Mornings: Smells Great

After school let out at Augusta High School following our junior and senior years, John Luding and I worked for two or three weeks for Paul Slagle, a contract baler. When the alfalfa matured in May, Paul would go around to local farmers and bale the hay after it had been cut and raked. Paul would pick John and I up at our homes a little before 6:00am, and take us to whatever farm we were working that day. When we got out of the pick-up, and our feet hit the ground, it was like the fragrance of that fresh cut alfalfa enveloped us and everything in the vicinity. The scent was so overwhelming. Since that time, whenever we are driving through the Imperial Valley or any other alfalfa producing area, the smell takes me back to that time years ago. I love it.

Dave Thomas
3/5/2020

Uncle Dave’s Basement

Uncle Dave’s Basement

My great uncle, Dave Peebler, and his wife, Rachel, built their house at 124 High Street in 1923. It was a nice place with three bedrooms and a bath upstairs, and a full basement downstairs that had 2 bedrooms and a bath as well as a bunch of free space. In the basement, was a gas range for cooking in one area, and a Maytag washer in another. The furnace, a part of the central heating system, was there as well. Part of the free space contained a workshop area and part of one wall was covered by floor to ceiling shelves for storage.

 

Over the years, I had many connections to the basement as well as the rest of the house. This story probably should start with my Mom. Mom’s mother died when Mom was only eight years old. Mom’s dad couldn’t care for her, so she was passed around to different family members until she was taken in by her Grandmother Minnie. Later, when she was in high school, she was taken in by Uncle Dave and Aunt Rachel. I think that after her high school graduation, she stayed with them for a couple more years. After Mom married Dad, they lived in an apartment above a store downtown. This was during the depression, and Dad was doing what he could to find work and keep some money coming in. He wasn’t able to bring in enough to keep us going, so when I was about three years old, Mom, Dad, my sister, Sylvia, and I moved into Uncle Dave’s basement.

 

I only remember two things from this time period. The first was that I had violated two rules of the house and ended up getting hurt. The first rule was, “Don’t run with a pencil in your hand,” and the second was “Don’t try to hurry down the stairs.” I had gone upstairs to get a pencil and then ran through the house to the stairway. I fell down the stairs and jabbed myself in the middle of the forehead with the pencil. The worst part was that for the next few years when Mom or Aunt Rachel needed an example, they would point to my scar and say, “Here’s what happens when you don’t follow the rules.” The other thing I remember from the time we lived in the basement was that one day I realized that my Dad wasn’t around. I asked Mom and she said he couldn’t find work and so he had gone to Western Kansas. He was working in a store out there. Fifty years later, when I became interested in genealogy and family history, I found one of Dad’s uncles had a general store in Atwood in Rawlins County, Kansas.

 

Things got better in the summer of 1941 when Dad was hired by the local refinery. We moved out of the basement and into the house at 19 Cliff Drive. In a short time, two brothers, Ray and Russ Larsen, moved into the basement. In a few months, the war started, and the brothers were drafted. The last time I saw Ray while he was in a Class A uniform, he was wearing the stripes of a master sergeant. While the guys were in the Army, their clothes and their personal items were stored in one of the bedrooms. After the war, Ray lived in the basement for a year or two. I don’t know where Russ was, but a few years later he came back to town. He and his wife, Sarah, opened Larsen’s shoe store on the west side of State Street, across from the bank. In their store, they had one of those magic x-ray machines that you stick your foot in and see the bones of your toes and the outline of your shoe.

 

During World War II, almost everyone had a Victory Garden. The war had caused quite a shortage of food. The able-bodied men who would normally be raising crops on the farms had been drafted. Then, what crops were produced had to be processed and sent overseas to feed the thousands of men were sending over there.

 

Aunt Rachel and Uncle Dave had an acre or so out on Custer Lane, at the edge of town. They put in a large victory garden there and let my folks have a garden there also. When the green beans came in, Mom and Aunt Rachel decided to work together and can a lot of them. They set up the basement as their efficient green bean canning factory. I don’t know how the process works, but I know Mason jars, pressure cookers, and a stove are used. We heard Mom and Aunt Rachel talking about pressure cooker explosions being reported, and that they must be careful. Well, sure as heck, one of the jars exploded and green beans and glass went flying across the room. Sylvia had some bad luck as a piece of glass hit her in the forehead, and she was cut badly enough that she probably still has the scar. The rest of us and the basement were pretty well covered with green beans.

 

Another time, Mom and Aunt Rachel decided to make soap which was in short supply during the war. They acquired lye from someplace, and used it to make their own. After that, we had plenty of soap on hand.

 

After a fantastic cucumber harvest, they decided to make pickles. They had crocks all over the basement. They made dill pickles, sweet pickles, bread and butter pickles, and relish. It was stored for the family. We were in pickle heaven.

 

We didn’t have a washing machine or a car after we moved to the house on Cliff Drive. On laundry day, Aunt Rachel would haul us up to her house. Sylvia and I were young, so we had to tag along. One day, I was so bored I asked Mom if I could help with the washing. She was wringing out a load and said I could help. After receiving instructions and warnings to be careful, I started feeding clothes into the wringer of the old Maytag machine, and it wasn’t long before the thing grabbed my fingers and pulled my hand clear into the wringer. I let out a yell, and Mom stopped the machine. She opened up the top and got my hand out. No broken bones- just another case of humiliation.

 

My next memory of the basement involved Uncle Dave’s guns. In one room, two guns were hanging. One was a double-barreled 10 gauge, and the other was an over-and-under with a .410 on top and a .22 on the bottom. I don’t know where Uncle Dave got them. He wasn’t a hunter.

 

I had traded for a .22 when I was 12 years old so I could start rabbit hunting. I also wanted to hunt ducks, so Uncle Dave let me borrow the 10 gauge whenever I wanted. I shot at some tin cans with the 10 gauge, and I’m telling you, the recoil was pretty nasty. I don’t think I ever shot a duck with it. That was probably a good thing for I hate the taste of duck meat.

 

Pat and I got married in 1957, soon after I joined the Navy. One of the perks of graduating in the top five of my class at Aviation Electronics school was that I got to pick my next duty station. So, California, here we come! We got to San Diego in 1958, and that has been home ever since. We soon had Russ, Doug, and Terri, and as they grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, we tried to go back to Kansas every year or two.

 

Uncle Dave had always enjoyed estate sales and farm auctions. When he retired, he went to a lot more of them. If he found a good buy, it usually ended up in the basement. So, the basement was full of all kinds of odds and ends, and ready for the kids. Uncle Dave had always encouraged them to go downstairs and explore.

 

One of the main attractions was the black walnuts. There was a black walnut tree in the back yard, so Uncle Dave always had a keg or a bucket full of them. There was a work bench in the basement with a vise mounted on it. Using a nearby hammer, you could crack the nuts against the vise. There were always a couple of nut picks handy so you could dig out the meat.

 

Another favorite was the hand drill. We used to call it a “hurdy-gurdy.” There was an old wind-up Victrola phonograph with a stack of records that ranged from Perry Como to Turkey in the Straw. There were several whet stones. Uncle Dave prided himself on being able to put a keen edge on any kind of blade. Russ tested the blade of an axe, and cut his finger when barely touching it. There were several items that Uncle Dave built himself. There was a table saw that doubled as a work bench, a battery charger for his truck battery, a bit for a horse, and a hunting knife. There were old monkey wrenches and a 36 inch Stilson pipe wrench. There were drill bits for wood and metal, and taps for cutting threads. There was a stack of National Geographics in one corner. Who can throw away those beautiful pictures? There was a pair of World War I puttees. Who knows why? The basement was full of new things to learn and new nomenclature to use. For instance, in addition to the table saw, there was a bucksaw, a crosscut saw, a rip saw, a keyhole saw, and a coping saw. The kids learned a lot from Uncle Dave and his tools and junk. He often let the kids pick something from the basement to keep. Terri really liked an old saxophone she found, so she took it home and still has it. Doug remembers Uncle Dave calling them to come up from the basement for lunch which included what Uncle Dave called “Smearcase,” a name for cottage cheese derived from an old German term. The kids thought that was pretty funny.

 

Uncle Dave passed away first. A few years later, Aunt Rachel passed. Their daughter, Maxine (Peebler) Fisher came down from Denver and settled the estate. She sold the house and all of it’s contents to our friend, Keith Scholfield, a realtor in Augusta. Keith said it took several days and a lot of truckloads to clear out that basement.

Ringers, Leaners, and Bull’s-eyes

The city of Augusta, Kansas had a parcel of land that became a site for horseshoe pitching and an archery range. On West 7th Street, go about half a block west from Walnut Street, and on the north side, you will find a small, red brick building that is a pump house for the city’s water system. The parcel that the pump house sits on is a city block long. It runs from 7th Street to where the old high school tennis courts were located. It’s a green space, but I have never heard it named a park. One day, we noticed that a group of men had gathered just north of the pump house. Naturally, we had to check this out, and we soon learned that these men had formed a horseshoe pitching league, and were going to dig the pits. At the time, I knew most of the men, but, for the life of me, I can no longer recall all of their names. The one I do remember is Newt Dennett. Newt was the spark plug of the outfit, and he was heavily involved in the construction of the pits as well as organizing the tournaments after. Newt must have been self-employed. I think he sold insurance or real estate. He seemed to have plenty of time to help with the construction project and later spent a lot of time practicing the pitching of horseshoes. That was a lucky thing for us neighborhood kids as he taught us the rules and how to properly pitch horseshoes.

Like most kids, I apparently didn’t pay attention to the important stuff. I remember that there were four or five perfectly aligned pits with matching pits about 15 or 20 feet away. (I don’t know what the spec for the distance was.) The pits were exactly the same size. The target pegs were exactly vertical and in the same spot in every pit. Thinking about it now, I realize that there must have been a welded metal structure for each pit that was jig built to the exact dimension.

One weekend, a couple of the men drove a truck to another town and came back with a load of fine, gray clay. The clay was smooth and pure. They filled the pits with the clay, and it proved to be the perfect material for the job. Having been taught the proper way to pitch horseshoes, I wanted to get serious about the sport. I didn’t have money to buy a set of horseshoes, but I had a good collection of rusty old shoes I had found at farms around the area. They didn’t work. Real horseshoes aren’t much good for pitching.

The horseshoe fad lasted for a few years, and then fizzled out. There were quite a few tournaments, and the local guys had some good times.

Meanwhile, up toward the north end of the property, an archery group was busy with their hobby. They had a nice professionally- made target. It was made of straw placed into about a 4 foot diameter circle, and it was about 12 inches thick. It had a cover made of oil cloth with the bull’s-eye and circles stenciled on it. The target was hung on a big easel. IT was kept in a shed or locked box about 4 feet by 3 feet in size. The archers were good folks, and didn’t mind answering questions for a bunch of kids.

One day, the storage shed disappeared and we had no idea were the archery group had gone. A few weeks later, I was with my great uncle, Dave Peebler, who was visiting his rental property that was located at the northern most part of Custer Lane; it butted up against the golf course. I looked over and saw the archery club guys and their target. I went over, and the leader of the group recognized me and started telling me about their new location. He was a wiry little guy, friendly, and always ready to talk about archery with any kid that showed up. It turned out that they had moved to their new location under the cottonwoods at the extreme west end of the golf course because most of their members lived up in the north end of town. I was glad that they were happy in their new home.

Graveyard

It was one of those hot August afternoons in Augusta, Kansas. Jack Watson and I were on our bicycles and cutting through the Elmwood Cemetery. The cemetery was a great place to go riding as the street was level and smooth, and the large, old elm trees provided a canopy that shaded the entire area. As we rode, we noticed movement behind some of the monuments and as we got closer, we could see that it was a horse. We didn’t want to scare it, so we walked our bikes between the plots and headstones until we got close enough for a better look. We were both amazed and speechless at what we saw. Neither of us had ever seen a horse as swayback as this. He was so badly deformed it looked like some monster had chomped out a big piece of his back. Just looking at him, you could almost feel the pain he had suffered over the years. It was strange, but his condition didn’t seem to bother him now. He was as quiet and docile as could be.

We stood around and talked about his deformity and wondered what we could do to find his owner. Also, instead of referring to him as “horse,” we thought we should give him a name. Since we found him in the cemetery, “Graveyard” seemed like a fitting name. It also seemed perfect since he certainly looked like a bag of bones. Graveyard was wearing a halter, but we needed a lead rope in order to move him. We decided to take him to my house because there was a vacant lot across the alley from us. We thought we could picket him there while we looked for his owner. Jack’s house was the closest as he lived on Ohio Street, so he jumped on his bike and rode home to get some rope. He returned with a few feet of clothesline. Then he attached it to the halter, and we were in business. We left the cemetery going south on Ohio Street, and then turned west on Clark Street.

We hadn’t gotten too far down Clark Street before a man in a pick-up pulled along side us. We all stopped, and he got out of the truck and said, “Thanks for finding my horse!” He said the horse was a retiree that he was giving a home. We talked another minute, and the guy got back in his truck. He stuck his arm out the window, and we handed him the lead rope. As he drove off he said, “If you had left him alone, he would have come home by himself!” That possibility had never occurred to us.

 

This is not Graveyard- he looked a lot worse than this.

 

Dave Thomas

August 29, 2019

Houses on the Move

It’s always been a surprise to me to pull up to a stop sign, diligently look both ways, and see a house coming down the street at me. That always wakes me up. Houses are supposed to remain fixed, and not be coming at you. That kind of thing isn’t seen much anymore, but years ago was quite common. When towns were formed, the businessmen built their homes within walking distance of the main street. Later, as the towns grew, the citizens moved a little further out. The original homes, now much older, were torn down or, if in good condition, moved to a new location. The land had value though the homes themselves may have lost theirs. Sometimes the homes were sold and then moved, or if someone just wanted to develop the property, they might give the house away rather than suffer the expense of tearing it down. This is how house moving developed into a business, and it became quite popular after the 1930’s. I don’t know much about moving houses, but I can tell you a couple of stories.

 

My cousin, George P. Sicks, graduated from high school in Iola, Kansas during the days of the dust bowl and the Great Depression. There wasn’t much work in farming country for a young man at that time, so George looked for greener pastures. He hitchhiked to Los Angeles and walked the streets looking for work there. Finally, in the city of Long Beach, he hooked up with a man who moved houses. There was enough work to keep George busy most of the time. However, George wanted to do better for himself, so he continued to look for work. He finally found the perfect solution. He found an evening job building movie sets for one of the movie production companies. So, when there were houses to move, he did that during the daylight hours, and in the evenings, worked on the movie sets. He finally was making enough money to live comfortably without wondering where his next meal was coming from.

 

When I was growing up in Augusta, Kansas, we had one man who specialized in moving houses. His name was Boler Wilson. Boler was a quiet man with a set of shoulders that gave the impression that he could pull a house down the street by himself. Boler and Mrs. Wilson lived in the eleven hundred block of School Street, I think, the last house before 12th Street. Every now and then, as kids, we would spot Boler towing some house down the street. Aside from the trucks pulling the house, there were usually men on foot with long polls to push tree branches and telephone lines out of the way.

 

My dad, Al Thomas, was a brick layer and concrete block layer. Boler sometimes hired him to build a foundation for a home after it was moved to its new location. Normally, it was a concrete block job, and when I got older, I was able to work for Dad, mixing mud and carrying the concrete blocks.

That’s really all I know about the house-moving business. I’m still amazed by the memory of houses going down the street.

Dave Thomas

July 31, 2019

 

Money’s Pond

 

Augusta High School’s football field was known as Worl Field, named after a coach from the 1920’s. The school, built in the early 1920’s, and was located at the corner of State St. and Clark St. To find the football field, you went around the south end of the school and turned north to find the access road to the field. That road was located a few yards down the building and went downhill and to the west to reach the field.

 

The land bordering the road and football field on the north was occupied by a man named I.M. Money and his wife, both senior citizens. Mr. Money, by some called “Old Man Money,” was a nice old guy who farmed that land around him. Mrs. Money was a pleasant lady who was good to us kids. A few times, when we were cutting through their property on some expedition, she waved us to the house, and provided us with cookies.

 

The Money’s home was kind of in the middle of that adjoining land. Nearby, and not far from the road, was what we called “Money’s Pond.” I don’t remember if the pond was spring-fed, or if it was created by run-off. The pond was shallow, and its main inhabitants were crawdads. Also, this is where I learned to ice skate. Gary and Bill Casner, my neighbors on Cliff Dr., were usually with me. H.H.Robinson, the Superintendent of Schools, also a Cliff Dr. resident, was a frequent skater. Mr. Robinson, a man who enjoyed all sorts of physical activities, was a good skater and a good instructor. He taught us how to skate, how to play hockey, and how to just have a good time.

 

Gary and I had clamp-on skates. You know the kind; they had an ankle strap, and clamps on the front that were supposed to anchor to the soles of your shoes. Good luck with that! I don’t know where he got them, but Billie Bob Casner had shoe skates. Due to the shoe skates, and the fact that he was two years older than us, Bill was a much better skater.

 

Most often, we were skating in the evening after dark. We built a bonfire to provide light as well as warmth. Sometimes, there were as many as a half dozen other kids skating, but I can’t remember who they were. I just remember that we all had a good time.

Dave Thomas

March 21, 2019

 

Patio Talk

During the summer months Pat and Izzie and I like to sit on the patio after supper until sundown. Isabella (Izzie), being an indoor cat wears a harness with a five-foot leash attached. We also have a reel for pets that is about fifteen feet long. We snap the reel onto the leash and Izzie has about twenty feet that she can move around in. While Izzie looks for lizards and wishes she could get to the two hummingbird feeders, Pat and I are sitting in the swing. We swing and hold hands and talk and keep an eye on Izzie. (I think there are about 10 stories about Izzie that you can find under the “Cats” category on the blog.)

I’m 81 now and Pat will be 80 next month. If you are wondering what old people talk about, its kids, grand-kids, great grand-kids, and “stuff”. I’ll give you some examples of the “stuff”.

We listen to the airplane noises. We are just a couple of miles west of the Miramar Marine Corps Air Facility. It’s a training base so some days are a constant stream of after-burners. When the Blue Angels are here for the annual air show we get blasted out of our seats and it scares the devil out of Izzie. We have no complaints though. This is where the world’s best pilots are trained and was the setting for the movie, Top Gun.

Besides the jets from Miramar, we sometimes hear small private planes coming out of Montgomery Field which is only 3 or 4 miles away. There is one small plane we hear every night about 6:15 as it climbs out and heads up the coast. We are guessing that it is either a flying lesson underway or a sight-seeing tour. We get a lot of helicopters, too. We live in what is called “The Golden Triangle”, an area that is bounded by freeways on 3 sides. Naturally, the freeways are patrolled by the traffic choppers from the TV news programs and by the police and the sheriff. All together, we hear a lot of aircraft noise when we are on the patio. The funny thing is, that it is not that bothersome but adds to the flavor of the patio experience.

I talked about my first ride in a small plane. It took place one Saturday morning in 1954 or 1955. I was driving back from Wichita. Normally, I worked at the garage on Saturdays from 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM so I have no idea why I had been to Wichita. Anyhow, I was just leaving town, heading east on Kellogg, when I spotted a kid who was hitch-hiking. Back then, we frequently picked up hitch-hikers and this kid looked clean and intelligent and I was bigger than he was. I stopped and picked him up and as we headed for Augusta, he told me his story.

He said he was 23, was in the Air Force, and was stationed at McConnell AFB in Wichita. He went on to say that before joining the Air Force, he had earned a pilot’s license and he had just recently saved enough money to by an old airplane. The plane was an old single engine Taylorcraft and looked really beat up. However, he bought it for $700.00 and that made it look a lot better. He had parked his plane at the Augusta Airport because it was small and cheap and close enough for him to get to it easily. Also, Al Guy, the airport manager had promised to help him put a new skin on his airplane. This Taylorcraft was old enough that it had a canvas skin rather than a more modern skin of aluminum. The kid (I can’t remember his name) and Al Guy had re-skinned the plane and it looked good and was ready to fly.

At that time, the Augusta Airport was on the north end of town. It was at least a half section of land stretching from Ohio Street eastward to Custer Lane and north to the county road. The southwest corner of the property in later years became the site of Augusta’s first Wal-Mart. The interesting thing about it was that it was a multi-use property. Besides being the airport, it was the golf course and country club, the skeet shooting range, and the archery range.

I’m tired of saying “he” so I’ll call this kid “Joe”. I helped Joe push his plane out and he performed a pre-flight inspection of it. We climbed aboard, taxied out and took off. We flew around for an hour or so and Joe taught me how the controls worked and let me fly for a while. Joe told me that when we went in for a landing we would have to be careful as there might be golfers on the landing strip. The landing field was a wide grassy strip right down the middle of the golf course. Sure enough, as we came in, there were golfers crossing the fairway. Joe gunned

the engine to let them know we were coming and took the plane around for another try. The golfers cleared out and we touched down easily and rolled out across the grass. I enjoyed the ride and the experience and was happy that I had stopped to give the hitch-hiker a ride.

Pat said she had a story about her first ride in a small plane. She had just moved to El Dorado from Eureka and since she was 13 years old, that would make it about 1950. She was looking through the El Dorado Times and saw a notice that one of the local organizations was holding a fund raiser in just a couple of weeks. They would be giving rides in an airplane and charging just a penny a pound. Pat got all excited! The ride would cost just over a dollar and she had that much in her piggy bank. Of course, with the event being 2 weeks away she nearly drove her Mother crazy.

Pat and I had to take time to discuss the fare. A penny a pound isn’t much money. Pat pointed out that regular gasoline was selling for only 13 cents a gallon so a penny a pound would surely be a profitable venture. The price of gasoline really put things in perspective.

The big day finally arrived and Pat couldn’t have been more excited. The temporary air strip was a pasture on the outskirts of town. Pat’s Mom drove her out there and since there was no seating, stayed in the car to watch. She would be happy to experience the thrill of flight from ground level.

There were 2 planes giving rides that day and it was a good thing. When Pat got in line there were at least 40 people ahead of her. All of them were excited and a little nervous so they were all laughing and jabbering. The time passed quickly and Pat was soon climbing into a Piper Cub and anticipating the flight. The pilot gunned it and Pat was amazed at the speed with which they rolled across the bumpy pasture. Then, suddenly, they lifted off and left the bumps behind. She was elated as they gained altitude and she could see farther and farther. The cars and people below began to look like miniatures. It was a magic ride but it didn’t last long enough. They were soon back on the ground and everything looked normal again. Pat has retained her fascination with the elevated view. When we fly, she gets the window seat so she can look out.

Dave and Pat Thomas
October 11, 2017

Small Speck, Small World, Big Ocean

1

I’m going to mix an old story with an item from today’s news and see how it comes out. With a little luck, we’ll get something worth reading.

Back in the 1950’s, we had a men’s clothing store in Augusta, Kansas. It was owned and operated by Paul Stephenson as Stephenson’s Men’s Clothing. The store was located on the east side of the 500 block of State Street, nestled up against the Prairie State Bank, on its north and Mamie Hall’s book store on the south. Paul and his wife (only 60 years and I’ve forgotten her name) were in the store every day, well dressed and professional but friendly in demeanor. Their son, Dick, was a classmate of mine. Dick and I graduated in 1954 and I went to work and I think Dick headed for the University of Kansas. The following year, I was going to attend a wedding and needed a new suit. I went down to Stephenson’s and Paul fitted me with a new outfit and his wife set me up with a lay-away plan to pay for it. Those were the last dealings I had with the Stephenson family.

The Pacific island of Guam has been a big part of the news recently. Its the nearest U.S. Territory to North Korea and they are threatening to take a shot at it with their misguided missiles. Hopefully, sanity will prevail and Guam will remain intact. I faced a dilemma myself, on Guam, and will describe it to you later.

Guam is 7,000 miles from Augusta and if you look at a globe, its just a little speck in the big, blue Pacific Ocean. The island is 30 miles long and from 4 to 12 miles wide with a resulting total of 210 square miles. This makes it the largest island in Micronesia.

I enlisted in the Navy in March of 1957 and after attending Aviation Electronics School in Memphis had joined Patrol Squadron Forty-Eight (VP 48), a seaplane squadron, at NAS North Island, San Diego. In April of 1959, we were scheduled to deploy to NAS Iwakuni, Japan. I had mixed emotions about going. Our twin boys (the surprise of our lives) were just 6 months old. Pat was going to have to cope with raising the boys on very little money while I was gone. Two babies and no money makes for some hard days. I had taken the test for third class (E-4) but the results hadn’t come back yet. The only other way I could make more money was to get in a flight crew and draw flight pay. It was announced that there were 2 openings for aircrewmen and I was thrilled to hear it. As I recall, that would bring in another 90 bucks a month as hazardous duty pay. The only hitch was that to qualify, I must be able to send and receive 16 words per minute in Morse code. I only had a month to learn the code and pass the test because I would still have to attend Survival School before deployment

I passed the Morse code test and attended Survival School which took place partly on the beach and partly in the mountains. The trip to Japan was going to involve island hopping for several days. We would first fly to San Francisco and then, the next day, head west. We would be going to Honolulu, Hawaii, Kwajalein Atoll, Midway Island, Guam, and Iwakuni, Japan. We left and our trip went well until we got just past the halfway point between Kwajalein and Midway and lost an engine. We all went to our emergency stations and started preparing to ditch. I fired up the radar which had a range of 120 miles. The screen was blank! There wasn’t a ship, airplane, island, or even a reef in sight. Meanwhile, the navigator was making a “sunshot” and marking his charts so he would know exactly where we were. The co-pilot was talking to Midway Control and they immediately dispatched a Coast Guard S2F seaplane to meet us and escort us in (or radio our position if we went down). The pilot was busy getting us trimmed up to fly on a single engine. He thought we were a little heavy so he told the guys back aft to throw out some of the equipment. There is a procedure for this so the guys got rid of the stuff on the list. If that hadn’t been sufficient, our clothing and personal gear would have been among the next items out the hatch. I forget how many hours it was, but when I switched on the radar and found that S2F coming our way, we all cheered. We made it to Midway without incident and were there for almost a month waiting for a new engine to be shipped from the states.

We got our seaplane back together and headed for Apra Harbor, Guam. We had a good flight except one of the engine gauges was acting up. It was probably a casualty of the engine failure we had experienced but didn’t show up until we had racked up a few hours of flight. Apra Harbor had a seaplane ramp for the launching and retrieval of planes so we got the plane up on the concrete and parked it again. The Plane Captain (the senior aviation mechanic) ordered a new gauge which would be coming from the states, just as the engine had.

We spent the next few days enjoying Apra Harbor. The guys at the Coast Guard Station said we could use their snorkeling gear whenever we wished so we took advantage of the offer. Swimming in Apra Harbor was like swimming in a high-priced aquarium. The water was clear and only 8 or 10 feet deep where we were. You could look down and see beautiful coral formations on the bottom and there were things moving in time with the water that looked like flowers moving with a spring breeze. The fish were awesome! Every color and shape of tropical fish you ever saw in a pet store was there. There were also sea cucumbers and other strange things I had never read about and couldn’t name. The Coast Guard guys even told us that if we could spear an octopus we could take it to a store in town and trade it for a case of beer. One of the guys in our crew took this to heart and spent a lot of hours in the water before he finally speared an octopus. We had a van assigned to our crew. I was the only person with a Navy Driver’s License so I drove him into town. Surprisingly enough, he traded his catch for a case of beer.

The gauge finally arrived and we went over to the Navy Supply Depot and picked it up. The next morning, the mech’s were going to install the gauge and turn up the engines while the rest of us did our chores. The guys were needing razor blades, cigarettes, and other items so I said I would make a run to the Naval Exchange (PX to you Army folks) at Naval Air Station, Agana. I hurried up and checked out the radar and the other electronic gear I was responsible for and took off.

I must have arrived at the Navy Exchange at rush hour. There was a small crowd going through the main entrance and just as many coming out. I joined the throng and as we shuffled along toward the front door, I spotted the tan of an officer’s uniform coming at me. As the gap between us closed, I looked up and saw the gold bar of an ensign on the collar. Then, I saw his face…my God, its Dick Stephenson! We shook hands and moved out of the way of the throng so we could talk. Dick and I were going through the “small world” routine and “what are you doing here” and I had something else churning in the back of my mind. Do you remember that I said I had a dilemma on Guam? Well, this is it! When I look at Dick, I see a gangly kid riding a bicycle around the streets of Augusta. The last time I saw him, he still had peach fuzz on his cheeks. How can I salute this kid when we part company? If I didn’t salute and another officer noticed it, I could be reprimanded. Or, if Dick decided to make an issue of it the outcome would be bad. I wasn’t in the mood to be chewed out for some petty offense. While we were talking, my mind finally got the fact that the Navy had taught me that you salute the uniform, not the man. Dick and I finished talking and shook hands. I saluted and he returned it and we both lived through the event.

We took off bright and early the next morning. We were all relieved to think we might finally complete our trip. A few minutes after we were airborne, our Pilot and Plane Commander (PPC), George Surovik, got on the intercom and announced that we would do a little sight-seeing on the way. He said that he and the co-pilot and navigator had talked it over and had filed a flight plan that would take us over Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima is about 800 miles from Guam but wasn’t far off our track to Iwakuni. We were all anxious to see the infamous place that had cost so many lives. As we passed over the island, Mount Surabachi was still big, black, and as ugly as it had been in the newsreels when I was a kid during WWII. It’s amazing how many memories and how much sadness can be evoked by the sight of such a place.

We finally got there! Iwakuni is down toward the southern end of Japan and is located on the Inland Sea. We landed and taxied over to the seaplane ramp and snagged the buoy. While the boat was towing our wheels out to us, we could see our squadron gathering on the sea wall to welcome us. We got our wheels attached and were towed, tail-first, to the top of the ramp. One of our crew opened the rear hatch but before he could get the ladder mounted and start down, the guys on the ramp started handing up cans of ice cold beer. I took a few swigs and when my turn came, I started down the ladder. I got about half way down and was suddenly grabbed by what seemed like a dozen hands. I was carried to the seawall and tossed over it. I landed in the drink and started treading water. I noticed that I was the only guy that had been tossed in. I yelled up at the rotten guys that had done it and asked them, “What was that for?” “You made Third Class”, they shouted! Hot dog…another pay raise! Things are looking up!

Dave Thomas
August 24, 2017

 

Smile…

It was a sad day, last month, when Ringling Brothers announced that they were going out of business. What is life without the circus? The feeling of impending doom started last year when they said they were retiring the elephants. I have really had some mixed feelings about that. To me, the elephants are the circus. Sure, they’ve got the trapeze acts, the lion tamers, and the clowns, but what of it? It’s those giant-sized, majestic creatures with the wise old eyes that set the tone for everything else.

On the other hand, elephants shouldn’t have to live that kind of life. Most of the day they were chained to a stake in the ground and bored to death. They were only free long enough to go out and perform those demeaning little tricks. Not a good life for such a marvelous creature.

I know, that I shouldn’t discuss serious stuff. Well, here’s a remedy for that. As you may have guessed, I have a circus story.

The circus and the carnivals used to stop in Augusta, Kansas, our little town of 5,000 people. In the south end of town, there was a big lot behind the homes on the west side of the 500 block of Oak Street. It was a nice, level piece of property, bounded on the north by the Frisco Railroad tracks and on the south by the White Eagle Refinery. That was a good location but one year they changed the venue, y to get more space. I was probably between the ages of 14 and 16. That would put it between 1950 and 1952. Up in the north end of town there was a pasture that probably was within the city limits. It was bounded by Kelly Road on the south and Washington Lane on the west. I think the northern boundary was even with the entrance to Garvin Park. The circus people set up their tents and equipment up at the north end of the property.

If I remember correctly, the circus arrived via the Santa Fe Railroad. I believe it was the next day that they had a parade down State Street. For some reason, I was watching from a spot front of Schneider Brothers Grain and Feed Store as the elephants strolled past. The circus had put out a call for some boys to show up that first morning and clean up after the elephants. It’s a monumental job but someone must do it and I would have been honored. On that specified morning, we headed for the pasture and the super duper pooper scooper job. I think Gary

Casner was my partner in this adventure. Unfortunately, we got there too late and the jobs had been filled. Such is life.

That evening, we went back to the circus to see the show. We got there early and split up to look around. There was a side-show set up on the west side of the big top and there were posters advertising the usual attractions like the Bearded Lady and the Tatooed Man, and of course, the Exotic Dancer. There was a stage in front of the entrance to the tent and it was surrounded, about three deep, by men and high school boys. I had arrived during the time segment of the Exotic Dancer and she was on stage smiling and posing as the barker extolled her wares. According to the barker, once you paid your money and got inside the tent, you were going to see some spicy stuff. I wouldn’t be able to find out because the posted sign said, “No One Under the Age Of 18 Allowed Inside”. That was okay for it turned out that I saw an amusing show anyhow.

I knew most of the guys in the crowd. There were a couple of high school classmates, a couple of dads of classmates, businessmen from down town, and men that worked at the refinery. I was surprised to see one man that seemed to be hanging back a step or two behind the rest of the crowd. I knew this man well. He was a businessman that I saw whenever I went to town. He was a sharp dresser, always in a white shirt, tie, sport coat, and slacks. He was a talker, too, and always had a word for every man, woman, or kid he came across. That’s why I was surprised to see him standing by himself. There was no one to talk to.

I was watching this guy out of the corner of my eye when suddenly, I found out what was going on. His sport coat was unbuttoned and he would reach across with his left hand and pull the coat back, exposing the camera he had hanging around his neck! It was a small, flat camera, looking much like the digital cameras we have today. Once the camera was in the clear, he would reach up with his right hand and snap a picture and then let the coat fall closed. Whenever the woman would change her position or her pose, he would snap another picture. This went on throughout the barker’s spiel and the guy was so intent on what he was doing, he didn’t know I was watching. Thinking about it now, I don’t remember seeing him wind the camera to advance the film. I must not have been paying attention. I don’t believe we had the technology or the miniature batteries to support automatic film advancing.

I don’t know what the guy’s motivation was. Maybe he was in training to become a spy. Or, maybe he was taking pictures for an up-coming coffee table book about exotic dancers. Maybe he was just a pervert. All I know, is that I got a good chuckle from his covert performance.

Dave Thomas
June 30, 2017

 

West 7th Street

I was thinking about jobs. To be more specific, I was thinking about the availability of jobs for kids. When we were growing up, all kinds of jobs could be had. There were long term jobs and there were also jobs that lasted for a few hours. I remember sometimes having two or three jobs that would fill up the day and the evening.

As I thought about some of the different jobs I had as a young person, I realized that a number of them could be connected to the piece of real estate on West 7th Street occupied early on by the Augusta Skating Rink.

The Augusta Skating Rink was located on the north side of West Seventh Street about ½ block west of Walnut Street. It was an older, frame building, probably built in the early 1930’s but possibly before then. I suspect that it was one of those forms of recreation practiced during the Great Depression. There was very little money and my folks told me that when they were dating they had to look for free or cheap things to do. They went to the movies, went roller skating, and played miniature golf. Mom and Dad told me that Glen Lietzke (Ross Lietzke’s dad) owned a miniature golf course and they spent a lot of time there. Softball games were a free way to spend an evening and my Dad also pitched for one of the local teams.

The Augusta Skating Rink was owned and managed by a man named Ray Prigmore. My folks knew him well and I think he was actually a high school classmate of Dad’s. Ray lived across the street from the skating rink in a residential enclave containing several homes. The properties were laid out to form a large “U”. Ray’s house was the base of the ‘U”. His front door pointed north toward 7th Street and the back of his property adjoined the Frisco Railroad right-of-way on the south. The eastern leg of the “U” was formed by two small homes with their front doors pointing toward the west. The western leg of the “U” was formed by a duplex with front doors pointing to the east. The northernmost unit of the duplex was inhabited by the Moss family, their daughter, Cleta Moss, being a year ahead of me in school.

My first vague job connection to the skating rink property, is that when I was 13, I had a Wichita Beacon paper route. I delivered the Beacon to Ray Prigmore every afternoon. He was at the tail end of my route so frequently he would be waiting

on the porch for me. I think he wanted to read the news before going across the street for his evening’s work at the skating rink. He was a pleasant man and always asked how I was doing.

As I recall, the skating rink was open every night but Monday. There was a matinee every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The matinee was the time and place for young kids to skate. I don’t believe I was allowed to skate at night until I was 16 or 17. The skaters at night were older and a little too rough for young kids to hang out with.

As we got a little older, say 12 or 13, and became better skaters, Ray would let us be “Floor Manager” on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The Floor Manager was responsible for a couple of things. He wore a whistle around his neck and whenever a record finished playing he would blow the whistle and change the sign at the back of the rink. Most of the time, it said “All Skate” but periodically it would be changed to “Couples” or “Ladies Choice” or “Backwards” or one of the other selections. The Floor Manager’s other big responsibility was to watch for kids that were going too fast or were getting rowdy. Violators got the whistle and might be told to sit out a few rounds. (Now that I think about it, that whistle was used by a different kid each day and was never washed or sterilized. Yuk!) There wasn’t any money in the Floor Manager job. Seems like we may have skated for free that day and might have gotten a Coke.

Air conditioning wasn’t a common feature at that time so on warm nights all the windows of the rink were open. The music was loud so as to overcome the sounds of the roller skate wheels on the wooden floor. We lived a half block to the east, on Cliff Drive, and on summer nights with my bedroom windows open I fell asleep to the sounds of the music from the skating rink.

There is a large gap in my memory. It’s probably due to my having been abducted by Martians and then released at a later date. Or, like most teen-agers I most likely just had my head on backwards. I suddenly realized one day that the skating rink had been torn down and a new building was being erected in its place. Trenches for new footings had been dug and materials were stacked all over the place. One evening, my Dad, Al Thomas, said that he would be working on the new building and I could work for him if I wished.

There were two bricklayers or masons in town, my Dad, Al Thomas and Dolan Brandt. Dad liked working for homeowners, building fireplaces or adding a brick wainscoting or brick veneer to homes. Of course, he also laid concrete blocks, pumice blocks, or limestone. Most of the homes were still of lath and plaster construction rather than dry wall so Dad did plastering jobs as well. Dolan Brandt seemed to prefer doing commercial work so he put up a lot of shops and larger buildings. Dolan was nearly a relative of mine in that he was married to my cousin, Joyce Wilson.

I think Calvin Applegate was the General Contractor for the new building. I never can remember if it was Calvin or Oscar as I didn’t know either of them very well. Anyhow, the new building was to be made of concrete blocks and Applegate hired Dolan to do the work. Dolan then hired my Dad and that’s how I got involved. The official title for my position was “Block layer’s Helper” or simply “Helper”. My job was to mix the mud (mortar) and get it to the mortar board that each block layer worked from. Also, it was my job to get the concrete blocks to the work area and place them so they would be within reach of the mason. Remember, this was in the days before fork lifts, pallets, or trucks with lift gates. A flatbed truck would show up from Safford’s Lumber Yard loaded with concrete blocks and 70 lb. bags of mortar cement. The truck driver would get up on the truck bed and place the blocks or cement close to the edge where I could reach them. You can only carry 2 concrete blocks at a time so it would take a while to offload the truck and get the blocks stacked. Later, as needed, I would carry the blocks to the area the men were working. The ground was uneven, full of holes and piles of dirt and it was faster and more efficient to carry the blocks 2 at a time than to use a wheel barrow. I don’t know how many concrete blocks are in that building, but my fingerprints are on every one of them.

Seems like the next time I opened my eyes, the sign in front of that new building said “Lehr’s Restaurant”. I don’t really know the story of Charles and Thelma Lehr. It seems that they had been living in another town and when I was a little kid, had moved back to Augusta. They opened a restaurant in the Brown building at the corner of 5th and State. People always spoke well of the Lehrs and their restaurant. My folks seemed to know them well, like perhaps they had grown up together.

More time passed and it was the week after Christmas in 1956. Late in the evening, I was sitting in a booth at Lehr’s and drinking coffee with Glen Chalmers, John Luding, and I think the 4th guy was Jack Dornbusch. Glen had been roughnecking in Kansas and Oklahoma and I had been roughnecking up in eastern Colorado. We both decided it was time to get a little smarter and were planning to attend Butler County Junior College in El Dorado. As we discussed this, Jack Taylor came over and leaned against the booth and talked with us. Jack was the manager and chef at Lehr’s and he frequently was out on the floor visiting with his patrons. Jack mentioned that the guy who swept and mopped and cleaned up the place was leaving the next week to attend college in another city and asked if we knew anyone who might be interested in the job. I said that since I would be going to school I was really in need of a night job. We talked about it for a few minutes and made a deal right there.

So, I was the clean-up man, the janitor, the custodian or whatever you want to call it. I started at 9:00 PM and worked the back rooms until the restaurant closed at 10:00 PM. Then, I went up front and stacked the chairs on the tables and swept and mopped the floor. By the time I finished, the kitchen help had put everything away and cleaned the steam tables and I could clean up back there. Jack Taylor had high standards regarding cleanliness so my work was cut out for me.

I enjoyed my job at Lehr’s. The work had to be done well but it wasn’t hard. All the people that worked there were pleasant and fun to be around. After I had been there about a month, Jack approached me one night and asked if I would like to learn to be a “fry cook”. It sounded good to me so the next day I started working the evening shift in front of the grill. Jack worked right there with me and taught me how to blanche French fries, cook a steak to “rare” or “mediumwell”, and how to plate-up a dinner. One of the most memorable lessons took place when some people ordered a salmon dinner. Jack took me down to the walk-in freezer in the basement. He went to one of the shelves and picked up a salmon that was about 3 foot long, even with the head cut off, and frozen stiff as a board. He placed it on the butcher block in the center of the freezer. Next, he picked up a butcher’s saw that looked like a giant hack saw and sawed off a couple of salmon steaks about 1″ thick.

After a few weeks of school and work, Chalmers and I had developed a routine that was working pretty well for us. We both got out of our last class at 2:00 PM and headed for downtown El Dorado and the Blue Goose Tavern. We would set up shop in one of the booths and order a pitcher of beer. For the next hour we would do our homework and suck up that pitcher of beer. Good as it sounds, we both seemed to be getting a little antsy about the situation. After more than two years working in the adult world it was hard to be comfortable in the juvenile atmosphere of the Junior College. One afternoon, I stopped at the courthouse and asked the lady at the Draft Board what my status was. She said I would be called up soon if I didn’t get a deferment of some kind. That was enough for me. I sold my car and joined the Navy.

Dave Thomas
May 15, 2017