Three recent posts have explored the early history of Pan American World Airways, a great airline, which employed my uncle as a pilot from the 1930s into the modern era.
Content for these posts came from old family stories, from photos and reminiscences provided by my cousin Steven Sommers, and from information easily available on the Web. However, two good books also provided a wealth of information. Each of these two books is a little treasure in its own right. One or both may interest you as a reader.
An American Saga
One book is An American Saga: Juan Trippe and his Pan Am Empire, by Robert Daley (Random House 1980, 529 pages). This book is available in hardback from Amazon for $54.30. Fortunately, a Kindle version is also available for $7.99. It is highly readable, though the Kindle edition has a few typos. It tells the story of Pan Am from Juan Trippe’s youth through the founding and early years of Pan Am, the glory days of the China Clipper era, the global success of the postwar years, and the airline’s ultimate demise in 1991. Encapsulated in the overall story are many tales of dogged persistence and even heroism. Looming above all is the enigmatic figure of Trippe—a legendary entrepreneur who was modest, collaborative, visionary, and inspiring; while also being secretive, cold-blooded, manipulative, and ruthless. In the process of building Pan Am, Trippe became midwife to the worldwide aviation industry. Daley has boiled down an enormous mass of information into a readable and compelling narrative. If you’re interested in the details of Pan Am’s fascinating history, this is where you’ll find them.
Of equal interest is Robert L. Gandt’s China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats (Naval Institute Press 1991, 214 pages). This one is available in hardcover for $17.50, or in a Kindle edition for $14.49. While Daley’s book chronicles the swashbuckling upstart company that became the world’s most successful airline, Gandt’s volume tells the story of the airplanes themselves—most specifically the seaplanes designated “flying boats” that dominated international aviation in the 1930s and 1940s. Best known are the Sikorsky S-40 and S-42, the Martin M-130, and Boeing’s B-314—all airframes that Juan Trippe purchased for Pan American, and simply by placing his orders, caused their development. What you may not know is that British, French, and German designers developed other flying boats of varying size, range, and carrying capacity. Gandt, himself a former Pan American captain, lovingly traces the development of all these designs. He includes enough cultural and economic context to give the reader a sense why each plane did or did not succeed in the marketplace. Along with his illuminating text, he provides a large gallery of photos, so the reader can see the obvious differences among these planes, and a full set of line drawings by J. P. Wood at 1:300 scale. Read in tandem with Daley’s book on Trippe and Pan American, this book gives a very full picture of the Golden Age of the great flying boats.
Uncle Ed was First Officer (ranking copilot) on the Anzac Clipper, a flying boat westbound over the Pacific on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941.
The plane had left San Francisco on December 5 but developed mechanical trouble and had to turn back. She was rescheduled for a 2:00 pm departure on December 6, but the pilot, Captain Harry Lanier Turner, requested and received a half-hour delay so he could attend his daughter’s first piano recital in Oakland.
The Boeing 314A was the ultimate flying boat. With four huge 1,600-horsepower engines faired into its 152-foot wingspan, it could cruise at 183 miles per hour, with a service ceiling of 19,200 feet and a range of 5,200 miles without refueling. The plane was so large an engineer could creep through a passage in the wing to observe or service any of its engines in mid-flight.
A DeLuxe Ride
Even with all that power on the wings, passengers could talk normally in its elegant soundproofed cabin. There was a dining lounge amidships, where two stewards catered four-star meals on white linen using real silver and china. Best of all, you could cross the Pacific in a week, not the three or four weeks that a boat took. But you had to pony up $760 for a one-way passage. That’s equivalent to almost $14,000 in 2020 dollars.
The seventeen passengers aboard the Anzac Clipper that day were no doubt well-heeled. Movie stars, royals, and high government officials often rode Pan American’s Clippers. With their morning juice and coffee, they got a reminder from the stewards to set their watches to Hawaii Time, which was 8:30 am.
In the spacious crew compartment over their heads, Radio Officer W.H. Bell left his console and strode forward to the “bridge”—Pan Am used nautical terms for everything—with a message for the captain: The Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor, just an hour’s flight ahead of them.
This was serious, for Pearl Harbor was the Clipper’s actual destination. Hostilities did not come as a complete surprise, however. For months, Pan Am captains had carried sealed envelopes to be opened if war broke out. Captain Turner now reached for his envelope and ripped it open. Meanwhile, the radioman began to hear Japanese and American signals from the furious fight being waged.
“Divert to Hilo”
Pan Am’s secret orders instructed Turner, in the event of an attack on Pearl Harbor, to land at Hilo Bay, on the “Big Island” of Hawaii. He put the Boeing into a slow turn toward the south. Passengers were not told of anything amiss until the Anzac Clipper splashed down two hours later.
The passengers were gathered in the dining lounge and told that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. The Clipper would refuel at Hilo and fly back to San Francisco as soon as possible. They were welcome to ride back or to stay in Hawaii and make their own way to their final destinations.
Who were these passengers? According to an April 2016 article by Nam Sang-so in the English-language Korea Times, “There were two VIPs on board; His Imperial Majesty of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was on his way home after visiting President Roosevelt promising that he would cooperate with the United States. The other distinguished guest was U Saw, the Premier of Burma (now Myanmar). He too was on his way home also after visiting that same president and was disappointed by Roosevelt’s refusal to honor his plea for the independence of Burma from Britain. As the western globe route back to Rangoon was blocked by the Japanese fleet, he had to take the eastward route home, stopping at the Japanese Embassy in Lisbon and secretly informing the ambassador that Burma would help Japan in the war against America. The confidential Japanese message sent to Tokyo was decoded by the U.S. Navy. He later played a major role in the assassination of Burma’s national hero Aung San in 1947 and U Saw was later executed by his own people.”
The presence of these two high-level personages is a remarkable claim, inasmuch as I haven’t found it anywhere else; and Mr. Nam does not state his sources. I have sent him an email asking for more information.
I also heard rumors within our family, years ago, that the passenger list included Japanese diplomats flying home after unsuccessful negotiations in Washington, D.C. Like Mr. Nam’s assertion about the Shah and U Saw, it seems remarkable.
However, Pan Am’s Clippers were a remarkable resource in that pre-World War II world—so I can’t completely discount either account.
At any rate, none of the passengers accepted the offer of a free ride back to San Francisco. They all chose to stay in Hawaii and make their way to Honolulu or wherever they were going.
As the Anzac Clipper and its passengers coped with these events, a frenzy had overtaken Pan American headquarters on the 58th floor of New York’s Chrysler Building. Juan Trippe and his lieutenants worked feverishly to save three other Clippers that also stood in harm’s way.
More than 2,500 miles west of Hilo, the Philippine Clipper, a Martin M-130 flying boat captained by John “Hammy” Hamilton, had just left Wake Island en route to Guam. Hamilton received orders to turn around, fly back to Wake, and evacuate all Pan Am personnel from the tiny atoll. While the Clipper was being refueled at Wake, the station came under aerial attack. After climbing out of the ditch where he had taken cover, Hamilton found the aircraft, though stitched by strafing fire, had not been seriously damaged. She was still flyable. After stripping all non-essential items out of the plane to lighten the load, Hamilton took off with 34 passengers, including two seriously wounded. He flew to Midway, an island which had also been attacked, and the next day onward to Hawaii.
At Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Clipper, a Sikorsky S-42 flying boat, was destroyed in an onslaught of Japanese Zero fighters. Captain Fred Ralph and his crew escaped to the Chinese mainland in an emergency airlift of land-based planes operated by CNAC, Pan Am’s Chinese affiliate.
Captain Bob Ford and the crew of the Pacific Clipper, another Boeing 314, were stranded in Auckland, New Zealand, with the Imperial Japanese Navy blocking their way home. Eventually, Pan Am headquarters ordered them to fly to New York the long way around—via Asia, Africa, the Atlantic, and South America. Without adequate maps, prepared runways and ground crews, or even reliable supplies of aviation fuel, the intrepid crew worked their way around the globe. Their epic 31,500-mile, month-long trek brought them back to New York in early January—the first circumnavigation of the globe by a commercial airliner.
Whither the Anzac Clipper?
Meanwhile, the crew of the Anzac Clipper had brought their plane home without incident. They left Hilo the evening of December 8, flew in the dark while maintaining radio silence, and arrived in San Francisco the next day, unshaved and missing about three days’ sleep. The San Francisco Chronicle published a photo of Uncle Ed being welcomed home by Elaine, his four-year-old daughter.
Thus ends the glamor era of flying boats—with a bang, not a whimper. The ocean bases Pan Am had painstakingly built at Wake, Midway, and other places, fell to the Japanese. The company’s fleet of nine B-314s were purchased by the U.S. government for a million dollars each. Under the aegis of the U.S. Navy, they flew thousands of hard miles from 1941 until the end of the war. In 1945 the government offered to return them to Pan American at $50,000 apiece, but Trippe declined the offer. Longer-range, land-based aircraft were the future, especially now that most cities fhad built airports.
The B-314s’ war service, however, was noteworthy. They were used for critically important passengers and cargo. They flew badly-needed aircraft tires to China for use by the Flying Tigers. They flew President Franklin D. Roosevelt to and from the 1943 Casablanca Conference with Churchill and other leaders.
Since Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve officer as well as a Pan American pilot with experience flying B-314s, I can’t help wondering whether he was one of the pilots who flew them for the Navy. Guess I’ll have to ask my cousins.
Note: Last week I rashly promised that this week’s post would mention my Uncle Ed’s flight to Hawaii in the Anzac Clipper on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. Oops! I was a week ahead of schedule. Please excuse the error, and enjoy Aunt Mary’s trip to South America instead. Next week: PEARL HARBOR. Really. For sure.
Juan Trippe’s upstart venture, Pan American Airways, was twelve years old when Uncle Ed joined the company as a pilot in 1939.
Pan Am’s Clippers were already changing the shape of the world. In those days of high international tension, Pan American’s interests were so closely identified with the official interests of the United States that flying for Pan Am was like flying for the Navy. In fact, Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve officer, having received his college education and initial flight training through the Naval ROTC program.
Pan Am assigned him to South America, where the young airline’s routes were most fully developed. So on 20 September 1940, Ed flew with his wife, Mary, and their 3-year-old daughter, Elaine, from Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico. They traveled there via Antilla, Cuba; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and San Pedro de Macario, Dominican Republic. Their entire journey, from Miami to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, would take them a mere three days!
Mary sent a letter home—in pencil on both sides of four sheets of white typing paper— describing the adventure. In her letter she comments that little Elaine was “good as gold” throughout the trip. She complains of food prices—$3.50 for “very little,” she says, at the hotel in San Juan. However—
The trip was beautiful. At one place we landed on a river, and it was a thrill. I’ll always remember when we came down on that muddy water at about 100 mi. per hr. (Elaine and I had never rode in a seaplane before.)
The Capt. is a peach & both stewards were nice. Same Capt. goes tomorrow.
Who could resist the thrill of landing on water at a hundred miles per hour? Especially with such peachy flight and cabin crew. Pan Am, from the start, tried to provide the ultimate luxury experience for their passengers.
On the second night, they stayed in Belem, state of Pará, northern Brazil. Mary did not enjoy the town’s peculiar odor, “which they called distilled wood, but smelled like raw sewage to me.”
We got in late, waited for a long time to get through customs, then rode in a rackety bus for miles into the town.
It was a wild ride. The one who toots first has the right-of-way, so we went tooting madly while native children scampered in all directions.
On the third day, flying from Belem to Rio in a land-based Boeing 307 Stratoliner, they made a mid-day stop at Barreiras, an inland city in east-central Brazil.
That was surely interesting. There’s nothing but the landing field on a high plateau in the middle of the jungle. The natives swarmed out of their huts to stare at us, especially at Elaine and I, as we were the only females on the plane.
The airport manager carried an 8 in. knife, just in case, he said.
A native woman served good coffee in a thatched hut.
We were at 18,000 ft. in the strato-liner, it was very comfortable, but I think I enjoyed the first day in the Clipper most, & Elaine liked to watch the water landings too.
The Stratoliner, a sleek, cigar-shaped vessel that entered commercial service in 1938, was the first airliner to offer a pressurized cabin, allowing it to cruise at altitudes to 20,000 feet. It was basically a B-17 bomber with its fuselage expanded to accommodate 33 passengers and a crew of six, instead of bombs.
Once the young family arrived in Rio, it did not at first match expectations. For one thing, the weather was cold and clammy and remained so for a week or more after their arrival. “Most of our heavy clothes are in the trunk that is being shipped, & I sure wish we had them,” Mary writes. “I have never been so cold I think.”
And the local cuisine took some getting used to.
Food is good & plentiful here but different. Tea is served in the afternoon, but we are always so full that we don’t bother with it.
Coffee is so strong it looks thick, and is combined with hot milk, and is, surprisingly, very good. … Elaine drinks hot boiled milk and likes it too.
A typical lunch consists of hors d’oeuvres (celery, sardines, olives, etc.) chicken or veg. soup, cold veal covered with spiced mayonnaise, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, cottage pie (diced meat with mashed potato covering), rolls, molded pudding or ice cream, coffee.
Everything is served in separate courses. Salad is also available, but we skip it, or anything raw on account of dysentery.
After a week’s leave, Ed reported to Pan Am’s office and began preparing for his first flight from Rio, a four-day trip to Belem. Meanwhile, Mary grew concerned about housing. “The Co. pays expenses here for 7 days & after that we are on our own, so must find an apt. as soon as possible.” Yet, after the first week, they were still living in a beachfront hotel, and “[it] looks as if we will be here for some time.”
After all, it was 1940. There was a war on in Europe. “The place is full of French & Eng. refugees, many of them wealthy who either have, or are looking for Apts. & willing to pay well for them.”
Still, there were consolations to living the high life oin Rio.
We are on the 7th floor & scenery is very beautiful. Sugar [Loaf] Mountain & its cable car going up the side can be seen when it isn’t foggy. All the mts. are tall & narrow & green. …
There are a troupe of show people here, including two midgets that we saw in Long Beach, Cal. when we first went there.
They amuse Elaine as she is bigger than they.
They are friendly & fun to talk to. The woman is knitting herself a dress.
Elaine can count to 5 in Portuguese as well as Eng. & knows a few other words. At dinner she handed her napkin back to the waiter & told him holey & showed him the holes.
Weather has turned warm & we all like it here very well. Everyone is very nice.
I am tired of eating meat & fish. I’ve finally learned how to use a fish knife. The fish fork is held in the left hand, and knife in the right, and then go after it.
Street cars here have an open car as a trailer, marked “Secunda classe (second class)” which is half price. People hang on the sides, too.
Eventually they did find an apartment, for a longer-term stay. But, as is the fate of junior airline employees in every time and place, they did not stay put for long. Sometime between February and December, 1941, they moved back to the United States, settling in Oakland, California, just uphill from Alameda, where Ed began flying Pan Am’s famous “Clipper” flying boats across the Pacific.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”
For Pan American World Airways, the shadow was that of Juan Trippe. He, more than anybody else, invented not only Pan American but the airline industry of which it was a part.
Despite his Latin-sounding name, Juan Terry Trippe was strictly Anglo. Scion of an old, well-to-do family, he was a great-great-grandson of naval hero John Trippe, who had fought France and the Barbary Pirates around 1800.
Juan was born on the eve of the twentieth century. He enrolled at Yale in 1917 but left to join the Navy, with many of his classmates, when the United States entered World War I. After training, he was commissioned an ensign and designated a Naval Aviator. The war ended before Trippe could get into action. But in his brief naval service, the aviation bug had bitten him.
He returned to college, organized the Yale Flying Club, entered and won an Ivy League intercollegiate air race. On graduation, he sidestepped the family’s traditional business of banking. Instead, he sold stock to his Yale classmates and started an air-taxi service called Long Island Airways.
The tiny airline soon folded, but Trippe had gained valuable experience and expanded his vision. He arranged to fly the United Fruit Company’s shipping documents over rugged mountains in Honduras, from the port of Tela to the capital at Tegucigalpa—a 90-minute flight that eliminated an overland trek of three days.
Tycoon in the Making
In the 1920s, Juan Trippe organized or purchased a string of small airlines: Alaskan Air Transport, Buffalo Airlines, Eastern Air Transport, Colonial Air Transport, and others. He applied himself to buying new and more capable aircraft, securing landing rights and airmail contracts with U.S. and foreign governments, and recruiting a corps of able associates. In 1927, just six years out of college, Trippe formed the Aviation Corporation of America on $300,000 raised from thirteen of his wealthy Yale friends. Almost immediately, the company managed to acquire a newly-organized airline called Pan American Airways, Inc. That October, Pan American made its first regular flight, a mail run from Key West to Havana.
Though a qualified aviator, Trippe resisted the urge to be a swashbuckling pilot-entrepreneur. Instead, he majored in running the business. He became an ace negotiator, driving shrewd bargains with a mix of stubbornness and patience. He had a sure vision for where the airline business would be two to five years in the future. He ordered planes and developed routes accordingly.
The young airline mogul also was a genius at what today we call branding. As Pan Am’s routes expanded around the hemisphere, to many cities which had no airports but did have decent fresh or salt water harbors, Trippe came to rely on seaplanes. He bought ever-larger flying boats from builders Igor Sikorsky, Glenn Martin, and William Boeing.
Trippe was targeting well-heeled travelers who regularly cruised the oceans on sumptuous White Star and Cunard ships. He wanted Pan Am to provide a familiar experience.
His S-40 Clippers from Sikorsky pioneered air service over a large Caribbean and Latin American route system. They were soon supplanted by the larger S-42s, by Martin M-130s and finally, by Boeing B-314s, the most formidable of the flying boats. Trippe’s endless appetite for bigger and longer-range planes set the industry’s course through the 1930s.
Trippe started planning transoceanic service before ocean-capable aircraft existed. Manufacturers scrambled to meet his needs. When Sikorsky’s S-42 opened the possibility of crossing the Atlantic, Trippe found the way barred by legalities. The British, still developing their own long-range flying boats, would not grant landing rights in their domains until they were in a position to run a competing or at least complementary service. But Trippe already had S-42s and Martin M-130s arriving in his fleet. He needed an ocean to cross, pronto.
In desperation he looked westward. But the Pacific was wider than the Atlantic. The S-42 might, with some difficulty, be made to fly 2,400 miles from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After refueling, it could cross 1,300 miles of ocean to the tiny Midway Atoll. But then came a 2,600-mile stretch from Midway to Guam—an unbridgeable gap. In the New York Public Library, Trippe pored over navigation logs of 19th-century clipper ships and found his answer: Wake, an uninhabited coral atoll even smaller than Midway but perfectly located, almost halfway from Midway to Guam. If Wake became a port for flying boats, Pan American could fly from California to the Philippines and on to China.
Trippe chartered a freighter, S.S. North Haven, filled it with equipment, supplies, and college men eager for adventure, and sent it to Wake with instructions to make a harbor. He had passenger seats stripped out of a Sikorsky S-42 and replaced with extra fuel tanks. The plane, commanded by Captain Edwin C. Musick, began trial runs for long-range flying out of Alameda on San Francisco Bay.
Meanwhile Trippe induced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to place Wake and Midway under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy, with which Trippe was on good terms. From its beginnings, Pan American had been treated well by the United States government, which found it a useful cat’s paw in the ambiguous realm of international affairs. Pan Am had been formed by Army aviators, including Henry (“Hap”) Arnold and Carl (“Tooey”) Spaatz, mainly for the patriotic purpose of countering the growth of German influence in the Caribbean and Central America.
Unlike other nations, the U.S. had no state-sponsored airline. Thus, Pan Am—as America’s unofficial, that is, quasi-official,state airline—was ideally suited to project a private U.S. presence in the face of Japan’s quest for hegemony in the Pacific. So FDR willingly gave Trippe all the support needed to knit a web of passenger service over what was becoming, arguably, an American pond.
In April 1935, Musick and a crew including crack navigator Fred Noonan took an S-42 from Alameda to Pearl Harbor. A few days later, they flew back, nearly running out of fuel because of stiff and prolonged headwinds. Nevertheless, the era of transpacific air service had begun.
In a dizzing succession of events, Pan Am cleared a deep enough channel inside the reef at Wake to make flying boat landings practical; the Martin Company delivered the first three M-130 flying boats, which were christened China Clipper, Phillipines Clipper, and Hawaii Clipper, respectively; Trippe caused hotels with Simmons beds, private baths, and hot showers to be constructed on both Midway and Wake; the U.S. government awarded Pan Am the U.S.-China mail contract; and Trippe skilfully maneuvered the British government into granting landing rights at Hong Kong.
Pan Am Clippers had been delivering the mail from San Francisco to Manila for eleven months. At last, on October 21, 1936, full Clipper service was initiated for both mail and passengers all the way to Hong Kong. Technically, China Clipper was only the name of the first M-130 airplane delivered to Pan American. Because the China Clipper received great fanfare in the press, with thousands of people attending its inaugural takeoffs and landings; and because the full extent of the service was from the United States to China; that service itself became identified with the China Clipper, and the great heyday of transpacific flying boats—which would last only about five years, until the outbreak of war in the Pacific—has come down to us as the “Era of the China Clipper.”
The China Clipper—the plane itself, as well as the service—was both romantic and historic. Think of it as America’s westbound answer to the Orient Express. It was expensive and luxurious. The world’s movers and shakers rode it. It became, inevitably, a setting for exotic intrigues in the international power games.
Elsewhere I have mentioned my late uncle, Pan American Captain Edward F. Sommers. What I did not say was that, in his early years as a pilot, he flew the giant flying boats, first in South America and then in the Pacific. One of his interesting experiences was flying the Anzac Clipper, inbound for Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. Tune in here next Tuesday, and I’ll tell you more.
“Down the Hall on Your Left,” a blog that has been the source of much innocent (and not so innocent) merriment for many since 2014, is shutting down.
World-class curmudgeon John Kraft has posted more than 1,500 entries and now, of all times, claims to have run out of things to say. Well, John, all I can say is, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.
I personally (that is, myself, in the first-person singular) have become practically addicted to John’s weekly dash of cold blather. I will miss it.
AND HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS:
I checked directly with His Bloggishness, and there are no near-term plans to extinguish the site itself. So, if you happen to like writing by Old Guys (and if not, Dear Reader, why are you here?), then be sure to check out “Down the Hall on Your Left,” where plenty of past delicacies and indelicacies remain for your enjoyment.
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting all year. Waiting in a little town on the prairie.
Waiting through the commotion at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s brown board house under the big elm on the Square. Waiting in bed at Grandma and Grandpa Sommers’ quiet house, with the lone blue light in its window, waiting with dreams of an electric train or a trap drum set, waiting for Santa Claus and his reindeer, if only they would—
It’s morning. Christmas morning!
I jump out of bed and dash into the living room. And there I find . . . NOT the amazing trap drum set from the Sears catalog. Not even a Lionel electric train, which I know for a fact Santa keeps plenty of on hand, and gives to lots of boys my age.
Something has gone terribly wrong. Under the tree, instead of a train on a loop of metal track, sits a big flat thing wrapped in red and green paper. I pick it up and rip off the paper, while the thing underneath makes clicking sounds. It’s a clear plastic box. A bunch of little metal balls inside it roll around and bump into things as I tilt it sideways.
“Look, Larry, it’s a pinball game,” says Mom, in her nightgown and robe.
“Here,” says Dad, in his wrinkled pajamas. “You work it like this.” He takes it out of my hands, tilts it so all the little balls roll down to the corner, pulls back on a handle and lets it go. One of the balls shoots up and goes bouncing around between pegs and plastic fences until it comes back to the bottom. Wow.
“Here, let me try.” I reach up, take the thing back and start shooting metal balls. I’m so busy watching the balls bounce around that I almost, not quite, forget the trap drums.
“Why the long face?” Grandpa hollers. With his pointy nose and his wire-rimmed glasses, he stares at me like a bird getting after a worm. “Y’oughta count yourself goddam lucky to have a nice game like that!”
“Maybe when you’re a little older,” Mom says, “Santa Claus will bring you an electric train.” She doesn’t mention the trap drum set.
Although I have given them quite a few hours of free informational talks on it, I have never heard either Mom nor Dad actually speak the words “trap drum set.” Still, Mom just said “electric train.” So there is hope for the future.
Cynda gets her heart’s desire, a stupid doll named Betsy Wetsy. Mom brings a little glass of water to pour in its mouth, so my little sister can watch as the stupid thing pees its pants. Cynda is carried away with joy. She pours more and more water until not only the doll’s panties but also its dress, its hair, its chubby hands, and its sappy face are all dripping.
“Now let’s put Betsy Wetsy away for a while,” Mom says, “until she dries out.” Cynda starts crying and carrying on as Mom takes the doll from her hands. Betsy Wetsy, to her, is what a trap drum set is to me. She has no right to complain. Hmph.
There are socks, bigger than we can wear, hung by Grandma’s fake fireplace with care. In them are oranges and nickels and candy canes and Mars bars and a few things like that.
We dress, eat, pile into the car and drive down Main Street to the fun grandparents’ house. Grandpa and Grandpa Sommers will come along later.
The place is already humming when we get there. The bottom of the tree swims in a sea of presents. The biggest one is for me, and I grab it right away, because it is too big to be wrapped: an American Flyer sled, longer than I am tall. It has shiny wooden slats on two red metal runners, with a wood steering bar to make it turn.
Now, this is more like it. “Mom, where’s my coat? I’m going outside to try my sled.”
“Wait a bit,” Dad says. “We’re about to open all the presents, and then we’ll eat. You can play with your sled in the afternoon.”
More waiting. Sigh. I give the steering bar a twist or two. It doesn’t seem like it really works. The runners don’t hardly bend. “Dad, the runners don’t hardly bend.”
“It’s just fine, son. You’ll see.”
My cousin Steve is there, his eyes big and round behind his glasses. He doesn’t need to be jealous of my sled. I’ll let him ride it this afternoon. He has already done pretty well at his Grandma and Grandpa Stucki’s house. He got a cowboy hat and BB gun there. His little sister, Betsy, got, guess what—a Betsy Wetsy doll! Even though she’s only two.
Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry—Mom’s aunt and uncle, everybody’s favorites—come in through the little wooden shed that stands outside the front door to keep the cold out. (Grandpa calls it “the vestibule.”) They have red-tipped noses and big smiles. They came later because they went to church for the Christmas morning service.
Grandma and Grandpa Sommers pull up in their big old Hudson. Grandpa’s wearing his suit and tie now, with his shoes shined and his hair slicked down. He’ll be on his best behavior—no yelling and cursing here. Grandma gives him the fish eye as they come in.
We all sit down to open presents. The grownups sit in a big circle. Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda take the presents from the tree and hand them out, because they can read the tags. I can read, too, but not when it’s written in longhand.
It’s like a madhouse. Everybody unwraps presents, whooping and hollering, laughing, showing off, trying on new shirts and sweaters. I get some clothes that are nice, I guess. But my best presents are a coiled metal thing called a Slinky, and a tin Caterpillar bulldozer with rubber treads. It has a key on the side that you wind it up with.
I have to wait to play with my new toys, because it’s time for dinner. We go down a step from the living room to the dining room. All the rooms in this house are one or two steps higher or lower than each other. I don’t know why, that’s just how it is.
Steve and Betsy, Cynda and I, Aunt Linda and Aunt Sue eat in the kitchen. The grownups sit at the big table in the dining room. There is turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and sweet potatoes and stuffing and two different kinds of rice—Spanish, and glorified—and cranberry sauce. And three different pumpkin pies, each one a little different. Maybe I can try them all.
Aunt JoAnne comes into the kitchen with something called the wishbone. It was part of the turkey. I get to pull it with her. We each hold one end and pull to see where it breaks. Whoever gets the big end, their wish will come true. I hurry up and wish a wish. I close my eyes real tight to think.
“Oh, I know!” I shout. “I’ll wish for—”
“No, don’t tell!” Aunt JoAnne says. “If you tell your wish, then it won’t come true.”
Really? There are rules for wishes? I didn’t know.
So I close my eyes again to remember my wish. Oh, yeah, that’s right. I can’t say what my wish is, but it’s not an electric train. Mom already said I might get an electric train next Christmas, so I don’t want to waste my wish on that. So I’m wishing for something else. Something that can make a loud noise.
I open my eyes. We pull the wishbone and it breaks on Aunt Jo’s side, so I win. “Hooray! Now I’ll get my train and my—oops.”
I’ve waited long enough to play with my toys. When I get back to the living room, the uncles have set up the books from the Collier’s Encyclopedia to make stairs, and they have the Slinky walking down the steps. “This is just to show you how it’s done,” says Uncle Earl.
Then he winds up my tin bulldozer and shows me how it can drive down the steps. This is so much fun that Uncle Dick does it next, and then Uncle Garrett, and then Richard Henderson—who isn’t even my uncle, yet. Next, they try to make it drive up the steps, but it won’t go. “Goddam grade’s too steep,” says Grandpa Sommers.
“We can’t give up now,” says Richard. He takes half the books out of the stack so it is shallower. Now the tractor goes up the steps just fine, but then it turns and falls off the side.
“Maybe the damned thing needs a new driver,” Grandpa Sommers says. So finally it’s my turn to wind it up and aim it toward the book-stairs. It falls over when I start it, too.
By Sunday, when we go home, the Slinky has a bent coil and the Caterpillar tractor is dented, but we’ve all had a lot of fun playing with them. The sled works okay when you pull it with a rope, but when we get back to Streator, I know where a hill is, and that will be even more fun.
We drive along between the fields of corn stubble on Sunday afternoon. Dad switches on the car radio. The Detroit Lions are playing the Cleveland Browns. “Bobby Layne versus Otto Graham,” Dad says. I don’t pay much attention to that because I’m dreaming about my electric train and trap drum set.
Detroit wins. “Guess Otto Graham will have to wait till next year,” Dad says.
A vast reach of flatness, wrinkled only where streams of water flow. Small towns wedged among square fields of corn or, in winter, corn stubble. A place where calendars yield only 1950s, and people come in all varieties of regular. In this place I am always a boy, roaming bemused through a tall prairie of grownups.
In 1953 I am eight years old. It is Thursday night, December 24. It’s already dark when Dad comes home at five. Mom bundles us into the car. It’s a 1939 Chevrolet like the ones in black-and-white gangster films. Dad drives, because I’m too young. (But if I had an electric train, I could drive that. How great would that be?)
I share the back seat with my teddy bear and my three-year-old sister, Cynda. Mom reaches over the seat and hands back a tuna sandwich on white bread. Cynda gets a sandwich too, but Teddy must be content to share mine.
The miles unspool, a ribbon of two-lane highway painted by headlights.
In a small town called Wenona there is a mountain, the only one I have ever seen. Dad says it’s only a hill of coal mine tailings. By day it is a pink cone that sticks up like a huge pimple on the skin of Illinois. By dark, we can see it only because someone has placed a five-pointed star of colored lights on its top for Christmas.
We zoom along at fifty miles per hour. (By the way, did you know there is no top speed limit on electric trains? Another advantage.)
We have eaten our sandwiches. Cynda has given up on crawling all over the back seat and has gone to sleep. I curl up with Teddy by the cold glass of the window and watch the night go by. Here and there a light gleams from a farmyard. Not much else out there.
Near Princeville, a wooden barricade like a sawhorse juts into the road to keep us from driving into a hole. It is marked by round pot flares, like black bowling balls with little orange flames flickering from their tops.
After two hours we arrive in Knoxville, a town of 2,000 souls, many of them our relatives. Dad drives past the old courthouse, makes two left turns, and parks in front of Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s one-story house.
At the party
Inside, a party is already going on. Uncle Dick and Uncle Garrett kneel on the floor, unscrewing and replacing colored bulbs in a string of unlit lights. Richard Henderson, Aunt Jean’s skinny boyfriend, stands by, cracking jokes and handing them new bulbs. Suddenly the many-colored lights blink on. Everybody claps.
The grownups stand around drinking from red glasses.
“What’s in the glasses?” I ask.
Dad takes a sip from his. “Mogen David and Coke,” he says.
“It’s wine,” Mom says. “Only for the grownups.”
Grandpa comes in from outside, holding a metal pitcher. He pours from the pitcher into the big brown heater that stands out from one wall of the living room. The stuff he pours in has a funny smell. I like the heater because you can look through a round window on its front and see orange and blue flames dancing inside.
By now, the uncles have draped the lights all around the skinny balsam that stands in the middle of the wall across from the heater. Mom and Grandma and Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda hang glass balls, bells, and tinsel on its branches. “That looks real nice,” Grandpa says.
Grandma has placed white fluffy cotton on the window sills. It’s supposed to be snow, and on it stand plastic reindeer and Santas. One is a red plastic Santa with a brown pack on his back. He is not in his sled but stands on a pair of green plastic skis, ready to deliver his gifts on foot. I like this Santa best, because of the skis. I can make believe the skis allow him to fly, like ski jumpers in the newsreels at the Earl Theater, even though he has no reindeer. I lift him off the cotton, fly him in circles through the air, and bring him in for a perfect ski landing.
Grandma and Grandpa and all the aunts and uncles make a fuss over Cynda, because she now walks quite well. She stalks all around the room. “My, how she’s grown!” Big deal. I could walk years ago.
The other grandparents
After a long time, we get back in the car and drive Main Street to the other end of town. Even though all the Christmas fun happens at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s, we are going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Sommers. Their house is quiet, except when Grandpa shouts or curses about something. We have to stay with them because they have enough room for us. Uncle Stanley and Uncle Franklin died in the war. Uncle Ed and his family live in England; Aunt Mabel and her family are in California. We’re the only ones left who live close enough to spend Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa Sommers.
It’s not so much fun at their house, and I’m afraid of Grandpa. But it is kind of nice to stay there on the night before Christmas. They have a tree, but not a lot of other decorations. Only, in the front window of the side room where Cynda and Teddy and I will sleep, Grandma has hung an electric candle with a single blue bulb. When we’re tucked into bed and the lights are turned off, the blue light from the candle glances off many points in the silvery wreath that surrounds it. It is pretty.
I can imagine Santa and his reindeer, or maybe Santa on skis, just outside that window, just beyond the blue candle. I hope this year he’ll bring me an electric train, or else a trap drum set like the one in the Sears catalog.
I want to stay awake long enough to see him arrive, but somehow I never quite make it. . . .
My wife’s father, Joe Nelson, and his older brother Morris, as boys in North Dakota, spent a couple of years in an orphanage. They were not orphans.
Their father, an itinerant small-town newspaperman, struggled to make a living. The eldest son, Bob, could work and augment the family income. The youngest, Lou, was too young to be away from his mother. So Morris and Joe, in the 7-to-10 age range, were placed in a Catholic orphanage. The family was Protestant, but beggars can’t be choosers. You could “go to the Sisters” or live in the county poorhouse.
Many of our families have stories like this, often just a generation or two back. Times were tough. People did what they needed to. Many children in orphanages were not orphans. Sometimes, they were collateral victims of family troubles or fiscal hardship, perhaps temporary.
Buy the Little Ones a Dolly
Rose Bingham’s memoir starts at Thanksgiving—“a very special Thanksgiving” in 2013. Rose’s large extended family has come to her house in the woods near Wisconsin Dells. Plates are full; cups runneth over. They give thanks. Thanks for the strength and grace that have kept their bond strong through decades of pain caused by a dark mystery.
In 1952, when Rose was a teenager, her loving, luminous mother disappeared, vanished without a trace. The family was devastated. Through the years that followed, emotional and economic turmoil plagued them. As Rose’s father, a talented sign painter, struggled to keep things together, she and her six siblings were placed in St. Michael’s Orphanage, miles from home—a strange, unfamiliar place run by nuns.
The woes that brought the family to this point; Rose’s lifelong battle, as the eldest, to keep her family together; and unexpected light shed only in recent years on the decades-long mystery of her mother’s disappearance, form a riveting and inspiring story.
It is a story told in the authentic, down-to-earth voice of a wise and humane survivor. I highly recommend Buy the Little Ones a Dolly. You’ll get a lot out of reading it.
’Tis the Season
And now, for something completely different: A series of Christmas stories from veteran Wisconsin writer/guru Jerry Peterson. Peterson is the creator of James Early and many other memorable Americans—some stalwart, some eccentric—whose doings and undoings are guaranteed to please you and sometimes tickle your funny-bone.
’Tis the Season, hot off the press, collects eleven of his best Christmas stories, written over the past 26 years. Some are excerpts from longer works. Others were originally written as short stories. This book puts them in one place for the first time.
If you’re a member of “Jerry’s Army,” you may have read some of these, but others may be completely new to you.
If you are NOT familiar with Jerry Peterson’s work, you have been missing out on something special.
Only just now have I received my copy of this handsome volume. I will plunge into these stories in the very near future. But as a member of Jerry’s bi-monthly Tuesday night writers’ group, I have previously read some of this work in early draft. I have also read lots of Jerry’s other stories. Therefore it is with confidence I say, get this book. You’re in for a treat.
“[A]mongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
—Edward Winslow, December 12, 1621
This well-known event was not “Thanksgiving,” even though we remember it that way.
We know it was not Thanksgiving because if it had been a special time of Thanksgiving, the Scrooby Separatists would have treated it like a designated time of Repentance: with fasting, prayer, and humiliation. Not with feasting, fun, and games.
Humiliation? What’s that got to do with thanksiving?
A friend of mine, who happened also to be my boss, boggled when he read a presidential proclamation by John Adams that called for fasting, humiliation, and prayer.
“Humiliation? Why would the president of the United States call for our country to be humiliated?”
My friend/boss was a soldier and a patriot, proud of our nation’s achievements. He was also a classic narcissist, the star of his own show—a show in which all the rest of us were bit players. Humiliation was a concept that did not appeal to him.
His question was not rhetorical. He was sincere; he wanted an answer. Sadly, other matters more pressing at the time pre-empted the long talk it would have taken to justify the role of humiliation in the psyche of our infant nation.
Of all the presidents who have called us to prayer and thanksgiving, only one embraced the “h” word—John Adams, a staunch old Puritan. His proclamations of 1798 and 1799 urged national, as well as individual, humiliation. That need was seen by the Calvinistic Adams, and perhaps by most New Englanders of that era, as an absolute prerequisite if there was to be any hope for a people mired in original sin.
My boss scorned old John’s advice, I surmise, because he equated humiliation with defeat. After all, the Packers routinely humiliated the Bears. Victorious allies humiliated Germany at Versailles. Saddam Hussein suffered abject humiliation by Norman Schwarzkopf.
The Upside of Humiliation
“Humiliation” also signifies a path to remembering our creaturehood. Humans are inclined to hubris, yet our proper attitude—the realistic attitude in the full context of God’s world—is humility. That does not come easily to us; thus we require humiliation. Such humiliation could be seen as a victory, not a defeat. I think that is what John Adams meant.
If we ourselves are the center of the universe, we thereby occupy the whole. Where is there space for gratitude? What is there to be thankful for? Who is there to thank?
It has been a very long time since anyone of Great Importance in our general life ventured the faintest suggestion that humility might be a good thing; or, even better, modeled humility as a public virtue.
Rather, those who dominate our headlines and our consciousness reliably turn out to be monsters of pride and arrogance. Their toxic self-absorption trickles down to the public at large. Or, could it be that it seeps upward to them, from us?
On the day we call Thanksgiving, we gather around the groaning board. We honor a tradition begun in 1621 with a feast and various entertainments, including football (our most military game).
Because the name of the day is Thanksgiving, we try to remember, amidst all revelries, to give thanks. Our thanksgiving may take the simple form of each person around the table, in turn, stating what he or she is thankful for. That’s not a bad thing to do.
Humility, if nothing else, might suggest it is also important to mention Whom we are thankful to.
A little humiliation could be a good thing. Happy Thanksgiving.
This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets].
I mentioned transportation, but didn’t say what kind. It was horse drawn of course, and usually was a “spring wagon,” which was a light wagon with two spring seats with leather cushioned seat & back.
My grandparents never did have anything with a top. They had umbrellas for sun or rain in Summer, and when it was snowing or raining in the winter, I think we mostly stayed at home. We did go quite often in sleigh or bobsled when there was snow on the ground. We always had sleighbells on.
The sleigh was not one of those fancy looking ones with large round runners. But I rather think it may have been home made. Anyway it was made of wood, painted red, and had two seats. Then there was straw in the bottom and hot bricks to keep warm.
We never tho’t of anything better. There were top [?] buggies and “surries with the fringe on top,” but very few around then.
Later came the Klondikes or enclosed buggies, but we never had any of those.
When our family was small, we usually went to Greenview for Xmas, but later spent it at home. There were now several families of relatives living there, and they would take turns having family dinners—one at Xmas, one at New Years, another at Thanksgiving etc.
Age of the Telegraph
When we moved to Middletown there were still no telephones. When Election time came, the returns would come in by telegraph at the R.R. station.
Everyone would go to the hall or Opera House and there would be some kind of entertainment.
Every so often a Messenger would come from the station with a Bulletin, which would be read.
How to Keep Food Fresh
Most every one had a small vegetable garden and fruit trees. But we didn’t know how to can vegetables then, except tomatoes. We canned fruit, but not a lot, as we did after I was married.
Vegetables, such as beans etc., were dried, and we also dried some fruit.
Most everyone had cellars or caves which would keep apples, Potatoes, cabbage etc.
Most people baked their own bread, but when there was a bakery near by, the bread would be shipped in, in large baskets, unwrapped. The loaves were baked in large pans & were stuck together. They were put in wall cases with sliding doors, and when you wanted to buy some, they would tear off as many loaves as you wanted, and wrap it.
Of course there were no Electric refrigerators or freezers. The fresh meat was sold in Butcher shops, who had large coolers, cooled with ice. They did their own butchering, as did all private families who had butchering to do. and also smoked their own hams, bacon, etc. The sausage & some other meat was fried, and put in stone jars, and covered with Grease so it would keep.
It all tasted much better than the meat we get today, or so I tho’t.
Our milkman had a horse-drawn covered wagon & the milk was in a large Milk Can. We would take a pitcher or something out & he would dip out as much milk as we wanted. That was in larger towns. In smaller towns most people had their own cow & some sold milk, but you would usually have to go after it.
My own folks never had a cow, that I remember, but we bought milk & butter from a farmer who lived on the edge of town.
My grandparents were Norgeian [sic], and they always had 2 kinds of cheese on the table for Breakfast. One was made from what we call cottage cheese. It was wrapped in cloth after being drained & salted, and laid away until it became real strong. I didn’t like that quite as well as what was made from the whey. It was boiled down to about ¼ of what it was, and then a little sweetening and thickening added. There were small grains of the cheese as it had not been strained. I tho’t this was super & could eat it at every meal
Well this is all I have written at the present time. I may think of more later.