Penny For Your Thoughts, Sailor
By Rodger Jacobs
I reached out for a memory the other day and pulled the wrong one off the shelf.
We were living in a Quonset hut at the naval base in Long Beach. The pre-fab shelters had been
set up as permanent housing for sailors and their dependents. It was set on a foundation of bolted
steel trusses and built of a semicircular arching roof of corrugated metal insulated with wood
Every afternoon I sat cross-legged on the hard floor with threadbare carpeting and watched
Sheriff John’s Lunch Brigade on a black-and-white TV. I always had a peanut butter and jelly
sandwich and Sheriff John - broadcasting live from KTTV in Hollywood - always had Crusader
Rabbit cartoons and, if I was very lucky, one of the old Paramount Pictures Popeye cartoons.
I could really lose myself in those old Popeye cartoons with their lush, busy animation and
dazzling action. The Long Beach Quonset hut days were back when my mom was trying to be a
mom again after she went to jail for eighteen months for habitually kiting checks. The way I
always heard the story - through family mythology - was that she was married to ‘a Mexican
from Fresno’ who disfavored honest work and coerced mom into authoring the bad checks. He
was also the father to a younger half sister, Michelle, who I wouldn’t know until she was fifteen years old since the Family Court judge ordered her to be put up for adoption before mom served her jail time.
With mom behind bars - this must have been ‘63 - I was shunted off to my grand mother’s tract
home in Whittier where my afternoons with Sheriff John and Popeye were immediately put to a halt due to the ill scheduling of a popular soap opera against my favorite cartoon show.
As a kid my taste in cartoons always remained rooted in reality. Popeye was a sailor, not a picnic basket stealing talking bear. I preferred the ‘Dick Tracy’ cartoons with their rogue’s gallery of villains - Pruneface, Itchy, Flat Top -over any Looney Tunes short ever produced. The old Max Fleischer ‘Superman’ cartoons enthralled me, while ‘Tom and Jerry’ left me numb with
boredom. I did develop a fondness for Felix the Cat but I considered those cartoons to be
adventures - stories, if you will - instead of some silly and pointless cat and mouse chase like
‘Herman and Catnip.’
Pointless being the operative word. I was looking for a point and it can’t be found in ‘Baby
But back to the Quonset Hut in Long Beach. The exact time line of much of my early years is as
frenetic as the needle on a seismograph, owing in no small part to the family mythology I
mentioned earlier. All I have are evasions and fabrications, a vast quilt work of familial lies and cover-ups that would put the most corrupt White House administration to shame. Yet I had a
breakthrough the other day. I vividly recalled a rude interruption in my afternoon cartoons, sitting there on the dense floor of the Quonset hut, black-and-white images of a man with dark hair laying on the floor of a kitchen somewhere and a bunch of men in black suits and hats and ties swarming around him and a lot of frantic commotion and it was all happening somewhere nearby and my mom saying “That’s not too far from here” as if the nearness of the violent events
replacing my Popeye and Crusader Rabbit cartoons would make it all seem okay. That was the day Robert Kennedy was killed in the kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A., so this nagging
memory of Long Beach and the Quonset Hut and Sheriff John’s Lunch Brigade had to be from
‘68, which would make me seven years old at the time, which means it had nothing to do with
Lynn, this memory, Lynn being my other half-sister, the one who was conceived in Long Beach
seventeen months after my birth.
I only recently learned that my estranged half-sister - that would be Lynn, mind you, not
Michelle, the progeny of the man from Fresno - passed away two years ago. The obituary in the
Las Vegas Review-Journal did not surrender the cause of death, only that she died “in a Las
Vegas hospital.” She was only 42.
I called my mom - who, amazingly, lived in Vegas for five years without ever knowing her
daughter was also a Sin City resident - and broke the news. Don’t confuse this for one moment as
a Hallmark moment. It was sort of like calling a neighbor and asking them if they needed
anything from the store, since you’re already on your way out to pick up a loaf of bread and some
“Who was Lynn’s father?” I finally asked.
“His name was Bill,” mom confessed. “He was in the navy and based at Long Beach. He was
getting ready to ship out and I was pregnant and didn’t want him to know, though he had his
suspicions. He said to me, ‘Honey, if you’re pregnant I won’t go’. But I didn’t want to ruin his career so I told him I wasn’t pregnant.”
Family mythology. That story is a little too close for comfort to the tale of my birth. Supposedly, my 19-year old father was a recent Air Force inductee who didn’t want his bright military future intruded upon by children, so my mother valiantly bid him farewell at the Presidio as he shipped out to points unknown and vowed to raise the child on her own. Until the guy from Fresno intruded. Until jail intruded. Until Bill the Sailor came along. Until, until, until.
So my memory of the Quonset hut in Long Beach, of Sheriff John’s Lunch Brigade and Popeye and Crusader Rabbit has nothing to do with my sister because I was only seventeen months old when she was born. She was conceived in Long Beach but born in San Francisco in October of 1960. Maybe, where DNA intrudes and intermingles with hazy memories and shadows and things we remember only in bizarre brief glimpses, things our brain categorizes as snippets of life to recall at a later date, maybe I remember her conception in that small, crowded Quonset hut, mom and Bill the Sailor making a baby in the next room while I was trying to watch Sheriff John. Or maybe it all means nothing, like a pointless cartoon.
(C) 2004, Rodger Jacobs
All Rights Reserved