Reflections of a 20th century man
contributed by Lu Hickey and written by John William Fulks
Dedicated to our children's children
I was born John William Fulks in Marceline, Missouri on November 6, 1920, the
same day Warren G. Harding was elected president of the USA during the final days of
Woodrow Wilson's administration. It was just 2 years after the end of World War I, the
"war to end all wars" and only 8 years since the Titanic sank off the
Newfoundland coast on April 15, 1912. It would be just 21 years, almost exactly to the
day, until Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the "date that will live in
infamy". What a lucky little kid I was, to be born at such an auspicious moment in
the history of the world.
My dad was Jasper Clarence Fulks and my mom was Teresa Julia Walsh.
They both came from central Missouri: Dad from a little town called California and Mom
from a nearby farm. Her parents met during the ocean passage from Ireland during the
"potato famine" and were married later in the USA. There were 13 kids. Mom was
the 12th. Her sister, Kate was the 13th. My Aunt Nona was the 11th. I can't remember them
all except for Garrett, Joe, Helen, Nellie, etc.
Dad's parents were merchants, as was he also (more on this later).
His mother was Sally Ann Sappington from a long line of Virginia Sappingtons who can trace
their family back to, at least, Christopher Gist, a colonial officer who, in a familiar
painting, is depicted in the boat with George Washington as they crossed the Delaware
River to Trenton New Jersey on December 26, 1776. Dad's father was William J. Fulks, a
general store merchant in California, Missouri and, himself the son of old Monitau County,
Missouri Judge William Fulks, a stern-looking old patriarch of the 18th century.
At the time, my dad and mom ran a clothing and dry-goods store in
Marceline, Missouri. In 1921 there was a "buyers' strike" to protest the high
prices of the post-war period. No one would buy from the store and, because he was so
under-capitalized, Dad went broke and had to find a job.
Mom's sister, Aunt Nona, was married to a bon vivant salesman and
sometimes "con" artist named Gaston Jaques Dittmar, son of Mme. Blanche Dittmar,
a petite French lady from Paris whom we called Auntie Blanche. Aunt Nona and Uncle Jack
lived in South Bend, Indiana, only 10 miles from Niles, Michigan. Uncle Jack, or Uncle
Gassy, as he was sometimes called, knowing of Dad's plight, told him of a job opening at
Wyman's department store in South Bend. Thus, Mom and Dad were to leave Missouri forever.
I was too young to remember just where Mom and Dad lived at this
time but, in a short while Dad found a job as a clerk in a Niles, Michigan clothing and
dry-goods store known as "Barr's", run by a man named Orville Barr. My first
conscious memories begin right here, in Niles, Michigan.
We lived in a second-story rental on 5th Street, so close to the
railroad station I could hear the trains chugging and hooting as they would come and go.
They were on the main-line New York Central, from New York to Chicago. Dad would sometimes
take me to the station where I could watch for hours the bustling activities of the
railroad which, in the 1920s, was the main method of transportation for the entire nation.
Niles was a "junction point" for the RR between Chicago and Detroit, so no train
ever passed Niles. Every train had to stop over at Niles. As a little kid I thought,
"Train-watching! It doesn't get any better than this."
Our quarters were arranged in a sort of "shotgun" layout,
one room after another, in a line, so one would have to go through each room in order to
move from front to back. Our kitchen was in the back. One day I was in the kitchen
watching Mom trying to repair a faulty flashlight. She was using an ice pick (we had
ice-boxes then, no electric fridge) to dislodge a corroded battery which had become lodged
in the barrel, when the ice pick slipped and ran clear through Mom's middle finger, left
hand. I was petrified at the sight of my mom "stabbing" herself. This was a
traumatic event and a vivid memory for a kid fewer than five years old. I can still see
the ugly blue dots, about one centimeter, on each side of her finger all the rest of her
I used to go to the movies in the old Strand theater in Niles. There
were no "talkies" then, only silents with the piano player down front, below the
screen, playing that particular movie's "score" from sheet music sent by the
studio along with the film. I saw such stars as Ken Maynard, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Greta
Garbo and John Gilbert. I thrilled to WWI movies such as What Price Glory, with Edmond
Lowe and Victor Mc Laglen, and The Big Parade with John Gilbert and Renee Adoree. And, of
course, Wings with Buddy Rogers and Clara Bow, the "IT" girl. This film won the
very first ever Oscar in 1927. One movie I didn't get to see is Lon Chaney's infamous 1925
classic, Phantom of the Opera. I had seen an advertisement for the show in the Niles Daily
Star. It showed Chaney, made up as the phantom, costumed for a masquerade ball as The Red
Death, perched atop the Paris Opera House with the night wind blowing his great cape in
flowing cascades. What a hideous sight! I was mesmerized. I asked Mama to let me go but,
after she saw that ad in the paper, she refused to allow it. It would be another four
decades before I would see that classic horror flick.
In 1927 Dad had done so well for "Barr's" that he was able
to persuade Orville to let him open a "branch" store in Buchanan, a little town
of 5,000 souls five miles west of Niles. Here, in Buchanan, is where I spent my formative
In those years we had no TV, only radio...and even then very few
people had one. One day Mom and Dad were visiting Aunt Nona and Uncle Jack over a
week-end. (I can't remember who was minding the store). That night we all clustered around
Uncle Jack's radio. It was a large contraption run off a combination of a storage battery
and a set of dry cells. It had three dialing knobs for tuning in the "station",
a volume knob and the speaker, an enormous crook-neck horn set separately on top of the
receiver box. We were all straining to hear, through the ever-present "static",
Clem McCarthy's broadcast of the Jack Dempsey-GeneTunney fight coming over KDKA in
Pittsburgh, one of the nation's first commercial radio stations. It was so exciting.
Dempsey, the great "Manassa Mauler" lost his title to the younger Tunney that
night. In my young eyes that was an historic highlight, not just the fight but the radio
account of it...right in Uncle Jack's living room! What will they think of next? Those
were exciting times. Why, "Lucky Lindy" spanned the Atlantic Ocean all by
himself in 1927 and the world was at his feet. President Coolidge feted him with a
ticker-tape parade and a medal upon his return from Europe. I "read all about
it" in the South Bend Tribune. There were, as yet, no radio news broadcasts. Besides,
who had a radio?
One of my earliest memories is of the winter of 1927-28. It was
bitter cold and the streets of Buchanan were covered with ice-impacted snow. It was about
6:00PM and dark as I recall starting to cross the street in front of the store, in a hurry
as usual, when I saw a car approaching from my left. I attempted to stop running and
slipped on the icy pavement to where my legs flew up just in front of the oncoming car's
front wheels while I slid on my back. The wheels struck my legs and, because the street
was so icy, spun my entire body around in a complete circle so that the car had passed me
while I was spinning. I was absolutely unharmed. My Mom and Dad came out of the store when
they heard all the commotion in the street. When some of the people told my parents what
had happened, Mom became hysterical, absolutely apoplectic. ( Later I was to discover that
this was one of Mom's personality traits. She was histrionic to a fault). But Dad, solid,
imperturbable rock that he was, finally calmed her down by pointing out that I had been
unharmed and there was no reason for panic over what might have been. He gave me a stern
lecture on traffic safety later that evening.
Somewhere during these late 1920s Dad had done so well in the store
that he bought it from Orville Barr and struck out on his own, only months before the 1929
stock market crash. For want of a name for the store Mom and Dad decided to call it
"The Evans Company". Julia Evans had been Mom's mother's maiden name. But, since
the store had been known as Barr's from the beginning, many of the townspeople and my
little pals called me "Johnny Barrs". There is a schoolmate of mine, Jack Banke,
who still lives in Buchanan and jokingly calls me that to this very day.
After the crash of '29 things got bad for Mom and Dad. The
"Great Depression" had begun. It took hold of the country in earnest during the
following year, 1930, and never really let go until the approach of WWII in 1939. Traffic
in our store had slowed to a crawl and Dad had so much time on his hands that he would sit
on the "shoe bench" at times and work crossword puzzles or read the Saturday
Evening Post for extended stretches between customers. Buchanan was an industrial town,
being the home of the Clark Equipment Company, a NYSE firm which made automobile parts in
the Buchanan factory for shipment to the Detroit auto makers. Buchanan was also surrounded
by an entire county of family farms from which "Clarks" drew their labor force.
During these days many of the customers had been employed by
"Clarks" but were now out of work and had no means save for what produce they
could raise on their farms. They would come in to buy things but, since they had no
"money", would barter eggs, tomatoes, melons, sausage, whatever they had, for
Dad's merchandise. Sometimes they would have him carry them "on the cuff" until
they could accumulate enough money working two or three days a week at "Clarks".
Many days as Mom was working in the kitchen, men out of work and out of luck would come to
our back porch door (always the back door) and ask if "there is any work I can do for
a little grub". When these poor guys would show up they would always break my heart,
they looked so awful and pitiful. Mom would always respond with a hearty meal, whether or
not there was anything for them to do; and sometimes there was. Mama was a splendid cook
and all the townsfolk remarked on it. Her cooking got widespread notoriety through the
many church-sponsored bake-sales to which she always contributed. To this day I can still
smell her apple pies... the cinnamon, the nutmeg and the other spices lavished on those
delicious, home-grown Michigan apples covered with hand-made, pie-dough crust and warm,
right out of the oven......mmmm.....nonpareil!
At this time we lived in a rental house on Dewey Avenue - a whole
house. (Mom and Dad never did own a home or an automobile). It was a two-story,
conventional American house with three bedrooms upstairs and one and a bathroom
downstairs. Normally my bedroom was the rear upstairs room but once , when I had (I
believe it was) scarlet fever, Mom put me up in their bed downstairs and good old Doc
Strayer would call on me each day with his little black bag of pills and "doctor
tools". At night, when it was hot in the summertime with all the windows and doors
open, Mom would often sprinkle my bed sheets with water from a bowl before she put me to
bed. No one had air-conditioning then.
Sometimes I would see a show at the Princess Theater (later the
Hollywood) if I could cadge the price of a ticket from Dad. The Saturday cowboy matinees
were a dime. I can recall several instances during these trying days when I would ask Dad
to give me a dime for the show and he would tell me, "No". When I would ask
"Why", as a kid will do, he would say to me, "Because I haven't got a dime,
son." But there were ups and downs then, just like now, and sometimes I could get to
a show. Once I saw a Doctor Fu Manchu movie and it scared the bejabers out of me. It was
summertime and we had all the windows open that night. While I was asleep in my upstairs,
back bedroom a dark hulk in the form of a menacing Chinaman started coming at me through
my bedroom window. I came awake with an awful start and screamed for "MOMMA, a
Chinaman is trying to GET ME". Mama came in, turned on the light to see what it was
all about, and there, with the evening breezes gently wafting the window curtain in and
out, was our "menacing Chinaman". At almost the very bottom, the curtain had a
large hole in it about the size and shape of a man's head.
Dewey Avenue was a hill on a fairly good incline and we lived near
its bottom. We had a young maple tree in front of the house between the sidewalk and the
street. I had a red Radio Flyer wagon and an American Flyer sled. The sled had a wooden
deck, metal runners and a wooden crossbar which would bend the metal runners for steering
right or left. One fine winter's day, with the entire length of the Dewey Avenue hill
covered with impacted snow, I took my American Flyer up to the Dewey Avenue School at the
top of the hill and, belly down on the wooden platform of the American Flyer, plunged
headlong downhill on the sidewalk, across Oak Street, past our house and on to Main Street
at the bottom of the hill. Alas, somewhere on the way down it became necessary to make a
mid-course correction to avoid a collision with the sapling maple tree in front of our
house. I torqued the steering bar hard to the left with all might and main but to no
avail. The sled had such momentum that it had become impossible to avoid a head-on crash
right into the trunk of that maple. My head struck the tree and I was "knocked
out" for a little while. Mama had witnessed the whole trip, from top to tragic bottom
and immediately went into her panic mode. "He's dead. He has a concussion. He's dead.
I know he's dead!" Once again Dad, good old, steady Dad said, "For God's sake,
Tess, pull yourself together. The kid's only knocked out. He'll come out of it in a little
while....." And I did... Poor Mom!
In those days I was in elementary school on Dewey Avenue where I met
my first real "buddy" and lifelong friend, George Riley. Except for second grade
at the Dewey Avenue school , I attended elementary school at St. Mary's parochial school
in Niles. There was bus service but I would ride with the dry cleaner man, Red Griffin, on
his daily route to and from Niles. I carried a big, black lunch-pail like the workmen
have. Mom would always pack more than I could eat, so I would trade some of my stuff to
some of the kids for their stuff. I also carried a violin case because Mom made me study
violin from the nuns. (How I hated that miserable thing until the day I got rid of it). In
the afternoons, in order to catch Red Griffin on his return trip to Buchanan, I would have
to walk three blocks from St. Mary's past the 4th Ward public school, one block west of my
route, to the corner where I would wait for my ride. The kids from 4th Ward would often
taunt me with catcalls and call me names like "Cat-licker" and worse. Once, when
one of the kids threatened me with bodily harm I swung at him with the lunch-pail in my
left hand and my violin case in my right. I hit him with the old one-two. Then I ran!
George Riley was just my age and he was "rich". His dad
was honcho for the local electric utility and, as such, was "layoff-proof"
throughout the Great Depression. The Rileys lived in a huge house in the "swell"
part of town. It had twice as many rooms as our house and George seemed to have all the
toys I had always longed for, including a coveted Lionel electric train set. Of course it
didn't occur to me they lived in that big house because there were six Riley kids, only
one of me, and some of those toys George and I played with might have belonged to his two
older brothers. I never had much contact with his three older sisters except to observe
that they were all pretty girls.
George and I played together often, sometimes at my house then at
his. We were a couple of kids fascinated by mechanical/scientific things. Over a few
Christmases and birthdays I had accumulated a chemistry kit, an Erector set and a
miniature metal casting machine which made lead soldiers. There were several different
molds to that machine so we could make different soldiers, canon, etc. We made so many of
these that George and I aspired to become entrepreneurs and call our enterprise The
Consolidated Casting Company. For want of impetus and because of competing childhood
interests "Consolidated" never left the dream stage. He and I used to make many
toys of our own design from the pieces of my Erector set. Often we would take our
creations, designed around pulleys, levers and twine, up to the second floor bedroom of
our house and play for hours raising and lowering our many creations. George was more
electronically inclined than I so, when we played at his house, he would tinker with the
radio set he had put together and I would play with the coveted Lionel train set.
Another playmate was Richy Rose, who lived just a block away up
Dewey Street hill. He was the nephew of one of the local butchers, Lyle Burrus, who ran
his shop right next door to Dad's store. Lyle had a son about our age, Don, so he and
Richy were cousins. We often played around the stores, mostly in the rear which overlooked
McCoy's Creek coursing along behind the entire string of stores along the south side of
Front Street, the "main drag". The creek was the reason for Buchanan's existence
in the first place, having been first settled by a clergyman named Isaac McCoy in the
early 1800s. The creek went under the street behind the stores at Days Avenue and emerged
again two blocks away further down to the east on Front Street. No one had any
environmental concerns in those days, so many of the Front Street merchants piled their
trash on the stone-lined creek bank behind the stores. Many casual folks also, especially
kids, would toss in odd pieces of junk: cans, bottles, nails and bits of broken glass.
Thus, McCoy's Creek became a flowing junk-heap. We kids didn't care. Don, Richy and I
often would wade (barefoot) from the Days Ave. inlet under the streets to the outlet on
East Front Street. One day I slashed the sole of my right foot very severely. Once again,
Mama went hysterical when she saw all that blood! But Mom came to the rescue with first
aid... then a visit to Doc. Strayer for stitches and a tetanus shot. After Mom had given
me a hysterical 5 minute lecture on safety and sanitation, I was forbidden from that day
to wade the creek without shoes!
My dad was a pyrophobe...frightened to death of the smallest flame.
Because of this preoccupation he had warned me many times I should never play with fire on
pain of frightful punishment. Richy and I were playing in the merchants' trash behind the
stores one day when we discovered a marvelous prize: a huge wad of excelsior which Allen's
Hardware had discarded after unpacking some large pieces of merchandise. Each of us carted
a handful of it downstream to an area just behind Dad's store. Directly overhanging this
area was a structural addition to the local hotel lobby which had been added to hide
several slot machines (strictly illegal). Richy and I put a match to our pile of excelsior
and boy, it flamed up brightly in an instant. A passerby saw the flame and called the fire
department. Instant pandemonium and our little secret was exposed to the whole downtown
area, my dad included. Especially my dad! After all the commotion died away Dad summoned
me into the store's toilet chamber and pointed out that we could have set fire to an
entire block of stores because of that hotel room overhang. He then said in a very even
and unperturbed matter-of-fact voice, "You remember what I've always told you about
playing with fire?" I silently nodded in reply, knowing full well what comes next.
"OK, lower your trousers", said Dad and the rest, as the saying goes, is
history. That was the day I came to respect my dad so much. He had warned me and now here
was the inescapable outcome. Dad never threatened, he always kept his word. On this
occasion, as on many others not covered here, Dad never raised his voice. He merely
pointed out the certain consequences of disobedient or unacceptable behavior. He always
kept his word, even when he had promised good things.
Somewhere during these years I acquired a derelict mongrel pup and
named him "Toby". His coat was blonde and white and he had a white tip on the
end of his tail. I'm not quite sure if I adopted Toby or if he adopted me but, in due
time, we were bonded as a boy and his dog. Toby was bright, had an infectious personality
and everyone in town soon loved him. Because he was so bright he took training quite
easily and soon he had learned to roll over, sit up, beg, dance on his hind legs and
"speak" (arf!). I could give him a bone or a piece of meat and, when he had it
in his mouth, if I said to him, "Toby, it's Friday!", he would drop it at once
and would not touch it unless and until I said it was now "Saturday".
I had taken the bed and tongue off my red Radio Flyer and had
attached the four wheels (including the steering yoke) to a five foot plank about 1/2 inch
thick and two feet wide. At the front end I had fashioned the two ends of a grocer's fruit
carton into a triangular front end to resemble some of the racing cars of the day.
Steering was accomplished by ropes attached to each end of the steering yoke and wound
around the shaft of a steering wheel installed in the "cockpit" just behind the
pointed front end. I soon taught Toby to look like a "hood ornament" and sit
up-front in the area just behind the fruit ends. We went everywhere around town this way
together. He was so good and patient at this I soon had fashioned for him a top hat of
cardboard, blackened with shoe polish and held fast to his head with a rubber band. He
also wore a dilapidated old pair of "lensless" spectacles and held a pipe in his
mouth. After a few years of this a bunch of us kids organized a "circus" which
consisted of the combined individual talents of each of the "partners" in the
circus. We had dancers, singers, jugglers, musicians and actors. Mine was a magic act and,
as the "feature" later in the show, Toby did his act and brought down the house!
The show was such a community success that we had to eventually stage it for the entire
populace at a local theater.
1933 saw the emergence of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler.
Hitler became the chancellor of Nazi Germany in January and FDR was inaugurated president
in March that same year. Talk about a watershed of history! While I was finishing eighth
grade the world was hurtling headlong into the century's defining, cataclysmic
event....World War II! For his part, FDR used his "first 100 days" in office to
create myriad alphabetical agencies (NRA, CCC, RFC, WPA to mention a few) and, in a very
popular move, managed to get ratified the 21st amendment, repealing the 18th Amendment
(prohibition).... Legal booze was back!
During these days I had joined one of the two local Boy Scout
troops. (Riley and I were in the Cobra Patrol, along with a number of kids who became my
friends.) As a Scout I got to do lots of neat things. At one of the annual "Blossom
Parades" held in Benton Harbor, Michigan I got to serve as a "traffic cop"
on a street corner, keeping traffic moving and preventing snarls. There was a summer scout
camp at Madron Lake called Camp Madron. I had learned to play the bugle that spring and,
as luck would have it, I got to stay all summer at Camp Madron that year as the staff
bugler. I "got 'em up" with reveille, called them to colors, to chow, to
assemblies, etc. and I put 'em to bed with taps. I learned to swim, too, that summer at
Camp Madron. Once I had mastered the breast stroke I persuaded a fellow Scout to man a
rowboat and row in front of me as I swam across the lake and back. (Today I can't swim the
length of our swimming pool without resting.) Our troop had a first aid exhibition team
too. We had our own permanent "victim", a younger little guy, Buddy Matthews. He
took an awful lot of teasing over that. We entered the local competition and won, then the
regional competition and won, then the state and won. This sent us to the national
competition which was held in the ballroom of the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago. We made a
misdiagnosis of heat stroke in that competition and thus came in second.
I entered high School at good old "BHS" in 1934. Mussolini
invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Hitler sent his troops to re-occupy the Rhineland in
defiance of the Versailles Treaty. These were truly overt acts of aggression and should
have been challenged; but no government in the world would do so for fear of
"starting a war". My high school years were, as they should be for a teen-age
kid, carefree days of happy memory; lived as they were, against the sinister backdrop of
the deteriorating international situation.
By the time I had reached high school I had acquired another
"best pal", a kid Named Sid Deming. We studied together, we played together, we
did everything together. We were resourceful and mischievous kids. Sid and I planned and
pulled off several creative, "practical joke" pranks. One of these was our
"laboratory caper". It was our junior year and we were in Claude Carter's
chemistry class. We had learned to manufacture many interesting creations. One of these
was a smoke generator, a contraption consisting of two reagent bottles connected by glass
tubing and rubber hoses to a foot bellows as an air pump. One day, when we were supposed
to be in study hall, we slipped into the lab (while Mr. Carter was lecturing another
chemistry class in the adjoining lecture room) and loaded the smoke generator bottles. We
had agreed that I would man the foot pump at the back end of the contraption while Sid
manned the rubber hose that led out of the thing and emitted clouds of smoke.As soon as he
had slipped the end of the hose under the door to the lecture room, Sid whispered,
"OK, let 'er go!" I began on the foot pump with all I was worth. Huge clouds of
smoke went billowing into the lecture room. Sid was delighted with glee as he came back to
me at the pump so as to be out of sight from the window in the door between the lecture
room and the lab. That's when Claude Carter, who enjoyed a good practical joke as well as
the next, quietly kept on with his lecture while he stooped at the door and turned the
business end of the hose back into the lab while I was still pumping away at the bellows.
Then there was the "Auditorium Caper". One day in the
spring, when the weather was rather balmy, Sid told me he had been fooling around the
projection booth up above the balcony and had discovered a little known trap door. He
wondered where it might lead. Being innately curious, I said, "Let's find out."
We discovered a huge sheet-metal chamber, about a six-foot cube, large enough for both of
us to enter. It was the plenum of the heating/ventilating system of the auditorium. Much
to our delight it was not generating heat because of the mild weather. At one end of this
chamber was a huge impeller fan, and at the opposite end a large hole, about three feet in
diameter, which opened into a huge duct of the same size. Being the smaller of us, I
crawled into the duct to see where it might lead. It led to a junction with two smaller
ducts which, in turn, led to two huge vents in the walls, one on either side of the stage.
That's when evil designs set in. What an inspiration! What a delicious opportunity!
Next time there was a "general assembly" Sid and I were
ready to spring our surprise. I entered the plenum chamber armed with a hydrogen sulfide
generator which I had built in the lab. Sid stood by the switchbox to the fan while I,
carrying my gas generator, climbed about two or three feet into the large duct. Most
people know that hydrogen sulfide stinks like rotten eggs...or worse! Once inside the
duct, I put the generator into action and hissed, "OK, turn on the fan". After
ninety seconds by my watch, the generator had done its dirty work and had died out. I took
my generator and got out of that duct post haste and, with Sid, raced to his waiting
"getaway car" and disappeared for several hours. No one ever did find out
"whodunit", although our principal, P.J. Moore, the prime butt of many of our
pranks, once hinted that Sid and I were prime suspects.
Finally there was the "prom caper". There was a dance
being held in the second floor gym. I really don't believe it was a prom, but it was a
gala affair with balloons and fine deco- rations. Sid, that sly rascal, hatched this one.
He knew the switchbox for the entire second floor was located on the south wall in the
middle of the second floor hallway. He planned that I would be stationed near the big,
double doors to the gym. Just as the balloons were dropping, I would slip around the
corner and up the half-flight of stairs to the end of the second floor hall, where I could
see Sid waiting by the switchbox. At my signal, he plunged the whole second floor into
total darkness. The girls screamed, the guys shouted, balloons popped all around
....pandemonium! As planned, Sid and I rushed down the hall, past P.J. Moore's office and
down the stairs to the first floor, then out the double doors on the north side and out
into the street to Sid's "getaway car". We disappeared for about half an hour,
just driving around, until we innocently returned to the scene of the crime and began to
mosey about trying to look nonchalant, even if slightly like the cat that ate the mouse.
"P.J." sidled up to Sid and quietly murmured, "I know who did it!" Of
course, he knew he couldn't prove a thing and that's where it ended....until a breakfast
was held at the Buchanan Senior Center the day following the Class of 38's fifty-fifth
reunion. I was having coffee with "P.J." when he reminded me of the "prom
caper". After all those years I promptly acknowledged our guilt, at which
"P.J." (then a spry age 90) cackled with glee, "I knew it!...I knew it!
During my junior and senior years I fell in love...or rather, we
fell in love! She was the daughter of an English father and a Swedish mother. Her name was
Caroline and she was blonde, blue-eyed and downright beautiful. She loved to dance and we
did plenty of that. She also loved to pet so we did plenty of that, too. We would bill and
coo in the dark on her parents' front porch swing or any other nook that provided the
necessary privacy... Spring 1938 and we appeared together in our senior play. I was cast
in the lead and she was cast as my "mother". The script called for us to kiss,
so we had the chance to do that where it would be all right, out in the open. It would
have been OK except the kiss was a bit more than a simple, maternal peck. As we lingered,
the audience began to stir. At length we became aware of our surroundings and, a little
flustered, we continued with the script. "The show must go on!" After
graduation, Caroline went on to nursing school and I just "went on".
One might gather from the foregoing that my high school days were
nothing but fun and games. While there was much extra-curricular preoccupation on my part,
I managed to have a good time and still graduate with a respectable 3.8 GPA. As a result,
I had earned and accepted a small scholarship (one year only) to Ferris College in Big
Rapids, Michigan. Had it not been for this, I would not have been able to attend college
at all because my parents weren't affluent enough to provide the necessary means. It was
1938. Hitler had swallowed Austria and Czechoslovakia without firing a shot and I had
acquired a taste for booze.
While I attended Ferris I became enamored with yet another
Scandinavian girl: this time a Finn named Gertrude, also blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful.
Her big brother, Willie, attended Ferris at this time too. And Willie was big! He stood
six feet 2 inches and weighed around 210 pounds. Try as I might, using all my
"usual" charm and savoir faire, I couldn't get Gertrude interested; perhaps
because each time I contacted her I smelled heavily of booze. She eventually told me to
stop bothering her before she had Willie call on me.
I took up the study of chemistry at Ferris and did not do very well.
Qualitative chemistry was clear enough but quantitative analysis always eluded my
comprehension. Besides, I had created a handicap for myself. There was a tavern at the
edge of town that sold beer for a nickel a glass and served a pitcher for a quarter. Hard
liquor was a dollar a pint and easy to get. The two made an unbeatable
combination.....(Twenty years would pass before I would ultimately succeed in the struggle
to beat them). For some inexplicable reason my chemistry curriculum included a mandatory
course in economics, Econ 101. I did not do well in this course either. The course was
based on the teachings of Lord Maynard Keynes, and I could never grasp the concept that a
country could recover from economic distress by spending massive amounts of money it
didn't have, euphemistically called "deficit financing".
After this miserable failure at college the scholarship had expired
and there was no more money to continue, so I came home to Buchanan and began to cast
about for whatever employment was available. It was 1939 and FDR had prudently begun
to quietly energize the nation's industrial base. Detroit was tooling up to produce tanks
for shipment overseas and "Clark's" was running 24 hours a day, busy shipping
components to Detroit. I took a job in the factory on a "production line"
manufacturing rear axle housings. Clark's River Street plant would use these to finish
assembling the whole axles and ship them to Detroit. .
On September 1,1939 Hitler attacked Poland and the war was on! That
accelerated everything the nation's industry was doing. We were well on our way to
becoming the "Arsenal of Democracy". It wasn't long before "Clark's"
was awash with orders for their "tructractor", a compact, high-powered tow
vehicle which was being used at all military airfields... at home and (especially) abroad.
In 1940 I was taken from the axle line and put in charge of production control over the
River Street "tructractor" operation. In September the nation passed its first
ever peacetime draft. Like all lads my age, I registered... I got a low number.
The United States was not at war (yet) so "Clark's" hinted
at the possibility of having my job declared "essential to the war effort" and
having me deferred before my draft number was called. In June 1941 Germany started war
with the USSR and orders for "tructractors" came pouring in from the Soviets. On
November 6,1941 I had my 21st birthday. One month later the Japanese navy struck Pearl
Harbor and we were in it "for the duration". Dad died (of lung cancer) only
three months after Pearl Harbor, on March 23, 1942.
I continued working at the "tructractor" job well into
1942. That was a year of reverses for the Allies and things looked pretty dark. It began
to appear my draft number would soon be called and, in view of the grave military
situation, "Clark's" dropped any notion of a deferment for me. Not relishing the
thought of serving in the "gravel-scratching, cootie-scratching" army, I decided
the navy would be a cleaner, tidier way to die for my country, notwithstanding the fact
that I had never been to sea.
Rather than delay and be caught in the draft, I made a pre-emptive
strike. Hopping a train, I went to call on the navy recruiting office on one of the upper
floors in the Board of Trade Building on Lasalle Street in downtown Chicago. I went
through all the testing, physical, medical and academic, in an attempt to enlist. When I
had finished, and the recruiter had reviewed all I had done, he looked up from the papers
and said, "Have you considered V5?" I was nonplussed. "What's V5?", I
ventured. "Why, that's Naval Aviation", he said, and went on to paint the most
enticing picture of life as a Naval Aviator. Then came the clincher. I was qualified! It
all sounded so much better than pushing a swab... even, almost....glamorous! "How do
I get into V5", I asked. "Next floor up," the recruiter shot back. I hopped
an elevator to the next floor up and presented myself to V5!
At V5 I went through the routines of the lower floor all over again.
(V5 was "not your ordinary Navy" you see, so the previous tests were null and
void.) In due course even V5 found me qualified, except for one small detail. I was
underweight by ten pounds! The V5 Navy was generous though, and I was ordered home to gain
ten pounds within three months and reapply. When the three months had gone by I had gained
not quite ten pounds and I was extremely anxious I would surely end up on the business end
of a swab. But, with a spring in my step and hope in my heart, I struck out for Chicago
again and...V5! Arriving at the Board of Trade Building, I conceived a stratagem to
deceive our friends at V5. I stopped at the first floor soda fountain and ordered a banana
split and a huge chocolate malt! Polishing those off in good order, I was up the elevator
to V5 and weighed in at just the proper weight. Voila, I was in (notwithstanding the fact
that I had never been "aloft".) and V5 sent me home to await "orders"
to report for duty.
While I was at home awaiting orders, I thought it a good idea to see
what I had gotten myself into. I went to the airport at Niles and looked up
"Spot" Dempsey, a slightly older chap whom I had known "forever" and
whom I knew to be a licensed pilot. I told "Spot" what I had done and asked him
to take me up. With a grand guffaw he agreed and off we went in his Piper Cub. Now the
Piper Cub is not aerodynamically designed to be an aerobatic plane so "Spot"
wasn't able to "wring me out", though I'm sure he would have dearly loved to do
so. As a result, it was a rather serene and beautiful cruise around the local Niles skies
and...I liked it! Floating majestically in and out of the fleecy clouds, looking down at
the ant-like movements of the people and vehicles below gave me a powerful feeling of
omnipotence. Now, at last, I knew I had made the right move...my nagging misgivings had
been forever dispelled. I would fly!
At length "orders" came. I was to report to the Navy
pre-pre flight school in Greencastle, Indiana at a college whose name I can't remember
now. "Pre-pre flight"??? I was curious about that designation because it was one
I had not heretofore encountered. "Pre flight" I knew was a place where the Navy
sent its cadets for physical training and ground school just prior to "Primary"
flight training (this is where one actually learns to fly in real airplanes). At any rate,
when the time came I hopped a train for Greencastle and "pre-pre flight school, not
knowing then what a fortuitous stroke fate had dealt me. This would eventually delay and
extend my training to the extent that I would never fly in combat.
I spent about 6 weeks at this enterprise which consisted of, you
guessed it, physical training and ground school plus an introduction to military routine
and discipline. We were issued uniforms which consisted of fatigues and a set of dress
blues and dress khakis. I vividly recall one weekend liberty several of us spent in
Indianapolis. We were wearing our dress khakis as we walked down the street when several
army officers (obviously "90-day wonders") saluted us as we approached. We
returned their salute as we passed, trying all the time to appear nonchalant and to keep
from bursting with laughter. Here we were, lowly cadets being saluted by officers. Later
on it occurred to us why they had saluted. It was our uniforms. You see, the Navy's khaki
uniform coat bears a black shoulder-board upon which is inscribed a gold star plus any
number of gold stripes alongside the star depending upon one's rank. Since we were cadets,
our shoulder-boards bore no stripes, only the lone star. So, we concluded, those
"green" officers saluted because that gold star appeared to them that they were
saluting several brigadier generals!
Just as this phase was about to end, I was issued orders to report
to the "Glenwood School for Boys", a reformatory in Homewood, Illinois. This
phase, I discovered, was not only ground school but we were taken by bus daily to a small,
rural airport near Calumet City, Indiana where we were actually given flight
instruction....in Piper Cubs! As it turned out, this was another pre-type training, this
time pre-primary flight training. However, since I had begun to think the Navy would never
let us fly, I was ecstatic. At last I was in the air.
What actual flight training I received was of the most elementary
kind, takeoffs and landings, standard turns right and left (OOPS! starboard and port) and
figure eights. But I was actually allowed to fly the plane "solo". The more
adventuresome aerobatics would have to wait until actual primary flight training, which
would not come until after I had completed this phase, which lasted almost three months,
plus another three-month training stint at Iowa City and was called (actual) preflight
training, not pre-preflight or any other such nonsense.
The time I spent undergoing this elementary flight training had its
bright side, however. By this time Caroline (remember Caroline from high school and the
senior play?) had been through nurses training, earned her R.N. and was now a navy nurse
stationed at Great Lakes, Illinois, a few miles north of Chicago. I was at Homewood,
Illinois, a few miles south of Chicago. We had been keeping in touch by mail and now
discovered, to our delight, that with a little effort, we could spend our shore leaves
together in downtown Chicago. For me it was a simple matter of a 45 minute ride on the
South Shore RR line into the "Loop". For her, 45 minutes to the Loop on the
North Shore line. We spent many a happy time those few weeks at either the Aragon ballroom
or the Trianon dancing to the music of the big bands: Lawrence Welk, Dick Jurgens, Sammy
Kaye etc. We dined in style too, at places like the Palmer House and the Ivanhoe or Old
Heidelburg supper clubs. For a couple of small-town kids we were romancing it up like they
did in the movies, if only for a fleeting moment in our young lives. After Homewood I went
my way and she went hers...the end of a romance neither of us would ever forget. (We did
meet again twice: once at the 50th reunion of the Buchanan High School Class of 1938 and
again at the 60th. She had been twice married).
The next station was preflight training at Iowa State U. After
completing the training at Greencastle I proceeded to report for duty there, traveling
once again via railroad train. Travel in those days was utter pandemonium. Our country was
fully occupied with wartime conditions. People were traveling everywhere and the military
was sending our troops everywhere on those same trains. Seats on the coaches were rare and
many a serviceman surrendered his seat to a lady and took his luggage to the platform
between cars and sat there, on that luggage, all the rest of the way to his destination.
Preflight training was the cadets' "boot camp". We were
put up in dormitories, six guys to a room, which was about twelve by twelve and furnished
with triple-decker bunks. Cadets were the lowest form of human life. We were deliberately
demeaned, deflated and despised. The primary purpose of this facility was physical. The
regimen there was calculated to toughen us up...and it was successful. One kudo to the
Navy at this point...the chow was uniformly good! There were a few hours a day devoted to
ground school, learning "aerology", "principles of flight" and Morse
code. However, the bulk of the day was spent alternately on ten-mile hikes, calisthenics,
cadet boxing, wrestling, hand-to-hand combat, "Drowning 101" at the field house
swimming pool ( each one was required to jump fully clothed from a 20 foot high platform,
remove shoes and clothing then swim 100 feet under water), or the obstacle course. It was
on one of these obstacle course events where I hit a series of straddle boards on the dead
run and went tumbling head over heels with my right knee intractably locked in the bent
position. The medics picked me up and took me to "sick bay" where I was
ultimately diagnosed with a torn semi-lunar cartilage which had to be surgically removed.
In no time at all I was admitted to the hospital where the surgery was performed by a navy
The Navy sent me home on crutches to recover. This added another
month to the ever-lengthening training period unfolding before me and, since the accident
had occurred before I had completed the full curriculum, I was required to return and
complete my training with a new class of cadets. My original class had long since moved on
toward their "wings" (and probably combat in the Pacific). In due course I
completed this phase of training and was assigned orders to report to NAS (Naval Air
Station) Dallas. This was a primary flight training station which was not in Dallas at
all, rather at Hensley Field located in Grand Prarie, halfway between Dallas and Fort
Worth. (Those were separate cities at that time).
It was mid-winter, the temperature was near zero and the snow was
almost knee deep in Chicago when I boarded the train bound for Dallas. I was assigned a
sleeping car because the journey would take more than one day. We left Chicago in mid-day
and I spent much of the rest of that day and evening in the club car before retiring near
midnight. As I awoke the following morning I slowly became conscious that we were not
moving. Being curious, I pulled back the window curtain to see if I could ascertain our
situation. As it developed, our train had been sidetracked somewhere near Texarkana, Texas
to afford a freight train, with war materiel, priority on the main track The sight that
greeted my eyes made me catch my breath. The sky was absolutely cloudless, the sun shone
brightly and the ground was bare...not a speck of snow anywhere! While we were stopped I
decided to go outside and see what the weather was like. I dressed quickly, went to the
end of the car, opened the door to the platform between cars and stepped down. As I said,
it was a bright, sunny day and, as I stepped down, I inhaled the fresh air which was at a
temperature of about 40 degrees. "My God," I thought, "it's balmy! This is
Paradise. If I ever escape this war alive, I'll never return to the North and I'll never
shovel coal, snow or ashes again...ever."
My training at NAS Dallas was the most fun a fellow could have
had,considering there was a war on. We cadets were trained in the old "Yellow
Peril" a Stearman biplane manufactured by Boeing ( of course) and designated by the
Navy as N2S. This was an aerodynamically gorgeous machine, light to the touch, very
forgiving in the air and almost impossible to spin unless one did so deliberately. Please
note, I said "very forgiving in the air..." On the ground, because of its narrow
landing gear, it was prone to ground-loop easily unless the pilot flew her to a complete
stop. Among other things, we were trained in aerobatics which includes such maneuvers as
slow rolls, snap rolls, loops, spins, the falling leaf, lazy eights and the Immelmann
maneuver. If one has never flown a plane, one cannot possibly imagine the joy, the
exhilaration, the ecstasy of aerobatic flight. The Immelmann maneuver consists of
beginning a loop and, at the apex of the loop, rolling out. It was first used in WWI by
the German ace, Max Immelmann, to decoy an unsuspecting enemy who would be foolish enough
to pursue him into the maneuver and continue the loop unaware that Max had rolled out at
the top, thus gaining the altitude advantage.The Bosch would then pounce on the hapless
fellow from above and annihilate him.
I don't want to give the impression that life at NAS Dallas was all
flight. We did spend considerable time in ground school learning about aircraft engines,
navigation, principles of flight (aerodynamics) etc. But when we went to the flight line
for training, we were mustered out of barracks and trucked to Hensley field, a few miles
distant, in an eighteen wheeler consisting of a large, empty van which we derisively
called a cattle-car, and into which we were loaded like sardines. As previously noted, we
arrived at NAS Dallas in the dead of winter so, as one might imagine, the weather was not
always conducive to visual flight. On days we didn't have ground school we were hauled off
to the flight line whether the weather was good or not. Consequently, many days were spent
in the loft at Hensley field just loafing, sleeping, playing cards or clowning around.
Often, when I knew the weather was bad, I'd skip breakfast in favor of sleep then have
breakfast at the field. There was an excellent commercial restaurant in connection with
the field. Another popular pastime on off-days was nursing a hangover.
Speaking of hangovers...Dallas is a landlocked city and, during the
war, the citizens there saw a lot of Army guys who were so common they were almost
universally shunned by the populace . Now, along comes the Navy in their spiffy blue and
white uniforms. The girls of Dallas were wild to meet a Navy man, the Army was passe'. We
sensed this almost instinctively and took full advantage of our novel situation. There
were several popular attractions in downtown Dallas to serve our interests whenever we
were permitted "liberty"...places like the Baker or the Adolphus, both luxury
hotels, and a most popular watering hole known as "Abe and Pappy's." All one
needed to do to meet any number of young ladies was to show up in the lobby of one of
those grand hotels or walk into Abe and Pappy's wearing our cadet dress blues or dress
whites and voila! It was as simple (and pleasant) as that!
Downtown Dallas was not the only place one could meet nice young
girls. There were a few WAVES on the base who worked in "Flight Operations". The
moment I saw her I took a fancy to her. Her name was Patti Harris and she was a petite
brunette with flashing blue Irish eyes, a pert, upturned little pug-nose, two lovely lips
that looked like bloody buterflies fixed in a permanent, cute little semi-pout, and a
smile to charm the devil! We were immediately attracted to each other but, because of Navy
regs, were unable ever to find a discreet opportunity to develop a meaningful rapport. She
was enlisted and it was "verboten" for enlisted to "fraternize" with
the "officer class". We frequently exchanged longing glances and chatted warmly
when circumstances allowed but we were unable to ever requite our longing for each other.
It's absolutely eerie seeing her now, through the looking-glass of time, and to realize
that she was the "ideal" girl I had sought all my life thus far. She was the
spitting image of the angel I eventually married, and even her name was Patti. But more on
When I began flight instruction at NAS Dallas I was so afraid of
failure that, at first, I was "stiff on the controls and does not handle the plane
well at all" as my instructors duly noted in my flight log book.This was known as a
"down-check". Those who failed their flight instruction were "washed
out" and reduced to seaman second class (a swab jockey)! To a cadet who had advanced
thus far, to be "washed out" was a terrifying fate worse than death itself - not
just the loss of face, although that was bad enough, but the loss of "rank" and
all the privileges attendant thereto. On one of my most critical flights I was fortunate
enough to have been assigned an instructor who sang to me through the gossport tube during
the entire flight. I am sure he did this to relax me by showing he was not going to yell
through that gossport at every little error like so many of the other "screaming
eagles", as we called them, had done. With me his ploy was successful. I relaxed and
gave him "the finest ride I've had in a month" as he put it. I had my first
"up-check" . From then on I was sure I could handle the plane and showed
subsequent check pilots that I could do so. This earned me my first solo flight - that
coming of age day...the "piece de resistance" every cadet had looked forward to
with an amalgam of enthusiasm and dread. Heretofore, the instructor occupied the front
cockpit and the student, the rear, thus affording the student a lousy view ahead and
assuring his less-competent handling of the aircraft. Now, in the solo mode, I flew from
the front cockpit and had an excellent view ahead. Once in the air I was astonished how
easy it was to fly that old "yellow peril". By being in the front cockpit I was
seated at the center of gravity and the transformation was miraculous. By being at the
center of gravity I was at the center of control and, at each touch of the controls, the
plane responded as if it were an extension of my own body movements....sheer ecstasy! At
length I succeeded at this and was assigned to the mecca of all Naval Aviation Cadets...
Pensacola! I had heard of it, dreamed of it, breathed it, lived it in fantasy and now...I
was on my way... to those "Navy Wings of Gold" !
By now, what had promised to be a nine-month training period had
been extended to well past a year (by my surgery and by the Navy brass) and yet another
three months of training at Pensacola NAS still lay ahead. The war would not wait; it was
leaving me behind!
NAS Pensacola is not a single air field. There was
"Mainside" which was the center of authority as well as a full operating air
field, for both land and sea planes. Then there were several satellite fields, each one
autonomous and complete in itself. I am not sure I remember them all but I do remember
most. They were Ellison Field, Saufley Field, Bronson Field and Barron (Bloody Barron)
Field, each named for a Naval Aviation pioneer of the past. I was assigned to "Bloody
Barron" for what was to be my final training and where I would finally earn my
"wings", known universally throughout the Navy by the irreverent term
"leg-spreaders". Barron Field was located, not in Florida at all, but near
Foley, Alabama. It also was near Gulf Shores, a resort area on the Gulf of Mexico, where
several Buchananites maintained summer homes. (I never got to visit them). Bronson Field
was also in Alabama, on the western shore of Perdido Bay which separates the Florida
panhandle from Alabama.
By this time, the Navy personnel had stopped addressing us in
contemptuous terms and now were addressing us as "Mister ....", the respectful
apellation reserved for officers. We were quartered in a long, two-story , frame building
which was not very different from a standard Navy BOQ (Batchelor Officers Quarters).With
the regularity of an alarm clock, there was a ten-minute shower every afternoon at 3PM.
Immediately thereafter the blazing sun would reappear.We soon discovered the Pensacola
area's salient features: heat, humidity, sand, cockroaches and flies!
Our flight training was done in the AT6 advanced trainer, as the
Army Air Corps called it. We in the Navy called it SNJ. Incidentally, the SNJ was
manufactured at the North American aircraft factory adjacent to Hensley Field in Texas,
from whence we had just come. The SNJ was a huge step up from the Stearman. Unlike the old
"Yellow Peril" the SNJ was constructed entirely of aluminum and had retractable
landing gear, flaps, an adjustable pitch propeller, a "greenhouse" instead of
two open cockpits and an engine twice as powerful. The difference was quite noticeable in
performance such as speed, rate of climb, service ceiling etc. As such, it also was less
forgiving of the pilot's lapses. A vivid example of this occurred one night as I was
trying to get to sleep. Some of the students were practicing night flight operations and,
since our barracks were so near the field, the noise kept us awake. On this particular
occasion I suddenly heard a sickening, scraping, thundering crunch followed by the wail of
sirens and wild pandemonium. A student had been attempting to land in the dark and as he
approached the runway too low and slow, in a panic to force the plane back into the air,
he jammed the throttle full forward in a sudden thrust. The engine was so powerful that,
with that sudden power burst, the plane just torqued around its propeller, flipped over
and landed on its back, killing the student. Such incidents occurred with alarming
frequency and earned our training field the title of Bloody Barron.
There was ground school too (there was always more to learn) but
flight was now the main point of concentration. Flights over the ocean now included
navigation hops, dive bombing and aerial (air to air) gunnery. The latter was a simulation
of shooting down another aircraft. A student would be accompanied by a "tow
plane" which towed a large,cylindrical "sleeve" resembling a six-foot white
windsock on a long tether line. The "aggressor" practiced attacking from above
and slightly ahead of the sleeve in a sort of downward spiral, aiming all the while at an
imaginary point ahead which "led" the target. This is called a
"deflection" shot at which I was consistently mediocre.
Each cadet in his own group had his turn at flying the tow plane.
This was always a heart-in-the-mouth exercise. First, the tow plane was not, as one might
expect, an SNJ. It was an underpowered, fixed landing gear training plane made by Vultee
and whose actual designation I have long since forgotten.We cadets all knew it only as the
"Vultee Vibrator". The take-off was the most dread part of the "tow".
It consisted of positioning the "Vibrator" about one-third of the way up the
runway. The sleeve would be lying on the runway directly alongside with the tow line
strung out astern in a carefully laid U-turn pattern. Standing firmly upon the brake
pedals, the pilot revved up the old "Vibrator" until it was about to jar his
molars loose, then, loosing the brakes, began rolling forward at full throttle picking up
speed as she rolled. The supposition was that one should be airborne with barely more than
enough airspeed before the tow line ran out and the sleeve was jerked into the air behind
the plane. The nightmare of every cadet was that there would not be quite enough airspeed
when the sleeve "caught the air" and the additional drag would pull the plane
into a stall and crash. (It never did happen but that didn't give us cadets any comfort).
Pensacola is a pretty little town on the Florida Gulf Coast. The
pristine white sands of Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island are world renowned. Shore
leave in Pensacola was exactly the opposite of our situation in Dallas. Pensacola being
small and a Navy town as well, there was an extreme shortage of young ladies in the
vicinity. In fact, I never got close to one the entire time I spent at NAS Pensacola. This
did not deter us from engaging in our second favorite pursuit. There were several watering
holes in the area, excellent plush-lined cesspools where we could slake our thirst. The
two most memorable were (a) the San Carlos Hotel bar downtown , very upscale and
expensive, and (b) the Perdido Paradise Club overlooking Perdido Bay. The decor there was
a simulated Caribbean island ambiance including bamboo and fake palms . Being almost
equidistant from our field and from Bronson Field, the cadets from both fields converged
on "Paradise" en masse. There was good music, cheap liquor and dancing, although
any female who may have been there was already in tow. Most of us just looked on
longingly, listened to the music and drank the time away.
At length the time came when our formal training was complete and we
were given our "Navy Wings of Gold" in an impressive ceremony full of Navy pomp
& circumstance. But, alas...we were not given our fleet assignments as expected. Oh
no! By now the Navy had so many of us in their pipeline that the fleet assignments were
all filled and then some. The Navy faced the question of what to do with those of us in
the middle of their pipeline. A solution was found, in typical Navy fashion. Three more
months of what the Navy cynically called "pre-operational" training. We were
sent to Ellison Field where we were required to fly battle-weary, broken-down old SBDs,
the Douglas Dauntless dive bomber that had given such a good account of herself in sinking
four carriers of the Imperial Japanese Fleet at Midway. The SBD was a good aircraft but
these poor old wrecks were past their prime. I suppose the Navy thought that if they could
get us to fly these crates we would gain some experience in flying "fleet
Three more months at Ellison Field! DRAT! We flew routine hops every
day and nothing much else. Boring...boring...boring. (Except for one flight I shall never
forget.) Ellison is a landing field hacked out of a solid stand of Florida's piney woods.
The runways were long enough but then...at each end...a short clearing and then the woods.
On this day I taxied the poor old girl to the end of the runway, held the brake pedals
down, lowered the flaps and eased the throttle slowly to full power. She revved up and
shuddered untill my molars were about to come loose and I released the brakes. We roared
down the runway under full power and lifted off after using only about two-thirds of the
runway. She rose nicely up over the trees and, at about fifty feet up:
brrrrrrrrrr" and on up. During all this engine sputtering, I was losing altitude and
sinking into the trees...fast. It was only a few seconds but, in that brief moment I
remembered all the things I had been taught. "If you're going to land in the trees,
try to mush in with as little air speed as possible but still keep her afloat. Then try to
bring her down so the fuselage fits between the tree trunks... forget the wings." As
the engine finally caught, that was all forgotten and my only thought was to get her up
high enough to go around again and land her (and give the mechanics hell!). This had been
my first experience with emergency in flight.
Finally I received orders to report to Fort Lauderdale for
operational training, flying the Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber. Fort Lauderdale was
the home port of the U.S.S. Guadalcanal, a "jeep" carrier, and we were to train
by flying on and off this little "postage stamp". Before we would actually go
out to sea, however, we were quartered in a comparatively posh BOQ on the base. (I say
comparatively because you should have seen our cadet quarters). From there we would
simulate our landings at sea by practicing "field carrier" landings at an
outlying airfield. This consisted of flying a circular pattern around the field and, on
the downwind leg, start a "standard" left turn while slowing the plane to just
above stalling speed and slowly losing altitude until almost "over the deck".
All the while we were to keep our eyes glued to the landing signal officer (LSO) who was
stationed at the "stern" on the port side of the "deck" and was
figuratively "flying" the plane by using flags in each hand and signalling by
his movements what the pilot was to do. As the plane reached the proper position (a
combination of speed, altitude, engine power and position over the "deck") he
would give the "cut" signal by abruptly crossing his throat with the right hand
flag. This was a mandatory signal. The pilot was forbidden to unilaterally take a
"wave-off" after the "cut". The only thing different from an actual
carrier landing is that, here, we did not lower the tail-hook. Everything else was
"for real". Any takeoff or landing on an aircraft carrier of any size is an
adventure. It is also an unique art-form unknown to the land-locked Army pilots, whose
skills we considered somewhat inferior to ours (professional pride, you see).
In due course the day came when we boarded the U.S.S. Guadalcanal,
put to sea and began actual carrier flight operations. Our first actual carrier landings
were carried out as "touch-and-go" operations, in which several student pilots
fly out in a huge circular pattern around the carrier, spaced into intervals to allow
sufficient time for the deck crews to disengage the tail hook on a plane just landed,
manhandle the plane aft and allow the pilot to take off again before the next plane enters
the "slot". On one occasion during these practice sessions one of my shipmates,
Charley Adams, earned his nickname. It was Charley's turn to land. During this extremely
critical phase of the carrier landing, he and the LSO jointly maneuvered his plane closer
and closer to the deck. Once the plane was in exactly the optimum position for a safe
landing, the LSO gave Charley the "cut" signal. Charley panicked and gave her
the gun instead. The plane reared up like a frightened steed and, as she began to fly up
the deck, the tail hook caught the top cable of the three-cable barrier always erected in
front of landing aircraft as a safety measure. Thus caught, the plane plopped down hard on
the deck and drove the landing struts up through the wings. "Tailhook Charley"
was born that day. (I might add, as an afterthought, that this episode illustrates why the
LSO's "cut" is mandatory).
It was 1945 and the war had all but ended by now. That phase of
aircraft carrier flight training eventually ended and we were formed into Air Group 4. The
air group consisted of one each fighter, bomber, fighter-bomber and torpedo squadrons
(about 80 planes in all). I was in the torpedo squadron, flying the Grumman-built TBF
Avenger. As a group we were sent to the great naval base at Norfolk, Virginia and assigned
to fleet operations, a brand new air group assigned to a brand new carrier, the U.S.S.
Tarawa of the huge Essex Class. We were to take her out on her "shakedown"
cruise. What an experience that was. We had a total personnel complement of over 2,000
souls and carried everything one could possibly need or want. The carrier was, indeed a
self-contained city. We steamed out of Norfolk and cruised down into the Caribbean for our
"shakedown" operations. For the air group, this would consist of many different
fleet-operational practice exercises: simulated battle-group missions, bombing missions,
fighter escort missions, torpedo missions, etc. One such mission was one I shall always
Our squadron, Torpedo 4, was assigned to practice the classic,
textbook torpedo attack which had been attempted at the Battle of Midway several years
earlier on the Imperial Japanese Fleet by Torpedo 8, flying the old, vulnerable, Douglas
TBD, Devastator and which resulted in the loss of all aircraft involved. To set up the
exercise we were assigned the U.S.S. Absecon, an old minesweeper, as the target vessel. We
were supposed to "torpedo" her, but in the interest of safety, our torpedos,
carrying dummy warheads, were set to travel at a depth deeper than the Absecon's draft to
avoid doing any damage to her hull. They were also equipped with a compressed air bottle
which, after the "fish" had run its course, would discharge air into the dummy
warhead which would then surface, thus facilitating the torpedo's rescue and reuse.
Eighteen of us in Torpedo 4 flew out to the Absecon that day to
perform this classic attack exercise. The idea of this tactic is to catch an enemy ship in
a trap from which she can't escape. To execute this tactic our eighteen planes flew out
into a 180 degree semi-circle ahead of the Absecon's bow and began converging
simultaneously toward a single aiming point ahead of the target. This is known as
"leading" the target. The idea is for all eighteen planes to launch a torpedo at
the same time, aimed at the same point. In this way we would set up an interlacing,
criss-cross field of fire which the target could not escape regardless of whether it
slowed, sped up, turned port or starboard.
As luck (or fate) would have it, one of my squadron mates, a kid
named Gillespie, was the first plane to peel off our echelon formation and begin forming
the "lethal semi-circle" and I was the last plane in the circle. This set of
circumstances put Gillepie and me at direct opposite ends of the arc, and each of us
aiming at exactly the same point for a straightaway "broadside" shot. As I bore
in to make my drop I was concentrating on my bomb-sight and aiming point, at the same time
trying to make sure I would drop at exactly 180 knots airspeed from exactly 1,000 feet
altitude at a range of exactly 1,00 yards. While I was thus engaged, our friend, Gillespie
had fouled up his part of the attack and had either started his run too early or from too
close in or both. He had already made his drop and was flying headlong toward me. I made
my drop and, just as I looked up from my bomb-sight, there, framed in my windshield, was
this huge 2,600 horsepower radial engine coming straight at me! Instinctively I pulled my
plane up and to starboard. Gillespie, having been exposed to the same training,
instinctively did the same. If he had pulled up and to port we would have collided for
sure. As it was, we missed each other by a few feet.
Shortly after this incident, since the war was over, I left the
service, concluding that, war or no war, this is a dangerous occupation and a guy could
get killed at this. I decided to pursue some other, more benign line of work in the
civilian field. Consequently, in May 1946 I mustered out at Great Lakes Naval Base and
returned home to Buchanan to pursue the easy life as a civilian.
Immediately after the war our federal government passed a veterans'
benefit which most of us called the "52-20 Club". All one had to do was produce
honorable discharge papers and he was entitled to $20 per week for 52 weeks, no ifs, ands,
or buts. Many vets took advantage of this if only for a short time just to get readjusted
to civilian life again before entering upon employment. I did not avail myself of this
largesse, but immediately went to work at "Clarks".
I hadn't been at this for many weeks when I happened across an old
resident of Buchanan. A contemporary of my father, he was the local plumbing contractor,
Harry Banke, the father of Jack Banke (remember him and "Johnnie Barrs"?). In my
childhood I had always respected Mr. Banke and looked up to him because he had raised a
very large family and each of the children had gone to college. I marvelled at Mr. Banke's
accomplishment of such a feat during the Great Depression. All of the Banke family were
cultured and principled persons. My father and Mr. Banke had been very close
"compadres" during the years of my childhood and I regarded Mr. Banke as
somewhat of a second "father" and a man of great wisdom.
This occasion happened to be the first time Mr. Banke had seen me
since the war. He inquired about my health and well being then asked me, "What are
you doing with yourself, Johnny?" I replied that I was working at "Clarks".
He said, "No no. I mean what are you going to do with the rest of your life?"
That thought hadn't occurred to my young mind and I was rather nonplussed at the question
and showed it. Sensing this, Mr. Banke pointed out that there was a college education
waiting for me "on a silver platter". He referred, of course to the G.I. Bill of
Rights which had recently been enacted and signed into law. He told me I had a choice. I
could work for "Clarks" as long as they lasted and go nowhere with my life or I
could "take advantage of a free college education and, who knows, after that there's
probably a fabulous career waiting for you". I took this wise old man's advice under
serious consideration. He made infinite good sense, it seemed to me.
To illustrate the fateful confluence of coincidental events,
consider this. During my navy days I had spent some few months in training at the Quonset
Naval Air Station on Naragansett Bay. There I befriended a chaplain (or did he befriend
me?) whose name was Joserph E. Boland, S.J. That "S.J." meant he was a member of
the "Society of Jesus", a Jesuit priest. During our chumming around with each
other during duty and off-duty hours, it came to my attention, just as a matter of idle
curiosity, that he had been furloughed to the navy "for the duration" by the
Jesuits where he had been teaching...at St. Louis University in Missouri. As military guys
always did those days, we all would ask, "What will you do when this is over?"
When I asked Father Joe this question he said he would return to St. Louis University as
chaplain of the S.L.U School of Commerce and Finance (the C&F school).
As I ruminated on Mr. Banke's advice I recalled Father Joe and St.
Louis University. At length I looked him up and somehow found how to phone him. When he
answered I told him I had made a decision to use the G.I. Bill to attend college and was
there an opening at St. Louis U. in the C&F school? He relpied that there was but I
must act promptly. It was already July and enrollments were going fast. I wasted no time
in making my decision. On that same call I said I would enroll. He sent me the papers, I
executed them at once and sent them back, and in September 1946 I was in college.
I often marvel at the confluence of what seem, at the time, to be
coincidences. It was thus that I met Mama. One day, not many weeks after classes had
begun, I was in the book store (that's more of a soda fountain and social hangout for
students than anything else) fooling around when, across the room, I saw this vision from
heaven. In a powder blue angora sweater, lovely pinkish plaid, woolen skirt, saddle shoes
and bobby socks there she was...the girl of my dreams: flashing, blue Irish eyes, pert
little up-turned pug-nose, two lovely lips that looked like bloody butterflies fixed in a
permanent, cute little semi-pout and a smile to charm the devil. I was smitten at once.
But.....how to meet this cute little bon-bon, so pert and petite??? I planned and schemed
to find a way but could think of nothing suave or clever. Meanwhile I had signed up for
membership in an extra-curricular discussion club, the "International Relations
Club". Since many of us G.I.s had been intimately caught up in "international
relations" of the past several years, we were keenly interested in the subject. Now
here's the final, fateful coincidence: attending the very first meeting, there she was
sitting right next to me! I asked her name. She replied, "Patti Luce". I said in
astonishment, "I attend class with a guy named Ed Luce. Is he any kin?"
"Yes", she replied, "He's my brother." The ice was broken! Now came
the delicate part. For the next week I could think of nothing else: "I just
absolutely must find a way to date that sweet young thing". Unable to think of
anything creative, at the next meeting I simply asked her if she would like to see a movie
with me. She said she would be delighted. And , as the saying goes, the rest is history.
As an interesting footnote to history 1939 was also a
watershed year for Hollywood. Never before, or since, have so many quality,memorable films
been produce in one year. Consider: Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Destry Rides Again, Wuthering Heights, The
Hunchback of Notre Dame. There never again was such a productive year from Hollywood.
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