Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Time traveling, part 3

What makes such an impression that it stays in the mind forever?

A lover? A meal? A place on the map? A place in the heart?

In the fall of 1959, my father quit his teaching job in Fountain Hill, Pa., to take a position with the American Red Cross. His first posting turned out to be Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H.

I was 8 years old and except for a couple of brief forays to the beach in Wildwood, N.J., and a weekend trip to Washington DC, I'd never been much further than the playground across the street. The playground was my world.

So I guess moving to Portsmouth was kind of intimidating. I must have blocked out a lot of it from my memory because I don't recall the moving van, the mountain of furniture, the packing up of clothes — heck, I don't even remember getting in the way. I don't even recall the drive to Portsmouth.

What I do remember, when we finally got there in the autumn darkness, was passing a restaurant on Route 1 that had a really neat neon sign. It was the image of a smiling blue whale, shooting a spout of water through its blowhole, with colorful lights proclaiming "Thar she blows." It was Yoken's "Thar she blows" Restaurant. Yep. That was its proper name.

This neon sign has provided a lifetime of memories.
And I was mesmerized by that neon sign.

Because this was an era steeped in the Cold War, Portsmouth was a military town with a historic naval yard (John Paul Jones once lived in Portsmouth, and the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 was signed at the naval base) that was protected by the F-100s and the B-47s of Pease Air Force Base.

I can only imagine how many nuclear devices were stored in the ammo dumps that dotted the air base.

I'm pretty sure at 8 years old, I didn't much care about nuclear bombs.

Pease is where dad was stationed. Sometimes, when he came home for lunch, he'd bring warm French bread fresh from the base bakery, and our lunch would be nothing more than that delicious bread slathered in jam and real butter.

But Yoken's was the primary gathering place in Portsmouth, the place where civic organizations had their monthly meetings, the place where families gathered for good, inexpensive seafood dinners. It was a special treat for our family to eat there and it was my great and rare opportunity to see the spouting whale.

If I thought the playground in Fountain Hill was Kid Heaven, I soon learned that Portsmouth offered its own enticements.

On Veteran's Day, they opened Pease Air Force Base to the public and we got to climb all over planes and helicopters. When summer arrived, we made daily trips to nearby Rye or Hampton Beach, just a few miles away, and frolicked in the cold Atlantic water until our lips turned blue. We didn't care. It's where I learned to body surf.

In the fall, Portsmouth became shrouded in spectacular New England foliage. This is when I became an unrepentant New Anglophile. In the winter, we had snow drifts so high they reached the second story of our three-story duplex.

It was unbelievable.

But it didn't last. It couldn't. Less than nine months later, dad quit the Red Cross and went back to teaching, this time taking a job in East Hartford, Conn.

But the memory of Portsmouth remained ingrained. Decades later I took my wife there on our honeymoon, and we've made several return visits, each time stopping for a meal at Yoken's and a chance for me to pay homage to the whale.

One day, a few years ago, Kim was surfing the Internet and I heard her, from the other room, exclaim, "Oh, no!"

"What now," I wondered.

"They closed down Yoken's," she said.

It was true. A local institution that had survived more than half a century was gone. So was the Air Force base, now turned into a small commuter airport. A Google GPS overhead view from Jupiter or somewhere shows the restaurant building has been razed, with nothing more than an empty parking lot to mark the memories. That, and a neon sign covered with a tarp.

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