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This visit to the time machine was hard.
A number of years ago, just after our son was born, my parents came to visit and see the new member of the family. My dad wanted to see what we’d made. My wife handed our son to me, and as I put my dad’s grandson into his arms, I could feel how he’d held me when I was that age. I could sense the love, the care, the overwhelming urge to protect this little bundle of life with every fiber of his being – and see he knew that he would not be able to do that, all while he struggled, in that moment, to understand the balance of holding on and letting go.
And then – as if to put that to rest, just as that thought crossed dad’s mind, my son reached up and held onto dad’s finger, the one that still had the scar from the table saw incident a few years earlier.
And dad loved it, and let his grandson hold his finger at the beginning of his life, long before he taught him what pulling it did (and the giggles that followed)
And my memories flashed on another image tacked up on the scuffed walls of the time machine.
It was a similar situation, 9 years later – as I stood at my dad’s hospital bed, and saw my son again holding my father’s hand…
Well, actually – they were holding each others hands. In this case, my dad held onto his grandson’s hand one last time.
And I’m glad he had those 9 years – though that last year was so hard.
Tomorrow it’ll have been 16 years that he’s been gone, living on in our memories, in our laughter, in our tears.
And… and I still miss him…
Take care, folks – oh – just a reminder – love the folks you’ve got while you’ve got them.
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.
Hey all, another story with some help from my “guest author” – my dad, who left me a couple of stories that I’d convinced him to write before he passed away. They’re rare because he printed them, before the computer they were stored on was stolen, so these are the only stories I have that he actually wrote. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing my own writing – so my kids can see and read some of the stories that are part of their history and that they’ve heard over the years.
The other day I was watching the news, something I rarely do anymore, and it got me to thinking about relationships, and that got me to thinking of this next, actually, the third of the four stories that he wrote about his times in the Air Force.
We have to travel back in time to about 1953, when my dad was in his early 20’s, in the Air Force, and just past basic training at Keesler AFB, in Mississippi, and had been in the technical training as a radio operator (and some things he wasn’t allowed to talk about) that formed the beginning of his career. If we were to set the stage, we’d have to do so with the understanding that World War II was still very much in people’s minds, the Cold War between the former allies of the United States and the USSR was just ramping up, and the Korean War was in full swing.
Outside of the military, this was just before the whole civil rights thing really got underway, and being in basic training in Mississippi, things became apparent to my dad there that hadn’t been apparent where he’d grown up, in northern California.
At the time, the Air Force was training thousands of new recruits every month, on an assembly line basis at a quantity that was as mind numbing for the recruits as it was for those trying to train them. While in the outside world (as in ‘Civilian life’) the color of your skin mattered a great deal, and there was prejudice at pretty high levels, especially in the south, inside the military, it didn’t seem to matter so much, as long as you could follow orders, and one day, dad, unaware of what life outside the airbase was like, found out just a touch of what prejudice was really like by seeing it firsthand.
So with that, let’s go to a hot August afternoon down at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi, where my dad and his friend had some rare time off and wanted to leave the base for an afternoon at the movies. They both left the base with thoughts of the movie, popcorn, and cokes on their minds.
They learned that they had to change their minds. I’ll let dad tell the rest of the story, unedited, in his own words:
I had a friend down there. His name was George, and I could see it was a really different experience for him than for me, for he was black and I was white. I’ve never had that sort of a problem before. We wanted to see a movie in our free time and I even said I’d pay for it. We went downtown and went up to the ticket seller, and I offered to pay for the tickets. She’d let me pay alright, but we couldn’t sit together because of the color problem, so we separated, and he sat in one row and I sat in the next one up. When we got out of the movie I wanted to take him and buy him a coke, but we couldn’t even do that. We never went downtown again, though we did keep in touch for several years.
And it got me thinking – I learned something from dad about what was important in friendships. Years later my wife and I were invited to my friend Al’s wedding. She’d grown up in a very segregated part of the country, and I hadn’t. (Dad, as mentioned above, had been in the Air Force and we’d been stationed all over the world.) I had told her about Al, and I’d told her about his friend Oscar, who, with his looks (well north of six feet tall, black, sculpted shoulders, and the last time I saw him, shaved completely bald) was able to use his looks and physique to his advantage in his profession.
As we were heading for the wedding, she asked, trying to remember my description, “Now Oscar’s the black one, right?” –
And I realized that I hadn’t said anything about Al, and had to tell her, “Um, they’re both black, why?”
Where she grew up, things were different.
When she grew up there, things were different.
For me, I’d known Al and Oscar since junior high school, and – well, Al was Al, and Oscar was Oscar.
And the color of their skin didn’t matter a bit.
One of the things I’ve been doing in these stories is writing down history. I’ve written down a number of stories about my dad and his time in the military. There are others in the works, but I happened to run across a couple that I’d convinced him to write before he passed away. They’re rare because he printed them, and then later the computer they were stored on was stolen, so these are the only stories I have that he actually wrote. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing my own writing – so my kids can see and read some of the stories that are part of their history and that they’ve heard over the years.
I’ve been baking artisan bread for the last little while (bakers go back in the family for generations, and my son got me this book which has been absolutely wonderful). So given that, the other day I was thinking about baking bread, and it got me to thinking of this next, actually, the second of the four stories that dad wrote about his times in the Air Force.
We have to travel back in time to about 1953, when my dad was in his early 20’s, in the Air Force, and just past basic training at Keesler AFB, in Mississippi, and into the technical training (radio operator and some things he wasn’t allowed to talk about) that formed the beginning of his career. If we were to set the stage, we’d have to do so with the understanding that World War II was still very much in people’s minds, the Cold War between the former allies of the United States and the USSR was just ramping up, and the Korean War was in full swing. The Air Force was training thousands of new recruits every month, on an assembly line basis at a quantity that was as mind numbing for the recruits as it was for those trying to keep track of them, keep them busy, and keep them healthy.
These recruits were resources, and the Air Force had to take care of them by feeding them, giving them shelter, and keeping them occupied when they weren’t busy learning whatever the Air Force had decided they would learn. On top of all the classes and mental training for the actual skills, there was the physical discipline that was taught by having the recruits do daily calisthenics, and the mental discipline that was accomplished by assigning daily tasks that were simply not optional.
So while they were taking classes in some of the most technical, and classified, jobs and skills available at the time, they were also to take care of themselves and each other in the most basic ways you can imagine. There were assignments to clean the barracks, mow the lawns, maintain vehicles, buildings and property, and to scrub things till they shined. The person in charge of tasks like this was, in civilian terms, a manager. In the military, he (at that time and in that place they were mostly “he’s”) was a Sergeant. Very few recruits ever saw Generals. All recruits saw Sergeants, and the Sergeant wore the hat of your mother, your father, your elementary through high school principals, your cop, and pastor, and occasionally, your bartender, all in one very crowded body, and your Sergeant could change hats faster than you could blink an eye, so staying on his good side was your greatest mission in life.
Make your Sergeant proud, he’d take care of you. Embarrass him, and your life would be a living hell. You would be cleaning bathroom floors with a toothbrush for a month – and it would likely be your own toothbrush you’d be doing it with.
From the Sergeant’s point of view, you’re a hands-on leader, and in the military, as anywhere, good leadership is the key to getting things done. You depend on your soldiers (or sailors, or airmen, or Marines) to get the job done.
When things don’t get done, there are consequences.
Your job, as a Sergeant, is to make sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that those consequences are so unforgettable so that whatever caused them never, ever happens again. At the same time, your job is to be in your soldier’s corner, letting them know you support them and will get them what they need to get the job they’ve been assigned done.
In doing that, you want to make sure that if they screwed something up, the screwup is fixed at your level and goes no higher. You know that if a soldier ends up being called on the carpet in front of their commander, whether that’s a Sergeant or a general, there are only three acceptable answers to questions that might be asked, and those answers were simply, “Yes, Sir”, “No, Sir”, and “No Excuse, Sir.”
Three very important things here.
- You never wanted to have to be in a position ask those questions. It meant something had gone wrong.
- You never, ever wanted to be in a position to have to answer those questions. It meant that you hadn’t been able to fix whatever went wrong.
- You never, ever, ever wanted to have to give that last answer. It meant you were the one who was responsible for whatever went wrong. It was the equivalent of falling on your sword
And Sergeants, without whom there would simply be no military, were well known for coming up with creative ways of not falling on their swords, so to speak. Some of the ways problems were “solved” were due to ingenuity borne out of the rare moments when you are faced with the only fate worse than death itself, having to say the dreaded words, “No Excuse, Sir.”
Occasionally, if the situation demanded, things were literally covered up. This was only done as a last resort when everything else had failed. It meant you were out of resources, out of supplies, or out of time.
This is important to remember. The stress of running a huge kitchen like they had at training bases like Keesler was enormous, the time available to feed thousands of recruits was limited, so the kitchens had staff working around the clock preparing food for those three mealtimes when everything had to be ready to go, all at once. Some in that staff were there full time, others were there as assigned. This meant there were often people working there who didn’t really understand the significance of what they were doing. (or not doing, as the case may be)
There were officers in charge of the entire operation, but it was the Mess Sergeant in charge who took care of day to day things in the Mess Hall. It was the Mess Sergeant in charge who made sure the kitchen ran with – well, military precision. And it was the Mess Sergeant who did everything possible to eliminate all the variables he could, and make sure everything worked, so he could feed everyone coming through the door quickly, efficiently so they could go out and get trained to fight the enemy, whoever that was.
Under no circumstances did he want to stand in front of his commander uttering the words, “No Excuse, Sir”, so he instilled in his underlings a fear far worse than the fear of God; it was the fear of the Mess Sergeant.
So, there’s a lot of background to this story. Take a deep breath, smell the smell of a big, industrial sized kitchen. Here you can smell the vegetables being chopped up for the next lunch. Walk a little further, you can smell the aroma of freshly peeled potatoes for tomorrow morning’s hash browns, and hear the stories two young recruits are telling each other about anything but potatoes. A little further, the steamy vapor coming out of an industrial sized dishwasher tickles your nose, and finally, a bit further on, you can smell the yeasty smell of bread dough rising, mixed with the smell of coffee and cigarettes, and above the constant roar of the fans, you hear a number of 20-somethings laughing and goofing off.
Around you are huge stoves, walk-in refrigerators and freezers, hand trucks to make moving the huge sacks of raw ingredients easier, enormous chromed ovens, and mixers that you could mix enough dough in to feed an – well – an Air Force. Come with me as we stand off to the side and lean up against the wall and listen for a bit, as a much younger version of my dad tells the story behind a rather strange article that appeared in the paper that week. It’s below, just as he wrote it.
We had a certain number of KP’s to do as we went through the technical training. “Kitchen Police” is the full title of the job. With so many trainees, we had a mess hall row. Only one of the mess halls had a bakery, and even then I enjoyed the smell of fresh baked goods. We were assigned to the midnight shift, and were supposed to make rolls. Lots of them. One of the KP’s got some flour that wasn’t the right kind of flour we needed and dumped it in the big mixer, then I was left to watch the dough rise while the rest of them had coffee break. They had a super long break that night, and our KP pusher caught us goofing off.
I told him it hadn’t risen enough yet.
He started sweating, a lot, for the mess sergeant was due in any time.
There was a growth of bushes separating the places where the men were marched in, so he had all of us KP’s dig holes for the large quantity of dough to be poured and hidden. We went to work with a will and even covered the pile of dough with the sweepings. There was a picture in the paper later of the finding of a giant puffball mushroom by the mess hall.
One of the things I’ve been doing in these stories is writing down history. I’ve written down a number of stories about my dad and his time in the military. There are others in the works, but I happened to run across a few I’d convinced him to write before he passed away. They’re rare because he printed them, and then later the computer they were stored on was stolen, so there are only four stories I have that he actually wrote. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing my own writing – so my kids can see and read some of the stories that are part of their history and that they’ve heard over the years.
So for today’s post, I’ll actually have a “guest writer” – this is actually kind of hard to write here, but I’m going to introduce you to my dad, Gary, who you may have read about here.
For this story, we have to travel back in time to about 1952, when my dad was about 21, in the Air Force, and not much past basic training. Back then, in the military, if things didn’t fit their preconceived ideas of what was right, those things got fixed or removed. It was understandable. If you were in battle, you had to be 100% capable of doing whatever they told you to do, and if, for example, a toothache kept you from your post, and that post was overrun by your opponent because you weren’t there, then that tooth simply had to go, to save you, and potentially your unit. Dad had been through basic training, where, as with everyone, a lot of stuff got fixed. But there were some things they decided needed to be removed, and in dad’s case, it was all of his teeth. So they all came out, and were replaced with false ones.
At the time, dad was pretty close to the bottom of the ladder when it came to seniority, and in the military, there were enlisted men (and in those days, a few women), and there were officers. In short, there were followers, and there were leaders. The officers were the leaders, and the good ones took care of their followers. As a result, there is a culture of respect and honor between the enlisted and the officers, and the enlisted always stood up and honored their officers with a salute, until the officer gave them permission to be “at ease”. At the time, the lowest officer rank was a 2nd Lieutenant, with a brass bar about an inch long and 3/8ths of an inch wide showing the rank. A 1st Lieutenant had the same bar, but silver, and a Captain had two silver ones, one beside the other. They were known, at the time, as Captain’s tracks.
With that introduction, let’s enter a military Barracks, where dad’s sitting on his bunk, with a cigarette butt can in his hands that he was spitting blood into. The following words are his – unedited. This is the story of his…
…coming back to the barracks after having had my teeth pulled. I’d had nine of them out that day and was feeling pretty poorly. There was no one else in the building, and I heard him come in. I felt quite self-conscious about having a butt can in my hands and making such a feeble attempt at coming to attention. He was my commander. A young pilot just back from the fighting in Korea. He wore the tracks of a captain and I accorded him that honor. I was weak from shock and blood loss, and staggered as he came up to me.
He asked what the trouble was and I spoke through the rolls of cotton they had stuffed my mouth with telling him I was getting all my teeth out and had had nine done that day. He looked at me with concern asking if he could do anything for me.
I told him that a coke out of the next barracks would be heavenly.
He turned and walked out the door, and came back a few seconds later with the frosty bottle in his hand.
I took the unopened bottle and put it on my jaws where I hurt and dug into my pocket to give him the money for it, but he didn’t want my money.
He shipped out a week later and I heard he’d gotten killed in a plane crash.
His name was Lemmual Pierson.
I still owe him a dime.
I thought about that young man, my dad, less than half my age now, and that young Captain Pierson – not much older. It’d be neat to find the family of Captain Pierson to thank them, and let them know how valuable a gift their father, and/or grandfather gave to my dad, a gift that was so valuable it paid dividends almost 60 years later.
Even if it only cost a dime.