Backroads Through the Perilous Years

In the outlying areas of 1950s Seattle, there were not actually suburbs yet, just land to be bought and cleared of tall trees and developed into houses and homes. It was sort of the modified Wild West. We boys 13 and 14 ran in packs, unchallenged in the backroads and new groups of houses springing up outside Seattle. Later we grew up to become upstanding men, but our youthful curiosity was endless and dangerous and with a few small turns we might well all have ended up criminals.

Immediate little morsels from my boyhood include stealing landing light trophies from edges of the major airport, firing a dad’s hunting rifle at a small fishing boat a mile away, leaving a real pipe bomb sitting on fiery Sterno cans on a neighborhood road…to explode sometime later sending shrapnel for half a mile, lurking down lovers’ lanes to surround a lonely parked car with flashlights, smoking coffee flakes and dog hair, chaining a police car’s rear axle to dock pillar so the axle and universal joint ripped out when he took off in hot pursuit. To tell truth, our subsequent discovery of girls probably tamed us down a great deal. It certainly limited the range of our truly creative, truly fiendish, truly destructive imagination. Girls, at least, were finite as a species, if individually not quite all the same.

To drop back a bit: When my family moved from cold Minneapolis to Seattle in 1949, it was just my mother, me, and Charlie, whom she had married after the end of the war, and with the assurance of my real father’s death in combat. New to the Seattle area, we lived for a year in the “apartments” not too far from the airport where my stepfather was working first as a ground mechanic, and then as a flight engineer for Northwest Airlines in some of the first commercial aircraft flying the Pacific. The Boeing Stratocruisers, build here in Seattle, had four propellers that had to be kept going for seemingly endless yawning hours over water. The pilot held the plane in the right direction, but the flight engineer constantly monitored each engine — and kept them aloft through that whole forbidding expanse of time and water.

At the same time dads were in the air or otherwise at work, we children of families who had migrated to the Pacific Northwest became kid-mobs racing around the apartments on dime-store roller skates that clipped onto the soles of our shoes. The apartments, about 200 or more of them filled with families moving to the Seattle area for work were the haunts of us younger kids on roller skates. This was before elbow or knee pads were even thought of, and so every kid was a patchwork of scabs on top of scabs from falls on the concrete at high speed.

Meanwhile the older kids went off into the “woods,” uncleared land between the apartment and Puget Sound, and had BB gun wars. Some lost eyes, I heard from my mother, who forbade me to run with the big kids and I believe must have been thankful that my roller skates confined me to the sidewalks running through the big apartment complex. Most young families in the “apartments” were looking for homes they could afford to buy. The GI Bill helped a lot of them, and other new mortgage schemes developed since the war encouraged everyone else. Out near the airport in a swath of forest with roads that they called Normandy Park, getting a home meant buying a parcel of land and building a house on it. When there were enough families, a little mom-and-pop grocery store sprung up on a once remote road, and just as we arrived, the community brought in its own school for elementary grades.

We could easily have bought beachfront property in Normandy Park, but my mother, from Oklahoma, thought the sea could someday rise and come over us. That waterfront land could now be worth a fortune…but then who knows, she may have been right in the long run after all.

Yet even with property back a safe mile from the water, we kids still had the Normandy Park beach for running along the driftwood which had been brought from all parts of the world stripped of its bark and limbs, and washed up high on the beach to form a running, leaping pathway above the sand for boys with their limitless sped and balance. We’d race along those logs, zigging from one to another, leaping through space like squirrels through several trees, most of all never never touching the sand below. Needless to say, there were no parental supervised activities. Parents could never keep up with us anyway, so they just put us in sturdy clothes and said to be home for dinner or dark, whichever came first.

Ah the beach… Puget Sound was salt water, and freezing cold with its Alaska currents, but we swam in it. (Our kids later were more civilized and would not touch the cold water of Puget Sound.) On the Normandy Park public beach, we’d build rafts of driftwood logs laced and wrapped with long strands of tough seaweed. After a day’s hard work, we would stand like Polynesian seafarers on our all-natural rafts. And one day someone brought a submarine to the beach. It didn’t start out as a submarine, but as the rubberized gas tank from a World War Two bomber. People tended to glom onto all manner of war surplus in those days. So someone’s Dad brought it down in a truck to see if it would float, and left it there with us, a rubber tank we could fit with a makeshift paddle to move it about, and a top hatch where a small person could slide inside.

That small person was Denver Carney. None of the rest of us dared get inside the contraption, but Denver did so quite happily. He was inside and it was floating around the shallow water, and he was actually maneuvering it with the paddle attachment he moved back and forth. As we watched from shore, Denver shouted “Crash dive, crash dive” and other stuff he’d heard in the submarine movies.

We thought he was having far too good a time (we timid ones on the shore) and someone suggested “Let’s torpedo Denver!”

“Yeah, let’s torpedo Denver.” Repeated by everyone in that enthusiastic fashion, it seemed like an idea whose time had come, a mandate for action.

Right at hand on the beach were long slender logs that it took three of us to lift, and they made perfect “torpedoes”. We selected one and in unison glided it into the water toward Denver, who was happily shouting out movie commands inside his submarine. The first torpedo slithered past his bow and he never knew. The second log “torpedo” we hoisted and slung in unison was a winner. It hit the stern “klunk” where Denver’s head was against the soft inside wall of the rubber sub. The sub’s motion stopped. Denver’s gleeful shouted commands stopped.

We looked at each other. “Do you think we killed Denver?” One of us said.

“Better get him out” said someone more responsible. We all jumped into the cold salt water and pulled the rubber sub into shore. Denver’s eyes were rolled back in their sockets. We dragged him out onto the beach, fearing the worst as we looked at the large knot protruding from Denver’s orange red hair. We contemplated running for parental guidance, but then Denver’s eyes straightened out.

“Hey,” he said, “that was cool! Who’s next?”

None of us was next.

I think Denver was with us when Larry Mortenson brought his dad’s hunting rifle to help settle an argument. Most of the boys thought the rifle couldn’t even hit the water from the high bluff we hiked along, overlooking Puget Sound, a body of water about 5 miles wide.

“Yes it can,” said Larry. “My uncle was a sniper and said he could hit something a mile away. He drank a lot though, and we were never sure whether to believe him.”

“Well, let’s shoot it and see.”

Larry got in a prone position on the top of the bluff, some 500 feet above the beach below, and fired a couple of rounds out over the large body of water.

“Did you see any splashes?” He asked.

No one had.

“Then how are we going to know how far it goes?”

“See those guys in the boat way out there?” There was a small fishing boat maybe a mile  out. It was too deep to anchor, but they seemed to be holding a position, probably slowly trolling.

Larry was quite sure as he fired the first round from his prone position. “This couldn’t possibly get out to where they are.”

“If it does, we’re in trouble.”

“No way.” Larry said, confidently. And fired another round.

The little fishing boat started to move quickly to the Northwest. Perhaps they were headed home. Perhaps they knew of better fishing areas. But to this day I think they might have seen one or two rounds splash beside them, or skip off the water, or even hit their boat. I also cannot imagine anyone sniping with real bullets merely out of idle curiousity, but there it is: we did it.

You wonder sometimes how kids – and more importantly – you as a kid, possibly made it through those perilous years.  For instance, at the new elementary school there was blacktop surrounding the main building, and then a covered passway to the administration offices and the small gymnasium. We had discovered geared “English” bikes then, with 5 gear speeds as I remember, and they were a step up in speed and lightness from the old balloon-tire cruisers which had so much trouble going up the many hills in our community. Often we had to walk the balloon tire bikes up the hill. There was another large difference, too. The brakes on the “English” bikes were front and rear hand brakes, on the front handle bars with the gearshift lever, which moved the chain through low to high gears as you kept pedaling. It took a while to convert from the balloon tire brake, which you stepped back on with the pedal of either side, so you could put your full weight onto stopping your hurtling bike. If you tried to use the balloon tire braking method while riding an “English” bicycle, your legs would spin helplessly backward and nothing would even slow down at all.

I had just gotten my new “English” bike and was following the pack around the roads of Normandy Park on a Saturday, when we decided how cool it would be to have bicycle races on the asphalt that created a sort of track all around the main classroom building, going through the underpass between buildings. The school was locked up, and no one was around it at all. It was a dry day and as we built up breathtaking speeds, we could hit the corners and lean, braking just enough, and then building up speed to pull through the leaning turn. I was keeping up with the pack and getting the hang of leaning on the corners and knocking it a gear down from the top to churn back to high speed after each turn. The new lightweight bicycle was thrilling and I pulled away on successive turns faster and faster. I was pulling out ahead when I approached the turn toward the underpass and realized I had too much speed for that corner. My reflexes from my balloon tire days made me stomp backwards on the pedal, and my legs spun backward as the bicycle hurtled toward the corner. Way too late,  I realized I must grab a handbrake, and instead caught my hand on the gear shift, which stopped nothing.

My body hit the large plate glass window to the administration offices going – probably – 40 miles an hour. It was the early 50s and plate glass was just that, no safety glass, nothing. I burst through the window like some movie stunt man, shoulder first I believe, and the 6 foot by 6 foot window gave way all at once, and I flew hard onto the hallway which was deserted on a non-school day. The glass had broken away in an instant, and the top broken part of about 3 feet by 6 feet suspended in air for a moment, and then came slicing straight down like a guillotine…and broke in to shards on the floor just behind me. I had superficial cuts on my arms and my legs. I was actually locked into the administration building, so we broke the rest of the plate glass away so that I could climb back out. The bicycle had stopped dead at the lower wall. It was still ridable and so I pedaled home and told the story to my terrified mother. She took me to the emergency room so the cuts didn’t get infected and any bits of glass were pulled out. They said I had been lucky. I to this day remember the helpless feeling of my feet spinning backward on the pedals of that “English” bike.

That next summer we were fiddling around the week before the Fourth of July and all of us had massive amounts of firecrackers stored up, and George suggested we make one big firecracker. From somewhere he came up with a foot long iron pipe threaded at both ends, and the caps to screw onto the ends of that section of pipe. Gleefully we broke open our firecrackers and dumped them into one end of the pipe. There was a lot of gunpowder in that pipe and I’m not sure what George put in with it, if anything, but he then sealed off the pipe ends tightly. For a little while we wondered how we would set it off, and then someone suggested these little war surplus cans of Sterno, which you could use to heat up canned stuff, and adults heated up water for coffee, when we were on camping trips.

We found a secluded patch of woods about a hundred yards in from the road which was cleared of big timber, but many small alder trees had grown back quickly over a few years. We lit three of the small Sterno cans and set the pipe section – full of gunpowder – on top of the three cans in a row. It dawned on us that we should be some distance away when it went off so we waited out on one of the roads. This new property development had road names on wooden posts, but there were very few houses, very far apart, on these new roads. After about 15 minutes we crept back in to see what was happening with the pipe. Nothing…The Sterno cans burned happily along and we knew they would run out of fuel soon, so we waited a while longer out at the roadway, and then we decided that was a failure. We also knew there would be a football game developing down the road at a large grassy expanse someone planned to build a house on but had not yet. It was perfect for football.

We’d been playing football for about half an hour during that weekday afternoon, when the largest firecracker in the world went off. The sound was frightening. We timidly made our way back toward the site of the pipe and Sterno cans. Within about a quarter mile we saw little pieces of shrapnel in trees. At a crossroads not far from the pipe, we saw the post of the road sign cut in half and dangling by a sliver. We decided to go down to the beach and pretend we’d never been in the area.

As the gods of fortune determine, no one was driving by at the moment of the blast, no mother with her baby carriage was out for a stroll, no kids on their bikes were in a small pack in the area where the young alder trees were nearly mowed to the ground by shrapnel. Later, the police milled around the site and found that there were bits of shrapnel in the sides of houses a half mile away.

I cannot say we were good boys ever after, but I believe it may have been the first time when a bit of caution entered our exploits. We’d missed an opportunity to be called murderers and also – ourselves — to be quite dead. I certainly hope there were not opportunities like ours for our own children to learn cause and effect and caution, but I suspect there were…and I don’t want to hear about it. Mayhem is always lurking so close in Life, without being invited in for a party. You can wish it were not so, but perhaps our tenuous civilization has to be learned and relearned in those dangerous years.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Glimpses Through a 4-Year-Old’s Memory Scope

It is debatable whether dredging up perceptions from the past helps you understand the present. Of course, psychiatrists try to dig out memories of childhood trauma, but I don’t think I had those kinds of problems. Probably I did not understand enough to be mixed-up, whistling my 4-year-old whistle past those acres and miles of graveyards (, or I might have joined the crowd).

I do remember quite a bit from 1946, when I was 4 years old. Of course I didn’t know that Hitler and the Japanese had both been beaten and to the great relief of Germans and Japanese, they were not to become slaves of the victorious countries. The Marshall Plan and MacArthur’s occupation both put the world on a trip to prosperity instead of the decimation of vanquished countries as had been the rule throughout prior history. A neat trick, to say the least. As a 4-year-old, I was bobbing along in those mighty currents, as curious about learning Life as any 4-year-old before. Luckily, that life did not for some time contain another deathly war – at least for the 4-year-old.

It was actually quite a happy time for me as a 4-year-old. I cannot remember now my father who left to fly B-17s over Germany when I was about two. He was missing in action for about two years. So at the age of 4, I stayed a lot of the time with grandparents and aunts and second cousins, and everyone paid maximum attention to me. Now – at 70 years remove — I hear that, with remote prisoner camps and remote graves in remote crannies of the world, it was years before there was enough evidence of a soldier’s death for his widow to remarry. Those who started dating too soon were seen as brazen and unfeeling. Hard to say exactly what “too soon” was, and how long to wear black, but your friends would tell you.

Right alongside that time” stigma was a necessity for war widows to marry again. Their biological window was shrinking as surely as that of thirty-year-olds now. One of the cruel residuals of WWII was that many of the prettiest and brightest women were available right after the war, and some with no kids. Many were much more mature than they had been when they married soldiers and knew a lot more what they were looking for besides true love. There were, of course, a lot of the less attractive men around, because so many of the strongest and handsomest men had given themselves to the war. In truth, Life’s cruel advantages sort of evened themselves out, but with everyone only moderately happy. The pretty widows had lost their first true loves, and the men who claimed these prizes yet knew, for all their future lives together, that they were second best.

Widows with one or more children had a greater problem. I discovered just a few years ago, at a conference of World War II orphans in Seattle, that many widows sent their kids to a grandmother’s or a sister’s house and only sheepishly brought up the fact to a suitor once they were becoming seriously involved. And with good reason. In many, many cases the young male suitors went running off when they learned there were kids involved. In some of the orphan’s minds, as they approached their late sixties at the time of this Seattle Conference, the men who ran off were worse than second best and the pretty widow-moms were better off without them.

However, everyone seemed quite cheery to me. Little did I know at four what tolls the war took, in shattered loves of their lives, in sons who had just become men coming back in boxes, in sisters and cousins and uncles and everyone in a the vast connection of souls that the war short-circuited. Because my mother’s mother’s sister, Aunt Lucille, was especially fond of Sunday dinners, we spent Sundays there. Aunt Lucille was a bit fat with a boisterous Oklahoma incredulity that broke into laughter all around. When she hugged me to her heavy breasts and started a lot of sentences with “Boy Howdy” I did not feel much could be wrong in the world. She had a ne’er do well high school son named Dane who would slink into Sunday dinner and go out back with some friends and a bottle. And Barbara was a freshman in high school whom I thought truly pretty except for her acne. She barely listened to me, though. The older people were the ones who made me feel special.

Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty special, in that I was the only male survivor in three families. My father had been an only child. My grandmother had married my grandfather in Seminole, Oklahoma where her parents had come by covered wagon from Tennessee — my great grandmother a direct descendant of Davy Crockett. My grandfather had come down from Illinois with the railroad and got a job as a supervisor in the new Seminole oil fields. Apparently they were a rough crowd (known as “roughnecks” who manipulated the big pipes around on the oil drilling rigs), and he had to be a bit rougher to keep them in line. He was kind but unschooled, and my grandmother was very pretty and very smart and in Seminole, Oklahoma in those days I guess he was a catch and so was she. She had had two girls born as “blue babies” whose lack of circulation killed them within weeks of their birth. Modern medicine was not much in the 1930s, and out in the Oklahoma oil fields there were no incubators or newborn care units. They lived or they died with how strong their basic constitution was.

When she was about forty, my grandmother fell down some concrete stairs from the front porch of their house when their little dog ran between her legs. She had to wear braces and use crutches and wheelchairs the rest of her life, and my grandfather loved her and was devoted to her. To me she was extremely kind and we had long intelligent conversations (for a four year old). She was ever demanding of her “Arthur” and was often as grumpy with his slow actions as he was diligent and devoted to moving his “Robbie” (for Robin) about and bringing her whatever she might need. I felt sorry for him, and as I think back, I loved him for that selflessness. Some things even a 4-year-old can see.

My Grandma Hon loved to sit with me in her rocker. She would sing me songs from Tennessee, and tell me stories of Davy Crockett and bear-hunting in Tennessee and of his death at the Alamo. These were things she had known from her mother’s family, years before Walt Disney dragged out a coonskin cap and made him a folk hero of early television. As I think back, the focus on me was a monumental distraction from the worry about their son flying a heavy piece of sheet metal through in the middle of all hell. And their apprehension in not hearing from him suddenly. And the letters from men in his plane whom he’d ordered to bail out, asking if she knew about the whereabouts of others who had scattered across an unwelcoming Germany in their parachutes. Occasionally she would hear about one or the other who had made it back to safety, or who was alive in a prison camp, and she would write that to the others. It was all in letters that took so long to travel, while the worries were daily, hourly and the worries built up all the more waiting for news from letters.

My mother’s mother, Grandmother Ridgway (with no “e”), occasionally took me to her house, where she was a master seamstress and made dazzling quilts with intricate patchwork. The Kansas towns on the prairie where she had grown up had many of these true artists, lauded in their communities but totally obscure to the rest of the world for all their lives. One of my first intellectual feats was when this grandmother let me play Canasta with two other ladies she brought around. (I remember that they all looked at my cards and told me what to play.) It was hot in the Oklahoma summers and we had only fans whirring around. She poured me Dr. Pepper over a glassfull of ice while we played, and that was pretty much heaven for me.

All this went on for me while the war thundered to a close across two oceans, and everyone listened to the radio and read the newspapers and grew more and more sure it would be over. But there was always one question. Was my father just missing in action, but still alive? And would the war be over before it took him in, like so many others?

My mother, Daphne, and my father, Clint, had graduated from the University of Oklahoma – she in Education and he in Geological Engineering. He worked looking for oil for Standard Oil about a year before he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. Because she had me as an infant, my mother lived at home with her parents in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She spent time among relatives, and most of her Tulsa friends were from her days, only a few years before, at Central High School there in Tulsa.

Central High School in Tulsa had two distinguished alumni from 1938, the year my mother and father graduated. One was Tony Randall, who became a well-known Hollywood actor in The Odd Couple and many other movies. The other was Paul Harvey, who had a syndicated radio show with lots of opinion and a distinctive style that was easy to listen to (, and millions did listen). Both of these seniors from Central High School entered the all-city speech contest, and so did my father. My father won it with a speech on how armaments manufacturers had fomented the First World War so they could profit from all sides.

In those high school days, my father and my mother went steady, but Charlie, his best friend went along with them constantly. It seemed they were always a threesome and always got along swimmingly. Charlie had gone into the Navy and was still in training to be a tail gunner when the war ended, and in 1946 they let almost all the draftees out. I remember him visiting my mother a lot of times, still in his Navy seaman’s outfit, home in Tulsa until they official released him. Charlie was the funniest person everyone one knew, but not because he was a show-off clown. It was because he observed each situation and a put a pleasant, and never mean, humor to it. I personally remember being in stitches as Charlie talked as if he was the voice of our brown eyed dog, who sat thinking things about all these people in the room. I could see that the threesome must have had great fun in high school. I thought about that as I grew older. Although she was in love with my father, I am sure Charlie loved her then, and as the girl member of a threesome, I’m sure she knew that on some level.

Charlie saw my mother quite a lot in the months after the war was over. It had been over a year since my father was officially dead, and my mother married Charlie, kissing him at the alter while holding my 4-year-old hand. That is how I came to move to Minnesota in the dead of winter with my mother and Charlie, who had returned to work in Minneapolis for a new airline, Northwest. I really couldn’t have had it any better than in that loving family. My toes froze but I learned to skate on frozen basketball courts in the parks, and wished I’d been old enough to play some kid hockey as well.

Well, life rolled on past the Millennium but it still had more cards to show from when I was 4 years old. Because Charlie had gone to work for Northwest Airlines in 1942, when Delta Airlines acquired Northwest in 2008, my sister Sue called one day. “Hey” she said, “you know Delta gives us all free passes now?”

It was true. Dependents of retirees got free passes to anywhere Delta flies, always on standby, but as many trips as you wanted. Suddenly in 2009 I would take trips overseas and trips to friends on other coasts, a trip to France for an emergency book negotiation, a trip to make some talks in Tokyo. Better yet, most of the overseas trips were in first class because those seats did not fill up. Each time, of course, I would travel standby, and within the U.S. I learned to go at days and times when flights were not fully booked. One of the really fortunate things I discovered while waiting in those standby lines was about Charlie’s seniority in the combined airlines. Because he went to work for the young Northwest Airlines in 1942, thus at age 65 until I was 71 (when Charlie died,) I was not only the oldest living dependent in Delta, but first in line when they looked at employment seniority.

Funny the lucky things that just keep happening on your way from 4 years old.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Sunnydale School Greets The General

  • We rarely have experiences in the 3rd grade that relate to cataclysmic world events, and if we did, we probably would not know it at the time. In 1976, I was visiting Seattle again after several years away, and I got lost driving my rental car to the airport. It was not a case of knowing too little, but knowing too much. I had grown up not too far from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, close enough that teenagers in those days would go out onto the runway and steal approach landing lights as souvenirs of a misspent youth. Now, it seemed to me that I remembered a short cut into the airport. I dodged down one of those off ramps you never take unless you are lost.

It was a short cut…a short cut in time, back to 1950 when my stepfather had moved the family from Minnesota to Seattle. Most of the flight crews tried to live near the airport. In Seattle, I was in the third grade in a new school, Sunnydale.

In those days, my stepfather Charlie was a flight engineer on the 4-engine Boeing Stratocruisers that flew regularly to Japan by way of stops in the Aleutian Islands. At one stop, Dutch Harbor, the U.S. military had been preparing for an attack by Japan, and had left whole supply depots at the end of World War II. It was just too expensive to ship them back to the States so all of those tools were left there in that lonely frozen place to deteriorate. Because the below-zero cold much of the time acted to preserve the tools, and even engines, that were just left there, they were in excellent condition – but it was still too expensive to ship them back and too expensive even to store them under guard. It was known that tools of all varieties and even small machines were there for the taking – if you could get there, and if you could carry them out. With the one night layover in Dutch Harbor each way, it was the ultimate do-it-yourself candy store, especially for the flight engineers, all of whom had been mechanics before. It was a mechanics’ Christmastime on every flight. I remember hammers and grinders and even a chain hoist brought home in pieces over several of his trips.

Anyway, now in 1976, meandering around what I thought would be a back entrance to the airport, I came upon Sunnydale School once more. Its landscaping was overgrown but seemingly still in use, on what had been the main road into Seattle from the airport. That road, I found, was now an insignificant backroad, but there…there was Sunnydale School, which was not insignificant at all. The front of the old grade school still had a lawn along the front and a short front wall of square stones in cement. I could remember that one morning in 1951 we third graders were told that General MacArthur was coming through, and we were herded out to sit on that wall, all in wonderment for what was about to happen. It was the first most of us had ever heard of a General MacArthur, but the teachers seemed to think it was a big deal.

The right general at the right time can determine the course of nations, and sometimes the world. MacArthur had been such a general. When the whole continent of Australia was frantic about a pending Japanese attack on her shores, MacArthur told the Australians that he would stop the Japanese before they could get to Australia, and his first major conquest was in the jungles of New Guinea. He was the five-star commander of the Pacific War. He took the surrender of the Japanese aboard the USS Missouri in 1945 and administered Japan’s dynamic rebuilding for 5 years. Then in 1950, when communist insurgent forces from the North of Korea, backed by Russian Soviet aircraft and tanks, were sweeping over South Korea, MacArthur took over as commander of the “police action” authorized by the United Nations.

From a position of near defeat, MacArthur made one of the most daring landings in history at the Korean port of Inchon, which had vicious tides and small windows of time to land. It could have been a catastrophe, but MacArthur cut off the Koreans and the Russians and the Chinese forces which were flowing down the Korea peninsula, and turned that “police action” into a near route of the communist North. He’d thwarted the communist takeover of the South, but almost immediately he was relieved of duty.  Against President Truman’s orders, MacArthur wanted to chase the Communist Chinese back across the Yalu river, and chase them to Beijing to conquer China as well. Feeling he was in the right, and in control of the battlefield, MacArthur defied President Truman, and Truman fired him for that insubordination. I’m not sure to this day whether he made his first Stateside landing back from Korea in Seattle. I do know that he flew into Seattle on that day in 1951, on the road from the Seattle-Tacoma airport to a speech and the Olympic Hotel downtown. I do know for certain that General MacArthur passed by us when I was a third grader at Sunnydale School.

Some people were already talking about putting MacArthur up for President in the 1952 election. We third graders barely knew what a President was, except that he was a grey-haired man with big glasses whose portrait was on our classroom walls. We did hear our parents’ friends who had come over to the house for drinks saying worse and louder things about Truman as the evening wore on.  I just listened, quiet in my bed.

On that morning in 1951 all of we third graders at Sunnydale School sat along the road on the low stone wall. As usual those days, an open rainwater drainage ditch lay between the wall and the roadway. The teachers had said that the whole school would be brought out to stand on the lawn, but that we third-graders would be on the wall in front. They gave the whole school practice in saying one phrase which the whole school would shout out on que. Getting all the third graders, not to mention all of the elementary grades of Sunnydale School, to shout the same thing at the same time took a lot rehearsal. We were out there at the front of the school practicing for half an hour before our big moment.

“When the General comes by he will have his window closed, but he will see you. And when he waves, it will just be moving his hand back and forth in front of his face. But he does know you are there and he will see you, even if he is looking straight ahead.” I’m glad they prepared us in this way, because our little third grade feelings might have been hurt by one who seemed so distant.  Could we have conceived that he probably had other things on his mind besides this gaggle of third graders in front of Sunnydale School?

“He’s coming, he’s coming.” Teachers were buzzing and kids were repeating. “You’ll see the caravan of cars in a moment.”

And sure enough, two motorcycles came around the bend on the road from the airport, followed by two small black cars, and then a large black limousine. We looked inside the limo at a gaunt man in an overcoat staring straight ahead.

“All right, get ready. On ‘3’ we shout it all together like we’ve practiced.” We could see our principal standing as if he was an orchestra conductor with his hand going up and down as his mouth said “1…2…3…” And then there was a joyful sound coming from the whole of Sunnydale School at once.


We thought his eyes would turn. We had not heard anything much louder in our lives, but his eyes stared straight ahead. Then slowly, with the eyes of the world of third graders upon him, he started moving his right hand back and forth in front of his face, never looking to the side, but waving in this rigid way past the assembly of Sunnydale students along that roadway.

It was a back road then, in 1976, but as I sat there in my idling rental car I could see, and hear, the whole scene again… our part in American history when General MacArthur returned from Korea.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

Madman Muntz and the Children’s Crusade

Much of the known world does not know what the world would be like without television. And despite years of breakthroughs and Philo Farnsworth patents and World’s Fair demos, Television never seemed to catch on. Thus a phenomenon which was created in the 1920’s was still a mirage to the next generation. My generation. However, with the help of Madman Muntz and Flash Gordon, we solved the dilemma and started a children’s crusade for television.

The dilemma came down to this: Television was perfected but nobody had one. They had no reason to; there were no programs to watch. Milton Berle and Jimmy Durante and Fred Allen and a host of radio personalities, as well as Superman and the Lone Ranger, all waited anxiously for advertisers to pony up the money to take their shows to the television screen. But…the advertisers were hesitant to put up the money because (back through circle) nobody had a TV set.

Well, a few rich people had TVs, just for the novelty. In our neighborhood in Minneapolis, Dickie Mortensen’s dad was a building contractor and they got one. All they could see on the screen was the Indian test pattern and about an hour a day of local programming plus a few movie serials that kids usually saw on Saturdays with their double feature and cartoons. Flash Gordon was a favorite black and white serial, with rocket ships that sputtered along as if they ran on baking soda, and Ming the Merciless always trying to control the Universe, along with his vampy daughter. Many the night we other not-so-rich kids would sneak in from our usual neighborhood marauding to gather in a ring of eager little faces around the edges of Dickie Mortenson’s living room window. This marvel held us transfixed, until Dickie Mortenson’s dad would run us off. Flash Gordon became the legendary symbol of the TV Have-Nots.

Television would later be the pattern for two other Children’s crusades of the American midcentury, against littering the highways and against their parents’ smoking, where children all of over America, and much of the world, found that they had immense power to change the world. After they grew up with TV, children would shout “Litterbug” when parents would throw garbage out the window, and within a year in the 1960s, garbage strewn highways became pristine thoroughfares. With smoking in the 1970’s: children would mimic the anti-smoking ads on TV and wretch when their parents lit up cigarettes. Often they would steal the cigarettes and flush them down toilets. The mediaeval Children’s Crusade was a bad idea that ended in squalor and carnage, but here, in our 20th century, we kids got it right. In America, there were no greater activists than we children. The very first time we used our unique power to crusade for a better world was in 1950, when we stepped forth in song to break that wicked circle of no TV sets, no ads, no shows, thus no TV sets.

To understand how America’s children became so empowered as to bring on a national phenomenon and a record-breaking advertising medium, you have to know a little about Tom Mix. We of the radio generation would listen in the afternoons and evening after school to the radio dramas of Tom Mix, Bobby Benson and the B-BAR-B riders, Red Ryder, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, The Green Hornet, the Shadow, The Whistler, The Count of Monte Cristo, Sergeant Preston of the Mounties and his dog King, and so many more. It was a fantastic set of images in kids’ minds as they listened to the Count of Monte Christo in massive swordfights (done with clicking spoons, we know now), all in their ear’s imagination.

Of course, the commercial breaks for these shows were aimed at children. Here is how one would go with Tom Mix: The actor himself would take a break and talk straight to his radio audience. “Kids, “ he would say, “you deserve to have Instant Ralston for breakfast, and here’s what I want you to do. When you are at the grocery store with your mother, and when she isn’t looking, slip a package of Instant Ralston into the shopping cart, down in the bottom somewhere. Then, when the cashier is pulling out each item, your mother will see the Instant Ralston, and say she isn’t buying it. Then you should tell her how healthy Instant Ralston is, and if she still tells you to put it back, you should tuck the Instant Ralston package in your arms and lie down on the floor and kick and scream until she buys it to stop the embarrassment. I want you to do this for me, little buddies.”

A few of us did it, and a few of us regretted it because we were not yet a generation freed from spanking.  Then the groups of parents complained to the store, and eventually advertisers reluctantly withdrew that ad.  However, creative minds immediately went to work on dozens more. We kids were the avenue into the cupboard for cereal grains with a higher markup than pizza.

Which is where Madman Muntz came in. Mr. Muntz had a factory that made TVs, and he wanted to sell just enough TVs that advertisers would realize it would be the greatest marketing tool ever, and also realize that they had to fund the Big Talent in the radio wings so people would watch the new advertisements. This is where Madman Muntz, who must have been listening to Tom Mix, took out radio commercials to appeal directly to the children of America, asking them to lead the crusade to have their parents buy a television for the household. At some point in October of 1950, Muntz himself came on the radio in shrill tones, saying he was Madman Muntz and he was calling on every child in American to ask for a TV for Christmas. He said he wanted children to sing this song, over and over until their parents relented to buy a television.

It was sung by various Long Island kids who they must have picked up at a New York ad agency. To parents the radio kids sounded bratty. To we kids they sounded like freedom fighters. It must have been intentional casting, because it was a tone every kid could mimic to perfection. The song went: “I WANNA TELEVISION CHRISTMAS…” and that’s all. Every kid could sing it and every kid did. “I wanna television Christmas.” The radio gave them the whiny key and the words and they were off, through the months before Christmas, singing up the hallways and during their homework. When mothers sent them off to school “I wanna television Christmas” was being hummed in four parts by kids who hated their music lessons. It was such an annoying song that parents finally knew the only way to stop it: Get the family a TV for Christmas. Muntz TVs were less than $100 a set, and for the average besieged parent, that was a bargain.

So that is how television finally got started. Madman Muntz sold 400,000 televisions that Christmas, and the log jam broke. Texaco sponsored the Texaco Theater with starring Milton Berle, and soon Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca had American laughing to their variety sketches, and the baseball and football leagues televised their championships. Kids…well, kids got to see Superman flying over Metropolis and the Lone Ranger riding the plains. Kids got to see Howdy Doody and Disney’s Mouseketeers and many old western movies buried in the vaults from the 30s and 40s. Television and kids were made for each other, and kids caused the miracle of national television. You heard it here.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved