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.
In one of my letters in April I said, “There is nothing like bachelor life to make a guy appreciate his wife.” Every break I had to wash my fatigue uniforms and underwear, dry them, then starch, and iron the three pairs of fatigues. The black socks I washed by hand and let them air dry. My boots had to be polished and shined. About once a month I had to dye the boots because walking in the snow and rain caused them to start to get white streaks. Walking in the snow and wet roads often resulted in wet socks. I had a perpetual case of Athlete’s Feet. I bought Absorbine, Jr. everytime I bought shoe polish.
About once a month there was a barracks inspection preceded by a G.I party. The G.I. party was for the common areas – hallway, latrine, wash/shower room, and laundry room as well as policing outside around the building. Before the G.I party, we did our own rooms. I moved everything off the floor and used Brillo pads on the floor to remove the black marks our boots left on the floor. I mopped the floor with soapy water, then several times with clear water followed by a coat of liquid floor wax. When it was dry, I used the buffer. It was shared by all the men in the barracks for their rooms and was used on the hallway for our G.I. party.
After the G.I. party there was an inspection by the barracks sergeant, the First Sergeant, and sometimes the Commanding Officer.
Lorraine sent me a pair of eyeglasses with my prescription lens. They had brown frames and made me look more like a man than the “Clark Kent” black frame eyeglasses I had been issued by the Air Force. It boosted my spirits and I started paying more attention to my personal appearance.
One of the men in our barracks gave haircuts for $1. I decided that rather than trust his skills as a barber that I would have him cut my hair ¼” all over. That is the hair style I kept while out on Shemya.
Sometime in March, we were assigned our first Base Commander. He was a Lieutenant Colonel who was going to retire at the end of his tour on Shemya. Just as we were becoming accustomed to the idea, he was gone. This is what happened. In the middle of April, he was driving the Air Force pickup truck that had been assigned to him. There was another officer and a civilian riding with him. They had been drinking in the airport terminal lounge.
They went out to the truck and watched as the Base Commander drove to the end of the runway. He then went as fast as the truck would go. He was still traveling at top speed when he came to the other end of the runway. He crashed into the big rocks, the truck was totally demolished, and he had to be flown back to Anchorage to the hospital. One of the sergeants told us that the Air Force would make him pay for the truck and all the time he was in the hospital would not count as military service.
The 3D program still kept taunting me. There had been a chance to go to a base in Scotland. I waited too long before applying for it. Then there was an opportunity to be transferred immediately to Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska. I applied for it but was not one of the men who was chosen. One reason these immediate transfers to a base overseas where you could have family appealed to me was “skuttle butt” which said that since they didn’t need our skills in the States, we would be sent to some base and used as Air Policemen for the remainder of our enlistment.
Lorraine’s due date was May 21, so she had quit work in the beginning of April. My mother’s due date had been May 21 also, but it was changed to May 2. Lorraine sent me 50 blue and pink stickers for cigars and I bought a box of fifty cigars for $8 just so I would be prepared if the baby was early. Lorraine was having a lot of aches and pains including trouble with one hip which made walking painful. Sometimes she would go for five or six days without writing a letter and I would worry that something had happened. I reproached her for not writing more often and for letting me worry about what was wrong with her hip. In retrospect, I can see that I was pretty unfeeling about all she was going through. She had to go periodically to the OB-GYN, Dr. Kelly, who was to deliver the baby. To get to his office she had to ride a bus and then a streetcar. Her mother went with her. They would go to her sister’s apartment to rest when the appointment was over. Then Jim, our brother-in-law would drive them home.
I received a federal income tax refund check, but I could not cash it here. I sent it to Lorraine and told her she could cash it or deposit it in the bank using the Power of Attorney I had sent to her previously for the car.
My birthday was in April. I received gifts from my parents, my mother-in-law, and Lorraine’s sister and husband which I opened as soon as they came to me by mail. Lorraine made me promise that I wouldn’t open her present until my birthday. I could tell that it was a book. When I pressed the wrapping paper against the book, I could read “John Calvin” and “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” What puzzled me is that Calvin’s “Institutes” is usually published in two volumes. When I unwrapped the present on my birthday, it was a book by Loraine Boettner which I had told her that I wanted to get sometime. She had wrapped it in an advertisement for Calvin’s “Institutes!”
I received an absentee ballot for the Maryland Primary election on May 16. However, the ballot and the two envelopes in which it was to be mailed had been water damaged in transit. I wrote requesting another ballot, but by the time that I received it, it was too late to vote absentee.
Our woes with the car were not ended. When Jim, our brother-in-law, was taking it to be repaired, the clutch fell out. The cost of repairing it was $60. After the vandalism repairs were completed, the car was towed back to the garage we were renting and locked inside. We would have to buy insurance and tags for the car before sending it to a garage to have the clutch repaired (the mechanic would have to test drive it after he repaired it). If we decided to keep the car after I returned, the car would also need a valve job and tires. The valve job would cost $60.
When I had my physical exam at Elmendorf Air Force Base before being sent out to Shemya, I weighed 210 pounds. I had been fighting the Battle of the Bulge by cutting down on the food I ate. Also, I was very busy all the time. On my 22nd birthday on 20 April, I weighed 187 pounds. I had lost an average of 5 pounds a month on Shemya.
By the end of April, the days were noticeably longer. At 8:30 in the evening it was still daylight. The weather was mild and it was sunny. However, weather on Shemya could change very quickly. One day I was walking along on the road to the chow hall. It was sunny and mild. I unzipped my parka because I was getting too warm. In a hundred feet of walking, the weather changed and there was a freezing wind which was blowing hail and sleet. I didn’t waste any time zipping my parka. The sunny weather sometimes made the barracks uncomfortably warm because the hot air furnace was still on.
May brought a flurry of news and excitement into our world. May 1 is my sister’s birthday. On that day, we became aware that the Defense Readiness Condition had been advanced to Yellow Level 3 which meant the Air Force was to be ready to mobilize in 15 minutes. The DEFCON system had only been adopted by the Defense Department in November 1959. None of us knew the reason for this. We saw officers going in and out of the Comm Center at all hours so we knew that they knew what was going on, but none of the enlisted men knew.
This heightened alert continued. One evening I was working down at the radio station. In about 15 0r 20 minutes it would be time to rebroadcast AFRS news. One of the men came into the station and handed me a slip of paper. “Pritt, here is the frequency for BBC – Hong Kong. They broadcast to the British forces in Asia. When it is time for the news, broadcast their news. If anybody says anything, just say you made a mistake.” “Why?” “Just do it. You’ll see why.”
I did rebroadcast BBC news that evening. It was all about a U-2 spy plane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, being shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile 1300 miles inside Russian territory. It crashed near Sverdlovsk. Powers had parachuted out of the plane, but he was captured.
At first the Russians did not reveal that Powers had been captured and had confessed to the nature of his mission. After the U.S. government issued a cover story saying the plane was on a NASA weather measurement mission and had gone astray, the Russians made the embarrassing disclosure that Powers was alive and had given them the details of his mission.
The plane was not severely damaged when it crashed. Now the Russians had the plane and could copy its design and technology. They had the cameras and knew what he had been photographing.
Tensions were high between the United States and Russia. A Four Power summit meeting had been scheduled before the U-2 incident. The leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union met in Paris on May 15. Khrushchev’s emphasis on the U-2 affair torpedoed the conference. He refused to discuss anything else. Eisenhower would not apologize for the spying mission and insisted that it was for defensive, not aggressive purposes. Khrushchev withdrew his previous invitation for Eisenhower to visit the U.S.S.R., walked out of the meeting, and the conference ended the next day.
An officer came into the radio station about an hour after I had rebroadcast BBC news. I told him that I made a mistake tuning the receiver. Then when I heard what the newscaster was saying I let the news continue.
“Well, officially I am giving you a verbal reprimand, Unofficially I want to thank you. It will do a lot of good for morale now that the men know why there is a heightened alert in place.”
I was born less than a month before my mother was eighteen years old. I have a sister who was born a week before my mother was nineteen years old. I have a brother who was born a couple months after my mother was twenty-four years old. While on Shemya my mother gave birth to a baby girl three days before she was forty years old. Lorraine worried about my mother. She would not have anyone to help her when she came home with the new baby. Lorraine’ s mother would help her. Also, her sister had promised to stay with her for several days or even a week when she came home with the baby.
Lorraine decided to use the crib after all and bought a mattress for it. She had been figuring the costs of diaper service a month ago. Now she was debating whether to pay a flat fee for a pediatrician’s services for the first year or whether to pay him for each visit.
I had just begun to receive magazines that I had subscribed to while in the “south 48.” Somehow the magazines were being sent to Anchorage. Since it was a different APO, the magazines were being forwarded. Lorraine finished straightened all that out with Publisher’s Clearing House. Meanwhile, she had subscribed to “Arizona Highways” for me. The pictures of hot, dry places were really a boost for my morale.
The Presidential election campaign was heating up. The U-2 incident made everyone more aware of the threat of nuclear war and of the reality of the Cold War. Richard M. Nixon who was President Eisenhower’s Vice-President was opposed by John F. Kennedy. We didn’t hear the debates and we did not receive daily newspapers, except for newspapers sent through the mail which were more than a week old. What we did hear was a lot of anti-Catholic rhetoric and that JFK’s father was a bootlegger during Prohibition.
There was a Montgomery Ward catalog in the radio station. I spent a lot of time whiling away the hours and looking at things I would like to have when I returned to the States. I looked at baby carriages and suggested one of them to Lorraine. I knew that we would need furniture when we had an apartment of our own. I looked at unfinished bedroom suites and kitchen suites. I even looked at lingerie Lorraine could wear when she was no longer pregnant.
One item which I wanted while on Shemya was a radio. I wanted a Zenith with at least five tubes. Montgomery Ward did not sell Zenith radios. I wanted Lorraine to look for one. That was a pretty unreasonable request of a wife who is eight months pregnant! However, she found one at a reasonable price - $29.95. She sent it to me.
When it arrived, the box had been badly mangled in transit. She had packed it so well that the radio was unscathed. I wrote her a letter thanking her profusely, telling what a good tone it had and how it worked just as well on batteries as on A.C. Then, like a jerk, I wrote several days later and told her that the man she bought it from had gypped her because the radio was three years old.
About once a month or every other month the Air Force sent us a movie. There was only a 16 mm projector on Shemya. In fairness, the movies were movies that were popular at the time in theatres in the States. In March, they sent “A Summer Place.” There was no movie theatre. Usually the trick that was on break was shown the movie in an empty room in one of the buildings. A theater/auditorium with a seating capacity large enough to hold every man on the Island was under construction and would probably be used within several months.
Dominating the view in one direction were some enormous radar antennas. They were so powerful that birds flying in front of them, even hundreds of feet away were literally fried or even incinerated. We were warned never to go anywhere near to them. There was no way of knowing when they would be turned on. If you were in front of them, you would be killed or even incinerated like the birds. If you were even behind them at some distance when they were turned on, you could be sterilized or get leukemia. This wasn’t based on scientific evidence, but it convinced us. We knew when they were turned on because it caused a loud buzzing sound on our radios.
One of the military uses for Shemya’s airport was as a refueling station for SAC bombers. The refueling tankers would land at Shemya, refuel, then take off to rendezvous with SAC’s long-range bombers to refuel them. If SAC bombers were ever to be on a mission to bomb sites in the Soviet Union, Shemya was only 200 miles away from the Soviet Union. If the tankers landed on Shemya for practice missions, I wasn’t aware of it.
The only vegetation on Shemya Island was the tundra. Tundra is composed of dwarf shrubs, sedges and grasses, mosses and lichens. The ground under the tundra is permafrost. The summer sun melts the top surface of the permafrost. Since the water cannot permeate the still-frozen permafrost layer underneath, it creates pools of water, marshes, bogs and streams under the surface of the tundra. Some plants dry up during the winter and come to life again when there is water and long days of sunlight.
There are only 1,400 species of tundra vegetation worldwide. There are only about six species of animals that inhabit the Arctic tundra. The Russian blue fox population on Shemya is one of them.
Tundra is usually found in windy areas where there are no trees to break the wind. The plants all tend to hover near the ground out of the wind. There are beautiful flowers on the tundra but they are tiny. Some of the Arctic tundra vegetation – Arctic moss, Caribou moss, Bearberry, Labrador tea (which has beautiful tiny white flowers), and Arctic willow. The latter two are like miniature trees, but no taller than the other tundra vegetation. They both have fuzz underneath their leaves to protect from cold.