The Stutz

plutoniun

An icy winter wind bits Jack’s face as he cranks down his window and gazes at Wagontire, the place where he lived his childhood. Swinging his Ford pickup onto the shoulder, he let it roll to a stop in the gravel. Switching off the ignition, he grabs his field glasses and scans the isolated village. Changes have occurred. Slow, deliberate changes. His dad’s Shell station where he pumped gas during World War II is now Texaco. Its corporate red and white adding color to the high desert scene. His mother’s grocery store is now a Star Mart. The post office where she served as postmistress is gone.

Laying his binoculars on the seat, Jack hits the ignition switch. The V8 flares, and he continues toward the wide place, the scar on the desert floor called Wagontire, and parks on the south side of Star Mart. It’s like so many Texaco convenience stores, the cold drinks along the north wall. At the east end, where the Pepsi display starts are the prepared sandwiches – ham and cheese on rye, salami on wheat, and egg salad on white bread.

Pleased to find a small table with seating to accommodate four, he claims a bench where he can sit while he has a ham and cheese and a bottle of orange soda.

“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” asks an old man who has crippled in from outside. Before Jack can respond he adds, “Mind if I join you?”

“Of course not. Sit,” says Jack, gesturing, a palm up. Jack recognizes him from before he went off to join the navy.

The old man is silent for a time, gathering his thoughts.

“Can I get you something, Frank?”

“How’d you know my name? You remind me of someone,” the old man says.

Well I remember you. Frank Sluter? Have I got the name right? You wrenched for my dad when I was a kid here in Wagontire.”

By cracky, that’s why I thought I knowed you. You’re Jack. A spitting image of your dad, you are,” says the old man, reaching across the table to shake. “I haven’t heard anything about your folks for years. Are they still alive?”

They both passed away a few years back.”

That’s too bad.

Do you remember the fellow with the Stutz Bearcat?”

That red one. The fella that bought gas here during the war?”

Yes. Him. There was gas rationing and folks were only allowed three and a half gallons of gasoline each week. But this fella always had a rationing book chucked full of gas stamps. He always filled up when he was going south and he filled up again when he was headed back north. And he always gave me a nickel so I could buy a candy bar.”

Dad said we could set our calendar by the days he came each month.”

What do you suppose he did. Where’d he get all those gas stamps from? He must have worked for the government, don’t you think?” the old mechanic ventured.

Maybe, but we’ll never know. It’s been too long. One day while Dad and I were setting in the station office, after the war was over, he asked me if I’d seen the guy in the red Stutz. I hadn’t. He’d quit coming by and we hadn’t noticed. Dad always kept track of details. He went to the desk calendar and started flipping through the pages. After a few minutes he turned and looked at me with an expression I’d never seen before. Stress? I don’t know. But he finally explained that the fellow had stopped coming by about the same time the Atom bomb exploded. He said he thought that guy was carrying plutonium from Hanford.

 

The Perfect Cover

It’s been said that one who wishing to hide something should do so in plain sight. I can think of one time it may have worked perfectly.

An old friend, Terry, grew up in the small, high desert town of Wagon Tire, Oregon during World War II. His family owned and operated a grocery store, gas station, and the Wagon Tire Post Office at a place along US 395. Gasoline was rationed to 3.5 gallons per week except for mail carriers or defense plant employees. Yet one individual could always fill his automobile.

During the final year of the war this middle-aged man in tweeds and a neck scarf bought gasoline at Wagon Tire twice each month, once while headed south and again when he was headed north. He drove a Stutz Bearcat and always had plenty of rationing stamps. Terry told me he never questioned the man’s appearance or the fact that he always had stamps.

In 1945 the war ended and the man in tweeds was never seen again. Not until many years later did Terry realize that US 395 lead directly from Hanford, Washington to the general vicinity where the first atom bomb was tested.

“I think he was carrying plutonium from Hanford to the test site. The Stutz Bearcat and the scarf were a perfect cover,” said Terry.

Our House

 

In mid 1943 my mother decided I needed a better education than that offered at the one-room school my father and his father attended. She packed us up bag and baggage, and in spite of the fiery arguments issued by my grandparents, we moved. Mr. Black, a Bates County Commissioner, owned the house we moved into. We rented the ground floor. He reserved the upper floor for himself and the friends he often entertained.

Mr. Black's House

It was built in the latter years of the Nineteenth Century. I remember the dark, handcrafted wood  in the window frames and the heavy stairway banister of which I was forbidden to climb.

It was in this house that I recovered from measles, whooping-cough, and mumps. Unable to go outside I spent many hours lying on my back at the dining room window watching the snow flakes fall.

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In this front window just to the right of the entryway my mother hung the four blue stars indicating our family members, Weston, Clarence, Wayne, and Glenn who were away fighting World War II. Fortunately none of our blue stars were replaced with gold ones. That would have indicated one of our four was killed in action.

A World War I Photo

There’s no name or date on this photo. It came from my Grandma Susie’s collection, pictures probably sent to her by Peter. The man is obviously pouring gasoline (you could carry gasoline around in a bucket in those days). The photographer’s shadow indicates he was using a Brownie-type camera. Note the hard rubber tire on the truck.

This vehicle is similar to the ambulance Ernest Hemingway drove during World War I.

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Peter 001

Peter, the friend on the troop train that stopped in Carlton, Nebraska about 101 years ago.

Oregon Army MARS

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Communications between troops, their families, and loved ones has not always been as simple and quick as it is today. During the Second World War and Korea mail was sometimes opened, copied to microfilm, and then flown Stateside. Upon arrival the process was reversed and the letters were delivered to their destinations via the United States Postal Service.

During the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War radio communications had developed to the point were telephone-patches were often used. But, as you may know, the silence following a distant phone call is deafening. There is no substitute for cursive or printed words that a GI can read over and over.

The Military Affiliate Radio Service (MARS) was established in 1927. By the time the 1991 Gulf War began MARS – Air Force, Army, and Navy – were groups of highly trained traffic (message) handlers. Twenty-five word messages going to and coming from the Gulf were often initiated and delivered on the same day.

The Internet, as we know it, did not yet exist. Instead, there were a dozen of us scattered throughout Oregon – all 50 states, for that matter – gathered on assigned military frequencies, and participating in daily HF Single-Sideband Radio Networks. Using our person amateur transceivers and antennas, we moved messages to an appointed digital gateway station, which then passed them on to the East Coast for transmission to the Middle East.

My amateur radio call sign is N7NET, my MARS call sign was AAR0CM. Leo, who has since passed on, was KB7LOC. His MARS call sign was AAR0DG. I operated from a small, travel trailer dedicated for MARS work. Leo worked from a pickup camper.

As the ’91 Gulf War began we used a newspaper ad to explain what we were about and what we could do, and that the service was free, and we were open seven days each week.

My answering machine was usually chucked full of what parents, wives, and girlfriends wanted to say. Sometimes I would finish transposing these phone messages into 25-word MARS message by two the following morning, early enough to catch forty-winks before going back to my day job.

After the war was over MARS calculated that the dozen of us in Oregon had handled some 10,000 messages during those few short weeks. The newspaper clipping I’ve attached explains much of what we did. MARS management frowned on publicity, so I didn’t show up for the photo session.

I was 54 years old at the time, too old to serve actively in the military, though I would have returned as a maintainer, maintaining communications and navigation systems on B-52s and other combat aircraft, and done so in a heartbeat.

Of course, they didn’t call, but working through MARS proved we, as individuals are never too old to serve our country.

Ice Cream Socials

While reading William Least Heat Moon’s book, Prairie Erth I came across the outdated term

“ice cream social”. I immediately recalled my grandmother Brown, my mother’s mother, a lady who passed a decade before I came on the scene. She was a product of the old ice cream social era, a means used to generate funds for the local school as well as other community events.

Ladies, married and unmarried, prepared box dinners consisting of two half-sandwiches and two pieces of pie. Evidently, someone else furnished the ice cream, enough for a serving around (I didn’t think to ask while someone could answer that question). The boxes were colorfully decorated, and strict security measures were evoked to conceal the identity of each preparer, so they said. At a predetermined time an auction was started. Men, young and old, bid on certain ones hoping they had guessed correctly, because the winner got to dine with the preparer.

In order to keep the things honest the preparer put a slip of paper her box bearing her name. My grandmother, Susie Brown, always participated. No one ever said, but I can only imagine the disappointment when some young buck had lunch with someone old enough to be his mother.

When World War I started troop trains steamed from west to east, and always stopped at Carlton, Nebraska to replenish the water supply for steam. Troops were not allowed to leave the trains.

Grandma Susie, armed with train schedules, prepared numerous boxes of fried chicken and sandwiches. And while the train was stopped she, and my mother handed food through the open coach windows. Each box, like the ice cream social, contained a slip of paper bearing Grandma Susie’s name and postal address. One soldier, Peter, responded. Throughout the war Peter stayed in contact and mailed photos of himself as well as non-classified activities occurring in France.

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This is the photo Peter mailed to my

Grandma Susie from France during

World “War I.

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Earning a Wartime WAC

Taylor Sullivan was in the fourth grade when he found a damaged issue of Boy’s Life Magazine. It was lying on the curb of a Portland street and the wind had flipped it open, exposing an illustration of a boy speaking into a tomato can. Pausing, he stooped and studied the picture. The article described how to build a crude telephone using things commonly found around the house—a length of string and two vegetable cans.

His mother had scolded him about handling things he found on the ground. He considered her words, but this seemed important enough to put her warning aside. Rolling up the tattered publication and shoved it into his hip pocket and then he headed home.

Taylor built a tin can telephone and he and Carl, his little brother, used it on the staircase. That’s where he learned that the string had to be taunt and in a straight line. If the cord touched anything it stopped transferring audio. It seemed like a perfect solution for communicating between their bedrooms, so he built second system and cut a hole through the wall solely for that purpose.

“Hold the can still, Carl.”

“I am.”

“No, you’re not. You’re letting the cord touch the edge of the hole.”

Carl didn’t have a steady hand. After several failures, Taylor enlarged the hole. When that didn’t solve the problem he expanded it even more. Then their father discovered the damaged wall.

The telephone didn’t work well outside and Taylor quickly lost interest in it, but he was hooked on communications. Commercial radio had taken the nation by storm and he couldn’t get enough of it.

In 1937 Taylor’s father purchased a large, floor model radio. The adults gathered around it for the evening news, and he watched them await Gabriel Heeter’s opening statement: “Good evening folks—there’s good news tonight“. While he was curious about the AM broadcasts, he found more adventure in listening to the three shortwave bands. That was where Taylor became acquainted with Morse code and heard his first ham, a man called Marvin.

A neighborhood hardware store sold radio parts and the owner knew Marvin well. He even gave Taylor directions to his house. On his third visit he began learning Morse. In a short time Taylor experienced the thrill of making his first two-way contact, operating under Marvin’s call. After that he began preparing for the test that would fetch him a radio license of his own. Then he set out to earn his WAC (Worked All Continents).

Taylor was 19 when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and the United States entered World War II. For national security reasons ham radio privileges were revoked. He enlisted in the Navy and soon thereafter, he was a radioman aboard a submarine. After a week at sea he found two others who, as civilians, had plied the night skies with electromagnetic waves.

Because receivers transmitted a weak signal that the enemy could follow to its source, radio silence was invoked, keeping strict transmission schedules. When not in use, the antennas were disconnected.

However, operating a receiver without an external antenna while the boat was submerged didn’t breach radio silence, so Taylor created a spare time radio activity of his own.

With the Captain’s permission, he used a receiver and began transmitting verses from the New Testament.

When time allowed, a receiver was moved from one strategic location to another. The noisy environment of the boat while underway coupled with a very weak signal made copy a sincere challenge. At a given point in time Taylor declared the quest finished.

Both hams scored high and were issued a WAC, a certificate stating that the bearer had successfully Worked All Compartments.