- 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.