When we moved into our new home on Trilby Avenue in Tampa in 1967, after living in Holland for three years, I thought we would stay there a while. But we only lived in that house for two months before packing up and moving to a brand new house in northeast Tampa. One day, I knocked a clapboard off the side of the house while playing catch with my neighbor, Terry. Suddenly, the air swarmed with flying bugs. I didn’t know what they were, but Terry called them termites and said they were bad for houses because they ate wood. Worry came over me that my dad would be furious about the broken wall. He did get mad, until he saw the termites, then he said it was a good thing I had found them. The damage turned out to be extensive – other clapboards were loosened as a result of the errant baseball and more termites discovered; we had to move. We must have rented the house on Trilby Avenue or I don’t think we would have moved so quickly.
Our new house stood a mile from the University of South Florida, a mile from Busch Gardens, and four blocks from the Schlitz brewery and the Pepsi Cola bottling plant, the latter three businesses occupying a large area of 30th Street. Once in the new house, it didn’t take long before Mom decided she wanted to move again. When the wind blew from the east, from the direction of the breweries, it blew the smell of brewing beer across our neighborhood. I don’t remember Mom complaining much about anything, but she sure complained about the breweries and that smell. I could tell she didn’t like the smell since she always closed the windows no matter how high the temperature rose. Eventually though, the heat forced her to open the windows and she would mutter a while about the awful smell of the beer.
For Mom, a dedicated church-goer, beer and everything associated with it amounted to a deadly sin. I remember one time, I must have been nine or ten, I opened the refrigerator at my oldest sister Linda’s house and saw a six-pack of beer on the shelf. My eyes shot wide-open, I gasped and thought to myself, “Steve’s a sinner! He’s going to hell!” That’s what the preacher told us at church anyway.
We all, except Dad, who only went once in a while, attended nearby Northeast Baptist Church every Sunday morning and Sunday night, and sometimes on Wednesday evening, too. We could have walked the three blocks to church, but Mom always took the car. I didn’t mind church on Sunday morning, but by the time we drove home from the Sunday night service, The Wonderful World of Disney had already started. My younger sisters and I loved that show. We would beg Mom on our knees to let us stay home and watch it. If that didn’t work, we would pester her after the service to hurry up and stop talking to all the ladies and take us home.
We attended that church for four years before leaving for another. For years I thought we had left of our own accord, but later I found out we were forced to leave. It seems Mom and three or four of the other ladies, dissatisfied with their spiritual growth at Northeast Baptist Church, had been visiting an Assembly of God Church on the sly. When the Church Deacons found out, they interrogated the ladies about their near-heresy and tried to bring them back into the fold. The ladies stood their ground, though, and we were banished from the Church. We began going to a new church, Emmanuel Tabernacle, which turned out to be nice – the ladies were very happy there – except for one thing: it took longer to drive home from this church, so we nearly always missed the first half of The Wonderful World of Disney. That was the price I paid for being a seven year old heretic.
By the time we moved into the new house in September the school year had already begun. On our first day of school, Mom drove my next younger sister Sally and me to Belle Witter Elementary School, right next to Northeast Baptist Church. After registering us, Mom said goodbye and drove home. The principal, a nice older lady named Mrs. Goff, walked me to Miss Jenkins’ third grade classroom. I remember all the kids’ heads turning in my direction and all those eyes staring at me. I wished I could have stayed home.
Miss Jenkins was very nice and friendly, a warm, soft-spoken teacher who would never intentionally do anything to hurt a child. She introduced me to my classmates and gave me a seat next to Alisa, the object of my adoration for the next few weeks until I discovered Cindy Combs on the playground swing set. After I sat down, Miss Jenkins asked my classmates to stand and introduce themselves. When they finished, I had to stand and talk about myself. Miss Jenkins asked me a few questions that I answered easily enough. A few eyebrows were raised and some curiosity aroused when I said I had just lived in Holland and before that in California, and we had just moved here from our house on Trilby Avenue where we had only lived since July because there were termites in the walls and I had found them – I was proud of that. And then she asked me where I came from. I hesitated, unsure what to say or how to answer. Miss Jenkins asked me again and I answered,
“I’m not from anywhere.”
She smiled and said to me in her gentle voice, “But, Willy, everybody is from somewhere.”
“But where is your hometown?”
“I don’t have a hometown.”
“Weren’t you born in Tampa?”
“Oh.” A pause. “Well, where were you born?”
“Turkey,” I told her, and the class erupted in laughter.
“Turkey in the Straw!” someone called out, and several of my new classmates began singing Turkey in the Straw. It seems the class had just learned the song and my arrival gave them an opportunity to sing it with real meaning.
My face turned red and I felt shame and embarrassment for having been born in Turkey. Even the word sounded dumb, now. My forehead wrinkled in a frown and my eyes were downcast. My lower lip trembled as I fought back tears; I wouldn’t cry in front of my new classmates, though.
Miss Jenkins tried to restrain the singing and restore order. I knew she felt bad for me; I could see her concern as she called for quiet. She had to do something, and fast. And she did. She gathered the class around the globe by her desk and asked my classmates to point out Turkey. None of them could. Then she asked me. Well. As an Air Force Brat – and proud of it – I knew where I had been born. All Air Force Brats could find their place of birth on a map or globe. I walked up to the globe, gave it a spin, and stopped it with my finger on Turkey. And then she had me point out Holland and California. My classmates stood mute, but with a dawning sense of wonder and respect as I showed them the places I had lived.
Miss Jenkins continued to draw me out, and before I knew it she had me talking about my Dutch friends, the dependents school I attended, my Little League baseball team, what it felt like to wear wooden shoes, and the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in a dike. The crisis had ended and I came out on top. But poor Miss Jenkins: she didn’t let the class sing that song anymore.