to: teller of other stories
Carl L. Harstad
Part 1- through military service
The life I’ve unwittingly raced through has been a succession of people and events. I find what happened during my life difficult to believe. It’s as though I’m recollecting stories written by other authors, a jumble of chapters from various novels spiced up by tidbits from tabloids. Perhaps I should title it, “My Strange Life.”
Mine was a life without a plan. I repeated many mistakes. I sometimes failed to learn from experience. As the descendants of Scandinavians immigrants say, “I got too soon old and too late smart.”
In Northern Minnesota there is a large lake named Cass Lake next to a small town of that same name. Both lie within the boundaries of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. Cass Lake, the town, is unremarkable. It is a string of buildings extending a few blocks back from either side of Highway 2. The town’s only unique feature was a wild rice elevator where Ojibwa Indians stored their harvests.
These days, Cass Lake has atrophied to a supermarket and one or two bars and gas stations amid dilapidated, boarded-up businesses. The Ojibwa moved outside of town after they became the beneficiaries of millions of dollars generated annually by their casino in Walker, 15 miles distant. The Indians built a new school, a community center, a work center…but not in Cass Lake. Instead, they built them in the pine forest surrounding the town, a ring of new growth surrounding an old, rotting core.
Cass Lake the lake is more remarkable than the town. Its distinction is Lake Windigo on Star Island, a lake covering about one-third of a square mile. It is a lake on an island in a lake. The town draws no one except people passing through and a few locals needing groceries or gasoline but the lake attracts fishermen during the short summer. Summer at Cass Lake begins with the last frost on about Memorial Day and ends with the first frost, which usually occurs just after Labor Day.
Norway Beach is on the eastern shore of Cass Lake. Although the eastern side of the lake is sandy, Norway Beach is not a swimming beach like ordinary swimming beaches. Red pines, also called Norway pines, and deciduous trees including white oak and birch cover much of the shoreline of Norway Beach. Back in those pines east of Norway Beach there was once a tarpaper shack with a dirt floor where squatters lived. It was late in the winter of 1942. The squatters were my parents Lester and Leola. The shack was my first home.
My father and I searched for the shack many years later but could not locate any sign of its existence. It was located a few hundred yards west of the Scenic Highway to the almost nonexistent village of Pennington. As of 2009, Pennington has a population of 205. The median price of a house in Pennington is $18,400 compared to an average $225,000 in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
My parents had been compelled to marry by my impending arrival. My mother had met my father near Sebeka while he was visiting my mother’s two sisters, Ila and Vila. Mom had grown to maturity as a foster child in the home of a wealthy Brainerd dentist named Erickson. She was valedictorian of her class in Brainerd, a medium-size Minnesota city with a 2009 population of 13,178. She had graduated from St. Cloud State College in 1940 at age 20 with a 2-year degree. She taught school south of New York Mills at District 110 South during 1940-41. She was 21 and my father was 25, when they married in August 1941.
My parents were penniless, although they owned an old car. My father had taken the one job he could find in desperate economic times. He was fated to be a lumberjack. There were no teaching positions available on the reservation, especially for a pregnant woman.
It can be over 30 below zero and snowy at Cass Lake. The day before I was born, March 10, 1942, was no exception. My father was unable to start the family car to take my mother to the hospital when she went into labor. He got a neighbor to pull the car with a team of horses to start it.
When they arrived at the Cass Lake Hospital, I wasn’t ready to face the world. The doctor, Dr. Carl Coombs, slept at the hospital that night, anticipating my arrival. I finally arrived at 4 a.m. Minutes before, Dr. Coombs appeared in his bathrobe, picked up my mother and carried her to the delivery room.
After I was born, the doctor carried my mother back to her room. Grateful for his effort, my parents named me Carl after him. They gave me the middle name Leslie, a concatenation of their nicknames, Les and Lee, but using the traditional spelling of Leslie. (The actor Leslie Howard had played a major role in Gone With the Wind, released three years earlier.) Later, the name Leslie was more commonly given to girls, for example, the singer Leslie Gore. Father had to sell the tires off the car to pay the hospital bill, making it useless.
Some 50 years later the hospital, a long, white, 2-story board building, had been turned into a seedy rooming house. By that time, it had few reminders of its former status as the town hospital except for a sign over a doorway, black paint on porcelain, that read “Laboratory.” The building has since been demolished.
My first bed was a basket. My first mattress was stacks of magazines. The owner of the local sawmill was benevolent enough to give my father slabs to make a floor for our shack. Slabs have uneven edges, so there were holes in the floor but it was better than dirt.
I have a photo of my mother, my father’s parents Ole and Ida and their twin daughters Clarice and Glenice, who were 15 at that time, all standing by our shack. They’re all smiling except for my Grandmother Ida. They had apparently all come to see the new arrival. I was the second grandchild. My grandmother’s oldest child, Myrtle, had given birth to a daughter named Karen three months earlier.
My father’s side of the family was all Norwegian. My paternal grandmother’s family were descendants of mill owners and farmers from the town of Hedal in central Norway. My paternal grandfather’s ancestors were from Romedal, in Hedmark province, near Sweden. The families had emigrated from Norway in 1867.
My mother is three-eighths French Canadian and one-eighth Cree, one-quarter German Dutch and one-quarter Italian. The French Canadian and Cree ancestors arrived in Minnesota in 1877, presumably from a town of origin in southwestern Quebec that was the ancestral home of the Patnaude family.
We lived in the tarpaper shack near Norway Beach for only a few months before my father got a better job driving truck at an iron mine near Nashwauk on the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota. Nashwauk is a small town roughly halfway between the small cities of Grand Rapids and Hibbing. It was a job where a man could make real money.
We took up residence in an apartment above a bar in Nashwauk, where I was promptly attacked by an infestation of bedbugs. Later, we moved to a downstairs apartment.
Although I don’t recall it, I must have spent a lot of time my first months of life crying. Firstly, I wasn’t getting enough breast milk to sustain me, so I was starving. A doctor diagnosed that problem. Then there were the bedbugs. Later, I survived whooping cough. Later, I ended up in a hospital with tonsillitis. I was saved by penicillin, a new drug at that time.
The period of big paychecks on the Iron Range did not last long. The US had declared war on the Axis powers three months before I was born. The US Army Air Force drafted my father soon after he got the truck driving job. After basic training in Miami, he was assigned to the crash crew at the Orlando Air Field. That is why mother and I ended up in Orlando in March 1943, about the time of my first birthday.
At first we lived in an upstairs apartment with a long stairway descending to the ground. One of my first memories was eating part of a carton of salt while my mother was busy ironing. It must have been hot that summer. Later, we moved to base housing near the Orlando Air Field.
The Air Field was home to a variety of bombers and fighter planes. Among them was the notoriously difficult-to-fly P-38 Lightning, which many novice pilots crashed. The P-38 was a twin hull plane with counter-rotating twin propellers. My father was on the crash crew. He was one of the guys who pull pilots from wreckage. He told me stories in later years of notable wrecks, including one that killed a woman in a nearby house when a plane skidded through a fence into it. At another wreck, they found the dazed pilot about to light a cigarette, with aviation fuel spilled all around him.
The only toys I recall from my early years were a cloth teddy bear stuffed with cotton and a small plastic coin bank shaped like a polar bear sitting on its hind legs. I still have the teddy bear, which is the worse for wear.
My father was discharged in late 1944 after serving three years. I was nearly 4. We moved from Orlando to Sebeka. Soon afterward, in January or February of 1945, my mother got a job in the blueprint department of Boeing Aircraft in Renton, Washington. My father stayed at the family farm at Sebeka. He spent his time at idle pursuits such as drinking and hanging out with his buddies. He finally came to Renton a few weeks before WW II ended in August 1945. He was playing pinball and I was hanging onto his leg when the news came that Japan had surrendered.
The end of the war also meant the end of my mother’s job at Boeing. We returned to my grandmother’s family farm at Sebeka. Then we moved to an upstairs apartment in Wadena when my mother got a job teaching school in nearby Aldrich, a small town on Highway 10. She taught there two years, the 1946-47 and 1947-48 school years. I remember going with my mom to a school picnic at the Aldrich school. I slid down a cellar door, caught my pants on a nail and ripped them open.
From the apartment in Wadena we moved to what had been the Lutheran parsonage in that town. Then we built a small house on Fourth Street in northwestern Wadena. My role in the construction was holding up one end of each siding board on the lower part of the house, which I could reach, while my father pounded nails into the other end. In the odd ways memory works, I distinctly remember holding up the north end of a particular board on the west side of the house for him.
The house was still standing until about the end of the first decade of the 21st century but subsequent owners have altered it beyond recognition. It has since been demolished to make way for a new home. I might be unable to locate while it was still there it if it were not the next house north of the Komula home. The Komula girls—Debbie, Becky and their younger sisters—were my playmates. I went to kindergarten with Debbie, the oldest sister. It was Mrs. Komula who doctored me when I tripped on the brick walkway leading to the front door of our house and cut my head. My parents were not around that day. Mother may have been teaching. My father may have been working at the Shell gas station nearby. He also worked at the Standard Oil station. He seldom worked anywhere very long in those days, so mom was the primary breadwinner.
Debbie Komula aspired to be a nurse. She badgered me to pretend to be her patient. Sometimes she chased me with the pitchfork kept by the burn barrel, the barrel where the Komula family burned garbage. We were rough and tumble kids. We were occasionally good kids. Then mom would reward me with granulated sugar sandwiches on white Wonder bread. I’ve had lots of cavities ever since. Brushing with a hard-bristle toothbrush and baking soda undoubtedly contributed to my severe gum recession.
One time we decided to build a fire using a pile of coal. Many homeowners burned coal for heat. A few stray lumps of coal could usually be found nearby each coal chute. The chutes led to basement coal bins. After gathering the coal, it was my assignment to go to a neighbor and ask to borrow matches. I was 4-year-old asking to borrow matches. The neighbor alerted my mother, who thrashed me good.
I was no more well-behaved in kindergarten, where I used my little paper scissors to cut off a strand of Debbie’s blonde hair. We were supposed to be taught obedience. We were supposed to go to the cloakroom on command, fetch our nap rugs and take a nap on the floor of the classroom for the allotted time. I remember the napping and cutting Debbie’s hair but little else except cutting paper and coloring pictures.
Mother had a minister baptize me in the living room of our small house when I was about 5 in an attempt to save my wicked little soul. But not everyone thought I was bad. The elderly lady who lived across the street frequently gave me bananas. I remember her handing me a bunch of bananas as we sat in the car in the summer of 1948, about to move to California. I was 6 years old. I had lived in nine different residences in six different towns in three different states by that age.
I don’t recall much about my emotions during my first five years of life. I recall that when I was hungry or injured I cried. And I probably also cried when I got a well-deserved spanking. There must have been times when I was happy, perhaps while playing with other kids. I’m sometimes smiling in old photos of me, smiles I don’t recall for reasons I don’t remember.
Sometimes the Rawlings from North Carolina and my parents were visiting my grandparent’s farm near Sebeka at the same time. Then I played with my cousin Karen, who is three months older than me. My aunt Clarice made us a wooden steam shovel for the sandbox. Karen remembers much more about those days than I do. All in all, I was probably a rather typical American boy despite the frequent relocations.
The plan was for mother to teach school in North Sacramento, if she could find a job, while my father attended radar school nearby. The three of us headed west from Minnesota when I was 6, in my mother’s car, with father doing the driving.
Along the way to California, we took snapshots at sites such as Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone Park, a wigwam made of antlers at Pocatello, Idaho, the car parked halfway through the famous sequoia Tunnel Tree (Wawona) in Mariposa Grove, me swimming in the Great Salt Lake. Perhaps I’m recalling sights from other trips, trips I can no longer separate, one from another.
The trip was a last family vacation as well as another move, although none of us knew it was the last move we’d undertake together.
On one of our car trips, we stayed for awhile in a motel in Colfax, which is about halfway between Reno and North Sacramento. How long we were there escapes me. One of my parents took a photo of me by the motel.
There was one memorable event as we crossed the mountains. My most precious possession was a cowboy suit with two six-guns, boots and a hat. One of the worst days of my life was the day my cowboy hat blew out the window into a canyon. I begged my father to stop so I could climb down and fetch my hat but to no avail. So I cried.
Our first stop in North Sacramento was the Western Motel, which was located at 4528 Auburn Ave. The area was an outer suburb of hot, dry, mostly barren land with buildings scattered randomly here and there. My playmate was a local girl my age. Our playground was a lot covered with junk that was home to black widow spiders. Two blocks away at 4328 Auburn Ave. was the popular Wills Point Dance Hall. There was also a Wills Point Swimming Pool and Picnic Grounds. To the northeast, toward Reno, there wasn’t much of anything that I can recall. Our outpost was near the edge of nowhere and it certainly seemed like it.
My parents arranged to stay in a kitchenette unit at the Western Motel in return for my mother working as a chambermaid. My father drank beer and visited the dance hall.
The only toy I recall having wasn’t intended to be one. It was a small bronze incense burner, Buddha holding a tray for incense on his lap. But at age 6 I wasn’t allowed to burn incense. When I got too bored, I went exploring with my playmate. She was probably the only other kid within a mile.
One day my mother used a fly swatter to fetch a black widow spider out of a corner of the living room ceiling in our kitchenette at the motel. She held it on the fly swatter a couple of feet from my father, who was sitting in an easy chair. “Get it away from me!” he yelled at her. I concluded he did not share my curiosity and fearlessness when it came to poisonous arachnids.
My father had grown weary of life in California after only two or three months there. He had opted out of attending radar school, a decision he expressed regret over later in his life. He missed his mother and his friends back in Minnesota. One day in October 1948, he got into my mother’s car and drove home to Sebeka. That was effectively ended my parents’ marriage as well as our ability to get around except via bus or by walking.
I don’t recall seeing my father again for ten years. If he visited me on occasion, the visits were brief and I don’t recall them. It was probably my dad who gave me a No. 7 Erector Set and an Ingersol Mickey Mouse watch, both of which I still have. I also had a small steam engine that used an alcohol lamp for heat. It had a flywheel and a whistle with a small wooden whistle handle. Maybe he gave me that too.
My father Les started a successful electrical contracting business in Miller, South Dakota. He had a new pick-up, a new Kaiser automobile, men working for him, buddies and lots of girlfriends. He made good money wiring ranches and he spent it. In 1950, while my mother and I were in California, he remarried to Florence “Peggy” Koukal. Peggy had two young sons from a previous marriage and a drinking problem. The marriage was brief and tumultuous, although Les and Peggy remained friends after their divorce. She continued to be his bookkeeper.
My father had many subsequent girlfriends but he never married again. He kept their photographs and often mentioned them. During the ‘50s and 60s, many of them were smokers and drinkers. Most were pretty. Some were live-in girlfriends. He spent time in or near Denver, Colorado. One of his girlfriends lived there. Others were from the Twin Cities or elsewhere.
After we arrived in California, my mother got a teaching job in the North Sacramento School District in a school that is now the district headquarters. Its address is 670 Dixieanne Avenue. In 2007, the North Sacramento School District was merged with two other districts and a junior high school to form the Twin Rivers Unified School District.
The elementary school where my mother taught has Spanish style architecture, with a colonnade surrounding a courtyard contained within the U-shaped exterior of classrooms and a library. I attended grades one through three and the first half of grade four at that school. I started first grade in 1948, having turned 6 the preceding March.
Before school started, mother and I moved to an apartment in a small, two-story building with a central courtyard. It was only two or three blocks east of the school. There were perhaps a dozen units on each of the two floors of the white stucco building. Our unit was very small, with a tiny kitchen in the back. There was an icebox in the kitchen. An iceman delivered blocks of ice to us.
We survived on food that was plentiful, cheap or both. I still have an aversion to walnuts, having eaten far too many. Tongue sandwiches were another staple.
Most of the small courtyard was lawn except for a tree stump in the center of it where I parked my portable, 45 rpm record player and listened to Roy Rogers sing “Swedish Rhapsody” and “Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” When not listening to records, I used to sprawl on my stomach on the lawn and read.
Unlike the toys my father gave me, my mother usually gave me books. She had drilled me endlessly on the alphabet, often during our walks to or from school. My first books were WW II picture books about planes and ships. I was soon reading, although I had few books of my own. Among my books was a 1938 illustrated book about American Indian tribes and also a boys’ adventure novel, Through Forest and Stream. When I was a little older, 8 or so, mom gave me the St. James Version of the Bible.
My loyalties were divided between Howdy Doody and Roy Rogers but I was definitely a fan of the man who rode Trigger. I had a prized pair of plastic Roy Rogers binoculars. There was also plenty of Howdy Doody merchandise available to kids but buying merchandise for two different heroes was unaffordable on our budget. Most of the time, I had to settle for the prizes in Cracker Jack and cereal boxes.
We knew a couple who lived across the courtyard of the motel. We sat around eating artichokes with them, which were plentiful and cheap. I remember us and those neighbors sitting in their small living room, scraping off the soft pulp off the artichoke scales with our teeth, while the three adults chatted and watched their small dog eat cigarette butts.
We moved frequently for reasons that were never revealed to me, although the succession of homes we lived in were progressively a little larger. I’m guessing we moved into an apartment in what had been a double garage at Mr. Wesely’s home at 2631 Rio Linda Boulevard because it was larger and more private than the apartment with the central courtyard where we previously lived and, like our previous abode, it was within walking distance of our school.
The Weselys were about middle aged at that time. They would sit in the yard on lawn chairs, facing in opposite directions a few feet apart, seldom speaking to each other. She was a German war bride with little to say to her American husband.
There was an olive tree behind our apartment and nearby the apartment was a workshop, the most interesting building on the premises because it contained a variety of items including a large map of the world that hung on a wall. Sometimes Mr. Wesely would be in the workshop puttering around and he would let me watch him or examine that map.
Behind my elementary school on Dixieanne Avenue, where my mother taught fourth grade, was a large playground with a softball diamond in one corner. A great deal of play and a considerable amount of fighting took place on that playground. There were bullies among us. Once I managed to wrap a rope around the neck of one of them and then whip it off, giving him a rope burn. I got in trouble for that and probably a number of other feats of daring or stupidity.
Once while my mother was in a teachers’ meeting in the school library, I went outside to play softball with some kids. After awhile, they decided to follow the other kids to the home of a boy who lived a block distant. It took my mother considerable time to find me and, when she did, she wasn’t happy. I think she swatted my fanny good after a stern lecture about never doing that again.
By the time I reached fourth grade, I was tutoring other students at reading. But as the son of a teacher, I got little respect. For example, I remember one of my pupils stabbing me in the hand with a lead pencil.
I had a girlfriend, meaning a girl who was a friend, named Anita who gave me a birthday card. Her father was an attorney, as I recall. Although Anita was one of my admirers, she was my girlfriend mainly because our parents promoted the idea as cute. I don’t recall whether Anita ever kissed me, which is sad because it would have been my first kiss from a girl. She was cute, as I recall.
Floods threatened our apartment on Rio Linda every spring as the melting snows of the Sierra Nevada drained into the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers. There were times when our living room couch was standing on end, as if that would save it from a flood. We were prepared to run next door on a moment’s notice to a house with a second story that was likely to be high enough to save us from drowning.
I recall going to a levee to see an entire suburb on the other side of it immersed in water up to the rooflines. Once while we were attending a teachers’ convention in downtown Sacramento, everyone from North Sacramento was sent home because the water in the river had reached the top of the floodgates near downtown. But our home on Rio Linda was never flooded because we were inside the levee and it held.
I remember the downtown Sacramento auditorium where teachers’ conventions were held quite distinctly because it was the site of one of my most embarrassing moments. My mother arrived early for one convention with me in tow. The auditorium was nearly empty. We went up on the huge stage and out a side door leading to the street. After awhile, mom returned to the auditorium. She told me I could continue to play outside. In those days of innocence, kids were usually safe when alone in public places. Eventually, I tired of playing and decided to join my mother inside. I opened the same door we had exited and raced onto the stage, only to discover there was a speaker at the podium and an audience of thousands. With all eyes on me including the speaker’s, I turned and raced back out the door as quickly as possible.
Mother had many elementary school projects to work on at home. We spent much of our time on the floor of our small living room creating creatures from paper mache, making maps of the storefronts along the main street of downtown North Sacramento or doing other school projects that I helped with or perhaps interfered with.
At that time, North Sacramento was a small town becoming a sprawling suburb. But the core of the town remained unchanged. Downtown North Sacramento, the area around Del Paso Boulevard and Arden Way, consisted primarily of small businesses such as shops and movie theaters. It had the look of a movie set from one of those 1940’s films like The Best Years of Our Lives. When I returned early in the 21st century, half a century later, I couldn’t locate downtown North Sacramento. The quaint town had been replaced by an ugly, big box retail stores and carloads of Mexicans. The city had renamed some of the streets to Spanish names. Many of the main streets—Rio Linda, Del Paso, etc.—already had Spanish names, so they were spared renaming. The Mexicans had turned North Sacramento into Norte Mexico, not the quant town where English was spoken that I remembered from back in the ‘40s and early ‘50s. It took me hours to locate Franklin Street, which the Mexicans had renamed Poquito, which means Little in Spanish.
When mother wasn’t teaching or doing school projects, she spent time with several boyfriends. She was 28, slim and attractive when we moved to California. Some of the boyfriends came to our apartment and tried to influence my mother’s affection by trying to be my surrogate fathers, if not stepfathers in waiting. One wanted to take me fishing on the Sacramento River but mother said no. Too many kids drowned in the treacherous Sacramento. One of her boyfriends wanted to marry her but she decided against it because he’d been shot up in the war and had the stomach of a sheep, she told me.
Occasionally, my mother and I went on outings together. My favorite destinations in the city were Sutter’s Fort, Hart’s Cafeteria with its distinctive sign, a steaming ham on a platter and the goldfish pond at the state capitol. There was a building at the fort where lie a glass-topped coffin containing the embalmed body of a young girl from the Donner party. When I returned to Sutter’s Fort about 50 years later, I could not find any trace of that coffin and no one I asked knew what had become of it.
Another downtown destination was the Weinstock & Lubin department store, which had television sets on display in the windows facing the street. TV was a new thing then. Hardly anyone we had a TV set except for those neighbors next door with the big 2-story house. They had a TV set with a small round screen in their living room but I never saw it turned on, probably because TV was off the air while the federal government sorted out the channels. The first television stations in California had been licensed in 1947, the year before we arrived in the Golden State.
By the time I returned to North Sacrament in about 2002, an apartment building had replaced the Weseley house and our apartment on Rio Linda Boulevard. It’s said that a person cannot go home again.
After spending the remaining months of 1947 and the year 1948 in that apartment on Rio Linda, we moved again, to a duplex owned by a family named Horner at 2868 North Franklin Street, now renamed Calle Poquito. I tracked down that street by asking longtime residents of the neighborhood, “Where did Franklin Street used to be?”
Franklin Street was a neighborhood of families with kids, so I had playmates. It was a neighborhood of older houses, some surrounded by high redwood fences. One had a brick barbecue in its backyard. Next to our duplex was a vacant lot with a pile of dirt on it about ten feet high where we played king on the mountain. We kept our mothers busy washing us and our clothing. I took my baths in a laundry tub affixed to a wall in the back entry.
We had a living room, kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms. Although the duplex was small, it was a good set-up for a woman of 30 and her 8-year-old son. The landlords, the Horners, were nice people. We often went to their house a few feet away, where I admired Mrs. Horner’s collection of salt and pepper shakers, including two penguins that were advertising trinkets for Kool cigarettes. I also admired their new Hornet automobile, with its narrow windows and streamlined styling.
There was an African-American family, in those days we called them blacks, at the end of the block with lots of kids, including a boy my age who owned an old bicycle. I don’t recall having a bicycle. I had a tricycle at a younger age, during vacations to Minnesota, but it may not have been mine. The Africa-American family lived in a large house that looked like an abandoned building on a large lot without a blade of grass on it.
Across the street lived a mean kid, older than me, who cut toy guns from plywood. He owned two pairs of boxing gloves. One day he had me put on one of the pairs of boxing gloves and he put on the other pair. Before I could take my first swing, he clobbered me in the chin, cutting my bottom lip open.
Down the block in the other direction lived a kid with a BB gun who delighted in shooting the other kids and me in our stomachs.
It was common to have a metal stock tank full of water in the backyard for the kids to seek relief in during the sweltering North Sacramento summer, when running on asphalt barefoot was like fire-walking. We had such a tank in our backyard. The neighborhood kids and I would run a garden hose into it and sit in it for hours. In cooler weather, when the tank was empty, my buddies and I would gather scrap lumber, cover the tank over and pretend we were in a submarine. It was only five years after WW II, so planes, ships and all things military excited us.
When I wasn’t rough-housing with the neighborhood kids, my mother and I sometimes went to the movies. One of my mother’s boyfriends at that time was the manager of a downtown North Sacramento movie theater. That allowed me to watch the original Francis the Talking Mule repeatedly. Movies were very popular. We waited for hours in a line stretching for blocks at a downtown North Sacramento theater to see Annie Get Your Gun but never got in. On another trip to the movie theater, King Solmon’s Mines was sold out, so we had to wait for the next feature. It’s a very long movie! All three of those movies were released in 1950.
The teacher I remember most at the school I attended, other than my mother, was Mrs. Streeter. The Streeter family members—Mr. and Mrs. Streeter and their son Larry—were our friends. They had a son named Clark Larry Streeter whom everyone call Larry then but in later years, when he worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory or he was retired, he preferred the name Clark. Larry was slightly older than me. I recall various activities with him, such as sailing boats in the suburban ditches, which were full of water after a rain.
Larry had a chemistry set that he used to concoct all sorts of weird substances that he sometimes had me taste. He was older and smarter than me and I was younger and dumb enough to taste them. But his concoctions never did me any obvious harm.
I was chums with his dad too. Sometimes I got to go to the gravel pit with him to fetch a pickup load of sand. Mr. Streeter was a rock hound. Once he took my mother, Larry and me into the Sierras, where we hunted for specimens along a mountain stream. Sometimes Larry, his father and me would play Monopoly in the Streeter garage. Mr. Streeter was a surrogate father to me, even though he wasn’t around much. I still remember how much I missed having a dad in my life. He died relatively young. His wife remarried when she was in her 80s. By then, Larry was retired and living in Livermore, California.
Sometimes I didn’t have a mother either. She would leave me with a girlfriend in the suburbs while attending summer school. I spent my time there playing sand lot softball with the local kids or we made bows and arrows from the scraps of new home construction on the outskirts of town. Another pastime was sticking a length of small pipe in a sandbox, putting a firecracker down the pipe, putting rock on its fuse and lighting the fuse to fire the rock like a small cannonball. Sometimes we threaded a string of finger firecrackers through an unlucky girl’s bicycle handlebar, a handlebar without grips on it like just about every bicycle in the neighborhood.
One day I got hit in the mouth with a bat while playing sandlot ball, which broke a bottom tooth off. We looked for the tooth amid the sand for a long time but couldn’t find it. My mother had parked me with a girlfriend in a new suburb. When I reported the loss to my mom’s girlfriend, she was busy chatting on the phone, so she ignored me. Eventually, I had an aluminum crown put on that tooth. In 1964, about 13 years later, a US Navy dentist put a gold crown on it that has latest ever since.
Sacramento is blistering hot in the summertime. It’s painful to run across a paved roadway barefoot. Sensible people want to escape to a cooler location. Being poor and having no car, our only avenue of escape was taking a train to the homes of relatives in cooler climates, where we could stay free of charge. There were two possibilities where we could go and be welcomed, to my paternal grandmother Ida Harstad’s farm by Sebeka or to my Great-Aunt Hazel Furstnow’s home in Fall City, Washington, east of Seattle.
In 1949 and 1950, we went to both locations during the summertime, first to Washington state and then on to Minnesota. But in 1951 we headed straight for Sebeka in mid-summer, possibly because my mother might have spent June in summer school.
The fact that we took the train was unremarkable. It was one of the two most common and affordable means of long-distance travel in the 1940s. The option was driving the family car. We had none, so we took the train.
The Shasta Daylight train from Sacramento to Seattle was sleek and shiny. It had an upper, observation deck in some cars with huge skylight windows for watching the scenery of the Cascade Range. It climbed over the western extremity of the Cascades past Mt. Shasta and up the coast on the west side of the range. The train needed a boost from a second engine to make it up the steepest grades. The many curves in the mountains often afforded me with a good view of the giant steam engine at the head of our train, its smoke billowing back over the cars. I spent hours gazing out the window, enthralled by the beauty of the Cascades.
After arriving in Fall City, I settled into a summertime routine with my Aunt Hazel’s three kids and her husband Herman. The family of five lived in a reasonably nice but unpretentious house in Fall City, which was in the ‘40s a quiet, small town away from the hubbub of the Seattle metropolitan area.
Aunt Hazel was an invalid. She contracted multiple sclerosis in her 20s. I remember watching her husband Herman lift her in and out of their car. Their kids included a set of twin boys not quite nine years older than me. I was 6-9 during our summers in California (1948-51), so the twins, Darrel and Raymond, were about 16 during our visits. They had a sister named Judy who was about 10 years younger than the twins and 2 or 3 years younger than me. The favorite sport of we boys was to climb into the bing cherry trees and throw cherries at each other until we were stained red. I don’t recall getting spankings for that activity but I probably did, or should have.
Herman liked to fish. He had an electrical contraption with two prods he could stick into the ground to make the night crawlers come to the surface. It was interesting to watch him collect worms for bait.
Oysters were cheap and plentiful. There were small mountains of oyster shells close to the ocean. We ate more oysters than anyone should have to consume. Our diet consisted mainly of oysters, fish and cherries augmented by produce from a garden and meat.
The train to our other summertime destination, Minnesota, was either the Great Northern across the mountains east through Montana and North Dakota or the train across Utah and on to Kansas, then north to Minnesota. Which train we took depended on whether we left for Minnesota from Fall City or from Sacramento.
The Mississippi River sometimes overran its banks and flooded mile after mile of the flat land surrounding Kansas City. I recall a train trip from Sacramento to Minnesota that was probably during the great flood of July 1951. Water surrounded the elevated train tracks and lapped at the bottoms of the bridges we crossed.
Unlike the Shasta train, the train to Kansas City wasn’t sleek and modern. It was utilitarian, consisting of drab cars that had been in service since WW II or before. Being poor, we could not afford bunks in a Pullman car, so we had to sleep in our seats in coach. I spent most of my time watching mile after mile pass by. I especially liked to look out the windows at night and watch the lights whiz by in the darkness.
That train was packed. Passengers headed for Chicago and the East Coast and other points east of California were jammed into it. The wait for the dining car was hours long. Often, the only food remaining when we finally got to it was peanut butter sandwiches.
All the staff on the train or at the train stations—cooks, waiters, conductors, baggage handlers, porters, etc.--were black men. The engineers were probably the only exceptions.
I was experienced at riding trains. My mother recalls how I lost a shoe on a troop train during WW II and how a soldier returned it to me.
Life on my grandparents Ole and Ida’s farm in those days now consists of random memories. I was there a number of times for varying durations before we moved to California plus summers while we lived in North Sacramento.
My earliest memories of the farm predate our 1947 move to California. I recall sitting on my grandmother’s lap on a chair in the corner of the living room in the old house during a lightning storm as she protected me from the ball lightning rolling across the floor. The old house was demolished in the mid-40s, so I must have been 2 or 3 years old at that time. I also vaguely recall playing in the sandbox with my cousin Karen, who was visiting from her home in Salisbury, North Carolina. We had a large wooden “steam shovel” that my Aunt Clarice made for digging and dumping out scoops of sand. And I have photos from the farm of me riding a tricycle, wearing a cowboy suit, playing in the snow…
My grandmother roasted geese in her large, wood-burning kitchen stove. She roasted a goose when my Uncle Maurice came home from the WW II, which was prior to his combat duty in Korea. She saved the drippings, as she called the goose grease, putting it into small jars. In the wintertime, she rubbed my wrists with goose grease to keep them from chapping. She used the same stove to heat her flatirons and to cook lefse, Scandinavian potato flat bread, that she stacked in a high pile in heavy metal wash pan and covered with a white cotton kitchen towel.
Staple foods at the farm were fresh-baked bread from the same cook stove raised using everlasting rice, yeast she stored in a jar in the refrigerator. We ate vegetables from the large garden. Grandmother also ate codfish that came in small wooden boxes. Grandmother bought some food such as beef. She often served beef pot roast. She also bought the canned sliced peaches in sweet syrup, cottage cheese and Colby cheese that she was fond of. She usually had home-made doughnuts on hand that were relatively small and chewier. She stored them in a tin along with half an apple to keep them moist.
We had lutefisk, cod that had been preserved in lye, on special holidays such as Christmas Day. It is somewhat similar to hominy but blubbery and smelly. It can be stomached periodically if smeared with butter and downed with lefse. My father would tell stories about the old days in Sebeka, when lutefisk were stacked like cord wood in back of grocery stores and passing dogs would urinate on it. Lutefisk attracts cats only after the lye is soaked out and it is cooked. It repels sensible people.
Grandfather Ole was a reluctant farmer. He had begun as a studio photographer in the small town of Akeley and later in Sebeka during the latter part of the first decade of the 20th century, when he was in his early 20s. It was his true calling. He had a business establishment located on Jefferson Avenue North in Sebeka, on the southwest corner of the first intersection north of Main Street. It consisted of a photo shop, gas station and Wear-U-Well shoe store staffed by a young woman.
In May 1910, Ole married my grandmother Ida, who had just arrived back in Sebeka from working as a chambermaid in Glendive, Montana. Ida’s daughter Myrtle was their first child, followed by Lester six years later. Daughter Mildred arrived exactly two years after Lester on March 6, 1918. She was followed by a second son, Maurice, in 1922 and finally by a set of fraternal twin girls, Clarice and Glenice, in 1927.
My grandmother was her husband Ole’s photo assistant. Some of the photographs my grandparents took in the photo studio and elsewhere in and around Sebeka survive. Some of the glass negatives are in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society. Others are in the possession of their descendants. Some of their photographs are in a book, Pages of Time, published for the 1998 Sebeka centennial.
They closed their business in about 1921 and became farmers. Apparently, their income couldn’t support their growing family, which numbered five by that time. They rented out the building, which later burned. They first moved to the farm of Mikal, Ole’s father, southeast of Sebeka, then later to their own farm, two adjoining parcels located two miles east and one mile south of Sebeka in Rockwood Township. Most of the land was swampland covered with tamarack trees, bushes or grassy meadows. There was one large field located on high but rocky ground just south of the farmyard. There were also some woods populated by birth, poplars and white and red oaks.
Ole escaped the farm whenever possible. Autumns he could be found on a thrashing crew in North Dakota. During WW II, he worked in Portland building LSTs. There is a photo of him posing on an LST that bore his name.
After my grandfather returned from Portland, he and his tomboy daughter Clarice completed most of a new farmhouse. It had a basement and walls made of oak 2 X 4s stacked one on another. There was an entryr, kitchen, living/dining room, bathroom and two bedrooms downstairs. Upstairs were two bedrooms and a storage room. Heat was provided by a wood-burning furnace in the basement. There was a large grate above the furnace in the living room and small grates in the floors of the two upstairs bedrooms. After my father bought the farm from his mother and later sold it, the new owner incorporated that house into a new, larger house that surrounds it.
I remember haying with my grandfather when I was old enough to hold the reins of the two gigantic workhorses. I held the reins. He pitched hay onto the hayrack. When the hayrack was full, we pulled the hay to the peak of the barn using rope slings hooked to a trolley mechanism that moved along a track on wheels. The rope slings sometimes broke, dumping the bundle of hay back onto the hayrack. When the hay reached the peak of the barn, the trolley rolled into the barn until someone pulled the trip rope, dumping the hay into the hayloft. There was a large rope that lifted the hay running through a wooden pulley mounted at the base of the barn. A horse or tractor on the end of the rope provided the power. One day, the pulley broke and part of it flew several hundred feet, striking the farmhouse with a loud crack.
When not working, the workhorses could be found standing in a stall in the dimly-lit barn, snorting and munching hay.
I remember the day my grandfather was smoking hornets out of the brooder house. I was about 100 feet away with my grandmother alongside me when one hornet found me and stung my ear.
When not helping out as best I could given my age, I played on the swing hanging from a branch of the sturdy white oak tree at the center of the yard. Or I went exploring. Or I otherwise passed the idle days of summer. But although I was from Minnesota, I was a California kid. I had dreams of attending California Institute of Technology, CalTech. My friends lived in California. They included some I was on the outs with, like Billy Mitchell, who borrowed my checkers and stamped his name on the back of each of them.
I was a more or less normal kid living a more or less normal childhood during those years except for being raised by a single mother. I missed not having a father, any adult man, in my life. My mother was often gone, off with a boyfriend or in summer school. My family consisted of my mother, the relatives I ran into during summer vacations plus the neighborhood or school kids I ran with. I’d also include a few adults in North Sacramento: Mr. Wesley, who owned one of our apartments, the Streeter family—Irene, her husband and their son Larry (who now uses his first name, Clark) and the Horners, our last landlords in California before we left that state.
My New Stepfather
My mother met a new boyfriend while we were vacationing at Sebeka, John Herman Fischer, the son of local German farmers Herman and Eva Fischer. He had a large farm nearly a square mile in size located four miles south and two miles west of Sebeka, across the road from his parents’ 80-acre farm. John was tall, dark and handsome. He was well-known by the Sebeka business community and had influential friends.
He was divorced from his first wife. After my mother married John, she learned of that John had abused her. They broke up after she had jumped from his car and run through a swamp to escape him.
During Christmastime 1951, John came to North Sacramento to visit my mother. Only a few days later, they married and left for a honeymoon in Pasadena that included watching the Tournament of Roses Parade.
I recall John staying at the Horner duplex on Franklin Street where we lived at that time but I don’t recall him ever talking to me. I was very shy around a stranger. I didn’t know how to react to this sudden intrusion on our life in California. And of course, I had no say in what happened in their relationship.
Shortly after John and Lee returned from their honeymoon, we packed up our few possessions, piled into John’s Pontiac and headed for Minnesota. He took the southern route through the desert, because it was mid-winter. I was 9 years old. My mother let me sit in the front passenger’s seat most of the time, where I pretended to steer the car using the rim on the dashboard clock and tried to figure out how John could make the vacuum-driven windshield washers speed up or slow down on voice command. (He was letting up or stepping down on the accelerator.) And I listened to news about Presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower on the car radio.
The highways across southern California and Arizona seemed endless. Now and then we would come upon an adobe gas station, sometimes with a burro wandering about, where we could refill our canvas water bag, gas up and get a snack and a bottle of pop.
We often saw snakes and lizards on the highway. The ditches held discarded blow-outs. We stopped at one point on a mountain road to peer over the edge of a cliff at a semi that had careened off a curve into a canyon far below. I was told it was a semi load of eggs but I suspect that was an embellishment of the tragedy.
We stopped to visit John Reed, John’s elderly maternal grandfather, who lived in a small adobe house in Colorado with a Mexican family. The mother made tasty fried corn for us. We made several other stops, about four in all. We stopped in Colorado to visit John’s cousin, a descendant of Earl Reed, John Reed’s son. And we stopped to visit the husband of another of John’s cousins who had died.
We visited my mother’s Aunt Stella, her mother’s sister, who lived in rural Lincoln, Nebraska. They had a sheep barn with flower boxes on the windows. We spent the evening looking at film from their recent vacation abroad.
I was unprepared and out of my element when we finally arrived at John Fischer’s farm. We drove up a long dirt driveway that slopped upward past black walnut trees on one side and dense woods on the other. The driveway was the culmination of two and a half miles of dirt road off Highway 71. There was a farmyard at the end of the driveway surrounded by a few buildings: an old 2-story farmhouse, a traditional red barn, a pump house, a chicken coop, a machine shed and a garage. There was also a root cellar for storing potatoes and other vegetables that had an arched ceiling constructed of stones fitted together without mortar.
The Fischer farm was primarily a dairy farm, with a large herd of Holstein milk cows but it also had Angus and Hereford beef cattle, Columbia sheep, Hampshire hogs and the dozens of Leghorn chickens. The first thing I noticed were dozens of white Leghorn chickens scattered around the farmyard, scratching the dirt and pecking at the tidbits they uncovered.
Soon after I arrived, my step-father handed me a pitchfork, posted me in a calf pen in the barn and told me to clean out the pen. I was only 10 and skinny, so the task was difficult. I was a novice at farming except for minimal experience on my grandparents’ farm during summer vacations. Over the next four years, I would learn the ropes of agriculture: milking cows, driving a tractor, stacking alfalfa and red clover hay bales, threshing oats, feeding the cattle silage, cutting firewood, dressing chickens, raking hay, slopping hogs, dipping sheep, shoveling lots of manure...all the common tasks on a diversified farm.
My step-father referred to me as “the hired man” and that’s also how he treated me, only much worse. For example, if I was sick, he would send me to split wood or do other work until I recovered, even in the dead of winter. He often told me to stay in the barn when company came over. And he frequently lied to me. For example, he once told me I could go to a baseball game he was playing in at Wadena if I managed to stack hundreds of hay bales before evening. I somehow managed to complete the task. Then he made me stay home. He also ordered me to raise rabbits and orphaned, “bottle” lambs, then sold them and kept the money.
My natural parents had given me a US savings bond on each birthday. Even though they were, of course, in my name, John took them to the bank in Sebeka and convinced the bank to cash them. He kept the money.
John was frequently physically as well as verbally abusive. The worst part of living on his farm was the many beatings he gave me. Usually, he would give me his jackknife, tell me to cut a poplar switch in the adjacent woods and then wear it out on me. Sometimes, he would drag me into a room in the barn where his horse saddle hung and use the cinch strap to beat me. Once he beat me so badly I had trouble walking because I couldn’t find the wheelbarrow, which my mother had taken to our lower garden without my knowledge.
John was equally mean to the cattle. He enjoyed breaking pitchforks handles over their backs or stabbing them with the tangs. Reportedly, once after I had left the farm, he was going to shoot my mother with a deer rifle but my sister stopped him. While I was still living at the farm, the fights sometimes kept me awake nights. I remember him yelling at my mother, “You married me for better or for worse.” She responded, “There hasn’t been any better. It’s all been worse!”
The abuse I suffered from John was compounded by sexual abuse from one of the actual hired men whom John hired who was several years my senior, perhaps 18-20 whereas I was about 12 or 13. The abuse occurred in the woods at times when we were far from the buildings, so neither John nor my mother ever knew about it to my knowledge. And I would not have dared to report it. Had I, John would have beaten me and my mother would have complained and possibly been beaten herself. The abuse wasn’t serious. It was adolescent game playing at the demand of the hired man. But it was in appropriate and should not have occurred. Even though I didn’t instigate the abuse and was in fact the victim of it, I was ashamed of It and felt guilty. But the abuse wasn’t that serious and therefore probably had not severe, lasting impact on me.
After I had left, my mother moved out on John. She moved to an apartment in Sebeka but later returned to the farm. After he suffered a stroke while they were in route to their winter home in Texas (where they parked their recreational vehicle) in the mid-1980s, John spent the remainder of his life in a nursing home in Menahga, the next town north of Sebeka. A pig’s valve that had been earlier implanted in his heart probably caused his stroke. After his stoke, John was sometimes lucid and sometimes driving a pickup across North Dakota, or whatever he imagined he was doing. My mother stuck with him until his death in 1994. I attended his funeral for my mother’s sake.
I saw John occasionally at Christmas dinners during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the family would bring him to my mother’s trailer home, which sat where the house belonging to John’s parents once stood. By that time, my half-brother Jerry owned the farm, including his grandfather’s former acreage. There were only two days each year that I spent with the Fischer family, Christmas Day and sometimes Thanksgiving Day. John spoke to me only once at any of those gatherings during the decades between my leaving the farm for good and his death. Once at my mother’s home, while he was in a wheelchair, he asked me to move him.
Although I spent only about three years total living with John Fischer, the amount and severity of abuse left me with psychological scars. I became obsessive-compulsive, fearful and withdrawn. Then and in the years immediately subsequent to that ordeal, I developed some skewed viewpoints about God and religion. While in ninth grade, a quotation from Edward Young, “An undevout astronomer is mad” helped lead me toward both astronomy and religion. Astronomy became my refuge and God my protector. I faithfully prayed every night. I quit writing fiction, because I equated it with lying and feared God’s wrath if I wrote any. This made no sense, of course, for the parables of Jesus are not literal fact and the Bible reputedly contains many myths inherited from other religions more ancient that Judaism. But I developed some very mixed up and disturbed beliefs coming out of the hell I’d been through up until my 14th year, especially the abuse while I was 10-13.
My mother seemed absent from the one-sided conflict between John and me. If she complained to him, I was unaware of it. She dealt with it by trying to send me away. She parked me with her mother for the better part of a year but I had to return to the Fischer farm, as I will relate later. She tried to get Boys’ Town in Nebraska to take me in but it declined because I had close relatives. Finally, one day when I was 14, she told me to get on my bicycle and leave. I complied, leaving with only the clothes on my back and my bike and unsure my father’s relatives would take me in.
Life on the Fischer Farm
I attended Sebeka Public School starting midway through the fourth grade. Some of the teachers were from country schools and were less educated and far less proficient than my teachers in North Sacramento. I got into mischief often due to boredom. I locked the teacher in the coat closet, made clothespin guns for shooting spitballs and sprayed girls using a mastitis syringes filled with milk. A mastitis syringe is a disposable plastic syringe used to treat infections in lactating dairy cows. I spent considerable time in the principal’s office for infractions such as those or for talking in music class or, once while in fifth grade at age 11 or 12, for writing really bad, profanity-laced poetry.. The school pulled me out of class and summoned my mother for that offense. I was mortified.
Somewhere around that age, I took an interest in music and decided to be in the school band. The school loaned me a coronet and allowed me to take it home. Before I blew the first note, my stepfather made me return it. He forbade me to ever again participate in any school activity that could potentially interfere with my farm work.
I drove a John Deere B tractor for farm work such as hauling hay bales. In those days we still used rectangular blocks of hay about 18 X 36 X 18 inches in size held together with two lengthwise strands of twine. Alfalfa bales that size are very heavy. One of my tasks was stacking bales on a hayrack as they came out of the hay baler. Later, I had to stack the same bales in the hayloft.
I had a variety of chores to do, from helping to dip sheep to slopping hogs. I rounded up the cows for milking, split blocks of wood and did other farm tasks. Once while I was in the pasture, a cow with a young calf hidden in brush knocked me flying onto a rock pile. Fortunately, when it charged me again, I managed to kick it squarely in the head with the heel of my boot, after which it left me alone. Never get to close to an animal’s young one/s.
It would be ninth grade, four and a half years after I enrolled at Sebeka Public School, before learning became interesting again.
Our riding horse, which was part Palomino, bucked John into a tree at his friend and neighbor Tony Stursa’s farm. As I recall, John responded by selling the horse. I seldom got a chance to ride that horse anyway, and when I did, the horse ignored my commands and went wherever it wished. John later bought his own children—Jerry, Jeannie and Ross--Shetland ponies. His children seldom wanted for anything.
Not long after my mother and I arrived at the farm in mid-winter 1952, John started building a brick house with a cement block basement, varnished wooden floors and a large picture window overlooking the farmyard. The old house was moved off the property as soon as the basement was completed and we had moved into that basement, where we lived for some time prior to completing the house. I was assigned to break up the foundation of the old house using a sledge hammer. The basement had bedrooms and a bathroom partitioned off from the main room, which contained the kitchen and living area. A large space heater provided warmth in winter in its immediate vicinity
The bricks for the house arrived in Wadena via rail. I helped unload them onto a truck. Later, I carried bricks to the bricklayers.
We also constructed other new buildings on the farm, a new barn and a corn crib. I recall I was putting the shingles on the corn crib one day when John’s brother Carl and his wife Ann and their kids arrived at the farm. They lived in Florida. Carl died in 1994, the same year John died. John also had a sister named Florence. She had died at about age 8 in 1919.
I never mentioned to either John or Lee the fate of my stepfather’s pet partridge. He was very fond and proud of a partridge he’d tamed that lived in the woods half a mile from the farmhouse. The partridge was so tame it would approach people without fear. One day while I was cutting thistles with a scythe in a pasture adjacent to the woods where the partridge lived, the partridge came up behind me. Before I knew it was there, I caught it squarely in the neck with the scythe blade. It was flopping around in misery, like a beheaded chicken, so there was no choice but to finish it off. I was terrified. Although it was an accident, I knew that if John found out I had killed his pet partridge, he would probably kill me or at least he would beat me half to death. After the partridge disappeared, I let John and my mother believe that some hunter must have shot it. I lived in fear of being found out for years, even though there were no witnesses or evidence. I had disposed of the dead partridge in the woods.
Despite the abuse and hard work, life wasn’t all bad. I went exploring in the woods with friend Orlin Lien, another farm kid about my age who lived half a mile away through the woods. We tapped maple trees in the springtime.
My mother and I would pick morels, wild mushrooms, in the woods. My mother would roll them in egg batter and fry them. She was a good cook except for the time she forgot to put baking powder in the baking powder biscuits. John and his friends were deer hunters, so we had venison to eat too. In November, after hunting season, we would make pork and venison sausage using natural gut casings. Tony Stursa would mix the two meats together by tromping around barefoot in the mixture in a washtub. Then we would use a hand press to squeeze the meat into the casings.
We also had beef and pork from the cattle and swine on the farm. One common food was head cheese, blocks of meat constructed like particle board from scraps of meat scraped from the head of a pig. But we didn’t make blood pudding and blood sausage, foods the local Finns liked.
We had a television set, black and white of course. Occasionally in the evening, after the milking was completed, I got to watch “The George Gobel Show” or “The Hit Parade” in the basement as we clustered around the space heater.
My stepfather surprised me one day with a used bicycle. It is the only thing I recall him ever giving me. He had bought it for $5 at an auction sale. It was my first taste of freedom. I could venture a mile or so away from the farm, as far as I dared to go, although I would often get criticized or punished for going even that far.
Sometimes I sought refuge at the small house of John’s parents Herman and Eva, who lived only a quarter mile distant. They had a huge old fold-out leather couch, circa 19th century, where I sometimes slept over under a feather tick. Eva made wonderful brown bread full of raisins in tin cans with the ends cut out. She was fond of alfalfa tea.
I was eating brown bread in Eva’s kitchen on Dec. 27, 1952, when John rushed in beaming and announced,, “You’ve got a brother!” John and my mother had wasted no time in starting a family. Jerry John Fischer, the first of their three children, arrived a year after the wedding.
In 1954, when I was 12, my mother parked me with my grandmother Alta Patnaude. Alta lived on a farm in the boondocks northeast of Sebeka. The farm is in jack pine country. The soil there is sandy and farming is not very productive. My grandfather, Alta’s husband George, was living in Pine River at that time, a town an hour’s drive to the east. He probably never returned home after being released from prison. But Alta wasn’t alone on the farm, because the youngest of her two boys and three girls, LeRoy, lived with her and did the farm work.
Alta was a heavy-set but not obese woman who always wore a plain, faded cotton dress with a print nearly washed out after years of ownership. Her sparse mostly gray hair was pinned down. In her later years, she wore a gray wig that was always slightly ajar. She was very down-to-earth. She was the daughter of a German Dutch mother and an Italian father. Alta had always known what it is to work hard to obtain life’s basic needs. At 61, her face told the story of a woman who never had a great deal and struggled to raise her children and keep her house in order.
Alta’s firstborn child, Fred, was retarded. He was illegitimate, born prior to her marriage to George Patnaude. His father was a farmer who lived nearby the Raphael farm while the family was still in North Dakota. Fred was intelligent enough to get a job packing fish but never rose to a higher purpose. He tried robbing a gas station, was caught and served prison time. I recall seeing Fred only once, years later, after Alta had moved to a house in West Duluth. Fred was sitting at her kitchen table with his heavyset body bent forward, shoveling food into his mouth. There was nothing about Fred that was pleasant, neither his manner nor his appearance. But he married and had three girls and a boy, all of whom are also somewhat retarded.
Alta seldom said much and, when she did speak, the words were utilitarian. She talked about doing the chores, cooking and such. She never mused about the purpose of life. I don’t recall her being overly religious, although I once attended Christmas Eve mass with her while visiting in Duluth.
Her farm had only a few cows, pigs and chickens, enough work for LeRoy and enough meat, milk and eggs to provide for a three people. There were a few cats and a dog. There was an old house full of 19th century antiques inherited by my grandmother, possibly from her mother’s family, the Fawvers. The Fawvers were German Dutch immigrants who owned a mill in Wisconsin. I spent considerable time listening to thick 78 rpm recordings of ballads such as “Jesse James” and “Greensleeves.” “That dirty little coward, who shot Mr. Howard, has laid poor Jesse in his grave.”
A few years later, while no one was home, thieves backed a truck up to the house and stole all the antiques. They were never apprehended, as was the case in similar thefts.
We used an old dump rake pulled by a Ford Ferguson tractor to rake hay. LeRoy drove the tractor. I sat on the rake and dumped the hay into windrows. Later, he pushed the hay into haystacks using a buckboard mounted on the front of the tractor. I also helped with the milking. I enjoyed squirting the cats that lived in the barn in the face and watching them lick the warm milk off their whiskers.
Grandmother Alta was an excellent cook, nothing fancy, just basics. She taught me to bake big loaves of golden-brown bread in the oven of the wood-burning cook stove in the farmhouse kitchen. She made a dry-curd cottage cheese with chives in it. She also made butter, which she churned in a 2-gallon jar that she held while tilting back and forth in an old rocking chair on the porch.
LeRoy was only 23 at that time, 10 years older than me. When he wasn’t doing farm work, he played baseball in a local league or hung out in a bar in Sebeka. He once offered me a chew of snuff at a baseball game. I declined. He had an old coupe with a rumble seat. Sometimes I rode in the rumble seat, bouncing along over the dirt trails, in route to some part of the farm.
One day LeRoy drove the dog and me to a small clearing in the nearby woods, where he shot the dog. The dog let out a yelp and ran halfway around the clearing before dropping dead. I never understood why LeRoy needed to kill that dog.
I was scheduled to begin eighth grade that September. The school term always began the day after Labor Day. My grandmother’s farm was in one of the few remaining rural school districts, so I had to attend country school. The schoolhouse was a square white structure along a rural road a mile south across country and a half mile or so to the west. I trekked to and from the school. When winter came, I wallowed through snow a foot or two deep. I had to cross a creek in route.
At the school, one teacher tried to keep order in grades 1-8. Some grades had several children. My grade had only two, Fred Kumpa, a Finnish boy, and me. All eight grades sat together in the single classroom.
I recall learning two things that school year. I learned how to thaw out the fuel oil line so we would have heat in the classroom and I learned a poem to recite for the Christmas pageant.
One teacher could not keep discipline among a large group of children ages 5-13. The kids, especially the older ones, were little monsters. I was a shy kid who had always been forced to keep to myself, so I attracted abuse from the school bullies. Some would pelt me with snowballs during recess. The Olson twins once held me down, one on each arm, while the biggest and dumbest kid in the school bloodied by nose.
The following spring, during one of LeRoy’s trips to a bar in Sebeka, he met a woman named Sharon. Sharon was married but apparently unhapply, because her husband allegedly sold her to LeRoy for $40. However their introduction occurred, she became LeRoy’s first wife.
It wasn’t long before she began exercising her newfound authority. One of her first demands was that I be sent back to the Fischer farm. So my mother came to fetch me that summer of 1955. On the way back to the Fischer place, mom told me she was expecting her second child by John Fischer. My half-sister Jeanne was born Feb. 7, 1956.
After I left, Sharon and LeRoy had three children in rapid succession: David, Darrel and Debra Lee. Sharon later sold my grandmother’s farm out from under her and spent the money in Duluth. In 1959, when the money ran out, she committed suicide using a gas oven. The youngest child, Debra, was an infant at the time.
Grandmother Patnaude moved to the suburb West Duluth, where she tended a large garden and read newspapers without needing glasses until she suffered a stroke in her early 90s. She remained alert but died in January 1988 in a nursing home. She was less than a month from her 94th birthday.
As of 2009, LeRoy lived in a house trailer in rural Proctor, a small town near West Duluth, with his longtime girlfriend Alice. LeRoy married again after Sharon’s death but his second wife had mental problems. His son Jim by that marriage, a teacher who has multiple sclerosis, and his daughter-in-law live next door to him. LeRoy was a longshoreman on the Duluth docks. After he retired, he bought a tract of land and cut timber off it. He has also served on the Proctor City Council.
My mother tried unsuccessfully to place me with Boys’ Town in Nebraska, the famous refuge for homeless boys. She showed me the response from Boys’ Town, a 1-page, typewritten letter with a colorful letterhead, the Boys’ Town logo. The letter said Boys’ Town would not accept me because I had living relatives.
One summer day in 1956, when I was 14, not long after I returned to the Fischer farm, my mother told me to get on my bicycle and leave. I did, breaking away from the Fischer farm forever. I took only the clothes I had on and the bicycle.
My bike got a flat tire only a mile later. I caught a ride into Sebeka with a passing farmer driving a pickup truck. Once in town, I called my father’s brother, Uncle Maurice Harstad. He lived on a farm northwest of town with his wife Mayme, a Finn from the Hoyhtya family in Wolf Lake, and their first daughter Carol. Maurice came to my rescue by taking me in for a couple of weeks.
Maurice and Mayme had a dairy farm with a few cows. What I remember most is the kittens in the barn. They were like wildcats and had sharp little claws. I also remember a shelf of old books in the upstairs of an outbuilding, books published from the early19th century to the early 20th century that bore the penciled name of a previous owner who lived in Iowa. Years later I would inherit some of them from my father, who had received them from Maurice. By that time, most of them water damaged due to a leak in the brooder house roof on my dad’s farm, where they were stored. I salvaged an early 20th century book on naval history that I gave to my cousin Paul Ruud along with a clock from a Russian submarine that I’d later purchased.
From Maurice and Mayme’s farm, I moved to the truck farm of my Uncle Russell and Aunt Clarice Ruud. Clairie, as the family calls her, was one of my father’s twin sisters. Clarie and Glenice, call Glenie, were born in 1927. When I moved in with them in 1956, Clarie was a young wife of 29 and a registered nurse. Glenie had become a high school art teacher in Hyattsville, Maryland. Aaron, Russ and Clarice’s first born son, was not quite 4. Glenice married her husband LaVerne, Uncle Vern, six years later.
Russ and Clarie grew potatoes in what is now the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center. Suburbanites were already encroaching on that area, which had both scattered farm buildings and the houses of commuters. Sometimes the city folk drove over the aluminum irrigation pipes in the potato field, denting or crushing them. We lived in Russell’s father William’s house. William was a railroad man age 56. He lived to be 98 and could still dance well until his mid-90s, when he was a widower with a study girlfriend.
The most memorable event of the summer was when a barn on a neighboring farm belonging to the Monkberg family burned to the ground. It was a large, traditional barn full of potato sacks and other flammable materials.
I had to start ninth grade at Sebeka High School that autumn, before the potato harvest, so I could only work that summer. I helped wherever I could.
Sometimes we drove on Highway 100, which was then the outer beltway of Minneapolis. From Highway 100, I could see the 32-story Foshay Tower, completed in 1929, the tallest building in the city at that time. Only a few years later, Brooklyn Center was a developed suburb full of houses and shopping centers. New downtown buildings blocked the view of the Foshay Tower, although it was the mid-70s before a new round of construction such as the IDS Center would produce Minneapolis skyscrapers 50 stories high. The Foshay Tower was converted to a hotel in 2006. It is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
During my freshman year of high school and the following summer of 1957, I lived with the Ben Walz family on their large dairy farm near Sebeka, where I was a hired hand. The Walz family was Catholic and apparently did not believe in birth control. It had 11 children, the oldest about 10 due to a set of twins. It eventually increased in size to 15 children, including both twin girls and twin boys. The Walz family also employed a young woman from the Polinski family who was my age as a housekeeper and assistant to Mrs. Walz. I got a lot of teasing by other students because we rode the school bus together.
I was 14 when I started working and living on the Walz farm and 15 by the following summer. Their oldest Walz kids were about 4-5 years younger than me, so I was older and more experienced at farm work. I recall one time one of the older Walz boys was driving a tractor which got away from him and parked itself on top of a piece of machinery in a shed.
The house was an old, large, 2-story, frame farmhouse in need of paint. A bathroom and three or four bedrooms were upstairs. There was very little furniture, only a bed in each bedroom and a large table in the dining room that could seat a big family. The floors were bare wood. The heat was minimal in the wintertime, especially in the upstairs rooms. Dirty diapers littered the bathroom floor around the single toilet.
The kids were like wild animals. Mrs. Walz would set a large hot dish on the table, usually one containing noodles or macaroni. The second we finished saying grace, the children would attack the dish, stuffing their mouths in competition with their siblings. In the autumn when the gray squirrels were fat from raiding the corn crib, I picked off a few of them with a .22 so we would have more meat on the table.
In the autumn of 1957, as I began my sophomore year of high school, I moved in with my paternal grandmother Ida Harstad. She still lived on the family farm southeast of Sebeka. Ida was 66 years old. She had been a widow four years, since my grandfather Ole died of prostate cancer in 1953 at age 67. I remember his illness because my mother took me to his farm shortly before his death. He was lying on a bed fully clothed, propping up his head with one arm, greeting visitors and waiting to die. That visit occurred a little over a year after my mother and I had moved in with John Fischer. It was the last time I saw my grandfather except for a stop at the funeral parlor after he died on March 8, 1953. He was buried in a family plot at Green Hill Cemetery a mile south of Sebeka on my 11th birthday, March 11, 1953.
I had been to my grandmother’s farm many times before, to the large yard anchored on opposite ends by the farmhouse and the large, red, traditional barn. Surrounding the farmyard were several outbuildings: a brooder house, a pump house, a storage building and granary that had been the old barn, a chicken coop, an outhouse, a garage and a woodshed. Because I had moved so often, the farm was the place that felt most like home due to my familiarity with it and the relatives who lived or gathered there.
Since my grandfather’s death, his car had sat in the garage. Grandmother never drove a car. My father eventually sold it to a teacher in Verndale.
Grandmother had a small radio on an end table by the sofa. There was no television set. Receiving TV would have required a tall, expensive antenna that could be remotely adjusted to face the stations in Fargo, Valley City or Alexandria. The picture would have often been snowy or impossible to see even with such an antenna, especially in bad weather. At one time, the farmhouse had a huge console radio in the living room with many different bands including shortwave but it had been removed by 1957. The console radio had a telephone wire antenna that provided a conduit for ball lightning. It ran to a tall pine tree in the grove. A few years later, a straight-line windstorm broke off most of those tall pines. My father and I cut them up with a two-man handsaw.
The following three years would be my first taste of stable, normal life, except that I effectively had no parents. My father reappeared for the first time since the mid-40s. By then he had abandoned his electrical business in Miller, South Dakota and become a union electrician. He worked on large projects in the Twin Cities and in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he worked on a ballistic missile base. He helped wire the North Star Center in Minneapolis and the Anoka Technical School.
He often drove home on weekends to visit his mother, whom he was very attached to. It was strange at first having him around on weekends, this person who was nearly a complete stranger. In a show of either generosity or guilt, he agreed to give my grandmother $10 per week to help feed me. Once he drove me to Park Rapids, 20 miles north of Sebeka, where I bought a reversible nylon jacket. I still have it.
My mother never visited me. One summer day when I was about 17, mom stopped her car on the road by my grandmother’s driveway. It wasn’t a route she would normally take, so she was obviously cruising in hope of seeing me. She motioned me over for a brief chat. I said I was okay. She was surprised to hear I was attending high school. Apparently, she assumed I would drop out. I never understood why she was surprised to learn I was attending school. I was one of the top students in my class. My best guess is she thought my father would have a corrupting influence on me and would want me to drop out because he only attended through eighth grade. But that was not his choice. He had been forced to go to work as a farmhand near Kenyon due to the Great Depression. He regretted that his entire life. And he disliked his father for having forced him to leave school, where he was first in his class.
Although he never discouraged me from completing high school, my father didn’t think much of my wanting to go on to college. He wanted me to become a tradesman like him. He suggested I become a plumber because they make good money.
By the time my mother stopped her car on the bumpy, rock-strewn dirt road that ran by my grandmother’s farm, mom had three young children: Jerry John, Jeanne Rae and Ross Randy. Jerry, the oldest, was 6. It was the only time I recall seeing my mother from 1956 until 1960, when she attended my high school graduation. If I recall correctly, it would be another five years before I saw her again, at my 1965 wedding. But four of those years I was serving in the US Navy.
When I started my sophomore year of high school, I moved roughly three miles due north of the Walz family farm to my Grandmother Eide “Ida” Harstad’s farm. Ida’s farm was no longer operating. It was a ring of farm buildings next to a field leased to a neighbor who planted corn or alfalfa.
Life on the farm was quiet and peaceful. I kept busy. I did chores for the Henry and Sue Sassen family, who lived on farm one-quarter mile north. The Sassens treated me well. They were a young couple with a son about 4 years old. We would watch The Tonight Show with host Jack Parr after finishing the evening chores. A few years later, they moved to Cedarville, Ohio and opened a TV shop. Henry died young of cancer. Sue stayed in Cedarville in their large, white frame house. I stopped to visit her years later while on a trip through Ohio but she wasn’t home.
I participated in school activities. After my father sold my grandfather’s car to a schoolteacher from Verndale and the garage stood empty, I turned the garage into a telescope shop. I became an avid amateur astronomer.
I wrote for the student newspaper, the Tro-Journal. I joined the Future Farmers of America (FFA), as did most of the boys. Taking a class in agriculture was expected of Sebeka boys, even though I had no plans to become a farmer or to test milk in the futre. I played the leading role in the junior and senior class plays, which were The Little Minister and The Robe. Classmate Connie Stevenson played the female lead in both plays opposite me. Classmate Roger Haro demonstrated for me the art of kissing a girl. I had to kiss Connie in one scene. It was the only time I kissed a girl between the ages of 6 and 21.
I also played a leading role in our production for the state 1-act play contest. Our director encouraged me to become a professional actor. Perhaps I should have. I was also the toastmaster for the Junior-Senior Banquet and I briefly kept football statistics for our coach. I was too small to play football and knee trouble plus other interests kept me from being on a varsity team. I played a little intramural basketball but I was too short, 5’ 9”. I wouldn’t have had the time or any adequate means of transportation to play on a varsity team even if I would have had the talent. I role a bicycle the three miles to town in warm weather and walked otherwise if it wasn’t incredibly cold. The wintertime temperature at Sebeka was often colder than -30 F. for days at a time. The record low in that area is -60 F. I stood outside on school patrol guarding students in the crosswalks on mornings when the temperature was near -40 F.
Following one intramural basketball game, several teammates and I went to the Sebeka café. While there, we learned that another teammate, perhaps he was a Slater, had dropped dead while heading for the locker room. Apparently, he had an unknown heart defect.
Sometimes I walked to town to watch a movie at the community hall, which doubled as a movie theater. Movies were expensive, 25 cents, big money out of my $8 weekly wage for helping the Sassens with chores. (In the next town north, Menahga, movies were only 10 cents.) In those days, a bottle of Coke cost 5 cents and so did Hershey bars. Penney candy cost 1 cent by definition. However, the movie theater charged an outrageous quarter for popcorn.
The movie advertised wasn’t always the one shown, because sometimes the movie wasn’t delivered in time. Horror pictures were a favorite. I remember walking the three miles home in the ink-black darkness after a horror movie. I walked backward along the lonely road that crossed a low, swampy section of land half a mile south of our farm buildings, afraid some monster might sneak up behind me.
Downtown Sebeka, all three blocks of it, offered pleasures for teenagers. Florence of Florence’s Grocery never seemed to notice, or more likely let us get away with it, when we filched a few pieces of penny candy. There was a good bakery in town operated by a drunk who once jumped through the bakery front window, raving about little green men. We could buy a baker’s dozen of bismarcks there for 69 cents. Kids also hung out in the café, usually after ball games. The municipal liquor store, the American Legion Club and another bar, all the watering holes in town, were off limits to us. We could walk down Main Street on a summer evening and hear “I ain’t nothing but a hound dog” emanating from those mysterious local bars.
I never had a date during high school. I lacked all the prerequisites: time, money and transportation. I was also shy. I knew nothing about girls except which ones were pretty versus ugly. About 15 years after high school, at a class reunion after-hours party in a house in the tiny village of Oylen southeast of Sebeka, our homecoming queen Carol (nee Jensen) Anderson got a little tipsy and told me, “Carl, we should have gotten married.” She was a nurse married to a doctor by that time. They had three boys and a girl. (Her daughter inherited her good looks and later won the Miss Minnesota Teen pageant.) It was my first clue she had a crush on me during high school, where I had helped her with physics class. We are still friends.
Most of the kids in my class of 61, plus about 9 others who were in our class but didn’t graduate with us, were good kids. There were only a couple of miscreants in the class. Sebeka has high academic standards. About four out of five graduates go on to technical school or college. Its Knowledge Bowl team has made it to the state finals. That’s not bad for a town with a population of about 700 people, give or take 25. It was a good school and a good place to grow up even though Sebeka seemed to be one of the most boring towns in the state.
But Sebeka High had limited resources. For example, it had stopped teaching Latin years before I attended and failed to offer a single foreign language course. What was somewhat unusual was an aeronautics course taught by WW II aviators. I took the course, which culminated with flying a Piper cub at the Park Rapids Airport.
The 1950s were the height of the communist scare. It was the era of Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy, the US senator who suspected there were communists everywhere. We were required to read Harry and Bonaro Overstreet’s book What We Must Know About Communism for social studies class. The school staged nuclear attack drills where we curled up under our school desks. A often-repeated saying was, “Put your head between your legs and kiss your ass good-bye.”
The US was testing A-bombs in the Nevada desert at that time. Occasionally we were told not to drink milk or eat cranberries, which are grown in Wisconsin, because strontium 90 fallout was contaminating the Upper Midwest. A series of radar stations, the Pine Tree Line, was supposed to detect the Soviet missiles coming over the North Pole to rain down on us. Super Saber jet fighters sometimes flew low past my grandmother’s house, training to intercept Soviet Bear bombers. Some were so low I could clearly see the pilot. There was general paranoia about communism and the Soviet menace in particular.
Perhaps the prevailing and abiding fear of communism instilled in us by our leaders partially explains the domino theory of communism that led us into the Vietnam quagmire. A few years later, I responded to a letter in the local newspaper that suggested the communists were about to invade Sebeka. “Why,” I asked, “would anyone want Sebeka?” I probably amused a few residents but angered many more.
I was briefly a Boy Scout. Our only activity was policing the trash on the football field. My other activities were solitary. I performed experiments in my grandmother’s basement, most of them both dangerous and idiotic. For example, I put the 16-volt leads from a doorbell transformer on my tongue, plugged a coil of iron wire into the 115-volt household circuit and released the chlorine from a bottle of Hylex.
I made the mistake of doing the Hylex experiment one weekend while my dad was home. We had a face-off at the kitchen sink about it, where I suddenly blurted out, “I don’t take orders from a pig!” He snapped and hit me hard on the cheek, which I deserved. I spit blood into the sink and faced him down. He felt so bad about hitting me that he took me for a ride in the country in his ’56 Buick. Looking back, I’m not sure where my anger came from. Although my father was often verbally abusive, he wasn’t by nature physically abusive. It was the only time I can recall him hitting me or anyone else. If he ever hit my mother, I was too young to remember him doing that.
My primary hobby was amateur astronomy. I remember reading in my freshman General Science text the Edward Young quotation, “The undevout astronomer is mad.” It resonated with me. I was clinging to religion in those days, perhaps a partial replacement for the obsessive-compulsive behavior I developed while at the Fischer farm. In hindsight, I had classic symptoms of OCB while at the Fischer farm such as closing a door three times. If I didn’t close the door three times, something terrible would happen to me. Or should it be done four times? Or five times? It was my way of coping with severe emotional and physical abuse that started when I was an infant and continued until I was 14.
I slept in the upstairs north bedroom in Grandmother Ida’s farmhouse. There was little or no heat in the wintertime. A wood-burning furnace with a large grate above it in the living room floor was our only heat. Very little heat made its way upstairs via small grates in the bedroom floors. In winter, there was ice on the inside of my window, which looked north over our grove of pine trees into a star-filled sky. The sky at the farm was nearly pitch black except for a slight glow from Sebeka on the northwest horizon. The Milky Way was so bright one it appeared could reach up and touch it. Every night before going to bed, I knelt at my bedroom window and said prayers while Ursa Major, the Great Bear or Big Dipper, glowed brightly above the trees of the grove.
I spent many nights outside under the stars, plotting meteors or observing aurora. In the wintertime, I would sit in an old blue rocking chair in the snow, with wool leggings on and a quilt over me, until my fingers got too cold to plot meteors. I joined the American Meteor Society (AMS) in about 1957, when it was headed by C. P. Olivier of the Flower and Cook Observatory, one of the oldest observatories in the US. He lived at Narbeth, Pennsylvania. One of my prized possessions is a postcard from him.
AMS supplied me with star charts for plotting meteors. I particularly enjoyed the brilliant white trains of the Geminid meteors of December.
I observed aurora for Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, sometimes brilliant coronal aurora radiating from the zenith. Some of my amateur astronomy activities were performed for projects of International Geophysical Year, which was 1957-58. I also photographed the Echo IA satellite using an old box camera in August, 1960, while at the farm one weekend.
My favorite astronomy books were A Field Book of the Skies and the Norton Star Atlas. Those plus a rotating chart of the constellations were all my reference materials.
The National Science Foundation awarded me a scholarship for a Summer Science Institute at St. Cloud State College (now St. Cloud State University) that occurred during the summer of 1959, between my junior and senior years of high school. I spent that summer going on field trips and building a 6-inch, f/4 rich field telescope (RFT) that I finished after the Institute concluded. Memorable field trips included the Univac computer in what is now the US Bank Business Technology Center (BTC) on Shepard Road in St. Paul and the linear accelerator of the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology in Minneapolis.
My fellow science protégés found time for pranks such as moving a large stone sculpture from the college grounds into the dorm room of our advisor. Some of the kids frequently sneaked into the dorm after curfew by crawling through windows.
I don’t recall any girls among the kids at the Institute. If there were, I didn’t notice them. I hadn’t discovered girls yet. And all I knew about sex came from observing farm animals plus a little scuttlebutt from my high school classmates. There was no such thing as formal sex education. Sex didn’t officially exist in small-town America as of 1959.
Despite my other activities, I found time to chum around with friends such as Bob Kreklau and Wayne Houtari. Wayne had a Pontiac and Bob had a Ford. Wayne lived with his grandmother about three miles to the south. We watched TV at his home together, including the annual Academy Awards. Sometimes we went to the drive-in movie at Verndale. That’s how we spent the night of our high school graduation. We presumably missed a beer party somewhere that night. We drove home on the Bluegrass Road in the early morning light through hundreds of frogs that had congregated on the asphalt.
One time Wayne and I found a half pack of cigarettes lying on Main Street. We drove into the country and attempted to smoke them. It was the first and last time I ever tried smoking cigarettes.
Wayne was stabbed to death in North Minneapolis in 2004 while trying to protect his daughter from her ex-boyfriend.
Bob and I went squirrel hunting together. I borrowed an old .22 caliber rifle with an octagonal barrel from my father that could only fire “short” bullets, because “longs” or “long-rifles” were too powerful for the chamber. It was a family rifle my Uncle Maurice had previously used. All the boys at school had to take gun safety classes, so we were familiar with the proper way to handle and use weapons. There was never any thought in those days of any boy shooting someone, especially at school.
One time Bob and I came across some pipes for a Williams Oil Company pipeline under construction that crossed his parents’ farm. I tried crawling through a pipe that was about 18 inches in diameter and about 12 feet long. I got stuck in the middle. It took me awhile to free myself. There wasn’t much Bob could do for me.
When we weren’t hunting or crawling through pipes, we played baseball by the farmyard with his father and brothers. His father and one of his brothers died young of heart attacks some years later.
The farm where Bob lived was one mile due east of my grandmother’s farm, across a peat swamp full of tamaracks and sumac. In the springtime, it was too wet to cross. In the wintertime, I crossed it on an old pair of short wooden skis we kept in the pump house. My twin aunts had used them when they were younger. I knew the swamp was the home of whitetail deer, black bear, bobcats and brush wolves. Fortunately, those animals normally avoid people, although that knowledge gave me small comfort on a dark night when it was -30 F. A mishap in the swamp in the wintertime would have been fatal, because I would have frozen to death before anyone found me.
I graduated from high school in 1960, fourth in my class of 61 students. I finished behind our valedictorian, Marilyn Miller, and two girls who took courses easier than math and physics, courses such as home economics. Marilyn became a neurosurgeon and psychiatrist in Boulder, Colorado, got married, had two daughters, divorced and remarried to the son of one of her patients.
Near the end of my senior year, I learned St. Cloud State College had awarded me an Alumni Scholarship for my freshman year tuition. St. Cloud State happened to be my mother’s alma mater for her Associate degree and it was also the college where I had attended the Summer Science Institute. It is about two hours drive southeast of Sebeka.
My mother unexpectedly helped me out the summer of 1960, just after I graduated from high school. A family named Nelson owned an 80-acre farm next to my stepfather John Fischer’s farm. A member of the Nelson family worked for the Minnesota Highway Department in St. Paul. Through that connection, I got a job as a draftsman on the top floor of the Highway Department building on the state capital mall.
My responsibilities at the Highway Department consisted mainly of making changes to maps drawn on plastic using an electric eraser and a Leroy pen, which is a type of ink pen one guides using a template. I also helped fan fold copies of the maps of the interstate highways about to cross Minnesota. A couple of weeks into the job, there was an opening for another draftsman. I contacted my high school friend Bob Kreklau. He got the position.
The two of us shared a tiny apartment with a Murphy bed in the Capitol Apartments on St. Peter Street. That brick building was later demolished to make way for the former Science Museum of Minnesota. (The museum moved to a new building on the Mississippi River a few years ago.) Our apartment was a half mile walk from work.
My Aunt Myrtle Rawling had lived in St. Paul during the 1930s, the gangster, Ma Barker era. Upon hearing my address, she informed my grandmother I was living in a den of iniquity among call girls and saloons. It didn’t register with Myrtle that downtown St. Paul had changed in the 30 years since she’d lived there. The FBI had killed Ma Barker in 1935 and the Barker Gang was gradually decimated during the following 15 years.
I painted a rocket headed for space on the inside of our apartment door, went to a lot of movies and read paperbacks. I watched double features at the World Theater or walked about two miles each way to the Faust Theater on weekends to take in a triple feature. There were other downtown movie theaters too. The World Theater was renamed the Fitzgerald Theater to honor St. Paul-born writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is now the home of the Prairie Home Companion show hosted by native son Garrison Keillor. The Faust Theater was later used to show porn films.
Another activity of mine was serving as a lighting technician and stagehand at the Edith Bush Theater, a private playhouse on Cleveland Avenue near Ford Parkway that specialized in comedies. I was responsible for making the gazebo fall down during a production of The Gazebo, which I accomplished by sliding on my back across the stage behind part of the set. I hung out in the dressing room chatting with the actors before and after productions.
I sometimes walked to and from the theater, a walk of about five miles each way. Police looking for a man with a knife stopped me one night as I walked home solely because I was a solitary male pedestrian and it was late. They briefly questioned me but decided I was not the suspect.
Sometimes I took the bus to my destination. I took the bus to the Minnesota State Fair but had to walk home, a 2-hour walk, after spending my bus fare on games and eats. As I walked home from the fair at about midnight, I was nearly hit by a beer bottle thrown out the door of one of the bars near the intersection of University and Snelling Avenues.
Bob had a car, a 1950 Ford, so some weekends we made the 4-hour drive to Sebeka. The 175-mile trip now takes about three hours due to better highways.
I reported to St. Cloud State College that September to begin my freshman year. My courses included the usual prerequisites such a foreign language, music and algebra. I chose French as my foreign language. I was terrible at it. Memorizing lists of words didn’t click for me. I took piano lessons from a small, elderly lady in a house on the edge of campus that had been converted into a music studio. I remember her emphatically telling me, “You play well but too loud!” I love music and consider it one of the my failings that I didn’t continue my piano lessons and never learned to play any instrument.
I nearly flunked algebra because I didn’t do the homework. I was far more interested in and involved in astronomy and dramatic arts. I played the role of The Little Man in a production The Madwoman of Chaillot directed by J. Keith Michaels and also a role in a 1-act play directed by Arthur Housman.
I lived on the top floor of Shoemaker Hall, a men’s dormitory on campus. There were two men to a room, with a small kitchenette at the end of the floor. A student tried boiling the skin and meat off the skull of a dead wolf in the kitchenette once, which stunk up the entire floor. When I first arrived, upperclassmen came into my room and rubbed black shoe polish on me. Another rite of passage for incoming freshmen was being forced to crawl around on our hands and knees around the perimeter of the football field while upperclassmen in the stands pelted us with eggs and tomatoes.
In October, classmates and I ventured to the Beaver Islands in the Mississippi River nearby the campus to enjoy the golden fall colors. Other unsanctioned activities included panty raids at the girl’s dormitory, where a mob of boys would cluster outside and encourage the girls to throw their underwear out the windows. Some obliged. Girls would crawl through dorm windows at Shoemaker Hall for a night of carnal pleasure. There were keggers, parties centered around a keg of beer, on the bank of the Mississippi River. I was the only non-drinker among my friends. Once I was lent a car so I could drive the boys home because they were too drunk to drive. Afterward, I returned to the river to fetch the girls, which I had all to myself. But I had no idea how to exploit that situation.
Our most notorious mischief occurred one night when my friends had gotten inebriated on peppermint schnapps. They decided to capture one of each kind of local farm animal—a cow, a sheep, a pig...—and bring them into Shoemaker Hall. I didn’t accompany them on the expedition. They were too drunk to catch any of the animals they tried to corral. Instead, they settled for the college president’s horse, which was stabled on the far side of the Mississippi, across an old iron bridge. I was at the dorm main entrance to greet them when they returned. I obligingly distracted the guard long enough for my friends to stable the horse in the first-floor washroom.
By that time, it was late at night but nevertheless it wasn’t long before someone noticed the horse. A horse in a washroom is difficult to miss, even if one is half awake. The police found us out somehow, came up to our floor of the dorm and arrested all us during the wee hours of the morning. We spent the remainder of the night in the city jail, charged with being a public nuisance. Early the next morning, we pleaded guilty before a judge who fined each of us $10. That was more money than I had, so I borrowed it from a friend. We were sternly berated by a lieutenant, who told us his sergeant had to suffer the indignity of leading the horse back across the Mississippi River Bridge to its stable.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The college placed all of us on disciplinary probation for spring quarter. All of us were good students. Except for algebra, I had earned all As.
The next time I went home to visit my grandmother my father was home for the weekend. There was a silence like the pall of death in the house. Lying on the dining room table was an article clipped from the Minneapolis Tribune listing the names of the miscreants involved in a college prank at St. Cloud State College.
Boys will be boys. We were only 19 years of age.
My best friend from St. Cloud State, Kenneth “Kenny” Muckala, became a physician. Another friend beca,e a math teacher, etc. We outgrew the days of sowing wild oats.
My criminal record has stayed with me. I had to list my plea to the charge of public nuisance when I applied for security clearances for the military and defense jobs years later as well as for many routine jobs I’ve applied for. I was also arrested in South Dakota but not convicted, as I will detail later.
It was not all fun and games my freshman year. My young astronomy professor was killed in a car accident in South Dakota. His wife was driving and he was sleeping in the back when the collision occurred. He died of a broken neck. What I remember most about him is that he always wore wedgies, a type of casual shoe with a rippled sole, and that he was young and enthusiastic about astronomy.
As the spring of 1961 arrived, there were rumors about an upcoming war in Southeast Asia. I had registered for the draft as required and was status A-1, at the top of the call-up list. Some students talked about obtaining a national defense deferment, which I had a good chance of getting because I was a science student. That was before the draft lottery or young men choosing to flee to Canada too evade the draft. I had made no decision about joining the service as my freshman year ended but there was a tradition of military service in my family. But dying in Vietnam to stop the world from becoming communist didn’t appeal to me or most of my friends.
It was the summer of 1961 and I found myself with no definite plans. Nor did I have any definite money for continuing my education. Lacking common sense, I answered a classified ad for employment in the Minneapolis newspaper that said to contact a Mr. Fish, almost certainly an alias, at a downtown hotel. Who but a 19-year-old from the sticks would respond to such an ad?
Mr. Fish, as I found out, was recruiting new members for a small group of magazine salespersons that was working its way from town to town in the Midwest. The route would ultimately lead to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where it would celebrate the 4th of July. I was eager for adventure, I wanted to see mountains again and I could hear the call of the West. I couldn’t resist signing on.
A short time later, I found myself crammed into a car with a driver who was our team lead and four other young magazine salespersons. Our route took us through the farm country of Iowa, from one targeted town to the next. Apparently the directors of our venture had identified the towns where the easiest marks lived, usually old people with money. I quickly learned something about myself; I had no desire to cheat people by selling them overpriced magazines subscriptions they didn’t need. I wasn’t cut out to be a door-to-door salesman. I have never liked sales and still don’t, even though I’ve both completed and taught college marketing courses.
It wasn’t clear how much or when we would be compensated. I never saw any my partners get one penny in wages or commissions.
When selling door-to-door, we never had the required city permit, so we had to dodge the local police. Occasionally, one of us got apprehended and our team lead had to get him or her out of jail. During the long drives between towns, we passed the time playing juvenile games that a Creole girl on our team usually coordinated. For example, we would add “under the covers” to the advertising slogans on the billboards we passed. “Have more fun going...under the covers” we would say, laughing, and then look for the next good combination. We also listened to our team leader regale us with tales of successful sales tactics he’d employed, like the trip where he appeared on doorsteps wearing a beanie with his pregnant wife along him.
My magazine sales career was going nowhere as we crossed into South Dakota. Then I went to the door of a lady in a small town and gave her our usual canned spiel. She said, “Wait a minute” and called the police. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in a jail cell, one of only a couple cells in the tiny local jail, eating pork and beans off a paper plate. Our team leader bailed me out after a brief stay. The police ordered us out of town and we obliged.
Years later, I forgot to mention the incident on an application for a top secret compartmentalized security clearance. Naval Intelligence called me on the carpet for the omission. That’s how I learned the police had kept a record of the arrest.
The next big town was Pierre, the capitol of South Dakota. I was unceremoniously dumped there. Our team lead handed me a $5 bill and told me to go home. I was a day from Minneapolis by bus and two days from Sebeka. I lacked enough money for the fare to either destination. I had a suitcase with a few clothes in it but no food. I had a decision to make, head for home or continue west. With blind faith and youthful hope, I continued my journey west. I talked to a pastor who told me about a Lutheran minister and his wife in Greeley, Colorado named Arthur and Mildred Anderson. So I headed for Greeley.
Although food was relatively cheap, the $5 quickly ran out. I had no money for transportation, so I hitchhiked. I got a long ride with two guys in a Jeep but they had to stop at every bar in route. One night I slept in the backyard of a church in a small town full of drunks. I reasoned I’d be safe close to a church and I was.
Eventually, after several days, I reached Greeley. Unfortunately, I learned the Andersons were on vacation. It was several more days before they returned. Meanwhile, I slept in their yard. I was starving. My weight had dropped from about 148 pounds to around 130 pounds. I remember gazing longingly at a peanut dispenser, tempted to break the glass.
Eventually, two policemen stopped me and asked me why I was in Greeley. They had no desire to charge me with vagrancy. I begged the policeman to lock me up and feed me but they wouldn’t. They told me the jail was full of drunken Indians who had come into town to celebrate the upcoming Independence Day holiday. They took me to a local restaurant and bought me a bowl of chili. I’ve never forgotten small acts of kindness. I wrote a letter to the Greeley Police Department years later thanking it.
When the Andersons finally came home they were very gracious. They took me in and fed me. I recall savoring half a grapefruit at that first breakfast with them. Within a short time, Rev. Anderson had secured a job as a gardener for me at a rest home managed by one of his friends. The job included board and room.
Only a few days into the job, I became deathly ill. The manager took me to the hospital but the doctor sent me back to the nursing home for bed rest. I had a very high fever and was too weak to get out of bed. A pretty young Hispanic nurse named Lupe cared for me until I recovered. She kept bringing me bottles of 7-Up to keep me hydrated. Years later, I tried to track her down to thank her but was unsuccessful.
I gradually recovered my strength. I was well enough to enjoy the Fourth of July parade in Greeley. And I climbed the fire tower in town to get a better view of Long’s Peak. But although I was by then in a good situation, with a job, a place to sleep and plenty of food, I knew it was time to move on. There was no future in being a gardener at a rest home in Greeley.
I took the entrance exam for the US Navy at the Greeley recruiting office, a small office staffed by two petty officers. I got only one answer incorrect. I couldn’t remember whether the fluid in a wet cell batter should be one-eighth below or one-eighth above the top of the plates.
I was accepted for enlistment. The Andersons asked me whether it was what I really wanted to do. I said yes. I wanted to see the world and get some schooling. And I didn’t want to be drafted into the Army and end up in a swamp in Vietnam, which I assumed had swamps and enemy combatants.
I was bused to Denver, where I was sworn into the US Navy on July 8, 1961, only four day after the 4th. I boarded a Continental Boeing 707 for my first ride on a commercial airliner. After a stop in Los Angeles, we arrived at our destination, San Diego. By the time I got to basic training, I weighed 136 pounds, just shy of my ideal weight of 143. I was in good shape and ready to become a military man.
I spent eight weeks in basic training at San Diego Naval Training Station. Only the first three weeks were difficult. I went through the usual indoctrination: a buzz cut that removed the hair on my head, the issuing of a seabag of uniforms, a medical checkup that missed my bad knees, etc. I was among the last recruits to be issued a flat hat, which I never had an occasion to wear and which I still have in a seabag in storage along with full sets of dress blue and dress white uniforms. We also received a peacoat, raincoat, dungarees for everyday wear, white hats, underwear and socks. Our uniform insignia was the single stripe of a seaman recruit.
We took an examination to determine our ARI/GCT, a combination of arithmetic ability and general knowledge. Like the normalized examination Chinese high school graduates take to determine their futures, the ARI/GCT was a primary determiner of our future rating, which could be anything from a relatively unskilled boatswain’s mate to a rating requiring advanced training. I scored 141, the highest score in our company.
We were permitted to send a postcard home to our parents letting them know we had joined the Navy. I probably sent mine to my grandmother. No doubt it was a big surprise to my father and her, because they hadn’t heard from me for awhile. If I had written to them, it was from Colorado. They had no idea I had joined the Navy.
Our first night in the barracks, a member of our company decided to get out of his bunk and write a letter to his mother. Our company commander, Chief Gunners Mate Jacob Staretz, turned us all out onto the grinder in the middle of the night and made us do push-ups. In another incident, two members of our company were caught being friendly in the same bunk. They were promptly discharged, as was anyone suspected of being a homosexual. The term “gay” was not yet in common use among straight people. We called homosexuals “queers” or “faggots,” terms now as politically incorrect as calling blacks “niggers.”
Staretz appointed Charles Spenser, Jr., a recruit who had been in the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC), to be our recruit commander. One day the Spenser ordered a recruit in our company to swab the deck but the recruit refused. Instead of enforcing his command, Spenser turned to me and ordered me to do it. I took issue with his management style and ended up “on report.” I spent the night on “marching party,” running around a grinder holding an M-1 rifle over my head. There were other members of the company doing the same thing for having committed minor infractions. Some couldn’t handle it and were lying on the ground crying or moaning with a drill instructor screaming at them. I didn’t have much difficulty with marching party, being used to hard labor on the farm. In fact, another recruit and I were racing each other around the grinder.
We had to hand-wash our clothing. White hats are particularly difficult to wash clean because we were sweating on a grinder nearly every day. Our shoes had to be spit shined. We spent hours shining them and learning to roll, bind and tie our neckerchiefs properly.
Staretz was nearing the end of his 30-year career in the Navy. He was on his sixth 4-year enlistment. He often berated us for being the worst company he had ever commanded. I was fairly certain he had told every company he was ever assigned the same thing.
The worst week of basic training was the week on mess duty. We had to roll out about 5 a.m. to report to the mess hall. My job consisted primarily of washing metal chow trays all day. After the evening meal, we returned to the barracks totally exhausted. Some recruits dropped to the floor just inside the barracks door and slept in their tracks.
Besides standing at attention on a grinder in Southern California in mid-summer or marching back and forth on it, we endured various other training exercises. Among them were being placed in a metal compartment with fuel oil that was set on fire to teach how to survive a fire aboard ship. We were also placed in a compartment full of tear gas and then ordered to remove our gas masks. We learned how to safely dive off a platform about 25 feet above the water in case we had to abandon ship. Instructors pushed those recruits who were afraid to jump.
After three weeks of basic training, we transitioned to spending most of our time in classroom training or other instruction. I was assigned to the library as my duty station, where I had little to do except play chess. Some of our training was aboard the fake, landlocked ship the USS Recruit, where instructors taught us shipboard basics such as tying knots and handling lines.
We had some diversions. For example, we watched a couple of Marine recruits on the adjacent Marine basic training base make a break for freedom. They were quickly captured. One day a glass truck lost part of its load on the busy highway adjacent to the chain link fence that kept us confined to the base.
We had small pleasures. Another recruit, Isamu Matsayama, shared a package of dried squid with me that he’d received via mail from his Japanese family. That was my only culinary break from eight weeks of Navy chow.
We had settled into the routine of our new life after several weeks. Our hair had started to grow back. We looked forward to our first liberty and to completing basic training and moving on to school or to the fleet.
Near the end of basic training, I applied for the Naval Air Cadet program (NAVCAD). I had taken a year of aeronautics in high school and I had a year of college. And I had that high ARI/GCT score. I was interested in flying and in becoming an officer. But my plans were dashed when the Navy told me that the sons of divorced parents weren’t officer material. The officer who interviewed me said I might be distracted while flying by thoughts about my parents’ divorce. It didn’t matter to the Navy that the divorce occurred when I was 5 and I was by then 19 and never spent any time thinking about an event I didn’t remember. The Navy didn’t see me as officer material.
I was held for an extra two weeks while the Navy decided what to do with me. Finally, I received orders to report to the US Naval Guided Missiles School in Dam Neck, Virginia.
A fellow recruit, Neil Dwyer, a Norwegian from Dazey, North Dakota, was assigned to the same school. Neil had the distinction of being roughly six and a half feet tall. I once visited his family in Dazey sometime later. As it turned out, we spent our entire Navy careers together and were discharged on the same day, July 7, 1965. Neil is now retired from a career with Compaq. He and his wife live in Wells, Vermont.
First I got a leave of absence that allowed me to go home to Minnesota for a short visit with my relatives prior to starting school in Virginia. In September 1961, I arrived in uniform at the train station in Wadena. My father was waiting there to give me a lift to my grandmother’s farm. I think he was proud that his son who had no interest in becoming a plumber, as he had recommended, and who had attended college, which he thought useless, had joined the military. That was something he could approve of, something that followed family tradition even though he was drafted. In addition to my father’s service in the Army Air Force, three of my uncles had served in the military. One retired as a brigadier general. My mother and grandfather had worked in defense industries during WW II. My father’s sister Mildred was a nurse in the Red Cross in Okinawa. She had met and married my uncle Glenn, the one who made general.
The USS Naval Guided Missiles School was at Dam Neck, VA. The Navy had determined both I and my friend Neil Dwyer should each become a Guided Missileman, the rating at that time for sailors who tested and maintained shipboard missiles.
After leave (a furlough) in Minnesota, I reported to the US Navy Guided Missiles School, passing through nearby Norfolk and then Virginia Beach in route. There was a commercial bus that served the route between Norfolk and Virginia Beach. A gray Navy shuttle bus transported enlisted men from Virginia Beach to the base at Dam Neck along a narrow road across sand covered with sparse saw grass. The base was a cluster of barracks and classroom buildings that stood on low ground at the edge of Dismal Swamp.
Occasionally during my year at Dam Neck, I would get a 48-hour (Saturday and Sunday) or 72-hour (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) liberty and take the shuttle bus into Virginia Beach. If I only had a 48-hour liberty, I would check into a motel in Virginia Beach and hang around town and the famous beach. But if I had a 72-hour liberty, I would sometimes ride a commercial bus to Norfolk and check into a hotel there. What I remember most about Norfolk is it was a drab city with vacant blocks leveled by the first stage of urban renewal. And I recall the waiting room filled with blacks at the bus station.
I didn’t have a girlfriend, so I lived a solitary life while on liberty. I had no idea where or how to meet girls or what to say to them. Nice girls didn’t normally associate with sailors. There was one exception. I struck up a conversation with a pleasant young woman on the bus from Norfolk to Virginia Beach. She invited me to attend church in Virginia Beach with her. I accepted her invitation. In the middle of the service, she got up and left without saying a word. Apparently, she had second thoughts about being seen in church with a sailor. And it probably didn’t help that I don’t sing well.
Life on base consisted of studying, janitorial duty, standing watches and rough-housing with my classmates. I got thrown into the corner of a storage locker that split my scalp open while goofing off with friends. A corpsman stitched up my head without using an anesthetic.
I attended Class A Electronics School for about six months. I graduated with distinction despite having my right hand in a cast. It was another injury caused by goofing around. A friend and I were feigning boxing bare-fisted and I punched his elbow. I had to quickly learn to write left-handed to complete the course. I remember having my hand in a cast when I hitched a ride with classmates to Salisbury, North Carolina to visit my Aunt Myrtle Rawling, her husband Pierce and their children Karen and John.
After Electronics School, I attended Class “C” Guided Missiles School and then Nuclear Weapons School. I never had use for what I learned in Nuclear Weapons School because the USS Canberra did not carry nuclear arms. Only newer ships with newer missile systems had nuclear weapons, most notably Polaris-armed nuclear submarines. There were only a few nuclear-propelled surface ships at that time including the cruiser USS Long Beach and the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.
One of my duties was swabbing and buffing the hallways in the classroom building. I learned about soap, vinegar and water temperature. When not on duty, on watch or studying, we sometime took boat rides into Dismal Swamp or swam in the Atlantic. Dismal Swamp was a cypress swamp. Snakes sometimes hung in the trees. We never got to the other side of it to see if there was civilization beyond it. Presumably it ended somewhere.
When not in class or on watch or busy studying, we could walk to the beach, which was only a short distance from our barracks, beyond a row of sand dunes facing the ocean. Virginia Beach is named for its beautiful sand beach. The beach on base, just to the south of Virginia Beach, was much the same, acres of golden-white sand. We body surfed in the waves. Occasionally we saw dolphins playing. My friends buried me up to my neck in the sand once.
We weren’t the only ones on base who goofed off at times. Occasionally, we had a visitors’ day when the public was welcome to come on base. The base had a Polaris missile launching tube for training. The command officer (CO) sanctioned filling it with water and firing it to drench visitors.
The CO’s pretty daughters attended movies in the base theater. Those movies were always well-attended regardless of what film was showing. Even a cat can look at a king or a seaman apprentice at a CO’s daughters.
There were two other memorable events during my year at Virginia Beach, a storm and a trip to DC. The storm peaked on Ash Wednesday in March 1962. It was a northeaster that caused millions of dollars in damage to Virginia Beach but only a little flooding of adjacent land at the base. I had an opportunity to go into Virginia Beach soon after the storm and take photographs. In 2009, 47 years later, the Princess Anne County/Virginia Beach Historical Society printed two pages of my photographs in its newsletter along with captions I had written just after the storm in 1962.
I went to Hyattsville, Maryland over Easter weekend to visit my Aunt Glenice and her husband LaVerne Lutz. Everyone calls them Glenie and Vern. Glenie was very pregnant with her first child, daughter Christine, who was born almost nine months to the day after the wedding. We attended Easter Sunday services together. Glenie had strayed from her Lutheran origins and become a Methodist. We also toured the monuments in Washington, DC and Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home.
As my year at Dam Neck drew to a close, it was late summer 1962. I was 20 years old and looking forward to joining the fleet and becoming a real sailor.
In 1991, 29 years later, I returned to Virginia Beach for the first time since graduating from Guided Missiles School. I was there to attend the annual convention of the USS Canberra Reunion Association. The city was nearly unrecognizable except for the ocean, beach and Coast Guard Station building, which still stands preserved on the beach downtown. Instead of motels and a few 4-6 story hotels scattered around town there were miles of big hotels up and down the beach in either direction.
I drove toward Dam Neck looking for the Guided Missiles School. I knew it had been converted to a Naval Intelligence training school. I discovered that the town had encompassed the base. The narrow 2-lane road across the saw grass-covered sand is now an urban divided boulevard with two lanes in each direction. The Virginia Beach of 1961-62 is no more. And I am no longer 20.
The USS Canberra
I reported to the USS Canberra (CAG-2), which was moored to a pier in Norfolk, Virginia, on Sept. 15, 1962. As I walked down the pier with another sailor, I noticed everyone on the ship was standing at attention and saluting. I and another newbie with me had no idea why. When we walked up the gangplank and requested permission to come aboard, the Office of the Deck (OD) berated us for not standing at attention on the pier and saluting like everyone else. We were tersely informed that an admiral was embarking or debarking the ship. That reinforced my knowledge of the divide between enlisted men and officers, the worker bees and the privileged. The higher the rank the more privileges enjoyed. This is true for both enlisted personnel and officers, as one would expect.
The Canberra was a WW II heavy cruiser (CA-70) commissioned in 1943 and converted to a guided-missile cruiser (CAG-2) in 1956 along with the USS Boston (CAG-1). During WW II, a torpedo struck the Canberra during the Battle of Formosa, killing about two dozen members of her crew and forcing her to return to port. The Canberra was a famous ship, the only ship in the US Navy named for a foreign capitol. Its namesake was the HMS Canberra, which was damaged and scuttled at the Battle of Savo Island during WW II.
Walter Raczynski, who served aboard CA-70 during WW II, eloquently wrote the history of the USS Canberra, The Battered Remnants of the Blue Fleet, which describes the events of both the CA-70 and CAG-2 eras. Walter and his wife Rita were friends of mine. I contributed excerpts from my journals and Vietnam photographs to Walter’s book. I was shocked by his premature death from a heart attack shortly after the second edition of his book was published. In 1985 during a trip to Boston for a USS Canberra Reunion Association convention, I visited Rita in their hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. We went together to Walter’s grave to pay our respects.
CAG-2 had two triple 8-inch turrets forward. Two twin Terrier surface-to-air (SAM) missile launchers, with a missile magazine under each one, had replaced the rear 8-inch turret. The ship also had four 5-inch twin gun turrets and several rapid-fire anti-aircraft guns mounted in gun tubs. The ship had a displacement of 16,300 tons. It was 673 feet 5 inches in length with a beam of 70 feet 10 inches. Flank speed was 33 knots. A full crew was 1,969 men but we normally had closer to 1,300 on board.
The 8-inch, 3-gun turrets fired 280-pound shells up to 14 miles. Those guns were the next size down from the 16-inch triple gun turrets on battleships. (The USS Wisconsin was the last battleship in the fleet. It was decommissioned in 1991.) The Terrier SAMs on the Canberra were 2-stage missiles with a range of 28 miles.
One of the striking things about the USS Canberra was its wooden main deck, which Boatswain’s Mates toiled to keep white by scrubbing it frequently with soap stones on the end of poles.
Shipmates who were seamen or third or second-class petty officers ate in the general mess. Second-class petty officers got to go to the head of the mess line. The few blacks on board, most of whom held the Boilerman rating, kept to themselves in the mess hall. First-class petty officers had their own mess hall and so did chief petty officers.
We had over 40 men in our compartment, which was three decks down near the propellers. We slept in bunks three to a tier. There was no air conditioning. First-class petty officers slept in the top bunks, where small fans mounted on the overhead circulated air. I rated a bunk on the second tier that had about two feet of clearance between it and the top bunk, not enough to roll over. We each had a small locker for our uniforms and personal possessions. We put our dirty laundry in bags in the head, as a toilet aboard ship is called. All uniforms were stenciled with our names so we could retrieve clean laundry.
At that time, there were no women aboard Navy ships.
The compartment was often smoky when “the smoking lamp” was on, because many sailors smoked. It went out when we taps was broadcast over the intercom. The canned message went, “Taps. Taps. Lights all. All hands turn in and maintain silence about the decks. The smoking lamp is out in all berthing areas.” There was an opposite message for reveille compelling all hands to turn out except those who had gotten off a night watch.
We had a communal shower in the head. We were limited to 3-minute Navy showers to conserve fresh water. We had a table with benches in the berthing compartment where shipmates played checkers or cards or simply hung out. But usually they spent their free time in the missile compartment, which was air conditioned. Sometimes we slept on the deck there when it was unbearably hot in our berthing compartment. Shipmates also read books or exercised there. Lifting free weights was popular with some.
Officers slept in “Officers’ Country” near the forecastle and ate in the wardroom. They had Filipino stewards on board to wait on them. We were not supposed to set foot in Officers’ Country without a reason but I occasionally did. Sometimes the Filipino stewards could be seen crouching in the passageways eating bowls of rice with chopsticks.
Junior officers were housed about 2-4 to a compartment. The captain and admiral had private quarters. They also each had a personal launch for going ashore. One of our captains, Capt. Vernon Soballe, sometimes loaded his launch with women and went cruising around foreign ports. (I corresponded with him long after he retired and had become a consultant in suburban Chicago.)
We also had a Marine detachment aboard with its own berthing compartment. They kept to themselves. Among their duties was minding the ship’s brig. They also performed ceremonial duties. The Canberra was a flagship with an admiral on board who commanded a cruiser-destroyer flotilla, so there was a fair amount of pomp and ceremony while in port.
My rating was initially Guided Missileman, then Missile Technician (MT). It was later changed to Fire-Control Technician – Missiles (FTM). They were all the same rating under different names. The Navy promoted me from seaman recruit to seaman apprentice, then to seaman and then to petty officer third class (E-4). My job was to test and repair the Terrier missiles in the aft missile area, which was the domain of 8th Division. The division was composed of FTMs and Gunner’s Mates (GMs). We had a chief petty officer, Chief Mack, and several petty officers first class, all gunner’s mates and all “lifers” who were serving 20 or more years in the Navy to get pensions on retirement.
We transported the missiles from the magazine one by one, moving the second stage of the missile around the compartment using a trolley and J-bar. We connected leads to the electronics and tested them using a Bureau of Ordinance Field Test Equipment (BOFTE), which was an antiquated, 1956 piece of equipment containing timing cams and large vacuum tubes. We had to frequently adjust the timing cams due to the vibration caused by the four propellers, or “screws” as they’re called in the Navy. We also had a second, newer testing device called an SPM-9. We had to repair the test equipment as well as the missiles. I often made trips to the Supply compartment to get parts.
The port and starboard sides of the compartment were mirror images of each other, with a lift, trolley, BOFTE, SPM-9 and warhead locker on each side of the ship. We had to carefully handle the tetra boosters that set off the warheads. We carried them pressed to our stomachs in case we slipped and fell. Had one exploded, it would have wiped out the compartment and everyone in it. We thought nothing of throwing a jacket over a Terrier warhead and using it as a pillow while catching a nap in the test area.
Sometimes we pulled open the chassis drawers of the BOFTE to keep the electronics cooler. The sprinkler system in the compartment went off accidentally once, showering the hot vacuum tubes with salt water. I dashed across the compartment and threw off the master electrical switch. The sea water contained plankton. After we repaired them, the BOFTEs stank for weeks.
FTMs had secret clearances because parts of the missiles, including the Bendix proximity fuse that set off the warhead, were highly classified. The Terrier missiles are now as antique as a Model T car but it is possible some details about it are still considered classified information. The Terrier was a radar-beam-riding missile designed to down enemy aircraft.
We never fired a Terrier at an enemy plane during my three years aboard the Canberra. We fired a few at a few drones, sometimes to demonstrate the Terrier to top brass. Once while in the Mediterranean, we were ordered to run up live Terriers because our officers thought they had spotted one of the Russian Bear bombers that frequently shadowed us. The “bomber” turned out to be an Italian airliner. Fortunately, our officers figured that out before we shot it down.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
The USS Canberra went on a training cruise for about two weeks soon after I came aboard in mid-September 1962. Our destinations were Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
The Canberra moored alongside a pier at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay but we were not permitted to go ashore. The water alongside the ship was clear and blue. I could see jellyfish in it.
In route to and from Gitmo, as we called Guantanamo, we cruised across a calm Caribbean Sea. The sunsets were beautiful. At night, we watched the lights of passing cruise ships or we gathered on the 01 level near the fantail, where we sat under the stars to watch movies.
I had liberty at Ft. Lauderdale. I took photographs. A shipmate and I rented small motorbikes and zipped recklessly around town. At one curve, I went off the road and through someone’s hedge. We were in uniform, because only officers were allowed to have civilian clothes, called “civies,” aboard ship.
The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred soon after we returned to Norfolk. That October, President John F. Kennedy faced off with Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR, demanding the Russians remove offensive missiles they were installing in Cuba. The US instituted a blockade of that island.
The Canberra was ordered to get underway on short notice. I got a chance to briefly go ashore, onto the pier at the Naval Base, before our departure.
Walter Racyznski included the following excerpt from my journal in his book:
Monday, 22 Oct 62: This morning started out in a typical manner. We had reveille, ate chow, and went to quarters.
Lt. (j.g.) Fred Josey gave us the first hint that something might be brewing when he announced that we were taking a helicopter aboard. “Are we going to sea?” everyone was asking.
Cloyd and Gunner [first-class Gunner’s Mates] came back to the overhaul [missile overhaul area] later in the morning and said the straight dope was that we were getting underway at 2100 [9 p.m.].
About noon, the Old Man [the captain] came over the IMC [intercom] and said we were leaving, [and] not to tell anyone why or when, and that he didn’t know what was coming off for sure.
I had a pier watch all afternoon. Truckloads of supplies poured onto the pier. Everyone who had heard we were leaving was there. There were businessmen from tailor shops and bus companies; officers with their funny gold eagles [insignia] from the Department of Defense; the admiral’s staff carrying manila envelopes stamped TOP SECRET; customs officials, and the families of the men and officers. One lady came up to me and asked, ‘Where’s the Dewey?’ [a guided missile frigate]. When I told her it had left early that morning, she said, ‘Well isn’t that something; I had a husband this morning and I haven’t got one tonight.’
I watched the ships leave one by one. About 1600 [4 p.m.] the Eskimo, AD-55, pulled out. An hour later the Dahlgren, a new DLG [guided missile frigate], got underway. This left only the Vulcan [AR-5, a repair ship], which hadn’t been out for seven months, and the Canberra at our pier.
The Newport News [CA-148, a heavy cruiser], tied up at the next pier, was rumored to be getting underway that evening. Also the Boxer [CV-21, an older aircraft carrier], which had pulled into pier 7 from her anchorage, was supposed to be loading Marines and getting underway the next day.
The Enterprise [CV-6, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier] had pulled out Friday [three days earlier], two days after [Hurricane] Ella had turned seaward, to ‘ride out the hurricane.’ [This is apparently an example of a Navy cover story.] The radio was giving this a big buildup. One of her crew had told me they were going to Cuba...
At 1900 I watched Walter Cronkite on TV as he covered the President’s speech and the general situation.
The President spoke very firmly. Russia was lying about defensive weapons. We had pictures of offensive missiles (1200-mile range) in central Cuba. We would set up a blockade, stop all ships, turn back those carrying offensive weapons to Cuba, and sink any that tried to run the blockade.
‘You play with fire, you’ll get your finders burnt,’ Moscow replied.
About 1940 we put to sea. Women with tears in their eyes had been saying good-byes all day. Three young wives came at the last minute and said good-bye a minute before we left.
We darkened ship almost immediately and slinked out of the harbor.
I went below and grabbed some shut-eye. At 0300 they woke me up for a Condition III watch. I had three hours of sleep after a GQ [general quarters, when all hands are at their battle stations] drill. That was all the sleep I’d be getting for awhile.
I asked MT2 [Missile Technician] Art Maki what he was doing on the main deck. ‘Getting a last look at Norfolk,’ he said. He emphasized the word ‘last.’
Sometime while I was ashore, probably as I was going off watch, I went to a pay phone at the head of the pier and called a relative to inform my family we were going to sea. Every Russian in the Kremlin undoubtedly knew the fleet was deploying by that time.
Once at sea, we went to a 4-on, 4-off watch status, four hours on watch at my battle station and four hours off watch plus our usual workday when we weren’t on watch. So we were on duty 16 hours per day and never slept more than four hours at a time.
My battle station was on a metal grill platform in the aft Terrier missile magazine. I shared that battle station with anther shipmate. Our job was to install the fins on the first-stage booster rocket when we were about to run up live rounds. We had to hammer the fins into their sockets using rubber mallets until a C-ring latched them into place. That wasn’t always a reliable procedure. One time we heard a fin clatter to the deck upon launch during a test firing. To our knowledge, the missile hit its target anyway.
We survived on cold sandwiches provided to us from the mess hall. The magazine was air-conditioned, so it was somewhere between cool and cold depending on the weather. Unless there is a hurricane, the weather in the Caribbean in October and November is usually pleasant.
We were stationed on the Walnut Line at first, northwest of Cuba, then later on the Chestnut Line, closer to Cuba. About 40 US Navy ships in all were involved in the blockade, either on a blockade line or providing support. We frequently saw passing ships, some of them US Navy warships and some freighters.
This history of our deployment to Cuba is well-covered in Raczynski’s book. This is not a history of the USS Canberra; I am I including only excerpts from my personal journal such as the following one, which Raczynski included in his chapter on the Cuban Missile Crisis:
Friday, 2 Nov 62: Today we replenished. The Neosho [AO-143, a oiler] is bringing fuel; the Aldebaran [AF-10, a cargo ship] supplies. The Keith and another DD [destroyer] are bringing mail and personnel.
Our escort finally got back today after chasing a sub for almost a week. Another DD followed one on the surface, and finally asked the sub captain if he needed assistance. The sub captain said, ‘No thank you.’ The Soviet sailors on the sub were friendly and waved to the men on the US DD.
Soviet ships are still coming up to our quarantine line and staying there.
I heard rumors that a U2 plane had been shot down over Cuba using a Soviet-made missile. The pilot was supposedly killed. Tension, which had relaxed, is again mounting.
We are still on wartime cruising status.
The men are anxiously awaiting mail from home.
Security has been clamped on us, and we can no longer write home anything pertaining to the blockade or its participants.
The radar search planes fly very low at night, checking on the position of each ship and its identity. They seem to barely clear our [smoke] stacks...
The DDs conduct preliminary patrols, stop and, if necessary, search vessels trying to run the blockade.
Canberra is on station to give assistance if needed.
When Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the Soviet missiles in Cuba [on Oct. 28], the blockade was relaxed. The Newport News, a heavy cruiser, and the Kennedy, a destroyer, were sent on gunnery exercises. Four destroyers put into San Juan [Puerto Rico] for recreation. The Walnut Line was disbanded. With fewer ships, a new line, the Chestnut Line, closer in, was established.
Only one ship has actually been stopped and searched, a Lebanese ship under charter to the Soviet Union. It was allowed to pass when it was found it did not carry offensive weapons.
Soviet submarines are quite active in these waters. We continue to follow ASW [anti-submarine warfare] maneuvering tactics.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a confrontation between world leaders, not ordinary people. We had no animosity toward Soviet sailors.
The USS Canberra returned to Norfolk on Nov. 22, 1962, Thanksgiving Day.
My shipmates and I received the Navy Expeditionary Medal for our service during the Crisis.
The Med Cruise
In January 1962 the USS Canberra set out for a 6-month deployment with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, what the Navy calls a “Med cruise.”
We had a rough crossing of the Atlantic, especially as we neared Europe. Waves were breaking over the 01 level, 38 feet above the waterline. We were rolling 18 degrees of center from side to side. The fantail was pitching up and down. We all felt queasy, although we weren’t seasick to the point of vomiting. We had to hang onto fixed objects to move about below decks.
I went up on the main deck and snapped a couple quick photos but it wasn’t safe there due to the high seas, so I quickly retreated. In Officers’ Country, a wave washed a seaman athwart ship into the opposite bulkhead when he opened a watertight door, breaking his leg. We heard a rumor of a crack in our armor plating near the forecastle.
The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise was with us on the crossing. During the storm, a wave washed four of her crew off an elevator, which is used to lift planes from the hanger to the main deck. Two were recovered alive, the body of another was recovered and one was never found.
Our first stop was at Rio del Rota on the southwestern coast of Spain. I got to go ashore briefly onto the base there. The most memorable sight was an overloaded passenger train.
From Rota, we steamed into the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar, passing close enough to Gibraltar in daylight to get a good look at it. We could also faintly see the northern tip of Africa to the south.
From there, we cruised on to Genoa, Italy, where we Med-moored, a method of mooring commonly used in Europe whereby the stern of the ship faces the pier and the bow points seaward. I got liberty there and made the most of it. It was cold in Genoa, with a little snow on the ground. I spent most of my liberties in the Med snapping photos with my Kodak Pony 35 mm camera or taking 8 mm movies with a small, wind-up Paillard Bolex movie camera.
The most memorable things about Genoa were the monuments in Staglieno Cemetery, the remaining portions of the city wall, Christopher Columbus’ house and eating gorgonzola cheese on fresh bread. I also explored the architecture, especially the 11th and 12th century churches and the narrow city streets that are often barely wider than a small Fiat.
I met a group of Italian sailors who introduced me to gelato (Italian ice cream), which the Navy had told us not to eat because we might get sick, and to liquor-filled candy that is illegal in the States.
My newfound Italian friends also took me to a restaurant in a private house for a spaghetti dinner. We entered through the kitchen, where two women sat chatting while they waited for customers. We were seated at a large table in the front room, which had become the dining room. Small shelves holding jars of pickled vegetables adorned either side of a large window looking out onto the street. The Italian sailor next to me corrected me for winding my spaghetti onto the fork in the wrong direction. I think I still wind it the wrong way to this day. The spaghetti was long, cooked al dente and delicious.
My duty while in Italy included serving on Shore Patrol (Navy military police) with the Carabinieri, the gendarmes who are part of the Italian military. Carabinieri police both the military and civilian populations. We typically patrolled the district where sailors hung out. We were on patrol from dusk until the early hours of the morning. The particular member of the Carabinieri I patrolled with took certain liberties. One night, for example, we went to a Necchi Sewing Machine factory so he could see a demonstration of a sewing machine he was interested in buying for his wife. The factory was empty and dark at that time except for one lighted room with a manager and seamstress who had stayed late for the demonstration. That gave me an indication of the stature of members of the Carabinieri within Italian society.
We had few problems with sailors. I was taught how to quickly disable them with my nightstick if they were drunk and disorderly, which often meant they were fighting in the street. My Carabinieri partner and I had plenty of time to enjoy pizza or drink espresso to stay awake while on night shift.
We made port in Italy, including Sicily and Sardinia, more than in any other country. Besides Genoa, the Canberra moored at La Spezia, Livorno, Naples, Siracusa and Palermo (the latter two on Sicily) and Cagliari, Sardinia, an Italian possession. We also steamed around the island of Capri and the active volcanic island Stromboli and passed through the Strait of Messina, which separates Italy and Sicily. We kept returning to Italy from other parts of the Mediterranean, so we experienced winter, spring and summer there.
I was also able to bus to other locations in Italy, including L’Apollo, Portofino, Pompeii, Mt. Vesuvius and Pisa. Unfortunately, I didn’t see some major tourist destinations, including Rome, Venice, Florence, Milano and the Tuscany region.
In Pisa, I sought out the famous Leaning Tower, the bell tower that I climbed to the top. I took photographs of the adjacent cathedral and basilica from that vantage point.
Two of my favorite places in Italy were the walk along the shoreline at L’Apollo and the quant little town of Portofino, with it’s narrow streets leading down to a beautiful blue, picturesque harbor with boats gently bobbing on it.
I wish I had taken the time to explore what had been excavated at Pompeii. I had looked longingly at the volcano Vesuvius from the balcony of the USO club in Naples, where I hung out and ate spaghetti, before boarding a train bound for Pompeii. But after arriving, I didn’t go into the ruins. The only thing I remember of Pompeii was seeing a young girl on the edge of town filling a bottle with water from a tap.
Instead I began walking up the road that terminated near the top of Vesuvius, beckoned by the mystique of one of the world’s most famous volcanoes. The road to the top of the peak seems several miles long. Fortunately, along came a young German couple in a Volkswagen Beetle who gave me a lift.
At the top, an Italian guide, an older gentleman, assembled the newly arrived tourists into a group. We were an assortment of various Europeans and a lone American sailor, me. The guide led us along the rim of the steaming crater and then down into it. Some of the women struggled along in skirts and dress shoes. There amid the acrid smell of sulfur and the jets of steam, he demonstrated the vents were hot enough to light a cigarette. The ground we walked on was hot but bearable.
Somewhere in Italy I met a young Italian sailor whose father lived in Palermo. The sailor gave me his father’s address and asked me to say hello when I got to that city. My shipmates and I had heard that Palermo was a dangerous city where a sailor could get his throat cut, a city where the police drove around in armored cars. The first thing I did in Palermo was purchase what amounted to a glorified cap gun and stick it in my waistband. That’s because the sailor’s father lived in a part of town where supposedly the police feared to tread. In retrospect, buying a cap gun was silly, but it gave me the confidence to make the visit.
I found the family, who lived in a small, sparsely decorated flat. When I arrived, the man of the house had just come home from work. He was sitting alone at a table eating a plate of spaghetti. His wife sat dutifully in attendance nearby on a stool, next to the kitchen area. I spoke about half a dozen words of Italian but I communicated why I was there using a note from his son. I brought with me a couple of packs of American cigarettes that he thankfully accepted. Then he produced a bottle of firewater and filled a shot glass to the brim. Every time I managed to down a sip of it, he topped off the glass again. It was an ordeal but I tried to be polite by drinking his liquor.
We sailed to Greece, anchoring in the bay of the Piraeus, the port city of Athens. From Piraeus, we could make our way to Athens to view its ancient treasures. I took many photographs on or nearby the Acropolis and also downtown around the main square. I remember Athens as a sea of red tile roofs that stretched into the foothills of the distant mountains.
I was on Shore Patrol in Piraeus, a memorable experience because it has a prominent red light district full of brothels. My partner and I decided to check out one of the brothels, because American sailors were forbidden to purchase services from prostitutes, an unenforceable regulation but nonetheless our duty to try to enforce. One brothel among many was on the second floor of a building, up two flights of stairs. As I reached the landing at the top of the first flight of stairs, a young woman wearing only a bra and panties raced down the stairs and jumped into my arms. That was a delaying tactic. When we finally reached to second floor, we found a row of Greek men sitting on chairs placed along one wall, patiently waiting their turn at satisfaction. The toes of a row of spit-shined shoes protruded from behind a large curtain that hung along another wall.
Hopelessly outnumbered, we retreated.
On another occasion my partner on Shore Patrol couldn’t resist the charms of a particular prostitute, so he asked me to cover for him while he sampled her wares. Many of the sailors were like kids in a candy store.
We stopped at two other locations in Greece, at the port city of Thessaloniki near the Bosporus and at the island of Corfu west of the Albania-Greek border on the peninsula.
The piers of Salonika, as it’s usually called, were a gritty area where men were on-loading of off-loading cargo such as sacks of cement. One sunny day we got away from that area by holding a picnic on the opposite side of the bay, at a beach in front of a schoolhouse.
While my shipmates tried to get a local child to eat pork and beans, I climbed a nearly vertical cliff behind the school. About two hundred feet up the cliff, I realized I was stuck. I clung perilously to the meager vegetation, inching myself sideways and downwards until I finally extricated myself from my near-death experience. But I managed to snap a photo of the schoolhouse far below.
The Canberra anchored at Corful in the middle of the strait that separates the large, long, thin island from the mainland. Corful was a charming, quaint destination at that time with only a very few old cars and buses for transporting tourists like us. It was common to see donkeys being used as pack animals on the roadways.
Ashore, we survived on pasta and wonderful orange soda that I can almost still taste.
I went on a day tour to an ancient Greek Orthodox monastery that contained beautiful mosaics. It is perched high on a mountain peak at one end of the island. We also went to the Palace Achillian, the former summer palace of Frederick the Great of Prussia, which had been converted to a gambling casino. I didn’t gamble but some of my shipmates tried the roulette table or other ways of quickly saying good-bye to money. Adjacent to the casino was a statue of Achilles with an arrow in his heel. The palace terrace offered a magnificent view of Corfu City in the distance. The most prominent feature visible was the soccer field.
I also went to the northeastern point of the island opposite Albania, which is separated from Corfu by only a narrow strait. Albania looked a lot like what we could see of the Greek mainland but, because it was “Communist Albania,” so it was like a first look at a city on another planet. A legacy of the Red scare of the 1950s was the word “communist” in front of every country that had that political system except the countries constituting the USSR. We called China “Communist China,” for example, or sometimes “Red China.” The word “communist” had a sinister connotation. The Cold War was still very much a fact of life at the time of our visit to Corfu.
We steamed off the shore of Crete but did not stop there. But we made port at several other islands in the Mediterranean besides Corfu and Sicily, including Malta, Majorca, Corsica and Sardinia.
At Majorca, I went scuba diving and watched a bullfight. I remember the beautiful blue water during the dive and, most memorably, that the regulator of my rented scuba equipment failed. Fortunately, I was in shallow water at the time. In Valletta, Malta, I took photos of the city, which has a uniform, sandy brown appearance. I noticed anti-British graffiti on the walls of the buildings in some sections of the city. Of course, we suspected that meant there were dreaded communists about.
In Ajaccio, Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, I took photographs of the houses, with their trellises of flowers, and of the Canberra at anchor in the harbor.
In every port in the Med, I usually sought out a good plate of pasta and a split of red wine to consume at an outdoor table on a sidewalk or terrace.
We also steamed off the island of Elba, one of the two locations where Napoleon was exiled.
Eventually we got to the French Riviera: Marseilles, Monaco, Nice and Toulon. Toulon is a French Navy port that is halfway between Marseilles and Nice. At Toulon, there is a large statute of the Genie of Navigation pointing his finger toward the ocean. Someone had somehow climbed the statue and hung a a woman’s panties on his outstretched finger.
I took photographs along the sandy beach of Marseilles and the pebble-covered beach at Nice and around the palace in Monaco.
I also took many photographs during a day tour into the Maritime Alps. Although it was summertime, our destination was the chalet at Valberg, a famous ski resort near the Italian border north of Nice, near the Italian border. It is within sight of the snow-capped peaks of Mercantour National Park. The road twisted through the mountains. At one point, we had to disembark and walk, because the bus had to pass under a low overhang of rocks that could potentially have given way and crushed it.
We ate lunch at the chalet, which was up a steep trail from our tour bus. I had a bottle of red wine with my meal and then volunteered to help two shipmates finish a magnum, which is 1.5 liters. Afterward, I negotiated the steep downward trail back to the bus with some difficulty because the horizon kept tilting back and forth.
At Toulon, I met a French sailor named Guy Dangréau who was attending aviation school. Later, after serving in the French Navy, Guy had a career repairing instruments for Air France. His employment allowed his wife Evelyne and Guy to fly anywhere for 10 percent of the usual airfare. In about 1980, Guy and Evelyne visited me and my wife at that time, Pamela, at our home, a rented upper duplex in the Kenwood district of Minneapolis. From there, we drove northeast to tour the North Shore and Fort William in Canada together. In October 2000, my friend Sheila and I visited Guy and Evelyne at their flat at 30 Rue de la Jarry in Vincennes, suburban Paris, during a whirlwind trip to London and Paris. They took us to Monet’s home at Giverny and to Versailles. And Evelyne cooked an elaborate dinner for us with many courses and a variety of spirits.
Guy remained my friend from 1963 until his sudden death in the spring of 2006, a span of 43 years. I last talked to Guy only a month or so before his death when he called me in Beijing from Paris. The indirect cause of his death was preordained, because he smoked four packs of strong French cigarettes daily while watching television and playing with their cat. Guy and Evelyne had a series of cats that spanned our four decades of friendship. My scolding him again and again about smoking did nothing to cure his habit. Evelyne smoked also but only while cooking. In 2006, Guy had a cerebral hemorrhage followed within hours by a fatal heart attack. At last report, his wife Evelyne still lives in Vincennes in the same flat they occupied for decades. I have many fond memories of this longtime friend and his postcards, letters, photos and gifts to remind me of him.
Looking back, those days in the Mediterranean were halcyon days but I didn’t even realize it. When spring arrived in 1963, the weather turned beautiful and I turned 21.
Change of Home Ports
In September 1963, while the homeport of the USS Canberra was Norfolk, I took a crowded train home to Minnesota. Many black people from Norfolk or Washington, DC had boarded the train. There were people in the aisles, because there was a shortage of seats. I was traveling with a shipmate. By the time we reached Chicago, he’d had enough. He left the train to take a bus instead but I endured until we reached the Twin Cities.
While home, I went on a double date with a high school friend, Warren “Bill” Parker, a son of the local doctor, and two young women. It was my first date. I was 21 years old.
Bill was dating Ruth Lathrop from Lake George, who had a friend named Kathryn Marie Guishard. As I gradually learned, Kathy came from a troubled home. Her father Ed Guishard was an alcoholic who owned an auto repair shop on a corner by Highway 71 between Bemidji and the tiny town of Kabekona to the south. Kabekona consisted of a Methodist church and several houses. Ed was known to frequent the Red Lake Indian Reservation northwest of Bemidji, where he consorted with Indian women, whom we still called “squaws” in the 1960s.
During our first date, Kathy quickly became infatuated with me, although I didn’t understand that at the time. Kathy was crying but I didn’t know why. Later, Ruth told Bill that Kathy was crying because she felt she couldn’t have me as her boyfriend. I didn’t recognize the red flags. Kathy was 17. She was cute, she had a good figure and she liked me. What more could I ask for? She was still in high school. I was 21.
I flew back to the East Coast at the end of my leave. The turbo-prop Northwest Airlines plane kept low enough for me to snap photos of the farmlands of Indiana and Ohio and the tree-covered mountains of Pennsylvania.
In August 1963, the USS Canberra was reassigned to a new homeport, San Diego, in preparation for service in the war in Vietnam. She returned to Norfolk for the last time in September before leaving for the West Coast via the Panama Canal in October. We shipmates spent most of our time on deck during the passage through the canal and Lake Gatun. I snapped photographs and chatted with the others.
After reaching Panama City, we moored and I had liberty. Some of my Navy friends talked me into a foray into the off-limits, red light district of the city. We had to lie on the floor and back seat of a taxi in route to the district to avoid being spotted by military police. After arriving at a seedy bar, we were ushered into a back room where lap dancing prostitutes did their best to entice sailors. One of the men associated with the bar placed a case of beer against the door to the room and sat on it. The military police tried to enter but couldn’t open the door. I was a bemused observer who did not take part in the activities.
We were at our work stations Nov. 22, 1963 when the first news of the shooting of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was piped over the intercom. All work stopped as we gathered close to the intercom, listening intently. Eventually, the announcer told his audience the President was dead.
It was one of a series of violent acts in that decade. Young people thought the Age of Aquarius had arrived but events didn’t portend a new social order of peace, love and harmony. I remember thinking that a new age was dawning. I remember thinking that all things would be different and anything was doable. We were oh so young and naïve. We had not yet been jaded by a seemingly never-ending war that, in 1963, was still more of a rumor than a conflict to people stateside. And we had yet witnessed the riots and additional assassinations that would follow in the late ‘60s. And the Vietnam War had not yet caused the demise of the architect of the Great Society, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The following March, the Canberra made the short trip to the Long Beach shipyard for several months of overhaul. I bought a tiny, two-seat Fiat and drove around LA, including Hollywood and Beverly Hills. I went to Disneyland, Mt. Palomar Observatory and other sites. I got side-swiped on a curvy road in the Hollywood Hills by a driver in a yellow convertible that didn’t stop. Eventually, the Fiat broke down. I disassembled much of it at a shop at the Long Beach Navy Yard but didn’t get it reassembled before the Canberra left port. Another sailor contacted me later about buying the disassembled car. I agreed to sell it to him.
After the overhaul at Long Beach, we returned to San Diego. We took occasional training cruises while at San Diego, sometimes for gunnery practice. We used small islands as targets. One day we hosted a civilian cruise out of San Diego Harbor with invited guests on board. I captured a few minutes of the cruise on 8 mm movie film. My guests were Russell F. Nelson and his family, relatives of the Nelson family at Sebeka that had gotten me my first summer job at the Minnesota Highway Department in St. Paul. I had gotten to know the Nelsons and spent time hanging out at their home in La Mesa.
On another occasion, the Canberra cruised to San Francisco. I rented a car there and drove through Daly City and all around the Bay Area. I sought out places I’d heard of such as Market Street and the Hungry I nightclub. My visit to the Hungry I visit was a non-event, because it was mid-day and it was quiet and nearly unoccupied.
I went to the University of California – Berkeley campus to visit a young couple. The wife was from my hometown of Sebeka, a relative of my friend Bob Kreklau. Although the Summer of Love was several years in the future, San Francisco already had a reputation. One of the first sights I came across on campus was a fraternity dance. The doors of the frat house were open and the floor was covered with several inches of straw. Some of the dancers were naked. Those unclothed were holding handfuls of straw over their private parts.
One of my first cars was a 1955 Chevrolet Nova I bought in Minneapolis while in route home to Sebeka. It had apparently served as a taxi cab. I took it to a cheap shop that fixed the worst of the rust and painted it bright blue. It was mid-winter and -30 F. In route to Sebeka, I discovered the heater didn’t work. The heater core leaked, so the owner had simply bypassed it. I nearly froze to death during the 4-hour drive. Later, while back aboard ship, I told my dad it was okay to sell the Nova to a local resident who had expressed an interest in buying it.
I bought a sparkle-blue 1960 Ford Falcon with a white top while the Canberra’s home port was San Diego. It was my third car. My friends and I would load into it and go a drive-in movie. I remember watching It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with them.
The Anza-Borrego Desert east of San Diego enchanted me. I went to a military surplus store and bought a complete outfit, including a campaign hat, boots, a canteen and a “hospital knife,” which is like a short, heavy machete. I wanted to look like a real warrior, not like a missile repairman. Tourists camped in remote spots in the Anza-Borrego. My sudden appearance in my Rambo outfit must have scared some of them half to death. I was two decades ahead of Sylvester Stallone. One time a shipmate and I got the Falcon stuck in the sand way out in the desert and spent hours freeing it.
Kathy and I had kept in touch via cards and letters after I returned to the Canberra. In 1964, while I was again on leave again, we renewed our relationship. Her mother Emily watched over her to prevent any youthful indiscretion but we nevertheless got engaged. I gave her a small diamond ring, the best one I could afford.
We were infatuated youngsters. Returning to San Diego was very difficult for me. I was totally caught up in loving Kathy. I remember listening to John Denver sing, “I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be home again.” It brought tears to my eyes. Shortly after arriving back on the Canberra, I had a brief nervous breakdown. One of my officers sent me to a base psychiatrist. By the time I saw the shrink for one visit, I’d recovered my ability to speak and reluctantly readapted to the inevitability of life aboard ship for months to come.
In the early winter of 1964, our officers told us we were going to Australia. Some of my shipmates reenlisted for the cruise. But the Vietnam War superseded Australia, so we never got there. Those sailors who reenlisted were up the creek.
In January 1965, we left San Diego. Our first port of call was Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Some of my friends and I spent time swimming at Waikiki Beach. We hauled worthless treasures from the waters and had run-ins with moray eels. A sea urchin stung one sailor after he picked it up by a spine.
I rented a Chevy Corvair convertible. A carload of my friends and I circumnavigated Oahu on what was then mostly a narrow 2-lane road, one lane in each direction except for a section of freeway near Honolulu. We stopped at an isolated beach to swim. The surf pulled me over a coral reef, cutting slices in my chest. We knew no fear at our age and we had limited common sense. In retrospect, it’s scary we were handling explosives as part of our shipboard duties.
We drank in the bars of Honolulu. One shipmate literally drank himself under the table.
Our next port of call was Yokosuka, Japan, the port city of Tokyo. I had a brief liberty that I spent taking photos near the base and bowling. I never got to see Tokyo. I’ve been at nearby Narita Airport several times since but have yet to see it as of 2009. There was an elderly Japanese man at the bowling alley who bowled extremely slowly but nearly always got a strike.
We were warned that a Japanese terrorist organization, the Soka Kuki, might try to blow up the ship. That didn’t happen.
We spent most of our 6-month cruise in the waters off Vietnam, usually at a point in the South China Sea called Yankee Station or along the shore near Da Nang, where the US had a major base and airfield. At first, we did very little except routine shipboard activities such as cleaning and standing watch. Shipmates painted a quotation from John Milton, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” across the aft end of the 02 level.
In May 1965, the Canberra participated in the build-up of troops that began with the amphibious landing of Marines at Chu Lai. Chu Lai is a made-up name for a stretch of beach south of Da Nang. We were just offshore, at a safe distance, where we could watch the combat operations. Apparently, there was limited resistance to the landing. Afterward, the US constructed a base and airfield at Chu Lai.
We were also assigned to ride shotgun for a Marine convoy moving along the coast.
While in the waters off Vietnam, the Canberra used her 8-inch guns to blow up enemy tunnel systems, troop concentrations and other targets. Years later, I learned from sources such as Neil Sheehan’s book A Bright Shining Lie that we’d also blown up civilian hamlets in “free-fire zones,” zones where everyone was suspected of being Viet Cong. It was a numbers game. Junior officers would appear in our work area to announce with glee body counts as high as 700+ per day. We were miles away from where our shells landed, so we never saw any dead bodies. We had no emotions related to body counts other than a sense of achievement similar to that for achieving a high score in a sports competition.
The Navy imposed a news blackout on us. We may have received an occasional edition of the Stars and Stripes, the official military newspaper. We never saw the big picture. Our mail from home was sometimes censored. I received letters with lines meticulously removed, apparently cut out with a razor blade. We heard nothing of the debate about why we were at war. For one thing, resistance to the war hadn’t yet escalated stateside. We were there to stop the spread of communism. That’s all we knew. We cared little about geopolitical issues and never debated them. We did our daily work and stood our watches.
Our only contacts with the outside world were mail from home and the radio. I was the 8th Division mail clerk, the person in charge of picking up and distributing the division’s mail. The occasional mail we received usually included perfumed letters from girlfriends. One time my grandmother sent me lefse. It was nice gesture but weeks in a tropical climate prior to delivery left the lefse unidentifiable, inedible and moldy.
We sometimes sat up on the 01 level, one deck above the main deck, listening to Hanoi Hannah on the radio. Her broadcasts included emphatic predictions about the forces of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong driving the Americans into the sea. Ten years later, those predictions came true. After Hanoi Hannah’s predictions and her greetings to the various ships and Marine or Army units the North had under close surveillance, Radio Hanoi would broadcast an interlude of sing-song music that only the Vietnamese could have appreciated. Nevertheless, we listened to it.
We didn’t take to heart her questions about why we were dying for a futile cause. No one on board the Canberra had died fighting. We had lost a few shipmates in car accidents or in incidents in foreign ports. Our most serious injury had been a sailor who fell off a deck onto a grenade locker while listening to a safety lecture, breaking his back. In another incident, the pin came out of a J-bar hoist, causing the J-bar and the missile it was carrying to drop onto the foot of one of my shipmates. He had to wait a long time in Sick Bay for the medical officer because the officer was having coffee in the wardroom and didn’t want to be bothered.
Occasionally, one of our small craft, wooden boats about 20-30 feet in length, would come alongside to bring wounded Marines or soldiers for treatment. We never saw wounded comrades in arms close up. Only once did we see a dead person. We pulled a pilot out of the sea. He had ejected over the ocean and drowned. I remember seeing his snow white body lying in the bottom of a boat that we’d hoisted up to the level of the main deck after recovering him. What struck me most was his gold wedding band glinting in the sunlight. I thought about his wife back in the US who didn’t know her husband was dead.
We never fired a Terrier at an enemy plane. Enemy planes stayed well clear of us. We only performed routine maintenance on our missiles. In addition to my missile-related duties, I tracked aircraft including F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers going to and from aircraft carriers to make air support runs over Vietnam.
I was serving off Vietnam when I got a small box from Kathy. It contained a “Dear John” letter and her engagement ring. She had gone to Chicago with a new boyfriend.
After over two months of continual combat, we were allowed to put into Hong Kong for R & R, rest and recreation. Although our ship was only in port briefly, I got a chance to check out the China Fleet Club, Kowloon, Aberdeen Harbor and Mount Victoria. The latter is a mountain overlooking downtown Hong Kong that is accessible via a tram. I also watched the film My Fair Lady in English. I steered clear of Hong Kong’s infamous bars.
I took photographs in Kowloon and at Aberdeen. Those locations were very Chinese and what would now be considered quaint or “old China.” Kowloon was an area of crumbling apartment buildings, small shops, street-level grocery markets and small restaurants, some of them in the street. People moved about everywhere, some pushing cartloads of goods or produce or carrying loads using poles placed across their shoulders.
Aberdeen Harbor was filled with ancient junks and sampans. There were entire extended families living on the junks, where the same family had probably lived for generations. I paid a young woman about one US quarter to take me out to the Tai Pak floating restaurant on her small water taxi, a boat only about 15 feet long propelled by a single long oar. The Tai Pak restaurant had wire mesh tanks around its perimeter that contained fish and other seafood. I saved the chopsticks, which are white plastic with red Chinese characters.
Thirty-eight years later, in 2003, I returned to Aberdeen Harbor. Yachts, tourist fishing boats and other modern craft had replaced the ancient junks and sampans. An entire civilization had almost completely disappeared. One of the few remnants was the Tai Pak, which was moored to the new, giant Jumbo restaurant and is primarily used for private meetings and other occasions. The Tai Pak has been remodeled and modernized so that only the exterior resembles its 1965 appearance.
One can catch glimpses of old Aberdeen in movies shot in Hong Kong in the 1960s. In one scene from The World of Susie Wang (1960),stars William Holden and Nancy Kwan cross Aberdeen Harbor for a meal on the Tai Pak.
I served a watch ashore while we were in Hong Kong. My duty was making tea at the British garrison. It was located at the point in Hong Kong where the Japanese crossed from the mainland during WW II. I learned the correct amount of milk to add to the tea, which we made in quantity in what in the US would be called a large coffee-maker, one of those tall stainless steel ones with a spigot at the bottom. I also watched the troops roll dice in the bar.
Many of my fellow sailors purchased merchandise ranging from jade and silks to drafting instruments. We were ordered not to purchase anything made in Red China, that is, the Chinese mainland, which was the source of much of the merchandise for sale. One of our first-class gunner’s mates, I believe it was GM-1 Cloyd, instructed my shipmates to put the prohibited items they bought into the bottom of their seabags, underneath their clothes. Being a Goodie Two-Shoes, I obeyed orders and did not buy anything.
Our Hong Kong respite from the war was short-lived. We were told that two of our sailors had beat up a cab driver and that consequently, the British ordered us out of port. The Marines were marching the two sailors up and down the pier as we pulled out of the harbor. Later, I understood the cab driver beating was probably just another Navy cover story. LBJ had ordered a resumption of bombing of North Vietnam and the Canberra was needed back at Yankee Station ASAP.
Our other port of call during the Vietnam cruise was Subic Bay in the Philippines. Subic Bay was next to Olongapo City, the infamous haunt of barkeeps, jitney (jeep taxi) drivers, prostitutes, pickpockets and children who dive for coins in the murky, sewer-filled river.
We crewmates checked out Olongapo City, a cesspool separated from the base by a short walk across a bridge over the Olongapo River. I went to a bar there with fellow shipmates, including some of our lifer gunner’s mates, who were experienced drinkers. It’s amazing what being trapped aboard ship can do to sailors. The bar was like a scene from a Wild West movie except for the 6-guns. Sailors or Marines sometimes threw objects down from the second level of the bar onto those below.
The Filipino ladies were scantily clad. Clothing was apparently optional. There were prostitutes everywhere openly trolling for customers. There was a system for prostitution whereby everyone involved shared the take: the prostitute, the bar, the jitney driver and the hotel. One of the more inebriated sailors rushed a female singer, sliding up to her on his knees. There was no shortage of liquor. Outside, jitney drivers navigated the rain-filled potholes in the dirt main street. There was a rumor a prostitute had cut a sailor’s throat.
On the tamer side of Subic recreation, we had a picnic on the sandy beach of Grande Island. We had gotten our hands on a few steaks. The officers usually nabbed all of the boxes of frozen steaks we took aboard when we resupplied. At times when we were short of supplies, their enlisted crewmates had only moldy cereal and sterilized canned milk for breakfast. Whenever we could, we resupplied with cartons of fresh armed forces milk, frozen meat, fruit and vegetables. Sometimes, when we were close to shore, we would send a launch to a US base to load up with fresh food. When we had supplies, we could eat staple Navy food such as “shit on a shingle,” Navy terminology for creamed beef on toast.
I went snorkeling at Grande Island. My back got severely sunburned. I had to sleep on my stomach for several days afterward. I had a run-in with a small octopus. He let go of me when I poked him with a prod I used for collecting coral. I swam with a sting ray. We gave no thought to sharks; I never saw one while swimming anytime while in the Navy. I checked out an old Spanish fort on the island. The island appeared to be unpopulated. It has since been developed as a resort destination so I assume it’s 180 degrees different.
Near the end of my enlistment, I got the top score on second class petty officer exam and was up for promotion. I never got promoted because I got “put on report.” The incident that got me into hot water occurred after I’d spent all day wiping down missiles in the magazine with fuel oil. I badly needed a shower but had a watch immediately afterward. I asked shipmates in the missile overhaul area to cover for me while I ducked below decks to clean up. While below decks a GM-2 named Dill, a lifer who had just come off liberty, confronted me about abandoning my watch. He put me on report, which is a way of meting out Navy discipline. As a result, I had to appear before the captain at Captain’s Mast. One of my officers stuck up for me, telling the captain I was an excellent sailor who often spent my free time working; otherwise, I would have gotten busted, taken down in rank to seaman.
I also lost the Good Conduct Medal due to that incident. It turned me off to any thought of re-enlisting, even though the Navy recommended me for re-enlistment when I was honorably discharged. I had other things on my mind anyway. I wanted to go home to Minnesota.
Twenty years later, I joined the US Naval Reserve and was given the rank second class petty officer, so it took awhile but I eventually made E-5.
In June 1965, there was talk of extending our cruise, because Canberra was needed for the escalating war. But at the last minute, the light cruiser USS Galveston (CLG-3) relieved us. Her crew members were holding letters spelling out, “N e v e r f e a r G a l i s h e r e” as she pulled alongside the Canberra.
The Canberra steamed directly for San Diego, arriving on July 7, 1965. Both my friend Neil and I were discharged, having completed our 4-year hitches. After living aboard Canberra for three years, I felt lost. The Navy was evicting me from my home and cutting me off from my Navy family. While my shipmates celebrated their homecoming by rushing into the arms of their wives and girlfriends, I lingered aboard Canberra. Finally, I did what I had to do. I fetched my seabag, disembarked, got my dirt-covered Falcon out of storage, washed it, had the oil changed and headed for Minnesota.
Along the way, I picked up a hitchhiker who was a civilian pilot who had just gotten out of the hospital. He’d been shot down while flying missions for the CIA in Central America. I dropped him off in Las Vegas. I drove all the way to Blackfoot, Idaho without stopping before my Falcon had engine trouble. The rocker arms weren’t getting enough oil. I stayed overnight in a small cabin by a waterfall at a cost of $2. Then I had my car fixed at a garage and continued on my way, across Montana and North Dakota to my grandmother’s farm at Sebeka.
After four years in the Navy, I was free at last. But free to do what?
In hindsight, I should have re-enlisted. My dream from the start was to someday become a Naval officer. But in the summer of 1965, I wanted to be free.
(Go to Carl Harstad's autobiography Part 2.)
to: teller of other stories
back to: home page
COPYRIGHT 2010 THISTLEROSE PUBLICATIONS - ALL RIGHTS RESERVEDhttp://www.BillMcGaughey.com/carlharstad-part1.html