Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Captains Gregarious

The pecking order of officers always intrigued me. We second lieutenants were just barely on speaking terms with first lieutenants. We actually had more association with enlisted men within that protocol. Captains were much more friendly. They probably didn’t feel threatened. Majors and lieutenant colonels were a different story. One had very little association with them.

Full colonels are known to be the loneliest men in the army. Their position precludes them from mingling with lesser officers and they cannot presume to associate with generals. Field latrines demonstrated these various levels. When a unit sets up in a given area, one of the first jobs is to dig holes for latrines and mark them. The “johns” are designated: one for enlisted men, one for officers and one away by itself for colonels. Generals are never that far forward for very long so facilities for them are not provided.

As noted before, captains tended to be more gregarious and I became friends with one in the air arm of 8th Army Headquarters. On slow days he would stop by our office and invite me to go flying with him.

The terrain around Seoul was rather hilly, almost mountainous. In order to avoid being spotted by the enemy, it was necessary to fly low to the ground and around the small mountain peaks. Pockets of air abounded in these areas and sudden drops of the plane were not unusual. It was my first experience in small aircraft but the captain took it easy on me and I enjoyed our outings a lot.

My other air experience came in helicopters. After the armistice was signed and the demilitarized zone (DMZ) was established, the Allies watched the North Koreans, and they watched us, from high areas on each side.

We had a full battalion on a mesa in a strategic location for this purpose. It was nearly inaccessible except by mules or helicopter. Needed items, such as perishable foods, et cetera were brought in by chopper. Discarded cartons, trash et cetera, where time was not a factor, were carried down the back side of the mountain by mule train.

The resulting intelligence had to drive the North Koreans crazy since they saw all that material being brought in by helicopter and nothing going out. Consequently, they probably thought the unit was at least army size.

I was assigned to do a story on the supplying of the battalion and I thought a camera shot from above would show the idea best. Sgt. Cordeiro wasn’t available so I grabbed a Speed Graphic, intending to take my own pictures, which I did. I convinced the air arm to provide a helicopter and I hung perilously from a hatch at the bottom and took a number of shots. I took the film to the Signal Corps for developing and went back for the pictures the next day.

The sergeant in charge asked me what I had been shooting and when I told him, he said that explained why I had absolutely nothing on my film. It seems the prop wash on the helicopter blew the bellows on the camera, preventing the image from making it to the surface of the film. So much for my brilliant idea of illustrating a story.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Fog of War and Peace

By this time the peace talks were underway and things were happening that probably would not have happened earlier. One was the defection of certain personnel. I have a picture of a Polish interpreter being escorted by our Col. White (now I know what the brass in our outfit did) on his way to freedom. The picture I really remember was of the colonel escorting a MIG pilot who was seeking asylum. Sgt. Cordeiro took the picture and it was used on the cover of Life magazine. At least that is what I had been told.

Another incident was caused by the peace talks and establishment of the DMZ. Each side was required to retreat a specified distance from the front lines and hold their position. All equipment, men, vehicles and firepower had to be moved.

A real problem arose when mortar batteries began to pack up and leave. As a matter of expediency during combat, mortar crews pulled the safety pin on several rounds of ammo and stored it next to their pieces. As long as they were used in the course of the fighting there was no danger, they became armed only on impact at the bottom of the mortar barrel and exploded at the enemy’s feet.

Now, however, these shells had to be moved a mile or more out of the DMZ and the odds of one exploding by accident were rather high. Sure enough, a mortar shell did explode during the transfer and it killed two Republic of Korea soldiers and one GI.

Had the story been told properly, it would have been considered an accidental tragedy, under the circumstances, and become old news quickly. A pompous major at battalion level, however, decided the incident would not look good on his record so he put a gag order on information concerning the event.

We only found out about it when some correspondents began asking questions and couldn’t get answers. As I noted before, the stateside newsmen didn’t take censorship very kindly and proceeded to dig for the story. They wired their home offices and they in turn sent reporters to the parents of the slain GI and got the story from them.

This obviously created a stir, with accusations of a “cover-up” and made a big deal out of a story that should have been just routine. It was then decided 8th Army PIO should make an attempt to explain the situation.

I was given the assignment to interview people at the DMZ to explain why the live shells were moved and what caused them to explode. I also had to go to the engineer’s battalion for detailed explanation of the workings of a mortar shell.

You might have thought I was a reporter from the National Inquirer instead of an officer with the U.S. Army. Getting anyone to talk about the incident was nearly impossible. It took some time to do the story but I turned it in as soon as I could. By that time, of course, the story was truly old news and nobody cared why it had happened. To my knowledge, no major papers or wire service picked up the story and my work went for naught.

Monday, January 29, 2007


I had been spending some evenings at the officer’s club watching a poker game that went on nearly every night. Most of the players were captains or above and the game was a dollar-ante and a pot limit, a player could bet the size of the pot at any time. Several hundred dollars could be the limit on a given hand.

I fancied myself a poker player but had never ventured into anything but small stakes games. Since I was single, and not sending any money home as many soldiers did, I had accumulated quite a stash, there was certainly no place to spend money in Korea. I determined I would allow myself $200 to lose if a seat ever opened up and I had a chance to play.

The evening came when one of the players had been shipped out and I was invited to sit in. I lost $50 that night, $50 the second night and another $50 the third night. The next day I got orders sending me home and I was to leave the following day. That gave me one more night and $50 to spend.

During the first three nights a captain from our office playing in the game sensed that I might be out of my league and I noticed him trying to help me in subtle ways. For example, if he had a real good hand and I was the only other player in, he would raise the size of the pot to tell me he had a sure winner and to get out.

It was getting late in the evening and I opened a hand of draw poker with a pair of aces. Several players called, as did my captain friend. I drew three and picked up another pair of aces for a nearly unbeatable four of a kind.

Apparently several good hands were out and the pot was bumped a number of times before the captain’s turn. He had drawn only one card and quite probably held two pair. He hit his full house and raised the size of the pot indicating to me he had drawn well and I better get out, even with three of a kind.

The other players dropped out and I had a dilemma. I knew I had him beat, even if he had drawn to four of a kind, my aces would win. Only a straight flush could beat my aces, an unlikely circumstance. I called his bet and raised him back the size of the pot, now at a large sum. If I had not raised the other players might have accused us of collusion. Since the captain had his full house he felt obligated to call, even though it was going to cost him about $400 to do it.

When I showed my four aces, he didn’t say a word but I know what he was thinking. “That’s the last time I wet nurse a second lieutenant in a poker game!”

To top it all off, I told the group my orders had come and it would be my last night in the game. Almost everyone but me was a big loser that evening and the sad part for them was they would not get a chance to recoup from that lucky “shave tail.”

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Chevy Man

We were taken by bus to Pusan in the southern part of the country where there was a deep water port. We laid around playing sand volleyball before being shipped out on Oct. 8, 1953, after being only three months in Korea.

It was a 13-day trip aboard ship going home and after my two sea voyages to and from Hawaii (plus the commuter trip from Japan to Korea) I was an old hand. A captain friend who had been doing PIO work with the Triple Nickel (555th Battalion) was on the same ship home. He said he would get me work on the ship’s newspaper so I wouldn’t have to pull compartment cleanup duty.

He also said not to worry about any other assignment I might get and to just ignore it because it took two or three days to find anybody aboard a ship with 3,000 troops. By that time he would have me lined up on the newspaper.

The duty roster showed I was one of six officers assigned to one compartment with the responsibility of order, cleanliness, et cetera. On a 13-day trip that meant we would actually only be responsible every six days or at most, two times during the voyage.

The compartment to which I was assigned was filled with non-commissioned officers on their way home for discharge. They knew the score and could take care of themselves. Because of this and the promise of my captain friend, I disregarded the orders.

With nothing to do all day, card games flourished. Our open poker games on deck were halted, however. Enlisted men were prohibited from gambling (at least in plain view) so the commanding officer felt we should not do it either.

The ship’s doctor sat in on our game and he found an empty stateroom we could use so we transferred the action there. The sessions ran late into the night and with no duties to perform, I sacked in most mornings the first few days out.

About the fourth morning a captain routed me out from my bunk and asked me where I had been for three days. My excuse was that I was waiting for the job on the newspaper to come through. That didn’t cut any ice and he was ready to court-martial me for dereliction of duty right then and there.

After he cooled off, I pointed out we were all on our way home for discharge and hoped he would reconsider and take the circumstances into account. He reluctantly agreed to give it some consideration but in the meantime, instead of being one of six on duty for the compartments, I would be the only one. For the rest of the trip, I had to show up at 7 a.m. every day to inspect the area.

The work on the newspaper never materialized but the irate captain never mentioned the incident again so I dodged that bullet. The poker games proved profitable and with what I had won in Korea, the total came to more than $1,500. That provided me with the money to buy a 1951 Chevy when I got home.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

An Honorable Discharge

My other memory of the trip home had to do with about 20 Republic of Korea officers who came with us. They were on their way to schooling provided by our army.

Since they were not accustomed to American food they asked if they could provide their own rations. Their main meal would be kimshi, mostly fish heads and sea weed. Knowing the smell that it creates, the ship’s officers declined their request and the Koreans were required to go to the officers’ mess with us.

The first night out, we were seated with Korean officers at the same table. A large bowl of jelly was placed about every three places for easy access. One of the bowls happened to be directly in front of a Korean officer and he proceeded to eat the entire thing as if it were a salad. He got terribly sick from it, not being used to rich food and particularly that much of it.

After that incident, I noticed the other Korean officers would wait until one of us ate something and then they would follow. When we ate a fork of potatoes, they would do the same, et cetera. Even then, they did not fare with our rich cuisine. Near the end of the voyage, they were allowed to eat some of their own food.

I had an earlier indication of the oriental mind and habits when at OCS in Oklahoma. This was not first hand knowledge, but after being in Korea and learning some of the culture, I think now there must have been a lot of truth to the story being told at the time.

A group of Korean officers (similar to those aboard ship with us coming home) was training at Ft. Sill when we were there. Although they were already commissioned, they were taking the same basic course we were, learning artillery fire command procedure.

They were given the opportunity to come to the United States because they were the best and brightest South Korea had. Because of their prominence, it was incumbent upon them to do well in their courses.

Even with this background the American colonel in charge of the Korean group was taken aback when the Korean commanding officer came to him and asked, “Where do you go to shoot a man?”

It appeared one of the Korean students had gotten a grade of B on a gunnery test and that brought shame on the entire group. Our colonel convinced the South Korean he could not execute a man for bad grades and even if he could, B was not all that bad a mark.

We landed Oct. 21 at Ft. Lewis, Washington. Ironically, when we hit port in the United States, I ran across some of the guys I had taken basic training with in Hawaii. They had opted not to apply for OCS because they didn’t want to commit to the extra time. They were now short timers, but on their way overseas. I was not only a short timer who had gotten officers’ pay and privileges, but was headed for discharge.

We were shipped immediately to Camp Carson, Colorado for discharge, which officially occurred on Oct. 24, 1953.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Guards

Since I was inducted on Oct. 29, 1951, that made it four days short of two years service. For a long time I kept thinking I might get called back in because I had not served my full time. That may have been the reason I signed up for the Nebraska National Guard when I got out. I was required to be in the Army Reserve or the Guard for at least six years but I thought belonging to the latter would give me less chance to be called up.

Convoluted thinking? Probably. It is obvious I hadn’t learned my lesson about trying to out-guess the Army. At any rate, I missed all the call ups while I was still in the active reserve.

Many years later, in talking to other veterans who were discharged about the same time I was, I found out I missed a benefit because I was so anxious to be out of the Army.

Prior to the Korean war, soldiers were insured for $10,000 but were charged a premium. When I went in we were automatically covered for the same amount but paid no fees. We were given an opportunity to convert the policy on discharge and pay the premiums but I either didn’t feel it was worthwhile or simply passed it by in the rush to go. Listening to veteran friends years later, I found they were getting up to $400 dividends yearly from their converted policies.

Shortly after I got home I took a job as news editor of the weekly Wahoo Newspaper at Wahoo, Nebraska, published by the third generation of the Ludi family. Darrell was the managing editor and his brother, Tom, handled a large job printing shop at the newspaper.

I was a one-man staff and handled everything on the news side except society, which was written by the women in the office. Sports, breaking news stories, and editing copy from country correspondents came under my jurisdiction. I had to make up the front page when we went to press and perform the dark room work for the pictures, mostly taken by me. I had taken a course in photography at UNL, but the hands-on experience in the dark room was more practical.

With my residence in Wahoo, I was able to train with the National Guard there in order to fulfill my reserve requirement. My service in the guard was not memorable from a military standpoint but there were some instances worth recalling.

The Nebraska Guard was scheduled for two weeks at Camp Ripley, Minnesota for my first summer of duty. A friend who was pilot in the air arm of the guard offered to let us fly to camp when he ferried his plane up there for training. That was much preferable to riding in a convoy of six by sixes.

We had some free time before camp opened because of our early airplane ride and took advantage of some of the local bars in town. We were rather late getting back to camp and were still sacked out the first day of duty when the battalion commander stuck his head in our tent and woke us up.

He had little to say at that time but at a battalion officers’ meeting later that day he closed his remarks about camp procedure by saying, “Those who want to dance must pay the fiddler.”

He didn’t single us out but the message was clear as we continued to get the less attractive assignments for the rest of the two-week camp.

Another matter caused some concern but fortunately did not bring injuries to anyone. I was on a hill directing fire when I heard a tremendous explosion. It sounded to me like a 105 Howitzer had blown up.

We were told later what happened. Because of limited time for training, gun crews were split during a mission so everybody would have at least some first hand experience.

In this instance, at the point where the number two man was told how many bags of powder to load, the crews were changed. Seven bags are available but I’ve never heard anyone using that many. The more bags, the longer distance the round will travel. The procedure is for the number two man to remove enough bags so the required number is left. In other words, if he is told four bags, three are removed.

After the first crew had left the gun, the second number two man mistakenly thought the bag number had been taken care of and removed none. When the 105 was fired, it had seven bags of powder and the round in the breach had enough power to go out of the firing range and completely across a small town adjacent to the camp. The sound generated was what I had heard on the hill.

One can imagine the stir that mistake caused. At least the error produced enough distance to go over the town. One bag less and it might have slammed into a home. From that point on the practice of changing crews in the middle of a mission was abandoned.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Black Gold

The Wahoo Newspaper job was good experience, but as a single man I didn’t have much of a social life. I lived in a rooming house owned by a Mrs. Smith, whose late husband was a doctor. Her main concern in life was whether her money would come out even with her being alive to enjoy it.

In a small town in Nebraska populated by descendants of Czechoslovakians, hanging out in a tavern drinking beer was accepted social conduct. It was no different than meeting for a cup of coffee at a café.

Shannahan’s (how that Irish name got to Wahoo, I do not know) was our after-work stop, and many evenings too. Most of the employees of the newspaper stopped by there after work for at least one beer, so when a practical joke for the tavern owner was proposed, we all went along.

One week, after we had put the paper to bed, I removed a story from the front page and substituted a fake item, which one of our linotype operators had set a few minutes before. It related a story about John Shannahan being accused of abusing his baby sitter when taking her home at 2 a.m. and his being questioned by the police.

We then printed just one paper with that story and put the tavern owner’s address on it. It was stacked with all the other papers being readied for mailing that evening and delivery the next day.

We thought it was a terrific joke but John didn’t see it that way. When we came in after work, he was livid and began reading us all off. I ran back across the street to the newspaper office to get one of the actual papers to show him what we had done, that only his paper had the story in it. He was so mad all explanations went right by him and it was much later before he accepted the true situation. We were lucky we didn’t get sued for libel, even though only the aggrieved party had access to the story.

I was left much to my own discretion in determining what stories to run and how much emphasis to place on them. However, when an oil rig was brought in and a well drilled, I was questioned on my judgment.

I ran only a short story with a 14 point headline (about the smallest used on the front page). The patriarch of the family, Guy Ludi, was not active in the business but in this case he went to Darrell and asked what was going on. Wasn’t this a big story? Oil being discovered in Saunders County?

As a matter of fact, I was skeptical about the motives of the promoters of the oil well. The well was actually drilled with a smattering of an oil shown. A local real estate agent was hired to sell leasing rights all around the test site so I decided to check the story further.

I called the state geological survey at the University of Nebraska. I found out all wild cat wells had to be registered but no information could be released for a minimum of six months. This law was to protect wild cat drillers from predators who might come in an take advantage of their find.

The man I talked to said he would crawl all the way from Lincoln to Wahoo if marketable oil was found in the county. Because of the law, what he told me had to be off the record and if I quoted him, he said he would deny even talking to me.

The reason he said “marketable” oil was because the site not only lacked the quantity needed but there was no way to transport it profitably. On large oil strikes, quantities are sufficient to invest either in pipe lines or gathering tanks. No such conditions prevailed here.

People around town pointed to the fact that the promoter had left a valuable steel pipe in the ground at the well site and was evidence of good prospects. To my knowledge, that pipe is still in the ground and more than 40 years later no oil has ever been sold out of Saunders County.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Bodley’s Hill

The job in Wahoo began to become somewhat boring and one incident prompted me to look at other possibilities.

It was a small thing, but aren’t most events that “break the camel’s back?” I had carried a story about some function at the Wahoo Country Club a couple weeks ahead of the event. When the organizers asked me to run the story again, I gave the standard response, a story is news only once, unless something new can be added. If they wanted to encourage attendance, they would have to run an ad.

This did not sit well with the people from the Country Club and since Darrell was a member of the board, they went to him and the second story got published.

To me it was a matter of principle and the fact I was not supported cemented my decision to seek other avenues for my work.

With my army service I qualified for the GI Bill so I decided to go back to school. I had become interested in law in my undergraduate days because of my roommate and his friend in that curriculum. They had since graduated and were practicing law in Wilbur, Nebraska.

I applied to law school at UNL and was accepted in the three-year program starting that fall of 1954.

I continued to serve in the National Guard at Wahoo. Being familiar with the unit was not the only reason I didn’t transfer to a Lincoln outfit. There was this girl named Janice Owens I had met and for some reason I wanted an excuse to come back to Wahoo once a week.

I didn’t start going out with Janice right away. I started out dating Peggy Davis, Janice’s best friend. We all hung out at Shannahan’s (although Janice drank only plain 7-Up). I don’t know how we got switched around but I have always had a hunch it was contrived.

Before we even knew each other, Janice had tongue-in-cheek plans for me. I played for a local softball team and even though the army had helped me gain quite a few pounds, I still maintained that small waist I had shown in college.

At one of the games, when Janice and Peggy were in attendance, Janice said, “See that skinny guy out there? If I could get hold of him, I sure would fatten him up.”

More than 50 years later and 30 or 40 pounds heavier, she has accomplished her goal.

We eventually met and went through the usual rituals of young adults in a small town. It was necessary to find a secluded spot to do some “necking” and in this case it was called Bodley’s Hill. This was simply a seldom traveled road out in the country where a car could park for some time without being disturbed.

Beside Shannahan’s, we spent many Saturday nights at the Frog Pond, a dance hall on a lake near Wahoo. It has only been recently that I knew the real name of the place, Wanahoo Lake, when a proposed recreation area was announced there.

The Frog Pond was typical of small town Nebraska where liquor by the drink was not legal. Instead, the establishment sold the set up, Coke, 7-Up, et cetera, and the customers brought their own bottle and mixed their own. Janice got really serious then, she mixed a drop or two of wine in her 7-Up for her heavy drinking. That may have been one of the early versions of a wine cooler.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Month in Wilbur

My law school friends (Alan Steinacher and Joe Vosoba) were just setting up practice in Wilbur and needed cheap help in the way of a legal secretary. I quit my job in Wahoo and spent the month of August in their office before enrolling in law school. It was good experience for me and didn’t cost the firm much money.

I got along fine with the typing for Al and Joe except for the proper names. Wilber was a pure Czech town and the names were horrendous. It also bugged me that Al would write a will for somebody, I would type it and he would let it sit for a couple weeks before he would let me call the parties back to let them know it was done. I subsequently found out the reason for the delay. He wanted to give the people a chance to think about the details before the final draft was typed. That prevented a series of changes, and more work.

Since I did not take shorthand, the partners dictated most of their work on a machine. They talked into a microphone which transmitted impulses to a needle that scratched grooves into a cylinder. I would later insert the needle into the grooves and play back the message into earphones. Because I was not expert in secretarial skill, this gave me an opportunity to play and replay the dictation until I got it right.

Al had only one arm. He had lost the other in a tractor accident at age 12 and he did amazingly well with just one. He could tie his own shoes with one hand by holding down one lace with his foot and looping the other lace around to make a bow. He lit a cigarette by bending the match out of the pack and replacing the cover. He then scratched the match with one hand and lit the cigarette.

When Joe and I got our draft notices while we were still in college, Al decided he would enlist. We knew (but didn’t say anything) that he would be rejected because of having only one arm. Al reasoned that with his law degree, the army could use him regardless of his physical condition.

He went to the recruiting office and was convincing enough that they let him take the required tests. He did fine until he got to the physical and they told him they were sorry but they could not accept him. All recruits are required to go through basic training no matter what there final duty and he would not be able to cope with that.

While Joe was in the army, Al got the law practice going. In order to become known (and to supplement his income if he won) he decided to run for Saline county attorney. He spent the fall campaigning door to door throughout the county.

His ability to speak Czech didn’t hurt and the fact his opposition was the son of a prominent former county attorney, who thought he was a shoo-in, brought about a landslide for Al. He won every precinct but one and tied that one.

Al was not one to overlook the perks of his office. He always carried a John Doe warrant in his car in case he got picked up for speeding. The county attorney would be “on his way to pick up a fugitive” and therefore a law enforcement officer.

Al didn’t keep the elective job for more than the first term. By that time Joe was back from the service and the practice was beginning to flourish. When I asked him why he didn’t run again, Al said the janitor at the courthouse was paid better than the county attorney.

Joe took his turn at making contacts for the firm. He ran for state legislature and served one term, long enough to cultivate some influential friends on a statewide basis.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Life on the GI Bill

While I was in Wilbur for the summer, we spent some time in Crete, the commercial seat of Saline County, and I ran into the friend who had flown us to National Guard camp. His father owned Crete Mills and he was expected to take over the business. He was not too interested in working for a living and his father indulged him. One such indulgence was a compact sport car just coming into popularity at the time.

He bragged that even though it was small, his car had lots of power. To prove it he bet he could get his car up and over a haystack just outside the mill site. Quite a crowd gathered to see the event and were amazed to see the little vehicle dig in the loose hay, grab hold and move over the top and down the back side.

Our friend was not satisfied, however. He now wanted to bet somebody he could do the same thing by backing all the way over the haystack.

He got someone to take his bet and he turned the car around to back into the pile of hay. He went about half way up when the wheels began to spin but did not take hold. The spinning created friction, which caused combustion, and a resulting fire. Our sport bailed out just before the car caught fire and exploded.

I heard later he went to work for his father and his escapades subsided as he outgrew his penchant for pranks.

A friend from Wahoo, Duane Noble, was returning to school also and we rented an apartment in Lincoln for the fall term. Duane liked to cook so I did the dishes and most of the cleaning (which I will admit was not a great deal). He shopped just like a true homemaker so we ate pretty well and at a reasonable cost. Whenever either of us bought anything for the apartment we put the receipt in a jar. At the end of the month we would add them up. The one paying the least owed the other the difference to even it out. The system worked fine.

My GI Bill allowance of $110 a month pretty well took care of my expenses in that fall of 1954, except for tuition. I borrowed $125 on a life insurance policy for that.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

First Years

I really felt I would do well in law school. I was interested in the subject and was more mature than I had been in undergraduate pursuits. It didn’t quite work out that way. First year subjects are not only difficult, they are boring: Constitutional Law, Contracts, Legislation, et cetera. Instead of bearing down more than in my earlier years, my experience just gave me more knowledge of how to goof off.

A further problem arose when I was required to attend National Guard drill in Wahoo every Tuesday night. After a few beers at Shannahan’s following the drill, the hour was late by the time I got back to Lincoln. My Wednesday Con Law class suffered when I slept in and by the end of the semester I had missed about a third of the sessions.

I did not find favor in another class, either. On St. Patrick’s Day our Legislation instructor asked me why a man named McCormick was not wearing green. My response did not meet with a smile. “I’m Irish enough I don’t have to wear green to show it, Mr. Cohen.” I emphasized the name Cohen so that he knew I was aware he was Jewish (not the Irish Cohan).

The only real success I had in law school was in moot court. We were assigned partners and given a case to try in civil court on torts or something simple like that. Upperclassmen acted as judges.

I don’t remember the issues in the case now. What I remember is that our opposition gave us our case on a silver platter with something they said in their arguments. My experience in journalism and public speaking made it easy for me to pick up on this and exploit it extemporaneously when our turn to argue came up.

The judges apparently thought this was good thing and awarded us the case mostly on the basis of our noticing the error of our opponents.

As the second semester wore on I became less and less interested in studying.

We had all afternoon to study, all the classes were in the morning. More often that not some of us would stay in the classroom and start a bridge game. That lasted several hours and our study time was greatly diminished.

Also about that time Jim Cornwell had called me to offer a deal at the Stanton Register. He and his wife, Bette, had purchased a community newspaper in a suburb of Salt Lake City and they wanted me to take over the Register.

It sounded like a sweet deal. I would not have to put any money down. I would be paid a salary and receive 25 per cent of the net profits. If I so desired, I could plow back my percentage into the paper and, at the end of five years, have the option of buying it all.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Guardhouse Lawyer

With the prospect of going back into the newspaper business, my law studies really began to suffer. Another diversion contributed to my school decline. In February, in my car, on Bodley’s Hill, I asked Janice to marry me.

She said yes. She thought I was rich because I had bought a newspaper and I thought she could type (I would need someone to help at the paper). We were both wrong! We decided on an August date because by then I would be out of school and settled in the paper. Besides, the Register traditionally shut down for a week during the county fair and that would give us a chance to get away on a honeymoon.

A major problem cropped up, however. The Guard was scheduled for a weekend training session at Camp Ashland near Lincoln and a number of the officers went out Friday night for a party prior to the Saturday-Sunday sessions.

The booze was plentiful and I was still young enough to think I could handle it. I couldn’t. Late in the evening, I decided to go back to my apartment in Lincoln. My friends tried to get me to bunk at the camp but I was belligerent and refused.

On the way back to town I ran a highway patrolman off the road and I found myself, shortly thereafter, sitting in the municipal lock up with the officials wanting a urine sample.

At that time the law allowed refusal of urine tests by those arrested. I was a “guardhouse lawyer” with my nearly one year of schooling and was aware of the law. So I refused the test.

Law enforcement officers had “been there, done that” and simply bided their time. I could refuse the urine test, but they were not required to let me go to the bathroom. Eventually the bladder becomes so full you beg for relief and they stick a bottle in front of you and they get their sample, freely given.

I was pretty well out of it but I was told later that when this was happening, the stream was errant and one of the officers got wet. My response, reportedly, was, “Good, I always wanted to piss on a cop.”

For anyone who knew me at the time and knows me now, that remark was completely out of character. It is simply another indication of what excessive drinking can produce.

I woke up the next morning on a steel bunk, no mattress, no pillow, in a jail cell. It began to sink in what had happened and I was near panic.

Fortunately a cell mate said he was being released that morning and asked if he could call somebody for me. I gave him Joe and Al’s number in Wilbur without much confidence in his following through.

Apparently he did, however, for later that day the firm of Steinacher and Vosoba showed up to get me released without bail.

Al and Joe did not want to represent me in the Lincoln system but recommended a local attorney, Paul Douglas. He told me to come to the court hearing with $500 and my toothbrush just in case I might get some jail time.

I had to call Mother for the money, obviously a hard thing for any son to do. She did not chastise me but simply asked how much I needed and she said she would put it in the mail that day. I’m sure the money was not easy to come by for her but as in so many other instances, she was there for me when I needed it.

The fine was $100 and six months suspension of license. The attorney’s fee was $50. That was a lot of money in the fifties but with the seriousness of my action, endangering a patrolman and abusive conduct, I figured another attorney might not have gotten me off so leniently.

Friday, January 19, 2007


Now I was faced with a number of problems. I had missed the weekend National Guard drill and I could not drive to meetings, or anywhere else.

On Sunday, after my escapade Friday night and subsequent release from jail Saturday, I had my roommate take me to the Ashland camp site and asked for a meeting with the battalion commander.

I told him what had happened and said that for my best interests, and that of the Guard, I would like to resign my commission. He agreed and subsequently the papers were processed to that effect. I was required to stay in the inactive reserve until my time was up.

Finals were underway at school and I got through them somehow. I think I flunked Con Law and just barely got by in Legislation. The other courses were a little better but it didn’t really matter since I had already agreed to take over the paper in Stanton and would not be coming back to law school.

My contract with Jim and Bette Cornwell had a morality clause in it so I was faced with the possibility they might invoke it in light of my conduct.

After discussing it with them, they decided not to pursue that contract clause, but my position was certainly weakened. I was disappointed to find out later Jim had called a friend on the Lincoln papers in an attempt to kill the court report on me. He would not take that kind of action for anyone with regard to his own paper, so I was amazed he would attempt it with a metropolitan daily. I suppose some word of my indiscretion got back to Stanton but I was never confronted with it.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Stanton Register

Having worked at Stanton previously, it was not a difficult transition when I arrived there again in June of 1955. I was well settled in when I took the week of the Stanton County Fair to get married.

The deal the owners gave me for the Stanton Register was almost too good to be true. As we’ve been told so often, if it is too good to be true, it probably is the case. I was to take over the paper, receive an $80 per week salary and 25 per cent of the net profits. That 25 per cent could be used to buy the paper after five years at a pre-set price of $35,000.

The problem with the deal was that a town of 1,300 in the 1950s economy could not really support a conventional hot metal printed newspaper. Later, with offset technology, computers and a centralized printing plant's labor, costs could be trimmed to make the operation feasible.

Janice and I struggled for nearly five years trying to make a go of the paper. There were many reasons why it didn’t work. My youth and inexperience in running a business and coping with marriage and fatherhood were major factors. The lack of a well-planned business structure was also involved. No provisions for replacing antiquated equipment were made so revenues were not sufficient for much more than paying salaries and other fixed expenses. During our entire time in Stanton, the net profit percentage I received was the grand sum of $400, and even that came under dispute.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Tea House of the August Honeymoon

Janice and I decided to get married during the Stanton County Fair when the paper shut down for vacation. During the interim, after I took over in June, our relationship was more or less long distance. Since I had lost my license for six months, I let Janice have the 1951 Chevy and she would come to Stanton for the weekends.

One Sunday evening she came into Wahoo and noticed some men waving at her from a gas station along the highway. She knew them and waved back but they seemed to be a little frantic so she stopped. At that point she smelled rubber burning and got out of the car. It seems a tire had blown several miles back and Janice had driven quite some time on it. The rim was so hot the guys at the gas station had to wait a while before they could change it.

E-mail at that time, of course, was not even a science fiction item so the U.S. postal service was the best means of communications. We still have the letters we wrote each other during those two and a half months before we were married. I counted some 45-50 letters when I dug them out.

Al and Joe, my college buddies, decided they should throw me a bachelor party. I took the bus to Omaha the day before the wedding and met them for a night of bar hopping. It was probably the dullest night I have ever spent in my life. Attempting to pick up girls was not an option and what do you talk about after a few hours?

Consequently, we went back to our hotel fairly early but I made my friends promise they would get me to Stanton by noon the next day. We were not to be married until 7:00 p.m. but Janice wanted me there in time to meet with our attendants and make other preparations.

Whether it was inadvertent or intentional on Joe and Al’s part, I never found out, but we slept late and it was nearly noon before we got out of Omaha. Obviously, it was much after twelve o’clock when I arrived and Janice was not too happy with me. Not a good way to begin our life together!

We were married by Rev. J. Frank Bartleson at the Methodist church in Stanton on Aug. 21, 1955. Janice’s sister Phyllis Wagner and my last college roommate, Duane Noble, stood up with us.

We didn’t want to start out on our honeymoon at night so I had booked a motel in Norfolk, some 15 miles from Stanton. I had rented a house in Stanton and it was ready to move into but for some reason, I didn’t consider using it that first night.

We went to the Black Hills in South Dakota. Our first stop there was Hot Springs and of course rude jokes emanated from that post mark when friends received cards from us.

Our trip was cut short when I ran out of money after about four days so we went on back to Stanton to set up housekeeping. That weekend, Phyllis and Janice had arranged for a wedding reception at the Presbyterian church in Wahoo.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


The house we lived in was originally a stable and moved in from the farm and converted to a house. It was on a lot next to the owners, Charlie and Amelia Blaser. Charlie was retired but considered himself a carpenter. At best he was a rough carpenter and while the house was comfortable enough, it had some quaint features. One was the opening at the top of the stairs leading to the bedrooms. Charlie had figured badly and when he got the stairs finished, there was only about four feet left for a door. The re-make was not pretty to see.

We started out paying $50 month rent but after a couple months, Charlie told us he thought $45 was probably more fair. A month later, however, he felt a compromise of $47.50 would be best.

Our relationship with Charlie and Amelia was unique. She was very quiet and about as nice a woman as one would want to find. Charlie was 77 years old and a nice guy too, but eccentric, to say the least.

Of good German stock, Charlie liked his beer and spent most of the afternoons at one of the local taverns. His friends occasionally would lace his beer with a shot of whiskey and he would find his way home rather uncertainly. That created some problems. There were several occasions when we would discover Charlie seated on the sidewalk in front of our house playing with our 18 month old son, Sam. It was quite a sight, this old man thoroughly enjoying himself and the youngster similarly engaged. Our fear was that Charlie’s condition on occasion might put Sam in harm’s way, but we kept an eye out and nothing untoward ever happened.

One day the local business organization sponsored a “Turkey Days” promotion to generate some traffic in the stores. Each place of business placed a live turkey in a cage in front of their store. Customers were to guess the weight and the closest won the turkey at that store. The noise produced by those turkeys was something else but at the day’s end, the promotion was considered successful. Winners were required to take their turkey home and leave the cage because the hatchery where they came from had to have them back for other uses right away.

As it happened, Amelia Blaser won the turkey at the newspaper office but she had no way of getting it home without Charlie.

“I don’t know where he is right now,” Mrs. Blaser said.

I knew I could find him in one of the two or three taverns in town so I told her I’d find him and get the turkey home for her. I did find him and he had been enjoying one of those afternoons where his buddies enhanced his enjoyment with additional spirits in his beer.

After convincing him we didn’t have time for me to have a beer with him, Charlie agreed to get his car, load the turkey and take it home. Since the cage had to be returned immediately, we had to chop the turkey’s head off so Amelia could clean it.

Even though Charlie was none too steady, I had had little experience in wielding an ax so I agreed to hold the turkey over the chopping block while Charlie took a whack at the bird. That was a mistake. A big mistake!

Charlie took a mighty swing and just nicked the bird in the neck. I had one hand around the legs and my other arm trying to contain the wings. The blow that Charlie struck only wounded the turkey but it had the strength to spread its wings and try to get out of the situation. My hold on the wings was none too secure and up they went while I was hanging on to the feet for dear life. The bird pulled me off the ground for a couple feet but my weight eventually brought us both back down to earth. I managed to grab the bleeding turkey’s neck and wring its head off. While that may be a gruesome vision, it was not an uncommon method of butchering chickens or turkeys in those days.

As an aside, that turkey promotion was deemed illegal by the state attorney general. He called our local county attorney and informed him the promotion constituted gambling in that it contained all three elements of the offense - prize, chance and consideration. The prize, of course, was the turkey and even though we considered guessing the weight a skill, that was deemed the chance. Although we did not charge customers for the guess they made, the state said just their making the effort to come to the store was consideration (payment).

The county attorney conveniently delayed notification until the promotion was over. No charges were involved. He was simply to have halted the affair. I called the state attorney general’s office to complain that enforcement of such gambling laws would stifle local commerce.

The answer I was given was that they normally did not try to enforce chamber of commerce type events but that they had received a complaint and were obliged to follow up. Off the record, I was told one certain individual was scanning weekly newspapers and complaining against such promotions. His intent was to get towns so incensed they would get the law changed. That did happen several years later.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Sequel to Charlie

Charlie was a good landlord. He would do about anything we asked around the place. Sometimes his absentmindedness proved irksome. We had a little enclosed back porch on the house that led to the door of our kitchen. The door knob on the porch was loose and kept falling off so I asked him if he would fix it. That night when we came home from the office we found Charlie with his tool box at the back of the house and he told us he had just finished fixing the door knob. He went on home but we didn’t have the heart to tell him he had fixed the wrong knob. He had worked on the inside door, which was perfectly fine, and left the loose knob alone.

Charlie was not that good of a driver, either. He wasn’t sure about all the knobs in the vehicle so he would use them all as he backed out of his garage. He would have the clutch (this was before automatic transmissions were common) half way out, the engine revving and the windshield wipers going full blast in bright sunshine. He had to replace the clutch in his car quite often and couldn’t figure out why.

Some years later, we visited Stanton, we found Amelia had died and Charlie was in the state mental hospital in Norfolk. We visited him there but he didn’t know who we were. He spent his days putting a table together and taking it apart. The staff provided him with a rubber hammer so he couldn’t hurt himself but he was content being the master carpenter he could never be in his real life.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Small Town Paper

Janice did not go to work at the shop immediately. Later, we needed a back-up linotype operator and she took on the task. The linotype is a very complicated machine. One story, commonly accepted, is that the person who invented it (Merganthaler) died in an insane asylum before it was completely perfected. I had been around linotypes most of my life, of course, but I did not have any training on them. It was kind of like a person who attempts to work on his own car without any schooling. At any rate, I knew enough to get the thing going and we learned the mechanics together.

Janice is a quick study and she learned to operate it all right. Most of the problems came when we worked alone on weekends or nights and something went wrong and we didn’t have the expertise to fix it.

Delores Marotz (later Wagner after she was married) was the linotype operator for most of the time we were in Stanton. Charlie Prokopec was the printer until he quit and went to work at Nebraska Public Power district in Columbus. We had other employees for shorter times. Jack Pollock, son of the district judge for that area, came home from the Navy and worked for one summer. He later married Beverly Buck, daughter of the Nebraska Farmer publisher and eventually ended up as owner-publisher of the Ogallala weekly newspaper in Nebraska.

He was a summer-only employee and so it was necessary to be inventive to find work for him to do. When the fair came to town, I told him to do a story on something different rather than the usual livestock entries or evening professional shows. He decided telling about the sideshows with the carnival might be interesting so I said okay. I had read enough of his copy to know he was qualified and as it turned out, I did only a cursory job of editing his story before we went to print.

The next day I began to get phone calls making reference to Don’s “obscene” story. Some were from friends who were simply chiding me and others from irate readers. I went to the story and found what they were talking about. He had referred to the ring toss, milk bottle, and other carnival games as “Sporting Houses.” That is an obsolete term for houses of ill-repute in a red light district. He claimed he was too young to know that definition and I had to accept it but I never did know for sure. I always kidded him about it in later years when we were together at a press meeting or something, but he continued to maintain his innocence.

The county fair was a big annual event. Getting people to spend time on the organization and running it was difficult as it is in most groups. That was probably why, as a new “responsible” member of the community, I was asked to serve as secretary of the fair board. I probably should have turned it down, but I felt I should contribute. The amount of time it took really cut in to my work at the paper and I feel it might have helped in my failure in the long run.

Some of the other members of the board tried a practical joke on me the first year. The treasurer was the local court reporter and the vice-president a highly respected farmer. Both enjoyed a good laugh, particularly at someone else’s expense. The president was not so inclined. He was a quiet, staid member of the Methodist church.

After the carnival had set up during my first year in office, the treasurer called me and said there were certain responsibilities I must take care of. One was to inspect the grounds and make sure there were no shows that could offend the sensibilities of the local population. He told me this, knowing full well there was a “girlie” show as part of the carnival.

As all four of us approached the tent where the barker was enticing the crowd to come in, he gave us a quizzical look.

I walked up to him and said, “I’m Ken McCormick, secretary of the fair board.” And then I introduced the rest of the members.

“Come right in, gentlemen. No charge!” the barker chortled.

The president of the fair board was mortified and quickly glanced around to see if any one was watching. The other members realized I had turned their joke around by forcing them to go inside and they were enjoying it.

We went in, but got out quickly. We declined the invitation to go on in to the back part where the “real” show was.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Minnie Pearl

Another interesting event concerning the county fair involved a nationally known celebrity.

We (the county fair board) used a booking agency out of Omaha for our entertainment portions of the three-day event. One year, Minnie Pearl was booked as the headliner. I was not much in to “country” acts and had just barely heard of this entertainer. She later became nationally famous for her act opening “Howdie” and a price tag hanging on her straw hat. Among country fans she was fairly well known, but was obviously at the beginning of her career where county fairs were a regular part of the tour.

If I remember correctly, we had to guarantee her $1,000 for one night and give her a percentage of the gate over that figure. The grandstand was sold out so we made money on the show.

Her husband was the advance man and drove in early that day to make arrangements. She flew in to Norfolk (about 15 miles from Stanton) and he picked her up just in time to make the show.

It was a hot August evening and after the show Minnie sat in the vacant grandstand waiting for her husband to wrap things up. I asked her if she would like a cold drink and she thought that would be great.

I went down underneath the grandstand where the Lion’s Club booth was closing down for the night. They sold ice cold pop and had done a land office business because of the heat. One other feature helped sell their product. For those who were “in the know” (and that included most of the local patrons) one could get a “spiked” Coke for extra money. A Coke normally sold for ten or fifteen cents but for fifty cents the bottle would be spiked with a shot of whiskey.

I took the higher priced drink up to Minnie and she gulped it down with gusto and said it was really refreshing. She didn’t ask what was in it and I didn’t volunteer the information.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Boy Editor and Son

Our first son, Sam Allen, was born June 11, 1956. Janice insisted she be allowed to pick the name and I would have the option on the next child. Her choice was Sam because his initials would stand for his name, Sam Allen McCormick. The Allen came from my middle name, I guess. It might have just been a convenience to get the “A.”

I printed an eight by ten inch miniature front page for Sam’s birth announcement, including a version of my weekly column, “Loose Ends.” Pictures of mother and son were printed on the back side. A bulletin on the front page indicated Sam had to be taken back to Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Norfolk because of an infected gland.

I had been at the hospital waiting for Sam’s birth but when it seemed it would be a while, I went back to Stanton to get some work done. As a result, when I was finally called, he was already born by the time I got back.

That same year I was elected secretary of the Northeast Nebraska Press Association. I was unofficially given the title “Boy Editor of Northeast Nebraska.” I took over from another publisher who, until I came along, was the youngest in that part of the state.

Jim and Catherine Brooks lived next door to us. Jim had a trenching business and was building their house as money became available. When we first came to Stanton they were living in the basement. By the time we left, they had moved into the upstairs.

Since Janice’s mother did all the cooking at home, the children in the Owens family received little practice in culinary skills. I must say that over the years my wife has been an excellent cook but I was not completely aware of the difficulty she had early in our marriage in that respect.

I got a hint of the problem one noon when I came home earlier than expected and found Janice crossing the alley from the Brooks house with a pan of noodles. She was always asking me what I liked to eat and one of the things was beef and noodles. She had made them on several occasions and always asked how I liked them. I tried to be honest and the first few times I said the noodles were a little on the tough side. That day I came home early, I realized I had been criticizing Catherine’s noodles all this time.

When Sam was old enough to walk, he would wander across the alley to the Brooks’ home where either Catherine, Jim or one of their three children would entertain him. He went a little far, however, when one morning before any of us was awake. He got up, went across the alley, into their bathroom, and used the facilities.

A few minutes later, he went into the bedroom, shook the sleeping neighbor, and said “Kwipe me, Jim!”

When Randy (the youngest of the Brooks children) was five years old, he came out to the curb where I was burning trash and very seriously warned me, “Ken, fires are very dangerous and you should be real careful.”

Bonnie and Cheryl were older and treated Sam as a younger brother. They would dress him up like a doll and push him around in a baby carriage. Later, when they were high school age, they visited us in Auburn for several weeks one summer. We still had small children at the time and dealing with teenagers enlightened us with the problems we might have later in life.

They were not really any problem. We were the problem in not knowing anything about how to handle their dating local boys. It all worked out and they seemed to enjoy their stay, especially with the one guy who took them around town in his convertible.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

More Fatherhood

I related the story earlier about Jim Cornwell and how he handled people who wanted to have their name kept out of the paper. In 1956, I got my first taste of that problem.

A high school boy from Pilger (the only other town in Stanton County) wrote me a letter explaining that he had been picked up and understood he could pay for having his name kept out of the paper. I wrote him a scathing letter telling him he was assuming dishonesty on my part, if such a thing was possible.

I wanted to emphasize how irate I was at his assumption. But then I tried to explain why we did not have such a policy. I told him (I still have a copy of the letter) that all court actions are open to the public and his indiscretion would become known anyway.

In addition, that type of action usually fosters rumors. And rumors can be much worse than any printed, factual story. I also told him about my own experience of being fined in Stanton and how that story was published.

He wrote back and apologized “for making me mad.” He said he had done it because he was afraid of what his girl friend’s parents would do if they found out he had been speeding. He added that it would never happen again, particularly because he didn’t plan to get stopped.

Dr. H.S. Tennant was the only physician in town and despite the fact we had two local pharmacies, he dispensed all his own prescription drugs. He was also the mayor and had held office a good many years so things got done without much argument from the council or townspeople.

Janice was pregnant again in 1957, but we lost that child (named Douglas) at birth. Dr. Tennant suggested we have another baby as soon as possible, as a means of closure, so when Kay Lynn came along August 13, 1958, it was the third pregnancy in three years. Newspaper friends at press conventions we saw once a year gave Janice a hard time and kept explaining to her what caused these things.

Kay was also born at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Norfolk. She arrived at 7:51 p.m. on a Wednesday and weighed eight pounds and one ounce. Janice’s parents, sister Phyllis, and her family happened to be in Stanton and supervised the birth, according to my column, “Loose Ends.” We went to press on Wednesday nights so the paper could be in the mail for the next day. Although my column didn’t mention it, I probably was still at work when Janice produced our new child. Kay was due on August 4 so I probably didn't get exited this late in the process.

Janice tells me I got to the hospital in time to see her being pushed down the hall and following instructions to “pant.” Lamaze (the current vogue for child birth where the father is involved) was not common so I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on and came close to panic until I was told she was okay.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Stitch and Taxes

Dr. Tennant’s office brought us another experience when Sam was three or four years old. We had bought a new mattress and it was delivered one evening as we were leaving for some event or other. We just left it sitting on the living room floor and planned to put it in place the next morning since we would be coming home late.

As was his custom (like when he wandered over to Catherine and Jim’s) Sam woke up early and found that brand new mattress in the living room. It was a great place to jump up and down but at his age he was unable to control his movement. Consequently, he bounced too high, tumbled off the mattress and hit his head on a piece of furniture.

The loud cries woke us up and we found Sam with a gash in his forehead. We called Dr. Tennant at home, since it was before regular hours, and he told us to meet him at the office.

The office was stuffy on a hot summer day and Doc told Janice she better wait outside and let me act as a nurse because he thought she might not be able to handle the blood under those conditions.

So, macho Dad held on to Sam while Doc put some stitches in Sam’s head. It wasn’t long before the room began to move and I told the good doctor I had better join Janice outside.

By that time, Sam had calmed down and was handling the situation a lot better than his parents. When we came back he was ready to go and he said, “Dr. Tennant, where’s my sucker?” He had been there before and knew it was standard procedure for kids to get a sucker on their way out.

My inexperience, not only in the newspaper business but in many phases of life, showed up quite frequently. Some I handled well, some I didn’t.

At that time, Nebraska had a personal property tax and businesses had to list equipment and place a value on it. The first time I had to fill out the forms, I simply used the figures of my predecessor from the previous year.

The county commissioners called me in to justify my figures. After a while in their board of equalization room, I found out my competitor in the little town of Pilger had complained my figures were too low. One of the commissioners was from Pilger and he was not backing down no matter how justified my argument appeared.

They knew absolutely nothing about the value of printing equipment but reasoned that since the Register had three times the circulation of the Pilger paper our equipment would have to be more and higher priced. That was not true, of course, since the same printing press, for example, could print either 500 or 1500 copies quite easily.

What it all boiled down to was one politician’s position with his constituent. When I found out the difference in tax based on my valuation and what they proposed was only a few dollars, I figured it wasn’t worth antagonizing the other two commissioners so I relented.

Another factor involved in the commissioners’ attitude probably was the story I carried in the paper concerning their setting of the mill levy that year.

The state legislature had decreed that valuations should be at 35 per cent of actual value instead of what it had been in previous years. I have no clue as to why this figure was chosen since it really doesn’t matter. Levies are set based on tax requirements of the various county subdivisions. Assuming the same money requirements, the levy would go down with increased valuations and up with decreased totals.

After years of writing stories about Nebraska taxes, I understand this principal very clearly. At that time, however, I did not. Consequently, when the commissioners set their levy on the reduced 35 per cent mark, it required a higher levy but did not raise substantially more money.

My headline did not reflect the true picture when it stated “Commissioners Double Taxes in Stanton County.” I got a number of calls about that and it is no wonder the commissioners called me to task on my property tax filing.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

No•Nats, Ak•Sar•Ben

The rivalry between Stanton and Pilger was typical of many areas. The smaller towns feel the larger ones get more of the attention and are fiercely competitive when issues are joined.

A good example was shown when Jim Cornwell was publishing the paper. He worked as a sports official for extra money but made the mistake of booking Pilger for both basketball and football.

Pilger’s “mover and shaker” was the town postmaster and he had a son who was a good high school athlete. It so happened that Jim fouled him out during a basketball game and his father didn’t leave any doubt about how he felt about that. The next fall, the kid threw a punch or some other serious violation during a football game, and Jim tossed him out.

The father was irate and organized enough financial support to bring in a competing newspaper to spite Jim. The man he brought in to run the paper was a printer from a plant in Fremont and he was able to survive with commercial work. A town of 500 could not support just a newspaper and the advertising revenue it might produce.

This man and his wife ran the paper for a couple years after we came to Stanton. The wife was very outspoken and when they ultimately decided to leave and return to the job in Fremont she proceeded to tell everybody in town what she thought of them. The job fell through, however, and they had to continue working in Pilger. Bea (the wife) had to face her advertisers with a contrite attitude as she called on them thereafter.

I spent quite a little time in the courthouse, which was just across the street from the paper. In addition to covering the various offices for news, we also sold the county printing services.

While making my rounds one day, I noticed a gathering of employees at a window listening to a radio. I walked over and found out they were playing a joke on the county welfare director.

He lived directly across the street from the courthouse and you could see his garage from the window where the employees were standing. He was parked in front of the garage door using a radio controlled opener (the forerunner of today’s remote controls). The courthouse gang had gotten hold of the radio station he used to signal his door and as he would lift it, they would dial it to close. He would raise it and they would reverse it. After a few frustrating minutes, they lifted the window and told him what was going on.

The joke was probably in retaliation for some joke this man had pulled on them. He was known as a practical joker. Although he was not a member, he attended the Methodist church in Stanton and was a regular contributor. One Sunday, the church treasurer (the same man I talked about at the “girlie” show earlier) found a poker chip in the collection plate. He took it to Rev. Bartleson and asked him if it was 4H Sunday because the chip had an imprint like their logo, a four leaf clover. The straight laced treasurer, of course, was not familiar with poker chips.

The minister knew immediately what it was. Businessmen and others (including the welfare director) frequented a place called the Not Nats Club (Stanton spelled backwards). Members usually dropped in on the way home to supper for a cool drink and a game of cards, quite frequently poker.

Our jokester from the welfare department had taken a poker chip, split it apart and inserted a five dollar bill in it and pasted the parts back together. He had thrown that in the collection plate after Rev. Bartleson had kidded the players he was going to take ten per cent for the church from their poker pots.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Sheephead and Other Stories

Stanton was a small town and the local tavern was a meeting place, much like a coffee shop. The one across from the Register office was frequented by many businessmen and farmers, not only after hours but during the day.

They played a card game called “Sheephead,” schoscop in German, I believe. Each player paid a dime per game and the winner would win merchandise. The house got the ante, of course.

That small amount was not significant, even in the 1950s, but winning or losing was serious stuff. One farmer I remember had the financial ability to buy or sell most of the players but he did not like to lose. In fact he cheated, and most of the players knew he did. When they caught him, they called him on it and he accepted the challenge and made it right. He really got mad, however, when he was accused of cheating and he had not.

Another fellow, owner of the local elevator, usually sat with his shirt unbuttoned showing a heavy mat of gray hair on his chest. As the game progressed he would get so intense he would sit there pulling out chunks of hair.

This same fellow owned a farm and raised cattle. One year he went to Mexico and bought a railroad car load of long horn cattle at a ridiculously low price. He figured to bring them back to Stanton County, feed them out, and make a pile of money. The problem they presented, however, was that the cattle were accustomed to wide open ranges and did not respect the fences of the Midwest. Louie, the farmer, liked to inspect his cattle from his Cadillac but these Mexican animals were so wild he tore up a brand new vehicle chasing them through the broken fences.

Louie’s daughter was just reaching puberty and her mother bought her a training bra. She retreated to her bedroom to put it on and then came out to show her mom how grown up she had become. She reappeared with the device on outside of her white tee shirt. Her sister, by the way, worked briefly for us at the paper and later married a man who became publisher of the Fairbury Journal in Nebraska.

Rural life displayed itself one day when a man came in to the office to renew his subscription. He was dirty and wearing ragged clothes. Janice happened to be in the front office at the time and waited on him. He rifled through his bib overalls and came up a few cents short. I walked in just in time to hear Janice tell him she would put the shortage in for him.

After he left, she told me she felt so sorry for that man. He had so little money but still wanted his paper. I hated to disillusion my wife but I knew the man. He was a local cattle feeder and owned half the county. He probably had just come from the field and that kind of appearance was not unusual for him.

I had a reverse faux pas one day when a gentleman came into the office dressed in a nice brown business suit. I asked him if I could help him and he wanted some information on advertising rates. He said he had just bought the local cafe. I introduced myself and welcomed him to the Stanton business community. He looked at me rather quizzically and said he was no newcomer. He had been born in Stanton and worked at the local elevator. When he said his name, I was so embarrassed I could hardly talk. It was a man I drank coffee with in a group nearly every day at the coffee shop. He normally came in with chaff from the grinding mill all over him and I simply had not recognized him all cleaned up in a business suit.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A Small Town is Good Enough for Me

Almost everybody trusted everybody else in a small town but it produced an amusing incident. A lawyer from an adjoining county subscribed to our paper. He either was a former resident or wanted to keep up with the area for business purposes. At any rate, each year when he received his subscription notice he would send a check “signed in blank” as he phrased it. He apparently would always misplace the notice and could not remember the amount so he would leave that blank and sign the check. Theoretically, we could have filled it out for any amount but he trusted us.

One year, however, he sent the check with the same phrase but not only left the amount blank but also failed to sign the check. I wrote him and chided him about being absent minded and he remitted the subscription price immediately.

Small towns, then as now, have a hard time keeping up with larger cities when competing for entertainment dollars. Stanton had a movie theater owned by a couple for many years but when the husband died his wife did not want to continue alone, although she tried for a while.

Her attempts to sell the theater also failed. Television was becoming popular and the cost of booking movies compared to the return in dollars was not sufficient to survive in such a small market.

Members of the local American Legion post felt the theater was essential to the well being of the community, particularly as a place for youth to go at night. They came up with a novel idea to retain the theater.

They determined it would cost about $100 a month to hire a part time theater manager and another $100 for film rental, maintenance and other overhead. The committee then went out and sold $10 memberships good for six months. They sold enough to cover the expected costs for that period. The membership entitled the owner and members of his family to attend any movie during that time. The show changed bills twice a week. There was not much cheaper entertainment anywhere, even in the 1950s.

A remarkable thing happened after the program got underway. Since Dad didn’t have to pony-up admission prices, his kids got extra money for concessions and they went a lot oftener because the ticket was prepaid. As a result, the Legion not only made expenses on their membership fees, they cleared about $1,000 a year on concessions.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Go Big Red

Many interesting things happened while we were in Stanton and I don’t recall them all well enough to tell. One that does stick in my mind is the four-inch rain that fell in a very short time. Stanton was built in a valley and this “gully washer” came down the hills with such force that mud came down like lava out of a volcano. The streets were full and stores had to actually sweep the mud out of their places of business.

I was elected vice president of the Northeast Press Association in 1957 and president the following year. Organizing and conducting the winter meeting was not difficult but was time consuming.

With two small children at home we didn’t have much time for vacations, even if we would have had money for it. A couple days at press conventions, our Northeast Nebraska event in the winter and the state convention in the spring, were about it.

As publishers we got free tickets to Nebraska football games and we took in a number of those. That would give us a chance to see Janice’s parents and other relatives in Wahoo on the way to and from Lincoln. The free tickets were discontinued later, of course, when the Cornhuskers developed into a national power.

In 1955-60 they needed the support of both daily and weekly newspapers because it was difficult to fill the stadium, even though it seated only 30,000. It also became apparent that newspapers could not criticize politicians and others for accepting freebies when they were doing it themselves. The university then changed their policy and made a couple tickets a year available but required payment for them.

The football games remind me of an incident when I was working in Stanton just before I got drafted. We were having coffee in a local cafe with our regular group plus a traveling paper supply house salesman called Gil Reynolds. The guys were discussing Nebraska football (yes, it was a topic even then) and particularly Bobby Reynolds. He was one of the most famous Cornhuskers at the time, having been dubbed “Mr. Touchdown, USA” after leading the nation in scoring. None of the locals knew our salesman, of course, but were polite enough to include him in the conversation and asked him what he thought of the star.

“Well, I’ll let others be the judge of that since I’m probably biased. He’s my son,” replied Gil.

Even though I knew this man reasonably well through newspaper circles, I was not aware of his relationship to the famous Bobby Reynolds. He obviously was not one to brag.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Midland Passages

As time passed in Stanton, I began to realize the viability of the business was not what it had been painted to me by the Cornwells and Bette’s father, E.L. Vogeltanz. We were barely producing enough income to pay salaries and other expenses.

Many factors entered in to my failure with the paper. I had no practical experience and my education was on the news side, not advertising. Journalism school at that time did not even have a department to study advertising. We had to take a course in the business school that concentrated on national campaigns with magazines. It was completely worthless in a community newspaper situation.

Although I did not admit it at the time, in looking back it appears the decline started right after the loss of our baby in 1957. Depression set in for me, and I suspect also for Janice, so enthusiasm for work waned.

The Cornwells had gone to a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah and had expected their share of profits from the Stanton operation to help finance their new newspaper. Mr. Vogeltanz, an attorney at Ord, Nebraska, tried to handle things at home for his children but he was totally inept.

As an example, he complained that I was “farming out” job work instead of doing it in house. We did not have the equipment or the manpower to do the jobs I sent out so it was a matter of sharing the profit with another shop or turn down the contract. He also criticized me for not fighting the tax assessment mentioned earlier.

After we moved to Auburn, I received a scathing letter from Vogeltanz outlining a dozen or so alleged misdeeds in my conduct of the business. I took them one by one and answered them fully, at least to my satisfaction. His accusations were unfounded and I now realize he must have been trying to justify his inadequacies as an attorney by shifting the blame of the business failure to me.

The contract I signed when taking over the paper attempted to make the deal a partnership when in fact it was not. If it had been, I would have been liable for part of the loss shown by the books as we left. As it was, I demanded and received the $400 generated earlier as my 25 per cent.

The mid-50s were draught years and small communities relied heavily on income from farmers. There was no money for new equipment and barely enough for maintenance of what we had. Fifteen to 20 years later offset printing and computers replaced linotypes and changed the face of the newspaper business completely. Central printing plants replaced the need for high priced printing presses in your own shop.

By 1959 it was apparent things were not going to improve and I began looking for other avenues of employment. The Cornwells also needed cash and were willing to put the Register on the market.

A job as advertising manager at the twin weekly Auburn Newspapers in Auburn, Nebraska, was offered to me and I took it. A buyer was found for the paper in Stanton and we made the move in October of 1959.

The couple who bought the Register struggled like we did for a while but eventually converted to offset, controlled their expenses and remained in Stanton for a number of years.