"Roger, Centaurian One X-ray Tango," the tower voice radioed.
"Those are our call letters," my daughter, Marti, explained, pointing to the figures on the instrument panel.
"Each letter of the alphabet has a corresponding word," she continued as her husband Bill, following instructions from the voice on the radio, maneuvered his plane into place behind five others waiting in line to leave John Wayne airport on a Sunday afternoon.
From his seat beside Bill, my husband grumbled, "Even in an airplane you can't escape weekend traffic in Newport Beach."
We eased forward, waiting our turn. With a lilting swoosh the plane lifted off and I nervously began my first ride ever in a small private plane.
I flinched as something went bump.
"It's OK, mom," Marti said. "Just the landing gear retracting."
Looking down, I could see the familiar asphalt of Jamboree Road, the green of Big Canyon Country Club and the silty gray of the back bay. We circled over Spyglass and watched Crystal Cove and the Pacific disappear on our right.
The plane plunged into the thinning clouds that had delayed our takeoff for Bullhead City, Ariz. I wasn't too comfortable with those clouds but we had left them behind by the time we reached Lake Elsinore. Now we were on automatic pilot, Bill explained, while I picked out the familiar peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains.
We slipped smoothly through Banning Pass and I gazed at snow-streaked Mt. San Jacinto with the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway glistening in the sunlight. I saw little O'Donnell Golf Club tucked between the city and the base of the mountain and, suddenly, I was a bride again in the Royal Palms Annex with the Chi Chi Club next door and the golf course across from the apartment parking lot.
"We are flying at 11,500 feet"--Bill's voice pulled me back from 1942.
Hal was watching the shadow of our plane slip over the rough desert below. "Wonder if those are the same rocks I slept on when we bivouacked about here with Patton's army?" he mused. I knew that he, too, was back in the 1940s.
He was a new second lieutenant and we had just received his orders. Expecting that he would be sent to the East Coast or, worse, directly overseas, we couldn't believe our good fortune when he was assigned to Desert Center California.
Southern Californians from birth, we knew Desert Center. It was just out of Indio, only a few hours from our family homes near Los Angeles.
Having spent summers at my parents' cabin at Big Bear Lake, I had many friends in Palm Springs and Indio. In those days most of the people who worked the hotels and concessions at Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead and Catalina in the summer traveled the circuit and took winter jobs as bartenders, juke box repairmen, waitresses, store clerks or concessionaires in the desert resorts.
Even rental horses did the circuit, plodding mountain trails in summer and desert sands in winter. Each September they were rounded up and driven for several days down the San Bernardino Mountain slopes and across the then mostly open country to Palm Springs, with riders camping out along the way. In May the same horses were herded back up the mountains to rental stables in the pines.
Our Lucky Star
Hal and I sublet the Palm Springs apartment of a bartender friend who was being drafted. Our lucky star was burning bright. Rentals were rare, with thousands of soldiers already in the desert training to fight against the German army of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in Africa.
Friend Johnny's place was a tiny room with a double bed, dresser and table. It had a minuscule kitchen (with resident cockroaches) and a closet pass-through to a shower and washbowl.
A door beyond the shower led to a toilet cubicle that we shared with the people next door, an artillery colonel, his wife and two children who were living in an apartment the same size as ours. Upstairs was a tank corps major, wife and baby. We were outranked but warmly welcomed to the encampment.
Our lucky star flickered when Hal reported to Desert Center. He was sent by train to a place called Knob Siding, and trucked to a camp in the middle of the Arizona desert wilderness. I saw him three times during the four months that I spent in Palm Springs getting a glorious winter tan.
On a rare overnight leave, Hal started out from Yuma only to have the train run into a flash flood, backing up 20 miles to the Yuma station because the tracks ahead were washed out. Determined to find a rental closer to his camp, I took a Greyhound bus to the dirt-floored Yuma bus station.
After fruitlessly hiking up and down the streets looking for housing, I discovered that there was not a hotel room left in town for the night, and no more buses to Palm Springs. In a chair in the lobby of the Evangeline Hotel I tried to block out the noisy all-night poker game of visiting lettuce buyers and the Indian who was pushing a rackety vacuum.