Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Year Book of Their Own

Our class did do one thing no other had done for some 20 years and I did become the driving force behind that. Many class members expressed a disappointment that the school had not published a yearbook for many, many years.

I went to our superintendent, Mr. Young, and told him of our concern and he said the reason no annuals had been printed was because of the large amount of work it took and the lack of funding. I assured him the class would work on the yearbook and we’d find a way to finance it without school district funds.

Mr. Young, probably thinking it would be an impossible challenge, told me he would agree if I could get signatures of 75 per cent of the class saying they would support the project.

We got those signatures and went to work. My association with the newspaper helped us get an offset printer to publish the book at a reasonable price and my folks’ experience in advertising helped me solve the financing problem.

Most annual staffs sold advertising to raise money and then give the sponsor space in proportion to his donation. Instead of that, we solicited local businesses for donations with the stipulation the amount would be listed at the back of the annual.

This served two purposes. The more prestigious firms did not want the community or their competitors to out-do them, so their donations were sizable. Secondly, instead of adding to the cost of printing by taking a lot of pages for advertising, we used just one page to list the donors.

It was one of my biggest disappointments not to be named editor of the annual since I felt I had been instrumental in getting it approved. Instead, Marc Houlihan and I were named co-editors. Marc was quite talented and there was no doubt of his ability, but it was just one more time he had bested me.

He was a talented trombone player, a baritone vocalist, and excellent actor. Declamatory contests were popular in that time and it seemed no matter which division I chose, Marc would follow suit and beat me to win the district entry. One year I waited until the very last moment (and after Marc had already declared) to select my division. Wouldn’t you know, he changed to my division just hours ahead of the local contest, switched to my classification, and won.

Marc’s post-graduation goal was to go to Hollywood, not to be an actor or director but to become a producer. Whether he ever made it or not, no one really knows. He came to our l5th class reunion but no one has heard of him since. In all these years, I have watched credit lines on movies but have yet to see his name.

With the donations and sales of annuals, enough money was raised to produce the yearbook. We finished up copy for it just after the second semester started in January and sent it to the printers with the promise it would be ready by our May graduation. That didn’t happen, but because of the delay we were able to get some of the late happenings of our senior year in the book, such as results of the national music contest.

That event, which was held in St. Joseph, Missouri, threw a crimp into our junior-senior prom. Many of the class members had to leave the dance early because they had to get up at 4 a.m. the next day to leave for the contest.

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Letterman’s Club

Our class seemed to thrive on clubs. Everybody joined something, depending on their interests. Future Farmers of America, Future Homemakers of America, library club, science club, and others. If we didn’t have a club for a particular venue, we organized one.

I was named to the National Honor Society as a junior. Being tapped at a general assembly to that prestigious group was quite a thrill but all the other clubs were simply those you joined voluntarily (except the letterman’s club in athletics). I belonged to Quill and Scroll for journalism, Thespian club for actors, and the science club.

I lettered in four sports. That sounds like I was a real jock but the fact is, the level of athletics at Ida Grove was such that almost anybody who went out could earn a letter.

I have related my basketball career and even though I played only part of my junior year and sat on the bench a good deal of my senior year, I still got a letter.

Football was certainly not my sport, although I did play and actually started some games. At 120 pounds, there weren’t too many spots for me, but as I indicated, we did not have a plethora of players so I was delegated to play end -- both offensive and defensive -- since the platoon system was not known at that time.

My only claim to fame in football also happened to be the only game we won our senior season. I think the game was at Sac City and it really doesn’t matter except that it was on the road. We were trailing 12-6 and our quarterback, Pete Besore -- the one I told you about before -- called a pass play. The other end and I were supposed to go down field, cross in the middle and Pete was supposed to throw to the other guy after we had passed each other. He threw it a little soon and I took the pass instead and streaked down the sidelines to a touchdown.

So there we were, late in the ball game, tied 12-12 with the extra point coming up. Coach Tate had been emphatic all year that our kicking game stunk and that all extra points would be running plays.

Pete had tried to get Coach Tate to let him kick extra points all year, but he wouldn’t do it. This was the last game of the season, Pete was senior, and -- what the Hell. He called a kick, waited for the holder to put the ball down and promptly made the extra point -- left footed! I halfway expected him to turn to the coach and thumb his nose, considering he had not only defied instructions on kicking but also the fact he was right handed.

On the bus ride home, I figured the coach would blow up and give Pete the dickens. Instead, he was quite genial and I was the one that got the ribbing.

“McCormick,” he said, “don’t get a big head over that touchdown. The only reason you out-ran the defense was because you were so damn scared of being tackled.”

The other two letters came in track and baseball. We were a small school so most students had to participate in more than one sport. It was quite ridiculous, but we practiced track and baseball on the same nights -- an hour or so for one and the same for the other. As a consequence, we were not much good in either. I played a mean outfield and hit all of 0.125. I had no stamina for the long races in track and was not fast enough for the sprints so I ended up mostly on relay teams.

I did win a few ribbons, but mostly seconds and thirds. At the annual class track meet, the seniors didn’t have a quarter miler so the coach put me in that race. Today, the athletes run it like a sprint. In those days -- unknown to me -- athletes were supposed to pace themselves to leave some for the final spurt. I ran it full speed the entire way and won the race, so coach declared I should enter that event at the up-coming district track meet.

As it happened, the 440 came immediately following a relay race in which I participated and, my stamina, being what it was, I didn’t finish. I tried to run it like I had in our class meet but I simply ran out of gas.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Life’s Little Learning Experiences

When V-J Day came -- victory in the Japanese sector of World War II -- we were given a day off at school. A group of guys decided to spend the day out in the country just goofing off as we did many times. One of the group had a bottle of wine and it was the first experience for most of us in the area of alcoholic beverages. Nobody much cared for the taste and by the time it got around to everyone, only a swallow or two was available to each.

However, by the end of the day we had wandered some five miles to the little town of Arthur and it was getting dark. The only business open in town was a tavern so we went in and pooled our money for something to eat.

While doing this, a highway patrol officer came in, looked us over and called us aside for a talk. We thought we were in big trouble for being under age and in a tavern but we found out later that wasn’t the case. It seems some inmates of the Eldora boys’ reformatory had escaped and we fit the description in a general way. After the patrol officer talked to us a while and was convinced we weren’t the runaways, he called our folks and they came to pick us up. By that time it was nearly midnight and all our parents were so concerned we were not disciplined too harshly.

A part time job opening came up during my senior year. It was at the J.C. Penney department store. It was cleaner and paid a little more, so I took it. Later, however, a layoff came and it boiled down to the manager’s son or me, so guess who got the ax? It was near graduation so I didn’t suffer too much. I did learn not to expect good work to out-shine blood ties.

Penney’s was (and is) a national chain and it was a good learning experience for me. One merchandising philosophy they had was to mark down items at specific times during their shelf life. All products were date coded so we knew how long they had been in the store. At the end of three months, ten per cent would be knocked off, another ten the next three months, and so on, until the item sold. After a year, if the item was still in the store, it would be discarded. It seems a costly method but it insured fresh stock and not very much was left at the end of a year.

The only thing I can remember not selling was a group of terribly gaudy bow ties that I was told to take to the trash. I couldn’t bear to throw them away so I stashed them at home and later became somewhat of a symbol for bow ties in high school and college.

The Penney’s store had the old pneumatic system of recording all sales. The clerk put the sales ticket and money in the tube and it was spirited to a second floor balcony where a bookkeeper made change and sent it back. All transactions throughout the store were made in this way -- a far cry from today’s electronic cash registers.

We had an interesting time when we were able to get scarce war-time goods such as silk hose. We got enough of a shipment to advertise the arrival and the crowd of women was unbelievable. At the end of the day, the heavy counters lining the women’s ready-to-wear department were nearly pushed to the wall from the crush of customers. One woman said she dropped her watch in a dressing room but it was so crowded she couldn’t bend over to pick it up. She asked a clerk to look for it after the crowd left at closing time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Boys’ State

Election to Iowa Boys’ State was a highlight of my junior year. Normally, the American Legion picked two juniors and paid their way to the event. The war years, however, caused cancellation so no one had gone for four years.

Because of that, the local post decided to sponsor four juniors and four seniors in 1946. The function of Boys’ State is to help high school students learn more about local and state government.

We got our first lesson in politics the second night at Camp Dodge, near Des Moines, where we spent the week. We arrived early at a meeting only to be prevented from going into the assembly hall. Apparently a metropolitan school with a large contingent was having a caucus. After they asked where we were from, they let us come in. We later realized that even though we were from a small town, our eight votes put us in a class with the large schools.

The gist of the conversation inside the hall was for us to make a deal with the metropolitan delegation. If we would vote for their man as speaker of the house, they would vote for our legislation. Since we had no preference for speaker, we agreed to the deal. The next morning, we dutifully voted for their speaker and he was elected.

What we were not aware of, however, was that the speaker set the agenda and our piece of legislation was scheduled late in the afternoon. By that time, another measure very similar to ours was voted in. When ours came up, it was not even voted on because of the similarities. Our big city friends were relieved of their obligation but still received our help to elect their man -- a first lesson in politics. Be sure to know the true results of any deal you might make.

Another memorable moment at Boys’ State came at the closing ceremonies with Iowa Governor Blue as the speaker and some 700 juniors and seniors in attendance. Along with the governor on the stage was his good looking teenage daughter. After his address, he asked if there were any questions.

From the back row of the auditorium a hand rose. “Yes,” said the governor.

A serious question about something the governor had said during his speech was of course expected. Instead, the questioner asked, “Sir, does your daughter have 699 friends?”

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Basketball Shorts

As I noted before, my athletic career was less than outstanding and maybe my lack of concentration -- or paying attention to the wrong thing -- contributed to that mediocrity.

An example: We were playing basketball at Pocahontas (yes, there is such a town in Iowa ) and we were getting beat as usual. Coach had called a time out, but how much can you say when you are 20 points down and less than a minute to play. Consequently, we had time to spare before play was resumed and we utilized it by watching the really good looking Pocahontas cheerleaders. My concentration powers were at their peak in this situation and before I realized it, the rest of the two teams were back playing and I was still watching. Loud screaming from the bench broke my reverie and my embarrassment was complete.

Also as noted before, my 120 pound, five-feet ten-inch body was not exactly ideal for sports. I had difficulty in filling out the standard uniforms issued to basketball players.

This deficiency was brought home one night when I found a note pinned to my jersey. I have often wondered why I didn’t save that memento because it contained a poem referring to my body type. I don’t remember the poem but it was funny and closed with the suggestion that I use the safety pin attached to hold up my basketball shorts.

The poem was not signed but I had a good idea where it came from. I had a number of girl friends -- not girl friends, but girls who were friends -- who were prone to such antics. I took it as a joke and waited my chance to return the favor some time.

Despite the won-loss record, those were fun times. One basketball game, however, did not distinguish me as a good sport. We were playing Denison (a much larger school with a good team) and contrary to all odds, we were within two points as time was running out.

One of our players threw up a desperation shot as the gun went off and miraculously it went in. The officials, however, ruled the ball was not in the air when the buzzer sounded the end of the game and therefore we lost by two points.

We were all furious, of course, and as we went into the locker room, I vented my anger at some cast iron coat hooks on the wall and they snapped off like match sticks. Just then, the officials came in and told us a review with the time keeper resulted in a reversal of their decision and the basket had counted for a tie game. We went back up to the gym and lost in overtime.

My deed had not gone unnoticed, so the following Monday I was transported back to Denison and required to apologize in front of a high school assembly. While that escapade gave me experience in public speaking, I don’t recommend it.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Football and Forensics

Football produced another embarrassing situation. As is customary, the visiting team uses the girl’s locker room because at that time of year it is available except during daytime physical education classes. In this instance we were assigned the Cherokee (another unique Iowa school name) vacant lockers in the girls’ quarters, where we left our street clothes during the game.

Each locker had a combination lock on it, but obviously we did not use it since we were not given the numbers for opening it. Some wiseacre, however, came through the locker room when we were gone and twirled the dial on my lock.

After the game -- which we lost 45-0, by the way -- a search was made for the combination to the lock without success. The bus was getting ready to leave and I had no choice but to accept the offer of a track suit and tennis shoes three sizes too large as apparel for the ride home. School officials promised they would mail my clothes when the combination to the lock was found.

That might have been all right under other circumstances, but as it happened we didn’t arrive back to Ida Grove until nearly midnight. At the time, we lived in an apartment downtown and that night a street carnival was still going full blast.

I got more than a few side glances as I made my way through the crowd with people wondering what this clown was doing in that kind of a getup. By the way, I did get my clothes back and I returned part of the sweat suit. I kept the shirt that had Cherokee Track emblazoned on the front of it. For years, people thought I was a track star at a major school.

In later years I was also mistaken for a letter winner from Grand Island, a major sports power in Nebraska. After I graduated, my folks moved to Ord, Nebraska and I would occasionally wear my Ida Grove letter sweater -- an I superimposed over a G. It was quite similar to the G over I for Grand Island, and since the colors were the same, the mistake was natural.

Four seniors qualified for the State Forensic League contest in Iowa City April 10-12. Richard Overholtzer and I won three of three debates to make it, along with two other seniors.

Socialized Medicine was the national debate topic that year. Fifty years later, the question of some type of national health care was still being thrown around in the U.S. Congress.

Out of the twelve rounds of debate, Richard and I won two on the negative side. Our other team, Don Young and Marvin Lorenzen, got a superior rating for their resolution while our team got similar recognition for a bill submitted to the student senate.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Perhaps the senior philosophy printed in the May 7, 1947 edition of Old Gold and Blue, our high school newspaper, says more about the perception held by my classmates with regard to me than anything else.

To quote: “Oh lookie, here’s weary Kenny, our senior class president, and surely his advice will seem as though ‘twere heaven sent. Says Ken, To succeed you gotta hypen the Zambe, Rondudi el pitcotish -- as any fool can plainly see! Clear?”

The same issue announced the election of those seniors to the most category -- most charming, most likely to succeed, et cetera. My status was Most Cooperative, a designation I was happy to receive.

There were many other memorable moments in my high school career but listing them seems terribly self-serving but I guess that’s what memoirs are for.

Some highlights: Being selected to a mass band at Sac City which was conducted by Karl King, who was the successor to the renowned John Philip Sousa, The March King; being named to the National Best Thespians Honor Roll for 1946-47 by Dramatics magazine; being selected as a waiter at the Junior-Senior prom of 1945, which was considered one of the highest honors a sophomore could receive; sports editor of the Old Gold and Blue; making the honor roll all but one quarter; taking part in two different national tests -- one conducted by Pepsi Cola and the other by Westinghouse -- to select scholarship winners (only four seniors took the tests); transcribing a radio show for WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota in which I gave a three-minute talk on Evaluation of High School Extra-curricular Activities; becoming a member of DeMolay, an organization for young people sponsored by Masons.

Although I did not qualify for any of the major scholarships in the contests mentioned above, I did win $100 stipend to Iowa State University based on a paper I did concerning county government. I interviewed every county official to see what they felt would be the one most important improvement in that level of administration. Most prominent in the comments was the suggestion that the office of county assessor should be eliminated since the work was only seasonal. I based my paper on that premise. Some years later, Iowa counties eliminated the assessor as a full-time elected official.

I did accept a scholarship to Simpson college at Indianola, Iowa. It was an athletic/academic scholarship and provided half my first year tuition. My high school guidance counselor, Lilah Simmers, was instrumental in getting me that scholarship.

I was never asked to go out for any sport at Simpson so I don’t know where the athletic part of the scholarship came from. The academic part was not that great, either.

Even though I was on the honor roll throughout high school, I did not end up in the top ten per cent of my class of 50 students. That was partly my own fault. As the class president, I had free access to the administration’s office for various reasons so I thought I had inside knowledge.

As in most schools, seniors don’t have to take final exams if their grades are up to par. Consequently, when I saw the secretaries posting grades in the office late in the semester I figured no changes would be made. I informed my friends of this fact and intimated doing any serious studying the last few weeks would be an exercise in futility. I dropped two places in class standings those last weeks. I’ll never know what I saw in the office to make me think grades would not be submitted for seniors. As in the case of most guardhouse lawyers, my advice was just about as valuable as what it cost the recipients.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Spirit Lake

With my two older sisters gone and me graduated, my folks decided to take jobs at Ord, Nebraska with the Ord Quiz, a small town newspaper with a large print shop that had nation-wide customers in the publishing field.

That really left me with nowhere to go for the summer until I went to college so I took a job as counselor at a YMCA summer camp at Spirit Lake, Iowa. The job was easy enough. We basically supervised games and sports and stayed in the cabins to ensure only minor mayhem among the twelve-year-old campers.

All went well except for one afternoon during a touch football game that I was officiating. I called a penalty on one lad who made a strong objection to it. I told him to be quiet and continue the game. He insisted on stating his case vehemently and I continued trying to shut him up. Finally, in frustration, I took the football I was holding and struck him smartly, but not hard, on his head. He was so shocked he stopped chattering and went back to the game and I didn’t hear any more complaints from any of the kids. If that happened today, I suppose I would be brought up on child abuse charges.

Another insight into the minds of 12 year old boys occurred when the custodian asked us to accompany him to the rest room in which he had been working. There on the lid of the stools were muddy footprints about the size of that age boy. Upon further investigation, we found the wall behind the stools was only a divider and did not reach the ceiling. The room on the other side was the shower for the women employees of the camp. By standing on the tank lid, the lads could see over. A screen was quickly installed to prevent further viewing.

The summer job ended before I had to report to Simpson so I took the opportunity to visit my sister, Marcheta and her husband Al, in Kansas City, Missouri. He was attending Rockhurst College and working part time at the Mulebach Hotel.

Mark and I, along with her very young daughter Linda, went car shopping one day and ended up at a place called O’Brien-Cohen, or something like that. At any rate we always kidded about the rarity of an Irishman and a Jewish businessman getting together.

After some haggling for a 1939 Buick coupe, Mark got on the phone to check with Al about whether she should buy the car or not. Al, being a Texan by birth, had a rather slow drawl and was not always quick to reply to a question. The car dealer got on an extension phone and every time Mark would tell Al a price, he would hesitate and the salesman would drop the price by ten dollars. They finally settled on a price and I still remember the salesman assuring my sister he would “never cheat a fine lady and her little girl.”

As Mother told the story, I gave Mark my first semester tuition money to make a down payment on the car so the Gracianos decided the least they could do would be to take me to Indianola in the new car to start school. Mother then had to come up with my tuition money, which after my scholarship was taken into account, probably amounted to around $25.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Showoff

The transition to college was not that difficult. To that point I had lived in seven different towns and gone to five different schools so adjusting to new people and surroundings came quite easily. I did not become a joiner, as I was in high school, but I did play in the band and got a part in one play. Simpson College had an enrollment of about 1,000 students. So it was not much different than a high school setting and the band not a lot larger either.

The band played for football games and took one tour around the state. One event does stick in my mind: We were instructed to play for the dedication of a new music building on campus. Because the war years had prevented construction of any new major buildings, a temporary wood structure was erected to house music classes and events. It looked more like a railroad depot than a college building, even down to the dark colored paint used.

A Saturday morning was selected for the dedication and when the college president arrived for his speech, he found some one had spent the previous night painting a sign on the structure - “Rock Island, Route of the Rocket.” The president realized it was too late to do anything about the sign before the dedication so he made the best of it. He prefaced his remarks with the statement, “There did happen to be a railroad passing through this campus at the turn of the century but I really don’t expect it to come back.”

Money was also available for a new science building but again, because of war, construction was not started. At one location on campus was a sign indicating it was the future site of a new science building. Apparently some money had been donated from a foundation started by a famous scientist. The long delay in breaking ground made it fertile territory for student pranks. One morning an outhouse was discovered immediately behind the sign. Passersby could see only the privy and the sign, “George Washington Carver Memorial Science Building, future site.”

I tried out for a play, The Showoff, and got the part as a genius inventor without much common sense. It was a part played by Red Skelton in the movie version some years later so you can imagine what kind of a character it was.

The only thing I really remember about the play (after all, this was more that 50 years ago) was the female love interest for whom I played opposite. She wore a rather low cut dress and was slightly shorter than me so my eyes seemed continually to be focused on that V-line neck. As a result, the critic in the local newspaper described my performance as “wonderfully underplayed.” The fact was, it was more pre-occupation and stage fright than anything else.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Mother Twombley

We lived in a dorm room that was the largest in our house - four occupants. It became the most frequent gathering place because of its size. The dorm also housed some foreign students, a number of them from Panama.

One day some of the Panamanians brought a visitor to our room to introduce. The visitor, a South American, was in this country as a contender for the heavyweight prize fighting championship. I don’t remember his name but I think he went on to hold the title briefly. He was huge. When he held his hand out to shake, I could have butted my two mitts together and his would still have swallowed mine.

Our dorm’s housemother was a typical college overseer, mid-sixties and worried all the time about her charges. We called her Mother Twomley (she was a widow and I don’t think we even knew her first name) and that name describes her perfectly. One example stands out

A story was being circulated on campus that some students were being treated for venereal disease and Mother Twomley found some blue-stained underwear in the laundry room. She thought that was caused by a salve used as a remedy but she could not believe any her boys could be in jeopardy.

She began interviewing all the house members one at a time with her embarrassing questions until we figured out what was going on. A chemistry major in the house was a practical joker and during warm spring days he would sneak up on unsuspecting students who were cooling off on the dorm balcony in their jockey shorts. A snap of the elastic and he would dump some blue vegetable dye down their shorts, thus causing the stain. Mother Twomley was even more embarrassed when she found out but she was relieved none of the dorm members were at risk.

The same chemistry student used his knowledge to get back at a fellow dorm resident who regularly got cookies and other goodies from home but refused to share them. A package of his cookies was intercepted one day and the chem major injected them with red vegetable dye. The selfish classmate ate the cookies, went to the bathroom, and to his horror, thought he was urinating blood. The joke didn’t get us any future goodies but sometimes revenge is sweet enough.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Change of Majors

I had determined that since my folks had moved to Nebraska and I was not that attached to Simpson, I should transfer to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. A foreign language was required for admittance, so I decided to go to summer school to pick up enough credits. The other reason for transferring was that I intended to change majors.

When I went to Simpson I wanted to get as far away from the newspaper business as possible (like many children, I heard the complaints, at the dinner table, of the parents about their occupation). After a year of school, I realized chemistry (my Simpson major) was not for me and I went back to a field I knew something about - journalism.

Another student (who also needed some summer credits) and I got the dictionary out for addresses and wrote about 20 different colleges in resort areas with summer schools.

We decided on Bay View Summer School, in Petosky, Michigan (a division of Alma College in Alma, Michigan).

I found three different jobs to help pay my way. Two were on campus, cleaning out class rooms and other chores. The other was at a local restaurant called the Russet Inn. The cook stoves were fired by wood and my job was to be sure the wood pile was well stocked and the bin by the stove full. As it happened, the student on the shift preceding mine loved chopping wood so all I had to do was bring in a few pieces from the pile and that earned me all my meals.

A major regret from Bay View plagued me for more than 30 years. My roommate, who came with me from Simpson, smoked heavily. While studying at night, I would pick up one of his cigarettes and take a puff. To that point I had never smoked because my dad, who had a two-pack-a-day habit, had asked me to wait until I was out of school and age 18 to make that decision. Of course he later died of lung cancer caused by smoking but when you are young you don’t think anything like that could happen to you. At any rate I began to feel guilty about smoking my roommate’s cigarettes and bought a pack of my own. I was 50 years old before I kicked the habit.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Upper Peninsula and Beyond

At the end of the summer session we still had some time before enrolling in the fall semester at our respective schools. Joe, my roommate, had hay fever and didn’t want to go back to Iowa in August because of the ragweed problem. We decided that since we were so close (upper Michigan) we should take the opportunity to go into Canada.

We had come to school by train and had no other transportation so we decided to hitch hike. In the early 40s and later, with gas rationing limiting the use of cars, hitch hiking by college students was not uncommon and we both had done it. As a matter of fact, I thumbed my way home from school at Indianola to Ord in Nebraska - four or five hundred miles - without much thought.

We got as far as Sault Saint Marie, Canada, but traffic was very thin and we felt rides would become rarer the farther north we went. Our first thought was to rent bicycles but there was no place to do that so we decided to investigate renting a car.

We both had Iowa licenses and they both expired in August but we had not been back to renew them. I suggested I could push my expiration date down in my billfold window and perhaps the attendant would not notice.

As I handed him the wallet, clutched so he wouldn’t inspect it too closely, he grabbed it out of my hand and I thought we were done. Instead, the man said, “Where the Hell is Iowa?” We explained what we were doing and he rented us a 1947 Plymouth. I don’t remember what the daily rate was but I know it was cheaper than a hotel room and we slept in the car our whole trip.

We traveled around Lake Michigan for a while until our money began to run out. I had replenished my funds somewhat in Sault Saint Marie, although it was difficult. We went into a bank to cash a check but the French speaking clerk could not understand. We finally gave up. I went to a store and bought a sweater. The clerk, who spoke English, allowed me to write a check for more than the purchase amount so I had some extra money.

We ate fish and chips at small shops along the way and enjoyed the scenery. Even though it was August, the temperature of the lake was only around 60 degrees and early morning dips were really refreshing.

Monday, March 19, 2007

There is No Place Like Nebraska

I made it home to Ord and Mother went with me to find a room in Lincoln for my first year at the University of Nebraska. My room was about two miles from campus but the cost was reasonable - $5 a week. My roommate was a law student and the owners of the home were a retired couple named Smrha, a Czech name.

The walking to class kept me healthy but it meant staying all day until my last class. I began stopping at a pool hall on the way home from class and found my small town skills did not hold up in my first try at nine ball.

The game was played for money and I lost the three or four dollars I had with me. I was still moping around after all the winners had gone. The owner must have felt sorry for me and asked if I wanted a job.

I took the job, at 60 cents an hour, and had a little spending money for the rest of my time in Lincoln. My folks and I had agreed before I left for college that if I could graduate in three and a half years instead of four, it would be better for them financially since I could be self supporting sooner. Consequently, I was not expected to hold a job while in school but the pool hall work did not deter my time goal.

When Grandpa McCormick asked Mother how I was doing at school, she told him about the pool hall job. He said, “You must be mistaken. It must be a bowling alley.” A pool hall to him was a den of iniquity and no grandson of his could ever work in such a place. In fact, the law prohibited the sale of beer in pool halls at that time in Lincoln so a lot of my work, aside from racking balls, was making malted milk shakes for the customers.

As far as finances were concerned, once a month I would go to a bank in downtown Lincoln and cash a check on my parents Ord account (they had provided for this arrangement) to cover room rent and food.

Some 20 or 30 years later, in talking to Mother, she said I spent a lot less than they expected. She put half of her wages at the Ord Quiz in my account. I guess giving me the responsibility to be conservative (I had no idea of my parents’ financial capability) proved to be a wise choice.

Since I was a transfer student, I didn’t get rushed like most freshmen but I was not really interested in the Greek fraternity scene. I did get invited to one party for potential pledges where they provided Dutch Master cigars, good food, and a feeling of elitism. I was not invited back, however, and I finished my college career as an independent.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Before there was PhotoShop

The summer of 1949 found me working again, on a resort newspaper, the Chain ‘O Lakes Guide, near Waupaca, Wisconsin. I happened to ride the train north sitting beside Mike Dibiase, a graduated Nebraska football player turned pro wrestler. Although Nebraska in the late 40s was not what it was to become later under Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne, it was still a major league program and I was quite impressed at being able to say I knew one of the players.

The owner of the newspaper met me at the train and I asked him how he recognized me. He said, “I just looked for the first wide-eyed Westerner getting off.” I didn’t know Nebraska was that far west or Wisconsin that far east, but apparently I looked the part he described.

The time was late May so no vacationers had arrived for the resort season. Consequently the staff of the newspaper, there were just three of us, got to live in a home owned by our boss on one of the lakes. The place was rented out during the summer to city folks paying the fabulous sum of $60 week. In that year of 1949 I could not believe anyone could afford $60 a week just for a vacation spot. We had to move to a rooming house in mid-June but I lived the “idle rich” life for a little while.

The job was mostly doing feature stories on visiting summer folks but it also included actually delivering the weekly papers to the resort homes. The boss said that would help us get acquainted and find some stories but it also saved him the expense of hiring delivery boys.

The paper ran a weekly fishing contest and that gave us at least one feature story. One of the staff was from the southern states and he did most of the photography. His drawl described his motion, slow and deliberate.

One day a lady called to enter the contest with a 30 pound Tiger Muskie. This was a cross between a Pike as a game fish and a Mukskellunge for size. The lady was a permanent resident of the lakes and apparently was just out to get a few pan fish for supper when she snagged the Muskie. At well over 60 years of age and a small lady at that, it was all she could do to drag the fish up to the side of the boat and row in to shore.

By the time our southern photographer arrived, she was already exhausted but he insisted she hold the fish while he painstakingly posed her a dozen different ways. I don’t remember the prize in the contest but I don’t think she thought it was worth it.

We had competition for our resort newspaper. It was called The Picture Post because it carried lots of pictures. Nearly every paper today is printed by the offset method but it was a relatively new process then. Since photo reproduction is better, The Picture Post took advantage of the abundance of bathing beauties around the lakes and printed a lot of “cheesecake.”

One week, however, offset printing proved to be a disadvantage. In trying to shoot a bathing beauty at the lake, with the subject in the foreground and the lake in the background, the entire picture would not come in focus at the same time. The compositor thought he could solve the problem by having the girl and the lake shot separately and then pasting them up together. This could never have been done with hot metal printing, the standard at that time. It was a good idea except that when the paper came out the next day, the girl had slipped and she appeared to be standing in the middle of the lake. Our southern staffer drawled, “That’s the first time since Jesus Christ anyone has tried to walk on water!”

It was a wonderful summer and I learned some practical journalism lessons but just barely made expenses. I did try one interview that failed. The widow of the late Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska lived on the lake and I thought it would be a nice thing to take home with me if I could do a story. She declined, however.

The swimmer, Esther Williams, a well known movie star, had a home on our lake but she, as well as other celebrities, came to this area to get some privacy. I did not have the instincts of a National Inquirer reporter so most of the well known vacationers were left to their seclusion.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Opportunity Knocks

My second year at UNL was uneventful and at the end of the second semester I went home to Ord. It was home for my folks but not for me since I had never lived there. My dad said he had a job lined up for me on a bridge gang building a structure just outside town. It was good money and I figured I could last the summer on a manual labor job.

The work didn’t begin immediately so I “sacked in” most mornings. About two weeks into the summer I got a call to report to work. It was 95 degrees out and I hurried to the job without any breakfast. After a couple hours in the hot sun one of the workers felt sorry for me and offered me a banana from his lunch box. That did it. I got sick and decided construction work was not my forte.

My dad was unhappy that I didn’t stick it out after he had pulled some strings to get me the job. I therefore felt it was incumbent upon me to find a job quickly so I scanned the Omaha World Herald want ads and took the first thing available to a college student during a short summer.

The job was selling vacuum cleaners door to door. After a day’s training, a crew of about a dozen men (if you include this 20-year-old as a man) set off. We traveled in three or four cars and by the end of the summer had been in at least five states. Our crew leader was a man who was proud that he had only a third grade education but stood above us, not only in authority, but in financial rewards. For every sale we made he earned a commission also.

His philosophy was simple: “We’re not looking for security, we’re looking for opportunity!” He demonstrated that the first day out when we were between towns at 4 a.m. He saw a light in a farm house and made a pitch to the startled farmer. He didn’t make the sale but he did make his point, don’t ever pass up an opportunity.

Later on in the summer, I had a similar opportunity and did actually sell a cleaner on a farm without electricity. It isn’t as bad as it sounds. The federal Rural Electrification Association (REA) was just making it to that part of the west and the farm was due to have electricity soon.

Demonstrating the cleaner to the farm wife was difficult but she was so anxious to have all the modern conveniences just reading the instruction manual was enough to convince her to buy.

I was sent out with an older salesman the first day but the next morning I was on my own. The crew left me off in the poorest part of town and I figured that was my initiation. I realized later they were doing me a favor because most direct sales are made on time payments and to the lower income bracket homes.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Adhering to our instructions never to pass up a house, I knocked at the door of the first home on the block. It was a modest place with what the experienced men called “sucker siding.” That was imitation brick siding made of asphalt. The old hands said, “Anyone who bought that would buy anything.” That supposedly made it a good place to stop.

I figured the chance of making a sale was nil but it would be a good chance to develop my “pitch.” A lady who must have been in her seventies met me at the door and invited me in without even asking what I wanted.

There was not a cloth rug in the house so I concentrated on using the attachments for cleaning upholstered furniture. Along into the demonstration, the husband said, “Do you think you could use this Ma?”

“Well, yes.” She replied.

He reached into his bib overalls and pulled out two twenties. “I guess that leaves the rest to me,” the woman said and went into another room. This was in Colorado and the sales tax brought the total price to something like $102.24. The wife came up with all but four cents of the exact amount so I did the natural thing and told her to forget the small change. (After all, I had just made a $35 commission). I almost lost the sale! The couple said when they agreed to a price, they paid in full and hunted around the house until they found the other four cents.

I learned several things on this first sale. One, don’t judge a house by its location or appearance and therefore follow the advice never to pass up an opportunity. The second, and one of the most important, find out the problems and the resulting needs of the customer. A third point, selling to a couple is much better than one or the other alone. The husband wants to please his wife and she is willing to take advantage of it. Alone, neither wants to take the responsibility of spending the money.

The second point noted above came to bear when it was obvious the cleaner was not essential in this household with no rugs but the couple continued to be interested. The crux of the interest came out when the husband began questioning me about the spray painting capabilities of the cleaner. It seemed he owned farms and couldn’t find anyone to paint the barns on his places. This piece of equipment was just what he was looking for. To spray paint, all one had to do was take the hose off the suction outlet and put it on the blower. Using the attachment provided, the paint could then be sprayed through the hose that normally sucked up dirt in the regular process. So knowing the customer’s problem and finding a solution sold the product.

It might be well to note here the vacuum cleaner we were selling was one of the first bell types on the market. We were told to say it was made in Newton, Iowa, implying it was a Maytag product (also manufactured in that city) and therefore a respected company. Whether our machine, called McAllister Ross, had anything to do with Maytag I don’t really know.

On to Wyoming and my first look at a “company town.” I was appalled at the squalor and the lack of hope that emanated from those unpainted homes lining both sides of the railroad tracks that hauled the coal out of the mines.

Rock Springs was a raucous town and my tender years prevented me from taking advantage of some of the entertainment. One story is told, and I swear I was not a part of it, about two of our older salesman stopping at a home only to find it was a “house of ill repute.”

Following the credo of the salesman to never pass up a house, they went in and demonstrated the cleaner. It was an instant hit but the girls claimed they didn’t have any money so the guys took the down payment out in trade. By the time summer was over, the road crew boss had been notified of the house in Rock Springs that had not made one payment on their installment contract. He sent two men to repossess the vacuum as we went by on the way back to Omaha.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Fur Stole Story

Another interesting town in Wyoming was the home of the Green River Ordinance, named for the town where it originated. This local law prohibited door-to-door salesmen from working in the municipality. It was later ruled unconstitutional but it was supposed to be in full force at the time we were there. Needless to say, our crew boss took this as a direct challenge and we worked the town hard. Actually, we sold more units in Green River than in many towns of its size.

Two of our crew were picked up for violating the Green River Ordinance. They were working after supper while we were playing pool in a local establishment. A phone call broke up the game on the table next to us but we heard the man who was called out say that he would be right back. We found out later the man called out was the municipal judge and he took just five minutes to fine our crew members ten dollars each and get back to his pool game.

That incident might indicate how honorably the judge and his friends stacked up. Upon his return, the judge, being told it was his turn, asked whether he was shooting stripes or solids. There were a lot more stripes on the table and he was told those were his to shoot. Before he left for the courtroom I had observed the judge was doing well with solids, but apparently the judicial activity had dulled his memory. The disadvantage probably caused him to lose that game but with his windfall from our compatriots he had enough to pay off his bets on the game.

The principle of finding the problem and solving it came into play one afternoon at a neighborhood grocery store. This type of business was quite common in the forties and even later until large discount stores took over. It enabled the owner to live in the back and run the business from the front.

I had to demonstrate my cleaner between customers to the man and wife who owned the store. I spent a good part of the morning talking to the couple and just felt it in my bones they wanted to buy the vacuum.

I went to lunch and came back in the afternoon to continue trying to get them to buy. It finally came out. They had just bought a new meat cutter and were concerned about having to make more monthly payments. As is the case many times, they were embarrassed about not having enough money. Consequently, it took most of the day to make that revelation.

The solution was simple. I told the man to run a want ad in his local newspaper offering to wash cars, including a thorough cleaning inside (using the attachments provided with the cleaner I was about to sell him). This was something new (upright cleaners did not have attachments). And he could vacuum cars while his wife waited on customers. And the income would make the payments on the cleaner. The idea struck a chord and they signed up immediately.

As I illustrated earlier, the poorer parts of town were better for contract sales. But I learned the opposite of that one day when I knocked on the door of a fine looking home on the outskirts of town. It turned out to be a fox farm. They raised the animals and then made fur stoles selling for $150 each - a lot of money in those days.

My point in telling this story is that these people were obviously more experienced in business than I was and would not be incensed over me rounding off the price as I had offered on my first sale.

The lady I demonstrated to thought the cleaner was great but she said she had just bought another brand and her husband would “kill” her if she bought another one.

However, if I would be willing to trade a fur stole worth $150 (according to her) for my $99.50 cleaner, we could make a deal. Since my commission was $35 that meant I was getting the stole for $64.50. I agreed to this very astute (I thought) deal.

The problem was I didn’t have the $64.50 to pay the wholesale cost of the cleaner. I had just been selling enough to pay expenses on the road. I called Mother and even though she was smart enough to know I had probably made a bad deal, she wired me the money and I sent her the fur stole.

Now tell me this. Where does a middle class working woman of modest means wear a fox fur stole, even if she had the other clothes to go with it? That was something I didn’t think about. Years later, in helping move Mother from one apartment to another, I discovered the stole in a closet, undoubtedly unworn since I had sent it to her.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Summer Close Out

Another key to selling was hammered in to us. That was to close the sale. So many salesmen do a terrific job of demonstrating, convincing the customer to buy et cetera, but fail to ask for the sale.

One older salesman I was with one evening did not follow that advice, but he did it intentionally. This guy was truly a high pressure style salesman. His standard practice was to take the customer into the bedroom to demonstrate the cleaner. He would show that the filter was brand new (we used a cleanable cloth filter), pull the bedcovers off the bed and vacuum the mattress. He would then shake out the dirt on the mattress and say, “See what you’ve been sleeping on!” After the demo, he would then clean up the dirt and re-make the bed.

Many times this tactic would sell the unit. However, this night he encountered a bachelor and did his normal routine. When he got to the dirty mattress bit, the response from the man was, “I don’t give a ‘blankity bank’ what’s on my bed as long as I can sleep.”

It made our man so mad he pulled the sheets over the dirt, made the bed, packed up his cleaner and left the house.

Because of my youthful look I was able to get into many homes the older men couldn’t, but my sales ratio was not great. I spent many Sunday afternoons working because I had not sold my quota during the week. Even if we had done well, the crew leader would send us out again. The great salesmen, he said, keep pushing when they are on a roll.

We headed home through Yellowstone National Park and headed for Red Lodge, Montana. We stopped at a gas station for directions and the attendant said it was about 60 miles, “30 up and 30 down.” He was so right!

The fellow driving our car was experienced in mountain driving and he knew his passengers were scared to death. To this day, I dread traveling mountain roads, even wide interstates.

I ended the summer just making my keep, plus the “great gift” to my mother that only cost her $64.50! The experience of the summer was invaluable to me and my folks didn’t have to feed me for three months. I got to see six western states and learned many selling tools that I used later in life.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Double, Double Toil, and Trouble

As we had planned, I thought I was on schedule to graduate from the university in three and a half years. However, I found I was three credit hours short for an English major. I had enough for the journalism certificate but I needed the English for not only a double major but the 125 hours total to graduate.

Consequently my advisor recommended I take a course in comparative English literature. It seemed like a good idea until I went to class and found it was composed of senior English majors with loads of prerequisite courses that I had not taken. We were required to compare Chaucer with modern-day authors, for instance.

Needless to say I was lost and after I got a flat zero on the first paper, the instructor suggested I drop the course. I had also embarrassed myself in class one day when the professor asked me to cite a poem having to do with some religious belief. My answer was Invictus, one of the most sacrilegious poems I could have picked. One of its lines denies the existence of God. “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” That pretty well settled my fate in this class.

What to do? I dropped the course but it was too late to pick up another. My advisor suggested I take a correspondence course. So I did. A full time student was I, sending in weekly lessons on my correspondence course in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The weekly routine became boring and I got further and further behind in my course work. As a result, the last couple weeks of the semester found me in the library pounding out answers to questions on the three witches and other fine points of Macbeth. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

I was not all that great in my knowledge of Shakespeare but my journalistic training stood me in good stead. There is probably more written about what others thought Shakespeare meant than any other author so material was easily found in the library. I simply paraphrased what several other experts wrote to answer my questions on the various hidden meanings in the text. Because of the intensity of the study, I did quite well on the answers and got one of my better grades in that course.

Monday, March 12, 2007


As can be seen, procrastination was one of my finer attributes and it nearly became my downfall as that last semester drew to a close.

Many classes in the senior year do not meet regularly but simply require a paper to be written on the course subject. History of Journalism and Law of the Press were two such courses. As usual, I waited until late in the semester to begin work on these two projects. In fact, I had finished all my final exams in the other courses and needed only these two papers to be completed before I could graduate and go home.

I made it through the History of Journalism but I just couldn’t bring myself to start on the other. Several days passed and I finally hit on a devious plan that I would not recommend to others but feel compelled to reveal at this point in my life.

The director of the School of Journalism taught both these courses. His name was Dr. William Swindler (an apt name for what I am about to tell you ). Journalism fraternity pins (Sigma Delta Chi) for seniors were to be ordered at his office.

I took my completed History of Journalism paper to the office and gave it to his secretary. (I knew Dr. Swindler would be in class and out of the office at that time). I then went to my room and wrote a post card.

“Dear Dr. Swindler,” it said. “I left my fraternity pin order with your secretary and also handed in BOTH (my emphasis here, not on the original card) my term papers. Please send my pin to et cetera, et cetera.”

My plan, of course, was for the secretary to be blamed for misplacing my second paper (which I never wrote).

Since it was a January graduation, no formal ceremonies were held and seniors simply went to the administration office to pick up their diplomas. Not knowing whether my ruse had worked, I obviously was apprehensive when I walked in to get my “sheepskin.” It was there and I sighed a big sigh of relief, packed my bags and went home, a full fledged graduate of the University of Nebraska.

Several weeks later, the grades came out and on the line where the mark for Law of the Press was supposed to be, was a big fat “incomplete.” Dr. Swindler did not buy the scam but he allowed it to pass and my diploma was saved. I never inquired how I was able to graduate three hours short of the required 125. Maybe I was expected to make up that course but I never looked back. As most graduates know, no one ever asks to see your diploma anyway, unless you claim to have matriculated at Yale or Harvard. Perhaps if I had run for public office someone might have checked it out.

In following years at press conventions or alumni affairs when I happened to run into Dr. Swindler, he never mentioned the episode and I surely didn’t either. This was not one of my finest moments.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Herding Stringers

By this time my folks had moved to Omaha where they took jobs at the Council Bluffs Nonpareil, a daily newspaper with a union shop. My dad was employed as a printer (compositor) and Mother as a linotype operator.

They had never belonged to a union and it took some getting used to. The plant was not air conditioned but windows could be opened to take advantage of any breeze. One day a gust of wind blew out the flame on Mother’s gas- which heats the metal that is molded into type. She got up to re-light the pot and almost got fired. That was a machinist’s job and the union steward made sure the rules were followed. Some 30 to 40 minutes later the machinist got to her problem and corrected it. The union feather bedding was kept intact but it put Mom well behind in her daily output of type.

Having graduated at mid school year, the regular recruiting of students didn’t take place but I did get an offer of a short term job at the Custer County Chief in Broken Bow, Nebraska. The title was news editor but it consisted mostly of editing country correspondents’ copy from some 100 “stringers” in this western Nebraska trade territory, which stretched nearly 100 miles into the sand hills.

The regular news editor was spending his time working on a special section called the Hereford Edition. In that cattle country, advertising could be sold and stories written in a section that dealt exclusively with Hereford cattle.

Most of the copy I dealt with was the “Grandma Jones was feted at her 90th birthday by her family” type of material but some got more interesting.

One correspondent related all the details of a pinochle party, including who won high, low and what was served for lunch. At the end, as if it were an afterthought and the writer questioned whether it should even be included, she mentioned that during the evening an explosion in the house blew out the windows in the kitchen. Hard news was not easily recognized by the stringers.

In another situation, the stringer had the good sense to call in a possible murder. I drove nearly 100 miles to find out the death was ruled a suicide but it showed me the immensity of the territory covered by a country newspaper in western Nebraska.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

“Everybody in Town Knows What Happened”

The Broken Bow job lasted only about six weeks but I got a call to edit the Stanton Register while the publisher went on a Navy cruise sponsored by the National Editorial Association.

Stanton was a lot different from Broken Bow. It was in eastern Nebraska in a small county of less than 4,000 population about 20 miles wide and 30 miles long with only two towns.

For a 21-year-old just out of college it was good experience, in more ways than one, both personal and professional.

As was the custom on Wednesdays after the paper was put in the mail, some of the newspaper employees stopped for a beer and a pool game at one of the local taverns. On one such day, being single and not expected any place but the restaurant for supper, I stayed a little longer after the other guys had gone on home to their wives.

With no supper on my stomach and an excess of beer, I left the tavern in less than desirable condition. To make a long story short, I woke up the next day and did not remember what had happened the night before.

I walked out of my rooming house but couldn’t find my car. As I walked to work I went by the Chevrolet garage and saw my 1937 Plymouth coupe in the parking lot with two front fenders dented in.

I was badly in need of a cup of coffee. So before going to work, I stopped at a café, only to find the boss (he had since come back from his Navy trip but kept me on for the time being) and the advertising manager.

The only comment the publisher had for me was, “You know who’s going to write the story?”

I still didn’t know for sure what had happened but I found out later I had left the tavern, cut an intersection too short and ran into a building. Witnesses said I backed up and hit the structure several times trying to get around and finally abandoned the car.

The local town marshal stopped at the shop later that morning. “Ken,” he said, “Nearly everybody in town knows what happened so I’m going to have to charge you with something. Since I wasn’t there and it is now a day later, I’ll just make it careless driving and let it go at that.”

I went to court and paid my fine, happy it was not a more serious charge. It did turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Normally a careless driving charge would have just rated one or two lines in the weekly court news. Since I was the news editor, however, I decided to write a longer story with a small headline so I could show the paper played no favorites. I carried the clipping from that story in my billfold for a long time. When someone begged to have a story kept out of the paper, I would produce the clipping and say, “I couldn’t do it for myself, how can I do it for you?”

The above incident points up a recurring problem in the community newspaper business. To have your transgressions published for all to see is difficult to accept, despite the fact that in a small town everybody knows it anyway.

There is a common misconception that influence or money can keep a particular news story from being printed. In my experience, this has never happened where I had any authority nor has it been a practice in other places where I have worked.

When I was at Stanton, and after Jim Cornwell, the publisher of the paper, came back from his Navy trip, a young fellow came into the shop and asked Jim to withhold a story about him being picked up on a driving-while-intoxicated charge.

The man happened to be the son of a quite prominent and wealthy farmer in the county and he was used to getting his way. Jim explained that, once in the court system, all charges and results are printed. There are no exceptions.

When he wouldn’t take no for an answer, Jim finally got mad and said, “Look, I’ve got $50,000 invested in this newspaper. You lay $25,000 on the counter right now and you can have a say in our policy. Otherwise, get the hell out!”

Friday, March 09, 2007

Run Over by the Wagon

I enjoyed those few months in Stanton, but by that time I had received my draft notice and I knew I would have to go into the service in October so I was trying to savor my time while I could.

It was summer and in those days all communities had a town baseball team. Richie Ashburn of Tilden and Wahoo Sam Crawford were products of that system in Nebraska. Having done some dramatic work in high school and college, I fancied myself as a sports announcer. So I handled the mike at most Sunday afternoon games.

I don’t remember any memorable games, but I do recall a trick I played that could have cost me a black eye. One hot August Sunday the visiting team had an overweight catcher who made it to first base on what most players would have stretched into a double or triple. He was obviously laboring in the heat when he trotted to second as the next batter walked.

When the runner reached the mid-point between first and second, a dog walked by me in the grandstand panting in the heat. I put the mike to the dog’s mouth and the resulting “pant, pant, pant” was transferred in the crowd’s mind to the laboring runner. The player glared up at me but his anger must have subsided because he didn’t seek me out after the game. Maybe his team won.

I had one other experience, again involving alcohol, that has shaped my actions over the years.

A printer was employed at the paper who Jim had rescued from “demon rum” and kept on the wagon for a number of months. Perhaps because his mentor was gone and a 21-year-old was in charge, the printer fell off the wagon.

I came back to the shop about 8 p.m. on Wednesday after the paper had been mailed and found our printer sitting there drinking peach brandy. Why that particular variety of booze appealed to a recovering alcoholic I don’t know, but in my young and inexperienced mind, I thought I would use psychology on the old fellow to get him back on the wagon.

I thought if I would be a good fellow and have drink with him, I could cajole him and get him home without further damage. It didn’t exactly work that way. I was an hour late to work the next day with a terrific hangover and the printer didn’t show up for three days!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Walking the Plank

With only a couple months before having to leave for military service, I moved to Omaha and went to work as a common laborer on a construction job at the Mead Ordnance Plant. We were not told, of course, but the rumor was that the project being built was a world-wide transmitter, kind of a spy instrument for the military or CIA. All we could see was a hole in the ground and the laying of a foundation for a building.

I was paired with an older fellow who had worked construction as a laborer for a number of years. We were assigned the middle of a three-tiered rig spading dirt from the bottom of the hole. The major excavation had been made with a power shovel but the clean up had to be done by hand.

It was very hard work. The pair on the bottom tier threw the dirt to our platform, we moved it on to the next and it was then scooped on out. Two heavily muscled high school boys were on the bottom tier passing the dirt on to us. They apparently were out to show the skinny college graduate and an old man how fast they could work

As the dirt began to pile up, my partner, with a sly grin, said, “Just let them go. Keep scooping at a steady pace and don’t worry about those guys down below. I’ll guarantee you by noon they will be so pooped they won’t come back to work.”

My partner was exactly right. The kids went to lunch and never came back. Lessons can be learned from many quarters. This fellow, with probably no more than an eighth grade education taught me steady, hard work will get the job done and help you survive the long haul.

This job also gave me my first look at government red tape and how companies can take advantage of cost-plus contracts.

We had completed pouring cement for some supporting columns and the next day a government inspector came to the job site and asked if steel reinforcing had been placed inside the columns. The foreman assured him it had been but the inspector simply replied, “I wasn’t here to see it. Tear them out and let me know when you plan to pour them over so I can observe.”

The cost of doing the work over was bad enough, but the boondoggle continued when the foreman instructed the men to pull the columns down. Instead of taking a large derrick to take the columns away, we were told to break them up with a jack hammer and haul the pieces in a pickup truck to the dump.

So instead of about a half hour’s work with a derrick, two men took two days to break up the cement and haul it away. This was another learning process for me. I had never been on the working end of jack hammer and my 120 pound frame was not exactly suited to the project. After a half day of trying to manhandle a power hammer, I finally learned that the machine does the work while the operator simply guides it. I went to bed that night with my body still shaking from the motion of that jack hammer.

I was given another job that found my size and lack of experience quite a detriment. This one consisted of propelling a rubber-tired wheel barrow full of sloshing cement along a quivering narrow plank 30 feet in the air. (It was for the roof of the building). I couldn’t handle it and I dumped the cement in the wrong place only half way across. The mistake wasn’t fatal. Workers quickly moved in and shoveled the cement to its proper place, but the foreman found me another place to work.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A Drink with My Dad

Late that summer Daddy complained of a cold and Aunt Ruth, who was in charge of the pharmacy at Lutheran Hospital in Omaha, said he should see a doctor. With her connections at the hospital, she got him in to see a physician, even though it was Sunday. The doctor examined him and suggested he go to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Since I would have to quit my job soon to go to the Army, it was decided that I should drive Daddy to Minnesota. At that point we were not certain the seriousness of the sickness so it was logical for me to make the drive and leave Mother at home to continue working.

It was a bittersweet time for me. Daddy was obviously concerned about his health but it was also the first time we had really ever had time to be together. I was quite surprised when he suggested we stop at a bar for a drink on the way out of town. My dad was not a heavy drinker and I don’t think I had ever had a drink in front of him since I had just turned 21 my previous birthday. So it was an awkward moment for both of us. I don’t remember what we spoke of but I do remember I saw my dad in a different light than I had ever seen before. Perhaps he knew his fate and was more open because of it. I don’t know. But like many father-son relationships, the understanding between them comes mostly too late.

We got to Rochester and Daddy was quickly diagnosed with cancer of the lung. The doctors said removal of the lung was the only option in an attempt to save his life. I called Mother, of course, but in the end I had to sign the papers agreeing to the operation.

Mother caught the first bus to Rochester and got there just in time to be with Daddy as he died. The doctors said his body could not take the removal of a lung. Cancer treatment is different today but the causes were certainly suspected. His nurse said she had no doubt but what his two-pack-a-day smoking habit greatly contributed to his demise. This was in 1951, 40 years before smoking became a major health issue.

Getting home from Rochester, the funeral and other daily activities are still a blur.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


I got my draft notice in October, 1951 and was inducted at Fort Omaha. We stayed overnight at the old Rome Hotel and were shipped out the next morning to Camp Crowder, Missouri.

We were there for about two weeks, getting shots, physicals examinations and finally assignment to basic training.

By this time it was early November and my strongest recollection was how cold it was in the barracks where they sent us for our immunization shots. The building was empty except for a few benches along the walls, which we were not allowed to use, of course. We stood in line with nothing on but our under shorts. A medic stood on each side of the line jabbing a needle in both arms with the desired inoculation.

There was a big farm boy ahead of me in line and as we approached the medics, he would slip out of line and let the next G.I. pass on. Finally, he was the only one left in the line.

The medic said, “What’s the matter, big boy?”

“I’ve never gotten a shot before,” he said.

“That’s okay,” replied the orderly. “This is the first time I’ve ever given any!”

Whereupon the medics hit him in both arms with their needles and he promptly passed out and fell to the floor.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Scofield Barracks

We were called to an assembly hall one morning and the officer in charge asked how many of us would like to take basic training where the average temperature was 65 degrees and the scenery was like something from a movie.

Most of us were skeptical, of course. Even at this early stage in our military careers we were hesitant to volunteer for anything. But some of us couldn’t resist and found out our destination would be Scofield Barracks, Hawaii. It’s hard to believe but they didn’t get enough volunteers and the quota had to be filled out with the unwilling. These were mostly married men who knew their families would not be able to visit them that far away.

My one and only assignment to the dreaded KP (kitchen police) came at Camp Crowder. We were busily cracking some 40 or 50 dozen hen fruits for scrambled eggs at 4 a.m. one day when we were told to go back to our barracks and get ready to ship out at 5 a.m. We obviously didn’t get any sleep that night but we made up for it on a troop train the next day headed for Camp Stoneman, California.

We had to lay around for a few days getting processed and for many of us, born and reared in sheltered Midwest homes, it was our first glimpse of a world for which we had little knowledge. The sophistication by even the youngest from this new world exhibited itself one Sunday morning when several boys no older than ten came to the barracks selling newspapers.

We were not really concerned with current affairs and some of the guys started giving the paper boys a hard time.

One said, “What do I want with a newspaper? I can’t read.”

The retort was instant. “You can smell, can’t you? It’s all bullshit anyway.”

It was also a first major encounter with someone from a different race. I was in a friendly penny-ante poker game when the bet was not called by anybody and the opener hauled in the pot without showing his hand.

A black fellow in the game asked what the winning hand was and the response was standard.

“If you want to see the hand, you have to call,” answered the winner.

The black man took offense at that and we had to restrain him. His inexperience in poker did not help our opinion of his race. That bad early impression was mitigated later by more positive encounters. My learning experience has been that no matter what your race, every individual should be judged on his actions, not his color.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Bud in Hawaii

We boarded a troop ship, the Sulton, for a 14-day trip to Hawaii. The 3,000 troops were much like me, never near an ocean, let alone aboard a ship

The result was that 90 per cent of the troops were seasick for the first three or four days at sea. That meant the other ten per cent had to pull the few duties not regularly assigned to the Navy crew running the ship. For some reason, I didn’t succumb to seasickness and got assigned as a telephone watch talker. That amounted to standing on the bridge at night looking for ships that radar might not pick up, thus avoiding collisions. Being able to see how a huge ship like that was run, and being a part of it, was thrilling duty for a young non-sailor like me.

The other good part was that the chow lines were nearly empty and those not sick were fed like kings. Eventually most of the troops got well and the usual waiting line for food resumed, but the telephone watch talking job continued for the two week cruise.

Another surprise came as we docked in Honolulu. Bud Farr, my friend from Murray, had enlisted in the Navy some time earlier and was with Military Sea Transport Service (MSTS). He actually got sea pay because his job took him out in the harbor at a lighthouse each day.

His mother and mine corresponded, so Bud knew I was coming to Hawaii for basic training. He had access to shipping logs and spent weeks scanning the rosters of incoming ships until he found which one I would be on.

It was a typical Army debarkment from a naval ship. We were rousted at 5 a.m. to make preparations for an 8 a.m. departure. It takes a long time for 3,000 men to get off, but after a couple hours standing in line with all our possessions in one duffel bag mounted on our shoulder, we finally made it to the gang plank

As I neared the shore, there was Bud shouting at my sergeant to let me out of the line. He had a hula girl and a Navy photographer to take our picture.

The sergeant relented and Bud said, “Take the duffel bag off your shoulder Pinky.”

“Bud,” I said, “if I take this duffel off my shoulder now, after two hours, I won’t have the strength to put it back up.”

It was true. That long with 50 pounds or more on your shoulder does somewhat weaken your lifting power. Besides, the sergeant was pushing us to get on with the picture-taking.

I still have a copy of the photo, my left arm around a hula girl and Bud helping me hold up the duffel bag.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Bell Bottoms

Bud and I got together on several occasions during the 16-week basic training course. I would hitch hike from Scofield down the coast to Pearl Harbor where Bud was stationed. He had access to a jeep so we would go on in to Honolulu for the weekend.

We normally would stay over at Ft. DeRussy or the YMCA, where we could get a bunk for 50 cents a night. We usually went to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel to see a top notch floor show. We would have a flowered aloha shirt and a pair of civilian slacks in our overnight bags and that was accepted dress even in the most posh Honolulu hotels. Civilian dress for trainees was strictly prohibited by military rules but the MPs, SPs and HASP(Hawaiian Armed Services Police) kind of looked the other way. We would buy a mixed drink for 50 or 75 cents and watch a free floor show. Tourists renting rooms provided money for such freebies and we took advantage of it.

Our weekends were quite sedate. The only excitement I remember was Chinese New Year. Many of the Orientals in Honolulu celebrated just as we do except with firecrackers. I didn’t see any particularly raucous behavior from military personnel but the brass apparently decided to avoid any problems. About midnight the various security forces were sent out with paddy wagons and we were all picked up and sent back to our bases. At least it was a free ride. Those in uniform were easy to spot and I guess the rest of us were pretty obvious too. We were not disciplined for being out of uniform either.

I flirted with trouble another weekend when Bud told me to meet him inside the gate at Pearl Harbor so I could go to chow with him before we went into town.

In order not to go through the process of getting his commanding officer’s okay for a guest in the mess hall (we weren’t even sure that was possible) Bud gave me one of his uniforms to wear so I would be just another swabbie eating.

We were about the same size so wearing the bell bottoms was no problem but I was concerned about recognizing naval rank and knowing when to salute. Bud suggested I keep the hat in my hand as if I was just putting it on and when anyone approached it would be acceptable not to salute as long as my hands were occupied.

We made it to the mess hall without incident but as I look back I shudder to think what would have happened if someone in authority had caught me impersonating a navy man, a federal offense, no doubt. We got outside the gate and I changed into civilian clothes and felt much better.

Friday, March 02, 2007


The Hawaiian weather was nice, but not perfect like you see in the movies. Mostly it was sunny but about four in the afternoon the cloudless sky would become overcast and it would rain for maybe 15 or 20 minutes. The sun-rain pattern might repeat itself until sundown.

When we were on a march (and we had some 50-mile hikes with full packs on our backs) and the rains came, the order would come down to don ponchos. Usually, by the time the order got to us, we would be soaking wet and then the sun would come out and we would roast under those non-breathing ponchos. Of course the order to remove ponchos would come just as the rain resumed and the procedure would continue as a complete snafu (situation normal, all fouled up).

Another weather related problem arose the day we arrived in Hawaii. The Army apparently decided to delay our first day of basic training and trucked us to Waikiki beach to spend the day. I lived up to my nickname, Pinky, and sunburned the color of beets.

We got back to the barracks late and I stripped down and lay naked on my top bunk to alleviate as much as possible the pain I felt.

It was past lights out and one of the members of my squad hollered, “Turn the blankity-blank light out McCormick.”

The moon shining through a window reflecting off my nude, red body acted like a beacon in that room.

During that day on the beach, a bunch of us were matching pennies to while the time away and one of the “local boys” joined in. All units were required to have a least one third from Hawaii or Guam. We were called “Mainlanders” or “Haole” and the others were the local boys. We couldn’t pronounce any of their names so we called most of them “Pineapple.” I had a hot streak and everybody dropped out except one local boy. He wanted to raise the ante to nickels, then quarters but he just couldn’t win. He insisted I match him (instead of choosing to match me) and I continued to do it, time after time. Finally I said we had to quit and he wanted to go one more time, for five dollars, because he was so far behind.

I didn’t want to but he insisted so I offered again to let him choose and this time he decided to match me after going the other way for all that time. Well, you know what happened, of course. The one time he changed, it went the other way and he lost again. I could see he was getting angry and some of his friends began to grumble so I bought a case of beer with the winnings and everybody was happy.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Basic Training

I didn’t have too much trouble in basic training. My one year of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Nebraska helped me with the marching drills and that also got me named squad leader. Our platoon was having trouble keeping in step so our cadre began looking for answers. My records probably showed I had played in high school and college marching bands in the percussion section so they dug up a snare drum and put me to work improving our cadence. It didn’t work. We put the drum away but by the end of the 16 weeks we fared reasonably well on the parade grounds.

Injustice raised its ugly head during close order drill one afternoon. We were given a break. It was a typical army routine, “Take ten, expect five, and get two!” We had a lieutenant of Chinese decent who was prone to showing his authority, whether it was necessary or not. He apparently thought I posed a problem to him and took the opportunity that afternoon to dress me down. To this day I do not know what I did wrong but fortunately that officer was transferred to another unit and I didn’t have to deal with him any longer.

Rumors are common fare in any army unit and ours was no exception. A member of our platoon regularly failed to show up at our first assignment of the day, class room, field maneuvers, et cetera.

We found out later he went on sick call, the first few times with permission, but after that on his own. His gold-bricking finally caught up with him. We were sent to the field one morning and he was absent as usual. The orders had failed to instruct us to bring our steel helmets. All we had were our helmet liners (the normal covering except in combat situations). A truck was dispatched to bring the missing items to us. Lo and behold, this fellow’s helmet liner was still by his bunk. These pieces of equipment had our names stenciled on them so there was no doubt this guy wasn’t where he was supposed to be.

He had been showing up at sick call every day and then taking off wherever he pleased. The rumor was that he was CID (Criminal Investigation Division) and that he was testing the cadre on keeping track of their troops. At any rate, we never saw him again.