Jul 6, 2022 by

by Scott Orchard

When you’re a kid, you never fully appreciate the significance of Grandparents. If you are fortunate enough to have them in your young life, you obviously enjoy the occasional holiday visits and gifts. You recall the nicknames they gave you, the wet kiss on the cheek from Grandma and the knuckle-crushing handshake from Grandpa. But it’s much later that you realize they left a lasting and profound impact on your life.

My brothers, sister and I grew up with only one set of grandparents. My mom was born in an ambulance en route to Los Angeles County General Hospital. Her parents both passed away from cancer by the timer she was 5 years of age. She and her two older sisters then went to live with their grandparents who both passed away within two years, thus catapulting all three girls into the archaic and chaotic California state foster care system of the 1940’s and ‘50’s. At times, my seven-year-old mom would be united with her siblings in a foster home, but mostly the girls grew up separated from each other. My mom lived with one set of foster parents after another for nearly twelve years until the day she married my dad.

Dad, on the other hand, was raised in a traditional nuclear family unit by my grandparents, with his older brother. Their lifestyle, however, was anything but traditional. They were a family of “Roadrunners.” Grandpa worked in the agriculture industry. He spent his days laboring on a ranch, farm, dairy or food processing plant, tending to the repair, maintenance and operation of heavy farm equipment and taking care of livestock. Early in life about 1931, when Grandpa served in the Army, he was shoeing a horse and was kicked in the head, rendering him hearing-impaired for the rest of his life. I recall, his hearing-aid connected to what looked like a transistor radio, strung around his neck, hidden in a pouch on his chest just beneath his undershirt. (Later, as a 1950’s teenager, my dad bragged about how he co-opted that same look from Grandpa so he could listen to a real transistor radio during classes, all the while garnering sympathy from his teachers, who assumed he too, was impaired.)

During much of the 1940’s, when dad and my Uncle Jerry were grade-school age, Grandpa went from job to job, throughout the middle section of the country with his wife and boys in tow. They lived in a travel trailer for much of the time but also rented housing in various states across the country. I do recall one of quite a few summer family road trips where, in addition to taking us to national parks, monuments and historic homes, dad took us to a desolate, abandoned, “Dutch-colonial” just outside of Bangor, Wisconsin. That is where my dad, my uncle and my grandparents made their home during WWII, while Grandpa held a job at the local plant that produced pancake mix for the American troops. Dad reported that he and his brother attended no less than eighteen different schools during the 1940’s.

My Grandma, Dorothy (Dolly), was a very attractive and loving lady with a sweet smile but she could be very stern and she was always proper. Later, her sharp, pastel-colored knit pant suits, hats, pearls and leopard skin-patterned scarves reminded me of “Mrs. Thurston Howell,” the character from the ‘60’s TV show “Gilligan’s Island.” One difference though, was Grandma colored her hair a bright brassy red (almost burnt-orange) all the way until her passing in 1986. While Grandpa worked, Grandma cared for the boys and pursued her interests. She was an avid doll collector (hence the nickname) and a genealogist. She loved researching both sides of the family’s ancestry, collecting newspaper articles, wedding announcements, birth records, obituaries, family portraits and the like. I often reflect how she would have loved how much faster, easier and more thorough her work could have been with use of the Internet, desktop publishing and mail order DNA test kits. Nevertheless, even without those 21st century resources at her disposal, she was quite skilled at this endeavor, as evidenced from her lifetime’s body of work that is part of her legacy, along with her collection of hundreds of rare and unusual dolls from around the world, that would later grace the spare room of her Huntington Park, California home (which was quite a bit spooky for six-year-old me and my younger sister, especially when my older brothers thought it would be hilarious to lure us into the “dolly-room,” lock the door and shut out the lights!)

By 1946, Dad was about nine years old, the family settled in The San Fernando Valley, just outside of Los Angeles. Mom and Dad met there years later, both attending Van Nuys High School during the early 1950’s. Mom frequently had her lunch with a then-quiet and shy Natalie Wood. Robert Redford was in my uncle’s graduating class and Marilyn Monroe dropped out of Van Nuys High School a decade before, in order to get married to her first of several husbands.

Fortunately for me and my siblings, Grandma and Grandpa settled down with my dad and uncle in Los Angeles. After two major earthquakes, (Sylmar-1971 and Northridge-1994) two violent and costly riots (Watts-1965 and Rodney King-1992) countless fires, floods, mudslides, insane traffic, urban blight and a skyrocketing cost of living; I still think Los Angeles, California, is the greatest city in the world!

Looking back, I think Grandma and Grandpa influenced a ‘gypsy’ kind of wanderlust with my dad. Even though he spent his entire adult life in southern California, working as a broadcast radio engineer and television news cameraman, Dad’s labor union allowed his vacation time to accrue, so he took me, my mom and siblings on these long road trips, every chance he could. The first such trip that I remember was early Spring, 1967. Dad piled his crew of six into our metallic blue, 1964 Chevy Impala for an Easter ride up to damp and grey Seattle to visit his Grandfather, Andrew. My great-grandpa was the father of 13 children (my grandfather being the eldest of the brood.) He worked as The Constable of Crary, North Dakota, population 142 (according to the 2010 census taken over 100 years after my Grandpa was born.) I would imagine that since his children represented at least 10% of the total population of that hamlet in the 1910’s, most of great-grandpa’s “law-enforcement” activities were dispatched to his own children. I was very fortunate to have met my great-grandfather as he passed the following year.

But the Orchard family road trips rolled on. In 1970, dad bought a used, 1967 twenty-two foot Winnebago motorhome. That summer, he took the six of us on a cross-country odyssey that lasted three weeks. These annual summer sojourns continued all through the 1970’s and many times lasted as long as five weeks. As a result, dad had taken me to visit all 48 contiguous states, much of Canada and portions of Mexico, by the time I was 14 years of age. (To round out visits to all 50 states, I picked up Hawaii and Alaska later as an adult on family vacations with my kids.)

The memories from those adventures have seared into my mind forever. On many occasions I recall staying up late riding “shotgun” with my dad, listening to country music on rural radio stations as he steered the camper though the dark of night down I-10 or I-40 trying to get to our next location by daybreak while the rest of the family, the dog and cat slept in various compartments of the Winnebago’s cabin. From Mission Bay, San Diego; Old Tucson, Arizona; Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico; The River Walk in San Antonio and Dealey Plaza in Dallas; The French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana; Disney World in Orlando and St. Augustine, Florida; up through the Outer Banks and Hilton Head in the Carolinas; The Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee; into Historic Virginia and Washington DC; New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Niagara Falls and depending on the itinerary, on up into Quebec, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver BC, Canada, or across the top of the U.S through Glacier, Zion, Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks or zig-zagging down through the mid-section on the way back home just in time to report back to school in September.

Would my dad have shared this rich experience with his family had it not been for my grandparents’ nomadic lifestyle while he was growing up? Fifty years later, I still have vivid recollections of every campground, body of water, monument, state house, battlefield and amusement park we ever visited. In fact, thanks to my parents and by extension, my grandparents, when the time came to study the Civil War, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Appomattox Courthouse and Ford’s Theatre jumped off the pages of my 5th grade history text book in the fall of 1972 after returning from one such family trip.

My mom and dad didn’t discontinue these cross-country expeditions in the coming years. On the contrary, they collected my children, nieces and nephews and packed them all into a newer model RV and hit the road for several more outings. They followed many of the same routes that we traveled decades earlier and even visited places that were missed. For instance, my rock ‘n roll musician son was blessed to visit Elvis’ “Graceland” in Memphis and the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” in Cleveland. (Elvis was living at Graceland and thus not open to the public when I was first in Memphis as a 12-year-old in 1974 and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame did not yet exist when I was a boy, visiting Ohio.)

Even though my grandparents and my children’s grandparents were never particularly well off financially, it became a tradition, a priority . . . a legacy of sorts for the Orchard Families to travel the United States and experience the history, the wonder and the beauty of this great land. My grandfather moved his family around out of necessity, due to the post-depression and WWII-era rural economy on a meager grain-elevator operator’s salary. My dad did the same for us on a modest radio engineer’s wages decades later.

Years later, my grandpa would work for The United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A) as a Federal Meat Inspector. (If there was going to be a family bar-b-que, you wanted Grandpa calling the shots at the butcher counter!) The last two years of his career before retirement, he was assigned to Honolulu, Hawaii. Grandma always pronounced it with a “v” (Huh-vie-ee) which as a kid, I always thought was a bit peculiar and just a little funny. They lived in a high-rise downtown and it seems that Hawaiian life really agreed with them. Grandma simply swapped out her leopard-print clothing accents for scarves with pattern designs of palm trees, hula girls and ukuleles. When Grandpa retired, they moved back to California and settled into a home in Encinitas, just north of San Diego. I’m sure I was the only one of my brothers and sister that saw a major summertime advantage to having grandparents that lived less than a mile from The Pacific Ocean. From ages 12-15, I never missed a portion of summer after returning from a long family trip to stay with Grandma and Grandpa down in Encinitas. I always brought a school buddy with me and we spend sun-up to sundown surfing at nearby “Swami’s”, a point break beach nicknamed after Swami Paramahansa Yogananda. The grounds, hermitage and Self-Realization Fellowship ashram, built by him in 1937, overlooks the point to this very day. We would glide down the gradual declining graded boulevard, barefoot on our skateboards, gripping our surfboards under an arm, clad in wetsuits from the ankles up to the waist with the arms and collar flapping around our hips, wearing long sleeve tee-shirts featuring the brand logo of our favorite surfboard manufacturer or an image our favorite pro-surfer charging Hawaii’s Pipeline.

Once at the bottom of the hill, we had to jump across the track of the Pacific Surf Liner Train that went straight up the California Coast from Old Town San Diego to San Francisco. Then, we would “jay-walk” Pacific Coast Highway, climb down the jagged rocky point, pull our wetsuits up from our waist, push our arms through and pull over our shoulders, pull the zipper up the back attached to a long string, secure the collar around our necks with the Velcro strip attached to the inside flap. Lastly, we would find a place to stash our skateboards in the pointy, green succulent ice plants that grow on the dunes, attach the Velcro ankle strap that tethered us to our surfboards and paddle out into the line-up of crisp, glassy, southern California waves.

By the early 1980’s my dad had purchased a small FM radio station of his own in Victorville, California, in the high desert, about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles, nearly halfway to Las Vegas. At about that time, my grandparents sold their Encinitas home and moved to Victorville as well. After Grandma passed in 1986, Grandpa made a routine of coming to work at the family business. It was so great to have Grandpa there, tooling around the radio station. Even at a spry 80 years of age, Grandpa’s duties included everything from watering the office plants and maintaining the breakroom to logging transmitter readings and cleaning the tape heads and capstan wheels of the production equipment and automation systems. He also distributed Tootsie Rolls to his great-grandchildren when they filed into the radio station after school.

When Grandpa passed away, it was truly the end of an era. No more grandparents of my own. But the rich memories, stories and artifacts still enrich our lives. My sister has retained a few dolls and keepsakes from Grandma. My daughter is the proud owner of her great-great-grandfather Andrew’s Colt Revolver from his days as a Crary, North Dakota Constable, during the turn of the last century. And we all share the Orchard Family ‘Dossier’ meticulously and lovingly compiled and crafted by my Grandma Dolly. We also have stories to share whenever we get together. Like, how my Grandpa called Kool-aid “Bug-juice” or whenever we asked him to pass the butter at dinner, he made sure he shoved it to us just enough to get butter all over our fingers. Or, how Grandma endured my improvisation on her upright piano at age 5. (I’ve since taken lessons!) She also kept a drawer in her bureau filled with small toys, cap-guns, cars, rubber balls, magnets and Silly Putty etc. exclusively for the amusement of my siblings and cousins during visits. I often tell my children how much Grandma and Grandpa would have loved knowing them. I joke with my daughter that Grandma would not have approved of her tattoos!

Now, as a grandparent, I’m hoping to leave a lasting impression on my grandchildren. I am blessed to participate in simple activities like weekly outings to the park or the beach, decorating the Christmas tree, Halloween trick-or-treating, Easter-egg hunts and school holiday programs. But I dream of sponsoring trips to Disney World or road trips to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Park. All in due time. See? I just caught myself. Wanderlust! It must be in my DNA! Just like my parents and my grandparents. I yearn to hit the road with my kids and grandkids! I guess I come from a long line of grandparents who are “Roadrunners!” Ω