Monday, June 26, 2017

ICE DREAMS - Chapter 2

I will be posting one chapter per week of my latest book, ICE DREAMS. Please note that the numerical chapters are autobiographical. The alphabetical chapters are pure fiction. 

The letters from Lorraine were always at least six pages long and sometimes longer. She was working in the Maryland Department of Statistical Records, preparing monthly reports compiled from death certificates. On breaks from her work she typed part or all of a letter to me.  If she finished it at home, that part was handwritten.
She would tell me about the baby kicking and punching, things she was assembling for its arrival, maternity clothes she was making and borrowing. There were a number of babies on the way. My mother, my cousin Darlene, and one of Lorraine’s girlfriends were also expecting babies. That meant there were baby showers to attend. It was snowing when Lorraine was on her way to one of the showers. She slipped in the snow getting off the bus, but caught herself. The girl who got off the bus behind her also slipped and she fell down in the snow and slush. No one got off the bus to help the girl.
Lorraine was having trouble figuring out how to pay the bills. She knew there were car payments and car insurance payments. She didn’t know how much they were or where to send them. There was at least a two week response time between the time she mailed a letter with a question for me and when she received a letter back from me answering the question.
One of the first problems she had with the car was getting it back from Al. The day I had to leave, I couldn’t find anyone in the family who would/could drive me to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. My flight was on Monday morning and the Airport was at least twenty miles from Lorraine’s family’s home. Finally, I offered Al $25 if he would drive Lorraine and I to the Airport and drive Lorraine back. He agreed.
That morning, I had to go several miles to where he lived, pick up Al and his wife, drive back and pick up Lorraine and my luggage. Then I drove to the Airport. I told Al we would have to wait until the first of the month the $25. That was satisfactory with him. After I had departed on the plane, Al drove Lorraine back to her house. He then drove the car to his house.
Al was supposed to bring the car to Lorraine in the next few days afterward and ride the bus back to his house. Evidently, there was something wrong with his own car and he began using our car to go to work, run errands, and so on. To make matters worse, Lorraine did not have his phone number or address. Her sister’s husband, Jim, was a claims adjustor for Liberty Mutual Insurance. He warned her that our car insurance probably would not cover any damages if Al was using the car without our permission. Lorraine was writing me about this on the 10th of the month and I didn’t even get her letter until the 21st. She wanted me to send her Al’s phone number and she was wondering if she should still pay him the $25. Whatever answer I could give her did not reach her until the beginning of February.
We had rented a garage in which to store the car for the year that I was away. Once Al returned the car, Lorraine would have to wait until Jim was at the house so she could have him put the car in the garage (which was probably a half mile away) and make sure the garage was securely locked.
There was no phone service on Shemya. There was a phone connection in the orderly room to headquarters in Anchorage. There was a secure phone in the Comm Center in the Operations Building. These phones were for official business only and were on a military network. I don’t think there was any interface with commercial phone companies. On the other side of the Island there were contractors who were building the new barracks and other buildings. They had phone service on which they could call their families.
There was a MARS shack. MARS is Military Amateur Radio Service. Air Force and Army personnel who were “hams” (radio amateurs with a license for amateur radio) could use the equipment in the shack. They would sometimes run a phone patch for one of the men. This involved finding a radio amateur operating someplace close to where a phone patch was desired. I wanted a phone patch to Baltimore, Maryland. The amateur in the MARS shack would try to make contact with an amateur in the Baltimore area. That ham operator in the Baltimore area would call the phone where Lorraine was living and connect the phone to his radio transmitter. We could then talk in a one-at-a-time conversation. She would say what she wanted to say and then say “Over.” I could then talk until I was finished, then say “Over.” That only happened one time while I was on Shemya. I think it was in October or November. One time when I was in the MARS shack hoping a ham from Maryland would call in, we got a call from a man who said that he was also in the Air Force. When we looked up his call sign it was General Curtis LeMay!
Lorraine’s letters were filled with declarations of her love for me and reasons for why she loved me and how much she missed me. My letters also contained protestations of love, but I often included graphic descriptions of our lovemaking. She said that she liked them, but was also embarrassed by them.
The walls of our makeshift barracks were soon plastered with pin-ups from Playboy and other similar magazines. That was short-lived. The chaplain complained to our commanding officer. The First Sergeant came into the building and ordered them removed.
The first or second Sunday that I was there, the noise in the large bay was unbearable. There were radios on, tuned to the only radio station. There were tape recorders playing other music. A group of men were playing cards and talking loudly. Another man was playing his guitar and singing. I thought I would go mad.
I went outside and decided to follow a sign pointing down a path “To The Beach.” I followed the path which was going across tundra. I found out later on that during World War II there had been a number of fox holes dug in that area. The tundra had grown over them, but if you stepped onto a foxhole, you would fall through the layer of tundra into the foxhole and it would be difficult for anyone to find you.
I walked about a half mile down to the beach. There were huge rocks as tall as a two story building. The waves would crash into them. I sat down on a flat rock along the beach. As I listened to the crashing and roar of the waves, I remembered my last Sunday at Port Mission in Baltimore. A woman sang a solo that I could hear it in my memory just as when she sang.
In times like these you need a Savior,
In times like these you need an anchor;
Be very sure, be very sure,
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock!

This Rock is Jesus, Yes He's the One,
This Rock is Jesus, the only One;
Be very sure, be very sure,
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock!

In times like these you need the Bible,
In times like these, O be not idle;
Be very sure, be very sure,
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock!

This Rock is Jesus, Yes, He's the One,
This Rock is Jesus, the only One;
Be very sure, be very sure,
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock!

In times like these I have a Savior,
In times like these I have an anchor;
I'm very sure, I'm very sure
My anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock!

This Rock is Jesus, Yes He's the One,
This Rock is Jesus, the only One;
Be very sure, be very sure,
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock!
                                                                      by Ruth Caye Jones

It was a very relaxing experience. When it became dusk, I started back. Before I reached the path, it was pitch black night. I couldn’t find the path or even see anything ahead. I was walking on tundra and it was spongy. After a while, I stepped into a tiny creek running underneath the tundra. I pulled out my soaking wet boot and trouser leg. I knew that in this darkness I would probably walk in circles. I was really scared. I was too far away for anyone to hear if I yelled.
I decided to stop and slowly turn around to see if there was anything to see. As I slowly turned, at first I saw nothing. I heard the pounding surf, but I couldn’t tell from what direction. In the distance, I heard a pack of wild foxes making their strange yelps. Maybe my eyes were adjusting to the dark, because in one direction I saw a faint, blurry red light, then a faint, blurry green light. The red and green lights slowly alternated. I realized that what I was seeing was the rotating light atop the control tower. I knew that if I walked toward those lights it would bring me to the mess hall or our barracks, or maybe the runway.
Between wherever I was and my destination, the barracks, lie a large stretch of tundra. Every step was treacherous. I would put a foot forward and test to see if there was firm ground underneath. If there wasn’t, I had to detour. I kept walking toward the pulsing green, then red, glow in the distance. My progress was slow, but I had a wet foot and leg to remind me of what could happen if I carelessly pushed on without testing each step.
The lights finally brought me to the middle of one side of our barracks. I didn’t see the building as I approached it. I only knew it was the barracks when I was almost upon it. I walked along the side of the building, relieved to be off the tundra. When I walked into the building the lights were out and everyone was sleeping in their racks. That must mean it was well past midnight. The mids shift had gone to work and the eves shift had eaten, come back to the barracks and turned in for the night. I took off my wet clothes, took a shower, and went to bed for only a few hours sleep because I had to get up for work on days.
Living in the improvised barracks had many inconveniences. Just one of these was that there were no lockers - no foot lockers and no wall lockers. Another was that there were no chairs or tables. Our duffel bags were our chest of drawers. Our rack was our table and chair.
Lorraine was living in the same house with her parents and her maternal grandparents. During the first month I was gone, Lorraine’s sister and her husband went away on a trip. They left their infant daughter in the care of Lorraine’s mother. The little girl was a toddler, just beginning to walk. She was still in diapers. One evening Lorraine was sitting on the couch writing a letter to me. The little girl, Sharon, was toddling around the living room exploring what she could get into. Lorraine’s mother had left the room to get a clean diaper for Sharon. When Sharon saw her coming with a diaper, she ran away, holding onto the sofa. When she reached Lorraine, she slapped the stationery onto the floor and then sat down on the pages of the letter. I received a scented letter.
I met a grand Christian friend at the chapel service. He was Army Master Sergeant Malcolm Donahoo. The first thing he would tell you about himself was that he was a born again believer in Jesus Christ. The second thing he would tell you is that he was from the “yellow clay hills of southern Illinois.” He had an interesting story about J.C.Penney’s store in Alexandria, Virginia where his wife was living. He wrote a letter to the store and enclosed a check for $25. He asked them to call his wife on her birthday, ask her to come down to the store that they had a surprise for her. When she arrived, they were to give her a $25 gift certificate and tell her that her husband sends her a Happy Birthday and wishes he could be there.
The store manager called her and asked if she could be ready at noon on her birthday. He would send a car to bring her to the store. The car he sent was a limousine. When she arrived, the manager met her and escorted her to the staff dining room. She ate lunch with the staff and afterward there was a birthday cake. The staff sang “Happy Birthday.” Afterward the manager stood up and said, “Mrs. Donahoo, your husband regrets that he cannot celebrate your birthday with you. He sent this $25 gift certificate for you. Take your time shopping in the store. When you are ready to go home, have a clerk call me, and I will send our driver to escort you back to the  car.” Sergeant Donahoo had tears in his eyes as he finished the story.
Once a month, the mess hall had a luau for us. The Japanese and Filipino crews alternated months in being in charge of the luau. There was Hawaiian music playing and the mess hall would be decorated as if it were on a tropical isle instead of an Alaskan isle. The serving line had a variety of hot foods. They were all special. There might be a steamboat of beef from which the server would cut off slices for you or giant pepper hams or stuffed turkeys. In the center where the condiments and beverage generally were located, there was a long row of tables with a vast assortment of delicacies. The centerpiece was always an ice sculpture. There were tubs of cracked ice with every sort of soda. The competition was fierce between the Japanese and Filipino crews over who could put on the best luau. The men would fan the flames of the competition by bragging up the luau to the other crew when it came on duty a couple days later.
Riding the bus to work was just like being on a bus crowded with high school students going to an out of town game. There were always a half dozen loud mouths who joked and guffawed and harassed one or more of the men every ride. Going back after work it was usually quieter. Everyone was tired.
From Lorraine’s letter of January 13, 1960:
“Darling, keep looking ahead but don’t dwell on how long the year “stretches out.” This will be a profitable year; you mark my words. Don’t allow your depression to blind you and hold you back. As your wife, let me tell you what I think. Depression is going to be your worst enemy. I will help to sharpen your weapons but you are the one that will have to fight. Just don’t forget to sharpen mine for I already have a raging battle going.
“Our mail goes so slowly. I want you to read this now but it is impossible. So the heck with it. I’m thankful that you will read it at all.”
My reason for going into the Air Force was to try to get a college education. In my eleventh year of school I was called to the ordained ministry. The first step was to earn a college degree and then attend seminary for three years. When I graduated from high school I did not have the money to go to college. I worked as a draftsman for Western Electric and they paid for night school courses at Johns Hopkin University. I took the courses for about a year, but it seemed that it would take forever to complete four years of college taking one or two courses a semester.
Someone told me that I could make much faster progress taking night school courses in military service. The classes were given on base. Sometimes, the military would send you to college full time. I enlisted in the Air Force. Right away they sent me to Syracuse University for almost a year for courses to prepare me for my Air Force specialty. In the time that I was there, I earned 24 semester hours credit. With the credits I earned at Johns Hopkin I now had more than a year’s college.
There were no courses offered on Shemya. However, the Lord had a surprise for me. During the year I was on Shemya, the Air Force offered a college GED test. This test covered the areas of English composition, English literature, science, math, psychology, sociology, and history. About a dozen of us signed up to take the tests. A man flew out from Anchorage to administer the tests. They required one week of testing. We took a test in the morning, had a break for lunch, then took another test that afternoon. This continued for five days. The man took the tests back to Anchorage to be graded. It was weeks before we received the results. When we received them, I was told that I made the highest score in the Alaskan theatre and that any college or university would give me credit for a year of college. I now had two years of college!        

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

ICE DREAMS - Chapter 1

I will be posting one chapter per week of my latest book, ICE DREAMS. Please note that the numerical chapters are autobiographical. The alphabetical chapters are pure fiction. 

It was our first wedding anniversary and I was three thousand miles from my wife in Baltimore, Maryland. I was at McCord Air Force Base in Washington state, waiting for a plane to fly me to Alaska. That is where I would be stationed for a year. If all went well, maybe I’d return in time to celebrate our second anniversary together. It didn’t happen that way, but I’m sure I was hoping for it at the time.
I was in the snack bar of the terminal, nursing a Coke at a table with Brannon. He was also married and had left his wife and infant son at her parents’ home in Georgia. He kept feeding the jukebox playing “Georgia, Georgia, Georgia On My Mind” over and over. It was a dark winter night outside, and inside the snack bar there was a blue fog of homesickness. We were surrounded by men we knew and many others we didn’t know, but we were missing our loved ones.
After waiting an hour or more, our flight was called. We stood in line with our duffel bags and overnight bags. At the front of the line were two sergeants who were rummaging through the bags.
“What are they looking for, Brannon?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they think we can hide our wife in a duffel bag.”
When we got nearer to the sergeants, we could hear the question, “Do you have any alcoholic beverages in your bags?” My heart sunk. Lorraine’s Christmas presents to me had been a thick wool sweater, a back scratcher, and a fifth of Smirnov Vodka. When the sergeant asked me the same question he had already asked fifty other airman, I admitted that I had a bottle of vodka, reached into my bag and pulled it out. He took it from me and tossed it into a nearby barrel. I heard it crash into other bottles of confiscated spirits.
We boarded a chartered plane and flew for hours into the dark northern sky. It was the middle of the night when we landed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. We boarded buses like school buses but painted Air Force blue and were taken to the transient barracks. They were nice. The buildings were brick and the squad bays had single beds with mattresses, not the usual bunk beds. The next morning, we were allowed to sleep until 8 am, went downstairs to the mess hall where we had a delicious breakfast.
I left Baltimore on Monday, December 28, 1959 and arrived in Seattle, Washington that evening. I stayed at the YMCA until the evening of Thursday, December 31, 1959 when I took a military bus to McCord AFB. I had very little money. For breakfast, I had a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee at the YMCA. During the day, I walked around Seattle. There were a number of really steep streets. Some streets were so steep that there were concrete strips across the sidewalk placed a footstep apart to assist in walking up the hill. I ate again at 3 pm letting one meal count for lunch and supper. I chose an inexpensive cafeteria where the cheapest meal on the menu was salmon steak. I had the salmon steak special for the three days I was in Seattle. In the evening, I spent my time in my small room at the YMCA writing a letter to Lorraine and reading. After a diet of oatmeal and salmon steak specials, the Air Force mess hall in Anchorage was haut cuisine!
For ten days at Elmendorf AFB our only duty was to attend various briefings and go to medical and dental examinations and appointments. There was no doctor or dentist on Shemya Island where we were being sent to work for a year. The doctors made sure all of us were in excellent health and weeded out anyone who was not. The dentists filled every cavity, pulled any tooth that wasn’t salvageable, and double checked every existing filling. For the year that we were there, if someone absolutely had to see a doctor or be hospitalized, it was a day long airplane trip back to Anchorage once there was a plane to come out to Shemya.
During our free time, we could roam the base – go to the Base Exchange, fast food concessions, movies, bowling, or library. We could also go into Anchorage. Buses ran every half hour to town. One day when I was riding into town, we came upon the bus which had left a half hour before the one we were on. The bus looked like it had been bent into an “L” shape. There was an ambulance and some police and MP cars with lights flashing. A moose had charged the bus and reshaped it! We heard on the news that evening that the bus driver said the moose walked away shaking its head.
January 1, 1960 was an important day for Alaska residents. On that day, the Federal subsidy for transporting food to Alaska was discontinued and the price of food in the grocery stores and restaurants leaped upward. I went to a little restaurant which only had a counter, no tables. I ordered a hamburger and coffee. The price of the hamburger was about three times what it would have been in Baltimore or Seattle. However, there was a tradition concerning coffee which continued. You paid for one cup of coffee, but the counter man kept refilling it as long as you were there.
Lorraine had begun to write letters to me the day after I departed for Seattle. She wrote long letters every day. I began to receive them while I was in Anchorage. Our letters to 0ne another became a second world and a second reality in which I lived during our year apart.
Finally, the morning arrived for our flight to Shemya Island, the “Black Pearl of the Aleutians.” We boarded a Reeves Aleutian Airlines DC-4 for the flight to the Island. The flight took all day. As we departed the terminal we were handed a bag lunch. Actually, it was going to be our lunch and supper. Shemya is the next to last island in the Aleutian chain. It is a LONG way from Anchorage. We were flying there in a propeller driven plane. The first leg of the journey was dangerous.  Going over the Kenai Peninsula the plane has to fly over some high mountains. Many planes have crashed into the mountains for a variety of reasons – wind, snow, fog, icing on the wings, engines losing power in the cold air, and others.
We didn’t reach our destination until well past supper time. Of course, it was dark. In January, Alaska has only a couple hours of sunlight. A sergeant met us as we disembarked. As we stood in ragged formation before him, he said, “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there is a hot meal in the mess hall waiting for you. The bad news is that we don’t have any vacant bunks in any of our quarters. After you eat, I’ll take you to a vacant building. We will bring you two oil stoves, stove pipes, racks, mattresses and pillows, blankets, bed sheets, and pillow cases. You sergeants, organize the men into work parties. If you all pitch in and work hard, maybe you’ll have a place to sleep sometime after midnight.”
The building was left over from World War II when there was a large contingent of Army Air Corps personnel stationed on the Island. It was shaped like an “L” and had a dozen or more SeaBees living in the short leg of the L. Where the two legs met there was a latrine and a shower room.
We examined the empty, damp, cavernous room that we were to make into our living quarters. A truck arrived from Base Supply. As could be expected, someone counted wrong and they were short ten racks, mattresses, pillows, pillow cases, and twenty sheets and blankets. Also, there was no toilet paper!
The men who were installing the oil stoves had a difficult task. After setting up the racks, putting mattresses on them, and making up the racks with sheets, blankets, and pillows, we watched the seemingly impossible task of putting the stove pipes up through the roof. The roof was at least twelve feet above the floor. The men assembled stove pipe sections until the pipe was long enough to reach the ceiling/roof. There was a spring hinged trap door for the stove pipe to be pushed through. While one man tried to hold the assembled sections vertical, another man was trying to guide it to the hole. When they thought they were under the trap door they shoved upward. If they were even an inch off, the pipe would not go through. It was a tedious, frustrating task. Meanwhile we were all shivering in below freezing temperature in that barn-like room.
When the pipes were extended through the roof and attached to the stove and the stove was filled with oil, no one could figure out how to light the stoves. Several men went off trekking through the dark, cold night looking for someone who knew how to light the stove. The building was near to the mess hall and the Filipino mess crew was cleaning up. The men explained our plight to an older man who seemed to be in charge. He sent one of the young men who was mopping the floor. Grinning from ear to ear, he quickly lit both of the stoves. Since he couldn’t speak English, we had no idea what he had done that we hadn’t already tried. We prayed the stoves would stay lit. They did; we began to thaw out; and the dampness gradually dissipated.
The next morning, we wandered over to breakfast. The mess hall was a large building with many tables and chairs. About six men sat at each table. The dining areas were at each end of the building. In the center, there was a serving line on one side. In front of the serving line were tables with beverages, bread, and condiments. Four meals were served each day – breakfast, lunch, supper, and midnight breakfast. The men worked on three eight-hour shifts  - days, eves, and mids.
The food service was managed by Northwest Orient Airlines. They had two groups of workers, who each had charge of the mess hall for forty-eight hours. Then they switched. One group was Japanese and the other group was Filipinos. There was no love lost between the two groups! Just like us they worked on the Island for a year. Then the airline flew them home for free. Many of them saved their earnings and used them to buy a house or even a farm. They lived in barracks buildings just like the Army and Air Force personnel. The Filipinos had their own barracks building as did the Japanese.
After breakfast, the First Sergeant came down to the temporary quarters where we were staying.
“I’m sorry for the uncomfortable living arrangements. They are building a new barracks building and that is where all the attention is given by the brass. It won’t be ready for at least a year, so we have to make the best of it. This morning I will assign you to “tricks.” The trick which is on days works six days on days and then has two days off. After two days off they work eves for six days and then have two days off. Then they work mids for six days and have two days off. After that it is back to days for six days.
“I will read your names and tell you what trick you have been assigned and what shift they are working today. The bus that takes you to work will always be outside the mess hall. Report to the trick supervisor at work. Be sure to wear the badge you were issued in Anchorage. You can’t get into work without it.
  “The barracks buildings are assigned by tricks. When a barracks has a vacant bunk, the trick supervisor will tell you who will move into it. I don’t think any of you will be in this building more than a month or so.
“Finally, the plane that you arrived on brought us a couple bags of mail. We don’t receive mail every day. Every time a plane arrives from Anchorage, there will be mail. From now on, you can go to the mail room to check if there is mail in your box. The mail room is located in the same building as the orderly room and the recreation room. If you see mail in your box, you come back during the hours posted that it is open and the clerk will give you your mail. Right now, I have the mail for those of you who arrived last night. I’ll read your names from the mail I have.”
There were a couple letters for me from Lorraine and one from my mother. She was also expecting a baby.
I was assigned to the trick that was working days. Those of us who were assigned to that trick were told to be ready to go to work in a half hour and a truck would pick us up outside the mess hall and take us to the operations building. On the ride to work we had our first view of the area where the orderly room was, the building where Base Supply was located, the tiny building in which the base Armed Forces Radio Service station was located, and the barracks buildings on either side of the road.
The barracks buildings were long, one story wooden buildings. Each one was located in a deep hole such that the roof was level with the surface of the road. To get into a barracks building you had to descend by a pair of wooden stairs.
We learned that the reason they had been built down in holes during World War II was to keep them from being blown down, the roofs being torn away, or some other damage by the ferocious winds to which Shemya was subject. These winds, called “williwaws” could reach 150 mph. We had all been issued special parkas whose hoods were thickly trimmed in dog fur. When walking in high winds, you could close the hoods and peer out through the fur. This protected your eyes and face from dirt being blown like bullets by the wind. Along the road on one side there was a thick rope strung along and fastened to pipes driven into the ground. These were to hold onto while walking in high winds.
When we reached the operations building, we walked up to the door and had to hold our photo identity card under our chin. The person inside compared your face with the photo before admitting you to the building. The shift supervisor already knew the training each of us had received before being given orders for Shemya. We were each assigned a work station. I worked at the same station the entire year that I was there whether I was working days, eves, or mids. You were expected to remain at your station for eight hours. If you had to run to the toilet, the man next to you had to do your work and his while you were away. That wasn’t feasible for more than a few minutes.
When we were off duty, there wasn’t much to do. There was a small Base Exchange which was only restocked once a year. Once a year there was a period of time when the ocean waves were calm enough that a ship could send a barge loaded with supplies. When it was unloaded and the shelves of the Exchange refilled, you could buy any brand of cigarettes, soap, laundry detergent, shaving lotion, razor blades, shave cream, candy, chewing gum you wanted. As the year went by, every pay day the shelves became emptier. Toward the end, men were forced to roll their own with pipe tobacco, use hand soap to shave with, rubbing alcohol for shaving lotion, and shampoo for doing the laundry.
Laundry was a real problem while we were living in the makeshift barracks. The barracks buildings had washers and dryers. The SeaBees also had a washer and dryer, but we had none. A few of the men knew someone in one of the barracks buildings. The rest of us had to pay a Filipino to wash and dry our clothes on one of the days Filipinos weren’t on duty in the mess hall.  
The Base Exchange ran the entire length of one half of a building which was located between the Base Supply and Motor Pool building and the radio station. These buildings were across the road from the building housing the orderly room, mail room, and the recreation room. The other half of the building, in which the Base Exchange was located, contained a conference room with a long table and very nice chairs, posh enough to be the board room of a bank or large company.

That half of the building also contained a library which had only two bookcases and less books than many families have. It also housed the chapel. Outside the chapel room there was an impressive assortment of paperback books by several Catholic publishers. The books were for the taking and I took my share of some really good titles.