JAKE BUNKS DOWN AT THE RED DOG SALOON
It was a little after noon of my first day in Naknek, Alaska. I had been asleep for about an hour in the bridal suite at the Red Dog Saloon when I heard a knock on the locked door, followed by the door bursting open. I sat up with a jolt. Harry Jay Follman had just blown into town.
He tossed his duffle bag on the other bed and bellowed, “Get up, Jake, we got to get going.”
“Jake, get up.”
“What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here until five, and I didn’t get any sleep last night.”
“Too bad, neither did I. Let’s go!”
I knew he wasn’t going away, so I stumbled out of bed and pulled on my boots, as he used the bathroom.
“Where we going?”
“I don’t know. We’ll figure it out as we go.”
We slammed the door, hoping it would lock, scrambled down the rickety stairs and climbed into the same white 4WD pickup with the nets in the back. We headed southwest through town down Naknek Rd. to where it turned into Peter Pan Rd and ran along the cliffs above Kvichak Bay, (pronounced ‘Que-jack’)
Jay said, “North Pacific Seafoods has a cool 1890’s cannery a couple of mile up the mighty Kvichak River at Pederson Point. You have to see. it.”
As we barreled down the narrow gravel road, the locals riding the popular, three-wheel RV’s moved off the road to let us pass. I said, “Jay, you just missed the turnoff to Pederson point.”
“Relax Pilgrim, that road is for the tourists and girls. I’m not even sure if the side road to the cannery is passable this early in the season. Most of the traffic in and out of Pederson Point is by boat.” I wondered, Okay, how’s that going to work? Before I could ask, we pulled off the road and Jay ordered me out of the truck, “Follow me, we have to find these little white tundra flowers, I don’t know what they’re called but keep a sharp eye. If they are in bloom, the fishing will be good.”
While searching for the ‘good fishing’ flower, I spotted a brown bear digging through the garbage dump.
“Should we make a run for it?”
“No worries, Mate. He’ll leave us alone if we leave him alone. Concentrate on finding the flower. Several minutes later, we spotted a sprig of white flowers close to the cliff, and then another and another. I asked, “Do we pick them or what?”
“No, we only want to make sure they’re in bloom. It’s bad luck to disturb them.” I took a photo, and we headed back to the truck. As we approached the dump, the bear was waiting for us.
It stood up on its hind legs and growled menacingly. Jay hollered, “Run for the truck! You go to the right, and I’ll go to left.” I was pushing three-hundred pounds, and it was difficult to run on the spongy, thawed tundra. The bear chose to chase me. I was slower and possibly tastier than my physically fit friend. Nearly out of breath, I made it to the truck, with the bear close behind. Jay already had the engine running and the door open as he laughed and yelled, “Move it Jake, or you’re going to be lunch.” When the bear realized I had escaped, he turned his attention to the fishy smelling nets in the truck bed. Jay gunned the engine, and we left a disappointed bear in our dust.
“That’s enough excitement for today. Let’s go back to town and get some lunch.”
Jay’s silent response was to pull off the road for the second time. I thought he was turning around, but that’s not what he had in mind. He followed a faint trail to the edge of the cliff, where he nosed the front wheels right up to the edge and stopped. I thought, This is an excellent view of the bay and beach ninety-feet below us, how sweet.
Jay grinned and said, “Buckle up.”
I yelled, “No, don’t do this, we’re going to die!”
He slammed the truck into 4WD, and down we went, sometimes under control, sometimes not.
When we reached the bottom of this nearly vertical trail to the beach, I was a little shook up and demanded, “What the hell did you do that for? How are we going to get back up there?
“Relax, you want to see the old cannery, don’t you? This is the scenic route to Pederson Point.”
“Jay, let’s not do this. Look around you, Man. There’s a lot of loose sand, muck, and driftwood between us and that old cannery up the river. We’re surely going to get stuck, the tide’s going to take the truck, and we’ll end up walking back to the Red Dog.”
“Yeah, your right, it could get a little dicey. Maybe it would be best if you waited here with the women and children. Buckle up, Bucko! Here we go.”
Jay spun the truck around, and we were off to Pederson Point. He was a sprint car driver in an earlier life and knew all about handling a vehicle on any surface; asphalt, dirt track, sandy beach or in the river; no problem. When the truck bogged down in the sand, he’d grit his teeth, do a double clutch and throw it into reverse, double pop the clutch once more and slam it into first gear as he cranked the wheel to the right or left and we were off and going again. We weaved in and out of the tons of beach debris along the way. If we couldn’t drive over it, we went around it, and that often meant going into the river up to our axles. I was scared at first, but as I gained confidence in Jay’s skill behind the wheel, I relaxed, enjoyed the ride, and even whooped and yelped with glee at the close calls. I was having fun.
As we roared up the beach, spewing gravel and sand behind us, I thought about how I got hooked up with this larger than life character. I recalled meeting him at a pre-bid job walk ten years before in Hawaii. We were deep inside of the Red Hill Mountain at the Navy’s once-secret, WW II Pearl Harbor fuel bunker. Jay and I were there along with a couple of other contractors. We struck up a conversation after the meeting ended. He asked, “Where does this tunnel go?”
“It comes out at ‘Audit one’ on the shores of Pearl Harbor about a mile from here.”
“I have got to see more of this amazing tunnel. Walk down there with me, tell me what you know about it, and I’ll buy you lunch.” He took off before I could answer, and I hurried to catch up with him. He asked about the tunnel’s construction, and what they used the narrow-gauge railroad track for today? I told him the little I knew about it, which was “The Navy imported Chinese laborers to dig the tunnel and fuel storage tank sites by hand a few years before the start of WW II in anticipation of an attack from Japan. A primitive miner’s train like device hauled the excavated dirt and rock out of the tunnel.”
We emerged from the tunnel at Pearl Harbor’s central fuel pumping station. Jay noticed two of the big pumps were running, and asked the officer-in-charge, “Where’s the fuel going, Chief?” The chief pushed open one of the massive bombproof doors and pointed at the aircraft carrier, John Stennis, which was tied up a hundred yards in front of us.
Jay slammed on the breaks to allow a family of seals to waddle back into the river, jolting me back to the present. A few minutes later we rounded a bend in the river, and I spotted our quest. We climbed the muddy beach access road leading up to the old cannery, parked, and got out. I was going to kiss the ground we stood on but thought better of it when I realized I was standing in an inch of blue-grey ooze.
I was eager to check the place out. The tank farm was nearby and a good place to start. As we passed the tank farm, I stuck my head in the deserted old powerhouse and moved on to the boneyard where they stored all kinds of discarded pipe, electrical gear, tanks, old boilers, pumps and ancient fish processing equipment. The cannery didn’t consider any of this material to be scrap. They knew from experience most anything could one day serve a useful purpose. Until then, it silently awaited its fifteen minutes of fame.
I was surprised to see the fuselage of small plane stored on the roof of one of the warehouses. I wondered what they had in mind for its future.
The juxtaposition of all this junk adjacent to the shiny well-maintained fuel tanks, and modern fish processing equipment reminded me that Alaska fishermen and contractors never throw anything away. When equipment breaks down, it takes weeks to get replacement parts and material. The boats and the canneries run 24/7 during fishing season and necessity has taught these folks to recycle what they have, to keep things running. I thought, If Elizabeth thinks I’m a pack Rat, she ought to see this place.
We walked on the timber and plank manways, which kept us out of the spongy tundra and mud, as we explored this intriguing piece of Alaska fishing memorabilia. On our way to check-in at the office, we came across more treasures. I told Jay, “You go on, I’m going to stay here and try to figure out what this piece of machinery does.” I studied this beautiful old relic. I looked it all over, climbed up on top to get a better look at the gears, and took photos to review later. Although I did figure out how it worked, I couldn’t determine what purpose it served back in the day.
I caught up with Jay on his way back from the office, and we walked past the cannery workers 1940’s vintage living quarters, where a few early birds were already in residence. The cookhouse, fish processing plant, and warehouse were abuzz with activity in preparation for the run, which was expected to start next week.
I was excited to have the opportunity to be here. I’m fascinated by Alaska’s history, historical places, events, places, and things, especially those related to fishing and the Japanese attack during WW II. Alaska is the last wild frontier, and this old cannery was a treasure trove of history, as well as a look back in time. I was struck by the fact, that everything was old, wet, made of wood, in some state of disrepair, or rotting away. Someday, all this would be gone.
I’d seen enough of the cannery property and said, “let’s walk out to the dock and see what’s going on out there.”
We left the plant and made our way out to the dock. As we got close, Jay exclaimed, “That’s the Maverick from the Dangerous Catch TV show tied up there. Let’s go see who’s aboard.”
“Do you know those guys?”
“Not well, but I’ve met them a time or two. They may not remember me but were all fishermen, and we speak the same language.”
We stood on the edge of the dock, and Jay hollered, “Hello! Anybody aboard the Maverick?” A few minutes later, a crewman appeared on deck and asked, “What can I do for you guys?”
Jay struck up a conversation with the older fisherman, explained we were the Erika Lynn’s crew, and we were up here for the summer run.
He asked, “Who are you fishing for?”
After several minutes of fishermen banter, he warmed up to us and asked, “Do you guys want to see the boat?”
That was a no-brainer, we both responded in unison, “Hell yes!”
He mentioned as we clambered aboard, “You just missed the captain, he’s flying to Anchorage this afternoon.”
He insisted we join him for coffee in the galley after he showed us through the boat. He told us they Maverick got in a few days ago, and was here to serve as one of Trident Seafood’s Bristol Bay fish tenders. A tender is like a floating warehouse for freshly caught fish. The individual fishing vessels deliver their catch to the nearby tender’s refrigerated holds and return to fishing. The tender then offloads the fish at the cannery on a regular basis. This arrangement kept the fish boats on the fish without having to return repeatedly to the canneries in Naknek. We bid farewell to our new friend and headed for the truck to find our way back to town after an exciting day.
*** THE END ***
|Airplane Hill ~ Vietnam ~ Airplane Hill ~ Vietnam ~ Airplane Hill|
1955 ~1966Vietnam was driving me crazy. I couldn’t let it go — it wouldn’t let go of me.I realized if I didn’t get hold of Vietnam — Vietnam would get hold of me… forever.© 2008, by: Don PossIn 1955, at age 11, World War II had ended only nine years earlier. I was a decade away from my war as the news spoke of Dien Binh Phu and the French in a place called Vietnam. That summer my folks bought a new three bedroom house in east Long Beach, CA for $9,000. I was enrolled in the sixth grade at Tincher Elementary School, just around the corner, and met a life-long friend, Dennis Vander Goore. Several years later, I would marry his little sister, who was four years younger than I.From our new neighborhood, you could see Signal Hill, which is a city in the middle of and completely surrounded by the City of Long Beach. For years the hill was covered in old wooden oil well derricks, and remained so until the great Hancock Oil fire on ‘57. My family attended church at White Temple Baptist in Signal Hill, and if we were lucky, after church dad would drive the old Hudson down Airplane Hill as we were going home. Mom didn’t like Dad to do that because Airplane Hill was more or less a wannabe ski jump. If we four boys were “good” in church, then Dad usually agreed. My mom would say, “Now Eulan…” and that was about as far as she got in discouraging him, but he would always cheerfully reply that he would drive slow.The trick about Airplane Hill was that it started out as a shallow drop and then a sudden almost cliff-like drop. You couldn’t see over the cliff until you were committed, and it always felt like you were driving over the edge because you could see Long Beach Airport and the houses 300 feet below. We boys were especially good in church!In those years, kids could play outside and wander the neighborhood in reasonable safety. My brothers, Ray, Jerry, and Larry, best-friend Dennis and I would build the forerunners to modern skateboards from metal roller skates. We used the skate key and took apart our metal roller skates; nailing front and back to a 2 x 4 board, and “skateboarded” down our sidewalks. We had built plywood ramps and generally raced up and down the block as young boys do. When that got old we would go over to the dry Los Cerritos Flood Control Channel and skate as far as we could down the cement sides.We needed a new adventure and decided to take our skateboards and race down Airplane Hill. We strapped our skateboards to our backs and rode our bicycles the three miles to envisioned glory. We pushed our bikes up the hillside road staying clear of the middle in case a car came roaring airborne over the top. We had nailed vertical boards to the front of the skateboards to gain sort-of steering control in the direction we hoped to travel. We were all macho and bragging about who would beat whom to the bottom. As we got near the top, it was obvious from a pedestrian’s point of view that Airplane Hill was really steep and reallyhigh, and I for one began questioning whose dumb idea it was in the first place.All of us stared down from the crown of Airplane Hill and watched the ant-like airplanes taking off and landing from the airport, generally putring off what we recognized as a crazy idea — skateboarding down the hill. After we called each other chicken and pansies, and dared each other, I suddenly gave out my war cry and raced down the road — Yahooooooooo!The first thirty yards I still could stand on the board and propel myself forward by kicking with my other foot. But suddenly I felt like I was free-falling and my war cry turned into a genuine death cry! It is a law of nature that immediately at the bottom of every steep road is a stop sign. I rocketed downward surfing the asphalt wave toward the stop sign swerving hard as the skateboard and metal wheels began disintegrating. Showering sparks sprayed the roadside with ball bearings as I was catapulted tumbling into the plowed field beside the road. I stood up, head spinning and surprised to be alive, and shouted in triumph to the wimps still at the top of the road. Suddenly the air was alive with hoots and shouts as all the gang were racing toward the abysm at mach speed with growing alto-screams of terror.We left our destroyed skateboards in the dirt, and pedaled our bikes home in silence. With bruises and skinned knees, no one ever suggested skateboarding Airplane Hill again.I never forgot the rush of Airplane Hill, and in 1961 when I was in High School, I would drive my ’51 Chevy to the hill and race over the top – girls screamed and would hold on to you really tight — there were no seatbelts back then, and I would lock up my brakes and most always stop at the stop sign.While growing up at home, I never heard the mention of college. That simply was not in the picture. It was always, “Which service are you going in?” My brother Ray had joined the Navy, and so I decided to join the Air Force. I liked airplanes. So, in 1962, eleven days out of high school, and at 17 years of age, I had joined the Air Force and requested Air Police duty for the purpose of becoming a police officer when my enlistment was up.As an Air Policeman in 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated, I was transferred to Bergstrom AFB, Texas to assist with base security when President LBJ returned to Austin from the Washington D.C. Vietnam’s location was still basically unknown to most civilians, but as an AP assigned to do honor guard military funerals for Vietnam KIAs from Texas, I was well aware of the growing war. No one in their right mind would want to go to Vietnam.I decided to volunteer for Vietnam — I didn’t want to miss out on the war — and in 1965 was transferred to Đà Nàng, which allowed a short Leave in transit. At home, my brother Jerry had inherited my Chevy, but I managed at least one Airplane Hill ride with a girlfriend. Fun, but not quite the same.When my year in Vietnam, 1965 to 1966, was over I deros’d home.My freedom-bird flight landed at Travis AFB. We were warned about the growing anti-war groups and encouraged to remain on base, and if not to at least wear civilian clothes downtown. After afew days of processing for discharge, my four years tour was up, I was heading for the civilian airport downtown. Airlines gave a flight discount to military in uniform, so I wore my dress blues. A few unfriendly stares, but those were balanced by friendly comments and smiles.Once airborne, a flight attendant came back to me in coach and said they were bumping me to first-class. I was reseated next to Broderick Crawford whom I recognized as the Hollywood actor having played Chief Dan Mathews in the TV series Highway Patrol. He looked at me and asked, “You just back from Vietnam?” I nodded yes. “Thought so… “, and he shook his head in understanding and resumed reading a magazine. He never asked me if I had killed anyone, or any of those questions soon to become too common. He called the flight attendant and asked for two adult beverages. She looked at me and he said that it was all right. She went for the beverages, and I told him it really was all right that I had turned 21 in Vietnam.The flight was smooth, and after a few sips of an adult beverage, I relaxed a little, and told him I had religiously watched every Highway Patrol series on TV and was a big fan of his. Broderick Crawford nodded, and turned serious and asked me if everyone returning from Vietnam went through Travis AFB. I told him that as far as I knew, the Air Force did, and offered that my tour was up and I was being discharged, and had been at Travis for three days. He asked what I did for those three days, and I told him mostly picking up cigarette butts and CS type jobs waiting processing out. He glowed red in the face and said in that rich baritone voice of his, “You mean they have men coming back from Vietnam picking up cigarette butts?” He was rather upset at that idea.Landing at LAX in Los Angeles, Broderick Crawford asked if I needed a ride, that he could have his chaffer drop me off anywhere. I told him I was being met by family, and we shook hands and went our own ways. A real gentleman.A few days after arriving home in Long Beach, I received a phone call from a Colonel who said he was some general’s aide, and wanted to know if it was true I had been assigned clean up policing duties while at Travis AFB. It was, I had told him, and he offered that Broderick Crawford had called a friend, his Congressman in D.C., and both were pissed to no end. The colonel was polite and said that those type details were about to come to a major halt at Travis. He added that Broderick Crawford had served in WWII and saw action at the Battle of the Bulge, and cared about how servicemen are treated. I thanked him, still in my military mind set, and that was that. I have no idea where he got my parents phone number.My family drove home from LAX on the new 405 San Diego Freeway, which was not there when I joined the Air Force four years earlier. We drove pass Long Beach Airport on the left, and Signal Hill on the right, and I couldn’t help feeling a quickened pulse at seeing Airplane Hill.My emotions were riding a roller coaster of their own, and I didn’t understand why. Mom cooked a welcome home dinner, and I ate a little but mostly stirred the food around my plate. Mom and Dad seemed concerned and wanted to know what was wrong. Nothing, I would reply, and told them I was tired and wanted to lay down, which I did. I didn’t want to be with them, or anyone. I wanted to go back to Vietnam.That night I slept for an hour or so and was then wide awake. Vietnam. What are they doing now? I wondered. How’s Blackie doing with his new handler? What post are they on? Have they been mortared yet? Are there flares – of course there are flares. No … it’s day time there now. I got dressed, took Jerry’s car keys and told him not to wake mom that I was going for a drive.Midnight at Airplane Hill: There were a couple of teenagers parked with lights out and steamed windows. I parked away from them, overlooking Long Beach Airport. Why aren’t I glad to be home? I hated Vietnam … didn’t I? Vietnam: How can I have been there five nights ago, and here now? There’s no war here … no one knows there’s a war over there. I was restless. I got out of the car and leaned against the hood looking down at the airport. I cupped a cigarette so the cherry couldn’t be seen by an enemy 12,000 miles away. I looked at the blue runway lights, dialed low but still sharp. I thought of where K-9 would be patrolling, and where the perimeter bunkers would be set up and where the mine fields would be. No jungle to clear away. The surrounding fields between the quiet freeway and the runways were blind-dark, and it was easy to image a pop-flare firing at any moment. I thought how fitting it would be to have a sandbagged bunker where I was standing.At that moment looking down at the Air Base – airport — the one thing I was certain of was that I wanted nothing to do with firearms and violence. Vietnam stood between me and law enforcement: I no longer wanted to be what I had dreamt of becoming — a police officer.At dawn, when I could see the dark fields were empty of enemies or friends, I drove home and went to sleep before anyone even knew I had left.Later that morning, I drove over to see my high school buddy, Dennis. His sister, Kathy, answered the door. Kathy wasn’t Dennis’ little-sister anymore. She called Dennis to the door and we then went for a drive to see some friends. That’s Kathy — your little sister — four years younger than us? He grinned, and said, “Yeah … and she’s not married either.” My old high school buddies’ conversations were shallow, as if they were still in high school, and more immature than I had remembered them. I couldn’t wait to be rid of them.I bought a ’59 Chevy, with the V-fin trunk lid, painted it a dark metallic cherry brown, and had it tuck’n’rolled in TJ Mexico. I wanted to see Kathy again. She had a boyfriend, and I had a girlfriend, but we soon started dating. We double-dated a few times and somehow ended up flying over Airplane Hill … girls still screamed and held on tightly.I stopped seeing Kathy. I stopped seeing anyone. I couldn’t sleep. I found a job and worked all the hours I could to stay occupied and not think of Vietnam. Why was I thinking of that place all the time? I tried talking to Dennis; he had no clue, wanted to know if I had killed anybody, and changed the subject. I then understood there would be no one who could understand … no one to talk with. The memories of Vietnam were not just memories to me — Vietnam was real and on every TV daily and I had friends still there — but none here — and I soon learned no one wanted to talk about Vietnam. When my brothers asked, I didn’t want to talk about it. They wouldn’t understand … how could they? No one did.Nights were for sleeping. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep. Dennis called. I told him to kiss my ass and hung up. Mom stood there with her mouth open. Weeks went by. The dreams were vivid versions of all I had seen in Vietnam. Why is this happening? I wondered. Why can’t I sleep? I was in California, but at night my mind didn’t believe it and I would awake with a start as if falling asleep on duty. Vietnam: Sappers; C-130s burning; SSgt Jensen dead; Mortars; Junk piles of twisted aircraft debris; Tent City; Buddhist uprisings; Airmen’s Club; Mortars; Huey choppers; Aircraft bombing the perimeter; Marble Mountain lit up in flares and burning aircraft; F-4 Phantoms’ afterburners rocking bedrock; Freedom Hill with green and red tracers; Battle damaged aircraft; crackling pop flares; Exploding B-57; Truck bed loaded with bodies; Coffins loaded on aircraft; Bodies and wounded in Hueys; Ammo dump firefight; Blackie … always Blackie; K-9 fighting holes; Perimeter Flares; Flare kickers and pearls of drifting fire; Monsoon rains; Marines; suffocating heat; Mortars; SSgt Kays gone … I wonder if he is dead; Mortars; J.B. dead; Howitzers; rats; You Numba Ten GI; Firefights; Flamethrowers on the perimeter; Bombs falling nearby; the night was not for sleeping.Vietnam was driving me crazy. I couldn’t let it go — it wouldn’t let go of me. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn’t in my vocabulary. Shell Shock, Soldier’s Heart, all those WWI and II names applied to cowards. I just have to get a grip… but on what? I had no idea what was happening to me.No one to talk to — each night a replay of the night before, and the night before that. I realized if I didn’t get a hold of Vietnam — Vietnam would get a hold of me. I just had to suck it up – right? I didn’t do anything other Airmen hadn’t done in Vietnam, and they’re doing okay … aren’t they? The dreams continued. I told my parents I wanted to go to church with them, and I did. There was no one to talk to there either.Airman Gary Knutson deros’d to Long Beach. We were from the same city, and assigned ĐàNàng K-9 together as part of Operation TopDog45. He told me Blackie’s new handler was doing fine. We talked on the phone a couple of times and then he moved. I knew from talking to him that he was beginning to go through whatever it was that I was experiencing.Airman Gary Eberbach phoned and asked if my invite to visit for a while in Long Beach was still open – it was. He flew in to Long Beach Airport, and had deros’d. Gary was also K-9 with me, and seemed his natural happy-go-lucky self. I noticed how dark his tan was, and wondered if I had been like that from Vietnam. And of course he wanted me to set him up with a date. I took him to church. “Church! You gotta be kidding me?” he had protested.The one time I played match-maker and I introduced him to Rita. I figured she could handle him. A match truly made in heaven. I phoned Kathy, and we began talking on the phone — a lot. We double-dated with Gary and Rita, went to the drive-in movies, to the Cinnamon Cinder and saw Sonny Bono and Cher, and went for drives all over southern California. And Rita and Kathy’s screams were piercing over Airplane Hill.At night, Gary and I talked at times for hours. Vietnam: Remembering K-9 posts; remembering a firefight one night; talking about Blackie and Bucky, about J.B. … everything and anything. Gary couldn’t sleep. Neither could I. I got him a job at Douglas Aircraft with me, and we helped build the first DC-10’s. After nearly a year, Gary and Rita got married, and soon moved to Michigan.
Soon thereafter, my high school phoned and asked if I would address the school’s Veterans’ Day Assemblies (2,500 students), in uniform (I was already discharged from a four years USAF enlistment). I agreed. A few days later I had parked my car in old familiar stomping-grounds in one of the Millikan High School, Long Beach, student parking lots. I couldn’t believe I had agreed to such an idiotic request, and was grumbling to myself while walking toward the auditorium. I didn’t have clue-one what I would say, and this was merely the first-assembly with a second-assembly to go! So basically I planned to respond to the Principal’s (WWII vet) questions, and somehow get through it.We stood at the podium as the Principal quieted the assembly who pointed and stared at him and the guy in a blue Air Force uniform. I listened as he introduced me as a graduate of Millikan High School, 1962. Memories of Vietnam were extremely vivid to me at that time in 1967, and, standing at center-stage I looked out at the too-young faces setting in the large auditorium, all quiet and attentive.The Principal began asking short questions, which I gave clipped answers to. I scanned the balcony for a familiar face – none to be found. The audience, it seemed to me, was embarrassed that I was not at ease and with my too-quiet and too-brief replies. And they were right; my attention was drifting to recent memories. I then ignored a question, took the hand microphone and turned from the Principal to the students directly. I spoke at length of my friend, James B. Jones, who was killed in action at Đà Nàng in January of 1966, at age 19. The jokes we played on each other… the trouble we would have gotten into if only the sergeants had found out “who did that!”… the heat… the stench, rain and mud and bugs… the body bags… and the last night of J.B.’s life at Đà Nàng Vietnam.Total silence.I told the students of how the next morning, still wearing my flack-jacket and helmet and carrying my M16 weapon, I entered the dispensary where J.B. was carried only hours earlier. Two medics came out of a back room… is that where he is? — “I want to see J.B.’s body,” I had demanded, but he was not there and had already begun his final journey home.I tried to make eye contact with students in the front rows, as I told of a letter from Jim’s mother and the pain of loss she and his father felt. Was any of what I was saying making sense? I could see that some of the girls were actually crying. The guys, all too close to military age, were setting on seats’ edges and listening intently … as I remembered my war in Vietnam.I asked the “young men” in the auditorium what they would consider important in their lives today, if they “knew their lives could end within a year from today?” I told them that Vietnam was “not a place you would want to go,” but at the same time was not a place I regretted going to — and yet it was impossible for me to explain what that meant or convey “what it was really like” — but that Vietnam had a life-changing impact on me, and on anyone it touched, in that I could never go back to those days-of-innocence I knew at Millikan High School.The bell rang signaling end-of-assembly, and usually the teenagers would charge out of the auditorium, as I had done years before, but they remained seated, and quiet. The Principal, who had sat down on a folding chair stood up, shook my hand and thanked me with a quick embrace and pat on the back. My God… did the Principal that used to threaten to skin me alive just hug me?The students had not begun to stir, and I noticed the second-assembly students were peeking in the doors to see why they could not yet enter. I walked from the podium toward the wings, and after a few steps the students began to rise, and applaud… then amazingly, cheer and whistle and shout and the cheering became as loud as if Millikan’s football team had just won the State football Championship. I stopped, totally surprised — shocked really — and turned to face them. The noise and shouting tapered off to a ripple. I was too choked up to say anything—and what had I said anyway? — so I just simply popped a salute, held it for a moment, and walked off stage. The cheering and shouts started a new with the balcony students nosily stomping their shoes on the floor.After second-assembly, some of my old high school teachers came backstage and shook my hand. Some were worried about “the war getting serious.” As I left the building through a side door, several students from first and second assemblies were waiting. Some said they had brothers or fathers in Vietnam. One teary eyed girl said that her brother had died in Vietnam, and wanted to know if I had known him.Years later I would occasionally return to Millikan High School, as a police officer, and always took notice of the Memorial Bulletin Board’s growing list of alumni killed in action in Vietnam. The war was still roaring along, with years to go, and the stories of Vietnam veterans being spit on and cursed were now common knowledge.Later that night, I drove my old ’51 Chevy to the top of Airplane Hill … it was funny that was the one place I felt at peace. And that night I needed time to think. I would always remember my Veterans’ Day high school talk, and recognized it for what it really was … my Welcome Home. I also realized Airplane Hill was the one place that felt like Vietnam to me.I had traded-in my beloved ’59 Chevy for a new Cherokee-140 low-wing airplane. When Kathy and I dated, we took her car. From Long Beach Airport, we flew over to Catalina Island several times and up and down the California coastline at night. We were engaged – and I still needed to get my head screwed on right. The dreams were not as bad, but they were not gone either. Having Gary to talk with had been great. He understood exactly what I felt, and I think talking helped ease him into civilian life. Still, I had decisions to make about the directions my life would take. I inhaled from the cupped cigarette, and smiled to myself, then took a heavy drag with the cherry glowing fire red and open to the warm night air. There’s no war here. I am home.That night, as I looked out over the airport’s blue lights. I realized the old saying that you can never go back was true. My old high school friends were too young for me. My new friends would never understand Vietnam. I thought once more of my friends in Vietnam. Somehow, “friends” was too mild a word. It ran deeper than that, and I resolved if ever I could help them I would. Broderick Crawford had known what I was soon to know: the War never will leave you … not for a day … but life was worth living, and the country was worth fighting for, and your comrades – that’s the word – are worth hanging in there for – forever.Dawn was again approaching. The war-ghosts lingering in the dark fields of mist below evaporated with the California sun, and were nowhere to be seen. The ghosts of my boyhood and wild death cry of tear streaming joy was beckoning for just one more ride over Airplane Hill – and if you listen close, you can still hear the echoes of metal roller-skate wheels, whoops and hoorahs, and screeching tires from innocent boyhood years — Yahooooooooo!Post Script: Gary Knutson, Gary Eberbach, and I are members of VSPA (two of three have Agent Orange VA disabilities), and we email often. I am still handsome. Both Gary’s look like balding-prunes sucked dry by feeding Raiths of TV Atlantis fame (heh-heh). Gary and Rita Eberbach have been married nearly 45 years. Kathy and I have been married 41 years this year. My friend Dennis passed away in 2007. My brother Ray (US Navy) is a helicopter commercial pilot instructor in Idaho. My brother Jerry (US Army, Vietvet) is in law enforcement in the Palm Springs area. My brother Larry (US Army) is a computer wiz-geek-nerd. The students and staff at Millikan High School still remember and honor their veterans to this day, with the Alumni Memorial posted at the campus’ main entrance. Signal Hill’s oil derricks were replaced with high-priced condos … but Airplane Hill is still there — if you dare!Don Poss,
Đà Nàng, Vietnam, 1965-66
USAF, 366th Security Police Squadron, K-9.
Webmaster / Communications Director:
Vietnam Security Police Association, Inc. (USAF), http://www.vspa.com
The Thousand Yard Stare is not looking out into the void, but inward into the void. Shinning a light into that void may only help him see the ghosts clearer. Someone who walked-the-walk with him must enter the dark and lead or carry him out.
“We Take Care of Our Own”
1-17-18 PART 1:
NORTHWEST BOATING HISTORY
Eagle Harbor, Bainbridge, Island. A favorite destination in the ’80’s. Seattle in the background,
Boats and the sea are embedded in Jake Winston’s genes. He first stepped aboard a vessel in 1946, right after WW II when pleasure boating was for the affluent. The pristine bays and harbors were mostly deserted even in the summers. There were few docks, moorages, or fueling stations. The rich and famous rendezvoused and partied in places like Roche Harbor, Rosario, or Deer Harbor in the San Juan Islands in their expensive wooden and steel hulled yachts.
Yachts tied up side by side to a log boom before there were a dock and mooring buoys at Roche Harbor. If a boat left, the vessels on either side had to re-secure their lines.
The 110-foot Olympus wood yacht built in the ’20’s was one of the grand old ladies of that era.
The mid-fifties and sixties saw the decline of those old wooden boats like the Olympus and the rise of a short-lived era of modern, wide beam, fast wood boats. Chris Craft led the way with its forty-five-foot Commander.
There were other boat builders like Higgins Industries, the manufacturer of WW II PT boats, who built a few smaller versions of their wooden PT boats, which Edgar Kaiser and Doc Winston bought and traded parts for over the years. These were unique fast cruisers with three big Chrysler engines.
When Uniflite and Bayliner introduced mass-produced fiberglass boats to the Northwest, they were a hit. First came the small runabouts, followed by mid-sized cruisers. They were inexpensive, sleek, and required much less maintenance than the wood and steel hulls. boats up to 32 feet were trailerable, and that was huge. You could take them anywhere and launch them on a boat ramp. There was no expensive moorage costs and annual unpleasant hull scraping and repainting. It wasn’t long before having a boat was nearly as common as owning a second car. The marine service sector expanded rapidly, and the post-war boating families crowded into the formerly pristine Island destinations. The old-guard yachting crowd gravitated to the Canadian San Juan’s to escape the influx of the inexperienced new boaters.
I was attending the University of Washington in the early sixties. The UW campus fronted on both Lake Washington and Portage Bay. My three roommates and I rented one of a dozen houseboats tied to a rickety floating walkway on Lake Union just around the point and south of the University. We split the twenty-five dollars a month rent three ways. It was hardly a house or a boat. It was a two-room, fishing cabin mounted on a dozen cedar logs strapped together with cable. We had power, telephone and water service, but no sewer. The toilet, tub, and sink emptied directly into the lake. Things were a little primitive, and an eclectic collection of beatniks and free spirits populated our poor, but happy, vibrant neighborhood. The houseboat was on Lake Union to the left of the 5.
I had repaired and re-fitted a sixteen-foot sailboat, the Wild Goose II, which I bought for a hundred-eighty dollars. It was tied up to a couple of fir logs at my back door. When the weather was decent, we often headed out into Lake union after classes with a couple of girls and a case or Rainier beer.
I’ll never forget the afternoon we climbed aboard the Wild Goose II and set sail. There was enough wind to zip along comfortably in and out of the boat and seaplane traffic. I knew that the wind would typically die down in the late afternoon so I would need to be back before that occurred. That day, the wind just quit when we were about a quarter of a mile from home. Undaunted, we continued to party, and toss our empties overboard, knowing some good-hearted boater would eventually come along and give us a tow. That’s how it was back in the day.
I was surprised when the wail of a siren interrupted our happy little sail. It was the Harbor Patrol in their new inflatable thirty-four-footer. A very young officer raised his bullhorn and ordered us to heave-to. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that since we were becalmed and just drifting. Never the less, just to go along with the officer, I hollered, “Aye, aye, Skipper, Sir!”
Despite the fact we were only a few yards apart, he continued to address us through his bullhorn. He inquired if the trail of empty beer bottles he followed came from our vessel. In his sternest voice, he bellowed at no one in particular, “You have created a threat to navigation, and that is a serious matter.” My roommate, Johnny Be Good, who was a little tipsy, rose to his feet and denied the bottles were ours. He belligerently demanded to see the officer’s identification. Just then, the wake of a passing boat rocked us, and Johnny fell overboard. Parker and I quickly dragged him, sputtering and coughing, back aboard.
The officer looked puzzled, and demanded, “Who is the skipper of this vessel? Identify yourself immediately!” I cheerfully raised my hand and announced with a big smile, “That would be me, Captain.” Elizabeth giggled. I overheard the first mate, an older sailor, tell the officer, “This stop is a little overzealous. If you charge these kids with creating an obstruction to navigation, your report will make you look ridiculous and possibly influence your career.” A moment passed and the officer nodded and ordered his coxswain to move on. I brazenly asked for a tow as they were backing away. I was surprised when the first mate grinned and tossed me a line. When he cut us loose close to the house, I gave the first mate my best John Wayne salute, which he returned.