This day fifty years ago was a big day in my family... the day we moved into our brand new house in Bowie, Maryland. It was built by Levitt and Sons, famous for post-WWII affordable, mass produced housing, as part of their Belair at Bowie community. Named for the thoroughbred racing stable which formerly occupied the land fast being filled by houses, Belair was a remarkable place to grow up, at a remarkable time. Many who shared this experience "gather" in Facebook groups to share memories and talk about why the place was so special to them. I won't go into all of that here and now, as I want to focus on this day in my family's lives, and some of the things that make it memorable to us.
We'd left Syosset, NY, where my parents first moved in 1953. A typical Long Island suburb, my memories of that town are few, as we left shortly after I turned five. Our departure was brought about by a series of disputes between labor and management in the newspaper industry in NYC, a combination of strikes and lockouts. My father was a printer, more accurately a Linotype operator, and a member of the International Typographical Union, but after long stretches of trying to support a family of five on "strike pay" something had to change. Through family connections my dad landed a job with the Government Printing Office in Washington, DC, and thus our departure from Syosset was set in motion.
Now, it wasn't as simple as just packing up our stuff and moving it all to the new house in Bowie. You see, our NY house sold in June of 1966, and the Bowie house wasn't due to be completed until early September. We certainly weren't unique in finding ourselves between dwellings, but as a family of five kids and two adults of modest means, what to do in the interim was a point of some concern to my parents. I doubt I'll ever know all the discussions that took place, but after considering all the options, including a temporary apartment, or staying with family, my mother proposed the rather creative solution that they ultimately chose.
So late June of 1966 found us all landing at Dogwood Park, a campground on the fringes of Annapolis, the state capital of Maryland. My parents had bought a Nimrod Riviera pop up camper trailer... the kind that looks like a big tent on wheels. With the addition of a "add a room" tent that zipped onto the side of the trailer, we had a reasonable facsimile of a home for the next 70 odd days. Yes, you read that right... we camped for over 70 days. It's a testament to my mom's patience and sense of humor that she managed the five of us that long summer, with my dad away at work five days a week.
I'll probably return to tell more about that summer at another point. Tonight I want to focus on our final arrival in Bowie at our new house. Even that seemingly straightforward process wasn't as simple or conventional as you might think. For one thing, there's that little matter of school, which began for my older siblings on Tuesday, September 6th, right after Labor Day. That meant that our mom had to drive the whole gang of us to Bowie that morning to drop the four older kids off at three different schools - high school for my brother, junior high for my two oldest sisters and elementary school for my youngest sister. Me? I was kindergarten age, but that didn't start up as soon as the rest of the schools did, so I had a reprieve. That first day, mom had to make the rounds again later in the day, picking everyone up and driving back to the campground for the night.
The next day, the 7th, the big day began with the same routine of ferrying the older kids to school from the campground, with the plan that they would all ride school buses home that evening. My sister Nancy somehow couldn't find her school bus, and when my older sister Janet realized Nancy wasn't on the bus, she got off and went looking for her. The two of them ended up walking home that evening, a pretty good trek in a strange new town that was still very much a work in progress at that point.
That wasn't the only hitch in that day though... Our new house was just over the top of one of the steeper hills in Bowie, and just as our old Ford Falcon wagon crested the hill towing the trailer, it gave its last gasp and died. We ended up pushing and pulling the trailer into the yard with the help of some neighbors, and as near as I can recall, that old Ford never ran again. Given that we all remember my mom sometimes saying "Let's all say a Hail Mary" as she would turn the key to start that car, its demise wasn't really a huge surprise.
The other catch to our triumphant arrival at our wonderful new house was that aside from what we had in the camper, all of our belongings were still with the moving company, and wouldn't arrive for another day or two. We slept that first night or two on air mattresses with sleeping bags yet again... but we had an actual roof and walls! And air conditioning! And hot and cold running water, right there in the house, along with a stove, oven, dishwasher, and electric lights you could just turn on with a switch. I don't think any of us really cared much about our stuff being a day or two away at that point.
We spent the next few weeks getting settled in, and watching as the town around us grew. The streets weren't yet paved... some stretches had the base layer of concrete down, while others were just dirt. Houses were being built one after another, down the street. Each night we'd see new lights go on a bit further down through our development, until finally every house was complete and occupied. Grass and trees and landscaping went in, roads were paved, walks and patios were put in, and slowly but surely it became a community. A community largely made up of middle class families with 3 - 5 kids (some had more, some fewer, but I'd guess 3 - 5 was typical), all about the same ages.
It's been fifty years now, and the town has changed a lot. It's expanded far beyond the original boundaries, and the original residents have for the most part moved on, or passed away. The mix of people is very different, and honestly a more accurate reflection of American culture today. The "new" houses of Levitt are now the old houses of the past. Few of the original businesses remain, and the rural farmland that used to surround the town has largely given over to housing developments and shopping centers. "You live all the way out in Bowie?" was a common question when we first moved in... now it's merely part of the great sprawl of suburbia around DC.
But when I wander around certain parts of town... a park here, or down a road there, along a creek bank... and I use my imagination and memory, I can almost see the kids I grew up with, went to school with, became friends with. I can remember our many adventures in the abundant woods and fields throughout town, playing games of imagination and catching frogs, toads, turtles, etc. I can reflect on the good fortune of growing up safe in a good home with a loving family. And I can remember fondly what was a really great childhood, in a town that still feels like home to me, and where my mom still lives in that very same house where we set up "camp" that first night. And I'm lucky to be able to visit often, any time I wish.
I hope to find and share photos from our early days in Bowie soon, but for now, I'll leave you with a picture of a Fricker family memento of the whole adventure. It's a paper plate that was once nailed to a tree in our campsite at Dogwood Park, identifying us to our fellow campers. It hung in our garage for many, many years, but now resides with my older brother in his home in of all places, Long Island.