SEPTEMBER 9, 2020
Forrest began…and then continuously added to a biography and history of the Fenn family as he knew it. He shared it with me early on but when I asked if I could put it on the blog Forrest said, “not til I am gone”.
I suspect that Forrest added more to it after he gave me this version. You will notice that this version ends with his time in Vietnam…a far cry from the end of his story.
I believe the most quoted line from this tome is “Enter Yellowstone-That’s where my heart is:” Many searchers believed that this line practically guaranteed the chest was hidden in Yellowstone…others disagreed.
You will note that many of Forrest’s Scrapbooks from this blog and stories that appeared in his memoirs, had their beginnings in this piece.
So here it is…some of you may be aware of it, The reporter Tony Dokoupil mentioned it in his early story for Newsweek Magazine many years ago. Others have been allowed to read it and I believe it has even been published, in part and perhaps in whole, on some forums.
Ramblings and Rumblings
The Fenn family history (unedited)
By Forrest Fenn
This long story was written for my grand children so they will know something about the Fenn side of their family. It is just notes and thinkings that ramble around as thoughts come and go. I wish my dad had done this for me. It is kinda chronological, but not necessarily so. It was started in July 1996 with pencil scribblings in a blue binder notebook. Over the months and years, I have pulled it out and made inserts, and finally typed it into Microsoft Word. As new remembrances came to me, I inserted them wherever I thought they might fit.
In the Beginning
I wish I knew more about my early relatives. I never saw my grand father on my father’s side. His name was William Emmett Fenn. His wife (my grandmother) was named Iva Pearl Fenn Lofton. Evidently, she was divorced from Emmett after my father was born and then married Lofton, but I don’t know for sure. A newspaper clipping in my scrapbook says her husband was named Jessie Lofton and that she had two sisters. Pearl lived with us on and off in the years before I was ten. No one liked her but my dad, William Marvin Fenn (born 11-21-03 and died 9-19-87.) She was deaf, nosy, and irritable and caused great disruption in our family. She and my mother, Lilly Simpson Fenn (1908-1979), did not get along at all. The only arguments my parents ever had were about Pearl. She was a witch in my opinion but my dad took good care of her when she got old and barely navigable.
My grandmother on my mother’s side was a stoic of a woman, full bodied, with a firm foundation, and gray hair that looked as if it had been trimmed with hedge shears, and had a passion for pansies. Her name was Arie Beatrice Simpson (or Arie Crayton Simpson.) She told me stories about the Comanche and Kiowa Indians running through their barnyard in Ft. Worth trying to catch chickens. Her father said if they could catch them, they could have them. She watched it all with her nose pressed against the window. There were other great stories as well. Her husband was a severe man named Charles Karl Simpson. He was a salesman and smoked cigars. He tolerated his grandkids but that was about it. When he saw us, he walked on by with a grump on his face. However, he left me alone so I liked him.
They taught my parents to make soap in a big black kettle in the back yard of our house in Temple. I still remember the bad smell when they dumped the lye into the grease. When the white colored soap was done they poured it out in large wooden frames to cool and set, then cut it into rectangles and divided it with the neighbors who had pitched in to help. I also remember my dad killing hogs and butchering them in the back yard.
My great grandmother on my mother’s side was named Rebecca Crayton. My great grand parents on my father’s side were Philop Fix Davis and Nancy Elizabeth Davis. I know nothing about any of my great grand parents.
My parents always went grocery shopping together. They would shop Piggly Wiggly and compare a #2 can of tomatoes or some other product, then drive to Safeway and compare the price. If it was as much as 2 cents cheaper at the other place they would drive back for their purchase. In the 1930s there were a lot of families doing things like that.
In the summer of 1939, we moved to Denton, Texas, for one school year where my father got a MA in education. He rented the Temple house to the parents of James Boren, the artist. Dad’s school was called North Texas State Teachers College at that time. It has since changed. We rented a place at 1118 Panhandle Street. I was nine, Skippy (William Marvin Fenn Jr.) was eleven and June Gay (my sister) was seven. We all went to school and my mother worked somewhere in town. My teachers never liked me and I made bad grades. Skippy did some better and June carried good grades. At this late telling I will relate with some sense of pride that I was never known to do homework throughout my entire education program. Who cares? I always made a good living doing things my way and I quickly learned that some of my best ideas were lost in meetings.
Behind our house in Denton was a barnyard where we had chickens and maybe other animals. On Saturdays if we worked hard for several hours stacking bricks, cleaning the yard, etc, dad would give each of us a quarter. In the afternoon, with seventy-five cents, each of us could attend two double feature movies and have a Wimpy Hamburger and Coke in-between. We always walked the two or so miles to town and our parents didn’t worry about us.
Before the movies started, there was always an adventure serial that was continued from week to week, and always ended with he hero hanging in a perilous situation. That made it important for us to see the next episode the following Saturday.
I still remember my friend who lived down on the corner. His name was O. P. Frank. I wonder what happened to good old OP. We were inseparable at one time and enjoyed climbing in his trees.
Behind our house was a cement “drain-off” that carried rainwater through town and out into the countryside. My favorite hobby was catching frogs and crayfish we called crawfish. On the other side of the drain was a huge field of sunflowers and pretty purpleotos and other colors. I was always bringing them home to my mother. She loved flowers. I have taught my grandkids to use words like purpleotos, appleotos, and such, to describe certain objects. Sounding stupid is a ploy I have used many times with great effectiveness. There are those who think I came about it naturally. It has caused me to laugh inside on many occasions.
Variation in our language stimulates thought and brings smiles. A little girl taught that lesson to me many years ago. I was holding her hand and said to her, “Oh, look at the pretty butterfly.” She replied, “No, that’s not a butterfly, it’s a flutterby.” We never stop learning and I feel sorry for those who have totally conformed and are politically correct.
Enter Yellowstone – that’s where my heart is:
The Fenn family went to Yellowstone in the summer for three months. Dad was a schoolteacher and had the summers off. We made that trip for the first twenty years of my life (with the exception of 1939). Dad and mom returned each summer until the end of her life, and then dad continued until the end of his. My mother died at the West Fork trailer park near Cameron, Montana. It is where the West Fork of the Madison runs into the lower Madison River. She had a heart attack while eating lunch. My dad rushed her to Madison Valley Hospital in Ennis, Montana but she was dead. It October 3, 1979.
During my first years, until about 1938, when I was eight, we camped in a tent at Fishing Bridge, where the Yellowstone River exited Yellowstone Lake. There were a lot of tents, and kids to play with. At night the bears were a problem. Many of the cars in those days had soft tops. You never left food in your car because the bears could smell it and they climbed up on top they could sink through the roof and get the food. Every night there were incidents of some kind and while the black bears were not a health threat, the Grizzlies killed several people every summer. Everyone had big fires at night just outside their tents.
There is a photo of June and me sawing a log near our tent. I had gone in and asked mother for the saw. She thought Dad had sent me for it. When she learned I had done it on my own she thought it was cute and took our picture. I explained to her that we were just helping by cutting firewood. Of course, there were no chain saws in those days and all firewood wood was cut by hand. All of the cooking and heating was by wood stove. I did not see the picture after it was taken until February 1987, after my father died, fifty-two or so years after the photo was taken, but I remember every little thing about the incident.
Many times our whole family went out in the forest to pick raspberries. The cluster of plants could be 200 feet around and we filled our buckets. The kids always competed with each other to see who could gather the most. It was not unusual for black bears to be picking berries within thirty or so feet from us. My dad told us to just leave them alone and if they moved toward us to just give them space. Of course if we had seen a grizzly come in we would leave.
We fished a lot and always saved all but the smallest fish, mostly rainbow trout. My dad traded what we couldn’t eat and that’s how we acquired bread, potatoes and other items that my dad didn’t want to spend our scant money on.
Sometime try living in a tent all summer with a family of five and a mother-in-law that no one liked and could hardly tolerate. When she was not living with us, I think she lived in Ft. Worth. Dad was born in Greenville, Texas, and died in Temple He had been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas, which is inoperable. They gave him six months to live. The following summer Peggy and I drove him to Yellowstone in his Suburban and pulled his Airstream trailer. We drove through Salt Lake City, where he wanted to visit with my mother’s twin sister Willie Mae Simpson Smith. Mother had died several years before and he knew this would be the last time he would ever see Willie Mae. Her son, Dougle (my cousin) was there also. He had served on a submarine during the Korean War and was somewhat mentally affected by it. He left the Navy with a full medical discharge.
My other cousin, (Dougle’s sister) Billie Marie Smith was married to a man name Zeke Wilemon (?), who flew the hump in C-46s and C-47s during the big war. He died of cancer. Peggy and I went to see him in the hospital in Houston just before he died. Billie Marie taught at the University of Texas at Arlington. She later divorced Zeke and married a man named Ken Rogers. She and her new husband moved to Houston and for a while owned a bookstore. I have lost track of Billie after my father died. I have since found her and her two daughters, Holly Smith and Jill Spencer. Dougle died a few years ago. His son is Chip who lives in West Yellowstone. We were all great friends when we were kids. They lived in Ft. Worth and their father Jay Smith sold pots and pans for Southbend Aluminum, and travelled a lot. I remember that they lived on Arrowhead Court in Ft. worth and their house was on top of a deep canyon that was devoid of houses but was deeply wooded. He had diabetes and it finally killed him.
During the year in Denton my dad was manager of the sport teams at North Texas State. He was always big on sports. He attended Chicago City College where he lettered in gymnastics, volleyball, and was the city tennis champion. He also played other sports. I think he graduated from TCU, where one of his best friends was Forrest Levy, my namesake. Levy was the star tackle on the football team. Another of dad’s friends was named Burke, my middle namesake. When dad died, June took all of dad’s sports medals. I remember when I was a kid they were kept in a trunk in our garage storage room. I always enjoyed digging in that trunk and looking at dad’s things. When June died, Leslie sent me dad’s medals and Loving cups.
During the war years (1942-1946), gasoline was rationed and each car owner was issued a certain number of gas coupons in three and five gallon denominations. The more critical your job, the more gas you were allowed. Coupons had to be turned in when you paid for your gas at the station. People were always giving coupons to their friends who needed more. Tires were very difficult to get also because most of the rubber was going to the war effort.
Our family had a 1936 Chevrolet. When school was out in June, my parents would pack it up for the three-month stay and take off for Yellowstone. The 1600-mile trip was driven at thirty-five miles an hour to save both gas and tires. There was no air conditioning at that time, or car radios. It was a long trip and to make it pass a little faster we played all sorts of games. One game was to look for a white horse. The person who first saw one was supposed to lick their right thumb, touch the middle of the left palm with it, clasp their right fist and hit the left palm with it also, then clap the hands. The first one to see a white horse and perform the ritual was supposed to have good luck.
One time I remember looking over my dad’s shoulder from the back seat. The odometer seemed to be turning pretty fast and I though 1600 miles might not be too far after all. Then dad told me that those numbers on the right side were tenths of miles, not miles. I remember not knowing exactly what that meant but when dad said it would take ten times longer than I though, I knew what that meant. However, I had a way of blocking out those kinds of things.
Sixteen hundred miles was a long way. Fortunately, I always had secret things in a sac that occupied my time. Some of the things were a knife and a piece of pine wood that I whittled on, a pencil and paper on which to write secret thoughts and profound remembrances. The down side was that no one ever wanted to see what I was doing, so I soon lost interest in that foolishness.
About 1937 the family stopped camping at Fishing Bridge and moved over to West Yellowstone, on the western entrance to the park. My grandparents on my mother’s side owned a cabin camp (they are called motels now) in “West” as it became known to us. We still stayed in the tent for the next few years and when it came time to go back to Temple for the winter school year, dad packed the tent and all of our summer belongings and stashed them in a secret location in Yellowstone Park about three miles from West. We just drove the car out into the forest about half a mile and unloaded everything for the long winter stay. He had a detailed map of the exact location. Everything was covered with a tarp for winter proofing. The next summer when we returned for the summer, everything was right where he had left it, save what the squirrels and porcupine chewed on. We never left food, of course.
Although the trip was long, there were many fun times also. I remember a great old two-story hotel in Chugwater, Wyoming, where we stayed on the way up. I recently flew up to Wheatland, Wyo., just a few miles north. I made a low pass over Chugwater but could not pick out the old hotel. I am sure we stayed there every trip because it was cheap, probably a couple of dollars for a family of five. We had to walk up several flights of stairs to get to our room. It is all boarded up now and has become a derelict. A few doors down from the hotel today is what we used to call a soda stand where you can get malted milks. Peggy and I have done that a few times in recent years. There is a museum across the street from that hotel now.
During the summer months, I spent a lot of time fishing with my dad and Concy Wood (Clarence G. Wood.) He was my high school football coach, and taught woodworking. Sometimes, when we were fishing on the Yellowstone River, I would walk along the banks, pick up small cobblestones of moss agate, and take them back to Temple. In the winter during school, I’d sit in the back of the room and make marbles by abrading the agates against a small flat piece of sandstone I kept in my pocket. It took about three hours to make a pretty good “aggie” shooter that I could sell it for ten cents to some rich kid who lived in a brick house. That dime could buy a bag of Fritos and a Coke, and lunch didn’t get much better than that. I learned to hustle meals where I could get them. I was proud of myself for making my own way. I don’t ever remember taking a lunch bag to school and there were no school cafeterias then. I didn’t want to be some Joe Lunch Bucket. I also carved tops and yo-yos in class, which I sold for lunch money. Any part of some is better than no part of any.
Down on the corner of French and Main Street, was a fried pie factory. A large exhaust fan blew the hot aroma from the kitchen out on the sidewalk for me to smell on the way to school in the morning. The colder the day the more luring the fragrance. It was hard for me pass that place. Fried pies were a nickel each but broken pies were two for a nickel. If I could hustle a nickel, I was the first one over there during the noon break. My favorite was pineapple. An old gray-haired woman who worked there knew I didn’t have much money and sometimes when she saw me coming, she would break two pies for me. I really liked that old woman and if I knew where she was buried I would plant a pineapple tree on her grave and bury a nickel under her headstone. That pie factory is long since gone but the memories linger on. My school (Central Junior High) is also gone.
One winter I collected bicycle parts at the city dump and made a pretty good bicycle. My brother Skippy helped me and I rode it to school for a while. Finally, I decided I could not afford the ride and sold it for twelve dollars. That was about 1943 and my dad thought that was good for a thirteen year old. He and I never thought I would amount to much. Maybe we were right after all.
In 1936, I started the first grade at Lanier school. Dad also started the same day at the same school. He taught math and reading. We had a 1932 Chevrolet two door at the time and I remember driving with him up to school and parking in the spot reserved for teachers. I thought we owned the school and I was less than one month past six years old. The only teacher I liked was Naomi Pardo. She left me alone. The classes I took at Lanier have long since escaped me but the agenda was math, reading, spelling, writing, and geography. I liked recess best.
Dad started an annual event called The Lanier Olympics. All the kids participated. One event we called “Squash.” Three boys would get on their hands and knees, side-by-side, and facing the same way. Two more would do the same thing on top of the three, and one on top. There were four or five pyramids all facing the crowd. I was always on top because I was the smallest. When everyone was ready, dad would yell, “heads right,” and all the heads would face right. “Heads left,” and all the heads went left. “Heads up,” and “heads down,” and then he would yell “SQUASH,” and all the boys flattened out and the pyramids collapsed to the glee and loud applause of the approving parents. I am sure they all though that their little boy was pro material, and of course all the kids did. I was not fooled by it all. I knew I was the star because I was on top like an angel on top of a Christmas tree.
Several years ago, I went back to Lanier and walked through the halls. I had not been in the school for fifty-two years. There were no desks anymore, just consoles, each with a computer. It was sad. The old days were gone for sure. It has been said that the passage of time has brought progress and that fact must be conceded in the areas of medicine, technologies, and others. However, in retrospect, it should be noted that for the first twenty summers that we left for a three-month stay in Yellowstone, we did not lock the doors of our home in Temple. No one ever locked a car or took the keys out. On many occasions, a hobo would knock on our kitchen door looking for food and would be rewarded by my mother who would invite him in and cook a full meal and pack a lunch for the road. Some progress!!!!!
Down the block toward Nugent, there was an old black man we called “Old Black Joe.” It was his job to tear the covers off “funny books” (called comic books today) and send them back to the publisher for a refund. He worked for a distributor I guess. Anyway, I used to go see him, climb the steps to where he lived, and ask for funny books. He always gave me a couple and mom would make pies and other food things for me to take him.
In the summertime – back to Y-stone again, at thirty-five miles an hour. One trip, dad drove many miles out the way, somewhere in Wyoming, to show his three children what was chiseled in stone over the door of a small country school. “HE WHO TEACHES A CHILD LABORS WITH GOD IN HIS WORKSHOP.” He was very proud of being a teacher although he didn’t make much money. I remember when he made four thousand dollars a year.
One evening he was sitting near the fireplace in my office at the gallery reading a magazine as I concluded a deal with two clients. When the men left, he went over to my desk and looked at the paper work. After studying it for a minute, he said to me, “son, you have made more money in the last fifteen minutes than my home cost, and it took me twenty years to pay for it.” That still bothers me. I remember when the home mortgage was finally paid, we all went out in the back yard and dad burned it. That was a religious experience.
When I was a kid, we had a Guernsey cow we called Bessie. I loved that cow and it was my pleasure to milk her before school and again before supper. Her tail was bad dog-chewed and only a hard knot on the end, remained. I usually tied it to a fence slat before milking because she must’ve thought I was a fly or something messing with her privates and would club me on the head with that knot. It hurt plenty and if I flinched too much I would either fall off the stool or kick the bucket over trying to protect myself.
All of the cats in the neighborhood knew when I was in the barn and would come running to beg a squirt. It was so funny. All six of them would just sit there like wet sox hanging on a clothesline, waiting their turn. I allocated five squirts per cat. Although I had good aim at three feet, sometimes I’d miss their mouth a little and splatter them somewhere else instead. They didn’t seem too care much about that and when it was over they casually walked away licking themselves all over. I think I was their hero.
One morning when I didn’t have anything to tie Bessie’s tail to I weighted it down with a broken brick half. She must’ve thought I was giving one of the cats too many squirts and she hit me in the head with that thing. The blast knocked me off the stool and into a fresh cow pie. Only when you’re in love with the cow do you overlook that sort of thing. My teacher at school suggested that next time maybe I should change pants before class.
We always had buttermilk and I loved it as much as anything. A couple of months ago Peggy got some buttermilk with which to make cornbread and I started drinking it again and it is now stacked in our refrigerator. It comes in a plastic bottle with a green label that says BUTTERMILK. Fortunately, it is easy to get the label off. So now, no one knows what I am drinking and I can have it to myself. I feel like I have come full circle and am now enjoying life just a little bit more. I asked Peggy if buttermilk was good for me and she said “NO.” Who cares, I had already passed my life expectancy.
After I graduated from Lanier and started the seventh grade at Central Junior High, dad started there also, as principal, which embarrassed me with a passionate fervor that knew no bounds. That pain was not eased by my grades, which were mostly Ds, and Fs. I prayed for Ds and no one listened.
I always walked home from school and when I was carrying my report cards, I used to stop on the east corner of Nugent and Main Street because behind the two story red brick house was a barn that had a big pecan tree growing beside it. It was just a block away from my house but when I climbed up the tree, jumped onto the tin roof of the barn, and hid under the limbs I was safe. It was my secret place where I would go when I knew I was in trouble. No one could get me when I was there. Unfortunately, sometime later, I had to climb down and go home, but not before I had all of my excuses lined up.
It was said that I was never known to study at home or do homework of any kind. I said that a few pages ago and again here for emphasis. Of course I deny that and can clearly remember several times when I made drawings at home. Therefore, my story varies with the quality and educational background of the persons to whom I am speaking. It was kind of like wearing suspenders and a belt both. I was always ready with an answer that would bail me out and later years I called those things hole cards.
Parents had to sign each report card before I returned to the teacher. Mother always signed my bad cards and dad signed the good ones. Dad didn’t sign many and when he wasn’t asked, he kind of looked the other way. But he knew. That’s how schoolteachers are. It’s a sense they have as a society. He didn’t know what to do with me. Education was a big thing to him and I was his disappointment because I did so poorly in school. My only salvation was that Skippy didn’t do all that well, but better than I did. He was a Cs and Ds person. No matter that, he was a genius in so many ways that did matter. I miss him.
I started writing this history in June of 1996 and have added a little through the months and years, many times going back to insert things like now. It is Memorial Day, 2004 and I am alone in my office with my thoughts. It is nice to go back to the start of this story and as I read what I have written some of the stories remind me of others. The process of that is fun and unending.
I got by with some foolery because of dad being principal. In Spanish class, my desk was in the back of the room adjacent to a window. It was on the second floor and outside the window was a giant iron slide fire escape, a fact that did not go unnoticed the first day of class when I selected my seat for the year. I didn’t understand Spanish anyway so it often fell my lot to slide down after roll call and take an hour off. The teacher was Miss Ford and she knew what I was doing of course, but she didn’t usually say anything. We both knew I was going to get an F in the class and she was probably happy to be rid of me. All she ever spoke was Spanish and I didn’t understand it so how could anyone expect me to learn. At least that was my argument and I stood by it.
I liked Miss Ford because she generally left me to my own devices. I made many marbles in her class when the weather was bad. One day she took me to my father’s office, dragging me down the hall for sure. She was in a swivet and told dad that I had called her “an old bat.” Dad was mortified and asked her to please leave and close the door, saying that he would “take care of this matter.” When she was gone, he looked at me with fire in his eyes and demanded to know why I had called her an old bat. I told him that her story wasn’t exactly correct; that what I had said was that “my father says you are an old bat.” Dad’s anger immediately subsided as he recalled several days before Miss Ford had called in sick and it interrupted his breakfast because he had to quickly find a substitute. He said, “That old bat.” He didn’t like to be interrupted at breakfast, especially if it was mom’s hot biscuits and home-did pear jam.
When dad realized that he was the real culprit in the story, he said something that made me realize how wise he was. He said, “OK, what have we learned?” I remember telling him that I didn’t have the slightest idea what we had learned. He then said to me, with great passion, “what we have learned is that you should always tell the truth, but you should not always tell all the truth.” I later apologized to Miss Ford and we were all a little wiser. I really liked that old bat.
One day we had a class election of officers for some long forgotten club. I was elected treasurer and was very proud. It was pointed out to me later that there was no money and there would never be any, and no one else wanted the job and that is why I was elected. I didn’t like some of my classmates after that. We tend to avoid those who distract us from our self-esteem. No matter now but I had my fifteen minutes anyway.
The boy’s washroom at Central High was in the basement and at the bottom of the stairs were pipes that ran the full length of the room. I took great pride in being able to jump from the bottom step to one of the pipes and swing hand over hand to the other end where I could turn loose and be right in front of the urinal. I can’t tell you how many times I left a dull class to go down there and practice the pipes. Surely, the teachers all thought I had something wrong with my bladder, so they allowed me a lot of latitude. I had many secrets from those teachers. They all thought they were teaching me something but I fooled them.
Another ploy I used very effectively was to “dust the erasers.” I would pick up about ten from the trough below the blackboard, go out side, and dust them against a tree until all the chalk dust was gone. I prided myself on doing a good job. Of course, the class went on without me so I was sure to dust them until every speck of chalk powder was gone. I took pride in guessing exactly when the bell would ring signifying that the class was over. One teacher boasted that I was the best she ever saw and estimating the time and could consistently be back in my chair thirty seconds before the bell rang.
One Christmas Skippy made a crystal radio for me. In order to change channels I had to move a little wire along a crystal to get a new frequency. My brother was a genius with things like that. I learned that a torch singer named Fran Warren would come on at 10:30 at night, so I made myself stay awake and listen to her. I really liked her voice and the songs she sang. Her program lasted thirty minutes and I couldn’t sleep until it was over. Many years later, when I was in the Air Force, I was driving along the strip in Las Vegas and I saw on the marquee that Fran was singing in the bar show. Anyone could sit and watch her but you had to keep drinking. I think they wanted you to get drunk and start gambling. Anyway, I sat there drinking Cokes and getting leers from the bar tender until her show was over. She went into one of the restaurants and sat in a booth. I couldn’t stand it so I went up and introduced myself and said how much she had meant to me, and that I had been in love with her for fifty-some years. She asked me to sit down and I bought her dinner. I loved doing things like that.
One time in about 1958, I was driving from Bitburg, Germany, to Munich, and I the name of a little town where the widow of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel lived. After finding directions to her house I knocked on the door and her son (Manfred I think), who spoke a little English, invited me in. I told Mrs. Rommel that I respected her husband and just wanted to meet her. She was pleased and served tea and some sweets.
Another time, when I was in New York, (in the middle 70s probably) I went to the Waldorf Astoria and phoned Mrs. Douglass McArthur and asked if she would see me. She lived in the penthouse apartment. She invited me up and we had a nice visit. She was very elderly and when she saw my puzzlement at the carpet being worn to the wooden floor between two rooms, she said, “The general paced.” Isn’t that interesting.
I was eleven when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It was a cold Sunday afternoon when my mother heard about it on the radio. Skippy and I were playing football in our front yard in Temple. She came running out crying and gathered us up in her arms. I didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was. Until that day (December 7, 1941), there were no news programs on the radio. We got news from the newspaper. However, on that day all of our lives were profoundly changed forever. We had regular radio programs that we listened to (TV was a few years away.) My favorites were Mister District Attorney, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy; I Love a Mystery, Stella Dallas, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Green Hornet, and Superman.
Now it seemed the only thing on the radio was news of the war. The Army Air Corps (later the Air Force) came to our school and organized whittling clubs. It was our duty to carve wooden models of Japanese and German airplanes to be used by our pilots to identify the enemy and shoot them down. Most of the other schools had similar clubs. In a school demonstration, they showed us how our models were to be used. A string was strung across the stage and our models slid across hanging from screw eyes. Our school received a commendation from the Army.
Everyone was patriotic and all the kids wanted to participate in the war effort. I knew all the German, Japanese, and American planes by heart and would draw pictures of them endlessly in class while everyone else was learning about calculus, spherical trig and analytics (not really). None of those things were ever used by any of my classmates but I sure used the pleasure I got from my drawings. We had flash cards and we could see the picture of a plane for only a tenth of a second. All of us would yell out the name of the plane immediately.
One afternoon each week all the boys were assigned an area of town (Temple) and we would go out, door to door, to collect rubber and metal of all kinds. Some people gave us spare tires out of their cars, and hunting rifles to be melted down for the war effort. I remember one woman was ironing when I knocked on her door. She gave me her iron while it was still hot. I think she was glad to be rid of it. We got many hot water bottles from widows and divorced women.
All of these things were piled up on the playground at school and periodically the Army would come around with big trucks and gather up all of the things. There were many guns in the pile, rifles, shotguns, pistols, and antique weapons. I remember how proud I was to be an American when so many people would give very valuable things, knowing that they would be melted down and recycled. We all pulled together.
We kids had to go to bed at 8:00 o’clock. That was when “Mr. District Attorney” was over. The radio was our only social life at night, and the whole family huddled around it. In the winter dad heated only the “sitting room.” That’s where the radio was and of course, that’s where all of us were after supper. We heated with a gas stove that got hot. You learned to stay away from it. In addition, the heat would dry the room and make our noses dry. Mother always put a pan of water on the stove to supply some humidity. It was my job to keep water in the pan. I can say categorically that the pan never ran out of water. None of the other rooms in the house were heated.
In those days the noon meal was called “dinner,” We had meat usually only on Sunday after church when we would cook a chicken. It was the boy’s job to pluck the feathers, dad would cut it up and mother would fry it. June always helped mother in the kitchen and we all helped with the dishes. I wanted to dry because I like the warmth of the plates. I took pride in a chore. Skippy always had some urgent calling elsewhere.
At breakfast mother usually made biscuits. We churned our own butter using milk from our own “Bessie.” We also had ducks and chickens that we raised for their eggs. Sometimes after supper mom would ask the kids what they wanted or dissert. I always said I wanted strawberry shortcake, Skippy would say he wanted pineapple upside-down cake, and June something else. Mom would then cut several pieces of bread into fourths, butter them, and then put them in the gas oven until they were brown. Then she would put different kinds of homemade jelly or preserves on them and serve. We always made a big deal of taking a bite and saying, “ummmm, great strawberry shortcake,” and “great pineapple upside-down cake.” I can still remember how much it tasted like what we wanted it to be. Maybe we thought it really was. It didn’t matter what it was, it only mattered what we thought it was, and a rule was born.
I learned a lot about life from little things like that. We were a very close family but dad had very strict rules. At meals, we served ourselves. We could take as much as we wanted but we had to eat all we took. We could not leave the table until our plates were clean. Sometimes I sat there for an hour and there was no relenting and no bluffing. My dad didn’t understand the word bluff.
There was no such thing in our family as Cokes or any kind of fast foods such as potato chips. We made ice cream on Sundays sometimes. I gave fifty turns on the hand freezer then Skippy would give fifty turns as the ice cream began to get hard, then dad finished it. It was June’s job to sit on the freezer to hold it down and steady. Everything was a family effort.
Somewhere dad got a Shetland pony, which we named “Silver.” I used to ride him fast across the fields behind our house yelling, “Hi Yo Silver, Away.” I was into that Lone Ranger stuff pretty good for a while. We fabricated a bridle but we could never afford a saddle. No matter about that. I don’t remember what happened to Silver. I really loved that pony and that is why I wanted my grandkids to have one. I gave them “Buttercup.” Today a picture of my brother on Silver occupies a sacred spot under the glass on my desk.
Sam Hendler, who lived two blocks away near Nugent and Third Street, had a pony that would rear up on his back legs if you pulled the bridle back. We loved to do that with his pony and I used to ask my mother if I was as good as the Lone Ranger. She always said yes and I wandered off happy.
When the weather was warm, I used to raise the window that was at the side of my bed, and put my pillow on the windowsill. I slept with my head half way out the window. The railroad tracks were about a half-mile east of our house, I could hear the stream engines puff, and the engineers blow the whistles late at night. It was a forlorn wail and I miss it very much. Years later, when the first diesel engine came to town it was much celebrated in the papers. The whole town turned out to see the thing. It was sad to me and I remember wondering why things had to change. I always enjoyed watching the steam engines stop under the water tank and watch the engineer pull a rope and a big black spout would come down and dump water in the engine to make steam.
The gypsies were always coming through town in their horse-pulled wagons that had rubber tires, like cars. They camped down by the railroad tracks and circled their wagons. At night they built a big fire in the middle of the circle and many of them had musical instruments, mostly harmonicas, fiddles and accordions that they played while the girls danced around the fire swishing their long skirts. When I had my head in the window, I could hear them late at night so sometimes I unfasten the screen and climbed out. It was about a half mile through the cemetery down to the tracks and I would run as fast as I could go in the night. When I got there, I could sneak up close and push the weeds aside with my hands. I watched them for hours. It was a romantic time for me and I loved the music and the fun.
A cotton gin was located adjacent to the tracks and when the wind was easterly, the aroma of cottonseed hulls blew over me and it was absolutely wonderful. I thought I was on top of the world. It was so good that sometime I would just lay there awake and think all night. When morning came, I was always sleepy and would not respond when mother told me to get ready for school.
The problem was, that dad always left for school at 0745. That’s it! If I was not in the car when it drove off – I had to run to school. He would not wait one minute. I ran a lot. Maybe he was trying to teach me to be punctual. I was rarely late because I could run all the way to school without stopping, and that ain’t jogging either. It was about a mile to Central Jr. High. Skippy and June were usually ready and they rode.
When I was six, it was harder on me because Lanier school was about two miles. If I ever get to Temple again I want to walk from our old house to Lanier. Friends would drive by in a car with their father, on the way to school, and sometimes stop and pick me up. Other times they would just drive right on by and not stop. I never figured out how that worked but if often made me mad and I would start running as fast as I could and try to beat them to school, just to show them who was boss.
Sometimes when neighbors came over at night my mother would tape a sheet up to completely cover an open doorway. Then with the audience in one room, she would put a strong light up behind the sheet and the kids would take turns acting and making grotesque shapes, the shadows of which would play on the sheet, to the delight of the gallery. I became famous for making flapping birds with my hands. I don’t think they do that anymore. Too bad.
On Halloween we made the rounds of the neighbor’s houses playing trick or treat. The rule in those days was that we would do a dance or song of some sort to get a treat. If we didn’t get a treat then we would do a trick. Anything was fair game. Sometimes we bent a straight pin and tied a waxed thread to the head. Then if you bend the pin in someone’s window screen and run your fingers up and down the thread, it made a weird noise in the screen.
Sometimes we would soap the windows of those who didn’t give us a treat. On occasion when the house lights were off to fool us but we knew they were home, we would sing a song very loud and they felt so bad they would turn the porch light on and give us a treat. That was fun. Bo Simmons used to get a lot of fresh horse manure in a double paper sac and set it on fire in front of someone’s front door. Then he would ring the doorbell and run and hide. He liked to watch the man come out and stomp the fire out. I was above doing that sort of thing.
Dad was strict and meticulous about everything he did. He was always organized and had a plan. But he pretty much left us alone as long as we were trying and things worked fairly well. When he told us we were going to get a spanking, we did, of course. There were no exceptions. If it wasn’t convenient at the time, like when we were in the car or at a gathering, we knew we would get it later. He sometimes made me go pick a switch from the hedge out back. I always got small switches but Skippy got big ones because he didn’t seem to care one way or the other. If dad thought my switch was too small, he would spank me with something else, like a hairbrush, which was worse than a switch. I learned to be careful and there was a technique in picking switches. My dad would tell me to pick a switch, the size of which was commensurate with the alleged infraction he thought I had committed. Therefore, it fell on me to estimate how bad he thought I was and that would tell me what size switch I could get by with. If I underestimated the situation, he would go get his own switch and when he did that there was an overkill factor in his selection, and that was always terrible.
Over time, I figured him out pretty good and came out ahead on the deal. Many years later, in 1987, when my dad had cancer, he called me one night to say goodbye. He said he was going to take fifty sleeping pills because, although I was paying June to stay and care for him, he thought it was time for him to go to meet my mother. I asked him to wait one day and I would fly home to tell him goodbye in person. He was who he was and didn’t want to wait.
One of the many things I regret was not spending more time with my parents. There are so many things I should have talked to them about.
Time goes you say
Nay, nay, alas,
June was never switched of course. Maybe she did everything right. She was the family pet. Dad and mom both liked her a lot. I remember one time I did something that June didn’t like so she kicked me hard. I quickly turned my foot sideways and her shin ran into my foot, which really hurt her. It didn’t help any that I was wearing cowboy boots. Dad gave me a switching for that. I suppose I should have let her kick me. If there had been time to think I would have weighed the difference between being kicked by June and being switched, I would probably have taken the switching again. How punitive it was but gallantry has to stop somewhere.
June usually hung out in the kitchen with mother. They always listened to “Your Hit Parade” on the radio while preparing supper. It came on about 7:00 on Saturday night and was very suspenseful for them. The ten most popular songs for the week were played, starting at the bottom. As the tension built everyone guessed, which song would be number one? It was a big deal. Sometimes I would blurt out the name of the winner before anyone else thought of it. That made everyone mad because I didn’t much care one way or the other. Somebody said the dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience.
Skippy was dad’s favorite, first born and all that. However, he didn’t get by with a lot either. He was a genius in the true sense of it. In high school he did some pretty amazing things. Once he made an autogyro/helicopter looking thing out of wood with two rotor blades and an old washing machine motor for power. The whole neighborhood was out in force and betting on how long he had to live. He actually got a few inches off the ground before it wrecked. We should have all been killed with parts flew all around the yard.
His grades in school were almost as bad as mine. He didn’t go to college and it was never even discussed. However, he had a natural, innate sense of how things worked. He built a room onto our barn out back where Silver and Bessie lived, lined the inside with sheet tin, and built a “Zap Gun.” Then he brought cow manure in to attract flies. When one would land on the tin wall, he would pull the trigger on the zap gun and a lightning bold would fly from its barrel and hit the fly a foot away. Sometimes he had to move the zap over a few inches to get a clean kill but he was pretty good. We always had a lot of flies in the barn.
One time I decided that I would collect magazines that others threw away. My rationale was that if I became incapacitated in some way I would have something to read for the rest of my life. Eventually I amassed thousands of magazines; enough to fill one room of the barn, floor to ceiling. The problem was that the roof leaked and the magazines got wet. With the ensuing mold came smell and the pages stuck together. My mother said that I should just not get sick and that made sense to me. Finally, my dad had enough and I had to get rid of them somehow. Of course, he wouldn’t help me because it was all my doing. I had no vehicle and there was no garbage pick up, (we burned everything in a big barrel). So I decided to dig a big hole in the ground and bury the magazines. I never knew who owned that field and I spread the dirt out so they wouldn’t know. Someday they will find the mother lode. I figured I would be long gone by then.
That gave me an idea. In the fields behind our house, down close to the cemetery, we dug big holes in the ground, maybe six by eight feet and three feet deep. We put boards on top and put all the dirt back on top of that. We had tunnels between the rooms and no one could go in unless they knew the password. All the kids wanted in for a long time. Finally, we capitulated and they all got to play.
We had Little Orphan Annie secret de-coder rings with which we sent messages back and forth. They came in Oveltene jars. We drank a lot of that stuff and we always had Polly Pop as well.
One Christmas Skippy and his friend Leroy Calhoun opened a firecracker stand on Third Street about two blocks from high school. Some dumb female girl kid came along and threw a lighted firecracker in the stand and the whole thing blew up. Skippy was blown across the street, knocked unconscious, and all of his hair burned off, including his eyebrows. Leroy was rendered deaf and consequently avoided military service in the last part of the war. Someone called dad and we jumped in the car and raced to the hospital. It was really scary because I had never seen dad in that state. Skippy had been dating Irene Vance and when she came to the hospital to see him she brought Peggy. That was the first time I ever saw her. It was an eventful day all right. The worse thing in the world happened to Skippy and the best thing in the world happened to me. Poor Leroy Calhoun was just along for the honor of the thing.
When Skippy was about sixteen, he somehow acquired a single engine floatplane. Who knows where that thing came from and he wasn’t talking. He had never taken flying lesions but here he came with that thing, full of noise, and landed it on Hebgen Lake about five miles north of West Yellowstone. The altitude was so high (6644’) that the plane didn’t have enough power to lift off the water because of the drag. He had not thought of that. The lake was huge and we had fun gassing it and splashing back and forth across the water from one end of the lake to the other. The word around town (population 300) was that the army was practicing maneuvers.
There were very few airplanes around in those days and almost no pontoon models. Skippy was probably the first pilot to ever land on Hebgen and I have not seen any since. Finally, he took the wings off, trucked it to a lower altitude somewhere down in Idaho, and got rid of it. We didn’t like kids from Idaho and Utah because my father told us their fathers were bait fisherman.
At breakfast dad liked the tops of biscuits and I liked the bottoms so we traded a lot. It was my option so I didn’t have to trade if I didn’t want to. That was one of the few times I could make a decision that affected others in the family and I played it for all it was worth, especially with dad. The power felt good. Even today when Peggy makes biscuits I always eat the top half first in honor of my dad. That must be a primeval thought.
There was no question about it, when “Mr. District Attorney” on the radio was over, it was 8:00, and the three kids had to start for bed. That ritual was set in concrete. If we didn’t, dad would look at us and not say anything at all. We knew what that meant. If he had to look a second time, that was it, and we got a spanking. It didn’t take me but a couple of weeks to figure that one out. Sometimes I wouldn’t move unless Skippy moved. It was kind of a game and we took risks depending on how we felt. The consequences were always the same. June was different, she just got up and went to bed and mom tucked her in. If it was a cold night dad would allow us a few seconds to warm out pillows in front of the gas stove before we ran and jumped between the cold sheets.
Sometimes, I would get even by climbing out of my window and taking a walk down in the cemetery, a block north of our house. It took guts to walk through there when there were no lights and no moon. I only did that when it was warm but I still remember the sense of accomplishment I felt when I sat on someone’s grave marker and not be afraid. Everyone knew that spooks lived in the cemetery.
Money was scarce for the three kids. We never got an allowance so money was never wasted. Millard and Elizabeth Peters lived next door and they had money because their father owned a gas station in town. Millard was two years older than me. One day we went into a hamburger place by high school and he put a nickel in the jukebox to play a song that lasted for only two minutes. It really shocked me that he was so cavalier with money. I can still remember that feeling. We were pre-teen and a few years later Millard died of some brain ailment as I recall. I thought he was a genius because he could play the trombone and his hair was curly.
At Christmas we always made gifts for each other. Kites, tops, yo-yos, and always drawings. I was terrible at drawing so I usually made other things. Each kid got one nice thing from Santa, a football, a baseball glove or something like that. I always loved what I received so much that I slept with them under the covers with me for months. June always got dolls. One Christmas when I was about eight (1938), I got a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. On many occasions I went out behind our house and shot Meadow Larks. The birds were an important addition to the family menu and I took pride in my skills. Dad was proud of me when I brought meat home, especially when I told him that the gun shoots a little to the left and I had to adjust.
I love that rifle and have given it to Shiloh, but am keeping it as long as I live. I hope he will always respect and care for it. Burned into the wooden side of the stock is a drawing of Red Rider and Little Beaver. About 1973 I became friends with Fred Harmon, who drew the cartoon strip “Red Ryder and Little Beaver.” He told me that he received a five-cent royalty for every rifle Daisy air rifle sold because he had the copyright on the name. Fred later got cancer and shot himself and it wasn’t with a BB gun.
With five members in the family, I really needed to get five meadowlarks. Sometimes if I couldn’t find that many, I would shoot a mockingbird or two. The problem was that meadow larks tasted a lot like dove but had white meat instead of dark. If I brought home a mockingbird, I always took the feathers off before I got home so no one would know it was not a meadowlark. It was important to track the abhorrent bird through the cleaning, cooking, and serving process. I had to make sure that June or Skippy got the mockingbird because I figured they didn’t know the difference. Mom and dad sure would. It was inconceivable that I would eat the thing. After all, I killed food for all so I was higher on the food chain than my brother and sister. The fact is that no one ever complained so I felt smug in my decisions but prudence whispered that I should not completely pervert my intentions.
I learned a lot out hunting. I learned not to waste BBs shooting at robins because they could see the BB coming and duck, and chee chees were easy to shoot but too small to eat. I was a discriminating hunter and sometimes I could come home with a rabbit.
When dad sold our 1936 Chevy, it was a traumatic time for us. He got a 1941 Plymouth and we liked it but could not understand how he could do that to the old Chevy, because it was a member of our family. I felt very insecure for a long time after that. If he could get rid of that car maybe, he could get rid of me too. If I could find it now I would buy it back.
In Temple, we lived at 1413 North Main Street. Every funeral came by out house on the way to the cemetery. We always stopped what we were doing and took our hats off when they passed. We learned respect in many ways. When grown-ups were around, we were never to speak to them. If we were spoken to, we were to answer briefly and then be quiet. It was always “yes sir,” or “no sir,” yes mam,” or “no mam.” That’s the way it was. If kids were around we could go play with them.
During the summers in Yellowstone, we had many different jobs, but we still fished a lot. Skippy and I always had to have a job or dad would put us to work at home and we would not be paid for it. One summer I dug a well about fifty feet deep. It was just behind our tent and was about four feet by four feet square. As I dug, I would throw the very fine volcanic gravel out. My dad shored the sides with 4” x 12” planks that were pushed down in the hole to keep the sides from caving in. When the hole got deeper I filled a bucket that dad pulled up with a wind-up handle. It was the pits of a job, but we had water that was obtained by operating a handle pump.
That was a huge improvement over taking buckets somewhere and bringing water home. The well also served as a cooler. Milk, vegetables, and other perishable things were lowered to the bottom in a bucket where they stayed cool. Another time we built a log fence around our property. Lodgepole pine logs had to be cut and peeled, and postholes dug. I always had pinesap on my hands and all over my clothes. Because we didn’t get paid for things we did around the house it didn’t take me long to learn that I needed to get a real job.
It was dad’s way of getting the word to me. After that, the first thing I did when we arrived in West was look for a job. For a while one summer I sold newspapers to tourists on the street. I sold both “The Montana Standard” (Bozeman) and the “Billings Gazette.” The job required carrying two big bags full of folded-up papers. The bags had shoulder straps but they were heavy for a small kid about ten years old. One time I was tired and sat down on the curb to rest just as my boss drove by. He yelled at me “you’re canned.” I thought it was something good and I went home with a smile on my face. I later told my mother and asked her what it meant. She told me he had fired me. I cried the rest of the day and never went back.
I also had a paper route one winter in Temple. Out at 0430 on my bike and it rained a lot. It was always cold and dark. It didn’t take me long to realize it wasn’t for me. Two mornings in a row, I threw folded papers through glass panes in some little old woman’s front door. That was it for me!
They used to lock the gates to Yellowstone Park at 1000 at night. No one could get in or out after that time. So dad would take the car just inside the gate and park it so we could get up at 0500 and go fishing, before the gate opened. The Madison River in the park had three good fishing holes; the Slow Bend (five miles up,) the Nine Mile Hole (you guessed it, nine miles,) and the Water Hole, (about eleven miles). These were our secret names and the great fishing spots were also TOP SECRET.
It was important that we beat my grandfather (old Charlie Simpson) to these fishing places, especially the Nine Mile Hole that had room for only one fisherman. It was not just a casual thing, but real competition that sometimes bordered on insanity. There were arguments about it. Old Charlie’s emotions on that subject were usually overstimulated.
In 2007 I wrote this for Peggy. It was published in The West Yellowstone News:
There comes a time (maybe it’s an age) when all of us reflect on the happenings that marked our passage through the brakes and thickets of life. Most are conjured up by reverential spirits and are reserved for times when we happen on the solitude of just ourselves.
A passing mood will bring the thoughts of loved ones charging back to dominate a few moments of our time. The reveries are too many to be counted but each one occupies the space in a dark corner of our mind, waiting for another curtain call. I love those things when they do that.
Today I pulled a book from a shelf that had been long forgotten as my thoughts drifted by enroute to new ideas to be tried and new experiences to be had. But this volume made me pause. It’s called Flywater and is about the great fishing places in the western part of this country. Several of the wonderful color plates are of places where I fished as a kid under the tutelage of my father, or where I guided others for pay when I was but twelve and thirteen.
Those great places, which were personal secrets to me then, are now busy with the flourish of fishermen and women who cast a midge or floating cadis upon the same waters, never knowing I had been there, or even caring yes or no. I always thought that space was mine alone, and many of the memories there bred are even now still so personal that they exclude the intrusion of strangers. How dare they do that?
But I know that as the seasons slowly change and the leaves of life fall and are reborn anew, so do the names of those who wade those waters and chalk the memories once again, this time for themselves. I hope they feel the reverence that I once did and now still do.
How special those hours were, to see the waters deepen into cobalt as the flow slowly bends around a bank or to see a ripple swirl as a brookie takes an unsuspecting mayfly.
Many others who have loved these waters before and after me understand that catching fish is not what it’s about. It’s the being there in the tranquility and silence of one’s self or within the gentle call of a friend when he hooks a nice one, or to tell you of the moose and calf that just came out of the pines to feed upon the water grasses just down stream.
This book will now occupy a different shelf, closer to my view, for it holds some memories most dear and makes me know that moments such as those are fleet-of-foot indeed, and calls to make them all the more. It is well said, that “God subtracts from the allotted time of man, those hours spent fishing.”
And when my tackle box is closed at last, and the Cadis hatch is gone, I will rest through all of time and space, pillowed down and scented in, and with a smile that comes from remembering the special things that brought me to that final place, many of which were knowing you were there, somewhere, waiting for me.
I don’t remember much about what Skippy and June did in Yellowstone, they didn’t fish much. In the summer of 1943, when I was thirteen I got a job working for Don Martinez in his one room fishing tackle shop in West. I could tie a gross of wholly worm flies in one workday. I also tied catgut-tapered leaders. Don was drunk for days at a time and the shop was left to me. All the customers thought I was an authority on fishing and they often wanted me to guide them. I knew all the great spots and charged them ten dollars a day. That was major money for me and the world was mine.
The following summer I was hired by Al Jones to work with him and Don Peterson. We were all about the same age. Al had a contract to deliver lodge pole pine logs that were used to build cabins. The Forest Service sold him trees around other side of the South Fork arm of the Madison River, a few miles from where it ran into Hebgen Lake. It was near Rumbaugh creek in a remote area with high mountains and thick forests. The only things we took were sleeping bags, fishing equipment, a shotgun, and a few cooking utensils – for a two and a half month stay.
We each built shelters of pine brows that did little more than slow the wind. The cold summer thunderstorms drenched us and our sleeping bags were always wet. What did we care about that? We were young and full of it. Our job was cutting and scaling (pealing) the trees, which were about a hundred feet high. We had a horse to pull them down to the lake and when we had a few hundred or so we tied them together and, with a small motor boat, pulled them about five miles across the lake to a place on the Ennis highway where they could be loaded on trucks. Try that sometime. We shot grouse and caught trout, which we stored live in a small creek at our camp until we were ready to eat them.
We arose early in the morning and usually had no breakfast except for “coffee” we made by boiling pine needles in an old coffee pot we found. It was very oily and tasted like turpentine, but it sure jump-started us for the days work. We learned that if we scrapped the turpentine oil that floated to the top we could drink the stuff. Al Jones was a year older than I was and he was the boss. One morning he told me that pine coffee built character. I remember asking him what I was going to do with all of that character.
We abandoned that old coffee pot when we left. Someday I am going back and see if I can find it again. I don’t know what happened to Al and Don; they were not from the Yellowstone area. I liked them a lot even though their dads were probably bait fishermen. We sure had a great summer and my parents didn’t seem to worry that we didn’t come in for supplies.
One summer when I was desperate for work, I got a job washing dishes at the Totem Café in West (the name has changed). It was bad times for me. Work started at 0500 and I worked two consecutive eight-hour shifts getting off at 8:00 PM. The pay was fifty cents an hour or eight bucks a day. The only things I had to wash the dishes with were my naked hands and a dishrag. Then of course, I had to scald and dry them. My hands had large cracks in them. One afternoon I was sleepy and hungry so I apprehended a fresh made pie and tiptoed it out back and ate the whole thing. One of the bosses caught me and I caught hell for that. However, they had no one else to wash the dishes so I ducked that bullet. Besides, the old woman baker took up for me and was flattered that I wanted to eat her cooking.
Donnie Joe (I called him Joe) and I always partied with the kids from Idaho and Utah that came up to work in the dining rooms of the Union Pacific depot. We called it The Beanery. The tracks stopped there and the trains mostly brought tourists up to go through the park. There were several large stone buildings that had dining rooms, sleeping quarters, etc. It was great fun and about twenty of us were always together at night.
One guy from Ogden was the life of the party and he had money from home. He was usually about four drinks past tipsy. Everyone went to bed late. One afternoon Donnie shot a black bear at the dump ground, cut its head off and put it under the covers in the person’s bed. It was ugly and bloody. The Ogden person went to bed drunk and when he woke the next morning and found the thing he really freaked out. There was a lot of yelling and otherwise general carrying-on around that beanery, drunk or no. We were told he never drank again.
Until the middle 1940s, no one in West Yellowstone had a go-away toilet. Private outhouses were everywhere. Our outhouse at home was a two-holer my dad built and I dug. We were supposed to use certain holes but I never knew which one I was supposed to use. No matter because I locked the door and it was my secret from that time on. In that privy, with the door locked, I was a king.
We heated water on a wood stove in the kitchen part of our one room cabin. Sometimes baths were taken in a washtub with mom pouring the tepid water on us. It was always too hot or too cold. If we had money, we could go down to the Union Pacific Depot. They would give us a towel and a shower for fifty-cents. We could not afford many at that rate. Sometimes we would drive up in the park to the old freight road to the Firehole River. (sometimes I rode my bike). After a mile or so, it crosses the river. Just before the bridge, on the right is a fairly large geyser with very small streamlets that spill out and boiling water runs downhill for about fifty-feet and into the river. Where the hot water meets the river is a great place in which to bathe. We absolutely loved it. The water was maybe five feet deep and long green grasses swayed back and forth on a sandbar a few feet out. The water could be any temperature you wanted just by moving a foot or so.
Now they won’t let you swim where geyser water enters a stream. Further, they closed the freight road because there is not enough money to maintain all the roads in the park and that was one that was sacrificed. It is worth the half-mile walk to experience that place. The river there is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I can still see the water grasses gently flowing and twisting like Kelly’s long hair when she winds it around her fingers. Last summer, with Kelly and her family, we drove to the freight road and walked to the river. I tried to get Lucca and Hanna to swim where I had taken so many baths. They were not interested.
Things that were so dear to me meant nothing to them. And that’s all there is about that. I hope that someday one of my grandkids will read these words and wish to retrace my steps to that place. I hope so.
In the early years in West we all slept in one room but we had a porch where we stored things we didn’t have room for in the house. There was a tarp that covered the back area. One time I had a new flashlight. Skippy, June, and I slept in the same double bed. One night after everyone was in bed I turned on my new light and beamed it around the dark room. Skippy complained and dad told me to stop. In a minute I turned it on again and Skippy started wrestling me. June yelled and dad got maddern hell. He threw Skippy and me out of the house for the night. It was cold and we had no place to go. I found that I would barely fit into the linen steamer trunk on the back porch. I slept there all night on top of towels and sheets crunched up with the lid down. It wasn’t too bad. No telling where Skippy went that night but no matter, he survived all right. I never turned my light on in the house again. Dad never bluffed and sometimes the punishments were almost fun. Maybe it’s just that I survived by thinking so.
Sometimes we walked out to the Madison River north of West where the Bozeman road crossed it (Highway 191). It was about three miles or so. There was an old falling-down log bridge that we could dive from. Across the river were a lot of willows. Several moose were always in there eating. The bridge is gone now. Sometimes, even later in my life I enjoyed walking out to the Madison and sit by a tree, just to keep the river company for a while.
We also swam some in the river at Baker’s hole. It was named for an old mountain man named Jim Baker who used to camp there. It is just a short way up the river from the swimming bridge. Grizzlies would walk through Baker’s hole on the way to the town dump, a half mile away. Several people were killed when the bears picked up their sleeping bags and shook their heads against a tree. The Forest Service finally covered the dump ground and built an airport on top of it. I have flown in there many times but never landed until after circling around a few times to look at the beauty of that area.
The summer I worked at the Totem Café was a turning point in my life. Getting up at 0445 and working for sixteen hours, then going out on the town until after midnight, spending the eight bucks I had made, drinking too much, and then starting the whole process over again with nothing to show for the work I had done. It was so cold and I rarely built a fire in my stove because it took so long to warm the cabin. Finally, one morning about 0330 I said to myself aloud, “Forrest Fenn you will never do that again.” And I never did. I never blew my money again, I never stayed out late again, I never drank again, and I never washed dishes again. Haleluuuuuuya. I have always been able to talk to myself in convincing tones. Many times in my life I have been so broke I almost forgot how to count but from that day on all the money was saved or wisely spent.
Skippy was always doing big things. He thought big and he always pulled it off no matter what it was. One fall when it was time to go home to school he got an old Model B Ford. He announced that he was going to drive it home to Temple. The fact that he didn’t have a driver’s license didn’t seem to matter much. It was just 1,600 miles across five states. Dad said he couldn’t go by himself so I said I would go with him. That surprised everyone including Skippy and me. However, it was settled and off we went at twenty miles an hour and with almost no money. Fortunately, gas was 11 cents a gallon. We had a flat about every fifty miles or so. The car was packed on top with spare tires that we had salvaged from dumps along the way. The war was on and those things were hard to come by.
Both of us were hardheaded and assertive – a volatile combination. One time we had some kind of disagreement and I told him to let me out. He did of course, and drove off. It was in Wyoming somewhere on a stretch of road that was so long you could almost see the curvature of the earth, with no cars or people around anywhere. I watched him putt-putt over a distant hill and disappear. I had no money, no coat, and no shoes. I remember sitting down beside the road for about an hour to consider my lot in life and ponder my future. All of my bravery had been in my talk. No cars passed and it was getting cold. (I had the same feeling about twenty-five years later when I found myself shot down in the jungles of Laos with little hope of getting out.) I started walking on the two-lane road in my sox.
After another hour or so, off in the distance, I saw Skippy coming back for me. I didn’t think he would. I loved him forever after that and we never fought again. Looking back now after almost sixty-years have past, I still love that guy and although he has been dead twenty-four years. He died in a scuba diving accident in Cozumel. Peggy and I went down to get his body and bring it home. I had to bribe two Mexican officials before they would let me have him. I still love that guy.
That trip was boring at twenty miles an hour. Sometimes Skippy would set the throttle and we would both get out and jog along side the car for miles. When necessary he would grab the steering wheel and turn it a little to stay on the road. It was also fun standing on the running board outside the car.
The two men I admired most in the world were my father and Concy Wood. Concy was my football coach when I played on the Temple Wildcat “B” team. I was slight, and weighed about 95 pounds. Quarterback was my position and we had a lot of fun although we didn’t win many games. Concy and I fished a lot together also, in both Texas and Montana. One fall I rode from West to Temple with him. He was an expert with a sling shot. Concy could throw a tin can into the air and hit it five times before it hit the ground, each time knocking it back up a little and a little further away from him. I saw him do it many times. He also shot the Montana horse flies out of the air. Sometimes they would just hover and all the time he needed was a second.
On my trip with him, I had a bucket of small round rocks on the floor between my legs in the car. I shot constantly and got so good I couldn’t believe it myself. After the first couple of hours, I could hit every sign along the highway no matter the size. I even hit a duck swimming in a little bay as we drove past Yellowstone Lake. Good shooters were made by cutting up tire inner tubes. Today the tubes have no bounce, they just stretch and stay. Nobody shoots anymore and it’s sad. There are a lot of squirrels that live in the pines trees in Yellowstone. Concy and I used to hunt them. When one ran out on a dead limb Concy would shoot the limb off and I would catch the critter in a fish net. We always turned them loose again.
When the war started, he was drafted because he was single and the right age. He had to leave his dog behind with a friend and the dog died of heartbreak. War is hell.
Concy later developed Parkinson’s disease and because of it sometimes he could not move his muscles when he wanted to. One time when he was camped in his trailer home out on the South Fork of the Madison River as it entered Hebgen Lake, I went out to see him from West. He was frying something in a skillet on his stove and it was burning. Although he was holding the handle, he could not move it off the fire. I quickly moved it for him. He never married and he lived alone with his dog. Later, in Texas somewhere down near Corpus Christi, he was killed in a head-on collision and I know it was his fault. He just couldn’t turn the wheel to save his life. Dad told me the police shot his dog that had been hurt in the accident. Concy should not have been driving but what can a man do in that situation. It was one of the saddest times of my life and it still bothers me. That guy was part of me, maybe because he was the only one that treated me as an equal when I was very young. We were soul mates.
In Temple, we lived at 1413 North Main Street. In the 30s, there were few houses around us and none to the north toward the cemetery a block away. One day I was sitting alone on our front porch when a cowboy rode by on a horse, heading north. I must have been about eight or so. I was thrilled to see him and yelled “hi-ya cowboy.” He whoaed his horse, dismounted, and walked over to me. I thought he wanted to talk and I got up and met him. He punched me hard in the nose and didn’t say a word. He just got on his horse and rode off. I never yelled at strangers after that.
In Yellowstone Skippy had an old car with no body but had two seats in the front. When a buffalo got out of the park and was killing cows and tearing up fences, we heard about it. It was my idea to go out and catch it. We found a heavy boat anchor rope and Skippy, Donny Joe, and I, went looking for the buffalo that we knew to be about seven miles from town. It was a big bull and we found it right away. It was in a sagebrush flat with occasional clusters of pines. It fell my lot to slip the loop over the buffalo’s head. We had tied the other end of the rope to the front axle of the car. The buffalo has no enemies and it was easy for me to slip up behind a tree and rope him. I went back about fifty feet to the car, sat on the back axle, and held on to the frame.
The bull just kept grazing but it didn’t take long for the animal to learn that something was holding on to him and he didn’t like it much. When he started to run, we knew that we had probably made a huge mistake. Finally, he panicked and ran full out, pulling us behind him. Skippy steered the car to stay behind him because if we turned away he would flip us over. We narrowly squeezed between two trees and bounced over another that had fallen on the ground. Finally, we dropped about a foot straight down into a stream of fast moving water. The car stopped with a terrible jolt but the front axle and both wheels kept on going. The last we saw of the bull he was still running and the tires were bouncing wildly. I have often wondered if the car is still in the creek. Someday maybe I’ll go back and see. I had lost my shoes in the ordeal and we had a long walk home, wet and cold. We didn’t decide it was fun until much later.
My best friends in Yellowstone were Donnie Joe and Wally Eagle. Wally’s parents owned Eagle’s store, which was just a block from the entrance to Yellowstone. They sold clothes, fishing gear, and nearly anything else a tourist might need. I see Wally nearly every time I go to West and he hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years. The soda fountain in the store is still there where we used to get root beer floats. He worked in the gas station out in front and we spent a lot of time together. Copenhagen snuff came in little round tin cans with a tin lid. Before there were Frisbees, there were Copenhagen tops, which did the same thing. We spent many hours throwing them back and forth.
Wally is a couple of years older than I am and when the war started, he lied about his age trying to get in the Army. They found him out and wouldn’t let him in. Everyone admired him for that. Even though we were best friends, we never told each other where our best fishing places were. A couple of years ago I had dinner at their house and was startled to see how many frames of arrowheads they had hanging in the house. He and his wife Frankie had found hundreds of beautiful archaic points. I was not surprised to learn that he would not tell me within a hundred miles of where they found them. They probably found them in the park. Some things never change. I wouldn’t tell him where I had found them either.
Donnie Joe, on the other hand, was very open about everything, and talked most of the time. His step-dad, Pete Hansen, had a Ford station wagon that had wood paneling on the doors outside. We thought it was cool and spent a lot of time driving the mountain roads, just talking and looking. There was a lot of game – everywhere, eagles, elk, deer, moose, mountain sheep, black and grizzly bears. On and on. It was a thrill for us to be out there and we could never get enough of it. Pete Hanson had a thyroid disorder that left him depressed without proper medication. One winter when he ran out of pills, he shot himself with a rifle he had made from scratch. A few years ago, I gave the rifle to Chris Sparks.
In 2007, I wrote the following story that was published in The West Yellowstone News:
“In the summer of 1946, when I was sixteen years old, I read a book titled Journal of a Trapper, by Osborne Russell, who in 1835 travelled along the Madison River where Hebgen Lake is now. Russell, along with a few of Jim Bridger’s trappers, was attacked by eighty Blackfeet Indians near where Hebgen dam would be built eighty years later. After a brief fight, Russell escaped west toward Stinking Creek. About thirty years earlier Lewis and Clark on their wonderful Corp of Discovery had passed through Montana not too many miles to the north. I was thrilled and wished I could have been part of those adventures. It was a primeval thought. Sixteen-year-old kids are like that.
After telling my parents that my elbow needed some space I told my friend, Donnie Joe Heath, that I was “going out to look for Lewis and Clark.” He quickly informed me that he “would just ride along and help me keep the mountains company.” So we rented a couple of low octane horses from a friend near Parade Rest Ranch and started up Red Canyon.
It was important that we be honest with the situation, and making plans is antagonistic to freedom, so we limited ourselves to three candy bars each, bedrolls, a shotgun, fly rods, a camera, knives and matches. Oh, and we had a Forest Service map of the Gallatin National Forest.
The first afternoon we found ourselves way up on top of a beautiful mountain under a lapis lazuli sky, and I asked Donnie to take my picture (I was proud of the coon skin cap my mother had made for me) as I surveyed the land that had not changed in a million years. We were thrilled and figured the world was ours. Surely, the rippling brooks would be grateful for our company and the grizzlies were only mean to people who didn’t fully understand what the wilderness was all about, as we did.
Well, that night we couldn’t get the dumb fire started and we had used most of our matches so we very wisely wadded the map and hoped that we would be forgiven that one small foible. It worked and as the fire crackled and our horses wandered off, we ate our three candy bars and talked long into the night. Osborne Russell had been in the mountains for nine years and suddenly we knew exactly what it was like.
We spent the next day looking for the horses and finally found them down by a rivulet where the grass was tall and abundant. There were no fish around anywhere and prudence whispered that we should not shoot two magpies. Later we wished we had, when we discovered that hunger is punitive by nature and just gets worse over time.
The next day we rode the mountains, the hills, the valleys, the hollows, the dales and the depressions, looking for something to catch or shoot. There wasn’t much. We did shoot one animal but I promised not to tell. So on the fourth, fifth, or sixth day we decided that we had had enough of this breathtaking nonsense and wanted to go home. Donnie looked like an untipped waiter and became cranky. When he leaned forward in his saddle and just stared at me, I knew enough to sit there, be quiet, and try to appear useful.
I could have tolerated his displeasures more easily if my saddle sores had not become such an issue. I found that riding behind the saddle on the warm, soft, furry, rump helped some but my narrow-minded horse didn’t like it and kept doing some funny dance step that I didn’t trust completely, so I put my handkerchief over the hardest part of the saddle and just tried to smile.
Donnie wouldn’t speak to me because he said this unfortunate adventure was ill-conceived, dumb thought out, and I was over rated. He said that he had important things to do in West and insisted that we go out. I quickly agreed but the problem was that neither of us knew where out was. So I applied some mountain man logic. The sun comes up in the east and we thought out was south so that made it easy, except that south was over the highest mountain we had ever seen. Some arrogant birds kept flying by, yawking at us, always out of range. So we decided to follow a streamlet down hill. At least we could have water and eventually we would come to a road or a forest service man-trail. Finally, the little stream we were following narrowed and narrowed into a vertical canyon until nothing could get through it but water. I think Donnie became delirious because he kept saying, “If we don’t change course soon we’ll end up where we’re going.” He wasn’t smiling. Then one of his stirrup straps broke and he had to ride on one leg. The crisis had arrived so we turned back for half a day until we found another stream to follow. Bad luck can always be trusted.
I won’t go on with this story because the years have been kind to my memory, except to say that finally, we loosened our grip on the reins and the horses took us to a dirt road, fifty miles from where we started. At last, Donnie was in good spirits and wore an inflated smile.
A few days later, I made some notes that I thought might be helpful to any future sixteen-year-old geniuses who think looking for Lewis and Clark might be fun:
+ Hunger is both unrelenting and unreasonable.
+You can’t hide from thunderstorms.
+ Porcupine meat tastes like kerosene.
+ Coffee made from boiled pine needles can bring on cardiac arrest
+ There is nothing worse than a wet bedroll on a cold night.
+ Mountains can instantly change their personality.
+Tired horses will lie down with you in the saddle.
+The older you get the smarter your parents become.
+ Movies lie to you.
+You can never catch fish when you are hungry.
+God looks down fondly at foolish teenagers.
Over the years, I have read Journal of a Trapper a dozen times, and always with a deeper appreciation for who Osborn Russell was. The mountains continue to beacon me. They will always do that.”
After Peggy and I were married, we took an overnight trip on horseback into that same area. Skippy, June and Donnie Joe went with us. We climbed to about 12,000’ into Lost Lake. It was a little dangerous with the girls. Peggy didn’t like her horse jumping over trees that had fallen across the trail. We cooked using a large flat rock for a griddle and that night we built a fire in a circle all around where we were sleeping, just to keep warm. It didn’t help a lot and the smoke was choking. We never did that again with the girls.
Donnie, Wally Eagle, and I had walked into the lake several times and it was a very hard climb with high vertical drops in several places. Along the way, we passed Blue Danube Lake, which was about five acres in size as I recall. It was full of Grayling and we always stopped to catch a few.
Lost Lake was deep and beautiful, (I have a nice color photo of it) with house-sized rocks on the east end. You could get up on the rocks and see big golden trout fifty feet deep. They just cruised around daring something to move. It was a compelling place for me. When I left the lake the last time, I hid a bottle of Coke under a rock. My plan was to drink it the next time I was there. Now I suppose some other Lewis & Clark will find it someday. It has had time to cool. All of those lakes are naturally fed with springs and snowmelt. I remember Skippy climbing way up on the rocks, just looking. He wasn’t much of a fisherman.
Later Donnie Joe married my sister June and they moved to Bozeman. Both smoked and were ultra liberal. They had a daughter (Leslie Heath) who watched Sesame Street all the time. After a few years June and Donnie were divorced, ostensibly because Donnie was lacking in financial discretion. It really upset my dad. After that, she didn’t seem to enjoy her singlehood. The last time I saw her she was visiting in Santa Fe, was slight, and had emphysema. She didn’t have much woman left in her. She had worked as a paralegal and made good money although for a while I sent her monthly checks to help her out. She never asked for anything of me and it took me a little while to realize that I should have helped her more.
Donnie was successful in avoiding the abyss of commitment, although he pretended at selling real estate. One day he was walking down a street and a bicycle ran over him, crippling a leg. He sued the city for something and lost. He died of a tied-up embowelment. I have a soft spot in my heart for Donnie because he personified all of the good things about my Yellowstone youth. I can see now that during my summer teens in Montana I was wandering in pursuit of myself. I felt inadequate and useless; a description that I felt had not been lost on my parents and friends.
Before dad became a schoolteacher, he ran the YMCA in Temple. When the war started in 1941, the “Y” was converted to a U.S.O. It was always full of soldiers from Fort Hood in Killeen, about thirty miles away. Skippy and I both worked at the U.S.O. after school. I was about fourteen and small for my age. All one winter I set pins in the bowling alley. When the pins were knocked down, I would pick up the ball and roll it back down the track to the bowler. Then I had to pick up the pins and place them in a rack above the alley. When it was time, I jumped on the rack bar and had just enough weight to bring it down and set the pins again. Some of the soldiers threw the balls hard and the pins would fly everywhere while I was relatively safe resting on a padded shelf above the alley. All the pin boys were hit a lot.
One big sergeant always put a penny in the thumbhole in the ball before he bowled it. It usually fell out about half way down the alley. The first one to the penny got it. There was always a scramble. We got paid ten cents a line. We all tried to set ten lines a night. That was major money and we always went home tired. Now days I find pennies on the ground in parking lots and always pick them up. Seems that no one else wants them. I hope I never stop picking up pennies.
On cold nights sometimes Skippy and I checked coats for the soldiers at the USO. The coats were full length and heavy. We had to hang hundreds of them in a small room. Now that was really work, and of course, they all looked alike. We just jammed them in and hated it. I am not sure if any soldier ever got his coat back but no matter, the war was on and things were tough all over. Besides those guys never tipped.
Some winters before school I jumped the milk truck with Mickey Goolsby. Mickey and I are still friends after all of these years (now 2008 at this editing) the driver was a good guy named Homer. He would tell us what to take to each house. Everything was in glass bottles with pressed paper stoppers, quarts, pints, and cream. Most of the time we ran around to the back of the house, in the kitchen door, and put the milk in the icebox.
Some people had refrigerators. Half the time some little old lady was in there dressing or something. No one cared; we just ran in and ran out, yelling “hi” as we went. No one ever locked the doors. The milk truck was always moving when we jumped on and off the back, always with milk or empties in our hands. In a day when the word “cool” was used only to describe the temperature, Mickey and I knew what “really cool” was. Cool was jumping the milk truck. I could carry four-quart bottles without using the rack. It seemed we never stopped running and we were in great physical shape for football, basketball, and track.
My attitude about school was that it was unavoidable if I wanted to play sports, and I did. The fun in sports for me was the camaraderie. Winning was always fun but playing and sharing all of it with my friends was more important to me. In high school, I was mediocre in football and track and good in basketball. In track, I could high jump about 5’2” but in my defense, we didn’t have a landing area except a sand pit. I won a third place medal in the Cameron Relays. Later I broke my arm and that was the end of that. I was in and out of the starting line up in basketball.
About mid-summer in 1947, Forrest Levy (my namesake) asked me to come to Atlanta and stay with him. I wanted to buy a car and agreed to go. The train went from West to Chicago and south to Atlanta. I had to change trains in Chicago and for the rest of the trip the train was packed with soldiers left over from WW-II. There was no place to sit and nothing to hold on to. I was held erect by other standing bodies as we swayed back and forth, as the train moved along. It was not hard to sleep standing up but there was no food and no water. I still remember how much I hated that trip.
Levy was a bookkeeper for a wholesale grocery supply house called E. Lichenstein and Co. We lived at 519 North Highland NE. I worked in shipping, loading trucks. I saved every penny and before the summer was over I had $235.00, just enough to buy the most beautiful car in the world, a black 1935 Plymouth Tudor with a soft top. I registered it in Atlanta on 8-29-47. I didn’t have a driver’s license and looked young for my age. I was just seventeen. I decided it was best for me to drive at night to avoid being stopped on the trip to Temple. I learned to drive on that trip and had to sit on pillows to see over the dash. The car was my prize and I loved it. Peggy and I went everywhere in it.
I had a silver dollar that we pawned many times with her mother, to have money for a movie. We always un-pawned it as soon as possible. I still have that dollar in my vault, still wrapped in its white snap-on container. Gasoline was a quarter a gallon and many times, we stopped and got one gallon.
When the soft roof on my car became too worn, I took it off. Then the right front seat and rear seat wore out and broke, so we took them out too. Peggy sat on a cushion stool up front facing backwards. I would take her home from school for lunch and pick her up again. When the Air Force took me away three years later mother disposed of the Bullet without telling me. I left it parked out in front of the house and that scene must have embarrassed her, with all the funerals going by. The pain of that still lingers and resonates deep. If you ever see the Bullet, (motor #PJ-320254) please buy it back for me and park it over my ashes, wherever they might
When we got back to school early, we sat in “The Bullet (we called it that because it was all shot) and listen to Eddy Arnold on the radio. We still laugh about that. Those were good times. I was really in love and haven’t changed in the ensuing fifty some years. In 2008, the passing of Eddy Arnold went almost unnoticed but I still have his autograph, acquired backstage of the theatre at Donaldson AFB in Greenville South Carolina where I was a corporal in the AF. He was putting his guitar away when I walked up to him. That guy was all business.
I was in the class of ’47 at Temple High School but stayed over another year to play basketball. We had a good team and went to the state finals in Austin. We lost in the first round of the tournament and I played terribly. Dad and Levy were there and it was embarrassing. Nevertheless I hung around Temple after graduating because Peggy was still in high school. The next two years (’49 & ’50) after summers in West I attended Temple Jr. College to play basketball and be near Peggy.
In 1949, a Texas A & M student named Ted Whitlow wrote Peggy a few letters with perfume in them. When she showed one to me, I answered it and rubbed onion on the paper. Ted was not amused and felt distressed enough to challenge me to a fight. I told him to meet me after basketball practice at the high school gym. Surely, he wouldn’t. Sure enough, he showed up at the appointed time. It was dark and we went outside. I didn’t want to fight and I was not mad at anyone. We talked for a minute then he kicked me hard. I thought he was going to hit me and wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of that happening, so I took a hard swing at his jaw but missed and hit him high on his cheek. Then I hit him twice more as hard as I could swing, with the same result and he went down.
When the smoke cleared, I had three broken knuckles and he was out cold on the ground. I went to see him in the hospital the next day. He had twenty-one stitches and a black eye – a good one. I told him I was not mad and that was the end of it. No more letters. My doctor put a stainless steel pin about three inches long through two knuckles and into a third. It stuck out about a half inch beside my little finger. I stuck a cork on it. In school, I would take the cork off and carved my name in the desktop. One girl fainted but I thought it was cool. Everyone else thought it was gross. That pin is now in one of the high school scrapbooks in my basement. I save everything.
In 1948, Skippy married Peggy’s cousin, Irene Vance and they had a cute little girl named Lana Sue. After a few years, they were divorced. Skippy kidnapped Lana Sue and left for parts unknown to anyone but my parents. He was in Canada for a while and later helped put London Bridge together on the Colorado River. It didn’t seem to bother Irene that she didn’t get to see her daughter for a number of years. I don’t think she even tried to find her. Irene remarried to a high school classmate of mine, Coleman Ed Roddy. I never liked him much. It is all right to be a little economical with the truth but that guy was downright frugal. He had lots of money compared to the rest of us (his father owned a ladies ready to wear store in downtown Temple and they lived in a brick house). Coleman Ed and Irene now live in Beaumont or somewhere down there where he sells used cars. She died of cancer That about sums him up. (Irene suffered from cancer, caused by smoking but didn’t tell anyone. She died about 2004 or so. Lana was living near her and made the call to me. Several years later, Leslie called to say that Lana had died of cancer also. So much for smoking)
I have sometimes worried that I would miss what was beside me because I looked so far ahead, and at the same time I know that making plans in antagonistic to freedom. So now, as I sit here on New Years day, 2007, with a warm fire going beside my desk I am reading some of this story that was started many months ago before I acquired a computer. Much of it was written in pencil on a yellow pad. That pad has since been replaced and the world has evolved in so many ways. No matter how far away a date is on the calendar, it will get here sooner or later. Irene and Lana Sue are both dead of cancer and our home in Temple has burned to the ground again (it was the third time.) My mother is dead and so is my father. My brother is dead and so is my sister. Concy is gone too and so is the Bip, my faithful companion of 19 years, who is buried outside my bedroom window. I am the only one left in my family old family.
In August 1950, many of my friends were preparing to go to Texas A & M at Bryan, Texas. I really felt left out and, at the last minute, decided to go also. They were leaving on Sunday and I asked them to come by and pick me up. Since I had not discussed my arrival with the school, it was going to be interesting to see how they handled it. I didn’t care. After checking in, I started attending classes here and there with the other guys although I was not registered in any of them. My parents were never involved in many of the things I did and I always appreciated that. Today parents are too hovering.
I was in my element with many of my friends and no care in the world. After about four days, my name was called over the loud speaker while we were playing football. “Cadet Fenn, report to finance.” I knew the gig was up so I quickly went back to my room, packed my extra shirt and pants in a brown paper sac, and headed out. To avoid detection I ran about half a mile across an open field to a small county road and started thumbing a ride home.
After a few minutes, I saw an A & M pick-up truck coming out to take me back. When the official asked me what was going on I told him I was going home because there was no money for me to stay. Those must have been magic words because he turned around without comment and left me crying on the pavement. I went home and joined the Air Force. I was twenty-years and fifteen-days days old. The Korean War had started two months earlier. I doubted that I would ever see Peggy again.
Sammy Myers, Frank Harlan and I joined together. Frank’s father was the doctor who delivered me at King’s Daughters hospital and was a good friend of the family. His name was Nepots. We had to go to Waco to join because that was where the closest recruiter was. On our way to Lackland AFB, in San Antonio, the bus stopped in Temple for ten minutes so we could say good-by to our parents. Frank’s mother was crying and made me promise to take care of Frank. When we got to Lackland for basic training, they separated Frank from me and Sammy and I didn’t see Frank again for twenty-five years. Frank stayed in the AF for four years and got out to work for the Post Office in Temple. We attend arrowhead shows together now and he collected coins with my father. I still talk with Frank on the phone.
Sammy and I went from Lackland to Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls to finish basic training. I hated it. One morning at 0400, they marched us to the mess hall for KP. I was sleepy and in no mood for that kind of nonsense. When we arrived, it was dark and as the line started up the steps and into the mess hall, I slipped under the building and went to sleep. Later, about 0800, when the place was full of troops I marched in with some other people, grabbed a broom, and got busy right quick. The big fat sgt. came over and asked if I was pvt. Fern? I told him my name was Fenn. He had been calling my name over the speaker but mis-pronounced it. That technicality saved my life and he bought it. It would have been disastrous if I had been caught.
Another time I was on guard duty all night and all alone. It was cold and I had on a heavy blue wool coat. My job was to walk in the street around the general’s house. After a couple of hours of carrying a heavy rifle around I decided to get right in the middle of the road at the corner, estimate how many steps it would take to reach the next corner where I had to turn left. I closed my eyes, started counting steps, and went sound to sleep walking. Finally, I tripped over the curb and woke up in strange territory. I was lost and so was my gun. About that time a jeep came by (the driver had picked up my rifle). He took me back to my post two blocks away. I ducked that bullet also but knew I had to shape up or else.
From there Sammy and I and Dennis Mckiernan (who got out after four years and became an important science fiction writer in Tucson – Google him) boarded the train for Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi to attend Airborne Radar Mechanics School. I never figured out why they sent me there, as I had no aptitude for it. We were on the swing shift (1800-2400) and had to march to class, about 100 of us. I carried the squadron guidon and walked up front. It was the pits, all nine months of it, except I started playing poker after school with some serious people. I secretly went to the library and read a couple of books on poker, memorizing the odds for the games we played. Did you know that when playing draw poker, jacks or better to open, if you have jacks you shouldn’t open and if someone else opens you shouldn’t stay? I was the only one that knew the odds. The other rule that made money for me was to draw one card to three of a kind in draw poker. The other players think you have two of a kind and will stay and lose. Besides, you have a better chance of making a full house if you drew one card. I was winning more every day than was my monthly military pay ($95) and it all went in to savings bonds and saving stamps. I was patriotic and every time I got a dime, I took it to the post office and bought a savings stamp to paste in my savings book.
While at Keesler, we made endless weekend trips to New Orleans where we rented a flea trap room in one of the sleazy hotel that punctuated nearly every street in the French Quarter. It was an adventure for sure. Six guys in a room with one bed and a light bulb hanging on a wire.
One night while in school I got sick with a high temperature. I checked into the hospital but could not get better. The problem was if I missed four days of school they washed you back one class. I didn’t want to leave Sammy and Dennis. On the fourth day, the nurse put a thermometer in my mouth and walked away. I took it out and put it in a glass of water by my bed. When I saw her coming, I put it back in my mouth. She looked at it and said “Hmmmm, 60 degrees, I guess you can go.” The rest of the story is that I kept flirting with the nurse, who was about 60, overweight and ugly. You don’t want to make the alligator mad until you’ve crossed the river.
From there the three of us took the train to Hensley Naval Air Station in Arlington, Texas, to the 48th Troop Carrier Wing. We were flying the C-82, C-47, and later C-119 aircraft. It was an Air Force Reserve unit and nearly everyone lived around there. I missed Peggy a lot and rarely saw her. It was still the pits. After a few months (1951), the Korean War was heating up and the wing was called to active duty and transferred to Donaldson AFB in Greenville, SC.
You never saw so many grown men crying at having to leave home. Greenville was serious Bible belt with no movies on Sunday. I was the only one that had a little money (from poker) so I bought a ’49, white, four-door Chevy. All of a sudden I was in demand but the work was boring, especially since I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was doing with the radar stuff, and you can fake only so much. One day I was fed up, went to personnel, and applied for jump school and pilot training. After a few weeks, and to my great surprise, they called me to take a flying pulmotor test. You go into this building and sit in a little “airplane” that wants to tilt ever which way and your job is to hold it in the center with a control stick that is fastened to springs. The instructor said I was the best he had ever seen and, although they wanted college graduates, the war was on and they needed pilots. I was soon off to primary training at Bainbridge, Georgia.
My plan was to give pilot training a good shot but was not fooled into thinking I could graduate because it was one of the toughest schools in the world. I figured I wasn’t smart enough considering most of the class was made up of aeronautical engineers and all but a few were college graduates with some PhDs thrown in. Grades were figured on the Bell Curve and I thought I’d be down at the bottom where the line didn’t curve. And I had no great desire to fly, which they said was essential. However, here I was and didn’t want it. I figured I would learn to fly then wash out when my four-year enlistment was up and go home to Peggy who was now engaged to some coat and tie jerk in Houston. It was still the pits.
The T-6 was the hardest airplane in the world to fly. Everyone knew that. It was cold and windy (you have to take-off and land with the canopy open). It wants to ground-loop on take-off and ground-loop on landing, and loves to snap and spin when you are not looking. My instructor was Carl Smith from Hot Springs, Ark. He was a prince who sat in the back seat and flew the thing all of the time. One day we landed and he told me to taxi up to the operations building. The thing was a six-hundred horsepower tail dragger and its nose was so high you couldn’t see over. You had to use left and right rudder all the time just to see where you were going on the taxiway. It was definitely not for me. So he climbed out of the back seat, parachute and all, and told me to go fly it by myself.
I couldn’t believe it. I tried to tell him that I had not flown it and certainly could not land the fool thing. He was trying to kill me and I felt the torque on take-off would run me through the fence for sure. He smiled and told me to fly around the pattern three times, make three landings, and come in. He walked away and left me sitting there with my face looking out from behind my plastic goggles. I remember thinking what it would cost me to get out, leave the engine running, and go to the bus station. I soon figured that would be the end of Peggy and me if I did. However, she was going to marry that button-down jerk anyway. So however you cut it I was going to be the loser and if I killed myself on take-off at least it would be a significant event for my instructor.
I chose suicide and was strangely calm as I taxied out and checked the magnetos. It was 15 January 1953, and I flew 35 minutes. My landings were graded excellent. That was it and my life was changed forever. One time on a night solo cross-country across the swamps of north Florida, the bottom of my airplane fell off. When the dust blew away I looked down and could see lights between my legs. You are not supposed to see them there so I called the tower and reported what had happened. They told me that because the fuselage panel was gone I would lose a lot of lift on landing and should touchdown twenty knots faster or the plane would crash. I did and it didn’t. I kept telling myself that it was only the last inch that counted. The incident taught me to never get over confident in an airplane. The saying was “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots. I remembered that and got a commendation for landing the airplane.
When I left Bainbridge on the 29th of April, I had 47:55 hours in the hardest airplane in the AF to fly and I was a good pilot. From then on, everything in my life was pretty much down hill. I talked Peggy into marrying me instead of the three-piece-suit jerk from Houston, and headed to Laredo for basic training and jet airplanes. From now on I would start making some of the rules. Thank you Carl Smith.
When I was accepted into pilot training, I was a buck sergeant (three stripes and the best rank in the Air Force). But to enter the program they demoted me to aviation cadet with a salary $75 a month with all necessities provided. Of 400 or so in my class (53-G), about twenty of us were cadets and the rest were officers, all with college degrees and a few with Ph.Ds in aeronautical engineering. Some of them were captains and majors. I knew I was not going to compete academically and justified my position by secretly telling myself that it was no big deal and I really didn’t care how many rivets there were in the wing of an F-100. That sustained me as I tromped through the classes.
But I was near the top of the class in flying. One time in a crowded discussion, the colonel lamented that I was near the bottom of the class in academics. I told him that I didn’t care because I did not plan to build airplanes. Further, if I needed someone built an airplane, I would call on him to make it but if he needed one flown, he should call on me. I went on to say that I didn’t know the wingspan of an F-86 but I was smart enough to know that if I ever had to fly it through a hole that size I would go out and measure the wings before I left. The colonel was not amused but I did not expect him to be. I was a hero to myself because I had far exceeded my personal expectations. And only there is where it counted.
All cadets were restricted to the base for the first three months of basic pilot training. It was a lousy policy with no air conditioning in the barracks in Laredo in the summertime. We lived in the most unglamorous bays in the world. At night we took our sheets with us into the shower and soak them down, then run to the bed and try to sleep before they got too hot again. In the mornings we nearly always woke up to sand and grit all around us if the wind was more than ten knots or so. All of the cadets really hated this one 1st Lt. named McGrath. He thought he was Jimmy Doolittle and gave us continuous grief. If you gave that guy an inch he thought he was a ruler. At our graduation party on 26 October 1953, we had concocted an elaborate Ops plan. The Pentagon would have been proud of us. Each cadet was instructed to start drinking beer early, and lots of it. Then at exactly at 1815 (we hacked watches), and in alphabetical order, everyone was required, at four minute intervals, to go out and pee in McGrath’s gas tank. There was more thinking that went into that plan than what Eisenhower had to do on “D” Day. The officers could not understand why all the cadets had such lingering smiles. McGrath was in charge and had to stay late. It was rumored that he walked home because his car wouldn’t start. Two guys wanted to siphon gas out of his gas tank ahead of time to make more room but we decided it was too risky.
Not being able to leave the base for very long was more than I could handle and I made a scheme with Richard Hill to sign me in on time because I was going to drive to Houston to see Peggy. Fifty-six years later, in 1999, Dick visited us in Santa Fe and reminded me that he was caught covering for me and was fined a 21-72 & 3. (21 hours of walking around the base on Sunday in dress uniform with a rifle on his shoulder, 72 demerits, and 3 months restriction to the base.) It was equivalent to a death sentence. I had forgotten that little incident but apologized to Dick. (Dick and his wife Sheila came to see me on 28 December 2006 and we had breakfast in Santa Fe. He has lost his hair on top but his beard still flourishes with aplomb. It was good to see him again.)
Upon graduation, and sporting a set of second Lt bars and a beautiful pair of silver wings (Peggy came to the graduation) we headed to Temple for thirty days leave, and started planning a wedding. Sidney Kacir and Edward Aycock (Edard) were best men at our wedding (actually Edward I think), which was held at the first Baptist Church in Temple. After the wedding, I headed for Panama City, Fla., to check out in the F-86D. It was an all weather night fighter that held the world’s speed record at that time. It had an afterburner and a drag chute and those things were new to me. Peggy wanted to finish at the U. of Houston because her mother was pushing her. After about six months or so, she joined me in Florida where we lived in a house near high tide at Panama Beach, which was about 9 miles down the road from Tyndall AFB where I was temporarily stationed.
We loved living on the beach but my pay was meager. I was making $219.00 a month and was making a car payment on my used ’53 Chevy. During the day while I was flying Peggy walked down to the pier to fish. She was a beautiful young woman so finding some old retired guy to bait her hook and take the fish off was easy. When I got off work, I would clean the fish and we had something to eat.
Those were good days but stressful ones because the F-86D had a high accident rate due to the electronic fuel control and the glide rate of a boat anchor. After graduation, we were assigned to Scott AFB, at Belleville, Ill., across the Mississippi from St. Louis. I was in the 85th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. Our mission was to stand 24 hour alert in hangars that were just off the runway. We had two airplanes on five-minute alert and two on 15-minute alert. If you were on 5-minute alert that meant you had to be in the air in five minutes if the alarm went off. We could sleep but had to be fully clothed with G-suit and jump boots, and flight clothes including jacket. We did a lot of flying on alert and had to get a third of our total time at night. Our plane was a single engine and single pilot. We bored a lot of holes in the sky and used to fly to Chicago, to Kansas City, and back. It was fun doing acrobatics late at night when there was no one else around.
I played a lot of golf in those days and we had a cocker spaniel named Mike that could dive down in the small ponds on the golf course and bring up balls. I always had plenty and certainly couldn’t afford to buy them. I played a lot with a Lt/Col. by the name of Bill Hale. He later worked for me in our gallery in Santa Fe. He introduced me to Brig/Gen Frank H. Robinson who was the Inspector General at Training Command headquarters at Scott. When the general got a second star and was transferred to Randolph AFB in San Antonio, Bill got me the job as his aide-de-camp. Bill went with us. That was about late 1954. Bill and I kept playing golf and we had a great time. My job as aide was to do things the general needed done. I could use his name and we got quick results. His job was commander of Crew Training Air Force, which meant he commanded nine bases and all of the combat training. Over the next three years I checked out in the F-86F, F-86E, F-84G, F-89, F-100C, continued flying the T-33, and graduated from the helicopter school. It was a six-month course. When I told the general I graduated in nine days he wanted to see my diploma because he didn’t think it could be done. He told me to deliver an H-13D from Randolph to Williams AFB in Phoenix. So I took the doors off and started out against the wind. When I needed gas I landed near a gas station on the highway and pushed it over to the pumps. I was making about 40 knots ground speed so it took me four days. That’s when I learned to fly a helicopter.
When the General broke his back in a helicopter accident he went to Williams AFB near Phoenix to recover. I would get in an F-86F at Randolph, fly to PHX with his morning mail, fly to Nellis AFB, in Las Vegas, fly the F-100C locally, go back to Randolph, get the afternoon mail and take it to the general again, and return home. That was seven flights a day because I had to stop in Amarillo for fuel on the way from Nellis to Randolph. Those were good days.
The first time I flew the F-100 I had only seen it once, and that was in a Top Secret hangar in Palmdale, California. It could fly 1.5 mach (about 1,140 MPH) in level flight and he guys at Nellis couldn’t believe I would fly the thing and didn’t even know where all the buttons were. The crew chief talked me through the start and I taxied to the runway suddenly thinking that my ego had numbed my thinking processes. The flight lasted for an hour and went very well. The engine put out 16,000 pounds of thrust in afterburner and I had not even dreamed of such power. My landing was good and a large crowd had gathered, ostensibly to witness the wreck. When I turned the engine off and climbed down the ladder I felt exhilarated. Everyone in the Top Gun School was watching as I walked away with nonchalance and an inner smile is reserved for those who see themselves as heroes. Only a general’s aide could get by with some of the things I did.
While I was doing all of that Peggy was playing Maj Jong with the general’s wife and having a good time. We lived in one of the big houses on Outer Circle at Randolph with the big shots.
1/9/08 2336 hours in my office with a nice fire going. Peggy is asleep.
In 1957, when the general retired, I was able to use some connections to get an assignment to the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing at Bitburg, Germany, which had five squadrons. I was assigned to the 23rd Fighter Day Squadron whose mission was air-to-air combat and there were few rules. We could bounce any aircraft in the skies over Europe except commercial airliners. The sky was always full of Canadian Mark 4 fighters, British Hawker Hunters, French Mistairs and German and Italian fighters. It was fun going round and round the sky in mock combat. We sat five-minute alert around the clock and patrolled the Berlin corroders. On occasion, we had Russian Mig 15 fighters pull along side our planes and wave, then fly away. My eyes were good and I could see a Mig at 6 miles.
We had a gunnery camp on the Verdun (WW-I) battlefield in France. The land couldn’t be used for any other reason because it was still loaded with land mines left over from the war. They cleared a road into the middle of the mine field and built a range tower so we could have a range officer, whose job it was to supervise bombing and strafing. We used practice 25# bombs with a smoke charge and we used ball ammo in our guns. We were flying the F-100C. Buzz Aldren and Dave Scott (both later walked on the moon) were in our wing and we were always together playing golf or sitting alert.
We also had nuclear weapons delivery bombing range on Vleland Island in the North Sea near the Netherlands. It was a small sandy island that was completely under water at high tide and for a couple of weeks I was range officer there. The Dutch would fly me out in a T-6, land in a foot of water and taxi up to the range tower. I would get walk on the wing and jump to the ladder and climb up to the tower. In the evening, the T-6 would come back for me and take me home. Peggy and I enjoyed living in the little town of Soesterberg, Holland for a while.
However, our main gunnery range was out of Tripoli, Libya, and I spent a lot of time down there on temporary duty, sometimes three months at a time. On occasion we lived in tents and other times in a lousy barracks in the sand. It was good flying and flew occasionally with both Robin Old and Chuck Yeager. When we saw packs of wild dogs on the range we always shot them because they would kill and eat a pilot if he had to bail out. Our mission had changed to low level nuclear weapons delivery, which required that we come in at 500’ above the ground and 600 knots airspeed and pull-up over the target at 4Gs. When the aircraft reached a little past vertical the computer ejected the bomb and it continued up to about 25,000 feet and started down to explode on the target. It was our job now to get the plane out of the blast area and we did that with afterburner and a steep dive for airspeed. We delivered practice bombs a lot on the range.
Once I was taking an F-100F from Bitburg to Chattereaux, France and couldn’t get the main gear down. My boss at Bitburg advised that I eject from the plane but I elected to land it after the runway had been sprayed with foam. It was a wild ride with no directional control and no brakes. I ended up in the mud along side the runway with the airplane on fire but it was soon put out. There is a picture of it in my files somewhere. At least I saved the airplane but would later lose two in Vietnam.
Life is a game of poker,
Happiness is the pot,
Fate deals you four cards and a joker,
And you play whether you like it or not.
The squadron pilots could take weekend cross countries anywhere in free Europe as long as we were home by Sunday evening at dark. So of course, we were all over France, Italy, Spain, Holland and England.
Initially, Peggy and I lived upstairs in a small apartment that was relatively new but without some of the conveniences we were accustomed to. If we wanted warm water I had to go down in the basement, build a coal fire, and wait for the water to warm. Our living space required a fire in a different furnace. Our landlord was a man named Herr Probst, who made flight boots for the pilots that were much better than those we were issued, so all of us bought them. Herr Probst had been a Nazi during the war but turned Communist when the war ended.
Zoe was born at the base hospital and our lives were changed forever. We were now living in a fourth-floor walk up apartment on the base, and while we had attended nearly every movie that was shown, after she was born, we didn’t go to a movie for a year. There was no bed in which to keep the baby so I jokingly said to just put her in a dresser drawer and close it. That was a terrible mistake because Peggy thought I was serious and started crying. It lasted for a while and I felt terrible. So we had a German cabinetmaker build a rock-a-by crib. We later loaned it to Zoe when she started having children, and then Kelly.
When Peggy got pregnant with Kelly she didn’t know how to tell me. Finally, she asked me to come to bed where she told me. She was crying because she thought I would not be pleased with the news. She was wrong. I applied to return to the US after three years of a four-year tour so she could get better health care. My request was approved and Kelly was born in a civilian hospital in Phoenix where I was assigned to teach the gunnery school at Luke AFB. Kelly had terrible jaundice and was yellow all over her body. The nurses kept taking blood from her heels and we couldn’t stand to see it. It was tough times and Peggy cried a lot. We lived in a new Weary Housing condo on the base and had good friends all around us. It was a great assignment and the kids were small and ran around in diapers a lot, playing with other kids.
When the Cuban Crisis started, I was in the 17th Crew Training Squadron at Luke and my commander was L/C Bill Whisner, who was an ace from WW-II and Korea, having shot down 22 German Messerschmitts and Mig-15s. He was a great commander and after he retired to Payson, Arizona, he died from a bee sting. Go figure. Look him up on Google.
Our whole squadron was dispatched to Homestead AFB in Miami for temporary duty until the crisis was over. We sat alert with engines running around the clock. The intelligence people knew that a high tower just off the base was manned with Cuban and Russian informers that were watching our operation. So we loaded two airplanes with atomic bombs for them to look at. Some say that was one of the reasons the Russians backed down. When we first arrived and started setting up operation several of us worked 7 days and nights without sleep. Some say that was impossible but we did it to come up to speed so we could operate. The rest is history.
In Arizona I started exploring ruins a lot and digging. While flying with students I could always take ten minutes off and look for ruins. They were everywhere and two good friends, John Whitaker and Bill Robinson, usually went with me. I had an old Army jeep that could go anywhere. It was a fun time for me. One day in November 1963, while coming in from the Bloody Basin, we heard on the radio that President Kennedy had been shot.
Because Peggy had asthma, I requested a change of station to Lubbock, Texas, which had a better climate for her. My new job was teaching pilot training in the T-38 Talon. It was a great job as the plane was one of the best in the AF at that time, and we flew a lot, all over the country. We built a three-bedroom house on 15th Street near Slide Road, on the west side of Lubbock to be near the base (11 miles or so) and I went to work every day in a VW Bug. It was I964.
Somehow, I met an artist named Lonnie Edwards, who was teaching at Texas Tech. I helped him cast bronzes using his archaic methods. He made a tall Indian in wax that was holding two rabbits and a bow that I really admired. Lonnie said that if I would cast it in bronze he would give it to me. Well, that started a career that led Peggy and I to where we are now (2/20/08). It was a straight path with just a few pauses along the way, Vietnam was one.
So I jumped in a T-38 and flew around the country visiting Air Material Command bases where they were casting airplane parts. I was able to scrounge a silica carbide crucible in which I could melt bronze. All of the other tools I made, including a furnace constructed with a vacuum cleaner motor. Natural gas was piped from our fireplace in the living room, through the kitchen and into the garage. The wax Indian was invested in a huge container of plaster of paris and sand mix and I had burned the wax out at Texas Tech. Now I was all set except that I didn’t have any bronze to melt. So I made a midnight requisition of four sprinkler heads from the Texas Tech practice football field (they had a losing season that year). Anyway, after waiting about five hours to melt enough metal to pour the Indian I was ready to pour and since no one was around but me I did the whole job by my self. It was a miracle but the thing poured perfect.
Peggy and I were off and running now because I started taking on casting jobs after work and on weekends. It would have been a profitable business if the artists could come up with enough money to pay for my work, which they couldn’t. So I started trading or buying their original wax models and casting editions for myself. That was a better deal and after a few months we had lots of bronzes and no money. However, it all worked out after lots of hard and little sleep. Now (1-9-08) I am trying to buy back some of those bronzes I cast in those days. Two notable purchases are “Jose Tafoya, the Comanchero,” and “The Babysitter,” by my old friend George Dabich.
Unfortunately, the Vietnam War was in full bloom and I felt obligated to volunteer. Because of my experience teaching the gunnery school at Luke, I was soon ordered into combat. But first I had to take a quick refresher course at Luke to get recurrent in the F-100 and soon we were off to the Air Force Survival School in Spokane. Zoe and Kelly were small, that was late 1967 so Kelly would have been seven and Zoe, eight. One evening after I graduated, we had eaten in a café and I gave the girls some money to take to the cash register to pay our bill. They had never done anything like that before but they got the correct change and brought it back to the table. You should have seen the grins on their faces.
So we went back to Lubbock and I packed up. It was around Christmas time, 1967 and I wanted to be in the combat zone before the New Year because leaving early might get me home before Christmas 1968. The problem was that I had pulled a muscle in my back and could hardly stand up and I had a heavy duffle bag to carry. Somehow, I made it to the plane and was off for a wonderful adventure. When I landed in the Philippines (at Clark AFB), I checked into the hospital trying to get my back in shape. That took a couple of days and then I had to attend a jungle survival course before they would let me into Vietnam. The class consisted of living in the jungle with Negrito Pigmies for two weeks. It rained all the time of course and we were taught to build fires in mud puddles and other fun things. The pygmies were wonderful and I took some photos that are in my Vietnam scrapbook. Japanese skeletons littered the jungle along with unexpended ordnance.
I had been assigned to the 306th Tactical fighter Squadron at Tuy Hoa, South Vietnam but before I could get there, my orders were amended and my new assignment was in some stupid headquarters in Saigon. The only thing for me to do was pretend I didn’t get the new orders and after landing in Saigon I quickly jumped on a C-123 that I knew was going to Tuy Hoa. I had to have that fighter assignment and fortunately, when I landed I met Colonel Eugene Butler who I had served under at Luke and talked him into phoning Saigon to let me stay. That worked and I owe him a lot. We flew together a few times and one day we both received Distinguished Flying Crosses for a particularly rewarding mission where some marines were being overrun with NVA Regulars and we drove them back with 20mm cannons. We were shooting within thirty feet of the marines and the 20mm HEI (high explosive incendiary) bullets are lethal within twenty feet.
I flew 328 combat missions in Vietnam about fifty or so were with forward air controllers in the OV-10s or other small spotter planes, like the L-19. The remaining were flown in the F-100C, D, or F models. One time I was in the back seat of a FAC putt-putt when we spotted a Viet Cong soldier walking across a rice patty. The only weapon I had was my Colt 45 automatic pistol that was loaded with tracer bullets, to be used in case we were shot down. I told the pilot to fly a little closer and I would shoot the gook with a tracer bullet. After wildly missing my target the soldier lifted his rifle and shot a hole in the wing just outside my open window and 100-octane gasoline started pouring all over me and I couldn’t get the window closed. Finally, I stuck my ballpoint pen in the hole and we started for home.
We flew ground support missions in South and North Vietnam, in the Delta and in the mountains and all over. We were in Laos and Cambodia a lot also. Our missions always had at least two F-100s, and sometimes three, in case one was shot down the others could start the rescue process. It was a serious mission and sometimes the weather was terrible. We didn’t even care and once we continued flying through a four-day cyclone with winds so strong that they blew a panel off one of our planes and it killed a crew chief.
I was shot down the first time in the Delta on a close air support mission. Fifty-caliber bullets penetrated my left wing and went all the way through it. I could see fuel pouring out and my fuel gage was winding down something fierce. I also took some engine damage because the oil pressure was fluctuating and smoke filled the cockpit. I turned to the nearest friendly base but didn’t think I could make it, expecting to jump out before I got there. Luckily, the engine didn’t quit until I was a few miles on final to Bein Thuey so I put my tail hook down and engaged the approach end barrier at about 220 knots. The barrier was two huge anchor chains that were stretched out, one on each side of the runway. When the tail hook engaged I pulled the chain the wrong way and they said I stopped in 250’. The airplane was wrecked from bullets anyway. I caught a ride back to Tuy Hoa and the gooks blew up the airplane that night. I took a picture of the poor plane as we took off for home. It is in my scrapbook.
Peggy met me once in Hong Kong because I was required to leave the country for a week after each 100 missions flown. Two days before I was to meet her, the gooks blew up our only C-47 and that was my ride to Hong Kong. Luckily, my boss got a replacement out of Saigon. Another time I went to Australia and another all over Asia, getting on airplanes and not caring where they were going. Some places were Shanghai, Taipei, Seoul, Guam and other places I forgot.
The second time I was shot down is documented in “My War for Me.” See my memoir.
My tour in Vietnam was rewarding to me because I learned how to survive in ways other than flying. My squadron commander, Lt/Col. John Rivers, didn’t like me for some reason and picked on me when he could. He was very conscious of his position, and his reputation was a big deal to him. I finally decided to get him off my back by saying I was writing a book about my Vietnam experiences and he saw me working on something. That was enough and we became “best friends” after that. He wanted to make sure he was the hero in my non-book. Later he tried to abort a takeoff and couldn’t stop in time. He wrecked pretty good and was severely injured. I never saw him again and don’t even care. A few years later he wrote me a letter to ask how my book was progressing. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was all a ploy to get him off of my back.