Bk 3. 6: Northwest Journal February 1957

The ship in whose depths I have lived for the last two weeks entered the Straights of Juan de Fuca, the deep strip of water that separates Washington’s Olympic Peninsula from Canada’s Vancouver Island. It was a troop ship on its way to Seattle, and I was one of the military dependents who boarded the ship in Yokohama, Japan.  I was nineteen. Ben, my Airman 2nd Class husband, was twenty-one. Our baby girl, Nina Renee, was not quite six months old. We were coming home from Ben’s two and a half year deployment at Yakota Air Force base near Tokyo. I had arrived on September 9, 1955, the day we were married.

The weather had been stormy, the ocean choppy, the ship constantly moving for the whole two weeks. Our whole time on the ship had been spent inside the hold except for a couple of brief forays onto the wet deck, the cold wind and rain driving us quickly back inside. Suddenly the turbulence stopped; the water smoothed out. Sweet relief. The ship now glided perfectly upright. The nausea I had been fighting the whole two weeks subsided. We were no longer in the open sea. We were in sheltered water. Our trip was almost over. We would soon be able to get off the ship, walk on firm land, get out into the open air. We would see buildings and trees, no longer contained within the steel bowels of an ocean vessel. This would be my first glimpse of Washington State.

The pier where we docked was in the harbor at the base of Seattle’s hilly streets, but I was not looking at the city when we exited the ship. I was looking for Ben’s parents and younger siblings who were to meet us and take us back to their home near Marysville, a small town about thirty-five miles north of where we were disembarking. Ben had a thirty-day leave, and we would spend the first part of it with his family.

We spotted the Richardsons almost immediately. After hugs and greetings and an introduction to our baby, we headed to their GMC van, piled in and headed for Highway 99, which was then an elevated viaduct skirting the city’s west side, just east of the harbor piers. Once the van was on the viaduct I finally really saw Seattle, the grey buildings climbing the hills to the east, the silvery sheen of Puget Sound and the hills and mountains across the water to the west. This was a real city, not just an over-grown town. It was cold and windy, yet I liked it. I had no desire to live there, but it was a place I would like to explore.

Seattle with its harbor and hills was interesting. I would like living close enough to make day trips into it to shop and explore, but what I was eager to see was the countryside, the area of farms and woods and small towns. Ben and I planned to move to Western Washington when his enlistment was up at the end of the year. Neither of us had ever been to the Northwest, but his parents, who moved to Marysville in June 1955, had written regularly, describing the land and the opportunities that were available here. We wanted what they described. We wanted to live in the country. We wanted to either buy some land and build our own house, or buy land with an old farmhouse that we could fix up. We wanted our own barn and pasture for a cow. We wanted to grow as much of our own food as we could; we wanted some woodland to provide fuel for a wood-burning furnace. Ben’s folks told us there was plenty of land like that in Western Washington, and it was cheap. We were eager to see the rural area around Marysville, see this place we intended to make our home looked like.

Highway 99 was slow-going in those days: stop lights at every intersection, and even after we left the Seattle city limits there was a string of small communities to drive through before we reached Everett, which was then a small port city on the south side of a maze of wetland where the Snohomish River emptied into Puget Sound. Marysville was on the north shore of that inter-tidal lowland. It was almost dark when we reached it and could see little of the town or the woods and farms along the road that took us to the Richardson’s place. I could, though, see snow in the fields and along the road side, quite a lot of snow, which made me happy. I had grown up in California and Arizona, and I’d wanted to live where it snowed ever since I was a child and saw Christmas cards with snow scenes, heard Christmas songs about sleigh bells and dreaming of a white Christmas. These snow covered hills and the modest houses with windows glowing warm against the descending darkness were exactly what I’d daydreamed as the place I wanted to live when I grew up and had my own family. This was the kind of place I wanted for my children, the kind of place I had wanted to live in as a child.

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Looking from the trailer down the driveway to the road.

It was fully dark by the time we pulled onto the dirt drive on the Richardson’s property. They had purchased twenty-five acres of woodland on Whiskey Ridge, about three miles west of the Marysville town limits. They had cleared enough trees to park their forty foot Airstream trailer and build a storage shed and outhouse to use until their well and septic tank were in. The Airstream had running water and a flush toilet by the time we arrived, but the land still looked raw, even with the snow. It looked like the temporary housing it was intended to be, though how long that would be was anybody’s guess. Ben’s dad was great at starting house projects, but he never stayed long enough to finish them before he sold out and moved on to start something else.

It was warm and cozy, though, inside the trailer. It was wonderful to be among family again, wonderful to be guests, fussed over, taken care of. I liked the Richardsons. Ben’s sister Libby, a year older than I; his brother Dave, who was exactly my age; and his sister Mary Ellen, who was a year younger, felt like my own brother and sisters. They were as excited to see us as we were to see them. The next day, after it was light, Dave took us out to see the countryside, showing us the kind of places that we might be able to buy. Ben and I were excited about what we saw, could hardly wait till to return and actually buy a place of our own.

Fate, however, in the guise of my father intervened. Dad drove up from Phoenix to pick us up and take us back to Phoenix, where we intended to buy our first car from a car dealer who was on the board of the rescue mission Dad had built in the skid row section of Phoenix. When he arrived at the Richardson’s place he convinced Stan, Ben’s dad, that Flagstaff, too, needed a rescue mission, and that Stan was the person to do it. The Richardsons left Marysville the following summer, right after school let out. They returned to Arizona and were living in Flagstaff when Ben received his discharge from the Air Force. Both sets of parents were now in Arizona; the country was experiencing a serious recession; jobs were hard to get; I was pregnant with our second child. We needed to go back to Arizona. We needed all the family help we could get. The Northwest dream was not dead, though. It would resurface again and again.

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Stan Richardson; Nina Renee; my father, Jack Willems. February 1957

 

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Clara, Ben’s mom; Nina Renee; me

~ ~ ~

 

© Loretta Willems, Bellingham, WA. July 20, 2020

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