In Child of the Blue, Ryan serves up a feast of amazing memories drawn from the happy chaos of her childhood growing up in an Air Force family. She writes with humor and passion about her adventures in far flung places with extraordinary people. But the book examines things far beyond a simple retelling of a family’s wide military travel. Ryan writes wistfully about the simpler times of her baby boomer youth and the marvelous adventures of her “free range” childhood. She talks of “family” in its many forms and the challenges and triumphs faced over the course of many moves over many years. She brings each place into clear focus and offers insights on the ever-changing times. This is a joyful book that celebrates those places, the times she lived through and the people in her life on her path to maturity. In extolling the unexpected virtues of military family life, she honors and pays tribute to her loving, often raucous, and remarkably resilient family.
About the Author
Dr. L. Diane Ryan retired from the California State University where she worked as a university administrator and adjunct faculty member for forty years. She had previously confined her writing to well-tuned memoranda and “riveting” position papers, but she has now joyously turned her attention to capturing the essence of her marvelous childhood and memorable family life in Child of the Blue. She lives with her enormously supportive husband, Dominic Ferrante and an abundance of wild life in the hills of west Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County, California.
The book is 6 by 9 inches, 110 pages, softbound and can be purchased at Amazon.com. The following excerpt is reprinted with permission of the author.
“I see London, I see France; I see someone’s underpants.” Well, I certainly knew that little ditty as a second grader, but I didn’t think I would actually get to live it by seeing both London and France by the time I was eight. But, France it was. Our next assignment was with the 38th Bombardment Wing, the 822nd Squadron at Laon Air Base in Laon, France. Dad was the Operations Officer for the large B-57 squadron, second in command. This would mean that we would be living on an actual air base for the first time in my life. Sorry, Mom, no “extraordinary living experiences” here, although that was not entirely true.
The base housing was more than adequate. Duplexes were clustered around cul-de-sacs creating immediate intimacy with five other families. We shared our duplex with the Wallins—Captain Alvar Wallin, his beautiful wife, Blanche and their two boys, Jeff and Chris. Chris had the kind of sturdiness about him that comes to boys who are naturally athletic and live a rough and tumble life. My kind of guy. I was a rough and tumble kind of girl, so he was my new best friend. That was easy. He lived right next door, we were the same age and we liked the same things: baseball, football, bows and arrows and running wild in the adjacent forest. I didn’t have to try to fit in. I just did. It was perfect.
There were lots of kids at the base housing and I discovered something curious about the social interaction of the military offspring there. While we all got along and played well together, there was a hierarchy of sorts based upon the rank held by our father. The military makes a notable distinction between the “officer” class and the “non-commissioned officer.” Each has a separate social club on base. Officers and their families dine together at the Officers’ Club; the children (when invited for special holiday events) sip “Shirley Temples or Roy Rogers.” The same is true for the NCO Club. Separated by virtue of rank. This applied on the playground as well. Such distinctions were quite foreign to me. Chris and I had fathers who held the officer’s rank of Captain. If no one was there with the rank of Major or higher, we were automatically cast in the leadership role in whatever activity was at hand. (As an aside, I only hung out with the guys—I truly do not remember any girls being involved in anything there!) But, when Ritchie came around, (him with his fancy toys, freckled face and red-haired temperament) he was the big cheese because his dad was a Lieutenant Colonel! I guess it was its own brand of bullying in a way. You lorded it over those of a lesser “rank” just as others lorded it over you. But, it bothered me and I didn’t much like the system.
In truth, I didn’t get much time to hang out with the guys. What my mother couldn’t provide in the way of the “extraordinary” as to where we lived, she and Dad made up for with their decision as to where I would go to school. I had not quite finished second grade at Miss Taylor’s Day School when we were shipped to France. And I was sent to a boarding school. Believe you me, I did not have a say in this. From my perspective, I was a seven-year-old girl who was being ripped from the womb of her family and sent to a Catholic school that seemed far, far away where no one spoke English! Really? What were they thinking? In fairness, they were thinking that I would benefit enormously from this experience. My parents thought that I needed the “additional stimulation” that a foreign school would provide. I would have total cultural immersion, receive an excellent education and learn to speak French. All of that came true to one degree or another, but it was an experience that was an emotional battle for me.
My school was in La Fère, France. It was only twenty-five miles from the base, but it was a world away for me. The school was a boarding school as well as a day-school for local children. All grades were served although the French begin their formal education at an earlier age than in the United States and end their schooling at age sixteen. Children begin as early as age three. My arrival at La Fère posed a bit of a problem in that I spoke no French and was not prepared for the level of coursework that the other seven-year-olds were tackling. So, I would be placed in with the “bébés” until I learned enough French to enter a classroom of my age group. I did not like it one bit. These really were babies to me, three year olds and not nearly as socially advanced as I was. These children actually bit me! I felt a complete pariah and, frankly, I found it humiliating. But, it provided just the incentive I needed to learn the language and get out of what I viewed as a total playpen. Finally, I was placed with the second graders.
School proved to be challenging. I had just started to learn my times tables in England, but certainly had not mastered them all. My French schoolmates were way beyond me and I struggled at first. I felt so excruciatingly alone. School had never been difficult for me and it was humbling to be the one straining to understand. I really had no one to talk to. It’s a wonder that I don’t have abandonment issues! First, the whole school bus thing and now this boarding school? Seriously. But, the one bright spot in my life in this unbelievably foreign place was my copy of Charlotte’s Web. I clung to that book as the lifeline it truly was. E.B. White has no idea what a savior he was for me. I read and read and then re-read and re-read that book with a real fervor. It was the only thing that made me feel connected to anything familiar, in spite of the fact that I’d never lived on a farm, or had a pig named Wilbur. Books can make us feel whole and this one did. Slowly, as my language skills improved, I was able to get the tutoring I needed to catch up with the class. So, I eventually worked it out. It was a largely solitary process, but one made bearable by a “talking” spider.
The school was an imposing place. It was set away from the town proper on a huge piece of tree-covered property. It was the classic brick campus made even more serious by the religious statues that greeted you as you entered. There was a circular driveway that rounded a rose garden, passed by the chapel and ended up by the porte cochère where you disembarked. It was a drive I dreaded when I returned from the occasional weekend I had to visit home. The school had dormitories for those who boarded. The older girls had their own dorm and I bunked in a large ward-like setting with some twenty other girls. It felt unfriendly and cold. There were strict routines. We were given fresh bedding each week and made our own beds each day. The bathroom situation was intimidating—group showers were new for me, but I got the hang of it. It seemed so sterile and institutional, I guess because it was! I was horribly homesick for the Ryan family chaos and closeness that had always been in my life.
We lived a highly regimented life there. The school ran like clockwork because those nuns really ran a tight ship. Meals were at established times and the food was largely unfamiliar to me. Were it not for the mashed potatoes that they served twice a day, I would not have had any comfort food! Eventually, I got used to the food and was taught to eat “European” style—hold your roast beef steady with your fork in your left hand while you cut with your right hand, then eat your morsel directly without the wasted time and step of transferring your fork to your right hand to consume your bite. Made sense to me—still use the method.
The school day included a lot of classroom time but also time for play in the recreation yard. Play time allowed me to pick up on some of the subtleties of the language and to become far more comfortable with the idiomatic subtleties of French. That is when language really becomes a part of your life and communication takes on a new level of confidence for the new language learner. I truly was immersed in the language and eventually I even dreamed in French. My parents had been right about my ability to learn the language at this school. On those rare visits home, my parents really delighted in my language skills. Once my dad even took me into town so that I could translate for his mechanic! Glad to be of service. I guess it was worth it.
We were given a break from the regimen of classes to enjoy some free time in the afternoon. One day during such a break, I decided to explore the campus. It was in a heavily wooded setting and I thought I’d see if I could find a way out. I walked along the path that wound its way through the trees. I left the trail to hike further into the exterior and to see just how far I could get. The forest floor was soft and spongy and it felt damp and foreboding. Hansel and Gretel came to mind. I was all alone and allowed my overactive imagination to kick in. I was getting a little nervous. Then, I saw a wall in the distance and as I got closer, I realized that the wall surrounded the entire perimeter. I knew we came through a gate as we entered that closed behind us, but I didn’t realize that we were really closed in. Wow. That did not feel good. I got to the wall and was able to climb to the top by scaling the stones that jutted out of the wall. At the top of the wall, I saw something that really gave me a start: there were shards of broken glass imbedded all across the top of the wall. I suspected they were meant to keep people out, but I felt it was a clear sign to keep me in. That did not feel good either.
This was really a strange place that I obviously did not fully understand. I know that your memories of childhood are often larger than life and when you return to a place or a thing that you thought was absolutely huge, you are almost embarrassed at how small it is. And while I haven’t returned there to confirm, I truly do know what I saw and it was strange. It was time to head back. Who knew when I might get some kind of explanation?
As part of our free time, in the late afternoon we were given a traditional French snack. Small loaves of French bread fresh from the oven were distributed. Then, we were given chunks of dark milk chocolate. We would rip the bread apart and burrow the chocolate deep into the heart of the piping hot loaf, creating the most amazing snack ever. I’d never had anything like it and really haven’t matched it since. After the ritual “chocolate burial” we took our melty snack with us over to the shoe shine room. We were expected to shine our shoes every day and I guess the snack was supposed to make this task less bothersome!
As soon as you entered the room, you were met with the most overpowering smell of polish and waxes. It was pungent, but not in an off putting way. You felt that you were going to accomplish something here. You’d better because there was an inspection upon completion! There were long benches for us to sit on. We’d take off our shoes and then select the polish we needed to match our shoes. Wax it on, then buff it off. This was the loneliest time of day for me. The light was low in the sky, the day was winding down and more prescribed routines lay ahead. It just felt depressing in spite of the chocolate “high.” I missed my mom’s afterschool snacks. She would make her famously unattractive cakes and each piece would always fall into a complete crumbly mess, but it was a tradition that we looked forward to—a snack and a chance to sit at the kitchen table with Mom and talk about the day at school. The lack of companionship was painful. I felt locked in. I still look at late afternoon with a touch of melancholia. But then, Gale came.
Gale Nightengale (I know, kind of a strange name) came to the school to assist with the preschoolers. She was a pretty nineteen year-old girl from England who wanted a chance to live and work in France for a while. I met her in the dining hall. She had sought me out because they told her there was an American girl in residence. I finally had someone to really talk to! She helped explain some of the things I didn’t understand (like how a bidet works), but mostly, she was just there for me. She was like a big sister and I felt safe and protected. With Gale’s help I made peace with the school.
Finally, the school year was over and I got to go home for the summer. Yay! It was wonderful to be back with my brothers and sister. I often complained about them, but I really did love them. At last, back to my top bunk and all of the family shenanigans. I was off exploring with the guys at the earliest possible moment. There was so much to do there and we, too, were definitely “free range” children with forts to build, hills and trees to climb and games to play.
There was no television available, so we really did have to use our imaginations to entertain ourselves. A favorite activity was kite flying. Dad was an expert at making box kites and we put his skills to use. In the fields nearby, we had hours of excitement, catching the breezes and running free. We added a special wrinkle to our kite flying activities, called “Candy Hunt.” My dad had probably turned us on to this and it was great fun. Simple ingredients: a paper bag and bars of wrapped candy. Place the candy in the bag; poke a hole though the top of the bag and slip it onto the kite string; let the bag loose and it will fly up the string. As the bag soars upward, it is buffeted by the wind and eventually, it will tear a hole and release the goodies. Then, the chase was on to see where the candy landed. Who could ask for more?
Of course, there were the obligatory games of Cowboys and Indians. Political correctness had not yet been invented, so we were free to have at it. But, since we traded evenly playing each group, we were “equal opportunity” so to speak. One probably not-so-smart element of our games was that we used real bows and arrows. No real guns, of course, but the bows and arrows were the real deal. We never tried to actually hit each other; the shooting was more for effect, but not when Ritchie played. He had that “attitude” that I spoke of earlier about being better than anyone. I can’t really blame it on his father’s rank; Ritchie was just a jerk. He was a good shot, but I wished he would have confined it to shooting at inanimate targets! During one particularly active round of play, I got pinned down on the roof of the “saloon” (which was really just the big wooden swing set that was built in the common play area). I was standing on the crossbar and Ritchie yells, “Time to die, paleface!” and he shoots. I hid as well as I could and tucked my face behind the support beam and crossed my hands in front of it. Wham! Bulls eye—right into the back of my hand. No one could believe it. “You shot her?” Chris yelled. I couldn’t believe it. The arrow was firmly lodged in my hand, sticking out at a right angle to my arm. I hightailed it to my house with my “posse” in tow. Mom could not believe it either. “You kids are done with this game!” she scolded. “I’ve got to take Diane to the hospital. Now, you all go home.” It wasn’t too big of an ordeal to get it removed, but I proudly sported my scar which I wear to this day.
Adjacent to the base housing were two major attractions: the forest, where it was rumored to still have undetonated World War II shells (how great was that!?) and the railroad where all manner of fun lay in store. Duffy was a new member to our group and his dad was a Colonel, so we thought he just might be a swell. He wasn’t. He was a really funny guy who loved to laugh, turning his normally pale complexion a bright red at the drop of a hat. He was happy to just be a part of our crowd and join in the fun. One free-wheeling Saturday, we went to the railroad tracks to throw rocks. We could spend hours doing that while we waited for trains to come. We often hung out by the overpass where the roadway crossed over the tracks. There was a huge grassy hillside that was perfect for “log rolling,” the sport we invented by turning ourselves into human logs and rolling down the hillside. Once you got going, it was nearly impossible to stop. Great fun. Chris and Duffy and I were having a grand time doing this when a really bad thing happened. I was rolling down the hill and the boys were waiting for me to finish before starting their turn. Out of nowhere, a man appeared and he snatched me up as I landed at the bottom. I was yelling at the boys and they were yelling at the man as he was carrying me away, kicking and screaming, as they say. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it wasn’t good. I yelled up to the boys, in French mind you so that my abductor would understand, “Obtenir mon père! Alerter les gendarmes!” Yes, indeed, get my father and alert the police!
The boys ran like hell to get help. I was struggling to get free, but my assailant had me firmly in his grasp. He was moving as fast as he could, jogging down the railroad tracks. I kept yelling and kicking hoping someone would see or hear me, but it was a bit remote. We arrived at what looked like some kind of railroad shack near the tracks. He threw open the door, jumped inside and bolted the door behind us. He sat me on a chair and then he stood in front of the door, staring at me with his arms crossed. My captor just grinned at me. Yes, it was creepy. This went on for what seemed like an hour. I thought about making a run for it, but then he might grab me again and I did not want to smell him or feel his scratchy beard again. At least this way, I could keep my distance. Then, for no apparent reason, he unlocked the door, opened it and stepped aside—my invitation to leave, I presumed. So I did. I ran out of that shack and was flying as fast as I could, afraid he would change his mind. As I got nearer to the overpass, I could hear sirens and then I saw police cars parked atop the overpass with their lights ablaze. Next, I was greeted by several men in uniform who were running toward me. Thank God, I am saved. I told them where I had come from and that the man was in the railroad shack. They left in hot pursuit. One officer went with me to the top of the overpass and that’s where I saw my worried parents. Their faces told a horrible story. They obviously did not know if I had been molested in any way. Their relief was not complete until I had told the whole story of my abduction. As they later explained what might have happened and what I needed to be mindful of in life, it marked the beginning of my loss of innocence. The carefree game of log rolling had ended with a new understanding of how things can be really ugly in this world. At the station, I told the police my story and that was the end of it. I don’t know what happened to my assailant. Probably nothing good.
That summer my parents decided we needed to celebrate. They developed a social calendar with a little something for everybody. They organized picnics in the forest (in spite of the unexploded ordnance that may have been there!); games for all the kids in our area and parties of their own. They were the “go to” house for every solo bachelor and the place for the married ladies to coffee klatch. People were always coming and going. Because Dad was the Operations Officer for the squadron, he interacted with all the flight crews and Mom and Dad hosted many parties for the squadron. I was a perpetual fly on the wall for those affairs! Music, laughter, dancing—good raucous fun all around. The married crew members brought their wives and one couple was a showstopper—literally, Jim Acton’s wife, Helène, had been a featured showgirl at the Lido de Paris, an internationally famous cabaret and burlesque house that was a cornerstone of Parisian nightlife. Helène was part of the famed troupe of Bluebell Girls, women known internationally for their sexy elegance, sophistication and beauty. She was easily over six feet tall and had a long mane of blonde hair that she wore atop her head, rather “I Dream of Jeannie” style. On her, it was gorgeous as was her deep and deeply accented voice. You can imagine how she lit up those parties. Not only because of her looks, but was a truly fascinating woman of keen intelligence and enormous wit. Boy, those flyboys really know how to have a good time.
Together, my parents made any gathering a party. Dad, the one with the enormous smile and handsome swagger, engaged everyone with his wonderful (and often wicked) sense of humor. Mom audaciously tried every French recipe she could find and she was able to enjoy a conversation with anyone and everyone. People flocked to her—she was warm, wise and good lookin’, to boot. They seemed a golden couple to me—young, full of life and passion. All of them seemed golden to me. It was a great thing to witness growing up.
France had been serving up some pretty interesting experiences so far. I truly relished the good times of that summer home from boarding school. Helène took a particular interest in me because she and I could speak French together. Our friendship was of a completely different sort because she was so different. She told me of her growing up in French Algiers which seemed exotic in and of itself. It only added to her mystique that she was part of the French European ruling class there, the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer raised with wealth and privilege. She left for Paris when the French Algerian War broke out in 1954, leaving everything behind. She never looked back. Helène loved our family and we remained friends long after her marriage to the pilot was over. She had “adopted” us and was there for so many key moments in my life. We stayed close until her death some twenty-five years later.
Summer was racing by and I began to dread the return to La Fère. “Please, can I go to the school on the air base?” was my daily entreaty. But, if fell pretty much on deaf ears. Mom and Dad had fully assured me that I was not a prisoner at the school and that everything I had seen was there for my safety. They were sensitive to my homesickness, but they also said they were proud of how I had made so many adjustments and made so much progress. This was part of their unique parenting method. Dad expected toughness, strength and firm commitment from us and felt that the boarding school gave me opportunities in all those areas. Mom said, “It’s all about resilience, Di. You are learning how to adapt and grow in a new and challenging environment.” Yeah, right! But, it was true. I learned far more there than I realized at the time. In addition to the all the obvious things like learning the language, cultural differences and an accelerated academic schedule, I learned that I could be alone. I was seven and a half years old and I knew that I had learned to trust my inner strength—that I was capable of self-reliance. That was huge. My folks knew I had that in me, at least they fervently hoped I did, and they expected that boarding school would make me a better person. But, years later, when the family was gathered and Mother or Dad was staring at a tender seven year old grandchild, I loved to teasingly say to them, “Gee, don’t you think it is about time to slap that kid in a French boarding school?” It got a laugh, but I do think they had a bit of a cause for pause when reflecting on how really young that is. But, I am the better for the experience.
Yet, the new school year grew ominously closer. I didn’t have nearly the trepidation that I had about going my first time, but I clearly wanted to stay with my family. “Please, please, can I go to school with Chris?” But, the decision was for me to stick it out. Knowing that Gale would be there made it a whole lot easier. Also, Mom and Dad agreed that they would come get me every weekend and that news certainly took a lot of the angst away. I could deal for five days at a time.
In fact, once the school year got underway, I enjoyed it. As a third grader, my schoolwork was far more interesting and I had learned the routines of school life at La Fère. Home life on the weekends was joyful and it made me so appreciate my family and being at home. This went on for most of the year and I was a much better adjusted little trooper! But as is the case with military family life, things change. Dad was going to the B-47 Combat Crew Pilot Training school at McConnell Air Force base in Wichita, Kansas. We would soon be relocating. We would all have to be good little troopers. Off we go.