughter summoned me over to their house. Major Kennedy acted like he was angry with me about something but then grabbed me and with a stern expression said “Do you remember what I told you?” Then he broke into a broad smile as he said “Happy Birthday Steffen!” His son Casey and I had invaded his stock of Playboy magazines, that’s what I thought he might have been angry about.
The 2 years Dad worked for the government, allowed him the most amount of free time that I’ve ever known him having. We would visit the local sites, like the US Air Force Museum, right there on base. We would drive to Yellow Springs, one of the oldest towns in the region. We made a couple of trips to George Rogers Clark National Park in Springfield. On separate occasions at Hara Arena, we saw Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass and Al Hirt, 2 of the most popular musicians of the day. We also saw the British Royal Marching Band at Hara, bearskin hats and all, perform Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with cannon fire!
Not too far from Hara Arena in the Trotwood suburb west of Dayton, we visited the Salem Mall, my first mall experience before visiting the one in Anderson, Indiana, when we would go home to Muncie. Not too long after the Anderson Mall started to thrive, Muncie built their own Mall, which practically shut down its downtown business.
My first bicycle was a used red thing with the back-pedal brakes, which was unlike anything I’d ever tried before. The first time I rode it, I started racing another biker from the top of our street. By the time I got in front of our house, I attempted to stop the bike but was unfamiliar with the “backpedal” braking concept and crashed into the side of the brick house at full speed. Mom was working in the front yard while this occurred and couldn’t believe her eyes! Fortunately, all I suffered was an abrasion on the knuckle of the forefinger of my right hand, I still bear the scar today, and parted one of the shrubs right down the middle, a stylization it maintained the entire 2 years we lived at that house.
Mom, Dad, and I would go to movies quite often where we saw films such as Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Oddysey, and Fiddler on the Roof.
Mom and Dad would go out quite often just the two of them, leaving me at home alone from time to time, since I had long outgrown the need of a sitter to keep an eye on me. With all the books and records around the house, not to mention the TV, there was always plenty of things around to occupy the mind.
Mom liked to shop at Rike’s Department store downtown, but for groceries and day to day necessities, it would be the Officer’s Exchange Club or the Commissary on base.
TV programs of the day included: Laugh In, Hee-Haw, That Girl, Love, American Style, and daily news updates of Vietnam. During the week, when Mom was still at work grading papers of her elementary students and Dad was still at the base, I would watch The Flintstones, Sea Hunt, and McHale’s Navy Then Dad would get home and he and I would watch classical painting shows on PBS, followed by The Three Stooges. Dad would then go off and I would continue watching Wild, Wild, West and Night Gallery.
Popular radio of the times included songs like “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe, “Temptation Eye” by The Grass Roots, songs by 3 Dog Night, Tommy James and the Shondells, The Carpenters, and of course, all the sounds of Mo-Town.
Being about an hour and a half drive from our hometown, visits to Muncie were pretty frequent. The halfway meeting point with the folks was Richmond, Indiana. We would meet at the MCL Cafeteria near the Ohio/Indiana state line or Howard Johnson’s at I70 and US 27 and visit over dinner. Oftentimes, George and I would go back to Muncie with the Grandfolks for the weekend so Mom and Dad could spend time together doing “adult” things.
I’ll never forget watching the 1968 Indy 500 as Mario Andretti won the Borg-Warner trophy, the only Indy win of his spectacular racing career. Grandma Dowell’s birthday gift to me 4 months later was the turbine that Andretti drove that year. She was really good at picking cool gifts!
Sometimes after school, when Mom and Dad were still at work, I would write on Mom’s typewriter. I actually wrote a book titled The Friendship on that typewriter, using up reams of paper and ribbons of ink. The folks were over-joyed as I never really finished before losing interest.
Once, Mom’s school friends, Purdue football star, Dick Stillwagon and his wife, Rowanna (nee Ross), brought their daughter and two sons to visit. Jeff and Andy and I visited the new Air Force Museum where the 3 of us bought model jets from the new gift shop. A couple of decades later, I heard that Jeff, had become a fighter pilot and was flying F111s during the 1st Gulf War.
I built models quite a bit. One time, I had a model airplane to build. I was anxiously awaiting to work on it, but by the time I got home, I discovered it sitting on my desk completely assembled and decals perfectly affixed. Dad built my model plane!
One morning, Dad gave me a lift up the street to the footpath I would take to school. He had George in a cage in the car with him and told me to say farewell to him because an officer he worked with had a place out in the country and was willing to adopt the beagle. He claimed George would be much happier in a wide open space.
I was stunned and heartbroken, though I sure wasn’t looking forward to another winter of the God-awful garage scenario. I think what spurred this move, was that a couple of weeks prior, George had gotten off his chain and disappeared for several days. We were about to write him off as a goner when a workmate of Dad’s who had come to stay the night while in town on business, looked out the kitchen window while washing his hands for breakfast, and said – “is that George?”.
George had found his way back home and was in terrible shape, nothing but skin and bones. We figured he just got lost in the large development with all the homes looking exactly alike. He never really fully recovered after that, so maybe Dad really was doing George a favor.
It was also about this time when we got the call that Grampa Dowell, who had had heart trouble for a few years, had passed away at Ball Memorial Hospital. We went to Muncie for a week to help Grandma Dowell with the arrangements. I was with Grandma Millie when we selected the gravestone at Wearly Monuments. She picked one out because she thought it was businesslike and Omar was a businessman. We then selected an area of plots at Elm Ridge Cemetery, enough to accommodate all of us. Never in my wildest dreams though could I have imagined that instead of Grandma Mildred being on the stone with Grandpa Omar, it would be my only sibling, a sister who would not be born until the next year.
Dad had a sneaky side. I once discovered one of my corny love notes, which I thought had been successfully delivered to the intended recipient, in his desk drawer. Though he never said a word about it, I was thoroughly embarrassed nonetheless.
I had a crush on a girl named Debbie Brewer, then Cindy Kline. The previously mentioned note was for one of them but I can’t remember which one now. In reflecting back, it was probably a saving grace that it was intercepted.
Towards the end of our 2 years in Dayton, Dad had the option to sign-on for 2 more years with the rank of Major. As it turned out, most of the cohorts Dad served with that remained, ended up in Vietnam. Instead, we headed back south to Durham, Mom being pregnant with Kimberly, the girl name we all decided upon while gathered around the TV when Mom first told us of the news.
Named after Charles Huber, the developer who Mom had a few choice discussions with over a slight problem with field mice, we moved to Huber Heights in the spring of 1967, then considered a township. Today, it is a city with a population of over 38,000, the second largest suburb of Dayton behind Kettering. It is still known as “the largest community of brick homes in America”.
Looking back on the 2 short years we spent there, I realize that it was probably the most influential period of my formative years. The school system being the better of any I experienced elsewhere, the blend of people present then, the interesting surroundings and times, make our “Dayton Days” some of the most memorable times of my life.