To the editor:
This letter was written last spring in response to a March 14 news story about the DCS correcting a travel ban on fosters.
My husband and I started fostering in 1967. In February, 1969, three siblings were placed in our home. Their mother, a single parent, was critically ill, and she passed away six weeks after their arrival. The siblings were 9, 10 and 11, which were roughly the ages of the two oldest of our five children. The children bonded quickly, and we were hoping for a long-term placement.
In June, over our protests, and in spite of letters from family, friends and teachers, the children were removed from our home and placed in the Soldiers and Sailors Children’s Home in Knightstown, Indiana. We were heartbroken.
For the next year, the children were not allowed to visit us, so we traveled to Knightstown when possible, and also communicated by letters. We discovered that upon arrival, they had immediately been assigned to three separate residences. Their letters revealed that discipline was harsh and affection was nearly nonexistent. The prevailing theme was they wanted to return to our home.
During the second year of their placement, to our surprise, they were granted a three-week visit in our home. We had planned a family vacation, and decided to take them with us. By this time, we did not trust those in power to make good decisions for the children, so we did not ask permission to take them out of state. (In retrospect, that seems a bit risky.) We picked them up from Knightstown on a Sunday, and left the next day for California.
My husband had purchased a used Airstream trailer, and removed the living quarters from the running gears. The living quarters became a playhouse for our daughters.
(It became know as the “dead man trailer” because of an unverified rumor that the former occupant had died in the trailer.) The running gears became the base for our new camper.
My husband designed and built a camper that would sleep the 10 of us. The trailer was 6’ by 9’, and had pull-out sections that supported a 9’ by 18’ tent that we christened Big Blue. There was no extra room in the station wagon, so all our supplies were stored in the camper, in the cargo carrier on top and in a dorm-sized refrigerator that was strapped to the front of the camper.
The camper was pulled by a 1968 Ford Ranch Wagon that seated ten. There were two bench seats that each seated three, and the rear of the station wagon had two smaller bench seats that faced each other. There was a small table between the seats that made it possible for the occupants to play cards and other games.
For meals, lunch was eaten as we traveled — sandwiches, chips, fruit, etc. We would camp every night and prepare dinner and then breakfast at the campsite. We were traveling on the earnings of a dairy farmer, so we had to be frugal. Even a stop at McDonald’s wreaked havoc on our daily budget.
Our first stop was in Iowa, beside a lake that was so shallow the kids could wade almost to the center of the lake. The tent was set up for the first time at our Iowa campsite, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when everything went together as planned. The next morning, one of the boys offered to take care of the garbage, and carried out a full trash bag. It wasn’t until the following morning that we discovered the trash bag had been full of one day’s dirty laundry. Since we had packed sparingly, that misunderstanding seriously reduced our wardrobe choices.
Ten people in a tent gave a new meaning to the term “togetherness.” The kids had a running joke that their dad would make sure everyone was in bed and ready to go to sleep, then take off his shoes, after which everyone was instantly knocked out by the fumes.
The eight kids got along remarkably well. They were Roy, 14; Scott, 13; Danny, 13; Laurie, 12; Nancy, 12; Julie, 10; Pam, 8; and Tam, 8. The boys did have the annoying habit of calling the girls “amoebas”, and then laughing hysterically. One ongoing argument was whether the boys or girls had to work hardest in camp. The three boys helped my husband set up the camper every night while the five girls helped me prepare the meals. One evening, we allowed them to trade chores. After listening to the girls groan about how heavy the pull-out sections were, and then eating burned grilled-cheese sandwiches prepared by the boys, the two groups were ready to trade back.
On another memorable evening, the boys decided to do their version of the show Bonanza. Roy, a big, teddy-bear of a kid, was the obvious choice for Hoss. Paw was a shoo-in, and Scott and Danny took on the roles of Adam and Little Joe. As they started setting up the camper, the banter between the boys took on a definite Western flavor.
There was some heavy lifting involved, so every so often, one of the boys would yell, “Pa’s gonna git a her-ni-a.” They obviously thought they were hilarious. The girls and I tried to ignore them as we prepared the evening meal. After a few minutes, I noticed the campers on both sides of us had pulled up their lawn chairs, and were watching the boys’ performance. Unfortunately, that only encouraged the young actors.
We had an itinerary, but also were open to unexpected stops along the way. We traveled with the aid of a Rand McNally atlas that had information on out-of-the-way interesting sites. The kids had a snowball fight (in August!) in Rocky Mountain National Park and enjoyed an afternoon at Buffalo Bill’s Ranch. In Utah, we made the mistake of allowing the kids to climb the Wasatch Mountain before breakfast one morning, and then immediately afterward taking them to Salt Lake. Scratches from the tumbling trip back down the mountain were literally turned inside out by the salt water — and it stung! In Salt Lake City, we were privileged to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In Las Vegas, we went to family-friendly Circus, Circus, and watched the aerial show. (The boys were asked to leave the restroom after the attendant found them trying on all the free colognes.)
It soon become apparent that one of the kids, who shall remain anonymous, had a serious problem with carsickness, triggered by the winding mountain roads. So when we packed the station wagon every morning, we made sure we included what was dubbed the “Barf Bucket” and learned to expect the sound of vomiting, accompanied by assorted gagging sounds from the others. My poor husband, who was a veteran of shutting out the sounds of morning sickness, would turn up the volume on the radio, look straight ahead and just keep driving.
When we reached California, we first stayed with my husband’s sister and brother-in-law, John and Elaine Graham in LaHabra. On Sunday morning, we attended their church, arriving late (a family trait we call “Gilbert Time”). The only available seating was at the front of the sanctuary, and the 10 of us filled an entire pew. The sermon that day was Planet Earth — the Population Explosion. I could feel stares and glares boring holes in the back of my head.
We spent the next day at Disney Land, where we took in every available ride. Ten exhausted people staggered out through the gates when the park closed at 1 a.m.
From LaHabra we drove to Escondido to visit my brother and sister-in-law, Lloyd and Silvia Lautzenhiser. They lived in a small two-bedroom apartment, and eight sleeping bags completely covered the living room floor at night. My brother took the kids on hair-raising motorcycle rides and they all returned with small burn marks from the hot muffler. We drove up the mountain to Mount Palomar, and visited the observatory, where we enjoyed gazing at the skies through the giant telescopes. On the way back down, my crazy brother and my equally crazy husband decided to race. My brother packed the girls into his little MG, while the boys rode with us in the station wagon. I still have memories of the boys screaming “Faster, Dad,” while I clutched the dashboard and prayed for survival. The next day was blessedly more peaceful as we wandered through the very beautiful San Diego Zoo.
On the way back to Indiana we took a more southern route. We stopped at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, where we attempted to comprehend the size of the enormous chasm. We made a last-minute decision to drop in on some unsuspecting relatives, Jack and Carolyn Eyster, in Albuquerque. Thankfully, they appeared happy to see us, and welcomed us with open arms. Our last stop was in St. Louis, where we creaked our way to the top of the arch, then headed toward Indiana.
We arrived at our home, unpacked the camper, and then, too soon, it was time to return the three siblings to Knightstown. We had returned exhausted, but filled with memories that have lasted a lifetime.
An update on the three siblings:
Roy ran away from the children’s home within weeks after returning from our family vacation. We heard nothing from him until he turned up on our doorstep four years later on Christmas Eve. Roy has lived the life of a bachelor, and we have enjoyed visiting him wherever he was living.
After three years in the children’s home, Danny and Nancy were returned to us, and stayed until moving to California to be reunited with an older brother.
Danny remained in California, where he passed away in 1999. We attended his memorial service on what would have been his 41st. birthday.
Nancy also remained in California, where she married and gave birth to four boys, one of whom was killed in an auto accident when he was not quite 3 years old. She has been back to our home twice, and we have visited her and her family in California.
I have consulted with the survivors of this trip, and the facts are true to the best of our collective memories.