The Story of August 3, 1964

Based on actual memories

The nearly newlyweds were to celebrate their second anniversary. A big surprise was in store for them, although the secret was not well-kept. Too much was going on in the house. Their six children plotted and planned. The seventh was yet to be born.

In those days there were no camps, no structure, no money, only imagination. The family had recently moved into a tumbledown redwood shack on a treacherous California hill. For weeks in advance of the anniversary, the eldest boy—the mastermind—arranged rotating shifts of work crews among his siblings to clear the path up the hill. He was fourteen, strong, and loved the out-of-doors. He ended up doing most of the labor himself.

What were their tools? Hands, and sticks, and maybe a few garden implements, spirited away from the shed. They sculpted their work of art, snaking it through the oak trees along the contours of the hill, pricked by the sharp points of fallen oak leaves, surrounded by the dry smells of summer, the California bay laurels and eucalyptus. They ripped at the coyote brush and greasewood and copious amounts of a beautiful three-leafed plant: the poison oak.

Construction delays. Workers took sick leave, battling the painful, itching, weeping pustules. Cotton balls were soaked in Calamine lotion and dabbed on, allowed to harden, no defense against the yellow ooze that broke through and crusted atop the pink cupcake glaze.

The eldest toiled on. The job was finished under the wire.

On the big day, the children awoke early and began their preparations in hoarse whispers that broke into urgent instructions and unyielding opinions. The honorees began to stir in their bedroom, patiently waiting to be called. They knew better than to emerge in the midst of the “secret.” A lot was going on in the kitchen.

The gourmet menu was conjured from magazine articles: prune whip and eggs benedict. When breakfast was almost ready, the younger boys were dispatched up the path to place a blanket in a clearing on the hill, affording a view of Mount Diablo. The parents, by then famished, were summoned. They put on their most surprised and delighted smiles and followed their eldest son up the winding path, the other children following single file, each holding a crucial element of the special repast. When everything was set up, the children descended to the house.

Alone on the hill, with a view of the valley and the mountain beyond, the mother and father ate, or pretended to eat, the runny prune whip and the congealed, cold eggs. Perhaps they talked about the children and how they were so blessed. Perhaps they laughed and wondered what they had gotten into, creating this family. Perhaps they said nothing at all and looked at the view.

We will never know.

Did any of this happen? Is it fact or fantasy?

At the movies, we’ve seen these four phrases, which I list here in descending order of reality: “based on a true story,” “inspired by a true story,” “based on actual events,” and “inspired by actual events.” Which applies here?

To start by point of comparison, when I write fiction, the characters and events in my short stories and novels are fabrications compiled from bits and pieces of experience. Years after writing a story, my characters live in memory. I think about them and what they look like and wonder how they think and remember the words they spoke.

This story, the Story of August 3, 1964, originated in memories from childhood, images accompanied by tastes, sounds, and smells. I think about these people and what they look like and wonder how they think and remember some of the words they spoke. I believe I remember these things. Today, I assembled some words and placed them on my computer screen. This story, taken from memory, is conveyed to you imperfectly, as most things are. For this story, I devise a fifth category: “based on actual memories.”

This would have been their 53rd anniversary. John Meredith Swackhamer and Kathryn Trask Swackhamer.
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