We were in Eastern Washington a few weeks ago, and brought home a couple of boxes of the world famous Washington State Apples. It got me thinking about all the wonderful things you can do with apples. You know, apple sauce, apple pie, my favorite apple crisp, or just simply baked apples.
You don’t need anything special to bake apples, You can bake them in a dutch oven over a fire, or in a regular oven, or like my sister did a while back, in a microwave. She cored them, put raisins and brown sugar in the hole, then nuked them in the microwave for a few minutes. The smell was absolutely divine, the kind of smell you want to come home to – and the smell would make even the rattiest shack feel like home, no matter where it was. I found myself pondering, and realized my mind had drifted off to a story my dad told about another box of apples and a baked apple recipe that had some rather special requirements.
You see – well, let me take you back to the late 1950’s or so…
Dad was in the Air Force, and worked in Crypto, that is, codes for the first few years there. The Air Force had trained him, and then sent him to where codes would be used, a lot. Now given that this was during the Cold War, the hot place to be code-wise was actually a very cold place to be geographically, and that was as near as possible to the transmitters where the codes were being transmitted from. That place was from what was then the Soviet Union.
The closest thing the US had to those transmitters were some of what were the most inhospitable hunks of real estate on the planet, that being a part of Alaska known as the Aleutian Island chain. The hunk of real estate dad was stationed on was an island almost at the west end of the Aleutians.
The messages that dad intercepted were often encoded and then sent by machine. Dad would sit there, with a headset plugged into a receiver, and transcribe these messages that were sent out in Morse Code on an old manual typewriter. Understand, he might be able to decode what the coded messages said, but not what they meant, and it was often someone else’s job to decode that level of it, so dad would sit there with his eyes closed, and type out into letters the short and long beeps he heard in his headsets. It got to the point where he’d learned the code so deeply that that part of his brain was essentially on autopilot (this would come into play over 40 years later – in a story yet to be written). His fingers were typing out the letters, while his brain was thinking about something else, anything else, for that matter, anywhere else, as the Aleutian Islands were about as far as you could get from the “Lower 48” of the United States and still be in the country. For those of you who don’t know anything about them, a short history lesson:
The Aleutian Islands came as a package deal with Alaska when the US Secretary of State William H. Seward bought it from the Russian Government in 1867 for a little more than $7.2 million, or about 2 cents an acre. There were some who thought that was a touch expensive for the land once they saw it. In fact, there were some who thought the land was so remote that it would be too expensive even if it were a straight-out gift.
However, Alaska proved its value in the gold rush of 1896, and the Aleutians were also considered valuable strategically – even as far from anything as they were. I mean seriously, the Aleutian chain goes out west so far that you can see tomorrow from the end. In all reality, today should be tomorrow in the middle of them, but the International Date Line zigzags around them so they can all at least be on the same calendar day as the rest of the United States. Not only that, some of the islands of Alaska are so far west, and thus so close to Russia that you can see it from there.
They were fought over by the US and the Japanese during WWII, and there have been persistent rumors that some of the islands had a few visitors from Russia during the Cold War.
It’s hard to grasp how far away Shemya is from – oh – anywhere, but one fellow stationed there put it into perspective. See, using the common denominator of a McDonalds as a sign of how close or far you are from what we consider “civilization”, in the lower 48 states (that is, the continental United States) it is physically impossible to be farther than 115 miles from a McDonalds restaurant. But there’s a sign on the east end of Shemya that makes it very clear that a Big Mac is not in your immediate future. At that point, you’re 1500 miles from the nearest McDonalds.
If that doesn’t put it into perspective, let’s try this: If you were in Seattle, would you drive to Des Moines, Iowa, for a Big Mac? That’s the distance…
That’s how far out there Shemya is.
So because of this remoteness, and because supplies had to be shipped thousands of miles across the North Pacific, they had to be ordered months in advance of their planned use, and given the quantities needed and the difficulties in delivering them (due to both distance and the often inhospitable weather), they were brought in infrequently by barges in loads that included up to a six month supply of everything from food and fuel to paint and paperclips.
One barge bringing in fuel was grounded in bad weather and was simply left there. The fuel was pumped out, and over the years, what remained of the barge was cut up; the usable pieces were cut away to be used for repairs that required hunks of steel. The old adage of “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” was very much a part of life on the Aleutians at that time, and soldiers, sailors, and airmen learned to make do with what they had, even if it showed up as steel in the form of a grounded barge.
What they had back then were either the bare basics, and sometimes even those were hard to come by, or an astonishing amount of stuff worn out from use or weather left over from World War II that was cheaper to leave there than it was to take back to the lower 48.
Early on, heat was a challenge (namely because there wasn’t any). And solving the heat problem created new, different problems. The preservation of food, which had been easy in the lower temperatures, became difficult when the heat (in the form of oil burning stoves) was on. The food couldn’t just be left outside. While that would have kept it cool, the wildlife would have considered it a buffet, and given the barge schedule, feeding the animals wasn’t something anyone could afford. Another solution was needed, so, with nothing but time on their hands when they weren’t working, the guys who wanted cold sodas or beers went back to the way some of their parents had solved problems like this without electricity–they nailed the crates some of their supplies had come in to the sides of buildings with the open ends facing into the windows, built supports under them so they’d stay, and went inside. They opened the windows inside the heated building, and–voila!–their own little crate refrigerators. (Modern versions of these persisted even into the ‘70’s)
The heat that was welcomed by humans created another problem. It was also welcomed by some of the local wildlife:
They got into everything, chewing through walls and getting into supplies. Some, searching for warmth, even got in bed with some of the soldiers stationed there.
They had to be dealt with.
And when you get a bunch of bored young men out in the middle of nowhere together with a problem to solve, they can often get pretty creative in solving those problems. Remember how infrequently supplies were delivered? That went for any kind of entertainment at the time as well, which explains how early on, before things got too civilized, one intrepid group of soldiers developed their own way of dealing with the rats. They decided that, instead of killing them outright, they’d have some fun with them, so when the rats chewed holes into the buildings and popped their heads up, looking for either heat or food, they got sprayed with varying colors of spray paint that had come up with the supplies. Each guy got a different color, and then the group took bets on whose rat would show up next. The image of a group of bored soldiers on one side of an oil stove, facing off with a rainbow of rats on the other, is hard to get out of my mind…
Over time, as more and more equipment was brought out, the various outposts in the Aleutians became more ‘civilized’ – but there was no letup on the fact that you were far from home.
By the time my Dad got up there, buildings were made of brick and cement and were definitely built to handle the weather and climate. He spent a little bit of time on an island called Adak (where the rainbow of rats were), but spent most of his time further west, on an island called Shemya. And out there, the weather was routinely so bad that the standard issue wind sock had worn out and had been replaced with a far more durable one.
The reason dad was out there was because out there was some of the most advanced and powerful electronic equipment of its time. Not only were there electronic listening posts (receivers), but there were electronic transmitters, and on Shemya, there was a radar unit.
This radar unit was huge.
There were several there over the years, but one in particular held some fascination for my dad and his compatriots. It was the radar known as the AN/FPS-17 – at the time it was among the most powerful radars in the world.
Now because of all the tremendously expensive electronics that were out there, the buildings and control rooms they were in had to be dry. In fact, the various buildings were heated by a combination of all the electronics that were in them, the huge oil burning heaters that were running constantly, or both. So as cool and damp as the air was on the outside of the buildings, it was warm and dry, although a bit stuffy, on the inside, since they recirculated the air they’d warmed up.
So if it’s not clear yet, because of the remoteness of the location, the complexity of resupply, and the incredibly unpredictable weather, they were very conservative with their supplies, trying hard not to waste anything, and given that weather, the radar unit took several years to build, so remember that they only had what had been brought up on the latest barge.
If, for example, one of them got a hankering for a hamburger, and there wasn’t any beef on the island, there wouldn’t be any burgers in the buns.
If, on a cold day, one of them wanted a mug of hot chocolate, and it was stuck on the barge that was waiting for the weather to clear, well, he went without the hot chocolate.
And if there were times when the desire for something as simple as hot chocolate was almost palpable, and you just wanted something warm…
…like when the fog was so thick you’d need a chainsaw to get through it.
…or when the mist was so heavy you needed to lift it with jacks just to walk under it.
…or when the cold was so bone chilling that the fact that you were out in the middle of nowhere was overpowering, and as much as you might have just wanted something simple from home back then, if it wasn’t on the island, you weren’t getting it unless months before, someone had thought to put whatever that was onto a barge to be shipped up to Shemya for the once or twice yearly resupply missions.
So… whether you liked it or not, the options were pretty limited, and you made do.
But the longing for something familiar, the homesickness – even though they’d never call it that, would just get to be so overpowering as to be debilitating. Everyone from the commander all the way down to dad and his fellow airmen realized that keeping morale up was important, that bad morale could be dangerous that far from anywhere, so jumping on any bout of homesickness right away was pretty important all the way around.
The routine there was as simple as it was monotonous: Day after day, dad would do his shift, typing the codes that came into his headphones while his mind was elsewhere. The headphones dad wore shielded some of the constant hum of the electronics, and the only break from the routine was to go outside, where he’d brave the weather or the fog monster, and he’d go just for a change of scenery. Later, there was more entertainment and recreation, but while he was up there, he, like all the others before him, had to make do with what he had…
And going outside helped sometimes.
The air was so much fresher than the dry, overheated, electric air inside the control building around the radar and communication processing equipment. For the most part, you could walk anyplace that wasn’t fenced in. You could go down to the beaches, or on the north side, to the cliffs. There were caves to find, of all things, gemstones in. One of the fellows stationed there found some Jade in one that he made into earrings for his wife. Another found a walrus tusk on the beach that he gave to his wife. Both still have them to this day. So you had a lot of freedom to ‘get away from it all’, as much as you can have on an island, but even outside, if you got close to the radar antenna, you could actually feel the electricity. In fact, along that note, the instructions had been pretty clear: you stayed out of the radar beam, and as they were testing it, after the thing had been on for a while, it became clear to even the least technical of them that there was one place on the island you didn’t want to be, and that was in front of that radar antenna.
Well, it was simple things, like the grass on the hillside in front of the radar dying after it was turned on.
And when there was snow everywhere else, there wasn’t snow in front of the radar antenna.
Someone also noticed that seagulls tended to drop dead if they hung around too long in front of the radar antenna.
And with the weather occasionally socking the place in with, sometimes you were stuck inside and couldn’t go out at all, even if all you wanted to do was watch the seagulls. About that time, the combination of the boredom and the isolation got to one of the fellows.
The almost constant fog, the cold, (it rarely got above 50 degrees, even in August), the wind, even though it brought some of the cleanest air on the planet (that is, when no one was testing Atom bombs in the vicinity) started getting to him. It was just so isolated, and after a number of months of mind numbing work, boredom, and loneliness, the fellow was simply homesick, and mentioned that he had a craving for the one thing that reminded him of home, and that was the smell of baked apples.
The other fellows, my dad included, realizing the beginnings of that homesickness, thought, “Baked apples our friend wants, baked apples we can provide.” So one fellow took the four wheel drive pickup they had down to the mess hall and got a crate of apples. The others pondered which of the hot pieces of electronic equipment they could use to warm the apples up on.
And then, as they talked, they looked around and realized what they were standing next to, started putting two and two together, and realized that thousands of miles away, Dr. Percy Spencer, the inventor of the magnetron tube that was used in the huge radars on the island, had melted a candy bar in his pocket just a few years earlier just by standing next to one of the very first ones made. Curious about the candy bar, he tried it again with popcorn. This time with it not in his pocket, he blew popcorn all over the lab he was working in, and later literally got egg on the face of one of his coworkers as he exploded the very first egg with microwaves.
Well, no one’s sure anymore who came up with the idea, but given the rudimentary supplies they had available to them (remember, what was up there came on a barge, and not very often, at that…) they started thinking of Dr. Spencer’s invention and realized that he was dealing with an itty bitty magnetron tube that was melting candy bars, popping corn, and blowing up eggs from several inches away. Dad and his buddies were seeing dead grass, cooked seagulls, and melted snow a half mile away, and without even taking the apple crate out of the truck, they devised a cunning plan to perform some ‘emergency maintenance’ on the radar unit with the dead grass and seagulls in front of it, and it was shut off.
The constant humming that had become background noise completely disappeared. The crackle in the air was gone, and that feeling you get of just being around so much electricity was simply not there. The huge Fairbanks-Morse diesel generators that had been straining to create the electricity to run this radar were suddenly just loafing. You could hear the wind whispering through the antennas. You could hear the seagulls calling. Over the hill, if the breeze was right, you could just barely hear the ocean, and the walruses and sea lions arguing about whose turn it was to be on that particular hunk of rock.
It was… Peaceful.
For a moment.
And then all that gentle background noise was shattered by the sounds of a rusted out muffler on a four wheel drive Dodge Powerwagon firing up and three guys blasting out along the edge of a cliff in it, out to where the dead grass and seagulls were, where they dropped off the crate of apples, and then hightailed it back to the building that had all the controls and the radiation shielding in it.
Once they were all safely away from the radar beam, the switches were thrown, and the generators lugged as they once again struggled to generate the 1.2 megawatts of electricity needed to power up the radar again, and the electrons surged through massive copper wires, tubes, capacitors, and finally the antennas as that crackling hum came back.
About twenty minutes later, they decided that the apples ought to be done, so there was another reason for ‘maintenance’, and once again the four wheel drive truck raced out to pick up the crate of apples.
They were surprised to find the metal parts of the crate were hot.
They were surprised, and delighted that some of the apples had popped and oozed syrupy apple juice all over the ones below.
And they were overjoyed when the apples that done were smelled exactly like baked apples should smell. They got some gloves off the dashboard where they’d been warming up and loaded the crate into the truck and took it back to the control building, where the homesick friend was trying, with marginal success, to keep his head in his work. Dad grabbed one end of the crate, another fellow grabbed the other end, and a third one held the door open as they all came piling in. That smell, that wonderful, sweet, syrupy smell of baked apples came wafting in with them, and at first, their homesick friend thought he was imagining things, but then he looked up, and saw the crate, and smelled the apples, and he smiled, and then he laughed.
They did indeed smell like baked apples should smell.
Not only that, but they tasted just like baked apples should taste.
And dad said he never had any as good as those baked on a windswept hillside on a remote island in the North Pacific, by a radar half a mile away.
In researching this story, and it took a couple of years of it, off and on, it became clear to me that not only did my dad use a radar that required enough power to run about 300 homes to bake apples a half mile away, but while most of the radar we think about is designed to find airplanes several miles away, the one that my dad and his buddies were using to cook apples was designed to find missiles…
(And now, seriously, unlike most of my stories, where I do all the research, all the writing, all the editing, so many people helped with the research on this one that I simply have to roll the credits. While my dad told me the original story many years ago, it was missing enough context, likely by design, to keep me from knowing exactly when and where it all was, since the location he’d been in was a pretty secure military installation, and most of what he was doing there was stuff he simply couldn’t talk about. I could not have written it down and made it make sense without the help of all the people below who willingly shared their memories with me, gave me their time, their own stories, and graciously allowed me to use their photographs to help tell this story from over 50 years ago. I have tried hard to bring this story to life as much as I could while I still had the access to these people and I trust those who were up on Shemya and the Aleutians who shared with me first hand thoughts about what it was like to be there. If there are any inaccuracies in the story, they are mine.)
Don B., whose widow Brenda took time out of her day to listen to questions coming out of the blue about her husband, and then told me the story about the rainbow colored rats on Adak.
Michael: You were the first to point me in the direction of Shemya. I’d heard stories of Adak, and had been focusing all my attention there – thank you so much for taking a fading memory and pointing me down a path that actually let me see the hillside my dad had talked about. Until that point, I didn’t even know what island out in the Aleutians to look for.
Tom – Your pictures, your detail, your encouragement all helped get me pointed in the right direction. Your stories (including your Saab stories) helped bring life to the story I was trying to write, especially when the stories he was telling included references to cooking seagulls that had strayed too long into the beam of the radar. 🙂
Don E. – Many, many thanks for digging through your memories, sharing your stories, your patient explanation of everything, and the use of the photo in this story.
Lucas – This picture of McDonalds Point did such a good job of putting into context how remote Shemya is. I’m hoping the combination of it for those who were right brained, and the data I was able to get from Von (for the left brained types) helped to make the picture complete. For those of you curious to see some amazing images from up north, take a look at Lucas’s site – there are some wonderful images up there.
Von – Thank you for the willingness to help out with the information showing how far Shemya is from something so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. I’m hoping our information along with Lucas’s picture above help drive the point home just a bit…
Buck – Thank you for your feedback, your friendship, the photos, and relating your experiences, they made it come alive, and made a very big world feel like a very, very small place.
Barbara – thank you for your input, your thoughts, and all the items and stories on your website. They helped me see a place I could only see in my imagination.
Of course, my dad, who remembered the story well enough to tell me so I could share it with you.
And last but certainly not least, my family, whose patience as I researched and wrote it over the years can’t be overstated.
Thank you. I couldn’t have done this one without you.