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Tales from before time, Part 2

Discussion in 'Blogs' started by ghrit, Sep 24, 2008.

  1. ghrit

    ghrit Ambulatory anachronism Administrator Founding Member

    I got motivated to continue these things, so here is Part 2. Might even be a part 3 sometime, I have not finished mining memory.

    Pop had a bit of interest in old civil works; I have his files on canals, as limited as they are. I think he really wanted to go to Panama in the Navy before they sent him to ship repair and drydocking schools. According to him, I almost had dual citizenship, Panamanian and US.He told me that he had orders to Panama that were changed. I can easily imagine Mom persuaded him to ask for the change, seeing she had a big belly full of me at that time. Then again, it might have been his father’s political position that worked for him. (G-pa was a wheel in the Berks County Democratic party.)

    It has been speculated that he might have been thinking Panama would be a good assignment for after the war as well. As near as I can tell, that was not seriously considered. He might have stayed active and gone regular Navy (his commission was in the Reserves) had he not been passed over for CDR at least once, and maybe all three times after VJ day. There wasn’t much available for LDOs at that point; he could not have risen to command of a warship because of that. He could have been, indeed would have been, on specialty craft. At VJ day he was PCO for a floating drydock. It was scheduled to go to the South Pacific arena had the war not ended.

    The story goes that the dock was a ten section floating drydock, half of which were powered and towed the other half, 2 by 2. I have not been able to find data indicating that one of those powered units ever existed, but there were some built (9 I think) and in service that had to be towed. These were not trivial docks, there are photos of one with the Iowa in it. A battleship is not a small thing.

    He told me that he and an “elderly” enlisted “water tender”, probably in actuality a boiler tender, were on one of the unpowered sections doing a test flood down in the builder’s yards (maybe Philly, maybe Charleston, that I don’t know) when the VJ day whistle blew. They were both on one wing wall, and the other side had yard birds on it operating the valving. When the whistle blew, the yard birds all hauled ass, leaving the flood valves open. By now, there is water on the bottom deck, and sinking fast. Pop wrestled the valves shut on his side, and the “old” guy crossed, near hip deep, and closed the ones on the other side. Thus endeth the tale, the truth may be in the logs, but who knows where they might be; I haven’t been able to find data, even the hull number is missing.

    When he was stationed in Charleston as a docking officer awaiting the floating dry dock commissioning, Mom had reason to visit him in the Navy Yard. We were living in Charleston then; that is within my memory of that time, including the train trip to get there. I might have been three years old, so the memories are partial. However, I confirmed this with him later, he took me on a ride around the parking lot on the Cushman scooter that was assigned to him. I guess I was thrilled.

    Among the things he told of the Navy days was just after he had completed qualifications as a docking officer for a graving dock in Boston. He was at a USO do put on by a wealthy matron in the Back Bay. About ten PM, the Shore Patrol crashed in and announced that all drydock qualified personnel were to report to the Yard immediately, so off he went. It turns out that the USS Iowa (BB61) had hit the bottom on the approach to Boston Harbor, and was to undergo a bottom inspection first thing in the morning. So here he was, freshly qualified as a D.O, and a battlewagon on its maiden voyage was to be docked. By him, no less, turns out he was Senior Officer Present in the Repair Division. When he hit the gate, a full Captain met him, handed him the blocking plan, told him he had until 0600 and left. It got done. I am not too sure how bad the damage was, but as I remember the story, they replaced a screw that had been express railed from wherever it had been stored, and the Iowa was under way in pretty short order. She then left port to participate in hunting down and killing the German cruiser Tirpitz. And as we know, she was in the Pacific later since that is where the photo mentioned above was taken. Manus, Ulithi Atoll, December ‘44.

    If you were under 16 and over 12, you needed “working papers” to work on the farms in the area, and then for only 4 hours a day. Farms only, you had to be 16 to work anywhere else or longer hours. At 12, I started picking raspberries at one of the local truck farms about 2 miles from home. We started early to beat the heat. Most days, we were home by noon. The time limit was sorta winked at, as long as it wasn’t abused, and the farmers were really careful to not abuse the privilege of hiring kids. I don’t remember for sure, but I think we got a dime a pint picked, the roadside stands got a quarter when sold. Raspberries and blackberries were picked by kids, as they grow on picky bushes and the adult workers were better used hauling the heavier crops. Blueberries were always pick your own, tho’ there were some in the stands for folks that couldn’t manage in the fields. Each stand owner had a few customers that were taken care of that way.

    Age was winked at too, as long as it was close. I was in the fields about two weeks before the working papers were issued.

    After the raspberry picking was done, most of the roadside stands took on kids to wrassle produce behind the counter or out back hauling stuff in from the trucks and wagons as it came in. Corn was really fresh picked, as were the carrots, onions, melons and other stuff in season. My favorite was when the peaches started coming in. I’d quit the corn stand and go out another mile to the farm we preferred for fresh apples and peaches. The worst part of that job was picking up the fallen half rotted fruit in the mid-day sun. (And you CAN eat enough fruit to get sick, peaches and pears alike.) I wonder how many kids can tell you how heavy a bushel of string beans is.

    Dust in the pull off areas in front of the stands was usually a problem with cars coming in and out when it was dry. I learned to broadcast calcium chloride to settle the dust nearly as well as old man Engebretson, who owned the farm. You can’t do that today, environmentally unsound, so they say. (And that farm has long been sold, it is a strip mall now.)

    Speaking of old man E, I saw him pick up a 600 lb cultivator and hang it on the three point hitch of a Massey tractor. His son was in the Marines, came home once while I was there. Talking to him, he admitted the old man was tough as nails, and that the son could not lift the weight the father could. The son was over 6 feet and probably ran to 220. Old man E was a Swedish immigrant, spoke with an accent. Most mornings, it was “Py golly, today ve vork gud.”

    At age 16, you could work in a greater variety of jobs. Most of us graduated from the fields to grocery and retail stores. I worked at Bell’s Market (no longer there) for two years, after school and in the summers. Stocking shelves, sweeping the floors, bagging customer’s groceries, helping carry out multiple bags and the like. Then there was the twice a year total inventory and thorough cleaning. Strip the shelves, count every particle, can, box, weigh every bit of produce. And wash, wash, wash. In those days, stores were not open round the clock. During the week, they closed at 7, Saturday at 5 and not open Sundays at all. Inventory started Sat after closing, and ended when it ended. We were divided into shifts and just kept chugging until it was done, sometimes early Monday morning.

    One July Tuesday after July 4th, I got to work around 10, and the store was wide open, fans in the doorways, mops and buckets all over the place. And stink. Sometime Saturday night, the ice cream refrigeration plant croaked. There was no a/c. Sunday and Monday were a bit “warm” to say the least. The entire ice cream freezer melted and ran all over everywhere. The boss called everyone in, even those off shift, told them to dress for cleaning, not for service. Customers wouldn’t even come in the store until late afternoon.

    At age 18, the work restrictions came off, you could work anywhere at anything. The summer I turned 18, I landed a job with the power company as a cadet engineer since I was headed to college in the fall. My assignment was at the E.H. Werner station in South Amboy. The position was created by the company to expose college students with aspirations of becoming power engineers to the day to day operations of a power plant. As a first year cadet, you spent time with the different operational positions in the plant, and got to see how things were run and done. Plant operators and maintenance staff were union, so you couldn’t replace them, but could do anything as long as one of the qualified people was with you. They made use of that, going for coffee while you did the job. All OK, one could at least do something rather than sit or stand around watching. Or they might give you the keys to the dump truck and send you out for the coffee instead.

    One thing they would let you do without an operator with you was clean the trash rack washout pits. A pretty nasty job. The pits were around 8 feet deep, maybe 4X4 feet and a grating bottom above the cooling water intake channels. The trash racks backwashed automatically, flushing fish, seaweed, shells, rocks and other stuff that might clog the condenser tubes into these pits. The water returned to the canal, and the “stuff” stayed in the pits until someone went down and shoveled it out. At high tide, the pits were flooded, so the cleaning had to wait for a low tide on day shift. A few hot days in the summer, and things were a bit stinky to say the least.

    The back story on those pits is that Raritan Bay was home to a lot of scavenger type critters, including horseshoe crabs. It was very common to find lots of them there. One morning, Charlie and I got the call to shovel the pits. We got the tractor, set the bucket down at the edge as a place to put the mess, lifted the cover and were met with a nearly full of crabs, most still alive. It was my turn to go in --. The accepted method of getting the crabs out was to pick them up by the tail and heave them up to the bucket. Some of them didn’t make it and came back down. One more reason for hard hats, raining horseshoe crabs.

    Side light on the Werner station. Babcock and Wilcox combined with GE to build 5 units of boiler turbine generator packages for JCP&L. Somehow, the order was modified so that the Werner station got two turbine sets and three boilers. The other turbines and boilers went to Russia. I don’t know when that happened, but those units were old when I worked at Werner.

    Next door to our house in Matawan was an empty lot that now has two houses on it. The lot fronted on Main Street and continued all the way through to Broad Street where we lived. The whole thing was owned by Phil Neidlinger and his wife. Nice folks, but not close friends, somewhat older than Mom and Pop. On the other side of the empty lot was the Campbell’s house. (Irrelevant to this, they kept an aviary in the back yard and raised canaries. Tough birds, they wintered over outside well enough.) Phil used some of the lot for a victory garden, but that stopped for some reason in the early 50s, I think his Gravely walk behind tractor died. When we were small, that empty lot became a baseball field, and no one had a problem with it. Home plate was next to our front yard, the Campbells were in right field, and left field was limited by the Neidlinger’s garage. As the neighborhood gremlins got older, windows became interesting targets, even if by accident. After one of our windows was taken out by a foul ball, one of the Campbells’ living room windows suffered the inevitable hit (along with some broken shingles) and later one of the garage windows was taken out, we all got the word to stop with baseball there.

    Side light on the victory garden: Even tho’ the war was over, lots of folks kept going for a few years. Pop tried his hand at it on Phil’s lot. I think a few things did well, but the Golden Bantam variety corn was not too successful. Blight got it, and the corn borers got what was left.

    Mitchell College is in New London. In those days MC (a Junior College) was touted as a “rehab” school for those that did not do so well at other schools. Another one, in PA was the same sort of place. I was accepted at both of them, and went to Mitchell and graduated. I didn’t bother applying for transfer to a 4 year school at the time because I knew my draft number would come up as soon as the Draft Board found out I had finished. The summer I left Mitchell, I had a job with Burns & Roe (an engineering outfit) located in NYC. Not long after I started there, they asked me if I’d like to go to Thule Greenland to work on the contract they had with the Air Force to run the power plant. I had no great wish to go to Viet Nam and the position was draft deferred as defense critical, so I said sure, and the background investigation was started. Within a week or two, I got the formal announcement that my number was up. Still had no wish to go to Nam, so I went to see the Navy recruiter and the rest is history. The Navy BI came back before the B&R item did, so I went in and told the boss I was leaving in two weeks. The following week, the Thule BI came back, but by then I’d already signed the enlistment papers.

    Mitchell was in some ways an uninteresting place, but they did try to do a good job academically. There was a pretty unusual (for the time) collection of students from all over the world, I think because a lot of them did not have a good handle on English, and went there to improve their ability to understand instruction. There were a couple Saudis there, one of whom played the ood, some kind of stringed instrument from the desert. And sang with it, very badly. Another kid from Thailand attended both years I was there. He has since retired from government service in Thailand, turns out he was from a very highly placed upper crust family.

    I learned to play bridge at Mitchell. There were quite a few good players that I hung around with and were in the some of the same classes.

    Also learned to sail while there. The school owned a 6 boat fleet of 14 foot Tall Stars and a 26 foot K boat. There were some pretty good skippers at the school from the junior ranks in RI and Long Island sound. (Between the sailing and bridge playing, I think there is found the reason some of those guys were in rehab.) Just down the river from the school, there was a small yacht club that put on races regularly in the summer, which of course I didn’t see. In February, they also put on regular regattas for Penguin class boats that was rightly called Frostbite Racing. Lots of hard core Penguin owners came to New London for the weekend racing. As I remember, the season was about 6 weeks on Sundays. Quite a few showed up alone with their boats, and needed crew as there was no way to win sailing single handed. I got on with a guy that showed up regularly. Yep, it is cold on the water in the snow and insanely high wind for small craft.

    The Coast Guard Academy is just up the river from Mitchell. Coasties sailed K boats as part of their training. The school’s K boat was a former USCG boat that Mitchell acquired as scrap and fixed up. We would once in a while go up river and mess with them a bit. On one occasion, 7 of us took the K boat up and chatted up a boat full of Coasties for a short while. They seemed to think that they could do damage to our psyches by beating us in an impromptu race. After all, they were near professional sailors and we were just a rag tag bunch of townies that couldn’t possibly know how to sail well. The breeze that day was moderately stiff. They said “go” and off we went. We headed them on the downwind leg ran away on the reach and finished them off by a whole lot on the tacking leg. It happens that the guy we used as skipper was the Long Island Thistle class champion. We had 5 guys on the weather rail, one guy spinning the bilge pump and the skipper braced on the combing. Still took on some greenies on the point and reach. The Coasties decided the wind was unsafe, and went back to their mooring. We stayed out until dinner time; our boat had some advantages, heavier keel and more sail. More balls than common sense aboard, too.

    Speaking of bridge playing. When I went aboard the Gato, there were only three bridge players aboard, me and two officers. Obviously, that was not enough, so not much got played. That is, until we took the first northern run, when we had a dozen riders along. We then totaled 6 players, which at least gave us a chance of a card game (other than poker or acey deucy, dominoes was pretty popular, too) when off watch. It didn’t take too long to attract some other attention, both enlisted and officer, and for the next 40ish days, the 6 of us originals trained up at least 30 more guys to the point where some serious competition got started. Several guys went on later to earn master’s points in various clubs outside the navy. The last month out, there was almost no time when there wasn’t a game going on in the crew’s mess, sometimes even during chow. There was no distinction made between officer and enlisted at the bridge table; a bad play brought down serious, often impolitely stated criticism.
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