Hippie Days – California – What A Blast!

Children’s Diary-July 24, 25

We camped in the Redwood Forest. It was dark under the big trees.

We camped in Guerneville. We went down a big slide and watched the racecars.

 It has taken me thirty years to return to California, the state of my birth. I’ve heard stories of my infancy, but it was like I came from another continent, so far and different from Florida, was the place I grew up. I get to know you California, little by little from the top down. After the cool dark peacefulness of Redwood National Forest, we were back on the road again.

There I was dragging my sweet little family along to San Francisco, my youngest, Nicole, then four, a year older than I was when I left this exotic city on the other side of the country. Driving down the coast, we made it as far as Guerneville and set up camp outside of town. Not in the woods, this place had civilization – a massive slide and a race car track drew the kids immediately. They burned off lots of excess energy and returned to the campsite as we were lighting the grill (a luxury) for dinner. The wood was wet and mostly smoking with just a few pinpoints of flame.

“Hey, Jill bring the lighter fluid,” Ray calls. “Let’s get this baby going. The kids look tired and starved.” He takes the lid off the can, pours a small amount into the lid and throws it into the grill, “just a dab’ll do it.”

“Whoosh!” the dab explodes and a snaking tail of flame shoots back to its origin in the can. My “Oh shit!” is always there for emergencies. Lifesaver Ray reacts immediately, smashes the lid back on the flaming can while everyone within sight or sound is retreating, and heaves it as far away from humanity as possible. It works. No more explosions, no more fire, except in the grill.

“Jesus Christ!” Ray rasps. “That was close.”

“Thank God everyone’s okay.” Our horrified faces soften into little jittery smiles.

One of the campers waves and calls back, “Quick thinking, man.”

The kids were settled in the back of the van quietly doing their own thing as we traveled down Hwy 101 towards San Francisco, my birthplace. My mind drifted back through the past, my only recollections coming from the stories my mother had woven. She had given me the link to my past: the name, address and phone number of my long lost godparents, the Byrnes.

The Ronckes

My extended family history began in Milwaukee, WI. where both of my parents were born. My mother, Genevieve Apolonia Roncke (altered from the original Ronski to obscure the Polish heritage) was the first child of nine to be born in the United States, successfully entering through the immigration nightmares of Ellis Island. Her older brother and sister were born in the countryside around Warsaw, Poland. My grandfather came first; hearing from his compatriots that there was work in the northern woods, sneaking away from the tyranny of his Russian captors and settling into an environment similar to his native Poland. Being intelligent, enterprising and productive he earned enough money in a few years to bring over the rest of the family. I know much less of my father, who was not the storyteller my mother was. Gene Lester Green (altered from the German Gruen for the same reason) and his only brother, 21 years younger with no other children in between, were born in Milwaukee.

Hippie Days – Sand Dunes Over the Pacific

Children’s Diary – July 23

We climbed a sand dune all the way to the top. Whee! Mommy got tired. Whew!

Sand Dunes to Pacific Oregon

We climbed over one more mountain range, descended into the Willamette Valley and Portland, Oregon to visit our first auditory oral program, the Tucker Maxon School. In existence for 25 years, their program has achieved high accolades for teaching deaf children to communicate orally with the help of hearing aids, lip reading, and speech practice. Although the school offers an excellent program: small classes, 8 – 1 ratio of students to teachers, and trained professionals, we decided that Portland was not for us. Being from sunny Florida, living more than half the year in clouds and rain would be too depressing for us.

Before leaving Oregon we continued west on our diagonal trajectory across the United States, from the Southeast Florida Gulf Coast the Pacific Ocean, our farthest point in the Northwest. First we had to climb over the largest sand dunes in North America to see that ocean, an impressive first for us all.

Everybody bursts from the car. “Hooray! We made it!” I yell.

“Made what? I don’t see anything but this huge sand mountain,” says Trey.

“Well, I mean the driving part,” I laugh. “All we have left is to climb the mountain for our first view of the biggest ocean in the world – the Pacific.”

Nicole looks puzzled as she cranks her head back and stares upward, “There’s water up there?”

We take off our shoes and start what seems to be a short trek, but very steep. Daddy of course is in the lead. I fall back quickly to the end as my quad muscles start protesting. “How can you little kids with short legs be way ahead of me?” I call ahead.

“Oh, mommy, you’re just getting old.” Trey calls back.

I relax, start enjoying the experience. Huge mountains of soft fawn-colored, sand are strewn with a forest of hovering shadowy pines. Sunlit trails show us the way up and through. Kobi and I hold up the rear. His super short legs keep sinking to his stomach in the soft sand. It’s a constant chore of extraction for him to keep moving forward. All of a sudden I hear from above. “Oh my God! It’s gorgeous! We did it!” from Ray. The children are hooping and hollering. I give my locked legs a push for the last leg, and arrive puffing at the peak. ‘We’re Lewis and Clark all over again!” We cheer. Coming out of the pine forest there’s a vast view of nothing but sand swooping down to the immense Pacific, waves crashing on the shore. On the long drive I’d peppered the children with stories of explorers, conquerors, ship captains and wagon trails. With this climb and the incredible view, they get it.

Hippie Days – Following Our Northern Border

July 17 – 20

1st Expo with Environmental Theme

Moving on across Montana, the big sky state, we stop in Bozeman to take advantage of the hot springs. Although it’s a series of concrete pools, not the beautiful bubbling spring with steam wafting upward in a natural setting of rocks and trees, the warm water feels delicious and relaxing. Aaahhh! The icy water we’ve encountered so far on this trip is far too titillating for our puny Florida bodies. The concrete indoor spa pool is surrounded by a series of smaller squares each filled with different temperatures of water from scalding hot to freezing cold. Then the children discover a fun game: jumping from the hottest to the coldest pool with appropriate screams and laughter.

“Come on Mom. Your turn,” yells Trey.

“Okay, I’ll do it, but only if you’ll both start at the coldest pool next and work backwards.”

“Make sure your head goes under or it doesn’t count,” laughs Nicole.

We’ve been following a secondary goal; a vague and varied route of connecting with old friends we may never see again. This time it was Robbie and Jennifer, compatriots from our Army stint in El Paso who’ve settled near Spokane, Washington. World Expo 1974 was in full swing. We attended the first World’s Fair with an environmental theme. Trey was most impressed with the first IMAX movie. “Wow, we’re in the movie! It’s all around us.” Nicole’s eyes opened wide at the huge waterfall made of massive white porcelain toilets explaining water conservation and waste. “ Man, I wouldn’t want to fall into one of those!” We topped off the day with a sky ride surveying the whole park.

We’d been invited to spend the night with our friends at their cabin on Lake Coeur D’Alene in Idaho. Now this was really living: beautiful clean bathrooms, cushy beds, a real kitchen and the best for last, a crystal clear lake to swim in. We would have loved to stay forever, but duty called. We had an appointment in a few days to visit our first auditory oral school for Trey in Oregon so we continued west.

Mt. Hood, Oregon

The children’s eyes and body language begged, ‘will this ever be over?’ I wondered. Driving across Washington’s monotonous desert I‘m reminded of the endless corn, wheat, hay fields we’d straggled through in Kansas. Hours of hot sun glaring through the windshield, squinting for hours, creating my first wrinkles at 30. Except this time it was dry, dusty, flat. Sparse cacti and tumbleweeds dotted the landscape. We saw the Cascade Range in the distance. Eventually a tiny white peak of a mountain appeared standing high and alone, growing bigger and more magnificent as the miles clipped past. It was Mt. Hood. We cheered, not only because we’re out of the desert, but because it was time to find a campground and get out of the car. It was really hard to keep the kids and a dachshund content for a long time in such a small space.

Hippie Days – Of Antelopes, Geysers and Bears, Oh My!

I return to episodes of my memoir Life and Deaf.

Children’s Diary – July 15, 16

We went to Yellowstone Park. We saw the geyser Old Faithful. It shot water high in the air. We saw a bear in the woods. We saw the falls, hot springs and a grand canyon.


We’d done some research before we left, making up our summer bucket list of most desired places and Yellowstone is a top favorite. The kids are jumping up and down as we pull up to the gate, get our tickets, maps, directions and advice, the most critical being “DON’T FEED THE BEARS!”

It’s already getting late so we find the campground and quickly set up the tent before dark – We’re getting good at it by now – and plan our itinerary for tomorrow coordinating with the eruption of ‘Old Faithful’. Exhausted we drift quickly into dreamland. My last waking thoughts are far away from Yellowstone, having returned to the fine friends and safe neighborhood that we’ve ripped ourselves away from in a moment of idealism and principle.

Something is intruding into this placid scene. A scraping sound alerts me. Ray has heard it too. We both tense to listen. Something big crashes to the ground. We both jump but Ray, our savior, always first on the draw, reaches the tent door, and almost rips the zipper off trying to get out. Flashlight in hand, his light grazes across a huge dark shadow. “OMG it’s a bear!” He jumps back, finger across his lips, trying to close the gap in the tent opening. “Shhh! A huge bear just threw the cooler to the ground trying to open it.” It obviously knows the routine and where the food is hidden. The kids are awake and whimpering, eyes wide open and bulging with fear. For once Ray curbs his immediate call to action response and huddles us all together in silence as we listen to the banging, scratching and tearing at the food in the cooler. “Better let him have what he wants, then he’ll leave,” he whispers. When silence reigns once again the children calm and return to sleep. The morning light brings us out of the tent to observe the destruction of the campsite. Next time the cooler will stay in the van. And maybe we will, too.


We clean up the mess. Take note of what food has disappeared: all meat products, cheese, anything open. Only the bottles that didn’t break are left. The rest of the ice has melted.  Hope they have a store somewhere inside the park. We settle on fruit for breakfast and head off to our appointment with ‘Old Faithful’ and are duly impressed by the herds of antelope grazing in the mountains, the powerful waterfalls descending into the canyons and of course the amazing geyser spewing boiling water into the air.

Getting To Know You Nicaragua

Jimmy, our El Porvenir leader

Thanks first to El Porvenir for giving almost 25 years of service to Nicaragua: bringing water, building latrines, planting trees, venting stoves and educating the communities.

In four days we have not only completed our tasks, but have made many friends. Jimmy Membreno is our fearless bilingual El Porvenir leader. We’ve worked with Jimmy before and are thrilled to be with him again. His stories illuminate all corners of Nica life specializing in politics, including reciting poetry of Rubén Darío, and passages from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He also wields a mean shovel, teaches me how to trowel concrete and can change the battery in the truck with the help of Jose (Che) Solis who doubles as driver and a great chef. Salvadora, the daughter of school director/teacher Merlin, has offered Jose the use of her house to prepare our lunches each day. She is a single mom of two toddlers who can use the extra money El Porvenir will pay her. She offers to teach Carol, the only other woman in our volunteer group, and me how to make tortillas on the unvented wood-burning stove. At least there’s an open door nearby to let light in and smoke out. You can tell that Carol has some experience baking. She easily kneads, pats and spins the masa, corn flour, until it’s just the right size and plops it into the heated iron skillet grinning, “I did it!”

Salvadora’s tortillas

I’m next. Though not a bad cook, I’m not a baker, and my wad of dough continues to be just that. I press it too hard into the plastic circle used to gauge size where it sticks tight and has to be scraped off. Instead of starting over I hang my head, demoralized and escape from the furnace of a kitchen.

Rubén, our crew chief, is a trained construction worker from the pueblo and takes his job seriously. Eric, another father in the community, keeps everyone laughing with his antics and love of fun. Concepcion, one of the mothers, comes to help after doing her housewifely chores. She smiles shyly as she puts her weight into the shovel and can out dig many of the men. After classes the children and teachers pitch in. A young adolescent, the only one with spiked blond hair, becomes our main wheelbarrow driver, hauling hefty loads of rocks up and down hilly terrain of the schoolyard. None wear hats and barely have shoes, only worn out flip-flops and holey sneakers.

Eric and pinata

Las Delicias is a fairly self-sufficient community. Most of the men and teenage boys are out in the fields tending their crops with a few horses and cows. Since there’s little rain they must rely on spotty irrigation systems from dug wells. Strong shouldered women carry whatever is needed back and forth on their heads, leaving their hands and arms free for infants and lighter items. The women with the children to help, feed all the chickens and pigs running around, wash the clothes by hand, and cook the meals consisting mostly of tortillas, rice and beans. No one smokes. It’s too expensive.

Ruben, crew chief and crew

Very little government money, books or supplies reach the schools in these outlying villages. The closest secondary school is in Darío and only a couple of the primary students go on. Though a bus arrives twice a day it’s too expensive and anyway the older children are needed to work in the fields and at home. Yet on the whole the people are content with their simple hard-working lives, and quick to smile and make friends.

On our final day there’s a huge celebration. The primary school children perform dances and sing songs for us. El Porvenir provides a Piñata for them and the volunteers hand out new school supplies. Cutting the ribbons on the new outdoor facilities make everyone cheer, “Muchissimas gracias, El Porvenir.”

Using beautiful washing station

Puttin’ In The Potties

img_1332-5099426Off to Sébaco to settle into our hotel then on to the El Porvenir office in Darío to pick up our means of transportation to the site; an old Toyota Land Cruiser pickup truck rigged with seats on both sides of the bed and a tarp over all in case of non-existent rain, effectively keeping out any bit of breeze. All of our supplies include shovels, picks, extra battery (which became a godsend), gallons of drinking water, go in first and wheelbarrows on the roof. Six of us, including Jimmy, pile in on top of everything.

Our project is in the outlying village of Las Delicias, a community miles from any town on a rocky dirt road billowing dust. The rainy season is very late. Rock strewn dry fields stretch for miles on either side interspersed with the dead leftovers of small trees, all of their smaller branches hacked away for ‘leña’, firewood, for their cook stoves. As we bounce closer to Las Delicias we begin to see outlying gardens, some with irrigation. Planting begins in May at the start of the rainy season. Because of global warming, the dust instead of the rain has descended upon the newly sprouted corn, tomatoes, beans, etc… The men in the fields wave greetings. We pass a few animals, horses, a smattering of small trucks and motorcycles pulled up to the neat dirt-floored houses all with a front porch. Most everyone is outside during the day, the abodes dark and hot with cooking fire. Water’s outside anyway. That single faucet and double concrete sink will do for washing, cooking, bathing, drinking. Somewhere at the back of the lot is the latrine, draped in old plastic and maybe a piece of tin. Here and there a Royal Poinciana tree in full bloom becomes a gorgeous backdrop for this simple life. All the amenities are covered, they’re just a little harder to come by in these distant villages.

The school’s old latrines, in pieces scattering the schoolyard, must be removed and new ones built. The concrete for the 3 faucet washing station and the base for the toilets are already complete.  Our major tasks as volunteers working with the pros from El Porvenir and the fathers, mothers and children in the community will be digging drainage ditches and gray water holding areas and excavating the old ones that have sludged over during the last few rainy seasons. Final concrete and brickwork is needed before assembling and installing the latrines. Seems like a snap. Hah! I’ll never look at a large rock again without remembering the massive task of digging trenches and hauling rocks from the river to fill holes.

Though all but one of us volunteers are in our +60’s, we keep up with the crew. The clouds bring threatening thunder each day, but not a drop of rain. The sun sears our white skin crispy, but it’s the killer humidity that weighs us down. The Nicas understand, as the Gringos don’t, to pace themselves, spending necessary time resting on their shovels chewing the fat. But don’t think they’re lazy. They’re avoiding heart attacks, heat exhaustion, dehydration.  They start early and when the sun’s at its height it’s time for a short siesta in the shade.

During breaks the children gather round, curious about Gringos, eager to learn about us and our language. Being an ESOL teacher and able to speak Spanish, I ask the teacher’s permission to spend part of each workday, when I’m so exhausted I can’t lift another rock or shovelful of dirt, teaching the children simple English phrases and answering their questions about our lifestyle in the United States. They’re thrilled. At every opportunity they find me on site to practice the words and phrases and to sing the songs they are learning.







Next: Getting to Know the People

Bringing Water to the Nicaragua – A Land of Glitter and Poverty

Cathedral in Managua

I’m taking a break from my memoir ‘Life and Deaf ‘ to tell you of my latest adventure volunteering with El Porvenir.

Bob and I arrive in Managua on a prop plane from Costa Rica to participate in our third volunteer ‘brigade’ with the NGO El Porvenir. Our guide Jimmy and driver Jose drive us through town and fill us in on life in Nicaragua. Things have changed drastically since our last volunteering experience with El Porvenir over three years ago. Many historic buildings have been torn down, a la Orwell’s “1984” or barred with tall chain-link fences topped with rolls of barbed wire. Christianity still reigns leaving the oldest and most honored ruins, the colonial cathedral, with its moldy scarred stone walls still standing firm, etched in cracks and blown out glass, token statues left standing as sentinels to the past.

New waterfront in Managua

Rosario Murillo, president Daniel Ortega’s flamboyant wife has cajoled the government into spending lots of money sprucing up the main streets of the capital with massive metal ‘Trees of Life’ all brightly electrified at night to make her city shine with false prosperity. On the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the old downtown is being totally renovated as a tourist destination. After the great earthquake of ’72 the town center was moved inland. The newly rebuilt waterfront restaurants and docks are painted in intense primary colors, planted with spindly swaying palms, and strategically placed benches touting the Sandanista propaganda “Follow us making positive change in Nicaragua.” Of course you must be a member of the party to experience the prosperity.

Chavez and Tree of Life

The Ortega extended family reputedly owns a huge percentage of the foundry, electric company, casinos, hotels, etc.. Rosario wants everyone to know what a great modern city Managua has become under the rule of her husband and the guise of the Sandanista Party.

Just off the main streets and the waterfront and on into the countryside the masses live in poverty, many in shacks made of found materials and black plastic. Most have electricity brought in on a frayed wire, and their non-potable water comes from a pipe outside on the street. According to Wikipedia “48% of the population in Nicaragua live below the poverty line, 79.9% of the population live on less than $2 per day.”

Sandino and Jill

We arrive at our Hotel Loma del Valle. In contrast it’s a beautiful colonial-style hotel in a clean colorful, securely barred residential neighborhood. The streets are meticulously absent of the stray dogs and mountains of trash common in the rest of downtown. Security guards sit watch on almost every corner. Orientation includes a brief political history, an overview of our project – installing three latrines and a washing station at the primary school in a small farming community of Las Delicias, general protocol for health and security and a ‘meet and greet’ with our six fellow volunteers.

Next: Working to build latrines and a washing station in the farming community of Las Delicias.