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.
By July 3 I was moved into my room in the trick barracks. I cleaned before moving in. Then I arranged all my things neatly in the room. I still had to bring my hot plate, coffee pot and curtains from my former room, but it was time to get ready to go to work. After I got off work, I brought those items to the new room before going to sleep.
I had completed 185 days of my overseas tour. I had 181 days to go. It seemed like I had always been on Shemya and that it was forever before I would be allowed to leave. I was midway through my tour; I had made it “over the hump.” The rest of the time should seem like rolling down a mountain, but it didn’t.
For the first time, I began to experience homesickness in gut-wrenching pangs. I had a baby son that I had never seen. So far, I hadn’t even received any pictures of him. I also had a baby sister I had never seen. I worried about how my mother was doing. Childbirth and taking care of a baby must be taking its toll on her. She is frail and has had a lot of medical problems even while I was still at home.
I had received invitations to my sister Beverly’s wedding and to the reception afterward. She was marrying Raymond Baker. The wedding would be this month and I would miss it. Lorraine told me that they had found an apartment on Dartmouth Road near Jim and Ruth’s place. My Grandfather and Grandmother Pritt, my Uncle Don, and my Aunt Delania from West Virginia would be there along with a host of other relatives, but I wouldn’t be there.
I received pictures of Donna when she was three weeks old. Paul was four weeks old when I received them. From the pictures of Donna I could judge about what size Paul was then. Paul was still sleeping a lot during the day and then keeping Lorraine up half the night. Reverend Wylie from Lorraine’s church and Rev. Dr. Reed from my church both came to visit Lorraine and to see the new baby. Lorraine’s mother was beginning to warm up toward Dr. Reed. From the influence of the Catholic neighborhood in which she lived, and her mother who was raised Catholic, she was uneasy about waiting until I returned to have the baby baptized.
There had been a powerful earthquake off Andreanorf Island in the Aleutians. There were fears that it would cause a massive tidal wave. Marshall had heard a story about it on the television newscast. The family all thought that I might be in danger because of it. Lorraine wrote and asked me about it. I told her that 1.) not all earthquakes produce tidal waves and this one had not caused a tidal wave. 2.) Even if it had, we are a long way from Andreanorf Island. 3.) Our barracks are located a mile from the ocean. 4.) There is a deep valley between us and the ocean.
The weather was rainy with fog as thick as pea soup. Everywhere you went it was muddy and sloppy. That meant more time shining our boots and washing and ironing our fatigues. There were still planes landing and taking off, but they had to rely on the Ground Controlled Approach man to guide them down with his radar and other instruments.
The air strip had a control tower and a GCA shack. The man in the GCA shack had ultimate authority over whether a plane could land. The control tower decided if and when a plane could take off.
One foggy afternoon, the GCA shack received a call from a military plane carrying a USO troupe to Japan. They were supposed to have refueled at Dutch Harbor but were denied landing because of high winds and fog. The pilot begged to be allowed to land and refuel.
“Please. It’s an eight-hour flight back to Anchorage. I have a USO troupe on-board. That would throw their schedule all off.”
“Well, I don’t think I can let you land. Regulation says that I have to be able to see three landing lights. I only see two.”
“O come on, good buddy, you know that planes land there all the time when only one light is visible. This is Alaska, not Chicago!”
“I’ll make you a deal. The government built a brand new theater here for all these G.I.s. All it has ever been used for is for some officer or sergeant to stand up in front of a bunch of men and give them a class or a bawling out. There has never been a USO show here. They hardly ever send movies out here to us. Tell that USO troupe if they’ll put on a show, you can land and gas up.”
A few minutes later the pilot radioed that the troupe had agreed to put on a show, but they had to be back on board the plane two hours after it landed.
A thousand details had to be ironed out in the hour before the plane was scheduled to land. Buses were sent to the air terminal. The theater was opened and heated. Food for the troupe after the show was prepared in the mess hall. Officers to escort the troupe assembled at the terminal. News of the USO show went like wild fire to all the barracks buildings.
We heard a plane land. A half hour later buses driven by Filipino drivers were coming down the road which went through the barracks area. The drivers had taken off before the officer escorts could board the buses. With horns blaring and the interior lights on so we could see that most of the passengers were young ladies the buses came slowly down through the barracks’ area. Soon each bus was being escorted by a crowd of yelling, shouting, excited men.
The theater was filled to capacity. It was hard to believe that anyone was working, but some unlucky “trick” was on duty. The USO show started, as all USO shows begin, with a half dozen or more beautiful, barefoot young women dressed in grass skirts, bright colored halters, and flowers in their hair carrying a handful of leis. They would come to a man in the audience, put a lei around his neck, and plant a kiss on his cheek or forehead. A noisy group of men came surging down the aisles toward the young women. Several of the girls were frightened and ran out the side exit door only to find their bare feet in icy mud and their bare skin whipped by chilling wind. They ran back inside. Order was restored and the show went on.
At first, the acts were perfunctory, reflecting the impatience of the troupe to fulfill an obligatory performance, return to the plane, and be on their way. Then they began to sense how enthusiastically the men laughed at the lamest jokes, loudly applauded even half-hearted musical pieces. At that point the troupe began to pour their hearts into their performances. They willingly returned for encores and extra songs and routines. The show continued well past the usual length of their shows.
Afterwards whenever I watched a Bob Hope USO show on television, my eyes filled with tears and my mind brought up memories of that unscheduled USO show on Shemya Island. I recalled how much it meant to hundreds of lonely soldiers and airmen, and what a boost in spirits it was for me.
Sometimes my dual volunteer duties at the radio station and as trick mailman became a heavy load. On one of my breaks in July, I put in twelve hours at the radio that night, ate breakfast and found a huge pile of mail in the mail room for men who had already rotated off the Island. It all had to be re-addressed with their new address. It took me two and a half hours of steady work to finish that pile of mail.
One of the exceptions were heavy catalogs. We sent a change of address card to the sender and either gave the catalog to someone who wanted it or tossed it in the trash. Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogs were always in demand. That day one of the catalogs was a Sears catalog. I kept that for myself.
I was discussing furniture with Lorraine in our letters. I hoped that we would be in a position to buy some furniture when I returned. I would cut out a picture of the item of furniture that I liked and enclose it with the letter or I would tear out a page and circle the item. I already had a Montgomery Ward’s catalog that I had been cutting and tearing. Now I could do the same with the Sears catalog.
A week after I received the pictures of Donna, I received the first pictures of Paul. He looked very alert and I decided that he must be very intelligent. A week or so later I received some pictures of the two babies lying together on a bed. I couldn't tell from the pictures if they were taken at my parents’ house or at Lorraine’s parents’ house. I felt good about the fact that I could tell which one was Paul.
The day that I received the first pictures of Paul, I had just come in from working nine hours. I had four loads of wash that I absolutely had to do before I could lay down to sleep. I just couldn’t tear myself away from staring at those pictures. My mind was racing a million miles a minute.
I wrote a number of times with proposed budgets. I remember one that I made up that looked pretty good until I realized that in it I had not allowed anything for food for Lorraine or formula and diaper service for the baby. Before she quit work, Lorraine had managed to put $325 in the bank. Now that she wasn’t working, she had been forced to withdraw money from savings more than a few times.
Lorraine began writing about going back to work when she was able to do so and if her mother would take care of the baby while she was at work. She asked me if that would be all right with me. I told her that I wasn’t crazy about her going to work now that we had a baby. On the other hand, I wouldn’t forbid her. Again, what a jerk I was. My repeated letters about budgets and how tight it was going to be were almost forcing her to decide to go to work. I was only 22 and she was still 19. That was awfully young to be facing grown up decisions and challenges.
There were a lot of abandoned buildings, shacks, and Quonset huts on the Island left over from World War II, which had ended fifteen years before the year I was there. Shemya was probably the largest scrap yard in the world. Thousands of vehicles, airplanes, rifles, machine guns, artillery pieces, ammunition, bombs, machinery, tools, etc. were dumped into the ocean offshore of Shemya Island. It would have been too expensive to fly it back to the continental United States, and it wasn’t feasible to ferry it out to ships.
The Base Exchange sold pizza, hamburgers, beer and soda at a sort of soda fountain affair. Most of the men would bring the food back to the barracks. Only the officers were allowed to drink liquor or wine. Some of the men had the idea to create an unofficial Enlisted Men’s Club in one of the abandoned huts. They spent a lot of time and effort carrying tables and chairs to this hut, decorating its walls with pin-ups and a couple dart boards. They even managed to construct a bar. They stocked it with beer and someone was able to get bottles of various whiskey, gin, vodka, etc. There were a radio and a recorder for music and some decks of cards. For about a month or more they had their own rowdy house tavern. Then their hideaway was discovered. It was burned down with their hooch still in it. No one was punished, but that was punishment enough.
I don’t know where it came from, but one of the trick barracks had a pet dog. It was a hound mixture and looked pretty ragged. They had a name for it, and they brought it scraps from the mess hall. Before winter it disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared.
The Japanese and Filipino mess crews lived in separate buildings. There was no love lost between them. One night there was a big fight between all the men in each building. It went on for a couple hours. I don’t know who broke it up. I know our medics were called upon to treat some of the worst injuries. The next morning the mess crew on duty all had bandages on their hands or arms or neck and face.
There was an active program at the chapel. Because we were on shift work, it wasn’t always possible to attend the Sunday morning worship service. Often there was a Sunday evening service which would be singing hymns and Gospel songs, reading the Scriptures, and a time of prayer. There occasionally were attempts to have a midweek Bible study. They were not steady though.
Back home, my sister was married in the Inverness Presbyterian Church on July 24. My uncle drove my grandparents and his wife to Baltimore from West Virginia. My grandad had him stop at Lorraine’s parents’ house before they went to my parents’ house. Lorraine’s grandparents lived on the first floor. Lorraine and her parents lived on the second and third floor.
Grandad Pritt, age 76, climbed the very steep steps to the second floor and sat down in the living room. He wanted to see and hold his first great-grandson. Lorraine said that he just sat there holding Paul, looking at him, talking so softly to the baby that no one else could hear what he was saying. She said he had the biggest smile on his face and tears in his eyes. After about fifteen minutes he handed Paul back to her, thanked her, and said they had better go.
When I was eight years old, the same four people drove from West Virginia to the housing project where we were living in Baltimore. It was just after the War and bicycles were just beginning to be made. They were not yet in the stores. My Grandad and Uncle Don decided that I needed a bicycle. They found an old one made before the War. They sanded and painted it royal blue. It looked like a new bicycle. When they drove up to Baltimore to see us, that bicycle was strapped onto the trunk of the car.