Apr 18, 2018

Paul Julius - Luckiest Man in the World?!?

Gato-Class Fleet Submarine, similar to the types that Paul
would have served on during World War II
When I started working at Ingalls Shipbuilding Division of Litton Industries in 1972, we had a lot of World War II veterans in the workforce.  I worked with one gentleman who had been a B-17 pilot, had survived his planes destruction by the Luftwaffe, and had spent the last two years of the war in a German POW camp.  Another colleague was a Pearl Harbor survivor.  There were many and they all had amazing stories to share, but I believe I was most fascinated by Paul Julius, a retired Navy Warrant Officer.  I think he may have been the luckiest man I ever knew from the standpoint of "coincidences" that spared his life.
     Paul Julius had entered the navy shortly after Pearl Harbor.  After boot camp, he attended a couple of electronics schools before being assigned to USS Preston (DD–379), a Mahan-class destroyer.  On the evening of 14 November, 1942, Preston, as part of TF 64, sailed along the western end of Guadalcanal to intercept another Japanese run down the “Slot” to bombard Henderson Field and land reinforcements.  Swinging around Savo Island, the force, two battleships preceded by four destroyers, entered the channel between Savo and Cape Esperance.  At 23:00, the battleship Washington picked up the Japanese cruiser Sendai on her radar, and, at 23:17, the Third Battle of Savo Island began.
     As Paul related it to me, he had gotten off watch at midnight but since it was incredibly hot he decided to sleep in the number 3 gun mount, since that was his battle station.  This ultimately saved his life.  Approximately eight minutes after the enemy was engaged, USS Walke was hit.  Soon after, Preston, preparing her torpedoes, was struck.  One salvo from Nagara had put both fire rooms out and toppled the after stack.  Her fires made an easier target and shells came in from both port and starboard.  The fires spread.  At 23:36, she was ordered abandoned.  Seconds later she rolled on her side.  She floated for another ten minutes, bow in the air; then sank, taking 116 of her crew with her.  Paul Julius was in the water with a life jacket on and was rescued within a couple of hours.  He ended up ashore on Guadalcanal in the company of the U.S. Marines.
     After a couple of weeks, Paul was offloaded and informed that he had been selected for submarine training and found himself on his way to New London, Connecticut.  After 6 months of submarine training, Paul was assigned to a brand new fleet submarine home ported in Pearl Harbor, HI.  He made his first war patrol and after a couple of months, returned to Pearl Harbor.  The day after the boat tied up, Paul proceeded to the base hospital for his required annual physical.  While he was off the ship, shipyard workers were busy installing a new piece of equipment to help locate submarines stranded or disabled in somewhat shallow water.  It consisted of a mechanism mounted on the top side of the hull that contained a small explosive device.  Over this was fitted a flotation marker that, when launched by a stranded sub, would float to the surface, attached to the sub by a cable.  The floating object then acted as a radar reflector and homing beacon to find the boat.
     Paul was unaware as he returned to his submarine that the repair team was preparing to test fire the locator device with a lightweight mockup.  As Paul crossed the brow to board his home vessel, the device was launched and struck him in the groin and testicles.  Ouch!  He was returned to the hospital where he remained for several days.
     His submarine left on its next war patrol without benefit of Paul's presence.  It never returned from that war patrol.
     After Paul recovered, he was assigned to another sub in the South Pacific Command.  He made two successful war patrols.  Upon his return from the second, he learned that he had been promoted to Warrant Officer and was no longer eligible to serve on submarines.  He was being transferred to a Submarine Tender where his skills and knowledge could be better utilized.  You may have guessed - his sub went back to sea and never returned.  Assumed lost at sea with all hands.
     Paul survived the war and remained in the navy.  He eventually became one of only two Warrant Officers ever selected by Admiral Rickover for the nuclear power program.  And after he retired, he came to work at Ingalls Shipbuilding, which is where our paths crossed.  I have written previously about my friendship with Paul's son, Peter.
Unfortunately, Paul passed away from a heart attack when he was a relatively young man.  It shocked those of us who knew him as a bigger-than-life colleague and committed friend.  In spite of his early demise, I still reflect on his World War II experience and am convinced that his higher power was certainly watching out for him!

Apr 12, 2018

A Walk in the Woods, Rufus Morgan and a Great Hurricane...

Mount Albert Panorama, Courtesy of Kurtis Kruse
Ever since I was a Boy Scout, starting in 1951, I have loved the outdoors and the activities that took me there, especially backpacking.  In 1979, the couple who had introduced me and Margo, Jim and Linda Schmitt, invited me to go on a five-day hike in the area surrounding the Standing Indian Campground in Western North Carolina.  For some reason, Margo could not or didn't care to join us, so it would just be the Schmitts, me, and my German Shepherd named Lady.
     We planned our hike in early September.  We would drive to North Carolina, planning to arrive at the Standing Indian area by nightfall of the 10th.  That night, we would stay in the Rock Gap shelter on the Appalachian Trail, a shelter quite close to a paved road with a parking area.  The next day, we'd hike to the next shelter traveling south on the trail, the Big Spring shelter.  Then on the 12th, we'd stay overnight at the Carter Gap shelter, followed on Thursday, the 13th, at the Standing Indian shelter.  On Friday, we'd hike into the Standing Indian campground and spend a night in the primitive camping area in our tents.  We were very excited about the hike.  Jim is an avid nature photographer and was equipped and prepared to return with lots of images.

A German Shepherd with
a saddle pack like Lady's
     I left on Sunday to drive part way with the idea of meeting the Schmitts on Monday at Rock Gap.  Lady had her red saddle pack with her own water and food.  She loved backpacking and was a terrific hiking companion.  I was prepared with a heavier-than-normal pack containing enough food to last five days.  The Schmitts met Lady and me around 3:00 in the afternoon of a gorgeous Fall day.  We stowed our gear at the nearby shelter, making certain we'd have sleeping space for the night, and hiked a mile or so to visit the John Wasilik Memorial Poplar, at that time believed to be the largest living poplar in the world with a girth of over 27 feet at its base and a height of about 140 feet!  (When I first visited the tree in the mid-1960s, it was believed to be the largest surviving tree east of the Mississippi River, and was so designated in 1969.  Subsequently, a slightly larger Poplar was discovered in Virginia.  In the late 1990s, the tree was killed by a lightning strike, became a hazard, and is, I believe, slated to be cut down.)  The tree was named for John Wasilik, a forester, a District Ranger, who worked in this area back in the 1930s.   In 1933, the tree now known as the Wasilik Poplar was one of two large Poplars which were approached by loggers.  They cut down the first tree and hauled it out with a team of oxen.  By the time they got the first tree up to the road, the oxen team was too exhausted to go back down for the other one.

The base of the Wasilik Poplar in its heyday
     After taking a few pictures around the giant tree, we hiked back uphill to the shelter, prepared dinner, ate, and relaxed around a campfire until we were too tired to do much else.  We crawled into our sleeping bags and settled in for the night.       Everyone awoke rested and ready for the first day of real hiking.  It was a spectacular Fall day.  Leaves were turning, it was cool enough for comfortable hiking, and our next shelter was only about 5 miles away.  We wanted to take our time hiking, since we were not in the greatest physical shape, and we wanted to Give Jim plenty of time for picture taking.
     After a fairly leisurely hike with lots of picture taking, we arrived at our next shelter.  One reason we took our time was that we were ascending a fairly steady slope up Hurricane Ridge to nearly the top of Albert Mountain.  I would soon learn the irony of that name, Hurricane Ridge.  We ascended during the day from 3,760' at Rock Gap to 5,047' at Big Spring.  We saw a few hikers during the day, but had no company that night in the shelter.  The weather was perfect for hiking in t-shirts during the day, but once we stopped moving, we quickly put on long sleeved shirts.  This was the perfect time for a good outing.  The weather was cool enough to prevent overheating but warm enough that one didn't have to bundle up against the elements.  We wasted little time in preparing a freeze-dried concoction for dinner, with Lady eating canned and dry food that she had carried herself.  In no time, the small campfire had become little more than embers and our little party of hikers had retired to the shelter floor.

     The next day would be a moderately short hiking day, with only six miles to the Carter Gap Shelter.   Shortly after we started our hiking, we spotted the Albert Mountain fire tower.  It was no longer in use, but was still in good enough condition that we were able to climb to the top and take lots of pictures.  We then descended a well-defined trail until we found ourselves in Bear Pen Gap (We knew because we saw the sign for the Bear Pen Gap Trail.) where we stopped to enjoy lunch and take even more pictures.  Then we headed further south, crossing several water sources, until we reached the Big Spring shelter late in the afternoon.  Again, we saw a few northbound hikers but had no company in our shelter that night.  We did notice that it was starting to get cloudy late in the afternoon and commented that we might need rain gear the next day.  We didn't let that possibility interfere with our sleep, from which we arose when daylight flooded our lean-to shelter.

The current Standing Indian shelter that replaced
the one in which we spent the night in 1979
     We cooked breakfast and got an early start on Thursday, September 13.  We had almost 8 miles to go to the Standing Indian Shelter.  The day was overcast and much cooler than the previous days.  The hike was uneventful and we arrived at the shelter around 3:00 PM.  This shelter is at an elevation of 4,760' and when we arrived, was in beautiful shape and very clean..  We thought we had the shelter to ourselves again, so we quickly laid out and hung up our gear.  It started drizzling soon after we arrived at the shelter and the wind began to pick up, so we ate a little bit early while we could still light our cook stoves.  I noticed that Lady was acting somewhat strangely, not settling down and prowling between the shelter and the area around it.  By the time darkness came, the wind was howling through the nearby trees and every once in a while, we'd hear a limb come crashing down.  Not long after dark, the lightning and thunder started and the rain became quite intense.  It became a spectacular fireworks show with lightning crackling through the woods every few seconds.  My brave German Shepherd took refuge in one back corner of the shelter and buried her nose.  I had never seen Lady behave this way before.  Then came the biggest surprise of the night.
     About 10:00 PM, Lady began to bark at the darkness outdoors, we thought we heard voices and almost instantly there were two new arrivals at our shelter!  Two extremely wet and very grateful hikers, both young men in their twenties, emerged from under a couple of ponchos that could never have kept them dry under the gale-like conditions that had continued to deteriorate over the last 2-3 hours.  The hikers were from Florida, were northbound on the AT, and had inadvertently wandered off the trail in the intense rain.  It had taken them a couple of hours to relocate the trail, which explained their late arrival.  What was left of their flashlights had become practically useless.  We were amazed they could even stay anywhere near a trail.  They were incredibly grateful to be under cover.  After the usual greetings and introductions, we made some hot cocoa to help warm them up.  The talk naturally focused on the weather, at which time one of the young men said, "This has to be the remnants of Frederic."
     When we had left civilization earlier in the week, there had been a tropical storm in the Gulf that had crossed over Cuba and just about dissipated.  What we had been unaware of was that the storm, named "Frederic," had strengthened in the Gulf, become a hurricane again with winds of over 130 miles per hour, and had come ashore along the Mississippi-Alabama line near Dauphin Island and Bayou La Batre, Alabama.  This was of great interest to me, since I owned a couple of rental house trailers in a trailer park near that area in a business partnership with my brother Bill.  I feared the worst for my trailers and prayed that their occupants were safe.
     The next morning, the storm had passed.  Everything was drenched from the effects of the near-horizontal rain of the storm, but the sun was bright and we hung most of our gear on nearby branches to dry out.  There was a moderate breeze to help out.  I informed Jim and Linda that I was going to "bushwack" down a nearby stream to get to civilization as quickly as possible in order to call my brother.  I would meet them later at the Standing Indian Campground.  I wanted to make sure Bill and his family, who lived in Pass Christian, Mississippi, were safe.  Then I wanted to learn if he had been over to the trailer park to check on our two trailers and our renters.  I also was concerned about my former residence, a house in Gautier, Mississippi, not far from the point of landfall, that I still owned and had been unable to sell since Margo and I had moved to Huntsville the year before.

The creek near Standing Indian shelter
     I surprised myself at how quickly Lady and I progressed down the steep stream bed, favoring whichever bank was most easily traversed.  Within an hour, we came to a dirt road and began hiking to our left, in the direction of the commercial campground.  I knew I'd find telephones there.  Remember, this was decades before the advent of cellular communications.  I was looking for a phone booth with a pay phone.
     Lady and I had probably walked less than a mile when I heard a chainsaw in the distance and then spotted a pickup truck on the side of the road.  As we approached it, I saw an older couple engaged in cutting firewood from dead trees.  They put down their tools and we exchanged introductions.  They were Donald and Frances McLean of Franklin, North Carolina, the nearest city of substantial size.

Rufus Morgan, whose daughter, Frances, and
son-in-law, Donald McLean, came to my rescue
     I explained my plight and they immediately offered to drive me to the Standing Indian Campground, where they assured me we would find pay phones.  We put Lady and my gear in the back of the truck along with their tools and some firewood, and the McLeans and I squeezed into their very used old pickup for the four or five-mile drive to the campground.  As we conversed, I learned that Mrs. McLean was the daughter of the famous naturalist and author, Rufus Morgan.  I was dumbfounded.  I had admired and respected her father for many years as a result of my interest in the Appalachian Trail.  The description of his life on the Find-A-Grave site summarizes him better than I could ever hope to:  "Naturalist, Author, explorer: Rufus Morgan was one of the early pioneers in the founding and development of the Appalachian Trail. Raised in the far western mountains of North Carolina he was well acquainted with the various peaks and valleys of the area. Following the proposal for a national trail to follow the spine of the Appalachian Trail he was a natural to develop the trail route from the Georgia Border to The Great Smokey Mountains National Park. He was the original author of the Appalachian Trail Guide for this part of the path. Over the years he introduced thousands of people to the Appalachian Trail, the Nantahala Gorge, and the National Park. He was blind for much of his later years of life. During this time he continued to lead trail hikes up to Wayah Bald or LeConte Lodge. Though blind he was so familiar with the trail he would stop and turn to a nearby tree and point out a blooming wild flower at the base of the tree. He was a founder of the Nantahala Hiking Club. Dr. Morgan was a graduate of the University of North Carolina, The General Theological Seminary in New York City and Columbia University. After serving a Church in New York City he returned to his native North Carolina where he took on a mission to the rural mountain areas. He would serve churches in North and South Carolina. While working Mitchell County in the 1920's he assisted his sister, Lucy Morgan, in the establishment of the Penland School of Crafts in the shadow of Mt. Mitchell. The original purpose of the school was to train local unemployed women in forgotten traditional crafts. Today the Penland School serves an international body of people in the training of traditional mountain crafts ranging from weaving and wood crafting to Blacksmithing and pottery. As a botanist he cataloged, discovered, recorded and named a number of wild flowers in the North Carolina Mountains. These have been restored in The Bishop's Garden at St. John's Cartoogechaye Episcopal Church in Macon County. In the early 1940s Dr. Morgan retired to his native Macon County. As a project he rebuilt the historic St. John's Episcopal Church in the Cartoogechaye Valley of Macon County. The foundation of this church was built using abandoned grave stones from the cemetery. For many years Dr. Morgan held the record for climbing Mt. LeConte in the Great Smokey' Mountains National Park. For both his 88th and 89th birthday's after hiking up Mt. LeConte he stayed at LeConte Lodge on the Top of the Mountain. He would climb the mountain more than 172 times. The Appalachian Trail foundation has recognized his contribution to the Trail by erecting "The Rufus Morgan Shelter" in the Nantahala Gorge. Along the Wayah Valley the Rufus Morgan Trail leads to the Rufus Morgan Falls on the Rough Fork creek. In 2014 he was inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame."
This image shows the result of Frederic's passing in Gulf Shores,
Alabama, close to where my trailers had been located.
     Before long, we had arrived at the campground.  The McLeans had been most kind and generous but refused to accept any compensation.  We exchanged addresses and for several years thereafter exchanged Christmas cards, though I never saw them again in person.  I was able to call my brother.  I learned from Bill that our tenants had fled the scene in plenty of time to escape the storm.  His description of our trailers left little to the imagination.  "It's real easy to read the serial number on the frame when the trailer is on its roof and only about four feet tall!"  I also learned that my home in Gautier had sustained substantial damage and that a fallen tree had totaled a vintage car that I had recently moved to the back yard of the house.  Eventually, we collected insurance on the totaled trailers and liquidated our trailer business for good.  I repaired the house in Gautier and eventually sold it.  I also sold the remnants of the car to a friend to harvest some valuable parts that he needed.
     What had started out to be a walk in the woods had turned into one of those adventures of a lifetime that are so fascinating.  By the way, though only five were killed directly, the $1.77 billion in damage accrued by Frederic made it the Atlantic basin's costliest tropical cyclone on record at the time.

Mar 21, 2018

Too Close for Comfort...

The long-range forecast map

It seems that just about anywhere you choose to live, there are issues with some kind of unpleasant weather.  I grew up in Upstate New York.  We had our share of blizzards and plenty of lake-effect snow.  Our summers could be sweltering and terribly humid.  When the Navy sent me to Norman, Oklahoma, I quickly learned why the government established the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center there.  Later, when I lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we had to be concerned about hurricanes.  And for the last 40 years I've lived in the North Alabama/South Central Tennessee region known for its devastating tornadoes.

On more than one occasion, we've gone to our "Safe Place" at the bottom of the basement stairs, in an area reinforced by the structure surrounding the stairs and with a couple walls in most directions between us and the great outdoors.  This past Monday turned to be one of those days.

Over the weekend, our local weather teams had been forecasting some nasty weather that could potentially breed some strong winds, large hail, and even a few tornadoes.  Monday morning we started to see "closings" being announced by schools, businesses, and government offices.  I've been working from home, so around 4:00 PM, I joined Mary Ann in front of the TV, where every local channel was totally devoted to weather coverage.  Several cells popped up, mostly to the south of us, moving almost due east.  Nothing appeared too threatening until this bad boy decided to rear its ugly head:

Bottom line was a tornado spotted on the ground near Ardmore, Tennessee, moving due east at 45 miles per hour.  Note on the picture the location of our "Safe Place."  Soon, we started to see reports of wind damage and very large hail in Russellville, AL and Athens, AL.  There was a large tornado heading toward Cullman, AL as we decided to seek safety in the basement.  The Ardmore twister was predicted to reach our area at 7:06 PM.  "If you live anywhere between Hazel Green, AL and Parks City, TN, take shelter immediately!  We have a tornado on the ground that has been sighted by storm chasers."  It was eerily quiet in the basement.  We stayed there for about ten minutes, able to watch the live streaming of our favorite weathercaster on an iPad.  We emerged to the first floor to find no issues.  We soon learned that the storm had tracked a couple of miles south of us, where it wiped out some lumber storage warehouses:

Further to the south, closer to Lake Guntersville, they received baseball-size hail.  Ouch!

Once again, we dodged the bullet and once again offered prayers of thanks.

Mar 20, 2018

The Chestnutts of Whiteville, NC...

World War II was in my opinion a high point in this nation's history.  The nation and its people were called upon to perform the impossible.  Our resources were strained to the limit.  Our people sacrificed in every way.  The results are staggering -- the very survival of our civilization as we know it.

In the course of responding to the call, many families were caught up in cataclysmic change.  Families moved, youngsters were taken by the armed forces, trained, and sent to places they'd never heard of.  People who had retired and housewives who had never planned to have a job outside the home suddenly were employed in the war effort.  One such affected family was that of Mr. and Mrs. Norwood B. Chestnutt of Whiteville, North Carolina.  Mr. Chestnutt was a state Agricultural Agent and part-time tobacco auctioneer.  He and his wife Mabel lived at 106 N. Madison in Whiteville.  That is, until Uncle Sam came a callin'.

In early 1942, the U.S. Army conscripted Mr. Chestnutt, and, because of his professional standing and experience, commissioned him an instant Lieutenant Colonel in the Quartermaster Corps.  He was now Colonel Chestnutt!  After he finished a few months of training he was informed of his first duty station - North of the Mason-Dixon Line!  Colonel Chestnutt became the proud commandant of the Schenectady Army Supply Depot.  And that's where he and Mabel crossed paths with Dr. and Mrs. Harold R. Mead.  Thus he and Mabel became Uncle Ches and Aunt Mabel to me and my siblings.

From my first recollection of the Chestnutts, I loved to hear them speak.  They had a syrupy sweet southern drawl as smooth as molasses.  Aunt Mabel could stretch the word "darling" into a daaahlin' that was 5 seconds long.  Both of the Chestnutts were avid golfers, so they fit right into the social circle of my parents, centered as it was at the Mohawk Golf Club, a friendly club dating to 1898.  In spite of the northern location, I think the Chestnutts felt very welcome and loved by a wide circle of friends.

My clearest memory of the Chestnutts came on Wednesday, August 14, 1945.  That was the day that brought an end to World War II, the day Japan surrendered.  We were at Lake George, at the cabin my parents rented each summer.  The Chestnutts were spending the week with us.  On Wednesday morning, the news came over the AM radio that the Japanese had surrendered.  Aunt Mabel announced that she would be preparing her "famous southern-fried chicken" to celebrate the end of the war.  It was an all day affair with lots of chicken parts being shaken in paper bags of flour and seasonings.  But there was a steady flow of celebratory bourbon underway as well.  I recall that by the time we had chicken and fixin's on the table, we also had flour on every surface of the kitchen, including walls and ceiling.  The celebration was boundless.

Not long after the war ended, Uncle Ches and Aunt Mabel moved back to their home in North Carolina.  Ches became a state Agricultural Vocational Training Supervisor.  Their friends in Schenectady stayed in touch over the years.  In 1959, my parents bought a new Ford sedan and decided to visit the Chestnutts.  After my Midshipman cruise had ended, I was recruited to be the driver.  We took two days to get to Whiteville, and it was a joyous reunion of old friends.  During our stay, their commode malfunctioned.  (it was a tiny, 2-bedroom, 1-bath house.)  Aunt Mabel called Mr. Simpson, the plumber.  "Mr. Simpson, this is Mabel Chestnutt and I have a problem.  I've got company from the Noath, I got a stopped-up commode, and I've got the dysentery!"  Mr. Simpson was there within minutes.  We stayed a few days.  My parents relished the time they spent with these unlikely acquaintances.

A Weekend Well Spent...

Pampas Grass in a landscaping application
When we landscaped our property in 2005, the landscaper included lots of Monkey Grass (a low-growing localized plant, no more than 1 foot tall) and 14 Pampas Grass (a localized grassy plant that can reach over 10 feet in height).  According to one garden supply house, "'Erianthus' Hardy Pampas Grass (also known as Ravenna Grass) is cold hardy, and makes an excellent specimen plant all year. Airy, white plumes form in mid-summer over green foliage. Leaves turn to bronze then red in fall. Plant can reach up to 10 feet tall. (Saccharum ravennae)."  My experience with this plant has shown it to be very hardy, but requiring an annual trim that becomes something of a chore as the plants grow inevitably larger.

A few weeks ago, Mary Ann asked me to cut back the Monkey Grass and Pampas Grass -- their annual "haircut."  It's an easy chore on the Monkey Grass.  I simply use a push-type rotary lawn mower.  I tip it up on its back wheels, roll it until the blade is directly over the plant, And tip it back towards level, removing the tops of each plant.  Simple, but effective.  Here, you can see the result of that "shearing."

This weekend, I finally got around to the Pampas.  It's usually a 2-person undertaking.  Mary Ann gets on one side of the plant with me on the other.  We pass a ball of string around the plant to tie up and secure the stalks of grass so we can handle them.  Once we have tied them, I cut the stalks about 8"-12" above the ground with hedge trimmers.  Then the two of us working together, wrestle the huge shock of grain into a wagon, from which it migrates to a dumpster.

But this year I was on my own, as Mary Ann is dealing with a painful pinched nerve in her back.  I started by pounding a piece of steel re bar into the ground near the first plant.  I tied a piece of twine to the upright bar a few inches off the ground.  Then I walked the twine around the plant a couple of times eventually tying it back to the starting point.  Then I did the same a few inches higher on the plant.  After three or four of these trusses were tied, I could cut the plant near its base using the hedge trimmers.  It took the better part of an hour for the first plant, but I got faster with each one.  After two days and 14 plants, the place looks like humans live here!

Mar 18, 2018

Rubber Molds...

When I was growing up, my father had his dental offices in our home, in the two rooms that would have been parlors or sitting rooms when the house was built.  He was by modern standards an "old school" dentist, doing much of his own laboratory work -- the fabrication of dentures and partials that today would be turned over to a dental laboratory.  He therefore had a small work area in which he could melt and cast precious metals, polish, and finish his work.  Interestingly, at one point he took a class in lost wax jewelry casting, although he never pursued that avocation after making a few small jewelry samples.

On weekends, my brother and sister and I often hung around Dad's lab as he worked on his craft.  To help us occupy our time, he had certain activities that we enjoyed participating in.  Sometimes we'd make things out of dental wax.  I recall one wax product that was in a small box.  It contained sheets of rose-colored wax resembling sliced cheese, separated by thin paper sheets.  I would cut pieces out of these sheets using a scalpel like tool and "weld" the individual pieces together with a flat tool heated in a Bunsen burner.  I would make 
small houses, bridges, cars, airplanes, and animals out of wax, an activity that often occupied me for hours at a time.

Another activity we enjoyed was making plaster castings of comic strip characters in hard rubber molds and once they had hardened, painting them to match their printed images.  My father had apparently acquired this set of molds somewhere and realized they would make an ideal craft activity for us kids on bad weather days when we couldn't be outside.  For some unknown reason, I recently thought about those silly rubber molds and decided to see if I could learn anything about them.  To my amazement, a set of the exact same molds I knew as a child were for sale on eBay!  The description brought back a flood of memories, "Vintage 1930s rubber molds for casting plaster figures of "Famous Funnies" characters. Made by Play Products, Inc. in Chicago, Illinois. Great item for vintage comic book or toy collectors. "Famous Funnies" is considered to be the first true American comic book and character molds include Little Joe, Skeezix, Tiny Tim, Winnie Winkle, Smitty, Andy Gump, Terry and Moon Mullins. Character names are printed inside each mold. Not a complete set. What you see in the pics is what you get. Comes in original cardboard storage box featuring Little Joe and Orphan Annie on the lid. Each mold measures 3.5" to 4" high. Box measures about 4.25" wide, 8.5" high and 3" deep. Very Rare Item!! Very good overall condition. Most rubber molds have hardened over time, but are fully intact and a few are still pliable. Paint set may not be original to the box and has been used. Box shows normal aging and wear from handling, but is complete. Small tear along top edge as shown in the pics."  The pictures reflect my precise memory of the molds themselves -- a kind of dark brownish maroon color, rather thick and quite rigid.

We would begin by covering my dad's marble workbench with newspaper and carefully lining up the molds in an orderly row.  We'd mix a batch of plaster-of-Paris in a small measuring cup.  Once the consistency was that of pancake batter, we'd carefully pour it into each successive mold, filling it to the top edge of the mold.  Then we'd tap each mold several times with a small tool to loosen and eliminate any bubbles in the plaster.

Each molded figure stood on a base with lettering identifying
the character - in this case, Smitty.  Smitty was a character developed
by Walter Berndt who appeared in the Chicago Tribune and about
100 other papers.
In a few minutes, the plaster would set up, and usually within an hour we could flex the mold and eject the small cartoon character.  We'd relieve the sharp edge where the surface of the poured plaster met the mold by scraping it with a small metal scraper.  Then we'd spend hours painting and talking about our creations.

A Smitty comic from the 1930s
Interestingly, with the exception of Dick Tracy and Li'l Orphan Annie, I don't think we were acquainted with any of the other comic characters.  That didn't seem to matter as we painted faces and clothes belonging to Little Joe, Skeezix, Tiny Tim, Winnie Winkle, Smitty, Andy Gump, Terry and Moon Mullins.  It didn't matter that they were cartoon strangers.

Several things have crossed my mind as I thought about the countless rainy Saturday mornings that the Mead kids spent with the "rubber molds."  There were no batteries or electronics involved.  We were engaging creative portions of our young brains.  We were socially engaged with one another as we gabbed about our creative efforts.  There are certainly far worse ways to occupy your time.

Jan 20, 2018

Father Tom Field

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog entry about Father George Mathis, the first pastor I had at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Fayetteville, TN.  Father George served the catholic community of Fayetteville from 1979 to 1983.  He was instrumental in my finding sobriety in August, 1983.  I loved him dearly.  He was a very conservative, risk-averse manager of a young parish -- probably exactly what the church needed at that time.  He was also a sensitive and very creative artist who contributed generously of his talent to St. Anthony's and many other parishes.  In late 1983, the Glenmary Missioners Society, of whom George was a member, decided it was time for him to move on.  He was replaced by Father Thomas Field, known to all as Father Tom.  The change was dramatic.  Let me share my impressions.

Father Tom was originally from Minnesota.  He had been a journeyman electrician before he began his training as a Glenmary Missioner.  He was a big man, and often made it known that he was descended from "hardy Viking stock."  For every way in which George Mathis was refined, Tom was down-to-earth.  Where George avoided risk, Father Tom relished a good adventure.  They were very different people.

I recall a conversation I overheard shortly after Tom arrived.  One parishioner was lamenting the fact that "He certainly can't preach like Father George."  Another wasn't convinced he was as reverent during the Mass.  I felt that it was just a sign of change, that no two pastors will ever be alike.  The parish soon learned to love Tom Field.

Not long after Tom's arrival, he realized that St. Anthony's had never had a float in Fayetteville's Christmas parade.  He asked the next Sunday if anyone in the parish could provide a flat wagon and tow vehicle for the parade.  Soon there was a flurry of activity in the parking lot behind the church as a crew tried to build a manger scene on the trailer.  Hay bales were strategically placed.  Several mothers engaged in sewing shepherds' and angel outfits.  By the night of the parade, all was ready.  A couple of live goats and a lamb punctuated the rickety float along with a star on a long pole, lots of kids in costume (Mary, Joseph, a Jesus doll, three wise men, and a few shepherds and angels), and a boom box blaring out Christmas carols.  On each side of the wagon hung a primitive sign reading "St. Anthony Catholic Church."  As the borrowed tractor dragged the assemblage into the parade route, Father Tom looked at me and said, "We're gonna win a trophy.  Judges always love kids and animals!"  Sure enough, the St. Anthony float won first prize for "The Spirit of Christmas."  And for several years after that, Tom made sure we had award-winning floats in the annual parade.

Tom was not a formal individual, but he was affable and loved by the community at large.  He became very active in the Interdenominational Ministry Association, and served as its president.  He had a regular table at Rachel's Restaurant where he was joined at breakfast by a cross section of citizens every morning.  He became active in the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs.  Everyone in town knew Tom Field.

One of Tom's lasting legacies had to do with his love for those suffering from mental impairment, special needs brothers and sisters.  He helped establish a chapter of the National Association for Retarded Citizens (the ARC) in Fayetteville.  Then he proposed a summer camp for special needs citizens.  Tom was at his best as he approached every church in the county looking for volunteers and cooks and equipment and buses to conduct a week-long program.  It became an annual event that continues and is a tribute to his persistence.  Every child has an escort or friend who ensures their safety and participation in games, meals, crafts, and general fun.  And as a side effect, it brought many churches closer together in a cooperative charitable effort that continues today.

One area in which Tom helped me was in my desire to restore and install a pipe organ in the church.  I was acting as choir director shortly after Tom's arrival.  I had proposed the idea to Father George a year before and he was way too conservative to give the go-ahead.  But when I suggested to Tom that I thought the parish could restore a pipe organ and that it would greatly enhance our worship, he was all-in.  We approached the Parish Council and got their blessing to try and raise funds.  I've told the pipe organ story in another blog entry, but it would never have happened without Tom's involvement and willingness to take a chance.

When he arrived at the parish, there was a small, very decrepit two car garage on the property.  Tom asked if I could draft some plans for a parish social hall of about 2,500 square feet using the corner of the garage as one corner of the hall.  I drafted up the plans.  It turned out that our Bishop had placed restrictions on any newly-constructed buildings in the diocese.  Father Tom simply asked for permission to expand an already-existing garage to make it usable as a social hall.  When the Bishop came to town to help dedicate the new Parish Hall, he was shocked to see a building bigger than the church!

He had a wonderful sense of humor.  He had rescued a wayward beagle that became a member of the church family.  When he took the dog to have him neutered, he announced to the parish that Blue "had taken his final vows."  A friend of mine went to Father Tom to see if he would be willing to listen to an AA fifth step, in which the recovering alcoholic "Confesses to God, to himself, and to another human being the exact nature of [his] wrongs."  Tom hesitated, then said, "I'd be glad to.  I normally would set aside about an hour, but knowing you, I guess I should set aside a whole afternoon."  Then he started laughing as only a Viking can at his own joke.

Tom left St. Anthony in 1989 to move to a double parish in North Carolina -- Cherokee and Bryson City.  Margo and I visited him often while he was there.  Just as he had in Fayetteville, he soon became part of the fabric of those two communities.  He loved machinery, and soon got involved in the Western Carolina Railroad and became a qualified steam locomotive operator.  He was engaged in a soup kitchen for the poor and a thrift shop to support it.  He started a Habitat for Humanity chapter and built homes for needy families.  He became active in a ministry to help addicts and alcoholics.  And then, sadly, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.  It progressed fairly quickly.  In 2000, Father Tom left the active ministry he loved so much.  After a couple years assisting at a church in Madisonville, TN, he moved to the Glenmary headquarters in Cincinnati, where he could live with assisted care.  Even then, he missed being a pastor.  He called the Cincinnati Fire Department and asked if they could use an old, broken-down chaplain.  Soon, he was spending a couple days a week in firehouses around the city, where the firemen learned to love him in the same way his parishioners had.

Father Tom died of his disease and its complications on February 27, 2004.  He was only 64 years old.  During the night of his visitation at St. Matthias Church in Forest Park, a hook-and-ladder truck parked in front of the church bore silent testimony to the love that the fire department held for their self appointed chaplain.  A fire helmet adorned his casket along with a fur hat with Viking horns that had been a gift from a parishioner.  He departed this earth as he would have loved.

Rest in peace, my friend.  You are indeed a man who lived and exemplified Christ's gospel of love.

The Glenmary magazine published a fitting memorial:
‘A giant of a man with a childlike relationship with God’

Father Tom Field was a big man physically.  He also had a big heart. Father Tom, 64, died Feb. 27 in Cincinnati.  This giant of a man had a childlike relationship to God. Perhaps this is why he had such a special place in his heart for the little people of the world. He delighted in the summer camp for handicapped children he sponsored in Tennessee.  And each year Santa Claus became his partner in ministry while he served in Fayetteville, Tenn.  This true disciple of the Lord loved fire trucks, trains and practical jokes.  His heart also embraced the poor and marginalized.  I remember listening as he expressed frustration when someone displayed prejudice for the Cherokee people with whom he worked in North Carolina. 

Father Tom’s generous hospitality was experienced by many people over the years. His table ministry was a reflection of the life of Jesus, who was criticized by his enemies for being “a friend of sinners and eating with them.”  Meals were ministry events for Jesus. This continued even after the resurrection—and it continues today as we gather for the Eucharist. Father Tom strengthened bonds of friendship, unified mission parishes and reconciled alienated folks to the Church over abundant meals. 

Searching for God’s will was also a constant in Father Tom’s life. It led to his first vocation choice as a Benedictine brother on the northern Dakota prairie at Blue Cloud Abbey. Even after becoming a Glenmary priest, he was at ease with manual labor projects. He was seen just as often wearing a tool belt as a Roman collar. This ongoing vocational discernment led him to resign as pastor of St. Joseph Church in Bryson City, N.C., in 2000.  

His battle with Parkinson’s disease was taking too great a toll. He did not want to become a burden.  But he wanted to continue to serve. So he went to St. Joseph the Worker Mission in Madisonville, Tenn., as a sacramental minister to a community established and led by pastoral coordinators. He touched deeply this emerging congregation. Providing Eucharist to them allowed him to continue his table ministry.

Glenmary priests and brothers have a tradition of lining up to form an honor guard as the body of a deceased Glenmarian is brought from the church at the end of the funeral liturgy. We always sing this same joyful song: “For all the saints who from their labors rest,/ Who you by faith before the world confessed,/ Your name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia, Alleluia!”

At our funerals we celebrate the victory of God’s grace that enabled our brother to serve with fidelity to the end. We celebrate the unique way our fellow missioner lived out his Glenmary Oath to “dedicate myself for my whole life to the missionary apostolate in the rural areas and small towns of the United States.”

The call of every Glenmary priest or brother is also a call to a community of support for one another. Father Tom responded to that call as well. He made my journey as a missionary far more enjoyable, my commitment easier, my fears for the future more manageable, my attitude toward myself more compassionate.