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 October I had completed 75% of my tour on Shemya. My DEROS was 31 December 1960. All I knew at this point was that the Air Force would fly us from Shemya to Anchorage, then from Anchorage to Seattle. From Seattle we were on our own to get home. Jon Boettner had already received his next assignment. I had not received my next assignment. Lorraine thought that I had received my next assignment and was just keeping it from her until I thought it was the right time to tell her.
Lorraine had gone back to work at the Maryland State Department of Vital Statistics in the same office where she worked before she moved to Syracuse to be with me. Again, when I was stationed at Ft. Meade for several months and then was sent to Alaska, she worked in that office until the last six weeks of her pregnancy. Several months after Paul was born, she was hired back into that same office.
Lorraine’s mother took care of Paul while Lorraine was at work. Since she lived in the same house with her parents and grandparents, they all became very attached to him. They didn’t know how they could stand it when I returned and we would “take Paul away” from them.
I wrote to Lorraine about trailers. I told her that if I was stationed in a state west of the Mississippi, we could buy a used 8’x32’ trailer pretty cheap. The federal government had thousands of them built during World War II for housing in areas where housing was scarce. These areas were mainly in the East so many states in the East passed zoning laws to exclude these wartime trailers from being used. States in the West did not have these laws. I pointed out that the advantage of a trailer was that it already had furniture in it.
I lost a friend and gained a friend in October. Mort rotated home. He was one of the married guys. His wife had a baby girl a couple months before Paul was born. We were always showing each other our baby’s pictures when we received new ones. A new man, Keith, joined our circle of Christians. He had gone to Rockmont Bible College.
I would sometimes go to the bowling alley, buy a beer, and nurse it while watching the men bowl. It was pretty expensive to bowl. They probably had to pay for the cost of the bowling alleys. They were nicer than any I had ever seen. There were even automatic pinsetters in the lanes.
One day it rained all day long. One of the fellows said “It is as wet as eating a watermelon while you are taking a shower and soaking your feet.” Winter is trying to take hold. A couple days later, the ground was noticeably freezing. The air was cold and you could feel the frost in your nostrils. It was clear and the sun or moon shining onto the ocean was beautiful beyond words.
I had taken the coffee pot Lorraine and I bought several days after she came to Syracuse. We bought a pot, a coffee pot and a cast iron skillet that day. Our first apartment was one room. It had once been the front porch of the house. There was a wash basin, a narrow stove, a refrigerator, a double bed, a small table and two wooden chairs. The closet was a metal pipe for hangers in an inset in the wall. Lorraine shipped her things to Syracuse by Railway Express in a large trunk. That trunk became a vital part of the “closet.” Later we bought an unfinished four drawer dresser.
A hole had eaten its way through the bottom of the coffee pot, but for sentimental reasons I couldn’t throw it away. I set it on top the dresser.
We were sending reel-to-reel tapes to each other. One day I received a tape from Lorraine. It was supposed to have messages from my parents, my brother, and my sister on one side and a message from Lorraine on the other side. Unfortunately, she had recorded both sides without the microphone plugged into the machine so both sides were blank.
When I asked Lorraine to get a radio for me I insisted that it must be a Zenith with five tubes. I didn’t want a transistor radio. After six months use, a tube burned out. I had to write to Lorraine, tell her what tube I needed, and then wait until I received the tube from her before I could resume listening to the radio. She sent me the correct tube and the radio sounded better than ever or so it seemed to me.
An Army entertainment troupe on its way to Japan stopped over on Shemya and put on an excellent show for us in the new theatre. It lasted for over an hour. There was a comedian, a pantomimist, a singer, a quartet called The Quarter Notes, and a ventriloquist. It really brightened our day. It was not a USO show. All the performers were Army enlisted personnel and entertaining was their Army duty.
All of us who were “short-timers” had a sheet with the number of blocks as days until we would go home. Each day we drew an X in that box. We called it a “sweat sheet.”
At the beginning of October, I gave up tobacco. No more cigarettes or pipes. Lorraine thought I should have started with beer. I did not drink beer that much, but it did relax me. I could not afford more than a half dozen cans a month. That is moderation by anyone’s definition. I must have felt guilty about it. One evening I went into the Base Exchange intending to buy a can of beer and take it back to my room. Who should come up behind me but Master Sergeant Donavan. Instead of asking for a beer, I bought a pack of gum.
The Inspector General team was scheduled for a three-day visit. The barracks, the radio station, the mail room, our individual rooms, our uniforms and boots, our foot lockers all had to be shining like a new silver dollar. All pin-ups had to be taken down and put away someplace where they were not visible. As usual with Very Important Persons, we hardly saw any of them during the three days but there was an electric charge of tension in the air.
We had been a detachment of a unit in Anchorage. We became a unit in our own right, 6984th Radio Squadron Mobile. More than that, everyone who had been stationed on Shemya before December 31, 1960 was awarded the Distinguished Unit Award. I guess it was for all we had put up with and done without before they opened the new barracks and other facilities.
November was a very gloomy, dreary month. It was cold, slippery and sliding when walking. The wind several times exceeded 100 m.p.h. according to the U.S. Weather Service. The daylight hours were shorter every day. Even during daylight it was gloomy.
I had received my assignment. I would be stationed at Ft. Meade, Maryland. That was good news insofar as we would be close to Baltimore where both Lorraine and my parents lived. All our old friends were in Baltimore. The bad news part of it was that Ft. Meade was in an area where the cost of living was probably the highest of any of the bases where I could have been assigned.
Lorraine was discouraged because, even though she had been working full time, there was no money in savings for us to set up housekeeping. The car repairs had been more than expected. She had to buy car insurance and pay for license tags. She bought a winter coat for herself and a sewing machine. She paid off the car loan. All were wise and necessary expenses. Nevertheless, I got angry for a while until I had reasoned it out. Also, when I talked to some of the other guys who were about to go home, I discovered that most of them were deep in debt.
Lorraine was really discouraged and down in the dumps. I could tell it from her letters and from the sound of her voice on the tapes.
The new service club had been scheduled to open when the new barracks were opened, but they decided to open it ahead of schedule so that we could use it. The lounge was nice with comfortable chairs and a fireplace with logs burning. It was a real morale booster. Life seemed to be getting more miserable by the day on Shemya. Several times the Northwest Airlines flight (which was now stopping at Shemya three times a week – with mail) could not land and had to fly back to Anchorage.
We now had to walk to a separate building to do our laundry. More often than not there was no hot water and we had to wash our clothes in cold water. There was only one dryer working. I had to wait until it wasn’t being used. I would dry my fatigue uniforms in the dryer and bring my socks back to my room and hang them all over the room to dry. Then I had to press the fatigues. That took me an hour and a half for each set.
I had slacked off on working on the Classical Greek course from University of Kentucky. I had to send them a dollar to extend the expiration time to next year. I promised myself that I would work on it when I got back to the (south 48) States.
Our baby Paul now weighs 17 pounds. I wonder what he will think of me. Lorraine’s parents and grandparents will miss him. He will miss them and I will be a stranger who has come into his life. Lorraine said that he took one of his toys apart. Her mother couldn’t believe that that precious baby would tear up one of his toys.
In December, I sent a Santa letter to Paul by way of Eielson AFB. They took it to Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska from which post office it was postmarked and sent on its way to Paul in Baltimore.
I was scheduled to leave Shemya on 18 or 19 December. In the meantime, I was supposed to be clearing the various offices on base and packing my clothes and gear to leave. Everyone who had work to do knew which men had been relieved of duty at work because they were going home. Those people would come looking for us for a “detail.” We spent a lot of time dodging details. If you were clearing offices on base you were exposing yourself to details, so I hadn’t cleared many offices.
On 15 December at 1:00 pm, I received a call from the Orderly Room on the barracks phone. An Air Force C-54 was leaving from Shemya at 3:00 pm and I was to be on it! My clothes were all dirty. I hadn’t cleared base. While I cleared base, my roommate Tom said he would pack for me. I ran around like a tornado and finished clearing base by 2:00 pm. When I got back to the barracks, I made some changes in the packing. I put my clothes and gear in less bags so I could handle them. Just then a truck pulled up to pick up our gear. There followed a hectic hour getting our gear to Air Freight, signing out in the Orderly Room, and getting down to the runway.
We waited alongside the runway for several hours and it began to get dark. Some sergeant came in a jeep.
“Get in. I’ll take you to the chow hall for supper. Hurry up and eat!”
When we arrived at the chow hall, he put us at the head of the line. When we sat down to eat, he was at the table every five minutes telling us to hurry. We were taken back out to the runway and we waited another hour. It was pitch black dark. If there was a moon, we didn’t see it.
Finally, the plane arrived. It had flown a huge load of potatoes out to Shemya. There were three crews of Reserve officers who had to get a certain amount of flying hours every quarter to keep their flight pay. There was also a chaplain. I don’t know what his role was. Inside the plane there was a bench along one of the sides. It was made of aluminum bars with plastic straps woven just like a folding lawn chair. However, the aluminum bars were thin and bent. The bench was broken. There were seat belts which we were required to wear. Since we were, in effect, sitting on the floor, they were ineffectual.
The load of potatoes had left a layer of fine dirt on the floor about an inch or more thick. After the plane took off, every time the plane hit an air pocket and dropped or bounced, the dirt filled the air. At one point in the flight, it became rough and bouncy. I became air sick. The chaplain took me inside the portion of the plane where the officers were all in seats and it was pressurized. He let me go into the latrine to vomit and then wash up.
The second half of the flight involved going over mountains. This was the dangerous part of the flight. There have been many airplanes crash in the mountains of Alaska. The snow can hide the top portion of a mountain. The plane’s engine may not be powerful enough to reach a safe altitude. The thin cold air reduces the power and efficiency of an engine. Also the cold air and wind can affect the movements of the rudder and wing flaps. The plane we were on was old. It was the same as a DC-4
When the plane ascended to higher altitude, we were gasping for air. The portion of the plane where we were “seated” was not pressurized. The chaplain guessed our plight and came back into our section and took one man at a time into the pressurized part of the plane. There were no extra seats. We had to stand by the door. If the plane encountered turbulence, we hung onto whatever we could grab. After ten or fifteen minutes, the chaplain would take us back and bring another man forward. There were only a half dozen of us.
Sometime before the plane reached Anchorage, the pilot had to climb even higher. All of us passed out and we were unconscious or semi-conscious when the plane landed at Elmendorf AFB. It was 3:30 am. We had to wait until 5:00 am before a bus came out to pick us up. Around 7:00 am we were able to eat breakfast. Then we had to wait until 8:00 am until some office opened to be assigned beds in the Casual Barracks. They gave us bed linens. We made up whatever unoccupied bunk we could find and then slept until that afternoon.
Someone, maybe the chaplain, reported that we had passed out on the flight into Anchorage. All of us who had been on that flight had to report to sick call the next day. The doctor saw us without going through the medic who screened who got in to see the doctor. He questioned each of us closely about conditions on board the plane. We all gave similar answers. The doctor cussed and cussed. He checked us over very closely. Then he told us all to come back on Monday morning. He wanted to see us again.
If there was a laundromat, I never saw one. I was told that it took eight days to get your clothes back if you sent them to the base laundry and dry cleaners. I didn’t have the money for that anyhow. As usual, I was broke. I washed my clothes by hand in the sink, wrung them out by hand and laid and hung them on empty bunks.
When we turned in our Arctic gear in a couple days, I would have to turn in my parka. The only other heavy coat I had was my blue overcoat. To wear it, I had to wear my Class A dress blue uniform. I pulled the jacket, trousers, and blue shirts out of my duffel bag and set to work pressing them. I put a blanket on a table for an “ironing board,” and used a borrowed portable iron. I also had to shine my dress shoes.
I was filled with fears. I went to their service club. There were the same comfortable chairs, the same fireplace with a log fire. There were women. I was afraid to look at them, afraid they would think that I was staring. I heard the sound of them talking and laughing and I was afraid they were laughing at me. I was afraid the Air Force would take me to Seattle and I wouldn’t have enough money to get home. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to get a flight. I had been on a little island five thousand miles from home for a whole year. Now that I was back in civilization and would soon be heading home, I was afraid. Where does a grown man go to cry? Who would care, anyway?
The whole point of sending us back on that potato wagon was so we could leave for home before Christmas. The people at Elmendorf had a different idea. They would not even begin processing us out until December 27. We were scheduled to fly from Anchorage to Seattle on the night of December 30, 1960 exactly on our DEROS!